Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Many Moods of the Convolvulaceae

Since I've been writing a lot lately and posting pictures of the various vining plants we have here, I thought I'd provide a little background about the incredible diversity of our cultivated members of the convovulaceae family growing in our garden. From the common Morning Glory, to the increasingly popular "Sweet Potato Vine" to the more exotic looking "Spanish Flag" and "Cardinal Climber," and including the delightful "Bush Morning Glory," all of these varied vining type plants are members of the large genus of Convolvulaceae. Though the genus also comprises a good number of particularly vexing weeds ("Bindweed" is perhaps the most pernicious), there are many species who make colorful contributions to climbing situations in the garden, whether it be a fence or a trellis or in our case, an old jungle gym in the back yard. So I thought I'd just compile a short entry to re-introduce our favorites that are currently blooming their hearts out in our garden.

First off is Ipomoea quamoclit, or "Cardinal Climber" as it is most commonly known, another vigorous grower though its dainty, star-shaped flowers are perhaps the most diminutive of the familiy, rarely surpassing perhaps one inch in diameter. Its distinctive "ferny" foliage is somewhat deceptive, as it is anything but delicate ... in fact it's been over 4 years since we've planted these and they return every year, often in inconvenient spots, but we rarely have the heart to pull them up, because their flowers are so pretty and provide even more food for our friends the Hummingbirds, who are attracted by their bright red blooms. Give this one the right support and you will be rewarded with masses of flowers ... and the butterflies and hummingbirds will visit you, thanking you for providing them with sustenance.

Next up is the common Morning Glory (Ipomoea imperialis, v. "Grandpa Ott") which you may remember from a post a few weeks back. This gorgeous purple cultivar is second only to the "Heavenly Blue" in our esteem, and though the blues we planted this year mysteriously refused to show themselves, we have plenty of these currently gracing the fence along the sidewalk. Of course, as anyone who has ever grown Morning Glories knows, they self seed with a vengeance and can become as weedy as their more undesirable cousins ... but if something has to achieve weed status, you couldn't ask for a more sumptuous shade of purple!

Following Grandpa Ott, we have another shot of Mina Lobata ("Spanish Flag") that I got this afternoon ... if you're not yet familiar with its particulars, see my previous two posts concerning this exciting member of the family.

Fourth up is another you are probably familiar with from seeing it here recently, Convolvulus tricolor or "Bush Morning Glory," the smallest of the family members we have planted in the garden. This diminutive cousin of the Morning Glory never reaches more than 6-8 inches in height and tends to grow in a more clumping mass than twining as its larger cousins do. This particular variety, "Blue Ensign," is by far our favorite of the group, though it also can be found in varying shades of purple, pink and white. As with most of the convolvulaceae, cultivation is relatively simple, just lots of sun and soil that is not too fertile ... though we have found that you really need to get Convolvulus in the ground as early as possible to ensure a long bloom season, as it's a bit longer to get going than common Morning Glories. Give these cheerful flowers a sunny spot of their own, plant them en masse and enjoy the waves of blue while they last ....

And finally, perhaps one of the oddest members of the family, Ipomoea battata, aka: Sweet Potato Vine, has become an increasingly popular variety you can see planted ubiquitously in public plantings in cities, as well as individual gardens. What distinguishes this one so much from its cousins is the fact that it actually does produce a rather large tuber over the course of the growing season. We have dug them in previous years with the intent of replanting them in the spring, but unfortunately they tended to rot over the winter, though if you were able to successfully preserve the tuber, I'm sure that you could achieve success the following year by replanting it. I'm also told by some (though we haven't tried this) that you can root cuttings in the fall, pot them up and keep them in a sunny window over the winter and replant those in the spring. I might try that this year just for fun, but they're so common in garden centers that we usually just buy a few to plant each spring. Though not pictured here, we also plant a deep purple variety called "Blackie," which only differs from the green in color ... both are vigorous growers (as you can see here!) and by the end of the season they usually have trailed completely over the boulder wall and cascade down to the sidewalk.

