Monday, August 30, 2010

Garden Innuendo

I've long held that gardeners are earthy in far more ways than one might associate with having their hands dirty.  Most garden literature appropriately stays away from the birds and the bees and other natural topics, but the subtext of sex is always there, lurking deep beyond the printed word. Not many of us actually do our gardening au naturale, but that's just a wise move to avoid sunburn for most of us, let alone the danger posed by rose prickles on exposed skin (Ouch!). It's not surprising, really, because how could a gardener be immersed in the fecundity and bountiful fertilization of a healthy garden without otherwise acknowledging that the lessons of the Garden of Eden were not about how the perfect Man and perfect Woman could be happy in the perfect World, they were about how sin and procreation always overgrow the boundaries we set for our gardens and mess things up.

I find some of the forthright bawdiness prevalent in the works by some authors to be refreshing. Cassandra Danz, for example, in Mrs. Greenthumbs, tends to overheat in her garden at a regular interval. One of my favorite books happens to be Second Nature by Michael Pollan and I've always thought he had a good explanation for why one of the biggest Hybrid Teas around was named 'Dolly Parton'. It's the subliminal messages hidden in most of the other garden literature that we've got to watch out for though. I've read The Hidden Meaning of Flowers but I didn't quite get the point. And recently I've been reading Going to Seed by Charles Goodrich.  It's a quick and very readable book of short thoughts on gardening and life, but consider a passage from the essay titled "Going to Seed" on page 47: "Once I was biodynamic.  I used to do a lot of heavy mulching.  I tried my hand at companion plantings, played around with French intensive.  There was a time I'd dribble seed into any dirt I came across."

Get it yet?  In case you didn't, Goodrich goes on to say, "But I'm done sowing wild oats.  I'm not planning to graft a branch on some other guy's tree.  Anyway, who cares who can raise the biggest zucchini?  I'm just happy looking at the pictures."

I mean, come on, talk about your middle-aged crisis.  Mr. Goodrich needs help and needs it soon.  No gardener should ever give up the urge to plant seed in the dirt, whether the soil is quick-draining sand, tenacious clay, or needs some organic amendment. What would gardening be without the urge to outdo the neighbor in growing the biggest zucchini or the most succulent tomato?  And there's a lot said these days about the advantages of companion plantings with benefits.  

I might have missed something, though, regarding what Mr. Goodrich was really trying to say.        

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bring on the Storms

It seems like the weather across the U.S. has cooled a bit this week and the Flint Hills were no exception, with highs in the 80's and lows in the 60's the latter part of the week.  It isn't winter, but it's a darned sight better than the last month of daily 100's we had.

What we still need in Kansas though, is rain, and lots of it.  On August 20th, we got 1.7 inches of rain, the first significant moisture since early July, and I thought that would help quench the thirsty plants, but I divided a peony two days later and amongst the rock-hard clay clods I couldn't detect that a lick of moisture had been added.  I'm considering adding a motion-triggered camera facing my rain gauge to make sure Mrs. ProfessorRoush isn't adding water to the gauge just to help me feel better.  Even the areas I've mulched with 6 inch-thick prairie hay are dry underneath as far as I can dig with a mattock. 

This is want I want to see; Storm clouds rolling from my north and west.
It's bad enough that I'm seriously reconsidering the utility of ceremonial rain dances by the ancient prairie peoples. I've been googling "rain dance" and "Kansa" to see what worked best for those who survived on this land in the past, but to no avail.  My googles were in vain as so many of those traditions are sadly lost to history.  I learned only that the dancers moved in a zig-zag fashion and that the rain ceremonies were one of the few tribal ceremonies where women were also allowed to dance. I probably couldn't correctly do the steps anyway, but I wonder if my neighbors would mind if they saw me out chanting and wailing across the prairie?  Given my past actions, it's feasible that they wouldn't notice the difference from my usual gardening practices.

The current tradition of Flint Hill's gardeners is to pray loudly for the appearance of storm clouds such as those pictured above.  Now, yes, it's true, Kansas is a famous place for tornadoes, not because we have more than any other state (we're actually down a bit on that list, below both Texas and Oklahoma), but of course because of that darned Oz film that has so poorly stereotyped this state for centuries to come. The true case is that most of the native Kansans, or even the transplants, like myself, cheer up when they see those dark clouds coming over the horizon.  Yes, there's a small chance of destruction, but they also bring life-giving rain to soak the earth down deep into that solid sterile clay. It's a renewal of our souls. We, my neighbors and I, we watch the skies and welcome the building thunderheads.  My small wind vane warns me early as it swings first to the west to feed the storm for an hour or so, and then, in the seconds just before it hits, back to the east as the downdrafts swoop in.

It's time for Fall to come and wake me up some night with the wind howling through the storm doors or with a nice downpour on the skylights.  I promise, I'll just smile and turn right back over to sleep.  Come rain, Come life.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Shakespeare's Rose

"That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet" (Romeo and Juliet II, ii, 1-2), doesn't even begin to cover the unusual wonder that is Rosa eglanteria, also known as R. rubiginosa, the Sweetbriar Rose of Shakespearean fame. For the unwashed rose devotees who have not yet run across this enormous, coarse, thorny monster, I feel I have to spend a blog entry to enlighten those who aren't aware that a rose doesn't need to flower to perfume the air. 

