Wednesday, December 30, 2009

If the southeast is the only place on the east coast not buried in snow this holiday season, at least the delphinium are ice blue.

The 'Neon' dianthus, on the other hand, are HOT!

Ginny prowls for deadheads

And an azalea vies for attention among the winter annuals

How can I leave a place where I can still plant flowers in December!

Behold, the Winter Garden.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Thanks to Susan over at GardenRant for giving me the phrase I couldn't quite get right: re-design. That is the concept I'm try to get across when a client doesn't want a landscape design and they don't quite know what it is they do want. Now, I can tell 'em, "Hey, sir, what you need is just a little 're-design'. Sure, that loropetalum someone planted across the front of your house is cute now, but do you realize those rascals will want to be eight feet tall and six feet wide someday? Since you want that magical 'low-maintenance' landscape, how bout we use those loropetalum over in the side yard where you want to hide the view of your neighbor's ugly shed, and we'll replace them with a more interesting selection that you won't have to fight with every year? Just a bit of re-design will make years of difference!
Here is my friend Marc's entrance on the day I met him. I thought this was not the best look. What he needed was a little 're-design'.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Early winter, gray days

This pyracantha greets visitors to Silver Lake Recreational Park every winter. The berries are large and lusciously colored, but the plant itself climbs up through a sapling oak tree, and it is practically invisible until the berries begin to turn. When we see the occasional cedar waxwings in the park, they are usually dining on these berries.

The second picture is looking up through the branches of an oak tree draped with Spanish moss. Spanish moss is an epiphyte, an air plant, living on a host plant but drawing its food from air and rainwater. For some reason the oaks here have not grown proportionately with the Spanish moss, and the trees are overwhelmed, constantly dropping limbs heavy laden with moss. The moss has a reputation for harboring red bugs, but my sources tell me otherwise. Chiggers (aka red bugs) only infest the plant when it lies on the ground. If you ever get a chance to inspect Spanish moss up close, take a single strand and lay it out so you can see how it grows. Another fantastic child of Mother Nature!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Murderous, Murderous Me

Yesterday, I killed. God's own handiwork, just like me, and I snuffed it out.

My Buddhist husband called me out on this, when I told him about it.
What right have I, after all, to take life?
But such is the life of a gardener. As DH says when quoting one of our favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, living takes life.

My victims were a covey of black widow spiders, living in some nice, big, 45 gal. size containers (with lids!) that had contained molasses treats for the horses out at the Greensboro farm.

Normally, I'm a catch and release kind of girl. Bees, army flies, and the occasional palmetto bug wander into our teeny-tiny home, and I capture them and take them outside with the admonishment: "Now don't come back in here... and tell all your cousins not to come in, either."

Life is sacred, and I am not willing to say that my life is more important than that of the proverbial sparrow. Or spider. But there comes a time at which I have to admit that living does take life, otherwise, I would be frozen in motion and could not even perform my humble duties as a gardener.

I killed a total of 16 spiders in three containers. The containers will make wonderful compost bins, worm bins, dry storage, etc. The spiders? They made quite a mess.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

ground cover

This is why I love using strawberry begonia as a groundcover!

I H Ground Cloth

Yesterday I worked for a client who is my favorite kind... someone who truly loves her garden. She has a small front yard in a suburban neighborhood that is still in its early years, and from her front windows she looks out into a sweep of color. The house sits down from the street slightly, and the colors she has chosen for the garden pick up colors in her drapes and artwork. Her favorite view is from her office, where she looks through a foundation planting of loropetalum, thinned and trimmed back to frame a view of the Knockout roses that grow right in front of them, and then the upward slope of the yard allows her to see, through the Radrazz red blooms, a bed of deep blue salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue' surrounded by lantana 'Gold Mound'. It isn't quite the design I would have done but she loves it, and patiently adds more of the same to the mix to achieve a fuller, and fuller, and fuller, look.
And so that's what I was doing yesterday, filling in with more salvias, more artemesia 'Powis Castle, more salvia leucantha 'Purple on Purple', tucking new plants into existing borders, weeding and trimming as I went. A pleasant enough job. It was a cold day with temperatures hanging around 46 degrees, and my helper and I were moving along at a pretty good pace.
Until I hit the freaking ground cloth. I was going to move a line of hydrangeas from the west wall of the house to a shadier spot in the back yard, and as soon as I put shovel to ground I knew I was in trouble.

