Sunday, July 27, 2008

Taming the Trumpet Vine

For years I’ve been struggling with what to do about the garden that runs across the front of our home. When we moved in almost 15 years ago, there were four yew shrubs growing across the front, and we allowed them to grow for several years.

At first, we kept the shrubs trimmed back every year to help maintain growth and outline a definite footprint around the garden. After five years of trimming and pruning, we got lazy and decided to allow the shrubs to grow unchecked. Within five more years, we had four unruly monsters fighting for the front of our house. I hated these shrubs! The only thing I liked about the disorderly tangle of branches was the trumpet vine that began to grow up through the middle of one of the shrubs. I enjoyed the orange blooms and the fragrant smell, so I began to allow the trumpet vine to expand. Wrong choice!

After living in our home for about ten years, we decided to totally remove the yews from the front of the house. This was a tedious job that took us several weeks. We started out severely pruning the shrubs back, and then we took the chainsaw to the thick trunks and continued to hack away until the majority of the yew was gone. Digging out the roots proved to be another hard job, so much so, that we left the root on the yew that was on the north end of the house. I’ve spent the past five years covering this stump with shredded leaves, grass clippings and bark mulch. This area will eventually make a wonderful planting hole for a new tree or shrub.

After clearing the front of the house, the garden was bare, except for a few remaining trumpet vines. Because I want to use as many native plants in my gardens as possible, I decided to try and train the trumpet vine to grow where I wanted it to. I envisioned vines covering the front of the house and boasting orange flowers all summer. Well, the vines did grow up the house, but strong winds would pull them loose until the entire area looked like a tangle mess instead of the clinging vines I wanted.

Even when I managed to grow the vines up to the roof line, the number of flowers was disappointing; instead of a mass of blooms, I only got a handful of flowers. In the mean time, trumpet vines began to creep all along the ground until they completely engulfed the entire garden.

This year, I have decided to tame the trumpet vine and take back the front of my house. First, I choose the healthiest looking vine near the corner of the house and started to train it up a long piece of rebar; this will be the only vine I will leave. For the rest of the garden, I have started by laying thick pads of newspaper all through the front garden. After covering the area with newspaper, I then covered the paper with a thick layer of shredded bark. When Kentucky Utilities started trimming trees last fall, we had several truck loads of shredded bark dumped in our yard to use as mulch. I am hoping that the newspaper and a six inch layer of bark will be enough to suffocate the trumpet vine and keep it from re-sprouting.

One thing for sure, my gardens will never be the same because they are always evolving. My goal is for a natural garden, one where wildlife is not afraid and plants are allowed to show their natural forms. A garden that doesn’t show the gardener’s hand is the most precious garden of all. Basically, I’m a lazy gardener; I want a garden that does all the work so I won’t have to!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

New Plants with No Cost

I am the type of person who loves to cut fresh bouquets of flowers to bring in the house, take to work, or give to family and friends. I love to have flowers in my home and at the office, especially if it is a flower with a strong fragrance.

But I don’t only cut flowers for my floral arrangements; I also love to cut branches from flowering shrubs. weigela, forsythia, mock orange, pussy willow and curly willow, these branches add height and texture to arrangements, and they have a tendency to hold their blooms longer in a vase than some flowers. What I have found is that many times, these branches will begin to send out roots while sitting in a vase full of water.

Once my cuttings have rooted in water, I transfer them to sand filled pots and keep them in a shaded, sheltered location until ready to plant in the fall. Under a large tree is the perfect place to place these cuttings. It is critical to monitor the moisture daily because new cuttings will die if they dry out - believe me, I've learned this the hard way! Most times, I have nice size transplants that can be planted into the garden in the fall, or they can be babied over the winter and then be planted the following spring.

Many cuttings like willow, weigla, hydrangeas and mock orange are ready to be transplanted into the garden in late fall. Some cuttings take a little more time - snowball bush, lilac and roses. For those later in maturing, just monitor them through the winter and maintain adequate moisture; by spring they should be ready to go into the ground.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Birthday Wishes

We love you bunches,
Mom and Dad

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Allowing Small Creatures to Help With Garden Chores

With organic gardening becoming the norm in more and more gardens, it only seems natural to let the tiny creatures of the garden assist you with some of your gardening chores. Ever wonder what Earthworms do to your soil? Or whether you should try and get rid of those moles tunneling through the garden? What about the birds pecking the ground or roosting in trees? Should I try to get rid of what some gardeners call nuisances in the garden, or should I use my instincts and try to work with these creatures?

