Dreamy Dahlias: 10 Ways To Identify Your Perfect Type

A cactus dahlia blooming in my garden

Fall may be poking a tentative finger into my garden, but my dahlias still think it’s summer. Every morning I wake up to a multitude of new blooms. And, no matter how many I harvest, the next day there are still more waiting to be cut. To me, October means breakfast with an armload of fresh flowers, their brilliant, flat-tipped petals still wet with the morning dew.

My first memories of dahlias date back to the 1960s when I was a kid growing up in northern Delaware. This was a time when suburbs were still interspersed with working farms in an eclectic mix of cow pastures and neatly manicured lawns. One such farm was located at the crossroads of two suburban streets, Silverside and Faulk. In September, the portion of the property adjoining the busy corner was transformed from grassland into a field of dahlias.

And these weren’t your ordinary dahlias, mind you, many were the gigantic, dinner plate size; the kind that drives a kid mad with desire to jump out of the car just to be among them. Standing as tall as adults, they would gently sway in the breeze, tilting their giant heads in salute as we slowly motored by.

I’d crane my neck out the window and watch them until they gradually disappeared, dissolving as one into a sea of rippling colors.

Thus began my love affair with dahlias.

 

So many dahlias, so little time

Dahlias are tuberous, herbaceous perennials that are native to the tropics. They are members of the Asteraceae family. Classified as tender perennials, they may be annual or perennial, depending on what the climate is like where you live.

The flamboyant flowers are perhaps best known for their tall, celery-like stems and gigantic flowers, but they come in all kinds of sizes. These range from the very tall (around 7 feet) to just under 12 inches. There are thousands of varieties.

Dahlia flowers also range widely in size, from a diameter of around one foot to just under 2 inches. And within the different size groups, there are different flower types, each with their own classifications. These include dahlias featuring single, double and semi-double petals, those that have unusual shapes like spherical or cactus, and varieties that resemble other flowers like anemones, peonies, orchids and waterlilies.

Waterlily dahlia ‘Pam Howden’

Last but not least are the dazzling colors – a seemingly infinite variety of gorgeous pinks, reds, scarlets, oranges, purples and yellows, as well as creamy and brilliant whites. Many flower petals often come with strips or tips of another color.

So, with so many options to choose from, how to decide? One way is to get acquainted with the most commonly used classifications. These help define each dahlia’s unique shape and structure and can aid in their selection.

TEN MOST COMMON DAHLIA CLASSIFICATIONS

Single-flowered dahlias feature a single row of flat or slightly cupped ray petals surrounding a central disc.

Single-flowered dahlia

Semi-double dahlias have two or more rows of petals surrounding a central disc.

Semi-double dahlias

Mignon dahlias are similar to single dahlias except their petal florets are rounded and their disc flowers have no more than two rows.

Mignon dahlia with burgundy/black foliage

Anemone dahlias have an inner disc made up of elongated, tubular shaped florets and an outer ring of one or more rows of flat ray petals.

Anemone dahlia ‘Polka’

Orchid dahlias are open centered flowers with just one row of ray florets surrounding a disc. The petals are often overlapping and curled for most of their length.

Orchid dahlia

Collarette dahlias have one row of flat petals surrounding a disc as well as an inner wreath of shorter petals called the ‘collar’.

Collarette dahlia ‘Mary Eveline’ plum red petals with white ‘collar’

Ball and Pompon dahlias are ball-shaped and feature double flowers with rounded or blunt tipped florets. Ball dahlias have round, cupped petals that are spirally arranged in a honeycomb shape. The flower may be slightly flattened. Pompon dahlias are slightly smaller. They are known for their perfectly round flower head.

Orange ball dahlias – notice the slightly flattened shape

The perfectly round pompon dahlia ‘Franz Kafka’

Decorative dahlias are double dahlias that feature flat, oval petals with tips on the end. Formal varieties have regular, evenly placed petals, while informal varieties tend to be arranged in a more haphazard way. Both varieties grow to over 40 inches.

Decorative dahlia ‘Lisa Dark Pink’

Cactus and semi-cactus dahlias. Both have narrow pointed petals that roll back on themselves, giving them a spiky look. Cactus types are rolled for their full length, while semi cactus types include a mix of flat and rolled petals. Both are considered double flowers and reach an average height of around 40 inches.

Orange cactus dahlia

Semi-cactus dahlia ‘Aloha’

There are so many other varieties, including peony, waterlily and stellar, not to mention the celebrated ‘Dinner Plate’ which falls under numerous categories. The Miscellaneous Dahlias category alone includes hundreds of varieties.

