Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Worthless Tips about my Perennials, Wildflowers, and Roses

            This post will be about some tips that I learned about the plants I have.  So if you don’t care about that stuff, feel free to skip it.  There are no inspirational or spiritual lessons, just information.  And it’s not professional info, just friendly.  And probably pointless, but I feel like sharing it anyway.  So here are some things I’ve learned.  And, FYI, I live in zone 5.  Hot summers and nasty cold winters.  (I’ll look at my herbs next post.) 

Roses:  The first thing I would recommend is that you buy roses in pots from a reputable nursery.  It is worth the extra money to buy it this way instead of buying roses in those rectangular cardboard sleeves from a home repair store or Wal-mart or a place like that.  You will have these plants a long time, so start out with the highest quality plant you can find.  It makes a big difference.  (And research the variety you are looking at before you buy to see if it fits you and your climate.  Roses are expensive and long-lived; it would be a shame to get the “wrong” one.)   
            When you plant a rose, it will look so small that you might be tempted to pack in other flowers around it to fill the space up.  But it will get too crowded in a year or two.  (Ask me how I know!)  So when you plant it, imagine it being eventually 3-4 times bigger, and then put in the other flowers or roses you want around it with that size in mind.  (If you plant them too closely, it causes stale, still air in between them and this can lead to diseases.) 
            Roses look especially great with salvias and lavenders.  I also have daisies with my roses.  But daisy roots spread like a growing clump, so I have to dig up the outer most roots of the daisies every couple years to keep them in check.  (Daisy roots transplant easily.) 
            [Update:  I admit it, I learned my lesson.  Do not plant daisies with roses.  The daisies spread so vigorously if they like the spot you planted them in, and they will get into every nook and cranny.  And then you will have to wrench your back out-of-whack trying to pull up massive clumps of daisies, fearful of hurting your rose bushes.  Do not do it.  Just say no!  Give daisies their own spot where they can ramble.  I stuck them in the backyard at the property line.  I love seeing them, I just don't want to fight them every year and grow to resent them.] 
            If you do not want to have to care for a rose that much, grow shrubs and not tea roses.  Shrubs just kind of do their own thing, but you have to cut them back every year.  Don’t worry that you might hurt them, you won’t.  Just be sure to know what the pruning requirements are for your specific rose.  Some shrubs bloom all season and some you can cut the dead blooms off and get a second flush of flowers. 
            (A really pretty, simple, 3-tiered, pink-purple combo: a butterfly bush in the back, pink shrub roses in front, and some salvias or lavenders planted in front of and on the side of the roses.  Just be sure to plant the butterfly bush to the north of the roses so that it won’t shade them.  Those bushes get big.)
            I did lose a few roses the first year (mostly the ones I did NOT buy at a good nursery), and I had to move one to a better spot, and I had to get rid of one that drew too many Japanese beetles in.  But since I didn’t want to add another rose to the already rose-heavy patch, I put in a hydrangea and a couple peonies.  These are flowering shrubs that will add some variety to the perennial bed and they will look just as great as the roses.  (And supposedly you are not supposed to replace a rose with a rose because they secrete some sort of “chemical” that will inhibit the growth of the second rose’s roots.  I have no idea if that’s really true or not, but I don’t want to take the chance with a $30 plant.) 
            I wanted my perennial garden and rose garden to require minimal care.  So I took a rather drastic route and decided that once I planted it, I wouldn’t baby it.  I don’t cover the roses in winter or water the plants unless it’s quite dry.  I don’t feed them too much (just a light cover of compost every year).  And I definitely don’t use chemicals, unless I absolutely have to.  (And I haven’t needed to yet.) 
            I decided to let nature decide which plants belong in my garden.  The plants that can survive with little care do.  And the ones that die off aren’t right for me anyway.  So I just replace them with something else and watch again.  It’s taking several years to finally settle on a plan that works, but I would rather do this and have a garden that can survive on its own than have to pamper my plants every year to keep them alive.  I love gardening, but I don’t want to be a slave to it.   
            I will admit that I am a bit of a “rule breaker” when it comes to my plants.  What I mean is that I will move them at “improper” times if I don’t like where they are.  I can’t bear to let them grow more roots in a spot I don’t like, so I’ll move them during the summer, even if you are not supposed to.  And most of them do just fine, even the rose I moved several times over two years.  So don’t be too afraid of making necessary changes.  Most plants want to live just as much as you want them to live.  Just be extra kind to them the year you move them (water them well and shade them with newspaper if the sun is too intense) and expect that it will take a couple years for them to give a good performance again. 
            Roses are really not that much harder to grow than other perennials.  So don’t be afraid of them.  Just pick a good one for your climate and research the type you want.  Shrubs are my preference.  Feed them well with compost.  Work slowly when you are trimming or tying them up.  And enjoy them.  Set a table next to them for entertaining company or a chair where you can read a book.  It’s so uplifting to your soul.        

