Sunday, March 6, 2016

The New England Winter That Wasn't

Generally, winters in New England are thought of as snow filled and unbearably cold.  The snow in the picture above is more or less the trend for this entire winter.  Storms brought dustings or perhaps a couple inches and then warmer weather arrived and the snow disappeared.  This pattern happened over and over and although the cold did arrive occasionally, it didn't last.  Overall, an excellent winter for those who dislike cold and snow.  Not so much an excellent winter for plants and the water table.

Snow cover acts as an insulator.  This helps protect the soil during the freeze/thaw cycle of winter.  The ground cools, freezes, warms, and freezes through the winter months.  With snow on the ground, plants are offered some protection and stability from the insulating factor of snow.  Without it, shallow rooted plants are heaved from the ground as the soil expands and contracts.  Perennials and bulbs are especially prone to damage during this time.  Broad leaved evergreen plants gain protection from drying winter winds if they're covered by snow.  Exposure leads to brown rhododendron and azalea leaves come warmer weather.  In addition, snow pack that's allowed to melt slowly adds to rivers, lakes, and the water table gently over time.  Rain, on the other hand, quickly enters the environment and then moves through before being able to soak slowly into the water table.  Missing this slow gathering of water may lead to dry conditions come spring or even drought.

Here in southern Vermont the weather in March is more like the weather in April.  The upcoming week may even get us close to 70 degrees.  The average temperature for this time of year is around 40 degrees.  It may hit 67 on Wednesday and then stay in the 50's into the future.  Fantastic for spending time outside, not so fantastic for the environment.  I'm predicting we'll have a short spring followed quickly by warmer summer-like weather.

Recommended Plant:  The Lupine is a frequently seen roadside plant here in New England.  It's tough, grows well in poor soil, and enjoys sunny locations.  Lupinus perennis is the common blue variety, although there are many other colors available.  Like other plants in the pea family, it is able to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere which allows it to survive in less than stellar soils.  In fact, if planted in soil that's too rich the plants tend to become floppy.  They are relatively easy to start from seed as long as they have a chance to soak over night prior to planting.  Lupine seed also needs stratification, which is a period of cold temperature to promote germination.  Most seeds purchased are exposed to cold temperatures but if you collect seeds from the wild you'll want them to spend some time in the fridge to mimic winter temperatures (30 days or so).  Some people also abrade the seeds with sandpaper prior to soaking to help them germinate, although I've never had to do this.  Although perennial, they're not especially long lived.  They dislike transplanting, as once the plant begins to grow they create a carrot like taproot.  It's best to choose their permanent home and then leave them to it.  The plants will spread via seeds but don't tend to be invasive.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Signs of Late Summer in New England

Although summer is coming to an end here in New England, there are still many plants chugging along before the frosts arrive.  The yellows of Goldenrod fade as the riot of colors from Asters take over.  Various fruit trees and vines found this growing season especially friendly as there were no major hail storms, floods, or late winter storms to deal with.

This Aster is happily growing next to a riverbank, a parking lot, two dumpsters, and a concrete retaining wall.  To say that it's a hardy plant is quite the understatement.

This smaller flowering Aster is growing right next to the purple one and appears to be thriving.

This is one of our native wild grapes, possibly Vitis labrusca the Fox Grape, or Vitis riparia the Riverbank Grape or Frost Grape.  The fruits are smaller than cultivated grapes and intensely sour.  These native grapes were combined with wine grapes to produce the common Concord Grape which is another plant that has escaped into the wild.  Concord Grapes ended up being a pretty terrible grape for wine, but are excellent in jams and juice (with lots of added sugars).  Birds will eventually claim these grapes, although it did smell like there was some fermentation going on so the birds might end up a bit tipsy in the process.
It's difficult to figure out the scale of these wild grapes in the photos, but they're about the size of high bush blueberries; the larger blueberries commonly found in the supermarket or at "Pick Your Own" locations.

