A walk around my early fall garden

Just some photos and thoughts to remember early fall, 2021. The first winter we lived in our house, I terraced and seeded the side of our yard to create a wild edge. I have received so much joy from the plants that have come up now two years in a row in this section of the yard. I keep filling in gaps, but the bulk of color and life come from the seeds planted on turned soil a year and a half ago.

New England Aster has taken the place of first coreopsis then coneflower in the wild edge. Bumble bees and other insects have enjoyed this late summer bounty.

Russian Sage that struggled this summer, but I hope will thrive in the fall and come back with full strength in the spring.

I filled half a “supercan” with weeds from this dog run a week or two ago. I let it go to seed last year and paid the price. I plan to put down cardboard and mulch to turn this into a walking path around the side and down the hill to the back of the yard.

I have already seen one small, extremely fast bird feeding on these spent purple Echinacea/coneflower seed heads. I’ll leave all of this up through early spring.

Agastache has been a fun, repeat blooming, addition and now is home to a Yellow Garden Spider, building the perfect place to lay her eggs. I remember when I was six or seven we had a “zig zag” spider web like this outside the window of the kitchen of the house where I grew up and I have loved them ever since.

On a recent visit to the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens I saw large sections of chives blooming and it encouraged me because I thought I had just been lazy not harvesting the herb. I plan to add more of these for next year.

The blue basil in the front of the house has been a summer-long source of entertainment for me as a steady parade of wasps, bumblebees, and honey bees have spent hours floating from one flower to the next.

Another garden spider in between the sedum Autumn Joy. It’s devastating that the second search result for Orb-weaver spiders is a page on the Orkin website. Why anyone would fear, hate, and kill this insect is truly beyond me.

My mother has connected with her birth families over the past several years and we learned that her birth father’s last name was Fothergill. This plant is Fothergillia Gardenii (dwarf Witch Alder) and I feel like I have a special connection because of my new-found heritage. This one is looking great, filling out and nice and green, but the next one is not doing well, possibly struggling because I planted it in partial sun instead of full sun (it’s on the transplant list).

I can’t wait to see these Rosemary bloom in the spring. They were both maybe 5″ x 5″ x 12″ when I planted them in early 2020.

Achillea/yarrow that has naturalized well and continues to bloom.

This third bloom of the Verbascum (wedding candles) is not as glorious as the first and not nearly as much of a bee magnet, but still gives me joy and nice visual interest.

Liriope in full bloom has been making this circle pop for the last few weeks. The purple Irises in the middle are divided originally from my mom’s childhood home in Dallas. They were transplanted to California by her step mom, then again to Arizona, back to Texas, and finally flew on a plane to Richmond. It is a constant battle cutting back the suckers on the Crape Myrtle in the middle, but I finally feel like I have it in a good place. It shows off the evergreen shape of the Iris which is also a nice backdrop for the Liriope.

The newest flower bed has thrived for the most part. Roses and Hidcote lavender in bloom along the fieldstone path and near the peonies that I hope to see more from next year.

An impulse buy near the cleaning supplies section of Lowe’s, I have really enjoyed watching these Elephant Ear stretch out and claim their piece of territory.

I had dozens of volunteer tomato plants sprout this year to affirm me in my lazy composting methods. Here is one I left to grow along the ground. Newsflash, you don’t have to trellis your tomatoes! I watched a YouTube video once of an Italian family harvesting piles of tomatoes from their yard, none of them were staked. Of course there are benefits to staking, but this is a reminder to me to relax. Here are three perfectly good tomatoes grown near the ground near some faded Anise Hyssop.

Volunteer tomatoes on a trellis between two trees.

I had some extra sprouts so I tried out some different sections of the yard for tomatoes and will definitely be doing more up the deck next year.

Late summer bounty:

I believe this is a Praying Mantis egg case on this fig tree containing dozens or hundreds of eggs that will turn into those amazing predators of the garden.

Insects tucking themselves and their babies in for bed all over the place.

Parsley ravaged by Yellow Swallowtail caterpillars that I watched over the past week. I haven’t seen a crysalys yet, but hope to see the butterflies when they emerge.

Something, I think underground, is destroying what was for months a beautiful white-blooming salvia. I’m depressed about it, but will probably post this picture on a local NextDoor gardening group and see if anyone has suggestions.

When I planted this butterfly bush it was tiny, maybe two feet tall. It grew all winter long with shiny green leaves and bloomed for most of the summer until the main trunk wilted. I cut it and pulled the side trunk to the middle, but as you can see below, it is also dying. I think I have root rot and will have to remove the entire plant, but for now I’m leaving the branches that are still alive to bloom while I cut out the dead.

