Monthly Archives: February 2017

Stunning Summer Blooms

This Asian native has become synonymous with summer all across the American South. The large panicles of crepy-textured flowers that give us its common name brighten the landscape and put on an impressive show that few other plants can match. Climate is a big factor on how a crepe myrtle looks. Here in the Upper South where it is possible for the plant to freeze to the ground in harsh winters, we may use it as a bushy shrub that we keep pruned. We also maintain small, multi-trunked trees that top out at about 15 to 25 feet. These are quite attractive if the lower limbs are pruned for the first 5 to 7 feet to show off the exquisite, peeling bark. The bark continues to peel as the tree grows, revealing a shiny, polished look to the branches. They also tend to ‘sucker’ from the roots, so clip those sprouts to maintain a tree form. Crepe myrtles are hardy in USDA Zones 6-10 and even a little further north with protection. That’s because plant breeders have worked hard to give us more cold-hardy varieties. Fifteen years ago, it was rare to see any here in west Kentucky, now they are everywhere. I even have 4 in my garden. When they are in bloom, they have a lovely light fragrance and bees, butterflies and hummingbirds flock to them.

In the Lower South, it is common to see large, single-trunked trees that grow well over 40 feet tall. I saw my first ones in that size range on the campus of Auburn University in Alabama and was totally impressed. Imagine full-sized shade trees covered in large, hot pink blooms! And it isn’t only hot pink. There is a full color spectrum ranging from pure white, through many shades of pink, to purple and finally to the deepest red. I even have a red and white bi-color in my garden. However, there are no oranges or yellows, except for the stamens in the centers of the blooms. There are even some cultivars with dark or reddish toned foliage. You can dead-head for a prolonged bloom season or let the attractive seed heads develop. The seeds are viable once they have dried and you can even grow your own by saving them indoors and planting them in the spring. Just remember, like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, “you never know what you may get.” Chances are, the seedling won’t favor the parent, but if that doesn’t bother you, try some. I’ve even had volunteers pop up in my garden.

Crepe myrtles bloom on new wood, so prune to shape in late winter or very early spring, however don’t commit ‘crepe murder’. This term was coined to describe the practice of chopping back the plant severely so that each winter there are only a few trunks forlornly sticking out of the ground. Since crape myrtles bloom on new wood, this practice encourages new growth with heavy bloom set. Sometimes the blooms are so huge that they weigh the slender new growth branches down to the point of breaking. These trees have a pleasing, natural shape on their own and I only prune to remove rubbing branches and to keep an open and airy crown. (with one notable exception) Some gardeners comment that the drastic pruning is the only way to keep the plant small enough for its space, however there are so many different sizes and forms, why not choose one to fit the space as opposed to chopping your plant? I do have one crepe myrtle that I do battle annually. It was supposed to be a dwarf variety that wouldn’t grow over 8 foot tall, but I bought it at a ‘big box store’ for just a few dollars. This creature wants to be 20 feet tall and works hard each year to overtop my roofline. I have to prune it hard each spring to keep it from fouling my gutters because it is too close to the house. I still try to prune so it looks natural, but every year I wish it were somewhere else. I do get many compliments on it from visitors, so apparently, it is worth the trouble. Just remember, if you need a specific size cultivar, purchase it from a reputable nursery or garden center.

Crepe myrtles aren’t picky about soil and tolerate average fertility and acidity well. Since they are a summer-loving plant, heat and humidity doesn’t faze them either. Plant in full sun or in an area that gets at least 6 hours of sun daily. My ‘monster’ gets about 8 hours on the east side of my home and it obviously thrives, but there are a few pests or problems to watch for. Aphids tend to enjoy them, and powdery mildew plagues some cultivars, however newer varieties have been bred to withstand the fungus. There is also a new problem that has surfaced since 2004: Crepe Myrtle Bark Scale. These scale insects cover the branches and leaves and they look like black mold. Moisture drips from infected trees and that is actually the poop from the scale…uggh! About the only cure for this is a systemic insecticide, but luckily this scale has only surfaced in a few places in the far south.

Flower to Rock

There are many types of rock. Limestone, Sandstone, Soapstone, Travertine, Marble, Slate, and Granite. That is the short list. My favorite rock is formed on the Cumberland Plateau in the state of Tennessee. It is called Crab Orchard stone, although, it can be found all over the plateau, not just in Crab Orchard. Read more about the history of Crab Orchard stone here.

We have used stone for centuries. The pyramids were built using large stones. Castles, walls, fences, fountains, pathways, bridges and many other structures have been made from stone. Stone statues in cemeteries stand watch like sentries over those who have gone before.

