Gardening In The Rain

Picture this scene: adults wandering around outside, dripping wet from rain, with soil streaks on their clothes, hands, and face. This scenario might make some raise an eyebrow or even ignite some concern. Now insert the words “in the garden” and the setting makes sense. This happy side effect of gardening brings the adult outside on days most would rather stay inside to remain warm and dry.  The gardener knows rain days mean brilliant colors, no sweltering sun, and best of all; that childhood spirit coming out to play. This was our Tuesday morning at the Teaching Garden–wet and beautiful.

The focus in the vegetable garden was getting the cabbage, broccoli and spinach into the ground. This preparation marks the starting line of fall’s fast approach. These veggies, which were started in the office, are off to an excellent start, as the bed was prepped with rich compost made on premise by the compost team. Once the last plant was nestled into the ground, the row cover came out from its summer hibernation to help protect these fellows from future frost and pests like the imported cabbageworm. By the time these little veggies are big and producing, fall will be approaching the finish line. Until then, there is plenty of time to meander in the rain, and take in all the beauty and brilliant colors our garden has to offer.



Signs of Fall in Our Local Birds

One of our guest bloggers this week is Brian Smith, husband of master gardener Marlies Smith. Brian is a wildlife photographer, and I asked him if he had seen any changes in our bird populations this week.  I would like to thank him for sharing his photos as well and these are labeled below. Just click on the image.

If you are on Facebook, you can follow Brian’s page at:

His blog:

The first reaction of many nature-lovers is to think of fall in nostalgic terms — the beautiful songbirds that have been with us all spring and summer are leaving and our green vegetation is giving way to shades of red and brown.  Just as easily, however, we can think of fall as a time of new beginnings.  There are a number of stunning birds that arrive from the north at this time to spend the winter with us.  The yellow-bellied sapsucker, the two species of kinglets (ruby crowned and golden crowned), the brown creeper, the red-breasted nuthatch, the winter wren and the yellow-rumped warbler immediately come to mind.  Then there are many species of warblers that have spent their summer in Canada and are migrating through Virginia on their journey south.  The Cape May, the black-throated blue, the black-throated green, the magnolia, and the Nashville warblers are a few of the species that a diligent birder can observe at this time of year.  Mother Nature never sleeps — She has plenty to offer the dedicated nature-lover in every season.

The Mailbox Garden


Lynne Lanier is the bedleader of the Mailbox garden. She is our Blogger for this week. Thanks Lynne! Its a beautiful garden.  

I have been the bed leader of the Mailbox garden for two years. I don’t have a co-leader but get lots of help and advice from my master gardener team at the TG. I am now in my third year as a Prince William MG Volunteer. From the very beginning I was drawn to the TG for its beauty and peacefulness. I love learning about growing plants and garden design so the TG is a perfect match for me. You can find me working at the TG on Tuesday mornings.

There have been quite a few changes since I took over the Mailbox garden. I decided to design the bed in such a way that would enable me to maintain the plants that were in the middle. To do this I took almost all the plants out and put pavers through the middle of the bed and off to one side. I then replanted some of the plants I took out so that the bed was easier to maintain. I added a few new plants such as Achillea ‘Laura’ and ‘Moonshine, Salvia nemorosa ‘Sallyrosa Jumbo Pink’, threadleaf Coreopsis ‘Rosa’, Ziza aurea ”Golden Alexander’. I put low white fencing on two diagonal
corners of the bed. This spring I added Myosotis sylvatica ‘Forget Me Not’ on the outside of the fenced corners.

The Mailbox garden contains plants that are mostly drought tolerant, do well in full sun and are fairly easy to maintain. Several of the plants are very attractive to bees and butterflies such as the Salvia, Echinacea, Rudbeckia and catmint.

In the fall I plan to rearrange some of the taller plants to the center of the bed and smaller/shorter plants to the outside. I also may remove the Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ because the deer are quite destructive to it. The deer also nibble on the white phlox and flower buds on the Echinacea.

A Mailbox garden is an important part of a landscape design as it is frequently the first part of the property that guests and passersby notice. On the other hand, because of its location right next to the street, it can pose significant challenges. Plants are often subject to pollution, fumes from cars, road salt, heat from pavement, dust, animals, etc. Also, if your house sets back quite a distance from the road, it may be inconvenient or impossible to drag the garden hose to the mailbox to water the plants. This would mean the plants that are not drought tolerant are at risk of dying unless you carry water to them.

