Friday, May 26, 2017

Late May Consolidation and Improvement

The Pond Gardens, with 'Prairie Breeze' Buck roses, 'Sweetness' dianthus and water lilies not quite open in the pond.

Greetings from late May! We've had some cool, rainy days, which has been great for the grass we've seeded to reduce the size of some our garden beds, but there have still been enough nicer days that I've been able to continue with my progress on downsizing and improving our gardens.

Last year, a number of my gardens were weedy and horrible looking -- I won't torture you with photos... This year I've been trying to get things under control. The first part of doing so has been to reduce the number and size of our garden areas.

Being a former financial analyst, last week I made a spreadsheet to evaluate all the garden areas that we have on our property (we quant nerds feel better when we do things like this). I came up with 37 garden areas -- not just individual beds, but areas -- like the Pond Gardens above are one area. Clearly that is too many for non-retired people like us to maintain.

I then rated each area on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being best, 1 worst), in terms of:

  1. beauty
  2. importance to the overall design of our property and gardens
  3. ease of maintenance
  4. current state of maintenance

I then averaged the scores to an Overall Satisfaction score and ranked them from best to worst.

My Garden Areas spreadsheet, listing our 37 garden areas, rated from best to worst. The areas farthest from our house generally fared the worst, as those are easiest to forget about and allow weeds to take over. The closer areas have been more closely looked after and improved each year.

The scores show that the areas that I had already decided to reduce or eliminate should indeed be reduced or eliminated. In fact, I've already gotten rid of, downsized, or re-designed (or am in the process of doing so) nearly all of the red-letter, worst areas at the bottom of the chart.

The second part of getting the garden under control has been to consolidate and more densely plant the remaining areas. The problem with some of the worst areas was that there weren't enough desirable plants planted closely enough, so weeds were able to take over. I have been moving plants from eliminated areas to the reduced areas, to plant more densely.

The third step has been to try to reduce the encroaching of weeds and grass, through border edging barriers and mulch. This makes for less work every year.

Here's a few of the newly re-designed areas:

The downsized and consolidated Yellow Garden, with new grass filling in the eliminated area. It is planted much more densely now, particularly in the shadier part near the house. I have added many plants this year and last year, and most clumps have increased in size to fill in. I think I will replace the yellow irises that have flopped over with shorter varieties after they are done flowering. I  will also install a metal edge around the garden to keep grass from growing into the bed.

The shortened Rainbow Border, with the colors mixed up and no longer in a strict rainbow progression, and more densely planted with generous clumps that will fill in to crowd out weeds.

This is the west side of our garage, which last year was a mess of daylilies and numerous weeds,
growing in a heavy clay soil. I dug out the daylilies and sprayed the weeds, then put a thick layer
of compost on top to make weeding easier and improve the soil. Then I planted about 50 boxwoods
that were planted around our garden shed, which is another area I'm reducing and consolidating.
I had bought these as extras in case I ever needed more boxwoods, as I'm worried about future
boxwood blight. The disease hasn't  yet reached Iowa, but I have no doubt it will before long,
and I don't want to order any more because it has been found in a number of other states.
At some point I might trim these randomly spaced boxwoods into shapes such as balls or cones
as they grow in size, and perhaps add a few clumps of ornamental grass for contrast in texture.

So the garden areas are slowly improving, and will, with any luck, be easier to maintain in future. Enough with hard work -- here are a few scenes from around the gardens:

My new iris garden has been flowering for the past few weeks:

With farmey scenery....

Showing the painted daisies, allums and peonies I planted with the irises.

Poppies in the center of the bed aren't blooming here quite yet. I will move some of the taller irises that flopped outward to the middle and move some shorter ones to the edges, to make the views better.

The water lilies are really blooming well this year, perhaps the best ever yet.

I close-up of the poppies just starting to bloom in the Rainbow Border.

Some pots in bloom in my new Scented Garden area around the East Patio. The large pots in back are jasmine and star jasmine just beginning to bloom, and lemon verbena.  The purple petunia on the table is a highly scented Wave petunia (only that color is so strongly scented, I've found.
And speaking of pots, I potted up these two pots of agapanthus at least two years ago, and yet they had never bloomed despite my wintering them in my basement during two winters. I had just decided last week to chuck them out and use the pots for something productive, and this week (of course!) I noticed that they had Finally sent up bloom stalks! I know these are grown in England and California quite commonly, but I've never seen anyone around here grow them, so I thought I'd give them a try when I saw the bulbs sold in a local big box store. Finally, the results I've been waiting for! Who says gardeners aren't patient?

