Monday, August 31, 2009

A Shakespeare Garden

In a world where we are most often reflected in baseline demographics, gardening becomes a rare opportunity to express personal interests and creativity. Perhaps all that is wanted is a touch of inspiration. For that, what better source than Shakespeare? The bard’s works overflow with flowers and botanical allusions, with magical moonlit glades, and with gardens as both settings and metaphors.

Shakespeare’s lines have inspired composers, graphic artists, and garden designers for centuries. Today, Shakespeare Gardens appear across the globe, and in many forms, from the extensive 57,000 square foot garden at Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park in Montgomery, Alabama, to the more modest and secluded Elizabethan Garden on the east side of the Folger Shakespeare Library behind the U.S. Capitol and Library of Congress.

A central element shared by all these gardens — and perhaps by yours as well — is a keen interest in the plants and plantings cited by the bard. Many of the plants are rich in cultural significance: from the plucking of the true white or blood red roses by the Plantagenet and
Somerset forces in Henry VI - Part 1, to poor Ophelia’s weedy trophies: the bitter nettles and "dead men’s fingers" of Hamlet. Start your Shakespearean garden by identifying plants mentioned in the plays and sonnets, and then research how and why they were selected. Books and websites abound with herbal lore, plant and garden history, and so forth. You will soon find that most all of the bard’s "plant selections" have played important roles in medicine, history, religion, and literature.

Put Ophelia’s rosemary ("that’s for remembrance") in your garden and you are planting an herb valued by Egyptian priests, the classical physicians Dioscorides and Galen, monastic herbalists, and modern sous chefs. Each plant is endowed with centuries of meaning; let inspiration spring from Shakespeare and it will continue to flow into your garden.

To begin, select a basic design. For example, you could follow the lead of the Folger Library and create an Elizabethan knot garden: a formal arrangement, usually rectangular, with a bust of Shakespeare, a sundial, birdbath, or other sculptural component, surrounded by a interwoven pattern (a knot) of rosemary and lavender, with Johnny-jump-ups and other violet species, iris, saffron crocus, and chamomile filling the spaces between the knotted rosemary and lavender array. For a king’s ransom, you might also include a low boxwood border.

Alternately, you could develop a Shakespearean herb garden, using some of the herbs already mentioned, as well as calendula, rue, fennel, hyssop, lemon balm, parsley, mint (in pots), savory, marjoram and much more. Or you might prefer a sunny flower garden, perhaps designed as an old-fashioned rose garden, or simply incorporating bard-related plants into an existing border.

Favorite roses from Shakespeare’s period include Damask and Gallica (French) or "apothecary’s rose," and Musk and Eglantine (Sweetbriar) roses. Flowers include columbine, poppies, dianthus (clove pink or gillyflower), nasturtium, daffodils, calendula (pot marigold), and primula species, such as English Primrose and cowslips, which are often found throughout the works of Shakespeare.

For the truly inspired and literary-minded, you might want to develop a dedicated garden spot: perhaps "Titania’s Bower" from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Add a simple trellis, cover it with non-invasive honeysuckle (woodbine), some musk roses and other fairy plantings, and you’re ready to sit, read, and ponder with Puck over the meaning of life and love.

You might also consider a bitter-sweet "Ophelia’s Garden," focusing more on her bouquet of rosemary, pansies, fennel, and daisies (IV,v), than the crow-flowers and nettles of her fantastic, watery garland (V,vii). Though for good measure — and silver color — you could add Hamlet’s wormwood (artemesia).

For more of a kitchen garden, you might borrow from Perdita’s saucy lines at the shepherd’s cottage in The Winter’s Tale (IV,iv). The first several hundred lines are a pastoral shopping list, again reflecting some of the most common plants listed above. To add special meaning to your planting, you might even consider adding unique plant labels or homemade signs quoting from Perdita: for example, "Marigold [calendula], that goes to bed wi’ the sun/And with him rises weeping," "Rosemary and rue; these keep/Seeming and savour all the winter long," and so on. Such signage can make your garden a poem itself, or transform a school, church, or public garden into an inspired educational experience.

In reflecting on your Shakespeare Garden, before selecting plants and garden motifs, remember that the experience will not only enrich your landscape and your appreciation of it, but will also, hopefully, introduce you to a larger cultural milieu. You should derive as much pleasure in thumbing through and reading the plays and poetry, as in actually planting the garden and enjoying its color, fragrance, and flavor. Understanding the plants in their literary context will help you better understand the civilization which created the literature itself. And suddenly, the Muses permitting, you will discover that your garden has become a doorway to a larger, older world.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Shakespeare’s Plants

The following reflects plants cited in the Bard’s writings provided as either common or botanic names; (spp) indicates numerous species within a genus.

Aster (spp)
Basket of Gold
Climbing Hydrangea
Crocus (spp)
Curled Mallow
Dianthus (spp)
English primrose
Euphorbia (spp)
False Blue Indigo
Fritillaria (spp)
Fulvous Daylily
Ilex (spp)
Iris (spp)
Meadow Buttercup
Mint (Mentha spp)
Narcissus (spp)
Oriental Poppy
Rose (Rosa spp)
Sage (Salvia spp)
Viola (spp)
Wood Fern
Yew (Taxus spp)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tabletop Topiary

Since the early 1970s, garden enthusiasts have flocked to Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland, for a view of horticulture taken to a fanciful extreme. Of course, with a little effort, most patient gardeners can create their own topiary displays, whether to adorn a doorway or grace a dining room table.

Traditionally, topiary has been the art of training and pruning small trees and shrubs into a variety of ornamental shapes, ranging from the geometrical to the whimsical, with moments of pure inspiration, such as the manicured collection in Columbus, Ohio’s Topiary Park, which recreates the impressionist figures in Georges Seurat's “A Sunday On The Island Of La Grande Jatte.”

Topiary found it origins principally with the Romans more than two millennia ago, flourished during the Elizabethan period, languished somewhat during the 18th century, and once again found renewed interest with the Victorians, whose industrial mania enjoyed reshaping every aspect of the natural world.

Today, topiary has moved from grand public parks and palaces to kitchen countertops and coffee tables. In fact, during the holidays, it was not surprising to see most local grocery stores and garden centers offering miniature “Christmas trees” shaped from rosemary.

One reason for the increased popularity is the modern use of herbs, such as rosemary, whose smaller growth habit and fragrant leaves permit the same degree of artistic trimming and shaping, while yielding culinary cuttings and a rich, satisfying aroma, all in a very manageable size.

In addition, formal standards have readily become as popular as sculpted topiary forms. A standard has a straight and usually single upright stem, initially trained to a stake, and supporting a head or “crown,” which is often spherical, consisting of carefully manicured smaller stems and leaves. Almost as common are “poodles,” multi-tiered standards featuring three to five pompom-like heads.

Herbal standards are perhaps the easiest introduction to the art of topiary for most aspiring gardeners, at least those with patience. Bear in mind that it will take approximately two years to train a simple standard and another two for the plant to fully mature.

To begin, select a favorite herb, considering how large a standard you want in the end. Your topiary must observe elements of proportion, meaning that the smaller the leaf-size, the smaller the standard. Assorted lavender species, curry plant, and the more than 40 species of rosemary can readily produce handsome tabletop standards ranging from eight to 18 inches or more, while larger-leaf species like sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) or fast-growing scented geraniums should be trained to between four and six feet.

Your plant should be well-rooted and straight, with its initial growing tip intact. Be sure not to trim or damage the apical tip until your standard reaches its desired height. Most garden centers offer herbs in four inch pots ideal for starting out.

To start training your topiary, use a 10 to 12 inch plastic or metal stake. Wooden stakes can easily rot within a year or so. Herb specialist Elise Felton also recommends wrapping metal stakes with florist’s tape, both to dress up the stake and provide a stickier support for the ties needed to secure the plant during training.

Secure the stem every half-inch or so, using a flexible tie. Do not use metal twist-ties, as they can damage the stem and ultimately girdle the plant. You will want to remove any leaves or needles between the stem and the stake, and also prune any side shoots that appear as the plant grows. When, or if, the plant reaches the top of the stake, remove the ties and stake and replace it with a stake 20-24 inches tall.

When the plant reaches its desired height you can pinch the growing tip and start allowing two to four pairs of side branches to develop. At the same time, remove any remaining leaves on the “trunk” and, if the stem has become woody, once again secure the stem with soft ties one or so inches apart.

As the side shoots grow, pinch them back about every two inches or two nodes of growth. You will continue with this process every week or so, until those stubby stems take on the regal form of a globe. When complete, carefully remove the stake.

For ongoing care, be sure to provide adequate light during the cold months, when most herbs should be brought inside. However, whether indoors or out, rotate your herbal standard to ensure even growth. And inspect regularly for pests, especially mites and mealy bugs who might try to enjoy your topiary as much as yourself. And do not slack off on your pruning regimen. To keep your topiary shapely, you will need to keep routinely pinch back new growth, although those clippings can be added to potpourri or stew pots as an added dividend – or incentive.

