Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Wednesday Vignette: Coleus ColorBlaze® Torchlight™

This is my first time participating in the Wednesday Vignette meme, hosted by Anna at Flutter & Hum. I've watched my friend, Loree Bohl (Danger Garden), participate for a long time, and I always enjoy it.

When I walked around the corner of the pool house last week and saw this trial plant from Proven Winners® cozying up to my small cat statue, I knew I had to jump in myself.

Coleus ColorBlaze® Torchlight™

When I received Coleus ColorBlaze® Torchlight™ (Solenostemon scutellarioides) as a small plant this spring, I placed it on the north side of our pool house. That little flower bed spends most of the summer as shades of green and often is neglected, both in terms of care and observation. I thought by placing this colorful coleus there, it might add a little spark to an otherwise ho-hum scenario.

Mission accomplished.

Coleus ColorBlaze® Torchlight™
Solenostemon scutellarioides

Zones: 10-11
Light: Sun or Shade
Mature Size: 24-36 inches
Water Needs: Average

This new coleus will be available in garden centers in Spring of 2019.

My end-of-season evaluation

I'm a lazy gardener. When trialing plants, I usually don't give them any special treatment and in most cases, I "set it and forget it." I try to make sure new plants get the water they need, but that's about it. This coleus was planted in spring and to be honest, I completely ignored it, not even watering it as much as I should have. It also wasn't planted in the best soil - unamended heavy clay. (Shame on me.)

It has never bloomed, which I consider to be an asset for a coleus, as I remove their flowers anyway.  It still looks good, this late in the season, but if I grow it again I'll pinch out the growth tips to encourage additional branching. I would also be sure to underplant it with a low grower like the Heuchera shown here, to hide its skinny ankles. Amended soil would be a good thing, too.

It'a beautiful coleus that adds color to monochromatic spaces with little to no effort required on the part of the gardener. And that' why it's a "proven winner" in my Zone 5b Northwest Ohio garden.

I was provided with this plant free of charge to trial in my garden. Though it's not a requirement to participate in the trialing program, I'm sharing my experience and honest thoughts on growing it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Tithonia Baby Steps

As any die hard monarch mama knows, monarch butterflies love Tithonia, a.k.a. Mexican sunflower. And anyone who is serious about attracting them will have this growing tall and proud in their garden.

Photo by TJ Gehling/CC license 2.0

I was no exception. When offered some free seeds from a wonderful seed company* a couple of years ago, I immediately chose Tithonia rotundifolia 'Torch', and I had visions of a glorious photo shoot in the latter half of summer. The monarchs were going to flock to them by the numbers. Bees and hummingbirds, too!

I couldn't wait.

Year One

So, I planted those seeds that spring. "They're easy!" everyone told me. "You're going to love them!" they said.

Photo by F.D. Richards/CC license 2.0

It was true, the packet and the website (and every other website on the vast world of the internet), claimed they didn't have any special needs, would grow in poor soil, and tolerated drought and neglect. Since they are native to Mexico and I know what harsh growing conditions there can be in much of the landscape there, I just knew that success was a sure thing.

But summer came and went, and nary a Tithonia appeared.

This is not the first time that I've had bad luck with seeds. I've made many mistakes over the years, such as planting seeds too early. And being The Queen of Procrastination, I've planted them too late. I suppose that's not bad luck, that's just bad gardening. In any case, I was no stranger to failure.

The next time I spoke with the seed company's owner at a trade show, I related my experience to her. She was puzzled and repeated what I'd heard over and over, "But those are so easy. I wonder what happened. Here, take another packet and try again."

Year Two

The next year just happened to be one in which I exercised my queenly duties and I got the seeds in the ground late. Not too late, I didn't think, but perhaps I thought wrongly. I kept waiting to see little green seedlings popping up from that "poor" soil, but summer was half over before I even saw them. I got three. And they didn't grow very fast.

My tithonias gave the term "slow flowers"
a whole new meaning.

Before I knew it, frost reared its ugly head and I only had plants barely a foot tall, if that. No blooms, of course. But, HEY! This time I got PLANTS! And I'm pretty sure they weren't weeds. Things were looking up.

Year Three

They say the third time's a charm, and I'm a believer. This year, I got those seeds in the ground at the perfect time. I was determined to make my monarchs happy campers. Though it did take a little while before I saw little green sprouts start peeking out of the ground, things looked very promising.

