Green Onion Resprout

Found this on Pinterest and decided to try it out for myself :

Next time you buy green onions from the store, don’t throw the root bulb portions away. Save the bottom bit of the onions and put them in a cup of water on the windowsill.

The onions will grow new plant stems from the root bulb. The post swears you can do this repeatedly, I have a feeling that the bulb will eventually use up its energy stores and your onions will become weak and thready over time… but we’ll see.

This is about a week’s growth from my first cutting. So it really does work. I’ll repeat the process after a second cutting and see if the plants do as well. I just change the water every couple days to keep it fresh and clean.

image

Try it and see! I might use more green onion if it was readily available like this.

-Belle

Busy Little Bee

Tell me what you’ve been up to… busy little bee.
I will always and forever associate that line with Gladiator, which is why it still gives me the creeps when I hear it. So the growing season is over, I’ve put away my mower and collected the milk jugs from around all the trees. (I’m sure the neighbors were relived at that one) I’m far from doing a whole lot of nothing though.
Winter and fall are my moving, planting (yes! planting) and cleaning up seasons in the yard and garden. It’s a great time to do planning when everything is stripped down to the bare bones and you can really visualize what works and what doesn’t. I do my pruning and lot of planting this time of year too, so long as the ground isn’t frozen, trees, shrubs and even some bulbs can be planted this time of year.
I’ve been burning brush, raking leaves, prepping the garden and moving lilies this past month. I’ve taken pictures of a couple projects to share soon. I just need a spare moment to sit down and write! No new photos of yard or projects today, but  if you’re curious about the face behind the blog, I did update “The Dirt on Dirt” with a picture of myself. 😉

Hades would like his weather back.

In regards to garden and yard projects, I’ve not been especially inspired this summer. It’s been a depressing season. It seems I’ve either spent the past months watching plants wilt, wither and die in the extreme heat and drought, or dedicated hours a day to watering mulching and looking for shade. While doing the latter, I always wondered if we would become one of those news headlines:Midwest Wells Running Dry”.

This spring, before the weather pattern shifted to Sahara Desert for most of the Midwest, I had planted 75 trees in various places around our property. New trees need mulch and regular watering for at least the first year of their life under ideal circumstances. When the weather pattern here got stuck on 7th level of Hell, I realized I was going to have a fight on my hands if any of my new trees were going to survive.

I started by reading up on water conservation and a technique called Xeriscaping.
Xeriscaping is simply this, creating a landscape that is mostly self-sustaining with little to no supplemental water. To some, this means filling the landscape with nothing but cactus and rock. In some areas of the country, I guess growing anything outside of a pot isn’t an option. Here in Missouri however, extreme hot and dry conditions are not our normal- even though this summer most of us saw nothing but.

The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center reported that the drought covered over 60 percent of 48 states as of mid-August. In Missouri we fell under the two worst drought categories, extreme and exceptional. As of the end of August, my part of the country was down 11.78 inches of rain for the year 2012, with the current drought conditions predicted to last through the end of October.

Crop and pasture destruction have been horrible. Many farms forced to re-drill or deepen existing wells in order to get water to their land and livestock. Many mornings while out watering my little trees, I wondered what our neighbor across the street was doing to the water table I feared we might share. They have several head of cattle that they have to provide water for, a huge pool in their backyard and one of those awful, inefficient impact sprinklers running on their yard almost constantly. I envied them their green grass, while I watched mine turn brown, then disappear altogether, leaving behind little more than dust. Since our house sits down in sort of a valley, my only hope was that it meant my well was that much deeper into the water table and that it might hold out longer under extreme conditions.

One of the tenants of Xeriscaping is that you don’t try to maintain large areas of grass lawn and that if you do have grass; it is a type that is drought resistant and tolerates heat well. Our daughter’s play yard was the only area of grass that managed to stay green all summer. It’s also the only part of our yard where my husband and I painstakingly drilled small holes every few inches to plant the entire lawn with Zoysia grass plugs a couple years ago.
I first read about Zoysia in a Birds and Blooms magazine. I did a little research and ordered 200 plugs from an online farm. Prior to the Zoysia plugs taking hold in our yard, there was little growing there besides an excellent crop of crab grass each season. I had plowed it under and planted grass seed twice. It never seemed to take off in our rocky clay soil.
The Zoysia didn’t do much the first year, but the next year our plugs had filled in most of the yard with a thick mat of fine textured grass. Some varieties of Zoysia will survive winters as far north as Chicago.
The grass originated from Southeast Asia, China and Japan. It is low growing (means less mowing), establishes roots by rhizomes (creeping), is heat resistant, drought resistant and forms a tight covering that can choke out most weeds. I watered our lawn only twice all summer.
The drought also meant that I only had to mow it once after the end of May. It is still green, still healthy and fared much better than some of the bedding plants around the edge of the lawn. Zoysia is an absolute pain in the butt to plant, but now that it’s established and I see how well it performs under the worst of conditions, every plug we planted is worth the trouble.
It does turn yellow as soon as the weather cools down and stays that way until late spring, but when everyone else has a dead, brown lawn in August, ours is still green. If you must have a lawn area for kids or dogs, but would still like to follow the principles of Xeriscaping, warm season grasses like Zoysia or Bermuda grass are a great option.

