Author Archives: Flora Grey

Too Hot to Plant

Every year I swear that I will stop planting things in the garden once the scorching summer days begin.  And every year I keep doing it anyway.  This year is no exception.  My excuse this time is that although usually it doesn’t get really hot until August, this year the heat started in June, and how could I stop planting so early?  I don’t plant that much once it gets hot — a couple of days ago it was just 15 small Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and last week it was a few Stemless Ironweed (Vernonia acaulis).

The problem is that keeping young plants going in this heat requires a ridiculous amount of effort:  watering pretty much every day if there is no rain and providing them with shade when the sun is blazing down. That artificial shade has been provided by a variety of objects:  a beach umbrella, white buckets propped up on large rocks, shade cloth stretched out over a wooden frame, and even an old lawn chair.  This year I had to retire the lawn chair because it became too difficult to bend it into a usable position.  I guess even lawn chairs get creaky and cranky with age.

The time consuming part of this operation mostly comes from messing  around with the covers.  I take them off at night (to let dew settle on the plants) and when it rains, or perhaps I should say when it looks like it’s going to rain.  If I’m home on one of those days when rain is predicted, and the sky and wind tease with the promise of rain, alternating with blasts of sun, I dutifully trot out covering and uncovering them.

Most of the plants that I coddle this way do survive.  Come to think of it, that’s probably why I keep doing it.  However, next year….

The Return of the Frogs

This wacky weather we’re having seems to be confusing the Wood Frogs as well as the spring blooming flowers and trees. Last year we had them hanging out in our little pond for two or three weeks before they disappeared. But this year, it’s a different story. The first Wood Frog appeared in our pond last week, a lone male calling for females to join him. The next day there were three frogs and at least one of them was a female because we saw two of them mating. On day three, the count was four frogs plus an egg mass. (According to The Reptiles and Amphibians of the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area by Alonso Abugattas, females lay several egg masses of up to 3,000 eggs.)

At dusk we saw the frogs hopping out of the pond and heading toward the woods. (I presume that’s where they were going since that’s normally where they live.) That night, and the next, a film of ice covered the pond. There was no sign of the frogs until yesterday when the warmer temperature and rain brought them back again. We heard them calling last night, and this morning four frogs were once again in the pond. However, they are calling for snow Thursday night and Friday.

Wood Frogs are very cold tolerant and can even survive partial freezing of their bodies, but what about that mass of eggs tethered to the Blue Flag Iris in the pond? I’m hoping that the eggs are OK and that the tadpoles will emerge unharmed. Not only are the tadpoles entertaining to watch, but they’ll do a good job of eating the algae on our pond.

For more info about frogs in Virginia, check out Frogs and Toads of Virgina.

Leaf Corrals

Leaves make a good mulch.  If you have a thick enough layer of them, they suppress weed growth and add organic matter to the soil when they decay.  However, we live on the side of a very large, steep hill so most of the leaves end up getting blown by the wind to the bottom of the hill–unless something stops them.  The solution I came up with to stop the blowing leaves is something I call “leaf corrals.”

Two leaf corrals (and a birdbath)

Since I always have an abundant supply of small branches that have fallen to the ground, I use them to form a barrier. Stacking up the branches eight to 10 inches high is enough to do the job and looks fairly attractive if you like the rustic look, which I do.  Maintaining them just requires the occasional addition of more branches and dumping more leaves on top in the fall.

The leaf corrals I’ve created in the past were done early in the fall in partly shaded areas in the back yard.  After I stacked up the branches, I pulled all the weeds and put down a thick layer of leaves around mature plants and on top of bare areas where the spring ephemerals will emerge.

This time I’m trying out a leaf corral that has a few differences from the ones I’ve done before.  The first difference is that the new one is going in up front where there is nothing but full sun and is more exposed to the wind. This new patch is where I killed the grass by solarization during the summer, and later planted small plants that had been propagated from seeds in the spring.  (Considering how dry it was this fall, this may have been a mistake.)  By early December, this patch was completely covered by chickweed and other winter weeds.  Unlike before, I didn’t even try to get rid of the weeds. I just put up the barrier of branches and dumped the leaves over the entire patch.  What I’m hoping is that the leaves will smother the weeds, but will have broken down enough by spring to allow the young plants I planted to emerge.  That’s the way it has worked for the established spring ephemerals, but I’ll just have to wait and see if works for smaller, more vulnerable plants.

What’s This All About?

When we were looking for a house to buy several years ago, one of the criteria was that there be no HOA. I knew that I wanted to get rid of the lawn and replace it with trees, shrubs, a vegetable garden and have pretty much the rest of it be a wild garden. I wanted to experiment with my garden and to try out things I’d read about or my own ideas. I didn’t want to be constrained by the rules of a HOA.

The house we bought was in Northern Virginia. It came with just under 2.25 acres of land which included a small patch of forest overrun by invasives and a few standard ornamentals such as forsythia and rhododendrons planted much too close to the foundation of the house. The rest of it was grass. My goal is to get rid of that grass — all of it. I tell people I’m working on the 10 year plan to eliminate the grass. I think it will take longer than that, but 10 years sounds better than “the rest of my natural life.”