A Gardening Year

The adventures and misadventures of an heirloom gardener

Monday, August 29, 2005

All You Can Eat!

I was in the backyard yesterday morning after work deadheading and collecting seeds when I saw a sudden flash of color out of the corner of my eye. I whirled around and saw it land: a goldfinch. He had been sampling the purple coneflower heads in the Purple Garden then moved on to the ones in the Cosmos Garden.

I have heard that goldfinches are partial to large seedheads like these, but this is the first time I have witnessed it. That is partly my fault. I am usually pretty good at getting rid of dead and dying flowers but it has just been so hot this summer that I have been neglecting a lot of clean-up chores.

Needless to say, I will be leaving the dead flowers on the Purple Coneflowers and the Black-Eyed Susans in hopes that the word will get around the goldfinch community that the buffet is open in my garden.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Photo of the week

I had been hoping the orange butterfly would come back so I could get a better picture. He did and I did. I just love the polka dots on his body!

I'm reading a book on attracting butterflies and hummingbirds and it confirms my own observations that the Aztec sunflowers, aka Tithonia, attract butterflies, especially monarchs. They love them not just for the color but also because they favor daisy-type flowers which offer secure platforms for feeding . Tithonia are also supposed to attract hummingbirds but I haven't seen any in my garden.

Friday, August 26, 2005

AM or PM?

I love to have something blooming the entire growing season. I also like to have something blooming the entire day. The morning glories grace the early mornings, the "regular" flowers open later in the morning and close again as the day wanes and the four o'clocks liven up the garden late in the day.

That was the plan. But, of course, this is MY garden and strange stuff happens. Here's another one to add to the Weirdness Chronicles.

This is what my four o'clocks look like when I get home from work in the morning:

And this is what they look like when I get up late in the afternoon:

So my question is, are four o'clocks supposed to bloom at 4:00 AM or 4:00 PM?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

My New Favorite Marigolds

I planted a lot of marigolds this year. Most of them were disappointing. The Cempoalxochitl marigolds are so insulted about being virtually hidden behind the gigantic Aztec sunflowers that they have elected not to bloom so far.

The Harlequin marigolds from the 1870's were described as having "brilliant red petals very distinctly divided by a yellow stripe, topped with a small bushy center". And this is what they were supposed to look like:

This is what actually came up:

Just plain old yellow flowers. They have very tiny, very faint red stripes.

And then there were the Cottage Red marigolds that were supposed to look like this:

But they ended up looking like this:

Every year I manage to order so much that I am eligible for free seeds. Of course I can't choose what I would like. The companies prefer to make that decision for me. One of the free packets I received were marigolds called Tiger Eyes from J.W. Jung Seed Co. Not heirloom. No picture on the envelope. I threw them into a bed in the front of the house and forgot about them. Until they bloomed. They are gorgeous. My pictures don't do them justice, so here is a picture from the Jung's site:
A little research revealed that these marigolds are offered by several seed companies. Best of all, Park's Seeds describes them as "an open-pollinated Marigold that has been gracing gardens for more than a century".

My new favorite (heirloom) marigolds!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Morning Glory Madness

I always look forward to August. Not because of the heat. On the contrary, the older I get, the less I am able to tolerate the hot and humid summers here in New Jersey. August means morning glories. My favorite is Heavenly Blue. They are heavenly. And so blue that they don't even look real. I always plant them at the end of the driveway. It is too shady for them there, but I love seeing them as I come out the door and get into the car.

When I worked normal hours, they were a great pick-me-up before heading off to the madness of the morning rush hour. Now that I am working nights, they are a wonderful welcome when I get home.

Another variety that almost doesn't look real is the Mt. Fuji morning glories. I planted them years ago. Fewer and fewer come back each year.

This year there is only one.

In the Purple Garden, the Milky Way morning glories grow on a trellis I found in Target.

I love the suncatcher in it, especially since it is in the shape of the Sun!