Of course, there is more to topiary than formal standards. Fortunately, the growing interest in topiary has led to the wide availability of unique forms and frames onto which plants can be trained. The range of shapes is almost inexhaustible, with everything from traditional cones, spirals, and spheres, to dancing teddy bears, dinosaurs, Degas-inspired ballerinas, and letters of the alphabet, for people obsessed with monograms.

Many of the larger frames offered are actually filled with green moss, and ornamental ivy and other climbers are encouraged to cover the surface. However, for the herbal-inclined, many of the smaller basic shapes, such as wreathes and hearts, are ideal for training santolina, dwarf myrtle, prostate rosemary, and a host of other fragrant or flavorful species.

For topiary fans anxious for quick results, there are standards, poodles, and other shapes available at nurseries and through mail-order suppliers. They may lack the investment of energy and care of a do-it-yourself project, but it might be the necessary first step to inspire you to designs of your own.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, August 28, 2009

Sage Advice About Salvia

Few plants have commanded such a central role in human history as common garden sage. First revered for its medicinal properties in antiquity, this unassuming member of the mint family was held sacred to the Greek and Roman gods, traded by the Dutch for tea from China, and has been revered by herbalists for millennia, from Dioscorides and Galen to your local GNC outlet.

Common sage (Salvia officinalis) is, however, but one member of the substantial genus Salvia, which actually takes its botanical name from the Latin salvus for “well” or “sound” (also salvere “to be in good health”), echoing its earliest association with curative and life-extending abilities.

Today, thanks to plant hunters and hybridizers, there are roughly 900 species of salvia found worldwide. And while few of them can genuinely promise immortality – or favor with the gods – there are probably a dozen or so which can liven up your garden, spice up your kitchen, and generally provide a healthy bit of habitat for butterflies and hummingbirds.

Limiting your choices is the hard part. My friend, garden writer and herb guru Kathy Fisher, once noted that of the 900 or so species of salvia, about 899 are worth growing. And why not? Consider a flower palette ranging from lipstick red and magenta to salmon, pink, white, and luscious blues which mirror the sky and deepen to violet and inky-blackish. The foliage on varied species can be lime or dark green, creamy white, or a mixture of pinks, purple, white, and green.

And while you might think that common sage is important enough for its culinary and medicinal applications (now a valued antioxidant), there are outstanding varieties which combine flavor and aroma with pure artistry. Golden garden sage (S. officinalis ‘Icterina’) features a swirling variegated pattern of golden yellow and green; purple sage has matte purple leaves which age to a soft green color; ‘Berggarten’ sage has very large silvery-gray fuzzy leaves; and ‘Tricolor’ sage with gray-green foliage splotched with pale pink, purple, or cream.

Most culinary sages feature lilac-blue flowers, some with dark purple sepals, save for ‘Albiflora,’ a real show-off with pure white flowers. Best of all, the scent and flavor of sage bestirs delicious memories of Thanksgiving, family, turkey and stuffing – although the herb is well-suited and renowned for use in tea, or with pork, soups, sausage, duck, cheese, various egg dishes, and savory breads. Remember that fresh leaves are appreciably stronger in flavor than dried, and that harvesting in the early morning provides the highest level of essential oils. For drying purpose, harvest in spring before flower stalks appear.

All of the officinalis sages are tolerant of heat and humidity, especially ‘Berggarten,’ and most should survive all but the harshest winters. True garden sage is the hardiest of the lot, but all will become leggy after several years and are best replaced at that time.

In the wider world of salvia, you will find species suitable as ground covers and edging plants, hanging baskets, and even annual shrubs or hedges. As most ornamental salvias come to us from Mexico and South America, they are too tender to survive the winter, and can either be treated as annuals, or they can be planted in containers and moved to an indoor location prior to frost.

Personally, I do not have the space to overwinter my favorite salvia, blue anise sage (S. guaranitica), a cobalt blue hummingbird magnet, which becomes a five feet bush by midsummer, but as salvias propagate easily from tip cuttings, I simply snip off three or four shoots in the fall, root them in water or a sterile medium, and care for these offspring through the winter care until they return to the garden.

Among some of other deservedly popular varieties are grape-scented sage (S. melissodora), whose pale blue blossoms exude an almost intense grape soda-like perfume aroma, unique in a genus where most flowers have a negligible scent.

‘Cleveland’ sage is heralded as the most fragrant variety of all sages. While most sages release their aroma after brushing against the foliage, “Cleveland’ readily wafts its scent with the slightest of breezes. Buckeyes beware! The plant was actually discovered in California, not Ohio, and was named after the nineteenth century plant collector, Daniel Cleveland, who first spotted the silvery-grey foliage on an expedition.

Pineapple sage (S. elegans) is one of the most popular salvias owing to the fresh-cut pineapple scent released whenever its leaves are bruised. It also sports brilliant -- and edible -- red flowers, appearing in late summer through fall. Pineapple sage is also one of the last great hummingbird plants to bloom in late autumn, and provides the balance of vital nectar needed by migrating ruby-throated hummers as they head south. Scarlet pineapple sage has larger, deeper colored blooms, and the cultivar 'Frieda Dixon' has pink flowers.

Autumn sage (S. gregii) provides an abundance of drought-tolerant cultivars with non-stop and profuse blooming habits. Easily found examples are Maraschino’ (like the cherry) with scarlet flowers; ‘Wild Watermelon’ in fuchsia; aptly named ‘Plum Wine’ and ‘Raspberry Royale’; ‘Moonlight’ with pale yellow blooms, and ‘Desert Blaze’ which contrasts fire engine red flowers against creamy-white and green variegated foliage.

From ancient Greek physicians to a solitary planter on your patio, there’s a world of salvias just waiting to enhance your life and gardening enjoyment. Now that’s sage advice!

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Lobelias for Your Landscape

Late summer is probably not the most exciting time to hike through our native woodlands. Weekend rambles present varying shades and textures of green. It’s pleasant, but not engaging. A cool breeze may flutter a yellow leaf or two to the ground, a mere portent of the colorful autumn-kissed leaves to come. Then suddenly, across the greenness, a brilliant scarlet spike appears. It’s nearly luminous – it’s lobelia!

Specifically, it’s cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, named, like the songbird, after the bright red vestments of the clergy. And surely, in all nature’s palette, no other wildflower can compare with the sheer intensity of its fire-engine red color. Even in the deepest shadows of a quiet marsh, the chest-high racemes of its flowers flash out like beacons across many hundreds of feet.

Cardinal flower is all the more remarkable as red is seldom found among our flowering native plants. Yellow, white, pink and purple: sure -- but seldom red, save for the odd bee balm. And when added to the lackluster canvas of a waning summer, you’ve got a bona fide phenomenon.

Botanically, cardinal flower is an herbaceous perennial, best suited to moist areas like stream banks and wetlands, as well as moist woodlands and meadows. The plant and its cultivars can also thrive in a garden setting, even in full sun, although the soil must be kept evenly moist. Applying a layer of mulch can help, although it might be best to select a site with filtered light. Cardinal flower can easily survive flooding and the soggiest of yards, but it will not tolerate drought or excessive heat.

There are some important cultural notes to consider when growing cardinal flower. For one, the plant, while long-blooming (until frost) and perennial, is unfortunately somewhat short-lived, lasting roughly three years. However, the plant readily self-sows, and will produce a substantial number of seedlings year after year to keep the lobelia colony growing. Two-celled seed capsules are formed in mid to late autumn, split open and scatter numerous tiny seeds upon the ground. Those seeds will sprout in spring, although they do require exposure to light. Therefore a heavy layer of mulch might prevent reseeding.

More importantly, mulching might smother the basal rosette of leaves that hug the ground in winter, after the central stem has died back. That might hinder growth early in the year, or even cause crown rot and the death of the plant.

Cardinal flowers can also be propagated by dividing large established clumps, or by separating basal offshoots from the mother plant in fall, after the flowers have faded. And much as you cannot have red states without blue states, our scarlet-blooming cardinal flower is complemented by a twin species: great blue lobelia (L. siphilitica).

Both lobelias share a wealth of splendid features, such as easy propagation and care, and both bring a burst of color into the natural landscape when it is most appreciated. However, to its credit, great blue lobelia is generally more forgiving of moisture and heat conditions, and even more flexible in garden uses.

The flowers of both plants feature long tubular florets uniquely adapted to pollination by hummingbird. The relationship is especially symbiotic as the ruby-throated hummingbird is significantly dependent on the nectar from these late flowering plants to keep them “fueled” during their migration south. The flowers are also popular nectar sources for the spicebush, pipevine, and black swallowtail butterfly.

Our lobelias have also played an important medicinal role among Native Americans, who used different portions of the plants, from leaves and seeds to mashed roots and stems, to create poultices and infusions to treat headaches, nosebleeds, typhoid, respiratory ailments, common colds, and even as a culinary preventative for divorce. In fact, the botanical name of blue lobelia is derived from its use in treating venereal disease.

