Saturday, April 18, 2015

Perfumes and Other Delights

April has put on her party dress. Dogwoods, redbuds, cherries and crabapples are flouncing their fancy petals and the air is rich with heady perfumes of viburnums and lilacs. Some early blooming perennials are getting in on the act, and the freshly cut lawn adds a top-note of clover and new-mown hay.

I find myself making excuses to weed near honey-scented spurge, growing by the front gate. Euphorbia cyparissias , with blue-green, ferny foliage and  acid-yellow flowers is buzzing with bees and the smell makes me long for buttered toast and honey.
Possibly a Mediterranean native, it may have been brought to New England sometime in the 1800’s, and is now found all over the US. Though reported as invasive in many areas, it has spread only gently in this garden over the past sixty-odd years, and makes a delightful ground cover with hardy geraniums and daylilies when it blooms in April and May.

But the one that perfumes the entire garden is viburnum carlesii, Korean Spice viburnum. This one is viburnum x Juddii, a heat tolerant variety that does well here. Nearly six feet tall and about as wide, it grows in front of a border of French lilacs, and the combined aroma of lilac and viburnum that wafts across the garden on the slightest breeze is pure heaven. The fragrance is sweet, rich and complex; cloves with a hint of vanilla, grabbing me by the nose and pulling me deep into one of the beautiful, waxy pinkish white flower clusters which cover the shrub from to bottom; hoping I don’t meet a bee on its own quest. In fall the leaves turn wine red, and if it had a nearby pollinator, which this one does not, there would be purple-black berries.

Like most viburnums, it has been a slow grower, taking nearly 15 years to reach its full height from the two-foot shrub I planted with high hopes and less patience than I needed.  As author and plantsman Michael Dirr says “Viburnums, like fine wine, require time.”

The viburnum family is a big one, some 150 varieties and cultivars, a four or five native to North America. A few are evergreen. All bloom in spring, and are easily confused with the hydrangea family due to their similar size and flowers. Most viburnums have pure white flowers, and one is even a lace-cap type, which further adds to identity confusion.  But hydrangeas bloom later in summer, are often blue or pink as well as white, and need more shade than sun-loving viburnums.
Common Eastern snowball (viburnum opulus sterile), with its familiar huge white flower balls, has been grown in American gardens for a couple hundred years, and is one many of us know and love. A snowball bush can get a good 8 to 10 feet tall,  no shrub for a small garden. We were given one several years ago, and planted it altogether in the wrong place, but by pruning it severely we've managed to keep it under 6 feet. It does sucker from the roots and keeps us on our toes making sure it doesn't gain too much ground. Four sprouts were divided off and planted along our fence line three years ago as a screen between our woods and the neighbors; this year they are about 5’ tall and blooming, making it one of the faster growing viburnums. This variety is sterile and produces no berries.

The natives tend to be tall, almost tree form, reaching 15’ to 20’ in height. Rusty blackhaw, with pink-purple berries in fall and burgundy fall foliage, moved into our woods many years ago, and provides us with fruit without fail. It does want to colonize, however, like many native shrubs, and if we aren't careful, we’ll have a forest of them in no time. Native viburnums are loved by butterflies, bees, caterpillars, birds and mammals.

Viburnums are easy to grow; all they need is average soil and some sun, though many will grow in part shade. They are a fussy bunch when it comes to pollination, however. Most are not self-fertile, which means there must be two different cultivars to cross pollinate for fruit, but they must also bloom at the same time. We planted a v. dentatum “Blue Muffins” for its striking clusters of pink and blue berries, and another variety of dentatum nearby, but so far, there hasn't been any hanky panky going on as no fruit have been produced. But it’s still young, flowering for the first time only last year so there are still expectations. I want to plant a couple more different varieties; sooner or later we’ll hit on the right combination for cross pollination and there will be berries for wildlife. Different varieties are not needed for flowers; that will occur whether pollination happens or not.

I must be hungry, because with viburnums and redbuds blooming, I'm reminded it’s morel mushroom time. These delectable, mouth-watering delights pop up overnight after a good rain and when night-time temperatures reach 50 degrees in April. They are usually found hiding in woods under dead leaves over decaying tree roots, notably apple and elm, but we see a few each year in our gravel paths along roots of an elm we cut down years ago. From all reports, this year is a good one for morels, so we need to go hunting in our own secret spot--and get the frying pan ready! 

"Again the April bloom is flinging
       Sweet odors on the air of spring"
                      -----William D. Gallagher

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Oh Dear, Oh Deer!

