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Have you ever had a ‘substitute’ teacher?  As most of you know, a substitute teacher doesn’t do things the same way our regular teacher does.

A few years ago, I was asked to step in as a ‘substitute’ for my father-in-law’s landscape.

Meticulously pruned desert ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis)
 
My father-in-law had always been a meticulous gardener and took a lot of pride in his landscape.
Have you ever seen rounder shrubs?
 
A few years earlier, I had designed the landscape around his new home and tried to convince him to allow his plants to grow into their natural shapes.  But as you can see from the photo above, he didn’t follow my advice.
 
He eventually took out his backyard grass and replaced it with artificial turf and whenever flowers or leaves would fall on the grass, he would vacuum them up – I’m not kidding.
 
We would often joke with each other about our very different styles of gardening – especially when he would come over to my house for a visit and see my plants growing “wild and free” as he would say.  
 
But despite our differences, we shared the same love for plants and the garden.
 
Unfortunately, his gardening days were numbered and he asked me to come over and help him with the gardening tasks that he could no longer do.
 
My father-in-law was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in October 2010 and it progressed very rapidly.
 
So, I became his ‘substitute gardener’ and I was happy to be able to help out so that he could still enjoy the beauty of his garden, even if he could not care for it himself.
 
 
In early August of 2011, I lightly pruned back his gold lantana.  At this point, my father-in-law spent most of his time indoors sitting down. But, as I was pruning, I saw him slowly make his way out, with his walker, so he could watch me prune his plants.
 
At this point, he could no longer talk due to ALS and I’m certain that if he could have spoken, he might have asked me to make the lantana ’rounder’.
 
After this light pruning, the lantana would grow back to its original size before stopping during winter.  If they had not been pruned, they would have look quite overgrown for my father-in-law’s taste.
Light pruning involves removing 1/3 or less.  The timing of this light pruning is crucial – prune too late and your plants will be extra susceptible to damage from frost.  Don’t prune after early August in zone 9 (July in zone 8) gardens. Pruning in fall should not be done for this very reason. 
 
 
Another part of the garden that my father-in-law took a lot of pride in was his flowering annuals.  Every year, he would plant the same red geraniums and white-flowering bacopa in winter.  Once spring rolled around, he would plant red and white vinca. He never deviated by trying out newer colors or varieties.
 
I found myself taking over this job as well and when I came home and see all there was to do in my neglected garden – I didn’t mind.  It felt so good to be able to control how his garden looked because ALS had taken control of everything else.
 
My father-in-law died in September 2011, just 11 months after being diagnosed with ALS.  
 
It’s been almost 3 years since he passed away, but whenever August comes around and I find myself lightly pruning back my gold lantana – I enjoy the memory of one our last moments together in the garden as I pruned his lantana.

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This week is off to a busy start.  My husband and kids went on a camping trip, leaving me alone for 24 hours.

I had great plans for what I would do while they were gone. 

I would work on writing blogs….

Work in the garden….

Plant seedlings indoors for a instructional video coming up….

Work on our taxes….

AND get a Redbox movie to end the day.

Well, I did achieve writing a blog and I did get our taxes done, but that was about it.  My oldest daughter asked me to watch my granddaughter for a few hours, which I was happy to do.  However, she had just returned from the doctor after getting her shots, so she was not too happy.  So I just held and cuddled her.

Then my daughter brought lunch over and we visited for awhile.  So I got started on my taxes a bit late.  I do like using tax software, but I don’t like having to get all my receipts together.

I ended the evening eating dinner at 8:00 and watching TV.

As I sat in my very quite house, I remembered where I was one year ago to the day.

We were on a cruise of the Caribbean with in-laws.  They had treated us all to the cruise, which was to be a great time to build memories while we still had my father-in-law with us.  

My in-laws always had their grandkids sitting their table.  My father-in-law couldn’t smile or speak anymore, but he was able to communicate through his iPad.

We had a fabulous time.
Our first visit was to St. Maarten.  I had my camera with me and along with taking photos of the family, I also took pictures of the tropical plants.
I didn’t know my husband was taking a picture 😉
At first, I was shocked at how blue the water was.  (I am from Southern California, where the ocean is gray blue).


The plants were very colorful and I recognized some….

Bougainvillea

Vinca

There were other plants that I had no idea what they were….

This plant is rather unusual.








You know, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know what all the plants where.