Sculptors find beauty in stone that no one else can see. I have felt a great deal of envy when I see their creations. The ability to chip away at a huge stone and find the masterpiece hidden inside is a talent given only a few in history. Just a few that come to mind are; Hiram Powers, Giovanni Bernini, and Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Many castles, built with stone centuries ago, are still standing.

Back to the hard, cold, uninteresting rock. As children, we stepped on them and had invisible bruises, we skipped them across the pond and stacked them up to use in our sling-shots. As adults, many cursed them in the fields that had to be planted for food and profit.

Children and adults alike, while sitting on a rock, have dropped their tired feet into the cool waters of streams all over the world.
I had not given much thought to rocks until I moved back to Florida. In the area I moved to, there were no rocks. No rocks? None that I could find, none on the roadsides, none in the pastures, none in any trench or hole I dug in my yard. None. I found myself wondering what I would use to border the walkways and flowerbeds. How would I build a wall to section off garden rooms? I was perplexed. I could not buy rocks that are shipped in on trucks from out of state. The prices are exorbitant. I also could not make several trips north to collect enough rocks for all the projects I had lined up.

Each time I went on a road trip to visit family and friends, I brought home a rock or two. I picked them up along the roadsides, at gas stations when I filled up the tank and on friends’ property while visiting. The call went out and every time I have a visitor from out of state, they bring a rock. Not a bottle of wine to have with dinner or pie for desert, but a rock. It can be large or small. One, or a few. Whatever they can fit in their vehicle, comes to my place. I am always grateful and promptly place them at the pond, along a pathway or around a flowerbed.

I now have rocks in my formally rock-less yard from TN, AL, GA, TX, OK, NM, AR, KY, NC and MO. Sometimes I sit in the shade of an oak tree beside the pond and admire my rocks. They have been as hard for me to acquire as they were for the old time farmers to clear from their fields. We each had our battle, they to be rid of them and me to collect them.

I think too, if my Florida flowers could speak, would they ask, “Rock, where did you come from?” and would the rocks speak back and tell their tales of travel across the country to this little spot in the sand-hills of Florida.I believe rock borders add substance to the area they are placed in. They bring a certain quiet strength. If they are meant to contain plants, the plants lend themselves to soften the hard edges of the stone. Together, they are perfect. Complete opposites, I would like to think in a world on the edge of the rim of reality, the two would be ‘friends’.

Summer Wildflowers

If you’re not much of a lawn person, you’re not alone. Most gardeners realize that lawns have their place around every home, but if you minimize the amount of space your grass takes up and diversify the area with wildflowers and shrubs, you can easily turn your yard into a habitat. It’s always nice to have some grass for your kids, grandkids, and pets to run and play on, but if you’re looking to attract pollinators like butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds to your yard, you’re going to have to make a change. Lawns just don’t provide the enticing diversity that flower beds and shrubs do. This year, do your local wildlife the favor of swapping your grass out for some colorful varieties and a few easy-to-reach sources of food and shelter.

From Lawn to Flower Beds

Converting a lawn into a wildflower sanctuary will require you to do some work in the fall, but remember that you’ll be rewarded for your efforts as soon as the following summer. First and foremost, the lawn has to go. Get yourself a good sod cutter to slice away rows of grass. Remember to set the depth gauge to at least two inches, or you won’t be cutting deep enough. Depending on the quality of your grass, you’ll want to either compost it, replant it a different location, or even put it up on Craigslist for someone else to haul away. Once the grass is gone, bring in as much new soil as you need. Tamping down the soil will provide a firm base for the seeds you plant in it later on

 Check your local nursery or favorite gardening catalog for wildflower seed mixes. Different mixes serve different purposes: some attract pollinators, some provide floral diversity, and some are tailored to thrive in certain climates. If you can, buy seeds that are native to your area.

Just like reseeding a lawn, you can choose to spread your wildflower seeds by hand or with a spreader. Of course, larger seeds like lupine and sunflower will have to be broadcast by hand. Don’t worry about walking over the seeds afterward, because you’re going to want to tamp them a little bit into the soil anyway. Cover the newly-planted seeds with a thin layer of soil to keep any hungry birds at bay. While your wildflowers grow, you’ll want to keep an eye out for weeds — new soil is the perfect target for invasive plants.

Vigilance is Key

Since you’re planting your wildflowers in the fall, you might have to water them occasionally, but these seeds won’t need much of any major resource once they start to overwinter. Water as needed to keep everything growing, and never let the area get so dry that the seedlings become stressed. Then it’s a matter of weeding and watching your sprouts grow and, eventually, bloom in the late spring or early summer.

Typically, wildflower mixes contain a combination of annuals and perennials. Save yourself some work by letting the flowers go to seed. That way, they’ll reseed the surrounding area for you. Alternatively, you could choose to collect some native wildflowers and work them in between your existing varieties.

