The Arch City Gardener

Journeys In St. Louis Gardening and Beyond


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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.


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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.

 


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New Addition: Paperbark Maple

paperbark by patioI love it when a plant is described as a “solution.” But that’s not what led me to select and plant Acer griseum, commonly called a paperbark maple due to its distinguising feature of peeling bark. T

No, I chose this tree because my yard is small and I wanted a smallish tree that would give more of an enveloping feeling to the space at the patio’s edge. We all know site selection is important when buying plants, and I’d say it’s very important when buying trees. They’re expensive and not easy to rip out like, say, daylilies or other type of perennial.

paperbark maple2So I considered not just my need for a more cozy spot, but also the fact that the site gets mostly full sun, is made of clay soil and I wanted to reduce the step down from the patio to the yard. Beyond these technical considerations, I wanted a tree that provides fall or winter interest. Winter is St. Louis is dreary. I like looking out something beyond a gray landscape. So far, additions of a drawf blue spruce (looks awesome in snow!) and winterberry have helped establish more four-season interest.

Paperbark maple site prep

Here’s a “before” photo. We had lots of rain this spring so there was a considerable lag time from when I bought the tree and when the landscaper could plant it. I prepped the site by killing the grass with glyphosate.

paperbark install2I’ve thought long and hard about what I wanted in this spot. Maybe an attractive shrub row with great fall interest, such as burning bush (euonymus alatus), or a tree that would provide dappled light, like river birch (betula nigra). I love the peeling bark of river birch, but I don’t care for its leaves all that much. A row of shrubs would obscure my view of my shade garden and would be too much of a repetition in size; I already have several shrubs of similar height. Oh, and I like clumping or multi-stemmed trunks.

peeling bark mapleOf course, I did lots and lots of online research and visited my favorite nurseries and the Missouri Botanical Gardens once or twice to look at trees I that interested me. By the way, MoBot has a wonderful plant finder tool on its web site. This is what a came across when I did a search for paperbark maple:

Attaining a height of 20 to 30′, paperbark maple is an excellent choice for small properties. This slowgrowing tree features beautiful peeling cinnamon to reddish brown bark and trifoliate leaves that turn red in fall. Its two-winged seeds tend to be infertile and will not produce as many unwanted seedlings in lawns as other maples.

Other pages on the MoBot web site describe the tree as a great choice for clay soil. Problem solved. The tree is larger than I can manage so a local landscaper planted it for me this spring. If I have one regret, it’s that the paperbark is a slow grower. It’s going to take a few years for it to fill in and lend that enveloping feeling I’m seeking. But all things considered, I would definately describe this tree as a “solution.”


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Yes, You Can Tame Godzilla

DSCN4735OMG! My oakleaf hydrangea has gone C-R-A-Z-Y. I’ll be the first to tell you that I love a spiller/thriller of a plant–be it a potted wonder filled to the brim or a shrub. Bring it on is my motto.DSCN4737But this is ridiculous. My “Alice” oakleaf is on steroids. I. Kid.You. Not. She spilled her pendulous blooms across the sidwalk making it nearly impossible to get the mower out of the garage. And her dinner plate-sized leaves are a wonder to observe. Seriously! Is this plant prehistoric? Not to mention the blooms which were easily a foot long, and I am not exaggerating one tiny bit.

Alice needed a haircut, no two ways about it. So in the heat and humidity of a July summer day, I grabbed the shears and commenced to trimming. Several minutes later Alice was tamed and, voila!, I created 8 weeks worth of material for “In a Vase on Monday.”

For some truly inspiring cut flower vase arrangements visit Cathy at Rambling in the Garden and John at A Walk in the Garden. Their weekly vases are worth a peek.

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The Beauty of Garden Accents

happy leaf manJuly has been a splendid month. Very hot, very humid but full of travel, fun and frivolity. Isn’t that what summer is supposed to be about? I’ve left the garden to its own devices and have been welcomed back by a host of new bloomers–panicled hydrangeas, black eyed Susans, Joe pye weed, pink roses, daisies and zinnias, even as the voles continue their vicious attacks.

Wind chimesA 4th of July visit to my sister in San Antonio is what has inspired this post. Mornings were spent lounging on her tree-covered patio, coffee mugs and i-Pads for news in hand, interspersed with lots and lots of sister talk. Surrounded by Susan’s lush plantings, pond, and all sorts of of garden ornamentia my thoughts were naturally led to garden art.

Susan's fence planter

Beaded strings of whimsy hang from a succulent basket in my sister’s San Antonio garden.

 

Stone birds

Ribbon grass, now mature, provides a backdrop for the stone bird post.

I love garden accents. They provide a punctuation mark, whimsy or a much needed pause to the garden. Garden accents can take the form of some serious statuary or be as delicate as a glass wind chime. Big or small, I believe such accents give the viewer information about the garden and, more importantly, the gardener.

Fence hanging

I often buy garden accents as gifts. Sometimes they don’t make it to their intended recipients, as is the case for this blue glass bead dangler.

As my backyard playground progresses, I’ve slowly added small pieces to the yard, mainly to begin to fill in blank spaces in garden beds or to visually fill up the vertical void on the large fences. I like more natural and organic materials, such as unpolished stone, woods and rusted metals. And I love hearing the metal tones of chimes in the wind.

 

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A mermaid marks the garden and memories of many trips to the beach and exotic islands.

Travels provide a great excuse to buy a little something for the garden. I bought this smiling leaf bird feeder during one of my travels. It reminds me of the trip I took and the cute garden shop I visited. Conversely, travels often inspire a local purchase. I like mermaids because they remind me of wonderful island trips I’ve taken; I bought a metal mermaid at a local art fair.

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This metal plant stand used to live at a resale shop that was going out of business. 

clematis amillaryGarden ornaments also fulfill a function. They provide a structure for climbing plants, a resting spot for birds or even a stand for plants. The small armillary sphere in my raised garden bed has been a good climbing structure for the young clematis I planted last summer. Form can meet function and be artful at the same time. One of my friends created a beautiful privacy screen with custom-designed panels.EmilyDSCN4839The plant stand  above (a sundial base, really) has held containers full of caladiums, a basketful of fern and now an armillary sphere. But I placed it here to provide a focal point to the astilbe that surround its base and to fill up the fence line.Stars on treeI’ve also repurposed objects d’art for the garden. A swag of wooden stars originally used for a Christmas mantle display has been repurposed to dangle from a tree. It was getting zero use sitting on a shelf in the garage, now I enjoy it whenever I am out on the patio. I also found a couple of pieces of rusiting tin ceiling tiles at a resale shop that I’ve put to good use on the fence. I think they provide a whole lot of look for the $3 I spent on each piece. In the spring, my neighbor’s bright honeysuckle is a pretty contrast with the rusting metal.Rusted ceiling tileHow do you accent your garden?