I don’t know what this is. It’s beautiful, but also invasive? TBD …

Summer to Fall

Two essays have recently been on my mind, “After a Summer Without Butterflies, I Cling to What Endures,” by Margaret Renkl, and “Why You Should Do Your Spring Planting in the Fall,” by Margaret Roach.

Margaret Renkl is a regular contributer to the NYT opinion section who has made me sigh more than once. Her observations in the garden connect with me on so many levels, from the plants and insects that we share to the sense that things are not what they always were. As someone who has lived in both extreme corners of the South (Eastern Texas and Virginia) I always appreciate her references and storytelling. She writes in a Southern lament style as she finds beauty in nature while mourning the way things were. In a more practical way, the essay by Margaret Roach shares wisdom from the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park. While Renkl mourns the loss of butterflies, Roach reminds me that while rural and suburban America are a toxic wasteland of pesticides, a new wave of natural meadow-style landscaping is turning cities into oases of natural beauty. Here are just some quotes and photos I enjoyed from each piece.

From Renkl, there is always beauty and death. She and I are living parallel lives and I’m so grateful that she writes because she helps me organize my own thoughts, she connects the ecosystem and helps me appreciate each part.

“How ragged we are now, dragging summer behind us like an old blanket we can’t set down. The homicidal heat of August has given way to the merely cruel heat of mid-September, but we are done with it even so. Everyone is cross, and not just the people.”

“And yet.

The mornings are a gift. Cool and damp, they feel like part of an entirely different ecosystem. If I’m poking around the garden early enough, I can spy all the darling bumblebee butts deep in the bells of balsam flowers where the bees have tucked themselves in for sleep.”

“The spent zinnias and coneflowers and black-eyed Susans provide plenty of seeds, and the beautyberries, arrowwood berries and pokeweed berries are ripe now, too.”

“Already the fall wildflowers are beginning to come into their own. The goldenrod throws its yellow plumes into the air; ironweed and asters purple the fields and roadsides; snakeroot blankets the forest understory; anise hyssop and elephant’s foot flowers call to the bees on the naturalized side of our yard. All of them feed the insects that feed the birds who need fuel for the migration, or for surviving the winter at home.”

“A basilica orb-weaver spider has built her cathedral outside our front door. Her web has been pummeled by rains again and again, but her pearly egg sacs, all strung together in a row, are safe. Every day I check them to be sure, and every day their mother watches me warily as I check.

She will guard them faithfully until she dies, and the last thing she will do is secure the guy wires they’ll need to guide them when they climb out of their sacs next spring.”

From Roach, practical wisdom and photos that make me dream of my next trip to New York.

“Rather than following the common practice of planting and transplanting in spring, for instance, she suggests shifting virtually all of that activity to autumn — and not cutting back most perennials as the season winds down.”

“But in just 11 years since the first section opened, the place has become a refuge and breeding ground for diverse and unexpected species. The state-threatened golden northern bumblebee (Bombus fervidus) can be seen happily collecting nectar on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), while nearby, fluttering swarms of the common but colorful little pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos) are delighted to find so much of their host plant, smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), to savor.”

“More than 180 species of birds have been sighted in the park. And not just the mallards and herring gulls that you might expect on a waterfront, but swallows, woodpeckers and rare sparrows, as well as 31 species of warblers. An extremely rare painted bunting (Passerina ciris) spent two months in the park one winter.”

“The practice she adheres to is called ecological horticulture. It’s the polar opposite of the purely ornamental version, which is driven by asserting control of plants in the name of aesthetics.”

“Spring planting “gets in the way of our work, instead of complementing it,” Ms. McMackin said. And in the past four years, her crew has gradually phased it out. Next year, there will be no spring planting at Brooklyn Bridge Park, except for some tree species that resent fall root disturbance.

“When we do plant in spring, and then summer arrives, it can be such an extreme environment — hot, dry and windy, too,” she said, and those are hard conditions for plants trying to root in. With a fall planting schedule, the winter that follows is easier on them.”

“In May and June, instead of planting, we can get weeds while they’re still small,” Ms. McMackin said. “You can hoe rather than having to hand-pull — getting rid of things that can cause massive problems later, if you don’t.”

“At Brooklyn Bridge Park, the gardeners skip most of the traditional fall cutbacks and cleanup. That leaves plenty of seed that can self-sow, or be eaten by birds, and preserves an overwintering habitat in the leaf litter for arthropods. Except where mulch or compost is needed, the approach is hands-off.”

“We just had an endangered sedge pop up. And we had a state-threatened saltmarsh aster appear that we relocated to our salt marsh,” she said. “It’s amazing what happens when ‘Leave things alone as much as possible’ is part of your maintenance strategy.”

