Friday, September 25, 2015

A Big Change for my North Border (Next Year)

This photo, taken from an upstairs window, shows a rough outline (using a garden hose) of my planned new border shape, as well as the existing North Border. (The far left end of the existing border extends beyond the new outline to the edge of the photo, but it was entirely filled with weeds, so I mowed it off.)

I've been thinking for some time now that I need to totally redesign my North Border. This large border, 60 feet long by about 12 feet deep, has been beset by problems from the beginning:
  1. This is the border that I see from my kitchen window, and because it is a perennial, annual and bulb border, there is nothing for me to look at out there for about half the year.
  2. It's been hard to find enough tall perennials to fill the back third of the border, so that part has been taken over by weeds. In fact, it's not just the back third, the middle section is hard to reach and not tightly filled with perennials, so weeds reign.
  3. The left (west) end is in shade by noon from the large ash tree at the left side of the photo, so it's been hard to get anything to grow or flower in that area. Cue the weeds.
  4. The long rectangular strip shape of the North Border doesn't match very well with the newer curvy island shapes next to it. I would like to the bed shapes to relate to each other more cohesively.

So my plan is this:

  1. Reduce the length of the border, eliminating the shadiest 6-8 feet at left, to increase sunlight and flowering in the remaining border.
  2. Next spring, move the better performing herbaceous plants from the existing border into a new, smaller, curvy front area (perhaps to be called "The Summer Border"). 
  3. Plant only evergreen trees, shrubs and perennials in the existing border area (which could be called "The Winter Border"). Perhaps with a rock or statue or other permanent hardscape features for winter interest.
  4. Heavily mulch the entire back area (the current existing border) with wood chip mulch around the evergreen trees and shrubs, to inhibit the weed problem. 

In winter and early spring, I would have the evergreen border and hardscape feature(s) to look at. I got the idea for doing an all-evergreen border from a photo I saw on

This photo from provided me with some ideas for my own Winter Border. This border is called the Vermont All-Season Color Garden, and is a good idea for a place like Vermont that has especially long winters. (The warmer parts of Vermont are the same hardiness zone as here in southeast Iowa -- Zone 5B -- but the northern parts of the state are in Zone 3B, which can get as cold as -35F (-37C)!) Our growing season is longer than theirs, but winter still lasts too long in my opinion, and some bright colors and green foliage would be nice to see in the depths of winter.

I'm not sure that I will plant quite so many trees and shrubs as are shown in the Vermont All-Season Color Garden (it appears to be a bit crowded, and I'm not sure what will happen when the trees grow in size). And in addition to conifers, I think I might try to include some evergreen plants that are not conifers in my Winter Border:

  • shrubs like holly and rhododendrons
  • perennials that often maintain their foliage over winters -- last January, I noticed that there were a number of perennials that kept their foliage in my gardens: dianthus, Iberis sempervirens, phlox subulata, Veronica spiccata, lamium, Polemonium, hellebore

Those evergreen plants would give me something to look at in winter. In late spring, summer and autumn, the herbaceous plants and annuals in the front section (the Summer Border) would grow up in front of the evergreen border and provide the flowering that I crave to see out of my windows, and as that section is smaller than my current border, it would be easier to maintain and to contain enough plants to crowd out weeds (I think I will mulch the front section too this first year, while the plants establish themslves). 

I might leave the tulips, daffodils and other bulbs that are already planted in the back area between the evergreen trees and shrubs that I will plant next spring, so that I can enjoy them in spring, and the herbaceous foliage of the Summer Border will hide their withering foliage as it grows up. I might also plant some very early flowering bulbs there too, such as crocus, rock iris, early daffodils and maybe winter aconite. The idea is to have the back area have the green and other colors I want to see in winter, as well as the earliest signs of spring in late winter. 

You can see the edge of the outlined area at right. I think the new curvy shape will fit in better with the curvaceous bed shapes of the North Island and Yellow Garden at left.

While I was up the taking photos, I thought I might get one of the fields surrounding our house before the tall, golden corn is harvested. A quintessential Iowa scene.

Anyway, my work will certainly be cut out for me next spring -- but it makes me happy to have something new to plan and think about over the coming winter.

