Thomas vs. The 2 Ft Tall Groundhog (?): Cooks Garden 6/27/17

Just a quick summary of the day from Thomas:

Lots of things going on in the garden this week. We had a children’s group come by. We dug a few potatoes for them and a carrot or two in the course of their visit. Thanks to Charlene for leading the tours for the entire garden. Our Jalapeno has some small fruit. The peppers as a whole didn’t really do much this past week and still seem to be struggling to start growing.

Charlene planted 2 eggplant in RB1 for Jannell. In A, the tomatoes seem unaffected by the wilt that devastated the potatoes last week. The sweet potatoes in B/C seem to be doing well.

The potatoes don’t look great, but the few we dug were in decent shape so we didn’t dig out the whole lot. The tomatoes were trimmed and attached to the trellis. The Mountain Merit are growing much more aggressively than the San Marizanos.

Our temporary fix to the bunny holes in the deer fence around E,F G and H seemed to be holding but another creature with more reach got in since last week. It virtually stripped our volunteer tomatillo, clipped a nasturtium and randomly bit off parts of the cucumbers. Judging from the reach, it could have been a groundhog or a raccoon but no tracks were left to be sure. At least, whatever it was left our newly sprouted beans alone.


Also, Harriett worked hard with Joe deconstructing one of the compost bins that had started fermenting with brewers yeast.  Bob wasn’t here today, so Harriet dove right in!

Rock Gardening, A Brief History

Rock gardens, also called rockery or alpine gardens, can be traced back to early Chinese and Japanese culture. Alpine rock gardens are found in more recent history, and were common during the Victorian Age. The focus in early China and Japan gardens was on unusual rock formations and not plants. The Taoist and Buddhist love for nature inspired the use of  rock formations to invite into the garden mythological immortals, who lived in mythological mountains. The Chinese, especially,  have a tradition of mountain worship and rockery in gardens to recreate mountain scenes and these can be seen as early as the late Yin and early Zhou dynasties (1600 BC- 771 BC).

Interest in rockery dates back to the 16th century in Europe when explorers brought back exotic plants from the Americas and Africa.  During the Golden Age of Botany (early 1700’s -mid 1800’s) there was widespread interest in exotic plants and these became part of the Victorian rock garden. Inspired by mountain scenes, tundra plants were brought back from alpine regions. Travelers and English gardeners tried to recreate these scenes using rockery. In 1908, a very influential book on the Horticultural world , “The English Rock Garden” by Reginald Farrier, was published.


In North America, (beginning in New England) rock gardens became a popular frenzy in the late 1800’s until the 1930’s. Americans competed to make the most unique rock gardens and they were popular because they were low maintenance and required little water.  Another resurgence in interest took off in the 1960’s, and many of us can remember our parents building rock gardens.


Rock gardens are an excellent choice for steep hillsides and difficult growing conditions, such as poorly irrigated soil. They are low maintenance, and do well where water is a limiting factor. Rockery is an excellent  way to use those rocks and boulders found on many properties. They can be used to control erosion and water run off on slopes and are a good alternative in arid climates.

When beginning to design your rock garden, it is always nice to use locally sourced rocks and minerals to showcase Virginia’s geological diversity. Examples include black and gray limestone, gneiss containing biotite, quartz and feldspar, gabbro, sandstone ( you may find some with fossils!), marble, shale, siltstone, quartz, slate and calcite. Landscaping rocks and minerals can be found at stone centers, and if you have been collecting rocks on trips, rock gardens are an excellent place for them.


The Educational Rock and Mineral Garden, run by the Division of Geology and Mineral Resouces, in Charlottesville, VA has some excellent ideas for your rock garden.



When starting your rock garden, chose a location on your property which will show a seamless flow into the surrounding landscape  for a natural look. Position the largest rocks first, and partially bury 1/3 of the rock. Do not place them on top of the soil.  Tilt them backwards slightly to funnel water. You can also group rounded rocks in a flat area to imitate a boulder field left behind by glaciers.  It is important that the soil is fast draining. Creating a meandering path invites visitors into the garden.



