Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Now, Boys, This Is Alumroot.

"Boys.  Now, boys," my grandfather would say, stopping to gently probe a plant with his walking staff, "this is alumroot.  It is good for the liver.  Yes.  That's right." 

When he said, "boys", he meant all male members of the group including his grown sons who were also Naturopathic physicians.  And my grandmother was a Naturopath.  Young and old, we would all stop for a closer look and a lesson.  One of the "boys" might recollect, "Say, Daddy, remember when we gathered it near Star Mountain?  We packed a picnic lunch, and..."  Much of the discussion was lost on me; I was in a hurry to explore beyond the next bend in the trail before we had to turn around and go back.  But now that I have children of my own, I slow them down for a closer look at herbs of interest.

Alumroot is properly named Heuchera (pronounced "HEW-ker-uh").  It was named by Carolus Linnaeus in honor of Johann Heinrich von Heucher, 18th century professor of medicine and botanist at Wittenberg, Germany.  Heucher was one of the most accomplished and honored naturalists of his day.  Another name for Heuchera is Coralbells.

There are about 50 species of Heuchera.  All are native to North America and found in practically every state and province. 

Though Heuchera has more than one medicinal use, it is more often cultivated as an ornamental perennial for its foliage and flower.  So popular has it become, and new hybrids so frequently introduced, that one wonders, "Alright, already!  How many more do we need?"

Plant height ranges from 12" to 18".  Foliage is herbaceous, meaning that the rounded, scalloped leaves usually die back in winter.  Leaves range in color from green to peach or purplish.  Small, white to pink flowers appear in sprays atop wiry stems from spring through summer.  Heuchera is effective in perennial, rock gardens and container gardens.  Wooded gardens with light shade are just what the doctor ordered.

It thrives in full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 3 through 8 in slightly moist, well-drained, humusy soils with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8.   Partial shade is best in warmer climates.  It needs slight but consistent moisture in spring, but otherwise is reasonably drought-tolerantHeuchera is deer-resistant, too.
If soil is compacted, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 10" deep, removing all traces of weeds.  If the soil is high in organic matter and friable, it may not require cultivation.  Compost may be incorporated into the soil, if necessary.  Incorporate 10-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4" to 6" of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants. 

Space the plants 24" apart. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container. Water the plants in the pots, and drain before de-potting them.  Place the plants into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the root balls. Do not cover entirely the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 1" deep.

Because it likes slightly moist, well-drained soil that is high in organic matter, plant Heuchera with companions having similar cultural requirements.  Fertilize sparingly and irrigate when necessary, but don't over-water.

Heuchera should be a wonderful addition to your perennial garden.  If you prefer using native plants in your garden, this one may be right for you.  And if you like to collect specimens with some medicinal history, you can proudly stroll through your garden and point out alumroot to your attentive friends and loved-ones.

Return to

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

FAQ: My shrubs look weak. Should I fertilize them?

Q. My shrubs look weak. Should I fertilize them?

A. Determine why they look weak. It might not be a nutrition problem. Check for scale and other insects, and for damage by disease or rodents. Is grass growing too close and competing for nutrients? At any rate, take a soil sample to your nearby Cooperative Extension Service for analysis. You may need to adjust the pH of the soil. If your shrubs do need fertilizer, use one with low nitrogen content. You shouldn't stimulate growth prior to cold weather as it may be damaged by freezing temperatures. An application of organic compost is always in order.

Return to

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Rainbow Of Irises

Irises are truly aristocrats in the garden.  The ornate flowers in luscious shades inspired monarchs to include them in their flags and coats-of-arms.

The genus, Iris (pronounced EYE-riss), includes at least 200 species native to just about everywhere within temperate zones in the northern hemisphere.  The name comes from a Greek mythological goddess who personified the rainbow, communicated between divinity and humanity, and raced along just out of reach.

Irises can be found growing in habitats as diverse as cool, mountainous regions and warm, subtropical swamps.  Some are drought-tolerant while others grow in water up to 10" deep.  Most irises prefer a site with full sun and well-drained, moderately fertile soil.  Many are cold hardy down to -15F.  Therefore, you should be able to find a type that will perform well for you.

