Tuesday, April 25, 2017

R&R Me and Yew and Me and a Dilemma

Yew (Taxus)
I am half way through weeding and mulching my 14 flowerbeds. While working on a bed I call "The Island of Unwanted Plants" (a bed mostly populated with shrubs I've pulled out of customers landscapes) I pulled out seedlings from my three Yews (Taxus). The seedlings were about the same size as the three I transplanted some 16 years ago when my wife brought them back from her parents house in Bush, Louisiana. Now the Yews are 8-15 feet tall, the shortest one having survived my accidentally mowing over it a couple times. It's always good to see a plant thrive in your landscape and it's especially nice when there is a connection to your past. As our ancestors immigrated to this strange new world I'm sure they brought plants from their homeland mainly to remind them of their former life. Coming from the Coastal South to the Mid South meant a lot of familiar plants just wouldn't work as well here as there so the Yews doing well has been nice. That's the good news.
Now for my dilemma: my Crepe Myrtles (Lagerstroemia) have Crepe Myrtle Bark Scale (CMBS). Fortunately, the infestation is not widespread, yet. In order to stop/control the spread of CMBS I took a sponge and a bucket of water and washed off as much as I could reach with my 8 foot ladder. I did this to three Crepe Myrtles and I was surprised at how quickly the water turned dirty. The need to frequently change the water made this a laborious process. So for a different three Crepe Myrtles I put on my neoprene gloves and " massaged" the bark, rubbing off the scale. This went a lot quicker though I must have looked like a nut to anyone passing by-talk about your tree hugger. My goal is to see how well each method controls CMBS. I'll be checking every few days to see if CMBS returns and if so how quickly; as that great Zen philosopher, Yogi Berra, once noted "you can observe a lot by watching".
My dilemma is what happens if this "hands on" approach doesn't work and I am left with the option to use a neonictinoid chemical to systemically removed the CMBS. Neonictinoids, chemicals such as imidiacloprid, have been linked to Colony Collapse Disorder in bees. These chemicals are indiscriminate pesticides and degrade very slowly. So the dilemma is how do you choose between  crepe myrtles and bees; to save one could harm the other. I try to be a good steward of the environment but I am not a 100% organic gardener. The potential loss of pollinators is a cause of real concern and I try to practice Integrated Pest Management, impacting the environment as little as possible, but where to draw the line.
Another example of this is the overuse of nitrogen fertilizer. With the Mississippi River draining over half the land mass of the continental United States the runoff of excess nitrogen has caused a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is basically 80 miles by 80 miles just south of the mouth of the river. In addition, excess nitrogen causes algae blooms that periodically have killed off aquatic life off coastal Florida. Anyone with the answer, please let me know.

Since it's still Spring I'll finish with two short Emily Dickinson

A little Madness in the Spring

Image result for emily dickinsonA little madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the king
But God be with the Crown-
Who ponders this tremendous scene-
This whole Experiment of Green-
As if it were his own!

I cannot meet Spring unmoved

I cannot meet Spring unmoved-
I feel the old desire-
A Hurry with a lingering, mixed,
A Warrant to be fair

A Competition in my sense
With something hid in Her-
An as she vanishes, Remorse
I saw no more of Her.

Thursday, April 13, 2017


The New Southern Living Garden Book calls this plant “as common as barbecue and beer.”  No, the reference is not to azaleas or crab grass, but instead to the perennial loropetalum (Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum), also know as Chinese  fringe-flower.  It is indeed everywhere in and about our county and available at most plant sales and garden centers.  In early spring the pink flowers of loropetalum signal the change of seasons, along with the yellow blooms of daffodils and forsythia, and although by mid-April those pink blooms are gone, the attractive burgundy-colored foliage will endure throughout the year. 

Its popularity is due not only to its beauty but to its resistance to disease and pests and its varied uses as an understory plant.  Native to the Far East, it is happy in our climate, thrives in partial to full sun (and will tolerate shade), needs only moderate amounts of water, and is deer resistant.   The rubrum variety grows 8-15 feet tall, but shorter, more compact cultivars are available.
Loropetalum at Sally Hillard Mini-Park at Evergreen and Belvedere
Loropetalum prefers acid or neutral soil and can exhibit signs of chlorosis (yellow leaves with green veins) if the soil is too alkaline.

The genus name Loreopetalum describes the flower shape and combines two Greek words, loron meaning strap and petalon meaning petal. The strap-shaped petals form in clusters similar to witch hazel blossoms; both plants are in the Hamamelidaceae family.