Does anyone have any suggestions for colorful conifers that are readily available, and for non-conifer plants and shrubs that retain their foliage in Zone 5 winters?

Thanks for reading! -Beth

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Late-Summer Ode to Annuals

Still going strong!

As I walk around my garden areas, I notice that one of the very few things that still look good in August and September are annual flowers. Yes, I have a few mums and asters that are now flowering, but on the whole, most of my perennials are not just done blooming, but also looking tattered, bug-eaten and withered, and actually subtract from the beauty of my gardens.

These ligularia have definitely seen better days, but the impatiens are a bright spot of color here. 

But the annuals have been at their peak for more than a month now. Zinnias, petunias, snapdragons, annual salvias, cosmos, four o'clocks, impatiens, marigolds and other annuals: they're all still looking good at this difficult time of year.

Annual salvia 'Victoria Blue' are the only thing blooming
in this border.

In my opinion, annual flowers are just not given the respect that they deserve. It seems like many gardeners feel that perennial plants are somehow more horticulturally "serious" than annuals, particularly the popular annuals that big-box retailers carry that have been bred for large, colorful, long-lasting flowers, like petunias and marigolds.

Some people might think they're gaudy and too bright, but I think these marigolds fit right into the Yellow Garden, and they've been flowering non-stop since I planted them in May.

Looking around at this time of year gives further weight to my hypothesis: that (at least here in my growing area) in order to maximize flowerage, gardeners should rely on annuals for color in the second half of the gardening season. The sequence of planting and bloom times should include the following:

  1. as many spring bulbs as possible, together with the earliest-flowering perennials that will grow here, such as basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatilis), together with a few cool-weather annuals such as pansies and snapdragons  
  2. late spring- and early summer-flowering perennials for bloom in May and June
  3. a select number of July-flowering perennials and bulbs such as lilies and perhaps phlox (if mildew isn't an issue)
  4. significant numbers of annuals, planted in May, that will start flowering in July and continue through to frost
  5. a limited number of fall-blooming perennials such as mums and asters to complement the late annuals
This area would be pretty boring without the salvias and marigolds in two colors to complement the mum that is starting to bloom now.

I've been going through my borders to clear some space for planting more annuals next May. There were a number of under-performing perennials in my front border that I will hardly miss: big clumps of iris that flower for only a week and take up more square footage every year, the so-called "obedient plant" (Physostegia virginiana) that is anything but, and other plants that take up too much room for the short-lived and less-than-glorious flowers they produce. I have started moving and removing those to free up space for planting more annuals next spring.

My front border a couple of weeks ago: overcrowded and messy, with little color.

After the clear-out, with spots left for annuals next year. Perhaps some zinnias and cosmos in the big spots and maybe some salvias, snapdragons or petunias near the edge in front. And some more tulips as well, since I have room now.

Some of my favorite annual flowers, ones that flower well for long periods here:
  • Short annuals: petunias (don't sneer, millions of gardeners love them because they flower their heads off), marigolds, dianthus
  • med-height annuals: zinnias, snapdragons, annual salvias, four o'clocks (these look like a flowering shrub by August)
  • tall annuals: cosmos (they can get to be eight feet tall!), sunflowers (I like the smaller-flowered ones)
  • shady annuals: impatiens (it's too bad about the blight that sometimes is affecting them), lobelia

The four o'clock plant makes a larger shrub than some actual shrubs and trees -- this one nearly dwarfs the magnolia behind it! I think I'll plant more of these next year here in the West Island, which is reserved for trees, shrubs and bulbs.

Additionally, I think I might be ready to try some different annuals to see how they perform, perhaps some more exotic and less common ones, like amaranth and some tropical annuals. I'll have to get out a few books about annual flowers that I haven't looked at for a while.

Does anyone have any suggestions for less well-known annuals that thrive and flower well?

Thanks for reading!  -Beth

Saturday, September 5, 2015

My Redesigned Cutting Garden

Strawflowers, zinnias and poppy heads a couple weeks ago.

We've been having some pretty hot, muggy days here in Iowa, so I thought it might be a good time to stay indoors and review how the changes I made to my cutting flower garden this year have turned out. I apologize that this post has turned out to be somewhat long.

