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.



Thursday, January 14, 2021 7 comments

On your marks, get set...order!

Took this photo February 19, 2020. Who knew what was coming?
Last April during the Covid lockdown I was having a hard time finding any decent basil at the grocery store. No problem! I'll order some seeds and grow my own! I might just as well have tried to order the Hope Diamond. Seeds at my favorite vendors like Renee’s Garden Seeds were sold out. Even the off-brand packets at discount stores were long gone. It appears I was about three weeks too late.

Luckily my friend Ann in Pinehurst mailed me a few from her supply, and I was able to grow six plants. I assumed those days were over and that there would be plenty of seeds and plants to meet demand in 2021. It’s possible I was wrong again.

Nothing like fresh, homegrown basil!

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, seed supplies this season are expected to run low. And Rebecca Koraytem, U.S. Sales Executive for David Austin Roses Ltd., suggests 2021 is definitely a year for getting organized early: "Whether you're considering online purchases of soil amendments, tools, vegetable and flowers seeds or bare root roses, be aware that mail-order demand is through the roof.”

 Research conducted by Bonnie Plants found that America's gardening population soared to 63 million last year, as 20 million new people started digging gardening. As a result, says Koraytem, "garden retailers are bracing for a wild ride this spring. Stocks will deplete. With home now the multi-function work / school hub for the family, the garden has become the multi-function oasis for exercise, escape, and food and flowers."

Not to mention peace of mind. When folks ask how I’m doing, I tell them my rose garden and my camera are keeping me sane. 

So, I was excited to learn that this week, David Austin English Roses announced their new introductions for 2021. Both are named after Thomas Hardy characters.

'Eustacia Vye' has been huge success in the UK (courtesy David Austin)
‘Eustacia Vye’ is a lovely light pink with an apricot center. It features delicately ruffled petals and intoxicating fruity fragrance. (I think I am going to love this one because the beautiful ruffled petals have made ‘James Galway’ my favorite English rose.)

My fave, 'James Galway'

‘Gabriel Oak’ bears many petaled rosette blooms in a striking shade of deep pink. I have yet to see this variety in person, but fans in England report the outer petals of each bloom pale slightly over time. It boasts dark green foliage and mulberry purple stems. It is also extremely fragrant. Some think it may be the finest English rose ever!

Gabriel Oak (courtesy David Austin)

But if either one of these roses strikes your fancy, you’d better strike while the iron is hot. I’ve read ‘Eustacia Vye’ was so popular, David Austin ran out of bare root and potted roses in the UK back in the spring of 2019. It is expected to turn many heads here, too.

For the past two years I have been growing another of the David Austin’s varieties named for literary characters. ‘Emily Bronte’ is a vigorous rose with distinctive flowers that start out peachy pink and fade to light pink. Blooms open to reveal apricot petals surrounding a button eye. I highly recommend it.

 'Emily Bronte'

Something else I would highly recommend is the David Austin Rose Food. I have been using it in my garden for two years and I believe it has made a huge difference in the number of blooms and the overall health of the plants.

'Emily' showing off in just her second year

While we’re talking about David Austin and his roses, I must say a word about my old and dear friend Michael Marriott. I first met Michael in 1998 when I was invited to visit the nursery after writing an article about English Roses for Fine Gardening. Mr. Austin, Sr. was kind enough to give me a tour of his entire operation.


Michael at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

Michael was senior rosarian of David Austin Roses for 35 years. I hope many of you have had a chance to meet him and hear his wonderful lectures on roses and designing rose gardens. He has just announced his retirement but will continue with personal design projects and consulting.

So Happy Retirement, my friend. Thank you for your friendship and for all the wonderful English roses you have helped send across the pond over the years.

'St. Swithun'

'Crocus Rose'

'Lady Emma Hamilton'

‘Eustacia Vye’ and ‘Gabriel Oak’ sound like hot new additions. And it looks like they will be going like hotcakes.




