Saturday, April 30, 2011

A plant I fancy: Astilbe

*Updated to ensure pictures are properly credited

'Red Sentinel'
Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder

Scientific name: Astilbe japonica, Astilbe chinensis, Astilbe thunbergii, others and hybrids
Common name(s): False spirea
Height x Width: 12-36" (though some ultra-dwarf varieties, like astilbe crispa 'lilliput' can be as short as 6-8")
Growth rate: Unknown
Hardiness: Zones 4-8
Soil: Can grow in average soil, but prefers moist organically rich soils
Light: Partial shade to full shade

Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder
 Reasons I like it:
  • grows well in shade
  • provides late spring/early summer color, right now it seems as if everything will be done blooming by early summer
  • is drought tolerant once established
  • fresh green fern-like foliage remains crisp all season and can act as a groundcover
  • as leaves emerge in the spring, they can hide the dying foliage of daffodils and other spring bulbs

Where would I put it?
  • In the backyard, in a damp spot that will become a rain garden or anywhere between the understory and the lawn
  • I would put 'Rheinland' or 'Deutschland' in a bed with toad lily and a purple lobelia
  • I would put 'Red Sentinel' in a bed with red lobelia and foamflower
  • I would put either 'Sprite' or 'Lilliput' in a bed with hostas and annual impatiens
Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder

Astilbe, or false spirea, seems to be a requirement for every shade garden.  I've tried to grow it before, but the spot was a little sunny and could have been too dry, so the plant didn't do much over the course of two years.  Everything I had read about woodland gardens recommends them, so I'm going to try again, even if they're not a native plant.

Have you tried astilbe?  What is your favorite variety?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Garden Parts: The Mailbox

This is another bed that needs some work.  It is out in front of the house and is one of the first things anyone who pulls into the driveway sees.  Although it looks good right now, it is mostly azalea and will be pretty boring once they're done blooming. 

The top photo is this week, the bottom is from a couple of weeks ago...the flowers make a big difference.
There are two other shrubs in this bed - one unidentified deciduous and one shrub rose (possibly a knockout).  As far as perennials go, there is a clump of bearded iris, a couple of salvias, and a possible astilbe.  Earlier in the spring, a couple of clumps of daffodils came up along with a scattering of grape hyacinth.
The current plan
I really need to find a better way to draw garden plans...this is totally not to scale.  The grey part is a concrete slab that extends behind the mailbox -- I'm not sure what that's for or whether we can get rid of it.  The green plants are labelled, everything else is an azalea.

What I'd like to do:
  • Incorporate some evergreen shrubs into this bed.  Even with the "evergreen" azaleas, over the winter this bed looks like a bunch of dead bushes.  If we can remove part of the concrete slab, I'd like to move the two boxwoods from the island bed to either side of the mailbox.  Then, I'd put three tallish nandinas (Gulf Stream?  maybe even taller) behind the mailbox in a loose triangle formation.
  • Incorporate some perennials that will flower in the summer and fall.  The salvias are a good start, but not enough.  Between the azaleas and the mailbox, I'd put some taller things: more bearded iris, monarda, perovskia, shasta daisies, and possibly some lillies.
  • Round out the bed a little.  I'd like to make it a little bigger and less boxy.  At the same time, I'd like to fill in the outside of the azaleas so there's a transition between the shrubs and the lawn.  I'd prefer to use shorter evergreen-ish perennials to do this, things like arabis, aremeria, dianthis, iberis, lavender, phlox (xreeping), rosemary, sedum (creeping varieties), sempervivum, and thyme.
  • Plant a couple of clematis vines (or something else) that can be trained over the mailbox.
This is one of the only spots in the garden with a lot of sun, so it is really the only area for me to enjoy my favorite sun perennials.  My biggest concern is whether I be able to keep up with weeding, deadheading, and dividing.  In my old yard, my perennial beds got quite shabby at times, but it didn't matter since they were hidden in the back.  In this yard, it will be out for everyone to see.

