Friday, November 07, 2008

Blaze Away Aiken!

“Let us have a good many maples and hickories and scarlet oaks, then, I say. Blaze away! … A village is not complete, unless it have these trees to mark the season in it. They are important, like the town clock.” Author and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau would be happy in Aiken I think. Aiken is Blazing Away, as the man says, with autumn color. The Maples, first in his list of necessary trees, have made a breathtaking appearance this season.

Maples belong to the genus Acer, a word that comes from a Latin word meaning “sharp,” since most of the maples have pointed leaves. There are many handsome maples, and, many are quite happy in our Aiken soil and climate. Maples are deciduous trees grown for shade and color and, in the case of the northern grown sugar maple (Acer saccharum) for the syrup made from their sap. The wood of maple is sometimes used in furniture, and the neck of a Fender Stratocaster Electric guitar is also made of maple wood.

The fruit of a maple tree is a winged seed called a “samara,” or commonly called a “key.” These little whirlybirds are fun to watch and are attractive to wildlife, and very likely were your first exposure to the science lesson of how seeds are spread by nature.

There are four species of maple tree adapted to all areas of South Carolina, according to the Clemson extension. Red maple (Acer rubrum), Japanese maple (A. palmatum), southern sugar maple (A. barbatum) and chalkbark maple (A. leucoderme) are fairly easy to grow. Bob McCartney of Woodlanders Nursery tells me that the northern grown sugar maple grows well here too.

The ideal soil for most maples is rich, porous and well-drained. Most do well in a fairly wide soil pH range, although many favor slightly acid soil. Red and silver maples thrive in fairly wet soils. Some maples tolerate moderate drought. Most thrive in full sun or partial shade. Some should be protected from the sun to prevent leaf scorch and provided irrigation.

Japanese Maples trees come in a great range of sizes, from under six feet to 40 or 50 feet tall. They are slow growers, but we don’t mind, because the leaves, which can be narrowly or broadly dissected, are so exquisite in color and form, sometimes arching and spreading gracefully down, other times projecting up, that we take them anyway they come.

Some Japanese Maples have red foliage in the spring as new leaves emerge, change to green in summer and run red again in the fall. Others emerge green and remain so until fall, when they become a showy copper, orange, red or yellow. The Japanese Maple can be used as a small lawn specimen, an accent plant, a patio tree, a container plant, or in grouping.

Be sure to plant a Japanese Maple in dappled shade, as direct sunlight may scorch the leaves in summer. Too much shade, Clemson warns, may cause the tree to grow more slowly and purple leaves to become more green. Prune in late summer or early fall and prune only branches or trunks that rub against each other. Once established, keep pruning to a minimum.

A non-dissected leaf of a Japanese maple looks sort of like a hand with fingers. Cultivars in the Non-dissected group are “Bloodgood’ and the slightly smaller, ‘Burgundy Lace.’
A dissected leaf has narrow cut leaves. Those in the dissected group are lower growing (8 to 10 feet) and include ‘Crimson queen,’ ‘Waterfall,’ and ‘Inaba Shidare.’

We can spot another maple species – the Red Maples, in spring, while driving around the highways of South Carolina, by the showy red clusters of flowers that sprout on the branches in early spring.

Plant your red maple in moist, slightly acidic, fertile soil. It likes partial shade but will also thrive in full sun. Clemson mentions ‘Columnare,’ ‘October Glory,’ and ‘Autumn Flame’ as good cultivars. Woodlanders Nursery offers an unusual variety called ‘Candy Ice’ with variegated leaves. Cold Creek also carries Red Maples.

The Southern Sugar Maple (Acer barbatum - AKA Acer floridanum), like the ones growing on York Street in front of Wade and Sissy Brodie’s are large trees that show off their spectacular yellow color this time of year. The three trees also have a job to do in summer. Planted on the west side of the Brodie’s house, next to the street, they provide shade from the hottest summer sun. Woodlanders also carries these.

I’ve read that the yankee version of the Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum, doesn’t perform well in these parts, but if you’ve ridden by the Aiken Standard Building in the last week or two, you’d have to disagree. Those Sugar Maples, Acer saccharum, have put on a dazzling display this year. I don’t know if the folks at the Standard have tried harvesting syrup from the tree, but theoretically, at least, they could.

That Sugar Maple is a large tree, slow growing and long lived. The leaf colors range from yellow to orange and red with attractive pale yellow flowers in the spring. Plant your sugar maple in fertile, moist, slightly acidic, well-drained soil.

If you ever wonder why you like living in Aiken, drive around town this weekend and see just what a beautiful town in is. Thoreau would have to admit that it is, indeed, complete.

While you’re out, don’t miss “St.Thaddeus Creates” this Saturday and Sunday in the church gym. There will be lots of handcrafted items, all ready for Christmas, and part of the earnings go to local outreach projects and to Mead Hall.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

This is the last weekend of summer, 2008

We know it by the calendar, but our senses also hint that season is winding down. The sunlight falls at a different angle through the kitchen window, the Chessers’ dogwood is sporting its first blush of red, and the birds are quieter, their chirps replaced by the occasional pop of a wisteria seedpod setting seeds for spring. And, best of all, it is blessedly, blissfully cool.

One of best things about writing a garden column in a small town is the contact it gives you with lots of people – people you see often and people you’ve never met. They call you and invite you to come by and look at their unusual plants, or send you a photo by email or snail mail.

The past few weeks yielded a bumper crop of those kinds of contacts. One call came from New Ellenton. Like me, June Cofer is a plant collector. Less concerned with design and more interested in finding interesting plants, she and her husband have a huge garden filled partly with vegetables – she was harvesting the last of the peas when I arrived – and partly filled with unusual plans she’d purchased, been given, and in many cases, dug up.

The promise of a clump of Coral vine was the thing that tempted me to the Cofer’s garden in the first place. Coral vine is an annual or perennial vine, depending on how the winter treats it, that is evergreen in warmer climates where it may become invasive. Here it will die back in winter and, if mulched and protected a little, will reappear in spring with a mass of delicate pink flowers and arrow shaped leaves. “Give it something to climb on,” she warned me. “It grows a lot over the summer.”

Though Ms. Cofer’s Coral Vine had no flowers, my friend Linda Christine knew where there was one blooming and took me to Gem Lakes to see it. The Shealy’s garden in Gem Lakes is abounding in color now, and the Coral Vine, buzzing with bees, made a lush cover over the trellis where it was planted.

Mrs. Cofer had other plants she wanted to share that I would have loved to take off her hands if I could - a healthy loquat tree, a sprawling Angel Trumpet.

It’s Angel Trumpet time now. Kathy Walker, also of New Ellenton, sent me a photo of her Angel Trumpet, taller the roof of her house.

I don’t know if there’s a more beautiful, more elegant flower than the easy to grow Angel Trumpet. Like hydrangeas of early summer, we can’t let fall go by without at least acknowledging its presence. We whacked it down to the ground after the freeze killed it last winter. Then, with the first warm days of spring, shoots begin to emerge from the mass of roots. By now, it’s gigantic, with fragrant, trumpet-shaped blossoms dangling from its branches.