Monday, December 7, 2020 3 comments

This year more than ever, Poinsettias brighten holiday homes


When we think about “decking the halls” for the holiday season, most of us envision boughs of holly, evergreen wreaths, and fragrant firs or pine. But in addition to traditional greenery, one plant has become a Christmas icon: the poinsettia. With more than 65 million sold each year, this colorful plant has moved from the desert into three-quarters of American homes to become a holiday superstar.

Today more than ever, with the Covid virus dominating our worries and Christmas travel plans cancelled, poinsettias can add touches of welcome color to any house, apartment or dorm room. Best of all, during these tough times, poinsettias are available to fit any budget. I bought a lovely deep red mini poinsettia at the grocery store for $1.98. It's perfect for the kitchen counter. 

The poinsettia is a Euphorbia, a succulent from the arid regions of Central America. It was named after Joel R. Poinsett, a Charleston, S.C. native who was appointed ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Poinsett was a keen gardener who was captivated by the plant’s vivid color. The bright scarlet objects many thought to be “flowers” were not flowers at all, but petal-like leaves called bracts. The actual flowers are those little yellow dots at the center of the bracts.

Because the yellow flowers and attractive bracts emerge during the holiday season, the poinsettia has been a part of Christian celebrations for hundreds of years. In the 17th century, Franciscan priests in Mexico carried poinsettias in nativity processions. The Aztecs were said to have prized the plant for its color and medicinal properties. 

Red is still the fave.
Although poinsettias were well known in Mexico and Central America, it was a family of German immigrants who spied the plants in the desert and created the Christmas favorite we know today.

In the early 1900s, Albert Ecke and his family left Germany to establish a farm in California.  One day his son Paul noticed an unusual plant growing in the wild and decided to develop it as a cut flower. Before long, the family’s fields of poinsettias in Hollywood became a huge tourist attraction.
Of course, the traditional red poinsettia remains the top holiday choice, but interest in white, cream, pink, and mottled varieties is on the increase. In fact, the popularity of the red poinsettia has been steadily falling over the past decade thanks to the introduction of new and more colorful varieties each year. 
This is just wrong!
Along with eye-grabbing new colors (PLEASE no glitter-laden or phony blue varieties!) we can thank breeders for giving us plants that last longer and are more vigorous.

A new addition in the US for 2020 is Christmas Mouse with its unique oval “mouse ear” bracts. It made its debut in Europe last year to rave reviews. Another is Alaska, the whitest poinsettia to date. Its dark green leaves contrast beautifully with the brilliant white
New for 2020, 'Mouse Ears'

Today’s poinsettias aren’t too fussy and are relatively easy to care for. Above all, don’t overwater -- plants should be kept on the dry side but don’t allow them to get bone dry. Keep them away from drafts and sources of heat like a fireplace.

My pick for this holiday season, but I don't know the name

 Poinsettias like bright light and will drop leaves and get leggy in a location that’s too dark. A window will provide the light and cool nighttime temperatures plants need to thrive.

It’s possible to keep a poinsettia alive and blooming from year to year, but like most people, I toss mine out about mid-February. It seems sad and cruel to throw away something that was so lovely during the holidays. But by next Christmas, another showy poinsettia will catch my eye, and this year’s beautiful blooms will be just a happy memory.

I hope your holiday season will be safe and filled with lovely memories, too. And that 2021 will be a happier year for us all.
White poinsettias like 'Alaska' account for 20% of sales

P.S. We’ve all heard the rumors that poinsettias are poisonous. Apparently this urban legend started in 1919 when it was reported that a 2-year-old had died after eating a leaf. According to the American Society of Florists, poinsettias have been tested more than any other plant, and the verdict is they are safe for people and pets. But you still wouldn’t want to eat one.


