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Stars Before My Eyes

Call me a misguided or unappreciative Gardener, but I simply do not like Ornithogalum umbellatum, commonly known as Star-of-Bethlehem.  I consider it a noxious weed! I have it all over my back yard.  Yes, it predates me in the yard, and when we renovated the landscape some years ago, we thought we had removed all the bulbs.  However … we didn’t, and now there’s a proliferation of fronds and flowers popping up hither and yon … even in the lawn.  We’ve tried to eradicate it to no avail; we mainly succeeded in killing off grass and more desirable plantings. I have come to the conclusion that it will eventually take over the entire landscape.  Woe is me!  My only consolation is that it’s a Spring bloomer, so it lasts for only a few weeks.

Ornithogalum umbellatum

Leaves it Be

Last year, we attended a lecture at the Delaware Center for Horticulture that extolled the virtues of using leaf mulch rather than wood mulch:  it breaks down faster, poses fewer fungal issues, does not attract termites and improves soil by adding nutrients.  Since leaves are sooooooo plentiful in the fall, we decided to give it a try.  It certainly would be cheaper than getting a load of wood mulch! We already had a mulching blower/vac, so it was just a matter of placing the leaves in the garden beds rather in the compost bin or bags to be collected for recycling.  It looked and stayed put better than expected and didn’t look half-bad either.  Another benefit was that the dogs didn’t pay it much mind; they like to chew on pieces of wood mulch, and even though all indications are that wood mulch shouldn’t pose a problem, we don’t want to take any chances and end up carting a sick dog to the Vet. So, based on last year’s success, we decided to use the leaf mulch again this year, and the past several Sundays, the To Do List has included leaf clean-up in the back yard. I like to rake them into piles first; it’s gives my arms a little workout and increases my heart-rate (my contribution to fitness).  So far, we’ve vac’d 4 bags of mostly Oak leaves from our postage stamp backyard.  The irony is … we don’t have an Oak tree.

Oak Leaves

Condensation Salvation

The Summer of 2001 was brutally dry.  At this moment, I cannot remember if drought restrictions were in effect, but I believe they must have been because I was worried about losing some of my landscape plants.  In any event, one of those Summer days I was in my office working, and Jim Stoddard was standing at my desk, gazing out the window while asking a question about music or programming or something I cannot recall, when he exclaimed about the amount of water that was pouring out of the side of the building.  I immediately decided to investigate what he was talking about and noticed that the pipe for the condensate from the AC was draining onto the roof of the building.  It was then that the idea hit me!  If I could collect some of that water, I could use it in the garden.  I had read conflicting reports about using condensate from AC units, but since I wasn’t using it on plants intended for consumption, I figured it was worth a try.  My husband and I got eight 5-gallon buckets, and I would place them on the roof, directly beneath the spout.  Every few hours, I had to switch out a full bucket for any empty one, and my husband would swing by the station and pick up the full buckets.  Using this method, we collected at least 40 gallons a day, and we didn’t lose a single shrub that Summer.  I still haven’t been able to find a definitive answer about using AC condensate on plants, but that one year, it was our salvation.

5 gallon bucket

The Wonder of Thunder

What a frustrating Summer this has been for gardeners!  So far, June and July haven’t offered much help in the watering department.   I don’t consider watering plants drudgery, but I do know that even if I’m using water from the rain barrel and fertilizing regularly, my plants aren’t getting everything they require to be … plants!  What they need are some rainy days and an occasional thunderstorm!  A good soaking rain may close the pool and put the kibosh on a picnic or barbecue, but it provides plants with ample hydration and replenishes the water table.  As for thunderstorms, they certainly can wreak havoc, but lightning not only helps Earth maintain its electrical balance but also produces ozone and creates a chemical reaction that helps plants convert gaseous nitrogen into compounds that benefit all living things.  Have you ever noticed how refreshed and healthy plants look after a storm has rolled through? Ahhh … Mother Nature … what an amazing force she is!


