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!

Guide to Yellow Stripey.jpg


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.

Soil Test Bag.jpg

A Country Drive

I am deviating from horticultural topics today. Allow me to share a drive I took last week into the South Carolina countryside.

As I left my normal freeway route for two lane, tar and gravel country roads, I switched off the blaring radio to enjoy the absence of traffic noise and train whistles. Fields of unrestrained kudzu blanketed the landscape like a layer of green lava. Pine trees replaced the skyline of industrial factories. Former home sites were apparent by their remaining brick or stone chimneys, surrounded by huge oak trees. For some, remnants of smoke stains told the story of their demise.

Elegant mansions sat cheek-by-jowl with clusters of mobile homes. If you are a native southerner, you understand that the well-tended ones are called mobile homes, while those with washing machines in the front yard and old cars perched on concrete blocks are called trailers. Wide strips of aluminum were nailed around pecan tree trunks to outwit hungry squirrels. American flags flew in front yards. By instinct, you know that if you bad mouth the USA in this part of the world, you’ll be escorted to your car at the end of a shotgun barrel.

Between towns, an abandoned fire observation deck towered over the fields. There were no electric fences, just miles of barb wire around pastures of cows, goats, donkeys. The only way to tell the identity of each community was to see painted signs proclaiming, “The churches of (town) welcome you,” along with a listing of the institutions concerned about your hereafter destination. Along the roadsides, sourwood trees (the first to color up in the fall) were starting to show a hint of the bright burgundy to come. Staghorn sumac had already shed its leaves, but it waved red seed clusters that looked like horns. In the ditches, yellow goldenrod, perennial blue ageratum, wild asters and white sneezeweed painted a scene worthy of an Old Master. Indeed, this landscape was styled by the oldest Master of all. The peace of the idyllic scene was briefly interrupted when our new travel mapping software announced, “Bear left in 100 yards, then continue for 4,386,284 miles.” I wondered what waypoints my husband had entered. Planet Mars, maybe? We switched it off.

Older homes were built of wood. Most had wide, open porches and tin roofs – the sheet tin of years gone by, not the coated, maintenance-free standing seam type sold today. An unpainted barn or outbuildings stood behind most, and small gardens for home-kitchen use were in front of the houses not occupied by farmers. Country people follow the weather, so they knew that Hurricane Michael might bring torrential rains. As a precaution, sweet potatoes had been unearthed from the heavy clay soil. They were curing (drying) in the sun so they could be stored all winter instead of rotting. Every house had a nearby woodpile. There were no gas logs in these fireplaces. It will be years before natural gas pipelines run through these rural communities, if ever.

We stopped once so that I could snap a photo of a persimmon tree loaded with fruit. Now that I am older, I know that the fruit of a wild persimmon is inedible until touched by frost. As the youngest of all my cousins at a family reunion many years ago, I was duped into biting into a green one. I ignored my grandmother Brown’s caution that, “a green ’simmon will turn your mouth wrong-side-out, child.” She was correct. (Think of the character Arseface in AMC’s Preacher series.)

The sight that touched my very soul was the fields of fresh cut hay -- not the square bales that people buy at Home Depot to use with pumpkins as fall décor. These were the giant round bales used to feed livestock throughout winter. Made me feel proud to be American.

 Abandoned fire observation tower. At least I hope it was abandoned, since the platform looks shaky.

Abandoned fire observation tower. At least I hope it was abandoned, since the platform looks shaky.

 Native persimmon,  Diospyros virginiana . Also known as Possum Apples, since opossums love to eat the fallen fruit.

Native persimmon, Diospyros virginiana. Also known as Possum Apples, since opossums love to eat the fallen fruit.

 Round hay bales

Round hay bales

Tough Love for Lambs Ears

One of my favorite plants for edging is Lamb’s Ears, Stachys byzantia ‘Helen von Stein.’ Like other plants with fuzzy gray leaves, it is heat and drought tolerant. I use clumps of it along the edge of a driveway, where summer heat makes the asphalt as hot as molten lava.  It looks good winter and summer – until suddenly it doesn’t. The lower leaves turn yellow, then gray, and shrivel.  Grab your pruners and show a little tough love!

Here is a photo of Lamb’s Ears that need renovating. From a distance, the plant appears fine, but a closer look will reveal dead leaves at the base. There are three methods of bringing them back to beauty. First, you can use a leaf rake and just rake the heck out of them. This will remove all the tattered leaves, but also damages the attractive new growth. Second, you can run over them with a bagging lawnmower set at the highest setting. The third method is my favorite. I use a pair of hand pruners to remove all the older leaves, the good ones as well as the ragged ones.

