Hot and Dry Weather: Survivors in the Garden

Hot, dry, windy summer weather can be extremely stressful for plants in the garden. Temperatures in Gloucester have hovered near 100º for the last several days, topping out at 102 yesterday. Life seems to be fading from much of the garden. I am usually found hiding inside during intolerably hot weather, however in the late afternoon, I’ll take a stroll to check out heat tolerant plants that shine through the high temps. Several shrubs and perennials are doing well. Here are two that stand out:

The ‘Becky‘ Shasta Daisies, Leucanthemum superbum, that I planted en masse in early spring for our June ‘wedding garden’ are still going strong. I have been rewarded a hundred times over with waves of showy pure white blooms… great for admiring and great for cutting. They’re the 2003 Perennial Plant of the Year and are proving to be heat and drought tolerant. All they ask for is sunshine and a little deadheading.

Becky Shasta Daisy

Hardiness: USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9

Light: Full sun

Soil: Growth is optimum in moist, but well-drained soil

Bloom: June to September.

Another favorite that I’ve blogged about a couple of years ago is the Blackberry Lily or the Leopard Lily, a plant that is three plants in one.

1. In the spring, we are rewarded with blue green leaves than fan out in an attractive pattern much like an iris. Indeed it is a member of the iris family.  Familiarly known as Belamcanda chinensis, after a DNA analysis, the new classification is Iris domestica.

Iris-like leaves of the blackberry lily

2. In mid-July we are blessed with a multitude of small orange and red lily-like flowers, each blooming for a day then twisting like tiny wrung out rags before dropping from the plant. I’ve not read anything about the nectar of this flower but have observed a variety of insects actually competing over the sweet fluids.

Blackberry Lily and Sweat Bee

Blackberry Lily and red ants

3. In the late summer and fall and winter, the 3-lobed pods that are green and swelling now, split open to reveal the glossy fruit that resemble blackberries. These will fall from the plant and self seed or stems can be used for flower arrangements. I adore all three phases of this colorful summer perennial.

Belamcanda chinensis

Image via Wikipedia

It will reproduce by seed and by rhizomes which may be divided and shared. Plant rhizomes under 1″ of soil and allow to dry between waterings.

Hardiness: USDA Hardiness Zones 5-10

Light: Full sun, partial sun, partial shade (I moved my plants from full sun to partial sun and they seem less stressed)

Soil: Well-drained; grows taller in fertile soil.

Bloom: July and August

Zones: 5-10.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Beware Friends Bearing Gifts….

What began as a few sprigs of tiny pine-like greenery in a pass-along plant several years ago has become an aggressive colonizer in an area of our yard. The culprit is cypress spurge (Euphorbia cyparissias), a European plant imported in the latter 1800’s to adorn graveyards. It soon outgrew its burial ground boundaries and has spread across North America, becoming more of a problem the further west it grew. It reproduces by seed and by a successful underground root system.

Euphorbia cyparissias

I must admit the plant is lovely to see in early spring with bright clusters of yellow blooms and contrasting bright green foliage. By June, the blooms have been replaced by a sea of green needles that stay fresh during droughts and extreme heats. Although the plant can really be attractive in mass, it is outgrowing the contained area along the gravel driveway. I deeply regret that I neglected to aggressively dig up the plants as soon as I noticed they were proliferating. Now it might be too late for an easy fix.

Like all Euphorbias, the cypress spurge emits a milky sap when cut or broken which can cause irritation on the skin or toxicity if ingested. Caution should be taken to avoid contact with bare skin or eyes. The plant is toxic to both humans and animals with sheep being the only animal that is not affected by the toxins.

I realize now that I should have not let the first few plants go to seed.  Having missed that early opportunity, I must start digging each plant, trying to get as much of the root clump as I can…. making sure I am wearing protective gloves and long sleeves to avoid the drips of sap. I’m also aware that generations of seeds lie on or under the soil just waiting to sprout for years to come.

Somehow I think the spurge will win the war.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

A Walk in the Park

We’re lucky enough to have fabulous hiking trails at Beaverdam Park in Gloucester. Damming in 1990 created this 635-acre freshwater reservoir surrounded by hardwood trees and a multitude of flora and fauna. Well-maintained trails that circle and loop around the lake are multi-purposed. Hikers, nature walkers, joggers, bikers can be seen on any given day as well as riders atop their horses on certain trails.

mister gardener took the lead on this trip and we stuck to the 3-mile hiking nature trail that takes us across bridges, up inclines, down to the waterfront under the cool canopy of native trees.

