Friday, August 13, 2021 5 comments

Squirrels gone wild once again


My hapless toad

Back in 2016, I wrote a posting about some strange behavior our squirrels exhibited after I placed a feather in one of my pots on the deck.

I was recently reminded of this episode. A small stone toad resides year ‘round in my little veggie planter. The other day I placed the toad on the deck while I was refreshing some of the herbs.

Not long after, a squirrel cautiously approached the toad. It started fussing and lunging at it. Finally, it bit the stone toad on the nose, then ran off. I have no clue as to why the squirrel was so upset. (Fortunately, the toad was not harmed in the attack.)

So, in case you missed the original posting, here it is again. Let me know if you have any thoughts as to what squirrels have against amphibians (or feathers).

 Squirrels gone Wild (September 2016)

A spill in our creek led to strange events in our garden


On June 30, a water utility company that owns storage tanks up the stream from us had an accident.  One of the tanks overflowed sending 220,000 gallons of water and silt down Hogback Creek. 

Our neighbor who lives above us came to our door in tears. After years of making sure the creeks and streams on his property were as pristine as possible, his work was washed away. I will write more about this tragedy in my next posting.

Feeling sad and helpless, we offered to walk up there to take photographs to send environmental authorities. While documenting the devastation, I found something that unleashed several weeks of chaos in my own back yard.

The innocent feather briefly guarded my tomato plants

It seemed innocent enough – the wing feather of a wild turkey. I decided to place it in my little veggie planter on the back deck in hopes it would discourage squirrels from digging up my tomatoes and herbs so they could hide nuts.

The squirrels had other ideas.

Not long after I added the feather to the planter, I noticed it was missing.  Later, we saw it on the ground 20 feet below the deck. Perhaps it blew out of the planter, we reasoned.

The next time it was lying on rocks that slope down to the creek. I had to get a long rake to retrieve it.

The third time, the perpetrator not only threw the feather off the deck, the little devil also ate the left hand side of it.

Donna spied the feather and flew into a fury

Determined to beat the squirrels at their own game, I used a two-foot strand of covered wire to tie it to the railing. On numerous occasions I found it hanging from the wire over the edge of the deck floor. Each time more of the feather was missing.

Now a word about our squirrels. We don’t mind them visiting as long as they don’t get on the feeders. They quite often come to the back door and beg, or stand on the table to attract our attention.  They are well behaved, and we reward them with a few unsalted nuts.

Donna, one of our regulars, is about as mild mannered as a squirrel can be. Yet one afternoon Chris saw her attack the feather with such ferocity, he had to chase her off. She lunged at it, bit it and tried to rip it free from the wire.

Today, this is all that is left of that poor feather. We have no idea what the squirrels had against it.

But I definitely won’t be dressing as a turkey for Halloween.






Wednesday, July 14, 2021 4 comments

Are the new coneflowers just pretty faces?

 When you specialize in one particular plant, it’s easy to fall into a gardening rut.

Several years ago when we were living in Maryland, I focused on roses and companion plants that looked good with roses. I wasn’t very interested in experimenting with anything new.


Now that I’m creating a new garden in the mountains of North Carolina, I see I’ve been missing out on some really interesting perennials. I inherited a few daylilies and am just beginning to appreciate their beauty and usefulness.

I was also intrigued when a coneflower popped up in an area where I’d sown wildflower seeds one summer. It was just an old fashioned Echinacea purpurea but it looked quite elegant amid a group of oxeye daisies.

I wondered why I hadn’t noticed this appealing flower before.

The humble Echinacea  has some fancy new cousins

Hardy, attractive, and easy to grow, these popular American wildflowers have long been a staple of the perennial border both here and in Europe. Nine species are native to North America and grow mainly in the central and southeastern U.S.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, a number of enterprising plant breeders began making crosses between several varieties of native coneflowers in an attempt to make a good thing even better.

The result has been a dizzying array of new hybrids in a rainbow of delicious colors, along with a wide choice of flower forms including double blooms.  

'Milk Shake'

Keeping up with all these new and unusual coneflowers is about as difficult as figuring out which of a multitude of rose introductions to try. The number of choices and names boggles the mind. It can also be confusing since so many of the new introductions look alike.


