Mary Snoddy

Angelonia - Summer Snapdragon

Last week I wrote about one of the best long-blooming summer perennials, Purple Coneflower. Today we focus on one of the very best annuals for heat and humidity. Angelonia angustifolia is heat resistant. It will also withstand short periods of drought, but it looks best if given regular water during the hottest part of the year.

Angelonia does well in containers and in ground. It is an annual but will act as a perennial in zones 9b and warmer. Plants are tall are narrow. I pack them densely into containers, where they reach about 24 inches tall with a limited spread. In the ground, they may reach up to 40 inches and will branch to 12 inches wide. They look fabulous planted in large masses.

Angelonias are available in blue, purple, white, rose/pink and a bi-color purple-white combination that I love. The spikes of blooms start opening from the bottom. The old blooms drop off without the need for deadheadling. Once the top-most blooms have opened, snip the entire stem off with scissors. The plant will branch and the new branches will bloom in just a few weeks. They make long-lasting cut flowers if you remember to remove any leaves that will be below water level.

For best blooms, give them full sun and good drainage. If the leaf color starts looking wimpy, give them a drink of liquid fertilizer to restore them to their original medium green. If you neglect them or allow them to dry out completely, cut them back hard and they will regenerate if given water and liquid fertilizer.

Angelonia are great plants for the new gardener. Easy and beautiful!

Purple, bicolor and white Angelonia.

Purple, bicolor and white Angelonia.

Angelonias in a cast iron urn.

Angelonias in a cast iron urn.

Long-blooming Purple Coneflowers

Most perennials have shorter bloom periods than summer annuals. One that flowers for a lengthy time is Echinacea purpurea, Purple Coneflower.  In upstate South Carolina, the first blooms open in late spring (just after Mother’s Day) and continue all the way to frost. Purple was the original color of this prairie native that has been adapted to garden use. Hybridization expanded color choices to rose, orange-red, yellow, pink, magenta,  white and green. The Latin name came from the Greek word echinos, meaning hedgehog, a reference to the spiky orange central cone. The coarse leaves are a bit rough.

Coneflowers prefer full sun. They are heat resistant and will tolerate moderate drought. They are adaptable to various soil types and will grow in zones 3 to 9. They rarely need fertilizer. Cultivars vary in height but average 3-4 feet with a 2-3 foot spread.

Bumblebees and butterflies flock to the flowers. Blooms are long lasting, either on the plant or as cut flowers. Deadheading keeps the plant neater and forces fresh buds to form. I stop deadheading in autumn and allow the spent flowers to remain through winter, offering a seed treat to finches and other birds.  Any uneaten seed self-sow for new plants in the spring but the seeds of cultivars may not be like their parent plants. Seedlings are easily transplanted. Cut dead leaves and stems to ground level in late winter before spring growth begins.

Deer ignore coneflowers but rabbits find them tasty. They are rarely damaged by insects or diseases, but may show occasional damage from aphids, Japanese beetles, powdery mildew or bacterial leaf spots. I have experienced an occasional problem with “aster yellows” but promptly removed the affected plants to avoid a spread to neighboring plants. My two favorite cultivars are ‘Magnus’ which has large, light purple blooms and ‘Kim’s Knee High’ which is only a foot tall. Both look best when planted in masses rather than as single plants.

A bumblebee busy on a ‘Magnus’ coneflower bloom.

A bumblebee busy on a ‘Magnus’ coneflower bloom.

A group planting.

A group planting.

Note the weird green buds inside the purple circle. These deformed blooms are a symptom of Aster Yellows. Remove and destroy the plant to prevent the spread. Aster yellows is a bacteria-like organism called a phytoplasma. It is spread by leafhoppers.

Note the weird green buds inside the purple circle. These deformed blooms are a symptom of Aster Yellows. Remove and destroy the plant to prevent the spread. Aster yellows is a bacteria-like organism called a phytoplasma. It is spread by leafhoppers.