Luckily, I had limited the size of our vegetable garden this year to a few square feet by growing the plants vertically on trellis against the side of our house. I had done this more as an experiment than anything, however it turns out that this is another principle of Xeriscaping. Limiting the spread of your plants or growing vertically means you have to water a much smaller area to maintain the health of the plants.
I used lots of mulch over cardboard or newspaper to keep down weeds and set a misting sprinkler on a timer for every 12 hours. During the stretches of really hot days (4-5 days in a row or more of temperatures over 102F), I changed the timer to every 8 hours and ran it for 10 minutes.
I also put our bird bath right in the garden area, so that it filled up when the sprinkler ran. Our garden is right next to the pond I built this spring, so that pond caught any excess spray that didn’t land in the garden. Even though I can’t take credit for planning it out that way, this turned out to be a very efficient method of maintaining several things that needed water without a lot of waste.

Another bonus during the drought was my tendency to choose native plants in my landscape whenever possible. Again, I can’t take credit for guarding against drought, since I chose most of my plants based on the fact that they grow in clay soils with a minimum of additives to alter the soil composition, but it turns out that this is a Xeriscaping technique as well.
Xeros is Greek for dry; the idea behind Xeriscaping is to use as little supplemental water as possible in your landscape. Native plants are already adapted to your area’s climate and soil conditions, so they naturally need less care and maintenance to survive.
For annuals I often plant seeds I save from wildflowers like purple coneflower, thistle, daisies and sunflowers. Sometimes I buy flats of zinnias, marigolds and dusty miller to fill planting beds in spring. I tend to focus on perennials I don’t have to plant every year.
My butterfly bush did very well with almost no watering in spite of the heat. Ditto for the tiger lilies, Chinese wisteria, crêpe myrtle, climbing roses, spiderwort, yucca and saucer magnolia trees (Most of those aren’t native of course, but I had read that they do well in my particular climate and soil type)

The new little trees were all heavily mulched when I planted them this spring and that seemed to serve them well the first month of the drought. After a month of drought and triple digit temperatures, I started losing some of the spruce trees I’d planted.
To still regulate my watering and assure that when I did water it went to the roots of the trees and not all over the surrounding landscape, I started saving gallon milk jugs. These I poked a few holes in the bottom, filled the jug partway with rocks, then sat them right next to the baby trees. I still had to water as frequently as every other day, but the water waste was greatly minimized by this method and it was a lot less time consuming too! I cut my time spent watering down from a couple hours to less than half an hour.

I also saved the large 3 gallon jugs from cat litter and 3-5 gallon paint buckets. The buckets work especially well for larger trees. I have a single mimosa I planted when we first moved here that I couldn’t stand to lose, I used one of the larger buckets to water it this summer. My daughter found a bucket that had a huge crack across the bottom; I was about to throw this away when I decided to try adding some dirt in with the gravel to make mud in the bottom. It worked like a charm for slowing the water down as it trickled out.
If you try the jug method, you may need to play with the amount of holes, whether or not you add mud or leave the cap on or off the jug- this will alter the speed which the water runs out. Slow is often better if you have clay soil, since it takes much longer to penetrate deep enough to reach a tree’s roots.

I also noted that my new trees planted under a canopy of shade tolerated the heat better than those in full sun exposure most of the day. Of course, this is because the larger trees shield their roots from drying out as fast. It also means the tree doesn’t have to consume as much water to maintain its top half if it’s not in sun.

Xeriscaping experts advise planting your garden or flower beds in the rainy season (for us this would have been any time before Mid-May, when Mother Nature turned any and all precipitation to “OFF”); this way the plants can get themselves established in your landscape before they have to start conserving water. The deeper and more widespread their root system, the more likely they will be to survive drought. Ever tried to dig up an established Yucca? Never put one in your yard unless you’re absolutely positive that’s where you want it. My small trees planted at least 2 years ago weathered the drought fine, even with minimal to no supplemental watering.

In areas where you have lots of gravel, concrete or pavement, it may help to place large potted plants around the perimeter for both shade and to cut down on the heat to the surrounding yard.
I have no love for our vinyl siding and grow my roses, tomatoes, cucumbers and ivy right up the side of our house. It keeps the heat down on the house, especially between 2pm and 5pm when the sun is blasting the southwest corner. I would plant trees on that side, but we have the unfortunate circumstance of living in an area where satellite and wireless are the only decent options for internet and TV.
Large trees on that side of my house would block the signals, hence the vining plants instead. The sprinkler for the garden does double duty here as well; while the garden, birdbath and pond are being watered, the hottest part of the house is being sprayed down in the early evening.

