January 27, 2014

Plant of the Month: Ornamental Sage


Is there a plant in your garden that you're worried won't survive this brutal winter? For gardeners outside the U.S. and Canada, are you concerned about specific plants in your garden for other reasons?

Lately, my Ornamental Sage plants have been on my mind. I'm not sure why, because they're tough perennials! I don't have the original tags, but I believe mine are either Salvia nemorosa or the hybrid Salvia x superba. They've graced the outer corners of my potager garden for about a decade now, and they've always bounced back every spring like clockwork.

Ornamental Sage in June 2013.

As soon as they start blooming, the pollinators cover them! I didn't realize until I started cropping the photos for this post that all but two show bumblebees diving in for the Salvias' plentiful nectar! (Can you see them? You can click on the photos to enlarge them.) In fact, it's hard to get a shot of these spikey lavendar/blue beauties without bumbles--not that I've really tried either way.
Ornamental Sages prefer sun, and rich but well-drained soil. They grow to about two feet tall, and form a shrub-like shape. They have a unique scent, similar to other plants in the Mint family, Lamiaceae. And rabbits and deer tend to avoid them.

Ornamental Sage in July 2012, at the height of that year's drought. Note the brown, dried lawn in the background. Granted, the plants were watered regularly, but they showed very little sign of stress.

Why am I worried about these plants? I guess I shouldn't worry because they've survived extreme temperatures and droughts for years. S. nemorosa and its hybrid superba are hardy to zone 5, and some sources say to zone 4. My two clumps are tucked in for the winter with a warm layer of Marsh Hay mulch and soft snow, and they're planted near the house foundation--on the sunny west side of the house.

Still I worry...

Ornamental Sage in August 2013. After several rounds of deadheading, still plenty of nectar and pollen to go around.

I can't imagine my garden without them. They've become fixtures--reliable stallwarts that I count on every year.

This "Dummy's Guide" to planting flowers for bees notes that when in bloom, Salvias are "covered with bees all day long." I concur.

In my garden, that means continuous blooms and continuous pollinators from May through August.


But you're more likely to have repeat blooms if you deadhead them. Several times during the season, I spend a little time every few weeks pinching off the spent blooms. I'm not picky, I just grab the garden pruners and start cutting back--usually to the base of each individual stem. Within days, I have blooms again.

I've heard other gardeners say the Ornamental Sages can be floppy. That might be true, but mine are planted with fencing as supports on two sides, and other potager plants on the other sides. And with the regular deadheading, they really don't get floppy at all.

I sure hope they'll be back this spring and summer!


January 18, 2014

Winter estates of the rich and famous

If you're fortunate enough to visit Florida this winter or spring, you'll likely have lots of company. Last March, the fishman and I spent a week with my dear parents who have a modest home in the Sunshine State, and who now live there for half the year. I'm so thankful they haven't had to deal with the polar weather we're experiencing this year.



One of the highlights of our trip last year was a visit to the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers. The famous American inventor, Thomas Edison, and the auto industry tycoon, Henry Ford, spent their winters in very comfortable quarters there. The place is rich in history, and is now a National Register Historic Site.

There's something for everyone there, including their historic homes, Edison's laboratory, lots of antique cars (including Ford's Model T), displays of both men's patents, and much more. Edison and Ford were both complex characters--Ford, especially, as revealed in this episode of the PBS "The Titans" miniseries. Edison was a Rennaissance man. Beyond his primary occupation as an inventor, he also was a businessman, chemist, astronomer, engineer, and botanist.

Edison, along with his talented and underappreciated second wife, Mina, created a botanical wonderland at their winter estate. Here are a few of the highlights:


Greeting us at the entrance was a life-size statue of Edison, surrounded by one of the largest Banyan trees (Ficus benghalensis) in the continental U.S., which was planted in 1925. It was a gift from Harvey Firestone, founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co.


One of the first things that caught my eye in the gardens was this pergola/arbor that connects the Edisons' home with their guest house.