Of course, our lobelia cousins have been subject to hybridization over the years, and there are a number of truly striking cultivars available, often referenced as Lobelia x speciosa, including one of the most popular hybrids: ‘Queen Victoria’ with scarlet flower spikes up to three feet tall rising above bronze foliage. ‘Bee’s Flame’ offers bright red flowers and purple foliage, as does ‘Dark Crusader.’ ‘Russian Princess’ is another very popular selection with magenta flowers and maroon foliage. ‘Alba,’ naturally, is a white-flowering cultivar, while ‘Twilight Zone' and ‘Heather Pink’ have soft pink flowers, and 'Angel Song' is a blend of muted creamy salmon.

Beyond our two native subjects, there are almost another 360 species of lobelia found worldwide, including several popular garden favorites. Chief among these is Lobelia erinus, commonly called edging lobelia, which comes in two useful forms, both attractive to butterflies and profusely covered with small, intensely colored flowers in midnight blue, purple, violet, scarlet, rose, pink or white, often with bronze or greenish-bronze foliage. A fast-growing trailing variety features long, sprawling stems covered with half-inch wide flowers which gracefully cascade over the sides of hanging baskets and window boxes, or add a touch of casual elegance to formal container plantings.

The compact, bedding variety is forms dense, brilliant mounds about six-inches tall, ideally suited for use as a ground cover, an edging plant along sunny or partially-shaded pathways, tucked into rock gardens, or artfully blended together in lush masses of mixed colors. Blur your vision while looking at such a planting and you’ll think you’ve slipped into a Monet canvas! Most garden centers carry a large selection of flats in spring, including such varieties as ‘Paper Moon,’ ‘Monsoon,’ ‘Rapid Blue,’’ Crystal Palace,’ ‘Lilac Dream’ and 'Horizon Light Pink.'

Whether red or blue, native, hybridized, or introduced, there is surely a lobelia (or five or six) that would make a welcome addition to your landscape. And if you go native, remember that you’ll also soon welcome those ruby-throated hummers, and the fluttering color of butterflies.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Helping Gardens Survive Drought

Periodically, severe droughts settle in across various regions of our nation, typically forcing gardeners and other landscapers to make some important decisions in their irrigation habits, especially as both voluntary and mandatory water use restrictions are put in place.

The first, and perhaps toughest, decision involves whether to begin any large planting projects at all. While mandatory water use restrictions will allow for some watering of garden beds, trees and shrubs, private well-owners and other groundwater users may not want to risk their vital and limited water resources on a newly planted butterfly garden, windbreak, or water garden. Moreover, it is never a good idea to plant trees and shrubs after the end of April. Consider putting off any significant planting chores until October, when most larger plants and perennials can get by with a minimum of watering.

With higher temperatures and drought warnings on the horizon, the best use of gardening time might be spent keeping existing plants alive and well. Trees and shrubs planted recently, or even last year, will probably need to be watered throughout the dry summer months, especially after such a dry autumn and winter. This watering can be done by hand with a hose and spray nozzle, although it can take a considerable amount of time to water deeply and properly. Simply spritzing a tree for a couple of minutes will never provide plants with an adequate drink.

A clever and much more water efficient method is to use a bucket with very small pin holes at the bottom which will allow water to drip out slowly, gradually moistening the plant’s root zone. Buckets can be quickly filled with a hose, while the irrigation process will stretch over several hours. Clean milk jugs and old bottled water containers can also be punctured with a pin, and will serve the same purpose, probably allocating several containers for larger trees and shrubs. Most newly planted trees will require between three and five gallons of water per week.

All plantings, whether large or small, new or established, will benefit from a moisture conserving blanket of mulch. Garden beds should receive a generous three or four inch layer. The mulch will keep soil temperatures cooler during hot spells, will conserve soil moisture, and eliminate weeds, which also effectively eliminates competition between weeds and desired plants for available water and nutrients.

Trees and shrubs should also receive a similar three-four inch layer of mulch, broadly applied between the drip-line, the outside perimeter of the tree, and the trunk, although not up against the trunk. It is seldom wise to encourage turf to grow beneath younger trees, as the grass will often out-compete the tree for water.

When using mulch, it is often beneficial to select organic mulches, whether aged, shredded wood mulch, grass clippings, or leaf mold. Leaf mulch is ideal for use around tender herbaceous plants, such as annuals and perennials. Wood mulch is more suited to trees and shrubs, and grass clippings are ideal for vegetables or other tender plants. Inorganic mulches, such as marble chips, can actually create a “heat sump” in hot, sunny areas, which will accelerate the drying of soil and spell doom for plants.

Relief for lawns and gardens might be a close as the nearest downspout. Too often runoff from roofs is directed by downspouts to driveways and streets. A water conscious gardener will want to redirect downspouts across lawns or into planting beds using inexpensive flexible drainpipes. Consider that a modest quarter-inch of rain will deposit 150 gallons of water on a typical 1,000 square foot roof. All of that water could find a welcome home feeding plants instead of asphalt.

Rain barrels are another innovative means for capturing and using seasonal rainfall. Garden catalogs and nurseries frequently provide a variety of styles and sizes of rain barrel, with capacities up to 75 gallons. Most feature mosquito- and child-proof designs, as well as handy spigots and hose attachments, which will allow homeowners to hook up drip irrigation systems. Local do-it-yourselfers can even find plans for building their own rain barrels on the Internet. Homestyle barrels can often be assembled in minutes for less than 20 dollars. Many designs also allow several rain barrels to be linked together to capture and store up to hundreds of gallons of rainfall. In areas more dependent upon groundwater supplies, rain barrel concepts can be expanded to cistern systems capable of harvesting anywhere from several hundred to several thousand gallons. With both rain barrels and cisterns, the cost is roughly equivalent to one dollar per gallon of water captured.

Drip irrigation is one of the most advanced techniques for conserving water and doing more with less. A variety of systems made up of pressure regulators and soaker hose, or drip emitters and micro tubing, are becoming much more readily available. Drip systems can reduce water use up to 75 percent. Simple soaker hoses can be placed around plants, covered with mulch, and will slowly ooze water through a porous membrane. Emitter systems are more costly and may require some additional planning, although a number of landscaping firms and mail-order catalog companies have divisions which specialize in developing these systems, even for free with the purchase of the tubing and other equipment. According to water conservation engineer Amy Vickers, at Amy Vickers and Associates, most home gardens will cost between 50 and 250 dollars in materials, depending on the individual system, although extensive landscapes can cost thousands.

When mandatory water restrictions are put in place, lawn watering will be prohibited and punishable by fines. However, lawns can be helped by grasscycling. Simply let clippings remain on the lawn when you mow, and cut your grass no lower than three inches. Clippings are almost 90 percent water, and, as they filter to the soil surface, they provide a temporary layer of mulch to conserve soil moisture. Keeping grass taller also shades the soil, reducing surface heat and evaporation. You can also assist your lawn by not fertilizing, which only encourages additional foliar growth and demand for water. Lastly, stop worrying. With the exception of bluegrass, most turf varieties will simply enter a dormant phase, snoozing through the heat and drought, and will “green up”with the return of cooler temperatures and, hopefully, rainfall.

Even without mandatory restrictions, it makes sense to adopt a proper watering strategy for landscaped areas. For example, when you must water, do so only in the early morning, never during the day or in the evening. Evening watering can lead to fungal diseases and midday watering can scald foliage. In addition, water applied at midday will evaporate before doing any good, as is also true of watering on windy days, when breezes will hasten evaporation.

When dealing with heavy clay soils, it is best to limit watering to short 15 to 30 minute cycles. Apply water, allow it to soak in, and then water for another cycle. Heavy soils have a lower infiltration rate, meaning that excess water will simply run off and be wasted. Generally speaking, you will only need to water once every five to seven days. Overwatering is a waste of valuable resources and will more readily lead to a host of plant diseases.

Probably within a short time, local media outlets will broadcast information about drought conditions and will issue several types of warning or advisory. The conservation message conveyed by various jurisdictions will vary widely from one location to another. Keep in mind that public water utilities are in the business of selling water, not preserving ecosystems. While well-owners have no water to spare, the majority of homeowners will be assured of adequate supplies by their respective utilities.

The supply issue, however, does not take into consideration the ecological impact of withdrawing water from rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and underground aquifers. In many cases, there will probably be sufficient water for drinking and bathing, even for gardening. However, by wasting water through washing cars or watering lawns during a drought, users are removing water needed to keep aquatic ecosystems healthy and alive. For fish and other aquatic organisms, water is not a convenience or a commodity, it is life itself.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Terrific Townhouse Gardens

There’s no denying that townhouse communities are popping up like weeds across the land. Townhouses are popular and often more affordable than single family homes, and with a bit of horticultural slight of hand, they can provide almost as many satisfying garden options as larger yards.

The trick to mastering these smaller, confined landscape areas is to realize the inherent limitations of your site, and to create the illusion of more space.

First of all, remember that this is not a normal landscaping project. Your 500 to 1,000 square foot patch of earth, possibly with neighbors on each side, is not going to accommodate a towering oak. In fact, large trees can make small spaces seem even smaller.

