Matthaei Botanical Gardens blooming agave

A few days ago, I had a chance to see the blooming agave plant at University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens Desert House — the one you’ve been hearing everyone talking about.

The agave leaves have a rare variegated green and white color.
The agave leaves have a rare variegated green and white color.

When I first saw this plant over 30 years ago, it was already 50 years old. Through the years it didn’t appear to change much but of course it has been growing and maturing all that time. Now after 80 years, it is finally blossoming.

It has produced a flower stalk so tall that they’ve had to take out some roof glass from the greenhouse in order to give it more room to grow.

The flower stalk has grown through the roof of the conservatory.
The flower stalk has grown through the roof of the conservatory.

I encourage you to get out to the Botanical Gardens and see it. This type of agave blooms only once in its lifetime and then it dies. So, when it’s over, it’s over.

The flowers are producing an abundance of real agave nectar, not the manufactured stuff you find in the store.
The flowers are producing an abundance of real agave nectar, not the manufactured stuff you find in the store.

Matthaei Botanical Gardens is located on Dixboro Road south of Plymouth Road, Ann Arbor, directions and hours are available on their website.


Hostas need time fully develop

If you are like me , you probably have had the experience of buying a plant from a catalog or garden center only to find out it wasn’t quite as wonderful as it looked in the picture. Of course, sometimes sellers tweak  photos a bit to highlight the characteristics of a particular plant.

In the case of hostas however, the differences can be very real and not due to photo manipulation.

Many varieties of hostas require a cold period before they reach their full potential. New hostas are often grown in a greenhouse for the first year and may have not gotten enough exposure to cold temperatures. As a result, during the first year in your garden, they can look very different from a mature plant of the same variety.

Although hostas produce flowers, it is the foliage that attracts gardeners.
Although hostas produce flowers, it is the foliage that attracts gardeners.

Leaf color, texture, size and shape can all look different until the second spring. There are some varieties that require a few years growth before all their characteristics are evident.

Also, keep in mind that hostas are shade tolerant plants. Even though we see hostas planted in sunny areas all the time, they prefer to grow in areas where they are shaded from the hot afternoon sun. Full morning and evening sun exposure will allow hostas to develop properly.

In a year or two your new hosta will look as good as the one in the catalog. I wish I could say the same about the shirts I buy.


Veronica speedwell

This is the first spring for our Veronica gentianoides, sometimes called Veronica Speedwell or Gentian Speedwell. We planted this perennial last fall and it seems to be very hardy since it survived our winter, even after all of those record-breaking cold days and nights.

Gentian speedwell is one of the earliest flowering perennials. Ours started blooming right after the tulips died back and just recently finished blooming.

Its wonderful light-blue flowers are about one-half inch across and are held by a spike 16 inches tall.

This is not a plant that you would notice driving down a bumpy road at 50 miles an hour, unless it was a naturalized area with a large number of plants. It works best in an area where you can enjoy it up close such as along a sidewalk.

Later a seed stalk will develop from the flower stalk on these Gentian Speedwell plants.
Later a seed stalk will develop from the flower stalk on these Gentian Speedwell plants.

You may have noticed that Veronica gentionoides has the same first name as Veronica filiformis, the common lawn weed also called speedwell.  That’s because they are closely related. Don’t worry though, Veronica gentianoides won’t become a lawn weed.

Like many of us, Veronica’s ancestors immigrated from somewhere else in the world. In this case, they were brought here from the middle east — specifically the Caucasus region around Turkey and Iran.

Gentian Speedwell will tolerate some light shade but prefers full sun. Wild populations in the middle east are found in damp fields, which tells us that the plant will do best if kept watered or is grown in a moist area.

There are cultivated varieties for sale, I’m not sure what variety ours are.

Later in the summer after they’re done flowering, the plants will send out creeping roots that will produce new plants. The new plants eventually form into a mat that makes a good ground cover for filling in bare spots in the garden.


