In my part of the world we crave blue hydrangeas. We try to change the pH of our soil to coax anything vaguely resembling blue from a hydrangea prone to blue flowers. One year I had a bit of success and celebrated when a half-pink, half-light blue flower showed up on my Nikko blue hydrangea. I think we raised a raise to toast it.

So pardon me if I get a little miffed that in some places it is so easy to produce amazing blue hydrangea blooms that they act like it's no big deal.

Like this lacecap variety (I hope it looks blue; I was trying to do photoshop on my iPad, mostly unsuccessfully).

Where did I find that? Oh just along the side of a busy roadway.

And then there's this:

All those blooms just hanging out in the parking lot. Just because it's a little raised planting box that keeps people from parking their Mercedes on the deck of a yacht doesn't mean they have to throw it in our faces.

Or this lowly planting, jammed in the corner of the parking lot at the hotel.

Oh yeah? Well those geraniums look like crap. So there. See what I've been reduced to? Geranium bashing. How sad.

(Filed from a quick trip to Newport, Rhode Island, where I had to take a whirlwind work trip this week. Just because they happen to have amazing seafood and world-class sailing doesn't mean they should get blue hydrangeas too.)

Wanted: A good old-fashioned rainstorm

I know that many of you in the south and central parts of the country are very familiar with droughts, but it's a new thing to me. Obviously we've gone long stretches without rain, but that's usually in August. Never before have I seen this area so in need of water.

I've been adapting to situation fairly well for a person who is not overly fond of watering. I've purchased five or six new soaker hoses as I'm finding them to be one of the only ways to efficiently water a relatively large space. The air is so dry that some of my fancier sprinklers seem to be even more inefficient than usual. The ground barely seems damp after an hour of spray.

Soaker hoses of all varieties are all over the garden. The lucky plants are the ones that get a direct pass.

I've tried to adopt a watering schedule, which is so unlike me. My goal is to give every area of the garden a good soaking at least once a week. That means setting the timer for the maximum time of two hours and maybe even throwing on another hour beyond that. I'm spot watering new plantings as my sandy soil is already a difficult place for a plant to establish itself, much less when that soil is bone dry. And I'm watering the vegetable garden about three times a week, again with a soaker hose.

We planted six new trees and three huge viburnums this spring, and the timing really couldn't be worse. I try to put the bubbler soaker on each of them at least 45 minutes each week, but I'll be honest, they are last on the list, which is really backwards thinking on my part.

More soaker hoses around new plantings. 
We have two hose spigots but only one well pump (thank goodness we're on a well, I feel bad for the people who pay for city water right now) so neither hose works very well if they are both running at the same time.

Plants are definitely showing signs of stress. The witch hazel is getting curly brown leaves. The day lilies are getting yellow leaves. The new apple tree is definitely struggling. Anything that is still in a pot must be watered at least daily.

The witch hazel is just one plant showing signs of stress that I wouldn't normally be seeing this time of year.
An unexpected additional challenge caused by the drought is the amount of insect damage the garden is enduring. I've only seen aphids once before, and that was last year when a new rose came home from the nursery with them. This year I've been finding them everywhere. The William Baffin rose had a lot of green aphids on it several weeks ago and heliopsis 'Loraine Sunshine' as been absolutely covered in red (or brown?) aphids of all sizes. I used a washcloth soaked in soapy water to gently remove them from the rose (they usually seem to end up on the buds). I used the same technique on the heliopsis after repeated sprays with the hose didn't seem to be solving the problem. I found only one ladybug enjoying the feast. There were enough aphids for a cruise ship full of hungry ladybugs. Two things are going on, I think: rain normally washes off a lot of insects and since we've had none, they are hanging out much more than normal, and the bugs are just as desperate for water so they are sucking moisture out of everything they can. And even grosser than that, was what I found on the underside of the soaker hose after an hour of running it: thousands of mini slugs. The thing was just covered in them. I don't know if I have a huge slug population, or if they are so desperate for moisture they just all went to the soaker hose, but I'm going to have to do something about it.

