Saturday, May 23, 2020

Tropical Madness

A closeup from my Paradise Garden: pansies and finally one bloom from the Ranunculus or Persian buttercups that I started in my basement. They sure are beautiful flowers, but I might need to buy plants in spring instead of starting a couple dozen from corms I buy in the fall, because mine never look anywhere as good as the greenhouse-raised plants.

Greetings! It's been a cloudy week here in Iowa, and it looks like it will be followed by a rainy one this coming week. But it's a warm rain, and it's starting to feel almost tropical here -- humid with highs in the mid-70s and lows around 60°F.

I've been moving some of my houseplants outside in anticipation of making a new tropical garden around my east patio. Temperatures have been warm enough for nearly every plant to come outside now, with the exception of the banana plant that I bought a few weeks ago -- apparently if the nighttime temperature drops below 57°F, the plant's growth is stunted. Who knew?

My new banana plant: it's called a blood banana (Musa acuminata
  var. zebrina) because of the dark red variegated pattern on the leaves.

Yesterday, the soil was finally just dry enough to work over (just in time before last night's rain). So I could plant my tropical garden, and many of the plants are now in the ground. Here's a few pictures of the process:

BEFORE: I had moved several shrubs from the four beds around the patio back in March, so I just needed to weed -- especially those invasive star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalium umbellatum) at front! -- and then prepare the soil for planting.

After a light weeding to remove large weeds, I used a garden fork to turn over and chop up the soil. Then I added a garden fertilizer -- you can see it sprinkled on top.

Next I put a 4" layer of compost on top of the soil and fertilizer. Our local landfill finally opened to residential traffic after being closed for two months due to the coronavirus. It re-opened Monday morning -- and I was there in the long line of pickup trucks when it opened at 7 a.m. to get the leaf compost I needed for this project.

Good, thick, rich, dark compost -- this and the fertilizer should make the soil good for fast growing tropical plants. I'll use a liquid fertilizer later in the season. 

Then, I finally got to plant the many annuals and houseplants that have been sitting on my front porch, acclimating themselves to outdoor temperatures. I planted several dozen plants and then watered them in just before dusk last night.

It rained this morning, and the air was soft and warm -- just right for tropical plants. Everything looks pretty small right now, but in six weeks, this should be looking a lot more tropical -- especially the castor oil plant that's flopping over from the rain at front left, which will become ginormous by summer's end. 

The back bed is looking the most developed, as it contains several large houseplants, including a Ctenanthe lubbersiana, at left, a couple of small leftover poinsettias, a Philodendron bipinnatifidum in the center of the bed, a small Colocasia that I bought on closeout last fall, two cat palms (Chamaedorea cataractarum) that I found a deal on back in February, and a Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis). 

A closeup of the Philodendron, the Colocasia and the three palms. There are also a few coleus plants spotted about for color, which should get bigger.

There are still a few plants that I ordered and are taking longer to receive because of the slowdowns, which I've left room for: a Colocasia 'Sumo' (I'm looking forward to seeing how big something named 'Sumo' will get), a variegated ginger and three stripey cannas 'Pretoria', as well as the aforementioned banana plant waiting in my sunroom.

The other beds have coleus, tropical hibiscus, castor oil plants I started from seed, and various orange flowered annuals such as begonias, snapdragons, impatiens and celosia.

And there were already clematis and a wisteria planted near the posts (which I still haven't gotten around to painting to match the white top of the pergola), plus the two boxwoods and a patio-sized peach tree that I like the look of -- those leaves look pretty tropical to me

And I'll put a few potted plants on the patio too, especially when they're blooming -- there's nothing like a gardenia, star jasmine or Stephanotis floribunda in bloom, all of which I have in pots.

The dwarf-size peach tree at right looks tropical enough to someone in Iowa....

Now it's just a matter of waiting until the plants put on some size. Plus, I'm looking forward to finding a few fun tropical decorative accessories, like a tablecloth for meals out here, and maybe some patio cushions. I already found a fun tropical cushion at Walmart the other day:

This new patio cushion in my sunroom will definitely be moving out to my
new tropical garden soon!

I hope you are all enjoying warmer days and nights in your gardens too -- or will be soon, if not already. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Friday, May 8, 2020

Tulip Time!