Fieldstone path

Soon after we moved into our current home, I started doing one of my favorite things: digging up grass. One grass removal project became a cutting garden and a fieldstone path through the easement to a gate into our back yard. It was definitely worth the effort, we use it all the time. Here is what the area looked like before we started, just a standard, anonymous piece of grass:

In July, I got some help to dig out the first iteration and see how it felt. The path went from the street to the sidewalk, but I realized it would only work for the one car parked near the path. The stone in version 1.0 was just old concrete and pavers I’d found around the yard and these are still piled up in a stack at the end of the flower bed, waiting for me to have the energy and inspiration to do something with them. At this point, it was actually more dangerous to walk on because nothing was set. Then, I saw this post on NextDoor:

It was a lot of fieldstone (flagstone?) and a great price. It took my sister and I at least three trips in my smallish SUV and I was definitely worried about the suspension, but we got it to the house and started to lay out the new path. I never would have had the motivation to do this without her help.

First, we dug down into the path to start making way for the stone. We wanted the stone to be level with the curb and sidewalk. We also decided to extend the long tail of the path all the way down the side of the street so that any car parked along the way could use it. We poured paver sand down and added more wherever needed to level the stones and make the path smooth. We filled in the gaps with sand then dirt and some moss in the hope that it might take over eventually. I planted one plant at this point, a butterfly bush that was a replacement for one that had died within the return window. Here is how it looked soon after we finished:

To prep for the cutting garden, I amended the soil with compost, leaf mold from the garden pile, and peat moss. I wanted good moisture retention and good drainage. I don’t like tilling up soil and I may find another way to do this next time.

Later on last fall, I laid out peony (Shirley Temple, Sarah Bernhardt, and Karl Rosenfield), allium (giant Schuberti, Ivory Queen, and tiny caeruleum) and tulip (casa grande). I didn’t get pictures of it all, but I was glad to see the bulbs come up nicely in succession through early spring. The peony also all emerged and look great, still growing well into the summer months. Here’s a WIP photo with my peony roots laid out for planting down the right side of the bed:

In mid-spring this year, we added Roses (blushing knock out, Lichfield Angel, and coral drift), hidecote lavender, two asters, and another lavender moved from the backyard (originally from our last house). I also planted a catmint that is so far looking like it needs more sun and two Gerber daisies that I’ll want to move eventually since the colors don’t really fit in. Some more photos for now,

Always a good sign of soil health when you have mushrooms popping up in July 🍄

Flying insect hang out spot (video)

Something about the combination of these plants has made this picket a hot spot for flying insects, especially at a time in summer when many other flowers have dried up.

Finding the value in the trees of Creighton Court

As a part of my last job, I regularly drove through the neighborhood of Creighton Court to make deliveries. This is the second job that has brought me through this part of Richmond and for all these years I’ve been amazed by the huge, hardwood trees.

Looking north on Creighton from 9 mile
Looking north on 9 mile to I-64
Looking south on 29th

There are many articles already about why the redevelopment process is problematic in many ways and I support those efforts. What I want to add to the conversation now is an awareness of the existing trees and reasons to preserve them for whatever comes next. When I saw the plans for Creighton, I was disappointed to see that most of the trees on the design have been listed as uniform dots rather than left as the existing trees like you see along 9 Mile Rd. in the design below.

To be fair, the drawing doesn’t say explicitly that the trees will be torn down, but I’ve learned from experience not to trust Richmond to preserve them.

I used to live near the former Ethel Bailey Furman park in Church Hill. It was mostly an open field for dogs to run, pick-up baseball, ultimate frisbee, bike polo, and block parties. Around the perimeter of the park we’re around a dozen old, hardwood trees. When the city decided to build a school on the park property, the A&E firm they hired just erased them. I came home one day to a massive pile of roots and branches that had all been still in the ground when I left that morning. Here are some before photos:

And after:

The shade, the natural beauty, the sound break, the birds, and so much more are gone. In their place are Leland cypress and other predictable landscaping trees and shrubs. They didn’t even really need the space where the trees once grew because they were all around the perimeter of the lot. With some creativity they could have been preserved.

Now, in the 21st century, after all we’ve learned about the role that trees play in cooling our communities in a warming climate and how these trees are already rare in formerly redlined neighborhoods like Church Hill. With all of this knowledge, the city spent tax dollars to have these trees piled up and thrown away.

By the way, as insult to injury, the city said they were going to rebuild the park on another area of the lot and they never did.

