Tree of Heck

We have about 3000 sq ft of mixed border surrounding (in multiple layers) our 1500 sq ft home.  We take care of everything ourselves, in our spare time (ha!!).  Thus, our maintenance schedule BARELY includes cutting back perennials and ornamental grasses Feb-March, plus any pruning needed for woodies…then some fits of weeding throughout the growing season.

Most of this stuff has been in the ground for five to eight years, and we have a high tolerance for nature taking its course.  We’re surrounded by deciduous forest, so of course trees pop up where they’re not supposed to, especially oaks and the occasional hickory, which I dearly love and hate to remove. But I do. Because seedling trees are about impossible to just yank out like a weed – a whip just a few feet tall will have a taproot as long.   With our stringent maintenance regime, they’re usually tall enough to poke up over the Panicum or loom over the Leucanthemum by the time I notice, so then digging becomes the only option.

Or, wait, maybe just cut it back really hard, like below the soil line.  That’ll kill it, right? Nope?  Back again? Chop, chop, hack, hack.  Most saplings will give up after a few years. Except this one:

Ailanthus altissima a.k.a. “Tree of Heaven.”

Most of you know this is a totally invasive doody-head of a tree.  Google for details if not familiar.  I thankfully have not had much experience with it, until the past few years – there must be a mature one in the area.  It would pop up here and there in our borders and blueberry field, but I didn’t think much of it. Grab the loppers, cut it back.  BIG mistake.

Behold, the most ridiculous root:shoot ratio ever:

ailanthusrootBunny, our pensive 40 lb whippet, for scale. 

I had lopped this individual back three years in a row. All I could see were the pale, unbranched shoots, not very imposing at all, so chop, chop.   But finally, after a heroic effort last evening, it was successfully ripped from the heart of our main perennial border. Joel had to use our John Deere 950 tractor with a brush grabber chain to get this out of the ground, even after 20 minutes of his digging around the root to get the chain attached.

Like some kind of sea monster, my repeated attempts to kill it apparently just made it angry.  And stronger.

It’s still out there, on our burn pile.
A dog barks in the night.
0_o.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Allium Fever

Ornamental onions are hot patooties.  From big, bold, purple globes to small pink half-moons, there is no end to ornamental onion-y goodness out there with 30+ species and cultivars in the trade.  There’s no substitute for ornamental onions in regards to architectural drama – the perfect geometric foil to wispy grasses, floral spikes, and umpteen daisy-thingies.  The seed heads from the sturdier species will persist and add interest to autumn and winter perennialscapes (not sure if that’s a word).

Art-of-Gardening-COVER-3D-1
Not one but TWO cultivars of Allium on the cover of the fabulous new Chanticleer book…

All are members of the Allium genus, just like those onions sprouting in your kitchen counter veg basket – hence the deer- and small mammal- resistance factor.  However…there are some issues.

  • Can be short-lived.  I have first-hand experience with this – plant, enjoy for a year or two, then…where did they go?
  • Bloom time is rather vaguely defined.  Most catalogs list “early summer” or “late spring” for most cultivars.  But if you want continuous purple orbs, what’s the order of bloom?
  • Can be expensive. Bulbs for some of the mammoth “softball” sizes will set you back $5-$7 each (the bulbs themselves are huge).  This is of particular concern due to the first item.
  • Foliage failure.  For some of the largest species and cultivars, the foliage starts to die back around (or even before) bloom time.  Not a lot of time to put the necessary energy back into that big honkin’ bulb.

We already have a multi-year lily perennialization trial going in conjunction with Cornell and some other institutions.  I thought I might try the same thing with Allium.

Student worker Lauren, after a long day of taking data on a gazillion lilies.
Student worker Lauren, after a long day of taking data on a gazillion lilies.

Unfortunately, I had this bright idea in November – well into the bulb-ordering season.  I tried to compile as complete an inventory as I could, ordering from several vendors.  Ended up with 28 species and cultivars – as much as the space prepared (check out that nice soil!)  could hold, at our urban horticulture center near campus (Virginia Tech is in Blacksburg, USDA Zone 6, about 2000′).  We put five or seven bulbs (depending on size) in each plot, and replicated the whole thing three times.

Ready to plant!
Ready to plant!

We’ll take data over the next three years on time of emergence, bloom time and duration, foliage duration (have a nifty chlorophyll meter that can help quantify that), some growth measurements, and perennial tendencies (or not).  My hope is to end up with a really specific chronology of bloom times plus life expectancy.  Yes, this was just a patented Holly wild hair; luckily I had some general funds to cover it. But I do think our little onion project will be of interest to more than a few folks, whether professional landscape designers or home gardeners.  I know I’m excited to see the results ($30 for five bulbs – yeek)!

 

 

The Handy Dandy Dibber

A dibber, also called a dibbler (the garden tool, not the small nocturnal marsupial),  has many uses in the garden and greenhouse.  It also offers the opportunity to announce your intentions of dibbing (or dibbling). I’m a huge fan.

For example: just planted the last of my fall bulb purchases.  One of packs remaining was Allium unifolium, left over from installing our Allium field trials. (28 species and cultivars – woo! Beats doing research on soybeans or something.)  These little bulbs are about the size of nickel – even the smallest hand spade is overkill. I think I’ll just grab the dibber!

dibsandalliumHSFor the uninitiated, a dibber or dibbler is simply a very sturdy, pokey thing, with a nice ergonomic handle.  To use, simply scatter bulbs (never, ever in rows)…  scatterandpokePoke and plop. Went about 5″ to 6″ deep for these wee bulbs. Goes really fast once you’ve honed your dibbing skills.

holesAs a bulb-planting strategy, I like to leave them all uncovered until I’ve got the whole batch situated.  Then make like a squirrel and cover the bulbs!

doneVoila.  Done in 60 seconds! Though I’ll probably forget where I planted them within 60 minutes (which does make for a pleasant surprise come spring time – “Oh look! Alliums!”)

