Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Great plant recommendations

I have a huge pile of plant recommendations today.  (Do links come in piles?  Since these are all open in consecutive tabs in my browser, maybe it's more of a train.  Anyway...)  All these are Virginia natives except where noted.  Some are unusual and interesting looking.  Other than the partridge pea, they're all perennials, which can be handy for low maintenance landscaping.

  • Rattlesnake master - Despite having leaves like a yucca, rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is actually in the carrot family.  It has spherical flowers that turn into long lasting seed heads, so it provides visual interest for months.  I've found this at plant sales a couple times.  It will show up in the faux desert garden that I'm putting together.
  • Mountain mint - I knew mountain mints (genus Pycanthemum) were good plants, but here you can read about how attractive they are to pollinators.  To humans, they smell nice and minty, and they have long lasting silvery bracts--a color reminiscent of sage or lavender leaves.  Since half the plants I tried in the rose bed have died, I'm going to try mountain mint there as a ground cover.  They're supposed to spread readily (some say too readily).  I don't really believe the lore about strongly scented herbs repelling pests from roses, but we'll give it a try anyway.
  • Partridge pea - I don't know if anyone deliberately plants partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculate, also called sensitive plant), but it's a fun native weed.  This is another plant that turns out to be more attractive to pollinators than I realized.  It grows well in abominable clay soil, such as the unamended soil in my yard.  If you run across it, try petting the leaves and watch them close up.
  • Rose mallow - This is our native hibiscus, Hibiscus moscheutos.  It has huge, showy flowers.  I've successfully grown it in a rain garden and in a standard flower bed that was well mulched to keep it moist.  In ideal conditions it can grow so tall that it falls over, so it might benefit from being staked or grown next to a fence.
  • St. John's wort - There are many species of St. John's wort (Hypericum genus), with over a dozen of them occurring in Virginia.  They have vivid yellow flowers.  The species discussed here, shrubby St. John's wort, is a small bush that grows well in rain gardens but can handle other conditions.  While we're talking about this genus, I'll mention St. Andrew's cross (Hypericum hypericoides), another nice weed that grows well in my abominable clay soil.
  • Finally, this post on Clay and Limestone lists several wildflowers that spread readily.  It's a Tennessee blog, but all except the Helianthus are also Virginia natives.  The Verbesina is biennial, but I think the others are perennial.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Corporate style planting

This bed reminds me of boring, corporate plantings that one sees in grocery store parking lots, but at least it's all native and is meant to be low maintenance.  See, I wasn't planning to have a bed here at all.  When we someday have the funds to build a garage, this patch will be run over in the construction process.  However, in the meantime we had problems with erosion because a gutter was overflowing here.  My husband requested bushes to help retain the soil.
Heuchera, heucherella, and inkberry hollies.
I didn't want to mess with anything complicated, so I did some research and settled on the Shamrock cultivar of inkberry holly (Ilex glabra).  Inkberry is a native holly.  The female plants make black colored berries in the fall.  Shamrock is a smaller cultivar, growing up to 4 feet tall, which I thought worked better with the size of my porch than the species would.  You can read more about it here.
Heucheras, inkberry hollies, and lyreleaf sage.
This was fine until my husband hit the new inkberries with the edger.  Then he requested mulch to delineate this area as a bed so he wouldn't kill the bushes.  Someday the bushes will grow to fill the bed, or, as I mentioned, the whole thing will be leveled by construction.  However, it looked too empty for now.  This was at the peak of summer heat, but I added some heucheras and a heucherella (a Heuchera/Tiarella hybrid--these and heucheras are trendy lately and easy to find in stores).  I also transplanted in some lyreleaf sage plants from the front bed, aka the lyreleaf sage nursery.  As you can see, I also did a border of concrete chunks.

