Sunday, October 4, 2015

Autumn Really Is Here Now

Orange zinnias make for a nice autumn-themed bouquet.

Yep, Autumn really is here now, no denying it. It's been chilly and windy the past week, although it's been sunny too, so by mid-afternoon it's not too bad to work outside. I've been trying to do a few things around the gardens in anticipation of the end of the gardening season and the changes I want to make next spring:

North Border Improvements:

The new curvy front section of my North Border.

The biggest project I've been working on is the new curvy front section to my North Border. As I wrote in my last post, next spring I will move the flowers currently in the back section of the North Border to this smaller front section, and plant only evergreen trees, shrubs and plants in the back section, so I'll have a permanent Winter Border and a herbaceous Summer Border -- something to look at from my windows all year round.

My husband sprayed the grass last week and I rented a sod-cutting machine and used it to remove the sod, which I then had to pick up in small sections (sod is heavy!) and move to a large compost pile on the south edge of our property, using our pickup truck. My husband then tilled up the exposed soil. He'll spray any weeds that emerge at least once more before we plant anything there in spring.

The back left section of the North Border, which gets too much shade from the large ash tree at left for things to grow well there, is being returned to grass. I raked, seeded and watered it yesterday.

As soon as frost cuts down the annuals in the existing North Border, I will remove them, along with any weeds still growing there and anything else that I don't want to move forward to the herbaceous section next spring. That should make the reorganizing and replanting easier then.

All ready for planting -- now I just have to wait MORE THAN SIX MONTHS until mid-April, when the foliage of plants and bulbs will be up, to move them into their new arrangement. Guess I'll just have to be patient....

Seed Saving:

Another thing I've been doing is figuring out how to save seeds from my annuals -- something I've never tried before. I've always figured that seed packets are so cheap (only a dollar!), and I do enjoy buying them in late winter, imaging how lovely the flowers will be. But "only a dollar" adds up when you sow as many packets as I do in my large garden areas; I must spend at least $50 each spring on annual seeds, most of which are duplicates for large areas, things like zinnias, cosmos and four o'clocks.

These 'Old Spice Mix' sweet pea seeds were really easy to find and extract.
I'll still buy some annual seeds, particularly newer kinds of annuals that I haven't planted before or ones that I haven't been able to collect seeds for (or for annuals that are hybrids), but there's no reason why I can't save some seeds, especially from the annuals that are easier to do so for: zinnias, four o'clocks, marigolds, poppies, larkspur, etc.

These drying zinnia seeds are ones I'm saving by color (even though it's not
certain that they will indeed bloom in their parent's color, as they could have
been pollinated by pollen from a different color zinnia -- we'll wait and see!)

I'm also thinking about ways I could start more of my own annuals. I buy a lot of petunias, marigolds, impatiens and other common annuals as starts, probably spending $100 a year on them. I've justified it to myself because of the ease and the certainty (no depressing damping-off of seedlings, being able to choose colors by seeing plants in bloom before buying, etc.). And I know that it would take years to save the money buying starts to finance even a very small, unheated greenhouse. But I still think I could start some in my basement. I have a few shelves with grow lights that I've used to start vegetables in late spring with; maybe I can start some petunias and impatiens too? It'll be a project, one that will only cost a few dollars, and, if I fail, I'll just buy annual starts like usual -- there's really no downside to experimenting.

Bulb Planning:

The other usual activity for gardeners to undertake in the autumn is the planning, purchasing and planting of spring-flowering bulbs: tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, alliums, etc. Every year, those bright, colorful pictures on the packages turn me into a kid in a candy shop (usually with as little self-control as a kid -- with a credit card).

I generally have gotten most of my bulbs in past years at Menards, a local home improvement store, but a few weeks ago I walked into Costco and discovered their bulb display. Although their selection is limited, their bulbs are a much larger size and some are an even better deal price-wise. I usually also browse the catalog of and sometimes order from John Scheepers or their wholesale company, Van Engelen. Their bulbs can't be beat for selection and size/quality (although Costco's bulbs are their equal in size, impressively).

I suppose my splurge could have been worse....
 After my splurge, I sat down with paper and pencil and inventoried what I had purchased, made a list of where I wanted to plant bulbs, and decided which bulbs should go in each place. I'm still working on this and may still buy a few more things (I especially wanted to plant some Leucojum aestivum 'Gravetye Giant' after seeing it down in Texas last January, and only the catalog companies stock it).