Ready to add dahlias to your garden? (or in my case add more). Here’s how.

When to plant

Dahlias are sold as tubers. I like to plant them just around the time my tulips have faded, in well drained soil in full sun. You can also pot them up a couple weeks beforehand to give them an early start.

Considered hardy outdoors in USDA zones 8 to 10, dahlias are considered tender in my neck of the woods (Zone 6.) Once they’re done flowering in the fall (or right after the first frost), I dig them up, label them and store them in a dry spot in the basement.

Want to learn more about dahlias? Visit Longwood Gardens’ annual dahlia show, held each year in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Looking for a great place to buy tubers? Check out the beauties at Eden Brothers, one of my favorite online sources.

Dahlias were named for the 18th century Swedish botanist Anders Dahl.

 

The September Garden: How To Wind Down On A High Note

My September garden

The end of September can be a tough time for gardens. Leaves lose their deep green luster, stems start to brown and many perennials have simply lost their will to survive. Add to that the fact that the lower the sun gets in the sky, the more dull colors can appear and suddenly, the same flowers that looked so vibrant in summer begin to take on a more muted, less enthusiastic look.

Still, a September garden can hold plenty of attractions with many great plants to choose from. It just takes a little spring planning with an eye towards fall, and you can have a beautiful garden that will provide color and blooms all the way until frost.

FALL HUES

When planning your September garden, take a cue from the fall landscape and choose blooms in brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow. Even though they’re bright, these colors will look softer under a lower sun. Think dusty reds, golden yellows, tangy oranges and throw in some deep purples to add drama.

One of my garden combos, sedum, coreopsis and cranesbill geranium

And don’t forget pinks. They make a nice transition between all of the other hot colors.

Pink Japanese anenomes

Dried pink blooms of PeeGee hydrangea

TO CUT OR NOT TO CUT

There’s no right or wrong when it comes to removing dried seedheads. I leave the elegant forms of thistle, coneflower and rudbeckia to ride out the winter. Seedheads give architecture to the September garden where they pose as sculptures amongst all the fall blooms.

In September, the dried blooms of my coreopsis add color and dimension to my garden

MULCH ALWAYS MAKES THINGS LOOK BETTER

Often at this time of year, things are looking pretty straggly. Aside from pruning things back into bounds, a new layer of mulch can do wonders for a garden. Dark brown mulch acts as a clean backdrop, helping fall tones to ‘pop.’ Plus, the aroma of new mulch always speaks ‘new.’

I’m currently a big fan of mulch made from shredded leaves. I buy it locally from University of Maryland. Not only does it keep neat and hold its color, but it continually feeds and conditions the soil, making for better, longer lasting blooms.

WHAT’S GROWING IN MY GARDEN NOW

Here are some of the flowers that are still going strong in my September garden. Some of them have only just started to bloom.

Purple lisianthus

Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ (I cut mine down by half in June so it blooms in September)

Dahlias are the stars of the September garden

Dahlia ‘Aloha’

Roses love the return of cooler weather

Rosa ‘Cardinal Richelieu’

Butterfly Weed

Sweet Autumn Clematis

September planters filled with sweet alyssum and lantana

This re-blooming white iris just reappeared in my garden. The bright white seems a little shocking amongst the other warm colors, so next year I’m switching it out for purple.

White seems a little jarring this time of year

Cranesbill geranium

Smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’

For other great fall planting ideas, click here for last year’s blog post on Maryland’s beautiful Brookside Gardens.

How does your garden grow? Join the discussion and share your ideas for great blooms for September!

 

 

Ten Great Ideas For Decorating With Gourds

If you’re like me, every October, when those big boxes of ornamental gourds land at the grocery store, your mind whirls with possibilities. The cute little shapes seem to embody the essence of fall. The problem is that once you get them home, the gourds are a bit lacking somehow. Sure, they look OK on their own in a bowl, but if you really want to get creative, design-wise, you’ll need to add some key seasonal ingredients.

Where did gourds come from, anyway?

Hard-shelled gourds have been around for a very long time. Archeological specimens indicate the bottle gourd (pictured below) was being grown as a domesticated plant in the Americas as far back as 10,000 years ago. It’s still a mystery as to how the gourds got to the New World from their native Africa. But a recent study indicates they may have floated here on ocean currents.

Bottle gourds growing in a garden

Today in the United States, there are three types of gourds that are typically grown: Lagenarias, or hard shells, that are mainly used in crafts; Luffas (also spelled loofah), most commonly used as sponges and Cucurbitas, the ones we call decorative or ornamental.

