Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Caladiums: the clowns of our garden

Caladium bicolor  'Carolyn Wharton' in a mixed  border in 2012. 

I've come to rely heavily on Caladiums (Caladium bicolor) for color during the later part of the summer. I''ve learned I can use them like bedding plants, to give an edge of continuous color to tie a border together. Their arched stems and hanging leaves can soften the edge of containers. They can also be used as a featured plant, to give  a pop of color in an area dominated by lots of green. They always manage to make me smile.

Caladiums are indigenous to Brazil and neighboring parts of South and central America. They grow in the open forest, and go dormant during the dry season. If you remember that, you'll have success with these entertaining clumps of foliage.

Four years ago I discovered Caladium World   located in Sebring, Florida. During the late winter/early spring they have a comprehensive selection of the colors and sizes of tubers at
C. Carolyn Wharton (Whorton?) 2012 sunny border. 
reasonable prices, although they can sell out of specific varieties quickly. This year I placed my order on New Year's Day to be sure I got the varieties I wanted. They will hold your order until the proper planting time for your location.

Tubers are graded by size. Caladium World carries four sizes: #3 (smallest: 1/2 to 1") #2 (medium 1" to 1.5") #3 (large 1.5 to 2.5") and Jumbo (2.5 to 3.5").  This year our order was (25) # 2 White Christmas, (25) #2 Pink Symphony, (25) #1 Red Flash, and a 3 quart box of mixed strap-leafed and dwarf tubers.

C. 'White Christmas' under Hydrangeas on June 29.
I had thought out carefully where each of those varieties would create the most impact in the garden. Some varieties are able to tolerate more sun than others. Some thrive in shade. The sun tolerant 'Red Flash' would be planted on the roof, under the Peonies, to give color after their flowers were gone. The large size was in hopes that they would be visible from the sidewalk. 'White Christmas' was to be planted under the Hydrangeas on the steps, so that when their blooms faded there would still be some color. The mixed strap-leafed and dwarf varieties would fill in the holes along the fronts of the planters as the California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) succumbed to the heat (and also not being obsessively dead-headed).

C. 'Florida Sweetheart" on July 2. 
My order arrived May 16. I started planting the tubers on May 25. According to my garden journal, the temperatures at night then were still dipping down to the low 50's. Because I'm trying to pack plants into the planters, I will scoop out enough soil to get the tubers about an inch below the soil surface. I then throw a handful of well-rotted compost on top of the tubers. I do not directly water the newly planted tubers, as the cooler temperatures and water can lead to the tubers turning to mush. By June 6, growth from the eyes had started and were about an inch and a half high. Leaves start out as tightly rolled spikes. As the weather warms, the spikes lengthen and the leaves unfurl. At that point in time, night temperatures were now in the upper 50's, daytime mid 70's.

C. 'Red Flash' in the Peonies 7-21.
By late June, with temperatures remaining above 70, the tubers really started to show growth. The leaves throw up taller spikes and unfurl in a day or two. The hoped for weavings of color were becoming pronounced. Now that we are at the beginning of August, the Caladiums are at their zenith.

I'm already re-thinking the color scheme for next year. The 'Red Flash' has been more subtle on the roof than I had hoped for. A more solidly red or pink leaf would work better up there. I've been really happy with the assorted fancy/strap leaf mix. And I think if I still underplant the Hydrangeas, it will be with a color next year other than white.

Mixed dwarf and strap-leafed, 7-21

In late fall, before the first frost, I try to salvage as many of the tubers as I can. I use my hands to claw under them and lift them from the soil. Leaving the leaves attached helps the tubers store more energy for the next year. I try to remember to sort them by color. I lay them in mesh bottom nursery trays, so that they can slowly be dried by moving air currents. I also leave some in tubs which I bring in and store in the basement. The tubers left to dry in trays can eventually (no rush to do it) have the soil shaken off, and the dried leaves carefully removed. Store the tubers in a dry place that is between 55 and 65 degrees. In late May in zone 7, you can plant them for another year of color.

