Mid-August: what looks good now

Mid-August is a tricky time for gardens. The heat-scorched ground, baked grass, and shriveled foliage make this a good time to go on vacation: even Monty Don, host of BBC’s Gardener’s World, is off this week on holiday. Nevertheless, despite the harsh conditions, August is a time of abundance for many gardeners, especially ones who planted zucchini. For others, the faded flowers and dry, brown stems are discouraging reminders of time passing. Hatch chiles are already on sale at Price Chopper. School starts next week. Winter is just ahead.

Lots of summer still remains before the first frost arrives near the end of October—seventy-or-so days away. How can we make the most of the remaining time? I drove around looking to see what looks good now, and here’s what I found.

Light in August: the pollinator garden at KU Med continues to delight

Prairie plants: rudbeckia, milkweed, asters, etc.

The rudbeckia is blazing, the milkweed is alive with bees, asters are starting to unfurl. In fact, my wild garden is at its Monarch-supporting peak—which is great if you like the look of an unmowed vacant lot. I don’t particularly.  But having some things bloom at this time of year, when we’re always home, was part of why we went for natives in the first place.

Great black wasp on milkweed
Great black wasp on milkweed

The butterfly and bee activity has picked up, I’m happy to report. I worried Monarch numbers had dwindled this year—because of that April freeze, or perhaps because my neighbors sprayed for mosquitoes.  It’s true, overall numbers have fallen dramatically, but these days I can count on seeing a couple fluttering around whenever I glance outside. That makes the garden’s shagginess worthwhile, almost. But I’d like to keep the same amount of habitat, just have it be more shapely.

Bed of flowers in front of St. Agnes Catholic Church, Roeland Park, KS


You know what looks good this time of year? Annuals. This bed in front of St. Agnes is more my taste—less unkempt and wild. Perennials Russian Sage and Coreopsis mix with mounds of marigolds, zinnias, and lantana; Mexican heather; some low succulent; and even a hosta.  

The spiky thing is variegated iris.


Look at these cannas, seen from the window of a doctor’s office in Overland Park. I don’t know what the idea is here with them rising from the bed of begonias, but these plants must be tough to flourish beside the hot concrete.  They don’t do much for pollinators, however.


Some roses are blooming now, like these charming climbers, and this coral one on its second flowering. I believe it’s a hybrid tea. It came with the house.


Hydrangeas are having an amazing year. So many types are flowering. Some bees love, like the oak-leaf hydrangea towering over my back fence.  Others are sterile as, I suspect, are the Annabelles (Hydrangea arborescens) in our yard. I’m not too excited about them but learned last fall how easy they are to divide—so easy even I managed to do it. Now we have three.  I don’t like where they are, though, so they’re on my to-move list.

These are my plants to move as soon as the temperature cools

That list is growing long. In the meantime, enjoy these days while you can—”Summer’s lease has all too short a date.” Stay safe and thanks for reading.

Right plants, wrong place

Doesn’t that picture look fabulous? Unfortunately, that’s not my garden. It’s just one I admire. As the one-year anniversary of this blog approaches, my wild garden is looking wilder than ever. Instead of an attractive, well cared for perennial border, our plants look like what you’d growing see in a ditch.

That is not what I had in mind at all. This is what I had in mind:

Not my garden, unfortunately

Cheery clumps of rudbeckia are blooming now in every flower bed and every parking lot in town–so I know it’s possible to get this effect.

But in my ignorance I selected a variety that grows five feet tall. The same thing happened with the milkweed. The botanical gardens have pretty little knee-high sprigs that butterflies buzz around. Mine is like bamboo.

Who would have predicted all those tiny plants I bought as plugs would grow to be so huge? (I know, someone who read the descriptions more carefully.) The rudbeckia has crowded out many other lovelies, some of which are barely hanging on down in the shadows. Something’s got to give. It’s too hot now to start relocating things, but I dug up some that were in danger of dying and will replant them when the weather cools. Our table is now a plant hospital.

I run outside every few minutes to check if any new leaves have sprouted. 

Some of my purchases have been pleasant surprises, thriving where I planted them–like the Agastache I got at Family Tree on a whim. The Achillea, bought at the same time, doesn’t look like much now but has bloomed steadily all summer. And this Eutrochium purpureum (Joe Pye weed) is a compact variety.