In the spirit of being a true naturalist, I have decided to enlist the help of small and tiny creatures in my garden to help me make the most out of my resources. The animal most gardeners dread seeing the most is probably Mr. Snake. Snakes rank right up there with root canals and filing income tax for most people. More snakes meet their fatal end with the edge of a shovel or hoe stabbing into their middles.

But, if you would just stop a minute before hacking your slithering enemy to death, you may learn to enjoy the benefits of snakes in the garden. Number one, if you run upon a snake in the garden, he is going to be more afraid of you than you can ever be of him. The snake’s first instinct is to get away at the first sign of danger. If you will just step back, the snake will skim across the grass faster than you can scream, “Help!” That snake will be so startled, he won’t come out for the rest of the day, and he will probably find another hiding spot, one well away from the crazy humans.

Snakes will keep your yard free from excessive mice, voles, and occasional rats that are a natural part of a neighborhood back yard. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to put up with see the occasional snake in the garden in exchange for no mice or rats in my home.

Walk through the gardening section of discount and home improvement centers and you will see many traps and contraptions to eliminate moles from your yard. Moles are the tiny bulldozers that leave raised mounds all through some lawns and gardens. Some people will try anything to stop these tunneling creatures from making tracks through their lawns, but is that really necessary? Moles are not vegetarians, so contrary to popular belief, they don’t eat the roots of your plants and trees. Instead, moles continually feast on grubs they uncover in the soil.

So whenever moles are leading a wagon train through my gardens, I just gently lift the mounding soil into pots and use them to make container gardens. This soil is nice and fluffy which leads to nice drainage and aeration, perfect conditions for container grown plants. Or, I will sprinkle the super fine soil across the lawn to provide supplementation throughout grassy areas. It is also easy to use a steel tined rake and rake the mounds into the surrounding areas. I look at moles like an extra hand with tilling the soil. They keep the topsoil aerated and tilled; in return, they also eat all the grubs hibernating in the soil. I don’t know about you, but the quicker the moles can rid me of Japanese beetles grubs, the happier I will be.

Spiders are another ick factor for some gardeners, but without their continual patrolling of gardens and lawns, all our plants would be overrun with aphids and other soft bodied insects. Spiders use their webs to capture large flies, cabbage moths and other flying creatures. As a matter of fact, some large farm install “spider boxes” throughout their fields to have with insect problems. These spider boxes are typically wooden crates turned upside down; the spiders spend the hot days under the cover of the box and build their webs in the vegetation.

So next time you are tempted to hack at a poor little snake, set out mole traps or brush away those spider webs, think first of all the benefits these creatures can have to a natural landscape. You will be surprised at what these creatures can do.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Worms Are Eating My Garbage

For years I have composted my kitchen waste into a compost heap or Possibility Pile, but I must admit, many times my compost bucket will get “ripe” before I remember to take it out to the garden. Decomposition does have a distinctive smell, and naturally this is not something I want in the house. I recently found a new way to compost my kitchen waste without smell or hard work. I found some “ladies” who are now taking care of my problems.

My ladies are actually a group of red wiggler earth worms and they live in a plastic tote box in my laundry room. These ladies can eat a hundred times their weight in kitchen waste, and they turn all that waste into rich fertile vermicompost that feeds my garden. Composting gold is made in my home everyday, without smell or hard work.

There are many advantages to vermicomposting. It produces fewer odors and attracts fewer pests than putting food wastes in the garbage. It saves the water and electricity that a sink garbage disposal unit would use. It requires little space or labor. It produces high quality fertile compost – worm castings are a natural fertilizer. It keeps food wastes out of the landfill. Food wast in the landfill decomposes without oxygen, creating methane gas, which is a major contributor to global warming.

All you need to vermicompost are a worm bin, bedding, water, worms and food scraps. You can buy a ready-made worm bin, or you can us a simple plastic bin or wooden box. It will need to have a cover for darkness, and holes for air circulation. I use a large Rubbermaid tote box that I have drilled several holes alone the stop for ventilation.

The worms need to burrow in bedding to bury the garbage. Shredded paper, cardboard or leaves will work. This is a great way to recycle your junk mail and catalogs. Run this paper waste through a paper shredder and add to the bottom of you box. This bedding must be kept moist, so regular mistings of water are necessary.