While on one of his morning walks, Jim counted eight deer in the field behind our woods garden.  Early last summer, we spooked a fawn not 20 feet from our back gate. Neighbors tell me they have watched deer cross the road (first looking both ways), just east of our back fence. And while we were gone a couple of days last October, the confounded woods rats wandered into the garden while in rut and totally destroyed a beautiful little Japanese maple, snacking on a couple of oak leaf hydrangeas and hostas on the way. Shortly after that, in broad daylight, there was a big buck just behind the workshop.
All that was left of the pretty Japanese maple. It's still alive and may leaf out again this year, but it will take a long time to look pretty again.
I do love watching deer. They are beautiful, graceful, magnificent animals, and I never see them without catching my breath. I don’t like to think about killing them, even though I know deer harvesting is necessary for conservation of the deer as well as of the forests.
But I do not love them in my garden. They don’t know that, though, thinking my lovely hostas and hydrangeas quite tasty, much preferred over all that lespedeza and tender native stuff growing there Out Beyond where they bed down in a wild cherry grove just outside the gate. A strip of woods runs along the north side of I-44 from South Main to Range line in Joplin, a half-mile wide in places, less than a block away from our property. It supports a large herd of deer, with, of course, no hunting inside city limits, so there is no control here, except for those which meet their ends on the interstate.

Though many plants are reported as deer resistant, hungry deer will try just about anything, at least once, except daffodils. My precious hostas are salad for them; a deer or two can totally level a hosta bed overnight. We have tried just about every defense against their gluttonous ways, short of electric fences and a Rottweiler. There was limited success with commercial rabbit and deer repellents, but those are expensive, and most have to be reapplied when it rains.  We made wire cages like cloches to put over our best plants; while that does work, it isn’t the best look for the garden. We have tried hanging bars of soap, human hair, garlic, wind chimes, and lots of human presence. They learn to ignore all of them, as well as things that make motion out there and are supposed to scare them. We’ve mixed up noxious homemade sprays with lots of unsavory, smelly stuff like eggs, dish soap, garlic and hot peppers, but that only lasts until it rains; then they are in there again as soon as we turn our backs, probably snickering as they lunch on the hydrangeas.
The trick, I am told, is to change their habitual trails in spring and then again in late fall. I learned from a PBS program that deer do not see well at all during the day, only shapes and movement, but have excellent night vision. Their sense of smell is 80 times that of a dog, so they rely mostly on scent to find those tasty bits, and to avoid things that really offend them; which is why human scent and other strong smelling things sometimes work. Then I read that a commercial daylily and hosta grower tried using a tiny dab of Vicks Vaporub on her daylily buds, with great success. Apparently the strong scents of eucalyptus and camphor are intolerable to them, and it doesn’t wash off with rain. It does have to be reapplied once a month as it eventually loses the smell. Sure sounded too easy, right?

But I tried it, smearing the stuff on bamboo stakes around the garden; on gate posts and fences, on rag strips hung from Japanese maples, dogwoods and apple tree. It appears to have worked. We did not have deer in the woods all last summer, except for twice when I forgot to refresh it; when they destroyed the Japanese maple, and when that big buck checked it out.
This past winter brought them out of the woods, however, apparently looking for food. We found tracks in the snow in our backyard as close as 10’ from the deck, up and down the streets, in our neighbors’ yards, everywhere. But not one single track in our woods garden where I had used Vicks. We even saw them hanging around outside the fence.

These spring evenings they have been seen milling around in the yard of an empty lot next door, five of them. A new jar of Vicks is definitely in order to halt their trespassing ways early as the hostas start to grow; in fact starting this week, and a maybe a quart of Repels-All to boot.
It might even work on the heuchera-munching groundhog that has moved in under my studio; but groundhogs hate black pepper, so we will just sprinkle that over her favorite plant foods. She also likes violets, but she can have all those she wants.

Even so, my Mama didn’t raise a foolish child.  I still don’t trust the Vicks remedy completely. I’ll keep wire cloches around many hostas and a 2x4 wire cage around our evergreen dogwood. I should have caged that Japanese maple!


 "Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we're curious...and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
― Walt Disney Company

Speaking of Gardens by Sandra Parrill   The Joplin Globe, April 19, 2014

Friday, April 18, 2014

How Does Your Garden Grow?

What a winter we’ve had in the Ozarks, zone 5 cold in our newly designated zone 7. Some plants that survived the past ten winters with no problem may have had a hard time of it this year. Chilly March weather kept us from working in the garden to do our normal spring clean-up and we’re still way behind in April with more cold windy days, so we haven’t yet fully assessed damage. It appears minimal, so far, except for branches broken in the last ice storm.