Color Me Confused

Last year I received a gift shrub from a dear friend. The tag said “Blue Mist Spirea.” There was no Latin name included. When I did a little research online to learn the plant’s sun and water requirements, I was astonished to learn that it was NOT a Spirea. Not even close. Instead, this gray-leaf beauty with clusters of tiny powder-blue blooms is a Caryopteris. So why call a Caryopteris a Spirea? Beats me. They are not even in the same family. I can only guess that there was some confusion in the plant breeder’s greenhouse and once the patent was received or the plant tags were printed, it was too hard or expensive to make the correction.

Many garden centers will offer “Blue Mist Spirea,” but you may also find ‘Longwood Blue,’ ‘Beyond Midnight,’ ‘Dark Knight’ and ‘Grand Bleu.’ The ‘Worchester Gold’ cultivar has some yellow to its foliage, but it is not as golden as the name might lead one to believe. It tends to turn more green where summers are hot.

Plant Caryopteris in full sun, in well-drained, lean soil. Too rich a soil produces soft growth that is weak and floppy. It is heat and drought tolerant. The blooms attract numerous butterflies and bees, so site them away from busy pathways and entrances. The shrub naturally forms a nice mounded shape with a fine texture. It is deciduous, losing every leaf when hard freezes arrive. The branches should be pruned hard (down to 12 inches or less) in early spring because blooms occur only on new growth. Pruning will also keep the plant dense and compact. Resist the temptation to trim until spring arrives and new growth starts to show. If you prune in autumn or early winter, the plant may not live through cold weather. Wet soil in winter may also cause plant death.

Caryopteris are easy to grow from cuttings, but many times the plant self-propagates by growing roots wherever a branch touches soil. These rooted branches can be separated from the mother in spring and transplanted to new locations. Caryopteris look pretty when paired with gray-leafed Artemesia such as ‘Powis Castle’ or contrast nicely with burgundy foliage. It also looks fabulous planted next to orange Zinnias.

Caryopteris foliage has a distinctive odor that deer don’t like. Some people describe it as smelling like bell pepper. I don’t agree, but cannot find another comparison that is more accurate. Deer do not browse it and insects do not bother it. This small scale (36 inches or less) shrub is trouble free and should be planted more often. It is hardy in Zones 6-9.

Clusters of tiny blue blooms form along the stems of Caryopteris.

Clusters of tiny blue blooms form along the stems of Caryopteris.

Architectural Acanthus

One of my favorite plants for shade is Acanthus, (pronounced ah-KAN-thus) commonly called “Bear’s Breeches” for unknown reasons.  There are two species available in nurseries, Acanthus mollis and Acanthus spinosus. See the accompanying photograph for a side-by-side comparison.

Both species have bold evergreen leaves that draw attention in the garden. When you see one in bloom, you cannot help but say, “Golly!” The leaves of mollis are large and shiny; the leaves of spinosus bristle with sharp spines. (Bet you saw that one coming, huh?).  Leaf clumps may reach three feet tall. Bloom stems jump up to five feet or more. In the Mary Snoddy garden, the height of the bloom stem is a direct reflection of any irrigation I have thrown their way. The more water, the taller the stem. They do prefer a drier soil, however, so don’t get carried away with the watering. Ensure good drainage during winter to prevent root rot.

Acanthus’s distinctive leaves served as the pattern for carvings on classical Greek architecture. Blooms appear in early to mid summer on sturdy stems, white petals held by dusky purple bracts.

Acanthus are cold-hardy zone 7-10. They are evergreen in my zone 7b garden. Plants may spread by seed or by underground roots. I have seen reports of invasiveness on the internet, but have not experienced any such behavior in the ten-plus years I have enjoyed them. Deer, rabbits and voles avoid them.

Acanthus spinosus  on left;  Acanthus mollis  on right.

Acanthus spinosus on left; Acanthus mollis on right.

