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Last year, I grew cotton as an ornamental. My plants weren’t impressive, but they did flower and set seed, thus letting me have another shot this year.

A bit of my homegrown harvest.

A bit of my homegrown harvest.

I started them very early this year, and will pot them on and move them to my cold frame in a few weeks.

Cotton seedlings started in Keurig cups.

Cotton seedlings started in Keurig cups.

Cotton requires a long growing season, which is not a problem here, but I plan to experiment with starting some crops early under pre-heated soil (which we discussed this week on GardenChat), and cotton will be one of my test subjects.

The main challenge to growing cotton well, I think, may be its hungry nature. I’m planning to plant it this year near roses and other greedy plants, so I can concentrate my inputs in a few key locations.

What plants are you experimenting with this season?

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Counting my summer successes: Ceratotheca triloba

About this time last year, I made my first visit to Montrose. On a tour of the gardens there, I became bewitched by Ceratotheca triloba, sometimes known as South African foxglove.

Ceratotheca triloba

Looking something like a cross between a salvia and a foxglove, Ceratotheca triloba grew tall and elegant in bare gravel and gracefully entwined with a nearby red-foliated cotton plant. Seized with plant lust, I promptly went home and scoured my seed catalogues. I found the seeds in a catalogue that promised they were rare, but since the seed pack only cost $2, I’m guessing what they meant was “rarely purchased.”

That’s a shame, for Ceratotheca triloba has been perfectly charming for me this year and would probably be equally well behaved in others’ gardens, should they learn about this under-the-radar gem. I started some of the seed at home and planted out two sturdy seedlings. They grew for me, flowered for perhaps three months, and produced seed. I cannot ask for more.

ceratotheca triloba african foxglove

In dry, light shade it performed well, if it sagged a bit in its old age. (Who doesn’t?) I might have done a better job pinching it early in the season to coax it into a more shrubby form. As you might imagine, bees love the long, drooping tubular flowers. My form is more lavender-colored than the pink one I saw at Montrose; I don’t know if the color is impacted by pH or sun exposure, or if it just naturally varies a bit. Next year I’ll experiment with its placement and see what I can learn.

Ceratotheca triloba seed pod, ready to spill its contents.

Ceratotheca triloba seed pod, ready to spill its contents.

On my desk sits an envelope full of homegrown little black seeds, waiting for their chance to fill the abundant vacancies in my garden. I allowed some seed to sow itself naturally; if I remember not to mulch over the spot too heavily, perhaps I’ll see Mother Nature’s design work next spring.

Ceratotheca triloba is an annual, and there’s no excuse for not trying it next year. I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I do.

ceratotheca triloba african foxglove

Counting my summer successes

Every winter, it’s the same story. I go bonkers with the seed catalogues and order far more packets than I could possibly manage. I try most everything; many experiments fail. But I’ve had a few successes about which I’m very pleased. When I’m in the gardening doldrums this month I will count those successes and plot a reformed seed-shopping future that we know will never actually come to pass.

Nicotiana langsdorfii

I love Nicotianas, the scented, ornamental tobaccos. My collection of Nicotiana packets is second only to my array of hollyhocks. In the past, I’ve successfully germinated perhaps thousands of these plants, but have transplanted them out too early, or forgotten to water them at a critical point in May when the temperature spiked to 90 degrees, or committed some other sloppy mistake. This year, I pledged to thin my seedlings. And, teeth gritted, I did.  I now have one plant that has flowered and is setting seed, and three or four others that are preparing to flower.

nicotiana langsdorfii 1

The plant grows from a lush basal rosette of foliage. Its gangly stems would look much better pushing through, say, a summer-flowering aster or maybe even a low-growing rose. But I’m thrilled that it’s filling in a small spot in a large expanse of plants that are not on their A-game this summer.nicotiana langsdorfiiI adore this chartreuse green color, and the tubular flowers’ charming shape is like nothing else in my garden. Pods of mite-sized seeds have just started to crack open on this plant, which is still flowering like mad. I’ve laid a thick bed of compost around it to catch those seeds as they drop. If I’m lucky, next year I’ll be swimming in these neon green blossoms.

 

First dates: Gilia tricolor

Second in the series “First Dates: Plants I’m Trying This Year”

Gilia tricolor is an annual plant native to central California. Bees (and I) love the small, open-faced flowers.

Gilia tricolor

Gilia tricolor. Photo courtesy of Annie’s Annuals.

I have read that they like moist soil, and I have read that they like dry soil. I’ve read they like hot conditions, and that they prefer cool summers. At $2.25 per seed pack, I figured I could experiment and see who’s correct. It’s entirely possible that they all are.

The cultivar I am growing, ‘Felicitas,’ offers half-inch pale pinkish-purple blossoms brushed with darker red-violet tones in the throat of the blossom, and a sharp yellow color in the cup. The anthers hold faint blue pollen above the blossom, which makes for a charming, offbeat color contrast (should it be called Gilia quadricolor?). The plant self-sows where it is happy. This, like the Mina lobata profiled yesterday and several of the other plants I’ll showcase later this week, are open-pollinated annuals. That means that while they’ll live their life cycle in one year (growing, flowering, setting seed, and dying), their offspring will perform the same show the following year. Thus, although the plants themselves are not the same, the result in the garden is much like that of having perennials (those plants which do come back year after year).