Cantine variety of ornamental gourds

Ornamental gourds are a whole lot smaller than ordinary gourds. Although some people eat them, they are more commonly known for their curious forms. These include such catchy names as bottle, kettle, pear, crown of thorns, egg and the popular cantine (those little pumpkin-shaped ones.) The unusual shapes are due to the little gourds’ tendency to cross-pollinate with each other as well as with pumpkins and squash. This allows for an endless supply of design possibilities.

 

Designing with ornamental gourds: Key elements

A good plan of action before getting started on your design is to first assemble some seasonal items that will add color and interest to your arrangement. If you’re considering a dry arrangement, leaves, twigs, nuts and feathers act as great accents to gourds. Try pheasant feathers, curly willow branches, walnuts or pinecones.

Pheasant feathers

Curly willow branches at amazon.com

Pinecones add texture

Walnuts’ large size make them the perfect accompaniment to gourds

Or, you can carve out your gourds to make room for flowers, berries or vines. Try hypericum berries, orange bittersweet, purple, red or orange dahlias or yellow lilies.

Hypericum berries

Orange bittersweet

Assorted dahlias

Yellow lilies provide good color contrast

You can even add votive candles.

 

Putting it all together

Ready to get started? Here are some great sources of inspiration incorporating many of the items listed above. Click on the links for more detailed information about each idea.

1. Mini “pumpkin” and gourd wreath, Southern Living

Helen Norman for Southern Living

2. White gourds in dough bowl with cabbage and pine cones

3. Green gourd vase with red flower

4. Hollowed out gourds with votive candles

5. Purple and orange dahlias with bittersweet berries and leaves in acorn-shaped gourd vases

6. Orange and yellow gourds in a brown rustic basket

7. Minimalist sculpture with orange zinnias, flax leaf and feathery grass

8. Simply elegant: orange gourds in tall, thin vases with single branches of wild ivy

thrifttown.com

thrifttown.com

9. White gourd vase with pink gerbera daisies, magnolia leaves, mini green cantine gourds, ornamental cabbage and evergreen sprig

10. Stacked gourds in iron trellis with potted yellow mums

Happy designing!

 

 

Take The Quiz: How Well Do You Know Your Asters?

Aster Frikartii Monch

One of the many things I love about late summer are the throngs of colorful, star-shaped blooms that populate the landscape. The flowers congregate along roadsides, drift lazily across meadows and form neat combinations by houses and in town squares. Most of us are well acquainted with the yellow ones (sunflowers), but less aware that the brood also comes in shades of red, pink, purple and white. The flowers are all part of the Aster family (Asteraceae), the largest and most diverse group in the plant kingdom.

The scoop on the Aster Family

You may have noticed some of the flowers’ shared characteristics; many feature a round central disk surrounded by colorful petal rays. The Aster family is exceedingly large and numbers in the tens of thousands. According to The Plant List, there are currently 1,765 genera of flowering plants and over 27,000 known species growing in diverse climates all over the world.

Gaillardia or Indian Blanket Flower

The botanical name Asteraceae comes from the Greek ἀστήρ meaning star, a reference to the star-like shape of the flowers. But some call the family by its common name, Daisy, from the Old English meaning ‘day’s eye’ (a reference to the flowers’ petals that open at dawn.) Still others refer to the Aster family as the Compositae family, since the inflorescence is a composite of many tiny, individual flowers.

What’s special about Asteraceae is that while at first glance they make look like one flower, they are actually composed of many, all inserted on a common flower head. Of these, there are two types of flowers that may occur. Tubular, petal-less florets are found in the center of the flower disk while flat, ray-shaped florets (resembling petals) are found at the perimeter.

Zoom in on the photo and you’ll see the flowerhead is not flat, but actually made up of hundreds of tiny flowers.

Leucanthemum (daisy) displaying both tubular and ray florets

Within the family there are also several variations. Some flowers have only disk florets, others only ray, and then there are members like daisies, coneflowers, common sunflowers and asters that have both disk and rays.

Flower head of Echinops ritro, Globe Thistle, contains no petal florets

Scientists believe the highly specialized flower head, which also contains seeds and nutrients, helps the plants to store energy during periods of drought and possibly also contributes to their longevity. I know in my own experience that once established, my Aster family members like coneflower, daisy and blanket flower do indeed require little water. And certainly the roadside gardens filled with native sunflowers, daisies and asters are living proof of these flowers’ remarkable survival ability.

