The Arch City Gardener

Journeys In St. Louis Gardening and Beyond

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Late October in the Garden

dscn5211It’s hurry up time in my St. Louis garden–the last-gasp of nice-weather season before winter’s chill firmly camps out at the door. At least that is what the October calendar here usually means; this year, I am not so certain. Our temperatures have been very, very warm. Today we are just below 80 F.  My sweaters are mostly tucked away, coats still in the closet and my garden flowers still abloom. Not to mention the frenzy of peppers tirelessly produced from one “Sweet Sunset” plant.


I’ve been busy moving plants around such as my zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’), ground covers and some perennials. This is the second time this year I moved the zebra grass. The first time I moved it from the back of the garden bed to the front in the spring because it was not getting enough sun. Problem solved, maybe too much as the plant seemed to triple in size and I no longer liked the visual balance in the bed. The grass became too overwhelming in its front-and-center spot.

As I planned undertaking the endeavor to move it a second time, I remembered Jason’s Garden in a City post and the resulting comments about the major chore dividing grasses and moving grasses can be. I must say, the comments gave me pause. So I made sure to water the grass thoroughly a few days before to get the soil good and moist.


The grass in the front is actually in the center of this bed.


The zebra grass, now at the end of the bed, has better visual balance and still gets plenty of sun. The grass had been in the foreground to the left of the pavers that bisect this bed.


Removal was not nearly as bad as I had imagined, probably because the grass had only been in place one season. Ensuring the soil was moist also really helped. Fortunately the rain gods have been generous and provided a little more than 1 inch of rain last week to help quench the thirsty beds–my rain barrels were depleted–and keep moist the newly relocated plants.

I’ve also taken advantage of our mild weather to fill in bare spots in several areas with with creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) and relocate a “Karl Foerster” feather reed grass (calamagrostis x acutiflora) from my raised bed in the back to a spot front by the garage. I’m hopeful the grass will artfully cover the downspout it sits in front of.


A mound of creeping jenny (with some thyme interspersed) is plenty to redistribute throughout my beds for ground cover.


Individual stems and their roots are gently planted into the soil and kept moist.

I was really hoping the Karl Foerster grass would take off in the raised bed. It is was of two plants I put that bed along the fence, with the hopes of providing height to cover the fence. One took off and the other, well, not so much. Turns out the shade from a nearby tree was stunting its growth.


The full effect of the ground cover and reed grass.

I have pulled out the scraggly petunias, cut the blooms from the zinnias (a tireless bloomer), pulled out the peppers and done some general clean up. Before long the trees will change their colors, drop their leaves, and I’ll be longing for spring again. Until then, I will enjoy nature’s autumnal palette.



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Rain Barrel Update

img_2389Regular readers will recall that I installed two 50-gallon barrels in May. Except for a week or so in June, they have been full and I’ve been able to limit my water use in the garden.

We’ve had plenty of rain in St. Louis this summer, which doesn’t represent a typical summer for the rain barrels.So far this month 5.21 inches of rain has fallen in the metropolitan area. Typical August rainfall is 2.99 inches. July rains filled the rainbarrels to overflowing when we received 8.37 inches, slightly more than double the monthly average of 4.11 inches. And June rains of just 1.29 inches put the barrels to work, and I drained them watering the pots and garden beds.

DSCN5158Overall, I’m enjoying them. I think in a typical summer, I would be supplementing with the hose much more than I have this year. When I water, I simulatenously fill both a bucket and watering can. Because the water pressure in the barrel is limited, containers are a little slower to fill. I rely on the hose when I’m either too lazy to wait for my containers to fill up or I’m in a hurry.I have no doubt, though that I have saved water. Strange to say, but I actually look forward to receiving my summer water bill to see how much I have saved versus last year.img_2387I’ve attached a short hose with a spray attachment to one of the barrels, but, again, there is not enough pressure for the spray attachment. As you can see below, debris from the roof runoff collects in the top of the barrel. This can clog a small overflow hole near the top, so I keep a small stick handy (kabob skewer works well too) to unclog the hole so that standing water doesn’t attract mosquitos.DSCN4376

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Building Garden Interest with Texture

DSCN4963The elements of texture and form, shape and garden occupy my thoughts more and more as I add plants and the garden matures. I really like the textures of plants in the shade bed, but the main bed along my patio is starting to look a bit messy. I’m not sure if it’s because the dwarf blue spruce is so slow to grow unlike the grasses, which are getting very big and therefore the balance is off, or because there are so many spillers in the garden and that’s creating some visual chaos. Either way, I’m exploring the themes of texture, balance and color as I consider moving things around next year.WWW Cacophony3I never thought much about texture until I started gardening. Texture creates interest and interplay among plants. In the world of texture, contrast seems to be key, and there are a couple of ways to achieve texture in garden design.

  1. Placing plants with contrasting leaf shapes near each other.
  2. Placing plants with contrasting bloom shapes near each other.

Properly combine fine, medium and coarsely textured plants in the garden and you’ll get visual interest. Too much texture and you can end up with visual chaos. And there’s both tactile and visual textures to consider.Yikes. (When I initially started planning my gardens, this overwhelmed me, not to mention other considerations of size, shape and color.)DSCN4968Most plants have medium texture. I typically use coarse and fine textured plants as a great way to achieve accents.Then I try and spice things up through complementary or contrasting colors of plants. The finely textured leaves from Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) complement the medium-textured leaves of rudbeckia. The bloom shapes from all three are small, medium and large. And the grayish-green Russian sage also provides a color contrast to the green of the other plants. DSCN4976Proper texture pairings provide lots of interest and result in pleasing vignettes. This is not as simple as you might imagine. It’s probably one reason why gardeners move plants around year after year.

