GardenDishes

dishin' the DIRT on hit and myth landscaping

Poinsettia Pointers & Other Plants to Ring in the New Year

The only care-free poinsettia is a fake one.

The only care-free poinsettia is a fake one, remaining perky even in snow. Or in the attic.

If you’re like me, it’s tough passing up after-Christmas bargains. And since my drug of choice is plants, a trip to the nursery the 1st week of January means I’ll extend the season with HUGE, beautiful poinsettias for less than $5 each. I look at this as a quick high, a temporary fix, though. You CAN get a return bloom next year, if you are willing to put in the effort. For 5 bucks, I’m not. In case you’re on JEOPARDY, by the way, what we call the blooms  are actually brightly colored leaves – or “bracts” – with the actual flower the tiny middle part. Feel free to share the prize money. It should get me a few more poinsettias for next year.

Kolanchoes have a long bloom period, come in several colors, and thrive indoors if given lots of light.

Kolanchoes (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana)

have a long bloom period, come in several colors, and thrive indoors if given lots of light.

Want an alternate, repeat-blooming Christmas-y flower without the hassle? Try kolanchoe. No. It doesn’t double as a breakfast food. You’re thinking ko-LA-che. Don’t eat these. Like poinsettias and many other houseplants, kolanchoes are POISONOUS to people and pets if ingested. (Here’s a list with more poisonous houseplants for you.) Kolanchoes not only make great houseplants, they can be planted in the ground for almost year-round color in warmer climates.

Christmas cactus - Schlumbergera bridesii - may be an old-fashioned, hand-me-down plant, but it continues to be one of my favorites for its dependability in low light conditions. My original plant came from Dad 15+ years ago and I’m pretty sure his was a cutting from someone else. It always amazes me when the buds start to pop out of nowhere around the 2nd week of December. I’ve divided mine now and am sharing pieces with friends, too, which is one of my favorite parts of gardening. And yes, having indoor plants is still gardening!

This year I surprised several special people in my life with red amaryllis bulbs for Christmas. My friend (and my co-author on HEIRLOOM BULBS FOR TODAY) Chris Wiesinger at The Southern Bulb Company offers them in a ready-to-give package. You can find a number of incredible bulbs to force for the holidays from Chris and Rebecca, in fact. Then after the blooms are done, plant them in your garden, if you live in a temperate locale like I do.

Do you have a favorite Christmas plant that’s easy to take care for? Not counting the silk poinsettias in your attic, of course.

Weeds or Woes? Choosing an Organic Method COULD Save Your Life!

Recently I heard you speak and you mentioned using RoundUp could hurt more than the weeds in my yard.

Can you explain?

New research shows WEEDS are not the only thing killed by Roundup....

New research shows WEEDS are not the only thing killed by Roundup….

Happy to expound on this one. A few weeks ago a neighborhood association asked me to look over their contract with a local lawn maintenance company. Immediately I redlined a problem: it specifically asked that RoundUp ®, a widely advertised glyphosate used in home and commercial gardening, be sprayed for weed control. I freaked, mainly because this is my HOA spraying next to my garden! I’d discovered genocide was going on in the neighborhood shortly after I moved in last fall when I drove up to a masked man, spray wand in hand in my front yard. I jerked open the car door, jumping up and down, screaming at the poor guy to get him to stop. I told him I’m an organic gardener and NEVER wanted to see his sorry spraying self in my garden again. He shrugged and moved the 4 feet over to my neighbor’s and began misting his poison again. 

So what’s the big deal? If you aren’t growing edibles – which I do throughout my entire landscape – you might not see any harm in using glyphosate as a short cut to weed eradication. Let’s face it: easy helps. Weeding is the toilet cleaning of gardening, in my opinion. And like toilets, it very seldom gets noticed… unless it does NOT get done. More and more research on what glyphosate does to our environmental systems AND our body systems should give us the heebie jeebies, even more than a nasty toilet. Just as it does with plants, glyphosate messes with our hormonal balance and cellular production. And since it’s designed to kill ALL plants, new findings show it does so IN us as well as around us, decimating the good bacteria needed for our intestinal health. And in September, the National Institutes of Health linked glyphosate to breast cancer. Here’s the article on their website. photo 1The stuff is especially dangerous to small children and pets. That means your little one playing in the lush lawn, or your pooch taking a poop where glyphosate has been applied exposes them to incredible danger, according to the National Pesticide Information Center, who offers some of the symptoms you can expect to see.

So what’s a healthy alternative? I’ll offer a few of my favorites – including cinnamon and white vinegar – in an upcoming article.