Native to Europe, Rosa eglanteria carries foliage perfumed with the scent of apples, more specifically with the scent of green apples.  The delicious odor can be elicited by crushing the leaves with clumsy fingers, and I almost never pass the bush without traumatizing a few leaves so that I can inhale those images of apple pie and home. Moisture-laden air also brings forth the wafts of scent without inflicting trauma on the bush, and during a warm steady rain, my Sweetbriar perfumes the garden for upwards of 10 yards. If you're thinking of building a gazebo, I'd recommend placing one within a few yards of a Rosa eglanteria, since it allows you to stand in the garden near the bush during a rain without inducing pitying stares from the neighbors. They'll still wonder, of course, if you've gone daft when you close your eyes and tilt your head back to keep your nose in the best breeze, but you won't care since you'll be comatose with olfactory overdose. It's said that serfs during the Middle Ages used to spread fragrant herbs over their hut floors to suppress the more unpleasant odors, but my bet is that they used dried leaves from the Sweetbriar instead of rosemary or thyme.

In Kansas, R. eglanteria grows eight to ten feet in height and becomes a tangle of brambles sufficient to serve as a livestock barrier or as an obstacle to the suitor of a teenage daughter (reading Romeo and Juliet is sometimes useful for gardening fathers). Otherwise it should be planted far away from garden paths and visitor areas lest it snag the unsuspecting and increase the garden's insurance premiums. It has undistinguished single light pink flowers, but the small blooms are quite numerous enough to make a display at the right moment in the spring.  Ovoid orange hips form to provide some fall and winter interest, but it’s the scent glands in the foliage that make this rose one to have and keep. While my annual attempts to trim and tame this rose leave me torn and bleeding, I still keep the Sweetbriar around for its moments of pleasure freely given by the tender caress of the summer rain.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Surprising Beauty

Oh boy, was I ever surprised!  I knew that one of the common names for Lycoris squamigera was "Surprise Lily," but when one cropped up in my garden this year, I was stunned speechless by this clear pink beauty. Right in the midst of the recent month-long drought and heat cycle, this plant was developing right under my nose and then it exploded in color while everything else in the garden was looking tired and worn.

 I can't recall now that I have ever planted or purchased a Surprise Lily. I'll admit that I do recall considering the purchase of a Lycoris bulb last Fall, but I also recall rejecting the idea because I'd have had to take out a 2nd mortgage to pay for it since it seemed to be priced by its weight in gold. I even missed seeing the daffodil-like foliage that must have been right there in front of my eyes during the spring and early summer. Maybe I thought it was a clump of daffodils and overlooked the lack of bloom. Regardless, someone obviously has snuck into my garden in the dead of night and planted a delayed present for me. It vaguely worries me that this pink alien plant has been placed into my garden without my knowledge, and I guess I need either a louder dog or I need to install tripwires and claymores in my garden to prevent a recurrence of the vandalism. It certainly can't be that my memory might be showing its age. Nah, I must have had a surprise benefactor. 

For those who haven't grown one yet, there isn't a much easier plant for Kansas.  Buy a large bulb, plant it, forget about it, and up it will come to brighten a dreary August day.  Lycoris is supposed to be adapted to regions with wet springs and long summer droughts and if that doesn't describe the Flint Hills, I don't know what does. The Surprise Lily is also known by a number of other quite descriptive names, my favorites of which are "Resurrection Lily" and "Naked Ladies."  The first of those names seems very appropriate since the foliage of this member of the Amaryllis family sprouts and grows in the spring, dies in June, and then the tall stalk and 4 inch trumpet-shaped flowers appear in just a few days in August.  The second name, "Naked Ladies," obviously refers to the lack of leaves around the solo stems when the flowers appear. Gardeners aren't generally a group of hopeless reprobates, but we do have our little giggles, don't we?

I do have one bias about Surprise Lilies that may surprise you.  Recently, every day as I go to work I pass a yard with a couple of beds filled with nothing but Surprise Lilies (think how differently that sounds than if I said I passed a bed of Naked Ladies).  The in-mass effect of these lilies in the bed doesn't have the effect on me that clumps of Surprise Lilies spread out among other perennials and shrubs do, so I think I'm going to spread mine out in clumps over my beds.  Better to have a little less of a good thing than to overdo it.

I've got to go out this Fall to find more of these bulbs to spread around my garden.  But first, does anyone have any suggestions regarding what I should tell Mrs. ProfessorRoush when the credit card bill shows up in September with multiple entries for "naked ladies?"

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Treasured Copper

Occasionally the fickle gods smile on the beleaguered gardener and a little serendipity serves to brighten the new day.  For me, a moment of surprise that remains fresh in memory is of driving a street in a blighted Colorado neighborhood on a bright Spring day to behold a gorgeous 'Austrian Copper' rose (Rosa foetida bicolor) sitting all alone on a standard street corner, blooming its flaming head off. I'd never encountered 'Austrian Copper' before, but a quick picture was all it took to enable me to identify it later, and thus to search out a source to add it to my own garden.

'Austrian Copper', Greeley, CO 2008
Look carefully at the picture to the left. The scene is a stunning 'Austrian Copper' next to a concrete sidewalk and asphalt street.  The weather has been so dry that the grass around the rose is completely splotchy and mostly dead, and the rose sits at the feet of a tree that probably is soaking up any leftover moisture in the rock hard soil. It's obvious that with little water, with absolutely no care, this picturesque dream of a rose is making up for all the shortcomings of its environment by blooming like it doesn't have a care in the world.

'Austrian Copper' is a very old rose, described at least as early as 1590.  Its single petals, colored by the burnt-orange pigments bestowed by chance, outline the bright yellow stamens, and the petals have a yellow reverse.  It's a rose that wears its heritage on its sleeves, commonly reverting to the bright yellow 'Austrian Yellow' (Rosa foetida) as it does at the bottom of the rose above. At least two sources state that an alternate name is Rose Capucine, although I cannot determine the origin of this name. True to its mysterious and duplicitous nature, some Internet sources describe it as a climber while others describe it as a short shrub reaching only two to five feet tall.  One reference correctly states that it tolerates poor soil and resents close pruning, two very desired qualities of a rose in my worldview. And anyway, who would even want to prune this rose, chancing to lose even a single bloom of the copper perfection?

