Grasses keep the garden interesting into winter

People tend to think that there’s not much to look at in the garden after the onset of winter. Perennials have turned brown or black and disappear back into the ground with the first hard freeze, and most shrubs and trees have gone into hibernation with the relinquishing of their leaves. But the show isn’t quite over yet. Evergreens like hollies remain, with their cheery red clusters of berries. And then there’s the grasses, that put on a sort of second act, as their foliage fades from the lush green of summer to golden hues for fall and winter.

Not too long ago I posted about some excellent native ornamental grasses; but to that list I’d like to add Andropogon (Big Bluestem), a tall, upright grass to 5′ that’s excellent for the back border of garden beds/plantings. Showy seed heads will persist on the stems into fall as the foliage turns from bluish-green to shades of yellow and tan. It does best in full sun in well drained soil but will tolerate partial shade.

Another favorite of mine is Chasmanthium latifolium, or Northern Sea Oats. One look at the showy oat-like flowers/seeds and you’ll see why it goes by that name. This grass is very adaptable to any situation, including consistently wet spots, as well as dry shade. It starts producing the flowers in summer, then the large “oat” seeds appear in fall as the foliage turns tan. An important note: this grass WILL reseed itself freely if you allow the seed heads to remain. So it is an excellent candidate where you want something to naturalize.

 

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This Halloween, beware the barberry!

The issue of avoiding the use of certain plants in favor of natives is a sticky one for landscapers and home gardeners alike. There are so many beautiful non-native shrubs and trees (of English, Japanese, or Chinese origin) for sale at the big box stores and local garden centers. Who could possibly say no to a plant like this, with gorgeous burgundy leaves and red berries that persist into winter?

Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is as common now as the crape myrtle. You see it planted around fast-food restaurants, office buildings, and many other commercial settings because it is a fairly tough shrub that tolerates all kinds of weather conditions.

But beware, this shrub has more tricks than treats. Not only is Barberry known to be invasive in the northeastern U.S. (I have seen it spread in the Mid-Atlantic states as well) but researchers in Connecticut have found that Barberry is a host for ticks carrying Lyme disease. The shrub apparently attracts the white-footed mouse because of the protective cover it provides thanks to its dense habit and thorny branches. Ticks also taking shelter in Barberry then pick up the disease from the mice, and then pass it on to humans.

Between its invasive tendency and the tick issues, there’s really no reason to plant Barberry when there are plenty of native shrubs that offer the same features like good color, blooms, etc. Among my favorites are the following:

Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)

A graceful, arching shrub featuring burgundy/bronze colored leaves that turn a more intense color in fall, with a profusion of rounded white blooms in summer; grows slowly to about 7′ x 5′. Tolerant of heat and drought once established; full sun for best color.

Sweetspire (Itea virginica)

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An upright shrub boasting slightly fragrant white flower tassels in spring (that attract bees and butterflies) followed by all shades of orange and red in fall, that rivals even that of Burning Bush. Itea thrives even in consistently wet soil; also tolerant of partial shade. Grows to 4′ by 4′

Witch Alder (Fothergilla gardenii and Fothergilla major)

An upright, rounded shrub closely related to witch hazel; fragrant bottle brush blooms in early spring, bluish green leaves through summer, turning to stunning yellows, oranges, and reds by fall. Leaves tend to persist a little later into the year than most deciduous plants. Moderate growth rate to 6′ by 6′ (tends to sucker from the roots)

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When your garden grows you

Despite the lengthy gap between updates here, I’ve actually been keeping quite busy in the garden. But to be perfectly honest, it hasn’t felt as fun recently as it should. I’ve been feeling very behind schedule with how the garden is coming along; more often than not, it seems I have just enough time to come home from work, get the grass cut, and pull a few weeds before collapsing on the couch with a cold one after working in 90+ degree heat all day. But great gardens don’t grow themselves, so the work must go on! I just have to prioritize and set realistic goals, and remind myself that it’s really not the end of the world if a few weeds get missed.

Much like last year, my efforts this spring have been divided between two areas: my ornamental garden next to the deck , consisting mostly of native perennials and a few shrubs (which I’ve been quite pleased with…the coneflowers and bee balm have been buzzing with bees and butterflies!)

 

But the majority of my time has been focused on the veggie garden. Unfortunately, in spite of all the work I put in amending the soil with compost, and setting up several sprinklers to keep things watered, several crops are not looking well. In particular, the green beans are a pale green, almost yellow color and have seemingly stopped growing.

Photo Jun 15, 4 37 12 PM

If anyone has any insight, I’m all ears.  I’ve ruled out over/under watering, as I’m pretty careful about that. And even other crops that look healthy are not looking particularly vigorous. The lack of pests and obvious disease leads me to believe that the issue is that the soil is simply “burned out” from the same veggies being grown there for several years now, and nutrients are depleted. This seems likely especially because my soil is very sandy, and therefore already is low in organic matter. So, I’ll need to grow a cover crop like winter rye or crimson clover over the winter or early next spring to “recharge” the soil and rebuild the soil structure.

And speaking of needing to “recharge”, sometimes even the most die-hard gardener needs a little break, at least mentally if not physically. That’s the lesson I’m learning this week. While it’s good to have enthusiasm and keep on top of things, it’s also very easy to take that a bit too far and exhaust yourself trying to do it all and trying to figure out every little problem. If the vegetable garden doesn’t produce as well this year, then I’ll take what it does give me, focus on adding to/maintaining the flower beds, and try something different with the veggies next year. Gardening, in my view, isn’t just about growing plants. It’s also about growing as a person…learning patience and perseverance in the face of challenges.

