A Slightly Different Take on Companion Planting

I read an interesting article in PopSci (the online version of Popular Science) about “pest repelling plants.”

The article had different plants for each region of the country, and while it promised that many of the plants were perennial, I found that those recommended for the “North,” were not. I also found that those recommended for other regions (the Midwest, for example) would work equally well in my garden, and some of those were perennial.

The basic premise of the article was that certain plants attract insects and will therefore keep those insects from other plants. I am not sure that I call that “pest-repelling,” but hey, whatever works.

They did mention marigolds as repelling nematodes and garlic for repelling rodents. I am not sure about the garlic, never having grown it. I do grow the catnip they recommend and while I cannot be sure about the mosquito and fruit fly (?) (do I even care about that outside? And why?), I can tell you that catnip has worked as a wonderful Japanese beetle repellant for me in a bed of roses. In fact, since I have planted catnip, I have no more Japanese beetles in my yard at all. Coincidence or cause and effect–I am not sure but I will take it!

Another of the plants they recommend (for the West) is nasturtiums. They say that they attract beneficial wasps and repel squash borers and whitefly. I suppose that their effects could be entirely different in different parts of the country but for me I have always found that they are aphid magnets. I have never particularly liked this effect, but if you have plants that always have aphids, you could try nasturtiums as a trap crop, I suppose. I like to grow them to eat, and I don’t enjoy eating aphids!

In any event, the article is fascinating and a great example of “working smarter, not harder” in the garden. I am always a fan of that, as I am a fan of gardening without pesticides. Definitely check it out! You might find some ideas that work for you.

Native Plants to Protect Waterways

Native planting

Last October our lake association contracted with a landscape architect to design 3 gardens of native plants. She did the designs and our volunteers did the plantings.

The plants went in in October–late October if I recall. They all survived and with no additional help from anyone so far as I can tell (note the browning on the pine) they are pretty much thriving.

native planting

The one unfortunate thing is that with the exception of the publicity last fall, there is nothing to explain these plantings and why they are there. Each one is slightly different. And as you’ll see in a minute, people can’t abide a vacuum–someone planted marigolds in the third one! It’s not “wrong” per se but it does sort of defeat the idea that these are “native” gardens.

native garden with marigolds

This is the garden with the marigolds. Perhaps someone was afraid there would be too much weed creep. Who knows? Obviously who ever planted the marigolds didn’t understand the idea of the native gardens and that’s what’s upsetting to me. Or maybe he or she felt that natives and annuals could mix happily–and that’s fine.

But since these were planted with the idea of showing homeowners which natives would make nice riparian barriers, clearly the marigolds do not belong. Oh well.

And clearly we need a little bit more education so that everyone understands what the gardens are doing here. Or else we will have homeowners continuing to use potentially invasive things along the shore–or worse yet, nothing at all!

Living Mulch

A few weeks back I published the Earth Kind quiz. I talked about how I only scored a “good” (or 3 frogs) on the quiz and that one of the reasons for my abysmally low score was that I didn’t mulch.

Overview of are with moss & ferns

At the time I joked that perhaps I should have said that yes, I do mulch because I allow moss and native ferns to cover my soil.  This is just one area of my garden where it is doing so successfully.

This is a raised bed (if you can imagine such a thing, we have a 1,000 gallon in ground oil tank under here!) with a dogwood and a Japanese maple planted in front and rhododendrons nearer the house.  We inherited this from the original owner of the house.

Over time, rather than planting this with annuals, as I used to do, I have started filling in with perennials and the few bulbs that will tolerate the clay. There are hellebores down in front, hostas under the trees and the few evergreens that you can see in the photo. That wispy green evergreen is supposed to be a gold thread hinoki cypress. It’s not gold in all the shade. We keep it because the birds love the evergreen cover.

But clearly nature abhors a vacuum so she has begun to fill this in with moss and I am delighted.  Even last summer, when we only had 4″ of rain between June and August does not seem to have affected the mossy ground cover.

And then the ferns fill in as well–so thickly that I can’t really walk under here, which is great until I need to weed. Here are some photos of them just coming in.

fern close up

There are two types that fill in. My photos here are mostly of the lady fern. The other fern, the sensitive fern, hasn’t really begun to show up yet.