Most perennials and wildflowers seem to have thrived through the winter, possibly because we had a good snow cover that protected them when temps dropped to below zero; giving them plenty of slow soaking moisture as it melted. A few have heaved themselves partly out of the ground, and need to be replanted or their exposed roots covered with soil. Patches of native hepaticas, trilliums, Dutchman’s breeches and other woods denizens are thicker than ever. Hostas are vigorously thrusting through a thick layer of leaves we haven’t yet touched, except to pick off the dead leaf “caps” that they pushed up as they emerged.  
Hosta Montana Aureomarginata
We’ve cut back last year’s ratty hellebore leaves to let the flowers show off. Two year old seedlings that are now big enough to bloom are showing amazing color variations from their parents. I’m really excited about a whole new group of babies that have come up between double-flowered “Golden Lotus” and single “Painted Strain”. If they have cross-pollinated, we might see some really interesting flowers in a couple of years.  
Some plants we weren’t sure would make it have surprised us; the Pink Dawn viburnum that started to bloom in January with its sweet scent put itself on hold when that “polar vortex” hit; now the flowers have reopened, making us exclaim “what IS that smell?” when we go outdoors. Nandina domesticas look pretty sad, but being a Southern plant, they are only semi-evergreen here anyway. They will probably leaf out again so I’ll hold off with the pruners until I actually see dead wood.
Mahonias have lost their flowers; the fall-set buds dry and crumbling, disappointing the many bees that usually visit in early spring. We won’t know about pruning blue and pink hydrangeas until they leaf out, as most of them bloom on new wood, but white Annabelles and oak leafs are fine. The tree peonies I’ve been holding my breath over are finally budding out this week.
We have resisted planting loropetalums, cold hardy camelias or any of the other borderline zones 7-8 plants that have been available in regional big box garden centers for the past few years, so we don’t know how any of them fared. Not well, I am thinking, though the US National Arboretum states the camelias are hardy to zone 6b. A friend who planted some tells me she lost all of hers. Missouri Botanical Gardens Plant Finder says loropetalum will take temperatures into the lower teens with root mulch protection. I am curious to know if any at all survived last winter’s test.

Time will tell about crape myrtles, butterfly bushes and vitex. They don’t leaf out until May, so I’m not going to prune any of them until we see what died back. We cut back one crape myrtle a few years ago after a hard winter; as it turned out none of them were damaged and it wasn’t necessary. It’s not a mistake we plan to repeat. “Crape murder”, the practice of cutting them back to ugly stubs in spring, is not a crime I care to commit.
I am a bit worried about our zone 7 Himalayan evergreen dogwood, cornus capitata. It wasn’t evergreen this year, but the branches still seem supple and green. It will extend dogwood blooming season into May, provided it lives after surviving drought, browsing deer, and now deep cold.

Japanese maples are all leafing out and look just fine; just a few dead twigs.  Winter-burned boxwoods, hollies and euonymous should be clipped back to new growth, maybe even replaced if they are too badly damaged. 
It’s a good year for our tulip magnolia. Hard freezes get the blooms about three out of five years, but we got to enjoy it for once. The petals are falling now, turning the ground and deck into a pretty pink and white carpet.

Azaleas are questionable. Some of them look iffy, having lost nearly all their leaves, but azaleas are tough. A few we planted down in the woods were only labeled hardy to 10 degrees. They may be done for, but I’ll wait and see before I pull them out. Old ones on the north side of the house are undamaged.
Some roses suffered the winter badly and must be severely pruned. We don’t grow hybrid teas, but I have seen them in other gardens with a lot of dead, black canes. Those should be cut back into live, green wood with outward facing buds. Our hardy Knock-Outs are fine. We prune ours back hard; they seem to grow and bloom better if cut back to about a foot above the ground.

A friend tells us this was the coldest winter on record in 12 years.  It certainly seems the longest; it came early, partied hard and stayed late, wearing out its welcome a month or so ago.  We should have learned the lesson it taught about zone pushing, but gardeners never do, at least for long. We’ll soon forget and be back at our old adventurous gambling ways, trying out new plants regardless of hardiness ratings. As plantsman Tony Avent was quoted saying, “I consider every plant hardy until I have killed it myself, at least three times.” We always have great expectations for a wonderful Spring.

As the garden grows so does the gardener.
- Popular saying
Speaking of Gardens:  by Sandy Parrill  The Joplin Globe, April 12, 2014

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Host of Daffodils

Daffodils are blooming in fragrant sweeping waves around the house and down the hill, lighting our woods with a blaze of gold, white and orange, thousands of them; every shape, variety and size from big golden yellow King Alfred, huge frosty white Mt. Hood, pink trumpeted Mrs. Backhouse, fancy doubles and split coronas, to dainty multifloras, miniatures and tiny three-inch tall Hawera. They normally flower in succession starting with February Gold in late January, to orange-centered Poeticus in early May, but winter lasted so long that early varieties were delayed and are blooming along with their on-time midseason cousins. Late season bloomers still hold tight to their buds. Smaller bulbs, ferns  and wildflowers weave a magic carpet at their feet.
 Most of these daffodils are the offspring of a hundred or so bulbs planted in the woods long before we made an actual garden there; when it was still a wild tangle of honeysuckle, euonymous, poison ivy and gooseberry bushes. Bulbs were dropped in holes poked in rocky ground with a heavy pointed bar, and covered with a handful of topsoil. They thrived undisturbed for years, multiplying into huge masses, piling on top of each other so thickly that they stuck out of the ground. As the garden was expanded, some of those clumps were divided, many of them yielding up to a hundred or more bulbs of all sizes. (I’m not exaggerating, I counted!) We replanted them all, scattering bulbs everywhere under trees, singly at first; finally resorting to dropping four or five tiny immature bulbs in the same hole when we ran out of patience. We did this for several years, a clump or two at a time, sticking them in the ground until we were tired and our backs were sore; finally giving away bags and buckets full of them until our friends started avoiding us for fear of being gifted with another load of bulbs.
 Many old clumps still need dug, but these days I mostly just pull off the top ones that are above ground to replant. This year I’m thinking they can go under a newly planted row of oak leaf hydrangeas at the end of our property. Daffodil bulbs are toxic, so deer and other critters won’t eat them. I have read that they might serve as a repellent.