As the name suggests, "iris" is synonymous with color, and they are myriad. Shades range from white to pink, blue, lilac and purple.  Some are yellow, scarlet, orange or nearly black.  Others display bold combinations of colors.  Most flower for about a month in late spring and early summer.  But, with careful selection, you can have iris blooms from very early spring to mid-fall.

They are absolutely lovely in the garden, regal in appearance.  In my opinion, irises are best displayed when planted in groups of a single color.  Different groups may be of various colors.  The resulting masses of bloom will captivate even the casual passerby.

The blooms certainly command attention, but foliage is as useful as the flowers.  The long, sword-like leaves provide a strikingly simple contrast to many of the shapes and textures found there.  The same features also make them very popular in cut flower arrangements.

The majority of irises are rhizomous plants.  Rhizomes are thick, fleshy stems that grow horizontally just below the soil surface giving rise to leaves, flowers and roots.  Other irises grow from bulbs.  Dutch irises are bulbous.

It's beyond the scope of this article to delve into all the species and hybrids.  I'll stick to some species most popular and readily available.

German irises (I. germanica), especially the hybrids, are widely grown.  Germanica (pronounced jer-MAN-ih-kuh) means "of Germany."  They produce multiple, huge flowers on forked stems held above the silver-grey foliage.  German irises are included in a group called "bearded" irises.  The "beards" are the hairs on the the "falls".  "Falls" are the three drooping sepals located under the upright petals.

Dwarf bearded irises may be as short as 6".  The taller varieties range from 36" to 48".  They prefer pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8, and require only mildly fertile soil.  Planting depth is very important:  the top portion should be right at soil level.  Space them 12" to 24" apart.  Bearded irises require full sun, and prefer dry conditions during the summer after flowering is completed.  Because they are drought tolerant, they are ideal for xeriscaping.  (Xeriscaping is the garden practice that seeks to reduce the need for irrigation.) German irises generally do well in climate zones 3-9.

Iris pallida (pronounced PAL-lid-uh, meaning "pale") is another bearded iris.  Common names include Dalmatian Iris and Sweet Iris.  It's native to the rocky coast of what was once Yugoslavia.  Flower color is pale blue.  A variety with lovely variegated foliage is quite beautiful.  Height ranges from 18" to 36".  It thrives in USDA climate zones 3-8.  Plant 12" to 24" apart in full sun and well-drained soil with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8.  In addition to its ornamental interest, I. pallida is also cultivated for the essential oil in the rhizomes which are processed and sold as "orris root."

Beardless irises are found in many other species.

Siberian irises, Iris sibirica (pronounced sy-BEER-ih-kuh) are native to eastern Europe and northern Asia, as the name suggests.  They grow 24" to 36" tall.  The foliage is slender and grasslike.  Flower colors are purple, lavender, burgundy, yellow or white.  They prefer rich, well-drained soil in full sun, but they will tolerate more moisture than German irises.  Space them 18" to 24" apart.  They tend to grow in clumps.  Preferred pH ranges from 6.1 to 7.8.  They do well in climate zones 3-9.  Masses of single colors planted near a watercourse are dazzling sights.

Japanese irises, of the species I. ensata (pronounced en-SAH-tuh or en-SAY-tuh, meaning "sword-shaped"), are absolutely stunning.  Native not only to Japan, they are common in parts of China, Korea, India and eastern Russia.  Their large, horizontal blooms may be up to 8" across and resemble enormous butterflies.  Colors may be solid, mottled or marbled in rare combinations of exotic shades of blue, white, pink, yellow, and reddish-purple.  Height is 24" to 36".  They require evenly moist soil with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8.  They're great for wet places like bog and water gardens, and will grow in water to 4" deep.  Japanese irises will tolerate full sun or partial shade.  They do well in climate zones 5-9.  Space them 18" to 24" apart.

Iris pseudacorus (pronounced soo-DA-ko-rus, meaning "false sweet flag") is commonly called Yellow Flag.  The species is native to Europe, western Asia and northwest Africa, but are naturalized in parts of North America.  Yes, they are of one color:  yellow.  But they'll knock your socks off in spring and early summer.  They require full sun and wet places, growing in water up to 10" deep.  These are also excellent for bog and water gardens.  Best pH ranges from 6.1 to 7.8.  If simply planted in consistently moist garden soil, they will perform, but the flowers will be smaller.  Height ranges from 18" to 36".  Yellow Flag irises are easy to grow in climate zones 5-9.  Plant in full sun to partial shade.  Space them 18" to 24" apart.