Lisa Roberts sent me a photo of another plant on steroids she has growing in her front yard. She’d purchased the seeds for Castor Bean at the Pascalina Herbe Faire in the spring and said she felt like Jack that planted the Beanstalk. The plants are already twice the height of her 6’2” son with burgundy palm-shaped leaves and fuzzy seed pods that are a great contrast in shape and texture with many other late summer flowers and foliage plants. They grow from seed fairly easily. Just be careful. They are quite poisonous.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

"In Georgia, the legend says ...

The May River toward Palmetto Bluff

That you must close your windows
At night to keep it out of the house."

from “Kudzu” by James Dickey

I’ve learned a lot about gardening from my patient friend Judy. She’s introduced me to dozens of interesting plants. She taught me about how I should be careful not to get fertilizer on the leaves of the plants I’m fertilizing and which kinds of tomatoes she thinks are the best to grow and when to plant sweet peas. Best of all, she didn’t even complain when I planted a potato vine and a five-leafed akebia vine on the arbor that stands between her garden and mine. These two have the Banksia Rose in a full-nelson now, despite my efforts to get rid of them.

Anytime a gardener plants an unusual plant, it pays to look into its background first. No matter how attractive or how beneficial a plant is, it looses its charm when you can’t control it. Take Kudzu, for instance. Judy and I were sitting near a bank overlooking the May River in Bluffton this weekend when I noticed a purple flower spike jutting up from a healthy looking vine covering the river’s bank. The flowers were pea-like in a rich purple color, on six or eight inch long spikes, and they smelled like grape Nehi.

If I hadn’t known better, I’d have picked some of it and brought it home, but being a Georgia girl, as I am, I recognized the thing by its leaves. Pueraria montana var. lobata is its botanical name, but it’s more commonly known as Kudzu.

You see Kudzu all over the southeastern United States, but it always has seemed the most abundant along I-20 between here in Atlanta. That may not be my imagination.

Kudzu was introduced into the United States in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Japanese exhibit contained a garden filled with the vine, bearing sweet smelling blooms and healthy green leaves. It began to be planted first ornamentally. Then during the Great Depression, the Soil Conservation Service encouraged people to plant it for erosion control.

Alabama filmmaker Max Shores tells us that Kudzu’s most vocal advocate was Channing Cope of Covington, Georgia, a WSB-AM (Atlanta) radio personality. During the 1940’s Cope traveled across the southeast starting Kudzu Clubs to honor what he called “the miracle vine.”

Covington, Georgia is right there in the Kudzu corridor along the interstate. Maybe the proliferation of the vine there was not just in my head.

Cope was disappointed when the U.S. government stopped advocating the use of Kudzu in 1953. Kudzu just grows too well here it seems. Our winters aren’t cold enough to kill back the roots, and Kudzu spreads like a creature from a science fiction novel. The vines grow as much as a foot per day during the summer, over trees, power poles, and anything else it comes in contact with.
To get rid of it, you must continuously cut back the leaves to deplete its carbohydrate supply or destroy the root crown, a fibrous mass of tissue that sits on top of the root, which can regenerate, even it’s dumped in another site.
Some parts of Kudzu are edible. The young leaves can be used for salad, or cooked like spinach. I’ve read about, but never tried, the flowers of Kudzu that may be battered and fried or made into jelly, and the roots that can be cooked as well. Parts of Kudzu are used in herbal medicine.
The southeastern United States is no longer the only area with claim to Kudzu creep. Dr. Harry Shealy tells me that it has spread north to Illinois and west to Texas. It’s also invaded South Africa, Malaysia and some western Pacific Islands. But we may claim the most acres covered – over 2,000,000.

Kudzu blooms everywhere, he says, not only along the coast. The flowers just don’t show up well from a distance. If I like the flowers, and they are quite attractive, I could plant a Millettia, or Evergreen Wisteria vine, a much more mannerly look-alike. But I won’t plant a Kudzu vine on the arbor or anywhere else. That might push Judy over the edge.

For a county of around 150,000, Aiken is well represented in “Garden and Gun” magazine’s “50 Best of the New South” this month. The article names Beech Island native Jenks Farmer, Best Horticulturist . Jenks is curator and designer of Moore Farms in Lake City, SC and owner of Lush Life Nursery, a great mail-order source for Crinum Lilies. Woodlanders’ Nursery, right here in downtown Aiken, is listed as “Best Nursery.” There is plenty of competition in both arenas. Hometown boys make good!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

If You Go To the Beach, You're Going to get Sand in Your Bed

It was not the worst house we’ve ever rented. In some ways, it surpassed the houses where we stayed on Pawleys Island in the 70’s. This house had air-conditioning, practically unheard of in a rental then. It had a dishwasher. We washed and dried by hand. It had a washer and dryer. We either went to the laundromat or wore dirty. And this house had a microwave, which, in the early 70’s, had been invented but nobody owned one.

This house, on another South Carolina beach, was surrounded by a little grass, a lot of ants and a whole lot of sand, which, because the house sat flat on the ground, made its way into the house, and even our beds, with regularity, and the house broom didn’t get much rest.

Here in Aiken, on the edge of the sandhills, we fight another battle with sand. Peaches, watermelons and peanuts love sandy soil, but most other garden and landscape plants need more nutrients than it provides. Sandy soil is good for plants that don’t like wet feet, but hard on plants that need a lot of water, so we must constantly amend with humus and other organic material.

But Sand is what makes the beach a beach, I think. A rocky beach should be called something else. Sand is “nature’s true grit,” says Todd Ballantine in his wonderful book about beach ecology, “Tideland Treasure.” .

Three things make up our beach sand, he says. Quartz is weathered from Appalachian granite and was transported here by ancient rivers. Ground up sea shells are calcium carbonate pulverized by sea surf. The final ingredient is detritus from plants, animals, plankton skeletons, fecal pellets and bacteria. Sand feels gritty, as opposed to silt, which is smaller grained and feels smooth. Sand feels especially gritty when it’s rubbed between the bottom sheet and your bare legs.

It was only a short walk across the sand dunes to the beach from our house. Sea Oats are the most plentiful plants on the dunes. They are the seashore’s indispensable “amber waves of grain” with creamy panicles on six foot stalks that bend in the intense beach wind. A wild relative of the oats from which oatmeal is made, Sea Oats are there for more than just decoration. These Sea Oats send roots deep down into the dunes and help hold them in place.

Other beach grasses populate the dunes as well. Bitter panic grass, broomsedge, nutgrass, and the nasty, foot-puncturing sandspur help keep the dunes from blowing away.

Besides the sandspur, other shore plants have developed thorny defenses against marauding herbivores. Horse nettle, Solanum carolinense, is close kin to our garden tomato (the same genus) and is familiar to Aiken gardeners as an irritating yellow flowered, thorny spined plant that pops up regularly in our flower and vegetable beds.

Other spiky plants that grow wild on the dunes are also grown as ornamentals in xeriscaping. Yucca has sharp, pointed leaves that grow in a rosette shape with a tall candelabra of white flowers. Prickly Pear cactus pops up here and there and bears a flower and a fruit that can be made into jelly.

