There is a bit of irony going on in my garden. Take my butterfly garden. Lots of flowers with large flowerheads, landing pads for butterflies and bees alike. Bright orange zinnias as well as Mexican sunflowers, with their equally bright orange flowers and soft, fuzzy leaves. Butterfly weed (Asclepias) has bloomed (in bright orange!) and is now going to seed. Everywhere you will see parsley; not for us, but for the swallowtail butterflies to lay their eggs on. Butterfly weed is the host plant for Monarch butterflies, while the parsley serves as the host plant for swallowtails. After all, how are we going to have butterflies in the garden if we don’t offer it a place to lay its eggs and host the ugly duckling stage of its development before it turns into the butterfly?
The caterpillar, basically a mouth with a large stomach and stubby feet, will reduce these plants to sticks as they grow from tiny caterpillar into its final size. Occasionally I will move a caterpillar to another parsley nearby when it has reduced the original plant down to virtually nothing. The monarch caterpillars seem to have a taste for the seedpods of the butterfly weed, of which there are plenty. Somewhere in this flowering display you will find my new roses; four small rose bushes and two medium sized ones, the latter which are called Vavoom! They bloom in (what else?) BRIGHT orange, although they have the (unfortunate) tendency to fade to a salmon-y pink. While every bud and subsequent flower brings a smile to my face, that smile faded when my flowers got munched on. The first culprits where the Japanese beetles, which were dealt with quite easily. I handpick them off the flowers, throw them in soapy water and that is the end of that. But then there was something else eating my roses… not just the flowers, but some of the new leaf growth as well. A closer examination was warranted. Hiding among the flower petals or under some leaves were tiny caterpillars. The smallest ones were yellow, but as they grew bigger they turned bright green. I picked them off the plants and fed them to my fish in the pond. Every few days I go back to the roses and see if I can find more. And there you have the irony in my garden; while I provide an environment for most butterflies and their hungry offspring, I fail to do the same for whichever little butterfly or moth is responsible for the rose eating caterpillars. Happy to provide parsley and butterfly weed for them to eat, I draw the line at my roses!
A few hot and dry days (the fourth heat wave of this summer) were followed by more torrential downpours. With all this heat and rain most plants have put out new growth and my shrubs and smaller trees are bigger than a month or two ago. My Purple-leaf Mimosa tree 'Summer Chocolate' (Albizia julibrissin) has doubled its size. Hopefully next year it will get another growth spurt, up this time, so I can walk upright under it rather than bending down to get past it.
My Chaste trees (Vitex) have provided the bees and butterflies this summer with a cornucopia of flowers and it is still blooming. Again, it has doubled in size and next year I can try to start pruning it into a multi-trunked small tree. Although Chaste trees are not reliable hardy below zone 7 (we are in zone 6B) so far I have been lucky as both plants are still with me, even after last winter’s very cold weather.
The same applies to my crepe myrtles, hardy down further south, marginally hardy here. But all three of them are growing and blooming and, as all gardeners, I have faith they will live and thrive. Then on the other hand, if they curl up their roots and die, I will have an opportunity to try something else. That’s the nature of gardening; nothing remains the same from day to day and each day brings us new surprises, even if it comes in the form of tiny yellow or green caterpillars!
With two thirds of summer gone it is time to take stock in the garden. It really hasn't been that hot for very long, but we have had plenty of moisture and it might be the wettest summer in decades. I certainly don’t remember any summers this wet since I landed on these shores in 1981. Most rainfalls were torrential in nature; no gentle rains slowly soaking into the ground!
With two years of gardening under my belt in this new garden I admit I am starting to look forward to next year. There is a saying in gardening: when you plant anything in the garden, they (the plants) “sleep the first year, creep the second year and leap in the third year”. Yeah, my garden should be leaping all over next spring and summer since the backbone of my garden (shrubs and trees) were put in the ground in the summer and fall of 2016. Unlike unexperienced gardeners who tend to put plants too close together to make more of an impact, I carefully spaced my plants. It allows the plants to mature into healthy plants without pruning to shoehorn them in their intended spot. While I wait for the plants to fill out I must deal with open spaces between the plants. If you don’t care for the “open look” as your garden grows to its potential, you can use annuals to fill in the gaps. Oh, without a doubt, gardening is a game of patience, something I have not always been good at (the patience part, that is).