Anyway, Autumn is indeed here, although if we're lucky, there will still be a few more weeks of decent weather to enjoy before it gets colder. Then, it's time to tuck in the last few bulbs, put away the hoses and gardening tools, and snuggle in for a long winter, while the garden sleeps its long slumber.

Still a few weeks left of flowers, if we're lucky. The zinnias, marigolds and salvias in the Rainbow Border are still gloriously in flower, which is a joyous thing to see in October.

I hope you are enjoying the transitions to Autumn in your own gardens, and that winter will be cozy -- and short -- for us all. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Big Change for my North Border (Next Year)

This photo, taken from an upstairs window, shows a rough outline (using a garden hose) of my planned new border shape, as well as the existing North Border. (The far left end of the existing border extends beyond the new outline to the edge of the photo, but it was entirely filled with weeds, so I mowed it off.)

I've been thinking for some time now that I need to totally redesign my North Border. This large border, 60 feet long by about 12 feet deep, has been beset by problems from the beginning:
  1. This is the border that I see from my kitchen window, and because it is a perennial, annual and bulb border, there is nothing for me to look at out there for about half the year.
  2. It's been hard to find enough tall perennials to fill the back third of the border, so that part has been taken over by weeds. In fact, it's not just the back third, the middle section is hard to reach and not tightly filled with perennials, so weeds reign.
  3. The left (west) end is in shade by noon from the large ash tree at the left side of the photo, so it's been hard to get anything to grow or flower in that area. Cue the weeds.
  4. The long rectangular strip shape of the North Border doesn't match very well with the newer curvy island shapes next to it. I would like to the bed shapes to relate to each other more cohesively.

So my plan is this:

  1. Reduce the length of the border, eliminating the shadiest 6-8 feet at left, to increase sunlight and flowering in the remaining border.
  2. Next spring, move the better performing herbaceous plants from the existing border into a new, smaller, curvy front area (perhaps to be called "The Summer Border"). 
  3. Plant only evergreen trees, shrubs and perennials in the existing border area (which could be called "The Winter Border"). Perhaps with a rock or statue or other permanent hardscape features for winter interest.
  4. Heavily mulch the entire back area (the current existing border) with wood chip mulch around the evergreen trees and shrubs, to inhibit the weed problem. 

In winter and early spring, I would have the evergreen border and hardscape feature(s) to look at. I got the idea for doing an all-evergreen border from a photo I saw on

This photo from provided me with some ideas for my own Winter Border. This border is called the Vermont All-Season Color Garden, and is a good idea for a place like Vermont that has especially long winters. (The warmer parts of Vermont are the same hardiness zone as here in southeast Iowa -- Zone 5B -- but the northern parts of the state are in Zone 3B, which can get as cold as -35F (-37C)!) Our growing season is longer than theirs, but winter still lasts too long in my opinion, and some bright colors and green foliage would be nice to see in the depths of winter.

I'm not sure that I will plant quite so many trees and shrubs as are shown in the Vermont All-Season Color Garden (it appears to be a bit crowded, and I'm not sure what will happen when the trees grow in size). And in addition to conifers, I think I might try to include some evergreen plants that are not conifers in my Winter Border:

  • shrubs like holly and rhododendrons
  • perennials that often maintain their foliage over winters -- last January, I noticed that there were a number of perennials that kept their foliage in my gardens: dianthus, Iberis sempervirens, phlox subulata, Veronica spiccata, lamium, Polemonium, hellebore

Those evergreen plants would give me something to look at in winter. In late spring, summer and autumn, the herbaceous plants and annuals in the front section (the Summer Border) would grow up in front of the evergreen border and provide the flowering that I crave to see out of my windows, and as that section is smaller than my current border, it would be easier to maintain and to contain enough plants to crowd out weeds (I think I will mulch the front section too this first year, while the plants establish themslves). 

I might leave the tulips, daffodils and other bulbs that are already planted in the back area between the evergreen trees and shrubs that I will plant next spring, so that I can enjoy them in spring, and the herbaceous foliage of the Summer Border will hide their withering foliage as it grows up. I might also plant some very early flowering bulbs there too, such as crocus, rock iris, early daffodils and maybe winter aconite. The idea is to have the back area have the green and other colors I want to see in winter, as well as the earliest signs of spring in late winter. 