Use only red worms, or “wigglers”, which are the composting worms. Feed your worms non-meat kitchen waste, such as veggie and fruits peelings and scrapes, tea bags, coffee grounds, egg shells and paper products like coffee filters, napkins and paper towels. Occasionally, when the worms are working to efficiency, you can give them a rare amount of meat, but this should not be done on a regular basis.

Every few months, remove the rapidly multiplying worms from the box and use the rich vermicompost to fertilize houseplants and garden vegetables. After cleaning the box thoroughly, add shredded paper products to the bottom and add the worms back to start the process over.

Be warned, the worms reproduce rapidly because all they do is eat and multiple. You will probably have too many worms to add back to one box, so be prepared to start new worm boxes. Or you can add a few worms to several areas of your garden. They will burrow to soft garden soil and begin their cycle of eating and reproducing as if they had never been moved.

Worm farms would be a wonderful idea for school children that are interested in gardening projects. Worm boxes could be set up at school and then the children could feed the worms with all the left over school meals. This would teach a valuable lesson in the art of recycling and improving the Earth.

So the next time you don’t eat all your house salad at lunch, bring it home in a doggy bag. Can’t eat all that bread left in the complimentary breadbasket? Bring it home to the ladies. Tired of dumping used coffee filters and coffee grounds in the trash? Feed it to the ladies. These ladies are heard working and they work for food, so the more food and kitchen waste you have, the happier your ladies will be. You will be rewarded by a decrease in kitchen waste and an increase in produce from the garden

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

River Birch

I have two river birch trees - Betula nigra - in my gardens. Nothing special about them other than I love the nice airy canopy they provide. I love the peely bark and the variation in color on the trunk. I also love the nicely shaped leaves that look like they are fluttering, even when there is very little wind.

In the forest, birch trees thrive on cool, moist soils. Their very shallow root system makes them sensitive to even short periods of drought or heating of the soil, thus they grow poorly on hot, dry soils. One of my trees is near the back corner of the house to help catch rain run-off from the roof and the other is at the bottom of our yard which is downhill from the house in an area that receives lots of water.

River birch trees are hardy to zone 4.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Curly Willow

I have 2 curly willow trees in my yard that hold a lot of sentimental value in my heart. Both trees were started from cuttings that were placed in flower arrangements for my baby sister's funeral.

My baby sister died 3 1/2 years ago and I miss her so much. The willow cuttings had rooted in the flower arrangements and I didn't know it until I went to throw the dried flowers out (I saved some for flower pressings). When I saw the roots, I knew I had to keep these little trees alive.

The first year, I grew them in pots and babied them through the summer, fall and winter. By the spring of 2006, they were big enough to have a permanent place in yard.

Now I have two wonderful trees that remind me of my sister every time I look at them. This method of rooting trees or other plants is a great way to memorialize a loved one.

Saturday, July 12, 2008


This year I did something different with my potatoes. Instead of planting in the traditional potato patch, I used old tires as planting bed.

I fill each tire half way with compost and shredded bark. I then "planted" the seed potatoes by laying on top of compost. I covered the potatoes with a 2 inch layer of compost. Every few weeks when the potatoes tops would grow several inches, I would top dress with more compost.

I have just started to harvest some new potatoes. The harvesting is super easy and the roots are clean and bug free. I've been tickled pink.

Because of the success with these type of potato growing, I'm collecting more used tires to expand my new potato patch.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Mock Orange Hedge

Mock Orange Shrub, or Philadelphus inodorus, is a wonderful plant to use in a hedge row. I currently have four of these shrubs along the edge of my driveway. This piece of garden divides my yard from my neighbors yard, so the Mock Orange makes for a beautiful privacy screen.

The Mock Orange is just now passing full bloom, but is remains a wonderful green addition to this border. For the past few weeks, I've been taking branch cuttings to root new shrubs.

Typically, cuttings are easier to root when you take the young spring tips - or soft wood cuttings - but I've also had success with hard wood cuttings in the fall. To root this wonderful shrub, cut pencil thin branches about one foot long. Strip the leaves from the branch, dip the cut end in rooting hormone and "plant" the branch in a soil mixture of three parts sand to one part garden soil.

Keep these cuttings in a shady spot out of direct sunlight and keep the soil moist. I have a rooting bed under some large trees that allow my cuttings to get morning sun but no afternoon sun. I monitor these cuttings through the summer and by October there is new growth present on the branches.