A visit to the Kauffman Gardens convinces me that I have the right plants, just in the wrong places. They have some super-tall sunflowery things growing in their pollinator area, but they’re judiciously spaced among other, lower plants. The picture doesn’t do them justice, but they look great.

Before I do anything rash, I’m going to consult with a pro. (More on that later.) In the meantime, it’s hard to feel too sour in the midst of all this gloriousness. Happy summer and thanks for reading!

The pursuit of happiness

My postings are growing fewer and farther between as we sink into summer. Margaret Roach calls this throw-in-the-trowel time. Don’t do it! she says. But why not? My garden looks terrible, no two ways about it, a victim of whiteflies, Japanese beetles, and my own ignorance and bad planning.  There isn’t much I can do to correct that at the moment. This is a good time for a vacation.

Last week I was in Colorado, relaxing with family in a beloved cabin.

Colorado is where I first learned to love the outdoors. For me, growing up in Houston, Colorado was a revelation. I like to say I’d never been outside before. Don’t get me wrong, I love Houston, but the climate is brutal. When I was in college in Austin, a friend once said he disliked air conditioning, surprising me so much I almost dropped my beer. Dislike air conditioning? I’d never heard of such a thing. We Houstonians are like astronauts, completely dependent on mechanical systems that allow us to breathe.

My folks, like many of us in Texas, would pack the kids into the Buick and drive up through Wichita Falls and Amarillo, across the Panhandle and the corner of New Mexico, past Walsenburg and Pueblo with its piles of slag. The sign, “This is it! Eighter from Decatur. County seat of Wise,” was a noteworthy landmark. The cattle were white-faced Herefords. Now they’re mostly Black Angus. Abandoned gray farmhouses dotted the landscape, empty but still standing since the Great Depression. Most of those have collapsed by now.

We followed a yellow line that zigged across the pages of a Trip Tik and read about the historical markers in AAA’s Tour Book. Every time we filled up, we calculated our gas mileage. After two days, we arrived in Grand Lake, where we’d stay for two weeks.

Now back in Kansas City, it looks like what we missed was rain. Before we returned, I dreamed that rabbits and insects had munched all my plants down to stems. The truth isn’t that bad, but everything is green and shaggy. It’s all the same green, too, and all the plants are the same height. The result is monotonous–but it doesn’t have to be this way, as this stunning border in front of the University of Kansas Medical Center shows.

Not my garden!

I spied dianthus, stacchys ‘Hummelo,’ a compact Rose of Sharon, day lily, rudbeckia, sedum, a fringy thing that looks like dill, white phlox, joe pye weed, and liatris.

I have a lot of these, but not in as-good places. I came home and dug up a couple plants that were barely hanging on in their current locations. I’m going to keep them in pots for a while and try relocating them in September. Now that I know how bushy and big some of these prairie plants become, I’m going to try for more variety in height and better spacing.

The other morning I visited an estate sale and bought a book that I’m convinced will change everything, The Garden Design Book by Cheryl Merser, a former editor of Garden Design magazine.

Just reading the jacket copy gives me a sense of the force of this writer’s personality, her voice is so strong. I’m sure I’d like her.

I feel drawn to the woman who owned the book, too. I wandered through her house in Coleman Highlands, admiring her collection of porcelain and Asian prints. She loved contemporary fiction, gardening, and cooking. In addition to the garden book, I brought home two favorites I’ve never owned, a paperback of Kitchen Confidential and Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells.

I met Patricia Wells while I was a stagiaire at La Varenne, and since someone recently asked to hear more about those days, I’ll share the story. Patricia asked several of us working at the school to help her with a dinner party, to do things like clear away used glasses and refill the buffet table. “Several of us” included me, Martha Holmberg, Laura Garrett, and I believe a few others.

This was my first glimpse of a certain kind of grown-up apartment. It’s hard to describe how novel that was for me, completely unfamiliar. I and my friends lived in tiny dorm rooms and chambres de bonne, which didn’t have bathrooms so we showered at public bains-douches every few days.  The apartment Patricia shared with her husband (editor of the International Herald Tribune) was as spacious as a house, with several rooms, tasteful and traditional—like Ina Garten’s place, or the Upper East Side apartment in Hannah and Her Sisters but not as cluttered. Patricia was hosting a party for a couple who were visiting from New York. The man was a psychiatrist. As I walked around, picking up crumpled bevnaps, I overheard a guest say to him, “Sometimes just I don’t like my children.”  He listened with a pained expression.

