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Archive for May, 2011


Much Ado About Mulch

Friday, May 27th, 2011

May 27th, 2011

Pile of Mulch in the Driveway

It’s almost time for my long-suffering husband to complain about the mountain of mulch clogging our driveway. How long is it going to be there?  How much did it cost? Like any crafty gardener, my answer is straightforward:

I don’t know, dear, but think how beautiful the flower beds will be!

The debris in the driveway testifies to the fact that I’ve outgrown the torture and expense of lugging bags of mulch home from the nurseries. Seven years ago I toured the local sawmill and ordered five yards of Sweet Peet. Two days later a rumbling truck deposited a glorious stack of organic goodness onto my driveway.

Such riches!  Soft, warm, dark in color and smelling faintly of the horse bedding from which it’s derived, I finally had enough material to do my entire garden. The wheelbarrows, five- gallon buckets and teenagers were busy for weeks.

Why is mulch so important?  Several reasons. It keeps soil moisture in and weeds out; it looks good, it prevents erosion, and maintains soil temperature. And if all that weren’t enough, mulching organically adds soil fertility to garden beds.

Many types of material can be used as mulch, but should they?  For my taste, pine nuggets are too big, stone chips are too reflective, and colored mulch just doesn’t look natural. I don’t use landscape fabric, either, because it tends to uglify the neighborhood by peeking up at inopportune times. Never use peat moss; it’s too dry.

Nope, I like natural-looking organic mulches, dark brown in color. I prefer Sweet Peet and its cousin, Agrimix. These products look at home in the New England garden, are lightweight and easy to apply. If you don’t have a large enough garden to warrant the dump truck in your driveway, Cooper’s sells Sweet Peet in 1 ½ cubic bags, for $10. And there are many other types of bagged mulch available at nurseries.

Whatever product you use, apply it roughly 2” deep, and snug it right up to, but not on top of your plants. Remember, however, that an application of mulch may well smother any garden seedlings you’re anticipating, such as spider flower or love-in-a-mist. It might be best to apply mulch after these self-sowers have emerged in May.

I like to get my mulch right about now and start using it immediately.  After the beds are done, a small pile remains, which I’ll need to replenish a few areas after transplant chores are completed later in the season. These leftovers, innocently blocking only one bay of the garage, are additional cause for spousal complaint.

But no matter, get out the wheelbarrows, shovels, pitchforks and buckets. Tote those bags; put your shoulder to the wheel.  Enlist the teenagers, bribe the neighbor kid, and shanghai the ‘tweens.  It’s time to mulch!

And if there are still objections, sweetly tell your mate that the sooner he pitches in, the sooner the driveway will return to its original use




Coleus, Queen of the Patio Pots

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011search


Chartreuse coleus on the patio

Coleus has come into its own. This southeast Asian species (annual except in zones 10-11) with the complicated Latin moniker of Solenostemon scutellaroides is no longer saddled with the sole reputation of being Grandma’s favorite parlor plant; it’s now a bona fide horticultural happening. Grown for their fabulous leaves, not their nondescript flowers, these beauties come in all sizes and hues, complete with ruffles, flourishes and flounces galore.  New cultivars with wild and gorgeous color combinations, lacy edges, and spectacular stems are continuously being produced. (Glasshouse Works specialty nursery in Ohio carries some 275 varieties; check them out at

Vibrant plants which range in stature from several inches to several feet, coleus are happiest in moist, well-drained soil in light shade.   I use them primarily as exclamation points in my container garden, which is composed of some 50 large assorted pots on a semi-shady patio.  Each year about this time I wander into the greenhouses at Bethel’s Hollandia Nurseries ( ) and gaze lovingly at their thousands of coleus, and it seems a few always jump into my cart. I like to choose early, for best selection, but don’t put them outside until nights are reliably warm, above 50 degrees.

Soil goes into my various containers a week or two prior to the new arrivals, to allow for  settling. The bottom half is filled with homemade compost, which adds heft and microorganisms, and then topped off with purchased potting soil, the kind with fertilizer already mixed in.  Some years I incorporate water-grabbing crystals, though the horticultural literature isn’t quite as enthusiastic on these magical little entities as it once was.