Greetings! We've enjoyed some beautiful days here recently: last week was warm, with temperatures in the 70s, although this week has been chillier, and there's a chance of frost tonight. But I had a chance to work outside most days the week before, so I've been able to do a few things that I've been hoping to do, and the gardens are starting to look a bit more orderly.

But I won't show any projects, just some beautiful moments -- because the beginning of May is one of the most beautiful times of the year:

These lily-flowering tulips 'Purple Dream' have bloomed for two years now -- the other lily-flowering tulips I planted in Fall 2018 have not come back. I'll have to remember the name of this variety when I'm buying bulbs this fall. 

The tulip 'Carnival de Nice' tulips are flowering in all their stripey glory next to a 'Red Charm' peony that I moved here this spring. These are pretty fabulous.

These 'Tete a Tete' narcissus are pretty tiny -- they started blooming a couple of weeks ago when they were barely out of the ground, looking ridiculously stunted in growth. But they've continued to get taller over the past week, and now they're a normal 6-8 inches in height (still miniature, but very cute).

These pink Darwin hybrid tulips are leftover from last year -- only a few left this year -- but they still look beautiful with the grape hyacinths in my front border.

The line of six crabapples planted across our yard have never flowered so beautifully as they're doing this year -- the scent can be smelled from yards away! And the four L-shaped flower beds around the pond are better-maintained this year, after I cleared them of all but the boxwoods and the roses in the corners. The back right boxwood shrub (the small one) has finally been put back after I removed it a couple years ago to get the nasty runner grass infesting that bed under control, and it has some catching up to do with its brother boxwoods. I intend to plant annual dahlias and petunias in the four beds this year, as the perennial dianthus and garden phlox that I had here before didn't work too well, due to the invasive grass problem. I hope annuals will be easier to maintain in these beds.

I'm hoping there won't actually be real frost tonight, but I've brought in all the numerous potted shrubs and plants that I re-potted and took outside from the basement last week when it was so warm, and I'll cover some of the annual flowers I planted out with sheets, just to be safe.

I hope you have been enjoying some warm spring days in your gardens recently -- there is snow forecast in the eastern United States this weekend, so I don't feel so bad about our possible light frost... we'll see what happens.

Thanks for reading! -Beth

Monday, April 20, 2020

The warmth returns

This magnolia has a wonderful scent

Hi Everyone -- I hope you have been enjoying warm days in your gardens so far this spring. It was quite nice here until this past week. We had enjoyed temperatures as warm as 80°F in previous weeks, but this past week has been terribly cold, with frost nearly every evening until now, blustery cold days of high winds, and even snow.

Easter morning was beautifully warm and sunny, and our teenage children enjoyed hunting for Easter eggs that they dyed and my husband hid in our yard -- something they have been "too old" to do for many years now, but which during our stay-at-home time seemed like a good activity, in between watching the local church service online and eating Easter dinner together. Familiar things bring comfort.

There's a hidden Easter egg peeking out behind these tulips on Easter morning.

I had been bringing plants outside to my front porch for the past several weeks to harden off and get better light during the many sunny days we had in prior weeks.

My potted exotic fruit trees (olive, pomegranate and fig) that had spent the winter
in the basement were outside acclimating themselves to the outdoors again, as were the
snapdragons, sweet peas and ranunculus plants I started inside, together with the
store-bought snapdragons and pansies at left. (I have to cover the seed flat with
chicken wire to prevent cats and dogs from regarding the tray as a soft bed and
totally smashing the seedlings, in case you were wondering...).

Needless to say, this past week my husband and I have needed to haul all these big pots and trays inside every evening before frost settles in, and I've put them all back out the following day. This has been rather a lot of work.

And then we even got 3+ inches of snow -- twice! This is pretty unusual for this late in April for us.

The white stuff, just when you're thinking it's done for the year.

But the warmth has returned again and it doesn't look like the lows should be much below 40°F during the next ten nights, with highs in the 50s and 60s.

So yesterday I worked outside for the first time in a whole week: I was able to cut back, rake out and weed the herb garden, which is shown in the snowy picture above.

The Herb Garden last month.

