Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.


Vertical Gutter Garden with Asparagus Fern

Big, blank, shady walls are bullies in my garden. Limited by no sun, dry conditions, and poor soil, my shady walls ogle my garden tools threateningly and push me around with that intimidating attitude all bullies have. I spend hours staring at an empty wall trying to come to terms with a sustainable solution that might work. Without a doubt, you have the same mean wall-bully hiding in your garden that hides in mine.

There’s only one way to fix a perplexing shady wall. In dealing with a wall-bully, one must cover it with a creative solution. A quick answer to that problem is to paint the wall, add several trellis’s all along the area, then plant a non-invasive shade climber at the base of a trellis, so the wall becomes less threatening and more appealing.

How To Say No To Bullies

My favorite wall-bully solution, however, is to recycle old rain gutters into a vertical wall of garden. Find both new and old gutters and downspouts online, at home salvage warehouses, or at your local hardware store. Screw the rain gutters into the wall. Be sure to screw into supports and joists whenever possible to give the wall garden extra support.

While you could hang the old gutters on a wall and place the soil and plants directly in the gutters, I adore the idea of using a repetitive color pattern as a bright pop on the wall. Here you see rows of preplanted Asparagus Fern sitting in bold orange containers within the gutters. Each container has its special spot on the recycled gutters that stretch nearly ten feet high up a tall shade-filled wall. If one of the plants dies, it is easy to replace the plant by simply adding another container, thereby making this technique an easy-to-manage solution.

Do not let shady wall-bullies push you around; get out there and discover a creative, sustainable, solution like recycled gutters to make that difficult wall into your best friend.

My friend Tovah Martin once told me that I should be sure to sow my poppy seeds (Papaver somniferum) on top of the last snow of the season right where you want them to grow. But each year I doubt my meteorological instincts. I figure any snowfall in March is fair game, so I’m glad I finally scattered the seeds I’d saved from my pretty purple poppies a couple of weeks ago. I purchased the original seeds some years back at VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, British Columbia, and had been saving them from year to year ever since.

Poppies will grow in any well-drained soil in full sun. Without fail, within a few weeks, here and there across my front-yard flowerbeds, will spring dozens of dainty gray-green seedlings. By early summer, I’ll have papery petals of soft lavender-purple with dark purple markings dancing throughout my garden. And those blossoms will mature into handsome dried seedheads that rattle like miniature botanical salt shakers filled with thousands of tiny black seeds. Which I will save to sow another year.

What would possess a person to creep into my garden under the cover of darkness and steal a single miniature hosta? That’s what happened a couple of weeks ago and I’m still fascinated by what I discovered when I awoke at 6 a.m to let my good dogs Scout and Finch out to do their early-morning business. The scene of the crime was self-evident, even in the first morning light. At the base of my front steps sits a handsome homemade hypertufa trough filled with miniature Solomon’s seal, miniature astilbe, and a handful of miniature hostas. These were hostas I admired and purchased from Flying Frog Farm in Indianola, Iowa, after a photo shoot for Country Gardens a couple of years ago. Guests to my garden seem to gravitate to this diminutive display and are charmed by the less-than-large versions of their favorite shade-loving garden plants. As I maneuvered my terriers down the crowded steps, I spied the hypertufa container, obviously disturbed from its base and slightly damaged, with a tidy pile of potting soil on the ground beside the pot and a mysterious blue metallic flashlight left behind—and an obvious hole in the container where miniature Hosta ‘Little Jay’ was thriving and blooming just hours before when I turned in for the night. Who on earth would creep into my yard, flashlight in hand, and remove a single miniature hosta that is easily attainable for less than $10 from a local hosta farm? Mind you, there are all kinds of much more desirable (and expensive) plants—cllvias, aspidestras, sanseverias, stapelias—and handsome containers filled with all kinds of new, rare, and unusual plants scattered around my front yard and porch in containers that could be easily snatched in less time than it would take to disengage that single miniature hosta from the root-bound confines of its hypertufa home. What’s more, anyone who knows me or has ever visited my garden or who lives in my neighborhood or walks by my garden knows very well that if you asked me, I would share any plant with anyone who ever bothered to ask to me. In fact, I particularly pride myself on my plant-sharing personality (after all, I’m bombarded with more new plants each spring than I could ever successfully tend in the not-so-big garden that surrounds my turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts bungalow and the plants I’ve passed along now punctuate my street…so that when I take my good dogs on their daily walks, I am able to admire the habits and virtues—as well as the disappointments—of many more plants than I could ever experience in just my own over-planted garden). It seems the selfish gardener knew very well what he or she was looking for. Most disconcerting to me, the culprit seems to have been someone—a friend? a visitor from a garden tour?—who had visited me and knew their way around my front-yard garden and what specifically they intended to take and make their own. Most disturbingly, within 24 hours of the crime, the left-behind flashlight mysteriously disappeared from the scene of the crime. If anyone has any information about these hosta hijinks it would be most appreciated. I’ll keep you posted.