He had baked Patricia some bread, an American-style loaf, with a soft crust and even crumb, really good. The other guests, all French, left it untouched, so we Americans gobbled it down afterwards. I still remember how delicious it was, smeared with butter.  The dinner was a success, and Patricia was pleased. She said she’d love to have us back—“You too,” she said to me.  I was the least experienced of the group. My impression was that she was warm, genuine, and elegant—which I felt, and still feel, are excellent ways to be.

If I can draw conclusions about a person’s character from their possessions, the woman who owned this book was much the same. I’ve discovered post-its and slips of shopping lists tucked between the pages, signs that she actually read them. One says “4-6 leeks,” in handwriting that resembles my own.

Both the book’s owner and author have died.  Garden Design Magazine has ceased its print publication, and the International Herald Tribune has folded. So much in the world has changed since we were young in it. But Patricia Wells is alive and well and living in Paris.

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose

Last week I helped a friend move to her new apartment. The amount of stuff she’d accumulated after living in her house for twenty-one years was mind boggling. I kept thinking what things would be like if we moved. I hold onto things far too long, always have. I still have corsages from high school dances. I’ve saved every letter, every card I’ve ever received, from grandparents long dead and camp friends whose names I don’t remember.  I can’t exactly throw them away now, after keeping them for so long. Can I?

Maybe I can’t do much about our crowded attic, but I can crack down on new nostalgia. When our wonderful little dog Coco died last summer—she was seven years old to the day—I wisely decided not to keep her ashes. (The ashes of another pet have been sitting in the living room for decades.) I’ve been looking for a way to memorialize her—which brings me to the gardening part of this post. 

I discovered a type of rose called Koko Loco. Coco Loco was what we called our dog, so I ordered one from Heirloom Roses.  They describe it as moderately fragrant Floribunda with lavender blooms with a chocolate undertone.

It arrived this week, a pale little twig in a long box. The explanatory note says they remove the leaves for shipping, and that I should see regrowth within 2-3 weeks. I saw regrowth immediately, the day after I pulled it out of the box.

A leaf!

This will be almost my first attempt at growing roses.  We did have two already here when we moved in, but one reverted to its rootstock. It’s common to graft tender roses onto hardier rootstock so they’ll survive in colder zones. I think the bottom part of mine was a Dr. Huey, a prolific spreader with dark wine blooms. It was unwieldy, so I moved it to a different location. I could have lived with it, but it got rose rosette disease. Eventually I got tired of fighting that and gave up.

This is a sign of maturity, I think.

Roses are intimidating to me, first of all, because there are so many types. Hybrid tea, grandiflora, floribunda. Studying a guide like this one reminds me of my daughter’s biology class.

Cultivation and hybridization of roses follow almost cultlike practices, it seems to me, and the plants are susceptible to diseases. But when that one remaining rose blooms once a year, wow.

The survivor

Roses do well in our area, obviously.  Millions are flowering now, and a visit to Loose Park’s rose garden is like a pilgrimage to a sacred space.  I admire the look of these, on my street: abundant flowers heaped on a stone wall.  Last week theylooked spectacular, although they’re a little past their prime now.

They make me feel like I’m in the Cotswolds.

Apparently, some roses are native to the U.S., but these tend to be the sprawling types with simple blooms. Prairie Nursery says this:

Native roses are visited by an array of pollinating insects, as they have easy access to nectar from the large-petalled landing pads. Both Rosa carolina and Rosa blanda are host plants for the Apple Sphinx Moth caterpillar. The bright red rosehips are a popular source of food for fruit-loving birds. Rosehips are high in vitamin C and can be used in teas.

The varieties with voluptuous clusters of dense blooms probably are not native, however.

I’m happy to have this addition to the garden and feel I’ve found the perfect way to remember our little friend. I love thinking about her, and I’m optimistic that the rose will thrive.

Having trouble with rabbits?