Prickly  Acanthus spinosus

Prickly Acanthus spinosus

Mary Snoddy and  Acanthus mollis  ‘Rue Ledan’

Mary Snoddy and Acanthus mollis ‘Rue Ledan’

Moonstruck Over Lunaria

Money does not grow on trees, but it does grow on Lunaria, whose common names include Money Plant, Dollar Plant, or Honesty. Lunaria annua would lead one to believe it is an annual, but it a biennial. The Lunaria portion means “moon like” in reference to its round white seeds, called silicles. As a true biennial, plants germinate and grow foliage one year, then flower, set seed, and die the next year. Blooms are purple, with an occasional lavender or white. They look spectacular paired with late season daffodils or bearded Iris. Average mature height is about two feet, with a spread half their height. Stems and leaves are both fuzzy to touch.

Seeds left on the plant are decorative through the summer but begin to look a bit tattered toward autumn. They self-sow, so allow a few seeds to remain to produce next year’s plants. Remove most seeds or you will be forced to remove an over-abundance of baby plants the following year. Retain and store a few seeds in a cool, dry place so you can plant them the following year. Otherwise, the biennial growth pattern will mean flowers only on alternate years. Seed pods, the “money,” are perfectly round, papery, almost translucent.  They look like two pieces of tissue paper with a couple of seeds caught between them. Seeds can be extracted by running the dry pod between your fingers. Children can help harvest and plant these. Stalks of mature seeds make interesting additions to flower arrangements.

Plants prefer the dappled shade of woodland gardens or under deciduous trees. In the Mary Snoddy garden, they thrive on neglect. I have never watered or fertilized them.

Don’t confuse Lunaria with Dame’s Rocket, an invasive plant with similar flowers but different seed pods.  

It is too bad that gardeners cannot use the Lunaria’s money to feed our voracious plant-buying habits.

Copy of Champion Rose Campion

My apologies for the tardiness of this post. Evidently I included so many high-res photos in my first attempt that email programs kicked it to the curb. Who knew?  Anyway, better late than not at all. MNS

Rose Campion (Lychnis coronaria) is an old fashioned passalong plant that is heat resistant and has beautiful spring and summer flowers. Most have magenta blooms, but there are also pink, white and blush forms available. When it is not in bloom, the gray felted leaves are easy to confuse with Lamb’s Ears (see the photo for a comparison).

 The word “Lychnis” (pronounced LICK-niss) means “lamp” in Greek. Folklore says that the woolly leaves were sometimes rolled tightly and used as lamp wicks. A few people use the common name “Dusty Miller,” but there are multiple other plants that share that common name. Let’s stick with Rose Campion. Those soft gray leaves mean that it looks wonderful with pastels and makes a good peace-making divider between hot colors that might otherwise clash. I would avoid pairing it with pale lemony yellows, but it looks fine against school-bus yellow. The leaves look fantastic when paired with pink or red companions. They also look good against burgundy foliage.

Rose Campion forms a basal leaf rosette that mimics Verbascum. Thin bloom stems shoot up to 30”or more and erupt in small, velvety 5-petaled flowers. If you plan to pair yours with red or purple flowers, it is worth seeking out the white or blush colors.  I learned from sad experience that magenta clashes like thunder with red Amaryllis. (Plans are underway for a relocation of the Amaryllis.)  All colors bloom longer if deadheaded. I tend to leave those in the Mary Snoddy garden ungroomed so they spread seeds around. They reseed readily if left unmulched, which makes them a great passalong gift. The plants are easy to move when small. Space them a foot apart in full sun, zones 4-8.

Due to its fuzzy gray coat, Rose Campion rarely needs any supplemental watering. Mine are used as an edging, planted in full baking sun next to an asphalt driveway. They are never irrigated.  If plants receive too much water or if the leaves stay damp too long in periods of high humidity, they may rot. Locating them in an area with good air circulation helps. They tolerate clay and prefer poor soil. Too rich a soil makes their stems weak, so blooms flop. They are not bothered by insects or diseases. The deer have not damaged mine – yet.

Lambs Ears between Rose Campions.

Lambs Ears between Rose Campions.

