Small blooms, Big Impact

Spring is in the air and bulbs are blooming everywhere in the Mary Snoddy garden. I gave up on tulips (also known as field mouse caviar) years ago and add a few more daffodils every autumn. One bulb that was here on the property before I arrived as a bride is Ipheion uniflorum, pronounced IF-ee-on.

Ipheion, sometimes called Spring Starflower, is a tiny little bulb in the same family as Amaryllis. They bear six-petaled blooms one inch in diameter, usually in shades of blue although white cultivars are available. The medium blue shades look especially pretty when paired with darker blue grape hyacinths and some of the paler yellow daffodils. The plants only grow to six inches or so, but they multiply rapidly to make impressive clumps. Foliage is a narrow bluish-green leaf that resembles a clump of grass. The bloom period lasts several weeks.

I have allowed mine to naturalize throughout flowerbeds that would normally be barren until it is warm enough to plant annuals. They have spread into the lawn also. I use their beautiful blooming swaths as a valid reason to delay cutting the grass. Once most of the blooms are spent, I decapitate them with the lawnmower.  This does not seem to affect their future health in any negative way.  When the foliage is cut or bruised, it gives off a sharp odor that some people describe as oniony. I think it is more skunk than onion, but I do not find it particularly unpleasant. The foliage dies back naturally after blooming. Foliage may occasionally return for a few weeks in the fall, but this is of no concern.

The bulbs are carefree. No need to fertilize or irrigate. The blooms attract pollinators. Squirrels, rabbits, deer and voles leave them alone.

 Start with a grouping of at least twenty bulbs to make a good show. They multiply quickly, so you can divide and spread once they are established or let Mother Nature spread them about.  They reproduce by both seed and bulb offsets. Bulbs are hardy in zone 5 to 9. Ipheions bloom best in areas that are under deciduous trees, receiving full sun in winter and early spring, then partial shade as their bloom season ends.

A happy clump of Ipheions

A happy clump of Ipheions

This group has meandered its way into the lawn.

This group has meandered its way into the lawn.

Tulip Magnolias - Harbinger of Spring

Magnolia soulangeana, commonly called “Saucer Magnolia” or “Tulip Magnolia” has been in glorious full bloom in the Mary Snoddy garden the past three weeks. This deciduous tree draws attention because the large purple and white blooms appear in very early spring before its leaves emerge. Unfortunately, the delicate petals are blasted by late freezes some years, leaving them an ugly, wilted brown.  The leaves emerge later and are rarely impacted by cold weather. There is little to no fall color.

Saucer magnolias branch low and, in my opinion, are prettiest if they are allowed to keep those lower branches.  The bark is attractive, but trees appear somewhat top heavy when limbed up. Trees reach 20 to 30 feet tall; mature widths vary. They grow in zones 5 to 9, and are tolerant of different soil types.

There are many different cultivars available. Bloom colors vary from pink to deep purple. There are variations in petal shape, too. Buy trees when they are in bloom to be positive on color.

If you have a choice, try to plant your specimen in a cool spot in your garden rather than a protected, warm microclimate that may spur early bloom. Be on the lookout for deer – They think the tender leaves are extra tasty.

Pre-Emergents Prevent Summer Weeds

It sounds too good to be true – A product that prevents weeds and grass from spouting in garden beds and containers. That is exactly what a pre-emergent does. Timing is critical. If applied too early, the product is washed away by rains before it has time to do its magic. If applied after the weeds have already sprouted, it is useless. Strictly speaking, pre-emergent herbicide does not actually prevent germination of weed seeds. Instead it creates a chemical layer in the soil by inhibiting a particular enzyme the weeds need to grow.

Weather varies from year to year and from location to location. Pre-emergents are effective if used just before weeds begin to germinate. The proper time to apply a pre-emergent cannot be a specific assigned date. Instead, follow this reliable trigger: Apply when Forsythia is in bloom. Follow package directions exactly. Some call for the application of water after application; others say to incorporate the product by scratching it into the surface. For those that direct the use of water, use overhead sprinkling to dissolve the granules. A soaker hose or drip tape is ineffective. Heavy rain can dissolve the granules, but a light rain stretching over several days will only leave a very thin “no grow” layer. Under normal conditions, the herbicide will be effective 3 to 5 months. Continued heavy rains or frequent irrigation will reduce the concentration of the herbicide and hence shorten its effectiveness.

Once the product has been applied, avoid disturbing the soil and the chemical barrier. This means no digging, raking, dragging a hose across a treated area, or even jiggling a treated container enough to disturb the soil surface. Most weed seeds germinate in the top half-inch of soil. There are few one-size-fits-all product. Some work to prevent grasses; others target broadleafs like dandelions, clover, or chickweed. If your beds are infested with both, you should look for a product marked “broad spectrum.” Otherwise, you may need to apply two separate products.

Do not apply grass seed after using a pre-emergent or your grass seed will not sprout and grow successfully. And those “Weed and Feed” combination products? Take a pass. The correct time to apply a weed-prevention product is not the correct time to fertilize.

Most pre-emergents are not for use in vegetable gardens. There are a couple that can be used around edibles. Be sure to check the label. I use several brand names in the Mary Snoddy garden. Here’s a tip for easy application: Wash and dry an empty plastic quart container, such as that from mayonnaise. Use a drill bit to bore holes through the plastic lid, creating a giant “salt shaker.” Fill the container with your herbicide and sprinkle it on. This home-made applicator allows for controlled, consistent application.