Elephant Ear Colocasia formosana on the Attic Roof Deck. 
C. Pink Symphony under variegated Dogwoods

C. 'Gingerland' 7-21
C. mixture on our front porch, 7-22

C. mixture along 47th St. 7-22
C. Florida Sweetheart 7-22

Side yard, C. 'Pink Symphony' along the fence. 
A few words about Elephant Ears, as they are somewhat similar in growth habits and in growth needs. Many companies sell and ship them at the same time as Caladiums. Colocasias are native to Polynesia and Southeast Asia, where some species are important as food crops. A neighbor often buys her Elephant Ear bulbs in the produce department at the local market as Taro roots.

I bring our potted Colocasias in each fall and keep them bright parts of the storefront or the attic. I water them very sparingly. Some will eventually have total die-back of all of their leaves. When that happens, the bulb is dormant. Stop watering it! Come late May, start to give it small amounts of water. Move the pot out to an out of the way location, and as the weather continues to warm, they will leaf back out again.

Colocasia formosana under my grandmother's Night Blooming Cereus. 
Colocascia gigantea with Oak Leaf Hydrangea. 
One other note on Caladiums and Colocascias. Be careful leaving small children or pets in areas where these are planted. All parts of  Colocasia contain an irritant which causes intense discomfort to the lips, mouth and throat.

Caladiums also contain calcium oxalate. If your pets have a tendency to chew on your garden plants, be sure to plant these in an inaccessible part of your garden. The crystals can cause swelling of the lips, tongue, and oral cavity and could make breathing and swallowing difficult. 

There are a myriad of plant species which can be harmful to pets and children. All gardeners should be aware of them and take steps to prevent accidents. One list of harmful plants can be found here. 

Writing this post, I have discovered a number of other comprehensive vendors of Caladium tubers. I'd love to hear if anyone has recomendations of other companies.
C. bicolor 'Red Flash' in the Hosta garden. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Squirrels, Bees, and Stickey Wickets.

Bumble Bee on Helianthus annuus Italian White
It takes a couple of hours most mornings in the summer to water all of our gardens. Gary usually waters the store front roof and I do the rest. For me, the time is usually very therapeutic- I look for the signs of other creatures sharing the early morning with me. A roster of birds accompany me usually before 6 am when I start on the attic roof deck, five stories above the ground. The catbirds are first. Their fledglings these days seem to have a more limited vocabulary, with squeals that sound like kittens not happy to find themselves flying. Nuthatches and Chickadees turn up next. The Robins, noisy earlier in the year, are pretty silent right now. Lastly, the Blue Jays show up, making plenty of racket as I search for dry pots under ever-growing, ever-spreading foliage.

Several years ago, I bought a shrub for the top deck which I believed in my mind was a "North Carolina Spicebush.' I bought it to remind myself of my cousins Debby and Kathy, who live near Wilson, NC. It replaced a string of house plants I had previously placed in that corner which the squirrels systematically stripped and destroyed. Shortly after placing this five foot tall shrub in the rear corner of the garden, branches began to disappear. Within a few days, nothing but a trunk was left.

Fortunately, as a healthy shrub, it almost immediately began throwing off new shoots, and by fall had enough branches and leaves to make a nice display of its reddish leaves before they fell. Interestingly, the new growth was all on the side of the shrub away from the rail, where the little furry critters had sat to chew them away.

The second year, there was lots of new growth, and no squirrel pillaging, but also, no flowers.This summer, the plant was doing spectacularly. Lots of lush growth, away from the trellis, and lots of promise in the form of hundreds of tiny buds.

This year also brought what seemed like a squirrel nursery to the top roof deck. I think they lived in the space between the roof surface and the deck flooring. Every time I went up there, there were baby squirrels digging, pooping, and chasing one another through my feeble attempts to get that part of the garden under my control. An early attempt to persuade the squirrels to vacate was useless. Next I tried Havahart Corporation's 'Critter Ridder,'  which worked for a few days, less if it rained. Then I read a technique on line which I modified, using a pint deli container into which I placed 6 mothballs. I punched several small holes in the top and placed them in the spots where the squirrels seemed to use for their bedrooms. Lo and behold, it worked-again for a few days before the squirrels returned.

