Thursday, November 8, 2018 4 comments

How to NOT to kill a holiday topiary

Topiaries are charming, but keeping them alive can be problematic


When we think about “decking the halls” for the holiday season, most of us envision traditional greenery such as boughs of holly, evergreen wreaths and fragrant firs or pine. But in recent years herbal ornamentals and topiaries have become bright new stars in the holiday decorating line-up.  


Fragrant rosemary is attractive and edible

Now that the holidays are around the corner, you’ll be seeing them everywhere from the grocery stores to upscale catalogs.  And it’s difficult to resist fragrant rosemary shaped like a mini Christmas tree or an ivy wreath. The problem is, not many of us can keep these appealing plants alive long enough to ring in the New Year.

Many topiaries die of thirst


According to experts, topiaries and other ornamentals are quite often doomed from the moment they arrive in the mail or come home from the store. Problem is, they can dry out and begin dying before you even know there is a problem.



When you receive your topiary, examine the first inch of soil to see if it is wet or dry. Better yet, pop the plant out of its pot and give the roots a close look.  If they appear parched, water the plant thoroughly, then check daily to see if the surface of the soil is dry. Most of these ornamentals need a drink at least every three days.



Ivy topiaries and other plants growing on frames stuffed with sphagnum moss also need to be watered regularly. In fact, if they are allowed to dry out to the point of wilting, the plants probably won’t bounce back. (Word to the wise: I just let a little lavender tree dry out too much and it expired.)
Keep an eye out for pests with ivies
Immerse a new, stuffed topiary in a tub or large bucket of water and hold it there until the water stops bubbling. Then move it to a waterproof spot until it stops dripping. Finally, place it on a piece of clear plastic where you want it to grow.

Topiaries growing on stuffed frames should be misted every day. And add a touch of diluted fertilizer to provide the nutrients mosses lack.

It’s also a good idea to spray or mist regular topiaries weekly to spritz away dust, deter pests, and add extra humidity to a dry, indoor environment. Or give them a quick bath in the sink or tub.
Pay particular attention to the undersides of leaves, where spider mites gather to begin their dirty work. (Ivy is particularly susceptible to mites. Spray with an insecticidal soap to deter them.)


Location, location, location

You’ll also need to provide plants with the proper amount of light. Most topiaries, such as ivy, like fairly bright light, cool conditions, and good air circulation. East-, west-, and south-facing windows are all fine unless the sun is so strong it singes tender leaf tips.

Rosemary and lavenders crave bright light and will go downhill rapidly if stuck in a dark corner. Rosemary “trees” appreciate full sun, so make sure you have a suitable location before attempting to grow them. The foliage is very dense and without proper light, the tree will begin to rot. If interior needles start turning gray or black, immediately trim the bad bits out and turn the damaged area towards the sun.


Quick action just might save your rosemary from the trash pile. Standards and trees should be moved one-quarter turn weekly to keep the shapes symmetrical. Feed every few weeks during the winter months with a diluted liquid fertilizer. And be sure to give regular haircuts when plants get scraggly, especially before stems get too woody to prune effectively.

Angel vine (Muehlenbeckia)

At this point it may sound as if topiaries are too fussy to fool with. If so, here’s a less- tricky alternative: scented geraniums. They're great for beginners because they're easy to grow and don't have strict watering requirements like most standards. Best of all, they can provide plenty of "flower power."

Recommended varieties include Ginger, Lemon and Crispum. Be sure to start with a plant that has a strong central stalk.
 
While scented geraniums might be a good choice for the faint of heart, don't completely rule out rosemary, lavender, quick growing angel vine or ivies. 

If you can provide the necessary indoor conditions, you should succeed. And mastering the care of these charming plants can be one of the nicest holiday presents you ever give yourself.


Ivy topiaries can take many shapes. Courtesy TopiaryTree





Monday, September 24, 2018 4 comments

Summer circles the drain



We had an above par summer start with a trip to the Masters
For a variety of reasons I call the past few months the “summer from hell”. We had a parade of trials and tribulations, but I dare not complain too much because folks about 6 hours to the east of us are still under water thanks to a cantankerous gal named Florence.

