Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Iris Moment

I love irises! Especially the majestic tall bearded ones. (Although I did have to stake some of mine for the first time this year after they flopped over, so I might revise my opinion of the tall kind in future.)

Anyway, here are some of the rainbow of irises I've had in the gardens this week (many from my Rainbow Border, which contains a progression of rainbow colors; white, pink, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple and back to white again). Since irises are one of the only flowers that come in every color of the rainbow, I thought they were important to include in the border:

White irises 'Immortality' in the Far White Section
of the rainbow border. There are some white irises
in the Near White Section too, but they
were surrounded by oxeye daisies
and didn't photograph well.
Pink irises in the Pink Section. These flopped over and I had to
stake them... although they are very pretty in an old-fashioned
pink color.
'Red at Night' in the Red Section. This is the first time it's bloomed
after being planted for two years.
'Avalon Sunset' in the Orange Section. Very distinctive.
Yellow iris in the Yellow Section.
Unfortunately I don't yet have a green iris or a blue
one in the Rainbow Border yet, although I will
remedy that this fall. I plan to order a
green-flowered iris and perhaps divide this blue
one from the North Border to add to the
Rainbow Border.
The Purple Section has this same kind of purple iris that
was here when I moved to this property, although this is
a photo of my front border, since the ones in the Purple
Section were done flowering.
Some small yellow and burgundy irises next to my
front porch that I got from a friend who was
moving to Liberia for a couple of years.
Some yellow and pink irises that were here when I moved here. I have
divided them and moved them around, adding many to the Front Border. 

The Iris Time is such a lovely time of year, and its arrival (finally) is so well-deserved after such a hard winter. Apparently I'm not alone in admiring these classic flowers: The Sissinghurst Garden blog recaps the trendy flowers at the world-famous Chelsea Flower Show in the UK; irises are one of the flowers enjoying a moment of popularity at the Show. Despite the threat of the borers, they remain a perennial favorite for many gardeners among late spring flowers.

Thanks for reading! -Beth

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Amish Flower Auction

**UPDATE (April 2021)**  People continue to email me to ask about the auctions (I don't attend them every year, so I'm really not a very good source of info about them, really...). Here is the latest contact information I have about them:

Twin County Produce Auction Facebook Page with latest information: 

**UPDATE (April 2017)** A number of people have contacted me about attending auctions (because the Amish do not have phones to contact them directly). This is the latest information I have about the Amish auctions: The Twin County Produce Auctions are held on Tuesdays and Fridays at 10am at their new auction building at 2250 540th St. S.W., Kalona, IA 52247, behind Stringtown Grocery in southern Johnson County, just off Highway 1 at the old Cheese House/Kalona Creamery corner. I see a phone number listed online for them (319) 930-8402, but I have not called it and don't know if any one answers (you shouldn't call on Sunday, at any rate). The auction schedule may change in midsummer as more edible produce becomes available (possibly to M-W-F), so you should check before driving a long way. Here's an article about it from 2016. And their Facebook page (superseded by the Facebook page above).


I live in an area of southeast Iowa where many Amish people reside. Many evenings, I hear the clip-clop of horses' hooves as Amish men and women drive their horse-drawn buggies past my house, and I often see them in local stores.

The Amish traditionally made their living from small crop farming, but land shortages as the Amish population has increased have led many Amish families to earn money through less land-intensive greenhouse growing, and as proprietors of retail stores that cater to both Amish and non-Amish locals, as well as in other trades such as carpentry.

The nursery/greenhouse with the best prices in this area is the Maple Avenue Greenhouse on the north edge of Kalona, run by an Amish family (I think I went there four times last week...).

But another good way to get a good deal on plants -- large quantities of them -- is at local flower and produce auctions, which sell wholesale lots of flowers and whatever produce is in season locally. I attended last Tuesday's auction, as well as today's.

Our local flower and produce auctions are held every Tuesday and Friday morning from late April through the end of harvest season. Until this year, they were held at a local non-Amish auction house, but apparently (according to a young Amish person I spoke with) some long-standing disagreement between the Amish growers and the non-Amish auction house owners caused the Amish to open their own auction house this year and eschew the non-Amish one. I think the auctions will eventually be held at the upgraded Stringtown Grocery (Amish bulk groceries), but until their new building is completed, the auctions are temporarily taking place next door at the Central Discount Grocery, a local "scratch & dent" discount store run by Amish owners.

Central Discount Grocery, an Amish "scratch & dent" discount store only a few miles from my house, where the flower auctions are being held temporarily.