When designing and planting your rock garden, look for plants that are small and do not grow taller than 2-3 feet (some say only 12 inches tall) . Fast growing ground covers are excellent choices to fill between the rocks.  Depending on the space, add small trees such as Japanese maple and dwarf conifers and shrubs to create a focal point, and shade for woodland plants. Conifers such as low growing juniper and mugo pine are excellent for adding texture and year round color.

Choose a combination of distinctive foliage such as ornamental grasses and colorful year long blooms.   Using natives somewhere in your planting are always a good idea, as they often are drought tolerant and attract pollinators. Fill in tight spaces between rocks with flowering plants such as saxifrage which is an easy to grow crevice dweller.  You may want to consider using the color wheel in your design.  Choosing complementary colors, across from one another on the wheel such as red and green, or orange and blue, are a good way to emphasize each plant. You can also plant annuals as border plants such as petunias, Dianthus, Alyssum and Vinca.

Rock gardening has always been easy for northern gardeners. They have plenty of rocks left over from retreating glaciers, and deeper soils. Rock gardens can be successful in southeastern areas, even with our heavy clay soils and high humidity.  Consider growing some of your plants in pots or troughs that can be moved around. Look for natives  adapted to our climate that have the right growth habit for your plan. As always, use the right plant, for the right place and check often for pests.







Spencer’s Rock Garden

A beautiful rock garden can be found at the Teaching Garden and it is tended with care by master gardener, Spencer Williams.  Spencer has been a MG since 2007 and has been the bed leader for the Rock Garden for 9 months. You can find Spencer working in his garden on Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons.

When you speak with Spencer, you are really impressed about how much research he has done on rock gardens, and how much he knows about every plant in his bed!  He tells me that when he first  volunteered to be the bed leader, he went to the library and checked out the only book on the subject. Bringing his extensive knowledge from home gardening and lots of research, he started learning about what was in the bed.  As with all of the bed leaders and co-leaders, he tends his garden with love and respect. This season he is doing a lot of observing, and adding plants that he finds interesting. Spencer likes to combine textures and use the color wheel when grouping blooming plants .

All of the rocks in this bed are from sites in Prince William County and include granite , slate and gneiss. These rocks cascade to ground level from a height of four feet, creating a beautiful background for the rock garden plants. Nepata (catmint) adds color and texture along with a Japanese maple which provides a focal point and shade for woodland plants. Fens Ruby Euphorbia, which acts as a ground cover,  has long lasting chartreuse flowers in spring with blue-green foliage. Russian sage and Moonbeam Coreopsis, at the far end, begin blooming in late spring. In the same section, Bluestar Amsonia has upright stems with blue flowers in late spring and has great yellow color in fall. The rest of the bed is filled with various Sedums, Verbena, spiderwort, butterfly weed, Canna, and many others.


Spencer has not had to water the rock garden much this season because of spring rains, but waters new plants until they are established. There is heavy shade below the Japanese maple, and he has removed some of the lower branches to let in more light. There are a few aggressive plants in his garden such as one of the Sedums, spearmint and the Fens Ruby Euphorbia.

Since deer and bunnies are common visitors to the Teaching Garden, I asked Spencer if he had any problems in this bed. He mentioned that something had been eating the Stokes Aster, the Variegated Thrift, and Larkspur. He has also seen a number of beneficial bees,  moths, and a hummingbird moth visiting the Rose Verbena.

Spencer recommends that homeowners that are interested in rock gardening do some research to determine the right plant, for the right place. Check the hardiness zone, and environmental requirements first, and consider planting some plants in pots that can be moved around.

Happy Solstice! Cook’s Garden 6/21/17

Hi Everyone,

The vegetable garden is a seesaw of positives and negatives. This teetering showed up in our soil today. Let’s start with the positive; while cutting back the snow peas, Thomas discovered nitrogen nodules on the roots of the plants. This happy find is due to the symbiotic relationship between the legume and the bacteria Rhizobium. This bacterium living in the nodules takes the nitrogen gas from the air in the soil and converts it into nitrate, a nitrogen form that the legume (and all plants) can use. The legume provides all the nutrients and  chemical energy the bacteria needs. This symbiotic relationship  leaves nitrogen in the soil in a form (nitrate) that  plants can use. This is why you can see legumes planted throughout the garden including alfalfa and hairy vetch.


