Sunday, February 28, 2016

Book Review: Passalong Plants

Passalong Plants
by Steve Bender and Felder Rushing

Publisher's Blurb:
Passalongs are plants that have survived in gardens for decades by being handed from one person to another.  These botanical heirlooms, such as flowering almond, blackberry lily, and night-blooming cereus, usually can't be found in neighborhood garden centers; about the only way to obtain a passalong plant is to beg a piece from the fortunate gardener who has one. 
In this lively and sometimes irreverent book (don't miss the chapter on yard art), Steve Bender and Felder Rushing describe 117 such plants, giving particulars on hardiness, size, uses in the garden, and horticultural requirements.  They present this information in the informal, chatty, and sometimes humorous manner that your next-door neighbor might use when giving you a cutting of her treasured Confederate rose.  And, of course, because they are discussing passalong plants, they note the best method of sharing each plant with other gardeners.

My Reaction:
This book was a Christmas gift from my parents-- something I'd added to a wishlist because the description sounded promising.  I don't often read non-fiction cover-to-cover, but if you're a Southern gardener with a soft spot for old-fashioned, traditional, "hand-me-down" plants, this book is well worth a look.  It's only within the past few years that I've only gotten more seriously interested in gardening, and I'm in the process of building my garden from scratch, so the subject-- plants that have historically done very well in this part of the world-- holds a lot of personal interest for me.

The book was published in 1993, and though (I think) the edition I have (paperback) was printed in the early 2000s, it doesn't seem that the text has been updated from the original '93 version.  Difficult as it is to believe, it's been over 20 years since 1993, and as I read, there were a few times when I wondered if the authors would change anything, given a chance at a rewrite.  One or two plants that they thought rare or underused in '93 strike me (in early 2016) as being fairly commonplace-- certainly not that unusual, based on what I've seen and read in the blogs of fellow gardeners around the world.  However, the book has aged very well, over all-- not surprising, considering that the subject is heirloom plants, some of which have been passed along for hundreds of years!

When it comes to recommending plants, you can only be so objective, so there are occasional plants that the authors treat favorably, but which I find to be undesirable weeds-- and on the other hand, there are plants that they seem a bit less excited about that I really enjoy.  But that's only to be expected, since no two people ever agree on everything (in a garden or out of it).  Possibly it's a reflection of the fact that I live further south than either of them (and some plants might go a little crazier along the Gulf Coast than they do where the authors live, in more central Alabama and Mississippi).  Maybe, too, some things have changed in the last twenty years...

Perhaps the biggest change to come along in the past 20 years is the explosion of the Internet.  When this book was published, it was difficult to locate sources for many of these old-fashioned passalongs.  Therefore, the carefully cultivated list of nurseries that sold each one was probably an invaluable tool for someone set on growing an impossible-to-find-locally plant.  These days, it's so much easier to search out rare plants and order them online-- not to mention the possibility of doing plant swaps with people you've met online.  (Personally, I'm still a little scared of ordering plants online-- but if there's no other option and you're desperate for a particular plant...)

I heartily recommend the book to Southern gardeners with an interest in plants that have proven to do well in the South-- plants with a sense of history and place, including many that you'll probably remember from the gardens you grew up in.  It's written in a casual, conversational style that makes for easy, enjoyable reading, but there's also plenty of information, including helpful hints about propagation methods and where each plant performs best.

Many of the plant descriptions are accompanied by color photographs, but some are not, so one of these days, I intend to page through the book again, look up the ones I didn't recognize by name, and make a wish list of the most exciting candidates for my own garden.  And I'll be keeping the book for a handy reference (the index makes it simple to locate a particular plant's entry).

Signs of Spring

As always seems to happen, I was overly optimistic in my plans for what to get done over the winter.  Here we are at the end of February, and I've barely scratched the surface!

One thing I wanted to try was winter sowing, but maybe I chose a bad year to start.  This winter has been a very strange one, weather-wise.  I was already uncertain of when best to sow seeds this far south, what with our mild winters and warm periods that might trick plants into growing too early.  Then it turned out that this winter never seemed to know when to start, and I couldn't decide when/if it was cold enough.  We'd get a cold spell, but then it would be unseasonably warm again just a few days later.