Among my favorite coleus cultivars are ‘Eleanor’, which is a big red gal who can handle quite a bit of sun, and ‘Texas Parking Lot’, which screams red and yellow. I can’t forget ‘The Line’, a chartreuse cultivar with a dramatic stripe of burgundy; and the little trailer called ‘Ducks Foot’ which comes in pink, dark red, or a green-and-white combination.

On my patio, pots of coleus keep company with abutilon, begonia, dracaena, heuchera, geranium, and whatever else strikes my fancy for the season. And though I like them without same-pot companions, they can be partnered with other annuals such as euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ and trailing small verbena.

Coleus are easy to grow from seed or cuttings, and attract few pests or diseases, but do keep your eye peeled for slugs. Those slimy creatures have been known to rappel up the sides of patio pots.  To keep them at bay, scatter Sluggo or Escar-go; both are organic controls based on iron phosphate. Crushed eggshells or diatomaceous earth will also do the job.

As the plants grow, pinch judiciously to keep shaped, and to remove the flowering stalks which encourage unattractive legginess. And make sure to water; coleus can be thirsty plants. If they begin to fade and droop, they probably need a drink.

Gardening trends, like fashion and love, do come around again. Enjoy the resurgence of an old-fashioned stalwart by bringing home some coleus to brighten your garden.



Weekly Column

Saturday, May 14th, 2011



Does that dainty little flower, the lungwort, (aka pulmonaria) have anything to do with breathing?  Our ancestors thought so. The spotted oval leaves were believed to resemble diseased lungs, and in an era of medical magical thinking, were used to treat pulmonary problems.

At various times the plant has also been known as Bethlehem sage, Jerusalem sage, Spotted Dog and Soldiers and Sailors, none of which makes any sense to us today, but which surely had some relevance in the Middle Ages.

Here in the 21st century we value lungwort for its deer resistance, early flowering, charm in the shade garden and appearance in the vase. Easy to grow given the moist shade it prefers, it’ll happily thrive and reproduce with abandon. Never invasive, it will nonetheless self-sow into areas that must appear beguiling to a lungwort youngster, such as alongside sheltering shrubs.

Flowers come in blues, pinks and whites. The leaves may be silver, speckled, solid green or splashed with white.  Only 10” to 14” tall, with a spread of 18”, the plant is granite-hardy, and once established, it’ll never leave home.  Just make sure its planting hole is amended with compost and it’s watered well the first year. Mine has been in for many years now and receives no supplemental water, even in the dry shade garden where it volunteered some time ago.

Shop for the old-timey favorite ‘Mrs. Moon’, whose hairy leaves are dotted with silver moons, and whose tiny arching stalks bear funnel-shaped blossoms which start out pink and turn azure blue.  Also try ‘Raspberry Splash’ with deep pink blooms; and ‘Siver Streamers’ which is grown for its spectacular lance-shaped leaves and is attractive to our endangered honeybees.

Actually herbs in the borage family, lungworts are, and are native to western Asia, but they’ve long been an American cottage garden favorite.

Lungworts bloom for a good six weeks, from early April to mid May, and then sporadically throughout the season. Pick and place in a miniature vase with Virginia bluebells, lily-of-the-valley and corydalis for a marvelous May Day bouquet.

After flowering, the stems turn brown and flop over. Remove the stalk, and older leaves which may begin to look a bit tattered. This will prompt the plant to send up new foliage. More de-leafing may be necessary if the summer is hot and dry. Lungwort may be divided at any time during the growing season if watered in well, but the best time is autumn.

Because these plants favor damp conditions, slugs may occasionally be a problem. If so, protect your investment with a sprinkling of the newer non-toxic slug controls based on iron phosphate, such as Sluggo and Escar-Go.

Long life, resistance to deer, pretty colors, attractive leaves, good for bees…. All attributes not bad for a little beauty which only appears to be delicate. While they may not necessarily improve our lungs, lungworts certainly gladden our winter-weary hearts.


N.B.  Be sure to check out Chapter 17 in my garden memoir, Mentors in the Garden of Life, which tells the story of how I became acquainted with lungworts via my friend Kathleen Tabor. The chapter is about the beauty of this little flower and the endurance of friendship.




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