Now for the negative; there is a big concern that the soil where the potatoes are growing might be infected with Verticillium wilt. This is not good news. This soil-borne fungus causes early death to the vine and can remain in the soil for years. To make matters worse, some of the potatoes dug up from Harriet’s beautiful bed were complete mush and foul smelling. This prompted an early harvest of all the potatoes in that bed, and removal of the infected vines. None of this plant material came in contact with the compost pile. This action was necessary to help prevent spread into the neighboring tomato plants; however, all was not lost, as a good number of healthy potatoes were harvested.

This scenario is our Sustainable Vegetable Garden (SVG) class in action. We noticed signs and symptoms of disease and promptly removed and disposed. We still got a great harvest. We are now all informed, and being the awesome team we are, will stay keenly observant. If anything, it’s a new story in the making for our 2018 SVG class, and an opportunity to research, learn and experiment. That’s a whole lot of positive!


Other happy and positive finds above the soil include the zephyr squash and pattypan setting fruit and Jannell continuing to wow us with her blue ribbon worthy carrots and beets.


Also found on the tomatoes was a orange striped oak moth. Just visiting and not a pest!


Cheers to teetering towards the positive!




At the garden I had a great chance to see so many veggies going wild, appreciating the warm soil, and the rain from this spring.  Potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, beets, and many, many more wonderful looking veggies are growing like crazy.

One of the spectacles that really caught my eye was the rhubarb! With its robust size it very had a strong presence in the bed.

Here are a few facts about this delicious  plant!

  • Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is an herbaceous edible perennial and a member of the buckwheat family.
  • Rhubarb was once a very well-known and popular vegetable in this country.
  • While the stalks are edible and very tart, the leaves are toxic because of their oxalic acid (soluble oxalates) content, which can cause human and animal poisoning and must be trimmed from the petiole prior to use.
  • No harvesting should be done the first year, and only a light harvesting (two to four stalks per plant) should be done in the second year. In the third year, four to six weeks of pulling can be tolerated, depending on plant vigor.
  • New, but full-size stalks are harvested by pulling upward with a light sideways twist, which fully breaks the stalk from the point of attachment. Stalks should not be cut as the remnant stalk base decays and may create entry points for disease.
  •  A mature plant can produce an average of two to three pounds of stalks per season. Rhubarb can easily be over-harvested, resulting in loss of vigor and greater susceptibility to diseases.( )

Everyone has been working so hard in the garden and it is looking great with hardly any weeds, and loads of blooms in all the corners!

Keep up the good work everyone-and we all better look up some new rhubarb recipes!

A veggie joke:

A guy walks into the doctor’s office. A banana stuck in one of his ears, a rhubarb in the other ear, and a carrot stuck in one nostril.

The man says, “Doc, this is terrible. What’s wrong with me?”

The doctor says, “Well, first of all, you need to eat more sensibly.”


Saturday in the Garden: Your Small Space Garden, Breathtaking Baskets and Vegetable of the Month

Saturday in the Garden – Small Space Gardening and Beautiful Baskets and Potted Posies, and Vegetable of the month (tomato). Nancy Berlin posted these pictures on  Facebook. I hear this Saturday was a huge success! I am sorry I missed the rhubarb and strawberry,  and mock mincemeat green tomato pies made by Charlene Toloso!


Maria Stewart has lots of experience with plants for pollinators in small spaces. Her balcony was a certified Audubon Sanctuary – certified by Master Gardeners who are Audubon Ambassadors.


Spencer Williams, the Rock garden never looked better!


Crocosmia ready to open.


Cheryl Ayers in front of the herb bed and rebuilt rock wall, which provides a microclimate in the cooler months. Our VT intern, Collin, rebuilt this wall this week. Thanks, Collin Miller!


Stachys monieri – thanks for the Id Paige Thacker!


Potatoes in pots! Yukon gold


Growing nutritious microgreens in small spaces


Patriotic container for 4th of July — with Collin Miller. Collin is a summer intern from Virginia Tech, where he is majoring in Wildlife Conservation at the College of Environment and Natural Resources. He grew up in Yorktown and became interested in environmental sciences after spending many days on the Chesapeake Bay.

