Don’t Be Fooled By A Little Rain

Burned rhododendron leaves

Now that we’ve hit the month of October, we’ve actually had a little rain in my part of the country. For those of you that are still in drought, I am sorry.

But by a little rain, I do mean a little–we’re still talking under 2″–and less than we should have had by this point in the month–as of the drafting of this post. Still, I’ll take what I can get.

My shrubs made it through most of the drought with very little supplemental watering–if any–because of my extremely heavy clay soil. But that doesn’t mean they were unscathed as you can see by the burned leaves in the above photo.

Still I am very fortunate. Driving around town, I see whole sections of rhododendrons dead in some places. I’m not sure whether I’m grateful that folks are mindful of drought and are careful with water–or if I think folks are just not paying any attention.

Either way, if these shrubs don’t get a lot more water, there are going to be a lot more dead shrubs at the end of winter.

As a good New England gardener, I have dozens of hydrangeas. Despite my clay soil, they are very thirsty plants. I have had to water these more than anything in the yard including the vegetable garden. And yet, notice the result.

burned hydrangea leaves

These are not even the worst ones–the worst ones have died and fallen off. They are in a sunnier garden nearer the front of the house.

Lessons: keep watering your gardens (to the extent that you can stand to do it) until the ground freezes. It will help your trees and shrubs better survive the winter!

Wordless Wednesday

English Holly

I was startled the other day when I glanced out my door and saw all these berries on my english holly (don’t ask about variety–it was here when I married the house!)

Usually in a drought year, berrying plants do not produce a lot of berries. I wonder what this plant knows that I don’t?

Ground Covers As Living Mulches

On Friday I talked about an extreme tactic that I used over the summer to nurture an area where I was fostering fledgling ferns and some moss. I permitted a weed to remain as a living mulch.

I’m sure a lot of folks just shuddered at the whole idea. But that area is perpetually weedy anyway–and it’s difficult for me to weed on a large scale basis because of the perennials that are there, the moss that I hate to disturb, and the bulbs that come up in the spring. So I definitely tolerate a much higher lever of “weediness” than a lot of other gardeners might.

That’s one of the places I practice “weed triage:” if it’s going to seed, I rip it out immediately. If not, I get to it when I can.

But in many other places in my gardens, I use actual plants–and not weeds–as living mulches, to conserve moisture, shade plant roots, or to otherwise cool an area. Here are some examples.


Everyone talks about how clematis like “cool feet,” right? Well, what better way to achieve that than by a planting? It’s so much more decorative than some broken bits of wood. And if the planting happens to be edible, like these strawberries, so much the better. Since when did anyone say that we couldn’t grow edibles with ornamentals? (Remember, we don’t use chemicals on our lawn. Don’t try this if you’re fertilizing your lawn with chemicals. The runoff–or over-spray from your spreader–would poison your berries!)


Roses are notorious for needing a lot of water. And these are sandwiched between a driveway and the road–a very hot area, but one of the few places I have enough sun to maintain them. So how do I do it? I grow catmint as a border. It achieves several things. First, it seems to act as a natural Japanese beetle repellent. Next, it’s quite lovely with them, and easier to grow than lavender in my heavy wet clay soil. Finally, it serves as a bit of a living mulch on top of the soil.

I do try to keep it away from the rose plants themselves as much as possible to minimize disease. But catmint, being a mint family plant, goes where it wants to and by the end of the summer will often be entwined with one or two of the roses. So I just do a very hard cutting back in the spring.


Finally here is bearberry, growing in my waterfall garden. It softens the edges, gives the small wildlife and birds some edible berries, is evergreen, and rarely needs maintenance. I also grow chameleon plant (houttuynia) in this garden as well. But because this garden is so hot and dry (now there’s a change!) not only does it fare poorly, but some years, like this one, it burns out and dies! The bearberry does fine with no supplemental anything–and it grows right over onto the granite rock!

So for those of you who were shocked by my “weed as living mulch” post, try one of these nice plants instead. You’ll probably be much happier with them!

Fall Strategies As the Northeast Drought Continues

The last time we came this close to a drought was in 2010. Before that, it was 2003. Drought is not totally uncommon to Connecticut, but thankfully, it is short-lived.

Back then, there was talk of water conservation (as I watched my neighbors continue to run their sprinklers in the rain–probably a lot like what went on in California for too long–folks have no idea how dry it is and how desperate it really is)

I went on the local news and talked about drought conservation measures–and even ways to use “graywater” from the shower in watering ornamental, but not edible, plants.

Thankfully, in every dry spell, I learn different things. This year, one of the things I did was to leave a weed as a ground cover in shadier areas.