Assertive Agave

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I have an affection for plants with thorns. One of the prickly stars in the Mary Snoddy garden is Agave, commonly known as Century Plant. Agaves are succulents with thick, fleshy leaves arranged in a rosette form. Some have smooth edge leaves but most are serrated. A few have variegated leaf margins. The Agave’s bold leaf appearance makes it a good focal point. To avoid injury, keep it away from walkways. I use wire cutters to remove the tips of the leaf spines.

Several years ago, I purchased my first Agave. I promptly lost the plant identification tag, so I have no idea of the cultivar but do remember it was marked cold hardy to Zone 7. It has beautiful, gray-green leaves tipped with razor-sharp spines. In a few years, it grew quite large and threw off a number of side-shoots, or “pups.” Pups can be separated from the mother plant with a sharp knife. Allow the cuts to dry and callous a few days before potting them up. I gave away most of my offsets, but placed one in a small container. I assumed that the limited root space in a pot would also restrict the plant’s size. I underestimated the strength of the plant. It filled the pot with roots and even managed to throw a new plant from a drainage hole near the bottom. (See the accompanying photo.)

Agaves are in the lily family. They are native to the southwestern US and Mexico. They enjoy sun and heat, and will suffer if temperatures drop into the teens. They need very little water and will rot if allowed to be too wet, especially in cold weather. They do well in rock gardens. If grown in containers, a porous potting soil such as a cactus mix is best.

The common name Century Plant comes from the mistaken belief that a plant must be 100 years old before it blooms. The truth is that plants may bloom after ten years or so. The mother plant dies after blooming.

Agave’s claim to fame comes from its byproduct. The fermented leaf juice is distilled into Tequila.

These spines are needle sharp. Note the leaf serrations and the beautiful shading.

These spines are needle sharp. Note the leaf serrations and the beautiful shading.

Using a small container to restrict plant size was a pointless exercise. The plant is stronger than the plastic walls of the planter.

Using a small container to restrict plant size was a pointless exercise. The plant is stronger than the plastic walls of the planter.

Awesome Thorns - Hardy Orange

Every gardener has their favorites. I love anything with thorns. My friend Sallie labeled this peculiarity a Crucifixion Complex. Of the many choices available, Hardy Orange (Poncirus trifoliata) is high on my list.

Not a true citrus, this 15-foot deciduous tree is cold hardy in zones 6-9. The fragrant white blooms produce yellow-orange fruits a bit larger than a quarter. Some may be as large as golf balls. The aromatic fruit is filled with seeds rather than pulp. It should be considered inedible, since ingestion causes stomach pain and nausea. Skin contact can cause minor dermatitis to sensitive gardeners.

Trees are drought tolerant. They prefer full sun and will grow in almost any soil. My specimen was planted on our property by my husband’s grandmother. It had been overtaken by a spreading evergreen tree. I transplanted the scrawny whip to be a focal point in a perennial bed. It thanked me for its rescue by growing rapidly. The growth habit tends toward a few long, wild water sprouts. I prune it hard every other year to keep its size in check and to give it a more pleasing shape.

Pruning is an act of self-flagellation. The three-inch thorns are sharp. When I pruned this week, I wore an insulated jacket, padded ski gloves, safety glasses, and a construction hard hat from my father’s workshop. The thorns will penetrate ski gloves, so I handle each branch carefully. I burn the discarded limbs rather than composting them. The dead limbs take forever to decay. Even after a couple of years, the thorns are sharp enough to penetrate the tires of my farm tractor. (Go ahead – Ask me how I know this.)  The lethal thorns make the tree inedible to deer. It is also disease-free and insect-free in the Mary Snoddy garden. 

The USDA lists Hardy Orange as invasive in fifteen states that encompass the southeastern quadrant of the USA. It was introduced across the country in the mid-1880s as a potential rootstock, with the hope that tender oranges could be grafted onto it and grown in colder areas.  That combination was not successful.

I carefully harvest every one of the dropped fruits to avoid rampant reseeding. If you cannot make the commitment to restrict the plant from spreading, please skip it. Birds and animals distribute seeds and plants sprout across the landscape. This invasiveness is unfortunate, because it would make a dandy barrier to trespassers.  ‘Flying Dragon’ is the only selected cultivar. Its limbs are little more contorted than the straight species.

One way to restrict plant size and control invasiveness is to grow the plant in a container.  I maintained several for years until they became too unwieldy.

Why grow such a dangerous plant? Glad you asked! They offer endless opportunities for decorating. Yes, you read that right. The stiff thorns will support gumdrops that can change colors with the seasons. One year I cut branches and spray-painted them glossy black. I jammed the stems into ripe pumpkins and draped them with fake spider webs. Best Halloween Décor Ever.

Bare limbs seen against a winter sky highlight the impressive thorns.

Bare limbs seen against a winter sky highlight the impressive thorns.

Perfect Plant Pairings

When two things work together to create something that is better than the two standing alone, that is called “synergy.” When two garden plants work together, that is called “delightful.” A perfect example is the combination planting in the Mary Snoddy garden of Arum italicum and Hosta.

Every good gardener knows or grows hosta. These shade-loving perennials vary in size from tiny (‘Blue Mouse Ears’ is four inches tall) to giant (‘Empress Wu’ can reach forty inches in height and almost six feet in width). Leaf colors range from blue-green to chartreuse, with every green shade between. Accents can be white or cream, or include reddish leaf stems. Leaf shapes can be rounded, pointed, cupped, twisted. Fragrant blooms can be white or shade toward lavender. With 70 species and almost 3,000 registered varieties, gardeners can find one to fit their taste and size requirements. I suggest that you consult a reference book for size and preferred growing conditions. My favorite is The New Encyclopedia of Hostas, by Diana Grenfell and Michael Shadrack, published by Timber Press in 2009.