High ‘n Dry Summer … so Far

Climatologists are calling it a “flash drought” because it developed in a short period of time – months – rather than over several seasons or years.  In any case, more than half of the continental US is experiencing some stage of abnormally dry conditions.  I’ve certainly noticed it in my garden.  I’ve had to water every day, with few exceptions.  One would expect daily watering for bonsai and container plants, but the shrubs have needed it was well – especially the Hydrangea.  I’ve even had to resort to individual soakings for my Cornus florida, Ilex verticilatta and various Azalea.  I’m not a fan of soaker hoses, so I place my favorite coil hose with a steady trickle of water hitting near the base of the shrub.  I’ll leave the hose there for 20 minutes or so, checking it part of the way through to ensure water isn’t migrating to some area where it isn’t needed.  If I have to go back in the house for any length of time, I’ll set the timer on the oven as a reminder to check on the hose.  Another result of hot, dry spells is insects;  spider mites and various kinds of scale proliferate.  When I’m watering, I’ll hit the leaves, escpecially the undersides, of suseptible plants and shrubs with a steady stream of water.  Gardening is a real challenge, but it pains me to see a droopy plant. I hope Mother Nature helps out soon … I dread the thought of drought restrictions, like the ones we had about a decade ago. I had to get creative to ensure that the plants didn’t suffer any more than necessary. More on that … another time.


Watering Plants

A Cherry Good Festival

Mother Nature’s kindness this Winter has put an interesting twist in this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC.

The festival is scheduled for March 20th through April 27th and has been expanded this year to mark the centennial of the  first planting of the trees – a gift from Japan – by first lady Helen Taft.  Normal peak time for the blossoms is April 4th, but this year, the National Park Service predicts peak time to be March 20 – 23.  That means the closing weeks of the festival will be sans blossoms!  So … if you were planning to catch a glimpse of these National treasures in all their glory, you better get on it!

Cherry Blossoms

Flame On!

On a recent trip through Wilmington, as Piglet and I rode by the Delaware Center for Horticulture, my eyes were dazzled by some shrubs planted near the entrance.  The beautiful stems, in winter silhouette, were graduated shades of yellow and orange.  I sent a note to Marcia Stephenson, the Special Events Coordinator at DCH, and she responded that they were Cornus sanquinea “Winter Flame”.  She also mentioned that I might be able to pick some up at the UDBG (University of Delaware Botanical Garden) Plant Sale. I did some research and found out that there’s a more compact cultivar called “Arctic Sun”.  So now I’m on a mission …. because I seriously want to add at least one of these show-stoppers to my landscape!

Cornus sanguinea

Scarlet Letter A+

The days are getting longer, and one of the joys of stepping out into the backyard is watching the plants respond to the denouement of Winter. A true harbinger of Spring is my Chaenomeles japonica “Texas Scarlet”.  Commonly called “Flowering Quince” this shrub is grown primarily for it’s showy blossoms, and right now, mine is loaded with buds that’ll be bursting forth with bold color any day. It has fruited a few times, but I’ve never been brave enough to sample the bounty.  I’ve also heard that the fruit makes good jelly, but I’m not a fan of jelly and disinclined to make it. I’m perfectly happy to enjoy the glorious color of my beloved “Texas Scarlet” and let it be!

Chaenomeles japonica

A Budding Problem

As much as I’ve appreciated this mild Winter (so far), I have been concerned about my bonsai.  Most of them are in a pit/trench in the backyard, covered by a potting bench, with polycloth draped around it; a makeshift polyhouse as it were.  The less hardy trees are in what I call the “Green Hut” – so named because it’sway too small to be considered a house. The Green Hut has a heater that helps keep the temperature around 28 F.  The heater hasn’t been used much this winter, as you can imagine.  So why worry?  Well … if the trees start to bud out too much now, they could be damaged or killed if we get a blast of really frosty weather.  So I’ve been trying to keep an eye on the trees in the pit to see if they’re trying to get a jump start on the growing season.  So far, I’ve moved only a few into the Hut, such as my Pseudonia sinensis (Chinese Quince).  One slight problem is that I don’t have enough room in the Hut for all of my trees, so I’m hoping that Winter continues to be mild; I don’t want any of my trees to end up in that dreaded category of “permanent Winter silhouette”.  Trust me, that’s not a good thing.