We always have rabbits, but this year they’re especially troublesome. The baby rabbits are so small, they squeeze through holes in the wire fencing I’ve used as barricades and are challenging my ingenuity. No matter what I do, they get through. I read the other day that rabbits dislike Irish Spring, and now I know why. That stuff is pungent. Now our whole house smells like Irish Spring. I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to do with it to discourage the bunnies, but I encircled some vulnerable plants (asters) with rings of little cubes of soap and will let you know how it goes.

They even eat chives.

My daughter’s friend said his dad surrounded desired plants with patches of clover with the idea that the rabbits would eat that instead.  I wonder if this works or if it just lures more rabbits to the area, like those Japanese Beetle traps.

Happy gardening and thanks for reading!

Watering the garden, not the plants

Isn’t this a great time of year, when everything is so lush and green? The gardens are thriving. Garden tours have returned. The peonies popped open, and then the roses.  Nevertheless, the real story is rain.

The internet tells me Kansas City’s average rainfall amount for May is 5.39”. Some of us had more than that on one day. The National Weather Service says we’ve had nine consecutive days of rain, with more coming.

Curious isn’t it that 1993, the year it rained pretty much perpetually, isn’t on this list? The rain may feel extreme while we’re going through it, but I think pretty much the same thing happens every year. Remember how Westport flooded last year, on May 28, 2020?

All this moisture has been great for plants. The short little plugs I bought last year have sprung up, thick and lush, so tall they screen whatever is growing behind them from sight.  I’m afraid the placement of most of them is all wrong. Short ones should be in front, tall in back, but they were all short when I planted them.

Even plants I divided last year are burgeoning. This hosta threatens to spill into the driveway. 

Why is rain so much better for the garden than watering?

I always assumed that it’s because rainfall uniformly soaks the ground, and misty days like the ones we’ve had water gently and over a significant period of time. Still, the plants look like they’ve been fertilized, and it turns out they have been.  Not only does rain water lack chlorine, which can harm plants, it can contain nitrogen in forms plants can absorb. Rain water also leaches away salts.

In this interview from last summer with Margaret Roach, The New York Botanical Garden’s Daryl Beyers talks about “watering the garden, not the plants.” By that he means watering the soil, which is where plants get all the water they use. He goes into detail about all the different ways plants use water and more.

Should you set a timer or stick to manual? Use drip irrigation or spray? I’ve heard all of these recommended, but when it comes to watering, no one approach works for everything.

Peony Power

All this moisture has been great for the peonies, one of the flowers that wowed me when I first moved here. We don’t have them in Texas. They’re natives of central Asia, but clearly they do well here as the many spectacular examples blooming now show.  

Our next-door neighbors had a hedge of peonies growing along the back of their property, like a big pink ruffle when they bloomed. They must have been thirty years old.  When those neighbors moved, the new ones tore them out and installed new landscaping, which seemed tragic to me. I love peonies. I and one of the workmen rescued several plants from the trash, brought them home and planted them.  This was probably six years ago. I always hear that perennials resent being moved, and that must have been the case because the plants were spindly and flowerless, and vulnerable to fungus.  Sleep, creep, then leap they say? These slept for six years. Still, they persisted, and this year, boom. The rain powered up the flowers.

I like that scarlet thread.

To thrive, peonies need a cold winter dormant season and abundant moisture during the early part of the growing season, which they apparently got this year. The best time to plant them is in fall, according to the Farmer’s Almanac.

Can you name this plant?

Finally, do you know what this is?

PlantNet says it’s Amorpha fruticosa L., False indigo bush. I is wrong. This is Leadplant, Amorpha canescens. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center says it can grow one-to-three feet tall, but this one is closer to five. The flowers are the most striking color combination: deep purple and orange. It’s growing in my across-the-street neighbor’s front yard, surrounded by golden groundsel.

I’m posting this too late to share to the Kansas City Gardening Facebook Group, which is where I get most of my readers. The group is going on a ten-day hiatus. I love seeing the pictures of flowers and will miss reading the members’ questions and comments. I don’t know what problem they’re having with Facebook’s algorithm, but I want to say thank you to the admins for maintaining the forum. The group has been a real treat.

Best wishes for a safe, happy Memorial Day. Thanks for reading!

Gardening with dog

Something bad-ish happened this week.