Some background: When I laid out our new Kitchen Garden design in 2013, I provided for eight rectangular beds for cutting flowers, which turned out to be far more space than I actually needed for growing flowers specifically for cutting.

Back in 2013, I used the six beds shown in the right and bottom parts of this photo, plus two more to the left out of the picture. The sparse planting only encouraged weeds and many of the flowers I planted weren't all that great for cutting.

The following year, in 2014, I tried again to do a better job of filling the beds with flowers that are good for cutting, but the results were even worse, as many of the perennials, such as Shasta daisies, had died over the winter, and several kinds of flowers, such as Love-in-a-mist and Brown-eyed Susans, had seeded around throughout the cutting beds.

And I ended up not liking many of the flowers -- the pink Achillea I planted turned brown in the vase, the dahlias were a weird purple color, the irises had a very short bloom time, and the Blanket Flowers were too short-stemmed and coarse looking for my taste (although I like them planted outside).

Last fall I resolved that this year I would reduce the size of my cutting garden area by half, and try to plant flowers that are better for cutting. This spring, I moved the few perennial flowers that I wanted to keep to one of the four beds (down from eight) that would remain as my cutting garden beds. Then I redesigned those four remaining cutting flower beds:

A plan I made of the redesigned cutting beds this May.

  • One bed for perennials (Top Right): These included Shasta daisies, painted daisies, carnations campanulas and mums. I also tried to grow a packet of delphinium seeds, but they look identical to the annual larkspur that I planted in another bed, so they aren't what I was looking for. Because I have had trouble keeping perennials alive over winter in this exposed location, I will try to cover the bed with straw and/or leaves this winter. 
  • One bed for spring and summer bulbs (Top Left): Tulips followed by dahlias, cannas and a few gladiolus.
  • One bed for annual flowers from seed (Bottom Right) These include some remaining Love-in-a-mist, bachelor buttons, strawflowers, Canterbury bells, annual poppies and larkspur. I planted these in neat rows, something I had not done before, to make it easier to control weeds.
  • One bed for any leftover flowers (Bottom Left): more gladiolus (planted in succession), annuals that didn't fit in the annual bed such as zinnias and cosmos, some alliums, and some snapdragons and salvia transplanted from other parts of my gardens.

The four beds this spring in early May, with tulips and alliums planted the fall before, plus daffodils that never bloomed. You can see that the beds are being taken over by Love-in-a-mist that is sprouting up everywhere, especially in the right-most bed.

Later in May, after getting the Love-in-a-mist mostly under control (I allowed some to grow in the left edge of the closest bed, and deadheaded it after bloom this year to prevent reseeding). The perennial bed at far right has been planted, and the rows of seeds have been sown and marked in the closest bed.

Since these beds are supplemented by a number of other flowering shrubs and annuals, such as peonies, roses and the sweet peas that I grew successfully for the first time on the east side of my house, these four small beds provided more than enough flowers for me to cut and bring into the house, without subtracting from the beauty of my borders.

By the end of July, the Shasta daisies were lovely, and the seeded annual bed beyond was quite productive, yielding larkspur, poppies, bachelor buttons and Love-in-a-mist.

Zinnias, cosmos and gladiolas were also blooming by the end of July.

I am much happier with my cutting garden this year, although this is still a learning process for me. Not all the flowers I grew ended up being nice flowers for cutting for one reason or another. Here are a few observations about the flowers I grew this year:

My favorite cutting flowers that I had the best luck with:

1. Gladiolus: these were absolutely magnificent this year! Next year, I will try to stake them so they grow more upright, perhaps by growing them through a piece of cattle panel or other grid with large openings.

2. Zinnias: I love the rainbow of colors they come in (all except blue).
3. Shasta Daisies: The cheeriest of flowers.
Zinnias, Shasta daisies, coneflowers,
larkspur and snapdragons. All my

4. Snapdragons: These are my go-to flower for adding spikes to a bouquet, as they bloom from the end of May until frost in my gardens, self-seeding themselves in numerous places, and all of them welcome. I may plant some longer stemmed ones for cutting in my cutting beds.
5. Larkspur: I may try to plant these in successive groups next year so that they don't peter out by August, as they have this year. They were great for bouquets when they were blooming.
6. Poppies: The first ones I picked drooped immediately until I seared the stem ends on my stove gas burner and then put the whole vase in the refrigerator for a while. Then they looked beautiful for several days. It's not that much trouble, really. Plus, the ones I didn't pick have great-looking seed pod heads that are nice in a bouquet too.
Poppies and larkspur.