Getting Ideas

Chances are, there’s a community garden or wildflower sanctuary in your area that can give you some great ideas on what to grow in your own space. Ask your local extension office for some advice on native species, or arrange a seed swap with them to help minimize the cost of purchasing seed. While you’re at it, be sure to look out for local plant sales on the off-chance a gardener there wants to swap some of their excess plants for some of yours.

 

Friendly Garden Space

Examine Your Existing Space

Whether you’re looking to set up a free-range situation for your cats or simply planning on building them an outdoor enclosure, you’ll need to give your backyard a quick safety inspection beforehand. Does your yard have a fence or another kind of barrier around it to keep your pets from wandering off? If so, will your cat be able to jump over or wiggle through that barrier? Remember that even the highest fences can be climbed by a sneaky cat that has access to nearby trees.

 When determining if your yard will make a suitable second home for your cat or kitten, you’ll also need to take some more overt hazards into account. Do you keep toxic chemicals out in the open or have a water fountain or pond that poses a potential drowning threat? While many cat owners already consider their felines to be a part of the family, it’s still important to create safe spaces for them like you would for a small child.

Select Cat-Friendly Plant Varieties

Everyone knows that kittens love cat grass and catnip, but cats can also be tempted to nibble on toxic plant varieties sometimes. When planning your outdoor “catio” or garden space, you’ll want to double-check that every plant in the area is safe for pets to eat. If some of these plants just can’t be removed, you may have to stick to keeping your cats in an outdoor enclosure. Trust us, it’s better than a trip to the vet’s office.

When it comes to selecting the plants that cats enjoy, on the other hand, you shouldn’t feel limited to the varieties sold in pet stores. A lot of your favorite vegetables, herbs, and florals are actually safe to plant around felines and can be as tasty as a patch of catnip to them! Sunflowers can provide them with both overhead shade and a maze to navigate through, while ornamental grassesmake for good hiding spots and the occasional afternoon snack. Herbs such as dill, mint, sage, and basil are also pet-friendly and provide cats with a buffet of sorts — some cats are so attracted to these herbs that they roll around in them to pick up their scent. Showy blooms like cosmos, bachelors buttons, and snapdragons are also good choices for a pet-friendly garden, as they’re non-toxic and great visual stimuli.

Reconsider How You’ll Fight Pests and Weeds

Creating a safe space for cats to roam around in means having to rethink the chemicals you’re using in your garden. Weedkillers and pesticides can easily end up on delicate paws and be tracked into your home on furry coats or whiskers. Not to mention the fact that these chemicals, if ingested directly or later on during grooming, can cause some serious health problems for your kittens.

If you want your pets to be able to freely come in and out of the house, you’ll need to consider alternative ways to manage weeds and pests. If your garden suffers from bug problems, try using a natural pesticide like diatomaceous earth. Rodent problem? You’re already covered. Anyone who’s ever seen Tom and Jerry will know that cats love catching mice!

Add Natural Toys

Most pet owners know what things their cats enjoy playing with, and an outdoor space is sure to bring a ton of new toys into their lives. Luckily, a lot of these toys can be made from the items that are already in your garden. Maybe your cat will fashion a log into a scratching post or find a nice ledge to sunbathe off of. Planting large shrubs, hedges, or grasses in your yard will give your feline friend some cover to stalk behind. If you’re looking to save the bark on your beautiful backyard trees, you can set up a small ladder, ledge, or outdoor pet tree for them to climb instead!

Incorporate Natural Shade and Hiding Spots

Even if they’re only going to be outdoors for a short amount of time, you’ll need to provide your cat with some easy access to shade. On particularly warm days, cats that stay out in the sun too long run the risk of overheating. Patio umbrellas and canopies are a couple of quick fixes to this problem, and they may already be a part of your backyard decor. Plus, the large bushes, sunflowers, and ornamental grasses you’ve planted for your cats should provide them with a at least a few more places to cool off under.

When considering shade, you’ll also want to think about keeping your cat hydrated. Take a bowl with you every time you go out into the garden, and refill it often to ensure your kitty has a plentiful supply of fresh water.

Introduce A Designated Litter Zone

If there’s one thing gardeners don’t like about cats, it’s the fact that they sometimes leave their unwanted litter box business in the flower beds. Luckily, litter box-trained cats can easily be taught to use an outdoor litter box or pan. Devoting a small part of your yard or garden to your cat’s bathroom activities will help establish boundaries and let your cat know that it’s important to follow bathroom rules indoors and out. If you find that your cat is ignoring their outdoor bathroom area, spread some less-desirable planting bed mediums like mulch or pest netting around the garden. Your cats won’t like the feel of the terrain and will have no choice but to use the area you set up for them!