Closer to the ground, yellow flowering Evening Primrose still blooms along with wild Morning Glory. One of the most prevalent beach plants and one that that we don’t seeing growing wild in Aiken is the round leaved Beach Pennywort. And there’s smilax, of course.

All these plants have adapted to grow in the sand in the hot, windy, salty conditions that exist along the shore. If it weren’t for them, the dunes would blow away or wash away and eventually the houses would too. We wouldn’t have our yearly family vacation, where the big boys can go fishing and the little boys can dig a hole to China and fill it with ocean water.

So it wasn’t the best house. Most mornings began with the chirp of two-year-old Elliot calling, “Mammommy! PopPop!” and ended with a quiet night on the porch with his big brother who’s now four and fascinated with sea turtles. “Look, grandmommy, the moon looks like a seashell.” Angel voices. What’s a little sand in your bed?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Picks and Pans for Summer 08

There’s nothing like late August in the South Carolina midlands to separate the sheep from the goats. We’ve rolled along all summer, enticed by wonderful flowering things we’ve seen growing at the nursery or in glossy photos in magazines. We’ve brought them home and planted them in the appropriate place in the garden and expected them to look like they did in the picture or newly emerged from the greenhouse.

Just like the dress from Talbots that looks fabulous in a size 6 on a 5’9” model in the catalog but not quite the same in a size 14 on you in front of the full length mirror in your bedroom, real life sometimes doesn’t live up to exactly what we expected.

Still in a testing mood after last week’s tomato test, I want to gather some recommendations from Aiken Gardeners for their favorite hardy plants for local gardens. I’ll start with some of my picks and pans:

Dragonwing Begonia. The bright red flowers and thick shiny leaves of this annual make it a star in my book. Dragonwing seems resistant to pests – something I’ve been fighting all summer in some parts of my garden. It’s able to stand up to a few weeks of low water when the sprinkler head was broken, and to just be an all around good plant. It seems happy in shade or a whole lot of sun.
Alternantha. I think this variety is called “Party Time,” though there are dozens of other varieties in many colors with different leaf shapes to recommend. I planted a few pots of this rather late and it still seems to be thriving. Alternanthera is grown for its foliage, and this particular variety has pink and green leaves that fill in the holes with color without the demands of a flowering plant. Tom Rapp uses a chartreuse alternanthera with small, bright green leaves in some of the city plantings and has for several years. That’s a clue that it’s a hardy plant.
Purple fountain grass. There’s nothing like the drought tolerant grasses to add interest and texture to a bed. This fountain grass is especially attractive as it nods in the morning breeze. Too bad it won’t bloom year round.
Black-eyed Susan. Probably the most common wildflower across the United States, a sign that it can deal with hot summers and occasional neglect.
Lantana. Any plant that survives the summer on the west side of my house out of sprinkler range, and returns every year in a burst of yellow, butterfly loving color, can stay in my garden as long as I can turn a spade.

And now for the plants that did not live up to my expectations.
Sun Coleus. I know I have mentioned more than once that whatever is eating plants in the back bed must be especially fond of these coleus. I have grown them for years and they always seemed to stand out as good plants. This year I’m ready to be done with them. Is it something I said? Have I taken them for granted? I’ve vowed to give this bed a thorough renewing this fall and then again in spring. Coleus gets one more chance and we’ll part for good.
Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender” She looked so pretty in the hanging baskets – so hardy and soft. Mona must have given the critters of the night a come hither look and they took her up on the invitation. They’ve been munching on those leaves all summer. No leaves, so no flowers. No more Mona for me unless it’s in a hanging basket.
Some of the new coneflowers. I think I’ll stick with the old reliable varieties. ‘Magnus’ is a good one that’s been around a while and has proven itself.


.“You know what they said when the old lady kissed the cow…there’s no accounting for taste.” Old Elder family saying.

They’re celebrating in Atlanta these days. Not because the Dogs were the preseason pick for number one in the nation for the first time ever. That seems to make everybody a bit nervous. But they’ve had rain! Though Lake Lanier is still low, this July’s rainfall was above average and watering is again allowed, though there are still some restrictions.

Judging by the abundance of produce at one small Farmers’ Market, in the parking lot of St. Phillips Cathedral on Peachtree Road in Buckhead, there’s a bumper crop of vegetables – and not your ordinary vegetables.

I’ve been reading, and writing, about heirloom vegetables, primarily tomatoes, for the past two years. I planted some heirloom tomatoes last year and some more this year, but had not had much success. I wanted to taste them and see if they really were as good as promised. Wanting some to keep and some to give some away, I chose four, maybe five, varieties, picked two of each variety and divided them into two bags.

“That’ll be $17.95,” said the girl behind the table. Gulp. That was somewhere around two dollars a tomato. These had better be good.

I gave some away, supplementing my gift with some less expensive hybrids, and brought home one of each variety for the First Annual Tomato Taste Test – held in the kitchen, just before dinner on Sunday night. The pricey heirloom tomatoes would be judged against hybrid tomatoes straight from the side bed, just picked that afternoon. These hybrids were planted in fresh, fertilized soil back in the spring. They get regular watering from the sprinkler and have stayed healthy all summer without additional fertilizer or insecticides.

The judges of the F.A.T.T. Test were my husband Hank, our son David, and me. Each type of tomato was sliced and put on a separate plate, with a light sprinkle of salt.

We found, not surprisingly, that after thirty-nine years of marriage, Hank and I have similar taste. The bright red, juicy, fresh out of our garden tomato was our favorite. Were we influenced by the fact that it was red and juicy and we knew it was fresh? Probably. David liked his a bit firmer and liked one of the heirlooms better.

“Aunt Ruby’s German Green,” “Georgia Streak,” and ”Black from Tula” were the heirlooms we tried. The comments about them were inconsistent. We thought the heirlooms were tasty, but hardly worth two bucks each.

I’m not sure what I expected. I suppose the heirloom tomato sensation is, in fact, a reaction to those awful grocery store tomatoes, the ones grown for their thick skin and shippability that are totally lacking in taste. If that’s your basis for comparison, there’s no contest. The hybrid vs. heirloom race is about even until you consider that heirlooms are a little harder to find and harder to grow. Then hybrid’s the winner I think.
What’s the difference between a hybrid, a heirloom, and a genetically modified tomato? Heirloom vegetables are simply vegetables that come from seed that has been saved and grown for a period of years. To be capable of being saved, they must be open pollinated, meaning the seeds produce seedlings just like the parent plant.
Hybrids, the kind of tomatoes we usually grow and buy at the local farmers’ market, are crosses between different plants in an effort to get the best features of both parents. The reason varieties such as Better Boy, Early Girl, Marion (developed at Clemson – my friend Judy’s favorite) have survived to be grown in back yard gardens is that they are fairly easy to grow, are resistant to disease, and they’re pretty tasty, especially when you pick them straight off the vine.
Genetically modified plants have been genetically altered using molecular genetics techniques such as gene cloning and protein engineering. The FDA promises us they are safe and are being developed so that we can buy a tasty tomato at Kroger in the middle of the winter. With some exceptions – the Romas and Grape Tomatoes aren’t so bad – I’d say they need to keep working on it.
Give me the Aiken Farmers’ Market any day, where the vegetables are reasonably priced and taste as good as any I know. Hollie Gartman tells me she hopes to have sweet Silver King corn until September to go with the table full of tomatoes she displays every week.
But I’m still pulling for the Bulldogs.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

This is a Love Story

It is about a couple who love each other, and about a woman who loves her garden. If you are the sort of person who would opt for “Dark Knight” over “Mama Mia!” and you do not want to read a love story, keep reading, there’s guy stuff at the end.