This iron trellis-thing weighs about forty pounds. It’s anchored to the fence, but apparently not securely enough. The other day, our young dog was messing around back there, chasing a squirrel running on the fence, and knocked it loose. The heavy trellis fell on top of my plants—and smushed the wild garden. 

I’ll spare you the sight of the broken stems and flattened foliage. (Here is a picture of the dog instead, looking unperturbed.)

I mourned for a minute, then hoisted the trellis back up, tied it more securely, and tidied up the debris. What else could I do? I’m disappointed, but the plants are all perennials. They’ll survive. Although some are a total loss for the year, it’s still early. Others might catch up and still bloom, just with fewer flowers. I didn’t expect many flowers anyway. These are the plugs I planted last month, so the plants are still miniature. I expect they’ll take a two-to-three years to get established.  Perennials “sleep, creep, then leap,” according to my knowledgeable friend. This year the big work will be going on beneath the ground.

Meanwhile, I’m watching the area I planted last year for signs of creep. Some of the plants are definitely taking off, like the coreopsis I worried was dead, and this monarda which, true to its reputation, is spreading. It did not bloom at all last year. Is it time to do some division?

How do you feel about allium? Me, I love all blue and purple flowers. I do recall planting some allium bulbs last year, but not this many. Star-studded globes have popped up all over the yard—in front, back, on the sides—making a visual argument against planting groups of one.  The rabbits like biting the scapes—not eating, biting. They snap them in two and leave the flower on the ground while they hop off to nibble something else, like the asters which, if I don’t protect them, they gnaw down to stems.  If I’d planted all the allium bulbs in one area, I could encircle it with a little fence.

I don’t know what I was thinking, planting that allium so randomly, but this reminds me of a story. Many years ago, I had a wonderful experience living and working in France at La Varenne, Anne Willan’s cooking school in northern Burgundy. In the fall, Anne had given her gardener, Monsieur Milbert, some daffodil bulbs to plant, and in the spring they popped up in long, single rows, like corn or something. 

“It never occurred to me to tell him to put them in a clump,” Anne said.

Château du Feÿ, former home of La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine

This year, spring is trundling along, despite the cool temperatures, and now more things than I know the names of are in bloom. Each day brings us one day closer to summer. I realize I think of summer as normal, and all other times as aberrations. Maybe this is a result of growing up in Texas, which has a lot more summer than most other places. All winter long I wait to get back to normal. I’m also aware that I’ve always thought of gardening as planting, but my definition is expanding to include tasks like transplanting digging, clipping, pruning, watering, and even a few more.

Speaking of summer, watching the grape leaf out on south fence makes me wonder if taking elaborate precautions to ward off Japanese beetles, birds, and chipmunks is worthwhile. I’ve tried many things—traps, dish soap, neem, and enveloping the entire trellis in black tulle, but I can’t say that any of it worked. I’ve never tasted a grape from this vine, although it produces plenty of them. I just won’t surrender. I read a garden blog this week that recommended tying all the fruit bunches in paper lunch bags, which I’ve also done. Some enterprising creature slashed through each one and gobbled up the fruit inside.

Maybe I should make little net bags? Like I said, I’ve never tasted a grape, but this could be the year.

Having a strong interest in anything can be a boon to your family members when the time comes for them to give you a gift. Since starting this blog, I’ve received an excellent set of hand tools, two pairs of gardening gloves, some swamp milkweed plants (watch out!), and a beautiful planter. This year for my birthday, my teenage daughter, knowing about my interest in native grasses, gave me two pots of pampas grass.

They look harmless now…

This creates a dilemma for me, as pampas is not one of the grasses I like. Pampas grass is not native to this area, has razor-sharp foliage, and grows to be ten feet tall.  Where will I put it? The Writers Place had some growing in front when I worked there, and every spring I had to go out and hack at it with a machete. 

On the other hand, this was so thoughtful of my daughter.  She keeps asking if I like it.

What should I do? (After thanking her, of course, which I did immediately.)  Google “how to react when your kid gives you a gift you don’t care for?” How about “grow pampas grass in containers?

Apparently, this is possible, so I will try it.

I wonder what happened to that machete.

To finish, here are some things we have to look forward to in the coming weeks. Some blueberries survived last month’s freeze, and what a year it’s going to be for the peonies. I can’t wait!

