Enough is Enough!
Okay, this is not fun or funny anymore. Stop the rain already. I have lived here ten years and I can never remember so much rain every single day without a break. Send it to Massachusetts where they are having the worst drought in recent history.
So, what can we do in the Lowcountry with all this water?
Well, the first thing seems simple, but people apparently do not “get it.” Turn off your irrigation. It should be a simple on or auto switch. You are all smart folks, surely you can figure it out. Nothing makes me sadder than to see irrigation running full tilt while it is pouring rain. Water is too expensive down here to waste. Turf grass in your lawn needs one inch per week in the summer. We have gotten much more than that during these past weeks of rain.
Another thing to do is check the drainage in your containers. The holes in the bottom should be free draining and not clogged. Use a screwdriver or pencil to open up any drainage holes. If you have placed a plastic pot inside a container without holes, you had better be emptying out the standing water or your plant will drown.
When I pot plants up, I use either perlite or vermiculite mixed in my potting mixture to aid in draining. Perlite is a type of volcanic glass that has a high water content and can help to retain water when mixed in potting soil. Ironically, it also keeps soil porous and aides in drainage. Vermiculite is a mineral that also retains water, but again it helps to aerate the soil and keep it open to drain freely.
You may start to see mold on plant stems. My Salvia have white mold all long the stems and on the leaves. What to do? I simply cut the damaged plant material off even if it means cutting the plant to the ground. Chances are, it will come back later.
There are chemical fungicides, but I have never had much luck with them. I avoid spraying anything in my garden if I can.
If your house plants have any mold, try sprinkling Cinnamon around the plant on top of the soil. Cinnamon is a natural fungicide. Now I would not use my Penzeys spice for this, but go to the Mexican spice section in your grocery store and you can get a giant container of Cinnamon for a little money. A few years ago, Basil was susceptible to downy mildew and Cinnamon came to the rescue for many of us.
I wish I could change the weather, my yard is beginning to look very much like a tropical jungle. We will just have to wait it out and hope that the current pattern changes and is not replaced by something worse.
Where have the butterflies been this summer? I have been hearing that from everyone and witnessing their absence myself. No one seems to know. It could be a different migration pattern or those crazy thunderstorms in June. Was it the late hard freeze in March that fouled up their trip to our gardens? If the experts don’t know, I doubt if we will.
Take heart though. I just went to our Island’s Butterfly Garden to weed (Chamber Bitter of course) and found what was left of a giant Bronze Fennel plant (Foeniculum vulgare) covered by caterpillars. I found that they are Swallowtail caterpillars by pokng one gently. Little orange horns popped out (Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid) and he/she emitted a musty smell. Yes, it was a swallowtail caterpillar – no doubt. They love Fennel as well as Parsley. Fennel is a very cool plant to put in your garden. It has feathery asparagus like leaves, sturdy stalks, and yellow umbrel flowers. The seeds are used quite a bit in Italian and Indian cooking.
Parsley is another under rated garden plant. No flowers to speak of, but I love the dark green foliage of curly parsley. The City of Greenville, SC has curly Parsley along its sidewalks all Winter as an edging. Grow it from seed or look for it in the herb section of nurseries when weather cools down.
I have mentioned Tithonia or Mexican Sunflower before. It is a great annual that can be grown from seed. You could still start some and have it bloom for pollinators before our cool down. Mine got a very slow start this year due to the amount of rain we had in the late Spring.
Hummingbirds are also pollinators and they love some sugar water in a feeder as well as your garden flowers. Remember- it is simple to make sugar water. One-half cup of sugar to two cups of water. Why buy it? My Hummingbirds will sip and sip and then fly in front of the window as if to thank me.
Things may look at little beat up in the heat of our late summer gardens, but there is still lots of see and enjoy.
I'm Melting, Melting....
Lately when I am in the garden, those immortal words said by the Wicked Witch of the West come to mind, but not because someone has thrown water on me. Quite the contrary, I wish someone would throw a bucket of water on me. The heat and humidity definitely get to me these summer days. Pity poor Europe and Britain where they do not have the luxury of our air conditioning to escape into.