Iris versicolor (pronounced VER-suh-color, meaning "variously colored"), sometimes known as Blue Flag, Water Iris or Harlequin Iris, is another that has very high moisture requirements.  It is native to North America, thriving in USDA climate zones 5-8.  Cultural requirements are the same as for I. pseudacorus.  For those who wish to grow native species, this one is ideal.

Iris cristata (pronounced kris-TAY-tuh), also known as Crested Iris or Blue Flag, is native to the Eastern United States.  Flowers are lavender-blue with white or yellow crests.  Blooms appear in spring.  Blue Flag grows to only 4" high and spreads vigorously in all directions, so it makes a fine ground cover in a natural setting.  Plant 3" to 6" apart in partial shade in USDA climate zones 3-8.  Soil must be consistently moist soil (not soggy) with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.5.

Roof irises are relatively little-known plants that get their name from an unusual habitat:  the thatched roofs of simple Japanese country houses.  They are of the species, Iris tectorum (pronounced tek-TOR-um), which means "on roof".  Actually, they are native to China, but usually associated with Japan.  It is said that Japanese women used the ground powder of the rhizomes for cosmetics.  Perhaps limited growing space forced them to grow their face powder on their roofs.  The plants grow to 12" tall and display lavender-blue or white flowers in late spring and early summer.  Flowers are about 3" across.  Roof irises grow in USDA climate zones 5-9.  You don't have to have a thatched roof to grow them.  Plant in full sun to partial shade, spacing 8" to 12" apart.  Preferred soil pH ranges from 6.1 to 7.8.  Garden soil high in organic matter and slightly moist is fine.  Take care not to over-water.

Dutch irises are elegant plants producing large, graceful blooms.  Their botanical name is Iris x hollandica (pronounced haw-LAN-dik-uh), named for the country where they were hybridized.  They are beardless.  No cutting garden should be without them as they are superb in flower arrangements.  Colors are white, blue, purple and yellow, often in combination.  Mass beds of dutch irises are gorgeous, but they also make great companions to other bulbs and perennials in borders.  Soil should be well-drained and in a sunny location.  They are perennial in USDA climate zones 5-9.  Moist, well-drained soil with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8 is best.  Plant the bulbs in fall, 4" deep and 3" to 6" apart.  Take care not to over-water.

Reticulated irises are of the species Iris reticulata (pronounced ree-tick-you-LAY-tuh), which means "netted", referring to a pattern on the bulbs.  They are native to Iran, Iraq, Turkey and environs.  These are among the earliest blooming irises, making them especially welcome when you've had enough of winter.  Plant height is about 6".  Colors are blue or purple.  They thrive in USDA climate zones 3-9.  Plant them in full sun to partial shade, spacing 3" to 6" apart.  Slightly moist soil with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8 is fine, but avoid soggy soil.  A dry period is required after bloom time.  Growing them in raised beds is recommended.  Because they are compact in size, reticulated irises are perfect for container gardens.

Iris histrioides (pronounced hiss-tree-OY-dayz, meaning "like an actor") is similar in many respects to Iris reticulata.  The bulbs are also netted, they bloom very early and are native to the Caucasus region.  Colors are shades of blue.  Cultural requirements are nearly the same as for I. reticulata.  They thrive in USDA climate zones 3-8.

Iris danfordiae (pronounced dan-FORD-ee-ay) is yet another species similar to I. reticulata.  It is named in honor of Mrs. Charles Danford, 19th century plant explorer and wife of the noted artist and ornithologist.  Also known as Buttercup Iris, the color is yellow.  Cultural requirements are practically the same as for the other "netted" irises, but it is not as cold-hardy, thriving in USDA climate zones 5-9.

With so many species, hybrids and cultivars to choose from, you are bound to have a place to grow irises.