This shrub went from vigorous to dead in two months
Having said that, I do want to mention that by mid-August, we’d had over 100 inches of rain here in the mountains. No wonder so many of my plants (including roses) rotted. The few healthy blooms were snarfed down by a groundhog. (The brat  even came up on the porch and ate the blooms off plants I had yet to put in the ground.) At one point I was tempted to throw in the trowel. That has never happened before in all my gardening years. 


 So dear reader, here are a few examples of the good, the bad and the ugly.


'Earth Angel' was heavenly








'Vanessa Bell' was another winner


Clearweeds came out of nowhere and infested the garden
We had more bears this summer than ever...


...and fewer butterflies. But Woodrow the groundhog was everywhere.



Thankfully I am an optimist by nature and am already am making a list of cool new plants to add next spring.

As a bonus, I have the Biltmore International Rose Trials to look forward to beginning Friday. As a member of the permanent judging panel, I have been evaluating the roses in the competition for over two years. I can’t wait to see my special rose friends from across the country and unveil the winners for 2018.

It promises to be the beginning of a fabulous fall.


















Friday, June 29, 2018 6 comments

New challenges and old friends in the garden


A year ago I was at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show admiring acres of gardens and gorgeous blooms. The roses in the marquee were so stunning, they almost brought tears to my eyes.

A glance at my garden today almost brings tears to my eyes. But not because I am gobsmacked by the beauty before me. Fact is, this may be my worst gardening year ever.


First blooms of 'Vanessa Bell'


When we returned from England in mid-July last year, the garden was in a pretty sad state. Fair enough. You cannot leave a garden for three weeks in the summer and expect it to look like something out of a magazine when you get home.



I don’t have that excuse in 2018. We’ve been here the entire spring and early summer. But we haven’t been able to overcome the annoying weather we’ve experienced since March. 

Another new addition, 'James L. Austin'

Clematis 'Josephine' has been one of the few bright spots
First, we had many late freezes with temps going down to single digits several days in a row. Then we’ve had downpours virtually every day for weeks. Some of my new plants are literally rotting in the ground. And my rose leaves look like filigree thanks to sawflies.

Still, I am not ready to call this gardening year a total failure. I am going to cut everything back, fertilize and try to coax everybody into perking up for fall.

'Lyda' is almost always a dependable performer

I know I can rely on old friends like ‘Lyda Rose’ to lead the way with her charming candelabra of summer blooms. I’m hoping new additions like ‘Vanessa Bell’ will continue to impress. I’ll replace some tired perennials with colorful new ones. And I will politely ask the bears not to step on my bushes. 


 
Will it work? In the end it doesn’t matter. Because as you all know, gardening is a journey. 

I may have hit a bit of a rough patch this year. But next year is bound to be smooth sailing! 

Or so the optimist in me hopes.


Some hydrangeas did flower despite the freezes
Monday, April 16, 2018 4 comments

Small wonders revisited

Houstonia serpyllifolia, not Forget-me-nots
Dear friends,
I originally wrote this posting in 2012. Boy have times changed since then. The wildflowers I photographed in March of that year are three weeks late in 2018. And another freeze is expected tonight. Still, it was nice to reminisce about my first spring in the mountains. And whether they appear in March or April, I will always find them charming.

 
In a recent newsletter, the folks at Gardens of the BlueRidge report the very warm winter has caused most of their plants to go into a tizzy. Apparently many species are flowering up to three weeks early and because of the warmth, the bloom period has been very short.

Their Bloodroot and Virginia Bluebells have come and gone. The Trilliums appeared early and were quickly devoured by grateful deer. Aside from the Toad Trillium (which apparently Bambi doesn’t care for), all other varieties for 2012 are gone.

This was all very interesting because I had no clue what to expect or when. This will be my first spring in the mountains so I wasn't sure when most of our native wildflowers bloom. Every day has been a treat because there is always something new popping up.


Halberd-leaf Violet
In an earlier posting I wrote about stumbling across the Halberd-leaf Yellow Violet. Since then I’ve discovered we have bunches of them all over the property – I’ll certainly recognize the distinctive leaves next spring.

I’ve also found two other tiny violets, a white one no wider than ¼ of an inch. The other is a bit bigger with purple markings, but I can’t find it in any of my wildflower books.