A few general planting considerations for these vines ... don't ever EVER feed an ipomoea that you want to bloom! If you do, you will get huge leaves and virtually no flowers whatsoever. They prefer poorish soils with good drainage and bloom most proliferously when left to their own designs once they have become established. Most self seed profligately, so if you don't want them taking over, you'll need to be meticulous about collecting the seeds or removing spent flowers before they can set on seeds. If you don't mind them staking out their own territory (which we like along the fence, since we usually don't have to replant there) just let them go and dry up where they have grown over the course of the summer. Come spring, you will find them in abundance, so a ruthless thinning is a good thing to make sure that those you leave will develop most vigorously.

Bonus Zinnias (For Olivia)

Yes, I've been on the Zinnia flowerevangelism trail this week (and that's about the only kind of evangelism you'll find me engaged in!) with these super simple, über easy summer workhorses ... and I can't stress enough what a wonderful addition they make to any sunny border in the garden. Whether you plant them in rows, mass them in an area or just have a few here and there, Zinnias rightly deserve their place wherever you have a sunny spot for annuals. I've planted them amongst Cosmos 'bright lights' for several years now and they make a great companion for them ... or planted behind Balsam (Impatiens balsamina) ... pretty much anywhere you want fiery bursts of color in the sunny border.

This was the first year we had the inspiration to use them as a bit of a "hedge" around the tomato and pepper patches of the vegetable garden, and they have performed fantastically, even after having been beaten down by some heavy rains and winds. It's definitely a design element we plan to repeat in succeeding years, as we have not only got a colorful border around our favorite veggies, but a handy cutting garden as well! I've been cutting a few each time I go to harvest the tomatoes and peppers, and as I noted in my previous post, they quickly replace themselves!

Of course fire color lover that I am, I was particularly smitten with the red one at the top here, though I was also very taken by the cream colored one beneath it ... and surely Olivia will recognize which one made it in the mix for her delectation ... along with a bonus Monarch!

Enjoy! They're with us for a while longer ... as long as we can keep frost at bay ... and I'm hoping we'll be able to do that for some time yet ... even with low's in the 40's forecast for next week. As long as the frost stays away, the zinnias and our other colorful late summer bloomers will stay with us!

Mina Lobata, partie deux!

Yet another updated post on Mina lobata, which I introduced last week ... And in response to a few requests to show it in wider view, here are a few shots I also got late this afternoon. Unfortunately most of the ones I took were blurry due to the lively breezes at the time, I think these give a better impression of the overall effect this spectacular vine displays on the ugly old jungle gym in the middle of the vegetable garden ...

I've still not gotten the "perfect" shots of this plant yet, but wanted to put some wider views up while it's still in its glorious prime. It's hard to describe the colorful splash you get when seeing this from across the yard ... the best I can come up with right now is that in a sunny view, it looks as if multicolored spires emerge from a mass of deep green foliage ... then you get closer and can discern the gradations of color on the individual flowers ....

I'm really impressed with this plant this year and I'm already thinking of other areas where we could plant more of this come next year ... I'm just hoping that it's as generous as its cousins the morning glories in terms of producing lots of seeds and volunteering the following year. Alas, we'll have to wait a bit longer to find out ... but we're sure enjoying it right now!

Monarchs and Zinnias

This is a follow up post to one I wrote a few days ago, in which I exalted the humble zinnia for its foolproof ability to attract butterflies in droves ...
Ok, so these aren't exactly droves, but there were quite a few visiting the zinnias in the vegetable garden late this afternoon! Though if we look out the window at any given point in the day when it's sunny like today, we can pretty much be sure to see at least a few of these classic butterflies working the zinnias. And as with most butterflies, they're tough to catchin the act without frightening them away or just achieving lovely blurs of color ....

The Monarchs have been plentiful around here this year, which is always something we enjoy seeing, since we try to make our garden as friendly to them as possible ...

I hope you enjoy them at least a bit as much as we do right now, as the summer winds down into fall ... Sad to think that soon they will take wing and head south, so it's especially wonderful to still see them around in such numbers at this point.

With any luck, I'll have more to post soon!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Speaking of Anniversaries ...