Pseudocydonia chinensis

Pseudocydonia sinensis budding out (not mine)

A Berry Good Sight

When I let the pooches out this morning, their attention was immediately drawn to the Ilex verticillata, where a bird was snacking voraciously on the beautiful berries that make this shrub such a delightful part of the winter landscape.  A feathered friend in the backyard doesn’t incite the same frenzy as a squirrel, but I recognized this as an opportunity to continue our training with the “Shhhh” command.  Roxanne, being the more treat motivated of the two dogs, has caught on to this game more quickly than Zeus, but they both quieted down fairly quickly.  What I found most interesting was that the bird did not flee!  It sat very still on one of the sturdier branches; I imagine it was waiting patiently for us to leave it to it’s own devices.  As the dogs made their rounds of the yard, sniffing and taking care of other “things”, I kept glancing back at the bird, and like the infamous Raven, there it sat “never flitting”.  Zeus, Roxanne and I eventually made our way back into the house, and for the next 10 minutes or so, I glanced out the window from time to time; the bird was still there. Next outing with the dogs, about an hour-and-a-half later, the bird was gone; breakfast was over.  There are still plenty of berries left on the Ilex, so I imagine our little feathered friend will return.

Ilex Verticillata

A Heavenly Addition to the Landscape

I’ve been a fan of Nandina domestica since being introduced to it back in the 90’s.  The common name is Heavenly Bamboo, but it’s not really bamboo.  It’s a clump style shrub with a very open growning habit.  I love it because the panicles sport lovely white blossoms in the spring, which turn to bright red berries by Autumn.  The leaflets have an airy appeal, and new growth is often brightly colored.  Come Winter, it’s bright red berries are a festive sight. One word of caution … the berries are toxic to dogs and cats!  Our dogs have never shown interest in them, but that doesn’t stop us from keeping a keen eye on the pooches when they’re in the vicinity of the shrubs.

Nandina Domestic

Squirrel Heaven

I am not a fan of these furry creatures.  They wreak havoc in my backyard, and we have no shortage of them.  Why?  One reason is the Carya laciniosa – or Shellbark Hickory – in our neighbor’s yard.  The tree offers an abundance of “fruit”, and it is a messy tree. Right now, it is what we call “hard hat season” in the yard.  The nuts – which are humongous – are either falling off the tree, or the squirrels just can’t keep their grubby little paws on them.  These nuts hit the ground – or the neighbor’s metal roof shed – with a resounding “thud”. If one strikes you on the head … you’ll know it.  Also, when the squirrels are chewing through the thick shells, little pieces of shell rain down from the tress … and it sounds like rain falling.  The pieces get everywhere, and I’m certain they’re affecting the pH of the soil. Argh!

Carya laciniosa

Hose Heaven

Call me silly … but not all garden hoses are created equal.  I stumbled upon this one a couple of years ago at Home Depot.  It was marketed under the name AgraLab, and I liked it so much, I immediately bought another. I went back the next year to get more, but they seemed to have vanished.  I went on-line and still couldn’t find them.  Earlier this year, I was at Always the Garden describing this beloved coil hose, and Tim Ross went over to one of the shelves and handed this one to me … now marketed by Flexon.  Basically the same hose … minus some of the accessories that came with the hoses I had purchased several years earlier.  The Flexon hose doesn’t come in disco colors, like some I have owned, but it’s far more durable and doesn’t kink-up like the others.  The hose material is strong and the couplings are durable. I’m in hose heaven again!

Flexon Coil

A True Garden Gem

Ah … finally … my Clethra alnifolia “Ruby Spice” has come into bloom.  I realize it has a different location, and therefore micro-clime, than “Hummingbird”, but I didn’t think it would take weeks for it to release it’s pleasant scent into the backyard.  Oh well … I don’t love it any less, and I still think it’s a super addition to the landscape … especially since it’s not a fussy plant and seems to be handling the nasty-wasty hot weather in stride.  Admittedly, I do water all plants on these super hot days, and they all get deep waterings over the weekend.

Clethra Ruby Spice

Sweet Smell of  Summer

The past few days, I’ve been greeted with the lovely aroma of Clethra alnifolia “Hummingbird” when I’ve stepped out the back door.  Also referred to a Sweet Pepperbush this shrub is a proven winner.  The white flowers are fragrant; I find the scent quite pleasing, although some might consider it cloying.  I have a moon garden in the very back of my yard, and I love the contribution this woody ornamental makes to it.  I also have a “Ruby Spice” in another area.  It isn’t in bloom just yet.


Astil … my beating heart

Yea .. i know it’s weak.  Forgive me.  Astilble – sometimes referred to as False Goat’s Beard – is a wonderful addition to my shade garden.  Right now, mine are in bloom, and their feathery foliage and blooms can’t help but bring a smile to the face.  Mine are pink and red, but they are also available in white and lavendar.  They’re easy to grow and not very fussy.  Gotta love ’em!


