Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Fabulous Fall-blooming Willowleaf Sunflower

'At the other extreme from [the common annual sunflower] is the graceful sunflower (Helianthus orgyalis), worth growing for its foliage alone.  It has narrow, drooping leaves, grows ten feet high, and has small, pale-yellow flowers scattered along spikes sometimes four feet long...
Buy this plant this year.  You will never regret it.'
~Thomas McAdam
'The Best Tall Perennials', The Garden Magazine, Volume I, 1905

Europeans discovered this North American perennial during explorations of the Arkansas Territory in the early 1800's.  They coined it the 'Graceful Sunflower' and gave it the botanical name Helianthus orgyalis, which is translated loosely as 'man-sized sunflower'.  ('Orgyalis' is derived from a classical Greek distance measurement 'orgya', in which you stretch out your arms as far as you can and measure from fingertip to fingertip.  Historically, this means around 6 feet or as tall as a man.) 

Helianthus salicifolia in front of the veggie garden
Somewhere along the way, the name got changed to Helianthus salicifolia ('salicifolia' meaning 'willow-leaved'), and the common name is now, aptly, the 'Willowleaf Sunflower'.  Under any name, it is a beautiful plant, strikingly tall, with lovely and graceful narrow leaves.

I have it planted in the front corner of my vegetable garden, as I just can't help but try to pretty up what is normally a more utilitarian type of space.  I love how throughout the summer it keeps growing taller and taller and taller - and then in fall, when most of the rest of the garden is winding down, it explodes into masses of bright yellow flowers.

It is a beautiful sight, and, of course, the wildlife notice and enjoy it as well.

Syrphid fly
The blooms attract bees and other pollinators, and Goldfinches love the seeds produced afterwards.

flight of the bumblebee
The Willowleaf Sunflower was described in one old text as being 'hardy as the common dandelion'.  It tolerates a wide variety of soils (mine is in hard clay) and, like many plants native to the prairie, it is drought tolerant once established.  Last year mine pretty much fended for itself and did fine, though it only grew to about 4 feet tall.  This year my plant benefited from a leak from my drip irrigation for my veggie garden, and it definitely enjoyed the extra water, growing to 6 feet and full of blooms.

As tolerant as it is of different growing conditions, the Willowleaf Sunflower is happiest in full sun and well-drained soil.  In partial shade, the plant will tend to be more open and leggy, with fewer flowers, and will be more likely to flop.  Mine is in a corner that gets some morning shade, and, yep, after a hard rain, part of it flops. 

Interestingly, the part that gets the most shade does the most flopping.
It's not an easy plant to stake gracefully, so to keep it from flopping, some gardeners will pinch it back in early summer, resulting in a shorter, more compact plant (though if height is not wanted, there are now several cultivars that are supposed to stay short, such as 'First Light', 'Table Mountain', and 'Low Down').  Design-wise, the arching branches of the Willowleaf Sunflower are a nice complement to a mixed grass border, even if some of the stems flop.  Or if put in the back of the border, as is often done due to its height, the shorter plants in front would help support it.  The famed gardener Gertrude Jekyll used to plant Willowleaf Sunflower in the back of her border, and then, after her shorter plants in front were done blooming for the summer, she would pin the Sunflower stalks down over them.  This would cause the plant to shoot up flower stalks all along the stem, creating a blanket of yellow blooms in the garden for fall.  

The Willowleaf Sunflower spreads by creeping rhizomes to create a colony.  It is good to divide it every 3 or 4 years to maintain vigor or if one needs to control its spread, as it can sometimes spread quickly when happy in its native range.  It is also easily propagated by division.  

Hardiness: zones 4-9
Sun: Full Sun
Height: 6-10 feet
Width: 3 feet
Bloom time: late summer through fall
Soil type: any (tolerates clay!)
Native to central North America
Deer and Rabbit resistant

It is such a striking plant either in a border or as a specimen.  Just like Mr. Thomas McAdams opined over 100 years ago, I certainly don't regret getting this beautiful plant!

Anyone else ever grown it?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Lessons Learned in the Vegetable Garden

It's been exciting to see how productive our veggie garden has been this year.  In Spring we built raised beds and added drip irrigation, and that has made all the difference from last year's paltry harvest.

Veggie garden this September
But still, there are always lessons to be learned and things to be improved, and here are a few things that this summer has taught me:

1.  No one needs three full raised beds of Tomatillos.  Not even me.

Harvest on 9/18/15 - Green beans, Ground Cherries, 2 Cucumbers, and tons of Tomatillos
These very hardy, prolific plants did well even last year in my garden, but given a raised bed full of decent soil?  They went nuts.  To be fair, I intended half of them to be for snacking as opposed to cooking, as last year I grew a variety that was great eaten raw.  However, this year the same variety just wasn't as sweet for whatever reason.

So what to do with bushels of Tomatillos?  Let's just say that, even though I gave several bags of Tomatillos away, I could supply the whole neighborhood with Salsa Verde for the entire winter.  And maybe next.

2. Bees don't visit greenhouses.

I grew most of my tomatoes in containers in my greenhouse this year.  During the first half of the summer, the plants grew lush and full, with lots of flowers - but no tomatoes.  I was puzzled why I wasn't getting any tomatoes, and I can't believe it took me as long as it did to have my 'duh' moment: tomatoes are pollinated by bees or wind, neither of which I have in my greenhouse.

Apparently one must hand-pollinate plants in greenhouses by either using a cotton swab/small brush to pollinate individual flowers or by tapping on the plant supports to 'shake down' the pollen.  After realizing this, I finally started getting some tomatoes.

That's more like it.
3.  You can actually eat a marigold.  But only the petals.

I love to grow flowers in my vegetable garden to 'pretty it up', and I justify it to myself by planting flowers that are edible, usually Nasturtiums.  This year, however,  I was intrigued by the Gem Marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia), which were reported to be the 'best tasting' marigolds, so I bought and planted seeds for 'Lemon Gem' and 'Tangerine Gem'.  The taste is described as 'floral with hints of citrus and spice, and slightly bitter'.  Curious, I popped one in my mouth one day.

I described the taste as more like 'pungently awful'.

After the fact, I learned that one is supposed to just eat the petals, not the entire flower, as the base is 'quite bitter'.  After getting up my courage to try them again, I found that the petals were much more pleasant and mild tasting.   I don't know if I'll start adding them to my salads, but at least it's doing it's job of looking very pretty in the veggie garden!

4.  'Gardening for food' and 'gardening for wildlife' are not mutually exclusive.

This year, in particular, I noticed just how much wildlife was enjoying my vegetable garden.  Possibly even too much, as there were the Potato Beetles that enjoyed my tomatillo leaves and the Squash Vine Borers that wiped out my zucchini plants. But the garden was also a big hit with the beneficial wildlife.  In fact, the parts of my garden that attracted the most bumblebees were (1) my catmint patch and (2) my vegetable garden.

I was also surprised how many birds were constantly in the garden.  They do love to eat my Ground Cherries, and thankfully the plants are prolific enough that there are plenty for the birds and for us.  But they also help me out by eating unwanted bugs, and, in at least one case, by helping out the bees with pollination:

the little hummingbird that loved my veggie garden
When you take a closer look, even the vegetable garden is teeming with life.

And I think that's how it should be.

I'm joining in 'Lessons Learned' with Beth at her blog Plant Postings, where you can find out what other gardeners have learned this past season.
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