And one more potted success: I didn't grow these beautiful pansies myself, but I did start the stocks (Matthiola) from seed back in mid-December in my sunroom, and they have finally begun to flower! (These "ten-week stocks" didn't exactly live up to their name, but then again I probably didn't provide optimal light and growing conditions either.) Stocks are one of my favorite flowers with their wonderful scent, and I feel quite happy that I was able to grow them myself.

Hope you are enjoying some successes and progress in your own gardens this month, and that you will enjoy lovely weather and plants flowering madly during the month of June. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Early May -- Making Progress!

My new Scented Garden around the east patio.

Does anyone else notice that early May has a shortage of blooms? At least in my gardens, the spring bulb excitement is usually done by the first week of May, but most of the irises and the peonies aren't open yet and the crescendo of roses and other summer flowers is still weeks away. And everything that does bloom in early May seems to be purple -- alliums, the early purple iris that were here when I moved here and the Dame's Rocket that has seeded around so obligingly. I probably need to plant some late tulips and some more early irises in a range of colors.

It's been pretty hot here in Iowa, with temperatures in the 80s recently (spring? what's that? Iowa has late winter followed by early summer), but it feels nice to be done with winter and work outside in the evenings. I've been slowly making some progress on the changes I've planned for my gardens this year. Here are a few scenes from what I've been working on, and a few (mostly purple) flowers too:

The big project for this year is the new Scented Garden around my east patio. I've removed everything from this area except one rose and a couple of boxwoods, and planted many plants with scented flowers. On the east side (the left bed in this photo) are a mock orange from another location in my gardens, a re-blooming 'Bloomerang' lilac, a scented clematis, some Oriental lilies, a couple of irises with light scent, flowering tobacco Nicotiana alata that I started from seed and and some star gladiolus.  On the west side (the right bed) is a metal obelisk  with 'Jude the Obscure' David Austen rose planted underneath, and two sweet peas on the sides of it, as well as scented old-fashioned petunias, stocks and snapdragons I started from seeds. The far bed contains a peony, a "Golden Celebration' rose, some dianthus started from seeds and several chocolate cosmos. The close bed has 'Sharifa Asma' rose, some dianthus and snapdragons from seed, fragrant tuberoses and hymenocallis bulbs. I hope none of the scents is too overpowering or that they clash with each other. (Note: The large box on the porch contains something I've long been wishing for that just arrived yesterday....)

Last weekend I spent a whole day painting our front porch and steps (with help from my 13-year-old daughter who painted the railings white), as well as another set of steps on the west side of our house and the floor of our gazebo, shown in the next photos. Last fall, we had our handyman cut out the corner section of steps, which were rotting, and build this new center section of railing, and now it's finally painted and makes our whole entrance area look better. I'll put more pots in the cut-out area as I bring the last overwintering tender plants outside and buy a few new ones that I can't resist this summer.

BEFORE: Last year, the gazebo looked pretty horrible -- the floor was desperately in need of re-painting and the beds I had planted around them were disgracefully infested with weeds and grass. Since the gazebo is so far from my house, I rarely remembered to maintain the beds. I am re-seeding the beds back to grass so that they are easier to maintain, part of my downsizing of gardens. I'm trying to eliminate or make smaller a number of areas that are farther from my house and consolidate the closer beds.

AFTER: The newly spruced-up gazebo. I'm still working on re-seeding the beds with grass,
but it looks MUCH better now.

I've downsized the areas directly behind my house as well. The area to the left has been planted with grass, which is beginning to fill in, and the Yellow Garden, slightly reduced in size, is on the right, still a work in progress.

Here's another part of the Yellow Garden, which I've planted with shady plants of green and golden foliage. This garden is on the north side of my house, so the part closest to the foundation is shady, but there are sunny areas farther from the house, to the left of this photo. I hope the hostas will fill in and cover this tricky area.

