Thursday, April 26, 2018

Moss or Creeping Phlox

Phlox subulata 'Emerald Blue' in Carina Wong's front garden.

Creeping Phlox always makes me nostalgic for my mother's garden. Mom had great swaths of Phlox subulata 'Emerald Blue' in her rock garden at the front of our house. Those dense mounds of lavender flowers were always spectacular each May alongside white Arabis, dwarf bearded iris and sunny-yellow Basket of Gold, Aurinia saxatilis 'Compacta'.

Mom always referred to Phlox subulata as Creeping Phlox, but Moss Phlox seems to be the common name I hear more frequently these days.  Phlox subulata flowers for a number of weeks in early spring and forms a low mound of green, needle-like foliage.  The star-shaped flowers have five petal-like lobes that are notched on the outside edge.

The native form of Phlox subulata can be found on rocky, sandy slopes and open woodlands in Michigan, Ontario and in a large area that runs from New York south to Tennessee. Modern cultivars come in an array of colors including pinks, reds, purples, white and white striped with hot pink.

Moss Phlox is fairly adaptable to a variety of soil types, but the soil must be well-drained. I can't stress this enough. Nothing will kill your Moss Phlox quicker than cold, soggy soil in the wintertime. If your soil isn't free-draining, amend it with fine pebbles, sand and organic material.

Moss Phlox prefers evenly moist conditions, so water young plants until they are established. Even after Moss phlox has settled in, it still may need a supplemental watering during periods of prolonged drought.

Full sun will produce the best show of flowers. In southern gardening zones however, Moss Phlox will appreciate a little respite from the heat of the afternoon sun.

 Phlox subulata 'Emerald Blue' in the garden of Marion Jarvie in Thornhill, ON.

A cushion of lavender-pink flowers in Marion Jarvie's garden.

Here pink Moss Phlox mixes with white Arabis in the gravelly soil of the rock garden at the Agricultural Campus of Dalhousie University in Truro, N.S.

The somewhat messy appearance of Phlox subulata after it flowers.

Ongoing Care

After the spring flowers fade and turn brown in late spring, Phlox subulata can look a bit scruffy and untidy. Give your plant a light haircut to remove the spent flowers and promote fresh foliage. If you're lucky, you might even see a little bit of reblooming.

After a few years, the plant's stems can become woody and will produce fewer and fewer flowers. To stimulate fresh growth and more springtime blooms, cut the stems back by half.

If you want to divide your Moss Phlox, do it in early spring just after they have finished flowering.

Cultivars to Collect

In the pictures below, one cultivar may seem pretty much like any other with the exception of the flower color. There are differences however: 

Some cultivars grow more quickly than others. The needle-like foliage can also be finer and more dense on some cultivars. Finally the flowers vary in size. When you do your shopping, you'll note these distinctions much better than you will in my pictures.

Phlox subulata 'Emerald Blue' is a popular cultivar for all the right reasons and is a great one to start with.

Phlox subulata 'Violet Pinwheels' has intense violet-purple flowers in early spring. Plant in full sun. Average, well-drained soil. Height: 10-15 cm (4-6 inches), Spread 60-90 cm (23-35 inches). USDA zones:3-9.

 Phlox subulata 'Red Wings' has hot pink flowers with a deep magenta eye. Plant in full sun. Average, well-drained soil. Height: 10-15 cm (4-6 inches), Spread 30-60 cm (12-24 inches). USDA zones:3-9.

Phlox subulata 'Pink Emerald' has pink flowers with a hot pink eye. Plant in full sun. Average, well-drained soil. Height: 15-20 cm (6-8 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA zones:3-9.

Phlox subulata 'Purple Beauty' has magenta flowers with a purple flash at the flower centre. Plant in full sun. Average, well-drained soil. Height: 15-20 cm (6-8 inches), Spread 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA zones:3-9.

Phlox subulata 'Crimson Beauty' rose-pink flowers with a magenta flash at the flower centre. Plant in full sun. Average, well-drained soil. Height: 10-15 cm (4-6 inches), Spread 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA zones:3-9.

Phlox subulata 'Emerald Blue' soft lavender colored flowers with a purple flash at the flower centre. Plant in full sun. Average, well-drained soil. Height: 15-20 cm (4-6 inches), Spread 30-60 cm (12-24 inches). USDA zones:3-9.

