Thursday, June 21, 2007

Another Good Reason to Live in Aiken

There is no more perfect time of year, I think, than these gardenia-scented days of June. The promise of a bouquet of fresh blue hydrangeas and creamy white gardenia blossoms beside a bowl of peaches, still warm from the stand, is what keeps us going through the dreary days of February.

Once warm weather arrives, it’s always a fun to see what handsome combination of plants city Horticulturist Tom Rapp has come up with for the parkways and beds around Aiken. He has so much territory to cover these days, he has to choose plants that are reliable, drought tolerant and pretty showy as well. Imitating Tom’s beds is a safe bet when choosing plants for our home gardens.

Aiken’s signature fountain this year has two annuals to grace the feet of the laughing children who stand for eternity beneath the umbrella at the corner of Laurens Street and Park Avenue.

Against a backdrop of boxwood that stays there year round, Tom planted Pink Dragonwing Begonia and Alternanthera ‘Purple Knight.’ In this and other city plantings, the bed begins with a fresh layer of Bricko Farms’ soil conditioner called ‘Aiken Mix.’

Dragonwing Begonias are a cross between Angelwing begonias and the old wax begonias that have been a staple of our partial shade gardens for years. Dragonwing has glossy green, wing-shaped leaves and flowers in red or pink. It will grow in full sun but will thrive in part sun as well. It grows eighteen to twenty-four inches tall with an eight to ten inch spread. Plant it in a bed, like the one around the fountain, or in a pot.

Alternanthera, the foliage plant in the fountain bed, is just one of about eighty plants in the genus with the same name. Many of them have become popular lately as accompaniments to their flowering brethren. This particular alternanthera, with purple, metallic foliage, appears to be a vigorous grower and may want to engulf its bedmate if not kept in check.

Tom has also interplanted chartreuse potato vine with the begonias in some of the other beds, for an appealing effect.
You may also see around town another species of alternanthera. Low growing Chartreuse Alternanthera is a great accompaniment to many summer annuals and perennials. The plants grow in a compact mound, from four to eight inches tall and six to twelve inches wide with small linear shaped leaves. It is sometimes called “Joseph’s Coat” owing to its many colors. Unfortunately, it shares that name with another colorful plant, Amaranthus, so landscapers use its botanical name.

Landscapers call this Alternanthera an “echo plant” because it tends to enhance or echo other colors, making them appear more vibrant. A favorite of the University of Georgia Trial Gardens in 2004, it is, they say, a favorite addition to container gardens and hanging baskets, where it spills over the side like froth from a bubbling stream. Joseph's Coat is actually an heirloom plant that was popular in the Victorian era when formal gardens were in vogue. Today, thanks to the introduction of several exciting new cultivars from Mexico and South America, there is renewed interest in the plant. It is an excellent plant for today's busy gardener because it provides season-long color while requiring little routine care.

‘Red Threads’ has deep burgundy colored foliage that is almost grass-like, with narrow leaves. ‘Summer Flame’ has multicolored foliage in pink, white, and green with a broader leaf. Both prefer full sun and are low growing.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Tomatoes and Freewill

Our neighbor, Richard, is an interesting person. As a dermatologist, he spends his days warning people of the damage brought on by too much time in the sun. As a gardener, he know that the good tomatoes he craves must have plenty of sun to produce the sweet, red, juice-running-down-your-chin tomatoes we expect from our back yard gardens.

Despite the efforts of the tree-trimmers that the power company sent to massacre the live oaks on his side of our street, in the name of protecting our power lines, or maybe because of it, Richard found one spot sunny enough to support his tomato plants – smack in the middle of his front yard, between the driveway and the street. So he dug up the tired old azaleas and in their place set his tomato plants.

Ever the inquisitive gardener, Richard further researched and built a self watering contraption in which to plant his tomatoes. It is sure to provide them with that other necessary element – plenty of water.

He then had hauled in a truckload of the compost the city sells that they make from the yard waste they collect around town, put down a layer of newspaper, and he gradually spread the compost across the bed, where he planted more tomatoes and peppers.

In these days of neighborhood covenants and deed restrictions that would give some people apoplexy at the thought of tomatoes in the front yard, Richard has struck a blow for independence I admire - though he yielded eventually to that most persuasive covenant – the marriage one. At the request of Richard’s wife, the workmen came Friday and planted a row of pickets that hides the vegetable garden. But I know it’s there. From the window where I sit at my computer I can see over the fence the tops of the tomato plants, stretching for sun, and my mouth is watering already for that first real taste of summer.

To find out how to build Richard’s self-watering tomato planter, go to