I've made this bed next to my front porch/sunroom a bit narrower and easier to maintain, and have installed a plastic edging inside the edger bricks. The bed was completely taken over by nasty runner grass of some kind, and I'm hoping the edging, which comes in three-foot by six-inch interlocking sections, will keep it out in future. I'll leave this bed empty this year to make sure the grass is gone before re-planting it next year (I'll remove the clump of iris when it's done flowering too, as it is also infested with grass runners). Sadly, my delphinium bed was also absolutely taken over by this nasty runner grass, and no amount of digging has been sufficient to control it, so I'm invoking the nuclear option for it too -- I've moved out the delphiniums and will dig out everything, install edging plastic, and leave it empty this year, spraying any surviving grass. Grrr! That nasty grass is making gardening much less fun. Must keep it out!

OK, enough with the projects and challenging problems. Here are a few nice scenes from my gardens:

OK, to my English garden blog friends, this may not seem like much in the way of primroses, but I've tried to grow them unsuccessfully for years, planting dozens of them and coveting their flowers without any luck. Last year I noticed that one kind had survived and actually came back and bloomed for several years! The common Primula vulgaris with the crinkly leaves are expensive, short-flowering annuals here in my gardens. It's the smooth-leaved Primula auricula pubescens that will survive, and our local nurseries carry them! I bought ten more plants this spring and planted them on the north side of my garage, where two had already survived from last year. With any luck, the new ones will come back and flower for me next year. Yay -- finally I can grow primroses too!

A closeup of the lovely primrose flowers.

'Renkaku' tree peony in the North Island, with the deep red 'Hoki' peeking out behind.

'Pink Poppet' weigela on the east side of the tractor shed. I have planted four clematis to grow up the trellises I installed last year, and can't wait to see them in a few years. Last year, the dark pink lupines bloomed at the same time as the weigela, which looked really nice, but no such luck this year.
The North Border in early morning light, with alliums and a few perennials blooming.

What's in the mystery box on the porch in the 2nd photo?
My new lean-to greenhouse kit! It's quite small, 4'x6' base,
but I think it will help  me start seeds in spring. My sunroom
was nice in late winter, but by mid-March the sun angle
 was too high to provide much direct sunlight.
This keeps the sunroom cool in summer, but wasn't ideal for seedlings.
 I saw this half off at (about $350) and decided to splurge.
I'll put it on the south side of my garage, and use it next
spring, moving seedlings there in March after starting
them in the sunroom. I feel like a real gardener now!

Hope you are enjoying your mid-spring days and making progress on your own gardening projects. And Happy Mother's Day to everyone who has embarked on the most worthwhile of "projects." :-)

Thanks for reading!  -Beth

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mid-April: The gardening season begins!

Cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C.

Greetings! After returning from a wonderful trip with my family to Washington, D.C. and Colonial Williamsburg, I'm back in my gardens, starting to make some of the many changes that I have been planning since last fall. While in D.C. and Virginia, I was able to visit many beautiful gardens:

  • Williamsburg's numerous Colonial-style formal gardens
  • several Smithsonian Museum gardens
  • the iconic cherry blossoms planted around the tidal pool in D.C.
  • the U.S. Botanic Garden's magnificent conservatory
  • the reconstructed gardens of George Washington at Mount Vernon
  • and the stylish gardens designed by Beatrix Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown. 
I took many photos and got a number of ideas, and have returned inspired to work in my own gardens.

Being away for the first ten days of April, I could really see a difference in my gardens when I returned -- spring had sprung while we were gone! I'll share a few scenes from what's been happening around here in the last couple of weeks in this post, and show some of the areas I'm working on.

One area that has looked good is the early spring bulb border I planted a couple of years ago in front of our house:

Tulips, daffodils, and grape hyacinths in the early spring bulb border.

From the other direction, showing the crown imperial fritillaria and basket-of-gold. For some reason my fritillaria are only about two feet tall, when I know they're supposed to be 3-4 feet in height. Does anyone else have this issue?

Fritillaria michailovskyi, a much shorter fritillaria.

Tulips, hyacinths, grape hyacinths and alliums coming up in my front border. I completely re-did this border last year, after problems with invasive (so-called) obedient plant. I'll mostly plant bulbs and annuals here for a while.