I now have two 'Austrian Copper' to keep my prairie rose garden brightened; the original, a carefully-searched out and expensive cutting, and the second specimen, which showed up the following year for a pittance at the local Home Depot.  The latter appearance, of a coveted and seemingly rare rose in quantity at the local box store, is, of course, a sign that the gods have gotten the last laugh again.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Thigmomorphogenesis; say what?

For a long time I've made a little fun of the trees in my Flint Hills yard. They're perfectly fine trees, they are just, well, they are just a little thick around the waist, like a middle-aged male, and they lean a little bit to the south like, well, never mind. I've attributed both of those characteristics to the ever-present Kansas wind howling in from the northwest, but little did I know that the endearingly odd changes in my trees were a recognized scientific phenomenonen. In reading the latest book by Linda Chalker-Scott, The Informed Gardener Blooms Again, I came across the term "thigmomorphogenesis,"  which refers to changes (morpho) in the appearance of a plant in response to repeated touching (thigmo).  And repeated touching includes "touching" by the wind coming across the prairie. Recognized changes of thigmomorphogenesis include decreased stem elongation, increased stem thickness, smaller leaves, fewer flowers and increased senescence. This results in more firmly anchored trees with increased root to crown ratio that are then naturally more resistant to uprooting, splitting, and other wind damage. The whole concept of thigmomorphogenesis makes a little sense when you think of the short, stunted nature of alpine forest trees.  It also gives me a really good, smart-sounding excuse for the occasional lapse in flower production in my garden.

So thanks, Ms. Chalker-Scott, I'm now a little bit more horticulturally-educated, and I've also been firmly exposed for being no better than the grade school bully who makes fun of the new kid with glasses.  I mean, my trees couldn't help being short and squat and here I was making jokes of them.  I hope they don't develop a complex and sulk.  

Sunday, August 22, 2010

For the Beauty of the Earth

North view from my house in December.
Subject to human failings like everyone else, I sometimes forget to look past the mildewed phlox and the blackspot on the roses and the burning August days and see the beauty that is everywhere around me on the prairie.  Thankfully, I am constantly reminded that one cannot live in the Kansas Flint Hills without eventually realizing that our gardens are but a minor fraction of the glory going on all around us. Whether it's the drying hay bales to feed winter stock that have been rolled up from the bountiful prairie, or whether its the fall russets that the prairie grasses take on, occasionally, just occasionally, the hues of the earth and sky come together to create a picture that one may capture in a few digital pixels, but can only dream of creating.  Fall rain washes the dust off  the grasses and the moisture makes the dull brown grasses turn red to meet the changing of seasons.  Eventually, the prairie tones itself to compliment the wide sky in autumn.

The heat will break.  Fall is coming.  Have a restful Sunday, one and all!     

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Carefree Perfection

Readers of this blog already know that I'm partial to many of the roses bred by the late Griffith Buck.  It's a sure thing that Professor Buck created a number of marvelous and hardy roses specifically for the Midwest climate, but many of them remain unknown to rosarians in other areas where roses grow easily and large.

The most well-known and best of these roses has to be the aptly named 'Carefree Beauty'.  Here in the Flint Hills, 'Carefree Beauty' also has to be in the running for the title of Most Perfect Rose.  This clear pink stunner blooms continually and it's resistant to blackspot, drought, and wind.  It's so resistant to blackspot that in a survey by the Montreal Botanical Garden it was found to have only a 0-5% infection rate. The only time I've ever seen 'Carefree Beauty' look under the weather was during the ice storm of three winters ago, when a one-half inch coating of ice broke off several canes and generally made a ragged mess of one of my two specimens. 

'Carefree Beauty' grows about 4 feet tall in my garden and it's a rose that is not prone to send out new canes, but often has a central "stalk" that just widens and spreads over time.  I've rarely seen it without a bloom and the early bloom, as in the picture at the left, will knock your socks off.  Rated hardy to Zone 4b, it is completely hardy with no die-back in my Zone 5 garden.  It even adds winter interest with a nice display of globular orange hips.

'Carefree Beauty', released in 1977, has received its accolades from many sources.  This shrub rose was one of the first named to the Texas A&M EarthKind program ( and long before that recognition it was a popular rose propagated by the Texas Rose Rustlers with the study name 'Katy Road Pink'.  It's also been recommended by the University of Minnesota and as a solidly hardy rose and it was one of 24 roses that "passed the test" in Longwood Garden's Ten-Year Rose Trials (  'Carefree Beauty' is truly a rose for any garden and any gardener.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sunflower Haven

I spend a lot of time and energy bemoaning the weather and the soil and the harsh wind and the boiling sun and the general misery that is Kansas gardening. I'm also constantly envious of the plants that others can grow but which will just obstinately shrivel up and die here. But I'll be the first to admit that if you want to grow sunflowers well, come to the Flint Hills.

It isn't named "The Sunflower State," and the state flower isn't the sunflower for nothing, folks.  The Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses website ( lists 10 different sunflower species (Helianthus sp.) that are native to Kansas and the Flint Hills area. These fancifully named wildflowers, the Stiff Sunflower, the Hairy Sunflower, Sawtooth Sunflower or the Plains Sunflower, they all open up in August and provide 4-6 weeks of brilliant color to contrast sharply with the azure prairie sky until the birds pick the seeds off in October and use the energy burst to wisely head south. The most statuesque of these sunflowers is somewhat drably named the Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and it really is the most common species in my area.  It usually grows around six feet tall although it's listed as growing anywhere from two to eight feet tall, but if a wild seedling gets started in good cultivated soil with lots of organic matter, and if it's protected from weed competition and watered, it will try to take on the Beanstalk role from the children's fable and it will easily top twelve feet and have a stalk six inches in diameter (ask me how I know). 

