It was a normal season for this Kansas garden: nipped by late freezes, flooded through June, parched by summer drought, contorted by wind, blistered by the prairie sun, devoured by insects (mainly flea beetles and grasshoppers), set back by 60-degree nights in August, wilted by Verticillium, flattened by storms and now mauled by nut-caching squirrels. And it looks like we’re in for a hard Winter.
If the only food plant I could grow was okra, I would be fine with that. Easy, tough and delicious. A thick patch of Clemson Spineless planted in a rubber stock trough was standing in rainwater for 10 days in July, despite daily bailing. I didn’t punch holes in the tank when I planted because it stands 40 inches high and holds 150 gallons. It seemed a shame to damage such a useful object. Okra’s spreading roots go down about eight inches, leaving nearly three feet of soil below. I threw in a deep layer of gravel for bottom drainage and figured only a monsoon could fill that tank. Wrong again, and hard evidence to support my theory that there’s a strong whiff of masochism in gardening–the way I do it, anyway. The okra pulled through despite inundation and I enjoyed excellent succotash for a month or so. Next year I’m growing rice in that tank.
Greens do well here in Spring and Fall and unusually cool weather in June and July prolonged the first season. Southern Giant mustard, a heat-tough Lollo Rossa lettuce, and a third-year selection of an exceptionally crunchy and unknown strain of Oak Leaf lettuce finally bolted in early August (bitter about three weeks before), but I’m still picking arugula and it carries quite a sting. The arugula planted at the end of September will be sweeter in cool weather. Nasturtiums are roaring back as the temperatures drop. Every part of that plant is good to eat. The leaves and flowers are succulent and peppery (orange flowers best), the stems add crunch in stir-fries, and the large, green seeds are pickled and marketed as capotes, giant salad capers.
I planted three dozen robust starts of Siberian kale in March–half in part-shade, to see if that might help them to cope better with summer heat–and the rabbits really enjoyed them. And still I refuse to fence my greens.* Masochism.
In July, I watched vigorous, four-foot-high, fruiting tomato plants succumb to Verticillium wilt–-a common fungal problem in northeast Kansas gardens. Conditions were perfect for Verticillium to flourish in early Summer: prolonged cool–moderate temperatures and wet soil. Verticillium affects most of the Solanaceae–tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, peppers–but the peppers growing next to the afflicted tomatoes stayed healthy and productive. Why? The peppers were F-1 hybrids (Red Knight), bred and crossed to resist a variety of diseases and insect predators; the tomatoes were open-pollinated heirlooms, much less resistant. To my palate, heirloom tomatoes have an obvious flavor advantage over most hybrids (though “JetStar” is good eating). Growing heirlooms next year will require more raised beds or more containers, affording a fair measure of control over soil conditions. To grow tomatoes in-ground next year, I’m restricted to hybrids. Well, there’s always “Sungold.”
Flowers did better than food this year and there were many floral “firsts.” Winter-sown Patrinia scabiosifolia from Nancy Ondra at Hayefield yielded a dozen healthy seedlings. Now there are five, thanks to the litany of environmental grievances listed above, but The Five look healthy and strong: deep-green rosettes of ovate leaves in full Kansas sun thriving on low-to-moderate water. Tough plants. Next year, fingers crossed, they will send up scapes three to six feet tall with panicles of bright yellow, hermaphrodite flowers that hum with all sorts of insects.
Rob Broekhuis of Rob’s Plants supplied seed of Balloonflower, Platycodon grandiflorus “Sentimental Blue,” which also yielded about a dozen sturdy plants. The rabbits enjoyed them as much as the kale. They also liked the Talinum paniculatum “Kingswood Gold,” the dainty, chartreuse-leaved Jewels of Opar. One plant of each remains, relatively safe in pots, and both are blooming now, stock for next year–if they make through Winter. The Balloonflower blossoms are stunted on my straggling specimen, barely two inches across, of a clear French blue. Opar’s blossoms are tinier still, a half-inch of single pink petals with a boss of bright yellow stamens and minuscule orange fruits.
Last year I read up on annuals popular in the Victorian era. This year I grew Polygonum (Persicaria?) orientale, Kiss-Me-Over-The-Garden-Gate. The knotweeds–Polygonums/Persicarias/Fallopias; whatever they are called today—generally do well here, often too well. A flamboyant patch of escapee Polygonum/Persicaria bistorta, has taken over a wet ditch by the North Lawrence pumping station, and the tough but delicate-looking Virginia knotweed, Persicaria virginiana, long ago made itself completely at home in the Burroughs garden.