Both loves began in England, where Rich Waugh, raised in Aiken, was studying for a graduate degree at the University of Leeds, a city in West Yorkshire, about 200 miles northwest of London, where Jan had lived all her life.

Jan and Rich married, moved several times and eventually settled for good with their two children in Aiken. Jan later became co-owner of a restaurant, Number 10 Downing Street that also did outside catering. The restaurant kept her busier than she’d ever imagined and all the while Rich was on the road, traveling around the world, often gone for a week at a time. They didn’t get to spend much time together.

Then, in 2004, Jan and her partner sold the restaurant, Rich retired, and their life suddenly took on a new dimension. You would see them around town together – at lunch, shopping, about the two happiest people you can imagine.

The garden around their Westcliff home had always been well kept, as were the grounds of Number 10, both made sure of that. But there had been no time to do much extra. Suddenly, like many of Aiken’s retirees, they had the time and the energy to put into their garden.

All gardeners get their passion for gardening from some place or some person. What about Jan? “I think it was the English blood in my case,” she says. “I realize not all Englishmen are gardeners but all the people I knew were. When visiting a relative or friend's house, even as a child, it was expected that at some point you would tour the garden, however small, and comment appropriately. Family outings were taken to stately homes, and gardens. School trips were to Roman ruins and gardens. You learn the names of flowers along with nursery rhymes and the alphabet. We had "I-Spy" books in which you identified birds, trees, flowers and noted the date and place where they were seen. It was ingrained!”

The Waughs’ front lawn is neatly landscaped with hydrangeas and other shrubs, but, as is often the case, it’s in back where the love shows. “If we couldn’t live near the water, we brought the water to us,” Jan told me once. Birdbaths and trickling fountains abound, surrounded by seasonal flowers, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, and interesting grasses.

A recent remodeling project added a balcony off the bedroom, overlooking the secluded backyard (or back garden – Jan would never call it a “yard”), where the couple can watch the sunset and the bird feeder where, they’ve observed, the birds come in shifts all day.

The remodeling project yielded an unexpected bonus. Underneath the bedroom, with a door to the garage, is a neatly appointed room with a shiny concrete floor and gray pegboard walls, tidily stacked pots, a sink, and a place for the lawn mower. It’s the perfect place for a gardener to spend a cold winter afternoon or a hot summer morning - the potting shed, or as only they could imagine – The Posh.

Here’s the manly part. One of the lessons we Americans could well learn for most of the rest of the world is the business of recycling. I don’t mean just putting newspapers and aluminum cans in a bin and setting it out by the curb, but serious attention to reusing kitchen and yard waste, as well as capturing rainwater. It’s a win-win deal.

Composting is a given in England, and for years Jan and Rich have used the large plastic bin, meant for that purpose, to recycle everything from coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable waste, eggshells, to grass clippings and some (not all) of the pine needles from their lawn. Just one look at the rich, black soil that comes out of the bottom of the bin is enough to send you googling for one of your own. I haven’t seen any available locally.

Birdbaths and fountains aren’t the only place in the garden to find water. The Waughs came up with their own rain barrel (called a “water butt” in England) using a plastic garbage can, but that split when it got too full. Rich found at Walmart a rain barrel, made by Fiskars, the scissor people, with a spout at the bottom and holes in the top for the water to get in. You can set it up under a gutter downspout or purchase a diverter that you attach to the downspout. Rich added a bigger hole in the top with a screen on it as well. The 56 gallon container was overflowing after last week’s rain. It may save only a few pennies, but, more important, the rainwater contains fewer chemicals than our treated water. That’s a plus for plants.

What other part does Rich play in this Aiken-English garden – besides the mowing, rain barrel installation and other heavy lifting? “Whatever I’m told,” he answers.

Now that’s love.

I thought Juliet was supposed to stand on the balcony.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Three things to do that can be done indoors on a hot summer day

If you're looking for a good book to curl up with on a hot summer night, get a copy of Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. It's a captivating book with mystery and suspense, English Moors and an evil twin. The only thing wrong with it is that I couldn't put it down and finished in only a few days. This is Setterfield's first book - or the only one available, so I'll just have to wait till the next one comes out. Hope it's not long.

I have confessed, to anyone who is interested - few people are, to being an anglophile. We signed up for Netflix a few years ago when we learned that we could rent the entire series of Upstairs, Downstairs, and Jeeves and Wooster (House's Hugh Laurie in a totally different character) much cheaper than we could purchase them. After exhausting both series, we went through a few of the mystery series - Campion and The Midsomer Murders, and then we discovered Monarch of the Glen.

I understand Monarch of the Glen was quite a hit in Great Britain where it ran for seven seasons, having just recently ended. It is the story of an up and coming young Scotsman who comes home to the family estate in the Highlands of Scotland to keep the castle going. The scenery is breathtaking - and the story is engaging and funny and, I guess you could say - tasteful - as a TV series can be.

If you haven't checked out the posted links lately, have a look. The Augusta Rose Society has a new website that will have you preparing your rosebed by the end of the month.

The Nutrition Date Site has more than you ever thought you wanted to know about what's good for you to eat, and on the other end of the food chain, there's the Varsity!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Summertime, when the Working is Optional

“Hire a professional and go to the mountains,” landscape designer Elliott Johnson told me once, when I’d asked him what to do here in the middle of the summer, when it’s ninety-five degrees outside and you feel like you’re enveloped in a giant zip-lock bag and you’re using up the oxygen fast.

There’s that gift certificate for a weekend at the Grove Park Inn David gave us for Christmas. Maybe it’s time to use it. But that’s only a weekend. We would have to come back eventually. There’s the usual weeding and spraying, if you are disposed to dispose of unwanted flora and fauna in that way (see below), but that’s no fun. What else?

You can still plant, Elliott told me, as long as you water thoroughly. If you’ve waited until mid-summer to plant or if some things need replacing, in Aiken you still have months to enjoy your garden. Some years things don’t die back here until Christmas.

“Just be sure to choose plants that adapt well to the heat. Purple coneflower, sun coleus, pentas, angelonia, the smaller salvias, rudbeckia, lantana, of course, will all tolerate high temperature and humidity.” Mid-day is not the best time to plant. Early or late is better, for you and your plants.

Thorough watering is a necessity. A daily sprinkling probably won’t do the trick. It’s good to let most plants dry out a little between waterings (a recommendation echoed by Suzanne Holmes, our Clemson Extension Agent) so that they send their roots down deep, looking for water. Brief, shallow watering causes the roots to look for water close to the surface. When the ground is dry to start, check beneath the top layer to be sure the water has penetrated.