Every day, without hope and without despair

Can you believe that just one week ago we were scurrying to save our plants from the freeze? Now that freeze feels like a lot of hype. We didn’t lose anything in our garden, except we probably won’t have blueberries, which the birds eat anyway.

Blueberry blossoms, pre-freeze

I suspect the fear of returning to dull, brown colorlessness and wearing coats all the time contributed to my panic.  But building a tent city in the backyard and dragging all the pots out of the garage wasn’t that difficult. Like other small gestures we make to keep death at bay—switching to skim milk or trying turmeric—the effort didn’t harm anything, and may even have helped a little. 

So spring continues, as inexorable as water. Today is downright sultry. The season is so dynamic: as soon as one thing fades, another pops up to take its place. Today and yesterday I’ve started seeing a whole bunch of new flowers I don’t recognize.

About the white flower, PlantNet (plant identification app) says this:

I only have room in my brain for a few new plants each year. I’ll get interested in something and start seeing it everywhere. This year’s it’s golden groundsel.  I read about it, looked at a picture, and ordered a few plants without ever actually noticing it growing. Now I see more each day. Right now it’s flowering profusely. Here’s some I spied growing in the parking lot of a nearby office building.

Golden groundsel

I’ve talked about how I removed the ivy and spaded up the barren patch by our front door.  Afterwards, the ground hardened like concrete. Not even weeds have sprouted.

Bare patch of dirt with stump

Last week I planted the plugs I got from Prairie Nursery, and I was disappointed that they were so few. I wish I’d bought more. I just can’t look at this triangle of hardened mud all year, so I bought some sweet woodruff at Soil Service yesterday.  I hope it spreads. I felt like apologizing to the little plants for putting them in such an inhospitable place when I dropped them in their holes, but we’ll see how they do.

One downside to planting plugs is that they’re pretty puny the first year. I thought some of last year’s plantings had died completely, like the coreopsis. What a lovely surprise it is to see them return. They’re thriving and naturalizing, too.  At first the new growth was purplish, like it is on so many plants.  I once heard that at an earlier time in Earth’s history, all plants were red, and that ones we see today with purple or maroon foliage are descended from ancient species.  I have no way of knowing if that is true, although I suppose all of us have descended from some ancient species.

In any case, spring’s gloriousness continues.  Although the lilacs are fading, and next week we may be saying goodbye to the flowering dogwoods and redbud trees, the peonies and these azaleas are gathering force.  It’s my birthday next week, and they always feel like a special gift to me. Today’s title, originally intended to be about writing, comes from Danish author Isak Dineson, but to finish, I’m going to borrow this lovely thought from Walter Benjamin:

“For if, when we love, our existence runs through nature’s fingers like golden coins that she cannot hold and lets fall to purchase new birth thereby, she now throws us, without hoping or expecting anything, in ample handfuls to existence.”

Winter’s return (and what to do about it)

While I’ve been busy doing other things besides posting here, spring has been booming on. At Easter my family visited Texas, where spring is about a month ahead of ours. We saw range burning in the Flint Hills and fields of bluebonnets. We visited the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  Here at home, my plants arrived from Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin, and I put them in the ground.

I hope the Golden groundsel (Packera obovata) I planted will someday look like this, in a neighbor’s yard

I finally committed to composting and bought a bin. Any of these could be the focus of a blog post, but gardening presents a revolving door of new concerns, and today’s is the return of winter.

Now beneath the bright blue sky, with everything blooming, the day as bright and colorful as an Easter egg, it’s hard to believe what’s coming.  Outside my window, a cardinal flits around a tray of tiny foxglove seedlings I’ve been coaxing along.  But the temperature is already dropping, and tonight’s forecast is for rain, then snow, then rain/snow, with “New snow accumulation of 1 to 2 inches possible,” according to NOAA.

What will this mean for our spring? For the now-flowering redbuds and frilly crabapples, the ruby tulips, the green leaves of the hostas unfurling, etc.? I have a blueberry bush in flower.  Can I do anything to save it? Should I turn my yard into a tent city? Is trying to save things worth the trouble?

For answer, because of course I don’t know, I turn to Google.  Margaret Roach has lots of pictures of overturned wheelbarrows and tubs in advance of a spring frost, but what is beneath them? “Big-leaved perennials—hostas.” Okay, glad I checked. Time to cover my own beloved hosta. 