These days as I sit in the garden in late afternoon, I overlook the main garden and pond. There are few flowers and the main colors here range from creamy white, blue green, greenish yellow to bright green. A few clematis plants are in bloom and I can see puddles of blue. The gravel path is a light grey river next to the water of the pond. The spiky variegated foliage of iris glows in creamy white and green and contrasts with the sedum growing around the edges of the pond. The Canadian redbud tree towers next to the waterfall and behind it I can see the rounded shapes of my yellow green evergreens. The other side of the waterfall is now completely covered by blue rug juniper which I am training to grow over the rocks and down the backside of the raised bed. It’s a view that is restful and pleasant to look at.
As we get closer to fall the inevitable fall gardening catalogs have arrived in the mailbox. As always, I peruse each and every catalog, dog-earing pages with interesting bulbs (as bulbs are the mainstay for planting in fall). I compare prices among the various providers and then wait a bit longer to see if any deals crop up. But don’t wait too long or all the best bulbs will be gone, and you will have to make do with leftovers! For the last two years my garden was still too new to start planting bulbs. The soil was heavy clay, compacted from building the house and then the pond and most bulbs would struggle to grow, let along bloom in splendor in the spring. And to be honest, by the time fall came around I was too bushed to amend the soil and dig hundreds of holes for planting. But this year… oh, this year I am ready to create a spring blooming garden. I ordered two different varieties of daffodils, various grape hyacinths, plenty of Dutch irises in bright yellow, two different varieties of iris reticulata, dwarf irises, one of which is called ‘Alida’ which happens to be my mother’s name and finally more snowflakes (those snowbells on steroids). All in all, 550 bulbs which will give me more than enough work to do once they arrive. Most likely sometime half way through planting I will wonder why I ordered that many bulbs. On the other hand, though, I will also know that come spring next year my garden will come back to life earlier than ever before and brighten up the block. The witch hazels, which bloom in late winter, early spring, will be underplanted with daffodils and grape hyacinths and compliment each other. In other beds, the bulbs will work their magic first before their foliage dies back and make room for perennials which will strut their stuff in the weeks and months following the spring blooms. For the wettest parts of the garden, wherever the downspouts or sump pump dumps water, the snowflakes will bloom for weeks on end with bright white bells atop large grass-like leaves. When conditions are consistently damp the foliage stays green throughout most of summer before finally dying back in late August, early September. All these bulbs will add an additional layer to the garden and provide an early source of nectar for those first insects buzzing around in late winter and early spring. As for me, after months indoors during winter I will be more than happy to see my garden erupting with spring colors.
This year’s gardening journal has a theme; a wet theme. Spring was mostly cool and wet, summer was hot for a short period and wet for the rest. Storms rotate over the same region time and time again and over 12 days this July I have measured nearly 11 inches of rain in the rain gauge. The first rains on Sunday 7/15 measured 2.3 inches and were a welcome relief from the heat. The garden immediately perked up and on Wednesday 7/18 we received another 3.8 inches of rain. No longer was there any need for watering and since then just about every other day we have had more rain. Since my side garden is on a gentle slope, the heavy rain, unfortunately, moved my thin layer of mulch all the way down the slope. I raked it back up the slope and the next heavy rain brought it down again. This got old fast! There was only one solution to the problem: more mulch, lots of it. So, I ordered another truck load and The Spouse and I have been busy spreading it on the side yard. I now have a good three to four inches all over the side yard and the next rain (coming down as I am writing this) will pack it down a little, but no longer move it down the slope.
As a gardener I recycle all garden “waste” on the compost pile. I had two bins, bought many years ago, but it was hard moving the compost around in it or getting to the bottom of the bins where all those pieces of plants and paper had turned into wonderful soil. For a while I had been thinking about making new bins out of palettes (check out the internet for ideas – there are lots of them out there) but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I dismantled my bins and got a full wheel barrel and two buckets full of soil out of the bottom of my compost bins.