Sometimes it seems the water just sits on top of the soil or mulch, creating puddles which eventually all drain to a low spot. Here’s a tip from Elliott to help make the water soak in quickly: Add a tablespoon of Ivory Liquid to a gallon of water in one of those containers that fits on the end of your hose. For some reason the soap helps the water soak in and the soap doesn’t hurt anything.

The damage to my coleus and basil that I was blaming on slugs might not be the fault of the slimy creatures after all. The ragged, chewed holes, it seems, were on the top leaves of the plants, eighteen inches off the ground. Slugs, when last I checked, do not fly (thank goodness). Nor would they opt for climbing to the top of the plant and working down. They’re not that farsighted. I was outdoors after dark last week and spotted some beetles fooling around on the basil leaves.

I checked, once again, with Master Gardener Bill Hayes, who knows more about getting rid of evil doers than Batman. “Ahh, the mysteries of the garden!” he wrote. “If you have a magnifying glass, check the leaves for very small black specs. That would be something like a sawfly worm. It’s about an inch long with stripes and a great appetite. They eat coleus and leave tiny droppings. If it isn’t that, it’s something like it.”

The beetle I saw probably is a Japanese beetle, since July is their month to shine. It’s black with an iridescent green back. Whatever it is, Bill says Sevin dust should take care of both of them.

Sevin dust is an insecticide that’s been around for years and is sold now by Bayer, the aspirin people. It is approved for use on vegetables, with some restrictions as so how long you should wait between application and ingestion. It’s available everywhere plant care products are sold. As always, read the label or go online to and read the label before you purchase.

You may decide you can live with imperfect leaves, after all. Just take Elliott’s advice and go to the mountains. The beach is nice too.

Candy Apple Red and Neon Green

I saw my first hummingbird of the season this weekend. Turk’s Cap, or Sleeping Hibiscus, never fails to get the attention of those delightful creatures. I got these Turk’s Caps, old garden favorites and hibiscus relatives, at Woodlanders years ago, and, though they are considered tropical plants, they come back reliably ever summer with bright red two-inch blooms that look like hibiscus that never finished opening. Turk’s Caps have a protruding stigma that is a siren call to hummingbirds.

Neon green and neon orange are all the fashion rage this summer, I’m told. A child in an eye-popping green swim suit is easy to spot on the beach, and the color is equally attention-getting in a woman’s tank top. Neon is not, however, the most flattering to our hair and skin tones (“sallow” comes to mind) and maybe that’s not the kind of attention we want.

But imagine neon in the garden, especially in a part shady corner. I happened earlier in the spring onto a few pots of Hypericum calycinum ‘Brigadoon’ at Park Seed/Wayside Gardens’ Greenwood, SC nursery, and brought them home to put in a pot with ‘Nigra’ Elderberry, a lovely cutleaf shrub that I thought I needed. After all, not everybody shares a name with a plant.

Gardeners and non-gardeners alike have looked for years to Hypericum, or St. John’s Wort, for its therapeutic powers. Another species of Hypericum is thought to be antibiotic and antidepressive, though it has some other, less appealing, properties.

This ‘Brigadoon’ turns out to be even more attractive than I realized. It has the brightest, yellow-green leaves I ever seen in a garden, and promises even more treats when it blooms.

Unlike many of the tropical plants I’ve tried this year, ‘Brigadoon’ can take winter temperatures down to zone five, with its bright green foliage appearing in spring, followed by yellow flowers typical of the Hypericums, about a quarter size in diameter with pronounced stamens attractive to bees and butterflies.

‘Brigadoon’ is a low-growing, spreading ground cover that grows twelve to sixteen inches tall and two feet wide. It likes full sun to partial shade and is very adaptable to different soil types. It is listed by Wayside Gardens for zones five to seven, so it should come back next year.

I got a phone call last week from an Aiken gardener asking why her Calla Lily wasn’t reblooming, and I had to admit that my Calla Lily blooms are smaller and fewer in number this year as well. I think having success with Calla Lilies, in many ways, depends on the luck of the draw. You need to have found the right variety for our Aiken soil and climate. Calla Lily needs sun, but not too much sun. It needs cold, but not too much cold, and water but good drainage.

There are also two things worth trying. We can fertilize them after the leaves come up, though it may be too late to do any good this year, or we can dig them up in the fall and divide them into new plants. Calla lilies are just too beautiful not to be worth the fuss, or worth the price of some new bulbs. Online the price of bulbs ranges from a package of ten for twenty-five dollars to one ‘White Giant’ at Plant Delights for sixteen dollars. You get what you pay for, I expect.

We’ve been blessed with recurring afternoon showers lately, and weeding has become our main chore of the day. But the mornings seem cool now, considering it’s nearing the end of July, and weeds come up more easily from wet ground. Hummingbirds dart, butterflies sup. Life is good. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

In the mystical world of plant taxonomy, there are characteristics that group plants together. Some plants in the same family don’t look like they even know each other. But there are other plants that, if you saw them sitting together, you would know were cousins. Such are the Arums.

The Araceae is a family of herbaceous plants. They are also called Arums, though the true Arums are a genus, or smaller group, within the Araceae family. The Araceae may live on land or in the water and have simple leaves or compound leaves, but the family trait most easily identifiable is the peculiar flower – a long, round spadix swathed in a silky petal called a spathe.

One of the handsomest of the summer flowering bulbs, I think, is an Arum of the Zantedeschia genus, called “Calla Lily.” Now, to add to the confusion, the Calla Lily is neither a Calla (yet another genus), nor a true lily (a whole different family). No matter. It is elegant and easy to grow and is quite happy here in our Aiken soil, surviving our mild winters outdoors nicely.

The Calla Lily flower is quite dramatic and is at its most eye-catching when it’s shown alone or with other Calla Lilies. I’ve seen the large florist varieties in white, carried by brides and bridesmaids and on the altar on the day of a baptism. Remember the Diego Rivera flower vendor paintings or the Georgia O’Keefe flower studies? There’s a book titled Georgia O’Keefe and the Calla Lily in American Art, 1860-1940 that credits Sigmund Freud for the flower’s popularity.

I think it could have made it without Freud, but whatever the reason for its popularity, the Calla Lily has continued to be a well-loved flower, both in the garden and in a vase.

Jim Wilson lists Calla Lilies in his book, Bullet Proof Flowers for the South, reminding us to plant them in well-drained soil so that the bulbs won’t rot during wet winter weather, or grow them in a pot fill with “moderately fast-draining soilless mix.

The bulbs I planted several years ago in the sunny side bed have blooms that have lasted several weeks already. Propagate them by dividing the tubers in late summer or early fall, and cover them with pine straw mulch and they will very likely make it through the winter.

I stopped by more than once at the Shady Characters booth at this year’s Aiken Garden Show and one of the unusual plants that caught my eye was another handsome Arum called Pinellia tripartita ‘Dragon Tales.’ Each of the light green three lobed leaves of this plant is variegated with creamy yellow. Some leaves are all yellow, some half green and half yellow, some streaky yellow and some all green. “The unstable variegation pattern is what makes this a truly fascinating plant,” says Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh. The flowers are produced all summer and can also be variegated.

