Thursday, August 14, 2008

Containers at the Adminstration Building at the National Arboretum

Spectacular {the word I really want here is flamboyant, it's a more accurate word,'s not a word you can just throw around. Oh well, we'll go with spectacular} large mixed containers are among my favorite things in the summer garden. The rain has stopped, at least temporarily, and grass is turning brown, trees and shrubs are being ingested by insects and disfigured by fungi, but these containers are just coming into their prime. The tropical plants need a month of unbearable heat and humidity before they relax and behave like they were in their jungle homelands. Annuals like that same month to get going at maximum speed.

One of the reasons containers work so well is that in a finite space it's possible to provide the soil, water, and fertilizer that they need to reach their peak. As good as the soil in your garden may be, it almost surely doesn't have the pore space that good container soil does. And as scrupulous as you are about watering, it is a lot easier to keep a pot watered than your beds. The same with fertilizer; walk around once a week with a watering can of Miracle-Gro and you are on top of it.

Containers are fun to make, and since they grow so quickly in the heat, they're fun to watch too, and they're beautiful. If there is a downside, it's that they can be expensive. At the Arboretum, we propagate quantities of plants to create all the containers we grow, but when you go to the Nursery, be prepared to spend a little money. Using some of your houseplants and or wintering over tuberous plants dormant (gladioli, cannas, gingers, tuberoses, etc.) can give you more and bigger material for less money. I don't think theres a formula for creating a "great container" but my ex post facto analysis reveals that good containers are fully planted, have a variety of textures, and....well, from there you can go a lot of directions and succeed. Come to the Arboretum and check out Bradley Evan's containers at the Admistration Building environs, the Herb Garden, and the Friendship Garden. They will amaze you, introduce you to some new plants (I guarantee), and maybe provide some inspiration for future creations.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Would you rather live to a ripe old age or die in ecstasy?

Insects are a great part of summer. Some insects anyway. The nighttime chorus of Katydids and their allies is one of the defining elements of the season. Fireflies are as magical to me now as they were when I was a child. Grasshoppers have always been one of those insects that I didn't have any qualms about touching. On the other hand...I have always been a bit squeamish about crickets, despite their widespread popularity. Their numbers swell, or at least the number of adult individuals, swells as summer progresses until it becomes impossible to disturb tall grasses against a wall without rousting a handful of crickets. I like the noise they make so long as they are outside.

Mantids are the best though. Big and odd-looking, they are fierce predators, quick and voracious. Their egg cases, each with up to several hundred eggs, are sold to gardeners so the hatchlings can eat up bad insects in the garden, but more and more research suggests that they are so nondiscriminatory in their diet that they do as much harm eating beneficial insects as they do good eating pests. I have not done quantitative research, but it is my clear impression that they favor members of the Witch Hazel family for depositing their egg cases though I have seen them on just about every sort of woody plant. Monday on the Group Project we found this mantis in a spruce. It was one of two we saw in the same tree; the other was bicolored brown and green. You begin to see a lot of them this time of year. Everyone, women at least, loves their sexual technique; the female, once mounted, reaches backwards and devours her mate from the front to back presumably timing it so that what's left of him finishes its job before she finishes eating him. Timing is important in sexual relations.

Adelphi Front Bed 8/12

The late-summer garden is a blowsy affair. The plants of summer have an uncontrolled aspect, they lean, they lodge, they sprawl then become vertical again with a smattering of new flowers. The plants look old; there are yellow leaves here and there, and brown. I don't deadhead a lot of summer plants, leaving the seeds to lure goldfinches but that adds to the general aspect of untidiness.

Grasses flower, some have beautiful inflorescences, and begin to color. Crape myrtles are wonderful but the weight of their blooms pulls their branches down oddly, and the architectural structure that was so spectacular in winter is only a thing of memory. Following a significant rainfall new flowers will appear on what are obviously plants that have been through the wringer. Just the odd blossoms here and there so that you have to seek them out and appreciate them for themselves and not as part of a powerful floral display.

Some plants are coming on though, goldenrods among other composites are just beginning to flower; asters will come later. Sunflowers are great cheerful plants; many have been flowering a while, others are starting now. Verbena bonariensis, is not a native, but is a great plant to attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and even goldfinches to its seeds, continues. This may be the longest flowering perennial in the garden. The SW salvias continue to push flowers at the top of wispy stalks. And you know what? It's nice out there....not too hot so we can spend time outside when we might not want to in a normal summer.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Part of the job is thinking about what to do next....Peter and Max prune Yew "hedge"

What you can't see in this picture of the yews on the east side of the front garden in Adelphi, is the heads that we are creating a bit farther down from long branches of the yew. The original plan, I think five years ago, was to do Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the gate to hell. The problem is that the heads seem to be more mooselike than canine. Never one to turn down serendipitous opportunity, I am growing antlers and we will reassess in a year or so.

Courtyard at Beltsville Library...My volunteer project

Weeds were starting to grow back, leaves were cluttering the beds and pathways, and the big 'Heritage' birch (branches visible top right) was pulling all the water away from the shrubs and perennials. So on Saturday morning, I watered and weeded and blew the leaves. Obviously this is a pleasant space 30 odd feet wide and three times that long surrounded on three sides by the~12' walls of the building and on the fourth (north) by a low brick wall with an ungated opening.

We planted a few new plants, mostly natives, and removed some hosta that was burning in the sun. Three Schizachyrium scoparium went in at the points of the bed lobes to add a bit of organization in an amorphous planting. To the right of the first clump are three Liatris spicata 'Floristan violet', a selection of the native species. Violet flowers on narrowly vertical racemes will begin to open this week. The flowers will attract butterflies; the clustered vertical racemes will provide another needed structural element.

I couldn't help myself; I donated a good sized Musella lasiocarpa, Chinese Yellow Banana planted between the door and the windows at the far end of the garden. The leaves are a lovely bluish green; the flowers are yellow. It is hardy in this area and ought to do extremely well in this sheltered space. This is a very cool plant; not native but not invasive either. Gold sedum is clustered around the base of the banana.