Last Tuesday's auction was huge, since the weather was finally conducive to planting tender annuals. People were definitely ready to buy flowers! There were hardly any parking spots left in the large parking lot, and crowds of people were bidding on numerous lots of hanging flower pots, flats of annuals and assorted pots of perennials. It was very exciting, although I didn't see anything I wanted to bid on myself.

(Last April, however, I did bid for and win four flats of snapdragons. I had been longing for more snapdragons since I saw how well the ones I purchased at the Maple Avenue Greenhouse (MAG) had done a couple years previously, but I couldn't find any there the following year. I asked the MAG staff if they had more last spring, but they weren't sure they would get any, and they suggested that I look for them at the Flower Auction, where they purchased theirs for resale. I ended up with 48 four-packs of mixed medium-height snaps -- that's 192 plants, for $22! I did find a spot for all of them, and this year their seeds have started coming back up in spots. Also, I did buy one flat of snaps this year -- for $15 -- at the MAG.)

The trunk full of snapdragons I bought at the Flower Auction last year.

Although today's flower auction was smaller than last Tuesday's, it was still attended by quite a few people and had a good selection of flowers and some produce for sale too (and I was able to surreptitiously take a few photos).

For those who haven't been to such an auction, this is how it works: You try to get there a few minutes before the auction starts, so you can look at the flowers they have for sale, which are displayed in lots outside on rolling two-sided, tiered carts.

Perennial plants for sale.

Some good-looking annuals.

Beautiful hanging baskets. If you wanted six hanging baskets to hang across the length of your front porch, you'd probably pay much less for the lot of six here at the auction than at a supermarket or nursery.

Look at all those impatiens!
After perusing what's available, if you find something you want, take a look at the card attached to the cart that it sits on. In the left of the photo above, you can see the card.

A closeup of the card accompanying the impatiens. The top shelf contains 40 4" pots of Twisted Juncas or Corkscrew Rush. The second and third shelves each contain 8 flats of impatiens, probably 12 4-packs per flat.
The bottom shelf (Lot #1601) contains 4 flats of impatiens.

You might be asking yourself: "What would I do with 4 flats of impatiens?" That is rather a lot of impatiens (192 impatiens plants, to be precise). But if you owned a retail nursery, this would be a good way to augment your stock, possibly for a good price. Or if you took great pride in the large impatiens display in your front yard that your neighbors regard with great awe each year, this might be an affordable way to buy enough plants to fill the display.

At any rate, if you decided to bid on these impatiens, you would go inside the building and register for a bidding number. A photo ID with current address on it is required, to make sure you pay for anything you win. They give you a card with your bidding number on it and then you wait until the cart with the impatiens on it is rolled into the building and bidding begins on the lot you want (#1601).

The registration table is next to the door, behind the table where the Amish woman is selling snacks.
(The coffee might be free).

The auctioneer is at top left. He does the running auctioneer spiel to encourage bidders to bid higher, and is assisted by the Amish men surrounding him. The man on the far left is a bid spotter and helps the auctioneer identify audience bids by grunting and pointing. The guy to the right of the auctioneer records the winning bids. The man standing
at ground level with the microphone announces the lot number and the details of what  is being auctioned in each lot, while the other man holds up an example of the goods being auctioned, so everyone can see it. The younger men and boys help wheel in and out the carts.
But in order to bid, you need to understand how the pricing works. Otherwise you can end up spending a lot more than you think you're spending. In the case of the impatiens: Lot #1601 has 4 flats of 12 4-packs each (48 4-packs) of impatiens. The "x4" on the card tells you that they will be priced by the flat. So whatever amount is being bid will cost the bidder 4 times that for the total price.

I didn't stay for the bidding today, but my guess is that the auctioneer might start the bidding for Lot #1601 at perhaps $5. That would mean $5 per flat of impatiens for a total of $20 for all 4 flats. If no one wanted them at that price, the auctioneer would quickly drop down to a lower price to entice bidders, perhaps $4 for a total of $16. At that price, you would raise your card and he would acknowledge your bid, and ask if anyone would bid $4.50 for them ($18 total). Someone else likely would offer $4.50 and the auctioneer would then ask for $5, which if you wanted those impatiens, you would indicate you would pay ($20 total). Perhaps you would get them for that price or perhaps a nursery owner would want them (a nursery could fetch at least $20 for one flat of 12 4-packs, so $5 would give them a good profit). It would all depend on who was in the audience, and how much they (and you) wanted those impatiens.