 Dead leaves hiding underneath the pretty ones

Dead leaves hiding underneath the pretty ones

Here is a photo of the trimmed plant. It looks pretty radical, but a sprinkle of liquid fertilizer will cause a quick regeneration. 

 After a radical trim

After a radical trim

Here is the same plant, nine weeks after the scalping.

 Rejuvenated plant is beautiful again!

Rejuvenated plant is beautiful again!

Children love touching the felt-like leaves of Lamb’s Ears.  The gray-green color looks good with almost any other color except chartreuse or yellow (my opinion only – yours may be different). They are especially attractive when paired with pink, rose, or hot shades of red and orange. Use them to create peace between flower colors that might clash. Between red and purple, for instance.

Mature Lamb’s Ears will throw lilac flowers. I remove the bloom stems since I think they detract from the velvety leaves. Skip overhead watering or excess irrigation to avoid leaf and stem rot. Do not use heavy mulch near the plant’s base. I have never experienced insect issues with those in the Mary Snoddy garden, but the large leaves do provide a nice shady spot for snails to siesta during the daytime.

Color-changing Hibiscus

I don’t understand why some people think of Latin as a dead language. Gardeners use it every day. It’s the only way we can be sure that we are all talking about the same plant. For example, when your friend tells you that she has planted “Pot of Gold” in her garden, what does she mean? It could be Coreopsis lanceolata, Lantana camara, Alyssum saxatilis or Rudbeckia fulgida. If she admires your “snowball bush” does she mean your Viburnum or your Hydrangea?

The second part of a Latin plant name describes the growing characteristics. ‘Globosa’ means round, ‘nana’ means short, ‘fastigiata’ means skinny and ‘gigantea’ means giant. One of my favorite descriptors in the plant world is ‘mutabilis,’ which means changeable. There are two fabulous plants in the Mary Snoddy garden that carry this term. Rosa mutabilis is a China rose with a single, 5-petal bloom. On the first day a bud opens, the flower color is a soft, pale apricot. Over the next couple of days, it changes from apricot to light pink, then to dark pink before the spent bloom sheds it petals. The plant will show flowers of all colors at the same time.

The plant I want to focus on in this blog is Hibiscus mutabilis, or Confederate Rose. It’s not fair to call Confederate Rose a shrub, because that would lead one to believe it is a smallish plant. NOT! I prefer to think of them as multi-stemmed trees. One specimen in my garden is ten years old. It has grown progressively larger each year, from two feet tall in the first year to twelve feet tall this year.

Confederate Rose dies to the ground at the first hard freeze. I cut all the dead stems off at ground level. In early years, I could do this with a pair of loppers. Now it takes a chainsaw. In my Zone 7b garden, the plant returns each spring. Without knowing it would become a giant, I initially planted it too close to one of our barns. When I tried to dig it up to relocate it a few years later, I found that the root ball was too large and too heavy for the front-end loader on my farm tractor to handle. So…it is going to stay in the original location.

Most Confederate Roses start as white, age to pink and then to red before the bloom falls. My particular plant starts as a pale pink and ages to dark pink then a deep rose before it is spent. The buds resemble cotton buds and the leaves resemble cotton leaves. Both plants are in the Mallow family. The plants prefer full sun and moist soil, but once established they will survive and thrive with no supplemental irrigation. They are autumn bloomers. Ours is just starting to shine, and will undoubtedly still be blooming away when it is cut down by our first freeze.

Confederate Roses will root easily. Ask any gardener for a couple of stem cuttings. It’s best to start with some thicker stems, about ten inches long. Place them in a jar of water that will cover about half the stem length. Keep the jar out of direct sunlight and you should see roots soon. Once the baby roots are an inch long, pot them into soil and keep them in a frost-free area for the first winter.

Take a look at the photo to see one of the mid-pink blooms. Isn’t that a beauty? The second photo shows my plant, just beginning to open up. I’m hoping for a late freeze.


Sedges have edges.
Rushes are round.
Grasses are hollow
right up from the ground.

There are different versions of this poem, but the first two lines are always the same. I learned it from the Clemson University Extension agent who taught weed identification to Master Gardeners. Why is the distinction important? Because chemical herbicides that are meant to kill dandelions or Bermuda grass, for instance, will have little to no effect on nutsedge, an aggressive and persistent perennial weed.

