Thursday, July 27, 2006

Dahlberg daisy and happy accidents

I love happy accidents in the garden, especially when they're self-sown annuals that I don't expect to be hardy in my USDA Zone 5 garden.

Several years ago, I planted a little annual called Dahlberg daisy in a corner of the bed that lines our driveway.

I grew Dahlberg daisy from seed when I was in my mad seed-growing phase. It's a bushy, branched little plant about six to 10 inches tall with lots of small yellow daisy flowers and threadlike leaves that have an aromatic, citrus-like scent. I intended it for containers, but had a few plants left over and put them in the ground along a low stone wall.

To my delight, these daisies have been reappearing in the gravel driveway below the wall each summer. It takes until mid-July for them to get to blooming size and then they cheerfully bloom their heads off for the rest of the summer.

In reading up about Dahlberg daisy, I found that it thrives in sunny, well drained, sandy soil with a pH of 6.8 or higher and that it is quite drought tolerant - no wonder it loves growing in the gravel here.

This year, the plants started to grow during a period of drought in May and June. I'm amazed at how tenacious they are - I didn't expect them to do as well as previous years because of the dryness. (The drought broke with lots of thunderstorms, but that is another story.)

Dahlberg daisy isn't readily available in cell packs at garden centers, so if you want it, you need to start the plants from seed. This isn't hard, but it's a good idea to start the seeds indoors as it takes about four months from sprouting to blooming. (Tips on how to grow from seed are here.)

I think of Dahlberg daisy as a great rock garden plant for mid-summer when most of the alpine perennials have finished blooming. Stick in a few Dahlberg daisies, and your rock garden will come to life again, just like my driveway does.

With its self-seeding tendencies, you'll probably only have to grow it from seed once. Even though Dahlberg daisy reseeds, I don't find that it gets weedy - and if it grows where you don't want it, well, the seedlings are really easy to pull out.

By the way, Thymophylla tenuiloba is the botanical name and the plant is native to south central Texas and northern Mexico. Seed companies offer it under the name Dahlberg daisy or Golden Fleece.

Find Dahlberg daisy at Stokes Seeds.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Favorite gardening footwear

Some gardeners swear by slip-on clogs, others wear old sneakers or a favorite pair of boots.

I can't live without my trusty Australian-made Blundstone boots.

I was introduced to them by a garden designer friend who spends a lot of time on landscape construction sites.

The best thing about them is this, and it comes right from one of their advertising slogans: "No damn laces!"

My Blundies are light enough take me through the summer's gardening and dog-walking.

We walk at the neighboring tree farm behind our farm, kind of a rough place of dirt roads and tall grass – definitely not sandal territory.

That's my dog, Toby, happily nosing around.

Here's a link to the boots: Canadian site.
For the US site, click here and
here for the Australian site.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Barn swallow babies

Over the past couple of weeks, our barn swallow babies have learned to fly and have discovered the big world out there.

Having barn swallows around is a bit like expanding one's pet population by a dozen or two. Each morning we wake up to very clear demands to open the barn doors. When we do, a number of parents fly out and others fly in. The flights continue until dark.

Our "barn" is a drive shed which houses our mowers, garden tools, my husband's stone carving studio (off limits to the birds) and a two-car garage. Usually the swallows build their nests and lay their eggs up high near the top of barn, well away from the garage part of the building, which has a very low ceiling.

But some summers, the swallow "condos" up top get filled up fast by several nesting pairs, leaving the pair that's lowest on the totem pole to nest in the garage. This makes taking the car in and out a bit of an adventure after the babies hatch and Mom and Dad get very protective.

With a long lens and flash, I was able to take pictures of the garage swallow babies at feeding-time without upsetting them too much.

The swallow parents are tireless when feeding the little guys, and they're great fun to watch as they buzz and swoop by the nest to encourage the babies to try their wings. The little ones grow to flying stage astonishingly quickly.

We enjoy our swallow flock, but we're always relieved when we can walk by the barn without being buzzed by fly-bys - and when we can finally clean up the bird droppings.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

When it rains, it pours

When it's hot and dry, plants suffer. But even gardeners get drought-stressed: I'm a bad case – drought makes me cranky and anxious, even questioning my commitment to gardening.

This happens despite the fact that I grow mostly plants that can tolerate a lot of dryness. I get drought-stressed because I'm a perfectionist. My garden hasn't a hope in heck of looking its best if it never rains – a big concern when there are garden tours coming.

I also hate having to drag hoses around, trying to remember which plants need watering. (Anything recently planted that hasn't had time to develop good roots needs attention.) Not only that, I worry about running cisterns dry and burning out pumps. And if it doesn't rain, I have to buy extra water, as our well water has to be reserved for the house.

This year we had very little rain in May and June, which worried me because that's when most plants make their annual growth spurt. May brought less than 3 inches (2 inches and 8/10ths to be exact) and June was even drier (only an inch and three quarters). Luckily, temperatures stayed on the cool side, a big improvement over June 2005 when we had both drought and an early heat wave that lasted for days. Talk about high anxiety!

Last year, thunderstorms finally came to the rescue in July, and so it was last week too. We finally got rain – in buckets. It came down three times, twice torrentially: The week's total was - insert drumroll - 5 and ¾ inches!

The picture below shows the flooding down at our creek after the last bout of rain brought one-and-a-half inches overnight when the ground was already saturated.

That was in the morning. By afternoon, things were still soggy, but the flood waters had receded.

The rain was exactly we needed and it came in the nick of time to help the garden (and the gardener) weather the current heat wave. Thank you, thunderstorms! Sometimes you just get lucky.

Garden mulching survey

I've always strongly advocated garden mulch, especially for people with big country gardens. (We buy wood chip mulch by the dump-truck load.)

So I was interested to read what perennials expert John Valleau, the chief horticulturist for the wholesale grower Heritage Perennials, had to say recently about the results of a reader survey he did on garden mulching techniques.

In his May 2006 newsletter, he had given the standard advice to always taper the mulch down to nothing immediately around the crowns and stems of perennials to avoid problems with rotting.

Then Quebec-based garden writer Larry Hodgson wrote in to say he thought that was all a garden myth. So, John asked his newsletter readers for their observations.

Here's what he had to say about the results in his July newsletter:

I was literally flooded with responses this month. Wow! Mulching must be a very hot topic, and here I was anticipating only a handful of entries.

I've taken some time to analyze the data, and the results for the #1 question on whether to taper the mulch or to pile it evenly around perennials worked out this way:

• 85% — spread mulch evenly over the bed
• 7% — doesn't matter, or depends on the particular plant
• 8% — taper the mulch or rotting may be a problem

BENEFITS of mulching you mentioned included: reduced watering, because the mulch holds the moisture in the soil; cooler roots during summer heat; greatly reduced weed seed germination (figures in the 80% fewer weeds were mentioned a few times); mulches add beneficial organic matter; mulches encourage plenty of soil microbes, worms and other beneficial critters; mulch looks aesthetically pleasing.

The most important thing you reported over and over again is that mulching seems to make your perennials grow better!

Read the entire mulch article. It turns out that you can spread mulch a lot thicker than many experts tell you without doing harm to your perennials.