There are a number of nice things blooming in other areas of my gardens now, but there are also some areas that don't look so great because I've been digging and transplanting things in them, as well as downsizing several areas.

I'm redoing my east patio garden beds. I plan to make a scented garden area, with mostly plants that smell nice (and hopefully look good too). 

A few days later, after everything has been sprayed and then cleared out of the left two beds. I'll wait a couple of weeks, have my husband spray any weeds that come up once more (we have a real problem with runner grass and creeping charlie in many of our beds that I'm trying to get a handle on -- I'm thinking of installing deep metal edging around the beds to try to keep it out). Then I'll start planting the many scented shrubs, perennials, annuals and bulbs that I have been planning for this area.

I reduced the length of my Rainbow Border, to make it easier to maintain, and I've been moving the plants around to fill in the space more closely so that weeds have less room to get started.

Another view of the end of the Rainbow Border, showing the removed area. I'll install the edging bricks properly in the next week or two.

I did the same thing with the Yellow Garden, reducing the size to make it easier to care for and planting more densely. The extra stepping stones have since been moved to another area.

Another view of the back (north) side of our house, showing the large area that has been removed and seeding with grass. I'll leave a narrow bed against the house to make mowing easier.

The past two weeks since we returned from our trip has been an orgy of digging and moving plants around for me. It's hard work but it's also very satisfying, because I've been planning these changes since last year and thinking about them all winter, so it's great to finally be able to start doing them. There are still numerous projects I want to do, but I just need to keep working on them little by little before it gets too hot to move plants (or to move myself, for that matter).

Hope you are enjoying a lovely spring and getting a good start on your own gardening projects this year. Thanks for reading!  -Beth

Friday, March 17, 2017

March: Both Spring and Winter at the Same Time

Hello, everyone! It's Mid-March now, and spring seems tantalizingly near. This March has been a mix of early spring and winter returning. February was unusually warm, as was the first week of March. A number of early spring flowers bloomed ahead of schedule in my gardens:

These rock garden iris on the south side of my house were the earliest thing to bloom here, in the last week of February.

These daffodils against the east side of my house
are always the first daffs to bloom.

Winter aconites are popping out near a large tree in my back yard.

But in the last week or so, we had one day where the temperature reached the low 70s, followed by an intense hailstorm, with 1&1/2-inch hail stones. This was followed a few days later by high winds that blew several shingles off of our garage roof. The insurance adjuster was out here yesterday, and said the roofs of our house, garage, two sheds and gazebo were all damaged.


After a few more days of nice weather, snow arrived on Monday, followed by cold temps as low as 12°F, which cut short a few blooms outside:

The white stuff....

But the snow mostly melted by Friday (today). I even worked outside in today's sunny 60° temps.

Here's a project I wanted to get done, adding edging bricks to this bed in front of my garage. Grass keeps creeping in, and I'm hoping this will help.

Seed Starting

But mostly I've been working with starting flower seeds indoors (where the weather extremes don't make much difference), and taking care of the many tropical plants growing in my sunroom:

First I start the seeds on this shelf, on a heat mat.

Then the seedlings get a spot right in front of the south-facing sunny windows in my sunroom. The large pot at right, and the five square pots at left, are sweet peas in various stages of growing indoors.

My orange tree, which was attacked by some sort of fungal problem in January, seems recovered enough to flower with heavenly-scented tiny flowers, which I take to be a good sign. I've just been trying to keep it alive until I can put it outside in May, so this is encouraging.
Having a Winter Garden keeps me happy, even when snow, hail and high winds wreak havoc outside.

Warm weather followed by cold isn't just ruining a few of my own flowers: We're headed to Washington, D.C. in a couple of weeks, a trip which I scheduled for this time of year specifically in order to see the famed Cherry Blossom Festival trees. Alas, most of the cherry trees bloomed several weeks ahead of schedule, and now they have been ruined by the ice storm that hit the Northeast this past week. But some of the trees may still be blooming when we go though, just not the well-known Yoshino trees. I'm sure there will be other beautiful things to see in Washington's many gardens: Mount Vernon, Dumbarton Oaks, the Smithsonian Gardens, the US Botanic Garden and also in Colonial Williamsburg's many small gardens, which I am hoping to see.

