Want Real Confusion? Try Biennials!

Last week I made a reference to biennials followed by the phrase–“don’t even get me started!”

This is a confusing group of plants–weeds included–that sends up foliage in the first year, then flowers in the second year and then usually, but not always, dies. Confused yet?

The reason I say usually but not always is that a true biennial will do exactly as I’ve just described. But some biennials have been crossed with perennials to make them into short-lived perennials so that we can grow them as garden flowers. It doesn’t mean they’re going to be old reliables like peonies or perennial poppies or things that folks find growing long after evidence of homes, gardens and farms have long crumbled into dust. But at least they’ll survive a few years in the garden–and they might set seed and self sow if we gardeners weren’t so meticulous about deadheading and mulching our beds into death every spring!

Let’s take some examples. Something everyone should know is parsley. Parsley makes its great crop of leaves in the first year–that’s what we harvest all season long. If you leave it in the garden, it should over-winter in all but the harshest climates and the next season it will send up flowers that look much like dill or carrot flowers, because that’s the family to which it belongs.

Because I grow so much parsley for my pollinators, occasionally I’ll leave some in the garden and let it flower in the second year. The tiny bees like the flowers. But don’t try eating the leaves. At that point they’re tough and bitter.

I talked about weeds. I’m a weed geek and love identifying them. One of my favorites has always been mullein. It grows in the garden as verbascum and has been crossed with other species from different parts of the world (like the digiplexus I talked about last week to make it a perennial.

Out in the “wild,” so to speak, this thing is a great weed. Different varieties of it can grow up to 8′ tall. Even our relatively ordinary variety, verbascum thaspus, is no shorty, topping out between 4-6.’ Here’s a post I did a few summers ago when I was doing a weed series. In the photos you can see both forms of it, the first year basal rosette, and the second year flower cluster.

Now that it’s been “civilized,” it comes in all sorts of lovely colors: purples, corals, pinks, peaches, white–you get the idea. It makes a lovely garden plant.

Other plants that were once true biennials and have been bred to be garden perennials are foxgloves and hollyhocks. But if you are having problems with these, particularly with foxgloves, it pays to let them go to seed–and not to be too religious about weeding around them early the next year.

I hope that helps clear up some confusion. Always remember–gardeners aren’t born with this knowledge! We have to learn from each other.

I’ve Got Holes In My Leaves And I Can’t See A Thing!

violet leaves with holes

Oh come now–you can see something–you can see the holes in your leaves! And those holes can tell you a bit about what’s making them, believe it or not!

What you really meant to say is you can’t see the critter making the hole. Maddening, isn’t it? But as I said earlier in the month when we began this adventure, don’t just grab a spray bottle of something. For all you know, you may be spraying a caterpillar that’s the larva of a butterfly. You really wouldn’t want to do that, I hope–not even if it is chewing your leaves!

Instead, it’s probably something like this. “Foliage damage, showing up on trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, with no visible sign of insect activity, is often caused by insects feeding at night, like Oriental beetles, earwigs, Asiatic garden beetles, slugs, and snails–” at least according to the UMass extension service.

Asiatic and oriental beetles, for example, feed at night on a variety of host plants, including certain perennials, causing damage in the form of very ragged foliage. Inspection of host plants during the day reveals no insects.

So what are you going to do? Go out at night, trying to catch the beetles, and spray when you see them?

Spray something really toxic that has some residual effect so that you’ll kill them whether you see them or not (I sure hope not!)

Or tolerate the damage, knowing that their life span is fairly short lived. In fact, in my yard, the oriental beetles (the little brown bugs that I knew beetles as “June bugs” growing up) are already gone.

And if it’s a caterpillar, might that not be the larva of a butterfly? Lots of butterfly larva feed on violets. Do you really want to kill that?


Earwigs, on the other hand, feed all summer long. Again, I tolerate the damage, because they are, for the most part, a “good” bug. They clean up debris in the garden.