Of course every family has its outliers, and the Aster family has a few. These include the food crops lettuce, chicory and globe artichokes. Notice the two types of florets on the mountain lettuce below.

Mountain lettuce, Latuca perennis

Perhaps the most difficult members of the Aster Family to tell apart are the yellow ones. Superficially, many of the flowers look alike. But on closer inspection, their disk and ray flowers are all slightly different.

Take the quiz!

Below are some well-known members of the Aster family found blooming in the late summer and fall. Can you identify them? (For answers and a detailed list of these common family members, please see below.)

Answers: (from top) Coreopsis grandiflora, Golden Marguerite, Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan), Helianthus tuberosis (Jerusalem artichoke), Helenium autumnale (Common Sneezeweed), Helianthus annum (Sunflower), Heliopsis helianthoides (Smooth Oxeye), Gaillardia (Indian Blanket Flower), Arnica montana

If you’d like to add some of these beautiful flowers to your garden, or just be able to identify some more members of the family, following is a list of well-known species in the Aster family and their value in the garden.

Ornamentals

Aster

Echinacea (Coneflower)

Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan)

Cosmos

Daisy

Fleabane

Dahlia

Tickseed (Coreopsis)

Liatris

Gaillardia (Blanket Flower)

Erigeron (Fleabane)

Zinnia

Chrysanthemum

Oxeye daisy

Yarrow

Herbal Teas, Medicines and food

Calendula (Pot marigold)

Chamomile Anthemis)

Echinacea

Arnica

Endive

Lettuce

Artemisia

 

Great Nectar producers

Helianthus annus (Sunflower)

Solidago Goldenrod

 

Insecticidal properties

Marigold

Tanacetum

Pulicaria (False Fleabane)

Chrysanthemum

 

Weeds

Dandilion

Ragwort

Ragweed

Sneezeweed

For a detailed list of Asteraceae, its genuses and where it fits in the plant kingdom, click here for USDA Natural Resources Conversation Service

 

 

 

Help Save The Monarchs With These 4 Great Milkweeds

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed

Last week, I was manning the booth at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds Demonstration Garden (yes, it’s a mouthful), when someone plopped a tall, spindly plant down onto the table. The plant looked pretty pitiful; the flowers were long gone and the paddle-shaped leaves had circular holes in them. But upon closer examination of the stems, I spotted a string of tiny, lantern-shaped pupae along with a company of black, yellow and white striped caterpillars. The plant was none other than milkweed and the chrysalises contained baby monarchs in the process of forming.

We placed the milkweed next to a grouping of Joe-Pye weed and sat back to see what would happen.

Things aren’t looking up for the monarch butterfly

Monarch butterflies are considered by many to be the ‘king’ of butterflies, with a wing-span of over 4 inches (hence the name, monarch.) But, according to the National Wildlife Federation, their population in North America is in steep decline. Over the past twenty years, monarch numbers have plummeted by an astonishing 90 percent, leading scientists to question what’s happening. They suspect the answer is tied up with milkweed.

Close-up of swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Why milkweed you might ask? Because milkweed is the host plant for monarchs, and monarch caterpillars will only eat plants in the family. But milkweed has been disappearing, too. Over the last couple decades, large-scale clearing of meadows and prairies for development coupled with heavy pesticide use has resulted in the plants becoming increasingly scarce, placing in jeopardy the tiny population that depends on it for survival.

The problem is so big that according to one National Public Radio (npr) report, monarch populations overwintering in Mexico that averaged around nine hectares from 1995 to 2002, in 2014 took up less than one.*

A migratory insect

Every spring, thousands of Eastern monarchs begin their annual migration across the Great Plains on their journey from Mexico to Canada, covering over 3,000 miles in the process. And every fall, they do the trip in reverse. The insects breed along the way, stopping three times to go through four stages of development: egg, larvae (caterpillar), chrysalis and adult butterfly. The new butterflies live for just four to eight weeks, long enough to fly further north and lay their eggs. Then the next butterfly continues the journey.

Millions of monarch butterflies flying in Mexico

This means that it takes three butterflies to make it all the way to Canada.

Incredibly, the fourth generation butterfly born in Canada lives a bit longer. This is the monarch that migrates back to warmer climates like Mexico. This butterfly lives for six to eight months, long enough for it to start the whole process over again in the spring. (To read more about the monarch butterfly cycle, click here.

A misunderstood plant

The milkweed family, Asclepias, is composed of more than 100 varieties of leafy plants. Tall and upright with long, elliptical-shaped leaves, milkweeds bear dense clusters of vanilla-scented rosy-pink or orange flowers. The plant owes its common name to the milky latex that oozes when a stem is snapped.