Many of the health issues we experience link unbreakably to our determination to travel easy street. The use of glyphosate is just one of the many toxic trails we find ourselves following when searching for a magic pill to perfection. I’m praying that as the public becomes more informed, getting rid of weeds the easy way won’t be as enticing to home gardeners and consumers as will good health for our loved ones and the planet we love. If we’ll insist commercial growers and maintenance companies ditch the poison completely, we might see a turn around in our generation. One neighborhood at a time.

Oh, deer, not tonight, please

Help! We bought a house in the suburbs that needed new landscaping, but every time I put out plants, the deer come during the night and eat them. What can I do?

Deer nibble much of the green in their paths unless your plants don't rate high on the menu.

Deer nibble much of the green in their paths unless your plants don’t rate high on the menu.

Ask folks planning a move into the countryside how they feel about nature and they’ll express devotion. A year and hundreds of landscaping dollars later, the attitude often has drastically changed. Pest control companies make their living off this fact: we like the natural world as long as it stays in our control… nature within prescribed boundaries. Termites tunneling in downed timber? Mosquitoes munched by mockingbirds? Snakes snacking on mice and rats? Wonderful! Deer munching in a serene landscape on the horizon? Lovely. When it’s OUR serene landscape where they’re munching, however, that’s a different story.

So how can we protect nature while keeping our gardens from becoming the Luann platter tonight? Deer-free zones don’t exist where deer do, but you can follow some simple steps to encourage nibbling elsewhere with PLANTS, PARAPHERNALIA, and PARABLES. This post goes over the plants. Looks for the next two deer-deterents later, same bat-time, same bat-channel. (Only those of us over a certain age will know what the heck I’m talking about, and only YOUR hairdresser knows for sure…. Yes, another oldie but goodie from ads of Christmas past!)

• PLANTS – Love fresh greens in your salad? So do deer! New growth lures deer in for the locavore smorgasbord. But there are specific plants they don’t find quite as appealing. Look to the surrounding area for ideas. What plants do deer ignore in others’ gardens or in the indigenous plantings nearby? If your yard is an undistinguishable humdrum café, deer will look around for culinary excitement.

Not only can you discourage browsing ON certain plants, but WITH certain plants. Strong herbs such as rosemary or society garlic to throw off the scent and repel deer. Native plants are also naturally more deer resistant as edging can signal b-o-r-i-n-g, and keep deer in the dark about the rest of your yard. For a list of plants to use, contact your local native plant society or Master Gardener group.

all lit up and nowhere to go

My newest book is progressing nicely. All work on it has halted for the moment, however: the boss bumped me to a new office upstairs.

In most worlds, moving up in the building = moving up in the company. Not so much here. I’ll have to actually MAKE an office before I can work in it. I’m banned from my garden until I complete the task, too. It’s not a sacrifice staying inside right now since temps still hover in the mid – high 90′s in my garden. It is tough to know I must sacrifice my last BOX BASTION and organize the catch-all-junk-drawer of our house into a usable office.

This old lamp needs a serious make-over.

This old lamp needs a serious make-over.

The most difficult part of the job? It requires completing a project, emptying said boxes and finding a home for the contents. The reason those boxes have been sitting up there since we moved a year ago is I didn’t want to deal with sorting and making decisions on the contents. Some items no longer fit our needs. Some don’t fit our decor. Some were gifts, some we bought on impulse. Most I don’t even remember why we bothered to box and move. Besides an every-growing pile destined for Salvation Army, I’ve decided it’s terribly wasteful to get rid of everything and buy all new. Instead, I’m re-doing lamps and furniture, a mini-makeover, repurposing what I can salvage from our past.

One of my favorite authors – Alice Hoffman – paints her office with each book project. That seems ambitious – and EXPENSIVE – since she writes one every year or so. I actually enjoy construction and would choose busying myself in the garden or my house over writing most days. Writing deadlines are essential for me, primarily since authorship is a love/hate relationship. I LOVE speaking to groups and schools. I LOVE starting new book or magazine projects and doing extensive research. I HATE being forced to sit for hours at a computer to write and find it even more excruciating to stick with things once the new’s worn thin.

Hmmmmm.  I wonder if Alice dreads the deed as much as I do and paints to keep from writing.

Anyway, I’m hoping these quick-fixes in my office tempt me to linger in my chair a little longer, at least until the north wind returns so outside temperatures retreat to tolerable. Wanna see what I’m doing? Here’s my attempt at un-fru-fruing a pair of buffet lamps hiding in one of the boxes.

After: my lamp (and whitewashed table) will feel more at home in a beach-themed office.

After: my lamp (and whitewashed table) will feel more at home in a beach-themed office.