While in Virginia recently, Marty Ross, Rob Cardillo, and I spent a delightful afternoon catching up with our friends at River Farm, headquarters of the American Horticultural Society in Alexandria. David Ellis, editor of The American Gardener, and associate editor Viveka Neveln showed us around the André Bluemel Meadow (that’s David, me, Viveka, and Rob, above). The last time I visited, the meadow was a vast expanse of lawn overlooking the Potomac River. Between 2004 and 2008, however, the site was transformed into a meadow filled with more than 100,000 native plants. This beautiful and sustainable alternative to the traditional lawn has quickly become a haven for wildlife and a popular attraction for visitors to River Farm, the northernmost of George Washington’s five farms. I especially enjoyed visiting the oldest tree standing on River farm: the largest Osage orange tree in the country. Located in the shade garden to the north of the main house, it is believed to have been a gift from Thomas Jefferson to the Washington family. It is known that Jefferson received seedlings of Osage orange from the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06. So the next time you’re in the D.C. area, leave some time to visit with this impressive champion tree in Alexandria.

Our friend Jerry Gorchels from Ball Horticultural paid us a visit here in Des Moines this past week and shared some exciting new plants for 2013, including this cool soft yellow-green petunia from their Sophistica series, Petunia ‘Lime Green’. It’s yellow chiffon with an underlying hints of lime with no veining or fading like traditional yellow petunias. I think it looks right at home in my garden. What do you think?

As barefoot boys growing up in Indiana in the 1960s, my brothers and I loved to spend our never-ending summer vacations catching bugs in great-big Miracle Whip jars. (I know.) Praying mantis. Cicadas. Lightning bugs. Crickets. Walking sticks. We’d be sure to pound holes in the lids of the jars with a hammer and nail so our entomological captives could breathe until we were done inspecting them up close and personal. I remember with great regret finding a Cecropia moth cocoon and stashing it in a not-quite-big-enough jar and leaving it on an out-of-reach shelf in the garage of our mid-century ranch. One day—too late—I discovered the spectacularly large and strikingly beautiful moth had unexpectedly emerged from its papery cocoon. Unable to properly unfurl its delicate new wings, they were permanently curled and crumpled up like a fist…even long after its untimely release. The mere thought of my mindless imprisonment still makes me shudder.

Despite my unintended cruelty, my interest in moths and butterflies has remained undaunted. Just yesterday I witnessed a female Monarch Butterfly as she miraculously located a stand of common milkweed in my front yard and carefully pressed the tip of her abdomen against the undersides of the leaves, leaving behind a single miniscule yellow-green egg the size of a single poppy seed. A pretty pair of Clouded Sulphur Butterflies flitted as high as a cottonwood tree in a private aerial pas de deux. A cheeky Red Admiral Butterfly suddenly alighted atop my good dog Finch’s shaggy head as he stood guard on the porch and it remained there nonchalantly opening and closing its wings for a delightfully long time. And then, in the waning evening light, I spotted a striking Sphinx Moth with a pair of chartreuse body stripes as it hovered and sipped the sweet nectar from my best friend and next-door neighbor Diana’s impressively pink and fragrant ‘Northern Lights’ azalea.

So it makes sense that I’ve always been obsessed with field guides, every field guide I can get my dirty hands on of flora and fauna near and far. I have a packed book shelf as pathetic proof. I especially treasure a 1903 green-bound reference to the moths of North America entitled The Moth Book by W.J. Holland, given to me for my birthday by my dear friend Candace. Sure, some of the pages are coming loose and the color-plate pages have faded a bit, but it’s definitely comprehensive…and desenigrating. Imagine my undownable delight when I recently discovered a new-and-improved field guide to our dusty-winged friends, the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012). If you’ve ever stood outside on your front porch on a warm summer night studying the moths that have landed on your screen door—always hoping for the elusive Luna Moth—this is a reference book to keep within easy reach. Just like my beloved edition of the Peterson Field Guides to Birds passed along to me by my bird-loving father when I was not yet a teen, this impressive field guide is destined to become dog-eared by your bedside.

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