That’s not to say that trees are not welcome in your miniature back-forty. In fact, smaller trees, or shrubs trained into tree-form, can and should provide visual anchors or structure for your overall design. Choose species which feature open “scaffolding,” as well as year-round appeal, such as serviceberry, flowering crabapple, fringe tree, redbud, or some of the exquisite Japanese maples, with their intricately fine-cut leaves and colorful foliage.

Espaliered trees can also become vital elements in a sunny yard encompassed by a tall fence. A host of fruit and ornamental species are available at area nurseries, already trained to grow vertically with formally-spaced branches stretching out across a flat surface. Instead of a dull expanse of fence, you could enjoy a living wall of tasty apples, pears, plums, and apricots, or colorful magnolias, hollies, junipers, and yews.

Of course, the goal is not merely to camouflage fences and fill in empty space. A townhouse garden should strive to appear larger and more varied than it really is. One of the most successful approaches is to divide the yard into several “garden rooms,” each with a unique character.

For example, plant a free-flowing hedge along the outside edge of a patio using ornamental grasses. Select up to several species of the taller grasses to provide variety in color and texture. Plant the grasses in odd-numbered clumps, all of the same species, and, for additional color and contrast, surround each grouping with masses of colorful perennials, such as daylilies, black-eyed susans, joe-pye weed, and coneflowers.

These plantings will physically and visually separate your patio or outdoor living area from the rest of the garden, and cleverly tease the eye into thinking that the yard goes on quite a bit further. Moreover, these graceful grasses, gently tossed by a breeze, also provide a delightful sense of motion, which will make your landscape seem larger.

A second-story deck need not serve as merely a viewing platform. Along the outer edge place one of more trellises in or against decorative containers or tubs. These structures can then sport a dazzling collection of clematis or other ornamental climbers. Properly arranged, these vertical elements can similarly separate your deck from the rest of your garden, providing a colorful frame for gazing outward, while also adding a welcome bit of privacy from the neighbors.

And don’t forget that your deck structure itself can be visually softened by training colorful climbers and vines against the otherwise stark supporting posts and railings of a second-story deck.

Beyond the deck and patio, you can further separate your yard into unique areas with the addition of structures such as pergolas, garden arches, and arbors. Any of these can provide living windows to the rest of your garden, an incomplete glimpse of the whole, which implies mystery and inspires curiosity.

In smaller spaces, traditional wooden gazebos might seem well out of place and scale, but townhouse gardeners can turn to a number of recently available metal and wrought-iron gazebos, which are little more than attractive frameworks onto which perennial or annual vines can be trained. Quickly and inexpensively, another garden room is created, as is a secondary destination for entertaining or relaxing. Just add a bistro table, chairs, and bottle of wine, and you might forsake your deck altogether.

Small spaces have other advantages for gardeners on a budget. Ponds and other water features can frequently cost a great deal in both money and maintenance responsibilities. Yet for a townhouse garden, one can easily manage a smaller, prefabricated pond, pre-planted whiskey barrel wetland, or solar-powered fountain.

Even a single Victorian gazing ball, faux-gothic concrete statue, or gleaming copper birdbath can become a unique and dramatic centerpiece in your garden. Exercise restraint, however, and employ these elements sparingly. In a small space, too many “artistic” elements can quickly become clutter.

The divisions you create in your yard using trees, planting areas, and foliage-draped structures should be joined together with a free-flowing pathway meandering around the plantings and through structures and other garden rooms. Strive to create a route wherein each turn will reveal a new and interesting view. Avoid straight paths which will unfortunately create an impression of cells, rather than the illusion of an unfolding series of gardens.

And don’t forget about the plants! Small space gardening requires more planning and care in plant selection. If your townhouse or a neighboring fence casts a deep shadow over your garden, you will need to think of plants best suited for shade.

Select plants with extended bloom periods, and interweave plants with varied flowering periods so that no bed is ever without interesting color or texture. Also use layered plantings, such as placing spring bulbs under later-blooming perennials.

Add distinctive wrought-iron hanging baskets and richly glazed containers overflowing with annuals to add spots of color to drab areas. Containers also allow you to use exotic tropical plants and tender perennials outdoors during warmer weather; just bring them inside before late season frosts.

Clearly, the challenges posed by a townhouse lot are offset by using the site creatively. For most homeowners, a yard is just a yard. For townhouse gardeners, it’s an opportunity to create a world (or worlds) in miniature, with vine-covered entertaining spaces, a pleasant path toward a gurgling fountain, a kitchen garden thriving beneath an espaliered apple tree. In reality, the only limiting thing about a townhouse garden is the imagination.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inviting Toads to Your Abode

This year, to combat an onslaught of creepy, crawling critters, many homeowners will spend a small fortune on toxic chemicals, pheromone lures, and even propane-powered mosquito traps. Interestingly, there’s a simple solution that’s just a short hop (and croak) away.

In the world of natural pest control, one of the brightest players is the humble toad. Toads have a phenomenal appetite for insects and other invertebrates that go squish in the night, especially undesirable and rapacious creatures such as slugs, gypsy moths, and tent caterpillars.

In fact, up to 90 percent of a toad’s diet includes the most common garden pests, such as earwigs, sowbugs (a.k.a. woodlice), millipedes, crickets and a wide assortment of beetles, and otherwise helpful predators like spiders and centipedes. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report actually estimated that one adult toad may consume 10,000 pest insects in a 90-day period.

Admittedly, with the possible exception of Mr. Toad of Toad Hall in Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 classic, The Wind in the Willows, toads fail to gain the respect and appreciation afforded to Kermit the Frog and his amphibious kin – including those strangely popular beer spokes-frogs (mascots).

Fables bring us fair maidens kissing frogs and freeing princes from evil spells; the Japanese consider frogs good luck; the French consider them good eating. But toads are simply shunned for fear of transmitting warts. Something needs to be done about this irrational Bufonophobia (toads belong to the genus Bufo).

There are two species of toads in our area, the most common being the American Toad (Bufo americanus), and Fowler’s Toad (Bufo fowleri). Should you find yourself strolling through a natural area from spring to mid-summer and hear a good deal of melodious trilling, you’re probably listening to the call of the American toad. They actually have a lot to sing about. During the peak reproductive season, from March through July, female toads are briskly busy in shallow pools laying ropy strings and coils containing up to 6,000 individual eggs. Soon after, those eggs will hatch producing ravenous hoards of tadpoles or pollywogs, which will devour mosquito larvae until they emerge onto land as adults.

While not all of the thousands of offspring from thousands of ponds will survive, the numbers of toads moving about our region is truly astonishing. With such a boffo population of bufo available, it is relatively easy to encourage one or more toads to take up residence in your backyard, where they will immediately add your most troublesome pests to their cuisine.

To create your own toad habitat, often called toad abodes, you need only locate a damp location on your property. Sometimes a shady area in the yard, perhaps a natural depression which remains somewhat soggy most of the time, will provide the perfect setting for your toad hall. Alternatively, areas near a downspout or next to the dripping drain from an air conditioning unit will provide a suitably moist environment.

Your toad abode itself allows for plenty of creativity, especially if undertaking this project with children. Personally, I like to recycle old or damaged terracotta pots into habitats. Often, larger clay pots (nine inches or more in diameter) left outdoors during the winter will crack in half. By simply turning each half on its side and slightly burying it in the soil to provide stability, you can create two separate abodes.

Other cracked or chipped pots can be transformed by creating a two-inch high “entrance” at the top edge of the pot. Simply score a semicircular section in the top of the pot and gently tap it out with a hammer. Invert the pot, and toad hall is ready! Children can help with amphibian aesthetics by decorating the finished pot or potshard with colorful non-toxic paints: perhaps depicting windows, flowers, helpful ladybugs, dancing toads, or other fanciful critters.

Be sure to line the inside of the toad abode with a few handfuls of leaf litter or leaf mold from your compost pile. Toads can hunker down under this cool organic blanket during the hottest days of summer, coming out to feast at night.

For bufophiles willing to invest in upscale – or kitschy -- toad housing, there are numerous on-line sources for wooden, terracotta, and plastic resin toad abodes. Some represent toadstools with columned entryways, ruled over by a toad king and queen, while others represent colorful cottages or barns. One of the most expensive actually looks like an inverted clay flowerpot, of all things!

These toad abode options are primarily fair weather affairs, suitable for spring through fall. To encourage larger resident toad populations, you might want to consider developing a winter palace. Because toads hibernate during the winter, they will need a safe environment in which to snooze away until the world warms up and food becomes available.

A toad hibernaculum can be created using clay drainage tile or even standard plastic drain pipe (four-inch diameter). Starting with one 12 to 14 inch section of pipe or tile, dig a shallow hole in your sheltered, damp garden site and bury the pipe on a 30 degree angle, so that only five inches at the top side of the pipe are exposed. The entryway should be about two to three inches high. Fill the bottom half of the winter residence with sand, and fill the rest with leaf mold. The toad will use this habitat like any other abode during three seasons, and will climb down deeper under leaves and sand to sleep through the winter.