Should I get a ‘Milkshake’ and ‘Tomato Soup’? Or a ‘Marmalade’ and 'Merlot'?

And once I decide on which of the new beauties to try, should I assume it will be as easy-care as the old standby?

The coneflower controversy

The traditional purple coneflower has been a Top 10 perennial for decades. It self-seeds so even when the original plant is just a memory, true seedlings will have taken its place.

Unfortunately, many of the new introductions don’t perform as dependably in the garden.

'Raspberry Truffle'

Many seem to disappear after a year or so, and others never bloom. Some fade quickly in the heat. Some turn black with too much rain. A number of varieties don’t set seed, and others produce strange seedlings.

It’s a disappointing result after a great deal of hype and high expectations.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the success rate for certain new coneflowers may depend on the region where they are grown and the growing conditions.

When I first started writing about the new cultivars, I mentioned a three year study conducted by the nonprofit Mount Cuba Center in northern Delaware. As a result of the study that concluded in 2009, ‘Pica Bella’, ‘Fatal Attraction’ and ‘Fragrant Angel’ were named top performers.

Mount Cuba has just completed a second three-year study. The first trial included 48 cultivars and the second evaluated 75 entries for general vigor, abundance of bloom, length of bloom and growth habit.

An interesting aspect of the second trial is they also kept records on which pollinators were likely to visit coneflowers.

And the winner? Once again, ‘Pica Bella’ led the way and was also named a preferred pollinator plant. Other top performers included ‘Pink Sensation’, ‘Snow Cone’ ‘Fragrant Angel’, Kismet ‘Intense Orange’, Kismet ‘Raspberry’, and ‘Balsomcor’ Sombrero. The study can be seen its entirety at

The big winner 'Pica Bella'

Interesting, the trial discovered that bees and wasps made up the majority of pollinator visitors, with butterflies comprising only 5% of activity.

The trial also took a look at double-flowered coneflower varieties and concluded that they may look sensational at the garden center, but when it came to aiding pollinators, they were of little or no help.

Another interesting five year study is wrapping up at the RHS Garden Wisley, and I will pass on the results when available. A couple of things are already known: Echinaceas do not like heavy mulches, heavy soils or too much water. And double varieties may look impressive in sunny, dry weather but tend to collapse in the rain.

Kismet 'Intense Orange'

I’ve tried a few coneflowers in my North Carolina mountain garden (My 'White Swan' didn't make it) but have not yet found one that seems happy in my "rain forest". But there are so many eye catching varieties out there, I will be tempted to keep trying and perhaps just treat them as annuals.


'White Swan'

The fact that there are so many unique and enticing plants out there is exciting news for gardeners.

But before we all go coneflower crazy, we need to separate the dazzlers from the duds.


Sunday, June 20, 2021 1 comments

Not your Granny's hydrangeas

'Glowing Embers only blooms once but is still a favorite after 50 years

 Colorful, low maintenance and long-flowering, hydrangeas have all the qualities you could ask for in a garden plant.
They aren’t fussy as long as you provide sun and moisture as your zone dictates. They aren’t plagued by pests or diseases for the most part. They’re attractive at virtually every stage, even aging gracefully. And they display extravagant clusters of delicate papery flowers that light up the landscape between June and October. 
Small wonder these versatile shrubs have long been stalwarts of the midsummer garden.


An old favorite is transformed

The hydrangea family is a relatively small one with around one hundred species in existence. The name is derived from Greek and means "water vessel". For most people, the French hydrangeas with their bright blue and pink flowers (determined by the pH of the soil) have been the most familiar. 

Then in 2003, a Midwest plant breeder introduced a new repeat-blooming variety and the hydrangea world was forever transformed.

The bigleaf hydrangea ‘Endless Summer’ not only produced billowy blossoms from early summer through fall, it was also exceptionally hardy blooming reliably from zone 9 to 4.

On the heels of ‘Endless Summer’ came more tantalizing hydrangea varieties including the Forever & Ever series, ‘Invincibelle Spirit’ and ‘Incrediball'. 

'Annabelle' was a parent to 'Incrediball' and 'Invincible Spirit'

Forever & Ever hydrangeas bloom on new wood so if they die back to the ground, they will return to bloom again the next year.