Xeriscapes don’t have to be labor intensive, but they do require some careful planning and initial set-up. You can save costs by harvesting seed from each year’s annuals to use the following year and with a little patience- perennial plants don’t offer the instant gratification of annual blooms, but they return year after year and often multiply over time. Xeriscapes and native plants have better disease resistance than large grass lawns, are less prone to being destroyed by pests or fungus and attract butterflies, bees and birds.

With a little careful planning of my own and a willingness to let go of some of my higher maintenance plantings; I’m hoping next to year to implement more Xeriscaping techniques and have a little less stress when a big, fat high pressure area blocks our rain for months at a time.

And please share if you have other tips and tricks about water conservation or native plantings!
-Belle

Blister Beetle Battle

My daughter and I have been SO proud of our cherry tomato plants that we grew from seed this spring; we nursed them in sunny windows until they were fledgling plants big enough for the garden. All through the past couple months we have mulched, fed and watered them, excited and accomplished when the first blossoms emerged, turned to green fruits and then to red. We look forward each day to going out in the yard and picking our little cherries.

Blister beetle noshing a leaf

I first spotted a couple of beetles yesterday morning while watering. Since there were only two, I hand-picked them off the plants and squashed them under a boot, then went about my business. Where the beetles had been eating, there were some black flaky looking bits of stuff, but they sprayed off easily with the garden hose.

Next afternoon, we were out working on building our new deck and I checked our plants for ready tomatoes as usual. I was horrified to discover that our plants were now COVERED in striped beetles, noshing away on the leaves until they looked like lace. They’d started from the bottom and made rapid work towards the top, leaving little but green fruits and stems.
I panicked.

In spite of years growing ornamentals, countless trees, shrubs and flowers, this is my first year with a vegetable garden. In the past, I liberally used chemical fertilizers, weed controls and pesticides in my yard to control whatever ailment my plants suffered, whether fungus, insect damage or other. One season I lost over half the plants I’d worked so diligently to grow for two years from a Weed and Feed fertilizer that I either applied too liberally or the chemical was simply too harsh for what I was trying to grow.

Until this week, when faced with a blister beetle battle, my chemical use had been almost non-existent for several years. Compost and lawn clippings, kitchen scraps, manure and leaves were my fertilizers. The pond next to the garden attracted frogs and birds to help prevent pests on the ornamentals. Recycled milk and cat litter jugs served as slow-watering systems, rather than buying many feet of soaker hose or sprinklers.
There was a bag of Sevin dust sitting in the back of the cabinet; had been there for at least 5 years or so, unopened. Faced with all that cherry tomato destruction (I swear I could HEAR them chomping away), I ran in, grabbed the Sevin dust and threw liberal handfuls all over the plants. I watched with great satisfaction as those chewing little buggers began dropping off, writhing and squirming. I hoped in vengeance of my plants that they were suffering greatly.

It occurred to me following this rash dumping of handfuls of poisonous dust all over my garden that I had done just that; next to the frog pond and all over the food we intended to eat. I decided I’d try to minimize the spread of the poison to the pond water and hosed everything down liberally the next morning until the water ran clear into the yard. I’m hoping it didn’t leach much into the pond water and won’t hurt my frogs in the long run. We’ll be carefully washing anything we eat off of those plants for a while. L

Beetle Blisters

The articles on the internet about these beetles did little, if anything to make me feel better about their being in my garden, after seeing pictures of the damage they could cause to both plant and human skin. The Striped Blister Beetle produces a substance called cantharadin that causes horrible blisters on skin; it is also toxic to animals. An article from Texas A & M Entomology claimed that a horse could be killed by ingesting only 2 or more of the beetles, even if the beetles were dead.  Farmers have had trouble with attacks on their alfalfa crops and the beetles in turn, winding up in livestock feed.

The beetles look very similar to a lightning bug; they are about the same size and shape, but with very distinctive stripe patterns on their backs. They lay their eggs in cells just beneath the soil surface. Adult beetles eat foliage and fruit, while the larvae are said to feed on grasshopper eggs. (This was the ONLY beneficial fact I could find about them)

Several blogs and forums I read stated that people had minimal success with hand picking (be sure to wear gloves!) and dropping them into a container of soapy water. Most complained that there were SO MANY by the time they noticed them that this was impossible without using a vacuum cleaner to do the job.
A couple people mentioned a homemade spray made up of organic dish soap, canola oil, 2 cloves of garlic and red pepper flakes strained into a tea as an was effective method of getting rid of them. They did mention that this spray, while safe on vegetables (wash before eating of course) for human consumption, seemed to kill beneficial pollinators such as bees and butterflies as well. Some suggested protecting plants with mosquito netting. This of course only works if you get to the plants before they are infested with the little monsters.

I can say from my own experience that the Sevin dust worked to kill them beautifully, but there’s no telling what else it killed before I washed it off. There were quite a few dead daddy long legs hanging off the plants when I rinsed them the next morning. If I happen to get unlucky with another visiting swarm, I’ll head to the grocery store and try some of the organic spray I mentioned above instead.

