The garden formerly known as tropical

There’s a spot in my yard (actually most of it inches over into my Mother in Law’s yard) where I like to indulge in a little of the tropics.  Last year it was full of cannas, sweet potatoes, and other warm weather friends, but this year it seems to have lost some of that bold tropical flair.  As usual it’s my own fault, and as usual it’s a long story, so I’ll try to keep it short.  It all begins in April when mulch was purchased for next door, and a willing volunteer was needed to spread it.  I foolishly agreed, but the deal was to add a couple tons of topsoil (I said I needed it to fill in along a sidewalk).  “I’ll spread all your mulch if you buy me even more stuff which needs spreading”.  Let me just say I run a hard bargain.

new flower bed

Look at that three inch drop from the sidewalk into the tropical bed. Clearly an ankle twisting lawsuit in the making!

So the mulch was spread, perennials divided, shrubs trimmed, weeds pulled…. the deal kept getting better and better it seems, but then it came down to the heap of topsoil sitting in the driveway.  I used a few wheelbarrows to raise the soil along the walk and was still left with plenty.  Finally my plan was coming together hah hah hah.  I’m pretty sure I mentioned I might use the topsoil to expand the bed a bit, so that’s what I went ahead and did 🙂

digging a new perennial bed

Line the edge with a hose, cut in and dig out the edge, smother the grass with about two inches of topsoil… wow did I hate mowing this sloped little patch of sickly grass!

No one said a word about the tripled in size, very empty bed.  I think people around here may be a little wary about asking questions for fear I will plant up a field of dandelions or something.  Some people have said I’m stubborn and criticism may tend to encourage me even more.  I like to think of it as proving a point 😉

fresh soil in flower bed

A huge empty garden bed in May. What could possibly make a gardener happier (other than a few loads of compost mixed in)?

The last bits of mulch made the bed a little more suburban-friendly and a few paver scraps thrown down along the center made an acceptable shortcut for the kids.  Then on to the real fun!  Canna and dahlia roots were lugged out and planted, and that was well enough, but then trouble started brewing.  A box filled with a dozen or so rooted chrysanthemum cuttings showed up at the door.  I can check on them constantly if they’re right along the edge of the new bed, so that’s where they went.  Don’t ask me why I needed a box of chrysanthemums, February is a tough month.

new flower bed

Somehow random perennials invaded the tropical border, that and chrysanthemums….

Then of course I tried to make the front yard more respectable by not having sunflowers all throughout the foundation plantings.  Out they came and into the new bed they went.  I have a serious problem in trying to show any kind of resolve against sunflower seedlings, they’re all summer and sunshine and it seems borderline criminal to pull them as weeds.

peony "do Tell"

Peony “Do Tell” can’t seriously expect to be the only plant using this spot of sun all year. The sunflowers should take over by July and the peony will just hang out in their shade until next year…. that’s the theory at least.

Things still look awfully barren but until the heat of summer hits it’s all kind of just biding its time.  Looking over from my yard you can see the bit of slope which made me hate mowing this spot.  Plus I’m not all that crazy about lawn to begin with *yawn* ….. it’s only really good for walking around on while checking the plants out!

side view

Year two of “I should give the table another coat of pain” -June 10th

My grass just doesn’t have the strength to come up through the soil (southerners may have a different experience), and even without soil improvement the new plants are still doing well as they feed off the decaying lawn underneath.  A month later and things are looking better.  The cannas still give a tropical look, but all the sunflowers are giving more of a neglected-agriculture vibe!

cannas, grasses, and sunflowers

July 13th, about a month later and the cannas are up, the sunflowers are growing, and I still keep looking at the bare dirt wishing for some compost or mulch to cover it up with.

As the sunflowers come into bloom they’re pretty and cheerful… but they’re not the tropics.

sunflower bed

It looks lush and green, so I should be happy. Also it’s not the color disaster I grew here last year, another reason to be pleased!

Besides it being a non-tropical border, a few other problems are coming to light.  The first is that some of the chrysanthemums relentlessly insist on setting buds and blooming for summer instead of fall.  I think I failed to pinch them back enough when planting them out in the spring, but I just don’t have the heart to do it now.

mums blooming too early

Chrysanthemums blooming in July, hopefully they’ll be on the correct schedule next year…. but they’ll need dividing by then, so I have no idea where to put them all!