I have lots of time to think about it.  Unlike the island bed, I do not plan on doing much more in the mailbox bed this year than weeding, replacing the mulch, and planting some annuals.
Do you have a mailbox bed?  What works and what doesn't work for you?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Look what I found: Rhododendron ???

Sometimes I think I'm the most contrary person on earth.

When we first moved into the old house, I planted three azaleas in an empty bed out front.  The poor little bushes limped along but they just didn't do well.  After a couple of years, I admitted defeat and pulled them out.

In our small, sunny backyard, I wanted to make a "woodland corner".  In the shadiest corner of the yard, under a wild cherry tree, I had planned it all out: a dogwood tree, a rhododendron, a mountain laurel and three azaleas.

I dreamed of those azaleas.  I looked at different varieties, their bloom color, their bloom time, their habit, whether they were deciduous or evergreen.  I. wanted. those. azaleas.

The new house has a lot of azaleas.  Dozens.  I haven't been able to count the total number of bushes yet, so I tried to count the varieties, and then I just settled for counting the colors (there are eight distinct colors of azaleas in the new yard).

I should be thrilled, and I am...mostly.  It is very nice to have such a burst of spring color.

But now that I have more azaleas than I can count, here are the things I'm not so thrilled about:
  • Some of the varieties are a little gaudy.
  • Most of the azaleas we have are evergreen, but they look pretty shabby over the winter.
  • Once they're done blooming, they're just going to sit there.  They don't have great shape, great foliage, or great summer/fall interest.
  • There is at least one azalea in every single cultivated bed in the front and back yard.

So - do I adjust my attitude or adjust my garden?

For now, I'm going to adjust my attitude.

This one is my favorite. - possibly R. 'Madame Butterfly'

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Favorites: Papa John's

No - not the pizza place.
Most people in Anne Arundel county have driven past the big red barn and know that Papa John's is a great place to buy plants in the spring, produce in the summer, and pumpkins in the fall.

Papa John's has been around for as long as I can remember.  When I was a teenager, some of my friends even worked there during the summer.  The farm is run by the Schillinger family and is one of the few working farms left in northern Anne Arundel County.  With the exception of tropicals, all of the plants they sell are grown on the farm from seed or plugs. 

My daughter and I visited the farm on Saturday and left with a flat of mixed annuals (10 four-packs) and a 4 inch potted fuchsia for about $19.  We enjoyed walking through the greenhouses (there are nine total), which were packed full of annuals, herbs, and vegetables.  They had a wide range of hanging baskets and other "pre-made" garden items.  My daughter really liked a large pink plastic pig which looked like it might be a watering can, but was planted with annuals.  There was also a smaller selection of perennials out on the lawn.

One of the things I like best about Papa John's annuals is you have some choice in the size of the plant you're buying.  At the nearest big box hardware store, the annuals they're selling are tall and blooming.  This may seem like a good thing, but it really means the plants are most of the way through their short growing cycle and probably won't put much effort towards growing more roots and getting bigger once they're planted.

Papa Johns has those plants as well, but they also have plants that are only a few weeks old with buds and even plants that don't have buds yet.  After reading an article about annuals on the Renegade Gardener's website, I always try to buy the annuals that are the least mature.

I've been getting my annuals and herbs from Papa John's for about five years.  In my experience, they are cheaper than the hardware store plants and they consistently outperform them.  I don't know whether it's because they're grown locally and are suited to the weather, because I choose the smallest plants, or for some other reason, but they always do well.  I spent about $50 at Papa John's last year, and I swear those annuals helped sell our old house.

More background information about Papa John's in available in this 2010 article from

8065 New Cut Road
Severn, Maryland 21144
(410) 969-8810

8:00am - 7:00pm, Monday - Saturday
9:00am - 6:00pm, Sunday

Monday, April 25, 2011

Look what I found: Brunnera macrophylla

Brunnera macrophylla is also know as Siberian Bugloss.  I've seen the 'Jack Frost' variety in plant catalogs before, but something about the variagation put me off and I never really considered it for my garden.

It looks as if we have the general variety.  I prefer this to the variegated form and find it quite charming.  The bright green leaves form a substantial clump of foliage and the dainty flowers remind me of forget-me-nots.  They are about a foot high and have about a foot spread.  I'm not sure if the previous owners planted a single plant or a handful, but they've spread all along the woodland path.

