Monday, May 15, 2023

My New Garden Project


Greetings! I'd like to share with you my new garden project, which I've been thinking about doing for some time now. (I apologize for the long post.)

I've noticed for some years now that I enjoy the gardens that are closer to my house much more than those areas that are farther away or located in places where I rarely see them. This makes sense, of course, and not just because I'm able to enjoy them more often because they're closer. Also, I remember to maintain them, which is much easier when they're right outside my door, and so they are more successful garden areas -- which are much easier to enjoy than garden failures.... :-)

So, I've been thinking that I might get rid of one or two of my more distant areas, and make better use of a spot in front of my house.

Here's my front yard last summer. My Paradise Garden is to the right, just out of the photo, and there were two rectangles of grass at the foot of my front steps.

And here's the Paradise Garden last July, with the center grass section at forefront. This garden area is pretty easy to maintain.

My Paradise Garden right next to my house is so much easier to maintain than other areas, both because it is close to my house (I can pad out in bare feet and casually pull a few weeds), and because the garden beds are surrounded by paving stones, so nasty runner grass isn't always invading the beds like it does in beds in other parts of my property.

So in late April, I paid my teenage son to use a sod-remover (a manual one that you kick with your foot, which he was able to get the hang of using) to remove the grass in the corner section of my fenced yard (see first photo).

Then, I used a shovel to excavate several inches down, where garden paths would be laid...

...ordered a bunch of pavers, gravel and sand to be delivered, and paid my handy son to help lay the paths. I then began to dig over the planting areas to loosen the soil that had been below the sod.

I'll plant the two triangular beds with annuals this year (probably this week), in case there's still some runner grass in the soil that needs to be eradicated. (I tried to pick out as many roots as possible when digging over the beds--that's what the bucket was for--but I probably missed some.)

I'm hoping these beds will be much easier to maintain than some of my other garden areas. I haven't yet decided what to call this new garden: the Corner Garden? the Diagonal Garden? the Triangle Garden? Hmmm... what do you think?

But I must eliminate some more difficult garden areas in exchange for this new one--that's my rule: any new garden must be offset by eliminating two old garden areas (or a much larger one).

So, I'm afraid I will be getting rid of a garden that hasn't been working so well for the past year or so: the Rainbow Border.

I made the Rainbow Border back in 2012. At first, I tried to plant it in sections with flowers in the order of the colors of the rainbow: ROYGBIV.

Here's a long-distance view of the Rainbow Border back in 2014. The Orienpet lilies made a pretty good show in July, preceded by early June perennials and followed by zinnias and other annual flowers.

After a while, the Orienpet lilies I planted declined and mostly disappeared--I think it's possible that the red cedar windbreak behind the border interfered with their ability to grow in that spot. Some perennials seemed to do better, so I let go of the ROYGBIV plan and mixed up the colors, but still tried to stick with brightly colored flowers in all colors of the rainbow.

This looked pretty good for a few years. Here it was in 2019 and 2021:

Very colorful in late May/early June....

This was a respectable perennial border, even in June of 2021.

But there were some problems with the Rainbow Border: first, it was infested with grass that was impossible to dig out. I sprayed that grass with Ortho Grass-B-Gone, which did help, but I don't think it took care of the problem entirely. And the red cedar windbreak behind it was probably not so good for the plants.

And the border looked OK around June 1st, but looked ratty later in summer, because the annual flowers I planted there never seemed to grow very well.

In mid-July 2022, the border just looked ratty, weedy and blah. Maybe that was just a bad year, but this made me wonder why I still have this border.

The Rainbow Border is a fair amount of work to maintain--which, when it looked good, didn't bother me so much. But hard work and bad results is tremendously discouraging. 

So, I've made the decision to eliminate the Rainbow Border, and move the best of the remaining plants to other areas in my gardens that need additional plants:

This border in front of my house, shown in 2020 after I fixed the edging, still doesn't have enough planted in it. I removed the two large clumps of yarrow/Achillea and moved them to my Yellow Garden, and this fall or next March, I will move many of the Rainbow Border May/June perennials here.

My Yellow Garden behind my house could use some of the yellow flowering perennials from the Rainbow Border.

And my Front Border in front of the white picket fence might look nice with a few of the Rainbow Border plants.

Anyway, that's what I've been working on, thinking about and making decisions about this spring. I'll show the results of my changes over the next year as they occur.

I hope your own gardens are easy and enjoyable to maintain, and thanks for reading about my efforts to make mine easier. -Beth

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Spring is Here!


Greetings after a long winter! Somehow it's already May, and it seems like most of Spring has snuck by me.

