Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dancing With The Daisies

In her poem, Daisy Time, Marjorie Lowry Christie Pickthall celebrated these lovely flowers.

See, the grass is full of stars,
Fallen in their brightness;
Hearts they have of shining gold,
Rays of shining whiteness.

Just so do daisies captivate the imaginations of children.  Innocent bouquets, flower chains and circlets are fashioned of them, and their hearts of gold know well whether "he loves" or not.

There are "daisies" among other genera, but the daisies known and loved best are of the genus Leucanthemum (lew-KANTH-ih-mum), meaning "white flower."  The genus contains about 70 species native to Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia.  However, some have been introduced to North America.  Now daisies occur in practically every state and province of the U.S. and Canada.  Plant height is 12" to 48".  Flower color is, of course, white with yellow center.

Buttercups have honeyed hearts,
Bees they love the clover,
But I love the daisies' dance
All the meadow over.

In addition to their imaginative uses as cut flowers, personal adornment, and seers of love, daisies are great for perennial borders and wildflower meadows.  Butterflies and bees love clover, but they adore daisies, too.  So do birds.  More good news:  rabbits do not care to eat them.  Daisies will also make your heart glad because they are easy to care for and drought-tolerant when established.

Daisies thrive in USDA climate zones 3 through 9.  Plant in full sun to partial shade.  Average well-drained garden soil with pH ranging from 5.6 to 7.5 is fine, but organic, well-composted soil is perfect for pushing up daisies.  The seeds are best planted in spring.  Plants can be set any time you have a trowel handy.

Before planting, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office.  They often provide collection bags.  With each soil sample, indicate the type of plant you intend to grow in it.  For the most basic recommendations, you may be charged a nominal fee.  For more information such as micro-nutrient and organic content you may be charged more.

Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8" deep, removing all traces of weeds.  Adjust soil pH according to soil test results.

Your soil sample report will also include fertilizer recommendations.  Following instructions is always a good bet.  A fine all-around practice is to mix 5 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer per ten square feet area.  Repeat the application every two weeks during the growing season, but be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue.

Daisies look great planted with cosmos, coreopsis, coneflower, daylily, black-eye susan, yarrow, salvia and mullein.  Within a couple of seasons they should mature.  Then it's-

Blow, O blow, you happy winds,
Singing summer's praises,
Up the field and down the field
A-dancing with the daisies.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Resplendent Purple Queen

Plant names often contain emotional suggestions - reasonable enough since plants are named by impassioned beings.  So it is with Wandering Jew.  Known botanically as Tradescantia pallida (pronounced "trad-es-KAN-tee-uh PAL-lid-uh), the genus is named in honor of one or both of the John Tradescants.  Father and son, they were naturalists, botanists, gardeners and plant collectors.  It's very likely that the elder Tradescant (d. 1638) was considered when the genus was named.

Both Tradescants knew tragedy during their careers.  The elder was gardener to the 1st Duke of Buckingham, until the duke's assassination.  He was then employed by Charles I, king of England.  When the elder died, John the younger succeeded his father in service to Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria until the Queen fled because of England's Civil War.

The genus contains over 70 species,  3 of which are commonly called "Wandering Jew."  These species, including T. pallida, are trailing succulent plants that set down roots where the nodes touch soil.  As the plants progress, they form extensive ground covers.  That habit undoubtedly reminded someone of the Jewish diaspora or a doleful medieval legend, so the name connoting tragedy was bestowed.  The appellation continues to stir passions.

Tradescantia pallida also bears other common names: Purple Heart, Purple Queen.  Both hint at sadness.

Purple Queen is a fairly common plant in warm climates and often grown indoors in colder ones.  It's native to Mexico near the Gulf coast.  The species name, pallida, means pale.  But pale it is not, and there is nothing sad about it.  Succulent trailing stems and thick, juicy, purple leaves store up water for emergencies.  Pink flowers are produced throughout the growing season.

