Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Learning Plants in a New Region

If  you've been following this blog for any amount of time, you know that I recently moved 200 miles from south-east Wisconsin to north-central Wisconsin. While we still haven't sold our house and life is still somewhat in limbo because of that, I've still managed to have an interesting time here in the north. 

A lot of people may not be real familiar with this area of the state, or where I moved from, or even Wisconsin at all! So I want to give some comparisons for those who don't know. Where I grew up and gardened my whole life, soil tended to be clay or clay-loam. Closer to Lake Michigan, soil could be sandy loam and I was fortunate to garden on two different properties with this soil type. But at my house the soil was clay loam and I extensively modified it with compost and pine bark to have better drainage. Our soils tended to have higher pH as well due to limestone bedrock. 

Here in the north the soils are primarily sand. There are areas of good soil with some clay, but it's mostly sandy. Being over granite bedrock our pH tends to be lower. This area of the state was more heavily influenced by glacier activity during the last ice age and boulders are extremely common as well. The topography here is much more hilly. The water table is also closer to the surface, and this fact coupled with glaciation means we have lakes. Lots of them; over 600 in this county alone. 

In the south near Lake Michigan I was gardening in a solid zone 5b and our average frost free period was May 11-Oct 6 (150 days). Here in the north it's z4a and frost free is May 20-September 24 (125 days). This means we have 25 fewer growing days and it gets significantly colder here. It's gotten to -28 F° multiple times each of the last two winters. We rarely got below -15 in the south. We also get more snow here. As I type, there is pretty much no snow in the south but we have close to 18" on the ground here. Of course as much as I don't like snow, that's a blessing. More reliable snow cover means reliable winter protection for the plants! 

As for summer temperatures, they're fairly similar. We actually warm up a little faster in late spring when we finally do thaw out as we don't have Lake Michigan keeping us cool. But in mid-summer it is slightly cooler here. I like it warm, so I'm actually not real happy about that. There were days last summer that it was above 80 degrees back home but not even 70 here. 

While it's easy to think about a shorter and colder season and get discouraged, these differences in climate and soil actually offer some compelling reasons to be excited to garden here. I'm able to grow a fairly significant number of plants that I couldn't grow in the south. Pretty much anything that likes sandy acid soil is fair game here; things like Rhododendron, blueberries, wintergreen, or bunchberry. Add in the cooler summer climate and reliable snow cover and things like Cypripedium guttatum or yatabeanum and most of the Primula species become much more possible to succeed with here. So while I may mourn the loss of ability to grow Japanese maples, I'm also celebrating the ease with which I will be able to grow birches and hemlocks. 

Another exciting thing about this area is we have an outstanding diversity of native flora. I've been enjoying getting to learn all kinds of new plants and finding plants that were only rare in the southern part of the state but are common here. Here are a few I've taken pictures of. 

Asclepias exaltata is fairly common here in the north and rare in the south. I've been visiting parts of northern Wisconsin for 20 years so I'm quite familiar with this species and we grow it at the nursery for sale. In fact this picture was actually taken in my old garden, but it was raised from seed collected here in the north. It prefers light shade as it's naturally found on the edge of woodlands and is currently my favorite species in the genus. A. incarnata while common in the south is even more common here as well and it seems to have more diversity in flower color as I've found a good assortment of very dark flower forms. 

Clintonia borealis is quite rare in the southern part of the state, I've only ever seen one plant and the next year it was gone. Here it is abundant. I've seen colonies of hundreds of them. I collected some seed, hopefully I get some decent germination and we can offer some for sale in the future. 

Bunchberry, Cornus canadensis, is also locally common and non-existent in the south. It needs sandy acid soils to thrive.

Linnea borealis, or twinflower, is also locally common. It's less common in the south but I have seen it. This is a nice low growing spring bloomer that forms nice patches in the woods. I think it will be nice in gardens and I will have to propagate some in the future. 

Partridge berry, Mitchella repens, is common throughout the state but it's always nice to find this cute little woodland gem. 



Polygala paucifolia is one that had me stumped. I spent quite awhile trying to figure out what kind of orchid I'd found that was blooming so early. Eventually I had to call in a favor from a friend who correctly identified it for me. Polygala aren't orchids at all but are in a family of their own and this species is an absolute gem of the woodland. We have 7 species in the state and this is the only one common in the north. Each species is drastically different from the others in my eyes and you probably can't confuse them. 


The ferns. Oh my god THE FERNS! There are so many here in the north. Pictured above is long beach fern Phegopteris connectilis. I'll be searching out many of them and hopefully growing them from spores. 


Worth mentioning along with the ferns are the spikemosses and clubmosses, in Lycopodiaceae. This appears to be a Lycopodium species, maybe L. lucidulum? 