She also links to some guides to frost, and all agree, the first defense is water. Farmer’s Almanac says, “As the water freezes, it releases heat, protecting the plants, even though they’re covered by ice.

My next step is to haul out the sprinkler.

They also recommend covering plants: “You can use newspapers, baskets, tarps, straw, and other materials to cover your plants. Cover the whole plant before sunset to trap any remaining heat. Be sure to anchor lightweight coverings to prevent them from blowing away.”

Before I set out my tarps and blankets, I head over to BBC Gardener’s World for a quick check, where searching for “Frost” returns David Frost interviews of Muhammad Ali, Donald Rumsfeld, and Tony Blair. Searching for “frost protection” informs me that sub-zero temperatures in early April pretty much destroyed this year’s grape harvest in Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Languedoc and the Rhône.  Really?  This seems tremendously sad—a disaster I’ve heard nothing about. The article has vivid images, as farmers resorted to desperate strategies, trying to salvage their crops.

More targeted searching yields more targeted results:

The consensus seems to be that covers are worth a try. Recommendations include using stakes to keep the material, especially plastic, from touching the foliage.

France’s sub-zero weather is being described as a once-in-a-lifetime freeze, but April snow in Kansas City is not particularly rare.  Here’s what they have to say over at the Johnson County Master Gardener website:

“The frost-free date in the metropolitan area is around April 15. It is important to understand what that date means. Frost-free dates are based on percentages. The frost-free date is determined by when there will be a 50-50 chance of a frost occurring. Each day following this date, the chance of frost is reduced by two to three percent. After the first of May there is a less than five percent chance of a frost occurring. Plants such as tomatoes and peppers that do not tolerate frost are best planted after May 1.”

Each year we mourn some blooms, but most of our perennial plants should be okay. That’s what I’m telling myself anyway.


Doing an environmental good deed

In Kansas City, we have one fleeting moment when the forsythia, Japanese and star magnolia, and Bradford pears are all in bloom, and that moment was–yesterday. Or last Friday. I hope you were able to get out to enjoy them.

I know Bradford pears are problematic—a Google search turns up articles with titles like The Curse of the Bradford Pear, and Why Bradford Pear are the Worst Tree. Their limbs are prone to splitting; they spread easily and crowd out native trees. I’m not recommending planting them, but aren’t the blooms pretty? Like white ruffles.

Here’s a link to a Washington Post article that explores the issue in depth: Scientists thought they had created the perfect tree. But it became a nightmare

Here in my pear-free yard, I’ve planted the prairie plants I bought at the Burr Oak Nature Center plant sale last month. I tried to put my newfound knowledge to work. I made a plan.

I didn’t map it out on kraft paper this time. Instead, I used paper plates to help me visualize the spacing. I tried to put the plants in clusters so we won’t have any groups of one.

The milk crate is the site of a future plinth

The plants from the plant sale weren’t ready. All advice says to wait until they have 1-2 sets of leaves. Mine had zero leaves. The roots hadn’t developed enough to hold the dirt together. The little cubes disintegrated when I removed the plants from the pots. I popped them in the holes, covered them up, and hoped for the best. I re-spread the leaf litter, too.

Another thing I’ve learned the hard way is to use plant markers. What sleeping plants did I kill while I was spading up those daylilies? I’m looking at you, coreopsis. This time I marked the location of my new seedlings with homemade plant markers I made from cut up paper plates taped to chopsticks. 

Every time we go to Lulu’s, we get chopsticks. I have a huge collection. The tape is clear packing tape. I hope it will resist rain.

Then I watered. Now I run out four times a day to check on them. So far, so good.

I was careful to place the plants according to plan, but I still have four left over. This placement of seedlings business is a big deal. It’s hard to gauge without experience. The stuff we planted last year was too widely spaced. The plants are lonely sprigs surrounded by bare dirt—not the effect we wanted. On the east side, the milkweed grow to be so enormous, they crowd everything out.

Speaking of milkweed, I did a little guerilla gardening yesterday. We have swamp milkweed—pale-flowering, not very attractive. It spreads aggressively, and some was growing right up against the fence. I dug that up because I want to keep the area clear so we can walk back there. I was happy to reclaim the space, but sad to eliminate the milkweed (because caterpillars). So I carried the clumps down to Brush Creek and planted them among the other reedy things growing on the banks.

