Rocks Rock!

The creative ways that we can, and do, use rocks in our landscaping are varied, interesting, functional, and sometimes unexpected. If you have access to rocks, it is an inexpensive way to add some «lawn ornaments» to your gardens. There are many ways to do this. One of the most common is a rock garden. You can add a single or a few rocks to a flowerbed. This is especially helpful with a new flowerbed. The planting may appear sparse at first and the rocks serve as the focal point. But as you add more plants and they spread, then the flowers become the focal point and the rocks take on a supporting role. Or you can use many rocks to keep them as the focal point with just a few plants. If your bed is on a slope, you can place the rocks in strategic places or you can use rocks to terrace the slope. No matter what your layout is, rocks and flowers just go together.

Or they can be used alone to create hardscapes. One example would be a retaining wall. This can be very time consuming and requires you to have a good supply of rocks on hand. In order to provide drainage, and minimize freezing and thawing that could damage the wall, you should evacuate behind your wall and add small stones so that the water can flow away from your wall. It is also helpful to taper the wall so that the top of the wall is a few degrees off perpendicular. A lot of work – but in the end you have a beautiful addition to your landscape. And even more beautiful if you soften it with vines or flowers – again, rocks and flowers just go together.

At a church camp, a labyrinth was formed from painted rocks that campers had made as part of a craft project. Some people paint rocks and use them as plant markers. You can make stepping-stones or you can build an entire pathway through a garden using flat rocks and then using pea gravel in between the rocks. I recently returned from a trip to New Hampshire. I always admire the many rock fences that were built in that area decades ago and are still standing. Everyone there seems to have an abundance of rock and uses them in their landscapes. I never think of bringing rocks inside but an unexpected moment I had at the alpine guesthouse where we were staying was the centerpiece on the table; an arrangement of a small stuffed bear and a few flat rocks. It was simple – and charming.

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Of course, not everyone has access to a lot of rocks. But you can find them. Not everyone appreciates rocks the way some of us rock lovers do and are quite willing to let us have theirs. Some of the rocks that we have used at our place have come from the farmer’s field behind our house and he is certainly okay with us removing them from his field. Rocks have become so popular in landscaping that you can even buy rocks.

Or sometimes, they are given away. On a trip to the Crazy Horse Monument in South Dakota a few years ago, we saw bins of cut stones for the tourists to choose as many as they would like to take home with them. We were in the process of building some stone (rock) pillars at our house and the stones from Crazy Horse were used in those pillars.

We have a small fishpond at our house and used some of our rock collection to build a waterfall. This past spring, my husband redesigned the waterfall and did not reuse all of the rocks. What to do with the extra rocks? I had the idea that we could make a few rock sculptures for our shade garden. My husband had a better idea. Since two of our grandsons were coming for a visit soon, why not let them make some rock sculptures. So we dumped the wheelbarrow of rocks under a maple tree that we keep mulched but have never planted anything there. They went to work. At first, they came up with this big pre-conceived structure they were going to build. But when they were unable to get it started, I suggested to them that they needed to «let the rocks tell them what to do.» At first, this was a strange concept for the 9 and 11-year olds but they finally caught on. And in the next few days, they built fourteen rock sculptures in our mulch bed. It was fascinating to watch them being drawn back to that rock pile to build yet another one. It was a beautiful sculpture garden. More importantly, it was a beautiful memory! And they could not wait to show their mother their creations when she came to get them.

Some of the sculptures have fallen over since. But some are still in pretty good shape. The next time the grandsons come, the rock pile will be there for them to rebuild. In fact, now, when anyone comes to our house and is curious about our rock pile, if they wish, they can also «let the rocks tell them what to do» and build their own sculpture.

So find some rocks. Let them tell you what to do – and I know that you will be pleased with the results.

Gardening with Succulents

This summer I have experimented with succulents as I work to devise a solution for planting in a wet spot. That’s right – a wet spot! As you may well know, succulents thrive in extreme weather and store moisture within, making them a great drought-tolerant plant. Hen and chicks (sometimes called cats and kittens) are a very popular example of a succulent. Because they need little care, if you wish, you can put them in any remote spot for a touch of green or red or orange.