Hostas are one of the few plants that will do well in dryish shade. The only downside is their susceptibility to damage from deer and slugs. Hostas pop through the ground in spring, are gorgeous through warm seasons, but then wither and disappear with the onset of color weather. This is when Arum struts its stuff.

Italian Arum, sometimes called “Lords and Ladies,” is dormant through the hosta growing season. It pokes triangular heads through the soil about the same time that hostas are going nighty-night.  Those heads unfurl to glossy, arrow-shaped leaves that are marked with white veining. They reach 6 to 12 inches in height. The leaves remain gorgeous throughout our cold season. They grow in zones 6 to 9. Like hostas, they are prone to slug damage.

Unimpressive, tiny white arum blooms are followed by spikes of gorgeous, bright orange berries that persist after the leaves die down, at the onset of warmer temperatures.  Plants will slowly multiply themselves via fallen berries or you can help them along by harvesting and spreading the seeds. You can also divide the clumps when they are dormant (summer). Arum berry spikes are bigger with a little bit of sunshine, but leaves are larger in more shade.

A common slug/snail treatment is metaldehyde. It is toxic to cats and dogs, so here at New Hope Farm I opt for a non-toxic treatment based on iron phosphate that is safe for pets and people. (Sluggo is my brand of choice. There are others.) If you have a large snail population, you will probably want to reapply every two-three weeks, depending upon rainfall and irrigation.

Arum and hosta are a perfect pairing underneath deciduous trees.

This photo of Arum was taken in early March, last year. Note the emerging hosta leaves at lower right.

This photo of Arum was taken in early March, last year. Note the emerging hosta leaves at lower right.

Immature Arum seeds. These turn bright orange when mature.

Immature Arum seeds. These turn bright orange when mature.

Sample of hostas, showing different leaf colors.

Sample of hostas, showing different leaf colors.

Seed Stratification

Most seeds will sprout readily if given moisture and warmth. Some are more exacting with their germination requirements, preferring limited temperature ranges or specific light needs. A few are downright demanding.

Stratification is any method of breaking seed dormancy to initiate germination. One means of stratification is scarification.

Scarification is used for seeds with hard coats. For these tough customers, gardeners must find a way to allow moisture inside the protective shell to initiate growth. Freezing seeds can sometime cause the seed coat to crack. Acid washes or “processing” through an animal’s digestive tract can be the trick for some. Rubbing the seed against an abrasive surface like sandpaper or chipping a tiny hole in the outermost layer are easy and effective. I keep a pair of toenail clippers that are dedicated to this chore. It is important that the wound made by chipping be shallow. Otherwise, there is risk of damage to the underlying endosperm. The endosperm is both food source and protection for the seed embryo. The first sign of germination, a first root called a radicle, emerges from this embryo. Injury to the radicle means deformity or death to the emerging plant.

Other means of stratification seek to mimic nature’s conditions under which the seed sprouts. For most this means refrigeration in damp conditions (think plastic bag with a damp paper towel) but some require storage in warm, damp conditions. A very few require both. For instance, right now I am attempting to germinate seeds of Euscaphis japonica, the Korean Sweetheart tree. The seeds of this plant require a 24-hour water soak followed by sixty days of cold storage, then sixty days of warm storage, then another sixty days of cold storage before being planted in growing media. Whew!

Redbud tree (Cercis Canadensis) requires both scarification and cold stratification. Mother Nature provides the scarification part by making the seeds tasty to birds. Birds crack the seeds as they eat, put them through a stomach-acid wash, and then deposit them onto the ground for the cold, damp days of winter. The success of this process is proved by the number of redbud trees that pop up in woodland areas. Hollies and magnolias have chemical inhibitors in the fleshy pulp surrounding the seed. This pulp must be removed by washing. I have had good success with germinating dogwoods after washing the pulp away with dishwashing detergent, then rinsing with plain water before sowing.

It is important to realize that the germination process cannot be halted once started. If you attempt to stop sprouting after it has begun, the seeds will die. Best success comes from using a seed starting mix rather than a normal potting soil. It is light weight and allows the roots to grow without fighting a denser soil.

Consult a reliable reference (book or website) for the preferred germination conditions of your seeds.

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Mahonia

“The dead of winter.” That phase accurately describes the Mary Snoddy garden right now. My dormant mostly-Bermuda lawn is the color of a manila file folder.  The flower beds look forlorn. Amid all this dreariness, the lemon yellow blooms of Mahonia bealei glow like a beacon in the winter landscape.

The common Mahonia (pronounced mah-HOE-nee-uh BEEL-lee-eye) originally hails from China, but has spread itself across the southeast in damp, shady areas. This shrub has thick, leathery leaves (common name is Leatherleaf Mahonia) shaped like giant holly leaves, complete with sharp points. Should you injure the bark either through accident or pruning, you will find the underlying tissue is a bright yellow, just like its distant cousin, the barberry. It is evergreen, but a few leaves may turn red or orange and drop in autumn.

The plant is not included in the List of Invasive Plant Pest Species compiled and revised in 2014 by the South Carolina Exotic Pest Plant Council, but NC State University includes it in their Invasive Exotic Plants of the Southeast, and recommends control via a combination of fruit removal, drastic pruning, herbicide, and root ball removal. I take this to mean that they feel the shrub should be removed entirely.  Invasive.org indicates that this tough customer is on the bad list in South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia.