There is one thing I could do that would greatly help with the lack of water here: mulch. I know I should, now more than ever. But I hate mulching. I hate everything about it, except how the garden looks when it's all done. Buying it by the bag is expensive and wasteful, buying it in bulk means I'll have a mulch mountain in my driveway for two or three weeks while I spread it all. Plus, several years ago I set myself up on an every-other-year schedule for mulching and composting. The plan was to mulch one year then spread a 1- or 2-inch-thick layer of compost across the garden the next year. And I did that for a total of about four years. But the fact of the matter is that I hate spreading stuff in the garden. The garden, though, is suffering and it needs to be done, and either would help with the moisture. Anyone want to come help? I'll provide the cocktails. Oh, and bring a hose ... we're gonna need it.

Charmed, I'm sure

This year, like the past two, I've received a box of plants from Proven Winners to grow as part of their garden writers program. Most of them are varieties that won't be available until next year and it's always fun to give them a trial run. You'll be hearing about more of them as I go into more depth about how I planted my containers this year, but I had to show you one of them.

It's interesting to me. Every year I open the box and get so excited to see all the plants. Some are more exciting to me, and others are more of a well, I'll give it a shot and see what happens. I had the latter reaction to Supertunia Watermelon Charm. I'm sort of ambivalent about petunias to begin with and the "Charm" series have smaller flowers than most petunias.

I planted watermelon charm in the big pot by the front door with coleus, sweet potato vine and papyrus 'King Tut.' It's strange, even though we've had excellent weather (other than the drought, but that doesn't affect containers too much as I'm watering them practically every day anyway), everything seems to be a little slow in getting up to size. So nothing is looking very spectacular yet. Then the other day, seemingly out of the blue, I turned around and Watermelon Charm looked like this:

Note to self: Cut off the floppy King Tut stem. They never stand back up again so if they flop or bend, the only thing you can do is snip them off. Don't worry, there will be plenty to take its place.

She's absolutely awash in hot pink/reddish (the color is very accurately described by the name) blooms that certainly draw your attention. My annual garden awards will wait until fall, but I have to say, Watermelon Charm is getting the "Best out of the gate" award.

In other exciting news:
1. It rained both Sunday morning and Monday morning. Not enough to undo all the damage that has been done by the drought here, but any little bit helps. It allowed me to take a day off from dragging hoses around. I'm trying to give everything a thorough, deep watering once a week, but even with that schedule I'm always watering something.

2. I'm very humbled to be the featured blogger on the Birds and Blooms website. I'm in pretty amazing company there as past featured bloggers have included the amazing Margaret Roach and Gayla Trail from You Grow Girl as well as many other great gardeners (and bloggers). Check it out (and please, somebody take a picture of me standing in the actual garden).

Clematis in bloom

The group 2 clematis are starting to wind down their blooming party, making way for the group 3s, which are starting to think about putting some buds on.

You saw the picture of one of the Guernsey Creams showing off its colors against a Japanese painted fern, and I missed taking a picture of the best showing of Mrs. N. Thompson, the gaudy lady who bloomed like crazy on the front of the house this year.

She's looking a little faded in this photo, but the 'CanCan' climbing rose is coming into its own in only its second year in this spot. All in all, it's bit of a riot of color with those two, but the all-white house needs a bit of that.

A few steps to the left, Ken Donson is blooming like crazy in the middle of the circle garden. I did a lighter than usual pruning on him this year, and I think that helped quite a bit. He's still holding his own against the William Baffin climbing rose, but I guess I've giving up on having those two bloom at the same time. If you look closely you can see the rose buds are just starting to show color.

And around the corner, in a spot that is shadier than I anticipated, this clemtis is doing an excellent job climbing up the piece of driftwood I stuck in the garden. I think this is either Niobe or Bourbon, but I'm not sure which. Either way, I'm loving the way it looks against the driftwood.

More clematis to come, I'm sure. I can't wait for Princess Diana and Recta Pamela to start showing off their stuff.

The apple tree in my garden

A couple weekends ago I planted an apple tree in my garden. Yep, a real, live apple tree, smack dab in the middle of my "main" garden right off the patio. It's a gala, to be exact.

Before you go thinking that the lack of water around here has obviously dehydrated my brain along with our soil, let me explain a little further. This winter I went to an all-day gardening seminar hosted by the local garden club. They had some great speakers, including Richard Hawke, the plant evaluation manager for the Chicago Botanic Garden (read more about his picks for top perennials here), and they had a raffle for a dwarf mini apple tree. Lucky me, I won!