Purple nutsedge has the reputation for the worst economic impact of any weed. Fortunately (I guess), my part of the world is instead plagued by yellow nutsedge. Yellow nutsedge is more widespread than its purple cousin because of its greater cold tolerance. Nutsedges can be identified by running one’s fingers over the stem. Unlike a round grass, a sedge has sharp edges along its triangular stem. Hence, “sedges have edges.”

In a mixed lawn (I love that term!) like mine, several grasses mingle to produce a thick green turf that looks great from a distance or when observed from a car going by at 50mph. Here is a confession. As long as the lawn is somewhat green, I don’t care what its component parts are. I prefer to spend my time and money in borders and beds. I have zero desire to host a golf course-like lawn.

Back to the subject. Nutsedge has a bright green leaf blade that can mimic innocent grass. You may not detect its presence until you spot the tell-tale seed heads that look like tiny porcupines. The seed heads are not the major troublemakers, though. Even while the above-ground portion is small, it is spreading underground by rhizomes and the formation of tubers (called nutlets) along the roots. When cold weather kills the top growth, the roots remain alive. An individual plant can spread roots to 10 feet wide or more.

Plant seeds, roots and nutlets can spread via contaminated topsoil, be carried along on tools, or be brought home in a new plant purchase. Growers are not evil people. They do their best to provide a weed-free product. But even growers can only do their best.

Nutsedge thrives in soils that remain damp or where lawns are mowed too short, but will grow in just about any soil and in any light conditions. The Extension agent explained that proper timing of herbicide application is critical to success. The best time to apply chemical controls for nutsedge in the earliest spring, before it starts producing those underground nutlets. Products applied later are less effective or even useless. Garden centers stock several products that are targeted solely for nutsedge control. (My favorite product name is SedgeHammer. Wish I had thought of that name.) When mature plants are poisoned, they will abort their own roots to protect the nutlets from falling victim to the herbicide. It will appear to the gardener that the problem is resolved, with all the visible leaves brown and dead. Underground though, those tubers are waiting to regenerate and can be viable for up to three years. Where only a few plants are present, perhaps in flower beds or containers, you can lift the sedge carefully, being sure to get the entire network of roots and tubers. For larger areas like lawns, you may need to apply the appropriate targeted herbicide at the proper time for several consecutive years.

Purge that Spurge!

One of the most challenging weeds in the Mary Snoddy garden is spotted spurge. This heat-loving member of the Euphorbia family is also known as prostrate spurge for its mat-like habit of growing flat against the ground. 

Native to the eastern half of the US, spotted spurge is an annual weed with a taproot. “Annual” means it sprouts, blooms and sets seeds in one season. The mother plant will die with cold weather, but she will leave behind lots of seeds for future seasons. The leaves are tiny (½ inch or less) with a small burgundy splotch, hence the name “spotted” spurge. Stems are pinkish to burgundy. Tiny pink flowers form along all stems. The stems can root wherever they touch soil. 

Plants thrive in any type of soil and even sprout between bricks and in concrete cracks. Spotted spurge goes from flower to seed in four weeks or less, which means it will rapidly spread across your garden and lawn if not removed or killed via chemical means. There are several choices for pre-emergent or post-emergent control. Despite its miniature leaf size, spotted spurge is considered a broadleaf weed. Be sure to read the label to confirm that any herbicide you purchase is effective against this pest. Herbicides are most effective when the plants are young (spring and early summer). They develop a resistance with maturity. Because the weeds are so easily seen, I usually just pull mine by hand rather than use a chemical control method. 

The milky sap common to all Euphorbias can irritate skin, so I always wear my favorite disposable gloves (5mil nitrile) for weed-pulling duty. They grow FAST. I have seen a seedling go from two inches to three feet in a week. Purge them while they are young!

Dragonflies & Damselflies

One of my favorite places to go for quiet time is to our small farm pond. The fish swim by. Turtles poke up curious heads and then dive in an explosion of bubbles. The water surface is disturbed by the occasional travels of a harmless brown water snake. Around the pond banks, dragonflies and damselflies flit by, stopping to rest on the reeds growing along the water’s edge. Their membrane wings are transparent in the sunlight.