Sadly, this photo ended up a bit washed out, but I wanted to include it as it's a perennial herb I wasn't expecting to find (it's also between the river and parking lot where I found the Asters).  This is wild mint.  The leaves are much smaller than garden grown hybrids, although the scent of the plant is just as large.  It tends to grow in damp locations and spreads just like the mints found in gardens,  Runners from the parent plant were snaking through the grass and popping up all over.  There are a few different wild mints in New England and I'm not exactly certain of the variety in the picture.  It could be Mentha canadensis or Mentha arvensis or even Menta aquatica which is an introduced species.  Whatever the variety, the smell of it makes me long for some mint tea.

Recommended Plant:  For strong late summer color, few plants beat Eupatorium purpureum.  Commonly known as Joe Pye Weed, it starts flowering here in New England in August and lasts well into September depending on the location.  This is no shrinking violet and it tends to grow upwards of 4-5 feet with some cultivars growing much higher.  The variety known as "Gateway" can easily reach 6 feet and I've seen some specimens closer to 8.  Provide the plant with plenty of room, evenly moist soil (Eupatorium does not appreciate dry locations), and full sun.  It has few pests or diseases and may in fact become a bit aggressive in locations it's fond of.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Bittersweet and Honeysuckle: Not so Sweet

If there's one plant that has become my nemesis, it is Oriental Bittersweet.  The scientific name is Celastrus orbiculatus, and sadly it seems to grow everywhere.  It follows me around, sneering and chuckling at me like some surly, angst ridden teenager.   Oh it knows how much it annoys me and seems to revel in it.  As a climbing vine, Bittersweet is highly effective and will twine up into trees, telephone poles, shrubs, and any stationary object.  Removal is especially difficult as it clings and winds about the victim and refuses to let go.  Other plants are smothered, power lines are pulled down, and neighborhood pets disappear.  Well, the pets know enough to stay away, but your lilacs may not be so lucky.

Chemical controls on the market work, but it takes multiple applications to fully kill the plant.  Digging out the vine by hand is possible and works quite well.  Sadly, if enough of the bright orange roots remain behind the vine will regrow.  The easiest way to get rid of Bittersweet is to pull it out before it starts climbing.  Cutting the vine at the ground will slow it down although this will require vigilance and repeated snipping.

The leaves are rounded and vary in color from light to dark green depending on growing conditions and moisture.  It grows well in sun and shade although shade does seem to slow it down some.  The flowers are small and an insignificant whitish color.  The berries, on the other hand, are quite attractive with a yellow shell that eventually cracks open to show the meaty orange flesh inside.  These berries are so colorful they often turn up in fall decorations thus assisting the plant in spreading further.  Birds readily eat the fruit and the seeds germinate at an alarming rate.  If you see Bittersweet in a fall wreath or floral arrangement please refrain from purchasing.

The fruit prior to splitting open and the rounded leaves.  This plant was found growing along the Robert Frost Trail in North Bennington, Vermont.

More leaves and berries.

Shrub honesuckle, Lonicera species of various types, is a second not so sweet invasive.  Unlike Bittersweet, this honesuckle is a shrub and it's not quite as evil.  Often planted to form a hedge or to attract birds, this plant has successfully escaped into the wild and now, like Bittersweet, appears almost everywhere.  The small flowers appear early in the spring and the rounded green or green/grey leaves appear even earlier.  Overall growth is arching in nature as stems of the plant grow upward and outward over time.  The plant prefers sunny spots but will tolerate shade.  It would prefer evenly moist soil but will also tolerate dry once it is established.  The berries it produces are red or orange depending on the species of plant.  Since the plant leafs out early in the spring, it is pretty easy to spot.  The leaf buds start out looking like small green pencils and then the leaves whorl out.

Luckily, shrub honesuckle is far, far easier to control.  Removing it by hand works quite well, especially when the plants are young.  However, even older, established plants can be hacked down and dug out successfully.  Chemical controls also work, but since removing the plants by hand works so well I've just taken a shovel to the plants instead.  Unfortunately, birds enjoy these fruits and will help spread the seeds far and wide.

Shrub honeysuckle.  Found along the Robert Frost Trail in North Bennington, Vermont.