Here you can get a great idea of how many of them there will be in the moss.

closer view

A closer view of some of the fiddleheads.

more ferns

These ferns are at the edge of the Japanese maple–near the walkway. About the only place they don’t grow is right under the maple itself. It’s too heavily shaded.

ferns next to

Finally these ferns are at the edge of our walkway. They even come up between the slate slabs. It’s really amazing. And yet Earth Kind would prefer I mulch over all of this? I think not, thanks so much!

Fall Strategies As the Northeast Drought Continues

The last time we came this close to a drought was in 2010. Before that, it was 2003. Drought is not totally uncommon to Connecticut, but thankfully, it is short-lived.

Back then, there was talk of water conservation (as I watched my neighbors continue to run their sprinklers in the rain–probably a lot like what went on in California for too long–folks have no idea how dry it is and how desperate it really is)

I went on the local news and talked about drought conservation measures–and even ways to use “graywater” from the shower in watering ornamental, but not edible, plants.

Thankfully, in every dry spell, I learn different things. This year, one of the things I did was to leave a weed as a ground cover in shadier areas.

This can back fire if there is too little moisture because the weed can suck up the moisture and not let it get to your precious plants. However, if you’re watering correctly–infrequently but deeply–or if nature is doing the same thing–then the weed isn’t going to harm anything and it will act as a living mulch. Here’s an example of what I mean.

dogwood bed

This is a bed under and aging dogwood where I have some established perennials. Ferns have self-sowed and moss has crept in. I’m trying to cultivate more ferns and moss. Tough to do in a drought.

Partially weeded bed

The front part is already weeded in this photo. You can see the “ground cover weed” in the back part.

fern close-up

Finally you can see that the technique worked. I supplied very little water to this bed over the summer–and yet these little ferns managed to come along nicely, even with the drought, and up against the brownstone wall, which bakes in the sun.

It’s an unorthodox approach, but then again, desperate times call for desperate measures!

Rain Gardening

You may wonder, in an El Nino year, why I’m talking about rain gardening. Think back to last summer (those of you that live in Connecticut know what I mean–we had 10 inches of rain in June, then nothing until August 9, when we had almost 4″ of rain in a single day. That’s why I refer to “drought and deluge!”)

And while not everyone lives in a climate with such unusual rainfall patterns, everyone gets summer thunderstorms, which are notorious for dumping huge amounts of rain in a very short period of time.

Rain gardens are spots on your property that help deal with the “runoff” from these storms. Lots of gardeners find them far more acceptable then the idea of, say, cutting into a gutter and installing a rain barrel. Besides, who doesn’t like the idea of a new garden (at least in theory?)

Our local University, the University of Connecticut, has put together a brochure and smartphone app on planning these gardens. Information on both can be found here.

Creating a rain garden is a relatively simple process. A depression is created in an area that is “downstream” from the runoff from your roof (either naturally or by directing downspouts to that depression).

The area is then planted with common small trees and shrubs and perennials (the list is amazingly diverse even for our colder area)–native plants have a large place on the list for those that prefer those as well.

Since this area is not always wet, the area is mulched with a reasonable covering of mulch–and then you enjoy, all the while knowing that you are helping to filter storm water runoff and to create a lovely area that will thrive with minimal maintenance.

Garden Recycling Contest

Tessalaar Plants, and their blog, Your Easy Garden, is running an “upcycle” photo contest.

I just love this–there’s nothing that says “garden creativity better than re-using or re-purposing items in the garden.

All of that being said, do I have anything to enter? Probably not. I’ll have to root around since I’ve already dismantled most of my garden for the year.

For those of you unfamiliar with Tessalaar, they are the breeder responsible for Flower Carpet roses and Tropicana cannas, among other things.

Even if you have no photos to enter, I encourage you to check out the photos on their blog. There are some great ones. We gardeners always learn from each other and these photos can be inspiration for next year!


Is Anyone Else Confused About What To Do In The Garden In The Fall?

In the first week of October, I must have gotten 5 e-newsletters in my inbox telling me what I must or mustn’t do in the garden right now. It was enough to want to make me run fleeing into my cozy den with a book and to never come out again!

Really, is all this necessary? There are some things you must do in the fall to ensure a healthy garden in the spring, like cleaning up diseases and perennial weeds.

And there are other things you may want to do in the fall–like planting spring-flowering bulbs–to ensure a more beautiful garden in the spring.

And there are those things that it is optimal to do in the fall like re-seeding or over-seeding the lawn if you maintain one.