One does not need a horticulture degree to realize that this hardy specimen has invasive tendencies. The fragrant blooms are followed by clusters of green berries that mature to an attractive blue-purple shade, often with a powdery dusting described by botanists as “glaucous.” The berries are favored by birds. I suggest that you avoid line-drying any laundry during the 2-3 weeks that ripe berries are present (unless, of course, you prefer your clothing and bed linens with random purple stains). Any berries not removed by birds fall to the ground, where they germinate readily. I do a twice-yearly hoeing to remove all these unwanted seedlings. Otherwise, a thicket would develop.

Mature shrubs will grow 5-10 feet tall, with a 4 foot spread. They have a tendency to become lanky, with bare lower stems, similar to species Nandina. Counteract this by pruning a few of the leggy stems each year down to a height of six inches. It looks drastic, but they will throw new growth at the cuts and look much better.

There are some newer introductions of Mahonia that may be less invasive. ‘Winter Sun’ is beautiful and fragrant. On winter days with temperatures above 50 degrees, the honeybees swarm around the sweet blooms. Introduced in 2006, Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’ grows in the same damp shade as its cousin, but the foliage is soft and finely cut, resembling bamboo.  It is smaller (3 feet, maybe) and perfect for an Asian garden. It has the same yellow flowers, but mine bloom in September/October rather than January/February like the Leatherleaf.  Mahonias put down some deep roots, which means that mature specimens are somewhat drought tolerant (yay) but difficult to relocate or remove (boo). All Mahonias are deer resistant.

Photos: Left - ‘Winter Sun’; Middle - The beginnings of an invasive thicket; Right - ‘Soft Caress’

Lucky Buckeye

Another Christmas season is in the books. When I was a young child, I was enthralled by the concept of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” I nagged my long-suffering mother into purchasing a bag of these nuts and cooking them in our fireplace. That statement is remarkable for two reasons. First, we didn’t have chestnut trees on any family property, so she had no experience with the nuts. Mom was never eager to try anything new. Second, I can count on one hand (truthfully, two fingers) the number of fires kindled in our family fireplace during my childhood. Our house was built in the 1940’s and the tiny firebox was designed for coal-burning, not wood. As a consequence, a log fire billowed smoke into the house interior, stainining walls and incurring the wrath of the matriarch/housekeeper.

Smoke fiasco aside, our carol-induced experiment took a bad turn when the nuts heated up. We did not know that we should have cut a slit in the hulls to allow for the escape of steam. Mom learned that an exploding chestnut makes a sound not unlike a pistol shot. The detonated nuts flew across the room, leaving trails of scalding hot innards. She attempted to remove the remaining nuts from the fire’s edge before they blew, with limited success. I learned a few new words that day. Even as a six year-old, I knew better than to laugh at a frazzled mother dotted with sizzling nut guts. Oddly enough, she was mad at crooner Nat King Cole and not me.

Decades have passed. I have learned that, despite the similarity in seed appearance, the chestnut and the buckeye are markedly different. Chestnuts are edible. Buckeyes are not.  Ingesting a buckeye can cause kidney failure. Chestnuts are encased in prickly husks that remind one of Oscar The Grouch. Buckeyes are encased in spineless, lobed seed pods that look a little like a misshapen fuzzy brown kiwi.

The subject of today’s blog is the Red Buckeye, Aesculus pavia, pronounced ESS-kew-lus PAH-ve-ah. This deciduous tree is native to the southeastern US. Its short stature (10 to 20 feet) and clump-forming habit leads the gardener to treat it as a large shrub. It is one of the first trees to leaf out in the spring and one of the first to shed leaves in the fall. Beautiful red bloom panicles up to six inches long are borne at the ends of the branches in early spring. The nectar-rich flowers are irresistible to hummingbirds and butterflies, and are ranked among the top ten hummingbird plants for South Carolina.

Trees prefer moist but well-drained soil. They function best in an understory role with dappled shade, since the tender leaves scorch in full sun. The crown will open up a bit in denser shade. They do not tolerate severe drought, but will die in a waterlogged soil.

The seed pods open to release mature nuts in September to October. It is possible to start Red Buckeye from seed, but you’ll need to work fast to beat the squirrels. The seeds degrade quickly once shed, so should be planted as soon as they are gathered. Seeds require three months of cold, moist stratification to germinate. This can be accomplished by refrigerating seeds in a bag of damp sphagnum moss before planting them in the ground or in a nursery container. The easier method is to place seeds in a porous potting mix outdoors through the winter, allowing Mother Nature to do the chilling and watering. If you take the latter route, use protection (wire mesh) to prevent squirrels from unearthing the nuts. The potting mix must be free-draining or seeds will rot. Seedlings grow quickly and can flower in two to three years.

Carrying a buckeye in the pocket is supposed to bring good luck. Just don’t eat it.

Photo courtesy of Josh Williams, from the Clemson Extension Home Garden Information Center. See Bulletin 1031 for information and photos of Red Buckeye and all its relatives.  https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/buckeyes-horsechestnuts/

Photo courtesy of Josh Williams, from the Clemson Extension Home Garden Information Center. See Bulletin 1031 for information and photos of Red Buckeye and all its relatives.

https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/buckeyes-horsechestnuts/

Red buckeye, ready to drop from its seed capsule.

Red buckeye, ready to drop from its seed capsule.

Remedy Reversions Rapidly

When a variegated shrub throws new shoots that are not variegated, it is said to “revert.” That means that the errant portion of the plant has returned to the growth characteristics of one of its genetic parents. Almost always, the non-variegated growth is more vigorous that the rest of the plant because it is synthesizing more chlorophyll. If not removed, it will gradually take over the shrub, so the gardener should remove these naughty bits just as soon as they become evident.  Winter is an excellent time to spot reversions on evergreens.