‘Invincibelle Spirit’ is the first arborescens variety to produce pink flowers. It was developed by Dr. Tom Ranney who works at the Mountain Horticultural Center at North Carolina State University, and a then-graduate student, Richard Olsen.

"Twist-n-Shout' lacecap hydrangea

While hiking through the Blue Ridge one day, Mr. Olsen spied a pink lacecap hydrangea that became an important part of their hydrangea breeding program. The eventual result was a spectacular rebloomer that produces 8-inch bright pink flowers for four months or longer.

 Starting over with fresh faces 
We didn’t know it at first but while we were living in Maryland, boaters going up and down our creek dubbed our place “the hydrangea house.” It’s funny because I thought of it as a rose cottage, but from the water, the saw a  solid hedge of blue blooms across the back of our white Cape Cod from June through August.

'Nikko Blues' were showoffs in our Maryland garden

 I can’t take much credit for the display because we inherited most of the bushes. They weren’t anything special – mostly the old fashioned ‘Nikko Blue’ (which my granny could possibly have grown). But despite bitter winter winds and summer droughts, they were always spectacular.

When we moved to the mountains in 2011, we brought some of the Nikko cuttings with us and also added the original ‘Endless Summer.’

The first year I wondered if we’d made a mistake with the new plant. The Nikko cuttings took off like crazy but every afternoon I could hear the blooms of 'Endless Summer' hitting the ground as they wilted in the afternoon sun.


Our Maryland cuttings made themselves at home in the mountains

The Endless Summer wasn’t a reliable bloomer for me and never seemed happy, so I am replacing it this year with a new variety called ‘Summer Crush’. The beautiful raspberry red blooms will make a great combo with my ‘Raspberry Dazzle’ dwarf crape myrtle.

'Summer Crush' courtesy Nature Hills


I had a space available near the front porch a few years back and decided to add a ‘Limelight’. The panicle hydrangea is described as having “football-shaped flowers in an elegant celadon green that look fresh and clean in the summer heat.” Maybe I got a dud because my blooms stay kind of an icky white and don’t last long. Plus the bush is huge and really should be taken out.

My 'Limelight' never looked this good


There is a new ‘Limelight Prime’ that is more compact, blooms longer and its stems don’t flop. That would be a better choice should I get two or three strong guys to dig out the old one!

I now regret not getting a ‘Vanilla Strawberry’ instead of ‘Limelight’. I admire the colors in the garden centers every fall. It is a relative of the classic PeeGee hydrangea and grows to 7 feet in height with a spread of 4-5 feet. (On second thought, it is probably too big for my space as well.)


Yummy 'Vanilla Strawberry'
However, it is said to deliver a summer-long parade of flower heads that change from white to pink to strawberry red, sometimes with all three shades showing off on the plant at once.

It sounds like a refreshing summer sorbet.

My grandmother would've thought it was delicious.


Saturday, April 24, 2021 4 comments

Catmints are almost purrfect perennials

Nepeta 'Six Hills Giant' lines a path to a summerhouse in England

The word perennial comes from Latin and means “throughout the year.” It is also defined as enduring. Varied and versatile, perennials have been part of the landscape for centuries. However, it was legendary British gardener Gertrude Jekyll who is credited with popularizing the perennial or herbaceous border. Her concept was to create groups of plantings that would provide color and interest from season to season, then return the following year to delight once again. She had many perennial pets but singled out catmints as “a plant that can hardly be overpraised.”

Nepeta 'Walker's Low' can reach 30' tall and wide

Of course Jekyll could not have imagined the variety and colors of today’s hybrids when she was gardening in the 1880’s, but she knew a good thing when she saw it. Catmints (nepetas) generally aren’t bothered by pests or disease.  They are deer resistant and hardy in both cold and dry climates. They don’t need fertilizing. And depending on the variety, a vigorous pruning after the first flush of bloom will result in more spikes of eye-arresting color as summer unfolds.

Roses, catmints, lamium and my stone bunny.


Even without all those attributes, catmints would be a valuable addition to almost any garden. Few plants are more versatile or dependable. And few plants are more suitable for inexperienced gardeners because they are reliable hard workers wherever needed. They make charming bedfellows with roses. The frilly grey-green foliage helps hide unattractive canes without detracting from the rose blooms. And they blend well with other perennials from yarrows to ornamental grasses.