Return to

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Reasons Not To Criticize Your Employer/Co-Workers in Public

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

I was meeting friends for dinner.  Most were older distinguished professionals.  A younger man arrived and someone asked him how his day had gone.  He immediately launched into a blow-by-blow account of a frustrating work experience fresh on his mind.  When he finally stopped to take a breath, one in our party asked, "Are you talking about Jim?"  A bit surprised that Jim was known to someone, he put the best face on it and replied, "No.  Jim is a great guy.  I like Jim.  The problem is with the system of management."  Well, Jim is the manager, so it seemed clear enough that he was, in fact, complaining about Jim.

Since then I've reflected on that episode, and noted a few reasons to avoid criticizing employers, co-workers or anybody, for that matter, in public.

Unbeknown to you, your subject might be a relative or friend of someone listening, and the hearer be offended.  When I opened a business in a new town a customer wished me well and asked how I liked it so far.  "Great", I replied, but I continued to remark about some odd things I noticed.

"It seems like everyone around here is related to everyone else.  Almost all I've met are Smiths or Wessons.  I reckon there were a lot of people marrying their first cousins back in the day."  I was joking, of course.  The customer chuckled.  I thanked him for his purchase, and said, "I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."


Oops!  His mother was probably a Smith.  Or worse, perhaps a Wesson.  The more public the criticism, the greater the potential for such a faux pas.

Similarly, your subject might be close to someone who may report your criticism.  It could be communicated like this: "Hey, Jim, I was talking to Mike the other day when your name came up, and..."  Or, "Listen, Jim, I hear you're having some trouble with your management system."


The Preacher advised against even discreet criticism; "Revile not the king, no, not in thy thought; and revile not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the heavens shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter."  Ecclesiastes 10:20.  History is filled with names of prime ministers, bishops, heirs, crofters and employees who learned too late.

A listener might be a potential employer who would remember the episode and be cautious about hiring you, not wanting himself to be trashed in the future.  Over the years, I've interviewed many people for employment.  I understand that no one would apply to work for me unless she is unhappy in her present job, quit or recently lost it, so when I ask about work history, I expect to hear some report of discontent.  But when an applicant unloads on me her unrestrained denunciation of another, I step back and wonder whether she will in a few weeks or months tell the same story but fill in the blanks with my name.

"Jane, I really appreciate your application and the opportunity to meet you, but..."

Which brings me to my next reason.

Thinking that there are two sides to every story, a listener might wonder whether the critic is the problem.

Unbridled criticism suggests that you can not control your emotions, and if you can not control them that you are a difficult person.  Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “The happiness of a man in this life does not consist in the absence but in the mastery of his passions.”  No one wants to work with a chronically unhappy man.

Carping infers that you can not control your tongue.  On the other hand, self-control is complimentary.  "Even the foolish man, when he keeps quiet, is taken to be wise: when his lips are shut he is credited with good sense." Proverbs 17:28

Uncontrolled faultfinding is uncharitable.  The Westminster Confession of Faith, a document admired by Presbyterians everywhere, reminds that moral duties include "charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil."  Ouch.  That hurts.

Benjamin Franklin noted, “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”  That said, I'd better close.

Return to

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fluffy Clouds Of Candytuft

There is a ground cover plant that spreads soft, white clouds in spring covering dry, poor soil with a flowery mantle of sweetness.  It's called "Candytuft."

Of the genus Iberis (pronounced "eye-BEER-us"), there are about 50 species.  Iberis refers to Spain and the Iberian peninsula, one area where they are native.  Only a few are widely used as ornamentals.  Iberis is a member of the Brassicaceae family, which also includes popular vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, mustard, turnips and such.

Perhaps the most popular species is I. sempervirens (pronounced "semper-VY-renz", meaning "evergreen").  From Spain, its native range extends across the Mediterranean region and into western Asia.  In fact, the name "Candytuft" does not refer to its appearance or fragrance, but to Candia (Iraklion) on the island of Crete where it is a common wildflower.  Candytuft is not edible, but the roots and seeds possess medicinal properties.

If you garden within USDA climate zones 3 through 9, you may be able to grow it.  Candytuft thrives in full sun to partial shade in average garden soil with pH ranging from 6.6 to 8.5.  Slightly moist soil is fine, but over-watering must be avoided.  In fact, candytuft is drought-tolerant, so it is ideal for gardeners who must restrict their water use.