Harriet Carter talks tomatoes and the audience enjoys Charlene’s mock mincemeat pies made with green tomatoes.


Janell works so hard!



Kathy Westcott’s strength is design. Such good ideas!

June’s Vegetable of the Month is tomato. Look for recipes for each month in Charlene’s cookbook!






You Too, Can Have a Beautiful Bee, Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden

Home gardeners can witness the beautiful and beneficial interactions between plants and animals, like we see at the Bee, Butterfly and Hummingbird garden. The Capital and Northern Virginia regions are rich with butterfly, bee and hummingbird activity and are home to many beautiful species.  Maintaining these gardens is easy and planting for season long activity rewarding. A few tips are important, depending on what you want to attract. Native species to our region allow for a variety of food sources that support nature, and also do better in our climate. Native species are, however, not the only plants that attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Resources are listed below,  and there are plenty of clubs of enthusiasts in our region that can provide additional information.


When trying to attract butterflies to your garden it is important to provide food sources for the larval stages. This will attract greater varieties of butterflies and  in larger numbers.  They prefer to lay their eggs on the host plant preferred by the caterpillar. Their eggs can be tiny, and often hard to see. In your garden, it is recommended that you don’t be “too tidy”, and leave plants that can harbor the chrysalises and eggs as they overwinter. It is very important to NOT USE pesticides and herbicides in your yard or gardens. (they will kill the pollinators).  Provide a sunny, protected area, and plant nectar flowers for adults and host plants for caterpillars. Also provide a source of water and rocks and/or bare soil for butterflies to sun themselves.

A few lists of plants and the type of butterflies they attract for our area:


Bees are incredibly important pollinators not only for agricultural crops, fruit trees and ornamentals, but also an important part of any ecosystem. Native bees are divided into two groups: Generalists that make up 80% of the total population and Specialists that make up the remaining 20%.

Generalists feed on many plants we consider to be “weeds”, such as dandelion. They are more numerous and have continuous broods throughout the season. These include the imported European Honey bee that is used to pollinate our crops. Generalists have higher population numbers and can handle disturbed sites. The nuns at the Monastery keep honey bees and they are managed with MG’s Bill Willis and Louise Edsall.  They can be seen foraging throughout the Teaching Garden.

Specialists  only feed on 1 -3 plant species that are rich in the nutrients they need. They have a lower population number, only one brood, and spend the rest of the season underground. These include the solitary bees. Specialist bees visit spring ephemerals in vernal woodlands such as spring beauty, trout lily and violets. Each of these have their own specialist bee pollinator. Plants families that attract solitary bees (as well and honey bees) include Solidago (goldenrods), Symphyotrichum (asters), Helianthus (sunflowers), Ericaceae (heaths). Most of the native bees in the Capital region and Northern Virginia are solitary bees and need a variety of food sources. As with the colonial honey bee, our solitary bee populations are declining.  It is likely that pesticide use and loss of habitat are the one of the major reasons for decline in all bee populations.

When planting for bees, plant flowers in clumps and plan to have something in bloom all season. An example of progression of blooms: Early spring bluebells -> late spring coneflowers  -> midsummer milk weeds ->fall blooming asters and goldenrod


Hummingbirds are the area’s smallest birds. The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species that breeds in the eastern United States. Other hummingbirds seen in this area are the black-chinned hummingbird and the rufous hummingbird. Most ruby throated hummingbirds overwinter in Mexico and northern Panama. They arrive in the Washington DC and northern Virginia area as early as late March. By mid-September all resident hummingbirds have left. A few will overwinter in the Outer Banks, NC, south Florida, and along the Gulf of Mexico. Ruby throated are recognized by emerald green feathers and a white breast. Only the males have the ruby throat feathers.

rubythroated eggs

eggs in nest with lichen

ruby throated nest

nesting female

Ruby throated-Hummingbird.

male ruby throated hummingbird

As nectar feeders, hummingbirds pollinate plants as they feed. They need a lot of high quality food and feed 1-12 times per hour. A female hummingbird may capture up to 2,000 insects per day.  Hummingbirds are especially attracted to red, tubular flowers such as bee balm, trumpet creeper and cardinal flowers. They are also attracted to other colors such as the pink flowers of ruby spice summersweet.  Hummingbirds are known to feed on insects, spiders and sap from sapsucker drilled holes. When planning your garden, provide understory trees and shrubs where they can perch. They also love to line their nests with cinnamon fern fuzz, pussy willow, and spider web silk. Grow a diversity of plants that bloom at different times.

