I Love This Plant: Tough Plants for Dry Shade

This post will be one of two showcasing the toughest of the tough plants in my garden.  These are my go-to plants when I need something to grow in an area where nothing else will grow.  This is a topic I know something about.   My shade garden is surrounded by four mature live oaks and a 6 foot wooden fence.  There are areas of this space that never see the light of day.  I have found these plants by trial and error – mostly error where I plant something in a bare area and just wait and see if it can survive.  In north Texas with freezing temps and ice storms in the winter and dry hot summers, these champs have not only survived but thrived.

The first one on the list I can’t take credit for introducing and in fact spent the first year thinking it was a weed and pulling it out.  This is the wild strawberry.    This little groundcover survived my best efforts to eradicate it following years of neglect as this was an untended lot next to the house.  It grows humbly in between the hostas and the Japanese Maple, softening the rock borders of the shadiest bed ever.  It spreads vigorously but is not invasive.  In the spring these little gems are covered with white flowers followed by sweet little strawberries throughout the summer.  The birds love the berries, especially cardinals and bluejays.  They are edible but not my fav because they tend to be a little pulpy.

The name of this next plant says it all: the Cast Iron Plant.  These evergreen plants will grow where nothing else will survive.  It is the Energizer Bunny of the plant world.  It is not showy.  There are no blooms, the leaves of this cultivar are not colorful and it grows very slowly.  But, it does have a nice architectural shape and will take anything.  I have seen this plant in beds located under stairways, in between skyscrapers and pretty much the most inhospitable dry spots ever.  I am not a fan of containers because they tend to dry out too soon and the roots tend to overheat.  But this plant laughs at those things and comes back for more.

And finally, there is Ajuga.  Ajuga, or Bugleweed, has regained some popularity these last couple years due to the introduction of new cultivars like “Chocolate Chip” with its bronzy green leaves.  I have several varieties of Ajuga in my shade garden; this variegated one is my favorite.  It has mint green leaves with creamy yellow edges.  The leaves are mottled with a pretty pink blush.  This groundcover spreads and while many listings warn that Ajuga can be invasive, this cultivar is not.

So these are three of the top dry shade champs that work in my garden.  Give them a try if you have a spot where nothing else will grow.

Happy Gardening and remember to “Bee” Positive!

Gardening with an Eye to the Future: Growing Clematis

Gardeners these days are spoiled.  You can go to several available nurseries from Wal-Mart to Calloways and pick from a wide assortment of plants all just waiting to be planted in that special spot just in time to burst into bloom a week later like you are a master gardener with a thumb so green it makes a leprechaun blush.  But some things are worth the wait.  Clematis is one of those.

Clematis is a gentle, unassuming vine that is not invasive, won’t choke the life out of anything it starts to climb, and unlike wisteria, won’t pull the gutters off your roof.  The blooms in the spring (or fall depending on the cultivar) are spectacular.  They can be single-petaled like these dinner-plate sized beauties or breathtaking multiples like the white Duchess of Edinburgh Clematis below.  The thing is that Clematis are tricky.  Here is what I have learned about them:

1. Roots in the shade, head in the sun.  Clematis bloom in full sun but their roots like to stay cool.  That’s why they are considered to be ideal companions for roses since the evergreen leaves of the roses will shade the base of the clematis and hide the bare vines in the winter.  I don’t mind the bare vines so I like to showcase these beauties on an old wrought iron gate or trellis.  Just be sure to mulch well and even though they are rated zones 5-10 (depending on the cultivar) they appreciate more shade in the South.

2. Be patient.  Clematis are slow starters.  It will take a few years before the vine is strong enough to bear a respectable number of blossoms.

3. The bigger the bloom, the fewer the flowers.  But oh what flowers there will be!  Consider mixing small blossomed cultivars that break out in thousands of blooms to the giant beauties with only 10-30 dinner plate sized blooms.

4. Once established, Clematis are not picky about fertilizer or dry spells (I am not talking about desert conditions though)  Since they are usually companion plants to other flowering shrubs and perennials, they will adapt to the watering and fertilizer schedules of whatever is growing there as well.

5.  NEVER, and this is key; NEVER EVER disturb the vines or transplant them unless absolutely necessary.  This is never mentioned in anything online or in print that I have read about Clematis but here is what I know: Clematis vines are very fragile and tend to snap with any pressure.  Has anyone else had this experience?  It can take years to recover from an accidental trampling or even a well-meaning relocation.  (Though this is not true for Sweet Autumn Clematis which is more viney and evergreen and blooms in the fall.)