How do you tell a dragonfly from a damselfly? Both are found in fresh-water habitats across the US and the temperate world. Both belong to the order Odonata.  Like other insects, they have two antennae, a hard exoskeleton and six legs. Both dragonflies and damselflies have two sets of wings, but the damselfly wings are the same length, while the forward set of dragonfly wings are shorter than the rear set. Damselfly wings narrow where they are attached to the body, while dragonfly wings have a consistent width. Dragonflies rest with their wings stretched out flat like an airplane, while damselflies rest with their wings erect, like a butterfly. Those wings are not attached to each other, so they can fly forward, backward or hover with ease. Damselflies have narrow bodies, while dragonflies are thicker. If you could get close enough to see their eyes, you would note that dragonfly heads are almost entirely made up of their huge sets of eyes, while damselflies have smaller eyes with a gap between them.  Damselflies are usually smaller overall than dragonflies.

Dragon and damsel babies (nyads) and adults eat other insects like gnats, house flies and mosquitos, which makes them Good Guys in my book. Females deposit their eggs in water. If you watch carefully, you may see a female hover over the water’s surface, dipping her tail down as she drops a single egg (“ovipositing”). The nyads are wingless and spend their lifespan in the water, where they consume tiny aquatic life such as mosquito larvae. It takes about eleven months for dragonflies to go from egg to adult.

Weird common names for these insects include “horse stingers,” “mosquito hawks,” “devil’s darning needles,” and my favorite, “snake doctors.” It is not uncommon for them to land on a person who is sitting still in their habitat, but there is no need to shoo them away. Despite those impressive looking tails, neither the dragonfly nor the damselfly have stingers but both have the ability to give you a bite if you catch one and it feels threatened. You would think that this biting ability would be their defense mechanism, but instead they “play dead” and float downstream away from their predators. They can also shoot water through their bodies in a hard stream to rapidly propel themselves away from danger. If a predator rips off a leg, they regrow it.

Dragons and damsels come in many different colors. The ones at the Mary Snoddy pond are mostly an iridescent blue, but they can also be green, purple, gold, red, black or white. I tried to capture a good photo to share with you, but their flying speeds (up to 20mph) coupled with my limited photography skills produced only blurs, so the photo for today’s post is a grass growing pond-side, a popular resting place for my dragonflies.

Pondside grasses.jpg

A Rainbow of Iris

There are different classes and bloom-shape of Irises, but the tall bearded type is my favorite. The term ‘iris’ comes from a Greek word meaning rainbow. This seems appropriate, because the blooms come in all sorts of color combinations.  Bearded iris blooms have three parts: the upright standards, the drooping falls, and the fuzzy beards. Blooms can have all three parts of the same color or a dizzying array of combinations.

Put these rhizomes in well-drained soil where they will receive at least six hours of full sun during blooming season. Fertilize only with a low-nitrogen or no-nitrogen fertilizer. Excess nitrogen can cause bulbs to rot.

Bearded irises are divided into six different classes based on height, from the miniature dwarf that is less than eight inches tall to the tall bearded that are more than 27 inches. The shorter the iris, the earlier it blooms. Miniatures are the first, followed by standard dwarf, intermediate dwarf, miniature tall (what an oxymoron!), then border bearded. The tall bearded blooms last, in late spring. Plant the bulbs just deep enough to cover the rhizome and its feeder roots. Because the weight of the blade-like foliage can make them fall over, I trim the blades back to about six inches when I divide and transplant. On occasion I have used a landscape staple to secure the bulb in place while its roots grow a support system.

Most blooms are fragrant and look wonderful in cut arrangements. As they age, the flowers may bleed a bit, so use an under-plate to avoid staining linens, counters or furniture. Bearded irises need division every three to five years to look their best. If left undivided too long, they stop blooming. Most gardeners are happy to share their divisions.

The best time to divide and transplant is immediately after blooming, but that is the busiest time of year for most gardeners. In the Mary Snoddy garden, I have had good success with transplanting in late summer to early fall. Catalogs offer color combinations that will suit anyone’s taste. I have purchased several of the reblooming variety. While they did not throw a fall bloom the first year, I have enjoyed autumn blossoms every year since, all the way up to Thanksgiving.

Harlequin Bugs

Harlequin bugs are ruining my Cleome (Spider Flower) plants. These bright orange and black insects are the gaudy cousins of the common stink bug, a fact that will not escape you should you foolishly squash one. Manual control can be somewhat effective, but a smart gardener will wear gloves to avoid a lasting stench than cannot be removed with a simple soap and water wash. 

Like other stink bugs, they use a needle-like mouth to pierce plants, sucking out the juice. The damage is easy to spot – look for a light or discolored area with a tiny hole in the middle. When the damage becomes widespread, plants will wilt and entire leaves will die. Plants may become stunted.

