Sunday, June 18, 2006

The only thing better than red

Is even more red, as our gardening friend Frank always jokes. There's no disputing him on that, as he is our neighborhood gardening sensei. More on Frank later.

There are less than 3 days left before the Summer Solstice, and this fiery member of the mint family is a prime harbinger of hotter days to come. Commonly known as "Bee Balm," Monarda didyma is an increasingly visible plant in more gardens around this area. Though we like to think of ourselves as ahead of the curve, we weren't. When we moved in in fall 1998, there was already a small patch by the driveway in the bed by the steps. The first we actually put in was back in Spring 1999, when we planted the original front bed planting. We've since expanded it to the back corner garden, along with a purple variety called "Blue Stocking," and both are quite happy to be moving further in and out of the area each year. In fact, the purple has marched right on over and engulfed my prize Lord Baltimore hibiscus, but it's charging right through the bee balm regardless. A relief, because as you'll see next month or so, that hibiscus is a stunner. Anyway, how about a few growing notes, eh?

Monarda, being a mint at heart, can have a tendency to become truly enthusiastic when planted in an area with sufficient full sun, well drained soil and adequate moisture. In other words, it will soon colonize an area, and send out runners that pop up elsewhere in the garden. But unlike other, "baser" mints (like the spearmint that ate a corner of the upper bed), Bee Balm is so eye poppingly gorgeous, you can't begrudge it its territory. The good thing is, it likes being divided every 2 years or so (or even more often if it's too enthusiastic), and we never lack new homes for the divisions if we don't have a place to plant. them. The only real disease problem you can run into with Monarda is powdery mildew, an ugly white discoloration on the foliage caused by a fungus. It usually doesn't kill the plant, but makes it look unhealthy (which it is!). This mostly happens in the really humid months of the summer (the same mildew can also affect your Zinnias as well, for the same reason), and the best remedy we've found for it is to spray the plants with a sulfur spray you can get at good garden centers. One thing we learned not so long ago is that for plants susceptible to fungal infections it's a good thing to plant some kind of allium in proximity to the affected plants. So planting things such as chives, Globe alliums or even onions or garlic around them apparently emits sulfur into the soil and helps keep the plants resistant to the mildew.

In any case, Monarda is a great plant to grow for so many reasons, primary among all is that they attract hummingbirds by the droves. They are very attracted to flowers in the deep red to orange range, though I did see one feeding the other night on the pink Prairie Mallow we have in the front bed. They're so skittish though that I've never been able to capture one in a photo, which is a shame, given their beauty.

Yet another reason to have Monarda is that it is the herb often referred to as "Bergamot," and has a very pleasant citrusy odor to the foliage. I think some even make a tea of the leaves, but I've never tried that myself. Like any mint, each variety of Monarda has a distinct odor to the leaves. The purple variety we grow supposedly has a tinge of chocolate to the odor, but I've never quite gotten that. It's clearly distinct from the red, but just smells minty to me.

So June starts its inexorable wind down and gear up for summer with the appearance of the fiery Bee Balm ... it will last several weeks at best, and when they are really happy they often put up a second tier of blooms we call "double deckers" that will last even a few weeks more. Deadheading (if you're really that ambitious) can sometimes result in a re-bloom, but we usually just let it complete its cycle and let the other flowers take the show on from there. We have it planted in with some Purple Coneflowers (echinacea purpurea), who are more than happy to assume that gardenly duty, as they are beginning to as of this weekend.

Stay tuned for more. There's lots more coming up in the next week or two, including more Delphiniums, Sea Holly and others....


olivia said...

Great post IVG -- great info! And that colour is amazing. Really striking. So reading about the tendency to powderly mildew got me to thinking...How much do you have to worry about that kind of thing. Do you use chemical control in the garden?

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Minimal chemicals period around here. And only natural sort of stuff when we do, such as sulfur spray for powdery mildew. We don't even use stuff like Miracle Gro on the plants much (only for the houseplant types), and usually just use some diluted fish emulsion (very very stinky stuff, to warn you) which works miracles. Just compost in certain areas every year, and that's fortified by horse manure we get from C's folks. Don't worry... it's all dried up and looks like sawdust by the time we put it in the compost!

olivia said...

I didn't think you'd go that route. :) So when you write your book, you should add a chapter on natural remedies for weed and pest control etc. Or tie it to each plant, but then have it summarized.

Family Man said...

Beautiful flower and commentary IVG. I didn't know that about the hummingbirds.

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