It was enough to know that they were beautiful….

There is a gardening task that I both enjoy and dread when I have to do it twice every year.  

Now, I am not only doing it for myself, but also for my mother-in-law.

So what it is this task?

The seasonal task of changing out flowering annuals or in this case perennials, that are treated as annuals.

I had to this last Sunday when we stopped by for dinner.  Since my father-in-law’s death in September, we come over with the kids every Sunday and help around the house and garden and then have dinner. 

My mother-in-law hasn’t felt like cooking much and likes the idea of having us trying a different kind of pizza each week in order to determine what restaurant makes the best.  So far Papa John’s and Pizza Hut are our favorites….but there are still more to try.  The kids especially enjoy eating pizza every week 🙂

Getting ready to pull out the Vinca and plant Red Geraniums
I blogged earlier about searching 3 different nurseries for plants to replace those that had died in my mother-in-law’s garden.  But, I also had to buy Geraniums (Pelargoniums) as well.
Now, I couldn’t buy just any Geraniums….I had to buy red ones – not orange and definitely not pink.  You see, my mother-in-law wants the garden to look the exact same as it did when my father-in-law was alive and did the work himself.
I must admit, that I was a bit late in doing this – I usually wait until late October to change out my warm-season flowering plants for cool-season ones.  But, there was still plenty of time before the cold weather settled in.

Okay, here is that part that I dread….



It is so hard to pull out beautiful flowering plants.

Now I realize that technically, I could leave them in their pots and these Vinca would survive our winter as long as they were protected from frost and would flower again in spring.

Or, I could transplant them elsewhere and overwinter them in an out of the way place.

But the majority of people just rip them out and throw them out (or put them on their compost pile) since they are relatively inexpensive.

I admit that I pulled them out and threw them out (please don’t hate me for pulling out perfectly good plants 😉
Now it was time to plant the red Geraniums (which are really Pelargoniums, but everyone including the nursery calls them Geraniums, so I will too).
There was a potential problem, however.  You see, my mother-in-law was used to my father-in-law planting huge, red Geraniums in full bloom.  But, I could not find large red Geraniums, much less ones in full bloom…


From a horticulturist’s point of view – it is better to select flowering plants that have few flowers in the nursery because the transplanting process is stressful for plants and those in full flower will soon drop their flowers.  When buying those that haven’t bloomed yet, you give the plant more resources to grow roots and will soon be rewarded with blooms that will last longer.

I was tempted to tell my mother-in-law this, hoping that it would make her feel better about the lack of blooms.  But it turns out that she didn’t mind, so I didn’t tell her.

I sprinkled slow-release fertilizer before I planted the Geraniums and will follow-up in a couple of weeks with a liquid fertilizer, just like my father-in-law did.   
Of course, you can go the organic route if you prefer.  There are plenty of products available at your local nursery and even stores like Home Depot and Lowes are carrying organic fertilizers.
In addition to the red Geraniums, I also had to plant Bacoba around the potted Geraniums.  It can be hard sometimes to find Bacoba and of course I had trouble too.
But, I found a solution.
I found a decorative container filled with Verbena and Bacoba at the nursery, so I bought it and used the Bacoba in the container.


 And then my husband planted the Verbena, which replaced the one that died in their front garden last year…


 So I killed two birds with one stone (although I would never literally kill a bird 😉
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On a personal note….life is crazy, but good.

I will update you soon on the happenings in my personal life.

I hope you are all enjoying this fall season 🙂

Some of you may remember my mentioning that my father-in-law is suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  The type that he has is very fast moving and in the eight months since he was diagnosed, he can no longer talk, has difficulty walking, has a stomach tube since he can’t eat, he cannot dress himself or even take care of some of his most basic needs.

It has been such a fast progression and we can see differences from week to week.  My father-in-law is a very strong person and is a wonderful example for all of us as he bears this incredible burden gracefully.


As Father’s Day approached this year, we wondered how should we celebrate it with him?  Our normal celebrations in the past included lots of delicious food…..not such a good idea when you cannot eat.


The next idea that we had was maybe having us all go to a movie together.  A couple of hours escaping the grim reality of day to day living might be something that he would like.


In the end, my father-in-law asked us all to come over and help with some projects around the house that he can no longer do.  My mother-in-law is very busy taking care of his needs and her normally spotless house needed some attention as well.


