Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What The Heck Is That?!?

Those words were uttered more than once this summer as passersby gawked at the otherworldly flowers hanging from the vine on the fence at my friend Leann's house. (There are pictures of her garden in my Garden Gallery at www.troybmarden.com) Apparently, a few folks even took offense at these giant, martianesque blossoms that so proudly displayed themselves, perfuming the air with the fragrance of lemon.

Funny, huh? Offended by a flower. I, on the other hand, find them entrancing--enthralling--utterly (as Martha would say) delightful. So they're a little weird, a little wild, a little "out there". They're plants! Another one of those fabulous, freaky things that makes people stop and take notice. No one was stopping to comment on the petunias, mind you. They paid no attention to THOSE at all!

So what is it? It is, my friends, the giant Dutchman's Pipe (Aristolochia gigantea). It is tropical in its origins, so is grown as annual by most of us. Don't let that fool you, though. It wasn't much more than a rooted cutting in a 1-gallon pot when it went in the ground and it was a little slow to start. Leann complained to me more than once that it wasn't really doing much. "Be patient," I replied, "The rewards will come later." I was right. The vine grew and grew until about September and then I got the call.

"Get over here tomorrow!" she said. "It has two buds on it." I told her I would try, but to be patient still and that there would be much more to come. It wasn't but a few weeks before the plant burst into flower--40, 50, 60 blooms. Maybe more. Everyone of them was over a foot long and nearly a foot wide. Some were borne singly, others in pairs. Either way, they were no less beautiful or enticing. Though certainly not common, the plant is fairly widely available from specialty nurseries on the internet or through mailorder. It's a great addition to any garden and is certain to be one of THE most talked about plants you own.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Pumpkin Artistry

Never underestimate the creative mind! For those of you who thought that pumpkins were only good for carving and, perhaps, the occasional pie, I'd like to introduce you to the work of a good friend mine.

Every autumn at the University of Tennessee's West Tennessee Research Station in Jackson, TN, Jason Reeves and his staff create one of the most fun, exciting and dramatic displays of pumpkins, squash and gourds that you can imagine! Not only do they create this incredible display from scratch every year, they also re-design it from the ground up AND (with the help of a few of the research folks) they grow all of the squash, gourds and pumpkins they use in it.

This is a short entry, but I really wanted everyone to see the photos. C-C-COOOOLLLDDD here tonight! 17 degrees fahrenheit. Uggh!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Not So Elusive

Well, as it turns out, my elusive waterfall turned out to be not-so-elusive. We found it. However, we found it at the end of the hike when, as it turns out, had we turned right instead of left we would have found it at the beginning. The end was good, though. The waterfall was a great way to end an hour's worth of hiking the ridge, as well as the valley behind it. If we'd found the waterfall first, we might have turned around and left before really doing some good exploring!

After seeing the lay of the land and the variation in trees and shrubs that it supports, I can only imagine what kind of elation I'll feel when I walk through and see the wildflowers coming up in the spring. If the vast stands of native forest sedges and Christmas fern are any indication, the spring show should be stunning. In addition to the few herbaceous plants still bravely hanging 'round this late in the season there were also a fair number of unusual woody plants along the way. Some of the more uncommon ones included an excellent stand of Lindera benzoin (Spicebush), numerous Ostrya virginiana (American Hop Hornbeam) all along the streambank and an as-yet-unidentified native azalea. I'll let you know what it is when it flowers in the spring.

The only problematic encounter we had was when we finally reached a point where the stream took a hard turn to the left and, on our side of the streambank, straight into a bluff. Our options were to turn back and re-hike the distance we had just come and the go back up to the top of the ridge or to go up from where we were. We chose the latter. The word "grueling" comes to mind, though not in an "I'd-never-do-it-again" sort of way. I'll say this: I'd ONLY do it in the winter when anything legless and scaly was NOT out sunning itself on the rocks or hiding sneakily under the leaves. This is timber rattler territory if I've ever seen it. No, we won't be scaling the cliffs in the summertime. Uh-uh. Not me. Sorry. I'm staying on flat ground and carrying a big stick.

