City Beautification

City hall

It makes me so happy to see cities and towns making their streets and sidewalks a thing of beauty. I’ve been proud of our little town of Alpharetta. When we first moved here, fifteen years ago, it was a pretty town with a beautiful town square, but nothing horticulturally exciting. In the past few years, fountains have sprung up, park benches line side streets, and huge decorative urns are everywhere.

I decided to go on a “field trip” with my camera and my hubby. I was lucky to pick a beautiful, mild, sunny day and a good-natured companion. I ended up having a lovely time and took some interesting photos.

After looking at the photos I took, I was struck by how important city streetscapes are to our lives. To walk through town and enjoy the plant life, trees and sculpture is a meditative thing. I’m so proud of the hard work of our city horticulturalists. They put together amazing plant combinations that bloom their hearts out.

Fountain

Planter

Planter

Fountain

City Hall

City Hall

Planter

Sculpture of children playing

City Hall

Planter

Fountain

Lipstick Colored Azaleas

AzaleaA post-summer cold, pre-fall sniffles. That’s what I have, sitting here with tissues stuffed up my nose. No fun.

I’ll have to be honest, these few weeks that we are in is not my favorite time of the year. Everything is weedy and seedy and droopy. Most color in the garden comes from a few resilient blooming annuals in pots, and even they look exhausted. I think when my back is turned they tap their feet and check their watch, wanting to know when this gig is over.

One of the few blooming shrubs that help me fill the gap is Encore azaleas. The flower color I picked is different from the normal white or pinky pink, it is a beautiful coral orange. If I was in a department store buying lipstick and found this color in a tube, it would make me sigh with delight!

The other thing I like is the shape of the flowers, kind of like a pin-wheel or star-burst and not the dainty flowers of the other azaleas. It screams here I am, look at me!

It blooms in the spring and in the fall, a double whammy. And it never ceases to remind me that very shortly everything will be lit up with fall color.  It blooms in the same color palette that the maple trees will soon have on their leaves. It revs me up for the fall color show.

Enjoy the gorgeous photos while I blow my nose. Love to all.

Southern Magnolias and Southern Grandmothers

Whenever you think of the southern United States most people think of the movie Gone With the Wind and plantations, cotton fields, and mint juleps. No offense to Hollywood, but when I think of the glorious South with a capital S, I think of Magnolia trees. They represent the South in all of its gardening glory more than any plant or tree I can think of.

Magnolia flower

In fact, in my opinion, the Magnolia tree is the loving, sheltering grandmother of the gardening world.

I only had one grandparent, my maternal grandmother. My other grandparents had died by the time I was born, and my grandmother was the only example of the older generation that I had. And boy, was she a great example! She was a very loving, strong, kind, and God-fearing woman. She persevered the last 30 years of her life, living alone after her husband had died. She taught me so many things about life, love, relationships and God.

No one ever left her home hungry, sad, or without being prayed over. Even the robber, who broke down her door and was bleeding with cuts to his arm, was prayed for, by her, before he left out the door, carrying her valuables. She was a strong, resilient woman.

And just like my beloved grandmother, the Magnolia is strong, powerful, and resilient.

Within our town, we live very close to a wonderful park. It not only has play equipment for the kids to romp on, and, of course, the ubiquitous picnic tables. It also is an arboretum. Our little town has done a smashing job at planting countless trees of every kind. So many young 10 to 12 foot trees are there, planted for our kids and our kid’s kids to enjoy. But over in the front-probably planted 80 years ago-stands…

Two tall, magnificent, majestic old Magnolias. And just like a loving grandmother, they sit at the park with open arms to the children of our town. And when I say open arms, I really mean it. These Magnolias have the most wonderful branch structure I have ever seen. Perfect for tree climbing! In fact, my six-year-old would rather climb the tree than slide down the play equipment. The branches on a Magnolia grow so close to the ground and their leaves are so big and full, it hides any little visitor climbing within. Perfect for a child to feel as though they have their own little fort or house.

When planting a Magnolia, think long and hard before you do so. The classic evergreen Southern magnolia with large, glossy leaves and huge, fragrant white blossoms can grow gargantuan in size. The stiff, leathery leaves cannot break down in compost, so leaving them hidden under the low branches is a good option. Grass and groundcovers cannot exist under them due to the heavy shade they create. But if you have the space, it is a Southern iconic beauty. Just like my grandmother, God rest her soul.

Love to all and happy gardening!

(Note: I was unable to catch the magnolias in bloom while taking pictures for this article, so I used Alan Van Dyke’s image from the Wikimedia Commons at the top of the page. Thanks!)