Now I had two heaps of garden waste sitting in the back of the garden and no will to reassemble the two bins. And here comes The Spouse to the rescue! Online he went and found cedar compost bins, to be assembled by the recipient. Just in time for my upcoming birthday! When the FedEx guy came (as we were mulching) I could not have been more excited. The next day I assembled my bins, which was as easy as pie! The corner pieces and slats are all dove-tailed and you slide the slats down the post (occasionally with the help of the rubber mallet). Rather than make three separate bins, you can use the corner post from the first assembled bin to add bin number two. My three boxes of bins thus gave me four compost bins with even a few slats and two more corner posts left over.
Let’s just put it this way, I will be composting to my heart’s content for decades to come. My cedar bins will weather into a nice grey color and soon my neighbors won’t even notice them.
Since June, July and August are months when lilies strut their stuff, my garden has been a fragrant paradise for weeks now. One of my favorites is the Turk’s cap lily, a four to five-foot giant with many (20+) flowers opening over a week or two. When I bought my first Turk’s cap lily, they were expensive at $5 a bulb and I only bought three of them. They multiply, slowly, but I dug up my bulbs from my original garden and brought a few baby bulbs with them to my PA garden.
Each (flowering) stem will bear tiny bulbs, called bulbils, at each leaf axil and you may get as many as fifty of these tiny bulbs from one stem. Usually they will just fall off and start a new plant right next to the mother plant (as it did in my NJ garden). It will take a few years for these bulbils to grow into a larger plant and eventually flower. Two years ago I took all the bulbils from my Turk’s cap lilies and planted them in different parts of my garden. Some did well, others not so well, but one spot suited them greatly and now I have the first few blooming Turk’s cap lilies from these tiny bulbils.While the flowers are not as tall or as floriferous as the parents YET, I consider them a gift. Next year I should have many more Turk’s cap lilies blooming in my garden, both the single as well as the double variety, and it didn’t cost me a penny! Soil for free from composting and flowers from bulbils. Ah, gardening on the cheap, I knew I could do that too!
While the start of summer was on the cool side, it geared up pretty fast to hot! The first heat wave came and went (and it was blistering hot) before temps dropped to a more comfortable level. Now, only days later, we are back to hot with another heatwave around the corner.
Most of the plants are doing well, although the smaller perennials planted this spring need a little extra care. The few new shrubs I planted this spring are coming along nicely and they only need the occasional watering. Most of the annuals are doing well too, but a bit of additional water is appreciated by these plants, so I break out the hose in the early morning or early evening to help each one along.
It is interesting to see how the hell strip, that bit of garden between sidewalk and street, has changed from spring flowers to summer blooms. In spring it was a vision of blue thanks to the perennial flax which I had sown two years earlier. Now the perennial flax is mostly done and the Liatris (also known as blazing star or gayfeather) has taken over. I had sprinkled some cosmos seeds among them in spring and now the hell strip is a vision of mostly purple with a sprinkling of orange and yellows. Next year I will triple the amount of cosmos Bright Light as the combination is stunning!
Each morning I check the window wells for frogs and toads. After a rainy night I liberated six small frogs, but the other morning I caught myself a nice big leopard frog. Aptly named after that large wild cat, they share the same patterns of spots. They are one of my favorite type of frogs; once they get used to me I can work around them. This big frog was no different. After I released it back in the pond it obligingly posed for me while a took a few pictures. Then, the other day a large dragonfly landed on the inside of the awning while I was taking a break and reading a book. I watched it for a while and then decided to see how close I could get to it. I put my hand out and it actually stepped right on it! I called for the under-gardener to bring me the camera and again I was able to take a few pictures. When I was done I put the dragonfly on a branch, where it sat for a while before finally flying off into the great blue yonder.