So we come to Creighton Court and all the public housing communities in Richmond. If you look closely at the map on heat disparity in Richmond, these public housing communities (see arrow below) are not nearly as hot as Gilpin Court, the neighborhood most talked about, or even expensive neighborhoods like the Fan. My neighborhood elsewhere looks about the same shade of green as Creighton.

If the research is correct, much of that cooling affect is coming from the shade and transpiration of these old, beautiful trees. It would be such a shame for them to be taken away. Really, it should be a crime. If Richmond is taking climate change and equity seriously, the preservation of trees should be mandated. Planting a 10’ young tree (or several young trees) does not replace one that is 70’ tall. The trees do all the work, we just need to leave them alone.

Tomatoes will grow

Earlier this year, while I was gently coaxing tomato sprouts inside, some tomato seeds from my compost were already germinating and starting to grow right in the garden. I just harvested 12 tomatoes off of these volunteer tomato plants, recently thinned and trimmed. The plants that I sprouted and grew “on purpose” are weeks behind in their first harvest. This is a good reminder to me that this cycle of plants and seeds has been going on for millennia, mostly without human intervention. Without lamps, sprouting mix, and “hardening off” seedlings, these plants will find a way to grow.

Growing little fruit trees

I recently finished a book called Grow a Little Fruit Tree — a great, easy read for anyone interested in starting a home orchard. I learned about the book through NextDoor, my favorite social network of the last year. When I posted a photo of peach blossoms to celebrate early spring, I got a comment that it looked like I might not have pruned the tree recently and this book was suggested as a guide. I didn’t take it personally at all — this is a hobby and I am always learning from others.

I realized pretty quickly that I had done nearly everything wrong with the fruit trees I had purchased so far. Most importantly, I did not fully respect the full-grown size of these trees. Here are my notes:

  • The key to maintaining a small fruit tree is to prune every summer around the solstice. This keeps the tree small by reducing its vigor (typically this is the reason to avoid a summer prune)
  • Winter pruning increases vigor, use to thin out a fruit tree
  • Maintain 3-4 major limbs, the “scaffold”
  • 1 Apple requires 30 leaves
  • Compost goes on top, not in the hole, when planting trees
  • Planting a potted plant: as deep as the pot, 2x as wide, no soil on the surface, 4-6 inch berm around
  • The tardy prune (my situation for selecting tall trees and nit pruning last summer): at summer solstice cut the central leader down to knee height
  • 45-degree angle is ideal for an unsupported branch of a fruit tree
  • Too much water suffocates roots
  • Yellow leaf that falls easily = too much water
  • Yellow leaf that holds on = micronutrient defficency
  • Let surface soil dry at least a couple of inches (moisture = disease)
  • Water rarely, thoroughly
  • Add worm castings to mulch (compost) and apply each year
  • Figs fruit on new wood

And now, some before and after photos of my first solstice “tardy” prune. It’s all a learning exercise so I’ll watch these over the years to see how they do.

On that last Pawpaw I am hopeful one little sprout will get more nutrients as a result of this prune and add a third branch to my scaffold.

The next time I plant fruit trees I’ll start with bare root trees so that I can make this first hard prune right away. I’m still hopeful these trees will grow well, but probably not as well as they might have if I’d started from the beginning. Now I just watch and wait.

Early summer color pop

I’m enjoying this corner of the garden especially right now for its early summer pop of color.

I planted the anise hyssop (purple) and the mountain mint (silver/green) as plants from a nursery, but the echinacea grew from seed and has been prolific. I am amazed by how well it’s done considering my neglect – I honestly don’t even remember when I planted it.

Air layering figs

I tried air layering for the first time and so far it’s looking pretty good. These came from a neighbor’s Brown Turkey fig tree and are eventually going to be planted in a community food forest near my house. There are little air layering products you can buy, but my brother encouraged me to just use saran wrap and it worked well with about half of them rooting. You’re supposed to use peat moss, but I didn’t have any so I used potting soil with extra vermiculite instead. It’s incredible to me that you can make these as large as you want, especially since figs are fast growers and always have a branch to spare. Special thanks to NextDoor for connecting me with someone I already knew, but didn’t realize was my neighbor, who shared her fig and many gardening tips while I worked.

Hedge design (Sweet Bay Laurel)

Just sharing something I put together for a friend that wants to block the view of a neighbor’s house from their back patio. It’s not totally correct with spacing and siting, but could be tweaked pretty easily. I chose Bay Laurel because it’s evergreen and the leaves can be used in the kitchen (bay leaves) and the shrubs and perennials provide a nearly year round color mix, attraction to pollinators and birds, and are low maintenance once established. If I were to actually install this I would follow the instructions in this “How To Create A Privacy Hedge” video by Urban Farmstead.