The brunnera is along the left side - look for the large heart-shaped leaves
Brunnera prefers partial shade and average well-drained soil.  With time, it will naturalize, spreading by rhizomes and through self-seeding.  There are several variagated varieties that are not quite as silver as 'Jack Frost'.  However, these varieties ('Hadspen Cream', 'Langtrees', and 'Dawson's White') seem to lose their variagation as they spread.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Weekend Project: Planting Annuals

Pretty sad, I know

We had been neglecting the front of our house, so we spent the whole morning raking, mowing, picking up sticks...

...and planting a flat of annuals.  True garden snobs seem to frown upon annuals, especially the type you buy in a multi-pack from the hardware store.  I think the best type of garden includes a little bit of everything: sun and shade, perennial and annual, specialty plant and "common as dirt".

We also did a little tree-climbing.

It was a great day.  Happy Easter!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A plant I fancy: Amelanchier canadensis

*Updated to ensure pictures are properly credited
Scientific name: Amelanchier canadensis
Common name(s): serviceberry, juneberry, shadblow
Height x Width: 25-30' x 15-20'
Growth rate: Unknown
Hardiness: Zones 4-8
Soil: Tolerant of a wide-range of soils
Light: Full sun to partial shade

Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder

Reasons I like it:
 - Flowering tree
 - Native
 - Attracts birds
 - Showy, edible fruit
 - Has fall color
 - Multi-stemmed trunks provide winter interest 

Where would I put it?
 - In the front island

I admit it - I've fallen for all of the latest gardening trends like native plants, edible landscaping, and winter interest.  The serviceberry covers all of these in one fell swoop. 

The species that I'm interested in, Amelanchier canadensis, is native to Maryland and is really more of a multi-stemmed shrub.  It produces delicate white flowers in early spring, which eventually turn into small berries very similar to blueberries in the early summer.  The serviceberry is known for its bright fall foliage, which seems to span a range of colors from gold to red.  In the winter time, the multi stemmed trunks and smooth bark provide some interest and structure in the garden.

Do you think that serviceberries and other native plants will seem dated one day?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Garden Parts: The Island

I've been in this house for close to ten months and I still haven't gotten a garden plan down on paper.  The yard is too big and there are too many plants for me to document everything all at once.  I decided I'll just do it piece by piece, starting with "the island".

The island sits in the middle of the front yard and hides our well.  It is made up of three Japanese holly (ilex crenata, variety undetermined) on the left and three azaleas (I think...variety also undetermined) on the right.  There are a few bulbs that are coming up around the bed and I think I found Virginia bluebells behind the holly bushes.  Pretty plain, but the shrubs are evergreen and it looks like the azalea is about to flower and...

Oh wait...


I forgot about those.  There are also two boxwoods (buxus, species undetermined) on the far right. 

We're watching you!
On one hand, the shrubs were spaced appropriately.  Often, you see shrubs this size placed fairly close together.  It looks better at first, but the bushes end up being crowded.  Also -- I like boxwood.  I think they have pleasing habit and can look really nice in the right setting.

This is not the right setting. 

There is a reason garden designers tell you to plant shrubs in odd numbers (the exception is formal foundation plantings, where you would an equal number of plants on each side of an entrance or window).  If you look carefully above, you can see there is a third shrub!  I thought it was some sort of crape myrtle, but I need to do more investigation.  Even though there are three shrubs, since only two are evergreen, this "design" still looks pretty strange.

While this doesn't look strange at all...

I need to find something better than mspaint, because the plan I came up with looks vaguely medical and a little disturbing.

Basically, I want to make the bed a little bigger.  I want to make it curvier: kidney shaped rather than oblong.  I want to remove the boxwoods and mystery bush.  I want to add one largish tree (the pink one, most likely a redbud of some sort) and two smaller trees (I'm leaning towards serviceberries).  Although the plan doesn't show it, I would then add some perennials in front of the japanese holly and azaleas.  Of the top of my head, I'm thinking heuchera, since the red or chartreuse varieties would really pop in front of the solid green of the bushes.  I'd also plant more bulbs and might try to put hostas* under the trees.