Milkweed provides all the nourishment the four generations of monarchs need to transform from larvae into butterflies. The baby caterpillars feed on the leaves until fully grown, and then attach themselves to a stem or leaf to start the process of metamorphosis. Once they hatch, the monarchs move on to other flowers to live out their short life.

Monarch chrysalis hanging from a milkweed stem

In addition to nourishment, milkweed provides other advantages to monarchs. As the caterpillars undergo transformation in chrysalis, they ingest toxic chemicals secreted in the plants’ sticky sap. These chemicals, called cardenolides, provide the caterpillars with a key defense against would-be predators such as birds and mice.

Monarch caterpillar munching on milkweed

Specifically, cardenolides are so toxic and bitter tasting to other vertebrate species that they have learned to associate bad taste with the butterflies’ distinctive orange and black markings. Although as adults, monarchs no longer eat milkweed, they are able to sequester the toxins that they ingested as larvae, providing them with protection against many predators during the remainder of their lifespan.

Monarchs’ distinctive colors help ward of predators

Monarch butterflies only lay one egg per leaf, but they lay eggs on lots of leaves and always on more than one plant. They are mini eating machines. Three days after it arrived to the fair, the caterpillars had devoured the plant they rode in on; in their place hung rows of tiny pupae.

Many of us are familiar with the roadside milkweed, but lesser known is that there are now many beautiful perennial varieties that can enhance your garden while helping you do your part to save the monarch species.

Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca

Ready to save the monarchs? Here are some great new milkweed varieties to try, available at many local nurseries.

Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa

This bright orange beauty blooms from May to September. It just won Perennial of the Year for its brilliant flowers, hardy, upright stems and good drought-tolerance.

Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa

Or, for a great yellow variety, try ‘Hello Yellow’, available through White Flower Farm.

Asclepias tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’

 

Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Swamp milkweed ‘Cinderella’ available at Perennials.com

Or try a mix of hot colors, Asclepias Gay Butterflies Mixture, available at White Flower Farm.

Asclepias Gay Butterflies Mixture

Milkweed generally blooms from June to August. All varieties need full sun and well-drained soil. If you observe caterpillars or chrysalises on your plant, wait until the butterflies have flown away, then simply cut the plant to the ground.

* Monarch populations are measured in hectares, which roughly equal 2 1/2 acres.

 

Searching For Life At Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring

Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring

You cross a bridge over a burbling stream, clamber up a copper-toned hill and suddenly there it is: Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring. Standing on a wooden walkway, I inhale the warm, earth-scented vapors that glide across the turquoise water. Otherworldly? Yes. But, surprisingly even here, in this stunning but inhospitable place, there is life and things are growing.

About

First described in 1871 by the Hayden Expedition, the Grand Prismatic Spring is the third largest hot spring in the United States. Veiled in steam, it bubbles like a bathtub, offering a glimpse now and then into the churning caldron. The deep blue pool is impressive, but more surprising still are the tentacles of golden yellow, burnt orange and metallic green that fan outwards from the roiling waters, carving kaleidoscopic paths across the scorched soil.

Grand Prismatic Spring from new overlook trail

Upon seeing the spring for the first time, Ferdinand Hayden (the leader of the Expedition) wrote:

Nothing ever conceived by human art could equal the peculiar vividness and delicacy of color of these remarkable prismatic springs.

It’s enough to make your head spin.

 

Yellowstone’s hot springs

There are different kinds of hot springs at Yellowstone National Park. Grand Prismatic Spring is one. Old Faithful is another. Both result from groundwater that has been heated by molten magma and risen to the surface. In the case of Old Faithful, however, the hot water encounters blockages on its way up. This produces the famous geyser’s explosive eruption of steam.

Old Faithful

By contrast, the Grand Prismatic Spring is produced by hot water that rises to the surface through cracks in the earth’s crust. This allows for a continual flow of water that rises, cools and falls to the earth only to rise again.

Looking into the turquoise depths of the spring

Grand Prismatic Spring

Pouring almost 500 gallons of scalding water per minute into nearby Firehole River, Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest and most brilliant colored of Yellowstone’s many hot springs. The high temperature of the spring (estimated at around 160 degrees F) is responsible for the steam that hovers 24/7 above the crater.

Due to this cycle of heating, cooling and re-heating, the spring has developed rings of varying temperatures. The hottest water, which is located in the center, is too extreme for living things. However, as the water spreads outwards, it gradually cools, allowing for conditions more amenable to life to develop.