The whole thing will be easy to maintain and easy to get rid of.  I'll need to deadhead the lyreleaf sage plants when they flower so the bed isn't overrun, and I'll pull weeds occasionally.  When we no longer need the bed, the heucheras will probably transplant readily.  I assume this because they're supposed to need dividing every few years anyhow.  I don't mind losing the lyreleaf sages because I can easily grow a million more.  I might lose the inkberries, but that will be it.

Yes, it's boring.  I suppose it demonstrates that one can do any landscaping style with native plants, including boring corporate plantings.  (Please keep in mind that this was an unplanned project that I had to do concurrently with building the rain garden, something that I did put a lot of time and design effort into.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fall plant sales (and a few links)

We're heading into the season for fall plant sales.  There seem to be more native plant sales in the spring than the fall, but fall is a great time for planting, so it's worth seeking out a sale in your area.  I haven't done an exhaustive search, but here are some of the upcoming sales in Virginia.
In other news, here are a few links of interest.
  • Simply the best natives - Golden Alexander - This is a VA native plant that's supposed to be easy to grow.
  • More love for native vines - Includes recommendations for ornamental vines with various desirable properties.
  • OdonataCentral - Not plants, but you can find a list of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) species occurring in your county.  Pretty cool!  There are supposed to be 20 species of them in my county.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Reduce, reuse, recycle

This isn't about native plants per se, but I've been posting about my front flower bed here, so I'll update you on one of the recent changes.

When preparing for the rain garden project, I wanted to start remedying storm water runoff as far uphill as possible.  On the shoulder of our driveway were several large patches of spilled concrete from when our house was built.  Concrete is presumably even less permeable to water than our native clay soil is, so the concrete had to go.  A sledgehammer and several hours of labor later, I had a large collection of concrete chunks.  I refused to pay to dispose of them, but the stack looked kind of like a rock wall, so that gave me an idea.
Spilled concrete--now broken into chunks and pulled up from the shoulder of my driveway.

I stacked some of the more uniformly sized concrete chunks two high, forming a small wall or border around my flower bed.  I made it undulate artistically.
Faux rock wall (made from recycled concrete chunks) as a flower bed border.

From a distance, one could easily mistake the concrete for rock.  Up close, it definitely looks like concrete.  So it's kind of redneck, but at least I'm not using old tires as planters.  The pieces aren't mortared together, so the top layer can get knocked off by the edger, but thus far it's been quick and easy to re-stack the few pieces that fall off.
Close-up of faux rock wall (recycled concrete chunks) around flower bed.

I've actually found the border helpful in garden design.  Now that I know the exact size and shape of the bed, I can better plan how to fill it.  My initial vision for the bed had straight edges, but adding the wiggles gives me some nice pockets of new space that can be filled with small plants.  I was able to rip out a lot of grass that turned out to be inside the bed.  Now when my husband mows the lawn, it's very clear which areas he's not supposed to cut.  (I'll say more about our mowing issues in a future post.)  The concrete isn't the most attractive border ever, but it was free and is useful in delineating the bed.  I can always spring for fancy stones later if I want.  Meanwhile, the concrete chunks can be easily moved if I decide the bed should be a different size or shape.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Link roundup - Small shrubs, small trees, and wood poppies

"Small" is the theme of recent blog posts I've encountered.  Are you looking for a small native shrub or tree, perhaps to encourage wildlife in a suburban garden?
  • Native shrubs for small gardens - This lists some smaller cultivars of US native shrubs.  Winterberry holly, ninebark, and Leucothoe are VA natives, and we also have various VA native blueberry and St. John's wort species.
  • 10 petite trees for your landscape:  Under 25 feet - Not cultivars, this time, but small tree species.  Red buckeye, painted buckeye, Canadian serviceberry, Eastern redbud, alternateleaf dogwood, silky dogwood, Carolina buckthorn, and American plum are all VA natives.  (Is anyone else amused that we are given the complete taxonomy for these species, starting with the fact that they are in the plant kingdom?)
  • Wood poppy - What a beautiful native woodland flower.  Brenda Clements Jones has successfully cultivated them.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Link roundup - Privacy screens and devil's walkingstick