And yesterday after tidying it up -- it was a beautiful time to take a little break on the bench at back. It made me wonder why I don't sit there more often (a common thought among gardeners, I believe).

More bulbs are blooming:

Grape hyacinths and basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatilis) in my front border.

The bulbs always look so beautiful in spring, although I didn't plant very many last year and I can see that I will need to add more this fall. It seems like I always make this note to myself in April, but my intentions often fade by October.

I hope you are able to enjoy sunny, warmer days as spring unfolds in your gardens this year, and that you and your families are well as we slowly return to normal over the next months.

Thanks for reading! -Beth

Sunday, April 5, 2020

April Sunshine

Look at that golden foliage gleaming in the sunshine!

Greetings! Finally... some wonderfully warm, sunny days to enjoy outside. :-) It makes everything seem happier. I've been able to do a few things outside during the past week, and some days I've just been able to sit outside in the sunshine and soak it in. In these days of stressful news and economic shutdown, this makes everything seem... much better.

I realize that while sunshine makes people feel good, it results in photographs that aren't so good -- but that's what we have, so I apologize if the pictures in this post are a bit glare-y.

First, a few things I've gotten done:

BEFORE: My Rainbow Border a month ago still needed to be cut back and raked out.

AFTER: Cut back and raked out (with the massive amount of brush hauled off by wheelbarrow by my teenage son, who's really becoming useful around here...), the border is ready to soak up the sunshine. I still need to dig out some winter weeds, but clearing out the brush will hasten the emerging perennials, now that we've had some sunny days to warm the soil.

BEFORE: My East Patio garden area a month ago

AFTER: The same area after I dug out and moved several shrubs. A mock orange, a reblooming lilac (next to the two back posts in the previous photo) and a peony were no longer blooming much because the new pergola blocks too much of the sun for them. I have plans to make a tropical garden around this area, with tropical annuals and potted houseplants that I'll put here in May, so I needed to make room for the new plants. The shrubs have been moved to sunnier areas, where they'll be happier.

Greenhouse Woes:

And I have some sadly disappointing news: I finally decided that the greenhouse I got several years ago was just too utterly useless to go on as the eyesore it was. I had such high hopes for it when I ordered it and put it together back in 2017:

Here it was in all its hope-filled glory back in summer 2017.
I was so looking forward to using it the next spring.

Here it was only two months later, after a few windy days, with nearly every polycarbon panel blown out. The whole blasted thing probably would have blown away if I hadn't gotten our handyman to make a sturdy wooden base attached to our garage. And that wasn't even an unusually windy day. This happened repeatedly. I got seriously tired of looking for panels in the fields around our house. Grrr.
In the intervening two years, I tried everything to keep the panels in: extra clips (utterly useless); running packing tape around all sides; wrapping the whole thing in clear plastic and taping it in multiple places; riveting wood strips to the metal frame supports to physically hold the panels in place (which did work to some extent). But the panels themselves turned yellow in our intense sunshine, particularly on the ceiling, the sunniest exposure, and some of them broke in pieces last year. 

My husband and son finally undertook the sad work of putting it out of our misery.



I guess I didn't actually need a greenhouse, like most American gardeners don't need them -- they're quite rare here, even among serious gardeners. I was swayed into thinking I needed one by the British gardening culture, which makes extensive use of them to start seeds and grow things like tomatoes, which which England doesn't have enough sun and heat to grow outside.

But our climate makes them both utterly impractical (way too cold to heat in winter, way too hot to use in summer), and largely unnecessary (we can grow tomatoes outside here). As far as seed starting, a light fixture inside an already-heated house is far more practical and much cheaper too.

This florescent light fixture (on a timer) and heat mat in my sunroom work so much better to start seeds!

I suppose if I had masses of obscure seeds to start every year, I would need more than this, but many of the annuals I plant each year are those I just buy as starts at local greenhouses, which do a much better job of growing them on than I'd be able to. For unusual plants, I can start those myself here.

But it's still a disappointment that my greenhouse effort was such a dismal failure. Sigh....

But on a happier note, here's a few pictures of bulbs blooming in sunshine:

It sure is good to see these little guys about this time!