Bands of color at Grand Prismatic Spring

Happily, the viewing boardwalk provides safe passage for we humans atop the smoldering landscape. Embroidered with signs warning against the dangers of erring from the prescribed path, it features stories of how people have been scalded, children killed and family pets sucked into the vortex. Even standing too close to the spring can cause intense burns.

The viewing boardwalk at Grand Prismatic Spring

So how can life exist in such harsh conditions? The answer lies in the prismatic colors. Each of these stunning hues harbors billions of colorful microorganisms that live in the spring’s runoff channels. These ‘extremophiles’ (so named for their ability to live in conditions that were once thought too hot to host life) are not only surviving, but thriving, happily assembled in thick, microbial mats.

Forests in miniature

Microbial mats may not sound all that interesting until you consider that each of these burgeoning communities is in fact a miniature ecosystem functioning much like a forest. There’s a ‘canopy’ of microbes performing photosynthesis. And, there’s an ‘understory’ of organisms playing the crucial role of decomposition and recycling of nutrients back to the canopy.

The rainbow of colors that the mats produce depends on the temperature of the water. In the summer, the mats tend to be brown, orange or red and in the winter they tend to be dark green.

Microbial mats radiating outwards from Grand Prismatic Spring

Cynobacteria, marine bacteria that obtain their energy through photosynthesis, are one common organism found growing by the Grand Prismatic Spring. In the world’s oceans, cynobacteria occupy an important position at the bottom of the food web. At Yellowstone, however, they have had to make some ecological adjustments. These are evidenced in the distinctive yellow/orange color of the spring’s outer ring.

Specifically, a certain strain of cynobacteria called synechococcus has learned to survive the heat by adjusting its ratio of chlorophyll to carotenoids. Yellowstone’s extreme temperatures, high altitude sun and lack of shade can quickly overwhelm the photosynthetic process. So synechococcus manipulate their photosynthetic pigments to reflect only certain wavelengths of visible lights. They do this by employing carotenoids as shields, which results in their summertime yellow/orange color.

Close-up of some of the microbial communities

And so it goes. As you move further from the spring, more and more lifeforms can be found. Synechococcus is now joined by chloroflexi bacger, whose combined colors read as orange. Finally, as the temperature cools, the communities of bacteria at the furthest points produce the darkest color, a molten shade of coppery-brown.

View of spring from bridge

Hard to believe these mini orange and brown ‘forests’ are existing right under our very noses. Life is pretty amazing.

 

How To Successfully Grow Lavender: A Maryland Expert Weighs In

One of the great things about being a master gardener is all the choice lectures you get to attend. Today’s talk following the board meeting was no exception. It happened to coincide with the very moment I was asking myself “Why is my lavender not thriving?”. Suddenly, here was professional grower Sophia Watkins, ready to provide answers to all my questions.

Watkins runs a family-owned, sustainable lavender farm located at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain in Montgomery County, Maryland. It is the largest lavender farm in the state. She grew up on the 286- acre farm, 26 acres of which are now dedicated to the cultivation of lavender.

Soleado Lavender Farm

The family prides itself on its long history of organic farming, a practice Watkins’ father adopted in the 1960s when the farm grew a mix of soybeans and grains. For a child, it was a fantastic way to grow up. So when Watkins and her fiancé took over the farm, they knew that they wanted to continue that legacy.

“Our goal was about preservation even more than about gardening,” she said. “We wanted to protect these special parts of Maryland and keep them alive for not only our own child but for everybody else’s children as well.”

Why choose lavender? The couple was looking to grow a sustainable perennial that deer wouldn’t eat and from which they could make products for sale. They hit on lavender not only for its drought tolerant qualities, but also for its many decorative and culinary uses. Along the way they added bees for pollination and today the farm boasts nine hives with over 40,000 bees in each, all producing lavender honey.

In a nod to the Latin American heritage of Watkins’ fiancé, they chose Soleado as the name for their farm. As it so happens, in their first year of operation, they also found themselves ‘dying in the heat’ as they got things established. Soleado, meaning sunny or ‘just baking in the sun’ suddenly took on a new shade of meaning.

 

Tips for how to successfully propagate lavender

At Soleado, all of the lavender is grown from cuttings, a practice most nurseries have moved to given the lower germination rate of seeds. Watkins harvests soft and hardwood cuttings averaging around 5 inches. Once she has the cuttings, she strips them of their leaves and dips them in a root hormone. Her top choice for an organic one is (not surprisingly) honey.

