Sunday, July 24, 2016

First Hummingbird

I know many of you have been enjoying hummingbirds since spring, but I saw my first one this season just yesterday. That's right, July 22. He was checking out a cardinal flower that had just bloomed in the last few days. Since hummingbirds arrive in this area in April, it makes me wonder which neighbor's garden they are hanging out in until mid-July and how I can entice them to come to mine earlier. 
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

I looked back at my posts from last year to see when the hummingbirds arrived in 2015, and it was mid-July. I made the statement in that post that the hummingbirds don't seem come to our garden until the cardinal flowers bloom.  (The first cardinal flower in our garden just started showing red this week. This picture  is from last year.) I've heard others say that they see hummingbirds when the buckeyes begin to bloom in spring and continually throughout the summer.

In an attempt to encourage earlier visitors, this year I looked for annuals that I thought might entice the hummingbirds into our garden earlier. I planted red salvia (the plant my mother called "scarlet sage") and red mandevilla. I also bought two new hummingbird feeders and filled them with nectar (homemade sugar water).

So yesterday when I glimpsed the hummingbird on the cardinal flower, I rushed inside to wash and refill the hummingbird feeders. I bought feeders with a smaller nectar container this year so that I could keep the nectar fresh with as little waste as possible. 

A little background on the new feeders I bought: when I got out my old feeder this spring (shown at right), I soon discovered that it was slowly leaking nectar. After doing some research online, I discovered this particular type of feeder is known to develop leaks after the first year of use. (When you look at the design, you can see why. The glass container is filled, then flipped upside down to screw onto the base.) Also, mold tends to grow from the little plastic flowers where the birds feed, and the flowers are really hard to clean. 

So I started a search for a new feeder with two criteria in mind: (1) not leaky and (2) easier to clean. I came up with a brand that was highly recommended in various reviews (Hummzinger) and cost less than my old leaky one bought at one of the big box stores. I bought two new feeders, and although I've had them too short a time to give them a whole-hearted endorsement, I can say I am pleased so far. Their design seems much better to me. The red top snaps off for easy filling of the bottom bowl and there is far less likelihood of leaking. And it is a breeze to clean.

I hung one of the two new feeders in last year's spot on the back porch and the second one just off the kitchen window (the one pictured above). I usually have a bed of perennials here, but we had the window replaced several weeks ago and the plants had to be dug up. Since I was digging up plants, I decided to re-design the bed, so there's not much blooming there now. I really enjoy sitting at the kitchen table and watching the hummingbirds on the flowers, so I was sad to lose those blooms. I was hoping, but not convinced, that the new feeder might be enough to attract the hummingbirds. So I was delighted to return home this afternoon from running some errands to see a hummingbird out the kitchen window. I grabbed my phone to take this quick (slightly out of focus) picture from the kitchen window.

So it looks like I'll be able to enjoy the hummingbirds from my kitchen window after all. And I'll just appreciate my short hummingbird season while it lasts and spend the winter thinking about the kinds of spring flowers I might plant to bring them to my kitchen window earlier next year.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

More on Hydrangeas

Last week I talked about the different varieties of hydrangeas that Jack and I have in our garden. Since I am a relatively new hydrangea grower, I thought you might appreciate additional information on hydrangeas from more knowledgeable sources.

I came across these two references that provide information on the various types of hydrangea, as well as how to care for them, including when and how to prune. Click here for a very nice visual guide on the different types of hydrangeas by the FTD florist folks. Click here for the University of Georgia Extension Office's guide to growing and pruning hydrangeas.

Memphis has a large and active Hydrangea Society. Information on their events, membership, and educational information can be found on their website by clicking here.

Those beautiful hydrangeas you see blooming around town now are the panicle hydrangeas ('Limelight', 'Little Lime', 'Phantom', 'Tardiva', etc.). Now would be a good time to pick one out at your favorite nursery so you can see the bloom. But you have to commit to extra care to get it through the very hot weather we are having. Make sure it gets enough water and if you could find a spot with a little afternoon shade, I'm sure your plant will thank you. Even though these are advertised as sun-loving hydrangea, there are few landscape plants that thrive in all-day sun in our area.  Our 'Limelight' blooms nicely with only morning sun.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Hydrangeas in the Garden

A type of plant I've come to appreciate in the last few years is hydrangea. I've always had sentimental fondness for the big blue, shade-loving hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) I remember from my mother's garden long ago, and this was what I've always thought of when someone mentioned hydrangeas. 
Hydrangea macrophylla (not from my garden)
But I've never liked them enough to plant a hydrangea in my own garden until recently. For one thing, I always considered them unattractive in the winter, just a bunch of bare sticks that couldn't be cut down without sacrificing the bloom. When Jack and I lived in Arlington, Virginia, our townhouse was directly across a grassy area from a neighbor who had a hydrangea planted in front of his house. We were treated to the view of his bare shrub all winter.