I hate ground cloth. Hate is a powerful word, and I reserve it for truly awful things, like terrorism, and ground cloth. I hate hate hate ground cloth because it keeps decomposing mulch from adding humus to the ground, and because the cheap stuff tears and pokes up through the mulch and shreds into pieces that end up who knows where, and because the good stuff -- like the fabric I had just hit with my shovel -- is expensive and just... wrong. It is hard to change plantings with ground cloth in the way. The mulch we dutifully add to the beds each year decomposes and sits on top of the fabric, making it oh so much harder to remove, and eventually seeds sprout on top and wiggle one little hair root down through the weave of the textile, and next thing you know there's some big honking weed firmly rooted right through the cloth, and you either have to cut it back and suffer with sprouts that continue to grow from the root forever, or you rip the thing out through the ground cloth and tear the cloth... grrr. Stupid ground cloth.
Now, to be fair, this particular yard had been mulched with lava rock originally, and that is one circumstance in which I have used ground cloth, too, as a barrier to keep rock from sinking into the soil. But have mercy, this bed had ground cloth pinned so tightly around the base of the hydrangeas, the poor things couldn't sucker and spread at all. On top of the fabric was several inches of lava rock, and on top of that was a layer of wood chips, because the current owners of the house had decided they didn't like the lava rock, and on top of that was the generous layer of pine straw we had put in, because they didn't like the look of the wood chips either. Here is what I had to do: rake off the pine straw, shovel up the rock and wood chips, schlep it around to the backyard in a 15 gal. nursery container (I didn't have my wheelbarrow... thank goodness I had the container!)and spread it underneath the back deck, pull, tug, and cut the heavy fabric from around the shrub, and then do another two feet. A job that should have taken one hour took four, thanks to that ground cloth. Stupid ground cloth.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

I love weather. Too many calm, sunshiny days in a row make me pretty grumpy. I like wind and rain, cold, not heat so much, and definitely not tornadoes.
Yesterday was so warm and humid, it felt like walking out into a gymnasium locker room after practice. Yuk. But it started raining a little as soon as our job was finished. We stopped at the local Circle K and had a little pow-wow, deciding that, even though the radar (on my phone!) did not look all that threatening, we would call it a day, work wise. After all, there was a little lightening around, and that is kind of a job killer.
I dropped off Ginny, my helper, and headed out of town to pay off a nursery bill. My husband Brooks headed to the other end of town to collect some money.
I was still a few miles from the nursery when Brooks called and told me he had just heard a tornado warning on the radio. The tornado was in the Lake Jackson area and thought to be running parallel to the interstate, I-10. Well, crap, I said. The nursery was in the direction of Lake Jackson, and I had to go either that way, or back towards the interstate, to get home. What to do?
AS it turns out, I merely 'hid' in the parking lot of a nearby Walgreens, refusing to go in and leave my precious Pearl dog in the storm alone. It got really dark, the pine trees across the road swayed wildly, and the rain came down in sheets, but no funnel cloud. I waited till the warning expired (I thought... I learned later it had been extended) and drove home through the rain and the wind, relieved to see the world looking much as I had left it earlier, only wetter.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I love a plant nursery that delivers. To wake up this morning and have plants waiting for me -- big, beautiful, fresh plants -- is definitely worth getting out of bed for.
I've had relationship with this particular grower for the better part of nine years. Seldom have I ever had to turn down something they brought. I do have that option, but why would I? Their plants are big, well-rooted, pest-free, and if they are not, the salesmen let me know so I can decide how badly I need that particular thing.
Every now and then I get brave and order an 'unknown' from their incredibly good catalog. I'll ask one of the salesmen first what they think of it, and I always get an honest answer. Today I got heuchera americana for the first time, and I'm in love with it! Beautifully scalloped leaves, nice silvery color, great veins, thick, full, and sure to make the shady area where I'll use them come alive.

