Pumpkins

Fall is coming to Tennessee, and pumpkins are showing up at roadside stands and in the grocery stores. Pumpkins give a bright pop of color as our leaves make their way to the ground. This squash is native to America. It was Christopher Columbus who carried pumpkin seeds back with him to Europe. There the farmers of the “Old World” used this newfound squash to feed pigs.

The new world Native Americans had lots of uses for pumpkins. They roasted pumpkin strips over campfires and used them as food. They used the sweet flesh in numerous ways: roasted, baked, parched, boiled and dried. They ate pumpkin seeds and also used them as a medicine. The blossoms were added to stews. Dried pumpkin could be stored and ground into flour. Pumpkins helped The Native Americans make it through long, cold winters. They even dried strips of pumpkin and wove them into mats for their floors. They dried the shells and used them as bowls and containers to store grain, beans and seeds. Indians introduced pumpkins and squashes to the Pilgrims. They were an important food source for the Pilgrims, since they stored well, which meant they would have a nutritious food source during the winter months.

I got to visit Villandry, a restored castle and grounds, in France where they specialize in vegetable gardens. Not like the ones we have here in the South where you have your green beans, okra, tomatoes and potatoes. These gardens are laid out in formal beds, with the vegetables as beautiful as flowers. These beautiful vegetables are perfectly tended, mulched and even edged in dwarf English boxwoods.

Taking a clue from the French, I loved the pop of color pumpkins delivered to the late fall landscape. Not only are the pumpkins beautiful, they don’t have to be watered. Each year now, I buy pumpkins in the fall, pull up all the tired weeds and flowers, re-mulch the area and arrange my pumpkins in an artistic form. I love it. Some people, especially my grandchildren, were not as impressed.

Two years ago, the season changed, and before I knew it, December had arrived, and I was still sporting the pumpkins of fall, but after the constant sun, rain, heat and freezing weather, the pumpkins had rotted. During a grandchildren visit, I got shovels and a wheelbarrow, and we went outside to clean up the rotten pumpkins. Yuck and gross were the words I heard most, but my 5-year-old didn’t say anything until we were almost finished. Then she quietly said, “Mamagayle, I know where there is another melted pumpkin.” She had described the rotten pumpkins perfectly.

Any good, well-drained soil will grow pumpkins. A soil of medium texture is best, but good results can be produced on heavy or light soils if they are properly tilled and well fertilized. Direct seeding should not be attempted until the soil has warmed up for germination (usually after May 15).

If you want to grow pumpkins, you can buy seeds of many varieties at any lawn and garden store. But start out with only one or two kinds until you get the hang of it. The white pumpkins are currently really popular for decorating. Normally, shallow cultivation, just enough to control weeds, is sufficient for this crop. Rows should be about 4 feet apart, with hills containing two or three seeds. Each hill should be about 3 feet apart. These plants need lots of room. Keep them at the edge of the yard or garden. The foliage is beautiful when young and healthy.

Although pumpkin plants produce a profusion of flowers throughout the life of the plant, only about 2 pumpkins per vine can be expected. All pumpkins produce separate male and female flowers on the same plant for natural pollination.

While pumpkin size is generally controlled by genetics, any factor that limits plant growth will adversely affect its size. This includes water, temperature, insects, diseases, pollination, fertility, soil type, plant population, weeds, etc. Pumpkins are about 90% water.

Pumpkins last longer if you harvest them when they reach their mature color and the rind is hard. Use the seed packet to get an idea of the mature color of your variety. Wait until the pumpkin rind loses its shine and it’s hard enough that you can’t scratch it with your fingernail. The curly tendrils on the part of the vine near the pumpkin turn brown and die back when it is completely ripe, though in some cases they can continue to ripen off the vine. Cut the stem with a sharp knife, leaving 3 or 4 inches of stem attached to the pumpkin.

You can enjoy growing pumpkins or you can be like me and leave it to the pros and buy them in the fall. Each year the U.S. produces 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins annually.

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A Beautiful Fall Table

The Southern Autumn season rolls in a welcomed reprieve from the summer heat and our mind begins to set on the gathering of family and friends. It’s the festival season in Tennessee, and yes, it’s also football time, both bring out the savory recipes and decor for welcoming a crowd. Our design partners shared their creations to inspire a beautiful table for this autumn season.

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Master Gardener, Why Are My Plants Not Blooming?