The group of Common Sunflowers at the right was taken at the end of our lane at peak bloom time.  As I turn onto Prairie Star Drive coming home from a weary day of  work, this is the picture that greets me home in late August and early September. So take that, rest of the world, you may have camellias and gardenias and orange trees and bluebonnets, but we've got some world-beating sunflowers that grow wild for the price of  a mere song in our hearts.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cemetery Roses

The education of an Old Garden Rose fanatic is not complete until they've initiated or participated in a rose rustling event.  To my knowledge, rose rustling was initiated by the Texas Rose Rustlers group (, an honest-to-god group of people who are dedicated to preserving and propagating roses that have survived decades without help on old homesteads or in older cemeteries.  Think of rustling as allowing Mother Nature to select which roses we're going to grow and distribute through a brutal 100 year Darwinian exposure to a specific area climate.  Talk about your minimal care roses! 

I became aware of the Rose Rustlers through Thomas Christopher's excellent book, In Search of Lost Roses (yes, we used to actually learn things from hours of reading printed material instead of searching the Internet).  I'm convinced that all it takes to hook someone on OGR's is to provide them a copy and give them a few uninterrupted hours of reading time.  Soon, they'll be grabbing a pair of pruners and looking for the car keys to start their own rustle.  For new rustlers, the rules of etiquette are pretty firmly established;  1) don't do anything that risks damage to the original bush, 2) ask permission before you rustle someone else's rose. Those two simple rules are sufficient to preserve the bush for others to admire and to keep you from getting arrested for trespassing, or worse, shot.  Additionally, I always view it as good karma to give the original bush a little organic fertilizer or a deep watering after I've taken a cutting or two.

I have rustled a few roses myself over time. Old, unkempt local cemeteries always make a good source for possible roses and my 'Cardinal de Richelieu' is actually a cemetery cutting that I'm absolutely sure is correctly identified.  I also have two other roses from local cemeteries, one a perfect white non-remonant rose with light green foliage that I've been unable to identify, but which is heavenly-scented.  The other, found on an 1850's grave in the cemetery of the Beecher Bible and Rifle Church (google Henry Ward Beecher for the history) is a very double pink Alba that was being smothered in shade and that I'm pretty sure is 'Konigin von Danemark'.  The original rose has since succumbed to the shade, but it lives on in my garden.  What the 1826 German-bred Konigin was doing in Kansas by the 1850's, I'll never know, but I bet the rose could tell a great story of its travels.

For those attracted to both beauty and history, try a little rose rustling.  Or read Christopher's book.  I promise either one will give you an afternoon to remember.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Graceful Flame Grass

It is likely no surprise to anyone that ornamental grasses are an important part of gardening here in the Flint Hills. Hardiness and fall color are the two qualities prized above many for our grasses.

One of my two nominations for the best ornamental grass for the prairies would be the colorful and graceful Flame Grass, or Miscanthus sinensis 'Purpurascens'.  It doesn't seem to be sold much at the nurseries in my area, but I obtained a specimen early on in my garden and I wouldn't trade it for all the grasses I could grow.  'Purpurascens' is only a moderately tall grass for me, reaching about 4 feet in height, and it is not invasive in my garden.  It has the good manners to stand upright all year and not sprawl over every other plant in its vicinity as some grasses want to do. In fact, although reportedly hardy from Zones 3-9, it doesn't spread for me anywhere near the l0 feet listed in some descriptions, but stays as a nice 2 foot wide vaselike clump.  In the fall, though the picture at the left perhaps doesn't do it justice, it develops a brilliant orange-red coloring that can't be matched by any other hardy grass in my area and that coloring takes a full 2-3 months to fade to brown, even then often returning to a red shade when wet. What also can't be overlooked are the pure white inflorescence's of the bloom, which stand out above that red foliage. 

In one of the little tricks that botanists tend to play on us, this grass is also sometimes referred to as Miscanthus oligostachys. I can't tell you how aggravating it is to try to find out if renamed plants like this are still the same plant, or even which name is the current one in this case and the Internet has failed me in trying to look up this info. Regardless of what the experts have decided to call it this particular year, I haven't yet divided my 'Purpurascens', but I plan to spread its beauty several places in my garden next year.  Until then, my feet will return again and again over the winter to its bright spot in my garden.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Oh Canada!

I'm not a hockey fan and I don't remember recalling that "eh?" was on my high school English teacher's list of good grammer phrases, but I do thank God for the poor frostbitten Canadian gardener who initiated the AgCanada program for breeding hardy roses.

'Hope for Humanity'
Over the past couple of decades, the Canadians have introduced approximately 37 rose cultivars bred to survive the harsh winters alongside our Northern cousins. These roses were released in two named series. The Parkland Series roses, which tend to be small shrubs with modern coloring characteristics, were bred in Manitoba at the Morden experimental station. The Explorer Series, bred in Ottawa, Ontario and trialed there and at the l'Assomption, Quebec locations, were named after famous Canadian explorers and they tend to be larger shrubs and climbers. I'm currently growing 19 Canadian roses here in the Kansas Flint Hills. Look on the accompanying pictures of dark red 'Hope for Humanity', on the overwhelming first display of bright red 'Champlain', and on the delicate yellow-pink glow that is the beauty of 'Morden Sunrise'. Why wouldn't anyone want to grow these babies?

'Morden Sunrise'
Imagine, you zone 2, 3, 4, or 5 gardeners, not having to use any winter protection to ensure the survival of your roses. Imagine climbing roses in Zone 4 or below who can reach the top of an arbor and whose long canes survive to bloom in the spring. And imagine roses that have been bred to be blackspot resistent as well, because that was part of the goal of the Ag Canada roses program. They even produced a chart listing the number of weeks that each cultivar bloomed during the summer. 'Champlain' and 'John Franklin' are absolute continuous bloomers!