Rose Campion paired with pink-blooming Limemound Spirea and purple Iris ensata

Rose Campion paired with pink-blooming Limemound Spirea and purple Iris ensata

Magenta Rose Campion

Magenta Rose Campion

Champion Rose Campion

My apologies for the tardiness of this post. Evidently I included so many high-res photos in my first attempt that email programs kicked it to the curb. Who knew?  Anyway, better late than not at all. MNS

Rose Campion (Lychnis coronaria) is an old fashioned passalong plant that is heat resistant and has beautiful spring and summer flowers. Most have magenta blooms, but there are also pink, white and blush forms available. When it is not in bloom, the gray felted leaves are easy to confuse with Lamb’s Ears (see the photo for a comparison).

 The word “Lychnis” (pronounced LICK-niss) means “lamp” in Greek. Folklore says that the woolly leaves were sometimes rolled tightly and used as lamp wicks. A few people use the common name “Dusty Miller,” but there are multiple other plants that share that common name. Let’s stick with Rose Campion. Those soft gray leaves mean that it looks wonderful with pastels and makes a good peace-making divider between hot colors that might otherwise clash. I would avoid pairing it with pale lemony yellows, but it looks fine against school-bus yellow. The leaves look fantastic when paired with pink or red companions. They also look good against burgundy foliage.

Rose Campion forms a basal leaf rosette that mimics Verbascum. Thin bloom stems shoot up to 30”or more and erupt in small, velvety 5-petaled flowers. If you plan to pair yours with red or purple flowers, it is worth seeking out the white or blush colors.  I learned from sad experience that magenta clashes like thunder with red Amaryllis. (Plans are underway for a relocation of the Amaryllis.)  All colors bloom longer if deadheaded. I tend to leave those in the Mary Snoddy garden ungroomed so they spread seeds around. They reseed readily if left unmulched, which makes them a great passalong gift. The plants are easy to move when small. Space them a foot apart in full sun, zones 4-8.

Due to its fuzzy gray coat, Rose Campion rarely needs any supplemental watering. Mine are used as an edging, planted in full baking sun next to an asphalt driveway. They are never irrigated.  If plants receive too much water or if the leaves stay damp too long in periods of high humidity, they may rot. Locating them in an area with good air circulation helps. They tolerate clay and prefer poor soil. Too rich a soil makes their stems weak, so blooms flop. They are not bothered by insects or diseases. The deer have not damaged mine – yet.

Lambs Ears between Rose Campions.

Lambs Ears between Rose Campions.

Rose Campion paired with pink-blooming Limemound Spirea and purple Iris ensata

Rose Campion paired with pink-blooming Limemound Spirea and purple Iris ensata

Magenta Rose Campion

Magenta Rose Campion

Chinese Foxgloves

Spring means “garden tour time” here in South Carolina. I enjoy garden tours and attend as many as possible because (a) I enjoy seeing the way other people have conquered garden challenges and (b) I discover exciting new plants.

Several years ago, I encountered a plant I had never seen before. The homeowner/tour host told me it was a Chinese Foxglove, Rehemannia eleta. The beautiful tubular blooms made a pink cloud in the dry shade under a tree. The voice that lives in my head said, “Must.Have.That.Plant!”

I scoured all local nurseries, trying to find this beauty for sale. When that failed, I turned to the internet. I did not find plants, but I did find seeds for sale, at a company located in Ontario, Canada. Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and I held the precious envelope, ready to start my own pink cloud. When I opened the seed envelope, there was a smaller, waxy envelope inside. And inside this envelope there was – nothing. I telephoned the seed seller, which was a bit frustrating. I do not speak French; they did not speak Southern. When I was transferred to someone who understood my problem, I was told that there was, in fact, seeds inside the inner envelope. They were the size of dust particles. I hung up and found my trusty jeweler’s loupe, one of the handiest items ever created. 