When I was younger, every spring I would go buy plants without thinking or paying attention to what they needed for success. I was only concerned with my color scheme or if I thought the plant was pretty (or in my case on sale). I have been known to plant Marigolds in the shade. The first week everything still looked OK. As the weeks went by the blooms disappeared and the plants grew tall and leggy, I continued to water and fertilize but with no success. Finally, by the first of August both I and the marigolds’ were tired. I ignored the final days of my marigold’s life and obviously she never got to be a show stopper since she was always dreaming of the sun.

We are all frustrated when our plants fail to flower. What are the reasons? Poor growth, could be poor soil, or the soil could have been too hard too wet, or dry. I know this sounds like goldilocks’ and the three bears. We want the plant to be just right, therefore we have to know what growing conditions are best for each individual plant. I once planted roses in an area in the yard that was bare and so barren even Bermuda grass was not interested in this soil. Fortunately it was in full sunlight and the heavy clay soil proved to be good so that the roses succeeded.

Improper fertilization, or over feeding plants is just as bad as under nourishment. This is where professional always stress that you should start with a soil test. Nitrogen is what lawns like. Plants that produce flowers or fruit need a more balanced diet. Fertilizers are to plants what vitamins are to humans; they provide supplemental nutrients and minerals that plants might not otherwise obtain. Fertilizers may be organic or synthetic and you can purchase fertilizers formulated to promote the growth of a particular plant like azaleas.

The first ingredient listed on a box or bag of fertilizer is Nitrogen content. This is necessary for leaf growth and supplies plants with the proteins needed to create tissues. Nitrogen is abundant in the atmosphere, but exists in a form that plants cannot use. Fertilizer is necessary to give plants the nitrogen they need. Phosphorus is the second item listed and it helps plants grow roots and increases seed size. It aids plants in energy transfer and gives them a head-start when it is time to produce flowers and fruit. Third is Potassium, it strengthens the stems of plants which helps with transporting water. This nutrient also improves disease resistance, helps plants make carbohydrates and regulates metabolic activities within plants.

Soil often lacks the necessary ingredients and properties that plants need in order to thrive. This effect is amplified in soil that has been used before. Plants absorb nutrients from the soil and leave it less fertile with each use. Fertilizer replaces the nutrients in soil and helps it retain moisture.

Too much fertilizer is detrimental and causes fertilizer burn due to the high concentration of nitrogen. I just experienced this last week when I dropped some 34-0-0 on a grass path, the rain never came and now the grass tops are brown. I don’t think I have killed the grass but I have definitely hurt my cause.

Another problem is insufficient light. This is where my marigold story started. If you put a sun loving plant in shade don’t expect the flowers to continue. If the label instructing you about care of your new plant has a picture of the sun or says I love the sun. It will need six to eight hours of sun per day. The same is true putting a shade plant in the sun. The leaves will burn and growth will be stunted.

Your plant could be a teenager and not ready to flower. It is growing leaves and establishing roots, when this is accomplished then the plant can start producing fruit or flowers. This is why you never see seedlings blooming. This problem is rare in annuals but it you have a flowering tree or bush you may have to wait longer before you see results.

The too wet or too dry is hard decision. If a plant wilts during a summer day but then perks back up during the night and looks fine in the morning you plant could be suffering from heat wilt not water wilt. I watch my hydrangeas lay down and wilt each afternoon but they look fine in the morning light.

My husband and I planted some boxwoods and after the first season they had turned red with winter burn. The second year they looked yellow and stunted. I dug up one of the plants to look at the roots in my effort to diagnose the problem. Danny being more cavalier said he would take care of them. He gathered some grandchildren all under the age of six, gave them a bag of lime and a bag of 6-12-12 fertilizer. Each child had a Tennessee stadium cup. He then instructed them to put a cup of each on every plant. I was horrified. The third year the plants looked great. Go figure.

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Auntie Jenica’s Layered Delight “Best Birthday Cake EVER” According to the Experts…

One of the best traditions in our family is that birthday celebrators get to pick what kind of cake Jenica Reedy Henson will make for them. The cakes are always created by Jenica’s vivid imagination and always wonderful. But, this year Layne Vaughn’s birthday cake, “took the cake.”