Here are a few things to watch for in your gardens during this steamy time of the year –
Irrigation – For heavens sake, if we get one of those afternoon thunderstorms, turn off your irrigation. More plants are killed from too much water than too little. Rain water is much better for your plants than county water with its chemical treatment, but too much of a good thing is just too much of a good thing. Root rot and fungal diseases are very real problems right now. If you do need to irrigate, remember that early in the morning is the best time – before the sun heats up the soil. If you water at night, moisture can cause some disease issues and if you water in the heat of the day, most of the water evaporates before the plant is able to take it up from the roots.
Mulch - Mulching is always helpful any time of the year. I have been using mushroom compost as a mulch. It helps enrich the soil as the nutrients leach down, it keeps weed growth down, and it helps to keep the soil cooler.
Weeds - Weeds love hot and moist conditions. The worst weed you will see now is Chamberbitter. This innocuous looking little weed has hundred of seeds under its stems and can grow to six feet tall. It spreads like crazy, but fortunately can be easily pulled out when young. Dog fennel grows well here and looks like a small fluffy tree. Various spurges will try to take over your garden beds as well. Pull, pull, and pull. Do not compost these unless your yard waste goes to a professional composter where the temperature is so high that weed seeds will be killed.
Sad Plants—Some of your plants may look sad right now. It is fine to cut them back. I have cut my Geraniums (Pelargoniums) way back and put them in the shade. When the weather gets cooler, they will come back. I have also cut down some Salvias that look tatty. It will not hurt plants to have a mid summer hair cut.
Fertilizer – With all the rain we have been getting, you may need to fertilize. I try not to and opt to just depend upon compost for nutrients. Container plants will definitely need a slow release fertilizer. Do not use a liquid as it will just wash away.
Granular is better to use.
These are just a few tips to help you get through these drippy, three t shirt, two shower days.
I was fortunate enough to spend nearly two weeks in England visiting gardens and attending the Chelsea Flower Show. Chelsea is the largest flower show in the world. Gardening is a huge pastime in the U.K. No matter how small a plot people have, most have a garden and many grow their own vegetables. Their houses may be smaller than ours, but nearly everyone has a small greenhouse in the back garden. It is a very different world over there. And speaking of world, the most popular TV show is “Gardener’s World” on the BBC. Every Friday night, people are glued to their TV’s watching the host Monty Don with his two dogs working in his garden. Monty and the other presenters on the show are like rock stars to their adoring public. I must admit that my heart skipped a beat when I saw Arit Anderson standing in one of the show gardens at Chelsea presenting for the cameras. She is one of my favorite presenters.
There are many beautiful gardens across the British countryside that are destinations for the public and all contain cafes and gift stores making for a real day out. There are hundreds of such gardens in the U.K. and names of favorite gardens are great topics of conversation.
I was fortunate to visit the Royal Horticultural Society flagship garden – RHS Wisley. Wisley is enormous with lovely displays, but my favorite part was the brand new research facility named Hilltop. This is where scientists study plant DNA and plant pathology. I guess that we can blame them for the Latin name changes on various plants as they do their Ancestor.com work on plants. One new thing that has come out of the current research is the No Dig movement. I was always told to dig and then dig deeply again to totally loosen the soil and to turn the soil over. Now we find out that this damages the soil structure and all of the tiny beneficial mico-organisms in the soil. And the no dig method does not bring up weed seeds. Who knew? Dig only a hole to put the plant in and then mulch heavily with good organic matter. They use something called Strulch over there. Strulch is mineralized ground up straw. It did look good enough to eat. Unfortunately, it is not available here – yet. A girl can dream.
From Wisley we went to Sissinghurst Castle gardens and Great Dixter. Sissinghurst was the home of Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson. I will not go into their relationship as a couple, but they had an incredible vision for gardens and the white garden is world renown. I was able to meet the head gardener, Troy Scott-Smith. His posts on Instagram was well worth a follow. What a heavenly place!
Great Dixter is famous as a teaching garden. Students from all over the world spend a year or two at Dixter and then become famous in their own right. The long border is spectacular and scientists have discovered that there is more biodiversity in the planted mixed border of shrubs, bulbs, annuals, and perennials, than there is in the "rewilded" meadow of native plants.