Phlox subulata 'White Delight' has large white star-shaped flowers in April or May. Full sun. Average, well-drained soil. Height: 15-20 cm (6-8 inches), Spread: 30-60 cm (12-24 inches). USDA zones:3-9.

Other white cultivars: 'Cotton Candy', 'Early White', 'Spring white'

Phlox subulata 'Candy Stripe' has masses of white flowers with a hot pink down the centre of the petal. Full sun. Average, well-drained soil. Height: 20 cm (8 inches), Spread 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA zones:3-9.

Several types of Moss Phlox in the private garden of Marion Jarvie.

Companion Planting

Moss Phlox is most often used in rockeries where it fits in well with other alpine and rock garden plants. 

Its low carpet of blooms also makes a great understory for daffodils and tulips. It can also look terrific planted alongside early flowering hellebores. 

Plant type: Perennial

Height: 4-8 inches (10-20 cm)

Spread: 12-24 inches (30-60 cm)

Flower: Star-shaped flowers in a variety of colors

Bloom period: Early spring

Leaf: Green, needle-like foliage

Light: Full sun

Soil: Average, but must be well-drained

Moisture conditions: Prefers evenly moist, but free-drained soil

Divide: In spring after flowering

Deer Resistant: Somewhat deer resistant, but rabbits will eat this plant

Problems: Leaf miners, mites and caterpillars can be an issue. Other issues include rust, mildew, blight and stem canker

USDA Zones: 3-9

Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Visit to Keppel Croft Gardens: Part 1

The Bruce Peninsula is a thumb-shaped jut of land that lies between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. It is a place of breathtaking views, rugged cliffs and dense forests that are home to some of the oldest trees in the eastern half of North America. The summers are short, hot and often dry. The winds that sweep across the Great Lakes make the winters long and cold. 

In this picturesque, but somewhat inhospitable place, Dawn and Bill Loney chose to make a home and create a garden.

"For a number of years we lived in the Eastern Arctic where all our gardening was done in juice cans," laughs Dawn Loney. "The serendipitous purchase of our farm at Big Bay in 1977 allowed us to contemplate gardening on a larger scale. The original garden included a bank of lilacs, several old apple trees, a clump of rhubarb, two blue columbines and a tulip. Little did we know that we would be gardening on a prehistoric beach with a skim of topsoil over three metres of gravel."

"Bill is the garden's guiding spirit at Keppel Croft Gardens," says Dawn. "He's a self-taught gardener whose interest became a hobby, which in turn became a passion, and then an obsession!" 

Dawn, herself, was no stranger to gardening having grown up in New Zealand where her parents kept an extensive garden. "Every year Bill and I, and the gardens, get older and, we hope, more interesting!" she jokes.

The old farmhouse with its red door beacons you in the distance.

From the first of May through to Thanksgiving, Keppel Croft has a steady stream of visitors. We arrived on a warm, sunny afternoon in late June. Once you park your car in the shade, you're free to wander the property at your leisure.

Dawn and Bill are very welcoming hosts: "Throughout the summer we are happy to host weddings, annual family picnics and other celebrations. Don’t forget to pack your picnic and enjoy staying a little longer in the gardens."

Dawn says there was never any a grand, overall vision for the gardens. 

"Most parts of the garden began after some thought, discussions and sometimes some sketches on the back of an envelope or in Bill's garden idea book. We originally planted close to the house because we wanted to be able to find things in the long grass!"

In prehistoric times, the Bruce Peninsula lay under a shallow warm sea. Over millions of years sand, silt, clay and lime-rich organic material became compressed into layers of rock. Gardening on an ancient shingle beach makes a pick axe Bill's gardening tool of choice.

"After realizing that conventional plantings are impossible in most places in the garden, Bill perfected a planting technique which has been quite successful. He begins by digging a hole with his pick axe then everything is sieved into a wheelbarrow. The stones are collected in buckets and the soil amended before being put back in the planting hole."

"The surprise garden was made on top of a large square of carpet placed over our septic bed," says Dawn.

Today, Keppel Croft Gardens stretches over four acres and includes perennial borders, a rockery, xeriscape, zen and woodland gardens. 