Here are a couple more links of interest:
  • Privacy screening in your native plant garden - This post suggests some native evergreens that don't grow excessively large.
  • Giant flower, at last - I never thought of using devil's walkingstick as an ornamental near the house because it has some wicked thorns, but this person did.  As she points out, it does have an attractive flower.  Devil's walkingstick is blooming in my part of Virginia right now.  You'll see more from me about it in the future, including some pictures of the thorns.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Rain garden III - The plants

This is the third post in a series about my new rain garden.  Click for Part I and Part II on the process and costs, respectively.  And now for the part we've all been waiting for, the plants!  My goal was to use all natives.  I wasn't super careful to make sure that the plants are Virginia natives, but most are.  At least everything is native to the central or eastern US.

The plants were grouped into two categories.  First are the ones planted in the main, low lying part of the garden.  These need good tolerance for large amounts of water.  These photos were taken in May through July of the plants I thought were the most photogenic.  I am also growing various other species not shown here.

Blue flag iris (Iris sp.).  I'm not sure whether this is the Northern or Southern blue flag.


New York aster (Symphotrichum novi-belgii).
Water hemlock (Cicuta maculata).  This is highly toxic.  However, it's pretty and has a longer flowering period than some of the other things I've planted.  It has grown a lot already in just a couple months.
The water hemlock has been good for attracting pollinators.  Note the bee in the upper left of this photo.
Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra).  Despite the name, this is a Virginia native.  It's supposed to grow taller than this.  Maybe next year?
Close-up of queen of the prairie.
Shrubby St. John's wort (Hypericum prolificum).  This is a small shrub with beautiful, showy flowers.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).  Eventually this will make interesting flowers.  For now, it's just very happy growing in the rain garden and making lots of new foliage.

The other type of plant I've used is supposed to tolerate drying out frequently.  These are planted around the rim of the rain garden, where they are watered by incoming rain but aren't subjected to standing water.

Lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata).

I think this is some kind of verbena.  I don't know how it got here, but it's pretty so I'm keeping it for now.  It might be swamp verbena (Verbena hastata), which would make it a native.
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Mystery grass - Scirpus sp.?

A very striking grass is growing at my house.  It looks a lot like Scirpus cyperinus (woolgrass), which would make it a VA native.  However, woolgrass is supposed to grow in wet meadows and swamps.  This stuff grows in clay soil in medium/dry meadows and roadsides, in full to part sun.  I'm pretty sure it's in the genus Scirpus, at least.  Can anyone ID my mystery grass?

This stuff would be great as an ornamental.  It reminds me of fireworks.  I don't even like most ornamental grasses, but I took a lot of pictures of this because it looks so cool.  Also, did I mention it seems to like clay soil?

It grows in clumps and is about 5 feet tall.
It seems to be a sedge, rather than a true grass.  My father observed that the stems have a triangular cross section near the base and applied this little rhyme (which I think he learned in a college botany class in the '70s):
Sedges have edges;
rushes are round.
Grasses are hollow
like holes in the ground.

Any idea what this plant is?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Link roundup: Wild quinine, buttonbush, and more

I have three happy links and two depressing links.  That's an overall positive, right?  I'll put the happier ones first.
  • Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens has a post singing the praises of wild quinine, which is native to Virginia.  I haven't grown it before, but now I want to.
  • Using Georgia Native Plants talks about buttonbush, which is also native to VA.  It has an unusual flower and is great at attracting pollinators.
  • Native Plants with Adams Garden recommends surrounding your vegetable garden with a native plant border to attract pollinators.  What a clever idea, and it looks pretty too.
  • If I just stop mowing, can I get a wildflower meadow?  This post from Beautiful Wildlife Garden suggests not, since you may instead be overrun by invasive species.  However, it will depend on what grows in the surrounding areas.
  • Finally, this isn't a new article, but I ran across it on Pinterest recently.  Here are some depressing statistics on how much land in the US has been lost to human development and the negative repercussions thereof.  It makes a strong case for the importance of planting native species in one's suburban yard to promote biodiversity.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Rain garden II - The costs

Part I summarizes my rain garden construction process.  I made the mistake of not pricing out everything before beginning the project. Before you commit to a rain garden, you should probably estimate the costs by choosing your garden size, determining whether (and how much) soil will need to be replaced, and either spending a couple hours calling local companies for materials pricing (large jobs) or checking a garden supply store (small jobs).  Also, be sure to check whether your locality provides monetary help.  Your local soil conservation district is a good place to find that out.