There were some nice days in April, but also some stretches of cold, wet, windy days, so I've done very little in my gardens until recently.

But it certainly seems like I've been busy all winter -- a quick update on what I've been up to: 

  • My retail store was destroyed in early October, and finding and remodeling a new space, re-ordering all the inventory and furnishings, and getting going again was incredibly time-consuming through February (I'm still dealing with the insurance).
  • Then I got terribly sick with influenza in mid-December, which took over a month to recover from; followed by two colds, one three weeks ago from which I'm only now feeling strong enough to work outside after. 
  • My husband had hip replacement surgery several weeks ago and he's needed my help
  • and I published my latest garden history book last week:

My book is about a Japanese garden builder who lived in Chicago during the early 20th century. In my earlier book, Iowa Gardens of the Past (2020), I included a short section about a c.1930 Japanese-style garden in Muscatine, Iowa, now part of the Muscatine Art Museum grounds. The museum director asked me to look into the history of their garden, and I discovered that it was likely built by that Chicago garden builder. But almost nothing was known about him, so I wrote a book about his life and work (he built numerous rock gardens and Japanese-style gardens throughout the Midwest). This was really quite fascinating -- I learned about Japanese samurai (his father was one), the Japanese-style gardens built at World's Fairs, classical Japanese garden manuals, Chicago history, and many other topics -- as well as the stories of the wealthy clients who hired him to build gardens for them. Perhaps obscure, but tremendously interesting work.

But spring marches on, no matter how many other things we're doing. Here are a few pictures of some spring scenes around my gardens from the last month:

This "patio" dwarf ornamental peach tree has never bloomed more a few flowers in the decade I have had it, so I was astounded by the copious flowering this spring! I guess the weather was just right this year, plus, I did cut back some of the limbs last fall -- perhaps that further stimulated it. Whatever the cause, it's been beautiful.

This Magnolia 'White Rose' in my North Island flowered well this year too.

The North Border is looking pretty good this spring. My teenage son put two loads of wood chip mulch on last fall as a birthday present for me, and it's much less weedy than usual -- I'll have to stay on top of the weeds this year...

This Korean Spice Viburnum makes the whole yard smell wonderful.

Not so many tulips this year -- I planted a bunch of them two autumns ago and they made quite a show last spring, but only a few are left among the self-seeded bachelor buttons coming up.

This tiny fern-leaf peony is doing well in my Paradise Garden right next to my front porch, where I can see it up close and personal.

And this is the newest addition to our household: meet Henry (1/2 Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, 1/2 rat terrier). He has a rather bad dog mischievous look on his little face, don't you think? He does still need to be trained to not chase our two cats, and I'm discovering that he likes to "help" me in the garden rather too much. But he'll soon pull more than his own weight in the garden, by keeping away deer, rabbits--and the coyotes that we see encroaching in the corn fields around us (I feel uneasy letting our cats out at night, where they really want to be on warm nights, since our last dog, Puppy, died last autumn at age 14).  

We have finally been enjoying a few days of nice weather this week, and it's been good to be able to get outside and start clearing out the beds I haven't been able to get to yet. And I have been working on a new garden project, which I'll show in my next post. 

Until then, I hope you are enjoying some beautiful warm late spring days in your own gardens. Thanks for stopping by! -Beth 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Summertime Flowers


Greetings! It's been a floriferous time here in my gardens. My Paradise Garden (pictured above) has been particularly flower-filled this last month. 

The Paradise Garden has been one of the most successful garden areas I've made since I started gardening more than a dozen years ago. I think that's because it's located so close to my house, which makes it easy to take care of. (I can pad out in my bare feet while I'm on the phone and pull a few weeds.) Also, it has two seating areas, and my husband and I enjoy sitting in it nearly every evening on warm nights.

The Paradise Garden was bursting with color a few evenings ago.

Here's a closer picture.

And from the back corner. Lots of daylilies and self-seeded flowering tobacco.

Another area that has turned out well is the east patio area, which I planted in a tropical garden theme a few years ago. I continue to do this each May and also bring out my houseplants to enjoy the dappled shade under the pergola, where they really seem happy. Along with our cats:

Those petunias, snapdragons and flowering tobacco at forefront re-seed themselves every year -- free flowers! And the view from the patio is lovely across the fields. (Both our cats like to snooze under the table.)

Here's what the border behind the patio table looks like, with houseplants, a coleus, more self-seeded snapdragons and a couple of hydrangea shrubs that over-winter.

The secret of these successful areas is their proximity to my house, so that it's easy for me to take care of them (and enjoy them). 

So I'm planning some changes to my garden areas to eliminate larger borders that are farther away from my house, and move the plants to closer areas. I'll post more about the changes in a future post, but I'm excited to be making these plans.