Cosmos:  These are some of the simplest plants to grow and they give you amazing results.  Simply scatter the seed in the spring (in a roomy place where they can spread out a bit and reseed themselves), thin to the spacing on the package, and you will have tall, bushy plants (like feathery, green clouds) covered in flowers from summer on.  They will probably reseed themselves for the next year, or you can save the seed yourself.  And as a bonus, the small birds like finches, chickadees and hummingbirds love them.  And you can cut them to bring inside.  I LOVE these flowers.  One of my all-time favorites. 
Sunflowers:  The biggest tip I can share here is to be prepared to lose some to the bugs and bunnies.  Plant extra seed and try to protect them with a little fence until they get big enough to survive on their own.  (Or start the seeds inside if you want.  I prefer outside because I already start a lot of vegetable plants inside, but I would do it inside if I had the extra space, time, and energy.)  But I have still seen bunnies take down giant flowers, so I keep a little plastic netting up around the wildflower bed.  And the squirrels have just found out they can gnaw off whole heads and take them back to their nests.  Makes me crazy!  But these flowers are so worth it, though.  They bloom summer and fall and draw the birds in.  And the dried talks add interest in the winter landscape.  These are one of my “must haves,” along with cosmos and zinnias.  And roses . . . and daisies . . . and hydrangeas . . . Oh, I could just keep going and going and going!
            [Update: My sunflowers this past year looked pathetic.  They seemed to barely grow at all.  But as I took a walk around the block, I saw a neighbor that had huge, bushy sunflowers.  In the shade!  And I asked her one day how she did it.  She said that those were from seed that fell off of the last year’s sunflowers.  She said they grow better than anything she plants in the spring.  So this year, I planted the seeds in late, late fall (hopefully the squirrels don’t find them), and I am going to see if they grow better this way.]

Zinnias:  This is another really easy one.  Just plant the seed every year and watch them grow.  The bloom profusely, make great cut flowers, and the birds love them.  And the colors are fantastic.  But I have to plant extra seed because they don’t all grow for some reason.  But you only need a handful of plants because they spread out nicely. 

Bulbs:  I love having spring bulbs.  There is nothing more wonderful than coming out of a long, dark winter, and going right into beautiful colors and wonderful scents.  Plus, you can cut the flowers and bring them inside to brighten up your house. 
            My husband loves tulips, so I tried those first.  But I HATE them . . . because deer love them so much.  For the past several years, the deer have chewed them down to nothing – literally overnight - before I have a chance to protect them.  And in order to protect them, I had to resort to surrounding their bed in tall deer netting.  It really detracts from enjoying them.  I spend all spring fuming, muttering to myself, and eyeballing the tulip patch because of the stupid deer.  Dumb tulips! 
            So I am replacing them with daffodils, grape hyacinths (a favorite), Dutch hyacinths, and Siberian squill.  These look and smell wonderful, and the deer won’t touch them.  As a bonus, most of them will naturalize to make bigger masses.  And they are done blooming in time for the summer flowers.  So pack these in around your summer plants and in your borders, and you won’t be sorry.            