I hope you’ll be inspired to tackle a make-over project for yourself or someone who needs help on one of theirs.  Maybe you’ll even be inspired to FINISH. Now THAT would be ambitious! cc:

WHEN to plant WHAT

Cherie's planting season wheel

My confession that rules were blatantly disregarded when I planted shrubs during  July brought sorrowful bent heads and looks of disapproval.  And those were just from Gus the Wonder Cat…..

Gus the Wonder Cat is wondering why I'm crazy enough to plant shrubs in summer!

Gus the Wonder Cat is wondering why I’m crazy enough to plant shrubs in the heat of summer!

I can imagine what your thoughts on the subject might be.

As a designer, I often myself tempted to The Dark Side, putting FORM before FUNCTION. Someone always pays when that happens. Sometimes it’s Mrs. Skywalker. This time it’s me. I’ve been shlepping water hoses through the common area next to my house several times a week and the newly-planted beauty berry still doesn’t look, well, beautiful. If you don’t want you to fall into the same trap, use this graphic telling you when to plant what at your house.  Your plants will thank you for following the rules. And Gus will think you’re a genius.

Need to know HOW to plant trees and shrubs? Here’s a video from my friends at The National Gardening Association Wanna TRANSPLANT a shrub or tree in the next few months? Here’s how!

Understory beauty berry bush, like this variegated 'Snow Storm' variety, prefer cooler temps when planted and show distress at anything less.

DEAD ENDS take on new meaning: this variegated ‘Snow Storm’ beauty berry is making its displeasure known, dying off on the tip ends after leaving the shade cover of a nursery for the sun cover of July.

FREE FRIDAY! and Summer is NOT the time to plant

To celebrate August, the end-of- summer (since schools start ever-earlier), I’ll have a FREE FRIDAY tomorrow. Go to my author FaceBook page and pick which one of my children’s books you want and I’ll pick you. Or Gus the Wonder Cat will pick for me. IF he’s in the mood for that kind of thing. He IS a cat, after all.  If you don’t FB, just comment on this post to get your name in the hat.

River rock boulder at A&A  Stone (www.A&AStone.com)

Arkansas creek boulder Linda helped me find at A&A Stone. Thanks Linda!

Following an afternoon choosing boulders for my entry garden (I’ll show you the before/after soon), I distinctly heard my name called. Sensing the voice beckoned from the nearby garden center, I was compelled to stop and walk through the rows of newly arrived plant material to make certain my garden was not lacking. As any other gardener would have, I soon recognized my garden was indeed lacking and began piling necessities onto the wagon to remedy my plight.

My usual time for summer gardening is morning. And when I say “gardening” in the summer, it means making the rounds to be sure everyone is happy and healthy, yanking a few errant weeds: maintenance type chores. Theoretically, PLANTING is an autumn/winter/spring activity. However, since I do not practice what I preach, feel free to drive by and see WHY you should not put out plants in Texas’ summer, which typically lasts from April-October. Other than the desert-dwellers, my new babies are suffering tremendously. Even the true East Texas Pineywoods natives, with almost daily spritzes of hydration from the end of a hose, show a waning spirit.

I don’t blame them a bit. It is August, after all.

I’m putting together a program on WHAT TO PLANT WHEN. If you want to know the answer to that age-old question, respond to this post and I’ll send you the chart.

Living with Low Spots

After it rains, our back yard takes forever to drain. It’s so discouraging to plant things and they drown. How can we get rid of the water without flooding our neighbors?

Drainage dilemmas plague many folks, either with seasonal sinkholes where water collects after a rain or a spot that’s always spongy and nothing grows well but weeds. Now we are talking shallow depression in the yard here, not hole-big-enough-to-eat-the-house-Florida-style.

raindropsLike a leaky roof, you probably don’t even think about drainage until it rains.

Landscaping professionals may disagree on HOW to solve drainage issues, but most agree the best solution financially and physically is to work with what you’ve got. Obviously if muddy waters rage through your yard like the Mississippi at flood stage – and you’re not interested in water-front property – you might need to a more comprehensive remedy. However, if your problem is periodic or simply a nuisance, here are a few inexpensive or even FREE ideas to try.

GRADE: Lawn grass responds best to a minimum 1/4″ drop vertically for every foot horizontal distance. That grade should point AWAY from your house, meaning soil at your home’s foundation should be the highest point. (Unless you live on a mountain, but that’s another post for another day.) Why? Constantly soggy soil means constantly soggy grass which means a lawn in constant distress. Expect diseases, especially fungal infection, and the pests that follow to become the dominant feature of your landscape if the slope’s too slight.

While pleasant to view, moss on a walk-way spells D-A-N-G-E-R! Raise the walk a couple inches and backfill with sand.