Right now, redesigning this bed is my number one priority.  It's in front of our house and I cringe every time I look at those two boxwoods.

What would you do to change this bed?  Do you have any suggestions for trees/perennials?

*I still don't have a great idea of how well hostas last in our deer infested neighborhood.  I love hostas, but I need to be realistic about whether I'd be able to stay on top of spraying them.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Look what I found: cornus florida 'White'

cornus florida 'White' - Flowering Dogwood
A lot of the plants I've found in the garden are pretty easy to identify.  Either there are only a few species of the plant or they have some sort of distinctive feature that sets them apart.  Others are not so easy.

There are between 30 and 50 species of dogwood.  Some are trees, some are shrubs, some are even groundcover.  There are native* dogwoods, European dogwoods, and Asian dogwoods.  To make matters worse, dogwood trees grown in the shade look quite different than trees grown in full sun.

My three are quite leggy and sparse in the shade
For the dogwoods, and for a few other trees I'm trying to identify, I haven't found a good way to definitively say, "It is this exact species".  I was hoping for a website that might walk through each feature of the tree: the bark, the flower, the habit, etc. and then spit out an answer.  I've settled for browsing through dozens and dozens of images and then making a best guess.

These three dogwoods are situated along the edge of the woods.  It is really the perfect spot for them and seems very natural, as if they sprung up there on their own.  They add a nice bit of spring interest and let enough light through to the mixed flowering shrubs below.  I don't remember whether their leaves were particularly interesting in the fall, but I'll be sure to take note this year.

* Yet another native plant sale this weekend: Historic London Town and Gardens (Edgewater, MD)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Favorites: Paghat's Garden

AKA In the Garden of Paghat the Ratgirl

This site seems pretty strange at first.  The combination of font color and background color is different.  Some of the articles meander off into odd directions.  I've never actually heard the term "Ratgirl" before, and I'm not quite sure what it means.

This is what I am sure of: Paghat's Garden is one of the best gardening resources out there.  Since it was moved to its own domain in 2002, it has grown to be the largest temperate gardening website in the world and contains over 1,600 articles and 3,500 photographs.  The amazing part is most of the plants highlighted are from Paghat's own garden, which overlooks the Sinclair Inlet of Puget Sound. 

I remember reading once that the Pacific Northwest is the only area in the US with a climate similar enough to Great Britain to be able to copy some of the great English gardens.  This might be true, but Paghat has a wide variety of plants.  Although her zone is very different from my East coast 7b, I still find sound advice on her site.

Each article is different, but they usually give the scientific and common name for the plant, the species' origin, where the specific plant was purchased, and where it is currently growing (including soil and light conditions).  There are typically one or more pictures, showing details and habit.  Sometimes, there are pictures to show growth over the course of several years or to show the plant in fall or winter.

Frequently, the articles will discuss folklore, myths, or legends associated with the plant and origins for the plant's common name(s).  Paghat cites many historical sources, ranging from the Bible to the Doctrine of Signatures.  She has a interest in the human health benefits of herbs, but cannot tolerate "quackery" and is not shy about pointing out the plants (*cough* echinacea *cough*) that have been scientifically proven to be no better than a placebo.

Most of her site is broken up by plant type: Shade Perennials, Ferns, Sun-garden Herbs, Evergreen Shrubs, etc.  There is also an index by scientific name, which is useful if you're looking for something specific.  Finally, there is a Miscellaneous section which contains some really great garden "tours" and other gardening-related essays.  I'm actually late posting this today because I was reading an essay on the harmful affects of earthworms.  That is what I love most about this site: every time I visit, I find something interesting to read.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Paghat:

"There's also just no such thing as "finishing" a garden & saying, "there, that'll last forever." The garden also imposes its own changes."

What are some of your favorite gardening websites?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Look what I found: fritillaria meleagris

I found my camera!

Saturday was a horrible rainy mess, but on Sunday morning I was able to walk around the yard with my wonderful husband.  I took pictures until the memory card was full.