‘Felicitas,’ seems to be on the smaller side, growing 12 inches tall and wide, whereas others grow slightly larger, 18-20 inches tall and perhaps 12-18 inches wide. The flowers apparently smell faintly of chocolate, and what they lack in size they make up for in abundance. The leaves are fine and needle-like. A member of the Phlox family (Polemoniaceae), they can be found in Yosemite National Park.

Gilia tricolor 'Felicitas'

Gilia tricolor ‘Felicitas.’ Photo courtesy of Select Seeds.

They are supposed to make fine cut flowers.

I hope to grow these in the blue slope, a patch of west-facing land close to the radiant heat of the street. The plants that live out there need to be tough, and these seem to fit the qualifications.

 

First dates: Plants I’m trying this year

This week, I will share some of the plants I’m trying out in my garden for the first time.

Mina lobata

Mina lobata uses numerous aliases, including firecracker vine, Spanish flag, and exotic love vine. This sun-loving annual grows quickly to 10 feet long and produces lush, trilobed leaves similar to those of Ipomoea batatas, the sweet potato vine, to which it is related. In late summer to early fall, Mina lobata produces red flowers that fade to orange, yellow, and white. Those tubular (as in tube-shaped, not as in surfer-speak) flowers attract swarms of hungry hummingbirds, so plant it where you can enjoy the show. The vine will reseed to come back year after year, but do be mindful that the seeds are poisonous so keep them away from children and pets.

Mina lobata

By Magnus Manske (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Synonymous with Ipomoea lobata, this plant is related to morning glories and I expect similar habits. I’ve not had much trouble with reseeding morning glories, but I keep an eye out so nothing gets out of hand.  Mina lobata is said to cope well with heat and humidity, which I can guarantee in my neighborhood.

I thought I first saw this plant growing at Montrose last fall, combined with Helianthus, cosmos, and other fiery flora. But upon closer inspection, I’ve discovered that what I thought I was admiring was not Mina lobata, but Cuphea micropetalum.

Border at Montrose with Helianthus, Cuphea micropetalum, and orange cosmos.

Border at Montrose with Helianthus, Cuphea micropetalum, and orange cosmos.

This is what I thought was Mina lobata. It's not. It's Cuphea micropetalum.

This is what I thought was Mina lobata. It’s not. It’s Cuphea micropetalum.

To grow from seed:

Scarify the seed (scratch with sandpaper or nick the seed coat slightly) and soak in water overnight or up to 24 hours to improve germination. Sow seed outdoors after the last frost, or sow indoors and transplant after the frost risk has passed. Give its twining stems a trellis or tuteur to climb upon, or train it against a fence or wall you’d rather not see. Like clematis, its roots prefer some shade, and it likes rich soil, neutral to slightly acid pH, and moderate water. Do not overfeed Mina lobata with high-nitrogen fertilizer, or you will have lush vines and few flowers.

If left to dry on the vine, the seed heads may be harvested, cleaned, and stored in a cool, dry place.

 

New plants to try: Ceratotheca triloba

My visit this fall to Montrose hasn’t stopped inspiring me. Ceratotheca triloba, also known as South African foxglove, is an unusual annual plant that thrives in gravel soil.

Ceratotheca triloba

Ceratotheca triloba

It looks a bit like a cross between a salvia and a foxglove. Like foxgloves, it grows 3-6′ tall, attracts bees and hummingbirds, and gently reseeds itself to spread gracefully around the garden. At Montrose, it grew in the pathways.

Ceratotheca triloba

The front of the blossom looks very much like that of a foxglove. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t photograph the flower’s face without stepping in the borders.) I imagine it looking most attractive in the company of Salvia leucantha, Papaver ‘Lauren’s Grape’ and Callirhoe involucrata. 

I think I must get the rest of my cyclamen sown, and quickly.

A garden miracle: A sweet pea flower.

What’s Blooming Today?

I’ll tell you what’s blooming: my very first sweet pea.

sweet pea Lathyrus odoratus

I can’t believe it.

Sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) are enchanting flowers, but at least for me, they have been impossible to grow. Sweet peas need a long period of cool, damp weather to grow well, and we don’t see those conditions frequently. It’s more typical that we get two weeks of relatively pleasant weather, then a few scorching days that blast the sweet peas into oblivion.

This one is climbing on a rose bush that I moved to make way for my rain garden. I noticed the sweet pea foliage sprouting up when I moved the root ball but assumed it would peter out as it always has done. I haven’t given it (or the rose, sadly) any particular attention this spring, but the weather has been more than accommodating, with deep soaking rains.

Tuesday morning I took a short stroll around the garden to deadhead what I could. As I passed by this little garden room, I thought, “What on earth is that pink thing? More campion?” (The campion is everywhere.) As I got closer, I was absolutely astonished.

sweet pea Lathyrus odoratus

It has a light but spicy scent.

The thing that intrigues me most about this occurrence is that I planted the seeds last year, or perhaps even the year before. They are supposed to be annual flowers. The vine grew a few inches last year, then collapsed in the heat of summer. But I suppose the soil conditions were adequate for the roots to continue growing. I will be interested to see if I can gather any seed this year. I don’t imagine it will perennialize–it’s not an actual perennial, but many annuals will act like perennials in certain situations, because they reseed themselves without the assistance of the gardener–but if I do get any seed I will try planting one or two in the fall, and the rest in late winter to see what I can make of them.