Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Walk the (Garden) Walk, Talk the Talk

Once in a blue moon, the planets align and you can do a couple of really fund things in the same week. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend two great garden walks. First was a tour of four distinctly different Chalet-designed landscapes. Second was a tour of four more amazing gardens held by the Garden Conservancy. What more can a plant geek ask for?

The first myth to dispel is that these walks are only for people who are totally immersed in gardens and landscaping. Not so. Who doesn't want their garden, their outdoor living space, to be as beautiful as their home's interior? Everyone that drives by sees the front of your property. Only friends and family share the inside of your home. In view of that, shouldn't we take more time to personalize our gardens so they truly reflect our personalities?

Wall of Clematis
Garden makeover television as inspiration? Please. When was the last time you came away with a new plant hardy for your Midwest garden? What about a stunning plant combination you could plagiarize? I’m still waiting for any of these “landscape” programs to show us something dazzling that is vaguely Zone 5 appropriate. Evidently only gardens in California are worthy of makeovers. 

If “local” is smart shopping, then attending local garden walks is brilliant. You view and learn plants that are hardy for your area. You’ll discover new plants while making your own observations about placement (sun/partial/shade). This is worthwhile info that can be used in your garden. In addition to specific plants you’ll see color combinations literally in the light of your geographic area. You’ll capture these on your smart phone and then translate to your space. Maybe you’ll recreate the combo exactly. Perhaps you’ll sub plants, but keep the colors and textures you liked. At any rate, your garden just got better for you and your family.  

Cascading Lantana and Agapanthus pot

Garden walks often mean great coaching from passionate people. In the case of the Chalet landscape tour, it was an opportunity to talk to the landscape architects who designed the spaces. Horticulturalists were present, questions were answered. On the Garden Conservatory's "Open Day," the homeowners were available to share plant names, why they did something the way they did, and tips for success. New things learned, ideas sown.

I find magazines more personal and relatable to my garden needs than television. Still, seeing gardens is a very personal, and hopefully, enjoyable way to spend a few hours. The fragrance of an Oriental lily, an espalier in a shape you've never imagined, a tree you didn't know (but now must have) is all part of a garden walk. You will certainly see planting combinations that aren't your style. But isn't is as valuable to learn what you don't wnat as what you do?

Viewing any garden should be inspiring, not intimidating. Don't go home and set a controlled burn because your garden isn't as grand as what you just saw. Regardless of scale or style, our gardens should be a sanctuary offering us beauty that is our own unique creation. By allowing us this connection with the natural world, gardens can nourish our souls.

A proper cottage garden


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Rain sodden, down-trodden gardens

When the surface water is an inch deep for a full day in my delta “garden” I know the soil is saturated. (If you saw it, you would understand why garden is in quotes).  While my dwarf River Birch (Betula nigra ‘Fox Valley’) loves periodic flooding, few plants do. Landscape plants recovering from 2012’s  historic heat and drought  needed rain- no doubt. But the extreme flipflop to saturated soils is equally dangerous.

What are the immediate symptoms of too much water? 
Surprisingly, plants may wilt even though the mulch or soil surface is wet. Roots need oxygen to transport  water so they wilt in saturated soils.
Nitrogen (responsible for leaf color, vigorous growth) is highly mobile in soil and may be leached by heavy rain. Nitrogen deficient leaves will be pale throughout, including veins. New leaves of water-stressed plants  may be smaller than normal. Older leaves will show yellow first. It’s possible that even lawns may start looking lighter-than-normal green.   
Water-induced nutrient deficiency 

Unusual colors that might  otherwise be interesting may start showing at the edges or throughout the leaves between the veins. Yews, a landscape staple, are poster plants for wet soil damage. Their needles turn rusty-orange – all the way to the branch tips. Also, keep your eyes peeled for black, purple or discolored bands (cankered) stems on deciduous trees and shrubs.

Is there a difference between wet and flooded?
Absolutely. Areas that often have standing surface water for a day or more require  flood tolerant plants (or a great landscape firm to change the drainage!). For example, trees such as Bald Cypress, Swamp White Oak and River Birch (have you seen the cool dwarf cultivars like ‘Fox Valley’?) are perfectly happy with periodic flooding. While it seems logical please understand plants are not Wet-Dry vacs that will pump an area dry. Select flood-tolerant plants for these sites. 
'Fox Valley' River Birch
What about containers?  
Plants in containers with holes in the bottom drain better than plants in the ground. Most potting mixes are “soilless”, being coarse peat or bark-based, to promote drainage. The downside is minimal nutrient value. So, be sure to fertilize throughout the season (more frequently in sun, less for plants in shade) in years with heavy rain. Be sure that containers with saucers (attached or otherwise) are emptied religiously. After 30 minutes the soil will have absorbed all the moisture it can hold. After that, roots die.                                        

What about insects and disease?
Pestilence is most certainly in our immediate garden future. The jury is out on how this moisture will affect Japanese beetles. Slugs should be rampant. Protect hostas, annuals and other perennials whose foliage  rests on the ground. Earth-friendly baits, like Sluggo, contain iron phosphate and are safe even around edibles. Slugs eat the bait, get a tummy ache and crawl away to die in a few days. It’s alright. Chances are, you’ll never run across the proverbial slug graveyard.
Fungal diseases will abound. The usual suspects, black spot on roses, tomato blights, powdery mildew and a jillion leaf spots are a sure bet as we move into heat and humidity. Remember, fungicides must be applied ahead of the infection. They will not reverse symptoms that are already present.

Can I forego watering new plants?
Sure can’t. Rainfall is not cumulative. Do regular checks of newly installed trees and shrubs even after measurable rainfall. Water appropriately. Don't forget to overrride your irrigation system on days it's raining heavily and for a few days after substantial rainfall. Your plants will thank you!!!