Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Silky Thread Grass: Fiber Most Slender

No longer are grasses simply used in lawns as outdoor carpeting. Ornamental grasses have become increasingly popular in recent years for providing structure, movement, color and texture in the garden. Furthermore, ornamental grasses improve wildlife habitat by providing food and shelter.

Silky Thread Grass (Stipa tenuissima syn. Nassella tenuissima)

Most ornamental grasses are species that have been recognized in their native environment as having ornamental potential. Few are "new and improved" by breeding for desirable characteristics. Silky Thread Grass (Stipa tenuissima syn. Nassella tenuissima) is a fine example.

Also known as Mexican Feather Grass, Mexican Needle Grass and Pony Tails, Stipa tenuissima is native to the Southwestern United States and Mexico. Its name, pronounced "STEE-pa" or "STY-pa" and "ten-yoo-ISS-ee-muh", means "fiber most slender."

It is a beauty. Maturing at 24 inches to 36 inches height, the graceful arching leaves and soft, billowing flowers are very lovely when stirred by a breeze. Its common names, Silky Thread Grass and Pony Tails really do describe it well.

Stipa tenuissima thrives in full sun and average, well-drained soil with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8. It is hardy in USDA climate zones 7 to 10. Plants spaced 18 inches apart will grow together as a soft, fluffy ground cover.

Though Silky Thread Grass is considered to be low-maintenance, that doesn't mean NO maintenance. It does need occasional attention to keep it looking tidy. Here's why. Stipa self-sows freely, which is fine it you want more of it, but not so good if you don't. Deadhead the fluffy flowers if you want to avoid volunteer plants next season.

Stipa tenuissima is also called Mexican Needle Grass for good reason. The fine filaments may irritate sensitive skin. Don't get it in your eyes, nose or mouth. If you have dogs or cats that like to munch on grass, be aware that it may be difficult to dislodge if ingested by pets.

Otherwise, Silky Thread Grass is a fine ornamental grass for xeriscaping, low borders, edging, containers, ground cover and accents. It is certainly one of the most beautiful.

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FAQ: Can you suggest some shade-loving perennials?

Q. Can you suggest some shade-loving perennials? Our climate zone is 7.

A. If you want ground cover perennials for shade that will tolerate some foot traffic, consider Bugle Weed (Ajuga spp.), Sedge (Carex spp.), Kenilworth Ivy (Cymbalaria aequitriloba), Kew Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei 'Kewensis'), Variegated Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea 'Variegata'), Lily Turf (Liriope spp), Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon japonicus).

Ajuga 'Burgundy Glow'

If you simply want shade-loving perennials, consider Japanese Marlberry (Ardisia japonica), Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra elatior), Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), Lily Of The Valley (Convallaria majalis), ferns, Lenten Rose (Helleborus spp.), Coral Bells (Heuchera spp.), hostas, Meehan's Mint (Meehania cordata), Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis spp.), Allegheny Spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), Japanese Spurge (Pachysandra terminalis), Spike Moss (Selaginella uncinata or other species).

Pachysandra 'Silver Edge'

Shade-loving vines include Ivy (Hedera spp.), Creeping Wire Vine (Muehlenbeckia axillaris), Asiatic Jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum), and Vincas (V. major or V. minor).

Vinca minor

These are only a few choices available to you.

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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Woodlawn - Black House, Ellsworth, ME

The Woodlawn - Black House Estate near Ellsworth, its museum, gardens and park provide an enticing glimpse into the history of Maine. Bequeathed to the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations in 1928, it has since been continuously maintained for public enjoyment. I visited Woodlawn in May, 2013. Follow me to see what grows behind its garden wall.

Woodlawn - Black House, Ellsworth, ME

Maine is rich in natural resources, among which are timber, fisheries, minerals and water. Combined, these contribute to its scenic beauty. Yet, the first attempts to populate the area were based upon perceived agricultural potential. Maine possesses little of it. The early attempts failed.

Men like John Black, however, recognized the great potential for timber production. They grew wealthy and influential developing it. Even today, timber covers about 90% of the state.