 

 

Trash or Treasure?

You’ve probably heard certain plants dismissed as “trashy” –  but what does that mean?  We have a delightful Magnolia macrophyla in our campus garden – with huge foliage, creamy blooms, the native factor, etc., it draws all kind of attention. So I’d hesitate to call it trashy. But the autumn leaf drop clutters the ground with leaves the size of a sheet of legal paper.  They aren’t rake-able, or really mow-able, have to gather by hand into “sheaves”.  And there’s a LOT of them.

Here’s another example:

We plopped a 3-gallon Koelreuteria bipinnata (many common names, such as Chinese Flame Tree, Bougainvillea Golden Rain Tree, etc). into one of our home perennial borders a few years ago. As Dirr notes, it started out “beanpole-like in youth” but has grown into a nice vase shape. It hit puberty last year, with a smattering of flowers and fruit. This year has been a different story – I swear it doubled in size; and judge for yourself its full-on adulthood:

KPblooms

Late August and early September brought huge panicles of yellow flowers – eye-popping for us, and a late-season bounty of pollen and nectar for our honey bees (and every other bee and wasp in the area). You could hear the canopy “buzzing” from several yards away.

The yellow petals then fell away, carpeting the grass and part of our deck. It their place developed shrimp-pink, papery capsules.

KPpodshabitI cut one of the capsule-filled branches off; and a month later everything is still pink and intact in a vase of water. I also noted each of three capsule sections bears one dark round glossy seed. Uh-oh. That’s a lot of seeds.

KPpodsWith our first freeze, the leaves fell – in big chunks consisting of a tough foot-long petiole and a bunch of leaflets. My mower didn’t do a good job chopping them up – ended up having to rake and move to compost pile. What the mower DID do was fling the papery capsules far into other beds.

KPtrashFlashy? Yes.
Trashy? Yes.
Invasive? Not sure yet. Will report back if seedlings appear!

Comments welcome – tell us about your favorite “trashy treasure”!

Fall is for Planting…Ornamental Grasses! But so is Spring…

I’ve written previously of my adoration for ornamental grasses.  A few of you folks in the mid-Atlantic might have heard my “Grasses for the Masses!”  presentation complete with lots of arm-waving. As with most of my talks, there’s usually some sort of interpretive dance involved.

Most of our warm-season ornamental grasses are in full gloriousness at the moment.  Because it’s autumn! ‘Tis the season to purchase, plant, and enjoy ornamental grasses!

Pennisetum 'Karley Rose' - available at a garden center near you!
Pennisetum ‘Karley Rose’ – available at a garden center near you!

Well, not really.  If you’d have purchased and planted them in April or May, you’d only have to do the “enjoy” part now.  And your local grower/garden center would LOVE you for it. But most gardeners overlook containers full of  6″ tall Fescue – which is what a LOT of our best grasses resemble in the spring.  It’s always been challenging to sell “green” in the spring – consumers want to see and buy plants in flower – so nurseries and greenhouses that supply garden centers do their darnedest to provide said blossoms.

Gorgeous grasses at Babikow Greenhouses near Baltimore, MD.
Gorgeous grasses at Babikow Greenhouses near Baltimore, MD.

So we pass over pots full of green grassy things in favor of enticing blooms. Nurseries have picked up on this – many include grasses in their summer/early fall production schedule, making full, fluffy pots for the autumn gardener.  This works o.k. for shorter, compact things like fountain grass, little bluestem, etc.   But by September, majestic switchgrass, big bluestem, and the like rarely look that fabulous in a one or two gallon pot – the proportions aren’t right; a bit of wind and rain and the situation is ripe for floppage (closely related to splayage). So you’ll probably pass them over. Again.  Or maybe…take a second look? Just cut them back and plant away – you’ll enjoy them NEXT fall.

Puya report!

For all five of you that might have paid attention to my posts on the genus Puya (which does in fact rhyme with booyah…thank you my west-coastie friends):

Here’s the update that you’ve been waiting for!

Puya is a horrifically spiny, painful, and hateful genus in the Bromeliad family. Native to the Andes, the fish-hook-like spines snare passing mammals; the rotting flesh provides nutrients to the exceptionally lean soil of the arid steppes on which it sort of grows/becomes grumpier.

Puya flowers once an eon, in a spectacular [but ill-earned] display that turned me to mush, based on a photo in an Annie’s Annuals catalog (see my “eternal gardening optimist” post). Autumn of 2012, I ordered and received one healthy Puya berteroniana in a 4” pot. Heckling commenced.  Overwinters in a 40 F greenhouse, where it was watered once or twice. Summers have been spent on our deck. Osmocote has hopefully provided required nutrients. Expected to kill her within months, as it is SO VERY not native to the verdant and humid Blue Ridge mountains of Southwest Virginia.

Happy and amazed to say Pootie [what was I going to name her? Bert??] is in her 3rd year – continuing to grow, and, AND, captured her very first mammal!

Pooyah!

Okay… so it’s a fluffy stuffed possum, and the dogs dropped it from the deck above. But snagged! You know Pootie got a thrill…