Any of you had to fight the blister beetle battle? What did you use to get the little buggers to move on?

Disney Gardening

I was recently lucky enough to spend a week at Disney World; we went to Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. These people know how to garden! Granted, it ‘s in Florida and it rains practically every day there AND they are working with Zone 8-10 temperatures. Still, I was impressed with their attention to detail and all those little extras they impart into an area to give it a specific feel. One of my favorites was the Asia section of Animal Kingdom. I’ve always wanted to add a few Asian elements to my own garden, but until now haven’t had a clear idea of what to do or even where to begin. The Asian look is definitely more that just bamboo and Japanese maple trees. I picked up plenty of interesting ideas on our trek through the Disney parks and took some great photos. Thought I would share a few of them here.

One of the many flower beds throughout the Animal Kingdom park. I loved the use of color and different leaf textures in this one.

One of many man-made streams throughout the park. This one looks like molded concrete and stone to give it that very natural look of large boulders and cliff drops without actually importing all that rock. Love the plant placement and the fall of the water. 🙂

This is part of a man-made savannah on the Safari Tour ride. (Not in Asia section, but Africa) There were no fences in site anywhere. They used natural barriers like water-filled pits to keep the predator/prey animals apart.

One of the lamps lining the sidewalks throughout the Asia section of the park. I’m actually considering trying to make a couple of these. Maybe a trip to the hardware store for some flexible plastic and chimney caps?

Another stream bed view. I took this one for their use of plant placement; the midsize plantings at the bends in the stream and the tall stand of bamboo as a backdrop.

Rag scraps tied to the branches of a tree. This one I think you’d have to be careful duplicating, or you’d just wind up looking like the weirdo that covers a tree in rag scraps. But if you had the rest of the look in your garden and then added one of these, I think you could pull it off. Loved the movement and color of this in the park, was a major eye-catcher!

Another Asian-inspired lamp. Would be a bit harder to make, but I thought with a router to cut the scrolled wood, it could still be a cool little project. If hollow pipe was used to make the posts, you could wire the light so no wires would show. (I don’t think this one actually lights up)

I’ll post an addendum to this if I actually manage to implement some of these ideas instead of just sharing and thinking about them. If you should try them out, I’d love you to share your photos!
Till later gators,  –==<
Belle

In Spite of a Certain Groundhog, Spring is Here. :)

I’ve threatened to shoot myself a groundhog several winters when the snow, ice and cold have just lazed around into April or so. This year, I can forgive that silly hog’s predictions, since he’s obviously become senile and doesn’t have the weather channel in his burrow. In spite of Phil’s predicted long winter, spring seems to be early this year. Maybe not in your part of the country, but here in Missouri we have things blooming  and pollen counts shooting off the charts already.

I’ve been bit by the spring bug in a big way, planning flower beds, working on our pond, getting our seeds ready to go in the garden next month. By the way, if you plant cold weather crops, like broccoli, lettuces or beans, they should go out NOW in our region. Wait much longer and it will be too warm. We’re starting simple this year with a few peppers, some strawberries and a couple different tomato plants, so it will be next month before our little seedlings head outside. If you haven’t started your seedlings yet, get them started as soon as possible!

I have a big post coming up on our pond re-do, but it isn’t finished yet (I’m still waiting on parts to ship) so I thought in the meantime, I’d take a couple pictures of the blooming stuff in our yard. My roses are covered in tiny new leaves, I have daffodils coming up and the crocus have already made an appearance. The tiger lilies are taking off like crazy, I’ve been separating them and moving them about the yard again, they tend to stop blooming if they get too thick.

I have seen bag worms already on a couple of the trees, so watch out for those nasty little buggers on your ornamentals; they can do some serious damage once they leave the nest. I don’t like to use poisons any more that absolutely necessary so I just burn them out with a lighter. They smell like burnt hair which is gross, but the damage to the tree or shrub is minimal, doesn’t involve a bunch of nasty chemicals being sprayed all over the place and is pretty damned effective at destroying the entire nest.

Our magnolia tree put out quite a show of blooms this year and the smaller one I transplanted last year even favored us with a single flower. They don’t like to be moved and I think I really annoyed it by doing just that. I’m hoping the bloom is a good sign that it’s recovering. Our fire bush is also covered in blooms. I’m not sure what the scientific name for it is, that’s what my family always called them.