John Black (1781-1856), born in London, England, began to distinguish himself in his late teens as a talented entrepreneur. His patriotic service during the War of 1812 gained him more admiration. Black is now recognized for "helping launch Maine's lumbering industry."

Black House was built between 1824 and 1827 in the Federal style with elements of the Greek Revival style. It's a handsome mansion of Philadelphia red brick containing furnishings and ephemera from as early as the 17th century.

Formal garden. Woodlawn - Black House, Ellsworth, ME

The formal garden behind the home is hedged with fragrant lilacs and furnished with sculpture. Simple arches allow entrance. Plantings include popular perennials such as daylilies (Hemerocallis), hostas, Bearded Iris (Iris germanica), Variegated Bishop's Weed (Aegopodium podagraria 'Variegatum'), Lamb's Ear (Stachys byzantina), Cheddar Pinks (Dianthus gratianopolitanus) and Lady's Mantle (Alchemilla mollis).

Fiddlehead ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis), more hostas, and Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) graced planting beds near the carriage house and sleigh barn. There is a cutting garden behind the sleigh barn. Our doggy companion was more interested in Woodlawn's dog house. By the way, you'll want to see Woodlawn's collection of carriages and sleighs.

The community garden is a newer development which provides plots for local gardeners who lack space enough to grow their own fruits and vegetables. I enjoyed a brief but delightful visit with local ladies tending their gardens. They were quick to advise me what hardware store I might visit to experience a bit of old-time Maine. My son commented they must not be real Mainers since they were so quick to share information.

It interested me that seaweed was a primary fertilizing mulch in the community garden. Not surprising, though, since Ellsworth is near the Maine coast.

More was in bloom beyond the gardens. Apple blossoms shed their petals upon the fresh, green grass. Bluets (Houstonia caerulea) and Sweet Violets (Viola odorata) sprouted in the lawn.

Bluets (Houstonia caerulea)
Woodlawn is home to one of Maine’s finest championship-sized croquet courts. Some gentlemen were sharpening their skills for the upcoming fifth annual Maine/New Hampshire State Croquet Tournament, held June 20-24.

Trails around Woodlawn allow visitors to round out their exercise with some hiking. Kiosks give directions. Farm artifacts provide interest and good excuses to pause occasionally.

As in much of New England, stone walls define Woodlawn's boundaries. There are about a mile and a half of them. They bear testimony to Woodlawn's origin as a gentleman's farm. Even gentlemen were sometimes exposed to the back-breaking labor of clearing land of rocks for planting.

Stone wall, Woodlawn - Black House, Ellsworth, ME
The grounds at Woodlawn are open from dawn to dusk year around with no admission charge. Admission is charged for house tours. Regular season for visiting the Black House runs from May to October. Christmas at Woodlawn runs from December 1 to 23.

Take your picnic basket when the weather warms. I suggest you go to Rooster Brother for fresh bread, cheese, and whatever else you might find to make a good picnic. After your picnic, stop by Mortons Moo for ice cream. (FYI, I have no connection to Rooster Brother or Mortons Moo, and gain nothing by recommending them. I like them very much. That's all.)

As I write this, Maine is covered up with snow. Take note of moose crossing signs. Moose may not be far off the road. If you visit Woodlawn in winter, take your snowshoes. You might find snowshoes and other winter apparel behind the big boot at L. L. Bean. (I don't have any relationship with L. L. Bean, either. I simply like their stuff.)

For more about Maine's history and the Black House, be sure to read Woodlawn - An Estate Of History.

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My forced paperwhite narcissus are getting too tall and flopping over. What can I do to keep them looking nice?

Q. My forced paperwhite narcissus are getting too tall and flopping over. What can I do to keep them looking nice?

A. You must be growing them in a bowl. I suggest you form a wire coat hanger into a support structure: a vertical rod with a circular loop at the top. Bend the loop so it is perpendicular (horizontal) to the rod. Spray paint it green. When paint is dry, stick foliage through the loop, press the rod into the soil. But that's not the best solution.

Next year, plant the bulbs in a bowl that will allow a 12 inch tall clear glass cylinder or pillar hurricane lamp chimney to enclose it. The glass pillar will allow light to reach the foliage, allow you to observe the growing plants, and keep the foliage and flowers upright.

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