Sweet Pepperbush behind sunflowers. 
The buggers started chewing off branches of the shrub, which I now know is really Clethra alnifolia (sweet pepperbush or summersweet) and were using them to roof their nests, in the middle of my plants in plane view. (I guess they were using them to sweeten up the mothball smell). First, I removed  the pepperbush branched roof, and placed smallish plants in clay pots in the middle of the cleared area the squirrels had made. After a few days of battle where the squirrels moved the clay pots enough that they could stretch out, then I would move them back and soak all the soil, eventually, the squirrels gave up and left. Finally, I could enjoy my sweet pepperbush.

As I took more time to look closely especially at the pepperbush blooms, I found that the flowers were alive with nectar gatherers. With all of the concern about the depletion of bee populations in the world, I was fascinated to have the chance to watch these bees up close as I watered.

First, I noticed that there were several different sizes and colors of 'real' bees. (I am not lumping all yellow flying things together under the name 'bee'). There were small brown bees which seemed to work quickly, barely giving me the chance to focus my camera before moving on. These are the bees which sometimes get so much pollen on their legs, that they can hardly fly off. In the photo at left, all you can see of this honey bee on a Sunflower are it's pollen-covered legs on the left side of the dark brown disc. You can see bits of pollen still on the individual disc florets waiting to be collected.

There were also larger black and yellow bees which a re Bumble Bees. These bees also collect nectar and make honey, though not as efficiently as Honey Bees. Their hives are less 'constructed" and more by happenstance. Bumblebees have made nests in old discarded mattresses. Last summer, when the Horse Chestnut on 47th Street was taken down (it was hollow at the base, and leaned precariously over the street. An arborist recommended it be taken down) a nest of Bumble Bees was discovered living in the rotted center.

Horse Chestnut:waiting for the bees to clear. 
The crew had to give the bees time to reassemble and relocate. I kept expecting a swarm to form and communally leave, but it was more just waiting for their anger to subside. The workers watched until there wasn't any sign of bees before cutting up the rest of the trunk.

Writing this post (well, most of the posts I've put up so far) has taught me more about how much I don't know about things, like bees. I've observed them, but really had no idea what they were doing. I knew there were Honey Bees, Bumble Bees, Carpenter Bees, and of course had read about African Killer Bees.
Honey Bee on Eupatorium purpureum. 

Bees have been in the news a lot this past week. Many of my friends have been posting a link on Facebook to an article from 'The Escapist'- that fungicides previously thought not to be harmful to bees increase a bees susceptibility to the parasite responsible for CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) .
Another earlier article in the 'Oregonian' reported the largest single reported death of thousands of Bumblebees on a Target parking lot in Oregon after blooming Linden trees were sprayed with 'Safari', neonicotinoid pesticide which turns the "leaves, flowers, and nectar toxic to most insects."

I wanted to include a link to bee identification with this post. The initial results I got were from Pest Control Companies which boasted that they were best at solving "Bee Problems." Most went on to talk about other flying insects like wasps and yellow jackets (which are not bees at all). These removers and hunters do stress the importance of Honey Bees in pollination, but they still seem to reinforce the "problem" over any benefits to individuals living with bees in their garden. Anyway, here's a link to Pennsylvania Wildlife's identification page for bees.

I know there are apiaries right here in our neighborhood.I know, that if I go to the store at exactly the right time, I can buy some locally harvested honey. (It sells out almost immediately). There have been attempts to start programs for high school youth to learn bee-keeping. Hives have been kept in people's attics, and on their roofs. Check this photo from "Harvest Local Foods" blog post called "Show Me the (Raw) Honey. It shows hives on a roof just across from St. Francis de Sales school. I like to think this is where the bees visiting my garden take their nectar. There is also another Apiary a few blocks east of us, which is part of Urban Apiaries. They were written up in the Philly Inquirer in an article called "Bee a Good Neighbor."