'Darcy Bussell' , daylilies and catmint

Catmints are equally happy in a rock garden, tumbling over a wall or softening a formal border. And they can turn a ho-hum walkway into a stunning focal point.


These cultivated catmints should not be confused with their relative catnip (nepeta cataria.) Catnip can be aggressive and unruly. And because kitty can’t resist its essential oil nepetalactone, you could be attracting unwanted visitors – and droppings—to your garden. Some older catmints also appeal to felines, but they generally turn their noses up at most of the newer varieties. 

Pollinators think catmints are bee-youtiful

Nepetas are part of the mint family along with other prized perennials including lambs ears, bee balm and the aromatic herbs lavender, rosemary and thyme. Approximately 250 species of catmints are believed to have originated in regions of Europe and Asia but only a few dozen are available in commerce today. The pedigree of the modern cultivated catmints is somewhat of a mystery, but their usefulness in the garden cannot be disputed.

'Fitzhugh's Diamond' mini rose and 'Walker's Low'

Nepeta 'Walker's Low' (named after a garden in Ireland) is one of the best known catmints along with 'Six Hills Giant', but there are many other dependable varieties to choose from.  

Nepeta racemosa 'Little Titch' is a dwarf plant forming an attractive mound of green foliage with blue flowers. It grows just 8-10 inches tall and because of its compact size is is ideal for a rock garden. 'Purrsian Blue' is tidy, vigorous and fragrant. It is also deer- and rabbit-resistant, but hummingbirds and honeybees love it.

'Purrsian Blue' courtesy Walters Gardens

Last fall I added two pink catmints to the mix. 'Pink Cat' attracts butterflies and is a good choice for containers or the front of the perennial border. 'Whispurr Pink' is supposedly a pollinator magnet and sports minty-scented foliage and plumes of pink flowers. Since they are new additions, I don't know how they will perform, but will report on them at the end of the season.

Nepeta 'Pink Cat', courtesy Riverbend Nursery

Although catmints are touted as well behaved and virtually care free, they need porous soil or they won't thrive if their feet stay wet. If your garden consists of heavy clay, you’ll need to add organic material to help with drainage. Otherwise sitting in water, whether in summer or winter, could be a death sentence for your plants.

Aside from that, catmints are pretty much purrfect. In other words, the cat's meow. 


Sunday, March 28, 2021 2 comments

How to be a bird nest buttinski


A couple of years ago I wrote a Dirt Diaries posting about how creating a garden journal can make you a better gardener. If you haven’t read it before, it’s worth clicking on the link to take a look.


In the posting, I mentioned how a journal or even a simple calendar can be helpful in figuring out when you need to take action in the garden. For example, since we moved to the mountains full time in 2011, I have been keeping notes on when the first hummingbirds visit Hunt manor. (If you haven’t written down hummer arrival dates, you can also check this migration map.)

Last year and in 2018, hummingbirds made an appearance on April 14th. But in 2015, we spotted the bright little jewels on April 7th. Now I know that is the date I need to get the feeder ready to go and hang out my “hummingbird helper.”

I purchased this nesting aid a couple of years ago because I thought it would be interesting to see the birds pluck out the “quick-drying & pre-cut natural cotton nesting fibers” for their nests. The hummers didn’t show much interest, but the chickadees, wrens and tufted titmice did.

Tufted titmouse

 I thought I’d add a few other goodies like my hair, threads and pieces of yarn to be even more helpful. Turns out I was doing all the wrong things. 

According to the March issue of Birds and Blooms Extra, hair, yarn and string are nesting materials to avoid. Strands could be deadly if they get caught on or wrap around birds. Dryer lint is another no-no. Birds will use it in nests, but it dissolves in the rain.

 So what should I offer if I want to help my friends feather their nests?? This year I will tuck in some pine needles, plant fluff from cattails and bits of moss. The article mentions straw, twigs and dead leaves as other possibilities. If the birds fancy those, they can pick them up themselves. Oh and hummers like to use spider silk. Can't help them there either!

 I’ve just read that my gardening friend and fellow blogger Janet the Queen of Seaford has spotted two male hummingbirds today. She lives about two hours south of me in South Carolina.