Bits and Pieces and In-Between

I think I have entered that part of the season that I call “in-between.” Summer is coming to a close and Autumn is not really here yet. In the southern part of the United States, it is still very humid and hot! Our little ones are going back to school and fall clothes are still packed away, waiting for chilly weather.

In the garden, it’s a little like the end of a school play. Everyone has witnessed the drama and now everyone is standing around with a cup of punch and a cookie, waiting to go home.

A lot of my perennials have bloomed like mad and are now waning. Flowering trees have done their thing and are setting fruit. Due to the large amounts of rain this summer, some of my annuals didn’t get deadheaded properly, so they are underperforming. Weeds are unfortunately prolific, also due to the ongoing wet weather.

But…there are some interesting things going on.

My lemon grass grew to a huge size. The pictures below are of when I first bought it and today, respectively. I also made sure to use the exact same pencil for scale. I was warned that at the end of a season it could approach the size of a Volkswagen. I was unhappy with the taste of it. It was not pronounced enough for me. It might be due to the overwhelming amount of water it received.

I also noticed that a lot of my plants acquired red or orange leaves due to stress. I have seen this happen in a very hot, dry summer but never due to a deluge of rain.

My Meyer lemon has lots and lots of fruit. Just like the Italians, who grow citrus in pots and move them inside during the winter, I have lemons until the middle of December. People visiting around the Thanksgiving holidays, at first think they are fake. A holiday decoration. They are so sweet and luscious, I try to think of special things to do with them other than just using them for tea.

ZinniaZinnias are one of my favorite annuals and it performed well this year. When I see them, I always think of my oldest son, Nathan. He convinced me to grow them one year. I used to be a Zinnia snob, thinking they weren’t as sophisticated as salvias, roses and coneflowers. They won my heart, pumping out brightly colored discs. The butterflies and birds agree with me.

Catnip in the compostCatnip sprang up in one of my homemade compost bins. After witnessing how well it worked as a mosquito repellent (see my previous post), I didn’t have the heart to rip it out. I hope it reseeds itself around on the ground and anywhere else it wants to grow in the garden.

Coneflowers in Kindergarten

I love perennials. The idea that they go away in the winter and then come back every spring is magical. I know they don’t always flower as prolifically as annuals, but their loyalty every year makes you want to hug them.

My favorite thing to do with perennials is pot them up and place them on our deck. It’s kind of like our version of plant kindergarten. They spend a year in a pot on our deck and if they perform well they get placed in elementary school in our garden. (Please forgive the school metaphors, but we are getting ready for school in our house.)

My garden really is similar to a school classroom in that every plant in my garden has its own strengths and weaknesses like individual kids in a class. The tiny, feathery flowers are put in the front, so the teacher can keep an eye on them. The big, overgrown, shrub that looks just like a football player, sits in the back of the class, sometimes driving the teacher crazy.

I guess kindergarten really does relate to so much of life. Even gardening.

My current little kindergartener on the deck is coneflowers. They really are a wonderful plants. They come in several colors. My coneflower is white with petals that stretch downward when fully open.

One of the great things about coneflowers is that tiny finches love to eat the seed that the flowers generate. The birds hang on to the bobbing flower-heads and pull the seeds out of the center of the flowers. It’s fun watching them act like acrobats in a tiny circus.

Last year, my kids and I watched a tiny yellow finch visit our kitchen window every day. We would hear a tap-tap-tap and look up to see him hanging on the window sill. It’s almost as if he tapped to just say hello. How are you humans? Everything okay?

I guess I need to find a place in the garden to put the coneflowers. They can be planted, in the garden, in the spring or fall. They did very nicely on the deck. I’m a proud plant Mommy.

My 3 Favorite Self-Seeding Perennials

Balloon Flower

Balloon Flowers – Mature Flower and Bud

I love perennials in a flower garden. There are so many to choose from and they come back year after year. Some are as tough as old boots and live a very long time. In the southern part of America, you can walk through forested areas and come across a stand of beautiful flowers. The house may be gone but the perennials are still flourishing where they were planted 100 years ago or longer.

One type of perennial that I especially like are self-seeding perennials. The name says it all. They love to seed themselves around the garden. Sounds like trouble, but not really. The original clump of plant that you planted comes back the next year and brings some friends along. Sometimes the plant just keeps getting bigger and wider. And sometimes you find that the flower has seeded itself on the other side of the garden entirely. Because of this I try to be careful when I weed and let some seedlings grow-up if I recognize what perennial they are. Sometimes I don’t want them there and I just easily pull them out.