Yes, there were minute seeds, visible with 10x magnification. I had never started anything so small, so I took special precautions. I used a very fine seed-starting mix, soaked it completely, and packed it lightly into plastic 4-cell packs. I tore a paper coffee filter into tiny scraps. then used tweezers dip each filter piece into water. I touched a corner of the damp filter to  the seeds, one at a time.  The seeds adhered nicely to the damp filter. I laid each filter piece and its attached seed on top of the seed starting mix, one per cell.  In just a few weeks, I had tiny plants and large self-congratulation. (This technique works well for any tiny seeds.)

Since then, the Chinese Foxgloves in the Mary Snoddy garden have reseeded into large, handsome clumps. (I guess Mother Nature did not need tweezers and a coffee filter.) They have a travel plan of their own design, and crop up in other places in the same shady bed. I assume that their seeds are wind-distributed.

Chinese Foxgloves thrive in the same soil, moisture and light exposure as Hostas. Despite the common name, they are not true Foxgloves (Digitalis). The tubular blooms have a bit of flare to the petals. They are cold-hardy In Zones 7-11. If deadheaded, they will bloom for months. I choose to skip the removal of old blooms, and still enjoy four to six weeks of flowering.

Baptisia? Yes, please.

Baptisia is a beautiful, long-lived perennial. It is in the Fabaceae family (legumes) and has a similar bloom to other plants in that family (peanuts, soybeans, peas).

A common name is Wild Indigo or False Blue Indigo, but modern cultivars extend beyond blue shades to yellows, white, and reddish purple. The plants reach three feet in height and about the same width. The growth form is strongly upright, not yielding to punishment from thunderstorms and hard rains. Grow in full sun.

Starting in 1745, Baptisia was grown and exported to Great Britain for the extraction of blue dye. It served as a substitute for the higher quality, more expensive dye extracted from Indigofera. As an export, it was second only to rice. Charleston, SC was the growth and shipping center, where it became known as “the blue gold of the South.”

This rugged plant is native to American prairie but can be grown in most of the US. Once established, it needs little care beyond cutting down frost-killed stems in winter. In upper South Carolina, the first shoots emerge around mid-March and bloom for four weeks, beginning in early April.  The plant grows a deep tap root that helps it survive droughts but also means that it resents relocation. The blooms are followed by seed pods that look like inflated peas. They dry to a true black, making an unusual addition to cut flower arrangements. If you wish to propagate from seed, harvest the pods as soon as they are completely black and dry. Ripe pods are prone to bursting open, so take care to harvest them before they split. Each pod holds multiple seeds. These germinate easily. Plants can also be propagated from tender stem cutting along with a rooting hormone.

Baptisia was named 2010 plant of the year by the Perennial Plant Association. The name is pronounced bap-TEE-zsah.

Blue  Baptisia  contrasts with the adjacent blue and yellow bearded  Iris .

Blue Baptisia contrasts with the adjacent blue and yellow bearded Iris.

Emerging  Baptisia  stems look like asparagus.

Emerging Baptisia stems look like asparagus.

Grancy Graybeard or White Fringetree

Whether you call it Grancy Graybeard, Grandaddy Graybeard or Fringe Tree, Chionanthus  (pronounced kye-oh-NANTH-us) is an eye-catching spring bloomer. The southeast hosts two species, Chionanthus virginicus and Chionanthus retusus. Both grow to large shrubs or small trees. The two species can be distinguished by their leaves. Virginicus leaf tapers to a point, in a Vee shape. Retusus is rounded.

The slightly fragrant blooms look like drooping clusters of white fringe. Flowers emerge while leaves are still small. Flowering is heaviest when sited in full sun, but the foliage looks best if it receives light shade during the hottest part of the day. In the Mary Snoddy garden, they bloom just after the lilacs have finished.

Virginicus is native to east Texas. (So why isn’t it texicus intead of virginicus? I don’t know.) Retusus is from China. It grows a bit taller than its sister and its blooms are more numerous. Both prefer an acidic soil but will perform well in a wide pH range. They tolerate drought but look best when grown in moist soil.