I mentioned the incredibly high number of lakes we have here. We also have a ton of other wetland habitats including marshes and bogs. This year was the first time I've seen Calla palustris. It's very common in some of the areas I walk.

Lysimachia thyrsifolia is one of our native loosestrife species that is found in wetlands. Seems to be cute, not sure if it's incredibly invasive in garden conditions or not. You can see it growing with Iris versicolor here. 

I've found pink lady's slipper, Cypripedium acaule, on multiple occasions now and it's always a joy to find them and take pictures. I've found them growing in bogs and on higher ground along open water. These are now being produced from seed, NEVER collect wild plants. They don't reproduce well in nature to begin with and more often than not they don't survive being transplanted. Seedlings are available from Spangle Creek Labs and I'm sure you can find larger nursery-propagated plants for sale if you look. 

Cotton grass in the genus Eriophorum was entirely new to me. I believe the above is Eriophorum vaginatum. I also came across E. virginicum. We have several species in the state and they're all inhabitants of bogs. I intend to try growing some of these from seed.

 Another bog denizen is bog laurel, Kalmia polifolia. This is related to mountain laurel and looks similar but likes wet soils rather than well-drained. I've only come across this twice in the southern part of the state, but here it's common.


Another common bog plant here is Rhododendron groenlandicum. Yep, we have native Rhododendron species. This one is common in the northern 2/3 of the state. The other species, R. lapponicum, is endangered and only found in two counties far south of here. 

I've seen tons of other plants as well but haven't yet taken pictures. Expect more posts like this as I find exciting plants!

Friday, September 29, 2017

Creating a Drought Tolerant Lawn

I need to preface this post with a disclaimer. I'm not fan of turf. There's far too much lawn being mowed in the USA; it unnecessarily uses up water, gas, fertilizer, and time and creates nothing but poor water infiltration and extra pollution. However it's hard to argue against it for some areas, it's practically necessary in yards and parks where kids and pets play.

But people love their lawns. So how do we create lawns that are a little more environmentally friendly? There's a few things we can collectively do, but homeowners, businesses, and landscape contractors need to get on board with these things. It benefits them all.

While it's not the focus of this post, the biggest thing we can do to create more environmentally friendly "lawns" would be to use short grass prairie in place of turf in areas that aren't high traffic. This isn't a new concept by any means, and yet it hasn't gained traction. There are commercial buildings situated on acres of turf. Why can't prairie be planted in their place of these ecological dead zones? If a typical short grass prairie is still too tall for the site, there are certainly species that can be utilized that are shorter. Such mixes are already being used on green roofs. Admittedly the start-up cost of doing so is higher, but the long-term cost is much, much lower.

Short Grass Prairie at Wehr Nature Center

Green Roof at Chicago Botanic Garden
 In areas where turf is necessary, there are still ways to reduce water use and maintenance time involved. The first few are things that you should be doing with any turf here in the upper midwest.

  • Mow at 2.5-3" minimum. That seems pretty high to most lawn lovers, but it's the ideal height for fescue-bluegrass blends. It will reduce water loss, reduce light penetration to weed seeds, and actually form a thicker turf. 
  • Keep your blade sharp, sharpen and balance at least once per year. A dull blade creates poor cut which results in more water loss. 
  • Stop fertilizing in summer, stop watering, stop bagging grass clippings! All of these are related. Cool-season grasses are meant to go dormant in summer. They don't need much water to stay alive, they will green up in fall when temps go back down and rain (usually) falls again. If the grass is dormant, it doesn't need fertilizer. And if you DO water and fertilize, you're just making it grow more so you need to cut more often. And if you do water and fertilize and then bag your clippings, you're just throwing that fertilizer right in the garbage. Grass clippings put nitrogen back into your soil. It also feeds the soil ecosystem which feeds the grass.
  • Stop dethatching annually. Thatch is mulch. It reduces water loss, keeps soil cool which keeps the grass growing longer, and keeps the soil ecosystem healthy. Healthy soil equals healthy turf. 
  • Use only organic fertilizer. Again, healthy soil equals healthy turf. Milorganite and other organic lawn fertilizers do a great job feeding the lawn and the soil ecosystem. The best lawns I've seen are fertilized only with organic fertilizers.
  • Fertilize only in spring and fall. Fall is the most important time for fertilizer. Spring is the second most important. Any other application is a waste of money. Seriously. 
All of the above will help you have a lower cost drought tolerant lawn. Here's a few things that most DON'T do that would go a long way to having better lawns. 

