Do we really need another butterfly bush?

Every so often (and particularly now that I’m working in this industry), I like to check the websites of the major plant breeders/nurseries like Monrovia and Proven Winners, to see what new plants are on the way for the next year. And to be sure, there are some really neat new plants in development, such as Lemony Lace™ Elderberry and Soft Caress™ Mahonia. A lot of new plant introductions usually are an improvement upon older varieties, but, if we’re honest, there are also a lot of “new” plant varieties that (for example) are only different in that they have blooms that are a slightly darker or lighter shade of purple than others; it sometimes seems to be less about improving the plant’s characteristics than about making an extra few dollars by simply adding to the number of varities for sale. A prime example of this, in my view, is Butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.). I counted at least 15 varities just from Proven Winners. And with the exception of the Blue Chip™ series (dwarf types that are sterile and won’t sprout up everywhere), most of these Buddleia differ only in flower color and size, and even then, not by much. And yet breeders continue cranking out more and more of these particular shrubs year after year. It’s the same story with Barberry (Berberis thunbergii). There are multiple cultivars of both the purple and gold types, with 23 cultivars offered by Monrovia, again, many of which only differ ever so slightly.

Part of my beef with creating so many cultivars of Barberry and Butterfly bush is that they (with the exception of the Blue Chip series) have a history of being invasive and popping up in the wild from wind-blown seeds. And because neither species is native to the United States, their invasive nature means they tend to out-compete and suppress native plants that wildlife depend on for food and shelter. We should be promoting our native species, which provide far more benefit to wildlife, are much more well behaved, and require much less care and maintenance than exotic “foreigners.” There are some terrific native plants that I almost never see in nurseries and garden centers, such as Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), Cyrilla racemiflora, Carolina buckthorn (Frangula caroliniana), Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), Alabama Snow-Wreath (Neviusia alabamensis), and Sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum), just to name a few. Of course, nursuries and garden centers will only sell what customers are asking for, so I’d encourage folks to find out what’s native in your area (a plant native to the southeast may not be native to the mid-west or northeast) by checking with your state native plant society or using FindNativePlants.com and if you see a native plant you like, ask your local garden center or nursery to carry it.

As they say, “diversity is the spice of life!” The big growers and breeders ought to “branch” out a little! (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

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February: It’s “Sow” Time for Garden Planning

February is just about upon us, and it’s that time again to start pouring through the seed catalogs and planning this year’s garden. And every year there’s more and more and more to “pick” from (sorry, couldn’t resist!), as breeders develop varieties with increased disease and heat/cold tolerance, dwarf sizes for smaller spaces, and higher yields. For example, between Baker Creek Seeds and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, I count no less than 35 varieties of okra! And that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the choices of tomatoes! So how does one go about narrowing down the list of “wants”?  Does disease resistance take highest priority for you? Do you order what looks cool or interesting? Or perhaps you pin the catalog to the wall and throw darts and pick varieties that way?

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In any case, I put together a simple spreadsheet to keep inventory of what I have on hand, how much of each seed packet is left over from last season, and the expiration date for each seed packet (as a general rule, seed germination rates decline rapidly after 2 to 4 years). I also have notes about how each variety performed, which will guide my decisions about what to plant this year. And along those lines, I tend NOT to plant the mainstream varieties that you find at Home Depot, Lowes, Southern States, etc. Not that there is anything wrong with them, but most of those are hybrids, and while hybrids do usually offer better disease resistance and heat/drought tolerance, I like the idea of planting open-pollinated heirloom varieties that have been passed down for decades, as well as being able to save seeds from the last of the year’s crop, and use those seeds to plant next year’s garden. And that’s something you can’t do with hybrids, because you likely will not get the same variety as what you originally planted. Plus, heirlooms just look cooler! Who wouldn’t want to try tomatoes like this?