So, we all headed on over.  The kids were put in charge of dusting and cleaning the baseboards.  My husband and brother-in-law got busy fixing some things around the house and changing the air-conditioning filters.  My sister-in-law helped with the cleaning.

Now, what did I do?  I was in charge of planting flowers and pruning.  My father-in-law always has a beautiful display of seasonal annual flowers.  But he can no longer hold things in his hands easily and his strength is rapidly weakening.  So, I was more than happy to step in.


My mother-in-law had already removed most of the cool-season annuals.


There is nothing I like more then a blank canvas.

The flowers that they selected were red and white Vinca.  Now, my mother-in-law kept saying that I had the worst job because I had to work outside in the heat.  She kept coming outside to offer me water.

But, I was really enjoying my job.


You see, in my past jobs as a horticulturist, I was used to planting hundreds of flowering annuals every season.  I always enjoyed doing it and to be honest, I could probably do it in my sleep.

Do you have something that you are good at doing?  
Now I am the first to admit that there a lot of things that I am not particularly good at.  But, planting is one thing that I do well and quickly (I really don’t like spending more time in the hot sun then I have to 😉
I enjoyed planting these flowers and it brought back memories of my past work experience.  Nowadays, I only plant annuals in my containers at home.



My father-in-law and I share a love for gardening.  But, our styles are very different.  While we both love many of the same plants – his style is very formal and structured while mine is the exact opposite – I like natural shapes and textures.

In fact, my garden can sometimes be a bit overgrown because I love how my shrubs look when in flower and I abhor pruning them off.  My garden can also be a bit messy for some.  I think that fallen flowers look beautiful on the ground, while others use leaf-blowers and even a vacuum to suck up every stray leaf and flower.

I must admit, that I was very nervous about cleaning up everything afterward.  I wanted to make sure that my completed job was nice and clean.
My father-in-law was very happy with his new flowers and was so grateful for all of the work that we all did for him on Father’s Day.


This Father’s Day was very bittersweet for me.  You see, I lost my own father 4 years ago and my father-in-law has become even more special to me.  Sadly, we do not know if my father-in-law will be here next year for Father’s Day.

I am so grateful that I had a very special dad and that I have a wonderful father-in-law.

Annual Vinca (Catharanthus roseus)

One of my favorite summer annuals is vinca.

 

Stop by any nursery this time of year, and you will find flats full of their vibrant blooms, and there are many different colors available.

 

From purples and pinks to bright reds.

Vinca works excellent in containers or when planted in the ground.  They prefer well-drained soil in a warm, sunny area.
 
This warm-season annual enjoys regular watering and does best with some fertilizer, but don’t overdo it.  I usually apply a slow-release fertilizer when planting and follow up with monthly applications of a liquid fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro.  If you want to go organic, then you can just use a mixture of good potting soil mixed with compost.  
 

Now some of you may have had the experience of growing beautiful vinca one year and the next year; you have a terrible time with them. Shortly after planting you notice your vinca beginning to wilt, and no amount of water seems to help.

Has this happened to you? Extra water will not help because the vinca is suffering from a case of ‘Vinca Wilt’.  This is not the scientific term, but for those of you who like long scientific names, your vinca is likely the victim of a Phytophthora fungus, which affects the roots, preventing them from absorbing water – hence the dried out look of the vinca.  
 
This fungus lives in the soil and infects the roots, causing them to rot. It loves moist conditions, and so more water hastens the demise of vinca.  
 
So, what can you do? The fungal spores can last for months or even years in the soil. You can usually rely on one good year of vinca growth, but then the spores start to multiply, and by the next year, they begin to affect your new plants.
 
 
I recommend using vinca for one year and then use something different the next three years. Of course, you can remove all the soil from your containers and sterilize the inside with a bleach water mixture and then add new soil, which can work for a few containers at home, but it is not cost-effective in a larger setting.  For me, it is not worth it either, because there are so many other beautiful summer annuals that you can use. 
 
I hope this solves any mystery surrounding vinca.  They are beautiful and well worth growing – for a year at least.
 

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Today, I visited our local big box store to buy some summer annuals for my containers.  Each time I visit, I mentally prepare myself ahead of time because I usually get frustrated at the fact that they frequently sell the wrong plants for the wrong time of year.  I have posted about this before, which you can read here if you like.