The tree was grafted by a member of the garden club who is really into grafting fruit trees and he was nice enough to deliver it to my house and give me more information about it. It's about two years old and will start setting fruit next year or the year after that. He grafted it and has been training the branches since he started it. It's probably 3 feet tall right now and will top out at 5 feet, hence why I gave it a position of prominence (in a nice sunny spot) in the main garden.

Right now it's dwarfed by the daylilies behind it, but I think in a few years this dwarf mini gala apple tree will be a unique addition to the garden.
I'll be honest, it's a fairly underwhelming looking plant right now, and it's definitely been stressed by the drought we're in (I'm trying to stay on top of the watering, but when everything needs watering, not everything gets watered as much as it should), but I think it's a tough little tree. It won't produce enough fruit to fill our fridge with apples, but it will produce some, and really, it's more for fun than anything. 

2012 Containers

I have a little obsession with container gardening. I don't know what it is about container gardening that gets me so fired up, but I can say that it my favorite thing to do in the garden. It might be because it allows for a lot of creativity, but I think it's because it appeals to my impatient nature. In the garden you have to wait for years for plantings to develop. It takes just a few weeks for a container to reach its full potential.

I'm sure that a professional container designer would shudder at the complete lack of coordination among my pots, but I can't help it. There is no way I could limit myself to just one palette when there are so many great combinations to be made. 

I also find this time just after planting to be a difficult time. When you look at container designs in magazines they are always shown at their peak, but of course, it takes some time to get there, so containers are always a little disappointing in the beginning I think. Still, it helps to take pictures at different stages to see how they develop.

Following are a few pictures of what I planted this year. I'll go into more detail on the contents in each when I post updated pictures in a couple weeks.


The window box is a constant challenge for me. It might be my favorite container to create, but every year it seems to be just a little off. Two years ago I felt like it was lacking height. Last year I felt like it needed some help in the texture department. I feel like I addressed those concerns this year, but now I have concerns about the color scheme. I was envisioning blue and yellow, but true blue is a tough color to find and I feel like it ended up decidedly purple and yellow, which is not a color combination I'm particularly fond of. Well see how it turns out. It will be much more pleasing when everything starts spilling out the front.



The big container by the front door never looks like much when it's first planted. I did Papyrus 'King Tut' in the center again as I have the last two years and added coleus and sweet potato vines. Right now there is only one flower in the container, a dark pink supertunia. I may add more flowers, perhaps zinnias, to this later if it looks sparse. The skinny blue container has the 'Blue Mohawk' grass I overwintered in it last year. I'm interested to see how it comes back as the ones in my garden did great. I need to add another pot to this spot so there are three.



This might be the first time I've ever repeated a container combination, but I really liked the combination of Superbells 'Cherry Star' and Nemesia 'Sunsatia Lemon' so I used it again this year.



In general I go for brightly colored containers, but I went with soft pastels for the container in center of the garden off the patio. The large glazed ceramic pot that usually lives there took a bad fall this winter and broke into a million pieces so I'm using the elongated urn that held our Christmas tree this winter. It's perhaps a bit formal for the garden, but this whole color scheme is a departure so why not go all the way?



I have three more utilitarian containers at the base of the stairs to the back door. The terra-cotta pot has basil, the blue pot has mint and the black plastic nursery pot is Hudson's tomato. Yes, you read that right. My dog has his own tomato. He loves tomatoes and when we had the tomatoes planted in the circle garden he was constantly snitching them before we could get to them and he never picked them before they were ripe. Then last year we noticed that he kept running to one of the gardening when he went outside and lo and behold, we found that he had "planted" his very own volunteer tomato the year before, presumably by eating one there and sowing a few seeds (undoubtedly encased in Newfie drool). Hudson will be 9 this year and we figured that when you get to a certain age you deserve your own tomato, so this is his. It's an heirloom bush beefsteak that is supposed to top out at 3 feet. I'll be interested to see how it does in the container.


