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Gardening Grab Bag

What's new and cool in the gardening world



Every spring, the gardening world explodes with an almost overwhelming array of new plants, books, tools and techniques. While most of it isn't cool enough to bother with (do we really need 14 new Heuchera introductions when 'Plum Pudding' is already perfect?), there are always a few gems that take gardening up a notch. Here's what I'm loving right now.

A bounty of butterflies

With a photographer in the house, as well as an observant and wonder-filled toddler, there seems no better time to double down on inviting as many living things into the backyard as I can. Though we're all familiar with a broad selection of plants that can provide for pollinators, gardening for butterflies can be challenging because they have such specific relationships with individual plants, making it imperative to know as much about them as possible in order to invite the greatest number into the garden.

Given that, I've been particularly enthusiastic about the latest book from The Xerces Society, Gardening for Butterflies. Even beyond the plant recommendations, the ideas on providing places for butterflies to pupate, take shelter and overwinter are helpful in re-imagining my garden as a place where butterflies might like to live, rather than just visit for a snack. Gross tip: A huge number of butterflies love to drink from scat to meet their mineral and nutrient needs. I don't think I'll be providing that particular resource but I can certainly indulge them with a few sheltered mud puddles.

New organic treatment for thrips

California's drought has been a real problem for many shallow-rooted plants like rhododendrons, which do best with more consistent moisture than they've been getting recently. For many rhododendrons, this stress from lack of water has caused thrips infestations which are notoriously challenging to beat. Thrips are a microscopically tiny sucking insect which sap the chlorophyll and energy from plants, leaving a silvery sheen on the top side of the leaves (especially older leaves). Until now, the most effective and practical option for treatment has been imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid insecticide that's been implicated in colony collapse disorder in honeybees, and kills our individually nesting native bees and other pollinators as well. I hope it goes without saying that I've been unwilling to use the stuff.

Thanks to local rhododendron nursery Singing Tree Gardens, I've discovered a new rosemary extract solution from Sierra Natural Science called 209. You start by spraying the affected foliage (especially the undersides) and stems, then drench the soil around the root zone every two weeks for at least four treatments. When the thrips drink from the plant and come in contact with the rosemary extract, they quickly move on. Though nothing will fix the appearance of previously damaged leaves, this treatment can help protect new growth and allow your rhododendrons to shake off an otherwise nasty and hard to fix infestation.

Alluring apricots

Apricot flowers, that is. Though blue, lavender and purple are my favorite colors in the garden, apricot and amber blooms make an ideal brightening contrast to these cooler shades. The new introduction I'm most excited about is Digiplexis Illumination 'Apricot', a new color of Digiplexis with a warm peachy-yellow hue. Digiplexis are the spectacular result of breeding a shrubby perennial (Isoplexis) with a foxglove (Digitalis). You get those iconic foxglove spires, with more bloom spikes, exotic colors and a spring-fall bloom season.

To get my apricot fix, I am also planting Flower Carpet Amber landscape rose, dwarf Alstroemeria 'Inca Ice', and Helianthemum 'Cheviot'. Pair them with blue-flowered Geranium 'Rozanne', the fuzzy purple spires of Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), or brighten up the combination with plants that have golden foliage like golden heathers or golden-variegated herbs.

Watering wisely

Though I use automatic drip irrigation for most of my garden, the classic watering wand has long been a favorite for areas that need a little boost, such as the vegetable garden and potted plants. I like the soft rainshower head that doesn't hurt delicate new plants, and the long handle which allows me to reach the center of my veggie beds or go skywards to water hanging baskets.

Yet the angling of most watering wands has always been challenging, because you'd want the head pointing a totally different direction for watering hanging baskets as you would for watering the center of raised beds — so I've been excited about a recent tool acquisition, the Snake Wand from Black and Decker. It's got a round, comfortable grip, an easy-squeeze lever that doesn't hurt my hands, and an articulating end that lets you adjust the wand on the fly to hit hard-to-reach places with whatever angle you want. If you hand-water or do hanging baskets, it's a worthy upgrade over traditional wands, which had me spritzing the sidewalk as much as my baskets.

Kill weeds in the lawn with iron

More than almost any other issue, organic gardeners struggle with getting rid of broadleaf weeds in the lawn. Though dandelions are relatively easy to remove from small lawns with a standing weeder, what about those trailing weeds that seem to infest the entire surface of the lawn without having an obvious starting point? For the last few years, I've been keeping my eye on a new treatment that has only recently been approved for use in California — an iron-based organic weed killer (FeHEDTA) that doesn't hurt turfgrass.

Just like the dreaded weed and feed products which contain a chemical relative of Agent Orange (2, 4-D), you can apply it over the entirety of your lawn and it kills dandelions, oxalis, etc. Unlike these chemical herbicides, it's safe for pets, people, and wildlife as soon as the spray dries. If you are like me and prefer your lawn to just have grass and not a lot of chunkier weeds like dandelions giving it an uneven surface, give this stuff a try. I prefer the Iron X! product from Gardens Alive because the company has great customer service and an organic focus, but there are other products with the same active ingredient in the Bayer Natria line as well as Scotts' Whitney Farms line.

Sensational Succulents grown-up coloring book

What could be better inspiration for artists than the intricate rosettes and fractal-like patterns found in so many succulents? They are vividly-colored and have varied gradations in tone, making them an ideal subject for that grownup coloring trend I've come to love. Sensational Succulents, a new coloring book from the queen of succulents Debra Lee Baldwin and illustrated by Laura Serra, has 75 images from Debra's books that have been transformed into line drawings, ready for you to color. The paper is thick, and unlike many coloring books which have so many lines that it's hard to do anything freehand, the outlines of the succulents give just enough room for us to take some artistic license in shading. She even has instructions on her website for transferring the illustrations to watercolor paper, if you want to get creative in another medium.

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Genevieve Schmidt owns a fine landscape maintenance company in Arcata. Visit her on the web at

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