This can back fire if there is too little moisture because the weed can suck up the moisture and not let it get to your precious plants. However, if you’re watering correctly–infrequently but deeply–or if nature is doing the same thing–then the weed isn’t going to harm anything and it will act as a living mulch. Here’s an example of what I mean.

dogwood bed

This is a bed under and aging dogwood where I have some established perennials. Ferns have self-sowed and moss has crept in. I’m trying to cultivate more ferns and moss. Tough to do in a drought.

Partially weeded bed

The front part is already weeded in this photo. You can see the “ground cover weed” in the back part.

fern close-up

Finally you can see that the technique worked. I supplied very little water to this bed over the summer–and yet these little ferns managed to come along nicely, even with the drought, and up against the brownstone wall, which bakes in the sun.

It’s an unorthodox approach, but then again, desperate times call for desperate measures!

Wordless Wednesday–Fall Flowers

fall flowers

I wrote a few weeks back that I was unhappy with my mums because they didn’t match the rest of my remaining summer flowers.

These belong to a friend and nearby neighbor. He’s managed to nicely integrate his geraniums and mums, even mums of 2 different colors. My retails customers would have had coronaries!

But I think it’s lovely and I think it shows that everything needn’t be all “match-y” to look nice and even seasonally appropriate!

Let’s Talk Mulch, Shall We?

In my neighborhood right now, there’s a whole lotta mulching going on. Of course, a few folks have houses for sale, and nothing says, “well-kept home” than nicely mulched beds. I understand that.

But for the rest of the folks, this is exactly the wrong thing to be doing at exactly the wrong time. They might as well go out and trim the hedges when they’re done (and knowing my neighbors, that’s probably coming too–as soon as they’re done having the lawn care companies spread fertilizer on the street. Sigh).

You know me. You know I hate mulch worse than I hate mums. I do understand that for most gardeners, in most parts of the country, particularly the drier parts, it is a necessary evil. But I think nothing is prone to more mismanagement and misunderstanding than mulch (except perhaps fertilizer, but we’ll leave that rant for another time).

So indulge me here while I tell you that unless you live in the far, far northern climes where the ground is just about to freeze–let’s say Alaska or perhaps the intermountain west of the United States–this is the exact wrong time to be mulching the garden. Here’s why.

Mulching at the wrong time in the fall–and by the “wrong” time, I mean before the ground freezes–encourages all the destructive little critters in your area to seek out the newly mulched bed for any number or reasons.

Burrowing animals will seek it out to cache their mast harvest for the winter, thus disrupting your mulch.

Smaller creatures will also seek it out as a place to hibernate (or more properly go into torpor). While that may not sound troublesome, if these creatures are voles (and almost all of the United States and Canada has some kind of vole–the exceptions are Hawaii, Newfoundland, most of Arizona and western Texas) you will find yourself with less plant material than before the winter–in some cases significantly less, depending on the severity of the winter.

If you think you’re not familiar with this phenomena but you mulch in the fall and then find woody plants dead in the spring, you may be more familiar with it than you know.

Of course, in years with extremely heavy snow cover, even those of us that don’t mulch can find ourselves losing plants to voles. They tunnel under the snow and feast on the shrubbery, protected from their predators the hawks and owls. But not even I can control the weather!

But At least I do what I can by not mulching in the fall!

We’re Not All Born With This Knowledge–or Ranting At The Rant-ers

A recent post on Garden Rant again had me just shaking my head in disbelief. It was a post that took offense to the phrase “Thriller, Filler, Spiller” which is an easy way to describe a way to plant containers.

The post, which can be read in its entirety here, was by one of the newer “ranters,” Ivette Soler. And like everything on Garden Rant, it was well done and even amusing. She makes her point that the phrase is over used.

But as a garden writer, and lecturer and one who spent several years in the retail garden industry, I can tell you that we need these short hand phrases for a lot of reasons. Perhaps this one is over-done and needs to be retired. But how else to tediously explain time and time again that a great classic container combination begins with a tall plant in the center, then has one or several mid-level plants surrounding that tall plants, and then, at the edge of the pot, has few trailing plants to complete the look?

In my part of the world, I can reference the “geranium-vinca-spike” combination as a shorthand reference rather than use the dreaded words. And then I tell folks, “And now it’s time to get creative. Instead of the spike, here are the plants that work….” You get the idea.

I’ve come up with several other “short-hand” ways to help customers remember things such as when to fertilize with an acid loving fertilizer (I am in New England and we do have all those broad-leafed evergreens that want to “wake up ” and “go to sleep” with that stuff). I would tell them a good gauge would be Income Tax day and Halloween–remember to fertilize around those dates and they’d be fine.

Gardeners today are busier and more distracted than ever. They need to have neat and tidy reminders of things–and they need help! So many of the customers at the garden center would be almost apologetic asking questions. No one should ever have to feel that way, particularly about gardening! It’s supposed to be fun!

The last thing we need is folks taking away helpful reminders because they are trite or they rhyme. As garden writers, we need to be encouraging gardeners, not belittling them!