From a distance I thought it was Wisteria.


But on closer inspection and after reading the plant marker, I found out it was Queen's Wreath (Petrea volubilis), a tropical plant.




Other tropical delights included Dwarf Poinciana (Caesalpinia pulcherrima), Spiral Ginger (Costus scaber), and Bananas (Musa acuminata).


This gorgeous Snowbush (Breynia disticha) lined one of the walkways.



Epiphytes of many varieties were in abundance.




While the Roses weren't at the peak of their beauty, I had to stop and capture a few of the best blooms.


This historic Pier once led to a dock, where Edison apparently spent many hours fishing.


But for me, the highlight of the place was the Moonlight Garden, created by landscape architect Ellen Biddle-Shipman for Mina Edison in 1929. We saw it during the day, when it was exquisite, but it was designed to be appreciated at night--when the reflecting pool and bright flowers would reflect the moonlight.



Edison used the little building that borders the pool as one of his offices. The combination of the modest building, the Water Lilies, the Bougainvillea, bright blue planters, garden benches, and the reflecting pool was magical.



Definitely a must-see if you're anywhere near Fort Myers, Fla.

January 12, 2014

Let the sunshine in


Do you like our conservatory?


Well, it isn't really a conservatory, it's a partially heated sunroom.

It's been here all along, but it's always been a little too cold for tropical houseplants.


I guess it is a conservatory by some definitions. It's south-facing, and has windows on three sides.

Definitely not a greenhouse, because it's part of our house and it doesn't have a glass roof.


Perhaps I can call it our Orangery. Or our Lemonry/Camelliary, because those are the plants we plan to grow in this room during the winter.


We purchased a Meyer Lemon as our Christmas present to each other. The Fishman was as excited about it as I was--maybe more so.


Now we I want a Camellia to keep the Lemon tree company. (Ahem ... also because I have a thing about Camellias.)


Any cultivar suggestions?

  • It will need to be potted.
  • During the winter months, the room temperature ranges from roughly 40F to 50F at night, and 40F to 60F during the day.
  • During the summer, the Lemon and the Camellia will be outside on the patio.

I'm picturing them now ...

Isn't it fun to try new things?

January 05, 2014

It's always colder (and hotter) somewhere else

Quick: Which U.S. state has the most extreme temperatures?

It's not Wisconsin or Minnesota, or Arizona or Vermont (I just picked those states randomly, by the way). Those states rank #13, #8, #14, and #23, respectively, according to The Weather Channel.

You might be surprised to know that the #1, #2, and #3 top U.S. swing temperature states are Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota, in that order. So if you live in one of those states, congratulations! Your state has the most extreme ranges of recorded temperatures.

To find out where your state ranks, check the list here: Swing States: America's Most Extreme Temperature Ranges. These are listed in Fahrenheit. If you live in other countries, what are your temperature ranges?

Of course, the "extremes" only tell part of the story. There's dry heat, and then there's humidity. And anyone who has experienced 108F in Phoenix, Ariz., vs. 108F in Branson, Mo., knows Branson feels worse (although persperation is a healthy thing, I guess).

On the other end of the spectrum, once you get below about -10F, it's too cold for humans and other creatures to spend time outside without the shelter of a warm bush, a snow-covered overhang, or a toasty warm house! And windchills add even more danger to the situation.

For those of you who aren't aware, much of the U.S. is experiencing an arctic blast, with freezing temperatures stretching far into the deep south. In my area, the forecasted high for Monday is -13F, with the low down to -20F, and a windchill in the -50sF. We haven't seen temperatures that cold for at least a decade.

But it's always colder and hotter somewhere else. As brutal as it is today, it's only temporary. On the weekend, we'll be back up above freezing (32F). That will feel like springtime! Maybe I'll even venture outside with my camera!

If it's cold, or snowy, or hot, or dangerous where you live, stay safe! And do, please, share your brutal weather stories in the comments.

*Added 1.6.14: Check out this link for Incredible Temperature Swings in One Day.