Over time, I'll focus a blog or two on more of these striking introductions. Unfortunately these government-sponsored breeding programs have been discontinued and won't be releasing new roses, but in the meantime, 'Hope for Humanity' can give us all a little hope that other varieties from other breeding programs will be coming down the pike to brighten our gardens.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Strutting Plants

Gardeners, in general, are a diverse mass of good people, but even the soul-building activities of toiling in soil and caring for living plants does not make us immune to the cardinal sin of vainglory (better known to modern sinners as vanity). Most every gardener I know, without exception, craves that occasional rare plant that will make a visitor exclaim "What is that beautiful plant?!"

During the city garden tour a couple of years back, the plant in my garden that made almost everyone swoon, and ask about, was a surprise even for it's gardener. I don't know where I came across Centaurea macrocephala, but sometime in the past my usual inclination to collecting plants had caused me to purchase and plant it, and by the time the Garden Tour rolled around, it was quite the conversation piece. Centaurea macrocephala, also known as Giant Knotweed, Yellow HardHat, Armenian Basketflower, Globe Centaurea or Lemon Fluff Knapweed (where do they get those names?), is a clump-forming perennial of the Aster family that has essentially two sequential periods of beauty; one when the golden flower buds form, and another when they open to large, yellow, thistle-like flowers. It is attractive to bees and makes a great cut flower, but most importantly it is a standout in the early summer border. At 4 years old, it is a 2 foot diameter by 3 foot tall plant that causes me absolutely no extra care beyond cutting it back to the ground each spring. Rumored to self-seed, I haven't seen any evidence yet that it'll become a pest in my garden, although it has been labeled a Class A Noxious Weed in Oregon and Washington. According to the Internet, it is deer-resistant, drought-tolerant, hardy to zone 3, and thrives in my limey Flint Hills soil. It's a perfect plant except for now, in August, when it's drying up and is a little bit of an eyesore. Luckily for me and my vanity, garden visitors never venture out in the sweltering Kansas heat of August to see that phase.

You should try it in your own prairie garden, if you can find it, but until it's more readily available, I'm keeping my swagger over having this plant.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sucker for Stripes

At any given garden store, there are two plant characteristics that will nearly always guarantee a sale to me.  The first is any flower that approaches the sky blue pigment characteristic of the Blue Himalayan Poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia).  The second is nearly any red and white striped flower.  I'm a complete sucker for all of them, particularly roses, whether it's 'Fourth of July', 'Rosa Mundi', 'Scentimental', or one of a hundred others.  Modern breeders have caught on and increased the numbers of these beauties recently so other gardeners must be bitten by the bug as well.

One of my favorite roses has long been the well-known Bourbon 'Variegata di Bologna'.  A consistent performer here in my Zone 5B garden, 'Variegata di Bologna' often reblooms in the Fall, but I really don't care because the Spring bloom alone is enough to carry me through a year.  Probably the most scented rose in my garden, this beauty has a nice consistent vase-like shape. It grows to about 6 feet during a season and has a little winter tip-kill back to about 4 feet, but it doesn't need special winter protection here in Kansas.

Last year I added a particularly beautiful striped herbaceous peony, 'Pink Spritzer' to my garden. I saw the famous Roy Klehm give a lecture at the National Arboretum during a trip to Washington D.C. two years ago and I had picked out 'Pink Spritzer' as one of the "must-have" additions during the lecture.  Subsequently, I ordered it straight from Klehm's own nursery, Song Sparrow Farm (, and planted it during the Fall as suggested.  This year, it gave me the first blooms, an unusual and beautiful single peony of red and white and a little green that makes a splash in the front of my peony bed.  Song Sparrow Farm doesn't offer it online right now, so if you can find one and plant it, guard it carefully.  Gardeners are gentle folk but they aren't above the sin of envy and a little pilferage in the pursuit of beauty.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

93; Not Fahrenheit

Yesterday afternoon we hit 93 here in the Flint Hills; that is, a 93 MPH sustained wind gust.  I've often lamented the windy nature of Kansas in the past and I've seen 70MPH sustained winds, but I don't know if I've ever seen a 93MPH sustained gust.

The occasion was a summer storm initiated by a cold front moving in to break our month-long streak 100+F weather, and since I was in a meeting in the interior of a very large K-State building, I missed it entirely.  I emerged to see the end of a fabulous but short rainstorm that brought about one inch of rain to break our month-long drought, to the site of limbs down over the KSU campus, and to a phone message from Mrs. Professorroush that the power was out at home. 

On the bright side, my garden survived the wind intact.  I've spent some time over the past few years learning how to prevent wind damage to the structures in my garden and it has paid off.  That knowledge was hard-won and primarily consists of over engineering structures in my garden to resist an atomic blast, to trimming trees and shrubs to encourage compact form, and to frequent prayer during storms.  I was most pleased to see the several wire towers for vining plants (honeysuckle, Sweet Autumn clematis, bittersweet) in my garden came through without a dent.  Before reinforcing them this spring, a gale like this would have left them looking like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  And my 2 year old, handmade/homemade octagonal gazebo is still standing.  During its construction, I knew better than to use a flimsy commercial kit, lest I someday have to search for the remains of the gazebo in Missouri, so it's anchored with 8 four X four posts that are cemented in the ground and so far, it's survived the worst of the Kansas weather.