In planning a Mailbox garden one would want a vibrant and long lasting succession of colors. Some examples of annuals, perennials and vines that can do well, require little maintenance and make great companions in a mailbox garden design are:
California poppy, Coreopsis auriculata ‘Nana’, purple Verbena, purple wave petunia, Clematis, yarrow, stone crop, Phlox paniculata, violet blue aster, Echinacea cone flower, marigolds, Salvia, Lantana ‘new gold.

Plant List:

Salvia nemorosa -‘ Sallyrosa Jumbo Pink’
Echinacea – cone flower
Salvia ‘May Night’
Salvia ‘Ultra Violet’
Salvia ‘Hot Lips’
Tickseed Coreopsis Lil’l Bang –
‘Red Elf’
Achillea Yarrow ‘Laura’
Achillea Yarrow ‘Moonshine’
Rudbeckia ‘Goldstrum’
Delphinium ‘Blue Mirror’
Liatris spicata ‘Blazing Star’
Clematis ‘Jackmanii’







Struggles in the Vegetable Garden

Let’s begin with an image.

At first glance, one might think this photo was taken at the beginning of the gardening season. After all, large parts of the beds appear to be bare; but, upon further scrutiny, the viewer notices zinnias in full bloom and no signs of brassicas growing, and thus, concludes the photo must have been taken later in the season.

That conclusion is accurate as the photo captures the current state of our fenced vegetable garden in August: a time when our garden is usually keeping us very busy with harvest and hiding our walking paths.

My garden friends, we have a wicked problem, as these sparse spaces you see in the photo are not caused by lack of planting or effort. We have indeed planted, replanted, and tended to seeds and nursed plants this season. From observation the problem seems to be the result of a perfect storm of determined hungry wildlife, soil concerns, and creeping shade.

These are heavy topics, especially the ever encroaching shade. We are a teaching garden and our garden’s failure to thrive impacts not just the master gardeners who enjoy tending to the vegetable garden, but also the community we serve to educate, demonstrate and inspire, as well as the monastery kitchen we deliver harvest to.

The positive is we have time on our side. Through careful observation we have begun to notice the signs and symptoms our garden is sending us. So, yes, the fenced garden is not growing as prolific as it once was, but, none the less, it’s still producing. We are not caught off guard, we are aware of what is happening and have the time to start brainstorming and putting plans into action.

This post is an outreach for a call to action to get our thinking caps on, all ideas and solutions welcome. The ultimate goal: to keep our vegetable garden in the sun and continue to be a place where education, inspiration and bounty can be shared with all.



How Plants Cope with Drought and Low Water Conditions

Drought is a major abiotic stress for crop production and landscape plantings in the world.  Arid, semi-arid and desert climates are be found in the United States, as well as semi-tropical areas that see frequent drought with high temperatures. Arid and desert regions receive precipitation below the potential transpiration rates of plants. There are three strategies that plants use to cope in low precipitation climates: Succulence, drought tolerance, and drought avoidance.


Succulent plants store water in fleshy leaves, stems and roots.  They are often adapted to absorb large quantities of water in short periods, such as desert rains. Thickened leaves and globose stems minimize the surface area through which water is lost. Waxy cuticles provide a physical barrier to water loss. Surface hairs or spines provide a microclimate that also reduces transpiration. Some succulents have vestigial leaves and rely on the stem to harvest solar radiation.  Nearly all succulents have extensive, short root systems which are adapted for increased water absorption. Often their leaves have trichomes to absorb atmospheric water in dew, mist and fog.  Some species of succulents can survive for months without rainfall. Succulents may occasionally appear as epiphytes, growing on other plants with limited or no contact with the ground, and are dependent on obtaining and storing water in storage organs. Succulents are also found on sea coasts where they are exposed to high levels of dissolved minerals toxic to other plants. Succulents commonly use Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) as a biochemical strategy to minimize water loss during photosynthesis.