Cliff-scaling aside, we had a fantastic afternoon. The weather was perfect (perfectly horrible for photography) with the sun coming down through the leafless trees and helping to warm us up just a bit. When we did find the waterfall, two problems posed themselves immediately: One, the weather. "Severe clear" as a photo friend of mine would describe it--washed out light and harsh shadow--not even good snapshot weather. And two, the best vantage point for shooting the waterfall is IN the creek. Seeing as it was 41 chilly degrees fahrenheit, my feet stayed on dry land. I snapped a few shots just to prove I was there, but the pretty shots will have to wait til summer. For the moment, though, I had found what I was looking for and it did not disappoint. Now I can't wait for spring and all of its lush, green exuberance. The photos then will be spectacular! I'm sure of it!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

My Elusive Waterfall

It's chilly this morning in Tennessee! Not as chilly as it is where some of you are located, I'm sure--and not as warm as it is for some of you either. I do have to say we're in a good climate here with just enough winter to still be able to appreciate four distinct seasons, but with short enough winters that by the time I'm really beginning to go stir-crazy it's just about over. If you really plan well here, you can have something blooming in the garden almost 12 months out of the year--even in the winter.

Today's not a gardening day, though. Nope. Today's a hiking day. As I've mentioned in some previous posts, I moved to a new piece of property back in August and since that time I've hardly had the time to get the lawn whipped into shape, let alone go exploring on the 150 acres of grassland and woods that extends for two ridges back behind the house. If I'm being totally honest, there are a couple of other reasons, too, not the least of which are the chiggers!

For those of you who don't live in the South and are asking "What the heck is a 'chigger'?", let me explain. For lack of a better term, they're sort of like a tiny little mite--maybe a spider mite, for you gardeners. They're tiny, horrible little sucking buggers that burrow into your skin and cause raised bumps like overgrown mosquito bites that itch like you simply cannot believe. If I had a nickel for every time I've woken up clawing at my ankles in the middle of the night because of them, I'd be writing this from some quiet beach in the Caribbean instead of from the living room in Primm Springs, Tennessee.

They like tight places. Shoes. Socks. That place where your jeans rub right behind your knees. Anywhere with an elastic waistband..... They're the worst. And unlike a mosquito bite, they don't just go away. No. They linger. They itch for the first week and then usually take two more to heal. So why am I babbling on about this? Well, because they love the woods. So that's the reason I haven't gone exploring yet on the new property. That and the rattlesnakes. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the rattlesnakes.

I know, I know. They won't bother you if you don't bother them. I'd rather not take my chances, thanks. Especially not after I photographed a nearly 6-foot-long timber rattler not 20 minutes from my house earlier this summer. He was an old boy. Thirteen rattles.

But back to the title of this post and my "Elusive Waterfall". My landlady tells me that somewhere on the property is a magnificent waterfall. She says it's about 30 feet wide and 15 feet high and I'm going looking for it. From her directions, I know the general direction in which it lies, but I don't know exactly where it is. The weather is perfect--39 degrees. No chiggers. No rattlesnakes. I'm going to go find a waterfall. If I'm successful, I'll post some pics! If you haven't heard back from me in a couple of days, send out a search party, would you?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An Amaryllis By Any Other Name...

Hippeastrum cybister. Yes, yes, I know. More weird plants. Why not just talk about good old-fashioned red Christmas amaryllis? (Yawn.) Or everyone's favorite, 'Appleblossom'? (Yawn.) Or that beautiful red-and-white striped one that Granny grew every year? (Yaaawwn.) Alright, alright. I'm being unfair. I'm sounding like I don't like the traditional, large-flowered Christmas amaryllis when really, I do. But y'all know about those. I'd rather tell you about an amaryllis that you might not be quite as familiar with, if at all--and that's Hippeastrum cybister, or the cybister amaryllis.