Don’t be shy with corrective pruning. Cut the solid branch out entirely, pruning an inch or two into the section that shows variegation. The earlier the bad branch is removed, the less impact pruning will have on the overall appearance of the plant. If you delay until the reversion has gained size, removal will leave a visible hole in your shrub. Most of the time these holes will disappear when active growth begins in warm weather.

Certain plants seem to be more prone to reversion than others. In the Mary Snoddy garden, I’ve never been able to keep golden euonymus alive long enough to experience the problem, because they croak from leaf scale first. I have enjoyed multiple opportunities to reign in rogue growth on Euonymus japonicus ‘Silver Princess’ and Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ (reversion pictured), but I admire the way these two shrubs light up shady areas. ‘Silver Princess’ has a clean white variegation, while ‘Goshiki’ is a creamy yellow with pink accents on young growth. Lovely, lovely.

“Out! Out, you (green) spot!” said Lady Macbeth’s gardener.

“Out! Out, you (green) spot!” said Lady Macbeth’s gardener.

Sweetgum Balls Have A Purpose

The prickly seed pod of the Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) may be the Lego of the forest – you find them with your feet. The seed capsules are covered in curved horns that open as seeds mature and drop. Native to the southeast, Sweetgums thrive in zones 5 to 9. They grow fast in moist soil, slower in dry soil. Mature trees reach 75 feet.

The tree itself is a fall beauty. Leaves are five lobed with pointed tips. Autumn leaf color is usually red, but can also have tints of yellow, orange or purple.  The rounded crown produces nice shade. The downside is that the roots tend to push up around the tree trunk with age, cracking surrounding driveways and walks. Surface roots can cause walking hazards. The bark of young limbs produces a distinctive corky growth. Crushed leaves and injured bark produce a sweet smell.

The Sweetgum has medicinal, ornamental and commercial uses. Native Americans used the sap to treat wounds, and the bark has astringent characteristics that can be used to treat intestinal upset, should the gardener be stranded away from civilization. The sap has been used to treat everything from chest pain to bedsores. Sweetgum lumber ranges in color from white to pink to red, depending upon its location within the tree. It has a fine grain and takes stain well. The wood can be used for quality items (cabinets) or rougher items (pallets), plywood and veneer.

Those sharp, sticker balls are a fabulous way to convince cats that your containers and flowerbeds are not meant as a feline latrine. When plants are small, surround them with a single layer of the balls. The curves at the end of the seed capsules mean that they hook into easily other and remain in place. Cats find them unpleasant to step on, so will find another place to answer nature’s call. (Before you ask, the answer is NO; they do not deter squirrels.) I usually allow those that fall in the Mary Snoddy garden to remain on the ground through a rain or two, so that any seeds remaining in the pods will sprout and die before I move them into a storage barrel for use in protecting my spring plantings.

A handful of misery for bare feet.

A handful of misery for bare feet.

Without the protection of sweetgum balls, containers are fair game for feline frolicking.

Without the protection of sweetgum balls, containers are fair game for feline frolicking.

Beech Trees Beckon

My northern friends poke fun at the way we experience snow in the Deep South. The mere mention of the “S” word by weather forecasters causes a panicky stampede as grocery store shelves are emptied of milk, bread, beer, toilet paper, cigarettes and baby diapers. A non-Southern observer might think we are preparing for a blizzard. Advice: Just go with it. It’s who we are. 

Last week brought the trifecta of winter weather to upstate South Carolina: cold rain, ice and snow. Magnolia trees all over our farm surrendered their branches to ice. Pines cracked in pain before shedding large limbs. Native cedars, on the other hand, gave no audible indications before suddenly jettisoning tree tops.

The pungent smell of damaged pines and cedars inspired a walk through the woods. The shallow snow allowed me to trace the travels of deer, rabbit and coyote. Leaves are gone from almost all deciduous trees, which make the beech trees, Fagus grandiflora, prominent by contrast. Winter sunlight causes the tan leaves glow.

Beech trees hold their leaves through the winter, only shedding when new growth arrives.  The term for plants that retain their leaves is marcescence. There are two theories as to why certain trees refuse to let go of the old foliage. One says they retain leaves to serve as self-mulch in the spring, thus serving as their own recycler of nutrients while retaining soil moisture. The other theory says it is the tree’s way to protect tender buds from being eaten by deer or other animals.  

Beech leaves afford birds a bit of protection from weather and predators, making the trees a perfect place to hang your winter birdfeeder. Birds also enjoy the tree’s nuts as a food source.  Beeches typically reach 50-70 feet but can reach much greater heights (100+ feet). They are best enjoyed in a woodland setting rather than in a home landscape, where their shallow roots make it difficult to grow grass underneath. They are also prone to suckering. Trees prefer a little bit of shade, so a naturalized setting is perfect. Male and female flowers occur on the same plant but in separate clusters. Nuts are enclosed in prickly husks.

If you encounter one of these beauties in the woods, take a moment to appreciate the smooth gray bark, often spotted with lichens. Especially notice the trunks of mature specimens. With a little imagination, the trunk base looks like an elephant’s feet.

Beech leaves in winter.

Beech leaves in winter.

Bronze/tan leaves glow against a dusting of snow.

Bronze/tan leaves glow against a dusting of snow.