Drought tolerant plants can withstand desiccation without drying. They often shed leaves during dry periods and enter dormancy. Most water loss from these plants is transpirational loss from leaves, and dropping leaves helps to reduce this loss.  Some drought tolerant plants have resinous coatings. These plants typically make use of C4 carbon fixation or CAM to conserve water during photosynthesis. Other adaptations include reduced number of stomata, trichomes (small hairs) on leaves, adaptations in the root system to increase water absorption, and water storage organs such as tubers. Drought tolerant and succulent plants often have a thick, waxy cuticle to reduce water loss, reduced leaf surfaces and the ability to accelerate senescence.

Drought avoidance or “drought escape” plants are often annuals that escape unfavorable conditions by completing their life cycle during times of higher precipitation. One strategy are the spring ephemerals found in deserts. Desert ephemerals take advantage of spring rains, and the species survives through seed dormancy.   Other strategies include tight folding or rolling of leaves to reduce transpirational water loss. Perennials will die back to their underground parts and become dormant.

Many drought tolerant and succulent plants take advantage of C4 carbon fixation or CAM pathway to fix carbon during photosynthesis. Both are improvements over C3 carbon fixation and are more energy efficient. The CAM pathway is particularly good for arid conditions because carbon dioxide can be taken up at night allowing the stomata to be closed during the heat of the day. This reduces water loss through transpiration.

Xeriscaping, a landscaping style which requires little or no irrigation, was first developed by Denver Water in Colorado because of pressure on it’s water system. Xeriscaping is now recommended in regions that do not have easily accessible, plentiful or reliable sources of fresh water. Also known as water-conserving and drought tolerant landscaping, these designs often use plants that are native to the local climate, but not exclusively.  This allows for a lower consumption of water and also reduces maintenance. There are seven principles of xeriscaping:

  1. Orient your plot by grouping watering zones according to watering needs. Take into account north/south and east/west facing areas, as well as sun in water-conserving landscape and shade. Study natural contours and drainage of the plot and determine if terracing is necessary.
  2. Ideal soils for water conserving landscapes drain quickly and store water. It is important to increase organic matter in your soil, as well as aerate it.
  3. Create minimal turf areas, while retaining turf for activity areas.
  4. Right Plant, Right Place! Check nurseries for drought resistant and native plants
  5. Mulch using leaves, coarse compost, pine needles, wood chips, bark or gravel.
  6. Irrigate using soaker hoses and drip irrigation. Water deeply, and less frequently, and avoid watering during the heat of the day
  7. Maintain your landscape by keeping weeds from growing up through the mulch. Avoid over fertilization.

For more information on planning drought tolerant landscaping and recommended native plants for these areas:

Beneficial Drought Tolerant Plants for the DC Area:

Native Plants for Northern Virginia 

Drought Tolerant Plants for Virginia

Drought Tolerant Plants for the Mid-Atlantic

Creating a Waterwise Landscape

Waterwise Plants and Landscaping




The Drought Tolerant Bed

Using drought tolerant plants in the garden are important in the arid parts of our country, and in some areas they are the only ones that grow successfully. In our Mid Atlantic climate we typically have hot and humid summers, but it is not unusual to have periods of drought. Drought resistant plants need far lower amounts of water to successfully grow and bloom, and since many are natives, they are excellent additions to the home garden. Many are foraged by our diverse populations of pollinators.


The Drought Tolerant (DT) bed at the Teaching Garden is  beautifully maintained by Linda Ligon and Charlene Tolose.  Linda has been the bed leader for 5 years, along with Sally Peterson for the first few years. Together, Linda and Sally volunteered to work in the bed as part of their internship. This year, Charlene volunteered to be the co-leader and has already made excellent suggestions to improve some of the problem areas. Charlene is the one who made the baskets to protect the Sedums from the ever present deer at the Monastery. In addition to these ladies, interns have helped with edging and weeding, and special thanks this summer to Collin, the intern from VTech. You can find Linda and Charlene out at the TG on Tuesday mornings. Linda can be found taking accurate notes about the weekly changes and environmental conditions. Charlene can often  be found pulling a wagon of freshly baked, juiced and strained goodies that are made from the Cook’s Gardens’ bounties following recipes from her monthly collections that feature the vegetable of the month.  This month it is the tomatillo!