Over-winter in your rooting bed, making sure to monitor moisture. When spring arrives, the cuttings should have an established root system and they are ready to be transplanted into a permanent location.

This method of rooting cuttings allows me to increase the number of plants in my gardens without the extra expense.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Shrubby St. John's Wort

Another of my favorite plants is the Shrubby St. John's Wort. This is another shrub I got at a native plant sale.

I have long been interested in herbal medications and remedies; I'm trying to learn all I can. St. John's Wort is an herb I take for chronic depression and it really seems to help.

So when I found the Shrubby St. John's Wort plant, I knew I had to try growing it. For the past 3 years, it has given me a vast abundance of flowers. The flowers are such a beautiful yellow color and it is at peak performance right now. I want to learn how to distill the flower to make a St. John's Wort liquid.

If anyone out there has every distilled St. John's Wort, I would love to hear from you! :)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Welcome Back, Button Bush

Oh happy-happy, joy-joy! My Button Bush is blooming! This is a wonderful shrub I bought several years ago from a native plant sell, but I was afraid last year's drought had killed it. I was so thrilled to see the bush start growing again, and now this - about a dozen "button-size" blooms.

The Button Bush, or Cephalantus occidentalis, is a bog plant that is native to the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. Since I don't have a bog garden - not yet anyway! - I have this shrub planted near my front porch where the gutter drains. This area stays cool and moist throughout the summer and makes the perfect environment for my 4-year old Button Bush.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Daylily Cast-Offs

Oh goody! There is a lady who lives about 2 miles from my home and every summer, she thins out her daylily garden to make room for new species. What does she do with the daylilies she digs up? She leaves them at the end of her driveway with a sign that says FREE!

Free is one of those words that all gardeners love. I am not beyond picking up free plants from someone I don't even know! Actually, I've come to know this lady because this will be the third year I have picked up some of her cast-offs.

So because of someone else's desire to have the latest in daylilies, I get to fill my garden with lovely lilies that would other wise end up in the trash or compost.

Lucky me!

Friday, July 4, 2008

In Defense of Food

I have just finished reading In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, by Michael Pollan. Published in 2008, it has 244 pages that help us omnivores navigate the nutritional minefield that's come to typify our food culture. The main quote that stands out in the book is the short answer to what we should eat in order to stay healthy:

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Mr. Pollan asks a very tough question: where is the food in our food? In Defense of Food gives a series of great answers that help us learn what to put in our shopping carts. I've learned - from direct observation and the info in this book - that grocery stores are stocking more foods that are meant to replace nutrients. There are more and more boxed and processed foods, less and less whole foods and fresh veggies.

I've learned that meat is an okay food source, but it should be a side dish, not a main part of the meal. I've learned that refined processed foods increase shelf life and makes them easier to digest because most of the fiber is removed. I've learned that fructose is rare in the natural world, but per capita, fructose consumption has increased over 25% in the past 30 years.

Agricultural simplification has lead our society to a simplification of our diet. 50years ago, farmers were growing at least a dozen plant and animal crops on their large farms: corn, apples, oats, potatoes, cattle, cherries, wheat, pears, etc. Now, in the 21st century, large farmers are only growing corn and soybeans. After World War II, heart disease among Americans began to increase because we allowed the simple foods of our forefathers to be replaced by refined, processed foods.

Our nation, as a whole, has gotten fatter and fatter while trying to follow a low-fat diet. Most of the higher fat foods have been changed to foods with a high fructose corn syrup in order to decrease the fat content. Obesity started to become an epidemic when our society started bingeing on carbs to avoid the evils of fats.

Lessons Mr. Pollan has taught me:
-- High-fructose corn syrup is bad! Do yourself a favor and remove it from your diet. After reading this book, I am trying to wean myself from a Coca-Cola addiction I have had since childhood.

-- Avoid any food product that makes health claims, because they are probably not real foods.

-- In the grocery store, don't shop in the center aisles. Avoid anything that can't spoil and anything with an ingredient you can't pronounce.

-- Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does.

-- You are what you eat. Most cattle are raised on loads of corn instead of free-range and they are pumped full of antibiotics.

-- Eat natural food, the kind your granny served (and not because she was so wise, but because the food industry had not yet learned that the big money was in processing, not harvesting). Use meat as a side dish and fill your plate with greens, the leafier and more varied the better.

