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I Thought the Drought Was Over

Although I thought that the national media did a horrible job of publicizing the fact that the northeast just endured well over two years of extreme drought, complete with water rationing,  reservoirs drying up and massive plant die offs along with insect infestations, most of that seems to be over now, thank goodness.

The drought stretched from Maine all the way down to the south at times and as far back as the Ohio Valley but New England was particularly hard hit. Parts of Massachusetts were rationing water for well over a year and here in Hartford County Connecticut we are still drier than we should be even after abundant rainfall elsewhere.

Still,  this year, things look much better than they have for years with the exception of the aftermath.

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You heard on Friday that my gardening is pretty much limited to pointing my finger or my camera at this point for the next several weeks.  But the Spoiler has had to call in help to clear out all of the drought killed plantings–& every time we look we find more. This partially killed blue spruce around our pond is just one example.

In many cases, things haven’t been killed outright,  which is a blessing.  I just wonder, after the pruning, what they will look like. This kerria will look just fine. The blue spruce that I showed above, not so much, I fear.

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And then there are the things that are just dead and need to be pulled out. Several hydrangeas and a rose finally succumbed.

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And finally there are things that just aren’t going to bloom this year at all–but at least they survived and came back. This peony is one example. (And notice that lovely “grass and weed” mulch. I may never recover from that either–but that’s a different issue!)

I have rhododendons taller than I am also without blooms–but it would be a catastrophe to have lost those.

We’ll need a few more weekends of help to get the pruning all done. Good thing it’s a long summer.

If There’s Such a Thing as Foodscaping, How About Berryscaping?

I wrote Monday about foodscaping and showed you a photo of my vegetable garden that incorporates flowers and herbs as well. All throughout the discussion of edibles that I have been having here, I said that I don’t grow too many fruiting plants.

There are a couple of reasons for that. I was into habitat gardening and established my “habitats” or wildlife gardens long before I ever established dedicated to grow food. And while that wonderful book I talked about Monday, The Foodscape Revolution makes clear that you can grow food anywhere and everywhere, if you are gardening for wildlife you are going to be competing with that same wildlife for the food you are growing and so you are going to have to create some sort of effective fencing to separate your food from them.

I’ve talked a little about that little issue before. The Spoiler is opposed to fencing of any sort. And then he wonders why he has no blueberries and isn’t getting tomatoes. You reap what you sow! And when what you sow isn’t protected from all the hungry critters that romp through your yard after you’ve invited them in, well, them you don’t reap very much.

But this surely doesn’t mean that there are no ways to grow fruit crops in landscapes. For one thing, many of them make great container plants. Some of the smaller varieties are even suitable for balconies and patios.

And some of a new line of fruiting berry plants called Bushel and Berry™ have been specifically bred to be both beautiful and prolific.

There are 7 plants in this line. Most are blueberries–there are 5 different blueberries–and a raspberry and a blackberry. All are self-pollinating and compact making them perfect for landscapes or containers. Their marketer is Star, who also markets the Drift™ and Knockout™ series of roses and a hydrangea which is completely unfamiliar to me called LA Dreaming. You can read all about the plants here.

I have to say that my attempt to grow two of these plants has been a dismal failure–both have died. Perhaps I didn’t give them large enough containers. I do have two other full size blueberries in pots (shown above) that are doing just fine, so go figure. But I adore their blueberries, especially the variety called Peach Sorbet. The colors the foliage turns in the fall is wonderful.

Another great plant for beds, borders and just about anywhere is the alpine strawberry. This incredibly hardy strawberry will give you tiny strawberries all summer long, up to a hard freeze. It has great fall color–vivid scarlet–and when you have to fight chipmunks or squirrels for the fruit, don’t despair. They will actually plant more of these plants for you. I have them self-sown all over my property, even into other containers. I started with 5 plants. I now must have 50 thanks to my wildlife.  And I am keeping them all!

So in answer to my question: yes, berryscaping can be a “thing” too. Just be mindful of sharing with your wildlife!

Wordless Wednesday–Is Your Flowering Cherry Dropping Flowers?

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Flowering cherries are lovely but, like all flowering trees, their blooms seem so short-lived.

So imagine my dismay when I saw fully opened blooms on the ground under the tree the same day that the flowers started to open. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I hadn’t remembered that from prior years.

The answer was revealed the following day when I came home from walking the dog. I found a pair of finches systematically plucking off the blooms. They would pluck, hold the bloom in their beaks for a brief moment, and then discard it.

As I started to notice, I found a pair of house sparrows doing the same things to the new shoots of my Japanese maple. And squirrels do this to my sugar maples, but they do it with larger bits, breaking off small twigs.

It’s only the loss of the flowers I regret, though. You can see why below.

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Stop Right There! Is It Safe to Clean Up Your Garden Yet?

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You’re going to hear a lot about pollinators from me and all the other Garden Writers (yes, I use capital letters because we’re all members of GWA, formerly Garden Writers of America) in the next few months.

For years we’ve been hearing about particular individual pollinators like bats, who were in decline from white nose fungus, or monarch butterflies who were declining because of loss of habitat and perhaps pesticide use and of course the honeybee and colony collapse disorder.

But have we ever stopped to consider that we might be the cause of some of the problem? It’s a dreadful thought, and not one that any of us want to think about I’m sure.