The vast majority of our costs, and a lot of the time commitment, arose because our site was heavy clay and all the soil had to be replaced.  Our rain garden is about 220 square feet.  We dug out the clay to 3-4 feet down because soil maps indicated that this depth would hit a better draining layer of soil.  This meant we had to remove and dispose of 30 cubic yards of clay and replace it with new soil.  Disposing of clay didn't cost us directly, since we used it to build up low areas rather than having it hauled away.

The materials prices I list below are typical for my area and for the volumes I was purchasing.  Plant costs were lower because I propagated some myself and was given others for free.  Costs would be about triple if I bought everything at plant sales.

Blue flag iris bud in the rain garden.  (Picture taken in May.)
Monetary costs:
  • Mini backhoe rental, 1 weekend (including delivery/pickup) - $300
  • Replacement soil, 30 yd (incl delivery) - $1300
  • Hardwood mulch, 13 yd (incl delivery) - $400 (Only about 25% is for the rain garden itself.  50% is to help stabilize disturbed areas where we disposed of clay, and the remainder is for other projects.)
  • Grass seed and straw - $30 (For parts of yard that were disturbed and/or where we disposed of clay.)
  • Plants - $170
  • Seeds and supplies to propagate more plants - $20 (Mainly spent on small plastic pots.)
  • Satellite dish reinstallation - $100 (It was originally located in the middle of our rain garden site.)
  • Digging out 30 yd of clay with mini backhoe and moving it to roughly the right location - 13 hrs
  • Preparing locations to receive clay - 8 hrs (Removed spilled concrete from house construction, and driveway gravel that had washed into low spots.)
  • Raking clay smooth after it was dumped by backhoe - 5 hrs
  • Rearranging new soil after it was delivered - 7 hrs
  • Propagating and tending plants destined for rain garden - 6 hrs (Spread over many months so not a big deal.)
  • Internet/phone research to source equipment and materials - 3 hrs
  • Building berm on downhill side of garden - 2.5 hrs
  • Mulching garden - 1 hr
  • Planting - 4.5 hrs 
  • Repairing damage after first rainstorm - 1 hr
  • Not listed:  Book/internet research on rain gardens and plants; shopping for plants (since these were the fun/hobby parts of the project)
  • Also not listed:  Further cleanup of areas where clay was disposed (mulching, reseeding, transplanting)
Tools we used:
  • Miniature backhoe (rented)
  • Stakes, string, and spirit levels - ensuring that bottom of garden is flat and that berm/edges of garden are all at the same height
  • Shovel
  • Garden rake
  • Trowel - for planting smaller plants
  • Mulch fork
  • Work gloves - makes a huge difference in number of blisters incurred
  • Garden hose - deciding and marking perimeter of garden before digging
  • Watering can

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Rain garden I - The process

This is the first in a series of three posts about building our rain garden.  The rain garden is supposed to be a well drained bed of moisture loving plants that catches and absorbs storm water runoff.

This post is not meant as a how-to guide; you can find those elsewhere.  The main resource I used was Rain Gardens:  Sustainable Landscaping for a Beautiful Yard and a Healthy World by Steiner and Domm.  It has a Midwest focus, but I found it informative and inspiring.  For Virginia specific info, see this page from the VA Dept. of Forestry and links therein,  a rain garden guide for northern Virginia, plant recommendations from the VA Cooperative Extension, and various other online resources.