My 3 favorite self-seeding, flowering perennials are Balloon Flowers, Lamb’s Ears, and Sweet William. These 3 have given me so much joy in the garden. Every year that they come back, it’s like seeing an old friend drop by to pay a visit.

Balloon Flower PatchBalloon Flowers (Platycodon Grandiflorus) are some of the most unusual perennials. I just love how they look as they prepare to bloom. A large stalk reaches skyward and then tiny pea-like flower buds form. The upper most “pea” on the stalk will start to swell and resemble a tiny expanding balloon. When the balloon pops, you have a beautiful, open, star-shaped flower. When this flower fades the next “pea” in line starts to swell. Balloon flowers come in shades of pink, white, purple and blue. This wonderful plant has one down side, it can be top-heavy. To combat this problem, I either stake them or most often shear them shorter early in spring and this creates a shorter plant that tends to not fall over.

Lamb's EarsLamb's Ears StalkLamb’s Ears (Stachys Byzantina) are a soft, fuzzy, gray flowering perennial. This plant also has a look that cannot be compared to anything else. It is unique. The base of the plant looks exactly like ears on a lamb. It is incredibly soft to the touch and its color doesn’t clash with anything else in the garden. The blooms are also unique looking in that they are tall, fuzzy spikes of tiny pink flowers. This plant is considered to be a perennial and a herb. I love this plant in bloom and without blooms. When the flower spikes have faded, I’m just as happy clipping them off and just having the “ears” left.

Sweet WilliamSweet WilliamSweet William (Dianthus Barbatus) is a member of that wonderful, sweet-smelling family that includes delicious, sweet-smelling Pinks. It ranges in colors from white to pink to lavender to red. This is a classic, cottage garden flower. Mixed together in various hues, and planted under rose bushes, you’ve planted a dynamite, cottage combination. This is described as a short-lived perennial, but I disagree. It should be described as a prolific self-seeder. It spreads its sweet-smelling self into large patches in the garden. And I’m so happy it does. I picked up a package of Sweet William seed at Jefferson’s Monticello because it was named after my lovable hubby. Over the years, it has turned into one of my favorite flowers.

Even though these prolific seeders do a great job, I help them out. I love to cut down the spent flower stalks that have gone to seed, dump the seed in my hand, and then sprinkle the seed in a bare spot that needs flowers. One year, as I “dead-headed” a large patch of Sweet William, I whacked the seed laden flower heads around inside a paper bag. At the end of my gardening session, I ended up with quite a lot of seed to scoop out into a new flower bed.

I love pictures in gardening magazines that show a large swathe of flowers all the same kind and color. This is the way to achieve those results. And on a budget, too. Happy gardening to all!

Hedges – Let’s Try Something Different

Sometimes we need privacy in our garden. To hide away from the world. I have found it is important to my soul to have privacy in my garden. I call it “marinating in serenity.” I love to walk around the garden and look at what is currently blooming or have a pep-talk with a rose bush that is looking sickly. Another prominent gardener that I admire calls it “getting lost to oneself.” This can not be done with a neighbor strolling over to gossip. Or the cable man gawking from his truck across the street. Therefore, hedges are what we need!

The English love to make “garden rooms” with tall privacy hedges of holly or hornbeams. In my part of the country, people love to make hedges with Leyland cypress. They sometimes end up looking like a row of green soldiers standing next to each other. Variety is the spice of life. Why can’t we all think outside of the box and come up with something different?

Viburnum shrubs with Jamie

These are three viburnums I have along my fence. My youngest son Jamie is in the picture for size reference, he is six years old.

My neighborhood rules state that our fences cannot be over 6 feet tall. I wanted something taller, due to the unusual height differences in the ground around our garden. I decided to plant a hedge that was unusual and something not often seen. I chose the Viburnum ‘Summer Snowflake’ for its beautiful blooms in spring. This is a hedge I have never seen before and it reaches a height of almost 12 feet tall. Even though the Viburnum loses its leaves in the winter, the twiggy branches that are left make a nice screening.  The tags that came on the plants said they would reach 5 feet. I knew this was not true due to the research I had done. The nice thing about this shrub/tree is that you can limb it up. In other words, you can remove the bottom branching up to 4 or 5 feet from the ground. This turns it into more of a tree that you can plant flowers underneath. I always try to put the right plant, in the right place. By placing them in front of my fence, I didn’t mind how big they got. I had hope they would grow large. And of course, they did.

Viburnum flowersThe following is a short list of other ideas for hedging material. I tried to think outside of the box.

Camellias, Tea Olives, Roses (Rugosa), Hydrangea (Annabelle), Bottlebrush Buckeye, New Dawn Roses (attached to supports), Magnolia (Little Gem)