Foot bridge over marsh

Along the way we saw many blooming natives such as the tick-trefoil or beggar’s lice, a woodland plant that most folks have had contact with at some time in their lives. The Velcro-like pods of the beggar’s lice is split into triangular legumes. When an animal, human or otherwise, brushes against the plant, the hairs on the seed pods grab onto its fur… or the clothing of a child or adult. I’ve learned from experience to make sure the seeds are peeled off socks before they are washed and dried since they survive both cycles and afterwards become almost impossible to remove.

Beggar's Lice with triangular seeds

The obedient plant or false dragonhead (Physostegia virginianais) we found growing along the banks of the lake.  These tight clusters of lavender/pink flowers grow on long spikes and are seen in moist ground along the edge of streams and marshes. The name ‘obedient’ is given because each flower of the plant can be pushed to and fro, up and down and from side to side and it will remain in that position.

Obedient Plant

Common inhabitants of the park are snakes, especially the rat snake, a constrictor of rodents and birds that is widespread in the northern hemisphere. Like the majority of snakes, it tends to be shy and will avoid being confronted. One identifying trait of the rat snake is the unusual kinks in its body when startled or confronted with danger.

Rat Snake: look for the white chin and throat for a positive ID

This is what mister gardener stepped over without seeing.  Sensing danger, it froze in place developing kinks along its body about every 2 inches. mister gardener allowed me to take the lead after the snake sighting.

Zigzag kinks in the body of a startled 5' rat snake

If you like fungus, it’s plentiful along the hiker’s trails at Beaverdam Park.

Paths are kept in good condition, the 3-mile hike is not difficult to traverse, inclines are slight, and there are plenty of benches to rest and enjoy the view across the water.  Many communities have similar parks and paths to enjoy the great outdoors. It’s a rewarding way to appreciate all that nature provides for us.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

The Click Beetle

I received the following email today from a friend:

From:     Felicity
Subject:  Bug
Date:      July 12, 2011 1:55:46 PM EDT
To:          Ann

Yesterday, I saw a large black and white beetle with bull’s-eye eyes. It clicked and fell over dead. What are they called?  It was black spotted with white. I thought it was dead and kicked it off the deck. Are they friend or foe?

Well, Felicity, I’m fairly certain you saw a click beetle. There are hundreds of different species in North America. All of the species have a common behavior which gives them their name. When on their backs or when threatened by a predator, they all snap their heads with an audible “click” with such force that they are launched into the air, either landing upright, at a distance from trouble or they fly away during the launch.

The click beetles that I commonly see are smaller, solid black or grey, nocturnal and attracted to light. When I turn on an outdoor light, among the moths and a variety of beetles is the click beetle, flying around the light or resting  on the wall in the glow of the bulb. The click beetle is one I cannot resist picking up between my thumb and index finger with its head exposed. It bends its head back, hesitates a split second, then forcefully snaps it forward. With each snap, it inches slowly from my grip finally catapulting into the darkness of the night. What a neat insect!

Blind Click Beetle - Photo courtesy:

The click beetle that Felicity saw sounds like either the Eyed Elater or Eyed Click Beetle, one that can grow to 2″ long or she saw the Blind Click Beetle, a smaller insect with smaller eyes.  The eyes of both are false. They have evolved to frighten off predators. The real eyes are small and are located closer to the insect’s antenna.

The larvae of the Eyed Click Beetle, Alanus oculatus and Blind Click Beetle, Alaus myops, live in damp decaying matter such as rotting logs or under a blanket of decaying leaves. They can spend years in this stage as predators of insect larvae, including noxious insect larvae like wood-borers. In the adult form, they feed sparingly on nectar and juices from plants. In our part of the country we see more of the Alanus myops, the smaller Blind Click Beetle.

So Felicity…. this is a friend, not a foe. It does not bite. It does not sting. You can pick it up without harm. You can watch it entertain you with acrobatic tricks. You may also see it playing possum fooling you into thinking it is dead… and kicking it off your deck to freedom.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

It’s not the Heat in Virginia….

…it’s the Tidewater humidity that gets you. It can be sweltering and uncomfortable. Tidewater is classified as a subtropical zone which includes parts of Texas, most of Florida, up through Georgia, North Carolina all the way to Washington, DC.  Our winters are basically mild and dry and summers in Virginia are more often hot, humid, muggy, sultry, sticky, damp, rainy, steamy. Groan….. Moan….  Grumble…. Complain….