That gave me the idea to place trellises on either side of the door to my shed. The dark green of the trellises and the leaves and the dark purple of the Grandpa Ott morning glories contrast wonderfully with the white of the shed.

I have to be careful going into and out of the shed because the vines often reach the door.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Beach Blanket Birdies

Another hot one yesterday and today is supposed to be the hottest day of the year to date. I have to work tonight. There is no air conditioning in the building nights and weekends when I work. Unlike the poor guards in the lobby who have to swelter in their uniforms, I can wear whatever I want or as little as I want (I work alone) and I can escape into the air conditioned Data Center which is kept at a constant 67F (19.4C) for the comfort of the servers.

I wonder how the wildlife keeps cool in this heat. I laugh sometimes on my nightly walk through the local park when I see one of the feral cats sprawled on its back with its legs spread as far apart as they will possibly go. My own cat is doing the same thing at home in front of a fan. My birdbath has become wildly popular with the fence surrounding it crowded with birds waiting for their turn to cool off.

Yesterday, about noon when I looked out my window, I could see a grackle splashing around and then preening on the fence. I knew the birdbath must be low because no water came out despite his virgorous movements. I decided to brave the midday heat and sun and went out to rinse and refill the birdbath. Boy, am I glad I did.

The next time I looked out the window, there were four birds, two grackles and two LBB's (little brown birds) in the birdbath. In all the years I have had a birdbath, I have never seen that. It is always one bird at a time. Very, very rarely I will see two but they are always a pair, male and female. Never have I seen four birds nor birds of different species sharing the birdbath. I ran to get my camera. By the time I had sneaked out of the door for a better shot, one of the LBB's had gone, but I did manage to get a blurry shot of the three remaining birds.

The poor things must be so desperate for water that they are willing to overlook the usual territorial issues so that they can drink and cool off.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Weird Happenings

I could probably devote an entire blog to the weird stuff that happens in my gardens. Sometimes there is a reason for the weirdness. The Blaze roses, for instance. At least one of the bushes was not grown on a Blaze root. I know this because the original root sends up one shoot with one flower on it every year. A striped flower.

Most of the time, there is just no logical explanation for the weirdness. This year, that same bush grew two shoots with two flowers. Pink flowers. No stripes. Just pink.

My first hosta, not content with merely blooming sideways, has now decided to take a right turn towards the fence. It's a little hard to see in this picture because it is trying desperately to hide in the Black-Eyed Susans, but the flower stalk has now bent, not downwards, but sideways and not towards the light. The direction is deeper into the shade.

Here's a self-created weirdness. It happens every year when the Bleeding Heart dies back and I cut off the dead foliage. I get this tremendous hole in the semi-shady garden. It looks totally bizarre, but I can't figure out how to fill it in:

And this just looks weird. It is actually normal behavior. White Breasted Nuthatches like to walk down tree trunks head first and feed in the same position:

Seriously, how can they swallow in that position?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

What's Blooming Now

97F (36C) today. I'm wilting in the heat. The annuals are loving this weather. Here are some of the cosmos. The pink are Picotee and the yellow and orange are Bright Lights:

These are my favorite heirloom zinnias. Can you tell why they are called "Persian Carpet"?
The Candy Cane Zinnias disappointed. There were only a few blossoms that looked like this:

Most of them looked like this but in red and white. So far, this is the only yellow one:
While we're on the subject of disappointments, remember the red marigolds I was so excited about? That first blossom was so great that I prematurely made the decision to grow them again next year. Prematurely, because the rest of the blossoms have looked like this:

Pretty, but not what I was expecting.

The calendulas are still going strong.
And last, but certainly not least, I have my very first Kong sunflower towering (but not by much) over the Aztec sunflowers.

Monday, August 08, 2005


My local library is not terribly good. Unless you are in the market for a bestseller, there is not much selection. Thank goodness for the inter-library loan system. I can usually get whatever it is that I am looking for from another library. I have even been able to borrow books from Rutgers courtesy of the Middlesex Library.