Recommended Plants:  Asters.  The common natives include Aster novi-belgii, the New York Aster and Aster novae-angliae, the New England Aster.  There was a time when I wasn't so fond of the sometimes scruffy looking native asters.  Over time, however, I've come to enjoy their variety and their burst of late summer color.  Asters come in many shapes from the more manicured looking "Purple Dome" variety, to the tall, floppy, wild natives.  Flower colors appear in various shades of purple, pink, red, and white.  They grow best in sunny spots with well drained soil.  If too shaded, they tend to become floppy and damp locations will invite the fungus powdery mildew.  Heights range from a foot or less to upwards of three or four feet.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Escaping from the Garden: Purple Loosestrife and Tansy.

Sadly, some of the plants we enjoy most just aren't good news.  They bring baggage.  Yes, they're lovely to look at but the next thing you know they're taking over wetlands or chasing other plants from your garden or making threats against the hydrangeas.  Yes, they're invasive and it's all your fault.  Well, no, not you particularly, but somewhere in the past gardeners planted some unfriendly (albeit at the time potentially useful) neighbors.

The first I'll mention is Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).  It was introduced first in the 1800's and became a garden ornamental as well as a medicinal.  Then it started plans for world domination.  The edges of waterways become tinged with a purple haze of flowers when it blooms in mid-summer.  Looks lovely, but the plant chokes out all other plant life around it.  Cold weather doesn't seem to slow it down much as I've viewed it happily growing in Maine and along waterways in the Green Mountains of Vermont.  There are chemical controls, of course, but using them near water is especially risky.  Biological controls are also available and they do appear somewhat successful.  Given the massive number of acres now invaded it will take a great deal of effort to reign this plant in.  This perennial was once a recommended garden plant and it is found in gardening books of the past (including one of the Victory Garden books; Crockett's Flower Garden, from 1981).

This picture of Loosestrife was taken at Red Mill Pond in Woodford, Vermont.  Want to learn more about this plant?  Check out:

Another plant that seems to be attempting a hostile takeover is Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare).  Once planted as a useful medicinal and scented herb, it managed an escape and now turns up in many places it doesn't belong.  The fern like foliage is thick and lush and the yellow button flowers are attractive.  Sadly, it's tenacious, and much like the roadside daylily, it grows along roadsides and in areas where soil is not tilled.  In fact, tilling the soil where Tansy shows up is one method of control.  The foliage has a distinct spicy and herby scent, reminiscent of mint combined with Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina).  The plant is poisonous to livestock and some people react badly to it if ingested.  It was used as a culinary herb, an abortificant, packing material to help prevent meat spoilage, insecticide, and as a coffin stuffer to help prevent unwanted smells (according to Wikipedia).  So here's a perennial that has potential use in the herb garden but just likes to wander a bit too much.  Although not as invasive as Loosestrife, it does tend to crop up all over the place.

Both of these photos were taken at Hogback Mountain in Marlboro, Vermont.  It looked quite pleased with itself growing on this hillside.  Closer to home, I've seen Tansy springing up through pavement right next to the parent plant.  It's nothing if not determined.  Want to learn more?  Check out this USDA document from Montana:

Recommended Plant: Alchemilla molllis, or Lady's Mantle.  It grows as a low mound of folded leaves, similar to a cloak or mantle from wardrobe collections of years past.  The greenish flowers mix well with other colors and the overall habit of the plant is similar to a ground cover.  Perhaps the best aspect of the plant are the leaves.  When wet, water droplets collect and bead up on the leaves.  The plant is tough and will grow along walkways with little trouble.  Unlike the other plants mentioned in the post, it's not especially invasive although in some situations it will self sow readily (personally, I've never found this to be the case).

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Roadside Daylilies

The roadside daylily isn't a native plant.  It appears with such frequency, however, that it is now appears to belong.  Sadly, in some places it is quite invasive and difficult to get rid of.  Hemerocallis fulva grows along roadsides, in ditches, near salt water, next to old foundations, and just about anywhere it pleases.  Although it prefers full sun it will also perform admirably in shade.  This massive grouping was found along a sheltered bay in Harpswell, Maine.  The salty ocean was just a matter of fifteen feet away.  These daylilies were thriving.