While pleasant to view, moss on a walk-way spells D-A-N-G-E-R! Raise the walk a couple inches and backfill with sand.

DRAINS: A “dry river” can be installed to quickly wick water away from your low spot.

River stones, if used in a dry river, must be large enough that they won't wash away in a down-pour.

River stones, if used in a dry river, must be large enough that they won’t wash away in a down-pour.

A bit of river rock, making sure it’s headed DOWNHILL, is an easy fix. But if the stones block instead of remove water, might as well invite the neighborhood over for a  pool party next time a black cloud hovers. Water gushing  down your river?  A large boulder or clump of ornamental grass strategically located slows the flow. If the runoff is more than a dry river can handle alone, or if the area is not conducive to such a feature, consider a French drain instead of or besides. There are plenty of how-to’s online for French drains. If you hire drainage done, you might take the advice of a landscaper friend of mine when interviewing installers: “If you call in somebody to help with drainage and they don’t have a level in their truck, run ‘em off!”

PLANTS: If the area is wet for a short time and not a nuisance, consider planting natives that thrive with wet feet, soaking up the extra moisture. Or how about creating a wildlife or bog garden, or even a water feature to take advantage of your problem? Check your local native plant society for a list of appropriate ones for your area.

One of my favorite plants for low spots is our native river birch, Betula nigra with its gorgeous peely bark.

One of my favorite plants for low spots is our native river birch, Betula nigra with its gorgeous peely bark.

Duel purpose, this container also holds rainwater runoff to irrigate the nearby veggie garden.

Dual purpose, this container also holds rainwater runoff to irrigate the nearby veggie garden.

RAIN BARREL: At my house, rain barrels are going in at the gutter downspouts. When I build my new porch, I’m planning the roof based on collection of rainwater so my garden is self-sustaining when irrigation limitations come back, as they surely will.

Before you head for the big guns, be sure your plumbing or irrigation isn’t leaking and you’re watering properly.  Then next time it rains, look for your low spots. Choose a remedy that will turn your problem on its head, making the area the HIGHlight of your landscape. Not so discouraging after all, is it? cc:

IF YOU HAVE A LANDSCAPING CHALLENGE, SNAP A SHOT AND LET ME KNOW. WE’LL FIGURE IT OUT TOGETHER!

3 RULES FOR CHOOSING PLANTS

River stones make a long-lasting mulch that won't wash away in a down-pour.

River stones make a long-lasting mulch that won’t wash away in a down-pour.

A clean slate. Or a muddy one, anyway.

A clean slate. Or a muddy one, anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

This week I’ve been working with my friend Cindy Huey on the area in my front yard near the entrance. When we moved to this house a few months ago, there were two huge sago palms (which are highly toxic, by the way) and 20 shrubs in an area barely large enough to support one of the sagos. The planting was original to the house and, as usual, the builders weren’t thinking past selling the house. That’s reasonable for them, but awful for the buyers. Or for the NEXT buyers, 12 years later. Although the previous owners did a great job on maintenance, everything was planted only inches from the sidewalk. Keeping the dwarf bottlebrush and boxwoods from attacking visitors must have been a constant chore and certainly a battle I chose NOT to fight. I transplanted the bottlebrush to the side yard and gave away the boxwoods, which are not a good plant choice for our area anyway.

Since I’m a professional landscape designer, you might wonder why I might need another landscape professional to help me at my house. It’s more fun and more productive to have an outsider’s view: more fun because Cindy’s enthusiasm over plants makes working with her a blast; more productive because it’s hard to make decisions when it’s YOUR STUFF. As a plant freak myself, I know how many options I have, so how can I possibly choose just a few? Thought some of you might have this dilemma, too, so I’ll share criteria for picking just the right plants for my entry garden.

1) Does it fit? Choose plants that will not overwhelm and overtake the space when full-grown. Yes, a one-gallon shrub looks Lilliputian next to a house, but it will grow. It’s pretty important that visitors can physically enter the entry.

Native to my area, Gulf muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) creates interest all year.

Native to my area, Gulf muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) creates interest all year.

2) Does it fit? No, I’m not repeating myself. Well, I am, but I’m talking about a different kind of fit here. While the sago palms went well with the stucco of my home if I wanted a Gulf Coast vibe, my style is more California Spanish. I’ve also replaced water guzzlers for water savers, planting native and well-adapted succulents, perennials, and soft grasses and installing a Mexican beach pebble mulch. This allowed me to cap some of the irrigation. If we experience a repeat of the last 3 years’ water rationing, we’ll be ready with plants that love the heat and humidity, but don’t mind drying out periodically.