This is a species that is native to South America--Bolivia, specifically--and has, in the past decade or so, been used extensively in hybridizing. The bottom photograph above is a picture of the species. It's extremely narrow petals are a dominant characteristic and carry through to the offspring. By hybridizing this species with other, more colorful species, the breeders have brought us an astounding array of exotic-looking, almost orchid-like amaryllis (the top picture) that 20 years ago were nearly unheard of.

The cybister group, as they're often referred to, are just as easy to grow as their larger counterparts, but are smaller in every respect. Smaller bulbs, smaller flowers, and generally smaller in stature (which means little to no staking!) and they make the perfect subjects for tabletop or windowsills during the holiday season. The cybister types also tend to be evergreen, so even though you'll purchase them as dormant bulbs (no foliage), once you get them up and growing they should remain beautiful green houseplants year round.

As with all amaryllis, they like to be potbound, so don't overdo it on the size of the pot. They also don't like to be overwatered, especially when in bloom (true for almost all amaryllis), so don't get heavy-handed with the watering can. Generally speaking, I pot them up, soak them good one time to settle them into the pot and leave them the heck alone until the flower stalks are emerging well from the bulb. Even then I just keep them barely moist. They're still rooting in at this point and overwatering could well cause those tender new roots to rot!

Cybisters will multiply with some degree of abandon and, after a few years, you should have a nice pot full of bulbs. Leave them alone! They're pretty this way. Even if the bulbs start "stacking up" on each other, they'll be okay. In the wild, amaryllis tend to grow on rock cliffs and other such places, so they don't need a gigantic pot filled to the brim with over-rich potting soil. All they need is a place to hang on and get a little food and water from occasionally.
I'd recommend summering them outdoors in a semi-shaded spot. In summer, when they are actively growing, you can feed and water them like your other houseplants, but once they come back in for the winter you need to back off again.

One last word on amaryllis: bloom time. This will likely come as a shock to some of you, but Christmas is NOT their natural bloom time. Spring is. The bulbs you buy for forcing at Christmas are exactly that. Forced. This doesn't harm them, but in later years (assuming you keep them from year to year) they will flower at their normal bloom time in March and April and, generally speaking, not at Christmas. A word to the wise--you're better off to just enjoy them at their natural bloom time. Re-forcing them to flower at Christmas every year is somewhat difficult unless you are able to provide just the right conditions. I don't recommend it. Buy a new one each year and add to your collection. Let it be beautiful for the holidays and enjoy the rest of them as they welcome spring. I mean, the flowers aren't any less beautiful in March, right?

Happy Gardening!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Out In A Blaze of Glory

I really thought that we were going to miss out on fall color in Tennessee this year. August and September were horribly dry and the trees all looked so stressed by the beginning of October that I really thought the leaves would just drop without turning. I was wrong. The color has been short-lived, but it did happen. Last week was absolutely stunning--for about 3 days. Before and after those three days were okay, but peak color happened suddenly and the color was fleeting. Oh, there's still some color around, no doubt, but it's not that brilliant, vibrant, oh-my-gosh-would-you-look-at-that kind of color that last Wednesday was all about.

Most of us, when we think of fall color, think of trees and shrubs, but in case you're not familiar with it I want to introduce you to a perennial whose fall color is second-to-none--and it's totally reliable every year! Meet Amsonia hubrichtii. This indestructible native perennial puts on one of the most spectacular fall shows in the garden. Not only that, it's icy blue flowers in early spring and its soft green, feathery foliage in summer make it absolutely indispensible in the garden for about 8 months out of the year. Not bad. Not bad at all.

If you search the internet for more information, you may want to try these alternative spellings, as you'll find it listed under all of them: Amsonia hubrectii, A. hubrictii, A. hubrechtii. I, however, am sticking with Amsonia hubrichtii. It was named for Leslie Hubricht, after all, and his name was spelled h-u-b-r-i-c-h-t. Sorry, it's just a personal pet peeve of mine.

