The Real Lives Of Yellow Jackets And How To Eliminate Them

Eastern yellow jacket cleaning itself on a leaf

Recently I wrote a blog post about bees, wasps and hornets and how to tell the difference. To add interest to the story, I created a graphic featuring 4 common species and asked my readers to identify them. One reader labeled three of them correctly and labeled the fourth one ‘jerk.’ (Actually he used more colorful language, but this is a family blog). That ‘jerk’ was the yellow jacket. Continue reading

The Best Late-Summer Flowers For Your August/September Garden

In mid August, it’s sometimes hard not to look at your garden and throw in the towel. By that, I mean take out the pruners and cut down all the moldy, dried out stems or simply turn a blind eye to the whole debacle. But that would be a shame with so many late-summer flowers just now coming into their own. It just takes a little advance planning and some careful pruning and you can have a garden that keeps flowering all the way until fall. Continue reading

Sanssouci: The No-Worries Garden Just A Stone’s Throw From Berlin

Potsdam’s Sanssouci Palace

Last time I was in Berlin, the city was still stained dark gray by the soot of post-WWII deterioration. But this week I returned to find the metropolis almost unrecognizable. Everywhere there are signs of improvements, scaffolding and construction. There is one place, however, that remains unchanged; that is, Potsdam’s stunning Sanssouci Palace and gardens. I made a return visit yesterday. Continue reading

Father’s Day 2018: Five Lessons Dad Taught Me About Life In the Garden

Me, my dad and my sister circa 1965

Dad was always up early when I was a child. On weekdays he went to the office, but on weekends the real work began. These were the days that dad devoted to yard work. My sister and I were a fundamental part of his crew.

Dad ran a tight ship and an orderly landscape was testament to our mighty team effort. As garden ‘personnel’, my sister and I raked, clipped, pulled weeds and hauled yard waste on a seasonal basis. We weren’t fans of the work, but we were big fans of dad’s, and the shared chores were a good way to spend outdoor time together.

It wasn’t until much later in life that we realized something more than gardening had been going on in the yard. While my sister and I toiled in the dirt, dad had been teaching us some valuable life lessons. Here are five things I learned from my dad in the garden that continue to infuse my life with purpose and meaning today.

Delay gratification

Until the work was done, there would be no rides to the pool, quick trips to Dunkin’ Donuts or play dates with friends. This was a hard lesson to learn since by Saturday morning most of our buddies were already hard at play. My sister and I gradually discovered, though, that delaying our playtime actually increased our enjoyment of it later. In finishing our yard chores first, we developed patience and strengthened our willpower. Over time, we grew to relish the psychic benefits of putting off fun until our tasks were accomplished.

Do quality work

One of my jobs was to crawl around the periphery of the house with garden shears to trim the stray grass left behind by the mower. About halfway around the exterior, I usually got tired and started cutting corners. My dad always noticed those areas where I had slacked off and though he never yelled, he seemed so disappointed. Many times I tearfully returned to the job. During the process, though, I gradually learned to do quality work and discovered that practicing quality was fulfilling and that it mattered to me.

Practice integrity

If you told dad you were going to do something, you did it. He expected no less. No excuses, prevarication or blaming poor work on your sister were valid substitutes for your word. Honesty was the rule and dad led by example, setting high standards in the yard. Dad taught us how to be respectful of each other and listened patiently to our endless strategies for reducing our workload. He also showed us that the key to good work was to finish the jobs that we started.

Push yourself

Dad had a riding lawn mower, but insisted on walking behind it to cut our 3-acre field. On the hottest of days, my mother would watch him incredulously from the kitchen window. My dad pushed himself to burn calories and probably to spend more time outdoors. Whatever the reason, his work ethic made it hard to refuse when he asked us to bag all the clippings.

Of course dad could have bagged the grass as he mowed, but that would have meant we missed out on the exercise. One year, as incentive, dad offered to pay us if we got all the clippings into 10 bags. We worked like demons all afternoon, devising efficient strategies for raking and fitting the most clippings in each black plastic sack. My sister was stamping on the tenth when it burst at the seams, but dad paid us anyway. We returned sweaty and tired to the house, and though dad disputes this version of the story, it’s still one of my favorite yard memories today.

Try not to complain

Dad showed us through example that even if the job got hard, or the weather uncomfortable, we should strive not to complain. Not only was it annoying, it made yard work unpleasant for everyone. He taught that seeing things in a more positive light was much better for all of us and improved our relationships.

Being young girls, my sister and I struggled the most with this concept. We tried hard to stop airing our yard work grievances, with incremental improvement over time as we aged. But, I’ll admit that it wasn’t until later on in life that I finally learned the true value of this lesson.

Thank you, dad, for all the lessons you taught us.  Happy Father’s Day. You are the best dad, ever.

 

USPS Puts Its Stamp On America’s Most Beautiful Blooms

Floral stamp from the USPS Pollinator stamp series

You may think that gardens and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) have little in common, but The National Postal Museum, located in Washington, DC, is currently challenging that point of view. It recently opened an exhibition featuring the botanical art behind 50 years worth of floral stamps. And it’s delivered the goods just in time for the spring season. Continue reading

Camellias Take Center Stage At California’s Filoli Gardens

Camellia japonica ‘Cheryl Lynn’

Winter can be a dreary time in the garden, especially on the East Coast. But as soon as the winter-blooming camellias start flowering, I am reminded that everything has its season. These beautiful shrubs wait until late fall to early spring to produce their spectacular lush-petaled blooms. And one of the best places to view them is at Filoli Gardens in the foothills of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. Continue reading

10 Resolutions To Make In Your Garden This Year

Every year, I make a list of things I want to achieve or change in my garden. But the year passes, I get busy planning my clients’ landscapes and before I know it, it’s mid summer. That is not an ideal time to start something new in the garden.

I’ve promised myself that this year, however, will be different. All those ideas I’ve jotted down in my garden notebook? I plan to convert at least some of them into reality. And January is the perfect time to sit down and create a plan for just how all of it will happen. Continue reading

How To Successfully Grow Lavender: A Maryland Expert Weighs In

One of the best things about being a master gardener is all the great 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 answer all of my questions.

A family-run lavender farm named Soleado

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 Watkins’ fiancé’s Latin American roots, 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.

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

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 Soleado, 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 the seedlings are planted.

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 all. The main concern is lavender’s super susceptibility to mold spores (mentioned above.) The best 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.

 

Shady Behavior: 20 Great Plants for Shade Gardens

“Ferns are the embodiment of green thoughts in a green shade and if a leafy shadow could take root, moss would surely be the result” –Hugh Johnson ‘Principles of Gardening’

I was always drawn to shady nooks as a child. In my mind, a deep green space spoke of mystery and enclosure with its long shadows and dappled play of light. This fascination has continued into adulthood where my earliest memories now inspire many of my designs, particularly when it comes to creating a shade garden. Continue reading

Denver Botanic Gardens Showcases the Best Of Western Design

Reflecting pool in the Denver Botanic Gardens

If you haven’t been to Denver, you may think Cheesman sounds like a strange place for a world-glass garden. But, the old-line neighborhood plays host to one of the best display gardens I’ve toured in decades. No matter the season, the Denver Botanic Gardens is sure to impress, and impress me it did, with its distinctive spaces presenting plants from all parts of the world. Continue reading