To me a more insidious problem is the sunflower blooms.  When the first flower opened I cringed.  They’re completely pollen free, and because of that they don’t offer much to pollinators, and even worse they don’t set seed as well as the normal types.  I thought for sure since they were selfsown from last year’s plants that they should be normal functioning sunflowers but that’s not the case.  These all appear to carry the pollen-free gene, a gene which I’m sure came from the birdfeed seed.  I’m not big on all the seed conspiracies, but this looks like a genetic insurance policy that keeps farmers coming back to the seed supplier each year, and keeps them from replanting their own crop.  Good for a seed seller but not so good for me and all my now genetically tainted sunflowers.

pollen free sunflower with bee

Not much here for the bees.

Luckily there’s a small patch of sunflowers out front which still grow normally.  Once these started blooming I noticed a few seeds starting to form in the other patch (I guess a little pollen goes a long way throughout the garden!).  I need to make sure I get my seedlings from this area next year.

wild sunflower

This sunflower looks like it’s full of tasty seeds, not full of empty husks like over in the other patch.

The sunflowers look pretty enough, but all I see are the black soulless eyes of the walking dead…. ok maybe not that bad, but they lack the busy bees and bugs that usually do laps around the big open pollen filled flowers.  The goldfinches have also been very insulting as they touch down to check on the seed supply and come up empty.  Hopefully pollen from the front yard will work it’s way back here to at least make the birds happy.  Just in case, I planted a patch of heirloom sunflowers in the now completely dug up daffodil patch.  They’ll be late, but they’ll have pollen, and I think they’ll still make it before frost.

selfsown sunflowers

Sunflowers coming on strong.

I’m still holding out for a few tropical effects.  One castor bean seed came up and is now taking off, and “tropicanna” canna is looking healthy.  Also if I have nothing better to do this week, a few coleus and sweet potato cuttings can fill in one or two of the still empty spots, and maybe by late August ‘tropicalismo’ will revisit this bed once again.

castor bean with tropicanna canna

Castor bean “carmencita” and a few over-fed “Tropicana” cannas. The cannas seem to get much brighter colors when grown on the lean side, or with just a little 10-10-10 fertilizer. This batch has a lot of green in them due to higher nitrogen, probably from some miracle grow.

I don’t know if they say tropical to everyone, but dahlias never fail to bring brightness.  This peachy pink with yellow cactus flower makes me think of some overdone tropical drink.  Yummy!

pink and yellow cactus dahlia

Unknown dahlia which I keep saving from year to year. This spring I tried to show some restraint with them since last season planting a dozen or so might have been overkill 🙂

One plant I still need to plant out more of is verbena bonariensis.  In almost all my other beds it can be counted on to show up and make a play for taking over any open spot, here in the new soil it hasn’t had a chance to seed in yet.  Any transplants made this time of year will shrug off the shock of moving quickly and should be blooming up a purple storm in no time at all so I better get moving.

arundo donax "gold chain"

The grassy tropicalish leaves of arundo donax “gold chain” make a great mix with the sunflowers and verbena. I might have to plant this combo on purpose next year to make sure it happens again!

The tall old fashioned red leaved cannas always make me happy.  They’re super easy to overwinter, never look ratty, and always grow as fast as the fertilizer and water will take them.  The small reddish blooms which come later in the season aren’t much to talk about, but the hummingbirds love them.

red russian canna

Maybe canna “red Russian”? We call them Polish cannas after the old Polish woman who years ago gave the first ones to a friend of mine.

So that’s the latest from the ex-tropical bed.   It may still heat up as the season progresses, but for now it’s decidedly temperate and might remain so for a while.  No amaranthus or salvia seedlings showed, and this spring was a bust as far as all the seeds I started, so many of the brightest colors from last year are hushed.  For now I’ll have to keep satisfied with my little bit of the tropics in containers.

tropicals in containers

A couple real tropicals planted in containers where I can best keep an eye on them.

Not to go on any longer than I already have, but those weak little pots of tropicalismo surrounded by weeds and dead grass aren’t just a bad planter arrangement.  To me they’re the accent on a new gavel terrace backed by a low stone wall.  Maybe a fire pit.  I think one of the reasons my garden looks the way it does is because I have a bit too much vision, but we’ll see.  I do tend to work backwards and always find the plants first…. who cares if the seating area is still a little “in development”?