Proper soil preparation. Soil prep is the single most important thing to do for growing anything. We do it for gardens, why not do it for turf? All that's usually done now is a little top soil brought in over clay or sand subsoil, seed, water and watch it grow. Most of my lawn was done this way (long before we bought our house). We just got done with a week in the 80s, and haven't had rain in well over 6 weeks. This is what most of my lawn looks like:


I don't mind, as I've said before it's dormant and will come up when we get some rain. Hopefully soon as things are far too dry, and even a lawn has no business looking like this in late September!
But to get ready for selling our house, I removed my gardens and put in turf. Granted the soil prep I did for this area was done for gardens and not turf, but it has made a difference. (This post is when I put the gardens in in 2013). If you're doing your own lawn, plan on compost rather than just plain topsoil. Request proper prep from your contractors if you're not doing it yourself. It will cost a little more, but it's worth it.

Variety selection also plays a big role in drought tolerance, and you typically get what you pay for. For seeding my former gardens I used Black Beauty seed from Jonathan Green. This is comprised of specific strains of tall fescue which happens to be quite drought tolerant. Proper soil prep and drought tolerant variety selection results in the area looking like this:
As you can see the area of tall fescue is much greener and more healthy. Though I do have a few bare spots that just haven't filled in properly, those have recently been overseeded. It was only fertilized last fall with a starter fertilizer.

I have still had to mow this area though so it hasn't reduced my maintenance input. How can that be accomplished? There are several low mow or "no" mow options out there. They tend to all be good options for drought tolerance and having a lawn that looks decent.

Prairie Nursery offers the original no-mow mix, which consists of 6 varieties of creeping fescue. It's drought tolerant and has good root depth which makes it pretty water thrifty. They say it reduces mowing to once or twice a year, but that's really dependent on the look you want. Certainly it will reduce your mowing almost regardless of how you want it to look as they tend to be slower growing.

There are some low-mow forms of bluegrass out there. Some of the seed strains appear to be a little more prone to disease problems. Vegetative forms have been selected for good disease resistance. I worry about vegetative forms having a complete meltdown once they become prone to a disease. But these forms tend to only grow to 3" or so, making them almost no mow.

High Country Gardens and a few other sources offer vegetatively propagated grasses in plugs. This is an expensive way to go, but the options are certainly intriguing. Blue Manna and Buffalo grass are both extremely drought tolerant and offer good options for less mowing. These are warm season grasses, meaning they'll look good in summer but green up slowly in spring and go dormant early in fall.

As we hunt for our next house and our nursery location, we've already discussed installing low/no mow lawns. I'll definitely be trying a few options out when the time comes, and will probably even order a few flats of grass plugs to see how they do here in the far north and our sandy soil. Hopefully some of you will consider renovating your lawns or at least over-seeding with some slower growing or drought tolerant selections.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Fall Flowers for the Shade Garden

I think for the average gardener shade gardens are tough to wrap their head around. They're not like sun gardens that have an abundance of blooms all spring, summer, and fall. A majority of well-known shade plants bloom only in spring. So shade gardens tend to bee seen as a study in contrast and texture with color as often coming from leaves as it does from flowers. This isn't to say you can't or won't have flower color all season long, but it takes a little extra effort to accomplish.

Shade gardens seem to take a back seat especially in fall. I think there's so much emphasis from various media on mums and pumpkins that gardeners overlook the fact there are plenty of great fall-blooming plants for the shade garden. Staged correctly you can have almost as much color riot in fall as you can in spring. And you get a diversity of foliage color and texture too!

We carry many of these at Botanophilia, and you can find them here.

Actaea simplex - black snakeroot, black cohosh, bugbane, fairy candles
This great plant is represented in gardens primarily by its many dark-leafed forms, 'Hillside Black Beauty' and 'Black Negligee' are probably the most popular. The former has the darkest foliage on the market, the latter is much more vigorous and still has nice dark color. Foliage is coarsely divided and reaches 2-3' tall. 12" spikes of white, sometimes tinged pink, fragrant flowers to 6-7' tall in August and September often lasting into October. Easily reaching 7' across in time, this plant takes up some real estate but is a magnificent accent plant.

Former classified in the genus Cimicifuga, in 2000 it was reclassified using morphology and DNA data and placed in Actaea. Also often listed as Actaea or Cimicifuga ramosa, but there is no valid species by that name. Ramosa was published in an obscure reference 1932. Any plants listed as such most likely belong to A. simplex which is native to Russia, China, Korea and Japan. There IS however Actaea racemosa native to the US, but (as far as I know anyway) there are no dark leafed forms of that species. The similarity between the invalid ramose and racemosa often leads to confusion as well.