I shouldn’t admit to doing that on the internet, but I’m thinking it’s an environmental good deed.

While I was down by the creek, I picked up some other people’s trash.

I didn’t have to go far to collect a huge bagful. I found plastic bags, plastic sheets, a slimy plastic tub of blue cheese crumbles, you name it.

I am upset about litter—as upset as the weeping Indian in the old Keep America Beautiful PSA’s. I mention this in hopes that you will be, too.

If you know of any group organizing a cleanup soon, please let me know because I want to help.

To close on a happier note, this area beside our driveway is the first we planted by adapting one of Roy Diblik’s Know Maintenance plans. It looked like a dirt patch all winter, trampled by dogs, even run over by a Bobcat, but I’ve fenced it off and love watching it come back to life. In pictures it doesn’t look too special, but I have geranium, a little carex, aster, and my favorite, Brunnera ‘Jack Frost.’ I love the tiny blue flowers and white-glazed, heart-shaped leaves.

These little green pompoms are Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo. They’re not native, but they’re terrific. They’ll have purple flowers on upright stems in June.

Thanks for reading!

Flowering bulbs at Powell Gardens and why so many early spring flowers are yellow

If you want to take a break from garden cleanup to actually enjoy a garden, Powell Gardens reopens to the public this Thursday, April 1, 2021.  (Members have been able to visit for a while.) What’s blooming in the gardens right now? A sea of daffodils and other early flowering bulbs.

Daffodils are blooming here in town, too, but not on this scale. This yellow slash includes literally thousands of daffodils.  

Gardener Marissa Adams informs me that the drifts surrounding the Visitor’s Center were installed in 2015 by a team of volunteers using those excellent long-handled bulb planters that look like pogo sticks. The flowers return reliably each year, unlike tulips. 

Also unlike tulips, daffodils do not appeal to rabbits. This is great! Daffodils contain a chemical lycorine, which is toxic to animals. Daffodils aren’t the only ones. The UK’s Rabbit Welfare Association website’s list of plants toxic to rabbits includes many familiar flowers.  Their focus is on keeping pet rabbits safe, but if you have problems with rabbits, as I do, the information could be useful. (I imagine the rabbits will just avoid most of these.  I wouldn’t worry much about poisoning them. )

I’d pretty much given up on bulbs, but I’m starting to realize how many other bulbs besides tulips could be incorporated into my plans.

When bulb-planting time comes in the fall, I’ll have forgotten how the garden looks now. I’m going to take some pictures to remind me where the bare spots are and where it would be nice to see some bulbs next spring.

I love seeing color return, first the grass, then daffodils and forsythia and star magnolia. This got me wondering, why are most early flowers mostly yellow or white?  Why are so few pink or red? I suspect is this has something to do with sensory equipment of early-season pollinators.

I found this is from the personal blog of an environmental educator named Donna Long:

“The first flowers of spring are often white or yellow because of who pollinates them. The majority of early spring pollinators are flies. Flies lack color vision, meaning they can’t see scores of colors the way we do.

“White and yellow reflect plenty of light. The white and yellow are reflected as very light ‘colors’ against the green background of leaves of trees, shrubs, grasses, etc. All that green may just look dark and indistinguishable to flies.”

However, I cannot confirm that this is true. I did see bees buzzing in the cups of the flowers on the walk from the Island Garden to the Woodland Garden. I was a little surprised, because the temperatures are still brisk, with 29F forecast for Wednesday night.

Jarret Mellenbruch’s Haven sculpture at Powell Gardens

In the Island Garden, the palette of yellow and green expands to include blue: tiny grape hyacinths, scilla, and a bed of purple pansies that survived the winter.

The Woodland Garden, which wasn’t open when I visited last fall, is bursting with bulbs including daffodils, hellebores, scilla, wind flowers, and a wonderful deep purple thing that looks like it’s about to unfurl.

In some areas, signs say what’s still sleeping beneath the brown leaves.

The paved path ends the perennial garden looking out over the lake.

Daffodils are growing here, too. This is a split cup Carlton.

I was interested to learn that the Perennial Garden was the first garden when Powell Gardens opened in 1987. The nearby service buildings were the original visitor’s center. This garden is currently being renovated.

It’s a great time of year.