The plant grows quickly up to 18" high in full sun or partial shade and in almost any soil type as long as it is well-drained.  Each plant spreads about 12", but as it roots along the stem, the area covered may be much greater.  Because it is drought-tolerant, T. pallida is well-suited as a ground cover in dry areas, so is ideal for xeriscaping.

A ground cover of Purple Queen is rich in appearance, like a royal robe laid out.  It's also good for container gardening and hanging baskets, especially when accompanied by suitable companion plants of varying heights, textures and complementary colors, such as red, pink, white, yellow and green.

In addition to outdoor uses, it is also great for growing indoors.  In fact, Purple Queen is considered to be exceptionally effective in removing pollutants from the air.  Grow a few plants in a sunny window and breathe easier!

Purple Queen is hardy from USDA climate zone 7 through 11.  Frost may destroy the top-growth, but the plants revive when warm weather returns.  Recommended pH ranges from 5.5 to 7.5.  Space about 12" to 18" apart.

Resplendent, easy to grow and simple to maintain, you'll be quite happy to have Purple Queen in your colorful garden.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

No-Fuss Houseleeks

Drive through the countryside on state and county roads, or better yet, get out and walk.  Enjoy a slower pace and pay closer attention to what folks are growing in their yards.  I bet you'll see Houseleeks, sometimes called Hens-and-Chicks. 

Properly known as Sempervivum (pronounced sem-per-VEE-vum), meaning "always living", you may see them spilling out of flower pots, planters and even from old kettles.  I once saw some growing out of  a pair of old boots filled with potting soil.  My grandmother grew them in common concrete troughs flanking the front steps.  I didn't think much about them then, but I've come to appreciate them since.  I was told when I was a child that houseleeks, if grown close by, were supposed to protect buildings from being struck by lightening, but was assured it was only a tale.

Houseleeks are so common you'd think they're from around here, but they are native to parts of southern and eastern Europe, around the Mediterranean, north Africa and parts of western Asia.  There are about 40 species in the genus, and many more hybrids - some of natural origin.

All of them are perennials with thick, succulent leaves arranged in rosettes.  The leaves store water, so they're very drought tolerant. They grow quickly in full sun and in almost any poor soil type as long as it is slightly acidic or neutral and well-drained.  Sandy or rocky soil is ideal.  The name, "Hens-and-chicks", was undoubtedly bestowed because of the smaller plants that are produced on short side-shoots around the parent plant.  I should mention that "always living" is a bit misleading for the parent plant dies after flowering.  But because "chicks" are produced in abundance, there are always houseleeks to enjoy.  I have no idea why they are called "houseleeks", but I understand that one variety is eaten in Taiwan.

Their ability to thrive in difficult, dry areas is well-known.  Hardiness varies, but some varieties will thrive into USDA climate zones 2 and 3.  Virtually all are hardy from zone 5 through 9.  Houseleeks vary primarily in foliage shape, color and growth height, though the differences are not too great.  Height is usually 6" or less, and they can be expected to spread up to 12" within a few seasons.  They are are often used as edging plants, in rock gardens, and in containers.  I believe they would be very appropriate for "green roof" use.  Houseleek collectors are always on the lookout for new color shades.

Plant houseleeks about 6” to 12" apart.  Pint-sized plants usually produce a few "chicks" within the year.  They may be divided every 3 to 4 years to maintain compactness.  In the spring, you can propagate through stem cutting or division. It’s easy to pull a rosette off the main plant and transplant the small rosette to a new area in the garden.  Let the ground dry between waterings.  Lower growing varieties tend to be dense and choke out weeds, but if soil is fertile, neighboring plants grow faster and obscure the humble houseleeks.

Not only are they drought-tolerant, houseleeks are not bothered by most pests including deer and rabbits.

My grandmother liked "no-fuss" plants and houseleeks fit the bill.  I bet you will enjoy them, too.