You can also cover the surface of the hibernaculum with compost during the winter to provide additional insulation against extremely cold temperatures. Clear the surface by March to allow both toad and abode to warm up in the early spring sun.

One final note: toads, like many of the most beneficial inhabitants of our yards and gardens, are sensitive to pesticides and other synthetic chemicals. Your chances of attracting toads to a property featuring only lawn area, or which is treated with lawn and garden chemicals, are extremely low. If you want to encourage natural pest controls, you will need to abandon the toxic alternatives. The GreenMan thanks you - and Mr. Toad thanks you.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Menu for a Hummingbird Garden

There are few sights outdoors more delightful than the charmed beauty of hummingbirds. They seem to appear as if by magic, hovering with nearly invisible wings, silently darting from flower to flower. These visitors adorned in iridescent green and scarlet can easily be coaxed into almost any garden with just a handful of the appropriate nectar-rich flowers.

To attract the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the only species found in our region, you need only remember that hummingbirds or “hummers” have an insatiable sweet tooth. If a flower has an abundance of nectar, it is sure to be sampled by any birds passing through the area.

However, these winged gourmets do have a preference for showy trumpet-shaped flowers. You can easily understand why as you watch the hummer dip its narrow bill deep into the tubular recesses of the flower, its long tongue busily lapping up nectar, while the top of its head helps collect and distribute pollen from one flower to another. Another significant feature of these so-called hummingbird plants is flower positioning, where sufficient space is provided between each flower on a vine or stalk to accommodate the bird’s whirring wings.

Interestingly, ornithologists believe that there are approximately 150 plants native to North America which have co-evolved with hummingbirds to create this perfect marriage of bird shape and flower structure. Finding just the right native -- or exotic -- plant for your garden and the hummingbird’s refined palette could not be easier.

In addition to flower shape, hummingbirds display a strong preference for the color red. Unlike insects which often rely on scent to attract them, birds depend more on vision and prominent visual clues. For hummers, the most delectable plants are usually bright red, although more and more ardent hummingbird watchers are noting that blue and purple flowers are also quite popular.

Gardeners can realize some interesting benefits from the differences between hummingbird plants and other species. For example, gardeners can design their garden to emphasize a red and purple scheme, and can also create a very dramatic effect with some of the boldly colored plants favored by hummers. Moreover, red plants seldom attract bees, and most hummingbird plants are also unscented or have very little scent, which means that these select plants will not attract bees or lead to potential bee stings, which is an issue for people with allergies.

When planning a hummingbird garden, note that our ruby-throated guests are migratory, spending winter months in Central America, Mexico, and the Gulf states, and they typically arrive in mid-April and depart by mid- to late-September or early October, depending on nighttime temperatures. Consequently, you will want to select plants with overlapping bloom periods, and not simply provide a quick display of color in June.

Also, while you can scatter the appropriate plants here and there across your existing landscape, you might realize a better result if you combine a number of hummingbird plants in one area, preferably in an open location. Naturally, your garden must be maintained without pesticides, both to protect these delicate migratory jewels and the rest of your local ecosystem.

Preparing your menu of plants is delightfully easy. Up and down the East Coast, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are famous for their partiality to bee balm, cardinal flower, and two easily-grown native vines, trumpet creeper and coral honeysuckle, both of which will need a trellis or fence for support.

Also, no genus of plants has a closer relationship with hummingbirds than the salvias, most of which are native to Central America. The common red salvia is the annual plant overused in many public landscapes, although it is a good source of nectar and is easily started indoors from seed. However, there are a number of other species of interest, commonly referred to as sages, which combine ornamental and culinary attributes. Among the most recommended red specimens are Texas sage (Salvia coccinea) and the edible lipstick-red flowers and fruit-scented leaves of pineapple sage (Salvia elegans).

For a cooler look, consider anise sage which is one of the best hummingbird magnets. It is also called giant blue or Costa Rican sage (Salvia uaranitica) and features dazzling, cobalt blue tubular flowers delicately jutting out from a ten to twelve inch spike from early summer through late autumn. Unfortunately, while botanically a perennial, anise sage cannot tolerate our winter conditions, which is true of many of the other sages ideal for hummingbirds, including the blue and purple flowered Mexican bush sage.

In some cases, dedicated gardeners might want to take some of these semi-tropical species indoors to overwinter, bringing them outdoors again in mid-Spring as the hummers return. Other outstanding hummingbird plants in need of overwintering are lantana and scarlet bouvardia (Bouvardia ternifolia).

Butterfly bush, in all of its dark purple and pink forms, also attracts hummingbirds as readily as butterflies, although Buddleia species are becoming somewhat invasive when planted in and around natural areas. In fact, as hummingbirds and butterflies employ similar feeding habits, you can be assured that your hummingbird garden will also handily double as a butterfly garden, thereby providing even more delightful color throughout the warmer months.

Rounding out the list of the most popular plants are small trees like scarlet buckeye, and shrubs like native rhododendron and the common rose of sharon, with blossoms available in pink, red, and purple. Other selections include red columbine, common milkweed, foxglove, false indigo, Mexican cigar plant, and shrimp plant.

Like any landscape plan undertaken to attract and nurture wildlife, a hummingbird garden repays the gardener with beautiful flashes of winged color, amusing antics, and the quiet peace that comes from nourishing and appreciating the natural world.

About hummingbird feeders:

Relying on plastic feeders to attract hummingbirds instead of plants has some distinct disadvantages. Feeders are much more likely to attract ants and yellow jackets, among other pests. Also, to protect the health of the birds, you must change the sugar solution every several days, carefully mixing or preparing the mix at the full recommended strength. Cutting corners and cheating the birds can actually be detrimental to their fragile well-being. Feeders should also be emptied and thoroughly cleaned periodically. Never place a feeder near a window. Your view might be better, but the birds can easily injure themselves against the glass. One recommendation might be to use a feeder only as a supplement in late summer, if some of your hummingbird plants are no longer in bloom, although it is always best to select a variety of suitable plants to feed and attract hummers year-round.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, August 21, 2009

New Green Schools Network Available

Ecoschools US, is a non-profit and independent advocacy network that promotes the greening of K-12 educational facilities and daycare centers.

The organization’s website,, provides a new and integrated platform to exchange contacts, ideas and resources between green schools experts, advocates and school system employees. The site also features related news, presentations, events, training, sponsorship and grant opportunities. A special resources section provides videos, press articles and interviews.

There is no cost for membership in Ecoschools US, but application is subject to approval by the network. Approved members gain access to a faculty of renowned green schools experts offering presentations and free consultations on the subject of sustainable school design, operations and education.

The Ecoschools network was founded recently by Anja Caldwell, a LEED-certified architect trained in Germany, and an acclaimed expert in green building design and implementation for schools. She calls Ecoschools US an independent pollinator that is spreading green ideas and information “like a busy bee.” Ms. Caldwell recognizes that because of budget and schedule constraints, sustainability has not become a priority in the majority of American school districts.

It is believed that the independent Ecoschools network will make readily available the necessary tools and training desperately needed by school system decision-makers, facility managers, teachers and staff, thereby enabling them to move forward with sustainable design, while further demonstrating sustainable leadership, all without wasting valuable time and resources in an unnecessary learning curve.

For more information about the Ecoschools US network, contact Anja Caldwell, at 240.481.5779 or email To understand more about the goals, vision, and resources of Ecoschools US, or to apply for membership, visit the network website:

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

GreenMan Explores Crystal City Greening Efforts

I was recently asked to tour and explore some of the initiatives of the Crystal City Business Improvement District in Arlington, Virginia, where the community has adopted green practices for its popular Farmer's Market, supports regional agricultural efforts, and a wide range of sustainable practices, from transportation and energy efficiency, to waste reduction and innovative composting programs.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Natural Color for Shady Landscapes

One of the most daunting challenges facing the average gardener is planting in full shade. Not the partially sunny, light-dappled kind of shade that feels so lovely in midsummer, but the deep Amazonian shade so dark that moss will grow on your garden trowel if you don’t keep moving. Not surprisingly, many folks facing full shade simply give up and resign themselves to a dull landscape of invasive ivy and much over-utilized liriope, little realizing that there are ways to foster splashes of vibrant color even in their horticultural twilight zone.

One possible approach is to treat a fully shaded yard more like a natural woodland area, selecting a variety of native plants which are generally well-suited to low light conditions.

You might start by seeing whether your landscape can use some small trees and shrubs. For example, while many yards are full of tall, mature trees, such as oaks, hickory, and poplars, there is usually little else growing between the sky-high canopy and the ground below. Filling that space, the “understory,” is the first best place to begin adding color.

Some suggested specimens include Shadbush, which provides white flowers in spring and brilliant foliage in autumn, and Redbud, which also features pinkish-purple spring flowers and red leaves in fall.

Fringe tree is one of the true delights of our local woodlands with extremely fragrant, pendulous clusters of bright white flowers, as is Sweetbay Magnolia, with large aromatic white flowers and brilliant red berries.