Butterfly Bushes:  These plants are great.  They are large, bushy shrubs (taller than me) that the butterflies (and bees) love.  They come back every year and bloom all through summer and fall.  And if you keep trimming off the dead blooms, you get more flowers.  I had a friend over once who was walking through the garden, and this was the one plant she asked about because she loved it so much.  (I really want a multi-colored one that I saw, but I don’t have any more room.  Maybe someday!) 
            I have to cut mine back every year (with a little hand saw) to about 6-8 inches off the ground.  Mine sprout again right from the woody base, and they get to be about 6-7 feet tall.  The branches that I trimmed off can be used for other purposes or for fun projects.  The first year, I tied a bunch together to form walls, floor, and a ceiling for a bird house.  We’ll see if anything moves in this year. 
            But be warned that you might get volunteer seedlings from these plants, so check under and around the plants every year to see if more have sprouted up.  You don’t want any more of these than you need in one spot because they are so big.  I was able to transplant one of the seedlings to another spot in the yard.  But the sun was intense so I had to shade it and keep it watered well.  I’ll have to see this year if it survived the winter.   

Hydrangeas:  I love these shrubby plants.  If you don’t want roses, get hydrangeas.  They are nearly as beautiful as roses, but they don’t have thorns.  And the leaves and the shape of the plant are beautiful enough that I would put them in even if they never had blossoms. 
            This is a minimal care plant.  Every spring, I just cut the dead stems (the ones that bloomed last year) to the ground.  And sometimes I trim back the tops of the new stems (when the buds are forming) to a fat pair of buds.  This helps provide more, smaller blooms instead of fewer, bigger ones.  But it’s not necessary.
            New stems grow up every year from the base of the ones I have, so I don’t have to worry if I lose some stems to damage one year.  It will be back.  (But there is one that grows more like a lilac, but I can’t remember the specific type.  For that one, you leave the main trunks and just trim back the ends of the branches.) 
            These are great additions to a perennial or rose bed, and great for lining a border or your house with.  I’ve decided that if I lose any more roses, I will replace them with hydrangeas. 
            In the front of my house, I like to plant bulbs in front of my hydrangeas so that when the bulbs are done blooming, the hydrangea is taking over.  And a little salvia in between shrubs looks nice, too.  Just don’t plant it too close, because the shrubs round out really nicely and you don’t want other plants growing up into it.  But it would look good in a mass planting too, mingled in with other plants.  Your call! 
            They really are foolproof plants.  (And mine survived being moved a couple times.)  They have a long blooming season and can be used as cut flowers.  And they come in my favorite color combo – pink and purple.  At any one time, mine will be a combo of those, changing over from pink to purple as they age.  Beautiful!   

Peonies:  There were some peonies in the yard when we moved in.  I transplanted them to the perennial bed.  And while it took a couple years for them to produce again, they are filling out nicely.  These plants are gorgeous even without blooms on them.  They only bloom in the spring, but they still look great the rest of the year.  They compliment the roses and daisies very nicely.
            But they are even more magnificent in the spring when they are covered with tons of heavy flowers, so much so that they droop over onto the ground.  For this reason, I surround each peony in a standing, metal peony ring.  It keeps the blooms off the ground and contains the abundant stems and leaves. 
            This is another low-care plant.  Just deadhead the flowers when they are done blooming (if you want to) and cut back all dead leaves to the ground in spring before new growth starts.  That’s it!  So easy and such a valuable plant to have in your collection.  Good cut flowers, too.  Another bonus.     

