Wordless Wednesday: Callicarpa

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Great garden bulbs: Sternbergia lutea

Last year, I visited Montrose and became bewitched by a charming little bulb I’d never seen before: Sternbergia lutea.

A diminutive amaryllid native to the Mediterranean, Sternbergia lutea isn’t widely grown, but it should be. It looks like a tall yellow crocus, but blooms in September. The blooms can be short-lived, but they are followed by grassy green foliage that persists through the winter, then disappears as the rest of the garden wakes up in the spring.

Sternbergia lutea growing at Montrose.

Sternbergia lutea growing at Montrose.

They like their summers dry–so dry, in fact, that the bases of oak trees provide ideal planting conditions –and prefer being left alone. Heavy clay doesn’t bother them,  either. Don’t lime them, whatever you do, and keep them clear of automated watering systems.

I think they’d look spectacular mixed into a bed of black mondo grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens,’ which will tolerate the drought-like conditions the Sternbergias need in the summer, or another dark-leaved ground cover like Ajuga reptans ‘Mahogany.’ Alternatively, a broad-leaved, yellow-variegated ground cover like Lamium maculatum ‘Anne Greenway,’ would complement the blossoms handsomely.

Lamium maculatum ‘Anne Greenway.’ Photo by GrowingColors.com.

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens.’ Photo by RareFindNursery.com

Unusual garden bulbs make great garden plants. They’re easy for the novice gardener, cheap to buy and grow (many reseed or reproduce by offsets, and require little in the way of fertilizers or pest management schemes), and many bulbs can last forever in the home garden.  Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, VA, carries Sternbergia lutea, among other terrific and unusual plants. And they’re not a sponsor of my site; I just like them.

What are your favorite plants for the fall garden?

Controlling flea beetles in the fall garden (help wanted)

I didn’t get row cover on my beans in time this spring, and the flea beetles found me.

tired beans

Flea beetle is something of a catch-all term used to describe several species of beetles (not all of the same genera), all of which are tiny (1/16 to 1/10 of an inch long), that live in the soil and cause mayhem in North American gardens. They adore feeding on your vegetable plants, and can reduce a favorite crop to smithereens if not dealt with promptly. One treatment won’t suffice: They can produce four generations or so in a warm-climate growing season. Overwintering adults typically emerge when temperatures hit about 50 degrees (10 C). In recent years, it’s been 50 degrees at Christmas.

Here is my quandary: Their preferred cuisine is cruciferous, which happens to be what I need to get planted soon. Most winters are mild enough here that greens and root crops may be harvested year-round if grown under horticultural fabric, but that means getting seedlings and transplants off to a good start, starting now.

Row covers can be effectively employed to exclude flea beetles from pristine soil, but (clearly) that’s not what I have. Installing row cover where an infestation has already occurred just traps the beetles inside, keeping them safe from predators while they devour your spinach. Row cover must be sealed tightly all the way around to be effective, by the way.

Trap crops come highly recommended. “Plant a crop of mustard greens!” the gardening literature exhorts. Alas, the trap crops are what I want to eat this winter. Kale, collards, mustard greens, broccolini, radishes, tatsoi, arugula. These are the seed packets sitting on my desk, awaiting my decision. I fear that planting a trap crop, even far away (relatively speaking) from the vegetable bed, will only encourage more of the little punks to move in and feast upon everything in sight.

The garden literature also recommends scouting newly planted beds and counting the beetles as they arrive. This presumes the gardener can count insects best differentiated from dirt with a hand lens before they jump to the safety of the earth. Anyone who has brushed against a plant infested with flea beetles has seen a spray of tiny bugs fleeing the scene of the crime. Who can possibly count them in situ? Even if the gardener manages to hunker silently down and get a view of the action, must she hold her breath to avoid disturbing them? What if she needs to sneeze? (It’s fall pollen season, you know.)

Flea Beetle Management for Canola, Rapeseed, and Mustard in the Canadian Northern Great Plains. Graphic by the Government of Saskatchewan.

I don’t want to spray if I can avoid it. I have been known to pull out the neem oil from time to time, but it’s only moderately effective against flea beetles.

What to do, then?