Directions:

1. Bake in 3 round cake pans.

2. Cool layers.

3. Put caramel on top of first layer, then ice cream.

4. Repeat for second and third layers.

5. Drizzle caramel on top of last layer.

6. Enjoy!

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Evergreens at Christmas

Decorating with evergreens and berries is one of the oldest wintertime traditions. In fact, decorating with such items predates Christmas and can be traced back to pagan times when the winter solstice was celebrated. I love bringing in fresh evergreens I usually wait until till the middle of December so that the fresh material doesn’t become overly dry. Biltmore changes out trees and live cut decorations every two weeks, to keep everything fresh for their visitors.

During the holidays, we find windows decorated with greenery and the wreaths on the doors are laden with apples, pineapples and other fruit. The natural decorations are a tradition that the first immigrants brought with them from England. Today’s decorations in Williamsburg, Virginia’s colonial capital are much more elaborate than those that would have been used 400 years ago.

Before you order your garlands and wreaths try a natural Christmas by looking at the greenery growing in your own yard. You can make an easy arrangement if you have boxwood. Take a hard fresh apple. Cut a small hole in the top that would fit a candle (I like the small white emergency candles). Take your cut boxwoods and make a green base by sticking the stems into the apple. The apple keeps the boxwood fresh and you have an all-natural window or table decoration. A small saucer or wax paper underneath keeps the surface clean and children love to make this fun
candle holder.

Other evergreens that are easy to find and use for decorating are:

Holly: (genus Ilex) vary dramatically, some are evergreen, some deciduous; some are 12-inch bushes, some 50-foot giants. However, most sport the characteristic shiny leaves and bright berries that deck the halls during the holiday season. This most traditional holiday greenery comes in several forms, both green and variegated. Female plants display bright red berries. Make sure that holly does not freeze after cutting, or the leaves and berries may blacken.

Boxwood: (Buxus semperviens): This small-leafed shrub is a longtime favorite for fine-textured wreaths and garland. It has an aroma that is either loved or hated, so be sure of your reaction before bringing it indoors! Some people (including me) think cut boxwood smells like cat pee. Another easy decoration you can make with boxwood is to take a clean small ceramic pot and florist oasis. Simply insert your boxwood into the wet oasis making a miniature Christmas tree. Even after it dries out the shape is still beautiful. This cute mini tree also makes a great hostess gift.

Eastern red cedar: (Juniperus virginiana): This native juniper may have a grey or blue cast with a slight bronzing of the tips in the winter. The branches have a wonderful cedar scent and produce an abundance of light blue berries. We see this plant growing along the road side and in abandoned fields. The aroma is great but the needles are super prickly you may need gloves to handle. I always line my mantles with this plant – the smell is wonderful.

Ivy: (helix): This vigorous vine is readily available in many yards. It makes an excellent green for holiday arrangements and is especially effective in raised containers from which the vines can tumble over the edges. The cut ends must be kept in water, though, or the leaves will quickly wilt.

White pine: (Pinus storbus): The soft, bluish-green, long needles are beautiful in their own right, but the cones the plant produces add an extra element of interest. The foliage is often wired into roping to hang indoors and outdoors. I was raised in the mountains of North Carolina where this tree is a native. All white pines growing here are planted there are no volunteers here in East Tennessee.

Southern magnolia: (Magnolia grandiflora): The large leaves are a glossy, dark green that contrast well with the velvety, brown undersides. Magnolia leaves make stunning wreaths and bases for large decorations. The leaves hold up very well, even without water. The leaves make a beautiful centerpiece for your dining room table. Try layering the leaves using both sides green then brown this adds interest to the arrangement.

Decorating for Christmas is always a joy. I think my home always looks sad after I take down the Christmas greenery in January. So enjoy! As the song says “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

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Dog in the Garden

Dogs are a treat for gardeners — they don’t care if the yard is mowed, if your flower color scheme is lacking or whether your hedge is pruned. They are always happy to see you and never have mood swings or a hormonal imbalance. Pets add an extra dimension to your life, but are not always friendly toward your plants. Their “dog-mind” must see them as leafy playmates or enemies. New plantings can put up a pretty good fight, but the dog always wins even if mothballs are involved.

Magazines portray the lovely homeowner in the garden with three well-behaved dogs that even sit still for the photo session. I can only imagine that these dogs are brought out for the camera and then taken back into the house before they get dirty. My dog is an outside friend, and my garden always has traces of where my dog eats, sleeps, digs, plays and the most destructive activity of smelling out rabbits.