Other than that–nada, nothing, nyet (and that’s about the extent of my fancy foreign words).

After some basic garden sanitation–removing diseases from the vegetable garden in the form of plant matter and diseased leaves, and removing any and all diseased leaves from where ever they occur in the rest of the garden, that’s about it.

You will surely make your life easier if you remove perennial weeds now–and any annual weeds that are going to seed. But is it mandatory–no. You’ll just be weeding more next year and perhaps in succeeding years.

Planting bulbs is lovely and I have done so in many, many fall seasons. But over the last few years, I have developed arthritis in my hands, and working in my heavy clay soil in cool weather is hard for me. So I no longer do it. No point in making life unpleasant.

And as for the lawn, thankfully that is the Spoiler’s job. I advise, and he ignores. It’s a lovely partnership.

With respect to fall planting, I don’t–again, my heavy wet clay soil is no good for that, even before the arthritis.

As for cutting perennials down, I will cut down those that are yellowing, if I have time, if they are unsightly, if the weather doesn’t stop me from doing it–you get the idea.

And of course I’ve already hauled in all the houseplants.

I just have to take in anything that might freeze–ceramic bird baths and statuary and things like that. Although I must say, as I get older, fewer and fewer of those things even make it out of the garage in the spring.

This is known as “gardening smarter, not harder.”

After all, in the spring, when we’re all sick to death of winter and our homes and we’re read all the stuff we want to read, there will be plenty of time to clean up what we left behind in the garden!

Might Xeriscaping Cause Heat Islands?

In my role as the book reviewer for the Connecticut Horticultural Society, I have been critical of certain books that rave about landscapes with hardscaping made of metal or rock (particularly if they don’t mention that these items are reclaimed or if they don’t mentioned how far they’ve been “trucked in.” There’s nothing sustainable about trucking tons of rock long distances).

But even after saying all of that, my primary concern, even in my own relatively cool and moist climate, is that these items collect and reflect heat and do not in any way sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Say what you want about the “monoculture” of the American lawn, at least it’s not reflecting blazing hot sun back at the house all day! It absorbs rainfall, and any polluting runoff from the driveway near the house (which a rain garden could do just as well–I’m no fan of the lawn, really). And so long as it is not irrigated (which ours is not) and is not mowed with a gas mower or trimmer (which ours is not) it has relatively low impact on the environment if one is not dumping synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on it to keep it green, and free of bugs and weeds (which I’m sure any long time reader of this blog can tell that we do not do–I shouldn’t even have to say that!)

So it was interesting to read this article on Accuweather about California and Nevada paying rebates to homeowners to reduce the square footage of their lawns.

What most interested me about the article was the second to last paragraph in which a meteorologist talks about how reducing lawn area significantly might lead to an urban heat island effect. This was the first time I’d seen anyone (other than me) worried about this sort of thing so it was nice to know that not only were my concerns valid, they were scientific as well.

Again, a lot of my photos here show an asphalt driveway, a brownstone wall, and a slate walk at my home, so I know a lot about the way hardscaping can cause “heat islands.” Further, since this is my sunniest spot, in summer, all of my containers are placed right on that asphalt driveway, up against, or on top of that brownstone wall so by mid-July they are literally baking. I’d say those containers were pretty much feeling very desert-like by 2 pm every afternoon.

What I also notice is that after I water them, that entire area cools down significantly–I’m guessing by at least 10 degrees although I’ve never measured it. It’s as if a cooling thunderstorm has passed through.

Were I growing all cacti and succulents there, with a reduced watering need, that area would cool off a lot less frequently (and consequently, probably, so would my house, even though it is shaded by large maples and oaks.)

Perhaps that’s why I’m so worried about all this stone and metal hardscaping as allegedly sustainable. Brownstone walls and slate walks in a climate like mine are great because the ice melts just a little bit faster off them in the winter.

But anything that is likely to cause temperature rise in the southwest–an already dry, arid and drought prone region–cannot be a good thing!

Why the Vicious Cycle of Chemicals Perpetuates Itself

You may have heard of “companion planting.” It’s the idea that certain plants like to be planted with other plants. There’s also a school of thought that says that some plants should never be planted with other plants. Part of that has to do with alleopathy, or the idea that parts of a plant can be “toxic” to other plants.