I learned about this perennial when I moved into my house and found two five-foot-tall shrubs in the backyard.  I didn't recognize it; certainly, my flower-loving grandmother never grew it, since it wasn't introduced into the country until the late 1980s or early 1990s. It took me awhile to roll the name off my tongue (thanks to Mary Wade), and I have progressed to giving friends and even strangers lectures on the plant in grocery stores, in bank parking lots, and on street corners.  A year or so ago, in a gardening article in the Commercial Appeal, Chris Gang recommended loropetalum and ocala anise as good choices for screens or borders.  Since I have experience with both in my
Larger shrub in Evergreen Historic District
landscape, of course I recommended these shrubs to a friend who was searching for a privacy screen between her front porch and the neighboring porch only a few feet away.  

Lorepetalum is more than just a shrub, however, although most specimens are shrub-like, growing in a natural mounding shape.  Mine were, until they outgrew themselves into gangly, seven-foot tall masses, so that in February I cut them back.  They are pitiful now, but I had seen this dire step in process in a nearby landscape and knew that the plants would become the shrubs I want in a year or two.

Sheared loropetalum at Regions Bank on Cleveland Street
Loropetalum can be sheared into a formal hedge like boxwood, as was the case in front of the Regions Bank on Cleveland Street.   There is a wilder version of the loropetalum hedge near My Big Backyard at the Memphis Botanic Garden.  A row of six-foot-tall (at least) Loropetalum lanceum, the white flowering species, lines the entry walk.

Loropetalum can be limbed up to make a single-trunked small tree.  I have seen several examples of this in my neighborhood, with the tree usually located at the corner of a house.  It can also be espaliered to a fence or wall.  I have read that it can be used for bonsai.

I have just removed a dead gardenia beside my front porch and am wondering what to put in its place. Should it be another gardenia (not likely), an azalea (possibility), a Little Lime hydrangea (strong possibility), or something else?  Maybe I should choose one of the compact versions of loropetalum that I keep recommending to everyone else! 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Dealing with Freeze Damage

I'm sure that all of us are dealing with damage from the freeze we had mid-March. After a very warm February, most plants had already begun to show signs of spring: deciduous magnolias and azaleas were blooming; and ferns, hosta, and other herbaceous perennials had sprouted. Then, on March 15, the nighttime temperature in my neighborhood was 26. Although I have a few frost blankets, I did not cover any of my plants. So many were at risk that the task seemed impossible.

Although it was sad to see so many plants suffer from the cold, it was interesting to see how the same species were affected differently, depending on the specific cultivar and location of the plant. Take azaleas, for instance.  Some of my azaleas had been blooming since early March, and the fully-opened blooms on these were completely ruined by the cold. This was not a terrible loss since their blooms would have been declining very soon anyway. On others (see picture below), the blooms froze on the parts of the plants that were more exposed (and thus the blooms were farther along),  and the parts of the plant where the buds had not yet opened were spared and have since flowered.

What to do about cold damage on azaleas? I don't intend to do anything until the azaleas have finished blooming. Then I'll prune as I usually do. Admittedly, the freeze-damaged blooms are unattractive and seem to be taking longer to fall off the plant than an undamaged bloom would, but I'll wait and see what happens.

Quite a few of our hosta were also damaged by the cold. Some had not yet broken through the ground, and others were barely peeking through. These were not damaged at all. Others had broken dormancy to various extents, and these were damaged to varying degrees. 

Here is a cultivar called 'Fragrant Bouquet' that had a few stalks emerged and was somewhat affected by the cold weather. The older leaves on the left side of the picture are a bit crinkled and deformed, but I will probably leave them on the plant and hope that the new foliage will be enough to disguise them.

Here is another 'Fragrant Bouquet,' planted in the same bed, that was completely turned to mush by the cold. Go figure. I will completely remove these stalks once the new ones begin to appear.

And finally, here is a different cultivar (not sure which) that was fully emerged when the cold came, yet seems to be unaffected.

For me, the list of plants affected by the late cold is a fairly long one. My hardy orchids (Bletilla striata) were fully up with buds about to open, and they were all killed back. They are cold hardy to zone 5 so I'm not too worried about their ultimate survival, but I don't expect to get flowers this year. 

The plants I worry about are the ones that are borderline hardy in our area, like the paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha). It had already pushed out new leaves, and they seemed to have been stopped in their tracks by the cold. They did not turn brown and crispy but neither have they continue to grow. 

The paperbush pushes up new shoots from the root each spring, seen as the green center in this otherwise still-brown plant. I typically cut these shoots back each year because I like the branching structure that is visible in the winter. This spring, I will wait to see how well the old part of the plant recovers. If it doesn't, these new shoots will become the plant, and I will cut away the old part. I don't think that will happen but I will be patient before pruning away the new shoots.

Speaking of patience, in one of my earlier posts, I talked about using a warm February day to cut away the old foliage on our autumn ferns. I wish I had shown more patience in that case. By cutting back the old foliage and revealing the crown to the warm sun, I encouraged early new growth that was too tender to withstand the cold temperatures. By cutting back too early, I left the tender emerging fronds to face the cold without the protection that the old foliage would have provided.