With hummers that close, I should start getting everything prepared for the 2021 season. Then I’ll be ready, willing and able to lend a hand.

Whether the birds want it or not.



Saturday, February 13, 2021 8 comments

The greatest roses you never heard of


Not knocking 'Knock Out' but...

Ask most people to name an “easy care” rose and the most likely answer you’ll hear is ‘Knock Out’.

Introduced to the gardening world in 2000, this humble shrub is highly touted for its disease resistance, hardiness and drought tolerance. I‘ve nicknamed it the Lazy Gardener’s Rose because it even tidies itself up, eliminating the need for extensive pruning.

'Double Red Knock Out'

Fact is, when you visit a big box garden center or nursery these days, 'Knock Out' and the members of its extended family are about the only varieties of roses you’ll find. And although these shrubs definitely have their place in the landscape, it is a shame other varieties are overlooked. Especially one largely unknown and underused class of antique roses that can give modern shrubs a run for their money.

These unheralded superstars are Polyanthas.  They made their debut in France in late 1800’s, originally the result of crosses between China roses and sprawling Multifloras.  This new class of rose was disease resistant, hardy and everblooming. And because they tended to be compact growers, polyanthas were ideal for mass plantings, containers and low borders. 

'Cl. Cecile Brunner

As a rule these roses are only available through mail order. Two exceptions are ‘The Fairy’ and ‘Cecile Brunner’, (also known as the Sweetheart Rose). You may just stumble upon these in your area. But there are dozens of other varieties in a palette of colors ranging from white to cherry red to purple just waiting to be discovered by gardeners. 

 Cydney Wade, owner of RosePetals Nursery in Newberry, Florida, declares polyanthas to be the “rosarians’s secret” because of their versatility, bloom power and history. “It may be a small class, but it includes some highly rated varieties that have survived over 100 years.” 

She recommends ‘Pink Pet’ and ‘Marie Pavie’ for containers.


"Marie Pavie' courtesy David Austin Roses

Consulting Rosarian and American Rose Society judge Bill Blevins is also a polyantha enthusiast. “ They offer ease of growth, quick repeat bloom and the charm of a bygone era.”  He notes ‘Lullaby’ remains a favorite from 1953 with its heavily petaled white to blush pink blooms and dark leathery foliage.
'Lullaby' courtesy Rogue Valley
 But Polyanthas aren’t all antique. Along with ‘La Marne’ (1915) and ‘Marie Pavie ‘(1888) Bill gives high marks to two modern additions to the class: red ‘Wing-Ding’ (2006) and orange-red ‘Zeniatta’ (1991). 

'Wing Ding'

 Even more recently, a gorgeous polyantha called ‘Pookah’ bred by James Delahanty, won The Honorable John Cecil Award for Open Group at the Biltmore International Rose Trials.  I was one of the judges there and would love to add this robust beauty to my garden.

'Pookah' was a head-turning winner at Biltmore

 I grew ‘Zeniatta’ in Maryland and like ‘Pookah’ it was very robust throwing out spray after spray of traffic- stopping blooms.


 'Zeniatta', 'Marie Pavie', 'White Pet, "La Marne' and many others are available via mail order from Roses Unlimited in Laurens, South Carolina. Their plants are vigorous and gorgeous. I highly recommend them.

'Zeniatta' is perfect in beds and containers

I also planted ‘The Fairy’ in the small garden we started at our cottage on the Eastern Shore. When we decided to tear the house down and rebuild, we planned to dig up the roses and keep them in pots during construction.


Unfortunately, the backhoe showed up a day earlier than expected and my plants, including ‘The Fairy’ were buried under a mountain of broken concrete blocks. I was devastated, because my late mother-in-law had given me the rose as a housewarming gift. I vowed to replace it one day.


Six months later while clearing construction trash to start my new patch, I noticed something green emerging from the debris. When I looked closer I spied the unmistakable 7-leaf leaflet of ‘The Fairy’. She’d survived, and within a short time was once again waving her cheery pink blossoms at me from the front garden.


'Lovely Fairy' is a sport of the legendary original

So next time you think about buying a rose, choose one that combines a rich history with dependable performance and spunk.

Pass up the ‘Knock Out’ and pick a polyantha.