Watkins has had the most luck with her seedlings using a ‘bulky’ growing medium that provides maximum space for roots to expand. She mixes her own from Leafgro and perlite, then she plants the cuttings in 2” plastic pots.

The potted cuttings may spend up to 8 weeks in partial shade or in the greenhouse (under shade cloths) until they grow decent roots, after which they’re transplanted to the field. Watkins noted that if the seedlings are planted first outside, the process is usually quicker.

According to Watkins, three is the magic number of years for a good-sized plant to establish, after which it may continue to grow for another four. What happens around year seven I asked? If taken care of properly, lavender can last a good deal longer, with 10 to 20 years not being unheard of. And some historical properties have plants that are as much as 80 years old.

A great combo, hydrangea and lavender

Once established, lavender is a sun-loving plant. No variety can tolerate shade and still produce flowers. Once the flowers are harvested, Watkins sprays the plants’ roots with fish emulsion for fertilizer. “We need to fortify them after they’ve put all that energy into blooming, “ she said.

 

Cut, cut and then cut again

There is so much conflicting information about when and how to cut back lavender. Watkins freely admits that her method might not suit everyone. But for them, 2 to 4 times a year is ideal. They sheer their lavender like sheep, cutting back all new growth 3 to 4 times a year until the plants flower. The cutting back starts almost as soon as they plant the seedlings.

Cutting back encourages new growth

Since lavender has a tendency to open up in the middle, cutting back helps to encourage dense growth. This improves the overall looks of the plant and helps it get through the winter. It also allows more energy to go into developing strong roots, producing a thicker, healthier plant.

At Soleado, they cut back nothing thicker than a pencil, avoiding old wood. Watkins does NOT recommend cutting back old woody stems. If you absolutely must, she said to trim them back just to where the first bunch of leaves start on the bush.

They stop all cutting by the end of October.

 

Avoid shredded mulch

Along with lots of sun, lavender prefers to stay dry and ironically, once of its biggest threats to survival comes in the form of mulch. According to Watkins, shredded mulch is the biggest offender. Often harboring mold spores, this kind of mulch can spell death for lavender.

“What seems to really kill them is the mold spores that come in on shredded mulch,” said Watkins. “Given the amount of humidity we have (in Maryland), it’s really important to stick with a dry medium.”

If you’re using shredded mulch in the rest of your garden, Watkins advises keeping it at least 1 – 2 feet away from your lavender. At Soleado, they use crushed bluestone for mulch that they harvest from their driveway. Other great options include white gravel and seashells, both of which help to reflect light back onto the plant.

White gravel mulch

 

Wintering tips

Many of us have had the experience of losing our lavender plants over the winter. However, Watkins said, “Getting your plants through the winter does not have to do with size or age, even little seedlings can make it through the winter. A temperature of anything above 0 degrees Fahrenheit is OK.”

Frozen lavender

So what can we do to prepare for the colder months? The most important thing, according to Watkins, is to keep plants trimmed and thick. The thickness (or thatchiness) is what keeps the snow and ice out of the plants. (Although snow doesn’t seem to be as bad for lavender as ice.)

It’s a matter of creating a plants that have a good smooth cut on them so they become their own insulation.

 

No significant pests or diseases

Not only are its water needs low, but lavender is resistant to most pests and diseases. Watkins says occasionally she’ll observe spittlebugs on her plants, but that’s about it. The main concern is lavender’s super susceptibility to mold spores (mentioned above.) The main thing you can do for mold is to practice prevention.

Another great plus to lavender is that deer hate them, although Watkins observed that “Sometimes they’ll pull the seedlings out of the ground, ‘Just because.”’

Soleado Farms grows a mix of English, French and Spanish varieties of lavender. They’re always experimenting with new strains and have found that within each variety each year there are clear standouts. These days, Watkins is loving the “rabbit ear petals” on the flower tops of Spanish lavender.

Spanish lavender

To learn more about Soleado, tours of the farm and their lavender-based products, click here for the official website.

 

Life On the Edge: The High Altitude Plants of the Grand Canyon

Point Imperial, Grand Canyon North Rim

Anyone who’s been to the Grand Canyon North Rim can tell you that hiking can be hard on the lungs given the altitude of just under 8,300 feet. And that’s just for starters, beautiful Point Imperial, the highest of the North Rim overlooks, tops in at almost 9,000. My daughter recently observed, while gingerly approaching the edge, that she felt as though she were slogging through a pool of molasses. This prompted me to wonder; how do plants grow under such challenging conditions? I set out to find the answer.

