Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

July 2010

Rain on Asiatic Lilies

If there’s one thing any two gardeners can talk about, it’s the weather. It’s hard to think of any other single factor that’s out of our control that has such an effect on our gardens.

Unfortunately, when we chat about the weather, it rarely seems to be in our favor. When isn’t it too hot/too dry/too rainy/too cold/too windy, etc.?

The weather here in Iowa has been especially wet. Many of our dryland plants (for example, lavender, penstemon, coreopsis) are suffering because the soil isn’t getting a chance to dry out before the next big rainstorm. (Though on the plus side, I’ve only had to water my container gardens a couple of times.) Some of my plants are also looking a bit lean — the rain seems to be leaching some of the nutrients out faster than usual so I’ve had to do some fertilizing.

It’s also warming up. After a cold, rainy month of May and early June, many of the annuals I planted just sat in the ground, pathetically looking up at me for help. But now that the mercury is rising, they’re taking off. My petunias have lots of beautiful blooms, my zinnias are adding a dose of cheer to my parking strip, and the sweet pototo vines are filling in like nobody’s business.

So what’s it like in your garden? What weather challenges have you been experiencing? Share them here!

A friend asked me to recommend a large tree for his backyard the other day. The first tree that came to mind is dawn redwood (Metasequoia).

It’s a great tree. Though a little off the beaten path, I think it deserves to be grown more. It even has a fun history: Dawn redwood was officially discovered in 1941 — as a fossil. Later, an unknown tree was discovered in China. A few years after that scientists connected the dots and realized the fossil was the same tree as the new species they’d found! Dawn redwood seeds were collected and sent around the world. This once rare tree is now available to just about anyone who wants to grow it in their landscapes.

So why do I like this tree so much? Dawn redwood has soft, light green feathery needles that cast a lovely shade. It grows fast, though I’ve never found it to be particularly weak. (It’s one of the few trees in my yard that hasn’t lost branches in strong winds, ice storms, etc.)

Even better? It’s deciduous and the tiny needles break down fast, so there’s no need to rake in autumn! (By the way: If you’re curious about it’s fall color, dawn redwood turns a pleasant shade of russet red.) And it’s hardy — you can grow a dawn redwood in Minnesota, Maine, or Montana.

Dawn redwood isn’t for everyone, however: It’s large (it’s capable of reaching 100 feet tall!) and has  a pyramid shape, so doesn’t look like your average maple or other more common shade tree. But if you’ve got room for it, dawn redwood makes a magnificent specimen. Just don’t try to use it as a winter windbreak…

New garden books come across my desk almost every single day. There’s one, in particular, that I can’t seem to put down. It’s called The Field Guide to Fields: Hidden Treasures of Meadows, Prairies, and Pastures (National Geographic; $21.95) by Bill Laws, and I find it charmingly distinctive in style. In the tradition of authoritative nature guides, this fine little book celebrates fields—our rural treasures—and paints a vivid picture of the many roles they have played in natural and human history. “From pasture to paddy, from cornfield to cotton field, and from vineyard to hop yard—fields are full of life…. They create both a barrier and a link between the true wilderness and where we live,” writes the author. I especially like the vibrant woodcut-style illustrations evoking meadows, prairies, and pastures throughout the seasons. Definitely worth some space on your bedside table.

I vacationed with the family in Virginia last week, and took in some of the tourist sights. Among them, Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s plantation home. It’s one of the premiere historical destinations on the East Coast, for good and obvious reasons. (If you haven’t seen it, put it on  your list — it’s first-rate.)

Washington is THE giant of American history, with a pretty impressive resume — defeatin’ the British, becoming the first president, stuff like that. So it’s not surprising that some of his other talents have gotten overlooked. I discovered during my visit to Mt. Vernon that he was quite a progressive farmer and horticulturist. Granted, he was away most of the time and so others did the actual work of tending the property and gardens (not that you would expect otherwise, given Washington’s wealth and status). Nevertheless, he took a keen  interest in plant varieties, propagation, and landscape design. We know this because Washington’s voluminous writings have been almost entirely preserved, and in them we discover his meticulous instructions—one of Washington’s trademarks—to his plantation overseers.

Washington's rebuilt greenhouse, with gardens

Washington had an intense desire for self-sufficiency, for himself and for America. In that day, that meant independence not only from British political domination, but from British commercial domination as well. (England was the source of so much of what American’s consumed, a dependency Washington wished to bring to a halt.) This motivated Washington to make Mt. Vernon as self-sustaining as possible. Among other things, it led him to a peculiar interest in saving seeds, as well as soil enrichment. He understood—in an era when most planters simply farmed the ground until it was exhausted and then moved on—that soil needed replenishment and crops needed to be rotated. One of the more interesting sights at Mt. Vernon (interesting to gardeners, at least) is a composter. It’s a reconstruction of the original, where he composted plant material, animal waste, and even human waste. He was quite a recycler. “George Washington” and “sustainability”: Two phrases you don’t normally see in the same sentence! But you should.

Jefferson’s Monticello is better known for its gardens  than Mt. Vernon, but I thought the latter, together with its demonstration farm was quite beautiful and just as impressive. Some might argue that point, but who cares. If you’re ever in Virginia, see them both!

How’s your summer coming along? We hope it’s going great!

Make it better by entering our photo contest— Home: It’s Where Life Happens. Sponsored by our friends at Snyder’s of Hanover, the grand prize is $5,000 in cash and having the photo featured in the Febuary 2011 pages of Better Homes and Gardens® magazine.

We’re thrilled at all the wonderful entries so far (such as this one shown here from BHG reader rjmmorgans) and would love to see yours! Enter today!

Hibiscus syriacus 'Blue Chiffon'When we think about planting flowers in the garden, most gardeners gravitate toward annuals (the ones you plant every year) and perennials (the ones that come back on their own). But there’s another group of great plants that are often overlooked: flowering shrubs.

And that’s a shame, because there are many wonderful, easy-care shrubs that have attractive blooms. Take rose of Sharon, for example. The variety Blue Chiffon is shown here; it offers 3.5-inch-wide flowers from July to September here in Iowa. The shrub itself can get 12 feet tall, but you can keep it smaller by cutting it back in early spring. Its size makes it a good backdrop plant or even a delightful flowering hedge or spring/summer privacy.

Do a little research and you can find a plethora of flowering shrubs for just about any season, in sun or shade. Smaller varieties, such as caryopteris and dwarf weigela, are compact enough you can even plant them in among your low-growing perennials.

Here’s a quick calendar-type list of some of the flowering shrubs I use in my landscape to show how you can enjoy spring-to-fall color in your own yard.


Beautybush (Kolkwitzia)


Lilac (Syringa)



Mock orange (Philadelphus)

Hydrangea (Endless Summer types)

Mountain laurel (Kalmia)


Butterfly bush (Buddleja)

Hydrangea (Endless Summer types)

Hydrangea (oakleaf types)

Hydrangea (paniculata types)

Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus)

Summersweet (Clethra)


Butterfly bush (Buddleja)


Hydrangea (Endless Summer types)

Hydrangea (paniculata types)

Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus)


Butterfly bush (Buddleja)

Hydrangea (paniculata types)

Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus)

Witch hazel (Hamamelis)

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