At some point today, it occurred to me (what with all the 9/11 coverage all the time), that yesterday (9/10) was the 8th anniversary of us moving into our house! Though how we ended up here is an interesting story in and of itself, I'll save that for another time ... I can still remember moving things in that September of 98 and how excited we were to be moving into such a lovely old neighborhood.

Of course one of the first things we thought of was to start planting some things, but as it was fall we put that aside for the following spring, when we first started planting up the place in earnest ... and thankfully our landlady (from whom we eventually bought the house in 2000) had no problems with us putting in plants in the small bed that already existed at the front of the house. There wasn't much there ... just some yellow iris a bit of bee balm, some meadow sage and a few perennials we eventually dug up and disposed of
in following years (mostly lamb's ear, invasive dead nettle, some non-aromatic oregano and hostas). I know that sounds heartless, but at that point we just didn't care for the generic things that were trying to take over the bed for which we had great intentions of making more colorful.

Spring of 1999 was when we started to let our imaginations go wild and we quickly filled the small bed with perennials and annuals ... which made us want even more space! What's more, I hated mowing that awful slope to the sidewalk you can see in the first picture. We did move out a bit further the following year, but since we didn't own the place yet (we were negotiating at that point) we were still being a bit careful about how much we dug up. But, once the sale was final in July of 2000, we started making plans to do away with the awful slope and building up some sort of retaining wall that would house a lot more flowers ... and we also started digging and planting on the north side of the house (the shade garden we call the "Woodland garden") as well.

In late 2002, we had a great stroke of luck thanks to our neighbor across the street. He had taken over a vacant lot on the corner and wanted to fill it in as a garden, and given that he is a lawyer who sometimes barters his services for in kind payment, he had just had a boulder border built around his lot and had a lot of them left over. He approached us about giving us some if we would help him get his lot planted up (this too is another long story best left for another time). So, in late November 2002, a guy came over with a bobcat and dumped a huge load of boulders and rocks in the front of our yard! There they stayed throughout the winter until the spring of 2003, when we got some help from friends in getting them placed where you see them now.

About 200+ bags of dirt and a few truckloads of donated dirt later, we got busy expanding our front boulder bed and we must have planted at least a hundred or so new perennials and annuals that spring and summer.
(See the second photo, which was taken in early July of 2003, right after the boulder bed was built.) And the rest, as the saying goes, is history now. We're still working on the overall design of the front beds and have made some placement mistakes for some things, but as the transformation continues, we learn more from our mistakes. It's pretty full now, and with the additional hundreds of bulbs we planted last fall, we finally feel we are getting close to where we want it to be in terms of having year round interest. Of course, being the quirky gardeners we are, we are constantly tinkering with areas of the beds, trying to find the perfect combinations of plants ... that's the challenge and joy of working on our ongoing project. The conversion is by no means complete (when is a garden ever completely done??) but we're pretty happy with how it has turned out so far.

Note on the photos:
The first is undated, probably from around 1996-97; source is from the county assessor's website listing of the property.
The second is from July, 2003, right after the construction of the boulder beds.
I still need to take a wider shot of the front this fall to post here at a later date, but at least the older photo does give a sense of the dimensions of what we have done.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Cross Pollination Time ...

Borago Officianalis (Borage)

Well, folks, I've been at this blogging thing for about three months now here at Urban Oasis, and I'd
just like to post an open forum for my visitors' comments and random musings. I'd appreciate feedback on what I've been doing here, no matter what's on your mind, I'd like to hear a bit about what my visitors think about the overall project of Urban Oasis. So drop me a comment or two on what you've liked (or not!), what you'd like to see more of, or even seed requests if you have found something that you liked over the past few months. Consider this, as they say on the BigDogBlogs, an open thread.

I began this project with an eye toward achieving one of my long time dreams ... to eventually write a book (a gardening primer if you will) showing how we've transformed our property over the past eight years here, and with the rather presumptuous aim of encouraging others to try their hand at it too... Transformative events take time, but they're also a very exciting learning process, and where gardening is concerned, there's always something new to be learned every day and every season as our floriferous friends work their way through their life cycles. Whether this book ever passes the gestation point and becomes a reality is still not clear at this point. But one thing is for certain: though I may be sporadic at posting sometimes (real life somehow seems to get in the way!), this project has kept me thinking and writing on a regular basis. And as every wannabe writer knows, this is the only way to achieve your dream of actually getting it all together in a way that may eventually find an audience ... so you, as my limited audience, can help me out in this respect by letting me know how I am doing.