Recommended Plant: Thalictrum rochebrunianum.  Flowering in summer, this meadow rue send up flower stalks that are 4-6'.  The leaves of the plant stay closer to the ground.  The leaves are similar to columbine and blue-green in color.  It is apparently deer resistant as well, which makes it attractive in certain locations.  This meadow rue does best in full sun and rich soil.  It is best planted in groupings to create a mass of the airy flowers.  One variety goes by the name "Lavender Mist" which is fitting, given the flowers.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Recommended Gardening Books

The last time I recommended gardening books, I looked back at my history with gardening and love for plants.  This time around the choices are more about specific plants and reference choices, rather than nostalgia.  Because I'm a packrat when it comes to books, I tend to collect all different kinds and some of the following choices are no longer in print.  Luckily, used bookstores, libraries and even internet sources will have them (no especially rare books here). 

Daylilies are some of my favorite perennials and I've collected a number of books that focus on them specifically.  There are two books I've come to refer to more than the others and I consider them important additions to any collection.

1.  The New Encyclopedia of Daylilies: More than 1700 Outstanding Selections, by Ted L. Petit and John P. Peat. The title tells it all, really, it's a massive collection of daylilies from species plants (the originals), to early hybrids, to more modern selections.  Chances are, if you're looking for information about a specific plant, you'll find some here.  Each description lists if the plant is evergreen, semievergreen, or dormant and also includes plant height, flower size, and bloom time.  Many pictures accompany the descriptions and they are fantastic.  I must say, many of the more modern hybrids are a bit too fluffy for my tastes (looking more like a hibiscus than a daylily).  Overall, it's one of my most commonly used resources.

2.  Daylilies: The Wild Species and Garden Clones, Both Old and New, of the Genus Hemerocallis, by A.B. Stout.  The copy I own is the 1986 reprint edition.  Although not nearly as impressive in scope as the first book I've listed, this book has proven valuable for the information it has on early hybrids.  There are a number of early plants that just aren't seen in the trade these days and being something of a plant preservationist, I'm interested in learning more about these older varieties.  Stout did a lot of early work on hybridizing daylilies and his work certainly paved the way for more modern hybridization.  Sadly, the book is out of print now, but not that difficult to track down.

Other Useful Titles: 
Hemerocallis: The Daylily, by R.W. Munson (Another important grower, more recent than Stout, his daylilies are known for their special eye zones and water marks).  Currently out of print, but easily obtainable online.
The Gardener's Guide to Growing Daylilies, by Diana Grenfell.  Excellent book.  Out of print, but easily obtainable online.
Daylilies: The Perfect Perennial, by Lewis and Nancy Hill.  Another excellent choice.  Currently in print.

Perennials are an especially important addition to the garden as they offer up colors and textures throughout the growing season (and sometimes even in winter).  Some are especially common now, while others rest by the wayside waiting to be rediscovered.  Other perennials are just difficult to grow in the average garden and need more tending than most are willing to provide.  So how do you choose which varieties to add to your garden (besides daylilies, of course)?

1.  The Well Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust.  I just purchased this book in January of 2013 after seeing it as a recommended book in a copy of "Gardens Illustrated" magazine. Since then, I've read from it a number of times and consider it an essential addition to any gardening library.  The author discusses everything from planning out the garden, to revitalizing an existing garden, to general maintenance such as pruning and dividing.  There's also a lengthy plant encyclopedia at the back.  The book is in print and should be easy to obtain.

2.  Understanding Perennials: A New Look at an Old Favorite, by William Cullina. Unlike general purpose books on perennials, this one starts off focusing more on botany and explains the reasons why perennial plants are the way they are.  It also discusses plant pests, diseases, and has some excellent pictures of dividing perennials.  This book has the most in depth information I've come across that's written in a user friendly way.  It is still in print.