Actaea simplex 'Hillside Black Beauty'

Anemone hupehensis and x hybrid -  Japanese anemone
The group of fall blooming Anemones come in a range of colors from white through vibrant dark pink and may be single or double flowered. They range in size from 14" to 4' tall depending on variety. The only down side to this plant is that it can be pretty aggressive, so it can be tough to mix with other plants. But as a large scale groundcover it can work very well and give a huge amount of color in the fall. Some hybrids may be less aggressive than others as well.
Anemone 'Whirlwind' 



Chelone glabra 'Black Ace' - White Turtlehead
White turtlehead is a great US native that forms a 4' tall x 3' wide patch of dark green foliage topped with white flowers in late summer to fall. Apparently it can reach nearly 6' tall in optimum conditions.As a general rule Chelone glabra prefers moist conditions as it's found bordering wetlands but I've had good luck with it in average conditions if it doesn't get too dry. It's also the larval host for the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly. 'Black Ace' emerges with dark, almost black, stems and foliage that gives way quickly to dark green.




Chelone lyonii 'Hot Lips' - Pink Turtlehead
Similar in look to white turtlehead but with broader foliage and rich pink flowers. This species has a bit more of a spreading habit as well, reaching 5-6' wide in time. Foliage is clean, glossy, and dark green. 'Hot Lips' is the typically encountered form of the species, but there are a few other varieties. Some are reputedly quite compact but that so far hasn't been the case in my gardens.





Eurybia divaricate 'Eastern Star' - white wood aster
This might be one of my favorite under-rated fall bloomers for shade. Formerly classified in the genus Aster, it was moved to Eurybia when the American Asters were reclassified. 'Eastern Star' is a nice compact form that stays 18" or less for me. White flowers in September are small and unassuming individually but make a great show when viewed en masse. Arrow-shaped foliage is dark green and held on dark wiry stems. After flowering you can get excellent fall color ranging from yellow to bright red.





Geranium soboliferum 'Butterfly Kisses' - Cranesbill, hardy geranium
Geraniums are typically thought of as spring bloomers but there are a few species that bloom in fall. G. soboliferum is one of those and 'Butterfly Kisses' is a selection from Brent Horvath with bright pink flowers. Foliage is finely cut like many other species and fall color can be a good bright red, habit is mounded and clump forming to 18" x 24". I have had it seed around a bit but I wouldn't call it invasive. I love this plant as a textural contrast to hosta.






Kirengeshoma palmata - Yellow Wax Bells
Kirengeshoma has become one of my favorite background plants for shade gardens. Broad palmate foliage on typically upright stems topped with waxy, bell-shaped, yellow flowers in August to October. Growing 4-6' tall and equally as wide. This is a great backer for hostas, grasses, and ferns in shade gardens.




Leucosceptrum japonicum - Japanese mountain mint
Japanese mountain mint is a neat plant that's starting to gain a little more popularity. It's one of the well-behaved plants in the mint family. 'Gold Angel' has bright yellow foliage and forms a nice clump 3-4' tall x 3' wide. 'Silver Angel' has silver foliage, is a little bit rhizomatous, and grows 18-24" tall x 3-4' wide. 'Mountain Madness' has randomly variegated foliage and a similar habit to 'Gold Angel'. Flowers are short spikes of lavender flowers very late in the season, October here in Wisconsin.
Leucosceptrum japonicum 'Gold Angel'

Leucosceptrum japonicum 'Mountain Madness'

'Leucosceptrum japonicum 'Silver Angel'

Salvia koyamae - Japanese woodland sage
Salvia is usually thought of as plants for dry sunny gardens but there are several species that are found in woodland habitats. Salvia koyamae has broad fuzzy foliage mounded 2-3' tall x 3-4' wide topped with light yellow flowers in August through September. For me it's fast growing and is a great background for ferns with Hakonechloa and Heuchera for color and texture contrast.



Salvia koyamae variegated form

Solidago flexicaulis 'Variegata' - Zig-Zag Goldenrod
Another favorite very under-rated shade plant, goldenrod in general needs to be utilized more and this one absolutely should be used in shade gardens. It's well-behaved forming a 4'-5' wide colony in 10 years for me. Foliage is randomly splashed with bright gold. Flowering at 3-4' tall in August to late September. Great for pollinators and generally problem free. This makes a wonderful background to medium and large hostas.






Tricyrtis -
Toad Lily
Toad lily has been fairly popular over the years and there are many great forms available for gardeners. Flowers are typically white or yellow with purple spotting blooming in fall, though there are some that bloom in summer. For the most part form is upright, though there are some types with an arching habit.
Tricyrtis 'Dark Beauty'

Tricyrtis 'Dark Beauty'

Tricyrtis 'Golden Gleam'

Tricyrtis 'Golden Gleam'

Tricyrtis 'Miyazaki'

Tricyrtis 'Miyazaki'

Tricyrtis 'Miyazaki'

Tricyrtis 'Autumn Glow'

Tricyrtis 'Autumn Glow'