 I don’t store harvested daffodil bulbs to plant in fall; when they are dug in June they go straight back into the ground. No fertilizer has ever been applied except what nature gives them. 
 All those young daffodil bulbs have finally matured into flowering size, and they are putting on an exceptional show. Last spring when they were growing, plentiful rains and cool temperatures helped them develop an abundance of buds for this year.
But I have a love-hate relationship with these bulbs that make such a wonderful spring display. I am so thrilled to see them bloom, but then, when their party is over and the flowers are gone, those long strappy leaves keep on growing into big floppy masses that fall all over everything else that is coming up. They need that foliage to grow and provide food for the next year’s buds, however, so they have to be allowed to mature and turn yellow. When gardeners complain that their daffodils don’t bloom very well, it is usually because they are mowed down or cut off right after the flowers are done.
To keep them from smothering and killing their neighbors, tomato cages cut in half or foot-high rings of fence wire are put around the bigger clumps for support until the leaves ripen. I like to do that when they first come up, before they get big and unwieldy. This year bad weather prevented me from getting out there early so not a one is propped up yet. It will have to be done soon, before the leaves start to stretch.
 Virginia bluebells have colonized among the daffodils, just starting to bloom this week; another plant which must be allowed to grow and ripen after it flowers, but they are not a problem, disappearing in only about three weeks after the flowers are gone. Woodland phlox will be following soon to add more blue. Bloodroot, trilliums, anemones, Dutchman’s breeches, hepaticas and wood hyacinths are in full flower; wild ginger and crested irises are up and Mayapples are unfurling leafy umbrellas.

 A few years ago I began planting a “stream” of blue grape hyacinths to wander down the slope through the woods, inspired by Keukenhoff Gardens in Holland. My little rivulet is not quite so spectacular as the one pictured there, but I keep adding more bulbs each year, digging them from paths and other places where they have spread underfoot. Grape hyacinths transplant easily, even when in full bloom. I’ve scattered their seeds at the end, so maybe one year soon I too will have a bright river of blue, flowing through the dogwoods, past the giant Solomon’s seal, under the pines and into a “pool” at the bottom of the woods.

You’ll have to excuse me now, the sun is shining and I must see if the apple tree is budding, trailing arbutus is going to bloom, poke around to see what hostas are coming up, and look at all those daffodils some more. It’s spring!

“Every gardener knows that under the cloak of winter lies a miracle …
a seed waiting to sprout, a bulb opening to the light, a bud straining to unfurl.
And the anticipation nurtures our dream” -Barbara Winkler

The Joplin Globe "Speaking of Gardens" column by Sandy Parrill, April 5, 2014




Monday, March 31, 2014

Wings in the Garden

In the 1980’s when butterfly gardening was all the rage, I just had to have one of my own, starting with a small fenced area planted with all sorts of “butterfly” plants to attract them to this little spot where I could, in my fantasies, sit on a garden bench among the fragrant herbs and watch clouds of nectar-sipping beauties flitting about. Ha. Didn’t take me long to come to my senses and realize that you can’t corral butterflies like horses; what was I thinking? I needed to find out more about those winged gypsies of the insect world. A couple of reference books soon grew to a library of a dozen or more, and I began to think I might be an expert on butterflies and moths. But then reality set in and I realized that though my books had a lot to say about the adults, there wasn’t much about caterpillars. We can’t have butterflies if we don’t take care of their babies, but it seemed very little was known about all the life stages of Lepidoptera, from egg to larval stage, various instars, food plants, how and when they hibernated, hatched, and often, even what metamorphs into what? Then, in 2005, a book was published by Princeton University Press; “Caterpillars of Eastern North America” by David L. Wagner, and I started to really learn about the diversity of those insects, their lifestyles and plants they need to live. An estimated 8,000 moth and 700 butterfly species are found in North America alone, with nearly 200,00 worldwide. That is a lot of caterpillars. More are identified each year, and as comprehensive as this book is, even I find an occasional one that is not listed in it. I can only compare with different families and try to guess where in which one they belong. I find them totally fascinating; the diversity of caterpillars and their phenomenal survival tactics is mind-boggling.
The buzz these days is about saving the beautiful, beloved, familiar black and orange monarchs, but there are many more endangered butterflies that need our concern. Tiger swallowtails are the first butterflies we see here in early spring. The chrysalises overwinter in leaf litter (one good reason to not keep a too-tidy garden in the fall) and hatch out with the warming spring sun, just in time for lunaria (aka money plant) to bloom in the awakening garden, providing them with much-needed nectar when there are not many other flowers.  