Harlequin bugs are difficult to control. A multi-pronged attack is most effective. First, be aware that adults overwinter under plant debris or fallen leaves.  A good winter cleanup with fresh mulch will help. When they emerge from dormancy in spring, the females lay eggs with a distinctive appearance. The eggs look like tiny black and white barrels laid end to end, usually two parallel rows on the bottom side of leaves. Crush any eggs you find.  There can be two to four generations per season. Flip the adults into a small container of soapy water, since crushing releases a nauseating smell.  Insecticidal soaps or other insecticides can be used where numbers are high and plant damage is severe. Those hard shells give good protection, so multiple applications may be needed.  In all cases, read product labels to ensure that you have selected an insecticide that will be effective, apply only in the concentrations specified on the label, and do not apply more often than recommended.

In the Mary Snoddy garden, I have found that plant rotation is a helpful tactic. I grew Cleome in the same flower bed for a number of years. When Harlequin bugs caused extensive damage, I planted seeds in a different location. The new location was bug free for five years. I’ll find an alternate location for next year.

Harlequins prefer to munch on cruciferous crops, like cabbage, broccoli, collards, kale and turnips. If those are not available, they will live on tomatoes, okra, potatoes, beans, asparagus and even fruit trees. Which is to say, they’ll eat just about any plant humans do. Row covers over vegetable crops provide a high level of protection for vegetable crops but are impractical for decorative flower beds.

Butterfly Weed Buffet

The decline in the Monarch butterfly population has brought attention to the need for pollinator plants. The ugly, weedy variety of milkweed springs up all over my farm, so I think that the Mary Snoddy garden is doing its part. There is a more attractive way to support butterfly families (Monarchs as well as many others) and that is through growing Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Last year I rescued a number of these from a highway right-of-way that was about to be mowed by the Department of Transportation. I dug up a good stand of the native orange butterfly weed, aquiring the worst case of poison ivy rash I’ve ever experienced. In April, I was weeding one of my flower beds and caught sight of these rescued plants. There were very few leaves left on plants that had been flourishing a week prior. My first thought was that my husband had hit them with the string trimmer. A closer look revealed many, many butterfly caterpillars munching away. I left the plants alone, and in just two weeks they flushed out a new set of leaves and bloomed beautifully.

In addition to the perennial orange variety, I grow the red-and-yellow annual butterfly weed (Asclepias curassavica). It is not as well known as its perennial cousin, but the blooms are lovely.  It is easily started from seed and produces tall, narrow stems with blooms at the very top, which means it is perfect for the back of the flower bed. Once the blooms are spent, I allow some to drop seed so I’ll have more next year. I trim most of the stems back to twelve inches or so. They produce multiple stems from the pruning point and bloom again. 

The only downside of growing any of the butterfly weeds is their attraction to aphids. If you have butterfly weed, you WILL have aphids. I tend to ignore these juice-suckers and let my lady beetles take care of the problem. If populations get really out of control, I use a stream of water from the garden hose to rinse some off, using a little finger action to encourage them to let go.

I love the mature seed pods of both annual and perennial butterfly weed. The elongated capsules burst open when ripe, revealing an abundance of seeds. Each seed has a wispy tail that helps the wind carry them to a new home.

Please see the photos for the annual form, the perennial form, and my caterpillar buffet.

Webworm Woes

Fall webworms are abundant in the Mary Snoddy garden this year. I had mistakenly thought these were tent worms, but I learned that tent caterpillars build their woven nests in tree crotches during spring and summer, while fall tent worms concentrate on the ends of the branches. My pecan trees are stricken this year, but these voracious creatures feed on more than eighty types of trees. Pecan, hickory, poplar, oak, redbud, sweetgum and mulberry appear to be favorite targets.

The diaphanous webs serve to protect the worms while they consume leaves. If you pull one of their webs open, you will find a congregation of worms (they like to hang out with their buddies) that measure just over an inch in length. Coloration varies with the maturity of the worm. The youngsters are pale yellow with fine white hairs. The adults may have a black or red head and their bodies are usually dark green or brown, but retain the white hairs of their youth. Inside the web homes, you’ll also find skeletonized leaves and fecal material, known as frass. One word: Nasty!

The worms mature in about six weeks. They pupate in or on bark or in the soil. With a long, warm fall, there may be two or more generations.