But I digress. I’ll be planting much the same as I did last year: kale & lettuce, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, squash, cukes, watermelon, and okra, but adding green beans, peas, and winter squash this time around. And when to plant which crops? Click the link below to view a schedule I put together that should make it easier to figure that out (the chart info should apply to much of the Mid-Atlantic region and the southeast).

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0ZwW6bbR3MTUHpua0xHVW9oUXM/view?usp=sharing

As you’d expect, it depends on the weather. Some years, winter is reluctant to leave and you may have to delay planting out your seedlings. Other years, you can safely get them in earlier than usual. I’m hoping this year will be the latter. Nothing beats fresh, organic produce just outside your back door!

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Plants for soggy soil

Given the absurd amount of rain we’ve received over the past month or so, it dawned on me that I ought to do a post about some plants that thrive in wet, even boggy, soil. A lot of folks have at least one spot in the yard or garden that doesn’t drain well. Rather than going crazy and spending a lot of time, energy, and money trying to MAKE that spot drain better, you could stop by the nursery and pick out any number of shrubs and small trees that don’t mind having wet feet.

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Garden goals met, still more to achieve in 2016

Happy New Years! I hope everyone’s holidays were filled with fun with family and friends (and hopefully Santa brought you some gardening goodies as well!). My wife and I are fortunate that all of our immediate family are here in Virginia, so we were able to visit with all sides of the clan. And of course, there was WAY too much good food…thanks in large part to my talented baker/cook of a wife! Unfortunately it’s been hard to work off all that food via garden work since we’ve been stuck in a non-stop rainy pattern for what seems like a month and a half. Just in the last week alone, we received about 3 inches of rain. If not for the sandy soil where I live, the yard would be a swamp at this point, and Taxodium distichtum (bald cypress) would start popping up like mushrooms.

Looking back on 2015, it was a much more productive year in the garden and overall, I feel pretty good about what I accomplished. We enjoyed a teriffic harvest of zucchini, cuccumbers, okra, and tomatoes (managed to keep on top of the squash bugs, and put up a small fence that somehow kept the deer out), and I gave weeds the boot in several sections around the yard, replacing them with ornamental shrubs that will provide color and interest all year long. However, there is a TON of clean up still to do, which brings me to my main resolution for the new year: STOP PROCRASTINATING with the “less fun” chores. Sometimes I get too caught up in the more glamorous side of gardening…the photos you see on Pinterest of lush gardens abounding in colorful blooms and foliage. But to get to the fun stuff, I’ve got to stop putting off the unpleasant work that neeeds to be done: raking up dead pine needles, pulling up the overgrown vines, gathering and burning dead branches and plants, pulling weeds, tilling, etc. I might just set aside a whole weekend and get it all over with and out of the way. Won’t be fun, but at least afterwards I won’t have to think about it any longer.

What are YOUR resolutions for the new year, particularly with regards to gardening? Leave a comment below, shoot me an email at thegardendude@outlook.com, or tweet me @thegardendude.

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Stopping invasive plants a shared responsibility

As most of you know, I’m pretty hardcore about using native plants as much as possible, and advocating for their use over less-well-behaved “imports.” However, on occasion, I must admit that I find myself drooling over a non-native plant that is simply too stunning not to add to the garden. This past week, as I was working in the ornamental grass greenhouse, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Adagio’ caught my attention, with its graceful dwarf habit, wispy plumes and interesting orange/tan fall color. Right away I started visualizing areas of the yard where Miscanthus could lend a nice soft, whimsical look.

But, I always do my due diligence on whatever I want to bring into my garden, and the research I did on Miscanthus sinensis (also known as Chinese silvergrass) made me change my mind fairly quickly. According to the National Park Service, several species of Miscanthus have escaped cultivation across the U.S. and have become problematic, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic states. Wild Miscanthus (the straight species, M. sinsensis) sets copious amounts of seed thanks to the presence of several different cultivars (‘Adagio’, ‘Gracillimus’, ‘Yaku Jima’, etc.) in home gardens. These seeds are then scattered by the wind and start new plants, that when large enough, out-grow and out-compete native plants. In turn, that can have detrimental effects on food available to wildlife. Because of this, Miscanthus is on the invasive plant lists in several states in the northeast, mid-west and Mid-Atlantic/southeast.