Osage Oranges

One of my favorite trees here on the farm is Osage orange, Maclura pomifera. It is decidedly not majestic. It is not nicely shaped nor does it have great fall color or beautiful blooms. In fact, it is downright homely as trees go. But is has fabulous fruit! Osage oranges are softball sized, lime green orbs that look like brains. I cannot believe Tim Burton has not found a use for them in one of his horror movies. Even though the tree is closely related to mulberry and fig, the fruits are inedible for humans. My deer love them, though. 

Osage orange is cold hardy in zones 4 to 9. Native to North America, it can be found in almost every state. Trees grow 30 to 60 feet in height.  Also called hedge apples or horse apples, the fruit gained its name because the Osage Indians used the wood to construct bows. The wood is hard and tough.  

The tree is gnarly, twiggy and uneven in growth, so it is not recommended as a home garden specimen. If you have a woodland area, as I do in the Mary Snoddy garden, you might want to plant several. Why several? The Osage is dioecious, which means that both male and female trees are required for fruiting. Plant it where you won’t brush it when mowing or walking. It hides wicked thorns along its branches. Broken twigs exude a milky sap that causes dermatitis. It is an understory tree, enjoying a bit of shade from taller neighbors.  It is easily transplanted and tolerates heat, drought, bog and pH extremes. 

Trees must have a certain level of maturity before they start bearing fruit. I could not source them in any local nursery. I planted five mail-order trees fifteen years ago. They grew rapidly, but have only been bearing fruit for the last eight years. The fruits were tennis-ball size during the first two seasons, but now average softball or grapefruit in size. They exude a slight citrus odor.  Fruits fall to the ground when ripe, which is another good reason to plant them in an out-of-the-way site. A ripe fruit would hurt if it landed on a person or damage a car parked underneath.  

Folklore says that the fruits will repel spiders and cockroaches, but studies have dispelled that as myth.  Even stranger is the myth purporting the Osage orange as a cure for cancer.  The fruits mature in autumn, where they look good in Thanksgiving arrangements containing gourds and pumpkins. I always push the storage limits, using them with nandina berries, pine and magnolia leaves for Christmas decorating. Once indoor in warm temperatures, the fruit passes from pleasantly scented to odiferous in two weeks or so. A great conversation piece.

A softball size Osage orange

A softball size Osage orange

Smaller, tennis ball size fruit

Smaller, tennis ball size fruit

Box of assorted sizes, gathered after the first snowfall

Box of assorted sizes, gathered after the first snowfall

Pick the Right Size Pruners

I am employed by Hatcher Garden and Woodland Preserve, a public botanical garden in upstate South Carolina. If you are in our area, stop by for a visit. Hatcher is a member of the American Horticultural Society. One of the benefits of AHS membership is that we receive email updates. One communication was so helpful, I wanted to share it with you. I found the information especially useful during this season of gift shopping for other gardeners.

Most of us buy our hand pruners based on the size of the limbs that we want to cut. This means, of course, the bigger the cutting capacity, the better the pruners. Right? Maybe not so much. Corona Tools provided a graphic to indicate what size pruners you should purchase, based on hand size. The dimensions are given in the photo below. To summarize, if you have Barbie-doll hands you should buy pruners that allow a ½-inch capacity. If you have catchers’ mitts on the end of your arms, you should buy pruners that allow for a 1-inch limb capacity.

Do not be tempted to force your hand pruners to cut a larger capacity than their design allows. You will end up with a mangled limb, torn bark, hand strain, or a broken tool. Move on to long-handled loppers with an appropriate cutting capacity. Bypass pruners (one blade sweeps by its counterpart, like scissors) give the cleanest cut for live branches, while anvil style pruners (blade closes against an anvil, like a knife against a cutting board) work better on dead or dry wood.

Many thanks to Corona Tools for providing the helpful graphic.

Hand dimension indicates best pruner capacity size

Hand dimension indicates best pruner capacity size

Sweet Potato Season

The holidays mean it is sweet potato season. Whether you cook them in sugary syrup (my mother’s “candied yams”), whip them with eggs and sugar into a casserole topped with pecans or marshmallows, or bake, peel and eat them unadorned, sweet potatoes are tasty. They also pack a powerful dose of vitamins, minerals and fiber. In colonial times they were commonly used as an addition to livestock foods. Think Scarlett O’Hara biting into a raw one to soothe her gnawing hunger. And while you are considering sweet potato history, recall that Popeye said, “I yam what I yam” all the way back in 1933.

Native to the Americas, these relatives of the morning glory grow well in the long, hot summers of the deep south. As a gardener, I will never complain about too much rain, but the past summer was so moist that many sweet potatoes at local farms rotted before they could be harvested. The tubers grow underground and should be lifted and allowed to dry in the shade a few days before being stored. This drying helps heal small wounds created in the digging process and converts some of their starch to sugar. Properly cured, they will last for months if kept 50 to 60 degrees and low humidity. Do not store in the refrigerator. Do not wash before storing.

Sweet potatoes are started from slips, or sprouts that originate from the skin of a mature tuber. You can grow your own slips, but I always purchase them to ensure a disease-free start. The soil should be warm before the slips go into the ground – 65 degrees or better. In upstate SC, this can mean early to middle May. Once planted, they require little in the way of maintenance beyond a bit of weeding and the occasional irrigation in dry periods. Be careful not to damage the shallow roots when cultivating.

We have grown the varieties ‘Beauregard’ and ‘Centennial’ in the Mary Snoddy garden. The last planting of Beauregard yielded such a heavy crop that we ate them almost every day, until their deliciousness became tiresome.