Pinellia likes moist woodland soils and, like all Shady Characters plants, part shade. I brought it home and put it a pot with ‘Molly Bush’ Heuchera and some lovely peacock moss, also from Shady Characters. They make a handsome trio.

Everette and Karen Jones opened their nursery called Shady Characters out Wire Road near 1-20 several years ago, and they offer a huge selection of cool plants made for the shade. They began with a good collection of Heuchera and Hosta, and have continued to expand to other shade tolerant plants such as Heucherella (a sterile cross between Heuchera and Tiarella) and Pulmonaria and another unusual flower called Spigelia marilandica.

I haven’t dared make a trip out to their Wire Road place this year. Though their prices are quite reasonable, I find too many things I can’t live without that I know I can’t find anywhere else. If you have some shady spots that need some attention, give them a call to be sure they’re open at 803 269-3309 and take a drive out to see them. You won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Very Welcoming Place

Bell and I paid a visit to Sam and Linda Christine this week after Linda emailed me about a new plant that was blooming and ripening now in their magnificent garden. Last year Jenks Farmer, a Beech Island native and well known horticulturalist, had passed along some seeds to her from a plant he called “Plum Granny.” After seeing and smelling the Plum Granny fruit at the home of Jenks’ mother, Linda brought home the seeds and started them in pots.

Also known as ‘Queen Anne’s Pocket Melon,’ ‘Vine Pomegranate,’ and ‘Perfume Melon,’ this fruit is about the size of a small apple or a large plum and with skin that feels like a plum. When ripe, it is yellow with deep orange-red strips and white flesh. There isn’t much flesh, though the flesh is edible and some folks, I’m told, like its taste. Plum Granny is much better known for its fragrance than for its flavor, and a bowl of them, or even just a few, will fill a room with the melony smelling perfume.

In Harold McGee’s book, “On Food,” it’s listed under the category of “Minor Melons.” There are six groups of melons altogether, he tells us, and the Plum Granny is part of the Dudaim Group, which includes small, especially musky, melons used in the United States South. McGee also says that the name Dudaim is Hebrew for “love plants.” I don’t know if “love” is a verb, a noun, or an adjective in this case.

Plum Grannies are part of the huge Cucurbit Family that includes watermelons, cantelopes, cucumbers and squash and is thought to have been brought to the colonies by Europeans colonists. The plants will easily hybridize with other melons, including cantelopes, so it’s best not to have them growing near each other.

The Christines’ garden, as always, had some interesting flowering plants that were new to me. This time it was a dazzling flowering shrub called “Ixora.” There are many varieties of Ixora, but the flowers on this one were especially eye-catching. Imagine the mophead of a hydrangea with tiny, closely packed flowerets, in bright yellowy-orange.

Also called ‘Jungle Flame,’ ‘Flame-of-the-Woods,’ or ‘Jungle Geranium,’ this plant likes acidic, well-drained soil and makes a good evergreen hedge. That would make it perfect for Aiken conditions, except for one small problem – it is not winter hardy, and even temperatures in the thirties will damage the leaves.

Linda, and anyone else who is so fortunate as to have a greenhouse, can keep their Ixora inside when the temperatures drop and move it outdoors in the spring. If you’ve got a space inside with bright light, Ixora may also be kept as a houseplant just as you would a tropical Hibiscus. Any major pruning should be done in early spring as plants begin to send out new growth.

I don’t know that there is a more welcoming garden in the state as Sam and Linda Christines’. The daylilies were in full bloom, of course, as were the many varieties of hydrangeas. Folks from Connecticut had stopped by for a visit after seeing the article in the May issue of Southern Living Magazine. Linda presented me with a pot of basil, one of fennel, and some vining Plum Grannies ready to go on a trellis. Sam even tended to Bell while I took pictures. The Christines are pleased to show you around their garden as well. Call first - they're in the book.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Spoleto 2008 - An Ecumenical Weekend

We had not meant to stay in “Charleston’s only Kosher Bed and Breakfast.” It just happened. Broad Street Guest House happened to be where we wanted (Broad Street, Charleston, South Carolina). And available when we wanted (during Spoleto) with an attached carriage house that made it easy to get all the stuff we travel with (we do not travel light) in and out of the car.We arrived, as instructed, before 7 p.m. on Friday in keeping with the guest house rules for observing Shabbat. “Shalom ya’ll” was posted on a plaque beside the front door, and the Charleston single house, built before the turn of the century – the last century – was filled with aromas that promised good food to come.

Breakfast was provided and, for Orthodox Jews, other Kosher meals are provided as well. We had other fish to fry, or to fish to eat, since every visit to Charleston, even during Spoletto, is as much about finding new restaurants and enjoying the familiar ones as it is about anything else.Getting our Explorer into the narrow parking place in back of the house was the only hitch in the day, and once that was done, we decided the rest of our traveling would be done on foot. But that was easy from the house, located as it was, just a few blocks from King Street.
Fleet Landing, a casual restaurant on Concord Street, just a block from East Bay, was our first stop before "La Cenerentola" at the Galliard Auditorium. Fried Oysters with Southern Comfort Barbeque Sauce, served over Lowcountry Creamy Grits, with Applewood Smoked Bacon & Cheddar Cheese sounds just as rich and delicious as it tasted. An appetizer serving was all I needed, while my husband had a hamburger, better than anything he’s had in a long time, he said.
Saturday morning, we met the other guests at Hadassah Rothenberg’s charming B&B. Hadassah is passionate about her faith and seemed ready to share with us anything we wanted to know. We learned that our breakfast was an Israeli breakfast, with cucumbers, tomatoes and feta cheese, plenty of fresh fruit and thick slices of homemade bread. Breakfasts the following day were more elaborate, with luscious fruit smoothies, bread pudding and more of the tomatoes, cucumbers and feta.

We learned about keeping Shabbat, that it is a time for rest and study, visiting with family. We especially like the idea of the Shabbat Nap, a tradition we were ready to adopt immediately.
We spent the day doing Spoleto things, Chamber Music for Hank and a lecture on Long Leaf Pine Restoration, by Jack Hitt, and Rice and Sea Island Cotton culture, by Richard Porcher, for me. Perhaps my favorite Spoletto experience and possibly the least expensive, was the Piccolo Spoleto performance at the First (Scots) Presbyterian Church by Charleston Pro Musica and The College of Charleston Madrigal Singers. The church's magnificent acoustics offer the perfect setting for the program, billed as "An eclectic program with some of the most beautiful melodies of the past featuring a diverse collection of instruments including a large variety of percussion, with percussionist extraordinaire, Danny Mallon." It was breathtaking.

After our own Shabbat nap, we spent the evening talking with Hadassah in the cozy courtyard behind the house, feeling like cousins who’d stopped by for a visit.

At 10 p.m., late for us, we walked across the street to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, where we heard the Charleston Renaissance Ensemble perform Cathedral music ranging from 12th century chant to majestic High Renaissance polyphony.
Sunday, after church at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, our favorite place to be on Sunday morning in Charleston, we went to hear Chamber Music, temporarily (we hope) being performed at the Memminger. Chamber Music director and pianist, Charles Wadsworth may walk slowly, but his fingers are still as nimble as a youth’s as he played a cello duet perfectly. As usual, he threw a modern piece in the middle of the program, Kodaly, I think.