How they do it

The first thing I discovered was that plants that are able to live at high altitude are not like their lowland cousins. In order to survive, they have made some structural adaptations. These include irreversible, highly evolved physical responses to high-altitude environments not seen in low altitude plants. This mix of strategies, while particular to each species, often benefits the surrounding plant and animal communities as well.

Following are just a few.

The creamy flowers of cliffrose, blooming at 8,800 feet

Taking a breather

As chests heaving, we make our way to Point Imperial, I pause to reflect on the many plants that border the trail. How are these species thriving at altitudes of 8,000 feet plus? For one, air pressure is much thinner at higher elevations, making it difficult for my veins to pump oxygen throughout my body.

It turns out that at high altitude, the reduced pressure makes it harder for plants to pump water from soil to stem as well. But unlike humans, high altitude plants have come up with a solution. Rather than struggle to draw water and nutrients through inefficient transport systems, they have evolved smaller sized pathways. These vascular pathways allow them to channel fluids more quickly through a tighter area.

Firecracker penstemon, a desert native, growing at 8,800 feet

Partly due to these reduced hydraulic systems, trees and plants at high elevations tend to be smaller (to conserve energy) and to grow more slowly. They also are more likely to be spaced further apart. Western juniper, for instance, prefers to make its home on dry, rocky sites where there is less competition from larger species. And in exposed areas, it often assumes a stunted form, growing low to the ground.

Western juniper is sometimes described as looking like ‘polka-dots on the hillside’ for this reason.

Juniper growing on the slopes of the Grand Canyon

Taking it slow

Slower growth has the added benefit of longevity. Some of the oldest trees in existence grow at high altitude. This includes the bristlecone pine, which is said to be the oldest known living tree, with some believed to be over 4,000 years old.

An old bristlecone pine

Putting down roots

But I’m particularly impressed by the resilience of the Utah juniper, which can survive even the harshest of conditions. It can grow a 40 foot-long tap root that extends straight down through rocks and crevices, while its lateral roots can travel as far as 100 feet away. This strategy ensures that parts of the tree survive even if the tree itself is knocked down. In extreme cases, Utah juniper can even concentrate nutrients in just a few branches, keeping the main tree alive while the rest of the body shuts down.

Crooked remains of a Utah juniper – is it just conserving energy?

Drilling down

There’s no mistaking this shaggy, twisted shrub that grows high on dry rocky slopes in the Western United States. A member of the rose family, cliffrose has fragrant, creamy blooms that appear from spring to fall and provide important forage food for deer, cattle and sheep, especially during the winter. Its highly absorbent bark enables the plant to retain moisture as do its evergreen leaves.

Gnarled branches of cliffrose

But here’s the coolest thing about cliffrose; its mature seed has a long-tailed hair that attaches to the end of it. When the wind disperses the seeds, the hairs act like tiny parachutes and once the seed lands on the ground, the hair acts like a drill, rotating with the wind to drive the seed into the rocky soil.

A silver lining

Finally, who can resist the allure of gray and silver foliage? These plants employ an altogether different coping strategy. Gray and silver-leaved plants have tiny white hairs covering the leaf surface. The hairs reflect solar radiation, cooling the plant tissues and trapping moisture, which slows evaporation. This is especially important given the low moisture levels of the higher elevations.

Silver-leaved Winterfat, a species of flowering plant in the amaranth family

Gray-green Big Sagebrush growing on Point Imperial

One has only to look at the sun reflecting off their brilliant leaves to see these plants’ strategy at work.

These are just a few of the many fascinating plants that populate the upper reaches of the Grand Canyon. For more information on plant and tree life, as well as great hikes to see them, click here for the National Park Service’s Official Site. We stayed at the Grand Canyon Lodge, a spectacular property run by the Park Service, located on the lip of the North Rim.

 

Running High On The Hanging Gardens of Zion

Trees growing in the rock walls of Zion National Park

I remember being in college the first time I heard of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, considered by many to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I pictured these mythic gardens as masterpieces of flowers and greenery that were somehow suspended dozens of feet in mid-air. According to ancient texts, though, the gardens weren’t hanging in the literal sense, but only appeared to be floating: this was due to a remarkable product of human ingenuity. Continue reading

Having A Ball With Alliums (Ornamental Onions)

Allium giganteum, also known as Giant Onion 

They look like they’re right out of a Dr. Zeus book — giant purple balls stuck like lollipops on naked green stems. I love to watch the expressions on people’s faces when they encounter the colorful spheres for the very first time. Drought tolerant and virtually disease and pest-free, alliums (also known as ornamental onions) are a sure bet if you’re looking to liven up your garden. Continue reading