On to the fun part, pictures!  These are clickable for larger versions.  (Please excuse the blue tarp in most of the pictures.  It is covering our generator, which is waiting for installation.)

We used a hose to decide on the location and shape of the garden, then marked the edges with spray paint before digging.

This part of the yard was solid clay, so it had to be replaced with well drained soil.  We rented a miniature backhoe to dig out the clay.  Here is the final hole.

We used the extra clay to re-contour our side yard and make it more even.
A dump truck brought 30 cubic yards of replacement soil, a 50/25/25 mix of topsoil/sand/compost.
We leveled the main part of the garden and built a berm on the downhill part to hold the water in (with an overflow pipe to release excess).
After mulching the garden, I finally reached the fun part of the job, laying out and planting the plants.
Getting an "after" picture has been a moving target, since I keep adding more plants, and since we've had some things wash out and need repairs.  Plus of course the plants are still growing.  This picture will have to suffice for now.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Link roundup

Here are several weeks' worth of interesting stuff...
  • Growing native perennials from seed from Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens:  This is New England focused but has some good tips.  Propagating your own plants from seeds is a lot cheaper than buying from plant sales.  For your first try, I recommend cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), which has an unusually high germination rate for a native plant.  Its beautiful red flowers are great for hummingbirds.
  • What it takes a nursery to stock a plant from Beautiful Wildlife Garden:  Ever wonder why nurseries don't carry more native plants?  This blog entry explains the steps in growing a plant until it's big enough to sell and discusses how much demand is necessary to make it profitable for nurseries.
  • Embrace the clay! from Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens:  Here are some plants that actually like clay soil.  All of these except the coneflower are native to Virginia.
  • Aruncus dioicus ~ A treat for pollinators from Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens:  Apparently I read this blog a lot?  Anyway, this is another VA native plant.  The blog entry explains how versatile it is as an ornamental.  I haven't noticed a lot of pollinators on my own, but it's still a nice plant.
  • Thomas Rainer:  Interpreting nature from View from Federal Twist:  This summarizes an interesting talk by Rainer about designing self sustaining plant communities with different layers.  The post includes some pictures of doing this in a suburban setting.  Making it look orderly enough for suburbia is an interesting challenge.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pollinator planting guides

This site has guides on Selecting Plants for Pollinators that are tailored to specific ecoregions.  If you enter your zip code, it'll take you to the one for your region.  This is handy because Virginia is divided into multiple ecoregions depending on how far east/west you are.

(HT:  American Beauties Native Plants)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Soil and water conservation districts

Most of Virginia is divided into soil and water conservation districts.  You can find a list of districts here.  My own district is the Colonial Soil and Water Conservation District.  I got in touch with them because of some significant drainage and erosion problems in our yard.  I am building a rain garden, which is a well-drained bed of plants that will catch the runoff and use it rather than letting it flow through our yard.  (You will read a lot more about the rain garden in future entries here, as I plan to use exclusively native plants.)  My district does not help financially with individual homeowners' projects but is happy to provide advice.  Some other districts, such as the Thomas Jefferson district covering Nelson, Albemarle, Fluvanna, and Louisa counties, actually provide financial assistance with building a rain garden, converting turf to a native plant meadow, and other projects.

Last fall, a soil expert came to my house to assess the site and our drainage problems.  This is a nice free service.  Based on soil survey maps of the area, he determined what type of soil we have and then could recommend how deep we have to dig the rain garden to reach soil with better drainage.  He had tips on how to install overflow pipes and where to buy inexpensive mulch.  He was very willing to walk up and down our slope to see all our problem areas and recommended how to deal with each.

Eroded trench in my yard (with tape measure in inches for scale).
One caveat is that the soil expert didn't seem interested in promoting native plants and avoiding invasive ones, so I have supplemented with my own research.  Still, it was a helpful visit.  I would recommend checking out your local district if you have erosion problems and want advice.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Link roundup

I mentioned Dicentra (bleeding heart) in my last post.  Beautiful Wildlife Garden has a nice post about native bleeding hearts, which apparently are a good food source for hummingbirds.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a ruby throated hummingbird checking out my nonnative bleeding heart last week, so I guess that's not a total fail even though it isn't native.