My favorite garden was the smallest – Denmans in West Sussex. The former residence of garden designer, John Brookes (MBE 1933-2018), an American Horticulturalist has taken over the garden, is working to restore it, and has opened it to the public. There was such a personal quality to this garden that I find it difficult to put in words. My non-gardening husband felt it as well. You are led through a series of garden rooms with your eye drawn towards something unique and beautiful whether it be a pond, a large jar, or an iconic blue bench that Brookes used as signature pieces in his garden. The owner before Brookes was a plantswoman who experimented with gravel gardening – that is actually planting in gravel. It is very popular in the UK and Chanticleer near Philadelphia has a large gravel garden. The plants appear to thrive and the weeds do not. I may try to plant one this winter. It is too hot to be hauling gravel now.
London and Chelsea were in full bloom not only for the Flower Show, but also the jubilee and floral displays were everywhere on buildings and along streets. It is a very different world to ours . Gardens are seen as not just a nice extra to have, but essential for wellbeing. Almost every hospital has a garden as do rehab centres. There are Cancer Centresa around the nation (Maggie’s Place) where patients can drop in for a cup of tea and be surrounded by a lush garden where they can work if they wish or just enjoy the beauty. I wish we could start that here. Perhaps we can.
Would you like to feel like you have been on vacation without leaving Beaufort County? Visit Wimbee Creek Flower Farm in Seabrook. It is a morning out that will leave you with the sense that you have been at a truly magical place. A group of us met in the flower barn for instruction on making arrangements by Maria Baldwin, the owner. We toured the flower fields and then made our own special arrangements from a huge array of cut blossoms and foliage. After our artistic creations, we were treated to a lovely luncheon under a huge Live Oak tree.
This is a don’t miss experience: www.wimbeecreekfarm.com
May is really the time when our gardens come alive in the heat and sunshine. It would be nice if we would get a little more rain other than just threats. I have really come to love Kniphofia or Red Hot Poker. The tall spears of orange and yellow flowers really ping in my garden. If you keep on deadheading the rather unimpressive seed heads, you will see more spikes coming up.
One disappointment this year is that two plants failed to come up. None of the “Wish” series of Salvias came back although a neighbor has it in her garden. Both “Wendy’s Wish” and “Enber Wish” lasted three years and that was the end. Also, I cannot seem to be able to grow Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum “Little Joe”)
I have seen in growing by the side of the roads in abundance up north, but mine did not come up in either my garden or the community garden I maintain. I have heard other gardeners say that they do not have luck with it either. I am trying a new cultivar so we will see if that works or not. It is such a great pollinator plant that I would hate not to have it.
That last frost we had in March really nipped some things so that you might find things like Plumbago flowering late this year. The shrub Duranta really had its top blackened. It is just not frost hardy. It doesn’t die, but it sure looks ugly until you prune the dead stuff off.
I love Coneflowers and I have them everywhere this year. They are a short lived perennial, but they reseed readily. Do not remove the seed heads at the end of the season and you should get volunteers.
I have noticed that things are coming in late at garden centers this year. Perhaps they were hit by that late freeze as well.
I will be in England for the next few weeks visiting gardens in Sussex and Kent as well as attending the Chelsea Flower Show, finally! Covid threw a wrench (or spanner) into travel plans for over two years.
It has been a very dry spring despite warnings of severe storms, hail, locusts, tornados, and falling toads. It just seems too early to be using irrigation and our very expensive water down here. Bring on the April showers, You have two weeks to produce!
My roses are looking good and about to burst into full bloom. I order my roses from David Austin, USA. David Austin was an English rosarian who passed away two years ago after having introduced the world to some amazing roses. Best of all, they all have scent unlike the new Hybrids. He named his roses after famous figures in British history and this might confuse most Americans and many Brits. My favorite rose is Abraham Darby. Geek that I am, I know that Darby was an early 18th century Quaker industrialist who first smelted iron from coke, but I doubt that is a name on everyone’s lips. Fortunately, the extensive catalog from Austin roses describes the naming of each rose so mysteries are solved.