Here’s some earwig damage on a marigold.

marigold chewed by earwig

I wondered what was chewing this. I didn’t think anything ate marigolds. Then I watered and saw the earwig run out. Voila! Sometimes it’s as simple as all that.

These petunias are in that same container. Normally petunias are chewed by a caterpillar that turns into a tobacco moth. This time I think I’m going with the earwig!

petunias chewed by earwig

Sometimes even the good guys can be destructive. But tolerate some of this sort of damage in the garden–unless you want to run out with a flashlight and peer underneath the foliage after dark. Or, as in this case, you get lucky when you’re watering!

In a very wet summer like most of the east coast is having right now earwigs tend to get a bit out of hand and run amok, eating whatever they find. And they can be a bit scary looking, with that rear set of pinchers. They’re harmless to you, and mostly harmless to your plants. So again, try to live and let live. No one’s really going to care about the holes in the leaves–and your garden might be a better place for it.

What’s Eating My….

So a couple of weeks past the solstice and day length is getting shorter. Temperature is still getting warmer as it will continue to do in my part of the world for a few more months. It may or may not be dry, precipitation-wise, but even if it is, it’s still humid. So all of this leads to an abundance of chewed leaves, spotted leaves and diseased leaves.

Quite often in July I’ll focus on the less attractive side of life–the “weeds” or the pollinators (which, believe it or not, some folks find unattractive.)

This July I’m going to focus on pests and diseases. I already started last Monday with the Black-eyed Susan issues. Today I’ll talk generally about holes in plants. Because this is the time of year that we start to notice holes in our foliage.

Whatever you don’t just break out a spray bottle of something. For one thing, a lot of these spray on remedies have no residual effect (which is the fancy way of saying if you don’t hit the pest, you don’t kill it). So all you’re doing is wasting spray needlessly.

If you are using something with a systemic effect, chances are you’re killing off way more than you intend–bees, butterflies, ladybugs–you get the idea. And as I said in this post, chemicals just lead to the use of more chemicals–and who wants that?

One thing I talk about a lot when I lecture that really gets folks thinking is this: why are we growing our own stuff? It’s because we want it to be better than what’s out there in the stores, right? We want it to taste better, or look prettier, or smell better or whatever.

So if that’s the case, why would we then turn around and load it up with the same poisons (or worse poisons, because commercial growers are regulated in what and when they can spray, but we homeowners can just do whatever!) than we can find on the stuff in the grocery stores?

If you want poison treated food and flowers, just go buy it–you don’t need to go to all the trouble of growing it. It’s a whole lot cheaper to buy too.

So think and watch before you spray–and I’ll try to help over the next month or so!


Back when I worked at the garden center, people would come in and proclaim, “I hate pansies!”  And being in retail and wanting to give good customer service, I would reply with something like, “Well, it would be a boring world if we all liked the same thing,” but secretly I’d wonder how anyone could hate pansies?

A google search of just garden blogs has pretty much led to the same conclusion–garden bloggers, for the most part, unabashedly love pansies.

I will say that when I was working retail I didn’t always have the time to plant them–but I was literally surrounded by them every day so it was okay–I really didn’t need to plant them.  I could enjoy them vicariously.

Now that I’m not working in the garden trade and I just write about it, I do have to have pansies at the end of every winter. It was a ridiculously easy winter here in Connecticut and we’re probably one of only about 4 states that can say that this year.  And despite the fact that I have plenty of spring bulbs coming up, and lovely spring flowering trees, and early blooming shrubs, I have to tuck a few pansies in among the bulbs.  It just isn’t spring until I do!

Given my druthers (whatever the heck those are!) I’d plant the smaller flowered violas and the type known as Johnny-Jump-Ups.  For those of you who have read my “about” tab, you’ll know that my earliest gardening memory dates back to Johnny-Jump-Ups.

But my husband prefers the larger, splashier varieties, and after all, gardening isn’t always just about ego gratification, is it?  If, by planting the larger pansies I can make him happy too, then we both win.

And maybe, I’ll just find a spot to tuck some violas in somewhere just for me.