Possible solutions to flea beetle infestation

I’m tempted to try one or a combination of the following. Have you had success with any of these?

1. Diatomaceous earth. DE is a fine powder made of fossilized remains of diatoms, a kind of algae. When used as an insecticide, the powder absorbs components of the waxy coating of insects’ exoskeletons and causes them to dehydrate. It’s critical to obtain food-grade DE for this application to be effective.

2. Interplanting with garlic. Garlic is a moderately effective insect repellant when sprayed on plant surfaces. I have to plant my garlic somewhere; I suppose it may as well go between my rows of kale.

3. Parasitic nematodes. To read about parasitic nematodes is to discover another of Mother Nature’s horror shows. Employing them can be a bit tricky, because the gardener must get the correct kinds of nematodes (families Steinernematidae and Heterorhabditidae, and some species are picky about who they infect); time the application to coincide with a larval stage of the target species; and keep the soil moist, not too hot, and not too cold.  On the plus side, they don’t infect birds or mammals.

Parasitic nematodes. Photo by Penn State University Extension.

Given my warm climate, and extrapolating unscientifically from the graphic above, I guess I might be able to interrupt a larval cycle if I went out tomorrow and applied the nematodes…maybe?

Please send your advice, post-haste.

Wildflower Wednesday: Joe Pye Weed

My garden doesn’t have many fall native wildflowers (yet). One I do like very much, though, is hollow Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum).

Hollow joe pye weed

Native to eastern North America, Eutrochium fistulosum forms a massive clump, growing 5-8 feet tall and 4 feet wide in the moist soils it likes. Mine is a bit on the drier side, and so grows correspondingly shorter, topping out at around 6 feet high and 3 feet wide. During rainy spells in summer, I can practically watch it grow. 

Butterflies and bees love the flowers, which are rich in nectar. 

My plant suffered a setback from last year’s weather, I think; it’s half the size it was last year. Or perhaps it’s time to dig and divide. I’m keen to keep it going because it attracts so much wildlife. And the seed heads look beautiful all winter, especially under ice.

Ice on Joe Pye weed, Eutrochium purpureum

Ice on Joe Pye weed, Eutrochium fistulosum

Season: midsummer through fall; winter interest
Height: 5-8 ft.
Flower Color: Rosy purple.
Hardiness: USDA Hardiness Zone 4-8
Foliage: Lime green, lightly serrated. Red stems.
Flower: Loose, rosy purple inflorescences.

Site: Prefers moist sites but will cope with average to dry soils.

Propagation: Division spring or fall.

Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Soil: Moist and well-drained to wet. 
Origin: Eastern North America
Life Cycle: Perennial

Wildflower Wednesday is a celebration of wildflowers from all over the world. It’s hosted by Gail and Clay and Limestone on the fourth Wednesday of each month. 

Crop experiment: Growing shallots

Have you ever grown shallots? I haven’t, but I’ve just ordered my first sets to plant this fall. I love the way they taste, so I’m excited to try them.

Shallots (Allium cepa var. aggregatum) are botanically related to onions and garlic. They are native to Central Asia and have a very mild, delicate onion flavor that is wonderful in salads and egg dishes. They grow like garlic, forming clusters of offsets (small bulbs that form off the main bulb). Inside the bulb, shallots are layered like onions.

I’m growing French gray shallots (Allium oschaninii), which some consider to be the “true” shallot, and French red shallots, the ones most often found in grocery stores and markets. The red shallots are supposed to be easier to grow, but the gray ones allegedly have better flavor. The red shallots grow larger; the grey produce prolifically.

Like other root crops, they like well draining soil amended with lots of organic matter. My raised beds should suit them very well, as they contain equal parts composted manure, decomposed bark, and washed sand. I’ll perform a soil test before planting to make sure the pH is appropriate. I cannot plant them until mid-October, but if I wait until then to order them, they won’t be available. I made that mistake last year.

What crops are you trying out in your fall garden this year?

Dear Friend and Gardener: August 15, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

Looking out the window this week at all the mud and mess in the garden, I fell into a bit of a funk. But a little something came in the mail today:

seed packet delivery

 

And now I’m feeling a little brighter.

Are you planning your fall garden? Planting your fall garden? What will you be growing?