"There are several ponds as well as numerous art installations. Our collection of lilacs is growing with additions each year. Among plans for this gardening season, Bill hopes to complete the dry stream, which is a project that has taken several years already. We also hope to renovate the iris beds and the old vegetable garden which got overshadowed by trees," says Dawn.

In June, the peonies are at their ruffled best. Over the years Bill has built an impressive collection.

"Peonies- so stalwart! They'll will be blooming when I am long gone," says Bill. "Nothing eats them! They provide three season's of interest; colourful spring shoots then glorious, perfumed blossoms followed by attractive seed heads and colourful autumn foliage. They're no worry in the winter either."

Centranthus ruber 'Albus' (see profile below)

Gorgeous Oriental Poppy.

A shady bench.

"Jupiter's Beard (Centranthus rubra) red, white or various shades in between...It's a prolific self-seeder that thrives in the hot, dry location with poor, stoney soil. It doesn't like to be transplanted, especially when its older," says Bill.

Jupiter's Beard or Red Valerian, Centranthus ruber is a short-lived perennial that has fragrant pinkish-red flowers. Removing faded flowers will encourage them to bloom all summer long. It likes hot, dry sites and poor soil. The flowers are also attractive to butterflies. Height: 30-90 cm (12-35 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA zones 4-9.

Centranthus ruber 'Albus' is the white flowering form. The small star-shaped clusters of flowers are again fragrant.

Two visitors relaxing and enjoying the view. 

Traditional flowerbeds will often have a band of bare earth on the outer edge. It makes the tangle of a traditional cottage garden look neat and contained, but bare earth is often an open invitation to weeds. At Keppel Croft, Bill takes a more novel approach:

"The mowing strips around the beds keep us and the other grass mowers sane. To create them, I dig a trench with a spade that is 5 to 7 cm deep. Then I set thin, pliable wood form along the outer edges. A piece of 2 x 6 is placed at the ends to keep the form upright and restrict excess concrete from escaping. Next I pour in a layer of concrete, lay down a piece of reinforcing material and pour another layer of concrete. Finally I set palm sized flat rocks in the surface and there you have it!"

 "To create the pebble mulch, I use a layer of wet newspaper over the ground, then a sheet of plastic and cover the whole thing with a layer of gravel. Pronto, a long lasting inorganic mulch! You only weed and water the holes in which the plants are located. There's just one drawback. No one ever explained an easy way to remove autumn debris without raking off the gravel."

Plume Poppy, Macleaya cordata 

Plume Poppy, Macleaya cordata in its fall colors.

Plume Poppy, Macleaya cordata is a somewhat controversial perennial. It's a tall, statuesque perennial that has gorgeous foliage and panicles of tiny white blooms that are the plant's namesake "plumes." In the fall, the leaves take on the most amazing shades of yellow and orange. The down side is that Plume Poppy is an aggressive plant that spreads by rhizomes and by seed. It has proven to be a problem in warmer parts of the United States and is considered a noxious weed in Hawaii.

It's a plant that's tempted me for years, so I asked Bill for his opinion. "Wouldn't be without it," he tells me. "When in flower it has Victorian wallpaper colours. It spreads by roots and seeds but is controllable ...except you never want to tear it out."

Bill's endorsement and those colors make it very tempting. Just remember, if you'd like to grow this perennial, you'll have to work to keep it in check.

A pretty sundial in the near distance.

Pinks, Dianthus

Peonies, Jupiter's Beard and a couple of wicker seats under an old apple tree.

"How I wished for a stone barn foundation or an old silo, but our barn foundation still has a working barn resting on it," says Bill. 

"This folly was built using an old stone wall construction technique making use of forms. Many of the stones were collected, often a few at a time, in a dry stream bed at the back of the farm. It took several years with the help of WWOOFers (short for Woldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) to complete the construction. The folly is now taking on a life of its own and, with time, it should improve in appearance with weathering."

There is more of the garden to see, but I think I will have to leave that for a Part 2.

Don't forget that Keppel Croft is a garden you can visit yourself this summer! 

For directions, hours of operation and other details check out the garden's listing on the Rural Gardens of Grey-Bruce website. You can also visit the garden's website for more information.