Virginia Sweetspire produces long, fluffy racemes of fragrant white flowers in summer, followed by wine-red foliage through autumn and early winter.

And finally, round out these aromatic offerings with Sweet Pepperbush (Summersweet), with its tempting midsummer display of apple-pie scented, pinkish-white flower spikes, usually heavily-visited by butterflies, and an encore of yellow foliage in fall.

Beneath the understory, you will want to introduce a full array of woodland wildflowers, which can expand or reflect the key elements of this region’s natural habitat. Be sure to keep succession bloom in mind as you select your plants. For example, a great many woodland plants will put on a fine show in early through mid-spring but these “ephemerals” will soon fade, leaving you with foliage and fond memories.

That is not to say that you should not include spring ephemerals, which are often among the most spectacular plants around, such as Virginia Bluebells, which explode in April yet sadly fade in May. But think in terms of plants which will flower at different periods throughout the year, and which can do double or triple duty with autumnal color and/or colorful fruits and berries.

Some native selections, such as Great Blue Lobelia and Columbine, also readily attract butterflies and hummingbirds, which is yet another way to introduce color into your garden – and into your life!

Great Blue Lobelia should also be greatly valued for its brilliant bluish-purple tubular flowers. These appear on one-to-three foot long spikes which bloom from August through October. The species is cousin to the showier Cardinal Flower, but performs far better in partial to full shade. Moreover, the spikes also make for excellent cut flowers, if you can bear the thought of removing them from your garden.

Our native Columbine is favored for its nodding, bell-shaped flowers with tubular red petals or “spurs” and yellow center or “lips” which appear through April and May. The foliage provides a variety of color as it changes during the year from green to shades of maroon. It also reseeds easily, helping it to fill in spaces like a ground cover. Note that in addition to the native species, there are cultivars available which can offer extended blooming periods and exquisite color combinations, such as creamy white flowers with golden centers.

Dutchman's Breeches is another ephemeral native with small, fanciful white and yellow flowers on arching stems or “scapes” and delicate, fine-cut light green foliage. Unfortunately, the flowers only appear from early to mid spring. On the other hand, a close relative, Wild Bleeding Heart, provides the same light touch with wispy mounds of seemingly etched foliage, but with delicate rosy-pink, sometimes purplish, heart-shaped flowers that last from mid-spring through fall.

Alumroot (Heuchera) provides year-round interest with semi-evergreen ruffled leaves which often appear silvery-white with a network of green veins. Some plants also show splotches of reddish-purple, which will spread across the leaf surface and turn progressively darker as summer creeps towards cooler weather. Slender stems or panicles with small bell-shaped flowers appear from April through June. Alumroot makes an excellent ground cover or edging plant if established in thick masses. And look for some of the popular cultivars, like ‘Coral Bells’ which features much darker green leaves, bright, almost reflective silver highlights, and deep red veins.

Foam Flower is another excellent ground cover which spreads readily through underground rhizomes and seeds. Like Alumroot, it is also semi-evergreen, with green foliage that turns maroon as the weather gets nippy. White flower spikes appear from early spring through midsummer, although hybrid varieties, such as ‘Spring Symphony,’ develop spikes of flowers in a pastel pink, almost 18 inches tall, which will last from summer through fall.

For a bit more height in your understory, consider planting several masses of the native aster, with several species readily available which will produce dense clusters of snowflake-like flowers on two-to-three foot upright stems starting in late summer and lasting until close to November. White Wood Aster produces a cloud of butterfly-friendly flowers with very small white petals and a yellow centers which will gradually turn reddish-purple.

Blue Wood Aster has even showier flowers ranging from pale blue to violet, and have inner pale yellow disk florets which turn reddish-purple as the flower matures over several months. Both White and Blue Wood Asters naturalize (spread) rapidly in the garden using both seeds and rhizomes.

And because no woodland is complete without ferns, consider adding ferns to fill in empty spaces and provide some interesting texture or structure against which your other wildflowers can shine. Christmas Fern will provide evergreen, leathery fronds, while New York Fern offers both a more delicate array of pale green fronds, and it will also spread rapidly, closing ranks with your other ground covers.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ground Covers: Made In the Shade

Welcome to midsummer! Not really a dream, is it? The hot, blistering sun is back and many of us are trying to spend a lot of our outdoor time in the cool, dappled shade of large spreading trees. As your sunflowers and tomatoes shoot up to the heavens, why not look under your leafy canopies and start giving some thought to shade gardening?

Perhaps one of the most common -- and frustrating -- stumbling blocks in home landscaping is getting grass to grow under trees. Die-hard lawn jockeys spend many weekend hours at garden centers looking for "shade-loving" grass seed. Others go on a liming rampage, dumping bag loads on their lawn to wipe out the lush green, gentle mosses which love acid soils and shady, humid conditions. Worse, yet, others will rip up their lawns in fall, damaging tree roots, and chewing up precious weekend hours, determined to get a good stand of grass growing at any cost.

What's going on? Grass is not a shade-loving plant. Ever see thick, velvety carpets of grass in a forest or woodland? Moss, yes, and ferns, blueberries, and Partridgeberry. No grass.

Grass is a plant of wide open prairies and sun-drenched meadows. Taking a plant that evolved and adapted to these conditions and trying to get it to grow in full shade is almost impossible, and only marginally successful in part-shade. Several varieties of Kentucky Bluegrass are shade tolerant, but only to a degree. The real answer lies in rethinking your landscape.

More and more often, savvy gardeners and landscapers are replacing unsuccessful grassy areas with mulches or ground covers -- or, preferably, a creative combination of the two. Best of all, these lawn alternatives offer a host of aesthetic, horticultural, and environmental benefits.

Save the trees!

Apart from man-made structures, trees create most of the shade in and around our yards, in addition to providing much of the beauty and a cool retreat from summer heat. But tree roots and grass do not get along well. Grass is one thirsty plant, and its root system can and does compete with the root system of trees -- the majority of which are quite shallow. During long, dry periods, grass can suck up the moisture critical to tree health and survival, which can lead to severe stress and even mortality. This situation is exacerbated when a tree is already suffering other stress conditions such as defoliation by Gypsy moths caterpillars, other pest attacks, and the environmental stresses of air pollution, compacted soil, bark injuries, and so on. As long as a tree has ready access to the moisture it needs, it can generally withstand most seasonal assaults. But having grass quickly taking up its water can lead to decline and death.

Mulching under the dripline of a tree -- the area under the leafy canopy -- will both provide organic nutrients and ensure a ready supply of moisture. Using some of the ground covers suggested below in conjunction with mulch or by themselves will also work while providing natural beauty through the plant's foliage, flowers, or fruits. And ground covers coexist nicely with trees as they do not compete aggressively for moisture.

Another benefit of mulches and ground covers is trunk protection. A great many of the diseases which afflict trees in both yards and parklands enter a tree's vascular system through cuts and gouges in bark and exposed roots. Running lawn mowers over roots and into trunks is a major source of tree injury, as are weed-whackers, especially around smaller diameter trees (like the dogwood on your front lawn). Keep machinery away from trees by keeping the grass away too.

A Woodland Garden

There are scores of readily available ground covers ideally suited for use in the shade. Regrettably, the most commonly utilized plants are non-native, overused to the point of being boring, and frequently -- almost frighteningly -- invasive. Using native species has the merit of recreating a peaceful woodland habitat, even if only under a single tree! And many of these native ground covers contribute to restoring our local habitat: providing food and cover for a variety of wildlife.

The Big Four

Yawn. No other ground covers are used more often than Periwinkle (Vinca minor), Pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis), Bugleweed (Ajuga reptens), and Common or English Ivy (Hedera helix). Running a close fifth is Liriope (various species). In their defense, they do everything a ground cover should do -- and should not be overlooked. They are perhaps the least expensive and quickest spreading. Also the most hardy. And aggressive. Ivy will shimmy up trees, up walls, inside rain spouts. And Ajuga has been known to romp across a lawn while owners aren't looking. Bear in mind while shopping for plants that these favorites are often available in a variety of colors and textures: for example, Ajuga cultivars can have bronze, burgundy, or even variegated foliage. Ivy can be found in over 130 forms, although the common English Ivy is best avoided. Best of all, many of these plants are easily propagated by simple division and transplanted to new sites where they will also fill in quickly.

Return of the Natives

There are now more wonderful options native options available to the home gardener than ever before. Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) is a personal favorite with fragrant stems and roots, discrete purple-maroon flowers, which will appreciably cover an area in about two years (plant 12" apart). Some gardeners claim that it's delicious when candied.

As a home-grown alternative to the ubiquitous Pachysandra, a.k.a. Japanese Spurge, consider substituting Allegheny Spurge (Pachysandra procumbens): this hardy native features an attractive grey-green mottled foliage reminiscent of river trout.

