Archive for August 22nd, 2007

The Monarchs are back


The annual migration has begun.   These beauties were enjoying the torch tithonia that I always allow to reseed itself and grow in my vegetable garden.   I do this because I know they like it and it is always blooming at the proper time to sustain them in their yearly journey.


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How to have beautiful flowers

Many years ago, my son’s Little Fiancee told me one day that she loved flowers and that she admired my gardens and “really wanted” to grow flowers.   “How do you do it?” she asked me.   To this day I do not know if she was actually serious, or just trying to butter me up, but I answered her in all seriousness.

“Well, L.F., I’d say there is one key to having beautiful flowers.  It sounds simple when you say it, but in practice it is hard.”

“What is the key?  What do you have to do?”

“In order to have beautiful flowers it is important that you go out to your garden and look at it every day.”

“That’s all?  Go out and look at it every day?”

“Well, that is the first step.   If you don’t have time to go look every day, or at least every other day, you will not have time to have a garden.   Because you cannot garden while you are sitting at work or in front of the TV.  Once you have established the habit of going out there, then you have to practice actually looking.”

I was espousing my pet theory of beautiful flower gardens.   You have to observe them closely.   You cannot just walk by casually and say, “Wow, look at that pretty day lily.”


You have to actually look closely at the plant, notice if there are aphids colonizing the inner leaves, notice if it has enough water, notice if it is being attacked by weeds.  And another thing you have to notice is whether it needs to be dead-headed. 

It was a long time ago when I discovered how important deadheading perennials is.  While I realize that this is not an original concept with me (gardeners have been removing spent flowers from perennials for centuries), the experience I am going to relate was a revelation to me.

I was living in Bremerton and I had planted Peach leaved bell flowers (Campanula persicifolia) in my front rock garden.    This absolutely lovely plant was enjoying the placement and the mulch, and blooming her heart out.   I really had not done a lot of deadheading in my previous gardens, but for some reason I decided to start doing it on this plant.  I walked by it every day on my way to the mailbox, and so every day I would pinch off the spent flowers.  

Each flower originated at the leaf axil on the stalk.   It wasn’t long before I noticed that at every axil where I had pinched out a spent flower, the peach bell was now growing TWO buds.   It wasn’t long before my plant had a dozen flowers where it had originally had six.   I rewarded it with more compost, figuring it was spending a lot of energy making flowers and it ought to get something to eat.   I continued deadheading, and it did it again!   Everywhere there had been a flower made 2 buds.   Now I had a stalk with 24 flowers on it.   I was amazed.

I had another peach bell planted in the back yard, which I did not deadhead.  It finished blooming out the first flowers, made seed pods, and then quit blooming altogether.   That amazed me also.

The point is, what a plant wants to do is propagate itself.  Some plants only have seeds to reproduce with.  Others have more than one method.   Day lilies can make seeds, of course.  But they also spread by making extra roots and you can divide them after a couple of seasons.   Lilies will make seeds, the bulbs will divide, and they will also make little nodules in their leaf axils that grow if they fall to the ground. 

But a plant only has so much energy.   If you allow a day lily, for example, to reproduce itself by making seeds, it will throw a lot of energy into growing and ripening those seeds.   Think pregnant woman here.   Unless you really feed them heavily, if you have allowed their seeds to mature and fall, quite often the next year you won’t get nearly as many flowers, because the plant did not store up enough energy to survive the winter and make flowers the next spring.

Additionally, I have found that if I allow my day lilies to start ripening seed pods from the first flowers of the season, they will also stop opening flower buds.   After all, they have successfully propagated now, why bother to spend the energy to open any further buds? 

I have found this to be true with irises as well.   By going out every morning and removing the spent flowers, I end up with half again as many flowers as my neighbors.   You have to be very careful when deadheading irises, because the replacement bud is nestled under the ovary of the spent flower.  If you aren’t careful, you can break off that bud right along with the dead flower, which is very frustrating if you are trying to encourage extended bloom!

Flower plants want to make seeds so badly they will go to extreme lengths to do so.  Not long after my balloon flowers had finished blooming, I cut them back so they could put their energy into their roots.   A couple of days ago, I was wandering around with my camera in hand, and just look what those silly things have gone and done!


More buds!   They really want to make seeds!

The other keys to having beautiful flowers is to make sure that the plant has adequate nutrition.   Think pregnant lady (again!).   The flowers are the reproductive organs of the plant, and if the plant doesn’t have food it can’t reproduce.   And it can’t just be nitrogen, either.    Plants need magnesium and phosphorus and potassium and calcium and other micro nutrients just like we do.   I compost fanatically, and mulch my flower beds and vegetable gardens with the results every year.  You want all that great nutrition to go to your flowers, so it really is rather important to remove the competition.    Oh I know, that means weeding.  

Finally, those of us who have been suffering from the drought know, that it takes a lot of water for a flower to bloom and keep blooming.   A layer of mulch around the plant can make all the difference in how much moisture stays around its roots.  Again, you want to remove the competition for the water.  Sorry.   More weeding.

So, that’s how to do it.   Look at the garden.   Water it.   Mulch (feed) it.  Weed it.  Frustrate its desire to make seeds. 

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Let me show you my callouses.

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