So, what of the "Sticky Wicket" I alluded to in the title of this post. Well, my battle with the squirrels was most successful when I figured out how to adapt to their habits and disrupt them. The mothballs in a container kept the naphthalene contained where it could not leech into the environment and kill beneficial critters, but it didn't do a great job at dissuading the squirrels. I know there are other non-toxic deterents I need to try. Small sharp objects (crushed oyster shells) in the soil are said to deter them from digging in flower beds. Cutting the trees back to ten feet away from the house would also help.

We've become so reliant as a nation on pesticides to keep a steady stream of inexpensive but flawless looking produce to our stores that we are jeopardizing the lives of the very creatures responsible for pollinating that produce. Can we learn to adapt our buying habits and our expectations? Can we accept produce that might have easily cut away spots from insects, and to eat foods in their season? Can we think before we spray our lawns to eliminate crabgrass, or over-fertilize with chemicals that collect in our aquifers? Can we assume some responsibility for what's happening all around us that diminishes God's creation?

Some random roof deck photos

Dictamus seed pods

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Good News and New Aquisitions

Yesterday the Philadelphia CityPaper reported that the rumored garden center to open at 51st and Baltimore will be operated by Greensgrow Farm.  This is huge news for those of us who garden in West Philadelphia. They are so much more than a nursery: they are growers of food, flowers, and neighborhoods ( I know, because they say so- but if you've been to their farm in Kensington, then you've seen the changes they have grown on what was once an abandoned industrial dessert.

Greensgow nurtures gardeners too- they offer a wide array of educational programs and are a reliable source for all kinds of locally sourced food. They have a CSA program (community supported agriculture) and run a retail farm stand. They have a number of animals on the farm, so city slickers can see what ways ducks or pigs earn their keep on a farm besides becoming food on the table. They have a great guideline on their website on eating seasonally, as a way to reduce one's reliance on food that's more well-traveled than you are.

The other news I am excited to share is that yesterday I found a Hydrangea I have searched for for several years. A neighbor has one of these late-blooming shrubs with long tapered panicles (the multiple small flowers which make up the mass of many which people usually mean when they talk hydrangea flowers). The flower shape is similar to the Oak Leaf Hydrangeas ( H. quercifolia), but the leaves are not Oak shaped. The owner did not know the variety, which made it difficult to search on-line.

This spring, the owner gave me several pieces of the branches he had pruned from the shrub to open up the base. They had been cut for some time and lying in the sun before another neighbor told him I was interested in trying to propagate it. I cut back the ones which seemed to still have a chance, and hoped for the best as I covered the pot with a clear plastic container. For several days, I thought they were looking better, but alas, I was wrong. I thought I'd try again next year, and see if he'd let me take some cuttings myself and root them right away.

Yesterday at Produce Junction I found a nicely shaped, well-flowered specimen of this plant I had coveted, and, best of all, it was only $12.00. In the car with the windows up, I discovered it is very fragrant. I also found a few hard shelled snails hiding in it's leaves, so at the moment, it's in quarantine until I'm sure the snails are gone. Anyway, here's a photo of our newest Hydrangea: please meet Hydrangea paniculata 'Tardiva.'

Friday, July 26, 2013

Heat Waves & Hibiscus

It's almost three weeks since my last post. It's just been so hot for so long here in Philly. I feel like I have spent more time watering than enjoying the garden these weeks. That's not entirely true, but during much of the oppressive weather, I've stayed indoors in the A/C except for early mornings and late evenings. I've missed a few events, like the first bloom on the Night Blooming Cereus, which was on the back of one plant, and never noticed til the next morning. Several nights later, six opened on one night in between thunderstorms. We missed those, too.

Despite a few heavy downpours, I've still needed to spot water in places where the pots received little or no rain because of wind direction or overhangs. The extremely leafy plants like the hydrangeas always get shortchanged in the rain as well. The neighbors think I'm crazy some mornings, out with the hose, while the ground is still wet.