These hyacinths smell so good with the sunshine warming them, perfuming the whole area.
These white hyacinths in my Paradise Garden gleamed almost intolerably brightly in the sun, and were covered by bees.
These squill are always such a welcome sight.
This pussy willow (Salix) next to our LP tank is absolutely covered with bees in the sunshine -- it sounded like the inside of a hive when I walked past it this afternoon. Busy, busy....

Anyway, I hope you have been able to enjoy some sunny days in your own gardens this spring. It's more important than ever that we're able to get outside and enjoy our gardens in these stay-at-home times. I realize that I'm very lucky to be able to live out in the country amid such beautiful scenes -- and no problem social distancing here!

Hope you and your families are well, and that everything is soon back to normal, in whatever way we each need "normal" to be. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Late March hopes

A tiny crocus bloomed last week, open when the sun was shining -- which sadly hasn't happened again since then.

Greetings from the land of cloudy, cold days! After a few warm, sunny days earlier this month, the weather has been rainy, cold and/or windy (usually all three) nearly every day -- and the forecast for the next eight days looks no better. Worse still, it just now started snowing and we're predicted to get an inch and a half. :-(

A cold, overcast spring would get me down in any year, but in this month of social distancing, life would seem so much more cheery if it were sunny. Even if the temperature were unusually cold, some sunny days would make even just reading in my sunroom seem like a tropical vacation. But we gardeners know better than anyone that we don't get to choose our weather -- especially in springtime.

But we did have several sunny days earlier this month, and I was able to make the most of them: I have managed to get out a few times to start cutting back and raking out my garden beds. And I did even manage to get one small project done (see photos below). But because I am an avowed fair-weather gardener, all progress has since come to a halt and shows no promise of resuming any time soon. Maybe next weekend will be nicer....

A Project Completed:

The good news is that I did manage to get one small project done: fixing the edge of a border against my house. We built a library addition onto our house in 2011, and I made a border against the south wall of the addition. It's a great place for spring bulbs, south-facing with good drainage, so bulbs bloom earlier there than in many other parts of my gardens:

Here's a picture of the Addition Front Border a few years ago in April: the bulbs made a pretty good show there.

But the edging bricks that I laid back in 2012 had begun to sink down in one area to the left of the window, so grass was able to grow over the lowered bricks into the bed. For the past several years, I've had to dig out a lot of grass from this border every spring when I rake out the bed, and by autumn it's always grown back again. I finally decided to raise the level of the bricks.

Here's a photo of the area showing the extent to which the bricks had sunken down.
Grass invading! (And beautiful spring color.)

Last week, I decided to raise the edging bricks, but after I started to dig them out, I thought it might be even better to install a metal edging strip inside the brick edging as well, to more effectively keep the grass out. So I drove to our local improvement store and bought ten 8-foot steel edging strips, unloaded them at home, and installed everything.

This looks much better, and I hope it will keep the grass out. 

I installed the metal edging all the way along the edge of the lawn, against the bottom of the fence (inside of which is my Paradise Garden), and along the outside of the bricks outlining the end of my delphinium bed, which is part of my front border, shown at right. My delphinium bed was taken over by runner grass several years ago, so this will be a good improvement, I hope. 

I'll need to replace some of the soil that I repeatedly dug out from the Addition Front Border when I was removing the grass -- the soil level is now lower than it ought to be. But I'll be able to plant some more bulbs this fall, as well as other plants. Many of the old plants and bulbs were casualties of my war on grass over the past few years. With any luck, this area will now be easier to maintain and look better too.

It's good to get at least one project done before the rush of spring planting and other projects that always takes place in April.

I hope you have managed to spend some time outside in your own gardens, enjoying warm sunny days during this stressful time of self-isolating -- and, of course, that you and your families remain healthy. Best Regards, and thanks for reading! -Beth


Saturday, March 7, 2020

March is here!

Winter aconites (Eranthus hyemalis) are blooming -- the first flowers of the year!

Greetings! It's now finally March, which marks the beginning of meteorological spring (as opposed to astronomical spring, which begins March 21st or so -- it's on March 20th this year). But any sort of spring sounds good enough for Midwesterners after another winter.