Of the eight seedlings of Kiss-Me-Over-The-Garden-Gate set out in Spring, only two survived, contorted by wind and storms. The weakest went to seed at a mere two feet; the survivor is five feet tall by three feet wide and the flower bracts have maintained their hot pink color for two months. Polygonum reseeds easily and I’m hoping for sturdier offspring next year, as in the photo above.
Three more annuals, all new to this garden in 2013, did very well in spite of difficult conditions: Bidens aristosa, Tickseed; Leonotis nepetifolia, Lion’s Ear; and Ipomoea sloteri, Cardinal Climber. Granted, all three are generally known as tough, vigorous plants; rampant or invasive in some areas.
The Bidens seed came from Alicia Maynard’s garden at Sweetbay in central North Carolina. Her Bidens borders are spectacular: billows of two-inch flowers–which, though two-toned, read as a clear, medium yellow–on sturdy five-foot stems of dark green, pinnate foliage. Bidens species bear close resemblance to their relatives, Cosmos and Coreopsis. I scattered seed in Fall of 2012 (seed needs cold stratification and light to germinate), in three different exposures of the garden: full sun, all-day dappled light and afternoon shade.
The shaded Bidens required little supplemental water, grew to three feet and bloomed willingly, if sparsely, from mid-July to late September. The plants in full sun needed weekly watering but were bushier and grew to four feet, flowering profusely in early August through early October. All the plants were swarming with honeybees; Bidens makes a fine, dark honey.
While at least a hundred species are native to the Americas, Bidens are listed as invasive or weedy in some parts of the country, wetlands in particular. Not surprising, as a single plant can produce up to 6000 seeds. I’ll keep a close eye on volunteers next Spring but Bidens aristosa is a plant I’d like to see full-time in the garden.
Leonotis nepetifolia, Lion’s Ear, a member of the Mint family, elicited the most comments from garden visitors this year. At eight feet tall, with medium-green, heart-shaped leaves and stacked whorls of tubular, bright orange flowers (the lion’s “ear”), it is indeed a remarkable plant, friendly and somewhat coarse. Native to Africa and hardy to Zone 9 (an fast-growing annual here in Zone 6a), Leonotis nepetifolia germinates readily at warm temperatures, the seed lightly covered.
Like all mints, it revels in water but my plants in amended clay were surprisingly drought resistant. Four plants were placed in full sun, two in afternoon shade. The shaded plants languished, barely reaching three feet with no bloom, so give Leonotis nepetifolia plenty of sun, even Kansas sun. Despite their thick, square stems, stand-alone plants were soon toppled by wind and required emergency staking. I stake as little as possible. Next time, I’ll grow them closer together in clumps for additional support. The base of each flower contains a tiny reservoir of sweet nectar that attracts hummingbirds.
If you wish for serious hummingbird action in your garden, a must-grow is the Cardinal Climber, Ipomoea sloteri, another plant with confusing nomenclature. Dave’s Garden lists the synonyms Ipomea x multifida, Quamoclit multifida and Quamoclit sloteri. The common name, too, is often misleading–Cardinal Climber is frequently referred to as Cypress Vine, Ipomoea quamoclit—even by seed companies. Both plants are similar in flower but the foliage of the Cypress Vine is finely cut, like asparagus, while the leaf of Cardinal Climber depends more on the standard, heart-shaped form of the Ipomoea clan and is deeply incised, looking feathered or fingered. Both plants are attractive, but I find Cardinal Climber to be fuller, healthier and more floriferous–hence the crowds of hummingbirds.
An old-fashioned vine, perhaps too pedestrian for fashionable gardeners, Cardinal Climber is one of the most attractive, reliable and easy-going plants I’ve ever grown (in five gardens to date, ranging from Zones 5 to 11). Officially hardy to Zone 9 or 10, depending on position; an enthusiastic annual everywhere else. Given the right conditions–full sun, occasional water in dry times, and a structure to climb–it can reach 20 feet in one season. Cardinal Climber reserves it’s one-and-a-half-inch, deep scarlet trumpets until late August but the profusion of blooms and hummers that follows is worth the wait. The flowers are similar in color to those of Pineapple Sage, Salvia elegans, another hummingbird attractor, and they pair well together.
* Three years ago, to defend against rabbits, nearly every plant in the garden was caged in chicken wire. A friend came to visit one day and as we sat and talked in the garden he casually remarked, “I imagine the garden at Alcatraz looks like this.”