Sunday, October 4, 2020 5 comments

Dusting off my winter weather crystal ball

For the past few weeks I’ve been noticing lots of acorns on the road while taking my morning walk. It seemed to me there were more than I remember seeing last year. So, I was wondering if this meant we are in for a bad winter, or if there are just a ton of acorns around.

We’ve only lived full-time in the mountains since 2011, but I have been visiting this breathtaking area of the country since I was in high school. I’ve spent many a happy day sitting by a waterfall listening to tales of catamounts, panthers, owls and wildflowers that possess magical powers.


You can’t help but be fascinated by the stories, superstitions and mountain lore handed down from generation to generation. For example, legend holds that if you see a butterfly first in spring, you will be smart. But if you spy a fence lizard first, you will be lazy.


Extra large spiderwebs signal bad weather
 Of course, much of this lore deals with atmospheric conditions and the behavior of animals. So, after seeing all those acorns around, I decided to revisit some of the signs old timers rely on for predicting the weather.


Here are a few of my favorites:


* If robins are seen near a house during the fall, the winter will be cold.


* If October 9 is a sunny day, the following winter will be cold and snowy.


* If squirrels eat the bark off a tree, look for a cold winter coming up. (Also, if a squirrel has an exceptionally bushy tail, watch out.)


*   When hogs carry sticks in their mouths, bad weather is ahead.


*    If smoke blows to the ground, it will soon snow.


* If you see raccoons and possums feeding during the day, there will be bad weather within 12 hours.


* When the new moon rises with its points turned up, there will be no rain.

Owls hooting late in fall is a bad weather omen

*There will be a winter snow for every morning fog in August.


*If you harvest onions with thin skins, the winter will be mild.


*The brighter the fall foliage, the colder the winter.

We had a snowy winter the year I took this photo


*If the woolly worm has a narrow brown or orange band, winter will be harsh.


The woolly worm stories have been around since Colonial times.

   Thin brown bands supposedly mean bad weather is ahead. Wide brown bands indicate a mild winter is in store. A totally black woolly worm weather tells us weather will be severe. And you’ll need to break out the snow shovels if you see a worm with light brown or white bands.


The legend was bolstered in the late 40s when a Dr. Charles Curran of  the American Museum of Natural History studied woolly worms for eight years and said they predicted the weather with 80% accuracy. Since that time, other researchers have not been able to replicate his results.


    Today, the National Weather Service says the worm’s coloring and band size are based on its age and the length of time it has been feeding. The caterpillars shed their skins a number of times before they become adults and their colors can change. 


  According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, woolly worms or banded wooly bears are not really worms at all. They are caterpillars, the larva of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia Isabella) and can survive temps as low as -90 degrees. Isabella moths are common from northern Mexico to the southern third of Canada.


    Okay, so woolly worms can’t predict if I need to buy a heavier winter coat. What about the acorns?


A recent article from News5Cleveland explains: "Most trees and shrubs form their fruit and flower blossoms that bloom in spring during the previous summer. If the weather was warm and the rains abundant, then the tree was not stressed and formed enough fruit buds to produce this big acorn crop this year.”


I take that to mean the fruit buds that resulted in this year’s bumper crop of acorns may have been formed by the tree in 2019. That makes sense since some varieties of oaks require two growing seasons for acorns to mature and drop.

I also understand that every few years, for no apparent reason, oaks produce an overabundance of acorns  Evidently this has more to do with self-preservation than weather. Scientists have yet to explain exactly why this happens.

So, it looks like there will be no glam winter coat for me!

This final bit of weather lore was a new one on me. Apparently if you cut open a persimmon you’ll either see what looks like a fork, spoon or knife. The explanation of what weather may follow (depending which utensil you spy) is too complex for my teeny brain.


Here is my suggestion for determining whether we’ll have a bummer winter or balmy winter: slice a few persimmons, check out the tails of every squirrel that wanders by, look at all your trees to see if bark is heavier on the north side, and make a note of any halos around the moon.


Then, flip a coin. 


Copyright 2020