Balance combines with texture and creates unity. I like the balance in my shade bed, achieved by repeating astilbe, hosta, fern and Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa) throughout its linear shape. The  astilbe’s bottle brush-shaped bloom lends coarse texture in contrast to the smooth leaves of the Japanese forest grass. Visual interest if further achieved through contrasts in color and leaf shape.

In the combination below a trifecta of color, shape and texture unite to create a pleasing vignette at the Missouri Botanical Garden. The coarse brown center of the yellow rudbeckia and the soft, finely textured brown plume from an ornamental millet pair up, as do the daisy-like petal shape and the contrasting shape of the brown plume. And last but not least, brown and yellow make a complementing color contrast. bes and milletWith so many varieties, succulents are a great way to add texture to a container. Soft rosette shapes combine with coarse texture, and the grayish hues of all the plants create color harmony in a succulent display at the Toronto Botanical Garden last summer. I love the fuzzy texture of the echeveria next to the crassula princess pine.DSCN2996 (1280x960)How important is texture in your garden? And what plants are you incorporating for textural variety?



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Buggy for Milkweed

DSCN1964 (1024x768)As August wends its way toward September, the late summer garden is in tempo: seed pods adorn plants, annuals spit forth bright summer bloom, leaves begin to turn, a bit, and the garden seems drier, even though we’ve had rain. Even our temperatures have slackened.

It’s milkweed pod season. I’d noticed a couple of pods on the plant in the large pot on the patio and had examined it looking for catepillars. I’m seeing more butterflies, so I was surprised and a bit startled when I saw one of the pods encircled with an army of brilliant orange-red insects.

What are these tiny bugs?DSCN5058Here’s a closer look.DSCN5062Clearly,they are feeding on the pod. Here’s an even closer look.DSCN5061This evening, I checked in on them. They have a friend! Is this guy eating the insects or enjoying the pod? Is the plant in danger? My research leads me to believe that all of the insects are feeding on the pod, and the large insect is an adult version of the very small insects, which are nymphs, and they are all called very simply milkweed bugs, or oncopeltus fasciatus for those who prefer technical terms.

DSCN5145They dine on the sap of the pod as well as the seeds. Some sites suggest removing them with a paper towel so as ensure seeds for scattering. I don’t think I will follow this advice. Milkweed isn’t just for monarchs, and I’m enjoying watching the milkweed bugs.


More About Ferns

Ostrich fern fertile frondI love ferns. Growing up we always had fern as a houseplant or in a garden bed. A graceful Boston fern hung from the window in the kitchen. My mom would mist it regularly, occasionally split it when it outgrew its pot, and adorn it with a red cardinal to show her support for our beloved basedball team, the St. Louis Cardinals. When she died, a lovely Boston fern was sent to the funeral home and I tended it for many years.

While I no longer grow houseplant ferns, ostrich fern (matteuccia struthiopteris) and senstive fern (onoclea sensibilis) have prominence as a backdrop in my shade garden along my south fence. At first, I was a bit apprehensive about growing ferns. I thought they were finnicky and had to have just the right conditions. While that is true in part (isn’t that true for most plants?), I’ve overcome that apprehension and clearly ferns and I have found garden joy. With nearly 12,000 species of ferns worldwide, there’s probably a fern or two that could work in your environment.fernIIIA couple of years before I put in the shade bed, I bought a couple of ostrich ferns and put them in to see how they would do. One quickly withered and turned brown while the other barely clung to  life. I visited the nursery, asked what was up and was told I probably planted them too deep. They like to be planted very shallow and I was instructed to dig up the fern and replant it. “I’m pretty sure it’s dead,” I told nursery pro. Don’t worry about it, she reassured, this type of fern is really hardy.

She was right.

Year after year, the arrival of pansies at the nursery signaled to me the onset of spring. Not any more. The emergence of a tightly wound fiddlehead tells me spring is on its way. The fiddlehead grows as a response to light.Fern tight fiddleheadEarly spring mornings find me running out before work, coffee in hand, to inspect the progress of the fiddleheads. Throughout the growing season, my ferns send out new fiddleheads, which gracefully become a frond supported on a stipe.frond to fernA frond is made up of several leaflets, or pinna and the stipe. And a pinnule is a subleaflet of a pinna. Then there is the blade, which is the expanded leafy part of the frond. The roots of the fern grow on the stipe, which is below the blade. Looking at the photo above you can get the general gist of a fern’s anatomy.

fernII (1280x960)Ferns reproduce through spores; their fronds are sterile. As summer nears its exit spores grow on the ferns. This is as detailed as I am going to get on the reproductive cycle of the fern. This is a G-rated site, after all. However, you might notice that the underside of a frond has brown dots along the pinna, or leaf. These spore-filled dots are called sori and contain thousands of spores. Neither the sensitive nor the ostrich fern grow spores on the underside of their blades. Instead, they produce what is known as a fertile frond. DSCN5016The beaded fertile fronds will eventually turn a cinnamon brown on the senstive fern. I think these dense clusters that make up a fertile frond look somewhat prehistoric. Just like the unfurling fiddlehead, the fertile frond begins to change color in a matter of days. The pictures below were taken about 10 days apart.DSCN5019fern fertile frond close upI’m no longer concerned about the viability of ferns in my gardens. I now have them planted in three areas in the yard and they are very happy. The fern nearest the rain barrel probably gets too much sun but is vigorous nonetheless. DSCN5036Fern by rainbarrelFerns like moisture and humidity. One end of the shade bed sits in a low spot where rain may pool. I regularly mist the fronds with the garden hose and put soaker hoses in the shade bed. In a normal summer, I would water the bed deeply at least once a week. Fortunately this summer we have had plenty of both.

To learn more about ferns and their fascinating anatomy, Cornell University has an easy-to-read section on its web site.