The black walnut tree is the most well known as the “plant” under which nothing else will grow but there are plenty of other trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials that exhibit some degree of alleopathy. Anyone who has had a bird feeder knows that too many accumulating sunflower seed shells will stunt the plants nearby (yet another reason not to let those shells accumulate!) For kicks, try “googling” alleopathic plants. The list will amaze you.

But scientific research into the way plants communicate took a big leap this month with the idea that plants communicate through the beneficial fungi on their roots (otherwise known as mycorrhizal mycelia). Remember how I’ve talked in the past about “the white stuff” on the roots of your container plants? That’s some of the fungi that you can actually see.

Why do you care–or why should you? A bunch of reasons. The first most important one (says the organic gardener) is because you should stop pouring chemicals into the soil. And by chemicals, I mean anything that can harm these fungi-and that includes inorganic fertilizers like those 10-10-10 or 10-30-10 formulations that you sprinkle on in granular form or spray on from a hose-end sprayer.

Why? Because they are salt-based. You are bathing your garden in salt water when you are spraying them from that handy-dandy hose end sprayer or mixing that stuff in and letting nature water it in for 6 or 9 months so you don’t have to think about it again. It may seem easy but you’re literally killing off all the good life in the soil.

So once you kill off all the good stuff (that’s invisible to the naked eye) your plants can’t communicate. And then when you get aphids, you need to go get another chemical control to kill them (when in most cases you can knock them off with a hose, allow lady bugs to eat the larva–or, if you hadn’t used chemical fertilizers to start with, you might not have gotten the aphids to begin with!)

When I get aphids, if I get aphids, in most cases, I do nothing and nature takes care of it for me. That’s another thing gardeners have to learn: bugs have life cycles. In early spring, when aphids are present, it is usually because the weather is cool and their predators aren’t flying yet. If you have patience nature will usually take care of itself. If not, a good strong spray from the hose will knock the aphids to the ground. Once there, they can’t climb all the way back to the tops of the plants, to the tender young foliage where they usually feast.

Another way to deal with the aphids is to plant a “sacrifice” plant. This is a plant that you know will attract aphids. Nasturtiums are a great one for this. This will trigger the communication among the other plants so that they will strengthen themselves. And when the nasturtiums get too aphid infested, they can be removed. Just don’t compost these because because you don’t want insects or their eggs in the compost pile.

Allowing nature to take care of things really does work–if you haven’t disrupted the balance. And if you have, by using chemicals in the past, it’s okay. Just start helping nature out with some compost. You’ll be surprised how quickly things recover!

Voices For Sustainability

This new book, published just last month, with its foreword dedicated on Earth Day (a nice touch) is a collection of essays by some of the best known names in gardening, most particularly Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy.

What caught my attention, however, was the second chapter written by the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) with Tom Christopher.  SITES proposes to establish for landscapes and those who “design, construct and maintain” landscapes (and who is that but all of us too?) a quantitative way to measure their performance in achieving sustainability.

While it all sounds very complicated, when reading the chapter it becomes obvious that it is not.  There are 10 Principles of a Sustainable Site and 10 Ecosystem Services that a Sustainable Site provides.

For the purposes of the discussion, the definition of sustainable site is one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  That’s fairly broad but it leaves a lot of room for interpretation within the site too.

To demonstrate how workable the guidelines are, here are a few of the guiding principles for a sustainable site:

  • Do no harm
  • Design with nature and culture
  • Use a collaborative and ethical approach
  • Foster environmental stewardship

And, to demonstrate the principles of Ecosystem Regulation:

  • Global and local climate regulation
  • Air and water cleaning
  • Water regulation
  • Erosion and sediment control
Most likely environmentally sensitive gardeners are concerned with all of the above topics.  While we may wonder what we can do to address global climate regulation (and the chapter is fairly mum on that topic), with respect to local climate regulation it suggests things like shading the urban heat island effect created by a driveway by planting trees.  A simple solution, really.
The book is full of other wonderful essays including one on the new American Meadow Garden, another on waterwise gardens and Rick Darke’s on balancing natives and “exotics” as he calls them.  Darke’s piece is a thoughtful one on carefully making the choice when we choose not to grow natives–in contrast to Doug Tallamy, the unabashed champion of native plants (rightly so, of course) who argues that we should be welcoming the wildlife to our garden.
The book is a wonderful read and for those of us sidelined this spring by too much wet, damp, or cold (which includes an awful lot of the country still, I know) it is a way to think about the choices we’ll make when we finally can get out there into the garden again.