Below are some pics of some of my Clematis vines which are anywhere from 2-6 years old.  Enjoy.

I don’t mean to complain but…

I don’t mean to complain but…birds are slobs.  “Attract birds to your backyard!” the gardening books say; “Provide moving water”, etc.  So I did:

It has a small fountain of recirculating water, plenty of perches for thirsty birds, open space around the water, ground cover nearby, tall berry-producing shrubs and trees surrounding.  Not to mention a 6-foot wooden fence.  A regular bird eden!  And it works like a charm.  I regularly see 12-20 birds lined up on the rocks and nearby shrubs and on the ground coming to this choice watering hole.  So what is my beef you ask?  It’s this: birds are slobs.  They poop everywhere, they foul the water, and well, they poop everywhere.  So I cleaned out the fountain three days ago (for the third time in two months – and I mean drained the water, scrubbed the rocks, cleaned the pump, and re-filled the pond with clean water.  Now I know this is a small pond but it is bigger than a bird bath, right?  3 Days!  And this is what it looks like now:

And if you are wondering why the water is brown and what all those white dots are on the bottom – it’s poop.  Now I am not a squimish gardener, I smush aphids with my bare hands, bravely dig out grubs and slugs (with gloves of course) and dirt and mud on my hands is not a problem.  But this is a little much.

So you ask if I would put a pond in if I had to do it all over again?  Of course!  I love watching the birds take turns bathing and drinking, and the squirrels.  This spring, my garden was full of robin, blue jay, cardinal, and martin fledglings all entrusted to this safe spot by busy bird parents while the babies worked out the whole flying thing.  And – this is the real payoff – I have not been bitten by a mosquito in my yard even once this summer.  And believe me, Texas mosquitos are brutal!  So I guess I will continue to be the bird janitor and clean up after the little bird brains who don’t know a toilet from a drinking fountain and enjoy watching them from afar (far afar!).  I just hope I don’t get the bird flu because the workers comp for this job is for the birds!

I

Butterflies

I am obsessed with painting butterflies these days.  A beautiful yellow and black Tiger Swallowtail flew into my garden and grazed on the Lantana.  Fortunately I had my sketchbook which resulted in this painting.  I was so pleased with the final product that I started chasing anything that flies around the garden.  My father (the guy below who looks like angry Santa) picked up a book of butterflies at the used book store and I am hooked on them.   So beautiful.  They are like flying gems.  I have been working on a series of butterflies around the world and trying to capture their vibrant color and subtle (and not so subtle) markings.  It’s like trying to paint stained glass!  I am not sure yet what I will do with them.  Certainly a series of greeting cards but maybe something else.  Meanwhile I have been collaborating with a therapist on a game teaching positive thinking and exercises for kids so I am going to have to put the brush down for a while and focus on our “Bee” Positive game and get a working model.  But, I thought I would share the series so far.  Meanwhile, any thoughts?

I Love This Plant: Ruellia

I love this plant.  This is a Mexican Petunia or Ruellia

It grows in Zones 8-11.  It is a perennial that completely disappears in the winter and then reappears in late spring.  It was given to me by my friend Linda.  “Just pick a few stems and put in the dirt where you want them.” she said and she was right.  They wilted for a day or two and then just kept going.  This one I found where I had stuck a few stems into the ground last fall.  After 30 continuous days of >100 deg. and no supplemental water, my little Mexican Petunia is going strong.  This is a closeup but the whole plant is covered with these beauties.

Meet the Dogs: Buck

This is Buck.  He is an Australian Shepherd.  My husband, Randy, really wanted this kind of dog so we did the research and found a breeder out on a farm and met the mother and father and saw the litter.  He is a beautiful dog.  Raising him from a 10 week old puppy was challenging.  I usually like rescues that are fully grown.  But we did get him house trained and Bear, our Rottweiler immediately adopted him and took care of him in the sweetest way.

Gardening with Buck has been a challenge because he is super smart and a herder.  So, everything I planted, he dug up and relocated to a pile in the middle of the back yard.  I guess he wanted to be sure the roses wouldn’t get out of line!

Buck is a truly sweet and beautiful dog.  His full name is Sidney’s Little Texas Lone Star Buckeroo.  If you look closely, you will see that both his eyes are two colors – blue and brown.  He loves to go to Lowes and Calloways with me and he is always a big hit there.  Next post will really be about gardening I promise!