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Les Parks is from a family of Virginia gardeners and has been gardening most of his life. He received a Landscape Design Certificate from The George Washington University and has been a Virginia Certified Horticulturist since 1994. He is currently the Curator of Herbaceous Plants at the Norfolk Botanical Garden. Les gardens and lives in Norfolk with his wife and son where he still enjoys playing in the dirt.


Osage Orange
by Les Parks - posted 10/29/11

     Osage oranges (Maclura pomifera) are fairly common in Virginia, and according to National Register of Big Trees,the state is home to one of the two co-champions as well as the previous champion. The trees are common enough that one might be tempted to think they have always grown here.  In fact, they are originally native to a small area of the southern plains, but now this very hardy tree grows over much of the United States.  The first Virginians to encounter this tree were Lewis and Clark, who sent cuttings back to Thomas Jefferson. 


     I have liked this tree from childhood, long before I knew what it was or cared about anything horticultural.  What attracted me was the fruit, which was used effectively as painful projectiles lobbed at my brother. More adult members of my family would put the oddly attractive fruit into bowls as something pretty to look at, but would also enjoy the fruit's fragrance, which is reminiscent of oranges, hence the tree's common name.  The fruit is also said to repel a number of insects, including cockroaches and crickets, and compounds in the fruit are being studied as a natural alternative to  DEET in the mosquito fight.


     The wood of the tree is pound for pound some of the densest of any species and has some remarkable properties.  It was the preferred source of bow wood for several native tribes and later as tool handles.  The close grained wood is very rot resistant and was used as long-lasting fence posts.  As firewood it provides more BTU's than any other native tree.  The tree itself was widely planted before the invention of barbed wire as a hedge row, and if kept pruned stays very thick and dense, while its thorns keep large animals in bounds.  perfectly suited for the environment, it was also widely planted as a wind break on the prairies.


     Osage Oranges will grow anywhere from 25 to 50' tall and wide and prefer full sun to light shade.  They are capable of withstanding heavily acidic or alkaline soils, are drought tolerant once established, are long-lived and are hardy from zones 4 to 9.  If you would like to grow one in your own garden, you will likely have to take a cutting or grow one from seed, as they are almost non-existent in the nursery trade.  This tree is dioecious, meaning male and females are on seperate trees, so if you want the fruit get a female, which will still bear without a male nearby.   


Les Parks 




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Salvia leucantha:  One of My Favorite Fall Plants
by Les Parks - posted 10/11/11

     It is the time of year one of my favorite fall plants is blooming, Salvia leucantha or Mexican Bush Sage.  I really like purple, and I really like tall upright perennials.  However, I am somewhat hesitant in calling S. leucantha a perennial, as it isn't always so.  Some years it's an annual, even here in zone 8.  From what I have read, and from my personal experience, it is not our cold winters that do them in, but wet ones.  If S. leucantha is not given good drainage, it can easily rot during a wet winter.  As to sunlight, it prefers as much as you can give it, and even though it is drought tolerant, during its summer growth spurt, make sure it has adequate moisture.

Salvia leucantha

     S. luecantha starts blooming in late September and will continue to produce flowers until we get freezing weather.  Like many tender perennials, it is best to leave the cold-damaged stems and foliage in place until late March, and then cut them down to the ground.  Because of it's less than perennial nature, I always buy new ones on spring.  However, if you look in the herb section of the nursery, S. leucantha can often be found among the culinary sages and at a fraction of the price you would pay in the perennial section.  I am not the only one who appreciates this plant, our native bumblebees are quite fond of it as well.



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Straight from the Crayon Box - American Beautyberry
by Les Parks - posted 09/19/11

   Right now one of my favorite native plants is in full color, however the color comes not from flowers, but from the fruit of American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).  The color of the berries can be anywhere from magenta to a vivid purple.  American Beautyberry normally grows on the fringes, on the edge of the woods, near ditches and in places with moist soil.  Though it can easily be found in the wild, it can also have a place in the home garden.  Just give it some room as it can get 6' tall and wide, or more, but there is a great deal of variation in size.  It will grow in full sun to a fair amount of shade, and is not particular about soil type as long as it stays moist.  Beautyberry is not very drought tolerant.  In early summer the plant flowers, but while not ugly, the small pale pinkish purple flowers are not very showy.  Ripening in September, the fruit more than makes up for the bloom's lack of color.  The foliage will turn a pale yellow before dropping in the fall and is not very remarkable, but is a nice foil to the colorful fruit.  The berries will remain on the shrub for several months, unless the mockingbirds or robins discover it first. 