The official Spring Equinox isn’t until March 20th. However, Meteorological Spring (which I just heard this term this morning) apparently started March 1st.
Off to take some Tylenol for all the shoveling I did today.
-B

I’m SO gonna feel that tomorrow

My 3 year old daughter has been my little garden helper the past couple days. She’s at that age now where she’s able to learn that there is an actual purpose to playing in dirt, besides the obvious perk of getting dirty or eating it.
We decided that this year we were going to grow some veggies. I didn’t want to spend a lot of $, I’ve had good success with tomatoes in the past and a cucumbers, but I’m fairly sure it’s a near impossibility to screw up either of those. This year we are getting a bit more ambitious.
We browsed the seed catalogs and ordered 8 packets of veggies and a couple of flowers we liked. The seeds we chose were 1) Roma tomato 2) cherry tomato 3) sweet red pepper 4) sweet heirloom yellow onion 5) sweet yellow pepper 6) sweet orange bell pepper and 7) mini cucumber. We also got packets of echinacea (purple coneflower), sunflowers and a marigold mix. I picked the marigolds in particular, because they are a natural insect deterrent and I’m hoping they’ll keep my need to spray or dust to a minimum (if at all). I’m a big fan of natural insect control and fertilizer, I hate dumping poisons around or on the stuff we plan to eat. We’re also putting a pond right in the middle of the garden bed. This will encourage the many frogs we have nearby to hang out and munch on the insects invading our veggie patch.
I’m building trellis straight up the side of the house out of just simple wire to support the vines. Nothing fancy and very inexpensive. I’m hoping the vines will pull double duty and absorb some of the heat that would otherwise be beating down on that southern exposure of the house. Due to our satellite TV and wireless internet, I can’t plant a tree there to block the afternoon sun. The veggies are going right into an old flower bed that was formerly full of nothing but tiger lily and butterfly bush. I had put off for years doing a vegetable garden, thinking I needed a formal space. They’re plants. They can grow in any garden bed and they don’t mind if they’re next to flowers. Silly me.
Some seeds need to be started indoors several weeks before the last frost and then transplanted outside. We’ve been saving gallon milk and water jugs for the past couple months to use as mini-greenhouses. I’m hoping they work well. They should help keep the seedlings warm, give them filtered light and help trap moisture in the jugs so the soil doesn’t completely dry out. I cut the tops nearly all the way around, leaving the two halves attached at the handle. My daughter helped me fill the bottoms with soil, then we sprinkled on our seeds, added another light layer of dirt and misted this really well with water. We’ll be checking them each day and misting with more water as needed. The jugs are also easy to write on, so you can identify what’s what when you’re ready to transplant the seedlings. I’ve saved egg cartons for when we get to that stage.
The bed outside is just a raised bed, filled partially with native soil, outlined with rocks I’ve picked up around the yard and in the woods. I’ve added some potting soil and quite a lot of compost as well, our native soil here is mostly rocks and clay. Clay has decent nutrient content, but not great drainage and isn’t always the best medium for young, tender roots.
We’ll post more pictures and updates of our trials or success as the project moves along.  I haven’t done this kind of digging or planting for a couple years now, going to be feeling this tomorrow! 🙂

12 Step Program for Dead Tree Removal (belle style)

(Original article from ExistentialBelle.com Jan/2006)
My husband insisted that I re-post this article that I wrote for my personal website in 2006; he says it was always one of his favorites.

Step 1) Cut down big f*$#-off tree right behind your house. Make sure you get someone equally brave/ignorant to help you, so that you can do the pushing while they cut through the trunk. (Otherwise you’ll have a tree on your house, which is rarely a good thing)

Step 2) Watch your helper rip the blade off the chainsaw as the tree shifts and starts to fall. Point and laugh.

Step 3) Yell “TIMBER!” at the top of you lungs. This will convince your neighbors that you are insane and make their dogs bark.

Step 4) Jump out of the way in time to avoid getting creamed by the trunk when the tree falls and it kicks back.

Step 5) Realize that since the chainsaw is now broken, there is no way to finish the job you’ve started. Leave the tree lie in the yard for at least one year to dry out and get brittle. This is VERY important to the next steps.

Step 6) Not less than a year later, go and gather all the small broken branches from the tree and put them in a pile.

Step 7) Break a few more branches off, this is easy since the tree is now brittle. If you didn’t follow my advice in Step 5, then go back inside and complete it before moving on to the next steps.

Step 8 ) Since the chainsaw is STILL broken a year or more later; get a flimsy hacksaw and attempt to saw through some of the remaining branches. If you get tired, come back at random intervals over a course of months.

Step 9) When you have successfully removed AT LEAST one branch with the hacksaw; decide this is too much work and use your body weight as leverage to snap a few more medium to large sized branches off. Again, if you didn’t follow Step 5, this is going to be MUCH more difficult.

Step 10) Be sure to fall on your ass at least a couple of times when the branches break off. It’s especially helpful if the branch lands on top of you, pinning you to the ground for a few minutes. Sitting on a thorn bush gains you extra points.

Step 11) Pile all your torn branches up. Collect enough trash in the house to set them on fire. Pizza boxes and 12-pack cases are excellent for this. Toilet paper rolls and old bills burn too quickly to start a decent fire.