Having lived in one spot for many years and having had a plethora of new puppies, I have certain rules that have helped me to get along with “man’s best friend.” Dogs appear to be like cows in that they have paths, and each dog always runs in the same path, area around the house. Never try to fight the dog path. If your dog has made a path you need to enjoy your new walkway and make it appealing. Mine are pea graveled.

When you start a new bed ,remember all dogs like newly tilled soil. Once you disturb the soil, they want to help you plow it further, and then it’s a delightful place to lie down and sleep. Your dog doesn’t mind if you have just planted pansies in that newly tilled area. It may help if you keep the dog away while tilling and then watch for several days to make sure this new bed isn’t calling to him.

A way to protect plants is by installing a low decorative fence around beds and borders. If your dog is home alone a lot, you might have to consider a sturdy six-foot wood or iron fencing. I had a friend who tried to keep her pet out of a border garden located close to her front door. First she tried a small wire fence, then she put up a heavier post; she also tried tying ribbons of various colors on the wire. I’m not sure if this was for the dog or birds. Next, she installed a taller, heavier gauge wire braced haphazardly over her first fence. It looked terrible; the plants she was trying to save were unnoticed compared to the eyesore she had slowly developed trying to keep her pooch out of the flower bed.

If digging is the problem, you can try using light chicken wire or other light woven wire over bulb plantings. This can also work over emerging perennials or newly planted annuals so that your dog won’t tromp there. (I think it must hurt their paws). I have an area that I allow our dog to dig in beside the air conditioning unit behind the house. She is happy with the location, and so am I.

In an enclosed yard, urine and feces can be unsightly. Some pet owners have created a designated area where their dog can be tied while doing his business, using center a stake in a gravel area to prevent urine from leaving dead spots on the lawn. Others have trained their dog to go to a required area. I have never tried either of these methods but have noticed that a dog will go farther away from the house as she gets older, keeping the front yard clean, but my neighbor’s dogs don’t understand the clean front yard rule.

Another solution for keeping your garden pretty might be using electronic fencing. This underground fencing can be laid out in any configuration. It forces the dog to one part of the landscape or paths. This fencing only works on your dog, not visiting canines. Also, we have radio-activated collars that shock your pet if he wanders so many feet away from the signal, say 40 feet in all directions. My daughter has a collar on her dog, and the neighbors have the same system, so the dogs can go back and forth between the two yards. Again, this only works on your pet wearing a collar and not on visiting pets.

Another suggestion would be clay pots or container gardening. This way you have your garden, and it is out of reach of your puppy. Container gardening is currently an “in thing”. If this does not deter him, you might try cayenne pepper or citronella oil on your plants.

In doing research for this article, I came across a book by Cheryl Smith titled Dog Friendly Gardens, Garden Friendly Dogs. This paperback book has 191 pages, and the book explains how to design your garden with your dog in mind and how to train your dog with your garden in mind. One of the keys is to observe your dog’s behavior. She includes a section on how the breed can affect behavior in the garden and how to avoid dog-garden conflict by good garden design. Ms. Smith’s book also includes a section on how to grow fruits and vegetables for the entire family – including the dog! My husband was excited about the aspect that a dog will actually eat vegetables. He enjoys feeding our dog table scraps but has never been able to get her to eat lettuce, green beans, carrots, broccoli or any other fruit or vegetable. (Of course I haven’t been able to get him to eat any vegetables either.) Our dog will occasionally chew on an apple or pear, but I don’t think she actually swallows.

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Easy Plants for East Tennessee

Congratulations! You are lucky to live in an area with a long growing period where you can enjoy flowers for much of the year. With that said, there are still some challenges to gardening in this area. Temperatures can go up and down like a rollercoaster, and the heat and humidity make this a breeding ground for disease and insects. Over the years, I have learned what some of the “tough” guys of the annual flower garden are, so let’s talk about them. I’ll talk about the sun lovers first.

Hands down, the toughest plant that we sell is Lantana. This beauty takes heat and drought like a champ, and rabbits and deer don’t like it. It is available in several colors and in an upright or sprawling form.

Flowering vinca is number two on the tough scale. It is a prolific bloomer available in shades from white to red. The only downside to this plant is that it should not be planted in the same bed repeatedly. It harbors a fungus in the roots that will build up after about 3 years. Try alternating it yearly with another flower.

