Monthly Archives: July 2013

Agastache – A Plant I Really Want to Like!

A few years ago I added a plant of hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) to the herb garden. While I didn’t use it as an herb, I loved the blue flowers and the number of bees that it attracted.

When I was looking through the Territorial Seeds catalog, I saw that they sold seeds of an herb called anise hyssop. I had no idea what it was but if it attracted as many bees as the standard hyssop, I thought it would be worth adding to the garden.

Agastache - Anise Hyssop Blue

Agastache – Anise Hyssop Blue

The plant that I grew from seed isn’t a hyssop at all though it is related; anise hyssop is agastache, specifically Agastache foeniculum. This plant is a member of the mint family, a fact that’s evident because of agastache’s square stems. The common name of this plant is anise hyssop because the leaves have a licorice/anise scent.

Agastache is a plant native to the northern part of the US. Native Americans used this plant for medicinal purposes, particularly cough, fevers, wounds and diarrhea. The leaves can be used for making tea and this plant is said to be a good pollen/nectar source for honey producers.

Like most plants in the mint family, anise hyssop is easy to grow. It needs full sun and prefers fertile ground, though it will grow in less than optimal soil. Once it’s established, it’s drought resistant. Agastache is usually ignored by deer and rabbits and it isn’t troubled by insect pests. The variety of agastache that I’m growing – anise hyssop blue – grows about 4′ tall.

Agastache - Anise Hyssop Blue

Agastache – Anise Hyssop Blue

I have to admit that anise hyssop blue is a plant I want to like but I just can’t. It’s tall, gangly and to me, the inflorescences are ugly! They’re cylindrical in shape and made up of many small flowers that are arranged in a whirl. Since I wasn’t impressed with this plant’s beauty, I almost dug it out of the ground. But what convinced me to keep it was the fact that it literally swarms with bees and small butterflies.

Looking online, I saw that there are a number of varieties and species of agastache that have different heights and different kinds of inflorescences. It makes me think that I should try some of these other kinds. The fact that rabbits don’t eat it and bees/butterflies love it makes this a plant that I really want to like. Maybe my seed-grown variety isn’t the best for the flower garden.

A trip to the garden center might be in order to see what varieties they might have. They’d be in bloom now, they’d be discounted and I could see if there’s an agastache that’s not only functional in attracting bees and butterflies but also pretty!

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Southern Belle Hibiscus 2013

What a difference a year makes! Last year I planted some Southern Belle hibiscus along a fence. The plants were a little small but filled with huge flowers. This year the plants are coming into their own – each plant is about 4′ high and 4′ wide. There are dozens of branches and each one is filled with buds. On one branch alone I counted 27 buds!

Cluster of Hibiscus Buds

Cluster of Hibiscus Buds

I have to say that I’m a little surprised how well these hibiscus are doing. They’re growing in an area that can be both hot and dry. I haven’t done anything to the plants – I’ve just let them grow. There haven’t been any insect issues either except for a few Japanese beetles chewing on some of the flowers.

The plants can get a little unruly and the branches sometimes break in high wind or heavy rain. Next year I plan to use some twine attached to the fence to offer them some support. This should serve to protect the plants and also keep them in control.

Southern Belle Hibiscus

Southern Belle Hibiscus

The one problem with these hibiscus is that they are messy. The large blossoms fall off after a few days – this serves to keep the plants clean but it can make a mess on the ground around them. I guess this is just the price that you have to pay if you want to have 8-10″ blossoms on a plant!

If you’re looking for a large perennial with a definite “wow” factor, Southern Belle hibiscus – or any perennial hibiscus – is a great choice. The flowers are huge, the plants are easy to grow and the plants keep flowering for months. There aren’t a lot of perennials that can offer all of that!

 

A Pennsylvania Gold Rush – Yukon Gold Potatoes

This year I decided to be more serious about growing potatoes. In the past, I would raise a few plants but that was it. I never really thought it was worth the time and space to grow potatoes.

Yukon Gold Potatoes

Yukon Gold Potatoes

When I discovered the variety Yukon Gold, my mind was changed. This potato has a yellow flesh that can be baked, boiled and fried. Also it’s an early potato so the vines are gone by late July and the space is freed up for growing fall crops. If I was looking to store potatoes all winter, this wouldn’t be a good choice since it isn’t a long storing potato. But since I find that the Yukon Golds are used up well before Thanksgiving, long storage isn’t a big deal for me.