The first time I grew them, I underestimated the vines’ space requirements. Now I know to plant the slips about 18 inches apart and to allow three feet between rows. I also learned that when the natural soil is heavy clay, the prettiest sweet potatoes are grown in raised rows. This does not have to be a complicated process. Just dig two shallow trenches on either side of your planned planting line. A square shovel works great. Throw the excavated soil atop the row, level lightly with a rake, and plant on top of the flattened ridge. The loose soil nurtures large, smooth roots. When not grown on raised rows, the roots can become contorted in heavy or rocky soil. The plants will still produce a harvest but the potatoes will be smaller and more difficult to peel.

While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, yams are drier and lighter in color than sweet potatoes. True yams are rarely seen in American grocery stores.

Sweet potatoes leaves are sometimes attacked by Japanese Beetles, but the vines are so vigorous that the damage does not extend to the potatoes. Deer find the foliage extra-tasty, so when their populations are high the gardener may need to use floating row covers or other means to protect the vines.

This is what a 4,280 pound harvest looks like.

This is what a 4,280 pound harvest looks like.

Pucker-proof Persimmons

Persimmons are divided into two groups. Common persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, is a deciduous tree that is found in the southeastern quadrant of the US. It has quarter-sized fruits (actually a giant berry). Most have numerous seeds but some cultivars, like ‘John Rick’ and ‘Early Golden’ have only a few. The fruits lose their astringency with maturity. Most of the ones I ate as a child were picked off the ground, where they fell as they reached soft, sweet ripeness.

Diospyros kaki, the Oriental Persimmon, offers flattened fruit about the size of a tangerine and few to no seeds. The best cultivar for homeowners is ‘Fuyu’ because it is not astringent even when incompletely ripe. You may also find ‘Hachiya’ trees in your local nursery. Hachiya fruit is slightly pointed, like a large acorn, and should be eaten only when completely ripe. The Oriental species is less cold-tolerant than the common native.

Persimmons are a health food, packed with vitamins A and C, loads of antioxidants and plenty of fiber. They are favorite snacks of our opossums.

Trees can reach up to 40 feet in height. The natives are dioecious, which means there must be both a male and a female tree to produce fruit. Many of the Oriental cultivars are self-fruitful. Natives and Orientals will not cross pollinate.

Persimmon wood is strong and was once used for golf clubs and pool cues. The distinctive bark pattern of a mature tree makes it easy to identify. Autumn leaf color varies from yellow to purple, depending upon the variety and the location grown.  Northern trees tend toward yellow fall color, while southern trees may be more purple. The natives lose their leaves early in the fall, so it is not unusual to see a leafless tree, naked branches decorated with fruit.

The accompanying photos, courtesy of Linda Neely, show a small ‘Fuyu’ tree, heavily laden with fruit.

Very young Oriental persimmon tree, loaded with fruit. The tree is about 5 feet tall.

Very young Oriental persimmon tree, loaded with fruit. The tree is about 5 feet tall.

Three months earlier, the same tree showing immature fruits.

Three months earlier, the same tree showing immature fruits.

The distinctive fissured bark of a mature native persimmon,  Diospyros virginiana

The distinctive fissured bark of a mature native persimmon, Diospyros virginiana

Heaven Scent

Every year, a few weeks before the first freeze signals the beginning of winter, two plants burst into bloom in the Mary Snoddy garden. The mingled smells of ginger lilies and tea olives float on the air, making my autumn clean-up chores pleasant.

Ginger lily, Hedychium coronarium, can reach six feet in height, with large leaves and cornstalk-like trunks. These plants are perennial in zones 7-10 and can be grown in containers in colder zones if overwintered in a garage or greenhouse. The fat rhizomes look like giant Iris or Canna roots. Ginger lilies will tolerate some shade but bloom best in full sun. It took me years and several relocations to learn that they require abundant water to thrive. On the last transplant, I moved them to the area where our air conditioner condensation dumps, keeping the soil permanently damp. The combination of full sun and plentiful water made happy plants that bloom profusely and reproduce enough rhizome offshoots for me to divide and share every few years.  These coarse plants don’t attract attention until they come into bloom. Then the clean, delicate fragrance cause heads to whip around as people search for the source. The multi-part blooms open on the outside first, progressing to the innermost buds. Each bloom cluster can last two weeks or more.  The only downside of the large bloom is that spent portions of the racemes remain attached and can look messy. All top growth should be removed after it is freeze-killed. This chore can be done any time before new growth emerges in the spring.

Tea Olive, Osmanthus, can easily be mistaken for a holly. The easy way to tell the difference is that Osmanthus leaves appear opposite on the stem, whereas Ilex (holly) leaves are alternate. Remembering that Osmanthus and opposite both start with the letter “O” is a good memory tool.

Osmanthus fragrans has smooth edged leaves. Osmanthus fortunei (“Fortune’s tea olive”) has smaller leaves than fragrans, with pronounced serration to their edges. Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ has lovely variegated leaves but does not bloom as plentifully as the first two.  Any of these can be sheared into formal shapes, but I prefer to allow the shrub to assume its natural, loose haystack form.

Don’t expect to be impressed by the blooms, which are quite small but produce a powerful fragrance. Most flowers are white, but an orange version is also available. My favorite is Osmanthus fortunei ‘Fruitlandii.’

Tea olives are drought tolerant once established. They will grow in sun or shade, in zones 7-10, and prefer acidic soil. They are evergreen, grow to a height and width of 15-20 feet, and make a fabulous hedge. As an added bonus, the leathery, deep-green leaves last a long time when cut for flower arrangements. Best of all, they are quite deer resistant.