If you are absentminded about watering, Portulaca is your friend. It has a succulent leaf and takes the summer sun and heat very well. The flowers do close in the middle of the day, but that is the time that most of us are least likely to see it anyway!

Verbena is another tough little sprawler and is available in several colors. It also comes in a perennial form if you love it so much you want to keep it!

Angelonia is a terrific plant that will add a little height to your landscape or containers. Some people call this the summer snapdragon because of the similarity in blooms. It is heat and drought tolerant once established.

Zinnias are an old-fashioned plant that has stood the test of time. The larger blooming ones make great cut flowers, and the smaller Profusion varieties are great in the landscape.

Petunias, and their mini-me friends the calibrachoa, are great plants that can fill up an area quickly. They do prefer weekly fertilizing and may need the occasional haircut. I had a Cali survive in a pot all winter!

Now let’s talk about the shady guys:

Impatiens are the probably the most popular shade lover, which is why the impatien downy mildew problem a couple of years ago hit so hard. As a reminder, there were no greenhouses in the state with this disease. That is another reason to always buy from a local grower. Impatiens can take some fairly deep shade and will let you know if they are dry. Give them a drink and they will perk right back up!

Green leaf begonias are a close second for shade gardens. They are available in white, pink and red. Their larger cousins the big leaf and dragon wing begonias are also wonderful if you are looking for something a little bigger for containers or beds. Tuberous begonias have stunning colors, and there are also some new varieties in the Angel wing family.

I love caladiums and have them in most of my pots. Those big, heart-shaped leaves make a dramatic statement in containers as a background for smaller plants.

Coleuses have beautiful foliage and are another great backdrop for smaller plants, or do fine as a standalone. The Kong series is my favorite.

Have you seen the Torenia? It is also called Wishbone flower and is available in blue, which is unusual. I like it because it is pretty and because it is very attractive to bees. We need to help our pollinators!

My last shade loving recommendation is the good ole fern. Boston ferns look great hanging, and Kimberly Queen ferns are an upright that can take some sun. Both are heavy feeders that will love to be fertilized every other week or so.

These are, or course, just a few of the plants that we have in stock. We also have a great selection of perennials, and we will be happy to help you make good choices for your yard!

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Apple Trees

If you have ever walked through an apple orchard when trees are blooming, you know what the sweet smell of spring is. Petals appear before leaves so that they are a flowing cloud of perfume in pink and white. These flowers can last from three to five weeks. I guess anybody who read the story of Johnny Appleseed dreams of having fresh, crisp apples available from your yard or garden. John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) traveled widely, particularly in Pennsylvania and Ohio, pursuing his profession. While the legend of Johnny Appleseed suggests that his planting was random, there was actually a firm economic basis for Chapman’s behavior. He established nurseries and returned, after several years, to sell off the orchard and the surrounding land. The trees that Chapman planted had multiple purposes, although they did not yield edible fruit. The small, tart apples his orchards produced were useful primarily to make hard cider and applejack, but orchards also served the critical legal purpose of establishing land claims along the frontier. As a consequence, Chapman owned around 1,200 acres of valuable land at the time of his death.

If you have room for an apple tree start your search now. Look for disease-resistant trees that give you the ability to grow organic fruit and use fewer chemicals. Then you need to choose a rootstock. All apple trees sold have two parts: a “rootstock,” or foundation, and a “scion,” or top portion, which determines the fruit variety. A rootstock can be a seeding (which produces a full-size tree) or it can be “dwarfing” or “size-controlling” (which produces a smaller tree for easier care and harvest). If you are short of room, you can chose a dwarf tree; make sure that the rootstock is specified. Buy dormant, bare-root, 1-year-old nursery trees with a good root system. Dwarfs and semi-dwarfs will bear in 3 to 4 years, yielding 1 to 2 bushels per year. Standard-size trees will bear in 5 to 8 years, yielding 4 to 5 bushels of apples per year. Most apple varieties do not pollinate themselves, so you should plant at least two different varieties close to one another so that the bees can cross pollinate.

For best pollination results, include a Grimes Golden, Golden Delicious, or Red Delicious, in your planting. These varieties are cross-pollinators in our area. Sadly, not every apple grows everywhere. Each variety has a specific number of days needed for fruit maturity. If the tree is termed long-season (Zones 5 to 8, that’s us), apple quality will be best. Each variety has a number of chill hours needed to set fruit (i.e., the amount of time temperatures are between 32 and 45 degrees F). The farther north you go, the more chill hours an apple variety needs to avoid late spring freeze problems.