The new containers this year are the two I added to the deck, one by each pergola post (the other is hiding behind this one). I had a hard time finding the right containers, but I'm really happy with these white fiberglass pots. Because I didn't want to permanently affix a trellis to the pergola posts, I just rigged up some white string from the top of the post down to a dowel that I jammed into the soil in the pot and so far it seems to be working pretty well.



This color combination is really gaudy and I'm loving it. I'm excited to see how this one looks in a couple weeks. I think I'm going to like it.



And now the hard part comes … waiting for them all to fill in.

A gardener's dream shopping spree

Thanks for your patience with the minimal amount of posts last week. When I'm writing at work I'm so engrossed in it that I have a really hard time writing about anything else simultaneously.

So I need to bring you up to date on what was maybe the best shopping trip ever. I've mentioned Klehm's Song Sparrow Nursery before as one of my favorite go-to mail order nurseries. It turns out that once a year they open up the nursery to garden clubs and groups for tours and, best of all, shopping.

My friend Linda over at Each Little World went a couple years ago and I've been envious of that trip ever since, so when the opportunity arose this year I knew I wouldn't miss it. We had a pretty large group from the local garden club amassed for the trip but it quickly dwindled to just three people after the rest of the group found out it was a two-hour drive each way and the forecast was for a beautiful day to be working in the garden. So in the end, just my mom, my sister-in-law and I went.

Before I go on, I should tell you that you really should read Linda's post about their trip to Klehm's because she was smart and had her talented husband Mark take pictures while she shopped. I had every intention to take lots of pictures but I was having way too much fun picking through the hoop houses and forgot to take many pictures.

It was so much fun digging through the hoop houses. We had all brought our list of things we wanted to pick up but as we suspected we would, we also all went off the list a bit too. They had such a nice set-up where they had big boxes in between the hoop houses that you put your plants in after writing your name on the box. Then when you were done they took the boxes up to the main building to check out.

A very nice Klehm's employee carting some of our boxes to the building.

A gorgeous pagoda dogwood that was in another person's box. That's my mom's hand fondling it. Now we know where my propensity for feeling up plants comes from.

I think we probably spent about two hours looking through everything and could have spent much more but I think we had all blown our budgets by that point.  It was amazing to peek in other people's boxes to see what treasures they had found.

Klehm's is known for its peonies and they had several hoop houses full of tree peonies that were absolutely huge. Much larger than the two I have been growing in my garden for the last three years or so. Alas, I wasn't in the market for a tree peony so they had to stay put.

Klehm's staff was stationed everywhere so they were always there to answer questions. It was funny to watch my mom ask a very helpful gentleman some questions about hostas. She had no idea she was talking to Roy Klehm, who is a well-known hosta breeder and certainly one of the country's experts on hostas.
Roy Klehm checking out some of the boxes.

We had to ask another employee (whose name escapes me now which is too bad because she was so sweet) about a shrub we found in one hoop house that none of us were familiar with. Orixa Japonica had beautifully shiny green leaves that smelled like lime when you crushed them. My sister-in-law who has the unfortunate circumstance to be destined to a life of gardening in the shade, had a little plantgasm when the helpful employee (Melissa? Melinda?) told us it grew in shade. All three of us added one to our boxes.

We checked out and piled all our purchases in the back of my car, which was no small feat even though I have a relatively big mini-SUV type thing. As we were making one last bathroom stop before we pulled out, my sister-in-law thanked Roy Klehm in a way I'm pretty sure no one else did: she gave him a cigarette as he eyed hers with a look of envy. As we pulled out, we saw him sneaking around the building to enjoy his treat in peace. It's OK, Roy, you earned it!

Here are a few of the things I picked up (I also grabbed two really cool geraniums that didn't make the photo reel):
Chamaecyparis 'Dainty Doll' (OK, it's itty bitty now, but it's SO cute, I couldn't resist.)
Acer palmatum 'Mikawa Yatsubusa' (Linda also has this Japanese maple so I must have been inspired by her.)

Acer palmatum 'Mikawa Yatsubusa'
Cornus alternifolium 'Golden Shadows' (I love this dogwood ... so much that this is my second one.)

Orixa japonica

Close-up of Orixa japonica

Cornus alternifolium 'Golden Shadows' (This is my second try on this one. I killed the first one when I tried to transplant it.)