And then on to our favorite place for Sunday Dinner – Jestine’s Kitchen on Meeting Street. We’ve been eating fried chicken and fried shrimp and oysters and pork chops and meat loaf and pot roast and fried okra at Jestine’s and washing it down with gallons of her perfect sweet tea almost since the day it opened. It’s not far from the College of Charleston, where two of our sons went to school, and it’s always seemed almost as good as going to Grandma's for lunch, maybe better, since you don’t have to help with the dishes. Dana Berlin, the restaurant’s owner, recognizes us and sometimes sends out a little extra treat, some bread pudding or a corn fritter.
We’re not the only ones to notice Jestine’s. Anthony Bourdain (“No Reservations”) visited there last fall and declared her fried green tomatoes first rate – although he probably used some other term.
Despite the fact that we’d nearly O.D.’d on fried seafood, we felt good when we checked out of The Broad Street Guest House on Monday morning. Maybe it was the kosher food. Maybe it was all the walking we did.

We also felt like we’d learned something, about being Jewish, about what a commitment it is to keep a kosher kitchen and to be an Orthodox Jew. We’d heard music across eight centuries, and that we loved best the older harmonies.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Hollyhock surprises

If you have been gardening for more than, say, a week or two, you have probably learned this one thing – plants have a mind of their own. Just as we raise our children to behave in a certain way and expect them to continue to exhibit this behavior into adulthood, they still surprise us now and then. And so it is in our garden – we read the label, plant in the right place at the right time, then comes the surprise.

Biennial plants are, perhaps, the most notorious for offering us surprises. Foxglove and parsley are both biennials, as is that other mallow, the Hollyhock.

As you know, a biennial plant is a flowering plant that takes two years to complete its lifecycle. First, it grows leaves, stems and roots, then enters a period of dormancy when the weather turns cold. It produces flowers the following spring.

Some of the first flowers I planted in the side bed were hollyhocks, given to me by my friend Judy, who is as knowledgeable and as patient a gardener as any I know. These hollyhocks behaved just as they were supposed to.

Judy had started the seeds in mid summer, given them proper protection and water, and the plants were six inches to a foot high by the fall when I planted them in full sun by the fence because I knew they would grow tall and need extra support. They bloomed beautifully the following June, reseeded, and bloomed again for several years.

The first surprise came with the second bloom. The flowers weren’t the same as the ones that had bloomed the year before. These hollyhocks, it seems, had cross pollinated, and had come up with a new look, attractive, but not what I’d expected.

Eventually, my garden got too crowded and the descendents of those first hollyhocks disappeared. I started more hollyhock seeds two years ago, following Judy’s example, and once they got big enough, I planted them against the fence where they’ve spent approximately a year and a half (a year longer than they were supposed to – surprise number two) doing their thing, producing lots of pretty round leaves and no flowers.

Finally, in the last few weeks, my hollyhocks have begun to bloom. Of course, I’ve lost the name of the variety, but the flowers are deep, deep purple, almost black, with bright yellow centers – strikingly beautiful. And they open, like the foxglove, a few at a time.

Hollyhocks come in a wide range of colors, but if there’s one you’re partial to, plant it alone, since you can expect them to cross pollinate. They grow three to six feet tall normally, but can grow even taller if they’re grown in rich, well drained soil with plenty of moisture.

Because it grows tall and because the leaves are susceptible to diseases, plant hollyhocks in the back of the bed with something to lean on. The double bloomers especially need support. Seed, either purchased or collected, can be planted any time between May and September. Young plants, grown from late season planting, need winter protection. The seed germinates in 2 to 3 weeks at 60 degrees.

I can’t attest to this, since I haven’t tried it, but I’ve read that after the hollyhocks finish blooming, I should cut them way back and they may bloom again in the fall.
Hollyhocks are wonderful, old fashioned flowers that remind us of impressionist paintings and grandmother’s garden. I found a letter recently that my grandmother wrote at least fifty years ago from her home in Stone Mountain, Georgia, back when Stone Mountain was still rural. She’d planted hollyhocks by the back door, she said, and promised they’d be blooming when my aunt came for her yearly visit.

Park Seed advertises Hollyhock seeds from varieties it promises will bloom the first summer if they’re planted in February. I’d love to hear if anyone has had success with these first year bloomers.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Of Hair and Hydrangeas

We women spend a lot of time fretting about our hair. Is it too gray, too short, too long, too thin, too straight, or, in my case too curly? Not curly really, just wavy. I would have made a good flapper, I think. I became a teenager in the 1960’s and pined for long, straight, silky hair like my best friend Sharon. Nowadays, I would be thrilled with course gray hair that didn’t need constant tending like some of my now best friends have. Sad to say, finger waves have not been around since I was a toddler, and my hair has gotten thinner, grayer, of course, but no less unruly. And so my battle against the forces of nature continues.

What the heck, you say, does this have to do with gardening? What it has to do with gardening is this: you always want what you don't have. People in Charleston want to grow delphiniums and peonies that last for more than a week, and people in Alaska want to grow dogwood trees taller than three feet. And what do people with blue hydrangeas want? Pink hydrangeas, of course, and, presumably, the opposite is also true.

I have to say I am less dissatisfied with the color of my hydrangeas than I am with the color of my hair. The good news is that changing either of them is pretty simple. All it takes is a little patience, a bag of lime or a bottle of Clairol. I don’t know what would happen if you put the Clairol on your hydrangeas, but DO NOT put the lime on your hair.

Hydrangeas left alone in our slightly acidic Aiken soil, tend to be blue, but if you are bored with blue, you can pretty easily make them pink.

If you kept going past my house, my street would make a turn and change names, and if you keep on going on that street, it would change names two more times until you come to the garden of Ann and Don Robinson.

The Robinsons have lived in their house for about forty-five years. It’s a ranch style house with almost an acre around it that they’ve filled with beautiful and interesting shrubbery, some of which came from the garden of Ann’s mother.

In front, in a bed that has grown considerably over the years, are hydrangea bushes. Each spring, over about three years, more out of curiosity than dissatisfaction, Don Robinson threw several handsful of lime, the same lime with which we dress our soils in late winter, around the bases of these blue hydrangeas, just to see what would happen, and, over the years the plants have grown pinker and pinker.

According to Michael Dirr’s book, “Hydrangeas for American Gardens,” hydrangea color is determined by the amount of aluminum in the soil solution which can be absorbed by the roots of the plant. The pH of the soil affects that process in a way that is more involved than most people care about knowing, but the bottom line is, if we want to make the hydrangeas deeper blue, we should drench the soil with an aluminum sulfate solution.
Dirr goes on to say that “excess phosphorous in the soil will also tie up the aluminum in insuluable precipitates, even in acid soils. Hydrangea macrophilla grown in pine bark medium, pH 5 to 6, are typically pink because, even though the acidity if high, but there is almost no aluminum present in the bark. To make them blue, aluminum sulfate is added to the surface of the container at a prescribed rate, usually 0.75 to 1.5 ounces evenly distributed on the surface of the 3 gallon container medium. Greenhouse growers also apply it as a drench at the rate of 2.4 ounces per gallon solution with 8 ounces applied as a drench per 6-inch container. Greenhouse treatments start at budbreak and continue every 2 weeks for three additional applications.”