Hopefully, we are safe from freezes and frosts for this spring, but only Mother Nature knows. While the rule of thumb for the frost free date is April 15 for our area, it is good to be reminded that there is always the risk of the occasional exception. According to the National Weather service, the latest recorded spring frost date (36 degrees and below) for Memphis is May 4 and the latest freeze date (32 degrees and below) is April 25. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rhyme and Reason It's Spring!

Today is the first full day of Spring! The vernal equinox occurred yesterday, March 20th, at 5:29AM. After six months of more nighttime than daytime the scale tips in favor of daylight and, with more daylight, comes warmer weather. In gardening time it has been "spring" for a while. The mild temperatures in January and February caused many perennials to emerge and bloom earlier than usual.
Chiondoxa forbesii Glory of the Snow
 In March my garden has seen blooms for: Ipheion uniflorum (Spring Star Flower), Scilla siberica (Siberian Squill),  Anemone blanda, (Greek Windflower), Chionodoxa forbesii (Glory of the Snow), Polemonium reptans (Jacob's Ladder), Lecojum aestivum, (Summer snowflake), Vinca minor (Common Periwinkle), and on one of my deciduous azaleas. In addition to the blooms on the above, the foliage for Lycoris squamigera (Naked Ladies), Columbine chrysantha (Golden Columbine), Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susans), Sedum (Autumn Rose) and both the Bearded and the Louisiana Irises have appeared. The Narcissus (Daffodils) have come and  gone along with Galanthus nivalis (Snowdrops), and Eranthis hyemalis (Winter aconite) but the Helleborus orientalis (Lenten Roses) are still blooming. It seems that everyday offers some "renewal" in the garden. My gardening goal is to have something blooming every month and Spring gets everything started in that direction. I hope all your garden renewals are bringing as much joy to you as mine bring to me!
Lecojum aestivum Summer Snowflake
There are so many great garden poems for Spring it's hard to pick just one, but I'm going with e.e. cummings this month. Last month we used a romantic poem by a poet, Robert Frost, who didn't write a lot of romantic poems. This month's poem is by a guy who wrote a lot of romantic (some might say erotic) poems and very few nature poems. Here is his Spring tribute:

Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere) arranging
a window, into which people look(while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here)and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and fro moving New and
Old things,while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there) and

without breaking anything

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Changing Weather Patterns: What’s a Gardener To Do?

Good Friday, along with its friend Easter, always has been one of those strange holidays that bounced around all over the calendar. Rather than being based on a human calendar, it was determine by nature’s schedule. The actual occurrence could range from March to April, making the selection of that frock for Easter Sunday dicey at best in the most unpredictable of seasons in the South. But one thing was a certainty. My grandmother would be planting her garden on Good Friday no matter what day and month.


But Mother Nature’s schedule has been shifting and changing. According to a report recently published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, spring, defined as the day when leaves first appear and flowers begin blooming, will arrive an average of 22 days earlier by 2100. The good news is that the Southern states, where “leaf out” already is relatively early, will be the least affected.

However, predictions are that nationwide planting zones will shift more rapidly than in the past. Currently, Memphis is a tiny island of Zone 8 with most of Tennessee in Zone 7. The map below shows Zone 8 moving north over the next 30 years. For some of us, this will mean opportunities to plant gardens that are more traditionally Southern. For others, this could create challenges in maintaining some of our favorites. 

And the immediate future looks warm and warmer. While many Memphians are hoping for a hard freeze soon to help control the insects and other critters that plague us during our long hot summers, neither the Farmer’s Almanac nor the various weather services are offering much hope. Temperatures are predicted to continue to be fair through the spring, although, as we well know, there are no guarantees!

So what’s a gardener to do? First is to realize that we are not in control as much as  we’d like to be. Whatever the reason for the increasingly warmer weather, most of us are not in a position to do much about it.

Realize that the warming trends eventually become more apparent and adjust accordingly. Respect your Zone and smaller ecosystem where you garden. Keep in mind that the numbers thrown out are averages and not one of us, nor our gardens, should be considered average.

Sources:  Environmental Research Letters, Farmers Almanac, GlobalChange.gov

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Lessons Learned from Composting Experiences

Jack and I have composted the fallen leaves at our house since we moved here about 5 years ago. When we first started composting our leaves, I read a lot about the "rules" of composting. The rules say that you need a 30:1 ratio of "browns" (leaves and other high-carbon materials) to "greens" (grass, garden waste, and other high-nitrogen materials). If you have just leaves and grass, a pile composed of 2 parts leaves to 1 part grass clippings is ideal. But when, like us,  you have a mix of vegetable scraps and coffee grounds as your sources of nitrogen, calculating the correct ratio becomes too challenging. What are the consequences of getting the ratio wrong? Too much nitrogen and the pile can get too hot and become smelly (or so, I've read. We've never had this experience.) Too little and the pile won't heat up and is slow to decompose. We never had enough greens to reach the suggested carbon to nitrogen ratio so in the past we used bagged ammonium nitrate (34-0-0) fertilizer to make up for the lack of nitrogen. 