So what does one do about these unsightly pests? My Internet research recommends using dormant oil or insecticide (Sevin, Malathion, Orthene) for control. Since most webs are far above my reach, neither of these options is viable. Removing leaf litter helps with control. I try to prune out the webs within stepladder range, using care to avoid ruining the shape of my trees. I ignore those outside my reach. Some of my arson-minded friends climb a ladder with a lit Tikki torch and burn the webs. When I realized that gravity was going to bring those flaming webs back in my direction, I decided to leave that particular remedy for others.

One thing I have discovered, though, is that tearing the gauzy web open with a long stick or pole is sometimes enough. Birds are quick to see the opportunity for an easy meal, and they help out this lazy gardener. Webworms may defoliate sections of a tree, but they are unlikely to kill it.

Castor Beans

If you love the look of tropical plants but don’t have the climate for them, consider growing Castor Bean, a plant with dinner-plate sized leaves.

Ricinis communis has gained negative attention in the past because the seeds can be processed (don’t ask me how) to produce the deadly poison Ricin. The word ricinis is Latin for tick, and that is exactly what the seeds look like – big, overblown dog ticks. Seeds should be started where you want the plants to grow, since they do not transplant easily.  I allow them to mature and drop seeds in the Mary Snoddy garden, and love that they pop up in random places.

They are heat lovers and grow rapidly to 8 feet or more. Thomas Jefferson grew a prize specimen that topped 22 feet. Castor bean blooms and seeds are not particularly decorative. Grow them for their bold, deeply palmate leaves. Some cultivars have an attractive red tint to the foliage. The stems resemble bamboo a bit.  They are annuals in my Zone 7 garden, but can be perennial in warmer zones.

The leaves and seeds are toxic if ingested. The plants contain two separate poisons. The most lethal of these poisons is contained in the seed. Two seeds, chewed and swallowed, can kill a person. This is the same plant whose seeds can be processed to remove the ricin (again, don’t ask me how) to produce the nasty-tasting Castor Oil that was given to ailing children many years ago. I think this archaic practice has fallen off the radar. If you remember it from your childhood and wonder about your parents’ wisdom in dosing you with it, well, consider that maybe you weren’t their favorite kid.

Please don’t grow these if you have young children or pets that like to chew on plants. Several years ago, I was experiencing devastation from deer that were visiting my vegetable garden every night. I planted a moat of Castor Beans as a protective hedge, hoping to repel the deer or at least make them sick enough to leave my garden alone. The voracious herd at New Hope Farm ate the leaves off the plants but didn’t touch the seeds. I have since installed an electric fence to protect the food garden. Folklore says that they repel voles and moles, but my personal experience does not support that theory.

Castor Beans die at the first freeze. The large plants require a mattock and labor to remove the dead stems and roots, but I think it is well worth the effort.


Angel Trumpet - Night Magic

Last week I wrote about Four O’Clocks, a colorful, night-blooming flower. This week I want to share another. Datura meteloides has a number of common names: Angel trumpet, Devil’s trumpet, shrubby Moonflower, Jamestown weed or Thornapple.

These are easily started from seed and thrive in full sun. The blue-gray foliage smells bad if crushed, but the flowers smell wonderful. They open at nightfall and close again when sun strikes them the next morning.

The photo slideshow below shows the blooms closed up tight, then partially open, then fully open. (You may need to select 'View In Browser' to see the slide show advance automatically.) This opening process takes about 30 minutes, so you can sit and watch them unfurl. It is entertaining to watch the honeybees try to force blooms open so they can grab a quick nip of nectar before they head to the hive at dusk.

These plants are heat lovers and drought tolerant. They are listed as cold hardy in zone 9-11, but mine die to the ground (zone 7) with the first freeze and have returned every year since 1993.  They will also reseed themselves from the ping-pong ball sized pods that are covered with sharp prickles. Mine love the heat next to the foundation of our farmhouse.

If I allow it, they will grow six or more feet across, blocking my entrance walk.  I chop them back to keep them in bounds. Daturas come in white, yellow and purple. They can be distinguished from their cousins the Brugmansias because Daturas hold their blooms upright while Brugmansias droop like bells. Brugmansias have a wider color spectrum, including a particularly lovely apricot.

One drawback: All parts of the plant are extremely toxic, and are very closely related to the toxic jimson weed that killed some of America’s earliest settlers (hence the common name, Jamestown weed). If you have young children or a dog that nibbles on your shrubs, take a pass on this one. Good news: Deer won't touch them.