My minor casualties consisted of a few splayed ornamental grasses (Panicum virgatum ‘Prairie Sky’ seems to be the worst of these), a snapped off Caryopteris 'Blue Mist',   and a broken-off rose, Griff's Red, that was down to a single cane and had been struggling anyway.  With a little luck, the only permanent damage was the Griff's Red loss and I tried to minimize that impact by planting some stem cuttings from the cane.  Time will tell.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Satisfying Sound of Crabgrass

I have a confession to make to all my readers and to the Higher Powers of gardening.  I absolutely love the sound of crabgrass.  "Wait, you say, what do you mean? Crabgrass doesn't have a sound!"  Of course it does, you silly gardener.  It simply makes the most delicious scrunching sound imaginable when I rip it out of the hot dry ground at this time of year.  It's really one of the most joyful sounds I know.

We seem to be fully in the midst of a crabgrass epidemic this year in the Flint Hills.  The cool wet spring followed now by the usual hot and dry July and August weather has tufts of crabgrass forming everywhere in my garden beds.  I'm resigned to a little crabgrass now and then, but this year the clumps seem to be destined for world domination.  The crabgrass most prevalent in my garden seems to be Digitaria sanguinalis, also known as hairy crabgrass, if I've got it identified correctly.  Some sources list it as a native grass in the United States, while the Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses website ( tells me that it was introduced from Europe and is now naturalized.  It spreads and re-roots along the culm (stem) nodes, almost growing fast enough for gardeners to see the expansion as we watch, starting out as a single star-shaped grass clump and then moving on to cover full beds in the span of a few days. It's pretty useless as a forage grass, although apparently the seeds are eaten by wild turkey and some songbirds. Regardless of its value to wildlife, though, in my garden, it's about as welcome as Darth Vader.

Use "The Force."  Feel AND Hear the satisfaction as you rip out that crabgrass.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sentimental Plant Names

Rosa 'Prairie Star'
As a plant-collecting gardener, I often run across and purchase plants whose name has some connection with people or places in my life.  For instance, years ago we participated, with our neighbors, in naming the newly-created road we now live on.  Since we live in the Kansas prairie where yearly burning of pasture is a way of life, there was some sentiment for naming the road "Prairie Fire," but ultimately none of us wanted to be on the phone to the fire department shouting "there's a prairie fire out of control on Prairie Fire!" and so we chose to name it Prairie Star Drive.  Come to find out, Dr. Griffith Buck of Iowa State had bred and introduced in 1975 a rose named 'Prairie Star', so I, of course, purchased and planted the rose at home and it's become one of my favorites.  'Prairie Star', a fully-double light pink rose, is perfectly cane-hardy without winter protection and disease-resistant without spraying here in Kansas and it blooms continually through the warm seasons. 

Phlox paniculata 'David'
Another happy accident has been the 'David' phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘David’) that I purchased only for the reason that I have a son of that name.  'David' is a pure white phlox with light green foliage that grows well and blooms spectacularly for about 6 weeks in my climate.  It has the added benefit of being a little rampant in my garden, self-seeding true to form in a number of places it has found to its liking, and it is quite pleasantly fragrant. Most of the white blobs that appear in my landscape in July and August are, on close examination, either a cloned 'David' or self-seeded version. It has only a single drawback, a tendency to mildew in moist years as this year has been, but I use it as a mildew indicator plant and spray when the lower leaves turn a bit grey and the mildew is thus easily controlled.    

Of course, not all sentimental experiments turn out nearly so well.  I've had a couple of attempts to grow a namesake for my wife, the white hybrid musk rose 'Kathleen', but alas, either the rose is not hardy enough in my Zone 5 climate or perhaps it detects that its namesake won't tolerate any competition for affection in my garden and it commits horticultural self-suicide.

Given human nature, I suspect that other gardeners also have a weakness for familarly-named plants.  So what's in your garden?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Statueholics Anonymous

I have a problem. I am a Garden Statueholic. I sometimes go to plant nurseries for the sole purpose of surveying their statues and at such times I never set foot in the plant sections. I covet large garden statues. I crave small garden animals. I lust after cement babes. I often ponder the proper garden placement for a large gargoyle. I aspire to find the perfect garden gnome.

Am I adding garden figures as accents for my plants or do the plants serve only as backdrops to the statues?  I worry that I'm overdoing my collection of small cement rabbit statues, but I will readily admit that the few times I've broken down and bought a really nice, expensive statue, I've never regretted the addition to my garden. Take the five foot tall Aga Marsala statue that sits in my rose garden. She's surrounded by white 'Madame Hardy', purple 'Cardinal de Richelieu', and is backed up by the tall pink Canadian roses 'William Baffin' and 'Prairie Dawn'.  Neither the roses nor Aga would look as good alone.  And Mrs. ProfessorRoush once made fun of my purchase of the Kon-Tiki head below, but facing east and surrounded by the yellow Kordes rose 'Rugelda', it just seems to be biding its time in luxury, patiently waiting for the 2012 apocalypse, doesn't it? 

I'm forming the GSA (Garden Statueholics Anonymous) and any afflicted gardener is welcome to join simply by adding a comment to this blog.  We're going to have to modify the traditional twelve-step program a bit, though. For one thing, no one has ever been successfully treated so finding sponsors will be difficult.  For another, none of the members will want to make amends.  Maybe we'll just make it a one-step program and we'll all just admit we can't control our addictions to stone or brass garden art and then we'll start a statue bazaar in a large Midwestern city.  We need to do something, though, for those poor gardeners who believe pink flamingos and painted plastic gnomes are the height of fashion. 

Monday, August 9, 2010

Hot Lists

In these dog days of August, when gardening in the Flint Hills is confined only to the most critical tasks and then only in the early morning or late evening, Kansas gardeners turn our fantasies towards the future of the garden rather than facing the brown, crunchy gardens we have. 

At such times, the most useful action is not for the gardener to plan that new gazebo or the 10,000 gallon koi pond, but instead to begin to make a list of all of those smaller autumn changes that will improve next year's garden.