Linda describes the DT bed as a beautiful and easy to maintain garden that is attractive to pollinators. She is also an apiarist, or beekeeper and keeps her hives in West Virginia. The DT bed is a great place to experiment with pollinator attracting and drought tolerant plants, and good examples of this are fennel and Liatris, which bees love.

Linda and Charlene water new plantings twice every week, but once established, the entire bed needs water only during an extended dry spells of three weeks without rain, or longer.

I asked Linda what were some of the bed’s best features. She responded that everything is perennial, and reseeds/spreads easily from year to year.  It rarely needs supplemental watering.  The variety of colors of the flowers  attract numerous pollinators all year long. The shrubs are somewhat unique and attract a lot of attention when in full bloom, such as the complete coverage of white blossoms on the mock orange in late spring, and the copper-colored blossoms and leaves of the two Ninebarks.

Some of the bed’s environmental challenges that homeowners might also have include   plants that reseed or spread prolifically,  e.g.,  Nepeta. It smells great and pollinators are all over its beautiful purple blossoms, but it is a mint that grows and spreads rapidly, so they have to work to keep it thinned and pruned in order to stay confined and not take over other plants.  The Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed susan) reseeds very well, and seedlings pop up all over other areas of the bed, so they just keep pulling those.

When I asked Linda to describe some of the changes made over the years she wrote, “First year we removed the very aggressive Oenothera “Mexican primrose”, which was reseeding throughout the bed and still is sending up seedlings all these years later.  We planted many more daffodil bulbs (donated by Nancy Hanrahan from her White Garden), and we designed the Nepeta to grow in a swirl pattern from one end of the bed to the other, in order to tie together what was once three separate beds into one long curving bed.  About three years ago, we added a Sedum Rock Garden section to the bed, near the mock orange – the tiny plants have filled out well among the rocks that I brought from WV and the bed is very well established now. There are now four types of Sedums in the  Drought Tolerant Bed: Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ (delicate bright pink flowers on large heads) is getting ready to bloom, Hylotelephium ‘Matrona” (an old English variety with purple heads),  Sedum spectabile ‘Variegatum’, and Hylotelephium ‘Purple Emporer” (the one that hides!) There are lots of ground cover Sedums like ‘kamtschaticum‘ [aka Golden Carpet], ‘spurium‘ [aka Dragon’s Blood], Sempervivum’ tectorum [aka hen & chicks], as well as some miscellaneous unnamed succulents that we put in our small rock garden section.  Technically, the 3rd and 4th ones are a type of showy stonecrops called Hylotelephium.”

Future changes Linda and Charlene have been considering are adding more red-flowering perennials, such as Salvias, to the already numerous and pollinator friendly  purple flowers.  They have had good luck in past years with annuals such as Celosia “cockscomb” because they grew tall and were very striking.  This year they added some of those again, as well as some orange/apricot “Mango Tango” Agastache perennials. No pollinators on them yet since one or two plants of something is not really enough to attract too many pollinators.

Problem spots including wet spots have been an occasional problem for some of these drought tolerant plants.  They have lost lavenders, an Artemesia, some Gaillardias in past years.  So they replaced the lavenders and Gaillardias a couple of years ago, and they have done better.  This year they added another Artemesia, relocated to a dryer, sunnier spot. There haven’t been any invasives in the DT bed yet, but plenty of aggressives.

 Deer have been a problem, and rabbits – always chewing on the Echinacea and Sedums, and the lower branches of the mock orange.  Ruth has sprayed them as much as possible as a deterent,  and they added some netting over the Sedums this year, which has made a big difference.  The Echinacea have survived the chewing, and they sent out more numerous side shoots with flower buds, which are flowering now.  

Beneficial insects in this garden include lots and lots of pollinators:  Bumble and honey bees, butterflies all the time, even visiting dragon flies.  This spring they found four praying mantis egg cases, but they don’t seem to have hatched quite yet.  


Linda gives the following recommendations for homeowners wanting to start a drought tolerant bed:  “Stachys monnieri is an excellent, compact plant with striking fuschia-colored flower spikes in June, very deer and insect resistant.  It doesn’t spread like the Stachys byzantine (lamb’s ear), which some people don’t care for.  Also, the Buddleia davidii “white ball” that we have is a compact, non-aggressive, non-invasive butterfly bush with pollinator-attractive white blossoms.  One of our favorites, is the Sedum “autumn joy” – it’s a gorgeous plant all season long, if you don’t have deer or rabbits!  It will soon be full of large, flat-head pink/red blossoms that the pollinators will be all over.  It’s one of the best-looking, low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants that a gardener can have.”