Both males and females flower, but only the females produce the drooping bunches of navy blue berries that birds enjoy. Fall color can be variable but is normally unimpressive yellow. The exfoliating bark is pretty in winter. Some trunks may be marked with semi-circular leaf scars, similar to flowering cherry trees. These scars, called lenticels, allow the tree to put off oxygen and intake carbon dioxide. Yes, the bark breathes!

Despite its ease of cultivation, propagation is tough. The seeds have a double dormancy that requires time and patience to germinate. Propagation from cuttings is also difficult and best left to professional growers. The trees transplant best when small. They will grow in zones 3-9.  They are native from New Jersey to Florida, and as far west as eastern Texas. Plants need little pruning.

Chionanthus virginicus was named Virginia’s Wildflower of the Year for 1997. Its size means it is perfectly suited for use in smaller home landscape. Its undemanding nature makes it a good choice for new gardeners. It also serves as a larval host and a nectar source for sphinx moths, those giant night-flyers that look like oversized bumblebees or hummingbirds. The only drawback is that deer find them especially tasty.

Chionanthus retusus  bloom

Chionanthus retusus bloom

A lovely grouping of  Chionanthus retusus  at a local business.

A lovely grouping of Chionanthus retusus at a local business.

Chionanthus virginicus  grown in partial shade. Note the V-shaped leaves.

Chionanthus virginicus grown in partial shade. Note the V-shaped leaves.

Chionanthus virginicus  in the Mary Snoddy garden.

Chionanthus virginicus in the Mary Snoddy garden.

Lace Leaf Lilac

One of the advantages of living in balmy South Carolina is our long growing season and mild winters. That same weather creates challenges in growing peonies and lilacs, apples and cabbages. I was lucky enough to inherit a cut-leaf Lilac (Syringa laciniata) that was planted decades ago by my husband’s grandmother.  The finely divided leaves resemble marigolds more than other lilacs, and give the shrub a soft texture.

This deciduous shrub is described as graceful but I find that it becomes a bit ungainly with age unless it is pruned to generate new growth. It can reach heights of eight feet or so, with an equal spread. Clusters of fragrant, light purple flowers bloom in spring around the same time as daffodils. Any shaping should be done soon after the bloom period is complete. This is also a good time to take cuttings. Removal of dead blooms before the plant sets seeds will result in better blooming in the following year. Fall color is an unimpressive yellow.

Cut-leaf lilac is propagated from softwood stems, not bright green and flexible or dark brown and brittle. Use a rooting hormone for best results. To improve survival rate, the rooted cuttings should remain in a greenhouse or protected location at least a year before being planted out into the landscape. Several of the plants I started from cuttings have exceeded the size of the mother plant. Plants can also spread themselves by suckering. Suckers may be removed to limit spread.

It is difficult to find Syringa laciniata for sale in nurseries, but ‘Miss Kim’ lilac (Syringa persica) is widely available. Cut-leaf lilac is heat tolerant and mildew resistant. It is not troubled by insects or diseases, and is rarely browsed by deer. Butterflies and bees flock to its fragrant blooms. It performs best in full sun. Lilacs prefer neutral to slightly alkaline soil, so add lime if your soil test indicates acidity.

How I wish you could “scratch and sniff” to enjoy the fragrance!

How I wish you could “scratch and sniff” to enjoy the fragrance!

This “mother” plant is at least fifty years old. It has been the source of numerous cuttings, now larger than the original.

This “mother” plant is at least fifty years old. It has been the source of numerous cuttings, now larger than the original.

Build Your Own "Tree Face"

Visitors to the Mary Snoddy garden often comment on the large “face” on one of our oak trees. Confession: This is a complete human creation. It is NOT based on the tree’s natural scars.

Why purchase a pre-made “face” when you can create your own — with personality! Here are step-by-step instructions. Please read all steps before you start, and use tools and products with care. Summertime gardening chores are just a few weeks ahead, and you will need all your fingers to plant and weed!

Step 1
Select a tree.  A larger tree is easier than a smaller tree, because the surface curves less.  Keep in mind that you will be painting the face to match the bark. For those of us with limited artistic skills, oak bark is easier to mimic than pine.