Apple trees need well-drained soil, not too wet. Choose a sunny site. For best fruiting, an apple tree needs “full sunlight,” which means six or more hours of direct summer sun daily. The best exposure for apples is a north- or east-facing slope. Tree spacing is influenced by the rootstock, soil fertility and pruning. Make sure the tree will not be planted in a “frost pocket” where cold air settles in a low-lying area.

After you purchase the tree, protect it from injury, drying out, freezing or overheating. If the roots have dried out, soak them in water about 24 hours before planting. Dig a hole approximately twice the diameter of the root system and 2 feet deep. Spread the tree roots on the loose soil, making sure they are not twisted or crowded. Continue to replace soil around the roots. Do not add fertilizer at planting time, as the roots can be “burned.” The graft union (where the scion is attached to the rootstock) must be at least 2 inches above the soil line so that roots do not emerge from the scion. Do not order your tree based simply on price. If the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and a 5-foot tree for $1.59 could mean that roots are extra. When given a choice, I always order from a local nursery. Plants that are grown in our area have a better chance of surviving.

While going through a mail order catalogue last winter, I was amazed reading about six different apples growing from one tree (I guess this tree should not be pruned since it will be a mass of grafts). The company didn’t show a real picture but an artist rendition. That was a big red flag. I finally decided not to order an artistic rendition of an apple tree the thought of six different apples from the same tree does sound wonderful, but this year, I will stick with real trees.

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Remember Our Fine-Feathered Friends This Winter

We have a lot of hungry birds out there from November to March. They have four basic needs in order to flourish: 1) Food to eat, 2) Water to drink and for bathing, 3) Cover for protection from the elements and enemies and 4) space to have their young and raise them successfully. Each year, more than 60 million people in the United States participate in the feeding of wild birds. It is important to provide foods other than birdseed. Now is a good time to take inventory of your yard to make sure that birds find it attractive. It would be nice if you could provide a natural picnic all winter long.

Native plants are always your best bet. Mockingbirds (my favorite) love serviceberry, American beautyberry and bittersweet. Not only are they beautiful bushes, but they have the added advantage of providing food for our feathered friends. Birds find their food by sight, so all our native plants are great. Sometimes birds don’t recognize a foreign species of berries, so stick with our local tried and true like, winterberry, sparkleberry, American Cranberry bush, winged sumac and Mapleleaf viburnum. While you’re waiting for your shrubs to grow, you can give the birds instant gratification with black oil sunflower seeds. These seeds are high in oil and calorie content, and the thin shell makes them easy to eat. In the past, I have bought a mixed wild birdseed blend only to watch birds discard or waste seed in an attempt to get to their favorite. Birds are fun to watch as they feed, so make sure you place the feeding station close to a window where you can watch the action.

It is a good idea to have two or more feeders. Fill each separate feeder with a single type of seed. We know that Cardinals, Chickadees and Tufted Titmice prefer the sunflower feeder. Ground feeding birds such as Mourning Doves and Sparrows prefer a millet feeder. American Goldfinches flock to the Niger seed feeder. Place bird feeders at different heights to avoid friction between competing birds. Clean the feeder before adding fresh seeds. Once you start feeding, don’t stop until summer. Birds seem to forget where other sources of food can be found and continue to fly to the empty feeder.

Water is essential, especially during harsh winters and this extremely dry fall that we are experiencing. When providing water, birds prefer just one or two inches. Make sure the surface is not slippery; you can pile flat rocks on the bottom to give birds a place to perch. They also need shrubs nearby to fly to for drying off and grooming (birds are vulnerable to predators when wet). Never put your birdbath in the middle of a large grassy spot if you want the birds to use it. Moving water attracts birds.

After providing food and water, you should consider the shelter. Birds are attracted to brush piles for temporary shelter, and we can enjoy 40 varieties of birds that will nest in the suburban yard. These include Thrashers, Robins, Blue Jays, Mourning Doves, Bluebirds, Wrens, Warblers and Sparrows. Diverse shrub plantings will provide food and shelter for birds. House cats are the most efficient predator for songbirds. Keep a bell on the cat’s collar to warn the birds and keep kitty inside in the morning and early evening. This is when birds are most likely to be active. Also, birdhouses give shelter and a nesting site for birds.