     One trick to growing Beautyberry is to cut it back hard every year or two in late winter.  The reason for this is to encourage lots of new growth in the spring, which will in turn encourage lots of flowers and consequently berries.  Other than to enjoy the beauty of the fruit, there is another reason to grow Beautyberry.  There have been numerous studies that have confirmed that Callicarpa americanais a natural mosquito repellent.  So plant several and never buy another Citronella Geranium again!



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Wildflowers Along the Blue Ridge
by Les Parks - posted 08/08/11

A few weeks ago my son and I were able to leave the flatland and head up to the mountains.  While we were there we did some traveling along the Blue Ridge Parkwayand were able to stop at one of my favorite pullovers, Big Spy Mountain Overlook.  I do not stop for the view, but for a chance to wander through the small meadow.  

On this trip the meadow was full of wildflowers and full of insect  activity.  Probably the most popular plant, as far as the insects were concerned, was the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), but the Beebalm (Asclepias syriaca) and Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) were not being ignored.  What surprised me was the presence of three European flowers that have naturalized along the Blue Ridge, and some would say are a bit invasive.  There was the little thistle-like flower Spotted Knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), a giant Dandelion of a plant called Western Salsify (Tragopogon dubius) and the very common Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota). 

Even with the pushy Europeans, it was a lovely spot to spend some time on a warm July day in the Blue Ridge.

 Common Milkweed




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Stauntonia hexaphylla
by Les Parks - posted 04/05/11

In the blur of color that is spring, it is easy to be blinded by pink, yellow and white.  If a gardener can see beyond these distractions, then spring's other charms become more apparent.  Stauntonia hexaphylla has interesting evergreen foliage no matter what time of year and reminds me of tropical Schefflera, or of something else that will not grow here.  However, when the new growth emerges in March it is a distinct amber color before it darkens to a cool blue-green.  Stauntonia is listed as growing 20-30', but I saw one at Taylor's Nursery in Raleigh that had nearly reached the top of a very tall radio antenna tower.  It is also listed as preferring full sun to light shade, but mine only gets winter sun being shaded by a large oak the rest of the year, and it has apparently not been slowed.  I regularly have to unwrap or trim the vine from patio furniture.  It is listed as hardy in USDA zones 7 to 8, and it has shown a remarkable degree of drought tolerance as well.

Though I grow it for it's foliage, it also has a flower, but mine has never bloomed.  I think this may have more to do with the age of mine than the shade, because I have seen a specimen in the display garden at work flower in almost total shade.  Flowers normally occur later in the spring and their delicate appearance and white pastel-purple color seem in contrast to the the vine's vigorous, near thug-like nature.  I have never seen fruit on any local plant, but it is listed as having a red-purple fruit that resembles a sausage.  Pictures remind me of Akebia quinata fruit, which is in the same family (Lardizabalaceae) as Stauntonia.  In Japan, where this plant is native, the fruit is a prized delicacy.

If you would like to have a Stauntonia vine of your very own, good luck.  I have not been able to find any to sell at the garden center in nearly 10 years, which is a real shame.  I do know the seeds take years to germinate, but considering its vigor, it should be easy to propagate from cuttings.  Perhaps its narrow hardiness range and lack of a catchy common name limit its appeal to wholesale growers.  Maybe a marketing campaign is called for.



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Lovely Weeds:  Lamium amplexicaule (Henbit)
by Les Parks - posted 03/10/11

In the past few weeks, I have been noticing some spectacular local fields covered in Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule).  The color is what makes these acres so noteworthy - a ground level haze of purple pink,  fuchsia or even mauve depending on the light and at what stage the flowers are blooming.  I wanted to stop and take a few pictures of places on the way to work, but usually I am already running late, plus I would be taking my life into my hands pulling over during rush hour.  Yesterday, on the way back home from Virginia's beautiful Eastern Shore, several photographic moments presented themselves in rural Northampton County, but without the threat of being run over.

Henbit is an Old World native occurring in Europe, western Asia and parts of North Africa.  Like other members of the mint family, this annual has square stems, and also like many of its relatives, it is extremely prolific.  The seeds germinate in the fall of the year with blooming occurring in late winter.  In many places Henbit has naturalized and is considered an invasive weed, particularly in agriculture where it prefers the same rich sandy loams farmers seek for their crops.  Judging from the state of the fields I saw, one would think Henbit was planted on purpose, and though it is indeed edible, I am sure it is an unwelcome crop.  A Google search yields many recipes and serving suggestions.  Unfortunately I recently had breakfast, so I did not indulge, but if you have eaten it, please let me know what you thought of it.