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Help me “pick” out a tomato to grow!

I have a favor to ask of those of you who grow your own tomatoes. I’m in the thick of planning this year’s crop of veggies, and every season I like to try at least one or two new varieties that I’ve never had before. For the past several years, I’ve been enamored with ‘Cherokee Purple’ and ‘Mortgage Lifter’ tomatoes. They have the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, that classic old fashioned tomato flavor, not too juicy not too dry, not to mention the history of both varieties dating way back. But, last year I had major issues with late blight and blossom end rot, and lost a good number of fruits prematurely. So I figured it would be a good time to try something new. Problem is, there are literally HUNDREDS if not THOUSANDS of tomato varieties, all of them offering something unique in size or shape or color or flavor. So this is where you come in. I would be most thankful if you wouldn’t mind filling out the survey below, to let me know what tomatoes you grow and which ones you like. Thanks!

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Who says grass is boring?

To the casual observer, the winter months would seem like the “off season” for gardening and landscaping, when many shrubs (minus the evergreens, of course) just look like sticks, and perennials and annuals vanish back into the ground beneath a bed of fallen leaves.

To the rescue, to save us from drab nothingness in the landscape, come the ornamental grasses! These are truly “four season” plants that need no special care other than a haircut in late winter before new growth commences. They are also dual-function, providing critical food and shelter/nesting material for birds. The following are some of my favorites, and all of these are native to much of the country.

Little Blue Stem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

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Reaching about 3’ in height, Little Blue Stem (as its name suggests) boasts gorgeous blue-green foliage from spring through late summer, dainty white flowers in summer that become dandelion-type seeds in fall, and then as the weather cools, the blades and stems turn an eye-catching combination of blue-green, purple, and red before becoming a striking orange/tan color for late fall into winter.

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Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

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A huge favorite of birds (particularly goldfinches, who feast on the seed heads in fall and winter), Switchgrass provides textured vertical interest in the garden (with the height varying by cultivar; ‘Ruby Ribbons’ tops out at 24”, while ‘Northwind’ and ‘Heavy Metal’ reach 3.5 feet). Lush green or blue-green foliage from spring through early fall, with showy pink or white blooms in summer followed by tan foliage and airy seed heads in fall/winter. ‘Ruby Ribbons’ has burgundy red streaks in the leaves as the weather cools.

Panicum-virgatum-autumn

Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)

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This shorter, wider grass (2-3’ tall by 3-4’ wide) is all about the blooms! Rounded mounds of whispy blue-green foliage yields abundant spikes of pink or white blooms (depending on cultivar) by late summer/early fall (in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, earlier farther north). The flower spikes turn tan with the rest of the plant over the winter, providing seeds for birds as well as color and texture in the garden. This grass looks stunning in mass plantings! Muhly grass is generally carefree, but does not like moist or soggy soil, particularly during winter. It requires a well drained soil and performs best in zones 7 and higher.

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Careful where you spread that salt and de-icer

I hope everyone is safe and warm after that big snow (or in some places, ice). Fingers crossed that no damage was done to the plants! A heavy load of snow or ice is the most obvious threat to shrubs and trees, but often overlooked is the danger posed by salt and other de-icing chemicals. Many plants do not react well to excessive salt around their root systems, and will manifest that in leaves yellowing and turning brown, and even eventually dropping leaves altogether. I came across a very detailed PDF that explains how salt and other chemicals negatively impact many (but not all) plants, and how you can avoid salt damage to your shrubs and trees.

https://pdf.countyofdane.com/myfairlakes/A3877.pdf

And a reminder on how to correctly prune crape myrtles; as I’ve been out and about this week, I continue to see people committing “crape murder” and lopping off the main trunks at about chest height. This kind of “pruning” only creates weak new growth, and unsightly “knobs” where the new branches grow out of the older wood.

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Thinking outside the Knockout

Roses are red, violets are blue; Knockouts are nice, but others are too!

I’ll stop there before I make you cringe any further with my lame attempt at poetry.

You see them just about everywhere now…the ubiquitous red Knockout rose. And for good reason. They are disease resistant, hardy, and bloom prolifically from spring through early fall. And they come in multiple colors (red, pink, white, yellow, to name a few), and single or double blooms. And I don’t mean to “knock” on the Knockouts, but as with any popular plant, I always advocate for the use of a variety of cultivars. And there are still many great shrub roses out there with the same carefree nature as the Knockouts. Case in point, I just planted this beauty last week, in a wine barrel.

Photo Oct 23, 4 10 02 PM

Photo Oct 23, 4 09 37 PM

This rose is a compact, dwarf variety called Suntory Sunrosa™ Red. It stays on the small side, not getting much bigger than 1 foot tall by 2 feet wide. The blooms are smaller than the Knockouts but color is a true red and the flowers have a Carnation appearance to them. Additionally, they are super disease resistant and easy to grow, requiring less pruning than the Knockouts to maintain a nice shape and size. And like the Knockouts, this rose also comes in yellow and pink!

Another series of shrub rose I’m fond of is the Oso Easy™ collection from Proven Winners. These roses come in a wider array of colors/flower shapes and growth habit than the Knockouts, but with the same easygoing nature.

And lastly, another favorite of mine is the Carefree™ Wonder Rose. This shrub rose boasts large, double pink (and lightly fragrant!) blooms on a disease resistant plant that gets a little bigger than the first two roses I mentioned.

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My bad poetry aside, hopefully I gave you some ideas and inspiration to try some new roses in you garden this fall and next spring!

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