Another wonderful discovery was a swath of Forget-me-nots growing down by the stream. This native New Zealand flower of the genus Mycostis sylvatica is regarded as a symbol of remembrance, love, constancy and undying hope.

Upon further review, the jaunty blue flowers aren’t forget-me-nots at all, but Bluets, a member of the Madder family. They are sometimes called “Innocence” or “Quaker ladies” because the flower shape resembles a Quaker lady’s hat. They can grow in open grassy areas, woodlands and along streams.
Didn't know the name in 2012. It is a Confederate Violet

No matter what you call them, these delicate blooms are a welcome addition to my garden.

And with so many new wildflowers making their appearance this time of year, I can’t wait to see what’s out in the woods tomorrow.


Friday, February 16, 2018 11 comments

Birds I have known



The Barred Owl hunts in the daytime and stops by occasionally


I grew up in a suburb of Miami and, as a little girl, was intrigued by the variety of colorful birds that would appear in our yard every winter.
I’m not talking about tropical birds like parrots or cockatoos. They could be seen quite regularly in our area year-round. In fact, knowing someone who owned an “exotic” bird was about as common as a friend with a German shepherd or Siamese cat.
I don’t know the names of the birds that sat in our trees or listened for worms in the grass. But they fascinated me.
 


Later, as an adult, I became a dedicated bird bore. My husband and I bought reference books and made notes each time we spied a new variety and jotted down the date it first crossed our paths.
While living in the D.C. area, we noticed a few bluebirds in the garden so we rushed out and bought a proper nesting box. Before long, Mr. Bluebird was standing on the house singing, inviting prospective partners to come by and see his shiny new digs.
It appears he turned at least one female head, because within days, Mr. and Mrs. were setting up housekeeping (probably with newlywed furnishings from Ikea.) For a few weeks, there was continual activity at the box, with both birds flitting in and out. Then nothing.
It wasn't unusual to see a hawk near the bird houses
My husband finally decided to take a peek. Inside the box, he found four tiny babies, dead and covered with ants. Not wanting to see, I went inside while he buried them and cleaned out the birdhouse.

I called our local Wild Bird store and tearfully described our discovery. “They were probably an immature pair and didn’t know how to be parents,” he explained. “Next time, they’ll do a better job.”
And they did.

 A Bird Bonanza

We next moved to a cottage on a river off the Chesapeake Bay. For bird bores like us, it turned out to be heaven on earth.

For the 15 years we lived there we were treated to an amazing parade of birds: herons, Tundra swans, turkeys, ospreys, egrets, woodpeckers, all manner of ducks, red-tailed hawks, and “regular birds” including catbirds and hummingbirds.
Mrs. Mallard made her nest every year under one of my rosebushes.

We were privileged to witness a continuing nature documentary almost every day.
We had dozens of eagles living nearby on the Eastern Shore

I once photographed seven Bald Eagles fighting over a dead duck stuck in the ice on the river. We watched a Great Horned Owl land in a tree by a birdfeeder my Dad made.  We saw the sky darken as thousands of Canada geese headed back to the wildlife refuge from local cornfields. We listened to the haunting cries of the loons.

Something new was always happening in the garden and on the water.

Now that we’ve moved to the mountains, we realize how very lucky we were to have so much wildlife on our doorstep. Not long ago, we saw a mallard on the golf course, and it was as if we’d caught a glimpse of some extremely rare creature.
 
Of course, we love our local birds including cardinals, juncos, nuthatches, tufted titmice, finches, and hummingbirds. The pileated woodpeckers live here too, but they are shy birds and don’t care to have their picture made.
On occasion an unusual bird stops by and visits for a while.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
We’ve had a Barred owl, Rufous-sided Towhee and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Not long ago I noticed a Scarlet Tanager while I was walking. I had never seen one before.
 That sighting took me back to the time when I was four years old. I was looking out at the yard one day when a beautiful cobalt blue bird landed on a branch of the oleander bush outside my bedroom window.
Oh, how pretty, I said softly to myself. Then the bird began to sing just for me.
And I was hooked.



                                           
                                     Kookaburra I spied in Australia (laughing of course)











 
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