In the end, what I've done this year isn't so much winter sowing as it is early-spring sowing.  Ah well, maybe next time!  Besides, we have such a long growing season down here that it's not as crucial to get most things started that early, anyway.

Here are some of the things I've "kinda-sorta" wintersown.  It's mostly plants that I think will self-sow, but I'm giving them a helping hand (and maybe making it easier to place them where I want them in the yard).  Purple coneflower. Alabama ox-eye daisy.  Swamp daisy.  Northern sea oats.  Blanket flower.

As you can see, when I ran out of milk jugs, I started planting in old nursery pots.  At this point, I don't think the "miniature greenhouse" aspect of the jugs is likely to be necessary.

Around the Yard, February 2016

Our winter has been so mild that a few summer annuals are still hanging in there, such as this begonia.  To be fair, it has had some help.  For one thing, it's under the shelter of the covered patio.  For another, it was among some pots that were protected by sheets on a few of the very coldest nights.

Around the Yard, February 2016

One of our Carex 'Evergold' grasses is blooming.  I divided this plant after we got it last spring, and strangely, only one of the halves is blooming (as far as I saw, at least).  The blooms aren't much to look at, of course, but I've been very pleased with this grass.  The foliage has stayed attractive all year-- including the winter, as it is evergreen.

Around the Yard, February 2016

One of the prettier flowers blooming at this time of year in our garden is summer snowflake (leucojum):

Around the Yard, February 2016

Actually, I'm still not sure if this is "summer snowflake" or "spring snowflake".  Spring snowflake blooms earlier, so maybe that's what this is... But of course, bloom-time varies from place to place, so I've never felt convinced one way or the other.

Around the Yard, February 2016

In any case, they are pretty little flowers.  I can't recall exactly who gave me my start of snowflakes, but it was probably Mom-- if not her, then Granny L.  (Like so many of the plants in my garden!  Which reminds me that a recent book review I wrote on my reading blog would be perfectly at home over here, too...)

Around the Yard, February 2016

The Southern shield fern that I moved a few months ago (or whenever that was!) seems to have survived the relocation.  It's even put out some new fronds, including some of greater height than any it had last year.  I hope this means it's doing well and will slowly achieve a greater size.

Around the Yard, February 2016

I love ferns, and it would be great to see this one multiply in the shady part of the garden.

Around the Yard, February 2016

A newly opening frond:

Around the Yard, February 2016

With such a mild winter, it's been hard to judge the usual performance of some new plants.  Maybe they won't always been quite so persistent, but this year, I've been surprised at how green a few have stayed.

For instance, the achillea has been pretty much evergreen.  I transplanted some of the white yarrow, because it was getting a little too comfortable where it was.  Other patches, I've left so far, though they too are making themselves right at home.  This pink achillea is already blooming (sporadically)!

Around the Yard, February 2016

I was worried that the Mexican purple sage (Salvia purpurea) might not survive our winter.  (Particularly when I was afraid that El NiƱo would mean a colder-than-normal season.)  I took many cuttings (some of which are still good, I believe), in the hopes of saving the plant for the up-coming summer.

However, it appears that I worried for nothing (almost always the case, as it turns out).  Some of it is already showing new leaves.  This plant is so easy to root from cuttings that it has multiplied into many plants in one year.  If only it weren't on the delicate side (as far as cold-hardiness goes)!  If it survives another winter so easily, I may stop worrying about it, though.

As you can see, the purple heart I rooted last year has pulled through beautifully, too, in at least some of the spots I planted it.  Still waiting to see how it fared in a few other places, but I'm hopeful.

Around the Yard, February 2016

The tiny little clump of 'May Queen' daisies has stayed green all winter and has even grown during the winter-- not in height so much as in width.  Part of me is delighted; another part is a little scared. (g)  I'll probably divide it, soon, and move it to locations where it might not be as likely to bully other valued plants-- but I might leave a little of it here, just to see what it does...

Around the Yard, February 2016

Another surprise is these shoots of butterfly ginger.  What's surprising is the earliness of their appearance.  Maybe I'm remembering wrongly, but I don't believe this plant emerged nearly so early, last year.  This is probably a result of the mild winter.