If you won the bid for the impatiens, you would feel happy and exhilarated, and then go back to the registration table and pay for them, by check or cash. Then you could pull your car around to the front of the building and the helpful Amish children would help you load them in your vehicle. And away you'd drive with impatiens galore!

I was trying to take photographs as surreptitiously as I could while standing at the far back of the auction space, because the Amish do not like to have their pictures taken. There were some cute Amish kids at right,
with their bare little feet and straw hats, but I only caught a bit of them, because I was holding the camera at waist level and pretending to look elsewhere. They were very cute little kids.

Anyway, I think this is a fascinating way of buying plants. The excitement of last week's auction, when so many people attended and bid for so many beautiful lots of flowers, was exhilarating. If your area has such auctions, I highly recommend attending a few times. You can get a great deal if you want a large number of plants, and even just watching the bidding going on around you is quite interesting.

Thanks for reading!  -Beth

Monday, May 19, 2014

RIP: Winter Losses

My lovely ten-year-old Zephirine Drouhin roses, last summer.
These were the first roses I ever bought. No signs of life.
Requiescat In Pace.

Like every garden, my garden has suffered plant losses over the Winter of 2014, due to an unfortunate confluence of conditions that has been hard on Iowa gardens:
  • Two drought summers in a row
  • Exceptionally cold nights over the winter, down to -19F
  • Very little snow cover over the winter 

Here is the RIP Roll Call, plants that were DOA, dead on the arrival of spring:
  • about two dozen roses, including:
    • Chicago Peace (2)
    • Heirloom
    • Pascali (2)
    • Perfume Delight (2)
    • Miss All-American beauty (2)
    • Love
    • Mohave (2)
    • Sun Sprite
    • Kordes' Perfecta
    • Paradise
    • Cinco de Mayo, a beautful orangey, chocolate-colored rose
    • An unnamed red rose in the Red Section of the rainbow border
    • Golden Showers, a climbing rose I planted last year on the side of our tractor shed
    • Belinda's Dream, a beautiful pink rose in front of our porch that bloomed well all summer and into fall for almost five years.
    • It appears that the two own-root 'Blaze' climbers that I planted on the side of the garden shed last spring are devoid of life, although I'm going to give these some more time before I hoick them out.
    • Ditto on the two ten-year-old, own-root Zephirine Drouhin climbers I have growing on my front white picket fence (see photo above). They were the first roses I ever bought and I brought them with me from my last house. They made it through some hard winters over the last decade, and were established for five years in their current spot, presumably with good roots. And they were Zone 5 roses; somehow my Zone 6 own-root Rosa Viridiflora has come through all right, despite my certainty that I would lose that one. I'll wait longer on the ZDs, but I see no signs of life so far. Sigh.
My cutting rose garden. At least every third rose didn't make it.

  • ALL 20+ of my shasta daisies 'Becky'. I don't know why ALL of them died, even though they were planted in different areas, some more protected and some with better drainage than others. I just planted all of these last spring and they looked great all last year. I don't understand what could have happened.
Last year, my shasta daisies looked so nice.

Now there's just a great big hole where five plants used to be, at left.
Multiply this by three for the entire border, and that's a lot of space to
re-fill with new plants. 

  • All the wallflowers that I started from English seeds last year. I was really looking forward to seeing these biennials bloom in pastel shades after carefully starting seeds, potting them up, watering them in their pots all summer, planting them out in early fall, and watering them until winter set in. The best-laid plans....
So much work for so little effect.
These wallflowers are DEAD, DEAD, DEAD!

  • All the hollyhocks I started from seed, as above.
  • A common lilac (these are hardy to Zone 3!) Perhaps it has a blight of some kind.
  • A small burr oak that my husband planted on the south edge of our property.
  • My two 'Winter Green' boxwoods look almost completely burned, and more branches seem to still be turning straw-colored this month. I'll call them 'Winter Burn' boxwoods from now on -- if I don't dig them out.
Buxus 'Winter Burn'. The 'Green Velvet' boxwoods next to it are mostly OK.

But out of failures come opportunities to try new things: I have consolidated my rose cutting garden, and half that bed is now free, since I have moved a lot of plants out of that half, which was serving as a nursery bed for various plants. I think I will now fill that half of the bed with tall bearded irises. Despite the borer threat, I love irises. I'll buy some new ones and divide some that I have already and put them in that bed, perhaps with some lupines. One side of the bed is lined with peonies, so it should make a good late May display.

As far as the shasta daisies, I'll just buy more -- I must have them, and we'll see if they do better next winter. I never had any trouble with them before. We'll see.