Native plants that attract these birds include buttonbush, summersweet, (C. alnifolic “Ruby Spice), Rhododendron species, trumpet creeper, trumpet honeysuckle, wild columbine, milkweed, bleeding heart, bee balm,white turtlehead, rose mallow, Liatrus, cardinal flower, white Penstemon, Echinacea, and Salvia.


Bee, Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden

This week’s featured bed at the Teaching Garden is the Bee, Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden (BBH). The leader is Teri Madden who has been a master Gardener since 2006. Teri describes the function of this bed as a way to provide nectar sources for butterflies, bees and hummingbirds, and habitat for butterflies to lay eggs. She waters  new plants often and the rest of the bed during periods of drought.  Teri loves how the bed constantly changes, the variety of plants, and the constant bursts of color throughout the season.

I asked Teri if she has made any changes over the years she has been nurturing this bed. She told me that she adds new varieties of plants every year to see how they will thrive, and is always looking for unusual bloom colors that will attract pollinators. This year she has added new Salvias, Veronicas, and a dwarf butterfly bush.  Last year, she added a bird bath, an important source of water.  One work day she noticed a foul odor coming from the garden! Taking a closer look she found a half eaten toad that apparently a bird had left. Teri now checks the bird bath often.

As with all gardens, there are also some problem spots. In this garden, Teri finds it a challenge under the creep myrtle, and this is probably due to shade. She is letting the “Cherry Bells” Campanula fill in because they seem “to grow anywhere”. Every once in a while there have been sprouts of an invasive vine that has been around for a while, and she has pulled these when still small.

Critters can be a problem in urban gardens, and this is the case in BBH. Deer munch on everything, groundhogs and squirrels dig up plants, and rabbits love the tender leaves and blossoms. Last year an eastern Box turtle roamed the bed, but it has seemingly moved on to another bed.  One important beneficial insect seen frequently has been praying mantis.

Home gardeners can also witness these beautiful and beneficial interactions between plants and animals! The Capital region and northern Virginia are rich with butterfly, bee and hummingbird activity and are home to many beautiful species.  Maintaining these gardens is easy and planting for season long activity rewarding. A few tips are important, depending on what you want to attract. Native species to our region allow for a variety of food sources that support nature, and also do better in our climate. Native species are, however, not the only plants that attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

The second part of this weeks Blog will give some tips and plant lists for having your own Bee, Butterfly and Hummingbird garden. 

Cook’s Garden 6/14/17

From Amye:

Hi All,

As June temperatures begin to rise, the lettuce and brassica harvest will start to wane, but the ritual of bug checking, weeding and watering will remain constant.

Two of our usual bug suspects made an appearance yesterday. We spotted a well fed Colorado potato beetle happily chewing a potato leaf and squash bugs were found on both our squash and potato plants. To ensure their populations remain low, it’s crucial to remain vigilant and continue investigating where these destructive fellows and their egg masses are.

On a sweeter note, Thomas harvested the first round of plump and juicy blueberries, along with snow peas, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, and carrots.

Make sure to come out this Saturday to hear Harriet Carter talk tomatoes! Our Saturday in the Garden program is 6/17/17 at 9 am – 12 noon – Small Space Gardening, Potted Posies and Cooks’ Garden Vegetable of the Month – the tomato! (with a recipe book) Interested? Let us know so we have enough handouts. Class is outside, at the Teaching Garden 9535 Linton Hall Rd. Bristow 20136 on the grounds of the Benedictine Monastery, and we need your registration just in case it is very rainy. 703-792-7747 or


Also, yesterday from other parts of the Teaching Garden, submitted to the office for analysis:  Hackberry (Celtis) from Teaching Garden- sample from Leslie and Colin. “White stuff on trunk.” Bracket fungus growing on mechanical wound (mower? Weed whacked?) and Pleasing fungus beetle feasting on fungus.