3) Does it look good? All the TIME? I enjoy putting out annuals for seasonal color. Since we don’t have a lot of big seasonal changes in South-east Texas, annual color lets me fake-it-till-it-makes-it. While we have tons of great warm season perennials and some plants that will bloom year-round in years we have no freezing weather, I enjoy my mums in fall, johnny-jump-ups in winter, daffodils for spring. Yes, all of these will probably make it all year, but I don’t want to let them go into the off-season on my time, making brown yuk the highlight of my landscape. Color pots are the answer for my front entry. By putting evergreens as the base planting, I can pop a pot into the scene and WHOLLA! seasonal interest! It also allows me to shift the pot of gross looking but still living plants to a side area and bring out the new seasonal container. (See how I do it HERE.)

Follow these 3 rules for the entry and your plant pallet dwindles down to a manageable decision. Now the backyard is a different subject all together, ’cause RULES? We don’t need no stinkin’ RULES! We’ll head to the backyard soon, so stay tuned.

Instead of filling a tall pot with soil, elevate a smaller one inside with bricks.

Instead of filling a tall pot with soil, elevate a smaller one inside with bricks.

Wild about Wildflowers, Part 1

Bluebells at Denver Botanic Gardens, where it’s hard to find the ice cream but easy to find the flower.

This week I had great fun with the Ft. Bend Master Gardeners in Rosenberg, Texas. They wanted to hear about one of my plant passions: wildflowers. (I’m sharing a list of my favorite wildflowers at the end of this post, plus a FREE BOOK for a lucky winner!)

Many Americans alive today were not around to remember when wildflowers were called “weeds.” That transformation in thought is a recent developement. (RECENT if you are an old fart, like me.) The Beautification Act of 1965, championed by then 1st lady-Lady Bird Johnson, brought much deserved appreciation for our natural beauties. (Okay, I wasn’t in school yet when LBJ was president, so maybe I’m not THAT old.)

The entry sign at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX.

The entry sign at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX. For more info on the childhood of Lady Bird Johnson, read MISS LADY BIRD’S WILDFLOWERS, by Kathi Appelt with art from Joy Fisher Hein, illustrator of my book, BLOOMIN’ TALES.

For many years, our native wildflowers were sought after as foreign favorites, proven to be hardy additions to European gardens. A prophet in his own land, right? Mrs. Johnson’s love for her Texas roots – and the attached flowers – bloomed into a determination that her fellow Americans were missing the boat. Or at least the wheelbarrow.

So what is a wildflower? “A flower not intentionally planted or seeded,” says Wikipedia. How is that different from a weed? Maybe it’s not. A new friend from Ft. Bend Master Gardeners (thanks, Vic!) says “a weed is a plant that no one has discovered a use for yet.” In my experience, a weed could be a misunderstood wildflower. It’s often a plant that happened to take hold in a spot where it’s unwanted. A wildflower in a flower bed might be okay, but that same plant in the lawn is considered a weed. Why do they seem to thrive in the lawn instead of the well-tended garden? Because most prefer a depleted soil. We take too good of care of them, in other words.

There’s some disagreement on whether a plant should be indigenous to an area to be truly considered a wildflower. Insects, animals, and birds probably prefer dining on natives over foreign plants. Most of us are leery of unknown foods, right? In my book, an INVASIVE plant is always a WEED. Intent on crowding out our native plants, gorgeous flowers lull us into a stupor as they plot to take over the world.

Weed or wildflower, here are 10 of my favorites. Next week I’ll share 10 more easy-to-grow wildflowers.

I’d also like to hear and see some of your favorite wildflowers. Share your wildflower stories and shots with me as a comment here to be in the running for a FREE copy of my children’s book BLOOMIN’ TALES, full of legends telling how some of our wildflowers got their names. And if you are in the Austin area next weekend, the illustrator -Joy Hein- and I will be signing copies on Saturday, April 27th, from 1-4 in the Wildflower Center’s bookstore.

  • fragrant aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium)
  • beauty berry (Callicarpa americana)
  • beebalm (Monarda spp.)
  • blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum)
  • bluebells (Eustoma exaltatum)
  • blue sage (Salvia farinacea) (Salvia x ‘Indigo Spires’)
  • butterfly weed (Aeslepias tuberosa)
  • cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
  • Hinkley’s columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha var. hinkleyana)
  • purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Want a FREE book?

Bloomin' Tales comes in a special TEXAS edition, too!

Bloomin’ Tales comes in a special TEXAS edition, too!

Head to my author FaceBook page if you want a copy of one of my books. Gus will do the drawing later today, so you better hurry!

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