We have a spot that washes out when there is a heavy rain, and plants that thrive on normal rainfall just don’t thrive in this particular spot. We used a concrete bird bath top, drilled a hole for drainage, and planted succulents in lightweight potting soil to get them started. The torrential rains that wash across the driveway in this particular spot rush around the plantings, the plants are secure in their concrete base and we have some green where we once had a bare spot.

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The soil sometimes washes out of its concrete base, but can be easily replenished. I started small, given that this was an experimental project. I have added plants for color and texture since it appears that the tough little guys will «weather» any «weather». I have added decorative pebbles to secure the soil and the plants.

Did you know that succulents can be easily over-wintered? The same plantings can be moved indoors for the winter and need very little care. In the spring, when danger of frost has passed, just set out the container garden planted last year and it will adjust with little or no care. That’s my plan, at least……..

The appearance of succulents is rather exotic – not the traditional container garden, I’ll admit. I have listed a few here beyond the hens and chicks we see in many local gardens. Known as the ultimate low-maintenance plant, they are all very adaptable:

  • Aloe – a spiky plant that doubles as a topical burn treatment — especially interesting in containers because of the height.
  • Sedum – a multi-faceted plant of various heights with blooms of many colors.
  • Fish Hooks senecio is a trailing succulent of lime green, great for hanging containers.
  • Sticks of Fire red pencil tree is striking. It looks much like its name would indicate, but I have to admit, it looks almost plastic – much like the plastic aquarium plants one sees in tropical fish tanks. Of course, it is not plastic at all, and in the right pot of a contrasting color, is very striking.

More and more garden centers are adding succulents to their inventory. I advise you to check out the possibilities. They are usually inexpensive and as noted, require very little care.

Remember, key to a successful succulent container garden is proper drainage through exit holes in the container filled with a light weight soil that drains well. Add lots of sun and you have an interestingly different focal point.

Did you know……on average, a family of 4 will spend $70 on seeds and plants to grow their own veggies and harvest about $600 in produce throughout the growing season?

Did you know……watering your lawn at midday results in 30% moisture loss? Water in the morning to get the benefit of 100% moisture (almost) and bring the worms to the surface for a baby robin’s breakfast?

Did you know…..buying small plants and cultivating them to a larger size saves about 66%?

Did you know….you should let your perennials grow for about 3 years, then divide and save instantly by turning 1 plant into several?

Did you know….you can save about $23/ ton by composting yard waste to avoid collection costs? One-part kitchen scraps (plant-based only please) plus two parts yard waste (no weed seeds please) will yield healthy free compost!

A Bog Garden and its Habitat

A bog garden is an area near a body of water that contains moist soil which produces a habitat for plants that thrive in moist conditions. Typically, bog gardens exist in low-lying areas near a pond, lake or stream, but a bog garden can be created in a container specially designed for them.

Bog gardens make a lovely attraction in any landscape. A carnivorous plant bog garden can be a center point of drama and intrigue as well as beauty. Artificial bogs can be constructed to cover a large or small area. These gardens can be positioned in the ground to appear natural or assembled in a container as a lovely and unique dish garden for the deck or patio.

Designing the layout of your bog garden will take foresight. Design a bog garden in much the same way you would any herbaceous garden, grouping the plants in relation to their heights, textures, and colors. If your garden is to be viewed from all sides, it is best to group taller plants toward the center. Smaller varieties can be showcased along the outer edges.

Aquatic carnivores or other water plants can be grown in the bog garden. The species of plants you can grow in a bog garden are those that thrive naturally in a peat-based soil. Most enthusiasts enjoy growing a wide variety of carnivorous plants in a bog garden such as caltha palustris (marsh marigold), dionaea muscipula (venus flytrap), myosotis scorploides (water forget-me-not). A low-growing bog can be impressive by utilizing species such as Sarracenia purpurea (purple pitcher plant).

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If your space is limited, consider a container bog garden. Miniature bog gardens are one of the most popular and simple ways to grow carnivorous plants. These are set up in the same way as larger artificial bogs. The only difference is that you’ll use smaller, freestanding containers. A wide variety of undrained, plastic garden bowls can be used for a bog garden. The container should be lined with plastic.