‘Fruitlandii’ tea olive

‘Fruitlandii’ tea olive

The last Ginger Lily bloom of the year, after several hard freezes and four inches of rain.

The last Ginger Lily bloom of the year, after several hard freezes and four inches of rain.

A pair of Goshiki Osmanthus, sheared into tight topiaries.

A pair of Goshiki Osmanthus, sheared into tight topiaries.

Sharing the BuzzBuzz

One of the best things about being a garden blogger is that people share amusing items with me. These can range from grandma’s remedy for getting rid of whitefly (involves chemicals no longer legally available) to planting techniques (“under a full moon following a soft rain after you’ve turned around three times”). I recently saw this on the Facebook page for the Boutetort Beekeepers Association. Boutetort is in beautiful Virginia, near Roanoke, between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains. They kindly gave me permission to share it with you. The blurs are mine, so your email filter won’t block it.  Hope it gives you a little chuckle. Thanks, Beekeepers!

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Camellias

Camellia shrubs are evergreen, long blooming, and love southern weather. Two types are available in most nurseries. Camellia sasanqua is a fall-bloomer that enjoys part-sun. Its leaves are a bit smaller than Camellia japonica, which blooms late winter, has larger leaves, and prefers a bit more shade. There are other species, crosses and hybrids.

With more than 3,000 named cultivars, gardeners can choose from variety of flower forms, ranging from those with prominent yellow stamens to those whose stamens are hidden by many petals (“formal double”). Flowers come in various shades of red, rose, pink and white. If you prefer a variegated bloom, and there are many available, be prepared to tolerate a little yellow spotting on the leaves as well. The variegation is a result of an introduced virus. It causes little to no damage to the plant, but variegated forms tend to be a bit shorter than their non-variegated peers. I like to buy my plants when they are in bloom, so I can see exactly what the flower looks like.

Camellias prefer to be planted in autumn, but can be installed almost any time of the year if the gardener is willing to water faithfully and install temporary shade material so that tender new leaves do not fry. Be careful to avoid planting them too deep.

Camellias will bloom best if given small amounts of fertilizer several times during the May to September period rather than a single heavy application. Over-fertilization leads to burned leaf edges and excessive bud drop. Some bud drop is normal. Plants tend to set more buds than they can open.

Camellias are slow growing which means pruning chores are limited. When necessary, pruning can be drastic. Severe pruning is almost always followed by a year of recovery, meaning no blooms. It is best to select a location where the plant can grow unchecked. In the Mary Snoddy garden, a pair of inherited Camellia japonica ‘Professor Sargent’ reach 25 feet in height. I have pruned them back twice in the past two decades to a height of about five feet. Both times they did not bloom the following season, but returned vigorously to their original height. Most cultivars will reach about 10 feet, with a spread of about 8 feet. Check the growers’ label before you buy. One cultivar, ‘Yuletide’ (red flowers and blooms around Christmas) is smaller and can be grown successfully in a container for years before it needs to be transplanted to open ground.

These beautiful shrubs are low maintenance, but can be bothered by several types of fungus, scale, aphids or spider mites. Scale is treated by an application of dormant oil. Site the plants out of harsh winds to avoid petal burn, but allow enough space between them for free air circulation. Rake up fallen blooms to avoid Camellia flower blight, which causes the entire bloom to brown and drop. If you spot anything unusual (galls, distorted or discolored leaves), try to identify and correct the problem before it becomes widespread. Keep plants healthy by providing a well-drained acidic soil and avoid injuring the bark. For all species, proactive maintenance (regular water and fertilizer) is preferable to reactive care.

Do a Soil Test!

With cooler autumn temperatures comes the inevitable fall garden cleanup – raking leaves, pulling out dead annuals, removing spent flowers. Do not prune any shrubs right now that will bloom in early spring or you will be cutting off their flower buds. Instead, prune those early bloomers (azalea, for instance) immediately after they bloom. Shrubs that bloom in mid-summer or later can be pruned now, since they do not set their buds until spring time.

This is the ideal time to take a soil test. I live on an old farmstead that has been owned by my husband’s family since 1773. We live in the home built by his great-grandfather in 1885. That great-grandfather, known by everyone as “JR,” kept a daily journal of all farm events, so I know that the gardens and fields were regularly dosed with copious amounts of manure. Gardening was properly called “farming” in those days, and everything grown was “organic” of necessity.

When I started gardening here, I should have performed a soil test to determine what nutrients were needed. Instead, I threw out large amounts of 10-10-10 fertilizer, which is to say equal amounts of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. I assumed that formula would fill any needs of hungry plants. During the early years of my marriage, my husband gave me a book, Martha Stewart’s Gardening. It was filled with wonderful photographs and stories of success, and motivated me to take my gardening more seriously. I copied Martha, distributing huge amounts of triple superphosphate.

It was not until I became a Master Gardener in 2002 that I used the testing kit provided by the local Extension office to access my soil’s needs. Imagine my shock when the results showed an almost-toxic level of phosphorus. Unlike Nitrogen, this element is slow to leach from the soil. Applications of manure and non-organic fertilizer granules had over-accumulated the phosphorus element in my soil. It was time to stop with the balanced formulations and apply only those elements needed. In my case, this meant only Nitrogen. It has taken six years, but my soil is now returning to a fertility state that makes most of my plants happy and healthy.

Please, if you only do one chore this winter, make it a soil test. The instructions for gathering your soil sample are printed right on the bag in most states. If not, your Extension office will give you an instruction sheet. The proper balance of nutrients is important. The test is inexpensive and the results are provided in terms that even neophyte gardeners can understand and follow. Just do it.

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