Space is the last requirement. Bluebirds need about five acres per pair, and Mockingbirds are very territorial. We have three different sets of Mockingbirds thriving around our house: one at the entrance to our driveway (we call her entrance bird), one at the barn (barn bird) and one close to the vegetable garden (garden bird). They protect the berries in each location. One year when I visited Biltmore House at Christmas, an upstairs tree was decorated in Bittersweet. Vowing to recreate this at home, I cut branches but never got the tree decorated. Last year, my resolve was greater. I cut some bittersweet branches in early December. The berries laid patiently on a worktable on the front porch. Then my husband noticed that our garden Mockingbird was actually perching on the porch rails. This bird had found the berries and was working to keep the other birds away. Even though my fabulous Christmas tree had not been created, I had delivered a present for one of my birds.

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Sedum is truly an Autumn Joy

I’m still waiting for the autumn rains. We have had some cooler nights, but the lack of rain has me depressed. I have stopped walking through the yard since every plant needs a drink of water. I do have a few plants that still look okay: Cosmos, Golden Rod and Sedum.

Sedum should be on everyone’s list that needs a tough and drought tolerant perennial. Sedums, also called Stonecrops, have fleshy leaves that are oval and somewhat flattened. This family has only a handful of plants tall enough for use as a bed or border plant. The majority of these succulents are low-growing ground covers that are perfect for rock gardens. The reason that this plant survived this dry summer is that succulents are members of the cactus family, and as the name implies, it has thick, fleshy tissue for storing water. This is a tried and true perennial, so your mother, grandmother or garden center will be able to show you this hardy plant.

The best-known sedum for borders is ‘Autumn Joy,’ a hybrid also sold as ‘Herbsfreude.’ This plant gives us three seasons of interest in the garden. In summer, the gray-green foliage produces a two-foot tall and two-foot wide clump. Late summer, it will produce a broccoli-like cluster of flower buds that open in the fall. The flowers start out as pale green buds, open to dark pink and gradually age to bronze. I leave mine holding their red-brown, eight-inch-wide heads until early spring. They dry perfectly in place so that you can enjoy their color all winter, even peeking through the snow. Then in the early spring, I cut the flowers and foliage back to the ground.

The best time to plant tall sedum is in the spring. Space the clumps about two feet apart; you can plant them closer if you want them to fill in quickly. I had a single clump of ‘Autumn Joy’ given to me. After it became established, I continued dividing it until I now have an entire bank that welcomes fall each year. Sedum likes full sun and well-drained soil. They can also make it in dry, poor, soil but cannot adapt to a wet spot. The wet ground tends to rot the crown or the roots. A dark, shady spot will also kill this plant.

Sedums are ideal for the low maintenance landscape. Once established, their water needs are minimal. They don’t require an annual feeding or staking. Pests or disease do not trouble them. A little mulch will help with the weeds, but it isn’t necessary for sedum to thrive. Dig and divide the clumps if they outgrow their space, but otherwise they don’t need regular division. Propagation is easily achieved either by division or cuttings. Divide the clumps in the spring or fall, or take cuttings anytime that the plants are not in flower. They will root easily in a 50-50 mix of perlite and vermiculite (Potting soil available at local stores).

You can combine late blooming sedum with other fall blooming perennials such as asters, coneflower and ornamental grasses. All of these plants are basically undemanding and are ideal for a low-maintenance landscape.

As I stated earlier, sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ is carefree except for the one that grew in my late mothers’ yard. She had a large clump beside the front porch of my childhood home. Disease and insects were not a problem, but children and dogs were. The location must have been cool, because she forever had to run a dog out after it had dug a bed and broken part of the stems off. This plant does break easily. Another problem she encountered was that we liked to jump off the end of the porch across the top of the sedum plants. Unfortunately, some of us were poor jumpers, and she lost parts of the sedum to a child’s butt. The last peril that the sedum faced was that grandpa showed us how to make a frog tongue from the leaves. You break off a leaf, bruise it carefully with your fingers without breaking the top membrane, then you can stick your tongue inside and blow, and you have created a frog tongue. If you penetrated the membrane, you had to start over, which used up even more of her leaves. When childhood friends came to visit, they had to be instructed in this frog-tongue art. Even with these extra adversities, Mom’s Autumn Joy sedum continues to perform today.

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