Step 12) Here’s where you must make a decision about what to do with the remaining branches you couldn’t break off, plus the tree’s trunk (which you’re NEVER cutting through with that hacksaw, a year old or not):

-If the tree doesn’t bother you much and you’re not all that ambitious, leave it where it is. It will get more brittle each year it lies there; eventually you will be able to remove more branches and possibly the upper part of the trunk in time. You can use the trunk as a little bridge to get to other parts of your yard; at least until the termites do enough damage that your foot goes through when you step on it.

-If the tree is REALLY an annoyance and you’re a bit more ambitious, you can try raking leaves and piling yard waste, trash, etc on top of it and slowly burning it until it’s gone.

-If you aren’t even ambitious enough to burn trash on it, then bribe a friend with a chainsaw to come cut it up for you in to nice, manageable chunks. Or, if you have money to just throw away, you can always call a professional yard/tree service to remove it for you.

So there you go! Tree removed, problem solved!
Plus, as an added bonus, unless you called the tree removal service, you can brag to your friends that you did it ALL BY YOURSELF!

Missouri Natives and Other Plants for Clay Soil

Tiger lilies or ditch lilies– 1-2 ft tall greenery with flower stalks up to 5ft. They flower for a month or more and require next to no care. Like irises, they will need to be thinned out about every 3 years or so for best bloom. They are often seen along the sides of roads (Hence the nickname “ditch lilies) or in sunny places near water.
I got mine from my friend Shane; we dug up about 20 plants from his mom’s old house when she moved. I now have literally hundreds of plants and could have more if I divided them more diligently.

Honeysuckle vine– I have three of them against the back wall of a large crescent shaped bed I built into a hillside. They smell amazing when they flower from Mid-May to June and the pink to vanilla flowers are very pretty and delicate in appearance. Without a climbing support, I’ve seen people grow these in their yards as shrubs. I’ve also seen plenty of them growing wild the same way. Also very low maintenance and seem to be one of the few things the deer leave alone in my yard.

Roses– Are said to do well in clay soils. Their roots are woody and strong enough to penetrate it, the clay provides the needed nutrients and deeper water supply that they crave and it prevents wind rock of the roots by giving them a strong anchor. I’ve personally only tried a few different varieties and have the best luck with climbers and wild roses. Most roses are too much maintenance for my taste, with their tendency to get black spot, powdery mildew and a host of other diseases and pest issues. I do intend to try some of the knockout roses in the future; as I hear that they require very little maintenance and don’t have most of the usual rose afflictions. If you’ve had good luck with them, share your experience, please!

Oriental Poppy– The big, red showy ones are best for clay. I’ve personally never grown them, but my grandmother had a small bed of them for years that absolutely flourished. They like full sun and tolerate the drier clay soils, not so well the wet, waterlogged clays. They also spread over time and will need to be divided when the clumps become overcrowded.

Hollyhocks– I’ve seen these grow prolifically in places where even some weeds feared to tread. My mom has them growing right out of the gravel in her driveway, next to her garage. The look great in rows or bunches and put out tons of seed each year (they are annuals). They do require plenty of sun and some water if the leaves begin to droop.
Purple Coneflower– 3-4 ft tall perennial, attracts butterflies, great for borders, wildflower meadows, prairie style gardens. It grows wild in Missouri, in fields and along roadsides. The plants bloom a long time before going to seed, from midsummer to fall. They are drought tolerant, relatively pest free and unattractive to deer. The most common colors in the wild are purple and white. There are also pinks, rose and a new orange variety. Will tolerate clay soils but thrives in well-drained average soils.

False Indigo– This small shrub is often found naturally in Missouri along streams and in the woods. The flowers are clusters of purple flowers, similar to those on Butterfly Bush. False Indigo is in the legume (bean) family; legume plants are able to help restore nitrogen depleted soils- they are able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that the plant can use. I ordered about 20 False Indigo plants from the Missouri Conservation site several years ago. They’ve never had pest problems, require no maintenance, watering or pruning to stay healthy and are all thriving several years later.

Dogwood– Another shrub/tree that grows wild in our area. Mine came from the Arbor Day Foundation as bare root trees only about 6 inches high. I planted them directly into the ground, haven’t bothered to fertilize, seldom water and have only mulched them a couple times. It had a slow start, but after about 5 years, is now nearly 6 foot tall and seems to be well established. Dogwood trees bloom in spring near the end of April; they may have pink or white blooms, although the whites are much more common. The leaves will burn and shrivel in full sun. They are naturally under story trees and prefer at least partial shade.

Lilac– I got my lilac start from a friend’s large established bush. I dug up a small start, about a foot high with some root, brought it home and planted it directly in our yard; it tripled in size the first year with only a little watering and some mulch. It isn’t high maintenance, although it has had occasional issues with some powdery mildew on the leaves during especially hot/rainy summers. (A cup of milk in a gallon of water, sprayed on the leaves will help get rid of mildew spores) My only other problem with my lilac is that they are sometimes plagued by weevils. So far, I have only sprayed these with the water hose to discourage them from the plant and they’ve caused little damage. I’m not a fan of pesticides in the garden if it can be avoided.