Container bog gardens can be placed on sunny decks, patios, or balconies. They prefer five or more hours of full sun daily, preferably morning sun. The harsh afternoon sun can be detrimental to their appearance. Keep dead or dying leaves pinched off to obtain paramount attractiveness. Constant saturation is not needed, but the soil should not dry out. If a bog garden is well-maintained, it will look lush and fresh throughout the summer. The containers can be moved to a garage or basement window during the winter months to accommodate their dormancy or into a sunroom if the plants grow year-round.

Randy Heffner from Aquascapes Unlimited, Inc. will present a workshop on Bog Plants and Their Endangered Habitat on Saturday, September 26, at the Adams County Agricultural & Natural Resources Center, 670 Old Harrisburg Road, Gettysburg, PA. This event is in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Native Plant Society 2015 Annual Meeting hosted by The Penn State Master Gardeners of Adams County. The workshop will include a brief yet captivating lecture overview of bog plants and their threatened habitat. Participants will experience hands-on guidance for creating their own 18-inch terra cotta carnivorous mini bog garden to take home. The secrets to recreating a bog’s natural habitat in containers will be explored. Mr. Heffner will educate the participants about container selection, creating the correct compositional soil mix, preferred plant selection, as well as conditions necessary for long term maintenance of these attractive and captivating container gardens. This is a unique educational opportunity that you will not want to miss.

Butterflies and Violets

Until this summer violets were a plague in the cultivated areas of my garden. Under every expanding clump of the purple-flowering plants there were hundreds of tiny seedlings. The violets even prefer to grow mingled tightly with my perennials. Like most gardeners, I grubbed them out before they could take over.

As I was doing just that one sweaty day last August, a Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly (Speyeria cybele) gently settled among them and began laying her eggs. These are large butterflies, orange with black spots on their upper wings and pretty silver spots on the underside of their hind wings. They are among my favorite insects. Clearly, violets have a role that I didn’t know about. I needed to learn more.

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The larvae of most butterflies feed on at least a few different plants, but Great Spangled Fritillaries depend exclusively on several varieties of violets, just as the more famous Monarch butterfly caterpillars dine solely on various kinds of milkweed. Without violets, I learned, these beautiful butterflies would not decorate our gardens. With such a restricted diet, their caterpillars are not garden pests, although violets do look tattered by late fall. The caterpillars feed at night and crawl away from violets to hide during the day. They are difficult to find, dark brown to black with black spines that are orange at the base. Even with a flashlight, I have never found one. But the butterflies live in my garden, and my violets are chewed. I think it’s a fair price to pay.

These gorgeous butterflies range coast to coast from the southern edge of Canada southward to northern California through Colorado and Nebraska to Virginia. There are reports that this range is shifting southward as habitat is lost to the North.

Adult Great Spangled Fritillaries appear in the spring from May to June, their mating season. Afterward, the females go into hiding until late summer when they reappear to lay their eggs. They are swift fliers, but you can often get a good look at them feeding on flower nectar. They especially like black-eyed susans, our state flower. Eggs hatch in the fall, and caterpillars overwinter before pupating and emerging as adults in the late spring. The pupae resemble mottled, brown leaves. Fritillary caterpillars and pupae are as hard to find as the adults are hard to miss.

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Here in the Mid-Atlantic we are fortunate to live within the overlapping ranges of the Great Spangled Fritillary and the similar but smaller Meadow Fritillary (Boloria bellona). Meadow Fritillaries also depend on violets, but they have been seen sampling other plants from time to time. They are active from May to September and produce two or three broods. The caterpillars are purple to black with brown spines. The last generation of caterpillars overwinters like their larger relatives.

Even after learning all this, I still don’t want violets to take over my garden. But I cannot be without Fritillaries fluttering about all summer. My solution is an experiment, but I think it will succeed. Since I am a strong believer in the work-reducing advantages of ground covers, I decided that a large patch of violets will be perfect beneath some of my river birches. The trees are away from the house so the chewed violet foliage won’t matter. Now when I grub violets out, I replant them under the birches.

Better yet, I’ve come to see tattered violets as cheerful promises for next spring. I must admit, though, that once in a while I scatter a little non-toxic (to pets and children) slug bait, just to ensure that the violets are feeding only butterflies!