I know that I like to think that I do my part for pollinators. I plant native plants whenever possible. And I am the organic gardener that I am specifically because of butterflies–or the lack that I found when I moved to my current property in 1994. As soon as I convinced the Spoiler we had to stop using pesticides, the butterflies came back (now, if only I could convince the rest of the neighborhood!)

But I recently read this fascinating piece from the Xerces Society about leaving spring clean up in the garden until later in the season to allow the ground nesting native bees to seek shelter on cooler nights and to permit the overwintering butterflies to hatch out.

Whoa! That’s huge! Why does no one ever talk  about this?

I know we’re just starting to publicize leaving leaf litter and twigs, etc in the garden in the fall for just these same reasons–shelter and cover for beneficial insects and native bees.

You’ll be seeing a lot more from me–this month and in June, during Pollinator Week–about this topic.

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The realization that for my climate I still need to be leaving the stems of my perennials standing a wee bit longer was amazing. I’ve been thinking about cutting them back for weeks and only time and wet weather prohibited me (thank goodness it’s raining again!)

If you live somewhere warmer, file this under “to be remembered.” The Xerces Society post has a great chart about how to know it’s safe to do spring clean-up by simple things like whether you have done your first spring mowing or whether the apple and cherry trees in your neighborhood have finished blooming.

Considering that’s a big fat “NO!” for me right now, I guess I and my neighbors will need to look at a messy yard a little bit longer–at least on my property!

Garden Trends–“Clean” Gardening

On Monday I talked about the first of the “garden trends” that the Garden Media Group and Grow 365 identified as trends for 2017.

I have to confess, I am a little bit puzzled by some of these trends. This trend, for example, that they called “clean” gardening. It encompasses “natural,” organic and even hydroponic gardening. It also encompasses free range!

First, that’s a huge range of different gardening styles and there are battles brewing at the federal level (and no, I have no intention of weighing in here, other than to say that for the moment hydroponic is NOT considered organic, and natural can mean a huge range or different things but is also not officially considered organic under USDA standards).

As long term readers know, I’ve been organic for over 20 years–since 1994, in fact–so “clean” gardening is hardly what I would call a “trend” for me. However, I am delighted to see it getting publicity and I am delighted to see everyone becoming aware of the variety of different styles of eating and gardening, whichever they ultimately choose to adopt.

One of the things I always try to tell people when I lecture is that they should try to keep their homes and yards as free from toxins as possible, particularly if they are growing food. I say that there are  a couple of reasons to grow your own food: to get varieties that you can’t find elsewhere and to know where your food is coming from (literally) and what’s on it.

I also say that if you are just going to put synthetics on it–and I mean synthetics of any sort, from fertilizers to pesticides–you might as well just go down to the supermarket and buy the food.

You don’t have to agree with me, but that’s how I feel. And as I always say, if we all “liked” the same thing, we would have a very boring world. But this trend, at least, seems to indicate, that more folks are “liking” food without synthetics (that was one of the characterizations of “clean” in the Garden Media Group and Grow 365 report).

House Plants That Clean the Air of Ammonia

Now this seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Many of you are saying, “But I don’t clean with ammonia, or use ammonia, so why do I need this?”

And I pray you need never know. But ammonia is not just a cleaning product, of course. It is also a by product of pet waste and human waste. And as someone who knows that pets are forever, I have had my share of sweet elderly dogs and can tell you first hand about how ammonia is a by-product of that.

So how to freshen the air after you have cleaned up the accidents that the poor pets (or elderly humans) can’t help? With plants, of course. (Just make sure to check out this chart, here, if you have pets that are likely to chew on plants so that you use the non-toxic ones!)

There are not a lot of plants that clean the air of ammonia–surprisingly, lilyturf grass (liriope spicata) is one that would be a non-toxic choice for pet owners (or those with young children). It is also a choice for low light situations.

Another good choice for low light situations is the Lady Palm (rhapsis excelsa). This one is going to be a little more finicky about humidity, however.

If toxicity is not a problem, our old friend the Peace Lily is a great choice and is tough as nails for low to intermediate light situations.

And if you have a sunny window, anthurium, often known as flame flower, is a great choice–but it too is toxic so be cautioned about that. They are often sold at the holidays and Valentine’s day because of their heart shaped red, pink or white flowers.

This concludes my series on house plants that clean the air. Next, let’s look at some garden trends for 2017!

What’s This About NASA and Plants?

I mentioned Monday that NASA had been doing work on house plants and their air cleaning properties as far back as the 1970s. I wasn’t making that up. Their first report came out in 1974 and was a study of how plants might function in space–on Skylab (anyone old enough to remember Skylab? It was the precursor to the International Space Station).

Their next report came out in 1989–just as they were getting ready to start more exploration–here on earth. Remember that failed experiment in the desert called Biosphere 2? The people couldn’t live in it–the plants, however, are still living and thriving in it, I believe. It is under the control of the University of Arizona.

That NASA report can be read, in its entirety here. I will need to talk about the findings in greater detail–and how they apply to us as ordinary gardeners–in succeeding posts. But the opening paragraph is really telling.

It talks about how, in the 1970s, in response to the various energy crises, we started making our homes and buildings more “energy efficient:” in other words, sealing them tightly so that heat or cooling or both didn’t escape. That led to the phenomena known as “sick building syndrome” and led NASA to investigate how plants might be a means to combat the chemicals in these buildings.

The take-away: those of us that live in drafty old energy in-efficient homes might actually be healthier for it, even if we don’t have plants. But if you have a newer, tightly sealed home (or office), NASA has the plants to help. More on Monday.