Mature height is about 12" and spread is about 24".  Flowering season ranges from late spring to early summer, depending upon your location.  Candytuft spreads by rooting from stems which contact the ground.  It's superb as a ground cover in perennial gardens and borders, rock and alpine gardens.  Candytuft is very effective on slopes, terraces and cascading over stone walls.  Use it beside stepping stone paths, but know that it does not tolerate foot traffic.

Prepare the planting bed for candytuft by cultivating at least 6" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 10" deep. Composted manure may be incorporated into the soil. Fertilizer may be used. If you choose to do so, incorporate 5-10-15 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4" to 6" of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants.

Container-grown candytuft can be planted any time you have a shovel handy, but will require monitoring of soil moisture conditions during hot weather to avoid plant stress.

Space plants 12" to 18" apart. Keep in mind that my spacing recommendations are approximate. If you want them to fill in quickly, plant closer together. If you have plenty of time and patience but less money, plant them farther apart. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container. Water the plants thoroughly in their plots.  Allow the water to drain a bit, remove the plants from the pots, place them into the holes and back-fill. Press soil around the roots. Do not cover the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 2" to 4" deep. Irrigate thoroughly.

Maintenance is minimal. Candytuft has few pest and disease problems, but they aren't immune.  Crown rot is one of the most frequent, and over-watering is the most frequent cause.

Club root is another problem resulting from a combination of conditions:  over-moist soil, cool weather and low pH.  Again, keeping the soil on the dry side helps.  There's nothing you can do about temperature.  But you can raise pH, so keeping it above 7.2 is beneficial.  If club root becomes a problem, there's no other option than to remove the infected plants and destroy them.  Don't compost them.  As always, prevention is the best medicine.

Candytuft benefits from pruning soon after flowering is complete.  Doing so helps to discourage seed production, maintain compactness and encourage general plant health.  Pruning also helps to ensure good bud-set for next year's flowering.  You may safely remove up to 1/2 of the top growth.

Plant Candytuft in your garden and imagine walking in spring with fluffy clouds at your feet.

Return to

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Get Ready For Bird Feeding

Summer is over and for many of our friends, winter has already begun.  Have you read about the early snow in many parts of our country?  It's time to prepare for fall and winter bird feeding.  Here is a checklist to get your yard ready for your migrating friends.
  • Clean your bird feeders thoroughly with a mixture of water and dish soap, or a solution of water and bleach.  Bleach helps to prevent mold that is encouraged by moisture.
  • Make any necessary repairs.  Perches, hangers and seed-catchers that have become unstable should be replaced.
  • Invest in a few new feeders.  You may need to purchase some of different types to add to your collection.  More species will visit if you provide a smorgasbord of delights.
  • Migratory birds need quick energy boosts, and so do those which have recently molted.  Suet provides that.  Suet cages are easily attached to many existing feeders, boards and posts.
  • Place a salt block in your bird-feeding area.  It attracts many species of migratory birds.
  • Don't forget to clean your seed storage bins.  Washing them with a bleach solution will help to discourage insects.
  • Keep plenty of fresh seed and suet on hand.  When the feeding season gets into full swing, the food disappears quickly.  Don't run out.
  • Spread some wood mulch under your feeders.  It helps to prevent seed sprouting.  It's a good idea to use material that is native to your area; it costs less.
  • Fall is a great time for planting, so add some small trees and shrubs to enhance your bird habitat.  Plants that provide food and shelter will be much appreciated.
  • Dump the water from your birdbath and clean it of debris.  Scrubbing it with bleach will help to remove and prevent algae build-up.
  • Install a small heater in your birdbath before the temperature drops to freezing.  Birds need to bathe and get a sip of water in winter, too.
  • Provide for the squirrels.  Okay, we know they can be pesky at times.  A good way to keep them off of your bird feeders is to give them some food that's more attractive.  Corn on the cob is excellent.  Buy a bag of deer corn at your local sporting goods or feed store.  You can pitch a few ears on the ground, or present them in squirrel feeders.  You may enjoy watching them as much as you do the birds!
Return to