Around the Yard, February 2016

This little camellia (from Mom a couple of years ago, I think) has been blooming for quite some time.  The leaves look dreadful at the moment (maybe some special amendment would help), but the flowers are as pretty as can be.

Around the Yard, February 2016

Around the Yard, February 2016

The Japanese magnolias are beginning to bloom.  Neither of ours are covered in bloom, at the moment, but I'm happy to get any flowers at all.  They were flowering out of season, last year, and I wondered if the weird weather would prevent any spring show.

We have two.  The older one is this lighter orchid-pink:

Around the Yard, February 2016

...while the newer one is a darker reddish-purple:

Around the Yard, February 2016

They're on opposite sides of the house, so you never see both at the same time (which would probably make a bolder impression).  Still, even diluted like this, the little touches of early color are welcome.

Around the Yard, February 2016

Here's another plant that never seemed to completely believe the calendar-- yellow flag iris.  I don't think the foliage ever disappeared.  If it did, it must've been a very brief dormancy.  New leaves are very much in evidence.

Around the Yard, February 2016

The swamp sunflower (or swamp daisy, as I believe it's sometimes called) has put out new leaves, too-- and it's very clearly stretching into new territory.  I'm not sure if these new plantlets are from seeds that fell last year or if they've spread from the roots of the original clump.  (I'm leaning toward roots, but I'm far from certain. I did purposely scatter seeds, so either one is a possibility...)

Around the Yard, February 2016

Tiny little buds (leaf buds?) are showing up on the mountain laurel (a birthday gift from Dad, last year).  So far, so good, as far as that plant goes.  I believe they're slow growers, so I'm trying to keep my expectations reasonable with this one.

Around the Yard, February 2016

I noticed that the white loropetalum had many little flower buds, which reminded me to take a closer look at the big, pink loropetalum by the covered patio...

Around the Yard, February 2016

And it was well worth a look, too.
The loropetalum is such a showy plant, when in bloom.

Around the Yard, February 2016

I like the colors of the leaves even when it's not blooming, but those flowers are something else.

Around the Yard, February 2016

Around the Yard, February 2016

Around the Yard, February 2016

Around the Yard, February 2016

Around the Yard, February 2016

From a distance, the garden doesn't look like much, for the most part, but these first signs of spring are well underway, and with the occasional day getting into the 70s, it won't be long before gardening is in full swing, again!

Monday, February 1, 2016


In mid-November, I requested some seeds during Nan Ondra's generous seed giveaway.

I began reading Nan's garden blog-- Hayefield-- earlier this year, when I began putting more of my energy into my own garden (and this new blog).  If I understand correctly, she's made her seed giveaway an annual event at her blog for at least a few years, now.  She harvests the seeds from her own (huge, very impressive) garden-- a wide variety of plants.  Everything from annuals and vegetables to grasses, perennials, and even some trees.  All she asks is postage, maybe an eventual update on the seeds'/plants' performance, and that you consider harvesting and sharing seeds, too, once the plants grow to maturity.  Her mission is to spread these plants (many of which are somewhat rare or unusual) as far and wide as possible.  A project so time-consuming, requiring such a great deal of planning and organization, must be a labor of love.

My seeds arrived just before the end of November, and I excitedly set about gathering information and trying to decide when to plant them.  Of course, with seeds, there's no guarantee, but I'm hopeful of some success.  I tried to choose plants that would stand a fair chance in this hot, humid 8b climate.

Lunaria annua 'Corfu Blue'
honesty, money plant, silver dollar plant
Biennial, but if allowed to self-sow, there are usually flowers every year.  2-3' tall, 1-2' wide.  Blue-purple blooms (spring/early summer).  Purplish stems and seedpods.  Sun or light shade.  (I suspect light shade is better in the South.)  Consistently moist soil is best (doesn't like to dry out completely).  In zone 8 and above, lunaria can be sown in autumn for blooms and seeds the following year.