While others were showing their four-feet tall Mexican sunflowers loaded with blooms (and monarch butterflies perched atop, of course) on Facebook, my half a dozen plants were doing the best they could, which was the best I'd ever seen here at Our Little Acre. By the first of September, they were over three feet tall, and I saw flower buds!!!

By September 13th, I had one glorious vibrant bloom that nearly made me weep. FINALLY, I had grown a Tithonia from seed and it actually bloomed. I can't tell you how happy this made me.


Then it got cold, like in the low 40s at night cold, and the other blooms stayed closed up tight.

It has gotten warm again in the last few days, so I'm waiting for some more blooms to open. But if I only get that one Tithonia bloom, I have done better than my past efforts. As every gardener knows, there's always next year, and I'm on a roll.

*I'm not naming the seed company to protect the innocent. It wasn't the seeds' fault. It was the gardener's. I can't grow Johnny jump-ups either.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Fall Clean-Up? It's Not What You Think

It's that time of year again. The garden is winding down, things are turning brown, and it's really tempting to just get rid of things that are looking less than pretty. I feel it, too. But in the last several years, I've gotten a different perspective on this fall clean-up thing, from hearing other people share their views on it, but also from being observant in my own garden.

First, I heard, "Leave your grasses and perennials for winter interest." No problem with the grasses, because yeah, they do look beautiful when they catch the snow and it's more fun to look out there and see something taller than my knees.

I heard them mention how seed heads, like those on coneflowers, feed birds and other wildlife, so I started to leave those kinds of things, because winters can be cruel. Heavy snows and frigid temperatures make it difficult for birds and animals to find food, which can be in short supply in the first place.

And then there are the leaves. We've got 100+ trees on Our Little Acre, with several of them being over 200 years old. That means we have a lot of leaves on the ground every fall and even into winter, since the largest trees are oaks. As anyone who has oaks knows, they lose leaves all winter long.

Even though we can't leave all those leaves all winter long, we started leaving a layer of them for both plant insulation and for the insects and other critters that use the leaf litter for winter protection.

These are all good reasons to not do a "scorched earth" method of fall clean-up. I do understand that it means more work in the spring, but from a human standpoint, it's a do it now or do it later kind of thing, not really adding any work to the grand scheme of things. We choose to do it later in an effort to help wildlife.

But the purpose of my post today is to focus on insects, specifically those that we love to see in our gardens in the summer. Did you know that a large number of them spend their winters right here and need the very things that gardeners may remove in the fall?


Planting to attract butterflies and pollinators to our gardens is a thing. It's a really hot trend that I hope becomes commonplace, not just for environmentalists.

But it isn't enough to plant what they need during their breeding season. That's commendable, but what about the off season?  

Is it fair to attract them to our gardens and then sabotage our efforts - and their lives - by destroying what they need to complete their life cycle?

Not every insect or arthropod migrates. Many have the ability to lower the freezing point of their bodies and go into a state of diapause. Some can't survive, but they lay eggs that can. Some spend the winter in a pupal stage.

Let's look at these:

  • Lady beetles (ladybugs) - We have elevated ladybugs to their rightful place in the world of environmental sustainability. These small beetles overwinter as adults clustered together under leaf litter. I personally have encountered large numbers of them in spring. In fact, I try not to clear leaves away until I see them moving around and emerging on their own.

  • Swallowtails - These butterflies overwinter in their chrysalides and just because you've never seen them doesn't mean they aren't there. Camouflage is an important factor in their survival. Do you think the Eastern black swallowtails you've attracted to your garden in summer all leave your garden in winter?

    They lay their eggs on your dill, fennel, parsley, rue, and carrot tops. They eat those until they form their chrysalides nearby - in your garden, likely on stiff stems of plants.

  • Leafcutter bees - I personally love these guys. They're the ones that make the round circles in the leaves of some of your garden plants. I smile when I see that, because I know that my garden is helping a native pollinator. They take those leaf rounds back to line their nests, which are often in the hollow stems of plants. They often return to those nests to spend the winter.

Remember too, that even some of the insects that might be undesirable to you are food for those you do want. The food chain is real. The more you clean your gardens of healthy dead material, the more you're disrupting the natural life cycle of the ecosystem.

I'm not discouraging the removal of diseased plants and excessive leaf cover. I just want you to be aware of how many insects and other living things that are loved and important to us in summer, need your garden in winter, too.

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