The last hard freeze we had in the middle of March really separated the hardy from the not so hardy plants. My usually hardy Salvias took a hit. The "Black and Blue" and "Amistad" Salvias fared well. So did the “Rockin”series. The “Wish” series ("Wendy’s Wish", "Ember’s Wish") have disappeared completely. They are now off of my list. I have gotten quite brutal with my plants. If they do not come back successfully, then they are done. I will not replace them. They may work well in another garden, but not mine. I also have found the same successes and failures in the Pollinator Garden that I maintain at a different location.
I love Hamelia patens or Mexican Firebush. It is very susceptible to a frost. It does die all the way down to the ground and then comes back slowly from the roots. Just cut the dead remains back. The warmer the soil, the faster it will return.
There is no better plant for a spring garden than Baptisia (Baptisia australis) or wild indigo. I have the traditional one with blueish purple flowers and then I have a cultivar called “Carolina Moonlight” that is a pale yellow. The foliage is very interesting as well as the pea like seed pods when the flowers are done.
The soil is warm enough for you to plant seeds. I have planted Mexican Sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia) for my butterflies. I have Zinnias in now and will plant some more seeds in 30 days so that I get a continuous supply. I have also planted Ageratum seeds. Ageratum is pretty tough although it did die back this year, but self seeds well.
This has been a pretty crazy late winter and spring where we have had temps in the 80’s for a bit and then two days later a frost. I did something different this year and mulched last fall. This made a huge difference in plant viability and weed abatement. The strong winds have also been a problem particularly for my own garden right on the marsh. I have never had so many heavy containers blow over! Winds can desiccate plants and weaken them. The winds have been so strong that some days I have had to fill my fountain twice as the water blows right out of it.
With all my whining though, it is so wonderful to see things appearing above the soil as the soil temperature rises and the days grow longer. Get out there and play in the dirt.
Dealing With the Ups and Downs of Our Weather
It is not easy to do spring gardening when it is 82 one day and 25 the very next night. Such has been our fate this winter and spring. If you have, like me, had quite few things “nipped” by the recent freeze, fear not, Just cut off the dead stuff and the plant will re- sprout. Even some of my toughest plants were affected by this topsy turvy weather. If we were confused by going from shorts and t shirts to a sweater or jacket, think of how our shrubs and perennials felt!
Cold weather doe not seem to affect bulbs though and mine made it through just fine and I had some interesting species tulips that bloomed quite early. Species tulips are as close to the original bulb found in Turkey as it can be. They are tougher than the hybridized tulips from Holland. They are smaller and more delicate looking, but unlike the hybrids, they will come back next year.
You probably will have noticed that the cost of plants has gone up this year due to fuel and transportation costs. One nice way around this is to plant seeds. Wait until the night temperatures are consistently above 50 for best germination. The Orlaya grandiflora that I planted last Fall are up and blooming as well as my Sweet Peas (Latyrus odorata). They like the cold temps and fall planting is best. I experimented with Borage this year and planted it last fall with great results. Borage is sometimes considered an herb with leaves that taste like cucumber. The Brits use it in Pimm’s Cup, a summer cocktail. I love the flowers and so do the bees.
My Passionflower vine wintered over along with Gulf Fritillary caterpillars and I already have butterflies as well as many chrysalis.
When it warms up, I am planting Ageratum. I was not enamored with that annual because it was so over used in the last century. It was the standard bedding plant and you saw it along with annual red Salvia at the entrance to every mall and shopping center. The new improved Ageratum is much taller and really has lovely fuzzy blue flowers. There is a native Ageratum here that I rescued from death on the golf course and it is equally beautiful and reseeds very well.
And of course, I am planting Tithonia or Mexican sunflower. If you have room to only plant one thing for pollinators, make it this plant. It grows quite tall and might flop over, but you will have butterflies practically fighting over it. It also makes a very nice cut flower.
Don’t forget Zinnias. I know that they are considered common, but you can get many sizes and colors now. They really add a ping to your garden and again, they are a great pollinator plant.
I am trying something for fun and will let you know if it works out – Money Plant (Lunaria annua) I remember this plant from my childhood. It is a biennial so it will not bloom this year, but next year I should have those coin shaped silver seed heads and hopefully it will reseed for years to come.
So, keep a weather eye on the temperatures and try a packet of seeds. For a small amount of money, you can fill your garden with flowers and many will reseed every year.