Each evening I plop myself down into the comfiest chair in the garden, which by then is finally in the shade, eat some fruit and read my book. I watch the fish frolic in the pond, catching them jumping out of the water, or more likely, hearing the splash and watching the ripples in the pond where they re-entered. The other day I saw something rustle in the grasses surrounding the pond. It’s… a chipmunk; the first one I have ever seen in my garden. After that first sighting, we start to see it all over the garden, running around the rain barrel, sitting on one of the rocks, scurrying around plants. I have not yet witnessed its destructive behavior; digging up bulbs, pulling out small plants, so, for now, this little critter is welcome here. This garden is becoming a home to many small critters, birds and insects and it truly deserves to be called a backyard (and front yard) wildlife habitat.
Spring, mostly wet, has come and gone. The first day of summer was decidedly chilly, but now it is warm again. After having watered some newly planted annuals and relocated hostas the sky opened up and it poured. Oh well.
The koi spent most of the last week spawning. It was a regular orgy with male fish bashing the females against the side of the pond. Then the female releases the eggs and the male fertilizes them. Usually, other koi come in right behind the pairs to gobble up eggs, keeping the amount of baby koi within a manageable range. Unfortunately, my largest and oldest female fish (10 years old) became a victim of the vigorous spawning. She lingered for a day or two before expiring. She was a bright orange fish and although her offspring has some of her coloration, none are orange all over. Finley, born in 2011, comes closest, although her parentage includes a bright white father, and subsequently, she is mostly white with large orange spots. Ninja, born in 2012, is also the offspring of my bright orange koi, although her father, Buddy, is dark grey. For most of Ninja’s life she was a dull dark grey with a bit of orange on her belly. This year she started changing colors and now most of the dark grey is gone. She has become bright orange although still with grey and white spots. Koi, just like goldfish, are capable of changing colors, while high-quality food and light also can contribute to changes in color or the intensity of color. From experience, I have found that it is mostly the dark-colored fish which can turn into something much brighter, although not all of them will change during their lifetime. A nice thought when I look at some of the dark-colored offspring from two years ago; they may end up looking like some really nice fish in the (near) future.
I have already spotted the first few baby fish, seven of which I caught and relocated indoors to a small tank. When I first caught them, I could hardly see them in the tank. One small pellet of fish food pulverized into dust is the perfect fish food and now, only days later, they have nearly doubled in size. They are actually starting to look like tiny fish now. This week I will be setting up a larger tank which will serve as their new home in the near future.
In the back corner of our lot we have a large silver maple tree. At first, I was happy to have such a large tree on our lot as it provided us with some shade while everything else was growing (and at times struggling) on our bright sunny lot. But construction of the house, followed by the construction of the pond has not been kind to this tree. Add to that the fact that this tree is on a low spot in the garden where both the sump pump and some gutters drain away. A silver maple may like damp feet, but this area is too soggy, and it just continues to decline. Last year I noticed fewer leaves on the branches. After each storm, dead branches would litter the ground. This spring was no different. Fewer leaves, more dead spots and this tree will have to come down. I will wait till fall to get the job done if only to provide the shade-loving plants with its protective covering during summer. Meanwhile, the two corkscrew willows which I planted in June 2016 are growing fast and provide some much-needed shade while I am also nursing a new corkscrew willow cutting to (eventually) take the place of the silver maple. On the upswing, once this maple comes down, I won’t have to deal with a gazillion silver maple seedlings which miraculously (and most annoyingly!) spring up everywhere in the garden. Tiny little maples sprout from the large winged seeds and I spent several weeks on hands and knees around my plants or on the paths pulling them out. While I pulled out hundreds (if not thousands) daily at first, now I come across those that hid among plants and are just starting to peek out. They sprout at the pond’s edge among the grasses and I even disturb the occasional frog while hunting down stray tiny maples. As I make the rounds in the garden, pulling a few stray weeds, I also come across tiny little toads, aka toadlets, no bigger than the nail on my pinky. The other day I came across a big old toad among my plants, probably one which is responsible for the little ones in my garden. With luck, a number of these little toads will also stay in the garden and patrol it for insects, including snails, so future hostas will have less snail damage. More toads and better-looking hostas; I consider that a win-win.