Front Roof (Baltimore Ave side) with H. Lord Baltimore 
We're still in Hardy Lily season, with more of the Orientals blooming, and some of the newest Tiger Lilies about to open. Fortunately, when the Lilies begin to slow down, the Hardy Hibiscus and Caladiums start to take over.

H. Lord Baltimore
The Hardy Hibiscus of the Malvaceae are sort of funny things. They are one of the last things to break dormancy in late spring. They grow quickly once the weather warms. The huge flowers are surreal in many ways, lasting only one day and looking like they are made of crepe paper. Because the flowers are so large, they are perfect plants for our roof garden. The scale of the flowers allows them to "read" from a distance. There are two red "Lord Baltimore" with deeply lobed leaves, as well as two of the red H. moscheutos hybrids, which have a saw-toothed heart-shaped leaf. We also have two pink "Lady Baltimore" on the side roof. They are almost demure compared to the reds.
Side Roof (47th St side) with H. Lady Baltimore. 

Tumbling over the edge are a number Nasturtiums and the newly added Clematis. To give more color over the summer I planted Caladium "Red Flash" along the roof edge of the planters. You can see one or two of the leaves in this photo, though they are perpendicular to the photo. There is also a tub of purple Phlox  near the dining room window, which gives a nice fragrance when we have the windows open. We live 'Venetian style' with our public rooms on the second floor, a piano nobile with a garden surrounding these second floor rooms.
H. Lady Baltimore

These hardy hibiscus will give us several weeks of bloom. Once all of the buds have opened, side shoots will produce additional, somewhat smaller blooms. I learned by accident several years back, that cutting the stems back results in side shoots that are not strong enough to support the weight of the blooms.

H. Lord Baltimore cutting. 
One year, pulling some weeds around the base of our bronze leaved "Kopper King" Hibiscus, I knocked a new stem free from the plant. It was the second year that we had it, and I was disappointed to lose the potential blooms. On a chance, I took the stem in and put it in water. Within a few days it had developed roots. I put it in a pot and covered it with a clear plastic bottle cut off at the base. I left the cap off for ventilation. Within a few weeks new leaf growth had begun, so I removed the plastic bottle. I kept the cutting in the shade another week, and eventually moved it into the sun. The single stem grew but did not bloom that summer. The following summer, it grew two stems and had blooms on both.

H. Luna White 
This year almost two months ago, I took cuttings from three of our Hardy Hibiscus. Of the dozen or so that originally rooted in water, three H. Lord Baltimore have survived. I'm planning on adding these to the perennial plantings along the 47th St. sidewalk in the early fall in hopes of them blooming next spring.  The Luna series plants supposedly start easily from seed. I am going to be more intentional this fall in collecting seeds and will try to sow some in the spring.

Speaking of collecting seeds, a neighbor has a patch of Hibiscus I did not discover until late fall, when the flowers were gone, but the distinctive leaf structure and seed pods alerted me that it was a type of Hibiscus. I walked around to see if it was blooming yet, but it is even later than "Kopper King", so when I can start some it will be another welcome late summer bloomer. The photo shows the distinctive deeply lobed leaves. I believe it is H. coccineus, known as scarlet rosemallow. Some growers list it as growing in zones 7-10 (Philadelphia is in zone 7b, 5-10 (F)). Since it's growing again around the corner, I will hope we have some success with it next year.

H. Luna Red

I also added six un-named moscheutos-type rooted slips which I bought on eBay. The largest of these is showing some buds, so it will be interesting to see what they turn out to be. I'm pretty certain it will be a light colored flower. The leaves seem to attract a smallish dark beetle, which has left some lacy damage to the leaves.

In the fall, after the leaves have dropped, you will be left with a number of brown hollow stems. I cut these back to 6" or so from the soil. In the spring, as new growth starts, you can usually pull these old stumps away easily.

H. 'Kopper King' growing on our upper roof deck. 

Looking down on the front roof deck with H. Luna Red

H. Lord Baltimore from behind-just like stained glass. 
This is a Rose of Sharon growing in our old garden. Rose of Sharon is also in the Malvacea Family, however it is a woody shrub. It also grows quite easily from seed, and many consider it an invasive species.