Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tips for Beginning Gardeners aka STEP AWAY FROM THE TRUMPET VINE, IVY and MINT (can you hear me now?)

Along with the joys of owning our first home came the thrill of having our first yard, complete with space for more than grass. We could actually grow plants, something we'd never been able to do in the low rent apartment with a postage stamp sized deck (yes, they DO make one person decks with barely enough room to turn around, standing up) that we had before.

I was so happy to have a garden that I eagerly searched for everything I could find about garden ideas as well as garden design. I pored through garden catalogs , too. All the descriptions were so enticing and so I bought tons of plants, including some that were utter mistakes.

They weren't mistakes because they barely grew or just puttered along, putting out a tentative leaf now and then.

No, they were mistakes because they not only grew like wildfire but they threatened to take over the entire exterior of our home, every tree we had and maybe even level our home to the ground. Perhaps you'd like to avoid that type of beginning gardening experience? I thought so.

Here are my own Gardening Tips for Beginners: learned the hard way:
look beyond the lure and plant descriptions of those garden catalogs and seed packets

Look beyond the enticing descriptions in those seed catalogs.

I sure wish I had. Instead, I picked up many garden catalogs which made plants sound quite so appealing and easy to grow that I couldn't resist buying them. If you want to see how appealing garden plants can look in their descriptions or need some ideas, check out White Flower Farms catalog. You can see it at www.whiteflowerfarms.com

I've bought many plants from them and all have thrived. I recommend their shade garden plants. All have been winners.

Unfortunately, here is one plant I did not buy from them but I DID buy them: Trumpet Vines.

Trumpet vines are known to attract hummingbirds (and bees, but that is another issue). They have a lovely red or orange-red color and they certainly do look appealing while climbing up the side of a deck, cleverly attaching themselves to the wood. How easy! What smart, resilient plants!

However, I wish I'd looked at other sites first and paid attention to this word "Invasive" , a word which is often tied to Trumpet Vines. Which brings me to the next point for beginning gardeners.

Another Gardening Tip for Beginners? Pay heed to the word, "invasive", if and when you see it anywhere in a plant's description.

You will save yourself much time, trouble and possibly even bad language (aka cursing) if you think carefully about the full implications of invasive plants. You might also heed the words of people at Gardening forums.

Our experience with invasive plants: Trumpet Vine

I ordered three of these plants from a company I've thankfully blanked out of my memory, due to post-traumatic stress. We then planted then along the outside wall of a bare wooden deck, hoping it would soon be covered with glorious flowers. Those plants grew like crazy and for awhile we were actually happy about that.

Within a few years, however, we noticed something odd....the boards on our deck walls were getting gaps in them and the vines were pushing them apart! We were also tripping over vines that were coming up from the deck floor, almost like something out of Little Shop of Horrors, seeming to double or triple in size overnight!

No problem, we thought. We'd just pull out the vines. They pulled off the wooden deck walls pretty easily, too, although they also pulled the stain and some of wood chips off the wall boards, as well as one complete board - and then we got down to the plant roots. Pulling out those roots was like trying to turn hardened cement back into a liquid again.

We used a shovel to dig through the dirt and even broke two drill bits trying to get every bit of the roots. We bought weed killer and used that. We called in experts. We spent a fair amount of money, time and even a few grumbling moments (okay, hours) trying to prove that these plants would not defeat us. Every year, it would appear that those Trumpet Vine were gone, gone, gone. Next year? They'd be back and with thicker vines and a renewed growth surge.

To be fair, we did not wedge ourselves or our miniature dachshund through the tiny opening to our deck and or dig out the roots under the deck. I believe that was our error. But our dachshund wasn't an eager volunteer, anyway.

Then we built a new deck and made sure the builders would guarantee that no Trumpet Vines would live to survive that experience. They still missed one. I guess even expert deck builders have issues with invasive plants.

Lesson learned: know the pros and cons of invasive plants. Check out gardening forums - or other sources of plant information - you find online and you will see that some people curse this plant. Others praise its power to take over everything, glad to have it help hold up their rundown home, spare them the trouble of slapping paint on exterior walls or have a sunny corner of their yard covered with a plant that is low maintenance and pretty hard to kill, even if you run over it with a lawnmower (yes , we tried this, too).

When it comes to Ivy, know the pros and cons of ivy as well as the differences between Boston Ivy and English Ivy.

Ah,ivy. Where to start? Last year, we spent a good part of one day - and then another - pulling ivy plants off one huge cottonwood tree as well as a good part of our house. We had to buy an extra large ladder to get to the top of our home. Briefly, we considered climbing on the roof and trying to reach them from that angle but we decided that was a job for nimble mountain goats, not humans who have our genes.

Besides, a neighbor had fallen off a roof with a far less steeper pitch than ours and spent time in the hospital. Since our roof is almost vertical in spots, we decided to try the ladder approach. We got out all that ivy, as well as several old bird nests. Along the way, we uncovered spiders, bees, wasps and some poison ivy. Our hair was covered in debris, enough to nearly clog our shower drain. Nearly.

Lesson learned: Ivy is a beautiful plant. It can also be invasive. You can get the facts about ivy at many sites online. Read the info carefully.

If you decide to get rid of any plants on your home or in the ground, wear old clothes, be prepared to shampoo your hair two or three times to get out all the stuff and don't do this on a sunny, humid day - like we did.

How to grow ivy safely: Be aware of the pros (lovely foliage covering wooden walls) and cons (can damage wood and take over trees). Consider placing a potted container of ivy in the ground for the summer and bring it in your home as a house plant over the winter, if you can't leave it outside year round. Even when grown as a container plant, it can become invasive if grown in the ground, container or not. However, odds of this are low if you do this for only a summer or two. My husband didn't believe this but we did grow one ivy plant, far from the tree where he'd just removed ivy.

I took it out at the end of the summer and said, "See? It didn't get anywhere near the tree."

Garden Tips for Beginners: watch out for mint plants!

Herb gardening is one of the simplest forms of growing plants. I love to do this because I have fresh basil, parsley and unusual varieties of basil and lettuce for our salads and to jazz up boring recipes, our usual standbys that could do with a change or two - like fresh herbs. We like mint, too, especially in lemonade or to create a homemade mint sauce for lamb. However, mint plants a reputation for being (gulp)....invasive. Do they ever!

This is not just my opinion. Check out the Chicago Botanic Garden website and find this info about mint: www.chicagobotanic.org/plantinfo/q_and_a/M.html
Information there is the same as what we discovered: mint has underground runners and so it can be hard to get rid of this plant. Make sure you want the plant in an area of your garden before planting it there.

Then be prepared for it to stay there, year after year, unless it is a variety that dies out in your zone at some point. Many varieties live through the winter, based on our experience or maybe we just have them too close to our home.

Lesson learning and growing tips: we've had luck sinking a pipe or pot in the ground and growing mint that way, pulling it out at the end of the summer. The pot or pipe seems to curtail the spread of the mint. Optionally, you could grow mint in limited quantities in pot on your deck or deck planters.

Good luck, have fun gardening!