How many times have I passed over this beauty in favor of the fancier hybrid cousins?
Yesterday I removed five hollies that had become a nuisance to my customer and her husband, both of whom get their cars scratched by those shrubs when pulling in and out of the garage. The plants had been there for over fourteen years. They were boogers to get out, too. The one on the right was a large single shrub which threatened to take down the gutter when we started pulling on it... turned out the roots had grown around some drain lines that attached to the gutters and took the runoff underground under the driveway. It took a little extra time, and digging, to restore the lines to their proper position. The other four hollies had been planted in a narrow bed in front of a nice brick wall, which I had never even noticed until the hollies were removed. When someone plants a shrub that wants to be six feet wide in a two foot space, there is lots of pruning involved to keep them contained. The plants were under a lot of stress from so much pruning and did not look good.
Today we put in the new plants: a 15 gal. tea olive, and against the wall, four three gal. canna lilies. The tea olive was big, full, and in full flower... what a glorious scent! The cannas -- a yellow-blooming 'King Humbert' -- look amazingly good for this time of year, too. No blooms, but the foliage is perfect. Perfect!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Change is GOOD!

Deep sigh. There goes another summer, and half the fall, too, without my having updated this blog once.

That's what happens when the weather warms up and I get busy! My time gets tangled up in planning gardens, planting gardens, and taking care of what I planted. I barely have time to photograph what I've done. And frankly, I don't work that many hours anymore, because the drive from where I live to where I work takes up a fair amount of time. By the time I get home my mind has had time to process what I did that day, what I need to do the next time I'm at that job, what I need to do for tomorrow's client, and then it's racing on to what's for dinner, what needs to be done when I get home... you get the picture. By the time I get home and cleaned up, writing a garden blog is far from my mind.

That isn't my only excuse, either. This year's economic scene has not been conducive to work in general! Some of my best customers have cut back on my hours, and new jobs don't come in as steadily as they have in the past. Inspiration has flagged a bit as a result. The mantra keeps running through my head: time for a change, time for a change, time for a change...

And change is coming. BW and I have decided to head for the hills, so to speak, and relocate to a place where at least the enviromental climate will be easier, if not the economic climate. (Though we secretly know that will be a lot better, as well!) It is time for me to return to a place where there are less weeds, more natural beauty. Where I can focus my talent as a designer and supervisor, cultivating and restoring the native plant communities that are so often lost to a builder's bulldozer and a landscaper's lack of vision. There are a few really good landscapers there already, and I intend to join forces with them, instead of competing against them. Coming in as a landscape gardener allows me to focus on the small, intimate jobs that don't threaten the big guys, but provides the 'finish' to their work. The details, that's my forte! Here's to the picture perfect garden, the quintessential setting for a cocktail party, the sure and certain knowledge that every landscape can be improved upon! Here's to easier work, better pay, and a perfect climate! Here's to a short easy drive, no traffic, and bountiful nurseries! Here's to continuing education! Here's to having work that matches my potential! Hip hip, hooray!!

Monday, April 13, 2009

So What's the Big Idea?

I'm not telling. Not today, anyway. But take a good look at these photos, and them imagine the planters overflowing with tomatoes, squash, greens, AND flowers. Imagine that nice big green space against the building with fruit trees and blueberries. Imagine a public place where the public feels free to graze, content that no pesticides need to be washed off before popping a ripe cherry tomato in their mouth.
Thanks again to GardenRant for confirming this direction. I'm already off and running to make it happen, but their blog today on organic gardens at the White House and USDA buildings, and the 'greening' of the grounds of the General Services Administration on the National Mall, are proving to me that there is a major shift going on in how people look at the food they eat, and this idea can be BIG! VERY BIG! I can do this! I will do this! Get on with it!

