Sunday, November 29, 2015

Hellebore Season Begins!

For those of you who have hellebores in your gardens, it's time to go poking around in the fallen leaves for hellebore buds. Some hellebore species are months away from bloom but the bloom season is beginning for others. Here's a picture I took last week of a hellebore just beginning to show bud. You have to look closely to see those three white buds just peeking above the mulch.

Then this morning, something caught my eye from the kitchen window. When the rain let up enough so that I could go outside and explore, here's what I found.

These two plants are in the Helleborus niger species, the Christmas rose. They are among the earliest blooming hellebores; typically mine begin blooming in early to mid-December. I'm always excited when I see the first buds because that signals the start of a very long hellebore blooming season.

So if you have Helleborus niger in your garden, you might want to poke around in the leaves to see if your plants have started blooming yet. And if you don't have any of this species in your garden, December-January would be a great time to see them in bloom at your favorite local nursery.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Fall-blooming Camellias

My most recent plant passion is fall-blooming camellias.  Jack and I acquired our first camellias several years ago. The first one we bought was a spring-bloomer, Camellia japonica 'Pearl Maxwell'. The larger foliage and tighter growth habit of the Japonica makes it a generally better-looking shrub but late freezes sometimes interfere with its bloom. Such has been the case with ours. It puts on a lot of buds, but our warm days in early March encourages the blooms to open. Then a freeze comes along and turns the blossoms to mush. So most years we don't get a lot of enjoyment from the blooms. If you look closely, you can see the buds it has set for next spring.

Camellia japonica 'Pearl Maxwell'

I later heard that we often have better luck in our growing zone with Camellia sasanqua, the fall-blooming variety of Camellia. I bought the fall-bloomer shown below, 'Winter's Joy', several years ago, and it has grown well and is rewarding me with a heavy bloom this fall. Winter's Joy will be a large camellia; it is already over 8 feet fall. Notice that in comparison with the japonica variety above, the growth habit of this sasanqua looks pretty scraggly. Part of this is due to the fact that I haven't yet pruned this young plant, but in general, sasanquas, compared with japonicas, seem to have a more open growth habit, as well as smaller leaves. 

Camellia sasanqua 'Winter's Joy'

Here's a closer look at the blossom on 'Winter's Joy'. It has been blooming for about six weeks now and still has buds yet to open.

Camellia sasanqua 'Winter's Joy'

Last fall we planted this one, 'Autumn Sentinel'. 'Autumn Sentinel' is a columnar camellia maturing at around 10 feet. It is called a "peony camellia" because its delicate blossoms resemble a peony, looking like this when it first opens: 
Camellia sasanqua 'Autumn Sentinel'

and maturing to this:
Camellia sasanqua 'Autumn Sentinel'

By selecting species and cultivars with various bloom times, you can have a camellia blooming  in your garden almost continuously from October through May. This is an excellent time of year to select a sasanqua camellia, since many are in bloom now. In particular, I think the "October Magic" series of cultivars are lovely. See 'October Magic Inspiration' here

Most of our local nurseries carry camellias. The Dabney Nursery has an entire greenhouse devoted to them (including many of the October series). For cold hardiness, Dabney Turley suggests looking for a plant with a cold word like "winter" or "snow" in its cultivar name. Here's a link to a selection of  winter camellias hybridized for cold hardiness by the National Arboretum.

Lest I lead you to believe that pink is the only color of camellias, let me mention that there are many red, white, pinks, and mixtures of these colors. I guess my favorite color is obvious  . . . .

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Leave the Leaves?

Fall is the busiest time of the year in the garden for Jack and me, and the biggest chore of all is leaf management. We have both a significant area of wooded beds and a fairly large lawn, each requiring a different approach. We've tried different strategies the past few years to manage the leaves, always with the goal of returning the leaves to the soil as much as possible.

In the wooded area, we've tried raking up all the leaves, mulching them, and putting them in a compost pile. In the spring, we use these not-quite composted leaves as mulch in our beds. This is a good process with one big caveat: it is a lot of work! So one year we tried just letting the leaves lie where they fell. This strategy was a lot better for our backs in the fall, but it added to our tasks in the spring. The leaves decomposed very little over the winter. We did not like the way the garden looked, so we had to do a spring leaf clean up. But perhaps the biggest problem with this strategy was that the thick leaf cover created the optimal conditions for moles and voles.

Last year we raked the leaves out of the wooded area, mulched them, and then immediately returned them to the beds as leaf mulch. The mulched leaves did not provide the thick cover that whole leaves did, so this made a less hospitable environment for moles and voles. The leaf mulch was still visible in spring, but the plants quickly covered it up, and by fall it had, for the most part, returned to the soil. I think we'll use this strategy again this year.