Other composting rules say that the pile must be kept moist, but not too wet, and that you must turn the pile to maintain good oxygen level while it is in the hot composting phase. Also, the materials in the pile (in particular, leaves) should be shredded or chopped to make the particles small, but not so small that airflow is inhibited. I never realized that composting was so complicated!! 

The first year we composted, we tried to do everything just right. We calculated carbon-to-nitrogen ratios (or tried to). We chopped and shredded. We moistened and turned. And we made compost, but it took a full year. 

At the other extreme in composting practices are those folks who don't observe composting rules; they just pile stuff up and wait. Over the years, our technique has moved more toward this end of the continuum. Experience has taught us that small particle size is important if we want our fall leaves to be usable compost by the next year. Jack now runs over the leaves 3-4 times with the lawnmower before we transfer them to the compost pile.  Moisture has proven to be important, too, and we water the leaves down as we build the pile so that the pile gets wet throughout. We stopped using chemical fertilizer as a nitrogen source (just our coffee grounds and vegetable and fruit waste), and it hasn't seemed to make a lot of difference in the heat of the pile. In fact, this thermometer is in a pile that was built with nothing but leaves and a few vegetable discards, and the temperature in the pile was 130 degrees.

So we've given up on obsessing about our compost pile and it seems to be doing just fine. These days, there are too many other important environmental (and other) issues to be concerned about!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Rhyme and Reason-February 2017

In  keeping with the spirit of St. Valentine's Day last week, this month's featured poem is one of the few romantic poems by Robert Frost.

The Rose Family

The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple's a rose,
And the pear is and so's
The plum, I suppose
The dear only knows
What will next prove a rose,
You, of course, are a rose-
But were always a rose.

What Frost alludes to is the scientific classification of plants, namely Taxonomy, which classifies all plants from the most inclusive group to the least. This modern system was created in the 18th century by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist. The order used today (from most inclusive is least) is as follows: Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species. Linnaeus used binomial nomenclature (i.e. two names) to identify a specific plant, a species. So, for instance, rosa moschata is the taxonomic name species name for what is commonly known as the Musk Rose, a deciduous shrub. 
Now, in going  from the specific (species) to the more inclusive (family) in the taxonomic table you find that along with the rose, apples and pears and plums are all members of the family Rosaceae, a large Family of plants that includes the fruit trees in the poem as well as many other plants. If we were to go from the Family to the Genus of the fruits mentioned we would find that they are all separated from the rose at that level. And that the fruits are all separated from each other as well at the Genus level.
A fair question at this point would be, why the heck does this matter to me as a gardener? Well, most of the time, it doesn't make a bit of difference. However, if you had a rose that contracted rose rosette virus the recommendation for replacing that rose is not to use any plant in the Family rosaceae in that location. For instance, you wouldn't want to replace a rose rosette virus victim with Spirea, a plant also in the Rosaceae family.
While there may not be a lot of need to know the  Family of plants, there is definitely value in knowing the taxonomic species name. Whenever I give a presentation on plants I always use the species name along with the common name. After a recent garden presentation, a fellow Master Gardener asked me about the difference between snowdrops and snowflakes, two common names for winter/spring flowering bulbs. Snowdrops are of the specie Galanthus and snowflakes are Leucojum. The former grows about six inches tall and blooms in mid winter while the latter is 12-15 inchers tall and blooms in late winter, early Spring. In confusing the two, you could put a six inch  plant in an a poor location because you thought it would be a 12-15 inch. So don't think that the taxonomic name is "snooty"; it just makes sure we are all on the same page, or more specifically, the same plant.
All of this leads me to the plant I want to talk about for February: Helleborus orientalis, Lenten Roses. Lenten Roses are not in the Rosaceae family they are in the Ranunculaceae family, nevertheless I'm a huge fan of this plant. Hellebores are shade plants that grow 12-15 inches tall and bloom this time of year. The common name comes from the fact that its bloom time usually coincides with the Christian Lenten season. One of my goals as a gardener is to have something blooming in every month and Hellebores bloom when not a lot of other plants are blooming. Hellebores also are a year round plant, their only requirement is to cut off the old foliage prior to bloom. But wait there's more, Hellebores are also vole resistant, unlike Hostas. I no longer plant hostas because it pains me to find them destroyed by this little sightless rodent.  With spring planting season fast approaching this is definitely a plant to consider for your 2017-2018 shade garden.
And to close on the rose subject remember:
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet"
Juliet Capulet Act 2 Scene 2 in Wm. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.