Ants on peonies

We’re seeing ants again on peony buds again this year. It happens every spring. They show up as soon as the buds get some size to them. They’ll stick around all the way through flowering.

Ants and peonies just seem to go together.  Many long time gardeners believe you must encourage the ants because you can’t have good peony flowers without them.  We now know that is an old wives tale.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are gardeners who fret and worry about the ants so much that they try to destroy every ant on their peonies. They think the ants are hurting the peonies and inhibiting flowering. That belief is just as much an old wives tale.


You'll find ants on peonies all day, every day this time of year.
You’ll find ants on peonies all day, every day this time of year.

In fact, ants on peonies are pretty much neutral — neither good nor bad. They are there only to feed on the sugary surface coating that is secreted by the buds. And that causes no damage.

Peony ants are so well behaved they won’t even try to get into your house so there is no need to worry about that either.

Sometimes an ant or two will ride into the house on cut flower stems. To avoid that, cut the flowers just before they open and knock off any ants you find.

Gardening has enough challenges without having to worry about ants on peonies. So cross that one off your list.




The tuberoses have been blooming in the garden for a week or so.

When they first started blooming, I actually smelled them before I saw them, which is not surprising since tuberoses are one of the most fragrant flowers you can grow.  They produce so much fragrance that farmers plant fields of them that they sell to perfume makers. The sweet scent is most noticeable in the evening.

Tuberoses don’t tolerate cold temperatures so you have to wait until the soil warms up.  Because it took so long for the soil to get warm this season, I planted mine around the beginning of June.

They require very little care and don’t mind being neglected for a while.

These tuberose flowers measure about one and a half inches across.
These tuberose flowers measure about one and a half inches across.

The grassy-looking leaves on tuberoses are not particularly eye-catching so, you can’t count on the foliage to make a dramatic impact in the landscape. It’s all about the flowers and their aroma. They make excellent cut flowers too.

You can save tuberoses by digging the tubers up before frost. Keep them warm in storage –above 50 degrees F — and dry over winter.

By digging and saving your tuberoses each year, you can quickly build up a large number of tubers to use each year in your garden.


Remove seed stalks from spring flowering bulbs

Our daffodils, tulips and hyacinths are done blooming for the season. That doesn’t mean that we can forget about them. There’s still some work left to be done that will greatly improve our chances for flowers next year.

Right now the plants are beginning  to form seed pods at the end of the flower stalks — where the old flower is attached. This is normally what happens when the plants are left to fend for themselves.

Small pruning snips work great for removing seed stalks.
Small pruning snips work great for removing seed stalks.

The problem with seed pods is they take too much energy to grow and we don’t need seeds to grow tulips, hyacinths or daffodils. To conserve that wasted energy, we need to remove those flower stalks as soon as possible after the flowers have faded.

I try to cut the flower stalks as close to the base of the plant as I can being careful not to cut off the leaves. Plants need their leaves to produce energy for growth, reproduction and other plant functions.

Since I don’t plant as many bulbs now as I did in past years, this job for me is not as demanding as it used to be. This year I only have a few hundred stalks to cut.


Flowers attract hummingbirds

Bees and butterflies are fun to watch but, I think hummingbirds are the most fascinating visitors to a garden. No matter how many times you see them, they never fail to surprise and amaze.

Hummingbirds use a huge huge amount of energy in relation to their size.  Sugars found in flower nectar is source of this energy. Everyday they eat their body weight in nectar so they are constantly on the lookout for nectar-producing flowers.

You can encourage hummingbirds to visit your yard by planting the flowers they’re looking for.

They prefer red and orange tubular flowers but will feed on most brightly-colored flowers with nectar. There’s plenty of flowers that meet these requirements.

Hummingbirds like tubular flowers such as petunias and nicotiana.
Hummingbirds like tubular flowers such as petunias and nicotiana.

Here’s a partial list to consider: monarda, red salvia, agastache, honeysuckle vine, fushia, verbena, phlox, butterfly bush, daylily, trumpet creeper, cypress vine, coral bells, heirloom petunias, penstemnon, morning glory, bugle weed, red-hot poker, and many others.