You can see the edge of the outlined area at right. I think the new curvy shape will fit in better with the curvaceous bed shapes of the North Island and Yellow Garden at left.

While I was up the taking photos, I thought I might get one of the fields surrounding our house before the tall, golden corn is harvested. A quintessential Iowa scene.

Anyway, my work will certainly be cut out for me next spring -- but it makes me happy to have something new to plan and think about over the coming winter.

Does anyone have any suggestions for colorful conifers that are readily available, and for non-conifer plants and shrubs that retain their foliage in Zone 5 winters?

Thanks for reading! -Beth

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Late-Summer Ode to Annuals

Still going strong!

As I walk around my garden areas, I notice that one of the very few things that still look good in August and September are annual flowers. Yes, I have a few mums and asters that are now flowering, but on the whole, most of my perennials are not just done blooming, but also looking tattered, bug-eaten and withered, and actually subtract from the beauty of my gardens.

These ligularia have definitely seen better days, but the impatiens are a bright spot of color here. 

But the annuals have been at their peak for more than a month now. Zinnias, petunias, snapdragons, annual salvias, cosmos, four o'clocks, impatiens, marigolds and other annuals: they're all still looking good at this difficult time of year.

Annual salvia 'Victoria Blue' are the only thing blooming
in this border.

In my opinion, annual flowers are just not given the respect that they deserve. It seems like many gardeners feel that perennial plants are somehow more horticulturally "serious" than annuals, particularly the popular annuals that big-box retailers carry that have been bred for large, colorful, long-lasting flowers, like petunias and marigolds.

Some people might think they're gaudy and too bright, but I think these marigolds fit right into the Yellow Garden, and they've been flowering non-stop since I planted them in May.

Looking around at this time of year gives further weight to my hypothesis: that (at least here in my growing area) in order to maximize flowerage, gardeners should rely on annuals for color in the second half of the gardening season. The sequence of planting and bloom times should include the following:

  1. as many spring bulbs as possible, together with the earliest-flowering perennials that will grow here, such as basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatilis), together with a few cool-weather annuals such as pansies and snapdragons  
  2. late spring- and early summer-flowering perennials for bloom in May and June
  3. a select number of July-flowering perennials and bulbs such as lilies and perhaps phlox (if mildew isn't an issue)
  4. significant numbers of annuals, planted in May, that will start flowering in July and continue through to frost
  5. a limited number of fall-blooming perennials such as mums and asters to complement the late annuals
This area would be pretty boring without the salvias and marigolds in two colors to complement the mum that is starting to bloom now.

I've been going through my borders to clear some space for planting more annuals next May. There were a number of under-performing perennials in my front border that I will hardly miss: big clumps of iris that flower for only a week and take up more square footage every year, the so-called "obedient plant" (Physostegia virginiana) that is anything but, and other plants that take up too much room for the short-lived and less-than-glorious flowers they produce. I have started moving and removing those to free up space for planting more annuals next spring.

My front border a couple of weeks ago: overcrowded and messy, with little color.

After the clear-out, with spots left for annuals next year. Perhaps some zinnias and cosmos in the big spots and maybe some salvias, snapdragons or petunias near the edge in front. And some more tulips as well, since I have room now.

Some of my favorite annual flowers, ones that flower well for long periods here:
  • Short annuals: petunias (don't sneer, millions of gardeners love them because they flower their heads off), marigolds, dianthus
  • med-height annuals: zinnias, snapdragons, annual salvias, four o'clocks (these look like a flowering shrub by August)
  • tall annuals: cosmos (they can get to be eight feet tall!), sunflowers (I like the smaller-flowered ones)
  • shady annuals: impatiens (it's too bad about the blight that sometimes is affecting them), lobelia

The four o'clock plant makes a larger shrub than some actual shrubs and trees -- this one nearly dwarfs the magnolia behind it! I think I'll plant more of these next year here in the West Island, which is reserved for trees, shrubs and bulbs.

Additionally, I think I might be ready to try some different annuals to see how they perform, perhaps some more exotic and less common ones, like amaranth and some tropical annuals. I'll have to get out a few books about annual flowers that I haven't looked at for a while.

Does anyone have any suggestions for less well-known annuals that thrive and flower well?

Thanks for reading!  -Beth