3.  The Explorer's Garden: Rare and Unusual Perennials, by Daniel J. Hinkley.  The author of this book focuses on specific plant families and the less common varieties within those families.  There's an especially interesting section on Epimedium (a fantastic plant for shade), and other entries of plants native to North America.  The book was originally published in 1999, so some of the plants mentioned aren't quite as rare as they once were.  The entries are enjoyable to read and there are many perennials listed that I'd like to add to my own collection at some point. This book is still in print.

Other Useful Titles:
Taylor's Guide to Perennials: More than 600 Flowering and Foliage Plants, Including Ferns and Ornamental Grasses, by Barbara Ellis.  An excellent book for beginners which includes great plant descriptions.  In print.

There was a time when I scoffed at the idea of using native plants.  There were just too many far more interesting plants out there.  Over time, my opinion changed; especially when I realized that many native plants are fantastic additions to the garden and will often grow where other plants will not.

1.  Wildflowers: A Guide to Growing and Propagating Native Flowers of North America, by William Cullina.  Sadly, this book is out of print.  However, if you're interested in native wildflowers it's an essential text.  It offers an encyclopedic list of plants that includes basic plant descriptions along with the best methods of propagation.  Sadly, some of our native wildflowers are especially difficult to propagate, but even those are included here.

2.  Native Plants of the Northeast: A Guide for Gardening and Conservation, by Donald J. Leopold.  This is an excellent overall guide to native plants of the northeast.  It focuses on all types of natives, from flowers to trees and provides information about growing conditions and even propagation.  Best of all are the lists at the back of the book which categorize plants by their preferences.  If you're looking for plants that grow in dry conditions, there's a thorough list.  This book is in print.

Other Useful Titles:
Orchids of New England and New York, by Tom Nelson and Eric Lamont.  My experience with native orchids was limited to our common lady slippers.  Then I found this book and discovered that New England has many different native orchids.  An excellent book for identifying these plants should you encounter them on a hike or walk.  This book is in print.

Trees and shrubs are the backbone of a landscape.  Luckily, there's one book that basically covers it all...

1.  Dirr's Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs, by Michael A. Dirr.  If there were just one book on trees and shrubs to collect, this would be it.  I've referred to various editions of this book an incredible number of times.  It is more expensive than some of the books I've recommended, but it is jam packed with information and color photographs.  It's also possible to still find copies of a previous edition, Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, which is also excellent.  He's also written the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses.  This is essentially his textbook on trees and shrubs.  It does not contain color photographs, but does have excellent descriptions.  For most gardeners, however, this manual is not required.  I still have my 1993 edition of the manual which I purchased back when in the nursery business and do refer to it from time to time.

There are many additional books to recommend, but I think this is where I'll stop for now.  These books should keep an intrepid gardener busy for quite some time.

Recommended Plant: Porteranthus trifoliatus.  Also known as Bowman's Root and formerly listed as Gillenia.  This native perennial creates a billowing mound of white, star shaped flowers.  Once it finishes flowering, the small seed heads offer visual interest and the foliage keeps well throughout the summer.  In fall, the leaves and stems turn yellow.  There is a pink flowering version of the plant as well, although I'm not certain it's a version that appears in the wild.  It prefers full sun or partial shade and average soil moisture. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Everyone's Favorite Poison--Poison Ivy

Winter is proving especially difficult this year.  The cold and relentless snow force thoughts of gardening, or even of being outside, far to the back burner.  Of course, there's one certain plant that will most likely thrive come spring, no matter how horrid the winter.  It might appear as a shrub, or vine, or small sapling, yet the rash it provides to many is frequently the same.  Poison ivy is decidedly unwelcome in any garden and probably in any yard.  Even the scientific name sounds like something you'd rather shoo away than find growing: Toxicodendron radicans.