But the good news is that most things are leafing out and looking healthy. As mentioned above, my Zone 6 Rosa Viridiflora in the Green Section of the Rainbow Border is regrowing from its own roots, and the two climbing roses 'Super Dorothy' on the front porch pillars are leafing out all along their canes. Life goes on for most.
There is LIFE! My Zone 6 Rosa Viridiflora green rose
has made it through the winter!

One lesson learned: I'm only going to buy own-root roses from now on. Chamblee Roses has a good selection of own-root roses, and they are less expensive than Heirloom Roses, which does have a larger selection. They're not guaranteed to survive the winter (witness my Zephirine Drouhins), but all the other roses of mine that died were not the own-root ones.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Garden Visit: MOBOT Spring 2014

Greetings! My husband and I just got back from visiting good friends in St. Louis, Missouri this past weekend, and while there, we made time for our usual spring visit to the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT). Our trip was a few weeks later than usual, so we missed the peak of the spring tulips, cherry blossoms and flowering dogwoods, but there were still some azaleas blooming, and the irises and peonies were at their peak, among other beauties.

Here are a few snapshots:

The 14-acre Japanese Garden is easily the most impressive garden area.

I caught a bird trying to erase the carefully raked patterns in the sand...

The garden is full of beautiful vignettes like this one.

A lovely waterfall surrounded by azaleas and conifers.

The peonies were just coming out in the Japanese Garden.
The Iris Garden was truly at its peak over the weekend, and it was
really hard to get a photo without people in it (they swarmed
around the colorful flowers like bees).
What beautiful colors!
The entrance to the Chinese Garden.
A large Tai Hu stone. These are made of porous sandstone from the Tai Hu Lake area that
has been worn away by water, and are highly prized in Chinese gardens.
(I lived in China for two semesters when I was in college and speak Mandarin, so
I especially enjoy visiting this garden.)
A view across the pond in the Chinese Garden, from the other side of the Tai Hu stone, shown at right center.
Because I have been designing and planting my new island bed areas of mixed trees and shrubs, I found the MOBOT's examples of these, here in the Victorian District of the gardens, to be of great interest.
A shot of the Victorian District, taken from a Victorian-style observation tower. The house of Henry Shaw, the garden's founder, is pictured, with its high tower for even better garden observation. An evergreen maze is at bottom left, and the carpet bedding in the tapestry garden is just discernible at the far right.
The stand of Dawn Redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is truly impressive.
The trees were thought extinct until they were discovered in a valley in China.
A 1948 expedition yielded seeds that were distributed to botanical gardens,
including the MOBOT.
The Center for Home Gardening Flower Trial Garden demonstrates the performance of many varieties of pansies.
(I love pansies!)
Here I am, enthroned in the Ottoman Garden.
What a great (although somewhat hot) day for a garden visit! Every time we visit the MOBOT, I learn something new and get new ideas for my own gardens. I think this must be one of the very best public gardens in the Midwest, and I hope you'll get a chance to visit it yourself.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Tulip Time!

I meant to go to the Pella Tulip Festival in the town of Pella, Iowa, but again I missed it. Last year it snowed during the festival -- a lot of snow that totally ruined the festival -- and the year before we were busy. I guess the same could be said for this year; busy in the gardens.

But we've been having a pretty good tulip show of our own here in our gardens. Here are a few photos:

The Mint Circle, with Darwin Hybrid tulips I planted last fall. I hope these will come back for several years at least.

Another view from a different angle. More tulips just behind this bed, by the side of the porch.

Creeping phlox and red tulips I planted several years ago, on the other side of the fence in front of our house.
The Front Border, with pink and yellow tulips and grape hyacinths.

Some Lily-Flowering tulips in the Front Border.
Tulips in the White Beds, with a view of the new West Island, newly edged and partly mulched, beyond.
The North Border, behind my house, with groups of Darwin Hybrid tulips,  daffodils and alliums starting to come out.
I planted about 1,200 bulbs in this large border last fall.

The Rainbow Border, with red (Red Shine), orange (Ballerina),
yellow (Cistula) and green (Spring Green) lily-flowering tulips.

A closeup of the Ballerina, with Cistula and Spring Green behind.
I love Spring Green tulips. In fact, I love green flowers in general, and the Rainbow Border's green section gives me a chance to plant some. Allium 'Hair' is up in front.
Pink tulips in the Pond Garden.
Mixed Rembrandt tulips and a few double early ones. 'White Triumphator' in the background.

OK, so it's not exactly the Tulip Festival, which I still mean to get to next year (I really do!). But I think the tulips are looking pretty good in our own gardens. I love this time of year!

Thanks for reading. -Beth