Shrubs are really not my thing, but they do need to be talked about. They are the structural element in any landscaping and most Property Owner’s Associations require them around the foundation of our houses, to hide utilities, and/or act as buffers between properties. And therein, lies the issue.
I blame POA’s or HOA’s for a number of problems. In their quest to make certain that very exacting regulations are met, they encourage landscapers to plant things that are a certain height and often totally inappropriate. Landscapers, for their part, want to keep POA’s happy and also to keep their costs low. This often results in a shrub or tree being wedged up to the foundation of the house that looks good now, but can grow to 30 feet tall – not an ideal foundation planting.
A favorite shrub to use is Viburnum odoratissimum or Sweet Viburnum. This shrub grows extremely quickly and has lush green leaves and white flowers. I do not find it “sweet” since it has a sharp odor. I call it “stinky” Viburnum. For the first year or two, this shrub nicely covers the foundation of a house, and then it takes off. I had them along one side of my house and I was pruning them every few weeks. They also are susceptible to white fly if they are wedged together with inadequate ventilation. White fly leads to sooty mold fungus as the honey dew secreted by the fly larvae encourages black mold. Yuck and double yuck. If you remember, I finally gave up and had them all dug up. They never should have ben planted that close to the house and in an area that was deep shade. On the other hand, Sweet Viburnum does make a great screen or buffer between properties if you wish privacy due to their fast growth rate and thick foliage.
Many landscapers love Ligustrums of all types. Ligustrum japonicum (Japanese privet) is very popular as it grows two feet per year. Although it can reach 12 feet tall, it can be pruned to any height. There is a variegated variety as well as a smaller variety called “Sunshine” Ligustrum with bright yellow leaves.
Warning- Japanese Ligustrum is on the invasive watch list for some parts of South Carolina, but not the Lowcountry - yet.
There are so many attractive evergreen shubs that can be used in our area, why use the same two over and over again? What can you use next to your foundation instead of the towering landscaper and POA friendly shrubs? In shade, there are many types of Azaleas that do not grow out of control. Florida anise (Illicium floridanum) likes full shade and moist soil so they would do well in an area where water drains off the roof. They can grow to 10 feet, but are slow growing and easy to keep trimmed.
In sunny areas, there is my favorite – Dwarf Bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus). They are slow growing and stay tidy with little maintenance. The red brush like flowers are pollinator magnets and they are not prone to disease. They will get about three-four feet tall and five feet wide – plant them about three feet from your foundation. In fact, make certain that there is air flow between any of your foundation shrubs and the house. This will prevent all sorts of issues in the future.
Now about Azaleas! They are getting ready to bloom soon. The worst thing you or your landscaper can do is to prune them right now. I saw a lovely Azalea hedge that had been totally scalped by a power hedge trimmer. All of the blossom buds were cut off – no flowers this year. Hand prune Azaleas after they are done blooming, but no later than July 4th. Azaleas are acid loving shrubs so they like a taste of Hollytone or Miracid in the spring and fall.
Although fall is the best time to plant shrubs, you can do it in the early spring before our heat sets in. How do you plant shrubs? Pay attention. This will be very different from what you may have been taught. With both shrubs and perennials, it is important to take them out of the nursery container or, God forbid, burlap covering. Wash all of the soil from the roots. Nursery soil is usually some sort of growing medium and not the natural soil that your plant will ultimately be growing in. Look for circling roots. If they are severely circled, it means that the plant was very pot bound. Untangle and untwine those roots and soak them in a large bucket of water. If you need to trim off some circling roots, that will be okay as long as you leave some good rootstock left.
Dig a hole twice as wide, but only as deep as the roots. The plant should sit with the root flare from the trunk at the very surface of the soil. You do not need to add any supplementary soil other than your own native soil. You want that plant to get used to what it is going to be growing in and not just some yummy stuff. That will cause those roots to curl around inside the hole and not spread outward. The hole that you dig might look like a big bowl and that is just fine. When placing the plant in the hole, make certain that the roots are fanned out like spokes on a wheel. Fill in with your native soil and tamp gently. Do not stomp around the trunk. You will push the oxygen out of the soil. Water thoroughly until the water puddles on top. You may see little bubbles and that is great since it means that there is oxygen in the soil. Keep watering every couple of days for two weeks and then twice a week until the plant gets established.