In ‘the Swim of It

As I prepared to feed the fish in my pond the other day, I noticed a small frog sitting on the ledge … waiting for a tasty morsel to fly by, and I was so excited!  I tried to get pooches Zeus and Rox interested, but they were more focused on ridding the backyard from the scurge of squirrels.  My pond is modest.  It’s a 125 gallon free form that a Master Gardener friend, my husband, and I constructed 14 years ago.  Despite a pond expert telling me our handful of fish would never reproduce, we now have in excess of 30 fish.  I call them the OPO’s (Oh Precious Ones).  I did the hardscaping with fieldstone around the perimeter, so yes … it looks homemade.  However, we do enjoy having the sound of the running water in the backyard and watching the eco-system change from season to season. It helps make our backyard a pleasant and serene environment … for the most part.  Now … If the dogs ever succeed in keeping those rascally squirrels at bay, we’ll be set.

Water Garden

photo courtesy of internet.  It’s not my pond.

A Weed by Any Other Name

This week, my Asclepias tuberosa started to burst forth with bloom.  Also known as Butterfly weed or Butterfly milkweed, this stunning perennial likes sun and tolerates dry conditions.  As the name indicates, butterflies flock to it, so do bees.  Mine is orange, but other colors are now available. Once the blooms fade, attractive seed pods add an extra season of garden interest.


Capping Off the Garden

Another suggestion from Tim and the bunch at Always the Garden is my Hydrangea macrophylla normalis… or Lace Cap Hydrangea, which is not in bloom.  It’s beauty is subtle, and in many ways it’s an easier keep than the mop-head varieties: soil pH doesn’t  seem to affect the color as dramatically and the flower heads don’t need to be staked/supported.  I’m a fan!

Lace Cap

Big Love!

This week, my Bignonia capreolata “tangerine beauty” has taken center stage in the back yard!  Tim Ross and his bunch at Always the Garden suggested this semi-evergreen vine when I was looking for something to plant next to an arbor.  Needless to say … I LOVE it.  It’s blooming profusely right now, and I will most likely get another round of blooms later on in the growing season.  This is a wonderful, carefree addition to the garden.


photo courtesy of beegreengardens.com

3 Scents Worth (every square inch of ground they cover)

Spring is such a joyful time in the garden thanks to some fragrant groundcovers I’ve managed not to kill!

A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to find my Galium odoratum, or Sweet Woodruff, in bloom.  This perennial groundcover has not only fragrant flowers, but also nicely scented leaves.  It’s not toxic to dogs, so I don’t have to worry when the pooches go rooting through it.



Last week, it was the smell of Convallaria majalis, or Lily of the Valley, that greeted me when I stepped out the back door.  These white coral bells upon a tender stalk are highly toxic to dogs, so I do have to keep an eye on the pooches.


This week, it’s the Dianthus gratianopolitanus, or Bath’s Pink, that delights the senses.  This evergreen groundcover is so easy to grow; I’ve divided and given away so many trays of it over the past 20 years, and I still have an abundance about the yard.  That’s fine by me, because the spicy scent is quite welcoming!


No More Bedtime for Bonsai

So … over the weekend, while others were hunting for colored eggs and getting together for Easter Dinner, I decided it was time to take my bonsai out of winter storage.  I moved the less hardy trees from my Greento and started pulling others from the pit.  So far, so good … no casualties.  Yesterday, I took the Tropicals outside from their winter hang-out in the house.  This morning, I could tell that all were exceedingly happy to be getting some unfiltered sun.

Scents and Sensibility

Last week, when I was taking the pooches out for one of their after dark back yard excursions, I had no sooner set foot on the back stoop when it hit me … that tride and true scent !  “The Syringa vulgaris is in bloom” I exclaimed!  The dogs were unimpressed.  As they scampered about for their intended purpose, I walked to the corner of the yard where the Common Lilac lived. Tthis year, it was blooming profusely, and I knew I had to enjoy this shrub while I could because before long, it’s leave’s would turn silver with tell-tale signs of Powdery Mildew; it just goes with the terrifory.  Michael A. Dirr, in his gardener’s bible “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” states in black and white that the Common Lilac’s only true landscape value is that of nostaligia … that in our zone, the plants do not prosper, lack vigor and bloom unreliably. Oh … but when they do bloom, who can resist that lovely fragrance.  If that makes me “nostaligic” I don’t mind being guilty as charged.