If moss has taken hold under your trees, consider interplanting Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), a slow-growing plant with small, glossy green leaves, white veins, fragrant pinkish flowers, and shiny red berries. Moss, incidentally, can help create a miniature Japanese garden under a tree by adding some interesting stones and rocks. You can help moss spread by taking a small donor patch, mixing thoroughly with buttermilk, and spraying over a suitable humus-rich area. Feed moss with a manure or compost tea.

Many nurseries now offer a wide range of ferns such as Maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum), Fancy (Dryopteris austriaca), and familiar Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), all of which can help add a soft yet wild side to your shade garden. For best effect, intermingle a number of different fern genera and species with other lower-growing ground covers -- even the Big Four!

Other native plants to combine with ground-huggers include the Crested Iris (Iris cristata) with showy yellow crests and lavender throats, red and yellow-flowered Eastern Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), and numerous species in the Phlox genus, especially the rich-scented Wild Sweet William (Phlox divartica), or other varieties of Creeping Phlox, which offer every pastel shade imaginable.

For more ground coverage, consider some of the native sedums, Barren Strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides), or Creeping Dogwood (Cornus canadensis). In instances like the Creeping Dogwood or "Bunchberry," as is the case with most natives, be sure to obtain your plants from a reputable source: some species are protected and rare; do not allow your expansion of a backyard habitat to infringe on natural areas elsewhere.

You need not stick with natives alone, of course. Non-invasive ground covers can also add beauty and flavor to your garden. For instance, Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) is a fast spreading plant with bright white flowers in spring, and fragrant leaves and stems which are used as the flavoring May Wine (use the inexpensive white wine of your choice) and fruit compotes. Bishop's Weed (Aegopodium podograria) is gaining in popularity, especially the variegated variety ('Variegatum'), which isn't as weedy as the name suggests and sports a beautiful light green and white foliage and clusters of white flower.

On a larger scale, many gardeners are turning to the scores of Hostas on the market: while some remain small and compact, others can quickly fill or dominate a shady area with colors from gold to blue, a range of textures, and sometimes towering, fragrant flower scapes.

The final word on ground covers is diversity. You can always select from among the Big Four and use them alone -- or help preserve some of our region's shrinking biological diversity and substitute native perennials. You can even mix ground covers and taller shade lovers to create a dripline wildlife preserve. Grow a moss garden -- or mulch first and start planting. Start slowly, as your budget permits, and space plants properly for coverage in one to two years. Remember that your high-maintenance, low performance lawn is probably trying to tell you something. Do something different!

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Heirloom Seeds Plant a Legacy

In a world seemingly filled with unlimited choices, gardeners are finding that many traditional varieties of vegetables and fruits have disappeared. More than 80 percent of the seed varieties sold a century ago are no longer available today. That loss of genetic and cultural resources has led to a quiet, though growing, revolution known as heirloom gardening and seed-saving.

At one time, most agricultural species were open-pollinated. Two similar or genetically-identical plants were simply pollinated by wind, insects, or animals. The resulting cross would produce a similar, desirable specimen, whose seeds could then be saved for use the following season. Each year, seed was saved and passed down to future generations.

That process has changed. For the past 50 years, seed conglomerates and multinational corporations have controlled the availability and distribution of seed. Complete control is further ensured through the breeding of hybrid species (F1 hybrids) which produce sterile seeds or do not "breed true," meaning that resultant crops are of poor quality.

Of course, some of the breeding programs are notorious for producing food without flavor or nutritional value. Consider the poor tomato. Its rich, succulent flavor was sacrificed to facilitate shipping and to extend shelf-life, leaving us with the anemic cardboard-flavored imposter we know as a supermarket tomato.

Fortunately, since the 1970s, scores of seed-saving organizations and seed exchange networks were founded to preserve and foster the genetic plant resources of Native Americans and immigrant populations from around the world. These seed-savers are also seed suppliers, with many of them offering more than 500 unique varieties of vegetables, herbs, fruits, and grains.

Perhaps the most popular component of this grassroots movement is heirloom gardening. From larger organic farms to backyard garden plots, heirloom gardens are planted with open-pollinated seed varieties which are at least 50 years old, although many heritage garden favorites date back to the early colonial period.

Some gardeners find the traditional or historic element of heirloom vegetables and herbs quite appealing. For others, it is initially a matter of good taste. Seed-saver Cricket Rakita at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange traces his love of heirlooms to his first bite of a ripe Brandywine tomato, noting that "the sweet juice was dripping off my elbows before I had a chance to swallow." It was the best tasting tomato he had ever had, and the beginning of his new career as an heirloom seed-saver.

In addition to the rich flavor of familiar vegetables, heirloom gardeners migrate to the unique and unexpected flavors, colors, and textures of old-fashioned varieties, while also enjoying the history and global pedigree of many species.

Today’s heirloom kitchen garden might include Tom Thumb Lettuce, grown in colonial gardens in the 1700s; Premium Late Dutch Flat Cabbage, introduced by German immigrants about 1840; Long Orange Improved Carrot, brought to North America by Dutch breeders in 1620; and a mix of centuries-old potato varieties from the Andean highlands; Howling Moon Corn and Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans; Czech Black Peppers, as ornamental as they are hot and flavorful; a tree or two sporting Sops of Wine Apples; Eva Purple Ball tomatoes from the Black Forest region of Germany; Amish Moon and Stars Watermelon, whose fruits feature large yellow moons and small stars on a dark green oblong rind; and Hollow Crown Parsnips, a variety grown in the 1800's and used to make marmalade and/or wine.

Additional garden space might well be planted with heirloom medicinal and culinary herbs, from Anise-Hyssop and Ashwagandha to Wormwood and Yucca, as well as ornamental wheat, sunflowers, and decorative old-fashioned flowers for dried floral arrangements.

Perhaps just reading through the names in the seed catalogs is incentive enough to order and grow them. In fact, a great many of the seed catalogs read a bit like folk literature, tracing a variety from seed found in a Polish uncle’s barn to a suburban New York garage. Other descriptions reflect a remarkable range of historic interaction, such as the Scarlet Runner bean, a pre-revolutionary snap bean grown by colonists who obtained seed from Native Americans. In the 1800's and before, the plant was grown for its nutty-flavored bean. Currently, it is the most popular green bean in Great Britain, although contemporary Americans grow it primarily for its brilliant ornamental value.

Seed-saving as "genetic banking" is itself another valuable aspect of growing open-pollinated varieties. Every gardener who plants these heirlooms is helping, in some small way, to keep the genetic resource viable. There are even gardeners who go one step further and cultivate specific plants with the goal of preserving the seed and sharing it through an exchange program. But even at its most basic, anyone can appreciate saving seed for use year after year. For example, you might plant Yellow Potato onions this year, a prolific and delicious modest-sized variety which can increase by three- to eight-fold each year. You could harvest quite a number of onions for cooking, share an equal amount with friends, and still have more than enough for planting the following year.

Of course, you do not need to start your heirloom garden from seed. Local garden centers offer heirloom vegetables, fruits, and ornamentals, such as old-fashioned roses. Well-known Mid Atlantic establishments like American Plant and Behnke Nursery estimate that they now offer at least 40 to 60 varieties for sale. You can check with other garden centers for availability. Buying seedlings might ease your first step into heirloom gardening, but there’s a good chance that your next step will take you into the larger, fascinating world of heirloom seed-starting and seed-saving.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Heirloom Seed Sources

Garden Medicinals*
P.O. Box 320
Earlysville, VA 22936
tel. 434.964.9113

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange*
P.O. Box 460
Mineral, VA 23117
tel. 540.894.9480

(*These local concerns, grow 40 percent or more of their seed themselves, ensuring good adaptation to our regional gardening conditions.)

Heirloom Tomatoes
5423 Princess Drive
Rosedale, MD 21237

Native Seeds/SEARCH
526 N. 4th Ave.
Tucson, AZ 85705-8450
tel. 520.622.5561

Seeds of Change
tel. 888.762.7333

Seed Savers Exchange
3076 North Winn Road
Decorah, IA 52101
tel. 563.382.5990

Victory Seed Company
P.O. Box 192
Molalla, OR 97038
tel. 503.829.3126

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tasty Trellises and Appetizing Arbors

Recently, upscale horticultural venues have been tempting gardeners with an exciting array of prefabricated arches, arbors, and trellises, often with exquisite designs which echo the costly wrought-iron structures found in estate gardens. In addition, there are also less expensive and traditional wooden options. Whatever your budget, if you envision a trellis in your future, consider treating yourself to some of the tasteful – and tasty – climbers best suited for vertical gardening.

One of the fastest growing and genuinely interesting candidates is hops, a dioecious, perennial vine best known for its cone-shaped and intensely aromatic flowers or hops, called strobiles, which not only provide important elements of bitterness, bouquet, and flavor in well-crafted beer, but also fulfill a centuries-old role as a natural preservative. Beyond the brewery, hops are appreciated for the tender, pencil-thin shoots that emerge from the “crown” or root stock each spring. English settlers enjoyed harvesting and eating them like asparagus, as do many gourmands today, such as the Belgians who substitute hops for asparagus in their gratinee sauces.