I hope your own gardens are weathering the... weather, and that spring will henceforth come in more like a lamb than a lion, in all our gardens. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Sunday, February 12, 2017

February Report

The sunroom has been sunny a few days recently, which has been lovely. I installed a new shelf on the wall at right, on which my orchids are now growing.

Greetings from winter in Iowa! It has been a strangely warm, overcast winter this year -- after several very cold nights (nearly -15°F) in December, we've hardly gotten colder than 20° at night and days in the 30s, which is very strange for what is usually a much colder time of year in this part of the country. And this past week we've had several days in the upper 50s. Those have been very enjoyable.

But with the comparative warmth has come, of course, cloudy skies, which has been unfortunate from the standpoint of spending time lolling in the sunshine in my sunroom. Perhaps only one or two days each week were sunny during most of January. But that did mean that I got a lot more work done on my book I'm writing about historic Iowa gardens -- I would really like to finish that project this year. 

At any rate, I have been able to enjoy a few days among my plants. Other than dealing with a fungal problem on my orange tree (which involved spraying a copper fungicide and trying not to breathe it or get any on my skin), puttering among my many plants has been quite enjoyable over winter. Here are a few scenes:

My sweet peas are gaining height.

I potted on my stocks (Matthiola) seedlings into a window seed starting tray.

I know many people cannot stand the scent of paperwhite narcissus, but I like them, and they
have made my sunroom smell very nice. The jasmine plant at left also has been blooming
with wonderfully scented flowers.

I used the gift certificate my husband gave me for Christmas from Logee's, and the weather was miraculously warm enough for several days for them to ship my order of tropical plants! Here are some of them potted up: Clerodendrum (Chains of Glory), Jasminum polyanthum (Winter Jasmine), Murraya paniculata (Orange Jasmine), Plumeria obtusa 'Dwarf Singapore Pink', Osmanthus fragrans 'Fudingzhu" (Sweet Olive -- which already has wonderfully scented tiny flowers), and a 'True Rose' Pelargonium. I can't wait for them to grow and flower!

My kitchen window, with the many brightly colored primroses that I found at Aldi for $0.99 each last month. They're still blooming their cute little faces off after several weeks! Have I mentioned how much I love Aldi?

I never knew that Sansevieria bloomed. The tiny flowers, to my surprise, were strongly
scented and smelled wonderful. I found this plant almost ready to bloom at (where else) Aldi, 
and bought one even though I always thought Sansevrieia were such a boring plant that I never 
intended to buy one. (Except for the 'African Spear' cylindrical kind, which is pretty cool.)

So that's it for inside. Usually at this time of year there's not much to say about outside, but it's been so warm that I walked around last weekend and took a few photos:

My east patio area, which I'm planning to redesign the planting of this spring.

I know my patio area doesn't look like much right now, but I've been planning to re-do it this spring, to make a Scented Garden. I'll move the plants that are currently here to other beds and plant only plants with nicely scented flowers or leaves: a couple of new highly scented roses, and a number of annuals from seeds that I have ordered. I'll also add several shrubs such as an extra mock orange that I have elsewhere, a small reblooming lilac and some peonies I need to move. Plus some tender bulbs for summer. And in fall I'll add some scented bulbs for spring. I've been reading a number of books about scented plants this winter to research what I will plant.

Here's the area last June. 

I'll move most of the rose bushes that are in the above photo to the beds in front of my sunroom, and move the other things to other beds that need more plants. (The hollyhocks in the photo above are completely self-seeded biennials, and I'll move any that spring up to other beds too.)

Along the east side of my house, the daffodils are already up.

As I walked around last weekend, I noticed that the daffodils next to the east side of my house are already up, and look like they've been up for several weeks already. This is unusually early.

But it's OK with me if spring holds off for another six weeks. I still have lots of work to do on my book before spring arrives, when I will need to spend all my time outside working nearly every day. My plant-filled sunroom has made winter so much more bearable -- even if I haven't been able to enjoy so many sunny days in it as I might have wished. But this next week's forecast calls for mostly sunny days, so I might not get much done....  :-)

Hope your winter is progressing well and that you are enjoying making plans for your own gardens this spring. Thanks for reading! -Beth