Step 2
Use scrap cardboard to sketch your eyes, nose and mouth.  Cut out the pieces using metal shears or old scissors.  Using 1-inch brad nails, tack the cardboard lightly onto the target tree.  Adjust the size of your cardboard items up or down until the fit seems right for the tree.  Be sure to allow plenty of space between each of the pieces.

TreeMan Step 2.jpg

Step 3
After the sizes and shapes look okay, remove them from the tree and place on a 1-inch thick piece of styrofoam. I removed mine one at a time, to be retain ideal spacing on the tree. You can either use the pink sheets of construction insulation foam sold at home improvement stores such as Lowe’s or Home Depot, or buy smaller sheets at craft stores like Michael’s.  My design took two sheets of 24” x 36” foam.  Wear safety glasses and use caution as you utilize a jigsaw to cut out the designs.  If a mishap occurs and one of the design pieces breaks, it’s okay.

Step 4
Using 1 ½  inch galvanized nails with large heads (roofing nails are ideal), nail the styrofoam directly to the tree.  Each piece will need two or three nails to hold it securely. Don’t use longer nails — You want to attached to the bark, not penetrate the tree’s cambium layer.

Step 5
Using the same cardboard patterns, cut pieces of screen wire in the general shape of the design piece.  Add at least two inches larger in all directions, so that you can overlap the styrofoam and have plenty of extra screen to staple onto the tree.  Any excess can be cut away with metal shears after it’s on the tree. These screen pieces will serve as the base for Step 7.

Step 6
Use a staple gun to attach the screen wire over the styrofoam pieces.  I used a pneumatic stapler to make the process faster, but a manual construction stapler works just fine. (Don’t try to substitute a regular office-type stapler. They are not strong enough to penetrate the bark and their staples are not long enough.)  I used 11/16” staples. You can see the excess screen on the photo below, left. I trimmed a small amount after it was attached.

Step 7
Now, the messy part. Wear your safety glasses and disposable latex gloves for this step.  Mix Bondo (an automotive body filler, available at big box stores and auto parts stores), using a little less of the hardener than called for on the can.  Mix only small portions at a time, because it hardens and becomes unworkable FAST.  Use a putty knife to smooth the bonding agent right onto the screen wire.  This process takes a while.  Don’t be tempted to hurry it along by mixing larger amounts of Bondo. The surface will be somewhat rough. That is okay, since bark is not smooth.

Step 8
After the Bondo is hardened, it’s time to paint.  This is the most difficult part, and the most time consuming, because you must allow drying time between coats.  Start by painting the entire face with a base coat closest to the tree’s main bark color.  I found gray with a little brown paint mixed in was the best base. Allow your inner-Picasso to emerge.  Dab on colors as needed until the design matches the bark.  Paint the black and white portions of the eyes and mouth as the last step. Pictured below is my final Tree Man. He is approximately five feet from top to bottom (eyebrows to snaggle tooth).

Tree Man Final.jpg

Here is a complete list of the materials needed.

Cardboard
Metal shears or an old pair of scissors
Styrofoam sheets
Jigsaw
Screen wire (metal, not nylon) – Old wire is fine. Rust doesn’t matter.
One gallon can of Bondo (fiberglass for automotive dent repairs)
Several shades of exterior enamel paint (gray, brown, green, white, black)
Putty knife
Stapler
Disposable paint brushes or foam pads
Latex gloves
Safety glasses
Ladder, if needed, to reach top of design

Have fun! Send me photos of your completed tree art: mary@marysnoddy.com

Weed of the Week: Bittercress

While most other plants are just awakening from winter hibernation, Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is actively growing and blooming.  It is an annual weed in the mustard family. It reseeds itself so rapidly that it appears to be perennial. The plant forms a basal rosette of lobed leaves and sends up a wiry stalk. The 4-petal white flowers have a lavender tint near the base. The flowers can mature and set seed in less than a week. Once a few plants have seeded, it is almost impossible to eradicate from the lawn or flower beds.