I hope you're enjoying warm -- but not too hot -- days in your own gardens, and find them easy and enjoyable to maintain. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Spring is Here!


Greetings everyone! After a long hiatus of nearly a year, I thought I'd come back to post a few updates about what's been going on in our gardens. 

It's been an unusually cool, wet spring this year. While it seemed it might warm up in March, most of April was rainy and cold. Farmers will plant their fields very late this season because the soil has remained very cold until this week.

Here are a few pictures of what's blooming in our gardens:

Our forsythia is blooming exceptionally well this year. We let a nearby farmer put a few sheep in our pasture for a few months every year -- which is nice, because we don't need to take care of them and we still get to enjoy the pastoral look of them for a while each year.

I planted more tulips in this bed last fall and they look pretty cheerful this spring.

These flowering cherry and magnolia trees were looking very pretty the other day.

As were the crabapples near the pond garden.

The Evergreen Border behind my house is looking very colorful.

And here's a closeup of it, in its weedy glory.

The Herb Garden boxwoods are beginning to grow in, after cutting down every other one last spring. I think I may cut the rest down short to let them fill in, as many of them have leaves only on the ends of the branches.

And here's a big change we're making: removing the back part of the white picket fence that surrounds our front and side yard. We removed the fence sections to see how it might look, and will remove the posts and gate once we decide with certainty. I think I like the openness.

And it will allow us to make an opening directly into the Herb Garden from closer to our house (I'll remove a couple of the boxwoods to the right of the short white post at center). We'll leave the fence around the patio and the rest of the yard, which you can see the start of at the far right.

We're happy that spring has finally arrived here -- for a few days anyway, as it's supposed to be almost 90°F for three hot windy days this week, and many of these flowers will burn off and blow away. 

But that's Iowa: we get to enjoy all the spring flowers compressed into one week-long "springtime." Then it's "Hello Summer!" But it will warm up the soil finally, and the farmers can get going.

Hope you are enjoying a slightly longer springtime in your own gardens. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Monday, May 31, 2021

Boxwood Butchery

Greetings! Readers of my blog have probably noticed that I have many, many boxwood shrubs -- several hundred -- in my various garden areas. The most prominent boxwood planting is my Herb Garden, shown above in a photo taken three years ago. (This is one of my favorite pictures of my garden, because it shows my white picket fence, the formal Herb Garden, and the Iowa farm scenery beyond -- I feel the photo really captures the feeling of my gardens and their setting.)

The Herb Garden was the first garden area I made when we moved out here in 2008. I had wanted to make a formal garden area for years and had been planning the type of general layout I wanted even before we moved here. We had some grading work done in other parts of our property, to make the retaining wall for our garage and to smooth some lawn areas, so I had the guy with the bulldozer level up this area a bit too when he was out here.

Here's a photo of our house and property taken in fall 2007, before we bought the place. Our garage now stands where the trees at left stood, our driveway area is much larger, and we tore down the small leaning shed. And to the right of the house, the ground sloped down away from the house -- I had that area leveled up so I could make my formal Herb Garden there.

Here's the freshly laid-out Herb Garden, the following summer in 2008. The area is quite a bit more level than it was in the last photo, and I outlined gravel paths with about 200 'Green Velvet' boxwood seedlings that I bought from a nursery in Alabama.

The Problem

But there was a big problem with my boxwood hedges in my Herb Garden: I planted the boxwood seedlings too close together. Each of the beds is 4.75 feet wide and 11 feet long, and I planted the boxwoods less than a foot-and-a-half apart, not realizing that the tiny seedlings had a mature size of three feet wide.

This didn't get to be a problem for some time, because boxwood takes years to grow to mature size. 

Here's a picture from 2014: Six years after planting, the boxwoods were finally growing together nicely, and I was able to trim them into continuous hedges.

By 2018, the boxwood hedges had gotten quite a bit larger (you can see how much taller the hedges were compared to the solar lights at the entrance, from the previous photo). I needed to remove a lot of the growth each year, in order for there to be room in the beds for herbs to receive any light.

The boxwoods continued to grow. I trimmed them every year, but found myself needing to trim more off of them each time, so that there was room to grow herbs in the beds. The design still looked good, though.

But spring of 2019 was exceptionally wet. The previous autumn (Fall 2018) was unusually wet, plus a lot of snow melted off in winter, and then it just wouldn't stop raining in spring 2019. Our basement actually flooded with an inch or two of water that spring (our house is on the top of a hill and our basement is tiled for drainage, so this was very unusual).