For more information on growing drought tolerant plants:

The Cook’s Garden, July 25

Hi everyone,

With much delight, Charlene, Collin and I were able to deliver not just vegetables to the monastery, but fresh cut zinnias. I must admit I watched the recipient’s face light up as we handed over the harvest. After all, how can one not smile when presented with flowers?

This is a first for us. Although we practice farmscaping in the vegetable garden, we have not specifically grown flowers to be cut for the sole purpose of being enjoyed inside. Let’s be honest; it can be hard for the gardener to cut and remove fresh blooms that contribute so much beauty to a garden bed. However, there sure is something magical about having fresh flowers on a table, especially next to a dinner made with freshly harvested vegetables. That was the thought process during the early planning stages, and it’s been a huge success, especially since our mystery wildlife muncher does not seem to have a taste for zinnias. Having a designated cutting garden of zinnias has other benefits too. These flowers are so easy! Plant some seeds directly into amended soil, water, and watch them grow, and bloom into all sorts of amazing colors. These beauties are also working to help keep the soil covered, suppress weeds, and attract pollinators. Oh, and did I mention the more these flowers are cut, the more they will bloom all summer long and into fall.

I’ve extended this idea into my personal garden, and I realize because I have labeled this small dedicated portion as a “cutting garden,” I have no reservations about removing flowers to bring inside. I also reaped an unexpected benefit. I found my daughter (who is not into gardening) with her camera taking photos of the arrangements I made. Our passions intersected!

hoping those zinnias, with all those different colors, will find their way onto a table and as the residents of the monastery gather around for their meal, will briefly pause and smile at the flowers before them, before feasting on vegetables harvested from the Teaching Garden.



cooks7.25acooks7.25bcooks7.25ccooks7.25dSo, here’s

July 15th: Saturday In the Garden

Beneficial Insects and Vegetable of the Month: Squash.

Hello there!

Hopefully everybody had a great weekend, because we sure did! This past Saturday was another monthly installment of our “Saturday In the Garden” Class Series and there was fun had by all! In case you weren’t able to join us in the garden this past weekend, here’s a recap of our morning.

After all of our guests arrived, our SIG began with introductions from everyone’s favorite insect enthusiast, Nancy Berlin! Nancy went over the agenda for the day, gave a brief description of The Master Gardener Teaching Garden, and then lead the guests on a tour of the garden beds. Nancy and our participants traveled all over the garden to places that exemplified the topic of “Beneficial Insects” as well as any plants or beds that showed off some of the many pests that we have lurking around! Some of the stops included; The Herb Garden and all of it’s insect attracting plants, the black swallowtail caterpillars found on the fennel, the praying mantis egg cases found in the drought-tolerant bed, the many fragrant plants in the Fragrance Bed, and of course, the Bee, Butterfly and Hummingbird Bed. Nancy did a wonderful job and was able to spread the idea of promoting beneficial insects, while also answering any questions that arose.

“The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” – J.B.S. Haldane

This quote was used by our terrific guest speaker, Jeff Schneider, to start off his lecture on Beneficial Insects. If you haven’t met Jeff yet, you should really get to know him! He and his wife Judy have been Master Gardeners since 2002 and they both have been actively involved ever since! Each year, Jeff goes to the Virginia Biological Farming Conference to bring back the newest information on organic farming techniques and he participates in many different aspects of the Master Gardener Lifestyle, including teaching our Vegetable Gardening Training Class, working at the Dale City Farmers Market, and regularly doing BEST Lawns Evaluations! Jeff is very knowledgeable on the topic of insects in the garden and he did a fantastic job of relaying all of his knowledge to our guests for the day! He really stressed the importance of getting bugs to do the work in your garden for you, and how these techniques can save time and money. Jeff was also able to incorporate squash, our Vegetable of the Month, into his talk by outlining specific management techniques for dealing with squash bugs and cucumber beetles.