With the lawn, we always used a mulching mower to shred the leaves early in the season and allowed them to remain in the lawn. Leaving whole leaves on the lawn is thought to be bad for turfgrass, but small leaf pieces decompose and contribute to the health of the soil in a variety of ways. We have a lot of trees on our lot, and so for us, the question became "can you get too much of a good thing?" Because we didn't know the answer to how much is too much, we never left all the leaves on the lawn. Early in the season, we mulched the leaves with the mower and left them on the lawn. But when a lot of leaves started to fall, we raked them to another area, ran over them several times with the lawnmower, and then moved them to the compost pile. Again, a lot of hard work.

Recently, I came across several articles (such as this one in Fine Gardening and this Michigan State Extension Service article) that suggested that a LOT of leaves could be mulched into the lawn. These articles also said that, in addition to providing nutrition for turfgrass, mulching leaves into your lawn reduces the need for herbicides (weed killers and preventers), and Jack and I like the idea of using fewer chemicals. So this year our plan is to mow most/all of the leaves into our lawn. With the number of leaves that we have in some areas, this may require double-mowing but that is still less work than raking and composting.

Jack is a bit skeptical of mulching so many leaves into our turfgrass, but I had a good feeling that this could work well. I may feel differently as the fall progresses because many more leaves have yet to fall. I'll keep you updated.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Garden Decor and Seminars

Yesterday I attended a gardening seminar at Urban Earth garden center in Memphis. The topic was garden decor. The presenter talked about using pots, statuary, metal art, and a variety of other non-botanical means of adding interest to the garden. He also talked about "tacky" garden art. I won't say what he gave as examples because I think that tacky is in the eye of the beholder. Besides, as the presenter mentioned, we sometimes change our minds about what we consider to be tacky-- what I consider tacky today may be in your garden now and in my garden next year.

The first piece of garden decor I bought was an antique lead birdbath bought for our garden when Jack and I lived in Virginia. I wasn't looking for a garden ornament--it was more like it found me. I bought it, not because it fit with our garden style or because I had a spot that needed some hardscape, but because I fell in love with the little cherub. We moved it into our garden here, and he quietly "shushes" visitors as they enter our garden path.

I suppose this little birdbath would be considered formal European garden style. My garden style is eclectic, and nothing else in our garden could be considered formal. 

I am often drawn to Asian garden decor. I like Japanese lanterns and Buddhas of various sorts. Here are a couple of new Buddhas I purchased a few days ago, found in the clearance section of a local store. They will remain in our sunroom over the winter while I decide on just the right spot for them.

But back to the topic of garden seminars. I learned recently that Urban Earth offers seminars periodically, and they gave out their schedule for 2016 yesterday. I was delighted to see that they offer at least one or two seminars per month during the winter. If I can't get out in the garden, the next best thing is gathering with other gardeners to talk about gardening. I had hoped to find a link to the schedule on their website, but I could not find one. Maybe I overlooked it so I'm posting a link to their homepage here.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Summer Annuals Continue to Put on a Show!

Yesterday when I walked Sparky (our yorkie-ish rescue dog), I was struck by how beautiful many of the summer annuals still are in my neighborhood. No wonder many of us (myself included) are so late planting our pansies and other fall flowers. It's a real dilemma: if you enjoy that early fall revival of your summer annuals, you miss the prime time your pansies need to get established before the cold weather arrives.  But is really hard to take out flowers that still look like these (pictures taken during my walk).

New Guinea Impatiens

Dragon-wing Begonia

Tidal Wave Petunia

Annual Vinca
But that window of opportunity to plant pansies is closing, and I do love their cheery faces and bright color in the winter. So when I got home, I bit the bullet and began to clean out my summer annuals. Today's rain has given a few of the beds a short reprieve, but over the weekend, I'll clean out the rest. I'll plant a few beds with pansies and the others will get a winter covering of compost or leaf mulch. Speaking of mulching leaves, that will be the topic of an upcoming discussion.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Another Reason to Visit Plant Delights Nursery

I can't remember how I first came across the plant catalog of the Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina, but it has been my favorite catalog for many years.  Tony Avent is a wonderful, witty writer and the catalog is not only filled with great information on each plant, but is also so much fun to read. Tony's plant descriptions make me want to buy every plant in the catalog. (The catalog is available online at Tony's website.)

Reading the catalog made me want to visit Tony's nursery garden (which is mainly an online nursery but opens for public events periodically) and the Juniper Level Botanic Gardens, but I have never made the trip. Now I have another reason to visit: Tony's wife, Anita, has started offering mindfulness and meditation retreats in the gardens. I recently discovered that Anita shares my interest in mindfulness meditation, and non-duality and that she is planning retreats for 2016.  I would really like to combine one of her retreats with a nursery/garden visit. Maybe if I'm lucky, she'll schedule one in the same time frame as the open nursery dates for 2016. Hint. Hint.