Friday, April 10, 2009


This was Good Friday from the moment I woke up til - now, at 11:40 pm, thinking back over the day.
I love going to the farm. Lovely, giving, kind-spirited people live there, and so on holy days, or thereabout, I seek their space.
We've steadily been adding compost from the horses to the beds before mulching, and the flowers we've planted are really beginning to show their appreciation. I'm especially happy about a couple of asters I transplanted, though one is full of buds and the other is not showing any sign of wanting to bloom. At least they both look happy.
The cleyara hedge Brooks has been working on is bright with new growth, and I'm encouraging him to let it grow a little taller this year. The Indian hawthorne 'Elizabeth' that has given Homeowners such fits with its skimpy branches and spotted leaves is in full, and pretty glorious, bloom, though the blooms look to me much more white than pink. I'll be cutting those back hard after they finish blooming, but with the rich compost I have to offer, I think they will recover better than ever.
Even the weeds are beautiful today. I'm taking a break from the incessant weeding in honor of their right to show off for a few days.
The air is clean and not too hot, the sky is bright blue, and there is promise and hope everywhere.

A Work In Progress

Who am I kidding? I'd like to be a Really Great Something but instead am a humble servant of the land.
Being called a landscaper, well, irks me. In my narrow view, landscapers come in, plant plants, and move on to the next job. So often homeowners buy a house where the landscaping was 'installed' the day before closing. Like newborns, these newly transplanted plants need attention, but who has time to think about that when you've just moved in to a new house, which often means a new mortgage/job/location/babysitter/ get the picture. When a builder's funds are tied to having 'something' in the ground in time for closing, no one's needs are really met but the bank's.
Or Homeowner wants to change the look of his landscape, hires the experts, and doesn't ever call them back because they charged enough to make more than one trip out there.
Or, Homeowner hires one of the landscaper's employees (who runs a side business doing tree work/lawn mowing/pressure washing) 'on the side', only they don't really know what they are doing and Homeowner ends up with more problems than he started with.
Call me a gardener, 'cause I come back. I deeply believe gardening to be an ongoing experience, developed, replaced, and maintained over the ages, and one thing I can say for myself is that I have at least started or added to many, many gardens. Even though I left some of them behind I remember them all, and hope someone like me has followed up to weed, water, and add compost.

Some people think plants are disposable, to be ripped out within a space of time and replaced with something currently faddish. I believe a plant, carefully selected and properly placed, should be allowed to live out in its entirety, like a puppy brought home from the pound. I design a space with eventual grandchildren in mind, a garden of continuity, one that improves with age. That doesn't mean everything has to stay where I plant it. Move things until they're happy, but please do be mindful about it.

Friday, February 27, 2009

A New Toilet in Our Future

This morning Brooks brought his laptop in and threw it in bed with me. "Look," he said, "this is going to save us a lot of money".
And what had he linked to?
A RV-sized toilet that separates pee from poop, that's what.
His brainstorm involves replacing our fairly new toilet with this $800 model so we don't have to deal with removing the bottom of our Airstream to replace the black water tank, which is perfectly fine except for the fact that it does not hold water. You'd have to be an RV person to understand that is not a problem if you're connected by a big fat flexible hose to a septic outlet, and you'd have to be an Airstream person to understand that the challenges of unriveting half your home to replace that tank just isn't on the short list.
What follows proves why he thinks I won't flip out at the idea of spending $800 for a toilet.
This first appeared in the column 'Gardening on the Coastal Plain' in FL panhandle publication called The Forgotten Coastline. I stole it from myself, hope nobody minds! Kudos to Rose George for picking up on this. I agree with Roosevelt... it looks like we'd be intelligent enough not to pee where we drink.