Lunaria annua 'Pennies in Bronze'
honesty, money plant, silver dollar plant
Biennial, but if allowed to colonize, there are usually blooms every year.  About 3' tall.  Purple/violet flowers (spring/early summer).  Seedpods are advertised as being of an array of colors-- pink, orange, purple, etc. (but Nan reports that in her garden, they are mostly purplish.  Not as showy as advertised, but attractive and better-growing than other types of lunaria).  Sun to part shade.  (I suspect light shade is better in the South.)  Consistently moist soil is best (doesn't like to dry out completely).
In zone 8 and above, lunaria can be sown in autumn for blooms and seeds the following year.

Agastache foeniculum 'Golden Jubilee'
hummingbird mint, anise hyssop, licorice mint
Perennial.  1-3' tall and wide.  Full sun.  (May benefit from some light shade in afternoon, in the hot South.)  Dry to medium moisture.  Tolerates high heat and humidity.  Lavender blooms (summer to fall) and chartreuse foliage.  Licorice-scented flowers/foliage?
Sow in autumn.

Clematis addisonii
leather-flower, Addison's clematis
Bushy subshrub. 2-3' tall.  Sun to part sun.  Purple to reddish-purple and cream bell-shaped blooms in spring to early summer.  May re-bloom in fall.  Blooms followed by starry seed-heads.  In nature, grows at the edges of dry woods.  Drought-tolerant.  Can do well in a container.  Dies to ground every winter and re-emerges in spring.  Prune hard in early spring.
Sow in autumn.

Heliopsis helianthoides ex variegated
variegated false sunflower
(Variegated false sunflower is another version of the so-called "Alabama ox-eye daisy" that I purchased from the fall plant sale earlier this year.  I'll be very interested to compare the plants, if I manage to get mature plants from these seeds.  Apparently these started out as 'Loraine Sunshine', which produced the plant that produced these seeds.)
Perennial.  About 2' tall.  Yellow, daisy-like flowers summer through fall.  Variegated foliage may green up as season progresses.  Full sun.  Average water needs.  ('Loraine Sunshine' doesn't like to dry out completely, so don't put them in the very driest spots.)  Deadhead to extend blooming season.
Sow in autumn.

Eryngium yuccifolium
rattlesnake master
(I'm already growing Eryngium planum [blue sea holly], but have yet to see it bloom.)
Perennial.  4-5' tall, 2-3' wide.  Full sun.  Very well-drained, even dry-ish, sandy soil.  Tap-rooted and doesn't transplant well (but may be possible in early spring, with care).  Greenish-white, spiky, globular blooms in summer.  Silver-grey foliage.
Sow in autumn.

Eucomis comosa ex 'Oakhurst' and 'Sparkling Burgundy'
pineapple lily
(There's no knowing exactly what these particular plants will look like, but 'Oakhurst' has maroon-purple foliage, while 'Sparlking Burgundy' transforms from dark burgundy to olive green and back again.  It seems likely that their "babies" could have some sort of interestingly dark foliage, but they could also have all-green leaves.)
Perennial. 1-2 or 3' tall, clumping.  Full sun.  (Can tolerate some shade in South, but may make the foliage more green than purple/burgundy.)  Blooms in late summer.  Medium moisture.  Does best if watered when actively growing/blooming and kept drier in the dormant winter period.  Winter mulch is helpful.

Sow seeds in spring or autumn.
Takes years (2 or 3 to 5) to reach flowering size, so we'll see how this goes...
Useful link for growing from seed.
I've read (and seen photographic proof) that once you have a plant, you can also easily propagate it by cutting one of the strap-like leaves into 1" segments and potting them with part of the cutting poking out of the soil.  In eight months, that gardener had new little plants from each cutting!  Very easy way to make more plants-- especially at the end of the season, when the leaves are going to die back, anyway.

Iris domestica
blackberry lily, leopard lily
Perennial.  2-3' tall, 1-2' wide.  Full sun.  Orange, red-dotted blooms in summer.  Medium water, but tolerates drought.  Poorly drained soil in winter will kill it.  Somewhat short-lived, but reseeding can keep a clump going through the years.  Seed clusters resemble blackberries.
(Seeds need stratification.)