One of the first things we found was this beautiful little flower.

It  is so dainty, I thought it might be some sort of spring a trout lily or something?

After some Internet research, I believe it is a fritillaria meleagris.

Fritllaria meleagris is commonly known as the Checkered Lily, the Guinea -hen Flower, or the Snake's Head Lily.  According to Wikipedia, it is the only species of Fritillary native to Great Britain.  There is a great deal more information available at one of my favorite plant websites, Paghat's Garden.

Ours (we only found one) is growing in the shade of a large juniper bush.  It's very sweet and I think I'll have to get some more to plant in the fall.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Weekend Project: Recycling KCups

We use a Keurig brewer at my office.  I really like the convenience of being able to brew a cup at a time, but I do feel a little guilty about how much is wasted.  As far as I know, recycling centers do not accept KCups.

I decided to take a bunch of KCups home, clean them out, and use them to grow seeds.

Step 1: Peel off foil top

Step 2: Dump out grounds
Step 3: Remove filter

Step 4: Save grounds for composting
Step 5: Rinse and line up
Step 6: Fill with seed starter and add seeds

These are cheaper than jiffy pots and I feel better about the Keurig because the KCups are being reused.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A plant I fancy: Actaea simplex 'Hillside Black Beauty'

*Updated to reflect new botanical name and to ensure pictures are properly credited

After the past three entries, I need to post something a little less "scrolly".  One of the things I hoped to use this blog for was to keep track of plants that catch my eye.

Scientific name: Cimicfuga Racemosa Actaea simplex (Atropurpurea Group) 'Hillside Black Beauty'
Common name(s): Black cohosh, bugbane, fairy candles
Height x Width: 4-7 ' x 2-3'
Growth rate: Moderate to slow
Hardiness: Zones 3-7
Soil: Moist, acidic
Light: Shade to partial shade

Reasons I like it:
 - Deer resistant
 - Native*
 - Attracts butterflies
 - Distinctive purple foliage
 - Late-blooming
 - Seed heads could provide winter interest

Where would I put it?
 - In the understory between the lawn and the woods, between smaller perennials and bushes
 - Possibly along the path in the woods
 - Next to plants with contrasting foliage

What do you think? Do you have any cimicfuga in your garden?

* If you're in the Maryland area and are interested in Native Plants, there's a sale at Adkins Arboretum on the Eastern Shore this weekend.

Friday, April 15, 2011

What's next?

I'm hoping that this blog will help me keep track of the before, the after, and the in-between of my new garden.

This will be a place to:
 - Develop the garden plan
 - Identify current plants
 - Keep track of plant purchases
 - Spotlight individual plants with photos and general information
 - Document garden-related projects and mistakes
 - Post reviews for garden sales, centers, and resources in the Chesapeake bay area

As a bulleted list, this sounds very straight-forward.  And a little boring. 

- - - -

Yesterday, before I left for work in the morning, I saw a single mayapple  in one of the beds I want to eventually get rid of.  This is a plant I do not know.  I know what it looks like and I know what facts are listed about it in wikipedia, but I've never owned one before.  I haven't watched one from spring to fall, from start to finish.  I've never divided one or grown it from seed.  I do not know the absolute best spot for it in my yard, but these are the things I hope to learn.

During my lunch break, I read up on mayapples and other spring ephemerals.  In my mind, I could see where I might move it and what else I would plant with it.  Last night, I was able to stop at the local gardening center for about 15 minutes before they closed and was excited to see that they did sell mayapples at the exorbitant price of $9.99.

I left empty-handed, sticking to my promise not to buy any new plants until July.

This morning I had a little time to look deeper into the woods.  I was planning to get the camera out to take pictures for bloom day, but I couldn't find the camera and didn't know where the cord for the laptop was. 

"This is the beginning of the end," I thought.  "Two blog entries that no one will read and I'll never post again because I can't find my *!@#$!@#$* camera."

I walked through the woods anyway, to check out the spot where I thought the mayapple might belong.  It was full of mayapples.  Dozens of them.