Daisies:  This is my favorite flower (white daisies, not yellow), if it’s possible to have a favorite out of all the amazing ones out there.  Daisies are so simple and country and happy.  For me, they are the epitome of simple living and learning to appreciate simple blessings.  I love when we are out driving and I see daisies mingling in the grass on the side of the road.  I’m always saying, “Hey, look!  Daisies!”  They just make me smile. 
            I know that they are basically just glorified weeds, but they are beautiful.  And tough.  It’s really hard to kill a daisy plant.  The leaves are green almost all year, even under the snow.  And they are just about the first green I see in the spring. 
            Daisy roots spread really easily, like a growing mass.  And just about any root cutting can be transplanted successfully.  In fact, all of the daisies in my yard (about a dozen patches of them here and there, tucked in by the wildflowers, roses, and other perennials) are all from one smallish patch that was here when we moved in.  I have just been taking sections of root off and transplanting them.
            The only thing about this is that I have to watch every year or so to make sure that they are not strangling my other flowers, especially the roses.  In this case, I would just pull up the wandering roots and move them. 
            Unfortunately, daisies don’t smell.  (They would be the perfect flower if they smelled like roses.  But be forwarned, when they are loaded with pollen, they may smell like stinky cheese.  Go figure!)  And they don’t attract too much wildlife.  But they do bloom for a long time.  And they will push out smaller blooms as the older ones die if you cut off the dead flowers.  And another great thing is that almost no bug or animal wants to eat them.  So they will grow well.  (Except for the occasional Japanese beetle that eats a leaf or two.) 
            If you have a little space anywhere that they can spread a bit, plant daisies.  They are so robust that you will feel like you have a green thumb even if you have a brown one.  And be sure to cut them a lot and bring them inside.  A mason jar full of daisies really brightens the room.  One of life’s true pleasures!     

Salvia and Speedwell:  These plants make great little accent plants to tuck in here and there.  Salvias can grow quite large and bushy, sending up foot-tall stalks of purple or pink flowers and growing into a solid mass.  So choose their spots carefully to make sure they don’t crowd other plants.  The roots can be divided, but they are difficult to cut through.  But they will root fairly easily, if you keep them moist after planting.  You really can’t go wrong with salvias.  They add so much to perennials and roses.  These are a “must have” in making a garden complete.  They are basically a no-fail plant.  And bees and other insects love them.
            Speedwells are like a miniature version of salvia.  They form a soft, cushiony mass of tiny little leaves on the ground, almost like a different kind of moss, and send up little stalks of purple.  These are great with other plants, too.  Just be sure they don’t get too shaded.  They didn’t bloom too well for me on the north side of a rose when the rose grew up over it.  So I had to pull up the little clump and move it out more.  But they root easily, too, as long as you keep them moist.  (Even if I didn’t move it, it would have still been a nice green carpet under other flowers.)
            If you need a little extra something in the garden to fill in little pockets or bare places, check these plants out.  They are great to have around the garden!    
Mums:  These are the best plants for fall color.  (And so are marigolds!)  I prefer to get perennial mums only.  And I was blessed with a lot of them when my mom was getting rid of the ones she grew in pots one year.  I planted them in my yard and hoped for the best, because I didn’t know at the time if she had annual ones or perennial.  But nearly all of them came back. 
            The thing to remember with mums is to pinch the tips as they grow so that they get nice and bushy.  If not, they will be tall and lanky and under-productive.  And in the spring, cut back the old growth to the ground because the new growth will grow up from the base.  I’ve divided older plants that I have, and the divisions have rooted easily. So I have a lot more plants from the one that I started with. 
            These are great to plant in the front of the bed, along your house, or mixed in with other perennials.  They will just be filling out and coming into color as the other plants are fading.  And they make great cut flowers.  Last fall, I brought in a bunch of them.  And they bloomed for a while and then dried up very nicely.  So they are still sitting on my shelf as a dried arrangement.  (Along with the snapdragons that I cut.  Those are great cut flowers, too, and dry really well.  I had no idea!)  Mums are a “must have.”  If not perennial, then at least have a couple annual ones in pots.    
Japanese anemone:  I LOVE these plants.  Love, love, love them!  They have the most remarkable leaves and form.  Almost like giant maple leaves on long, graceful stems.  Even if they never had flowers, the greenery alone would be a wonderful addition to any garden.  And it’s a good thing that I love the green, because the flowers don’t come until fall.  But when they do, they are the most delightful, delicate-looking, pink, daisy-ish flowers.  And they are atop these tall, strong stems.  So tall that they flop over very gracefully and look so charming. 
            And all the care they require is to cut back the dead growth in the spring to make way for the new growth.  It comes up from the base, so you just cut everything back to the ground.  Plus, I was able to take a few root cuttings and transplant them.  And some of them made it.  But they are a little less reliable than daisy divisions, so I had to make sure to keep them watered.
            If you have the space (the plants do bush out about 3 feet across or so), plant at least one of these.  They are great all year!  Simply enchanting!  (However, the pesky deer have been eating the flower buds off lately.  Don't know what to do about that.)    

Coral bells:  I never really thought much of coral bells until I was researching hummingbird plants.  Once I realized these would draw those little wonders in, I planted a couple.  And then, just as I put the last perennial I could possibly fit into my garden, my mom showed up with my birthday present: 8 new coral bells.  All different colors.
            But these plants have so enchanted me with their wavy, colorful leaves that I managed to move things around and find a spot for them.  (I’m sure that most professionals will say that my garden is packed too full and too closely, but it’s hard to throw a good plant out.  So I manage to fit it in somehow.)  
            These don’t flower too obviously.  They just send up skinny stalks with barely-there flowers.  So it’s the leaves that you want to focus on here.  And there are so many colors that you are bound to find a great accent plant for any garden. 
            I put mine in the front of the beds so that they punctuate the border with little pockets of color – burgundy, caramel, orange-ish, and just about any fall color.  Even a lime green one that I had a hard time finding a spot for.  (Lime green in my least favorite plant color.  So I banished that plant to our “outback,” the place along the fence where we shove any extra plant we have just to help pretty up the fence.)
            The only care these need is to cut back old growth to the ground in the spring.  Then it will bush out nicely from the base.  I did manage to divide one of my mom’s plants into a few pieces.  And while I thought I had killed it, it managed to come back slowly.  And it looks like it’s going to grow nicely.  But I prefer just getting a new plant next time.  They are not expensive and they are worth the money.

Irises:  When we moved in, there were some bearded irises growing in a very bad spot.  Right at the base of a giant tree where the kids walked all the time.  If I was going to save them, I had to move them.  I dug the roots up and transplanted the pieces to bordered beds, and they are doing beautifully.  They didn’t bloom the first year I moved them, but maybe this next summer.  But even if they didn’t, the sword-like, green blades look great as accent plants, a nice contrast for all the relaxed-looking shrubs.  I even moved some root divisions several times, and they still lived.  Just plant them surface level, with the woody bases barely covered.  They really don’t require much maintenance.  Just divide when they get too crowded and start to die off in the center.     

Lamb’s ears: My mom gave me some lamb’s ears from her garden one year.  I love the feel of these plants and the silvery look.  I love how they look with other plants, so I put them up against the house by my old roses. 
            And that first year, I found out that they grow well.  Too well.  They spread a lot, smothering the area around them.  And they drop seed profusely, too.  I saw a baby lamb’s ear growing in a crack in my neighbor’s driveway.  The seed must have blown over there from our plants (but we have a joint driveway, so that’s not too remarkable).  And after the snow melts, there is a sloppy, wet mass of dead growth that I have to trim back to let the new growth through.  And the seed stalks have sharp points on them, so I get poked if I handle them without gloves on. 
            But despite all this, they are still nice to have.  The kids and I love to rub the leaves between our fingers.  So I transplanted mine away from all other plants and put them in their own section along the house.  I want to see them and feel them, but I don’t want to have to battle them back from my other plants every year.  So we’ll see if I like them where they are now.  (Divisions root easily.  Another good point.)  And if not, there’s always the “outback.” 

Plants I lost:  The only plants that I really lost were a few roses, a couple lavenders, and some of my garden pinks and scabiosas.  However, I was surprised to see a couple pinks hanging on (pathetically), so I transplanted them to a better spot.  And one scabiosa lived and is doing fair.  But it gets covered in a moldy fungus every year (powdery mildew?).  So I’m going to have to cut it back and get rid of the cuttings at the end of the season.  (I forgot to do this last year, so we’ll see what happens.  Hope it doesn’t spread.)  

Still too new:  The rest of my flowers are either un-noteworthy, or they are still too new for me to have much opinion about or experience with.  So feel free to look these up yourself, if you are interested.
            Bleeding Hearts, hollyhocks, lupines, purple coneflowers, stonecrops, and butterfly weed are all perennials that will come back every year.  (I planted almost all of these from seed last summer, so they should be blooming by this summer.  But I planted the bleeding heart from cuttings that I bought.  And my stonecrop was transplanted from different parts of my yard – a couple times - and it still did well.) 
            I planted some annual snapdragons that I bought (and I hope they reseed themselves).  And the red ones bloomed all season and got nice and full.  I also planted the seeds of larkspur, bachelor buttons, and asters.  They bloomed the first year and I hope some of them reseed themselves too.  I’ll be interested to see what pops up this next year.     
            [Update:  Now that it’s been a couple summers since I first wrote this and these plants are not-so-new to me anymore, I want to give an update about these plants. 
            The bleeding hearts are beautiful and are turning into nice, little shrubby plants.  But they are spring-bloomers, so plant them near summer-bloomers.  But these plants will get large (couple feet across and tall), so keep that in mind.
            My hollyhocks never made it.  But that’s okay because they are big, big plants and I already have sunflowers there.  Maybe someday, I will find a remote spot for them because hollyhocks really are gorgeous plants.
            The lupines are adorable, but they will get big.  So give them the room they need.  And I read that they do not transplant well.  So choose the right spot from the beginning.  I also hear they are short-lived, so we’ll see how long they last.  But for now, I am just letting them do their thing.
            The purple coneflowers seem hardy, even in the extreme heat.  But I think they need a little more sun than they are getting because they are getting tall and lanky. 
            The stonecrops and butterfly weed are growing nicely.  I particularly like the butterfly weed.  They are graceful-looking little plants with bright orange flowers, and they attract monarch butterflies.  The first year they grew, I went out there and found 2-3 monarch caterpillars eating off every leaf, yet they still grew back the next year.  I want to plant a lot more of these because I believe in helping the wildlife, especially since the drought several years ago killed off a lot of the butterflies.  If you have the room, plant butterfly weed. 
            But be forewarned, one day you will see a caterpillar, but as you turn your back, you will see a rustle in the plant and watch a bird fly off with it.  Every caterpillar I have found these past 2 years was gone before it could turn into a butterfly.  So I want to try to find a way to remedy this, maybe just by planting those plants really thickly so there is room to hide.  I’ll have to think about that!
            And one of the snapdragons did reseed itself.  Out of a dozen or so plants, one little reddish-purple one came back the next year and lived until deep freeze, blooming in fall.  Interesting!]

Must-Haves for a Foolproof Garden:  Basically all of the ones that I talked about here are great for a foolproof, low-care garden (at least for zone 5 or similar).  Here are the ones I would recommend to any beginner, from shortest to tallest:
            speedwell, salvia, lemon balm, lavender, coral bells, mums, daisy, iris, hydrangea, peony, shrub rose, Japanese anemone, zinnia, butterfly bush, cosmos.  And sunflowers if you don’t mind protecting them from bugs and bunnies and those darn squirrels. 
            (Just make sure you put the cosmos in a spot where you don’t mind it reseeding itself all over.  And purple coneflower is also a fool-proof one.  It’s just that mine are brand new so I don’t have much experience with them yet.  But I think they are basically like daisies.)      
            Put down zinnia (and sunflower) seeds every spring.  And cosmos, if they didn’t reseed themselves.  Trim the rose, butterfly bush, and hydrangea every year, according to the directions for your specific variety.  Trim off the dead growth of the other plants when the snow thaws.  Remove last year’s dead zinnia, cosmos, and sunflower stalks.  Keep the daisy, speedwell, and salvia roots in check so they don’t spread too much.  Watch for butterfly bush volunteer seedlings.  And thin the cosmos and lemon balm seedlings that have popped up by themselves.  But other than that, these have all been basically care-free for me and provide a lot of beauty and delight for the effort.   
            (Lilacs are also a must in my garden for the spring color and fragrance.  They are gorgeous all year, even without the flowers.  And they are easy to take care of.  Just trim a foot or two off every year.  Look up the specific plant you choose for care requirements.  But choose their spot carefully when you plant because they will be there permanently and they will shade other plants.  Although, I did move one relatively new baby plant once and it’s doing okay.  I think everyone should have at least one lilac.  The scent is intoxicating and such a wonderful way to welcome to spring.)
            Have fun daydreaming about gardens and spring and sun!  And as I say this, it’s snowing again.  Ugh!