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Flower Beds Need Special Soil Preparation

Getting Things Ready for a Beautiful Flower Border

soil preparation, grit for plant bedsProfessional landscapers start every flower bed by building superb soil structure—at least the ones who make money do! A flower bed without the right components is like a cake without flour. The preparation starts with a soil test. The result is a handy list of essential ingredients for your best-blooms-ever recipe. Take a paper bag full of the typical existing soil down to your local extension office for analysis. The cost is usually just a few dollars.

Now I’m going to say something you may not like—I know you aren’t going to get a soil test. Almost no one does, even if they are required to do it in the contract specifications! I can give you no logical reason for this, except an unnatural phobia for agriculture extension agents. Anyway, I will repeat it. Professional landscapers who are successful in their business have their soil tested before digging in. You can’t change the weather or control which pests and diseases that visit your site, but you can modify the soil. The sites with the pretty flowers make the time to test.

Sometimes All You Need is the Perfect Little Vase

So Many Fun Choices

perfect little vase, floral vasesFlowers are beautiful, all in their own special way. You don’t have to be an expert floral artist to enjoy them. Sometimes all you need is the perfect little vase. This one works well because it is heavy pottery, so the vessel won’t tip over with flowers. It is an antique stoneware-cream color, which goes with everything and makes a nice contrast with the dark, maroon flowers. It also helps with the transition from that color to the soft pink blooms.

It’s easy to start a collection of favorite vases. Visit trash to treasure shops. They carry glazed pottery of all colors made by manufacturers along the clay banks of the Ohio River and other streams in the Midwest from the early nineteen hundreds through the seventies. Prices generally run from 50 cents to 20 dollars, so you won’t cry too many tears if one breaks. They made millions of them and sold them in floral shops and dime stores. They were used to hold floral arrangements or as planters (lined with gravel) to grow house plants. Larger pieces were sold as umbrella stands. Now we get cheap plastic or plain glass vases that cannot be trusted to reliably hold steady under the weight of a bunch of tall flower stems.

Big Blue Salvia

An Irresistible Lure to Butterflies and Hummingbirds

big blue salviaThere are many reasons to love this perennial. First, the color is a deep sky blue—quite unusual for flowering plants. Before the blooms open, the color is so deep it appears almost black, and then the flower spike opens from the top down. When it does, the winged creatures come on an hourly basis to sip nectar.

Second, it is reliably hardy to zone 8 and marginally hardy in zone 7b, so southeasterners get to enjoy this three to five-foot gem every year. Farther north, treat it as an annual or provide some protection from lower temperatures.

Third, there are a lot of cool cultivars, if you like different shades of blue. ‘Argentine Skies’ and ‘Black and Blue’ give you an idea of the variations from the species, Salvia guaranitica.

Fourth, it has a wonderful garden fragrance. Maybe that’s the strongest attractant for the pretty birds and bees and butterflies. Whatever it is, they are crazy about this plant!

Fifth, it is heat and drought-tolerant, once well established. It can take a surprising amount of heavy clay. Even so, it prefers moist, well-drained soils, just like every other plant in the universe. The thing is, most gardens aren’t perfect, and it is nice to know this plant is adaptable.

Joe Pye Weed

The Quiet Giant—Eutrichium purpureum

black swallowtail, tall perennials, native perennials, butterfly plants

Joe Pye Weed is sometimes called the queen of the meadow, and yet it gets about as much respect as a roadside weed. Place Joy Pye Weed at the back of the flower border where it will have plenty of room or along a fence where it will have some support. It grows taller than a person, and will sometimes grow over other plants. It can be messy, growing nine or ten feet! Fall blooms are your reward for growing Joy Pye Weed. The flowers are intoxicating to butterflies, bees, and any other small creature that flies. It is cold hardy to Canada, which is incredible for a perennial flower. Great garden designers will tell you Joe Pye Weed is an under-used gem. Travel across the Atlantic, and you will hear loud praises for its colossal impact as a background plant in European perennial borders.

In America, Joe Pye Weed hangs out in right-of-way thickets and along natural stream buffer woodlands, with a reputation of a weedy plant. Some people think perennials should grow to only three feet or so, to fit into a refined flower border. There is a dwarf cultivar called ‘Little Joe’ that stays under three feet. I love it, but it will not flower quite as large or profusely as the original. The parent plant is associated with the old Eupatorium family (bonesets and thoroughworts), a group of wayside volunteers of mixed refinement.

Joe Pye Weed is a strong, tall, midsummer floral background plant that butterflies love, which takes heat and drought, and is native to the eastern two-thirds of the United States. It is the ultimate cottage garden plant, and grows on incredibly strong stems. That means no staking required for a nine-foot flower! It smells like vanilla, and the blooms pop out at nose height. The flower color is a mauve-pink-lavender mix. If you want a most sophisticated floral arrangement on a grand scale, this is a dramatic choice. The blooms last for several weeks in the garden. It is easy to grow and a tough survivor during challenging weather—cold, moist, hot, and dry. Celebrate it on a grand scale by using it is a grand garden design.