Syringa 'Josee'; gorgeous but too big
I've been making that list myself, noting that the 'Josee' lilac in my front landscape bed is now six feet tall and wide, is grossly out of proportion to the rest of the plants in the bed, and it obscures the front windows.  It needs to be moved this Fall to a more spacious and less conspicuous area. Several tall Miscanthus clumps in the front areas of another bed need to be moved to the back areas of those beds so that they don't obscure late summer blooms from a few of the roses.   The Fallopia japonica 'Variegata' in front is starting to make its run and it grows a bit too large and sprawls too much for its area and it needs moved as well. Two volunteer bush clematis (Clematis integrifolia) need to be potted up and given away to some unsuspecting soul or souls. Likewise, several traveling 'Tiger Eye' Sumac need to be either given away or eliminated from my viburnum bed. An 'Applejack' rose in my East rose bed has too much shade from the more massive shrub roses around it and needs to be moved into a more sunny area. A few borer-infested stems of an old French lilac in my forsythia bed need to be cut out.  And, since the cool, wet spring here taught me that my iris are struggling in my swampy, clay, mixed iris and daylily beds, I need to begin to move the iris into a better drained location where they can thrive instead of rot. 

Sounds like a busy Fall is coming, doesn't it?

A Lifetime of Gardening; Sydney Eddison

I've read and enjoyed each of the past books by the prolific garden writer, Sydney Eddison.  A Passion for Daylilies is a must read for daylily fanatics, Self-Taught Gardener is a good read for any beginning gardener, and The Gardener's Palate is a classic primer on color arrangement in the garden.  In the long run, however, I believe her most recent text, Gardening for a Lifetime (Timber Press, 2010), will become my favorite.  Subtitled "How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older," Gardening for a Lifetime is a chronicle of Ms. Eddison's struggle to adapt her world-famous garden to the changes necessitated by the recent loss of her husband and to the ravages of her own aging.

Ms. Eddison draws the reader down that dreaded path with her by the opening words "I cannot leave this place.  It is where my husband and I spent a lifetime together and where I want to stay."  The book is full of ideas to simplify any garden in an effort to ease maintenance chores, but it also is full of lessons to help Kansas gardeners age gracefully with their own gardens and to accept that moving stone and fighting the prairie wind are activities for the young and strong pioneers, not the beaten-down survivors.  Each chapter is summed up by a page of "Gleanings," which are simple lists of the ideas previously presented in an effort to keep the reader focused on applying the lessons to our own gardens.  Ms. Eddison is at peace with lessened deadheading, at ease with casting out the prima donna's of our gardens in favor of the stalwart survivors, and she faces, with grace, the need to hire help for her garden chores.

May we all be as successful in aging with our gardens!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Blinded to Drought

Oops, I made a slight gardening error by taking a short four-day vacation this week.  We've had higher than normal temperatures for a month (one day topping at 110F) and the last significant rainfall was 1 inch on July 14th (this is being written on August 8th).  I knew things were getting a little dry, but prior to leaving, I watered the newest plants and everything else was looking pretty solid. Oh sure, I'd noticed that the clay soil was pulling away from my limestone edging a little bit, but the plants were toughing it out.  Normally, I don't even think about watering plants that have been in the ground over a year. I prefer to practice the tough love xeriscapic approach to gardening.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight'
But I should have listened to the story told by the clay and edging.  Upon my return, it was obvious that my 'Royal Star' Magnolia (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’) and several panicled hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’, for instance) were showing the effects of the hot weather and drought.  And a 'Jelena' Witch Hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena') was practically burnt to a crisp.  Obviously I could have avoided the worst of the damage if I had recognized that the drought was reaching a critical phase and if I had started watching these indicator plants earlier.

Rudbeckia hirta
Happily, nothing else in the garden has yet been blasted in the Kansas furnace.  All the roses go merrily along, although perhaps they are not blooming as profusely in the heat, and the crape myrtles and the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) are just laughing at the heat.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Plant Immortality

It's sometimes astonishing to me how fleeting the life of plants in my garden can be.  Planted one minute and dead the next, particularly if I forget to water in the midst of our annual summer drought.  Or planted one spring and never seen again the next spring, despite strict adherence to zone recommendations, site preparation, and cultural requirements.

But there are some plants who are not nearly so ephemeral.  Trees are often the one plant everyone can name, even gardening neophytes, that often outlive the planter.  Even a common American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) often transcends a simple human lifespan, let alone the better examples given by giant California Redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum) or Great Basin Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva) that outlive entire human regimes and societies.  But such immortality is also seemingly given to less obvious plants that are all around us.  Herbaceous peonies are a prime example of a "plant it once and it's with you ever after" plant.  They are often seen in older unkempt graveyards from more than a century back or found around old homesteads as the sole survivors of a young pioneer bride's dowry.  The peonies pictured below form a line, a herbaceous wall if you will, separating my father's orchard from the vegetable garden.  They've been there for at least 60 years, planted and left behind by the previous owners of the farm who themselves are now long deceased.  The peonies sit unknowing, their survival unaffected by the ravages of thunderstorm and snow, partially in sun and partially in shade, cared for only in a minimal way by mulch-mowing them off at the end of the summer season for the past 50 years.

So if you want to touch immortality, your choices seem to be to live a quiet life rooted in the soil, unaffected by the passage of years and seasons, or perhaps, sometimes, to just to plant a peony.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Early Roses for the Prairie

I always treasure those first blooms of each season in the garden, as I'm sure most gardeners do. There are three shrub roses in my garden that trumpet the oncoming arrival of the main rose season that I would recommend to all my readers for their very early bloom and their other unique properties.  