In the meantime, I thought I would give you a pop-quiz.  I know, I know….no one likes pop quizzes.  In high school, those words would create a sinking feeling in my stomach every time.  But I promise, I will give you the answers and I am an easy grader 😉
 
The following are flowers that were offered for sale today.   Some are summer annuals for our area and some are winter annuals, which will soon die from the coming summer heat.  Are you ready for the quiz?  There are two possible answers for each question – summer or winter flower. 
 Petunias
Winter or Summer Annual?
  
Celosia
 Winter or Summer Flowers?
 
Vinca
Winter or Summer?
 
Lobelia
Winter or Summer Annual?
 
 
Verbena
Winter or Summer Flowers?
 
Alyssum
Winter or Summer?
 
 
Impatiens
Winter or Summer Annual?
 
Red Salvia
Winter or Summer?
 
Begonia
Winter or Summer Flower?
 
Portulaca
Winter or Summer Annual?
 
I told you I would give you the answers, so here they are:
 
Petunias – Winter
Celosia – Summer
Vinca – Summer
Lobelia – Winter
Verbena – Summer
Alyssum – Winter
Impatiens – Winter
Red Salvia – Summer
Begonia – Winter
Portulaca – Summer
 
How did you do?  It is not easy to tell looking at the flowers which one will do well in summer and which ones do best in winter. 
 
I do go to big box stores and buy plants because they are usually inexpensive.  BUT, I DO NOT rely on their advice or the fact that if they are carrying certain plants, that they are appropriate to plant at that time of year.  Shopping at big box store nurseries only works if you do your research ahead of time.  Just because they have a plant on display does not mean that it will survive for long in your garden.
For example, the big box store had winter and summer annual flowers displayed right next to each other (above).  There was no way to know that the one on the right would survive the summer and that the one on the left would soon be dead from the summer heat.
 
If you are uncertain about what plants to purchase, then I recommend doing your own research OR going to a local nursery, where you may pay a little more, but you can receive expert advice on the right type of plant to plant the right time of year.
 
I ended up buying two Radiation lantana for my front containers.  Lantana are great summer flowers and I then transplant them into my garden in the fall.
 
**Butterfly update – the caterpillars are still within their chrysalis.  I am hoping they emerge early next week.  I have had to bring them indoors the past two nights because the temperatures have dropped below 55 degrees.  I will keep you updated 🙂
 
I hope you all have a great weekend!
 
Primula

I would like to take you on a visit back to “The Refuge”, which is the home of my younger sister, (Daisy Mom), and her family.  In the past, we have seen the beautiful scenery surrounding their home and who can forget our visit with Mr. Compost.

 
From left to right – Barrel Cactus, Tomato, Lantana, Fern, Spiky Succulent, Avocado (grown from an Avocado pit), Fern, Pine Tree Sapling, Vinca and another Fern.
Composting, is as you might expect, Mr. Compost’s domain and the vegetable garden is Mr. Green Jean’s.  However, Daisy Mom, reigns supreme over her container garden.
Each time we go over and visit, I just have to step out onto the patio to see what she has growing.  It is always a bright spot of many different and colorful plants, even in the middle of January, when the above photo was taken.  

In the summer, the flowers are all in full bloom and the garden is a favorite cool spot to sit and enjoy being outdoors. 

Rosemary, Avocado and Cactus

Succulents, herbs, small trees and flowering plants make up her container garden.  You never know what you will find…I mean, who would have thought to plant an avocado pit, instead of throwing it away?  My sister, that’s who :^)

 
Mr. Green Jeans, helping his mom plant some new flowers.
Occasionally, Mr. Green Jeans, my nephew and resident “Refuge” photographer, can be found taking a break from his vegetable garden and helping his mom plant some new things in her garden.
 

   
Yellow Primula. 

As you can see from Daisy Mom’s container garden, you don’t have to have a lot of space to create your own container garden.  So, go down to your local nursery, but a few pots, some flowering plants, vegetables or a succulent or two and a bag of potting soil and get started.  

 
Vinca

That is all you need to do to start your own container garden and the beauty of it is is that you can keep building upon it.  Even better, you can ask for some cuttings or seeds from your friends gardens and start them in your garden as well.  Before you know it, you can have a vibrant, beautiful container garden just like Daisy Mom.

Our next post from “The Refuge” will introduce us to Mr. Green Jean’s vegetable garden and you will also get to meet all the residents of “The Refuge” as well.