I've seen this dastardly plant often enough so that it's easy to identify.  Unfortunately, it doesn't always follow the same growth pattern and it's possible to overlook the leaves until you're standing among them.  It produces clusters of 3 leaves, sometimes they are a bit jagged at the edge, and other times they are smooth.  New growth tends to have a deep reddish cast and the fall colors are remarkably striking at times; being a combination or yellow, orange, red, and burgundy all on the same plant.  The flowers are small, whitish green, and difficult to spot.  More often than not, the plant will not produce flowers unless it is able to vine upwards.  The fruits are favored by birds and start out pale green and slowly ripen to a pale milky greenish-white.  Alas, the plant also spreads via runners and can root into the soil wherever a stem touches down. 

Once the plant begins to climb, the overall appearance changes slightly.  The leaves are still in clusters of 3, but the way it vines about makes it appear to be a different plant.  Poison ivy is a tenacious climber and can easily reach the tops of trees or telephone poles.
How does it manage this expert climbing?  Well, it grows small aerial roots that cling to rough surfaces such as bark, wood, or stone. 
Here it is, happily climbing away.
When plants are young, or runners first start to appear in the spring, they look quite a bit like the saplings of trees.  They are especially dangerous at this point as you might not recognize them as poison ivy at all, particularly if they are in the reddish new growth stage.  I almost stepped into this patch without even noticing it was there. 

So, you have this fiend making an appearance at your party and what do you do?  How does one get rid of a rash inducing pest like this?  There are chemical controls, although I've found they have a mixed success rate.  Additionally, even if the plant is dead, the oils that cause the oh so lovely skin rashes do not degrade quickly.  It is still possible to find the oils on plants that are many years dead (I've read that it can be up to 25 years).  Chemical controls work best when leaves are out, but prior to them hardening off during summer--the leaves take on a more waxy appearance once the new growth has stopped growing.  Also, these products seem to work best when the plant also gets a fair amount of sunlight.  I've seen poison ivy in shady locations laugh off herbicides that worked fine on plants growing in sunnier spots.  Mechanical controls seem to be the better option as long as the gardener wears gloves and is willing to immediately wash clothing in extra hot water and soap.  Shoes will also carry the oils, so be careful.  Shovels, rakes, pitchforks, axes, and gas powered machinery are all possibilities.  Be aware, however, that lawnmowers or bush hogs can cut and spray the plant oils about.  Personally, I've found a mixture of herbicides and judicious use of a shovel to be the best method of control (don't think I've ever won the battle, but did manage to keep the plants under control).

Whatever you do, don't set fire to the plants.  The oil can become airborne and deposit itself into eyes, sinus passages, and lungs.

Goats are an excellent all natural control.  They aren't bothered by the oils and find the plants pretty tasty. In fact, a school in Reading, Vermont is using goats to control poison ivy that was creeping into their playground.

Other animals, however, can easily spread the oils.  If your dog or cat wanders into a patch of poison ivy, they might need an immediate bath in warm soapy water.  I remember being told a story about a woman and her beloved Jeep.  Unfortunately, while on a hike with her dog one day, the dog went rambling about through poison ivy.  The dog enjoyed the ride home and managed to deposit the oils all over the fabric seats of the Jeep.  Alas, the Jeep's owner kept contracting poison ivy and couldn't figure out why, until she finally remembered that summer walk.  Eventually, she had to scrub down the interior of the Jeep with hot soapy water and even then was unsure she'd gotten everything safe.  At the time I was told the story she was considering selling the Jeep but was feeling a bit leery about giving someone a special surprise.

So, no matter how cold and snowy or even dry and warm your winter may be, there's a certain unwelcome guest who doesn't mind what the weather throws and will appear reinvigorated come spring.

Recommended Plant:  Abutilon Common Name: Flowering Maple
Ok, I'm cheating a bit here since this is an indoor plant as opposed to tree/shrub/perennial.  But this annoying winter weather needs a bit of bright color to counteract the gloom.  Flowering maples are fairly easy to care for.  The leaves do look similar to a maple but the flower looks completely different.  They like a warm, sunny location and regular watering.  They will not tolerate drying out, but at the same time don't enjoy constantly wet feet.  Some varieties turn a bit gangly and need pruning on occasion while others grow more compactly.  There are many variations in flower color and growth habit.  It's an excellent houseplant addition.