Luna moth, just hatched. Its tails are not yet completely dry and extended.

The number of plants needed to sustain a butterfly and moth population is astounding. We all know that monarchs need the asclepias family, including milkweed, but many other butterflies also have specific requirements for life. Great spangled fritillaries visit milkweed for nectar too, but the caterpillars, which overwinter and become active in spring, must have violet leaves to eat; if there are none available, they will starve and die. (Not a problem here with native violets everywhere.) Beautiful luna moth caterpillars subsist on tulip tree (lirodendron) leaves. The carrot family is host for giant swallowtail caterpillars. We’ve learned to live with holes in leaves; helping sustain pollinators and beautiful insects is one of the best parts of being a gardener.

Pipevine swallowtail caterpillars

Planting a few nectar-rich flowers for butterflies and other pollinators is not nearly enough to make a good butterfly garden. There also has to be a wide range of plants for caterpillars to eat: no caterpillars, no butterflies. Here at Chaos we grow fennel, dill and parsley for swallowtails, to suppliment Queen Anne's lace and wild parsnip growing wild Out Beyond. 
 Some years ago when I planted native Dutchman’s pipevine, hoping to attract pipevine swallowtails, I didn’t realize how invasive that plant is—but, now, when it literally swarms with swallowtail caterpillars each year, I can’t get rid of it. I just deal with underground runners that pop up everywhere.  
Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar
Bad-tasting plants like these are swallowtails’ defenses, making them unpalatable to birds. Snake-mimic spicebush cats that munch spicebush and sassafrass leaves, start out looking like bird droppings, and with several instar changes, become orange and finally green with "snake eyes"; rolling themselves up in leaves so only the snake markings show to predators.  Some caterpillars rely on camouflage. I accidently put my hand on an oak moth caterpillar last summer; and even knowing it was there, its coloration was so close to the tree bark that it took several minutes to see it. Many caterpillars have stinging hairs, some squirt chemicals, and a few actually squeal and bite at predators. 
Oak moth caterpillar, camouflaged against the bark of an oak tree.
Here, most spring clean up is limited to paths and patios, leaving the majority of fallen leaves on beds, so overwintering caterpillars aren’t harmed. Luna moth cocoons are in leaf litter under the trees, hatching out in April, so I must wait to tidy up beds in the woods, or not. By that time most plants are big enough to hide the leaves anyway. Other pollinators live under there as well; plus carnivorous beetles, their larvae, and spiders that feed on harmful insects, making me careful about cultivating around plants so I don’t kill, for example, slug-eating firefly larvae.

I know; all caterpillars are not welcome in a garden. A single giant hornworm can nearly consume a tomato plant in one night, causing gardeners to curse loudly and crush it immediately. But not all hornworms eat tomatoes. There are some 70 species, many of which are plant specific, so randomly killing any you see would deprive us of many hawk and hummingbird moths that are so entertaining in the evenings. Introduced species like gypsy moths, bagworms, tent caterpillars, cabbage butterflies and cutworms wreak havoc in gardens, needing to be dealt with if we are to have vegetables to eat. We don’t use insecticides, instead relying on timing, floating row covers, plant collars, and natural predators. One alternative is bacillus thuringiensis, or BT, a natural biological control that is effectively used on larva of many kinds in certain situations. But it does destroy caterpillars, so apply with caution and only if necessary. BT can be found at any garden center. A must read for further information:  

For nectar, butterflies need cluster type flowers with flat surfaces for landing pads, such as sedums, milkweeds, salvias, verbenas, zinnias, clover, lilacs, et al. They also like a good mud puddle for salt that is necessary in mating, especially if it has rotten bananas, molasses, or sponges soaked in fruit juices and stale beer in it. A wide saucer or birdbath makes a good feeder. They are also attracted to carrion, dung piles, and sweaty people. If you are blessed by butterflies landing on you, they are probably licking up your salt.  

A little Melissa butterfly, tasting my finger
Moths prefer tubular flowers, especially night-scented ones like lilies, hostas, nicotiana, daturas, phlox, and have even been known to visit hummingbird feeders.  
Cecropia moth, one of our largesty silkmoths, seems to be declining because of parasitism by a tachinid fly that was introduced to control the gypsy moth, an invasive species from Europe that is devastating North American forests. Another example of many well-intentioned attempts to correct a problem has gone awry. Now, how far must we go to control the tachinid fly? And then, what?
All of these plants also attract many other pollinators, providing food for a wide range of insects which are not only vitally necessary to keep our plant world humming along, they are also important members of the food chain for both birds and mammals. Many are the staple foods in the diets of forest-nesting birds.

Besides my caterpillar book, my other favorite reference is a small, information-packed Pocket Nature Guide published by Johnson Books; “Painted Ladies of North America”.