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Friday, February 5, 2010

Fair Amaryllis

When two individuals in a family are called by the same name, some confusion is sure to ensue.  Such is the problem with Amaryllis.  The Amaryllidaceae family has two members (genera) called Amaryllis.  For most, any mention of the name brings to mind the ample, star-shaped flower popular around Christmas.  But that is her assumed name.  Her real name is Hippeastrum (pronounced "hippy-ASS-trum"), but with a name like that, it's no wonder that Amaryllis is preferred.  Hippeastrum is native to South America.

Then there is Amaryllis belladonna, the lesser known - a genus with only one species.  She is named for "fair Amaryllis", the shepherdess in Virgil's Eclogues.  More than fair, Amaryllis belladonna literally means "sparkling, beautiful lady."  No hippy-ass-strum is she.

Amaryllis is native to South Africa.  She stands 24" to 36" tall, and bears lovely pink or white flowers on bare, slender stems in late summer before foliage appears.  Thus, she is sometimes called "Naked Lady", "Belladonna Lily" or "August Lily."  A cautionary note:  Amaryllis is beautiful and beguiling, but like so many ornamental plants, is poisonous if ingested.  Keep your lips off.

Though cold-hardy in USDA climate zone 7 through 10, those who live in cooler regions can grow amaryllis successfully in containers and protect over winter.

If planting in the garden, select a site in full sun with richly organic, well-drained soil.  Soil pH should be between 6.1 and 7.8.  The best way to determine if the pH is within that range and contains the proper nutrients is to have the soil tested.  Your local Cooperative Agricultural Extension Service can help you.  You can collect the soil sample yourself.  For a nominal fee, they will send your soil sample to a laboratory for analysis.  Be sure to call the Extension office for instructions.

Cultivate the soil to the depth of 12".  Add plenty of well-rotted compost.  Remove weeds.  Soil test results may recommend other soil amendments.  Bone meal is especially beneficial for bulbs.  If you use synthetic fertilizer, allow at least a week before planting so it can be incorporated into the soil by rain or irrigation and not burn the bulbs.

Plant amaryllis bulbs 12" apart and 5" deep.  The depth is calculated from the bottom of the bulb.  Irrigate if rainfall is inadequate, but take care not to over-water.

Growing amaryllis in containers is not much different than in the garden.  Use the finest potting soil; cheap soil will give poor results.  The best potting soils will be light-weight, peat-based with added materials to enhance plant growth.  Select containers that will accommodate the bulbs and any other suitable companion plants.  All companion plants should have similar soil and moisture requirements.  Because container gardens can dry quickly, take steps to keep the pots properly watered.  Adding moisture retentive gel to the soil can be beneficial.  Larger containers are not as susceptible to drying.  Tipping over can also be a problem with small containers.

When bloom time is over, let the foliage remain to build reserves in the bulbs for the next growing season.  Continue to irrigate as needed.  You may remove the foliage when it has turned yellow.

Amaryllis partners well with late-flowering asters, coreopsis, daylilies, gypsophila, kniphofia, salvia, mullein and verbena.

Amaryllis is fair, indeed.  Plant a box of them.  Your garden will become all the more enticing with "sparkling, beautiful" ladies habiting there.

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Liatris - The Feather In Your Cap

My neighbor, George, was inspirational.  He, the older man, mentored the younger.  A backyard gardener, he went about it in a big way.  I couldn't begin to match his enthusiasm or energy.  George's sister owned a small floral shop, and many of her flowers were cut fresh from his garden.  Among her favorites was liatris, tall and lively with butterflies, which he grew in abundance.  I learned that it was very easy to grow, so it became one of my favorites, too.

Liatris (ly-AT-riss) spicata (spy-KAY-tuh, meaning to grow "in spikes") is native to eastern North America, and distributed from Quebec to Florida.  Plant height is 18" to 48".  Flower color ranges from purple to pink, and there is a white variety.  The feathery, star-shaped flowers arranged along the spike inspired its common names:  Blazing Star, Gayfeather.  Indeed, it would look jaunty stuck in a hatband.