Going further back, there was also a recent post on Beautiful Wildlife Garden about black gum as a shade tree.  There is actually a black gum cultivar ("Wildfire") with particularly attractive fall color.  For people who don't want to plant yet another maple, this could be a nice alternative.

Finally, it's the time of year for flowering of robin's plantain, a small, spring flowering aster.  I only recently learned of this plant, but my father has successfully propagated it from collected seeds and says that it does well in moist, partly sunny locations.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Aftermath of winter

Now that spring has come, I'm resurrecting the plant blog.  Here's how my front bed, which is supposed to be a mix of natives and nonnatives, looked about a week ago.  I'd say it's a strong argument in favor of native plants.
Front bed after the winter.  The gardenias were hard hit by the cold temperatures.
The dead bushes are special varieties of gardenias that were supposed to be hardy in this zone, but they were badly damaged by the winter.  (Well, first they were gnawed on by deer.)  I'll give them a growing season to recover, but I expect they'll need to be replaced.  At this point I'm leaning toward natives that are toxic and/or thorny to deter deer.  My little tea olive tree (Osmanthus sp., not shown) also looks dead.  This felt like the coldest winter in Virginia in at least 20 years, so probably I shouldn't be surprised to lose plants that are just barely hardy in this zone.  Native plants, on the other hand, have survived here for hundreds or thousands of years, so they can handle the cold.
Nonnative bleedingheart starting to flower, and native lyreleaf sage spreading like crazy.
The Dicentra, I regret to admit, was a nonnative impulse buy from Lowe's.  In retrospect, I wish I'd waited for one of the eastern native species, D. canadensis (squirrel corn), D. cucullaria (Dutchman's breeches), or D. eximia (fringed bleedinghearts), which probably would have done fine in this location.

The low, green rosettes are lyreleaf sage, a native Salvia.  They have spread like crazy via seeds.  I had just two plants a year ago, believe it or not, and this picture is after I've already dug up some of the babies!  They're too aggressive and weedy for this location, so I will soon transplant them all to a location that needs some help with erosion control.  What shall I replace them with?

I'm pleased that my Heucheras (the purple varieties and the native green ones) are sending up new growth.  They were also eaten by deer, but you can hardly tell now.
Bluebells and heucheras.
I'm thrilled with the bluebells (Mertensia virginica).  They're so pretty, and even the one I accidentally dug up has returned this year.  Also, they must have gone to seed last spring, since in the past couple days I'm finding tiny bluebell sprouts.
Bluebells:  Delicate, ephemeral, and absolutely perfect.
I'll leave you with some pictures of other plants that are sending up leaves, a promise of good things to come.
Lobelias (L. cardinalis and L. siphilitica).  These keep their leaves and photosynthesize throughout winter, so it's important not to let them get buried by fallen leaves.  Now they have new spring growth and will soon send up flowering stalks.  [Edited to add:  The topmost and rightmost plants turn out not to be L. siphilitica, even though they were sold to me as such at a plant sale.  When they started sending out runners and then flowered, I IDed them as bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), which the VA Dept. of Conservation and Recreation lists as "occasionally invasive."  I have since removed them and replaced them with actual lobelias from yet another plant sale.]

Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinium)--the little shoots, not the nonnative bulb plant.  This seems to have spread slightly via roots since last year, or else it dropped its seeds in a very localized patch.

I think that two of these are native Aruncus dioicus (goat's beard) and two are nonnative astilbe.  However, I don't recall which is which.

Spiderworts (Tradescantia sp.)
Soon to come:  I will build a border around this bed so I know how much space I have to work with.  I think that will help a lot with finalizing the design.  Maybe I'll actually finish mulching it, too.