There are other formulas, but whatever you use, you should be sure to water thoroughly after each application and too much is worse than too little, Dirr says. He also suggests that pink hydrangeas are beautiful and if the soil pH is too high, we might just want to enjoy them, but, if we really, really can’t live without pink hydrangeas, we can put lime on the soil, as Don Robinson did. Both lime and aluminum sulfate are available at garden centers.

I heard a lecturer say once that in our hot climate we could never expect to see the deep red hydrangeas that grow in cooler places.

The Robinsons have many other beautiful hydrangeas besides the pink and blue ones, including some huge oakleaf hydrangeas that have so far escaped my capabilities as a gardener.

There are healthy, red and yellow climbing Gloriosa Lilies. The Gloriosa has flowers with yellow petals flamed with red on the upper two thirds and turned up like a turban or an umbrella blown inside out. The stamen and pistil splay out from the center of the bloom.

Gloriosas are planted from tubers in the spring and will survive the winter if they are kept from freezing. Mulch them well in the fall and have them planted where they are protected. They appear to reproduce tubers easily and may be dug and divided in the fall after the plants have completely ripened their foliage, then kept indoors. Make sure that each severed piece has an eye, or growing point. You may also divide the tubers in the spring if you’ve left them in the ground. Be sure they have a tall trellis to climb. Gloriosas, like most lilies, make beautiful cut flowers.

The Robinsons also have a Smoke tree and, Don says, a “smoked tree.” It seems his Texas Star hibiscus leaves looked so much like marijuana leaves that once some marauding youngsters chopped off a branch and tried to smoke them. Wonder what that was like.

It was one of the hottest days of the year when I visited the Robinsons’ garden. Still it was as cool and peaceful as could be. You can see why they’ve stayed there for so long, and I’m guessing they’re not about to make any changes, except maybe to the color of their hydrangeas.

Monday, June 09, 2008


A face only a mother could love

The children’s book, “Arthur, for the Very First Time,” by Patricia MacLachlan, begins with a chapter titled “Moles.”

“What do moles look like?” asked Arthur.

“Ugly,” said his father.

Arthur wrote in his journal: Moles: ugly

“And they always come no matter what I do!” said his father angrily.

Ugly, but loyal.

The same day that I read that chapter to a class of second graders, I ran into a friend in line at Home Depot. “You should write about moles,” she said. “They’ve invaded my garden, killed a new fifteen dollar ginger plant from the roots – overnight. It was just like in ‘Caddy Shack’!”

A few days later, while I was taking Bell for a spin around the backyard, I encountered the mortally wounded, though quite recognizable, body of a mole.

It was fate. I asked my friend Linda Christine to give me the name of our local mole expert, and she sent me to Bill Hayes. Bill is a Master Gardener and plant lover, and he has a talk that his gives about moles and their fellow burrowers, voles.

Moles, he begins by saying, are misunderstood. They may not be loyal, as Arthur suggests, since they are solitary creatures who do not tolerate company; but they are not all together bad since they are not rodents, only eat insects and aerate the lawn. They are therefore beneficial to your garden, unless of course you want to grow something. Then they are pests and must by eliminated, according to Bill.

Moles can move fast, and when tunneling, will often surface, creating a volcano like mound of dirt. This differentiates the mole from the vole.

“The moles’ main food is the earthworm and they will follow the worm,” writes Bill. “That’s why most of the tunnels are at the surface during cool wet weather. The worms like to come up to the surface into soft wet grass. In times of drought we get fewer calls about moles. That’s usually when the surface temperatures are hot and harder than usual. Some homeowners contribute to the problem by over watering and creating the perfect mole/worm environment.”

That’s another reason not to overwater.

You can tell a mole is there if you see a raised tunnel that you hit with the lawnmower. The grass above the tunnel may be turning brown, and your feet may sink into the surface in several locations.

There are many old wives tales about how to get rid of moles, but most of them don’t work, says Bill.

The only way to get rid of moles is to “trap” them!

Trap is in quotation marks because you do not trap them with traps, you kill them, he says.

With names like “harpoon”, “scissors”, and “strangle”, the traps are pretty clear about their purpose.

There is a set of procedures or steps that you must follow to catch the mole.

1. Flatten all mole runs (tunnels). Use your feet or rent a roller. You must locate the primary run. The primary run will lead to the mole’s den or resting place. It is usually in soft soil around a flower bed.
2. Wait 24-48 hours
3. Return to your yard with enthusiasm and locate the active runs.
4. The primary run should be the longest with several shorter runs coming off of it.
5. Insert and set the trap in the primary run close to the den according to instructions.
6. Wait about 24 hours.
7. Exhume mole and discard.

You will now have free time to do other chores until the next mole moves in.

Kind of cute - if you like rodents.

Then there are voles. There are two kinds of voles around Aiken. The pine vole lives below ground and feeds on the roots of plants. The meadow vole (also known as a meadow mouse) lives above ground and eats succulent plants such as hostas, cannas, elephant ears and anything else that you treasure in your garden.

Unlike moles, the voles are sociable critters. They live in large colonies and can do severe damage to a garden or to large plants. Pine voles’ exit holes, resembling those of a snake, can be found around azaleas, camellias or other large plants that they are eating. They eat bulbs, tubers, seeds, and bark

Meadow voles are typically a little bigger than their cousins and live in pine straw piles and other vegetation and return to this vegetation after feeding. They eat grasses, sedges, seeds, grain, bark, and some insects. Both types of voles can be caught with mousetraps.

Bill suggests that it was probably a pine vole that got my friend’s ginger plant.

Meadow voles live in pine straw piles and other vegetation and return to this sanctuary after feeding. Both types of voles can be caught with mouse traps. Care should be taken to avoid poisons that can be eaten by cats or dogs.

Pine voles can be tricked into coming to the surface by creating an artificial tunnel above ground. Place a raised object like a box, pail or roofing shingles over the exit hole and put a few small pieces of apple under the cover. Put a weight on top of the cover to keep any light from entering. The vole will enter the space and eat the apple. After baiting the area for a few days, place a mouse trap in the space baited with apple. You should be able to trap several before they stop coming.

The easiest way for me to tell the difference between a mole and a vole is by the size of their feet. Voles have tiny feet proportional to their size, and they are actually kind of cute – if you like rodents. Moles have feet that look like the mole version of clown feet – without the shoes. I guess to dig that fast, you have to have special equipment.

For the record – I know there are moles and voles around my yard, since I’ve seen them. I haven’t noticed any damage, so I am willing to let them be, but if they are damaging your lawn and garden, you must choose whether or not you want to fight them. That will mean killing them using some kind of trap.

Once you have rid your lawn and garden of moles and voles and shrews (which can also do damage), or you have decided to coexist peacefully with them, you will have a chance to sit down and read. Try reading “Arthur, for the Very First Time” to your favorite elementary school student. It is a beautifully written book I nearly missed.