However, since joining the Memphis Area Master Gardeners, I've become more appreciative of the many varieties of hydrangea available, including the more sun-tolerant varieties. (I also worked one spring at The Dabney Nursery, where I learned a lot about hydrangeas from their knowledgeable staff and well-stocked nursery inventory.) When Jack and I moved into our house in 2011, there were no hydrangeas among the existing plants on our property, but over the last five years, we've added (and discovered) a number of hydrangeas in our garden.

The summer after we moved in, we discovered what appeared to be hydrangea seedlings in two areas of the garden where azaleas were planted. The gardens had been allowed to "go natural" by the previous owners and there was a fairly deep layer of fallen leaves in these areas. Jack and I prefer a more "tended" look and we removed the thick leaf accumulation.  Later, while weeding, we came across a little plant that was definitely "something" (a codeword that means "I don't know what this is, but I don't think it is a weed"), and so we let it grow.  This happened in two garden areas where leaves had been allowed to accumulate, so we ended up with two of these mystery plants. 

The next year, I became fairly sure that the plants were tiny hydrangeas that, I suppose, had sprouted from seeds carried by the wind from some neighbor's plant and had found a hospitable place to sprout in the accumulated leaves. At this point, I moved the little plants to a different location to wait, hopefully, for them to develop into hydrangeas. The next year, I was positive that they were some sort of hydrangeas, but I didn't know what kind. 

 Fast forward four springs, and now we have numerous hydrangeas in our garden. The two "found" ones have grown very well and bloomed this year for the first time. Both are macrophylla (bigleaf) hydrangea, one a pink mophead and the other a blue lacecap.
Hydrangea macrophylla

The pink mophead grew to a nice little shrub this year. I especially like the dark, substanital, shiny green leaves on this variety. We also are really lucky in terms of the bloom, which is extremely attractive. Here is a closer look at the bloom. It is so lovely that I might have sought out this one to purchase. It only had a few blooms this year, but I'm assuming that's normal for a young plant.

Hydrangea macrophylla normalis

The other "found" hydrangea turned out to be a lacecap. Still in the macrophylla category of hydrangea, the leaves on the lacecap look similar to its "found" mophead companion, but the bloom is very different. Tiny blue flowers are surrounded by larger white flowers. The blooms were sparse this year but I'm hopeful for next year (the gardeners refrain: "next year will be better").

I purchased one bigleaf hydrangea because I was drawn to its bright, yellow-green foliage. I believe the cultivar name is 'Lemon Daddy' but I'm not sure. I planted it to brighten up a very shady area and was concerned that its yellow color would not persist through the summer. It has taken a few years to get established (the cold weather we had a few winters ago froze it to the ground), but the color of the foliage has held up nicely. This is the first year we've gotten a bloom, an attractive pale pink flower.
Hydrangea quercifolia 'Little Honey'

A few years ago, we also purchased several oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) that have done quite well. One is a large cultivar called 'Alice,'  shown below.
Hydrangea quercifolia 'Alice'

We bought two Alices and used one to shield a small utility building. That one has had a lot of black spot this year. Hopefully, it is due to the wet spring we had and won't be a continuing problem ("next year will be better").

Another oakleaf, 'Gatsby Moon' is similar to Alice, but it's bloom clusters are much denser.
Hydrangea quercifolia 'Gatsby Moon'

Gatsby Moon
Here's a closer look at that dense flower. As you can see from the picture above, the flowers completely weigh down the plant, so much so that I ended up cutting the blossoms to enjoy in a vase. As the plant matures, the stems should harden up enough to support these beautiful flowers.

Three years ago, we also purchased our first sun-tolerant variety of hydrangea, Hydrangea paniculata 'Phantom'. Like its more well-known cousin 'Limelight,' Phantom makes a large shrub and is covered with white blooms. Phantom is suppose to have some of the largest blooms of any of the panicle hyrdrangeas. 

Hydrangea paniculata 'Phantom'
Our Phantom has not been pruned in the three years we have had it and it looks a bit unruly.  It has reached the maximum height I'd like it to get, and I plan to prune it this winter. Unlike some of the hydrangea species, paniculatas bloom on new, as well as old, growth so there is no risk that the bloom will be ruined by a late winter or early spring pruning. In fact, it may be that pruning produces a more showy bloom. Notice the difference between the size and density of the bloom on the old growth at the bottom versus the new growth at the top. Thankfully, it appears that the stems are able to support the weight of the huge blooms. 