This year I planted about 15 seed potatoes in two small beds. While they got off to a rough start with the mid-May frost, the plants recovered quickly. All I did to prepare the soil was till it and add a little bone meal.

Once the plants started to grow, I mulched them heavily with straw. It’s important to keep the developing potato tubers covered with either soil or mulch. If they’re exposed to light they’ll turn green and develop high levels of solanine, a toxin which can cause nausea, headaches and neurological problems. Green potatoes aren’t something you want to grow or eat!

I had a few potato beetles visit the plants but they didn’t cause any big problems and there certainly weren’t enough of them to call for spraying. It’s also nice that rabbits don’t like potatoes so there was no need to protect them with chicken wire.

This past week the plants had died and I harvested the potatoes. There’s something magical about digging potatoes. You turn over the soil and it’s filled with potato tubers. I was very pleased with the size of the tubers as well as the size of the harvest. Yukon Gold isn’t the highest producing potato but you get at least 5 or more potatoes per plant.

The one lesson I did learn this year is that I plant potatoes too far apart. In the past I used to give them 3′ of space – I don’t know why, I just thought they needed it! This year I decreased that to about 18″. I checked some gardening materials and saw that I can plant them even closer. Yukon Gold can be planted 1′ apart in an intensive system or about a foot apart in rows that are 2′ apart. I’ll have to give that a try next year.

I’m pleased with this year’s potato harvest. Now it’s time to clean the beds and plant some fall crops.

Bells of Ireland – Plant Them Once, Have Them Forever!

I think it was four years ago that I first planted bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis). I’d heard about this flower but I’d never seen it until I started doing floral design. Bells of Ireland are a favorite in the floral industry because they’re a long-lasting line flowers that can give some height and structure to an arrangement. Also the green color mixes well with other flowers.

Bells of Ireland

Bells of Ireland

When I decided to grow bells of Ireland in the garden I planted Pixie Bells, a bell variety that grows only 18-24″ tall. The standard bells of Ireland plant can get 3-4′ feet tall. I was really impressed with these flowers. The plants were well branched and since they weren’t too tall, they tended to stay upright without any support.

The only downside was that from a distance, they weren’t very interesting to look at. In the garden bed, bells of Ireland look like a plant that’s getting ready to flower but isn’t in bloom yet. Growing bells in the garden taught me that I love this flower, but I love it up-close where I can see its structure.

Bells of Ireland have an amazing flower structure. The inflorescence is spike shaped (called a raceme) with flowers all along the stem. The green “bell” isn’t a flower at all but fused sepals. Sepals (collectively called a calyx) are the green leaf-like structure that protect a developing blossom and extend from the base of the flower when it opens. Think of a rose bud – the five green structures that surround the bud and out of which the blossom emerges are the sepals.

Unopen Bells of Ireland Flower

Unopened Bells of Ireland Flower

In a rose, the sepals aren’t very showy but in bells of Ireland, the fused sepals are what most people would call the flower. But the true flower is found within the calyx. Before it opens it looks like a white dot; later it opens and looks, at least to my eye, like a tiny orchid blossom. These flowers only last for a day or two but the good news is that the fused sepals stay bright green for a long time.

Open Bells of Ireland Flowers

Open Bells of Ireland Flowers

After that first year of growing bells, I wasn’t sure if I’d grow them again. I like more color in the garden but I also knew I’d miss those interesting inflorescences. Well, nature made the decision for me. While bells of Ireland are annuals, they self-seed like crazy. The spring after having grown them in the garden I had little bells of Ireland plants popping up all over the flower bed. I let a few of them grow, enjoying the contrast in color and structure that they provided to the garden. And every year since I’ve always found plenty of bells of Ireland plants growing in the garden.

When the bells are in bloom, my favorite thing to do is cut a few of the spikes and bring them into the house.  There I can appreciate the structure of these long-lasting cut flowers. Also when it’s hot outside, a vase of light lime-green bells of Ireland seems to make the whole house feel cooler.

That one packet of bells of Ireland seeds was one of the best purchased I’ve ever made – I planted them once and now I have them forever!