Although I really can't complain -- this past winter has been pretty mild, as far as Iowa winters go.

We got two snows in October, which was unusually early and made me worry about the severity of the winter ahead. But the temperatures have not been nearly as cold as they often are: we got down to -7°F or so several times, but not much colder than that. (Compared to last year's particularly cold low of -27°F, this year has seemed like a balmy walk on a Florida beach!)

But now we're into March, which really does feel better -- especially since the snow is gone. Last weekend we enjoyed temps in the 50s and even up to around 60°F, and it was lovely to be able to walk around our garden areas again and look at things after the winter (and see all the work that should be done this month).

Here's a few shots of things in the first week of March:

We've been able to sit on the bench at right in the Paradise Garden already 2-3 times this winter on sunny warmer days, which has been very enjoyable. A few things need to be cut back and raked out before bulbs come up. And the paving stones at far left have settled down, so that soil from the bed next to the house keeps washing out over them when it rains. We'll need to re-lay that row of them so they're higher and slope away from the house, so that doesn't happen any more. But it won't be long until bulbs start coming up and it's time to plant a few cool-season annuals like pansies and snapdragons in this garden!

I never got around to pulling out all the dead annuals around our patio last fall, so that's pretty high on my list of things to do when we get a nice day. I also need to paint the posts of this new pergola we made two summers ago (they're treated lumber, so they needed to age a bit before painting them -- but they were damp during most of last year, which was exceptionally rainy, so I haven't gotten around to doing it yet). But I have plans for this area:

Another view of the same patio area. I'm planning to make a tropical garden around this area this year. I'll move the large mock orange shrub by the back left post (it no longer blooms, now that the pergola is shading it), as well as the reblooming lilac next to the back right post, and few other things too. Then I'll plant fast-growing tropical annuals as well as houseplants out for the summer around this area. It's hard to imagine a tropical garden here right now at the end of winter, but it will be fun to see how it works out by July and August, when we're experiencing tropical temperatures.

This is the sort of look that I'm aiming for around my patio:
foliage in shady areas, plus a few flowers in the sunnier areas.

Back to reality. My largest border (the border formerly known as the Rainbow Border, which I might just as well keep calling by that name) obviously needs to be cut back and raked out after winter. I've been working to improve the planting in this border for the past several years, and I'll continue to improve it this year.
The Rainbow Border looked better last year than it had before. Little by little....

I haven't posted since early November, but I've kept myself very busy over the winter finishing up my book, Iowa Gardens of the Past: Lost & Historic Gardens of Iowa, 1850-1980 ( and Facebook), which I hope to publish in early May. I can't be definite about the date, because I had it printed in China, and while it's done and has left the factory, the coronavirus has caused a snafu in the transpacific shipping schedules, and I have no idea if the 1,000 copies I ordered are on a ship yet or if they're still sitting in a container on the docks. Nothing to be done about it: Force Majeure and all that. They'll arrive when they arrive (before May, I hope...). And when they do arrive, I'll be pretty busy promoting and selling them for at least a couple of months.

On that note, if anyone is interested in receiving a free review copy, I'd love to send you one if you'll write a couple sentences about it on Just drop me a note in the comments.

But I'm also planning to make time to do a few small projects and improvements in my gardens this year too. I've never opened my garden to the public before, and I'm thinking that I might try to do so next year (not this year). I'll try to get things in order this year, and then spruce things up with new paint, etc. next spring. Because I live in a rural area about 15 minutes from town, I'll try to find 2-3 other gardens in my part of the county to open on the same day, and make it an "Open Gardens" event to draw more visitors from town.

I'll need to do an assessment of the areas in my gardens and make a few improvements, and then I'll feel good about opening it to the public for the first time. I know that gardeners open their gardens all the time (and in fact I encourage gardeners in town to share their gardens for our local Open Gardens Weekend, of which I'm the chair, so I have no excuse not to do this myself), but I'm still a bit nerve-racked when thinking about opening my own gardens. I guess I need to live a bit more dangerously....

Anyway, I hope that spring is arriving pleasantly for you in your own gardens, and that many warm, sunny days are just around the corner for you. Thanks for reading! -Beth

These daffodils are up and they show that things are starting.