With dwindling habitat worldwide and assaults on these insects with ever-growing use of chemicals, and intoduced predators, even the tiniest pollinator garden helps. I’m planting lots more agastache, salvias, herbs and lavender this year.

"May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun
And find your shoulder to light on,
To bring you luck, happiness and riches
Today, tomorrow and beyond."
~Irish Blessing

Joplin Globe column March 29, Speaking of Gardens by Sandy Parrill with extra pictures and text


Wednesday, March 26, 2014


A garden is not made by a gardener alone, or in a day, or even in a generation. It is a sort of hereditary thing that goes on and on, needing cooperation between one and Nature. Nature teaches the person and makes the gardener as well as the garden.

 This is a garden of constant change, both according to the whims of Nature, and of my nature. It is definitely informal, wildflowers and annuals springing where they may, many being allowed to reseed freely; only removed or thinned when they become so thick as to rudely crowd their neighbors out or get crushed underfoot.
The “lawn”, as we laughingly refer to it, is a Persian carpet of wildlings: spring beauties, wild phlox, clover, dandelions, bluets, starry chickweed, oxalis, star of Bethlehem and buttercups in the spring. It reverts to a mix of grasses and other green stuff in early summer, when it finally gets mowed. Clover has recently sprung up and is taking over large areas; I can remember many years ago when clover was actually sold as a lawn seed, before lawns became perfectly manicured swards of green with fescue or Bermuda as the preferred grass. I don’t mind. It’s always fun to find a four-leaf clover once in a while and bees and butterflies love it. I steadfastedly refuse to let anyone put weed killers on our lawn, only reseeding with bluegrass in bare spots where digging squirrels, grandkids and droughts have caused bare spots.  

 Shade moves across this almost-acre, leaving us with very few sunny spots and mostly dappled, shifting light under which my beloved wildflowers thrive and multiply, some in beds which circle the stone cottage which shelters us. Some, such as ginger and violets, line the paths, wandering down into the woods where colonies are established under the trees.

 Others simply grow where they want to, and sometimes not in the same places every year. It is always a surprise when a whole group of black-eyed Susans, veronicastrum, columbines or Queen Anne’s lace takes a notion to move 50 feet away to the other side of the house from one year to the next.

 A brick patio, rock garden and pond now occupy the space where the original one-room house once stood. An herb garden replaced a thicket of mock orange some twenty years ago. Most of those herbs are gone now, but the beds and paths remain, with perennials filling out beds where once grew thyme, sage and lavender. The remaining herbs have been moved to a small fenced garden where vegetables once grew. I gave up on the dream of fresh vegetables from our own garden when I got tired of feeding deer, groundhogs and raccoons. The herbs are not to their taste and they leave those largely alone.

 These days we buy most of our veggies at the farmer’s markets and let those growers deal with critter problems. But even that may change this year as we experiment with straw bale gardening in a corner of the herb garden.  It got off to a slow start due to the wintry weather but it’s almost ready to plant with radishes and cole crops now.

 Our street-side garden will see new developments this spring. For nearly a year, water company contractors have been laying a new line along our street, and in the process they have made a hash out of part of the very old iris bed in front of our house. In spite of their promises to “make it look better than it did before” I’m not holding my breath. They claim to be done now, but no one has shown up to fix anything. My patience wore thin so finally I took matters into my own hands; using some big rocks from the property line rock pile, plus rocks and gravel the contractors left lying about, to edge the length of the iris bed and make a rock garden.

 Amazingly, patches of crocuses and daffodils have survived, blooming as if they had never been disturbed in spite of being buried in a foot of gravel and then scraped over with a backhoe scoop.

One patch of creeping phlox was somehow missed by that backhoe. This week I added a dozen more to drape over the rocks in front of the remaining irises and daylilies. Low-growing sedums, dianthus, and a few other spreading rock-garden plants will make a living tapestry with them as they grow.

 New color variations of creeping phlox are available now in addition to the old pinks and blues, including a pink and white one called “Candy Stripe”. Creeping phlox is perennial, easy to grow, long lived, spreads rapidly, and needs little care except for a bit of light trimming once it has finished blooming, or not. I always forget and it still looks fine. It’s an attractive, hardy ground cover year-round, resembling a needle evergreen. Barely 4” tall, it effectively smothers out encroaching weeds and is fairly drought-resistant. Blooming (normally) in late March and early April, it invites swarms of early pollinators, bees and butterflies galore to sip of its nectar-rich flowers.

 Creeping phlox loves full sun and good drainage which makes it excellent for growing over retaining walls and down steep slopes as groundcover where it’s difficult to mow. This is the perfect time of year to plant it, in pockets of good compost-rich soil about a foot apart. Be careful not to bury the stem when planting and keep it well-watered until established. Long spreading stems of old plants may get thick and woody and stop blooming well. These can be cut back to encourage new growth that will produce flowers again.

 As we experience more and more effects of climate change, and the weather is seldom “as usual” any more, we need more like these plants that are “bulletproof”, whether they are natives or not. I look forward to many more changes coming to the Chaotic garden.