The Great Pee Debate is officially over, and everybody wins. You know what I’m talking about. She says, “You’re going to kill that plant if you keep peeing on it,” and he says “No I’m not,” and she says “yes you are,” and the plant doesn’t die but eventually he starts peeing on a different plant anyway, just in case.
Since Adam, men have answered the call of nature outside, and today’s modern flush plumbing hasn’t entirely changed that fact. Never, ever, have I met a man I believe to be one hundred percent housebroken. So when I was searching for some information about composting, and stumbled on a conversation about peeing on compost at one of my favorite online gardening forums, I was intrigued. Four or five people wrote that they, or their spouses, did this to provide the nitrogen kick the compost pile sometimes needs to begin heating up.
Huh? My mind raced to come up with all the reasons this was a Very Bad Idea. Disease. Odor. Indiscretion. And good gosh, just don’t encourage this, I thought. Males are hard enough to contain as it is.
So I did a little research. As it turns out, the scientific world agrees that human urine is a clean, sterile product rich in nitrogen in the form of urea that is readily accessible to plants. Multiple experiments have proven that human urine can be used on crops, including food crops, with remarkably favorable results. The more nitrogen-loving a plant is, the better the urine makes it grow. Because it is so high in nitrogen, and because our diets are generally so high in salt, dilution is recommended at the rate of one part urine, to between one and ten parts water. For use as a kicker on the compost pile, however, urine can be applied straight.
In much of the rest of the world, this is common knowledge. The human nutrient cycle is eat, excrete, compost, grow, and eat, so the very thought of wasting a vital link, and not returning our nutrients to the soil, would be as repugnant to some cultures as the thought of eating food watered with urine might be to us. In the mid 1990s, in an effort to combat the extreme poverty in Mexico City, an organization called Journey to Forever experimented with ways to help the people grow fresh organic food in whatever space they had available. Large, fifteen to twenty liter containers without drainage holes were packed almost full of deciduous tree leaves and grass clippings. A hole was drilled a few inches from the bottom to provide drainage while maintaining a reservoir of water. On top of this was added a couple of inches of soil, and onto this soil, seeds were sown. The weight of the materials made these containers considerably lighter than filling them with dirt, therefore more suitable for balconies and rooftops. Men were encouraged to… you guessed it… and by the end of a year the contents of the containers had composted down into a rich, fertile humus. The contents of one container provided enough soil to start ten more. The crops produced ranged from outstanding to so-so, with leafy crops and fruits doing best, and tomatoes, cucumbers, squash growing beautifully, but producing little fruit. All the plants did especially well in the early stages, and all, intriguingly, proved very resistant to common insect pests and diseases.
In case you are wondering (as I was) about the odor, there isn’t any as long as the urine is used on mulch. compost or well-aerated soil. When it hits impervious surfaces such as concrete or asphalt, that’s where the odor is created.
The experiment in Mexico City especially interested me, but I read about many such examples of using this liquid gold for fertilizer. It all makes me wonder who, really, has the more civilized society: the ones who ‘close the loop’ by recycling what their own bodies produce, or the ones who flush away a cup of urine with a gallon and a half of clean water. Incidentally, since we on the coastal plain are such big users of septic tanks, you might want to know that the word septic comes from the Greek word ‘septikos’, which means ‘to make putrid’, and that septic tanks are the biggest polluters of groundwater in the United States. What goes through your system every day, other than personal waste: chlorine? toilet bowl cleaners? drain cleaners? Municipal sewer systems add to this mix medical and industrial wastes. No wonder we have to spend so much money cleaning water to be able to drink it.
Out of all the research I did (and I spent days reading about this subject) there were only a couple of cautionary notes about using urine as fertilizer. One was that people with urinary tract infections should let their urine go through the compost pile instead of directly on food crops, and the other was that today’s highly processed foods contain large amounts of salt that could eventually build up to toxic levels in container crops. Maybe we should all have a potted plant to be our canaries: if the plant dies from excess salt, we might want to cut down our own consumption!
All this really, really makes me wish I were still coming up with science fair projects for the kids. Just imagine the display… “In this container of corn, I peed.” “In this container I diluted my pee.” “In this container, I didn’t pee at all.” Talk about giving new meaning to the term ‘whiz kid’.
So, in the Great Pee Debate, the women win, because pee contains a high level of nitrogen, which, applied to the same plant over and over, might be too much of a good thing. This is also the reason we perceive dog urine as being bad: dogs tend to use the same spot over and over, and other dogs come along and add their offerings to the same spot. That causes a buildup of salts and urea, and that, too, is too much of a good thing. The men win, because, well, now they have a great reason to answer the call outdoors.
In case you are interested, June 21st was Pee On Earth Day in the northern hemisphere. If you are bummed about missing the opportunity to celebrate such a worthy event, head on down to the southern hemisphere, and catch it again on December 21st.
And ladies, don’t think you can’t participate. Marine suppliers can get potty lids for five gallon buckets. Mine’s been ordered.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Last year, even before the economic meltdown, Brooks and I had decided to promote growing food in with the landscape plants. We have long been sneaking some things into ornamental plantings -- kale, cabbages, blueberries, fruit trees, and the like. Now, we feel like people might be ready for taking the next step. We got to work on garden designs. Ultimately, we felt the old square foot gardening principles best addressed what we want to do: attractive, low maintenance, organic, highly productive, and, did we mention attractive?