A Butterfly Garden

Flying Flowers

swallowtail butterfly on zinniaDo you want to be covered up with butterflies? It’s easy! They want nectar and a place to lay eggs. Provide that, and they will come.

The life cycle of a butterfly is, of course, amazing! For a successful garden, avoid squishing any old caterpillar you see. You might be eliminating a Painted Lady or Red Admiral. Using herbicides can also threaten your plans for a natural habitat.

Some favorite plants of butterflies are Parsley, Dill, Fennel, Sassafras trees, and Milkweed. Adding flowers to the favorites mix will bring them fluttering to your site. Butterflies also like rotting organic matter, but that isn’t nearly as attractive! Adding rotten bananas and plastic sponges soaking in sugar water detracts from the setting. You won’t need to push things by creating an obviously unnatural vignette, if you plant the right attractors.

Here’s a list of top butterfly plants, if butterflies were doing the voting:

Staking Plants

Lean on Me

staking plants, floppy perennialsIt would be great if all plants were self-supporting, but some of the most beautiful species strain under the smallest hardship. A brief rain might pull heavy blooms down into the mud or tear leafy branches away from a tightly columnar central leader. Some plants overindulge, pushing all their nutrients into flowers, leaving nothing for strong stems. Some are top-heavy in shape, and gravity simply takes over as they grow.

There are very few perennials that don’t need staking, and this is why they aren’t used on larger commercial landscape designs, with a few exceptions. When you look at photos of beautiful English garden-style perennial beds in magazines, know that those gardens have staff who have individually staked each and every bloom so they are positioned perfectly for the shot. I imagine there may be one or two poor souls lying prostrate during the photo session with one hand tilting a plant just so. The attendant gardeners watch as each stem grows and guide the growth carefully through expensive eyelet stakes or grid netting to artificially produce the perfect floral configuration. If you’ve read Gertrude Jeckyll’s Color Schemes for the Flower Garden, you’ve seen what it takes.

Are you more of a realist with a limited horticultural staff and no money to purchase thousands of Charleston-green-painted metal rods to support your prized perennials? No problem!

Plant Reversion

Has This Ever Happened to You?

reversion, plant reverts back to original, variegation changes

Have you ever seen a variegated plant spontaneously begin growing non-variegated leaves? It’s an interesting thing. A perfectly good variegated Sedum can begin morphing into a nondescript green plant. When a plant reverts back to its parent form, you must act right away. As cruel as it may seem, you need to cut out all the offending sports-in-reverse before they ruin your special plant. If you don’t act soon, the new green plant, like an evil twin, will quickly overtake and cannibalize the original plant. The multi-colored look is cool, but hesitation will mean loss. The reversion shoots are much more vigorous and fast-growing. If you wait for very long to pull out the rogue stems, there will soon be a disproportionately large amount of them relative to the entire plant. Then, removing them could result in killing the original plant! Act swiftly when you see your variegated plant turn green. The reversion can take place after just a few days of heavy rain. If left for a month, there might be no variegation left on your plant, so immediate, minor surgery is needed (see the before and after pictures).

Installing Annuals

High-maintenance Landscape Jewelry

Ah, color bursts made with flowers! What could be nicer? Public outdoor spaces graced with well-done, seasonal color beds make a local area special and improve the quality of living. They attract happy people, and happy people bring with them economic vitality. Beautiful annual beds make a visual statement about a community. They say an area is up-scale and alive with activity. Flower color is wonderful.

Public floral displays are prolific in places like Canada, New Zealand, England, and France as well as botanical gardens. Why not create more of these in the U.S.? Cost is typically the concern. The biggest cost is skilled maintenance. The second biggest cost is soil preparation. Everything else about it is pretty easy and fairly inexpensive. If your community can afford skilled crews three times a year for installation, someone to regularly water and weed the beds, and you can afford to purchase a good soil mix with slow-release fertilizer to freshen the bedding areas, your local floral displays can be prolific, too.

Asiatic Lilies

Reliable Wow!

orange asiatic lilyI don’t know the name of this dwarf orange Asiatic Lily, but just love it! It is probably a tetraploid hybrid. The upward-facing blooms are incredible. The footprint in the garden is negligible. Next to blues or greens, it is outstanding.

Asiatic Lilies come from bulbs and a reliably hardy most of the time. If you are looking for ways to provide pop in a perennial border, but you don’t have a lot of room, try them. Remove the blooms when spent, but preserve the foliage for a strong bloom next year. This one was purchased at a grocery store, and it has been a delightful surprise performer every year.