"One of the worst mistakes you can make as a gardener is to think you're in charge."
 ----Janet Gillespie

"If there's one thing I can say about my garden, it can always surprise me."
----David Hobson, The Mad Gardener

Sandy Parrill, "Speaking of Gardens" column, The Joplin Globe, March 23, 2014 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Time for the Spring Serenade!

A male cardinal in the lilacs keeps announcing how “pretty, pretty, pretty” he is, while close by, his busy mate is paying little attention to his posturing. Just a single pair or two claiming territory here is all that remains of a huge flock of cardinals that crowded our feeders through the snowstorms. The long cold fingers of winter are gradually being pried loose by a gentle but persistent sun, and the soft, moist air smells like new life.

Soon spring peepers will be calling in the pond, looking for mates and laying long, gelatinous strings of eggs that will hatch into tadpoles and polliwogs.

The pond has to be cleaned this week before they arrive so their eggs don’t get destroyed in the process. Tadpoles are good citizens in a pond, eating algae which helps keep the pond clean, while providing food for winter-starved goldfish and koi until they get too big. When they have matured, baby toads scatter through the garden, tiny eating machines that munch bugs and slugs as they grow. We need all the toads we can get as they are the first line of defense in plant protection here at Chaos.


Our pond is about 8’x 15’ and some three feet deep in one end, which is deep enough for koi should we choose to keep them. There were beautiful butterfly koi and fancy goldfish a few years ago, until a marauding raccoon cleaned them out. We haven’t replaced them since, just stocking the pond with feeder goldfish from the pet store in recent years. They grow fast and live a long time, if the raccoons don’t come back for lunch; but if they do, at least we won’t have provided them with an expensive gourmet feast.
I’m not sure yet if there are any fish alive in the pond this year. It might have frozen solid to the bottom with the intense cold, possibly too much for even the cold hardy goldfish. I do hope the leopard frogs that overwinter in the muddy bottom have survived.

The pump was turned off last fall as there is a leak somewhere that kept draining the pond at the rate of 6” or so a week. We couldn’t find it in the pond liner, so the waterfall will have to be dismantled to see if that is where the problem is. Possibly roots from our Crimson Queen Japanese maple growing are through the liner somewhere. 

While the waterfall is torn apart might be a good time to put in a better filter, if we ever decide to try koi again as they need more oxygen in the water than do goldfish. A long-handled leaf grabber made for picking up leaves behind shrubs and flower beds also makes short work of leaves and pond debris, except for what settles to the bottom, but we don’t worry too much about that. A little mud on the pond bottom doesn’t hurt anything, while providing habitat for water insects and little organisms that fish and tadpoles feed on. About every 5 years we drain it and clean it out when it builds up too much.

It’s going to turn green for about four weeks, that’s the nature of a pond. In winter, warm water settles to the bottom, where fish hibernate during cold weather. In the spring, the pond “flips” which means that the warmer water rises to the top and colder water settles to the bottom. As sunlight enters the water, it causes algae to “bloom”, or grow, which can turn water pea soup green. Fish don’t care, but most pond-owners hate it as it isn’t aesthetically pleasing.  The usual reaction is to drain it and refill with fresh water; but that is exactly the wrong thing to do as it starts the algae blooming process all over again with fresh nutrients for algae to feed on.

If your goal is instantly clean water, there are chemicals to kill floating algae and settle particles, especially if you have koi as they eat plants, root in the bottom like the finny pigs they are, and can generally make a mess of a pond. We prefer to do without most of the chemicals, letting plants help achieve that natural equilibrium as they grow, but until they do and begin to shade the water, it is going to be green. Patience is the word here. Besides, I like to save my money for important things, like more hostas, and chocolate.
Keeping 40-50-% of the water surface covered with plants prevents sunlight from reaching into the water, thus starving out floating algae. Annual floating plants like water hyacinths and water lettuce provide shade, and are also natural filters, their roots catching and holding debris which would otherwise make the water murky. Oxygenating grasses float under the surface, also blocking sunlight. Water lilies and lotus shade the water with their big leaves. A coating of a beneficial algae that grows underwater on the sides of the pond also helps keep water clear of the floating kind. A small bale of barley straw helps keep the water clear of filamentous algae; long stringy stuff that covers everything.

 When fresh water is added to top off the cleaned pond, we use a dechlorinator which neutralizes the chlorine, chloramines, and heavy metals present in city water that will kill fish if not treated.  A preventive dose of fish medicine as well helps promote fish health.

We cleaned out our little woods pond also, where the wild things come to drink. It was full of leaves, the raccoons have eaten the fish, but there were water hyacinths  and a water cypress with a new shoot still alive, buried under two feet of leaves! Amazing!

Look who I found in the woods pond! This little leopard frog was cold and sleepy and not moving much but alive and well!

I can’t wait to open my windows and listen to the spring peepers in the clean pond as they sing me to sleep at night. Then I will know spring is truly here.