We are experiencing that high humidity of our dog day summer right now. Receiving 3-1/2″ of rain (joy, joy!) in the last 24 hours (7″ for the month) has turned our world into a sauna. I am venturing out daily to work for short periods in the yard but find myself dashing for the coolness of the porch beneath the big fan or escaping to the house where the air conditioner hums consistently even when set to 80º.

Watching the rain from the porch

Watching the rain from the window

The heat, humidity and recent gully-washer rainfalls have turned our area into a kudzo-like lush landscape. The greens of leaves on trees, shrubs, vines, grass seem to be closing in on roads and pathways. Steam rises over pavement, grass and soil. It’s more tropical than subtropical right now.Flowers in the garden bloom and die too fast and are taking a back seat to green chaotic growth everywhere. Weeds are finding a new foothold. mister gardeners tomatoes are ripening too fast to pick, his potatoes are trapped in the wet ground… too wet to harvest, the corn in the fields has bolted to 7′ tall (8′, says mister gardener). Grass needs to be mowed too often. Frogs, toads, birds and insects form a daily symphony of sounds, noisy sounds, screeches, squawks and bellows that continue day and night.

Corn towers

Delighted ferns... looking a little Jurassic in this humidity!

This is the Tidewater I have always known and loved. I may grumble but I wouldn’t trade one sultry day for life elsewhere.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Lightning Strikes

One of our male ginkgoes was hit by lightning this spring. I noticed this sad fact after spotting small pieces of bark littering the ground around the border beneath the tree. Along the trunk of the tree are a number of splits in the bark that go straight into the ground.

Our two large male ginkgo trees grow near the corner of the home. These trees are tall but certainly not the largest trees in the yard. The sycamore and the poplar grow just yards from the ginkgoes and tower over these prehistoric trees.  It’s a mystery to me why lightning chose one of these male ginkgo trees.

We’ve heard about negative ions accumulating in storm clouds while positive ions on the ground build up, then lightning striking when the ionized paths meet. It can strike anywhere but when it strikes a tree, the sap heats to the boiling point and bark can explode from the trunk as the lightning exits the roots of the tree.

Leaves on one of the affected limbs of the ginkgo are undersized and oddly shaped but there are leaves!  That’s a very good sign. The tree does not look like it has extensive damage but time will tell. Extension agents say that it may take a year to discover the full damage to the tree so we watch and wait for the final verdict. Some things we have been advised to do now are aerate the soil around the tree, cut away any loose bark to the area of attachment to prevent rot, water well during dry periods, and fertilize in the fall to help the roots.

We are keeping our fingers crossed for this old friend.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Happy Fourth

The Stars and Stripes in Smithfield VA

“You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness.  You may think you have  overeaten, but it is patriotism.”  ~Erma Bombeck

The Heirloom Tomatoes are Ripe!

 Vintage Wine Heirloom Tomato

mister gardener’s organic heirloom tomatoes are juicy and ripe and literally falling off the plants right now. The term heirloom is loosely defined as tomato varieties that have passed through several generations in an open-pollinated or non-hybrid method of fertilization.  It’s a popular choice for backyard gardens and those who promote locally grown foods.  mister gardener’s tomatoes come with colorful names like Boxcar Willie, Aunt Ginny’s Purple, Honey, Julia Child, Amana Orange, Amish Gold, and Cherokee Purple, a popular dark-colored tomato said to be grown by Cherokee Indians well over a hundred years ago.

The shapes, colors and sizes of mister gardener’s heirlooms vary widely and I must admit they are fun to see in the garden. Not exactly beautiful or appetizing looking, but they are touted as tastier than commercial tomatoes, no matter how you slice them. These unusual tomatoes are common to see at local Farmer’s Markets and, yes, I have picked up a few from time to time. How can you resist?

Cherokee Purple

Oh dear, I may be going to get myself in big trouble for saying this.  Just give me ANY ripe July tomato warmed by the summer sun!  If the weather and soil has provided the proper conditions, whether a hybrid or an heirloom, they are equally delicious, juicy and sweet with a hint of tartness…. my favorite combination of tastes.

The down side of heirlooms is the tendency of tomatoes to split and their lack of resistance to fungal infections.  Plants in the wild must evolve to survive but heirloom tomatoes are isolated by growers for their size and shape and taste, not disease resistance. Four of mister gardener’s lovely heirlooms have perished due to fungus, however 1/4 of his garden is devoted to these plants in specially built cages to support their indeterminate sizes…. some over 6 ft. tall… so we will have enough to fill the kitchen with mister gardener’s wonderful and colorful salads all summer long!

How divine!

Ann Hohenberger