Mulch to drip line, away from trunk to keep machinery away from trees and shrubs


TG June 13

The Woodlands Garden

The Woodlands is a beautiful, natural garden that is maintained by Master Gardener Harriet Carter. Harriet officially became the leader of this garden in 2015 after assisting two others for her internship. She has been a Master Gardener since 2014, and is married to Bob Carter, a MG since 2013.  Harriet has had interns and other MG’s help her along the way, but is actively looking for a Co-leader! Harriet comes to the garden every workday and loves working here. You can also see her at just about every MG volunteer activity!


Harriet describes the Woodlands as “Heaven”. There are times it can be a challenge, especially after a storm when branches fall from the trees.  There are several large trees in the bed one of which is a white oak. We know that an owl sits in this oak from time to time because we have found an owl pellet at its base.


Owl Pellet

When Harriet first started helping in Woodlands, she says that she didn’t “see it”. She describes her first impressions as  “a lot of foliage in in various shades of green, and I didn’t know the plants, flowers, and shrubs.” In the early spring of 2015 she came out and had an “awakening”! The leaves had not leafed out, but the redbuds were in full bloom and there was color throughout the bed. Hellebores were blooming in pink, white and red and everything in between, and  yellow wood poppies were blooming next to the purple phlox. She remembers this day and how really  beautiful the Woodlands are in the early spring!

Many of the spring flowers are ephemeral and when their blooms fade, the foliage dies back. They rely on either wind or early spring insects for pollination. Three Virginia woodland ephemerals are: Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica), Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) and Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).  There are some late blooming plants in the Woodlands as well and one of Harriet’s favorites is Toad LilyTricyrtis spp.  One of the best features of Woodlands are the naturalized ground covers. One especially notable is Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), which does well in deep shade or part sun. This plant can be found growing in deciduous forests throughout the east coast. Despite its name, it should not be used in cooking as it contains a carcinogen!

The Woodlands garden is an example of the Temperate Deciduous forest. These forests have a great variety of plant, animal and fungus species.  Most deciduous forests have 3 layers of plants, some even five.  The forest floor contains a rich organic layer where nutrients are recycled. In this layer it is common to find fungi in the spring and the fall.  Fungi spread by spores and mycelium, the structures used to absorb nutrients through decomposition. In the Woodlands, we found two types of mushrooms this week. Stinkhorns are mushrooms from the Phallaceae and are notorius for popping up suddenly and unexpectedly in urban settings. In our area they can be transported in mulch, sod, or wood chips so can be found in many garden settings. The foul smelling slime they create attracts flies who love to eat it. When feasting on the slime they spread the spores.  We did not identify, yet, this white mushroom.

Understory trees in this garden include Red Bud, Witch Hazel (which blooms in winter), Dogwood, Wild Azalea, Smoketree, and  Boxwood.  Ferns are one of the great features of this garden found in the shade, and these include Christmas fern and Wood Fern.

Harriet classifies this garden as a “dry shade” bed, meaning that plants can survive periods of drought.  There are three rain barrels  hooked up to soaker hoses that have been laid throughout the garden. When water is needed, the master switch on the main barrel can be opened and gravity feeds the collected rainwater to the garden.  Shade plants such as those found in Woodlands require little water and care throughout the season. A true woodland bed also does not need to be mulched. Leaves from autumn leaf fall are hand raked to uncover plants in the early spring.

If home gardeners are interested in planting a woodland garden on their property, Harriet recommends avoiding sun loving plants. If you want to add them, plant them on the outer edges of the garden. Focus on adding color and and variety of foliage. As with this garden, deer will probably be a problem. This is their natural habitat and they may even sleep there at night.  If you have cedars as this area does, you may find it hard to grow plants under them. Harriet has had some success with Epimedium under the cedars here. It is also nice to add pathways and statues for interest and a bench to enjoy the cool shade in summer.  Using native plants for the shade and part shade in such a planting will attract many beneficial insects and butterflies. You may even find the Eastern Box Turtle laying her eggs!