7. Sweet Peas: I didn't grow these in my cutting garden beds this year, as I think that location gets too much full sun. Instead, I tried planting them as early as possible (early March) against a trellis on the east side of my house, to avoid afternoon sun. They have been pretty nice, blooming from the first of June until now (they're finally giving out in this burst of heat we're having now). Next year I think I'll try to make sure I water them more and keep cutting them to discourage seed production. Perhaps I can shade them somehow on the hottest mornings too? Or maybe I can start a second batch in mid-summer?
Sweet peas in early July. I've noticed that
the kind I grew smell wonderful, but only
for 24 hours after cutting them. Then they
lose their scent.
Has anyone else noticed this?

8. Straw Flowers: (See first photo). I tried growing these last year, but to no effect. I think planting them in rows and watering them well has helped. These are such cool flowers, which make a strange, dry, crackling sound when you touch them. I'm drying some to keep for winter.

In addition, I can't leave out roses, peonies and mock orange shrub branches, which smell so wonderful, although they are planted in different spots in my gardens, not in the cutting beds.
Back in May, I made a bouquet out some delphinium stalks that broke off :-(
and several mock orange branches with a heavenly scent.

Some flowers I tried growing with less success:

1. Bachelor Buttons: I love these in the garden, especially because they self seed and bloom quite early. But the ones I grew in the cutting bed had short stems, too much foliage that had to be painstakingly removed, and in a vase they either wilted immediately or dropped a white powder all over my table. Perhaps I'll just leave these outside from now on, although it could be that the variety I grew just wasn't so good. I did cut a few others that self-sowed elsewhere earlier in the summer, and they weren't so difficult. Maybe I'll just cut those volunteers next year.

2. Dahlias: I haven't liked the colors and shapes of the dahlias that I have bought at Menards for the past several years. Perhaps I'll have to order some better ones with nicer colors and shapes through a catalog next year. Another problem however, is that the flowers seem to be eaten by insects by the time they are ready to cut, so there have been few blooms that I have been able to cut this year. Hmmm.

3. Love-in-a-mist: These never seem to last very long in a vase for me, plus they seed all over the place and don't seem to bloom for a very long period before going over. And even worse, they somehow remind me of spiders with their fine foliage near the flowers, which kind of creeps me out (perhaps I'm just weird).

4. The tulips that I planted seemed to bloom disappointingly late (and the daffodils, not at all). I yearn for flowering bulbs to cut in March and April, not May, when all sorts of other things are blooming already. I'll try to plant some earlier varieties this fall, and maybe I can accelerate their bloom with a cold frame or something? (My efforts to force bulbs in pots was an utter failure last winter, as I'll write about in another post....) Perhaps I'll just have to buy cut flowers in winter and early spring.

5. The jury's still out about the mums I planted. Maybe I need to remove lower branches to encourage longer stems and bigger flowers (the opposite of pinching out mums to promote bushy growth). Some other colors might be good too.

6. I'd like to grow more carnations (especially the white ones, which smell so spicy) and/or fragrant pinks, but carnations never make it through my winters and pinks have such short stems. Perhaps covering the perennial bed with straw will help them overwinter? And I never know when to pick carnations, because the side buds don't bloom at the same time as the main buds; do I wait until the main bud is past, or sacrifice all the side buds? Aagh!

An all-white bouquet from last week, with carnations, cosmos and
snapdragons. The carnations smell so lovely -- I wish I could
grow more of them!

Anyway, this year has been a great year for learning for me. I have learned more about which flowers I like best, which flowers perform well in a vase, and how to grow them successfully. Next year I'll make some more changes (although I think I'll stick with the four-bed approach, which worked pretty well and seemed like the right amount of space to devote to cutting flowers).

I'd certainly like to hear from you about which flowers have worked particularly well as cutting flowers in your own gardens, or any advice or thoughts about the issues I have mentioned here.

I appreciate your patience in reading all the way to the end of this long post -- Thanks! -Beth