In addition to its imaginative uses as a cut flower, liatris is grown in perennial borders, wildflower meadows, butterfly and bird gardens (goldfinches love the seeds!) and medicinal plant collections.  Liatris is deer resistant.

Liatris thrives in USDA climate zones 3 through 10.  Plant in full sun to partial shade.  Average well-drained garden soil with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8 is fine.  The corms can be planted in spring or fall.

Before planting, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office.  They often provide collection bags.  With each soil sample, indicate the type of plant you intend to grow in it.  For the most basic recommendations, you may be charged a nominal fee.  For more information such as micro-nutrient and organic content you may be charged more.

Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 6" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 10" deep. Poorly drained sites can be improved by raising the height of the planting beds.

Your soil sample report will include fertilizer recommendations based upon the results of the test.  Following its instruction should be a good bet.  A fine all-around practice for  is to mix 5 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer and 2 cups of bone meal per ten square feet area.  Repeat the application when shoots appear, but be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue.  Apply 2 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer per ten square feet of garden area every two weeks until flower buds appear.

Plant liatris 5" deep.  Depth is measured to the bottom of the hole.  I recommend planting 6" to 8" apart, though I've read recommendations for closer and more distant spacing.  Cover the corms with soil and add a top-dressing of mulch about 2" deep to suppress weeds.  In climate zones 3 and 4, mulch is recommended in winter to protect liatris from cold.

Liatris looks great planted with cosmos, coreopsis, coneflower, daylily, black-eye susan, yarrow, salvia, shasta daisy and mullein.  I'm confident that you'll enjoy growing liatris.  Tall, lively and carefree, it could be the feather in your cap.  If you've never grown it before, do so this year.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

A Gift Garden: Flowers For Sharing

A young woman had parked her car beside the road to pick flowers growing in a field. Passing her as she waded among the colors, I remembered the black-eyed susans that my mother had sown in our front yard between the house and the river. I was a little boy again waist-deep in a floral tide with a fist full of flowers. The bouquet was my gift to Mom, but I see now that it was also her gift to me.

Picking flowers is such a simple pleasure, and so easily shared with others.  You may carry an armful of glads to a soul mate, invite friends to come and pick their own irises, or cut a basket of dahlias to grace your own home.  Do you think you lack the space?  Of course, you have the space.  Whether you own a few planter boxes or a couple of acres, thoughtfulness sown in abundance is reaped many times over.  A few packs of seeds and boxes of bulbs will get your gift garden off to the right start. 

To have fresh flowers coming along throughout the growing season, plant your garden with bloom time in mind.  Many species are perennial, may be planted once and left to flourish.  Annuals may be planted at intervals through the spring and early summer for a succession of blossoms.  There are quite a few plants that are not cold-hardy in cooler climates, but may be treated as annuals or dug in fall and stored indoors over winter.  Seasons differ by location, and bloom times may extend throughout, but the following suggestions may help.  The lists are by no means complete.

Early Season:  Agapanthus, alchemilla, calla, camassia, delphinium, freesia, fritillaria, galanthus, helleborus, hyacinthoides, iris, ixia, leucojum, mathiolla, narcissus, peony, ranunculus, sparaxis, tulip.

Mid Season:  Achillea, allium, astilbe, tuberous begonia, caladium, coreopsis, cosmos, dahlia, echinacea, eryngium, gladiolus, gomphrena, garden hippeastrum, leucanthemum, liatris, lilium, rudbeckia, scabiosa, zinnia.

Late Season:  Amarcrinum, aster, caladium leaves, calendula, galtonia, helianthus, hydrangea, limonium, lisianthus, moluccella, nigella, panicum, pennisetum, perovskia, polianthes, snapdragon, tithonia.

Make this your year to plant a gift garden filled to overflowing with generosity and flowers for sharing.

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