photo courtesy of thefreedictionary.com

Not the Best Pear

The storm over the weekend caused a bit of damage around the area …. though nothing compared to what the Southeast had to deal with.  In any event, the high winds dislodged a major branch on one the Prunus calleryana (Bradford Pear) trees at the entrance to our neighborhood.  I was reminded that, as a Volunteer Master Gardener through UD Cooperative Extension, I learned that this particular tree is not a good choice for the landscape.  Although an eye-catcher this time of year because of it’s beautiful white blossoms and in the fall with it’s rich Autumn color, the trees are native to China and Korea and are short lived here in the US.  20 years is about the average life span of a Bradford Pear on American soil … this due to their vigorous growth habit, weak wood and poor branch structure; they have a real tough time withstanding the wicked weather that Spring brings us.

Bradford Pear

photo courtesty of midwestgardentips.com


A Summer Treat

My mother’s favorite flowering shrubs were Azalea and Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), so I come by my appreciation of these woody ornamentals honestly.  But … if I had to choose which one I like the BEST, I would have to say Crape Myrtle.  I mean no disrepect to Azalea, but it’s part of a symphony of Spring color; it shares it’s slendor with a progression of other shrubs and trees that bloom for about a week to 10 days:  Magnolia, Bradford Pear, Cherry, Rhododendron, Eastern Redbud, Pieris and Flowering Quince … to name a few   The Crape Myrtle is a solo performer, bursting with color at a time of year when the treescape is verdantly monochromatic. Clusters of bold magenta, deep purple, lovely lilac, pastel pink and tride ‘n true white delight the eye during a time of year when the heat and humidity have taken their toll on so many other seasonal favorites. And … some cultivars of Crape Myrtle have exfoliating bark, giving them interest in the landscape through-out the balance of the year.  It handles pruning well, so you can keep it as a shrub or allow it to grow to the size of a small tree, where its Summer display can truly dazzle.  And the blooms last for WEEKS!  Indeed … a Summer treat.


Conserving Water

Before the monsoons over the past week, I was beginning to get concerned about the ground; it was like concrete, and I had flashbacks of the droughts of the late 90’s and early 00’s.  For the most part, when I’m watering my bonsai and container plants, I use water from my rain barrel. Then I tap into the reserves …. trash cans filled with water from our dehumidifiers and air conditioner. We don’t have a sump pump (although we probably should), so the dehumidifiers have buckets that need to be emptied a couple of times a day (great duty for a husband).  The air conditioner condensate drains into our utility sink, so I have a little pail collecting that water. It’s surprising how much water can be collected in one day from such sources. Although condensate water is inert, I still find it most useful during dry periods for watering the plants in the beds around the house.  I never water the grass because it is truly a waste of precious resources.  New lawns are a different story, but existing lawns just go dormant during dry spells, turning a lovely shade of brown *grin*, but they perk up mighty fast once the heavens open up.


Gardening Website

I was watching CBS3 this morning and heard a story by Jim Donovan about a website that can help us with our gardening efforts.  It’shttp://www.yourgardenshow.com , and It’s like an encyclopedia of gardening advice, with photos of plants and tips on how and where to best grow them.  There’s even a glog, where you can keep track of your own garden.  Woo-hoo!


Winter Casualties

Typically at this time of year I’m mourning the loss of a bonsai that didn’t make it through the winter.  This year was different.  For first time since I added conifers and deciduous trees to my collection, I didn’t lose a single tree. However, I did lose my favorite Cercis canadensis (Eastern Red Bud) “Forest Pansy”.  I was talking to Mr Kern of Kern’s Brothers at the Rare Plant Auction for the Delaware Center for Horticulture, and he told me it had been a particularly bad winter for C. canadensis – even well-established trees; I wasn’t alone in my loss.  The other day, I decided it ws time to remove another winter casualty, my precious Syringa meyeri Pablibin “Little Kim” (Korean Lilac). Then I noticed it was beginning to leaf out and flower.  Of course, not all of the branches showed signs of life, so I removed them, and breathed a sigh of relief that this little shrub had been spared.  Now if only that “Forest Pansy” would show signs of life … I would begin to believe in miracles.