15 comments on “The garden formerly known as tropical

  1. Cathy says:

    I love the way you just widened that bed Frank! In my last garden I used to widen one bed by a couple of inches every now and then in the hope it would go unnoticed… that works pretty well too! LOL! I envy your canna and castor bean. In fact, tropical or not, the whole bed looks really good. And you’re right, that grass goes very well with the verbena… I may have to copy that idea! 🙂

    • bittster says:

      Thanks Cathy, I really find all the big leaves and bright colors to be irresistible in any plant, and cannas are so easy!
      I can see you sneaking a few inches onto your beds each year, I do the same and sometimes it’s surprising how much area you gain over the years. My mother used to do a good job keeping an eye on me, but now that we have moved further away she doesn’t always catch on to a few inches here and there 🙂
      I think she’ll notice this one though!

  2. Christina says:

    The new shape of the bed looks great Frank. Vision is what you need to make a garden, so okay, it may take some time and others may not be able to see your vision but then for them when it does, it will be a wonderful surprise. Even if it’s not tropical it looks great.

    • bittster says:

      Thanks Christina, this will be our sixth summer here and it’s the first year I’m starting to notice shrubs and trees having some size to them, and flower beds beginning to become part of a garden.

  3. Annette says:

    Great job, Frank! I’m the same…constantly widening borders. I don’t know how you do it but the chrysanthemums clearly add a tropical touch to your border whereas usually they make me think of graveyards, but that’s not their fault, more the fact that they’re being abused like this where I come from. Reading your post brings to mind that gardening is a lot about surprises and being inventive and spontaneous too. Looking forward to seeing it develop.

    • bittster says:

      You know what you speak of Annette! Pompeii did not come off the shelf of a big box store 🙂
      I just saw an email of your last post and I’m looking forward to seeing it more closely on a screen larger than my phone!
      I like to have some fun in my garden, I leave the routine plantings for next door where neatness counts for more 🙂

  4. pbmgarden says:

    Looks great Frank. Having the vision and enjoying the journey make gardening fun. I like the design of your extended bed.

    • bittster says:

      Thanks! It sure helps that we haven’t had the heat and humidity you’ve been seeing. Gardening is no fun when sweat keeps running down into your eyes!

  5. Chloris says:

    I am constantly eating away at my lawn too. I am amazed that you can simply put top soil on your lawn without it growing through.
    I love your variegated Arundo donax it’s a much better colour than mine.
    Your tropical bed is coming on quite nicely. It’ s only July, they usually come into their own in September.
    I love your description of your pollenless sunflowers: ‘the black soulless eyes of the walking dead’.
    I imagine your sunflowers stumbling Zombie- like round your garden every night.
    Lovely, healthy Cannas.

    • bittster says:

      I used to put down paper or cardboard to kill the grass, but found this to work just as well. I deal with the guilt over poor soil prep, but it passes quickly with my feet up and a cool beverage in hand versus a sweaty day behind a spade.
      I saw your arundo. My versicolor starts the year spectacularly but goes all green when the heat really settles in. This cooler weather we’ve been having keeps the colors vivid. I hear there are better marked selections and greener ones, I suspect I have a nice one to start…. but the one in the photo is actually a yellow variegated selection. I love it, but I’m a sucker for anything with a bit of yellow in the leaves 🙂

  6. I’ve also killed grass by just layering topsoil on it, though I’ve always put a good few inches. Newspapers tend to shred and blow around despite my best efforts. You are a gardener after my own heart, there is no bed or border that cannot be improved by widening, and more sunflowers = more happiness.

    • bittster says:

      I agree bed widening is always a good thing. You just have to go big in order to fit a few new goodies in!
      I have to agree newspaper is a pain. My best results come if I leave it out in a good rain to wet it first. It’s heavier then, lays nicer and best of all doesn’t blow around!

  7. The curve on that expanded bed looks perfect. I am surprised the grass didn’t grow up through the topsoil, though. I really thought you needed several layers of newspaper or cardboard to smother the grass.

    • bittster says:

      Thanks Kathy! I wish my bed edges would stay that way for longer than the few days it takes the grass to slump back in.
      I bet if I had some more aggressive grasses like quack grass it would be a problem, but it’s usually only the dandelions and other rooty weeds which have the energy to sprout up through the dirt. I discovered this back when I tried to level out a lawn by raking topsoil into the low spots… and ended up with all these dead patches 🙂

  8. Interesting that your grass was smothered! I always used newspaper when I started a new raised bed. I mistakenly bought the pollen free sunflowers too! What is. The point of growing them that way? I won’t make that mistake again! The new widened border looks great,

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