The plant in the photo is nine years old, makes out at about 3 feet high and politely spreads to about 5 feet in diameter by the end of the summer. It doesn't run, it doesn't spread. It does have a serious taproot system and resents being moved once it's established. It will take just about anything you can dish out except for too much shade and very wet feet. Blistering sun? No problem. Squelching heat? It thumbs its nose. Drought? Hardly an issue (though if its exceptionally dry it may go dormant a little early--only to return unharmed next season).

If you don't know Amsonia hubrichtii, you really should take a moment to get acquainted. It will make your fall garden go out in a blaze of glory every year!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Berries, Berries!

It's berry time again! The onset of cooler autumn weather and the changing of the leaves always reminds me how important berries are in the garden. Plants with berries help to extend the season of interest well into winter in most places. Most berry-producing plants are trees or shrubs of some kind and I thought I'd run through a short list of some favorites. (This is not an exhaustive, all-inclusive list--just a little something to whet your appetite.)

One of my all-time favorite berry plants is our southeastern native beautyberry, Callicarpa americana. It's royal purple berries begin to color up in September while the leaves are still hanging tight. Then, in October, the foliage turns brilliant yellow with the purple berries hugging the stems of the plant. The berries continue to hang on until well after the foliage drops and will retain their brilliant purple color until the weather really gets cold and we have a few hard freezes--often late November to early December--so that gives you an extra two months of color. One of my favorite combinations in the garden is American beautyberry with oakleaf hydrangea. I have several gardens where we have used this combination to great effect, particularly the dwarf oakleaf hydrangea called 'Peewee' whose deep maroon fall color is stunning with the purple American beautyberry. The only drawback is that Callicarpa americana is a pretty strong Zone 6b plant. Much colder than that and it may or may not make it through the winter.

Another favorite berry plant for the winter months is, of course, Ilex verticillata. There are a number of these on the market, but my favorite is probably the cultivar 'Red Sprite'. It's compact enough at 4 feet tall to fit into almost any landscape and the berries are at least twice the size of almost any other "winterberry"-type holly out there. I say "winterberry"-type because 'Winterberry' is actually a cultivar, but it has come into play in the industry as a common name, too, so a rather rash generalization is in play here. Being a non-conformist, I'm trying to stay out of that trap. Don't forget, with deciduous hollies (and evergreen ones, too, for that matter), male and female are needed for berry production. If you choose to grow 'Red Sprite', make sure that you plant 'Jim Dandy' nearby in order to ensure copious quantities of berries every fall and winter.

In the realm of small trees, crabapples are obviously unsurpassed for their production of beautiful small fruits in late summer and fall, many of which will hang on well into the winter if the birds (and deer) don't strip them clean. 'Red Jade' is one of the best and is perfect for the smaller landscape because of its "weeping" habit and small size--only 8 to 10 feet at maturity. It's stunning floral show in the spring is only a harbinger of things to come in the fall when it dazzles in the landscape with brilliant red fruits. 'Red Jewel' is another excellent choice when it comes to crabapples. Again, a slightly more compact tree, topping out at only 10-15 feet which makes it a great choice for today's smaller yards. White blossoms in spring and abundant cherry red fruits that persist well into winter make it a favorite "bird" tree when other sources of late autumn food have been used up.

In standard-size crabapples 'Sugar Tyme' is the way to go! It is second-to-none when it comes to fall and winter fruit display and its disease resistance makes for a great-looking plant throughout the growing season with few of the common crabapple problems. At 15 to 18 feet tall, it's still a great size for smaller yards, but is also able to hold its own in the larger landscape. Another excellent disease resistant selection is 'Donald Wyman', providing a great show of white blooms in the spring and branches full of brilliant red fruits in autumn and winter.

Of course, there are scads of other berry-producers that look great in the fall and winter landscape, but these are just a few favorites to whet your appetite. Enjoy!