Zucchini – Smaller Is Better

The zucchini are producing like crazy. I was a little worried in the beginning of the season. I have three plants of Cash Flow and three of a new variety, Northern States. The plants looked good and there were blossoms but the fruit wasn’t growing well. A closer inspection showed that the plants were producing plenty of female flowers (flowers with a small squash at the base) but there weren’t many male flowers (flowers born on a stalk called a peduncle). I also wondered if I had a lack of pollinators in the garden.

Cash Flow Zucchini Plant

Cash Flow Zucchini Plant

Fortunately everything has now come into balance and the Cash Flow plants are doing great – I’ve been really impressed with this variety. The Northern States is another story. They haven’t been producing well at all. I’m not sure why but this happens when you experiment with new varieties. Sometimes the new plant is great and sometimes it isn’t. I’m sure there are gardens were Northern States might be a great zucchini but in my garden, it one I won’t be growing again. I’ll stick with Cash Flow.

Recently I was looking at a site from the University of Illinois about growing vegetables. In the section on summer squash, they stated that most people let summer squash get too big before harvesting it. I think they’re right – this is one of the few vegetables where you harvest the immature fruit and don’t want them to get full-sized.

But a lot of people let them get really big! I’ve driven by roadside stands selling zucchini the size of a man’s forearm. I’ve heard of gardeners boasting about their two foot long zucchini. I’ll admit it’s impressive to bring something that size out of the garden but I don’t know what I’d do with a zucchini that size.

zuccFor me, when it comes to zucchini, smaller is better. I check the plants every few days – these squash grow fast. I harvest zucchini when it’s only 4-8″ long. I’ve found that smaller squash taste better, they have a lot less water in their tissue and I can usually keep up with all of the squash that I harvest if they’re little.

But no matter how careful I am at picking the zucchini, a few of them always get away from me and get bigger than I like. Rather than trying to find some culinary use for these large squash, I cut them into pieces and add them to the compost bin. That’s the best use I can think of for them!

Mystery Larva – Can You ID It?

I finally found the culprit that’s been chewing on the pigweed plants. It’s a small (~1/4″) creature that looks a little like a Mexican bean beetle larva but it doesn’t have the yellow color or the branched spines on its body. I’m pretty sure this is some sort of beetle larva but I don’t know what kind it is.

If there’s anyone that can ID this insect, please let me know. It’s not causing much of a problem in the garden (except for the pigweeds!) but I’d love to know what it is.

Mystery Larva

Mystery Larva

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Achimenes Surprise

For the past few years I’ve been growing achimenes (pronounced ah-KIM-uh-neez). This difficult-to-find houseplant is so easy to grow and brings a lot of color to the porch. I don’t understand why it’s not more popular.

Two Different Achimenes Plants

Two Different Achimenes Plants

This year I added a new variety of achimenes to the window garden. I purchased the rhizomes online from Easy to Grow Bulbs, one of the few places that offers achimenes. The rhizomes that came were a little small but most of them grew. As the plants started to mature I saw that there was something different about one of the plants growing in the window box. The leaves had a lot more anthocyanin (purple pigment) in them than the others and the plant seemed stockier than the rest.

Ambrose Verschaffelt Achimenes

Ambrose Verschaffelt Achimenes

This past week the achimenes started to bloom. The variety I’m growing is Ambrose Verschaffelt and it has light lavender flowers with darker veins. All of the plants have this kind of flower except for that one rogue plant. When one of its blossoms opened, it was a large purple bloom. I went to the Easy to Grow Bulbs website and saw that one of the varieties they sell – and one I’d thought of purchasing – is called Purple Prince. The picture on the website is identical to the misfit achimenes that blossoming on the porch.

Purple Prince Achimenes

Purple Prince Achimenes

It appears that when they were bagging the achimenes rhizomes, one of the Purple Prince rhizomes made it into my bag of Ambrose Verschaffelt. I’m really happy that this mix-up occurred! At the end of the growing season I’m going to mark this one plant of Purple Prince so that in the spring, when I take the rhizomes out of the soil, I can keep them separate from the Ambrose Verschaffelt rhizomes. It might take a few years, but one day I’ll have enough Purple Prince rhizomes to plant an entire pot.

I got two achimenes varieties for the price of one – now that’s a nice surprise!