"The music of all creatures has to do with their loves, even toads and frogs."--Henry David Thoreau


Monday, March 10, 2014

Lovin' the Natives, Anyway!

After last week’s rant on planting natives, I should make it perfectly clear that I’m all for it, in case anybody takes me to task. I just want to make sure that when I plant them in our own garden, I know what I’m in for.  Just as non-native or Old World plants can become invasive here, so can local natives if they are planted heedlessly. In their natural range, natives are subject to disease, insects, animal predators and grow with other plants that help keep their populations in check. But when a single native variety is planted in a garden and released from the limiting factors that keep it under control, it too can become invasive when provided with fertile soil, plenty of water and room to roam.
That’s a hard lesson I’ve learned as our garden and I get older. One bed must be extensively re-done this spring because it is so infested with native goldenrod, spiderwort, black-eyed susans, blue star grass, and penstemon that other, smaller desirable natives are having a hard time of it. Shooting stars, native sedums, crested irises, and trilliums are being sorely tested. These native invaders have severely crowded non-natives; iris tectorum, lilies, peonies, clematis, creeping thymes, and columbines that I really want there. And they spread seed so wantonly that even with regular deadheading, they shortly get totally out of control. Their deep roots cling tenaciously to this rocky soil, making them really hard to remove, especially after a winter’s growth. They refuse to be pulled, giving up their top leaves like a lizard losing its tail; having to be dug out, disrupting desirables along the way. Inevitably they insinuate themselves into crowns of other plants, replacing them quickly if they aren’t dealt with. I must admit responsibility for some of them, but I blame birds and wind for the rest.

Not to say that they shouldn’t be planted in a garden. Those aggressive natives are beautiful with echinaceas, monardas, daisies, grasses, phlox and others that can compete well in thoughtfully planned beds.
I love them anyway as a mother loves her incorrigible child, but this year they are all going to be banished to a meadow area where they can merrily reseed and I don’t have to deal with them. It’s way too much work. My goal is to make Chaos less labor intensive as we grow older.  I just want to walk down the paths, tell the flowers how beautiful they are, piddle with them a bit, plant some new things once in a while, watch the birds and butterflies; you know, the fun stuff. I have been mostly successful with some areas, and still tinkering with the rest.

I wish some natives were a little more aggressive, especially out in the woods where I keep dividing and transplanting them so they will carpet the ground under the trees with our hostas, hellebores, heucheras, and other shade perennials. Many wild woods plants are spring bloomers; ephemerals that come up early, put on a show, and then disappear until next year. Trout lilies, Mayapples, Dutchman’s breeches, gingers, Virginia bluebells, hepaticas, ferns, false Solomon’s seal, Jacob’s ladder, violets in every color, bloodroot, false rue anemone, and Jack-in-the pulpit grow out here with woodland phlox, a little annual yellow corydalis, that cursed Virginia waterleaf—I don’t divide or transplant that one however—, and too many others to name, all keeping company with thousands of daffodils, crocuses, grape hyacinths, scillas, pushkinias and azaleas that turn the woods into a blaze of color. This garden is a place to visit to see spring in all its glory.
Virginia Bluebells 


Pink Dutchman's breeches
 By the end of May, though, most of them are gone and only a green carpet of gingers, Solomon’s seal and ferns remains with the hostas and their perennial companions. Other mostly well-behaved natives and non-natives such as creeping veronicas, golden moneywort, tiarellas, leadwort and succulents take their places for the summer.
I add more spring-blooming natives as I find them. Last year it was trailing arbutus (epigaea repens), loved from the Michigan woods of my childhood. An endangered native of the east coast, it is a low-growing member of the heath family, pink-flowered and sweetly scented. Acidic, humusy soil in an oak forest is its natural environment so it was placed at the foot of a white oak where it lived through last season, though this is probably a bit far west for its range. My hopes are high for it, so three more were ordered this spring, along with pink shooting stars (dodecathion) to join existing clumps of white ones.

Early-blooming native serviceberries have been planted under tall hickories along the south edge of the woods. The fruit is tasty in pies and jam, but I doubt we will get any of the fruits to eat as robins love them better. They are all sprouts from a serviceberry that I once planted closer to the house, not taking into account its suckering ways. Now, those suckers must be dug out each spring to keep them from crowding out a hydrangea that is its bed-mate, and making a serviceberry grove out of the whole area. If I was a harsher mistress of the garden I would pull it out, but I love its delicate white flowers and watching robins plunder the berries in summer.
Planting anything just because the tag says “native” without researching it can cause serious trouble in a small garden. Like with any plant, native or otherwise, find out its habits beforehand to use the right natives for a situation. Plant for wildlife but remember, gardens are for people, too. It’s not fun if the plants make you work too hard.

Many native plants can be found at local nurseries. Missouri Wildflower Nursery will be at area sites this spring including our own Wildcat Glades with plants to sell. Their catalog and schedule is at

Published in the Joplin Globe, "Speaking of Gardens" by Sandy Parrill   March 9, 2014