Pulling the weeds while they are small, before they set seed, is the best way to control this invasive demon. They are easy to remove when soil is damp. If you allow them to seed, you will need to employ both pre-emergent and post-emergent herbicides (look for product that controls broadleaf weeds) to tame it.

Even a tiny plant can bloom. See the photo below, with a house key to show size of the blooming plant. The seed pods, called siliques, look like purple toothpicks. The pods will explode at the slightest touch, throwing seed up to 15 feet away from the mother plant. One of its common names is Shotweed. There is a term for this ballistic seed distribution system: ballochory. Touch-me-nots (Impatiens balsamina) also throw their seeds around this way.

In a Master Gardener class I attended some years ago, the instructor showed a photograph of a nursery in which one Bittercress was left alone for nine weeks. It went from a single plant to an entire village. That one plant spread its progeny to the surrounding twenty-four flats of plants — in just nine weeks!

Bittercress leaves are edible. I’m told they taste like arugula. They do support several varieties of butterflies and one obscure bee, but they are also favored by aphids. In the Mary Snoddy garden, this means “Off with their heads!”

Weed early and weed often.

A single, tiny bloom produces a bazillion seeds, all of which will germinate.

A single, tiny bloom produces a bazillion seeds, all of which will germinate.

Say Buh-bye to Bradford Pears

Finally, finally  the Bradford pear trees are starting to shed their petals as tender leaves emerge. For the first time in several weeks, I can take a breath without suffering from the smell of stale laundry. Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’) came into popularity about thirty years ago. The first year we were married, my husband and I planted a row of them. That was before we knew about their associated problems: stinky blooms, messy fruit, weak wood and invasiveness.

At first glance, it seemed like a perfect choice. Nice white blooms in the spring and pretty red fall color. A rapid grower, its mature size was listed as a manageable 40 feet tall with a 20 foot spread – ideal for the home landscape. Within a few years, we encountered problems with fire blight (made the ends of the branches look like they had been burned) and entomosporium leaf spot. Everyone has a different sense of what smells good and what does not. Most people agree that Bradfords fall into the “does not” category.

If the smell does not offend your nose and your trees have been spared the ravages of disease, you should still be concerned about their tendency to split. The side limbs are attached to the trunk with a sharp acute angle (“narrow crotch” is a common term) and split easily. Once a mature tree has lost a large limb, it is impossible to make it look rounded again. Save yourself from an ugly view and remove a damaged tree entirely.

When initially introduced into the nursery trade, Bradford pears were sterile and thornless. They didn’t following family planning guidelines, however, and cross pollinated with other types of callery pears and produced copious amounts of fruit. The pears are tiny and, in and of themselves, do not offer a headache. Unfortunately, birds eat the fruit and spread seeds far and wide. These germinate into huge numbers of thorny wild pears.

An “invasive” plant is an introduced, non-native that spreads so readily that it displaces natives. Nandina and kudzu are typical examples. Each state has a list of plants that are invasive in that state. Always consult your state’s list before you purchase an unfamiliar tree, shrub or perennial.

If you should doubt that Bradford pear is invasive, take a look at the photo below, showing a hedge of them under power lines in rural countryside. These have been “planted” by birds.

The Arbor Day Foundation recommends red maple, Japanese Zelkova or Chinese Pistache as an alternative. Here in South Carolina, consider Redbud (Cercis Canadensis), Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), Carolina Silverbell (Halesia carolina), and Chinese Dogwood (Cornus kousa). They are all excellent choices.

These trees are 17 years old. The pre-split limb separation is becoming visible at the top of the canopy. When the first tree split, we removed them all and replaced them with better selections.

These trees are 17 years old. The pre-split limb separation is becoming visible at the top of the canopy. When the first tree split, we removed them all and replaced them with better selections.

A thicket of bird-planted Bradfords under a power line in the countryside.

A thicket of bird-planted Bradfords under a power line in the countryside.

Blooms look innocent but smell pee-yew.

Blooms look innocent but smell pee-yew.

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.