And speaking of squash….. To highlight this month’s vegetable, each of our guests received a copy of Charlene Toloso’s Squash Recipe Book! To make the day even sweeter, Charlene brought samples of her Zucchini Dessert Squares and they were delicious! If you’re interested in getting your own copy of Charlene’s recipe book for this month, feel free to reach out to Collin Miller, the VCE Summer Intern, at


In summary, this month’s Saturday In the Garden was a success! Now we can look forward to next month’s class, “Some Like it Hot! Top Summer Plant Performers” on August 19th. Hope to see you there!


Cook’s Garden: Saturday July 8

This week’s Cooks’ Garden report from Harriet Carter. Thanks, Harriet!
Here’s the latest happenings in the veggie beds. The ground was still moist for the deluge on Thursday, so only the pots near Jannell’s raised bed were watered. Tatiana and I checked for bugs in the large enclosed area and found a couple of nasty squash bugs which we helped deliver into the swimming pool. They were sitting – you guessed it – on the lemon cucumber. There was one ripe cucumber, but we left it for the harvest tomorrow.

In the former “global bed” we harvested several yellow squash and three patty pan squash because they were huge. Sister Pat and company loved them and thought they would look great in a bowl as well. (See picture)

The tomatoes in Bio A are ripening nicely, though only Matt’s Cherries were there for the pickings. Hopefully we’ll have some of the others tomorrow. The rhubarb stalks look great however the foliage is another matter. We found a gaggle of Japanese beetles who were munching away. Many died in the “bad bug swimming pool” (soapy water), but still more descended. What’s up with these beetles? Rhubarb leaves are supposed to be toxic! (Several pictures as evidence enclosed.) 🙂 Every year their number seems to increase! We discussed using trap crop such as Virginia creeper which works wonders in my yard, and Leslie thought it would be ok to have some vines on the fence next year. Keep cool!

The Herb Garden

Herbs: What are they?

What are Herbs? Where do they come from? And why do we have them in our garden?! To answer these questions we have to start from the beginning…

I’m sure everyone has notice all of those delightful scents every time they walk past the herb garden, but what makes them smell SO good?

We know that the sense of smell has always been a vital part of the ecosystem. Many animals use the sense of smell to find food, to find mates, and to avoid danger, and in this case, our plants are no different! Many plants produce different aromatic chemicals in order to attract animals needed to disperse their seeds or to avoid being eaten by hungry insects. Mint, for example, contains chemicals that are toxic to some insects, but to use, however, it smells and tastes delicious!

Herbs have been used since some of the earliest civilizations. The Ancient Egyptians were shown to have used herbs such as fennel, coriander, and thyme as medicine, and many civilizations in China have been using herbal remedies since the 1st Century! Most of us, nowadays, just use these herbs for cooking, while some modern cultures still use herbs such as mint to take care of coughs, digestive issues, and headaches.

Our Wonderful Herb Garden!

About the Bed and the Bed Leader: Cheryl Ayres

Cheryl has been the bed leader of this aromatic bed for around 2 years now and she has been doing a fantastic job. This bed was originally started and maintained by Marilyn and Hank Spencer, until the role of “Bed Leader” was handed over to Cheryl and she keeps the bed looking as lush as ever (especially with all the rain we got this week), while certainly supporting the many diverse types of culinary and scented herbs planted by the original caretakers.

Over time, this bed has gone through many changes, such as the addition of new like the woolly thyme (perennial) and red basil (annual), while still maintaining the staples. The bed has also undergone a recent renovation, as you’ve probably already seen. One of the columns has been rebuilt, and the other is scheduled to be redone in late fall.

The Herb Bed is one of the few beds where taking a hands on approach is not only allowed, but it’s encouraged! One of the best features about the Herb Bed is that most of the plants growing here are edible! Cheryl even plans on putting up a sign that says, “Please Touch”. Luckily, most of the plants here are unappetizing to the local wildlife, so there is no need to worry about animal damage, unless the local deer decide to sit lay in the chamomile! (Pictured Below) Other than the signs of deer, this bed is often visited by turtles, birds, and plenty of butterflies.

After working in the bed for a long time, Cheryl recommends planting certain plants, especially the mint and lemon balm, in more confined spaces because she has seen how easily these plants can “take over”. She also wants homeowners to be aware of horseradish and fennel because of how deep their roots extend.