Like people, hummingbirds also need protein and fats in their diet. They get those nutrients by eating gnats, mosquitoes and other small insects. So, having an area of wild plants — weeds — nearby will provide space for these small insects to grow.

Finally, hummingbirds need trees and shrubs to provide a place for them to nest and to escape from predators.

If you look around, you’ll probably see that most of the things hummingbirds need are already in your neighborhood.

Planting the right kind of flowers is the best way to get hummingbirds to hang out in your backyard.


Cool weather keeps spring-flowers bulbs blooming

Many gardeners have been enjoying the cool spring this year — especially those who spent days and days last fall planting spring-flowering bulbs.

In years past, I planted as many as 20 thousand tulips, daffodils, and hyacinth bulbs in one fall season. For many years I considered 10 thousand bulbs to be a light planting year. It took my helper and me several weeks to get those flower bulbs into the ground before winter arrived.

Then, I would wait until spring to see the results of all of that work. Most of the time spring progressed normally and the bulbs put on a show that lasted for weeks. Every once-in-a-while a week of summer-like weather would occur in early spring. All of the bulbs would shoot up out of the ground, bloom, and die-back all within about a week’s time. How disappointing those springs were — one week of spring-flowering for six weeks of hard work in the fall.

Cool spring temperatures keep bulbs flowering much longer.
Cool spring temperatures keep bulbs flowering much longer.


This year we’re having a nice, slow start to spring. Our bulbs are slowly opening and their flowers look like they will stay fresh for sometime.

Spring bulbs are the best reason to hope for a cool spring.


Saving your Easter Lily to plant in your landscape

Thousands of Easter Lilies are flowering in homes all around our area. Most of them get tossed out after they are done blooming.

A small percentage of people plan to keep their plant hoping to have it bloom next Easter. “That ain’t gonna happen”, as one famous pawnbroker on TV likes to say. There is an art and science to getting Easter Lilies to bloom exactly on Easter weekend. And that is way beyond the skill of nearly all gardeners.

You can however, save your lily and have it bloom in your garden next summer. All you need to do is keep it in good shape for the next six weeks or so.

The most common problem you are likely to see is water-logged roots. This happens when the foil pot wrapper is left on the pot. Since water has nowhere to drain, it collects in the foil and pot, drowning the roots. So, pour out any extra water from the foil wrapper or take off the wrapper completely.

After flowering, plant your Easter Lily outside.
After flowering, plant your Easter Lily outside.

Keep the plant in a cool, bright spot in your house so that the leaves can do their thing with photosynthesis.

In mid-May or after the last frost, plant the lily into a flower bed in full sun. Water and fertilize it along with the rest of your plants.

Then, next summer and each summer after that, your lily will bloom and become a permanent part of your landscape.



Saving Cannas

The cannas had a nice long growing season but the hard frost brought that to an abrupt end.  Now, a gardener has to make a decision – do you dig and store them, or let them freeze and buy new ones next year?

Since I have such a hard time throwing out plants, I always dig them and find room for them somewhere.

It’s easy enough to save them for planting next spring.  First cut the tops off, I like to leave a couple of inches of stem attached to the roots.  Then dig the rhizome clumps out with a garden fork.  Set them in a garage or some place away from freezing temperatures and let them dry.

Move the clumps — soil and all — to a spot where they won’t freeze.  They should keep until spring.  Some gardeners like to crate-up and pack cannas in dried peat moss.  That allows more efficient use of storage space, especially if you have a lot of rhizomes to deal with.

To save just a few Cannas, store them with the garden soil left on.

I usually let potted cannas stay right in their pots over winter.  It takes up more space but takes less time than removing them from the pot.

There are reality TV shows about hoarding things and animals;  do you think they’ll ever do one about hoarding plants?  Maybe the Michigan Film Office will be interested in that idea.