*stolen from wikipedia
- - - -

This is what I want to share in the blog.  Along with the plans, the facts, the mundane, I want to share the joy that gardening can bring. 

I hope it will be interesting.  More importantly, I hope I keep up with it.  I work full time, have a 70 mile round-trip commute, and a three year old daughter.  I'm notoriously bad at following through with things and most projects I start are never completed.

I'm going to try.

(And if I have to steal all of my pictures from wikipedia until I find my camera and cord, so be it.)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

And this is now...

When we sold our old house, we needed a little more space: a bigger yard, a guest room, or maybe another full bathroom if we were lucky.

We ended up in a house with a lot more space and a lot more yard.  Instead of the sunny quarter acre lot, we have a mostly wooded acre.  Instead of a friendly beach community where our neighbors did their own lawn work and gardening, we're in a quiet bedroom community where our neighbors hire crews to do their landscaping.

Not gardening...landscaping.

This is a big change, which honestly feels daunting at times.  In my house, I could buy anything that caught my fancy and put it in the front yard without thinking twice about it.  Now, when I look at plant catalogues, I find myself wondering what our quiet neighbors would think if I decided to put in a bed of rudbekia maxima in the front yard.

Approximately five to six feet tall!

The original owners of our new house were gardeners and created a really beautiful woodland garden in the backyard.  It's almost uncanny that some of things they did, probably twenty years ago, are things that are quite trendy now.  They minimized the lawn and used a nice combination of trees, shrubs, and perennials in the understory.  They chose a lot of native plants.  There is a hidden bench in the woods that you can reach with a winding garden path. 

The backyard was the main reason I agreed to put an offer on this house.

However, the people we bought the house from were not the original owners and were not gardeners.  They were lovely people who took great care of the home, maintained the lawn, and kept the trees well limbed...but they were not gardeners.

The garden path is overgrown.  Trees have been removed and replaced with plants or beds that are not appropriate for their space.  Leaves and sticks have been dumped for about five years in a few different spots in the woods.  Meanwhile, the beds that still exist are covered with dry gray mulch.  When we moved in last July and I made a solemn vow to not. plant. anything. for one year.  I needed to figure out the type of garden that would fit into our new neighborhood and I wanted to see what came up in the spring.

I'm glad I waited.  In a section of grass that appeared to be lawn last summer, there is a cluster of hostas coming up right now.  I don't know if the deer ate them last year (a distinct possibility) or if the previous owners mowed them over while preparing to sell the house, but I found them and now I need to figure out how best to take care of them.  In the woods, I found eight hellebores.  I had seen the leaves last year and thought there might be one or two of them, but I could not imagine there were eight.  Sometimes when I walk in the woods and find a new plant (like the fringed bleeding heart I saw this morning growing out of a two foot pile of leaves), I feel like I've won the lottery.

But just like someone who has won the jackpot, I can't jump in with both feet and start transplanting things and building new beds and buying new plants. 

I need to make a plan.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

That was then...

Our old house, which was also our first house, had one thing going for it: it was cheap.

It was also dirty, run-down, and didn't have air conditioning.  The only plants in the front yard were three dead juniper bushes and a mass of vinca major. 

We lived there for eight years, longer than I have ever lived in a single place.  We celebrated my husband's 30th birthday in the backyard and had our 10 year anniversary dinner in the dining room.  When my daughter was born, we brought her to that house.  It was home.

In the course of eight years we completely transformed it, especially the garden.

Looking back now, I can't believe we did so much.  We cut down two trees and planted a new one.  We had a fence installed one year and a patio installed the next.  We edged a half-dozen garden beds with flagstone and filled those beds with shrubs, perennials and bulbs.

My husband built one and then another red cedar shed.  I shovelled wheelbarrows full of leaf compost and mulch year after year.  I planted dozens of annuals year after year.  We were constantly weeding, planting, and planning; in fact, I was still planting up until the week before we listed the house for sale (six knockout roses in a difficult area by the oil tank that always looked shabby).

As much as I miss the plants and the garden we created, the thing I regret most is that we didn't document the before and after.