Our first endeavor has, of course, been for our personal use. Unable to till a proper garden spot where we live, we plopped our sf beds directly on the concrete pad. We have limited sun throughout the day, especially during the winter, and weren't sure we would get all that much out of it. We began the project in October, a little late by local planting standards, and got an early cold snap in November.

We have been eating out of our little garden almost daily since Christmas. We planted broccoli plants instead of seeds, so they were the first to harvest, and, of course, that meant we ate broccoli almost every day for a while. (Better to plant seeds, so as to stagger the harvest. Happily, we have been harvesting the side shoots and a friend turned us on to the fact that the leaves, too, are quite tasty, so they have been turning up in our stir fry meals.) Oriental greens, which seem to be a blend of different plants, are also quite good in salads and stir fry. The bok choy was unbelievably good. We eat salad from the lettuces almost every night. Trying to hold off on the carrots and let them get a little bigger, but ooooo they look so good. The sugar snap peas are almost ready to eat... maybe another warm day or two. Seriously doubt they'll make it into the house, though. Some things are just meant to be eaten off the vine.

We don't know if the cabbages will ever form a proper head, but are they ever beautiful. Just for the record, planting the five leftover cabbages in one fifteen gallon nursery pot is probably not a great idea, but again, they are so beautiful I don't care. What a perfect ornamental to carry us through til summer.
'Tis a sad, sad thing to witness the melting down of our landscape plants in a transition zone such is Tallahassee. Down go the philodendron selloum, the alocasias and colocasias (elephant ears), ground orchids, tender palms, and a host of perennials which I was trying to coax through the winter with minimal damage.
Yes, we do try to push zones here, planting zone 9 or 10 plants with impunity. I guess we're trying to benefit from global warming.
However, cool season veggie garden looks great. Will post pics next time!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Cold comes to N FL

We haven't had a lot of really cold weather this winter, but we are in the middle of a cold snap which has us shivering, and the rest of the country downright frozen. I've had plants (all containerized) for the past three nights, and things for the most part look like they've survived the 20F degree low.
Pedilanthus is going to lose all its leaves but last year I left it uncovered one night when it barely hit freezing and it turned black almost all the way to the soil. I have a lot of succulents. The kalanchoes have suffered the most, and the sweet little 'flapjack' will be relying on the babies next spring... I don't know whether it is common for the parent plant to die back, but ours has.
We'll be working today at the G'boro farm. When I was there a couple of weeks ago the rudbeckia we planted in Oct. were loaded with tight little buds down in the crown. Wonder if they'll bloom now?