I would be sorely remiss if I didn't thank a few people who have nudged me along the way as I got this blog going ... and have kept me at it the past few months. First, thanks to dada who first taught me how to post pictures over at Booman Tribune, where I have met a great group of gardening enthusiasts and truly wonderful friends. Then there's the inimitable Olivia, my dear blogmother who taught me new ways of getting up close and personal with my flowers, to astounding effect sometimes. If you aren't familiar with her amazing photography, I highly recommend that you head on over to her place and wish her a happy 1 year anniversary of her absolutely sumptuous blog! And finally, there's my dear, dear geezerly friend Family Man (my blogfather!) who with his wry wit, toe-tapping and gentle reminders keeps me coming back with new pictures and random musings on the flowerful things in life. To all of you, I offer my deepest thanks for all the encouragement and support you've given me over the past few months ... you'll never truly know how much that has all meant to me.

OK, the thank you speech is over, so give me my damn Oscar now!

Drop a comment if you wish ... you can even do it anonymously if you don't have a Blogger account. Thanks for visiting and come back often ...

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Get Well Soon Wish for Family Mom!

I was sad to learn this weekend that Family Man's mother (Family Mom) fell in their hotel room during a trip they made to Little Rock to visit a relative in the hospital there. Apparently she fractured her shoulder in the fall and also suffered some minor injuries to the face ... according to the last I read, she is recovering well, though a fall for anyone of her age is always a reason for some concern. I know, that with my hip injury from a few years ago, I dread such episodes myself, so it was even more distressing for me to hear about this episode.

So this is my small way of hoping I can cheer both of them up a bit with some saucy, bright Convolvulus from our front garden ... I hope their cheery yellow and white centers will brighten their day a bit and help put this unfortunate occurrence behind them!

Zinnias and Bumblebees!

Zinnias are one of my very favorite annuals to plant, and as anyone who has ever planted them surely knows, they are amongst the easiest of all flowers to grow successfully from seed. Whenever someone tells me something along the lines of Oh, I'd love to grow colorful flowers, but I'm just not good at it ... everything dies on me, I immediately bring up Zinnias.

They truly are THAT easy! And for those who have actually taken my advice and planted Zinnias, I have heard nothing but raves about the range of colors, sizes of flowers and the different shapes of the blooms. These particular examples are a mix called "State Fair Favorites" that I found this year while seed shopping ... they're a larger variety that seems to be topping out at about 3.5-4.0 feet tall, with a range of colors from magenta, red, to yellows and oranges ... with a few pink thrown in just for Olivia (though I must admit that pink Zinnias are probably my least favorite color they exhibit). The most common flower styles range from the "California Giants" types (such as above) with their dahlia like blooms ... to the "Cactus Blooming" variety which has more feathery, almost Spider Mum-like blossoms. But no matter what variety you may choose to plant, they are sure to delight you from July to frost ...