I will be back with more on our quintessential Southern shrubs – Azaleas, Gardenias, and Camellias. None of them are native to our hemisphere, but they have become iconic symbols of spring in the South.
Since I have a broken foot, I will be writing even more about gardening since I cannot be in my own garden until I get screwed back together again. Then I will be hobbling around in a boot checking up on my little darlings as they sprout and bloom. My tulips just opened this morning!
I prune my Myrtles back the end of February. I cut the tall thin branches making certain to remove any dead, damaged, or diseased material first. I use bypass pruners for a sharp clean cut (my favorite brand is Felco, made in Switzerland). I do not cut the branches back every year at the same place. When landscapers and homeowners hack their trees back every single year at the same location, the tree produces an unsightly knot. The issue is that many yards have the wrong kind of Crepe Myrtle planted. Some varieties grow as tall as 30 feet tall. Not good if they are planted right next to your house. Rather than “murder” the tree every year, make certain that you plant a smaller variety and there are many dwarf varieties coming out each year.
It is truly the old adage of making sure you have the right plant in the right place. Down here landscapers are notorious for planting shrubs that are too large for a foundation planting right next to the house. By the way, my Viburnum odoratissimum are gone! I am looking at Florida anise as a replacement
(Illicium floridatum). They like shade and grow slowly at to a correct height depending upon the variety. Hopefully no more whitefly.
It does amaze me to see how people prune shrubs. As mentioned before, power tools are not the way to go. Mow and Blow landscapers just chop and slash away with no regard for when the plant can and should be pruned. I visited a yard last week where there was a large flat topped hedge – it was really scalped. On closer examination, they were Azaleas. They will not bloom this year because the landscaper sheared off all of the buds for this spring. You should prune most flowering shrub after they bloom and no later than July 4th. You do not wish to cut off next year’s flower buds.
You should also prune down here from the inside out, opening up the shrub to air. If you look closely at a massacred shrub, you will see quite a bit of dead material inside the mound of the shrub. If you let that go, you will soon have a shrub with green on the outside and brown on the inside. Ugh. Opening the shrub up also helps to prevent disease. With pruning, always cut out the dead branches first as well as any that are crossing and rubbing against each other. Look for cracked and open branches and discard those as well.
Pruning correctly can help make a beautiful healthy floral display on flowering shrubs and healthy renewed foliage on shrubs not known for their flowers such as Podocarpus, Boxwood, and Ligustrum.
Weirdly Warm Winter Weather
Happy New Year and welcome to a new gardening year. I just spent two weeks in North Carolina spending time with a very active four year old while her baby brother was on his way. Between hide and go seek and chase, we found time to forage for an arrangement. You can find cool stuff at any time of the year in the South – seed pods, foliage, berries, and an occasional flower such as this Camellia blossom.
Arriving home the day after Christmas and after spending an entire day and night sleeping, I headed for the garden. Due to the exceptional warm weather over the holidays, I still have summer flowers blooming like this Ageratum. I grew this from seed and hopefully it will reseed and spread again next summer. Just in case, I put in my seed order for the spring with Johnny’s Seeds in Winslow, Maine. I have used many companies and find that they have the best germination rate.
The most surprising thing I found in my garden was this Cestrum elegans or Red Cestrum shrub. It is a mass of tubular shaped blossoms. It seems to bloom from autumn through until the heat of summer. Cestrums have only a few arching branches so it is a tidy shrub and does not out grow its space. I highly recommend it so do an online search for it. I have not seen it at any local Lowcountry nurseries. Yet.
It is not too late to plant spring bulbs. I just planted mine. They have been in the garage fridge since October. I always order species bulbs – that is tulips and daffodils (narcissus) as close to the original form as possible. They seem to take our heat better than most hybrids.
January and February are great months to do some hardscaping if you choose. Shrubs can still be moved around and it is always good to do it before the heat of late spring or summer. Seed and plant catalogs arrive in the mail and I often sit and plan what I will do this spring with a catalog on my lap. Now is a good time for some “creative staring” at your garden and yard to plan for the new growing season.
Down here, spring will be here before we know it.