One study in this book that really brought the point home for me was the Aborigines of Western Australia. In 1982 a study was started that involved 10 middle-aged, over weight and diabetic Aborigines that had become "westernized" by processed foods since they had moved away from the bush. These 10 people agreed to move back to their traditional homeland which had no access to store food or beverages. For 7 weeks they ate seafood, birds, plants, insects, yams, figs and bush honey - prior to this they had been eating flour, sugar, rice, soda, and fatty meats. After 7 weeks, blood work showed a striking improvement! All had lost weight, the blood pressure was down, the triglycerides were down, blood sugars were down and their omega-3 fatty acids were increased. Just seeing this info in black and white was enough to convince me that I need to change my eating habits.

If you are seriously interested in learning how to change your eating habits and learning to live a healthy lifestyle, then In Defense of Food is a great starting point. I have been recommending it to all my family and friends.

Happy 4th of July, Even in the Rain

Happy 4th of July everyone! I'm doing the "happy dance" at my home today, and not because it's a holiday. No, no, no - I'm happy because it is RAINING! And before anyone gets too upset about the rain dampering my holiday, the rain showers are a welcome event in my gardens.

It has been over a week since we had a good rain shower and my gardens were beginning to show the effects. Luckily Mother Nature is taking care of the problem so I don't have to break out the water hose.

Anyway, the rain should be over by tonight, even though my hometown had our fireworks display last night - in the rain!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

From Tiny Acorn to Mighty Oak

For many years now, I have brought bags of leaves home from my mother-in-laws house in the fall to use as mulch in my gardens. Because of the number of oak trees in and around her house, I have managed to also transplant several acorns that have resulted in small oak seedlings throughout my gardens.

Oaks are one of my favorite trees and I am thrilled to have a new generation of trees taking root in my one acre garden. So with the success of these few oak trees, I made the decision last fall to try and save a legacy of a damaged oak before it is completely destroyed by development.

About three years ago, a tornando tore through our tiny town of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. One of the areas hit was a section of town near our community park. In a vacant field near the park, several very old oak trees were uprooted and beat into mangled masses of bark and branches. Although I was saddened at the loss of homes and other property during this twister, losing oak trees that were probably at least 100 years old layed heavy on my heart.

The summer after the tornado, construction began in the field with the damaged oak trees. A new housing subdivision, ironically named "Stone Oak" started to spring up around the park, and the remaining oak trees.

In fear the oaks would be removed, last fall my youngest daught and I went to the construction site. After wading through knee-high weeds to reach the oak trees, we were able to find several dozen viable acorns scattered under the trees. The growing season had been dry and hot, so many of the acorns had already lost the life-sustaining moisture needed to help the seedling spring forth, but we managed to collect a few to bring home.

Once the acorns were in my pocket, I brought them home and planted them in a small nursery bed and kept them moist until germination. I babied these tiny seedlings all through the winter and spring, determined for them to survive.

Now, almost 10 months after planting the acorns, my tiny oak seedlings are no more than several inches tall, but they are strong and sturdy. Next year, I have plans to move the seedlings into permanent locations throughout the garden and I have confidence they will grow and mature into mighty oaks. Granted, I may not live to see their maturity, but my children and grandchildren will know how much I loved these majestic trees.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Drought-Tolerant Plants

Now that the dog days of summer are upon us, I'm having to water my gardens more and more. Luckily, this year hasn't been as bad as the past two - the drought nearly wiped some of my gardens out.

Something that I started doing after the Drought of 2006, was only planting / transplanting things that were proven to be drought-tolerant in my gardens. This way I know I'll have plants that will thrive even without weekly watering. Some of these plants include:

Autumn Joy sedum - This plant can practically fend for itself and it always rewards you with thick healthy leaves in the spring and summer, and then lovely pink coloring in the fall.

Goldenrod - This is the official flower of my home state, Kentucky. There are dozens of varieties of Goldenrod and because they are native to my area, they don't require as much care as hybrid plants.

Daylilies - This is a flower that many gardeners have at home and there are hundreds of varieties. Throught experimentation, I have learned that daylilies can go for up to 10 days without watering, and if they are heavily mulched, they can go a little longer.

Mock Orange Shrubs - I have these lining my driveway and they are a profusion of white blooms all spring long. I don't water this area at all and it receives FULL sun all day long, but the Mock Orange just keeps going and going (almost like the Energizer Bunny). I take hardwood cuttings in the fall and softwood cuttings in the spring, so I am able to spread this plant around without much effort.

So, if you are looking for some drought-tolerant plants to add to your landscape, these time-tested plants should do the trick.