Persimmon– These are a deer favorite when they fruit, so if you take issue with them being in your yard, I’d steer clear. I planted them in hopes that the deer would eat them instead of my other plants (the deer are coming in our yard regardless; we have 50 acres of woods in our back door). They also attract birds and other wildlife. Male and female trees should be planted near each other; they like the company and it’s how they have little fruits.

Redbud– I got 5 of these from the Arbor Day Foundation the first year we moved to our house. Most of them I planted directly into the ground in various places around our property, it’s taken them a long time to establish any real growth. Two of them however, I over-wintered in pots, brought out the following summer and then planted that fall. These two are now about 15 feet tall and absolutely covered in blooms every spring. One of them I had to stake until the roots were deeply established, it grew in height much too quickly for the small feeder roots to support the trunk’s weight. The only maintenance I’ve done to them outside of staking is an occasional watering and some pruning of the lower sucker branches.

Coping With Clay

Several years ago I had a website called ExistentialBelle.com on which I wrote several articles related to my yard work, plant growth and landscaping ventures. The website didn’t survive due to my then cluttering it up with too many personal things.

This is an article I had written for the gardening portion of the site- something I didn’t get bored with or outgrow. (I’ve edited a bit here and there as I saw fit)

Northern Missouri, where my family is originally from, is blessed with dark, rich, workable topsoil that is perfect for growing. Even in some of the cities near the Missouri or Mississippi rivers, such as St. Louis or Jefferson City, I’ve seen great topsoil; black silt that I’m guessing must have been deposited there over many years from the rivers long ago. However, here in my part of Missouri, which is the Lake of the Ozarks, our soil (if you want to call it that) is primarily comprised of two things: layers of rocks, followed by layers or clay on top of more layers of rock.

Our home, as well as many others in the area, is built on filled land. Most parts of the Lake Area are wooded hills, prior to development. In order to make the land relatively flat for building, they do what’s called grading it. This essentially means that they use bulldozers and other heavy equipment to scrape the tops off the surrounding hills and shove them into the valleys to create a flat area large enough to hold a house. It’s a common practice here, especially on the hillsides surrounding the lake itself. I’ve seen many a lake home’s back yard landscaped with small rock or gravel to cover the red, muddy mess the excavator’s left behind. Our yard was equally as scarred and ugly when we first moved in. The former tenants of our home didn’t see fit to do anything with the yard for the two or three years they occupied the house. The result of their neglect, combined with the complete removal of any topsoil by the excavators left a rocky, exposed clay mess that was suitable for growing only small patches of crabgrass, dandelions, thistles and a few other hardy weeds.

After many frustrating attempts to dig and plant in this stuff without success, I went into research mode to find ways to deal with my clay. Clay soil is manic-depressive. It has two states: Mud or Brick. You have to learn to manage these opposing conditions to reach a happy medium and say goodbye to clean tennis shoes and socks. I still have more than a couple pairs of shoes and socks in my closet, permanently stained a brick-orange color from working the clay in our yard. On the bright side, clay’s binding properties are wonderful for holding trace minerals and nutrients. The particle size is small and smooth; it holds water well and is very fertile for supporting plant life. If you ball up clay soil in your hand, it will stay in a tight, sticky ball that holds shape. The deeper layers are slow dry out and can support plants with deep, well established root systems very well. Trees like Oak and Dogwood especially favor clay soil. It also supports plant’s root systems to protect them from wind rock (a condition where the upper portion of the plant moves during windy conditions and causes the roots to lose their hold or become damaged).
The problem with clay is those same binding properties that make it nutrient and water rich can pack wet clay together into heavy, unworkable clumps. Lifting a shovel full of wet clay feels as if there is a toddler swinging from the end of it. Aeration (the ability to get oxygen to the roots of a plant) is often very poor. The top layer of clay soil can dry into a hard, cracked crust, while a few inches underneath remains bog-like. Steel tools can barely penetrate the stuff; small feeder roots drown in the lower layers, dry out and burn up in the upper portion of the soil.

The first couple years in our new house, I was desperate to treat the problem of the red mud being tracked all over our carpets and ruining pair after pair of shoes. Clay soil’s rotten drainage can result in a moat or lake in your yard for days after the smallest rain. Worse yet, unprotected slopes and hills can erode quickly into mudslides, washing away what little topsoil has accumulated there, compounding your drainage problem. When it does finally dry out, plants that grow in the upper layers or soil- such as all grass and many flowers- dry out and die quickly without at least daily watering. In its dry, concrete like state, clay is nearly impossible to get a shovel or a tiller into and with no plants to hold topsoil in place, dried clay is also prone to wind erosion and rock slides.