Hops species name, lupulus, derives from its “wolf-like” habit of running rampant over trees and shrubs in the wild. In fact, the vine can grow up to 25 or 30 feet by mid-summer, quickly providing welcome shade and privacy when trained to a trellis or pergola. The vines attach themselves to most any structure with twining tendrils, and are covered with an abundance of raspy, light green leaves. Later in the summer, the pale green flower cones will emerge, turning golden as autumn arrives.

Among the most ornamental and highly regarded varieties is Cascade, closely followed by Chinook, Kent Golding, Mount Hood, and Willamette, as well as Nugget, whose compact clusters of cones can be dried on the vine and later used in flower arrangements. Keep in mind that hops are only produced on a female vine, and that you must have both male and female plants. Usually, one or two of each is more than sufficient for even the largest arbor structure.

The hardy kiwi vine is another excellent selection which will provide lush shade within one season, in addition to fabulously sweet and smooth skinned fruits. Incidentally, don’t confuse these aromatic delights with their hairy cousins from down-under. Hardy kiwis produce abundant crops of fruit more reminiscent of grapes in size and growth habit. They can also be popped right in your mouth as a special treat as you stroll under the nearly cavernous canopy of vines, or allowed to dry like figs.

According to Mike McConkey, perhaps the foremost breeder of kiwis in the country, some of the best choices for this area are Issai, which is self-fertile and will produce fruit without an attendant male vine, although planting at least one male is recommended to ensure ample fruit production, especially as birds will often share your crop with you – albeit uninvited.

Anna is another favorite variety, and is perhaps the most productive and attractive of vines. A colleague and I planted several, including a requisite male, and have since watched those vines cover and conquer both a substantial pergola and the better portion of the large building to which it was attached. Anna also features ruby red petioles, which provides a subtle bit of color to enjoy before the fruits arrive in late summer.

Grapes are worth considering, although they generally require more care and attention than some other species, and can also create a bit of a mess as fruits drop to the ground. If you crave a shady retreat for Bacchus, be sure to look for varieties offering a combination of disease-resistance, heat tolerance, and great flavor. And why not get fancy? Rather than going for a predictable concord grape, consider Villard Blanc, a key varietal for French white wines, which also turns heads as an ornamental with great taste.

Passionflower or maypop (Passiflora incarnata) became one of my favorite fast-growing perennial vines within the first year I planted it. Like hops, the vine will die back to the ground in winter, but throughout the growing year, you will marvel at the intricate twining ways of the plant’s aggressive tendrils.

More importantly, nothing can truly prepare you for experience of watching the first flower of the season open, which it will gladly do before your very eyes. It is undoubtedly the showiest native flower in our region, and perhaps the most alien, too. A fantasy of purple and lavender petals and sepals open like a proscenium, setting forth a dizzying ring of long fringe-like filaments. Get close enough to the cream-colored stamens and stigmas and enjoy a whiff of citrus. As summer progresses, scores of blooms will be replaced by two-inch long pale green fruits. Wait until they pull away with a gentle touch to ensure freshness – and then prepare to enjoy a flavor most likened to wild apricots, which is yet another common name for this species.

Raspberries can be handsomely trained to trellises for screening or as a living accent piece in the garden. Extensive breeding of this most popular of brambles has resulted in a wide variety of plants which often combine disease resistance with a broad palette of colors, flavors, fruit size, and ease of cultivation. Some juicy options include Heritage Red Fall, an everbearing variety that produces fruit from mid-to- late summer through late fall. Yellow Everbearing provides a rich lemon-yellow to golden color and long season, as does Anne. For a traditional red raspberry, think of Caroline, another everbearer, or go with Jewel Black for large, dark shiny fruits.

And don’t forget that there are annuals which can also offer some excellent coverage, whether for a trellis in your vegetable garden, or as a quick-climbing vine to shade and cool a south-facing window. Some outstanding favorites are hyacinth bean, with deep purple stems, purplish-green leaves, lavender blooms, and dark purple, leathery pea-pods, which are edible if cooked thoroughly. Another is the scarlet runner bean, with bright scarlet red flowers and edible beans on a vine with light green leaves. The flowers are also an effective attractant for hummingbirds, as are those of its cousin, ‘black runner,’ which offers both crimson flowers and deep black seeds.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Swinging With Native Vines

Vines are one of nature’s greatest gifts to gardeners. They can cover ugly fences and utility poles, camouflage storage sheds, or bring color, fragrance, and panache to trellises and arbors. Vines fit into almost any available space, whether spilling out of a balcony window box, climbing up the front of a town house, or running free like a ground cover. It is too bad gardeners seldom think to use vines, or else plant the wrong ones by mistake.

There are hundreds of vines and climbers from which to choose. Traditional ornamental favorites include perennials like climbing roses, clematis, and numerous grape varieties; while fast-growing annuals such as sweet peas, morning glories, moonflowers, or climbing nasturtiums have a popular following, especially for porches and trellises.

Unfortunately, there are some real thugs being planted in gardens. These invasive vines, usually “exotic” species, can easily overrun a garden. Some of the best known invasives are kudzu, the “vine that ate the South,” multiflora rose, English ivy, and oriental bittersweet. These noxious vines gobble up yards, forests, and farmland, pushing out our friendly natives. In addition, watch out for porcelain berry, Japanese honeysuckle, and both Chinese and Japanese wisteria, which are still being promoted and sold by mail-order catalog.

Native vines provide the perfect and preferred alternative to these aggressive invaders, and often provide more desirable qualities than their exotic cousins. For example, while wisteria adds a rich, fragrant, and distinctive quality to a home when trained along fence tops, railings, or atop arbors, you can avoid the frost-sensitive Asian varieties and plant American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) instead. The native wisteria has lavender or mauve flowers which not only bloom in late spring, but often will bloom again in September, and usually flower the year after the vines are planted; Asian wisteria can take years and heavy pruning before blooming.

Or consider Japanese honeysuckle. The aroma is intoxicating, but the vines will quickly overwhelm any garden area and continue to strangle vegetation far afield. In fact, gardeners should make a point of eradicating this vine wherever it appears – although perhaps not on someone else’s property. Native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), is a dazzling substitute which twines like the Japanese variety, and offers a rich array of yellowish-red and orange blossoms for about two months during the summer. Coral honeysuckle’s deep floral throat offers a welcome mat for hummingbirds and butterflies, and the red berries which follow are prized by birds.

Oriental and Chinese bittersweet are both colorful invaders to be avoided – and eradicated – while American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) is ideally suited for fence coverage, stout trellises, and even as a ground cover. Native bittersweet is prized more for its brilliant reddish-orange fruits and golden fall foliage than for its flowers, but a snow-covered winter garden comes alive when the vine’s bright red seeds attract the attention of hungry birds. Note that bittersweet is dioecious: there are male and female plants, and to produce the desired fruits you must plant at least one male vine in addition to female vines.

In addition to the sometimes staggering beauty of ornamental clematis, there are two native clematis species worth noting. Leather flower (Clematis viorna), is a reddish, bell-shaped flower which can be trained onto a mailbox post, or allowed to amble free as a ground cover. Virgins bower (Clematis virginiana), a late-summer bloomer, almost explodes into heavily-laden panicles of small white flowers. A bit rambling in form, virgins bower works well in gardens seeking a wild or natural look.

Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) is as loud and bold as its name. From summer through fall, the vine’s intense scarlet, trumpet-shaped blooms stand out along agricultural fencerows, with vines which clamber up cedar trees or creep across rock faces. The flowers delight children – and hummingbirds – but should not be used in smaller spaces. This vine needs either support or space to spread out, which also qualifies it as a wonderful ground cover.

Like kudzu, English ivy has a ravenous appetite and has often devoured yards and natural areas throughout the East and Midwest. A more suitable and colorful alternative is Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), which has inspired the name of a railroad line, found praise from conservationists using it for erosion control, and by gardeners enraptured by its crimson-purple autumn foliage. The Scone Palace, ancient crowning site for the kings of Scotland, is perhaps more memorable for the imported Virginia creeper covering its walls and battlements than any other visual feature. Virginia creeper can serve as a ground cover in sunny areas, or cover fences and walls. It will also produce clusters of purple berries delectable to birds.

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) is one of the toughest and most versatile native vines. It functions as a ground cover, climbs with ease using twining tendrils, and endures the toughest environmental conditions. It features two-inch long, trumpet-shaped flowers reminiscent of trumpet vine, which bloom in spring and feature a scarlet-orange exterior, and yellowish-red throat, attractant to hummingbirds. Flowers are replaced with long seed pods, and the evergreen leaves turn reddish-purple for late autumn and winter color.

You can use a host of vines to accent architectural lines, fill in empty spaces, or mask unpleasant structural features, but using native vines will invite the natural community to your yard, while still offering a rich pallette of color, fragrance, and texture. For more information and plant suggestions, visit “Using Vines in the Garden” at Also look for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Flowering Vines, and Allen Lacy’s delightful Gardening with Groundcovers and Vines.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser