Have you ever bought a 6-pack or a few small pots of bedding plants, brought them home and planted them, then had them just sit there like a bump on a log? No new green growth, no new buds, just….a still life in your garden.
I’ve had it happen with begonias, impatiens, lobelia, marigolds, mums, and even bacopa. They don’t die or brown or wilt, they just fail to thrive.
“Oh hi! We’re still here! Still tiny! Nothing to see, move along!”
You might overwater them in frustration, feed them, sing to them. Nothing doing. You had visions of lush hanging baskets or a carpet of color, and so you wait. And wait.
Why does this happen? Plant growth regulators.
Growers produce a crop to be ready at a certain time and look a certain way. Spring bedding plants should be healthy and vigorous, but compact. No one wants leggy delphiniums at the start of the season. So growth regulators (PGRs) are applied during production to keep plants from getting too large or too leggy. Applying PGRs is an art form: too much and you smoke the crop, too little and the plants aren’t the size you want (or the size the big-box store specified they wanted). The wrong PGR: no flowers at all, or nothing but flowers and little foliage, or Easter lilies that are 4-inches tall. It’s easy to miss the mark.
In an effort to time shipments and keep the plants saleable for as long as possible, PGRs might be liberally applied, and it takes some plants a long while to metabolize them and start growing again. It can takes weeks or even months.
If you buy from a good independent garden center, this probably won’t happen very often. One thing you can do is to watch brands and the name of the grower on the plant label: buy enough plants and you’ll learn quickly who has a handle on PGRs and who has a too-heavy hand. Some growers don’t use them at all, and they’re more common on annual plants than on perennials. When they’re used correctly though, you won’t even notice.
You’re probably not a brown thumb. There’s no magic involved. It’s just PGRs.
I’ve been sheet composting since before I knew what that meant. Basically it’s just composting right in your beds, which at this time of year means sweeping up all the dropped leaves from the trees and raking them around the base of the plants. Sometimes there are apples in there, or cones, or whole plants that were pulled out.
The only rules are no diseased foliage (so I never use rose foliage or branches) and no weeds. Many weeds can set seed even after they were pulled out of the ground; better to just toss those or compost them in the traditional way.
You can compost kitchen scraps this way as well, but I usually bury those slightly for aesthetic reasons.
Yesterday I put the leaves from the purple ornamental plum around some newly transplanted Euphorbia. Their blue foliage with the burgundy and yellow leaves underneath looks great, and I avoided spending $100 on mulch for the beds. Come spring, the soil will be loamy and shot through with mycelium from the fungi doing their work. The plants will have had relatively warm feet all winter, so losses are less than if they were uncovered.
The key to keeping your garden attractive while sheet composting is to keep your edges clean and sharp and keep the compost in place. You can turn the soil a bit to hold lightweight leaves, or keep all the material raked in the beds until it starts to break down and form a mat over the soil. That takes about 2 weeks with a little rainfall (or the hose).
All winter long, as I pick up debris around the yard, I toss it into the beds. Smaller pieces break down faster, and the plants won’t be vying for nitrogen because they’re mostly dormant.
In the city I didn’t have room for a compost bin, and that’s how I came to sheet composting. I have room now, but I really like the way the beds look with the seasonal detritus used as mulch. At the LA Arboretum there’s an enormous Ginkgo that sheds seemingly acres of bright yellow leaves. It would be a travesty to pick them up, they’re lovely spread over the blue Senecio and herbs around the tree.
I’ve made the rather dubiously delightful discovery of Gardens Illustrated. It’s $8.15 an issue, a mere $84 a year. Ouch!
But it is so worth it. First, if you live in the PNW, the UK has a similar climate so the plants and ideas translate well. Second, it’s a BBC publication and is very well done. Third, they don’t use pruners; they use secateurs. Irresistible.
This is the little garden out at our research farm where the honeybees have one half of the 10 acres and the horticulture department and organic farmers have the other.
The hives are out of sight, but do you see the all the birdhouses hanging up in the tree? Bumblebee nests.
The hanging bells are CO2 cannisters cut in half and painted gold. There is a Thai Buddhist symbol of the elephant and the monkey with honeycomb hanging in the center. Just behind, there’s a drop off to a small tributary of the Willamette River.
My club was out there with the master gardeners planting a water wise garden. While we were having tea during a break, we were standing around the hives.
You have to believe me: these are the calmest bees in the world. Several landed on my sweater, and I petted them. And they were like, “Okay”.
Then we went back to work, and here’s part of the garden coming together. You can see a good amount of the farm in this view. Did I mention it was foggy?
The plants in this garden are several sedum varieties, penstemon, rosemary, agastache, one tiny juniper, cistus, ceanothus, a dwarf native iris, helianthemum, and coreopsis.
As I write this, I am wondering if the deer, who ran by that hoop house in the distance maybe 2 minutes after I took this photo, came and did a little mowing last night. Beasts.
These guys provided the background music.
And I have nice things to say about this Shantung Maple. Lovely.
This is a meme from Kim over at A Study in Contrasts; what things do you like in a garden but wouldn’t have in your own?
Here are the “rules”: Think about 5 (or 10, or 3, or however many come to mind) things that you really like but would never put into your own yard. Make a post that explains each thing and also tells why, much as you like each one, it will never appear in your garden.
• Koi ponds. The raccoons and miscellaneous raptors would have a field day.
• Cordyline. Okay, I don’t really like them in anyone’s gardens.
• I really like rose arbors and pergolas, particularly with the climbing rose Cecile Brunner, but sitting underneath them – isn’t there always a bistro table with a tea pot and crustless sandwiches underneath? – is just creepy. Things drop out of the roses and down your shirt, make tiny webs in your tea strainer, buzz you just as you’re dropping off to sleep. Yes I love insects, but I don’t want them in my mouth or down my pants.
• Need I even mention or explain: undignified statuary.
• Cottage gardens. They can be beautifully executed, but not by gardeners such as myself. One day I’ll tell you about the time I installed a butterfly friendly cottage garden for a client and the first generation butterfly larvae mowed it to the ground in a weekend.
• Prunus laurocerasus. I love that it draws bees and sometimes, it’s even slightly attractive. Usually, it’s redundant, neglected, and fugly.
• Kniphofia. Now, normally I am a friend to plants that hail from South Africa. Torch Lily looks like Beeker from the Muppets to me, and I can’t fathom the appeal of its slap-dash goofiness.
• Vinca. Love it! Don’t want to chase it.
• Windchimes. Sometimes people will choose just the right chime for their yard: the style matches their home and landscape, the tone complements the whole feel of their garden. I had a windchine too, but every time it tolled I cringed, waiting for the neighbors to yell at me. I grew up in tight city quarters where windchimes started feuds and were subject to vandalism. I can’t quite enjoy them.
• Lawn. Other people do it well and I want to shed my shoes and go scooting across their temples of turf. At home, I could care less about the grass, and sadly, it shows.
• Annuals. I don’t know why exactly; they seem disposable or too temporary to throw money at year after year. I’d rather collect perennials.
• Yellow foliage or varigated green and yellow foliage. It screams chlorosis to me, even when I know better.
• Perfection. Ever since I got involved in entomology, I’ve lost interest in arthropod genocide. I certainly appreciate pristine roses, I just don’t grow any that could be described that way.
Goodness. I have a few garden rules.
Every spring and summer, I’ve given the wasps that build their little paper nests around the house very wide berth. My father had a violent run in with a yellow jacket while on a ladder, and I couldn’t differentiate between my yellow and black hovering beasties and the ones he described. Incidentally, my father does a hilarious “something is stinging me” dance to which I have been an audience several times. He’s got moves.
When I started working in the entomology department, I took a keen interest in my wasps and did a little research. It turns out they are paper wasps, Polistes dominulus, and they are a more relaxed social wasp than the dreaded yellow jacket. They tolerate human proximity of about 8 inches with interest but no apparent alarm. This was driven home one day when I opened the passenger door of the car we use for ferrying dogs around and right below the hinge was a perfect little nest with a perfect little queen. Sometimes she was there when we pulled out of the drive, so presumably she is well traveled. She’s never wandered into the passenger compartment or been concerned by the door slamming or dogs nearby.
The paper wasp can be somewhat easily differentiated from yellow jackets by their orange antennae; they also fly with their legs hanging down and out, but there are other wasps who do this as well.
In the course of finding out more about them, I came across a study done by Elizabeth Tibbetts and James Dale of the University of Michigan. They’ve looked at facial markings and their role in individual recognition in a colony. After reading one of Tibbetts’ articles, I went out and observed the nest that hangs from the window ledge right above a shrub rose. That time and every time thereafter, the wasps that were at the outside of the nest and apparently standing guard were those with the heaviest facial markings.
With the judicious use of a long bamboo stake, I discovered they are also the ones most prepared to give chase if threatened. They are less shy than the wasps with the solid yellow faces who usually fly off when you touch the flower they are in or brush against foliage they are on. The wasps with the black markings on their face turn to face you when disturbed and notably, they do not back down. I haven’t tested their tolerance much, but it’s interesting to see how the markings so seem to rather obviously correlate with certain behaviors and roles in the colony.
Now that I’ve identified and made peace with them, I’m sorry that they’ll be gone soon as temperatures drop and the populations of the insects they eat drop steadily.