I waited until July of that year when things were finally dry to trim the boxwoods -- it's a bad idea to cut them when they're wet, because it makes them more susceptible to diseases. But apparently that precaution wasn't enough to prevent a problem.

This photo, taken in May 2020, shows that there is a problem.

I didn't notice the problem until nearly a year later, last May -- although I had vaguely noted that the boxwoods hadn't grown as much during 2019 as they usually do. Looking back at photos from Fall 2019, it's obvious now that they weren't growing well.

But by May 2020, the problem was all too visible: there were dead branches and whole dead areas on many of the boxwood shrubs.

Boxwood Blight?

For years now, I have been terrified that the dreaded Boxwood Blight will infest my gardens like it has in England and, to a lesser degree, in the eastern and southern US. There is no effective treatment for it, and it would necessitate the removal of my hundreds of boxwoods -- including this entire Herb Garden area. (When we returned from our trip to England in 2019, I scrubbed the bottoms of our shoes with disinfectant before getting on the return plane. Don't laugh: we visited a garden the day before our flight home in which the boxwoods looked horribly diseased.)

When I saw this damage, my heart nearly stopped. I immediately contacted our state Extension's Plant & Insect Diagnostic Clinic last May, but they were closed for lab work due to the coronavirus -- although people were answering emails.

So I did some more research online myself, and I realized from the symptoms that it's likely not Boxwood Blight (a fungal disease caused by Calonectria pseudonaviculata), which causes the boxwood leaves to fall off the plant.

Instead, it's likely Volutella blight (caused by the fungus Volutella buxi / Pseudonectria buxi), in which the leaves die but remain on the plant. The Extension person who emailed me agreed from the photos I sent that this was likely the case (although she wasn't able to do a lab confirmation).

Here's what the inside of that hedge with the dead streak looks like: interior dieback, but with the dead leaves retained on the plant.

Plus, I closely looked at some leaf samples, and they matched the descriptions of the symptoms described in the linked article from the Tennessee State Extension:

There are some "black streaks on petioles" (where the leaves attach to the stems), but not streaking
all the way up the stems, like in Boxwood Blight.

And here are the "salmon pink colored fruiting bodies (sporodochia)" mentioned in the article.

So the (very) good news is that my Herb Garden boxwoods are not the first documented case of Boxwood Blight in the state of Iowa. (Although it's still probably only a matter of time until it arrives, as it's been found in Illinois and Missouri, our neighboring states -- but not today.)

The outlook seems pretty grim, as many of the states around Iowa already have spotted boxwood blight there. Only a matter of time....

But the bad news is that I still have a blight problem, albeit one that that I might, with time, be able to mitigate and, with luck, be able to save my boxwood shrubs.

Boxwood Butchery

Two weeks ago I (and my 15-year-old son) began my radical project: to remove every other boxwood shrub in my Herb Garden and trim out the dead branches, opening up the remaining parts of the shrubs to more air circulation. With time, the remaining boxwoods might fill in and make a (looser) hedge again. I'll also treat the boxwoods with a copper-based fungicide over the next few years.

Here are a few photos, to revel in the carnage:

Like a crenellated castle wall.


After sawing off every other shrub, Step 2 is to cut out the interior dead branches and knock out all of the dead, diseased leaves trapped inside each shrub. This is pretty time-consuming, and I had to stop when it started raining two weeks ago -- but as soon as things dry out I'll resume this work.

And the lower limbs of each shrub that were lying along the ground need to be trimmed off, so air will be able to circulate under the shrubs. And note all those dead, diseased leaves from years of trimmings littering the ground. Those were hidden by the lowest limbs before.

There are literally heaps of boxwood leaves on the gravel paths. The leaves are so tiny it's difficult to rake them up effectively. But years of leaf detritus -- especially the diseased leaves covered in spores -- must be removed and burned, or disposed of in the garbage.

This arrived today. I should have bought one of these years ago to suck up the leaves after trimming the boxwoods -- I trim them every May or June. This kind of leaf hygiene might have helped prevent the blight in the first place, and I'm planning to use it from now on each year to keep the paths and the interior of the shrubs tidy.

Here's a view from an upstairs window, showing the butchery in all its gruesomeness. My Herb Garden hedges are going to look like a mouth with every other tooth missing for probably the next three to five years. Oh well. 

I had planned to open my gardens this year, but it might be a few more years until I do that now. But I really do hope that eventually the boxwoods will look good again -- and be healthier too. I'm a patient gardener and the years will pass before I know it. With some luck, this, my first garden area, will eventually be rejuvenated.

I hope your own gardens are beautifully blight-free, and that you are enjoying warm spring days outdoors. And thanks for reading this long and somewhat cheerless (but still hope-filled) post. Best Regards, -Beth