'Marie Bugnet'
The earliest rose to bloom in my garden is a somewhat rare Rugosa rose named 'Marie Bugnet'.  Bred by Canadian George Bugnet in 1973, 'Marie Bugnet' is a bone-hardy cross of the Canadian roses 'Therese Bugnet' and 'F. J. Grootendorst'.  The child of these respectively pink and red parents, 'Marie Bugnet' is a very well-behaved pure white rose that blooms consistently before any other rose in my garden.  Continuous-flowering, double, and very fragrant, she stays about four foot tall and three feet wide and like a proper lady, she stays home and never suckers herself around the garden like other Rugosas.  As an added bonus, the crinkled foliage is completely resistent to blackspot and mildew.  

Two other quite different roses are not nearly as well-behaved since they tend to run around the garden throwing up clumps here or there, but they have, along with their early bloom, enough positive attributes to offset that wanton proliferation.  'Harison's Yellow' is a bright yellow cross of  R. spinosissima (from which  it gets the unique small leaves), and R. foetida (from which the yellow and the slightly pungent odor were inherited).  An exceedingly thorny shrub, it can double as a protective security barrier beneath a window or exist simply as a bright spot in the early spring garden, but you need to enjoy its bloom when you can, for it does not repeat during the season.  'Therese Bugnet', a parent of the aforementioned Marie Bugnet, is a bright fuchsia-pink, continuous blooming Rugosa cross which blooms alongside 'Harison's Yellow' for a seasonal display and then keeps on blooming sporadically throughout the summer.  I once saw an article which included the tall (six foot) 'Therese Bugnet' in a group of roses whose long canes provide extra interest by dancing in the wind, but the canes of  'Therese Bugnet' also turn a dusky red in the winter, giving some late winter color to the garden similar to that of a red-twig dogwood. 
'Therese Bugnet' (left) and 'Harison's Yellow' (right)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Welcome Natives

I like to tell visitors to my garden that I have a lot of weeds in my garden because I'm trying to promote the free seeding of native prairie perennials. That gets me a lot of pats on the back from wild-eyed environmentalists and everybody likes a little praise.  It's true, though.  I don't like to use preemergents in my garden beds simply because it will also suppress native plants from sprouting wherever they like to pop up.  It means a few more weeds and crabgrass, but one pays the price for one's choices. As my garden evolves, I've learned more and more to choose to nurture the surprise native plant treasures that the Flint Hills provides me. 

I have two favorites that spread from the surrounding prairie to various parts of my garden.  One is the Blue Sage (Salvia azurea) that blooms in August and September in my corner of the prairie.   Also called Pitcher Sage after Dr. Zina Pitcher, a early 1800's U.S. Army surgeon and botanist, Blue Sage grows two to five feet tall with the five foot height more common in a cultivated and mulched garden bed. Its roots extend six to eight feet into the deep prairie soils below, so in my garden it never gets or needs supplemental water even in the current +100 August weather. I've found that the plant gets a little bushier, it doesn't sprawl as much, and I can delay the bloom if I trim it back a little bit in late July to about two feet tall. But most important is that heavenly sky blue color so coveted by many gardeners and by this gardener in particular.  There are other blue salvias, of course, but in my Zone 5 garden this is the one that sticks.  Over ten years I've got six plants now growing in my various beds, at the cost of only recognizing the seedlings when they first begin to grow and leaving them alone. And truly, how better to find the right micro-environment for a specific plant than letting them seed themselves?

My second favorite of the self-seeding prairie natives is the native Asclepias tuberosa, or Butterfly Weed.  Popping up here and there in the most barren, arid spots I have, this bright orange native draws in butterflies in July and August like, well, moths to a flame.  There are eight current clumps of this perennial in my landscaping and since it has a long taproot and is difficult to transplant, I'm lucky to have it seed itself in areas that it likes.  It is well-behaved, never invasive, and keeps to a polite two to three foot height without trimming or coddling.  A better perennial for a garden can't be found and I hope it escapes the ravages of the hybridizers so I don't have to push away my native orange variety for some muddled pink or off-white ugly cousin.   

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Finicky Weeds

Have you ever noticed that certain weeds are specific to certain beds in your garden?  I just became aware this year that I've got several bed-specific weeds; weed species that appear only in one bed in my garden and nowhere else. 

Take for example my oldest rose bed, a raised berm containing a number of old garden and shrub roses.  This bed seems infested with bindweed, but yet bindweed appears nowhere else in my garden.  If I don't watch the bed closely for two or three weeks, the next thing I know, a rose is being overtaken by the twining stems pictured at the right.  I don't believe it's a coincidence that I imported this soil into my back yard while we were building the house and I thus suspect the bindweed seeds came with it, but how do I get rid of it now?  Ten years of diligent cutting of the vines before they could set seed have not decreased the sneaky little ones that start in the periphery of a rose and stay invisible until they hit the sun at the top and spread. And you learn the funniest bits of information by doing research.  I hadn't noticed that bindweed winds anti-clockwise until I read about it.   Another bit of quick research tells me that seeds were still over 50% viable at 39 years.  So maybe 50 years of pulling bindweed to go?

Another bed, again with imported soil, had an interesting vine spring up at one end of the bed that I first thought from appearance was going to be a melon of some sort.  I let it grow that first year, turning nervous only when it began leaping from shrub to shrub and threatened to cover the entire bed.  Finally, when it didn't produce any fruit from all its small white flowers, I chopped it down and have resolved to wipe it out of that bed as well.  It also is still coming up annually, just in that one area.  If it was the soil in the bed, why isn't it appearing in the rest of the bed?

I have Virginia Creeper that only appears on the front left of the house, Black-eyed Susans that only appear in my back rose bed, and a curious little nightshade-like weed that has a habit of appearing only in north foundation bed of the house.  I'm betting the presence of the latter weed has something to do with the shade that is present there and nowhere else in my landscape.  I will always encourage the Black-eyed Susans wherever they pop up, but I'd really like to see the rest of these creatures kick their habits.


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