Amsonia hubrichtii
Arkansas blue star, threadleaf bluestar
Perennial.  2-3' tall and wide.  Full sun to part shade.  Medium water.  Well-drained soil.  Powder blue flowers in spring/early summer.  Delicate foliage turns from green to golden in autumn.  (Not sure how much the color changes this far south.)  Autumn color strongest when plant's in full sun, but flowers may last longer with some afternoon shade.  Stems open up and flop in too much shade.  Can be pruned by half a foot after flowering to reduce flopping.  May take a while to establish and grow to full size.
Sow in autumn.

Celosia spicata 'Mega Punk'
spike celosia
This is a hybrid/variety(/whatever the correct term is) distinct to Hayefield, originally a cross between 'Punky Red' and 'Wine Sparkler'.  Recommended to collect seed from plants with the darkest foliage.
Grown as an annual in this zone.  (Must remember to collect seed each year, just in case it doesn't reseed on its own, though it does so reliably in PA.)  30-36" tall.  Full sun is best.  Well-drained soil.  Deep purple leaves.  Magenta multi-pronged spikes of bloom in summer.
Sow in spring.

Symphyotrichum laeve
smooth aster
Perennial.  2-4' tall, 1-2' wide.  Full sun.  Dry to medium water w/ well-drained soil.  Daisy-like flowers with violet to light purple petals and yellow centers.  Blooms September to October.  Easily self-seeds.  Good for naturalizing in wilder areas of the garden.
Sow in autumn.

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium
aromatic aster, fall aster
Perennial.  1-3' tall and wide.  Full sun.  Dry to medium water w/ well-drained soil.  Tolerates clay or sand; also drought.  Daisy-like flowers with violet/pale purple petals and yellow centers.  Blooms August to September.  Leaves are aromatic when crushed.  Benefits from some support (cages?) when the stems are weighed down with flowers.
Sow in autumn.

At the bottom of this post, Nan provides some useful links to information/tips on germination.

We'll see how they do!

I also ordered a packet of "trombone squash" seeds online, after looking for them locally without success.  (Maybe I just wasn't searching in the right places.)  I'm excited to see how these will do and how they taste.  They're a "moschata" type of squash, which are supposed to be hardier in this climate-- more resistant to squash vine borers. 

Tromboncino (aka Tromba d'Albenga) is an Italian heirloom squash that is reported to taste like zucchini.  They can be eaten at maturity (yellow) or when younger (green)-- and some people even eat them raw.  (I doubt I'll be one of those people.  I prefer most vegetables to be cooked.)  Some say that the very young, green squash taste sweeter than zucchini, while the mature, yellow squash taste more like a butternut squash.  I don't know that I've ever had butternut squash, but the zucchini we grew last year (such of it as there was) tasted great to me, so there's every reason to expect that we'll like the green squash, at least.

(Also, if the plant produces fruit all the way into fall, the yellow skin may be tough enough that you'll want to peel it.  I've never grown or prepared winter squash, so right now I'm mostly interested in growing it for the softer, summer-style squash.  I'm not sure how likely it is that tromboncini would still be fruiting that late in the season for us... If the early-season plants petered out over the brutal summer, we could always try planting a special, late-season crop, if it seemed worthwhile.)

Apparently, the seeds all collect in the "bottom", bulb-shaped part of the squash.  The long "neck" is seedless.  That's interesting.  I've never been bothered by seeds in yellow crookneck squash, but maybe these are tougher.  In any case, it certainly doesn't hurt that they're concentrated in one part of the fruit.

If possible, I'd like to let at least one fruit mature on the vine so that we can harvest seeds.  If I'm not mistaken, this is an heirloom plant that "comes true" from seed, and it would be great to have some to share and save for future use.  From what I've read, leaving the fruit to ripen might not deter the plant from producing more squash.  (Good to know, if true.)  However, it may take months (3 or 4?) for a fruit to fully mature, which sounds like an awfully long time, to me!

We're planning to put up some type of rough support for the trombone squash to grow up, to keep them off the ground, though apparently they do fine either way.  (Growing vertically seems better for our set-up, with the slightly raised beds and grass that needs regular mowing/trimming.)  If these do well and suit our palates, they may permanently replace the old-fashioned yellow crookneck squash in our little vegetable patch.