Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Happenings at the Nursery As Autumn Approaches

A butterfly nectars on Smooth Blue Aster

 It is just a little past half way through September. Just a few days until Autumn officially begins. And the last few nights have gotten cooler and the days are delightful. I have always believed September is South Jersey's best kept secret. A time when we locals can really enjoy the last days of summer. The heat, humidity, droughts, annoying insects and summer crowds are gone, we are left with nice weather we can enjoy, before we dig in for the coming winter months.

As the days get shorter, nature sets forth a final burst of color that helps to support those fall migrants making their southern journey. One can see the awesome display of yellow, purple, and white colors of numerous species of Goldenrods, Asters, Bonesets and our native fall-blooming Liatris. Various species will bloom in turn, carrying this display into October.

A collection of Fall blooming natives
Here at the nursery, there is quite a lot going on.  On the plant tables, Showy Aster, Smooth Blue Aster, White Wood Aster, New York Aster, Bog Aster, Turtlehead, Blue Mistflower, Narrow Leaf Sunflower, and Hairy Blazing Star are coming into bloom.

In the beds on my property, New England Aster and Smooth Blue Aster are just breaking out. I counted no less than twenty bumblebees this evening. They seem to like the Smooth Blue over the New England Aster this year. Pink Turtlehead and Slender Goldenrod have been blooming most of the month and the Turtlehead in particular has done very nice this year with all the rain we've had. The buds are formed on the Seaside Goldenrod which should bloom in October. I expect the Smooth Blues to really take off in the next few days and will keep a lookout for Monarchs which visit frequently.

Don't miss this beautiful display. Getting out for a ride on the back roads, you may discover an old field full of color. If not there, just the roadsides along are coming alive with the signs of Fall. It is nature's finale, and its fabulous. Enjoy!

August 2013 Plant of the Month - Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis

Every year in August, one of the most beautiful species of  native plants in South Jersey come alive, Lobelia cardinalis or the Cardinal Flower. The first time I saw a Cardinal Flower, I did a double take. I was riding up Rt 322 in Weymouth on my motorcycle, when I neared the Egg Harbor river, and a brilliant red color caught my eye. I had to pull over, back up and investigate. There it was, a tall, bright red spike that was absolutely stunning, growing right on the bank of the river. I had never seen such a plant, but I had to know more. At that time we didn't have internet so I went to a bookstore and looked through flower books until I found it. Its name seemed perfect since it is bright red like a male cardinal. The following year I was camping along that same river and found one growing at my campsite half in the water. A hummingbird was feeding from it. Over the years, I saw them more, always along streamsides and always with a hummingbird, nearby. I knew this would be a great way to attract them to the yard. When I decided to start propagating native plants, I couldn't wait to start this one. But finding them was not all that common and getting seeds was even more tricky. Eventually I timed it right, found I good a seed pod and got to sowing. I have been raising them for six years now. 

Over the past six years I have learned quite a bit about them. Hummingbirds love them of course, but so do many species of butterflies and other pollinators. The do best in a sunny, moist location, but will tolerate partial shade. They will not tolerate drought. They are known as a short-lived perennial, that is , they only live about three years. But with seed saving you can continue raising them for many years. The first year, most plants will produce a basal rosette, a small clump of leaves, but no stalk. There are always some who break the rules, but generally speaking they do not bloom the first year. The second year they will and it's then that the look their best. The third year they will bloom, and most likely not come back after that. However they may self sow if conditions are ideal in your garden. I have had many clients comment on this, so I always recommend sowing seeds that last year. Otherwise you may need to re-purchase one to take its place.

If you choose to propagate, pick the pod when it starts to dry. The seeds are very tiny, like dust. In the fall, spread them evenly on a surface that will stay moist over winter and protect them with leaves to keep the from blowing away. Alternatively you may choose to propagate indoors. If you door, you will need to provide cold, moist stratification for 8-12 weeks in the refrigerator. Outdoor fall sowing eliminates the need for this step. Look for seedlings when temperatures being to rise and the soil no longer freezes. They will be very, very tiny. They grow very slowly. Be patient. When they have two to three sets of true leaves, gently lift them and transplant to individual containers, where they can continue growing.   If you want to raise them from seed, I recommend buying a plant and then saving the seed from it. That way you won't have to guess as to finding a plant at harvest time. You will have one and know when it is ready.

Cardinal flower is perfect for the Hummingbird Garden, Bog Garden, and Ponds. My favorite companion plants are Sneezeweed and Great Blue Lobelia. The three of these blooming together put on quite a show. The Sneezeweed is usually found growing with it in the marsh plant community. As long as you can provide the proper conditions of semi-sun and ample moisture,  this plant should do well and provide several weeks of color in your garden.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

July 2013 Plant of the Month - Swamp Rose Mallow, Hibiscus palustris

Hibiscus palustris in the garden
I saw my first when I moved into a mobile home park on 1984. My neighbor was an avid gardener and had a yard full of flowers, which she invited me over to see. It was the first time I laid eyes in the beautiful pink robust blooms, which resembled the tropical hibiscus I had seen in Florida. She told they were Hibiscus and they were hardy and came back year. I was amazed. She dug one up and gave it to me. I planted it and the next year I some volunteers, some I relocated and some I in gave away. The descendants of these plants I still have today, many years later and the one I gave my parents is still living in their back yard. They start blooming every July so I chose them for my July plant of the month.   

I had never thought about my Hibiscus plant as a wildflower until one day driving up Rt 9 by Absecon Creek, I saw on, growing alongside the Phragmites. I also learned that they go by a variety of names such as Swamp Rose Mallow, Rose Mallow and Swamp Mallow. I later discovered large stands of them in salt marshes, in four varieties of pink, white, and both pink and white with a crimson eye. The flowers are quite large, about 3 inches in diameter. Unlike its tropical relative, this one does die back to the ground over winter, but will re-emerge in spring. When growing en mass, they are a sight to see. They prefer a moist to wet, organic soil, but will do well in most gardens as long as their is ample moisture. Full sun is best, but partial shade is also tolerated, though less blooms are produced. They are visited by hummingbirds and bees. I have often come out in the morning to find bumblebees sleeping in the flowers.

Growing these plants is quite easy. The seeds are round, about 2mm, and contained in a roundish pod. Wait until you see the pod had turned brown and starts to crack open. This is the ideal time to harvest them. Sow them in the fall outdoors and look for seedlings in the spring. If you will be sowing indoors, pre-treament of cold moist stratification is recommended to ensure the seeds break dormancy . Seedlings should emerge withing 2-3 weeks at 70 degrees. They can be potted up when they have 2 sets of true leaves.

I think it makes an excellent rain garden plant as well a pond plant. In the garden, I feel the closer you can mimic its natural conditions, the better success you will have. The plant is long lived and attracts wildlife and well beautifies the yard. With its easy care, this plant is a great choice for nearly any garden.