Which brings me to the main question of this post: do garden centers and nurseries have an environmental obligation to not sell plants known to be invasive or potentially invasive? I understand that it simply would not be feasible from a profit standpoint to limit plant offerings to only native plants (though there are many smaller nurseries that do choose to sell exclusively natives). On the other hand, destruction of native flora and wildlife is a real problem, even if we don’t see it in our immediate area. Ideally, garden centers and nurseries would voluntarily limit their non-native inventory to sterile varieties/cultivars, like the ‘Lo and Behold Blue Chip’ series of Buddleia (Butterfly bush).

I don’t pretend to have the answer to this question. Realistically, I know it’s not as simple as just no longer selling certain plants. Taking back our ecosystems from invasive plants needs to be a multi-pronged effort. A large piece of the puzzle has to be educating consumers about the benefits of native plants and the potential cost to the environment of some non-natives. Additionally, state agriculture and forestry departments should be sharing information with nurseries and garden centers about what plants are problematic in their area, so that in turn, the nurseries and garden centers can confidently offer plants that won’t pose a problem for local wildlife and flora. Everyone has a part to play in ensuring the future health of the world around us.

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One yard beautification project down…

Following up on my last post, I finally finished that section along the back of the house; the arborvitae and dogwoods are planted, with a nice coat of pine bark nugget mulch topping it all off. I couldn’t be more pleased with how it looks! This will look especially striking in snow, between the green of the arborvitae and the red of the dogwood shrubs.

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A few details on what I planted:

Thuja occidentalis ‘Emerald Green’ – these evergreen conifers grow slowly into a narrow, upright pillar about 12’ by 4’ at maturity; maintains its rich green color through the winter.

Cornus sericea ‘Arctic Fire’ – this shrub variety of dogwood boasts a nice red color on the younger stems, slightly fragrant white blooms in spring followed by clusters of white berries in late summer and early fall. When the weather cools, the leaves turn red/burgundy before dropping off.

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Fall projects in the garden

Despite my all-too-infrequent posts on here, I have in fact been keeping busy in the garden. The weather has been cooperating, with only a few spurts of rain here and there, and temps still mostly tolerable (50s). In a semi-shady corner of the yard, up against a fence, I did some major tilling and weeding and planted several Nandina ‘Gulf Stream’ and a seedling Camellia ‘Winter Star’ the other week, and topped it off with a nice dressing of pine bark mulch. Then, of course, I neglected to take a picture, and now the mulch is covered up by needles from the giant pine that hangs overhead. But you can take my word for it that it looks really nice! There’s still more I want to do in that section; it could use some shorter plants in front of the shrubs…hosta, ferns, perhaps some solomon’s seal or bleeding heart.

I’m also working on a 15’ x 3’ section up against the back of the house; last week I cleared away the weeds and grass, and the last few days have been spent pouring over my gardening books and my landscape design software to see what would work and look nice in this space.

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My goal is to, as much as possible, always have something to look at regardless of the season: flowers in spring/summer, colorful foliage in fall, and berries and evergreen foliage in winter. With that in mind, my plan so far is to have three Thuja occidentalis ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitaes, followed by either Ilex verticilata (Winterberry holly) or Cornus sericea (Red Osier dogwood), and rounding it out with either Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’ sweetspire or Fothergilla ‘Mt Airy’ witch alder.

I also have an alternate scenario in mind: a couple of these new columnar apple trees (Scarlet and Golden Sentinel™) since this space offers protection from harsh winter winds and the brick keeps it a bit warmer than other spots around the yard. How awesome would it be to just walk out the back door and pick apples right there?

Needless to say, I have some decisions to make!

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