The final type of hydrangea I want to talk about is the first hydrangea I purchased for our garden. I loved the look of this one so much that I bought three plants. It's a macrophylla but has a very different look. Here is what it looked like when I bought it.
Hydrangea macrophylla variegata
(not the one in my garden)

But that picture is not of the plant in our garden. Here's the best-looking of our three plants, after being in the garden for five years. All three plants steadily declined each year after I planted them, and then there was that cold winter that froze them back to the ground. 

Someone told me that these variegated hydrangeas are finicky, but in the spirit of full disclosure, I need to say that they are not planted in ideal conditions--far from it. This is a dry, shady area that is densely planted, and I have not provided either supplemental water or added nutrition on a regular basis. But since they are showing some promise, I think I'll start giving them some extra help and see what happens. I really do love the look of this hydrangea. Even when it is not in bloom, it adds a lot to the garden.

As a novice hydrangea grower, I've not found them to be especially difficult (with the possible exception of the variegated type), but you need to know a few basics about the care of the particular species you want to grow. More about that in a future post.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Tomatoes and Tomato Hornworms

Saturday I spent some time working in the garden I shared with my brother in northwestern Shelby County. This year seems to be a really good one, so far, for our garden. Our squash plants have not succumbed to squash borers (yet) and we have little tomato blight. We'd been cautiously celebrating that we'd found only one hornworm so far this year. The tomatoes I picked yesterday were mostly like this, perfectly colored and unblemished.

But a single hornworm in the garden can do a lot of damage. Yesterday I noticed a hornworm--no, make that three hornworms--actively eating the purple cherry tomatoes I have planted in a patio pot. The culprit is hanging from the tomato branch. Notice the almost-eaten cherry tomato at the end of the stem.

 Because these guys seem to appear overnight (and usually in multiples), it is important to check the plant frequently. Here is a closer look at the caterpillar you are looking for.

Their natural camouflage is so effective that often they will have done significant damage before you spot the caterpillar himself. So, even if you have not seen caterpillars, here are some clues that you should closely examine the plant. First, partially eaten fruit.

Second, branches that have been stripped of their leaves.

Finally, small dark balls (yes, this is caterpillar poop) that appear on the leaves or underneath the plant. In this case, most of it landed on the patio around the pot.

So how do you control them? By far the easiest and most environmentally-friendly way is to handpick and crush them. Or you can drop them in a  bucket of soapy water as we did with the Japanese beetles.  Picking them off is a very icky task and not to be undertaken by the faint-hearted.  If you prefer not to touch them, you can use a Bt  (Bacillus thuringiensis) product, which will kill them when they ingest it. Or, as I did, you can point them out to your husband (or some other less-squeamish person) to do the disgusting deed.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Horticultural Highlights from our Nation's Capital

Last week, I wrote about our trip to Washington, D.C. Jack and I moved from the D.C. metro area in 2011, but I'll admit that it has been much longer since I explored the National Mall area.  I guess when you live and work in a place, you rarely appreciate it in the same way that visitors do. So it was interesting to be back there and see the sights through visitor eyes.

I was particularly impressed with the U. S. Botanic Garden. I visited the Botanic Gardens several times when Jack and I lived in the area, but it was always to see a special exhibit or look around the Conservatory. I didn't think think there was much of interest on the outside. So I was surprised to see how extensive and improved the outside gardens are now. There is a rain garden, a rose garden, a butterfly garden, and a water garden, just to name a few.

In particular, the front of the building seemed much improved to me. Now called "the terrace garden", very attractive raised beds now break up the hot dry, expanse of the stone entry. 

This view is looking across the front entry toward the Capitol.

Notice how the beds vary in shape and height and are planted in different color schemes. 

Though I wouldn't like this arid look for my own garden, I was attracted to the blues and silvers of this bed.

One other big thing going on at the National Mall is turf renovation. The long, expanse of grass between the Washington Monument and the Capitol takes a beating from foot traffic of 33 million visitors each year, and when we left in 2011, the grass looked pretty bad. 
An ambitious renovation plan is underway and is transforming it to this:

Four to five feet of compacted soil is being removed and replaced with a compaction-resistant "engineered" soil, which appears to consist of layers of large gravel and sand, and, I assume, a top layer of good topsoil.

The finished design will result in slightly less grass on the mall, but the grass that remains will be healthier and better protected. The walkways across the mall will be wider and better defined and the grassy areas protected by granite curbs that will encourage walkers to stay on the paved pathways. Underground cisterns that collect storm water will feed the irrigation system. 

I commented to Jack that the landscaping in the Mall area overall looked better than I remembered. When we returned home, I discovered that it is due to a public-private partnership between the National Park Service and the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall. Read more about this partnership and what they have accomplished to improve the National Mall here.