Since we were on a very tight budget those first couple years, I figured I only had a couple of options for fixing our red, two acre mess. Buy plastic alligators or pink flamingoes and pretend I lived in the Everglades during the spring season; replace them with plastic cactus and tortoises in the summer. OR– something a bit more practical, find a way to both soak up excess water and keep the top layer of earth from baking in the sun. It wasn’t the most elegant solution, but a thick layer or hay/straw solved both problems for a while. In the fall, I used a mulching mower to run over the leaves and left them on the yard. Straw, mulch and leaves thrown on top of the clay were only a temporary fix though. They were akin to the lake houses I’d seen swathed in landscaping fabric topped with river rock or gravel. They covered up the problem, rather than addressing it.

Re-routing water with ditches or drains, building raised planting beds and walkways helped some in the high traffic areas of our yard. It kept the mud out of the house and prevented walking on the already damaged areas so that some had a chance to recover naturally. The rest of my yard still looked like a giant stable. What a really wanted was some grass. I went through several bags of seed, which sprouted, lived briefly and died in the span of a couple months. Sometimes it hung on doggedly until the end of the season, only to give up the struggle over the winter months. The raised planting beds were doing fine, since I’d planted on top of the offending clay instead of in it. To these I had added a small amount of our clay to bag after bag of potting soil; not the most economical solution. The problem seemed overwhelming and too much for one person to manage.

I decided to divide our yard up into smaller portions and focus on one section at a time. My three greatest allies in my battle against the clay were several pairs of washable suede garden gloves to prevent blisters while digging, a mulching lawnmower and a large compost bin.

I’d read that additives were the best long term method of improving clay soil. They help to loosen it up, dry out the deeper layers and bring moisture to the crusty upper layers. Inorganic materials like lime, gypsum, vermiculite, perlite and oyster shell can be purchased at garden stores and used to loosen clay, making it workable. But some of these can alter the mineral content or PH balance of the soil and are also rather pricey. I’ve personally had the best results with organic matter. Compost, shredded leaves, newspaper, hair, eggshells, wood mulches, grass clippings, pine needles, hay, straw, vegetable waste and even coffee and tea grounds. Many of these add valuable nitrogen to the topsoil layer as well, while helping to loosen the clay and encourage plant growth.

Composting was a HUGE help in reforming my clay soil, accompanied with the mulching lawnmower, I joked to my husband that I was using our yard to fix our yard. You can pick up the grass clippings in a bag and add them to your compost pile, or just let them drop on the yard and decompose right there. Be prepared to spend a lot of time working the top layers of your clay, adding your organic material and then re-working as necessary. Ultimately, you’re trying to get the soil closer to a loam state, where it still balls when wet, but readily comes apart when squeezed. Ideal soil has a medium particle size, is full of organic matter, holds water well, but also has good drainage. The first few times you work your compost into the clay, you may not be able to penetrate the soil very deep without major effort. Give the compost some time to do its work (and by this, I mean you may need to give it a several seasons to see serious results).

Organic additives will attract earthworms too; they will further aerate the clay and break up the stickiness of it. After a few treatments like this, you should be able to work the soil at deeper levels.  Remember that this is an ongoing process, not a do it once and forget it kind of fix.

Plants can also improve clay soil. Choosing native plants (ones that grow in your area naturally) will help to ensure their success. Clay soil is slower to warm in spring and plants will take longer to become established, but they often do well with minimal intervention once they are settled in. Established plants can help by breaking clay up with their roots and by drawing moisture up to the dry upper layers. Watering your plants in clay can require a bit of finesse as well. Since its small particle size packs tight and doesn’t readily absorb water, you should water for short intervals over a period of time. Let the sprinkler run for a few minutes, turn it off and allow the surface water to soak in, then turn it on again and let it run for a few more. This gives the upper layers some time to soften up and absorb the water down to your plant’s roots rather than just pooling on the surface or running off.

For those of you in Missouri, the Missouri Department of Conservation is an excellent resource for trees and shrubs that will grow well in all types of Missouri soil. I’ve ordered several shipments of small seedlings from them over the years and most of them have matured nicely.  I will caution you that if you are very particular about what you’re getting, then you should order EARLY. They often run out of the more popular stock very quickly, especially the fruit/nut/flowering trees and shrubs. I don’t know if other States have similar programs, but this one has been a wonderful resource for our yard.

The Arbor Day Foundation’s website is another economical place to buy small trees and shrubs. ( I think they now even have some flower packages.)  Both sites send their plants as bare root stock, meaning they are only 6 inches to a foot tall and come wrapped in paper or plastic rather than planted in pots of soil. They give instructions for “heeling in” the plants when they arrive. I’ve found that with my clay, my plants are often more successful if I place them in pots of garden soil or potting soil for the spring/summer season, allow them to establish strong root systems and then plant them in the yard that fall. Stock I’ve received in the fall, I over-winter inside in small pots and usually let them spend the Spring/Summer season in their pots outside before giving them a permanent Fall home.
I will do a separate article soon with specific plants that can prosper in clay soils and also elaborate on composting methods.

B