Occasionally, though, I do find a gem on the shelves. My current treasure is "The Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll" by Richard Bisgrove. An oversized tome, it has pictures and descriptions of gardens designed by Gertrude Jekyll. The author has also reproduced her garden plans changing only the plant names to their modern equivalents as well as making them more legible than her original handwriting and adding water colors to make them easier to imagine, especially the plans for gardens that no longer exist.

Drinking in the wondrous photos, getting lost in the plant lists, and trying to picture vanished gardens, I find myself wanting to make major changes to the beds in my backyard. I have to keep reminding myself that the owners of these gardens had literally acres, virtually unlimited budgets and armies of gardeners whereas I have only my tiny 50x100 lot, a non-existent budget and only my limited spare time for gardening.

Another drawback is that most of the gardens Ms. Jekyll designed were intended to be enjoyed at a particular time such as late summer only. I prefer to have blooms throughout the growing season. I can still draw inspiration from her ideas. For instance, I should to widen my borders. I should also learn to use foliage, such as the iris after it blooms, as part of my planting schemes.

When I have finished this book, I will naturally be looking for something about Vita Sackville-West and the gardens at Sissinghurst.

Friday, August 05, 2005


This is definitely a year for records from the extraordinarily warm winter to the blazingly hot summer. I've also had more and different kinds of birds since adding the new feeder. Now the butterflies are breaking their own records.

Normally, I will have one or two Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies fluttering around the flowers. Last year, which was cool and rainy, I had almost no butterflies. This year, with fewer cool and rainy days, has seen an explosion in the number of butterflies. Now it is not unusual for me to see three at a time tasting the flowers on the butterfly bush. This morning, I counted five and a sixth one was sampling the Aztec sunflowers. I've tried taking pictures of all this activity, but they just don't show up as well as they do in real life.

As long as we are discussing the weather, today was supposed to be hotter than yesterday. It didn't feel hotter. I thought perhaps it was the breeze but my car's thermometer said it was "only" 97 F(36C).

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Just For the Record

Just for the record, the thermometer in my car registered 103 degrees this afternoon. The metric converter says that's 39.44 Celsius. Either way, it was pretty darn hot.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Strange and Wonderful Sightings

Ah, the Dog Days of Summer. Sunny, hot, no rain. I've gotten into a rhythm when I get home from work. First, I feed the cat. He's quite insistent on this point, assuring me that he is on the brink of starvation. Only then am I allowed to go out and play in my gardens. I deadhead, collect seeds, pull up the most egregious weeds and take pictures. After I put the seeds in their appropriate containers and the camera by the computer for later download, I go back outside and water. I've seen some strange and wonderful things going on in the gardens. Here are a few of them.

A Heavenly Blue morning glory with purple edges.

A speckled balsam flower. Hmmm . . . sounds like a Sherlock Holmes mystery!

The most strange and wonderful thing I've seen so far wasn't a flower. I was dive-bombed while watering my hydrangeas in front of my house. It was too large to be a hummingbird and too small to be a bat. It settled in the hydrangeas and I was able to get a look at it. It was the largest moth I have ever seen. Eventually it flew away in the direction of the backyard. When I finished watering, I got my camera and went looking for it. I found it on the Aztec sunflowers.

This is a polyphemus moth. They have wingspans of 4.5" to 5.5" (11.5 cm to 14.0 cm). Most surprisingly, they are nocturnal. This one was flying around at 10:15 AM.

The Aztec sunflowers have been attracting a lot of visitors:

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Spicebush Swallowtail

I'm not sure what kind of butterfly this is. All of the orange ones look alike to me and I wasn't able to get a good picture because he was opening and closing his wings too quickly. I keep hoping he will come back so I can try again.

I'm thrilled that the Aztec sunflowers have been attracting so many butterflies. As much as I love my butterfly bush, I have since discovered that it is considered invasive here in New Jersey and people are being discouraged from planting them. I'm glad to have other flowers that attract butterflies since I won't be planting any more butterfly bushes.