There are a couple of special events this summer:

June 21, 2018
Summer Solstice celebrated at Keppel Henge. The event is attended by the Bruce County Astronomical Society and several Tai Chi clubs that come with picnics and exercise in the gardens before the Summer Solstice observation in the Henge. The celebration usually includes a presentation about the solstice and there are often special telescopes brought along for sharing a view of the sun! "We always cross our fingers and hope for a sunny day," says Dawn.

July 14th, 2018, 10am - 4pm, Admission $3
Art in the Garden features forty plus artists and artisans with creations for sale. There will also be plant sales and live music.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Myths, Misconceptions and Insect Lore

by Jean Godawa

In the early years of my career, when I visited nature and gardening groups or was invited to a classroom of eager six-year-olds, I was curious to hear the stories and background knowledge that people had about insects. Sometimes the stories were stated with such conviction that I had to go home and check through my textbooks to make sure I wasn't missing some obscure fact.

I did not enjoy telling a sweet child that the number of spots on a ladybug doesn't indicate its age or that earwigs don't crawl into your ear and nibble on your brain. When it comes to insects, I feel that knowing the straight-up facts makes people less afraid of them.

Myths and misconceptions about insects abound. Insect lore has a long historical tradition that is usually based on the predictive abilities, dangerous potential or valuable qualities of these fascinating creatures.

A common legend says that if a woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) with wide black bands crosses your path in the fall, it will be a long, harsh winter, especially if it is crawling in a southerly direction, trying to escape the northern cold. Narrower black bands, apparently, predict a mild winter.

As tempting as it would be to believe a simple caterpillar over complicated meteorological tools, sadly, the black bands on a woolly bear caterpillar have nothing to do with the upcoming winter. This caterpillar moults several times before it pupates and becomes the adult Isabella tiger moth. With each of the caterpillar's moults, the black bands get shorter.

There is, however, an insect that truly does have a bit of weather expertise. It may not be able to predict upcoming weather but it can tell you the temperature. If you count the number of chirps of the snowy tree cricket (Oecanthus fultoni) in a 13 second period, then add 40, you will get the approximate temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.

Long before we were measuring the outside temperature with cricket chirps, people looked to insects for other inspirations.

The ancient Egyptians had a particular affinity for a creature whose behaviour many of us would find repulsive. The scarab beetle rolls up balls of dung to bury and lay its eggs inside. Rather than seeing this as something disgusting, the Egyptians saw it as a symbol of the sun rolling across the sky. Since the young hatched from the dung ball, they interpreted it as a young sun god being reborn every morning. This god, Khepri, was often depicted as a man with a scarab beetle for a head.

Cricket cage of coconut shell and ivory from the Qing dynasty (Smithsonian Institution)

They may not be soft and cuddly like puppies or kittens but some insects are treasured pets. Valued by some Asian cultures for their melodious and calming chirp, crickets have been collected in cages for hundreds of years. Elaborately carved bone or wood cages have been found dating back as early as 960 A.D.

Another insect, cicadas, were also revered in Chinese culture as a symbol of rebirth and immortality. While too loud to keep indoors, they were sometimes kept in cages that hung from the eaves of the house or in tree branches nearby.

This attraction to insects is very much alive today. Bug markets in Shanghai and Beijing have become popular tourist stops where thousands of crickets along with some very decorative cages are sold. Many of these insects are used for sport rather than their soothing sounds, as cricket fighting has continued to be a popular pastime.

Thanks to a lazy grasshopper, I learned early that it was important to prepare for tomorrow. Many of us remember Aesop's story of the grasshopper who spent the summer singing and dancing while he watched the ants collecting food for the winter. When winter came, the grasshopper, near death, begged the ants for help, which they refused to give. Aesop was harsh!

Whether founded in observation or superstition, stories and beliefs about insects are just as common today as they were in antiquity.

I have been told many times that having a ladybug land on you is considered to be good luck. While not one for superstitions, I have to agree. Ladybugs eat plant pests which is definitely good luck for gardeners.

Post written by Jean Godawa

Jean is a science teacher and writer. She has been writing science-related articles for print and online publications for more than ten years. Jean holds a degree in biology and environmental science with a focus on entomology from the University of Toronto. She has also conducted field research in the tropical rainforests of Asia and South America.

Many thanks to Ken Sproule and Joseph Berger for allowing us to use their photographs in this post.

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