Here are a few planting hints and notes on Zinnias ...
  1. Wait until the ground has thoroughly warmed in the spring before you plant. In our area, I usually wait until about late May or early June to plant them, as they require the soil to be fairly warm before they germinate. You can start them indoors in pots, however, I find that transplants don't seem to flourish as well as those planted in situ, and honestly, I can't justify all the extra effort it would take to start them indoors! They germinate so quickly (generally within a week) and grow so quickly, I think they're best planted where they will grow.
  2. Give Zinnias as much full sun as you can and they will positively leap out of the ground and begin blooming within about a month and a half ... which makes them perfect for huge splashes of color when many perennials are already done. They're not picky about soil, but do make sure they are planted in well-drained soil where they won't be susceptible to root rot from too soggy a soil.
  3. Keep in mind that Zinnias are hot and dry weather lovers ... another feature that is extremely attractive for those of us who have those long, hot dry spells in July and August ... the exact time of the summer they will begin blooming for you!
  4. They don't really have many pests (though rabbits did nibble on some of ours earlier this summer and grasshoppers may sometimes attack them as well), and are also relatively disease free. They are, however, susceptible to Powdery Mildew, which is a result of too humid weather ... it gives the leaves gray patchy spots that though unattractive, will rarely kill the plant. You can also avoid this by only watering them at the base (if need be), as water which accumulates on the leaves also encourages the mildew.
  5. And finally, this is the mantra you should always adopt with Zinnias: Cut and Come Again! The more you cut for the vase inside, the more the plants will branch and become bushier, producing even more blooms in as little as a week or so in prime warm weather! They are a truly guilt-free cut flower that never fails to brighten a room with their sassy fire colors ... Just think, the investment of $1-2 worth of seeds will give you dozens of plants, each of which will, given the right conditions described above, reward you amply until frost.
  6. One last note ... though we are avid seed collectors, we never collect Zinnias, and the reason is quite simple ... they do not return true to form from the previous years. If you choose to collect seeds, you will most likely get mere pale pink blooms that revert to a wilder version of the flower, not at all like those you can get by always planting fresh seed.
So, if you're not converted now and itching to plant these next year, let me just also conclude by saying that Zinnias are sure-fire bee and butterfly magnets! On any given afternoon, we can gaze out toward this patch (planted around the periphery of the vegetable garden in the back) and count on seeing many Monarchs and other butterflies eagerly visiting them ... and when you get up close, as I did a few nights ago, you can catch the bees at work ...

Mina Lobata

So here we are, Labor Day has passed, so put away your white shoes lest Serial Mom come after you and bludgeon you senseless, even if your name does happen to be Patricia Hearst! It's that inevitable winding down time for outside activities, and if your last few weeks have been like ours have, you're getting regular, steady rains ... ours, unfortunately, keep happening on the weekends, which has kept us from getting much done in the garden. Sure, we continue to harvest tomatoes, the hot peppers are producing like crazy and we can't keep up with all the fiery goodness they've been giving us of late. And, as we watch sadly as most of the flowers fade, thoughts start turning toward the inevitable fall and winter months ... first will come Halloween, the most festive time of year at our house ... then the cold rains that will transition into snow ... yet another stage in the continuing garden cycle ...

But, there's still a lot of life left out there as well! Tonight's post is an example of a vine that has just recently come into its own, showering us with dramatic sprays of multicolored flowers ... this, my friends, is Mina lobata, or "Spanish Flag," a member of the large family of Ipomoea vines (which includes Morning Glories, Sweet Potato vine, Cardinal Climber and lord knows what other species we just don't know about or have in the garden).

Mina lobata was a flower I knew nothing about before this spring, when I spotted a pack of these seeds and was intrigued by the photo on the packet (as I am sure many of us have been seduced this way into planting something). And as I read further, the promise of lovely sprays of flowers starting a creamy white, then fading into orange and eventually red clinched the sale for me! I haven't been disappointed, and hope that these will have time to produce seeds we can collect for planting next year ... if not, I'll be on the lookout for more ...

I planted these at the south base of the old jungle gym (remnants of past owners' children) that sits smack in the middle of our vegetable garden in late May, and they were very quick to germinate and emerge. The first true leaves were a bit of a surprise, as they look exactly like smaller, though darker green, versions of one of our annual favorites, Ipomoea battata (ornamental Sweet potato vine) ... at that point, all I had to do was to be patient until they climbed up and over the rungs and wait for the blooms to appear!

Well, they started blooming in late August and show no signs of slowing down until the weather cools and the sun becomes more scarce ... Though they're not as immediately dramatic as their cousins the Morning Glories, Mina lobata definitely does add an unusual punch of late summer color wherever it's planted. Yes, you do have to get up a little closer to examine them, but isn't that what we die hard gardeners enjoy the most? Getting up close and personal with the flowers as they complete their cycle ... watching wondrously how they mature into blossom and give us their thanks for nurturing them over the summer ... And for a species previously unknown to us, it was an even more exciting cycle to observe ... definitely one we hope to repeat in years to come, whether these examples produce seed of their own this year, or we have to plant anew next year!