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Queen of the Winter Garden
by Les Parks - posted 03/01/11

There is no question that this past winter has been a rough one, no matter what part of Virginia (or many other places for that matter) you live in.  Even here in normally temperate Norfolk we had more snow and more prolonged cold than I can remember.  Thankfully a corner seems to have been turned this past week, and local gardens are slowly waking up.  Crocus and narcissus are blooming, some of the early flowering trees are budding and the forsythia is beginning to flash yellow.  However, the Queen of local gardens and sure sign that winter's days are numbered, has shown her face in the form of Camellia japonica.


Southeastern Virginia is the furthest place north that these gems can grow and still reach their full potential.  Yes I know they will grow in Richmond or even Washington, but not without careful site and cultivar consideration, and even then they will never get to be the shed-sized giants a venerable specimen will here.  In my own neighborhood (where these pictures were taken) there are many fine old specimens, some in lovingly tended gardens and others neglected for years, but thriving nonetheless. 


Most varieties of Camellia japonica are hardy to zone 7b or higher, but there are several that can take it colder.  Their preferred location is in partial shade.  The light under high pines is ideal, as well as the acidified soil found there as well.  They will not be happy in wet soils, preferring even moisture with good drainage, and once established are surprisingly drought tolerant.  There are few serious diseases that affect them, though spider mites and scale can sometimes be a problem, but are easily treated.


One of the best collections of Camellias in the country can be found at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, which is home to the Hofheimer Camellia Garden.  It is a great place to visit, at any time of the year, but especially now while the Queen is holding court.



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A Yellow Signal of Change
by Les Parks - posted 02/18/11

Yesterday on the way home from work, I passed by Waterside in downtown Norfolk.  In front of the parking garage is a huge swath of Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) doing its best to make an ugly building less so.  This time of year I look for its flowers as my signal that the end of winter is near.  Though late in blooming, they are a welcome sight nonetheless.

The city of Norfolk uses this plant in many municipal plantings, and I am thankful for it.  Just when you need a bolt of bright yellow change in the landscape, Winter Jasmine steps up.  Can Daffodils and Forsythia be far behind?

Winter Jasmine is a low sprawling shrub with green-in-any-season, long arching branches.  It gets about 3-4' tall by 5-6' wide, and can be pruned immediately after flowering if needed.  It prefers full sun, but will grow in some shade, only with fewer flowers.  It is hardy from zones 6-10 and appreciates good drainage, and in fact is quite drought tolerant once established. 


Native to China, this plant was first brought to Western gardens by Robert Fortune, one of history's most interesting plant explores.  At a time when much of China was closed to Westerners, Fortune disguised himself as a Mandarin merchant and would travel into forbidden areas in search of new finds.  We can thank Mr. Fortune for scores of our most cherished garden plants; Wikipedia has a detailed list of all the species he introduced.

It seems my favorite patch of Winter Jasmine was correct in predicting the eventual demise of winter, for today the temperature actually climbed into the seventies.  Since I was off today, I was able to spend the whole day outside doing my best to clear, clean and prune away this long cold winter.



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The Winter Star
by Les Parks - posted 02/08/11

I have many shrubs on my favorite list, but Edgeworthia chrysantha (Paper Bush, Rice Paper Plant) is at the top.  I think I am so attracted to it because it usually blooms in February, my least favorite and longest month of the year.  Edgeworthia is in the Daphne family whose members are notorious for their difficulty to grow.  However, this plant belies that reputation, but still has a sweet fragrance that many Daphne relations possess.  In the fall of the year Edgeworthia begins to lose its thin green leaves that have a somewhat tropical look to them, turning a buttery yellow before they drop.  In December the buds begin forming and are attractive in their own right being fuzzy and sliver, hanging upside down from the bare branches.  Usually in mid-winter, these buds begin swelling and open to reveal a cluster of golden yellow flowers that to me smell like sweet daffodils.  As the flowers mature the cluster becomes more upright and rounded making them easy to see, but your nose will find them before your eyes.


Edgeworthia is hardy in zones 7 to 8, but if protected may be able to withstand the warmer parts of zone 6.  It can get 6' tall and wide and usually has a multi-stemmed habit, but the finest specimens I have seen were trained with a single trunk.  However, they tend to sucker so occasional pruning may be necessary to keep that shape.  Like other members of the Daphne family, Edgeworthia prefers light shade or filtered sun in moist soil.  Good drainage is critical.  Plant one and just maybe you too will find something to look forward to in February.



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Another Dispatch from the Front Line
by Les Parks - posted 01/28/11

As is traditional for me at this time of year, I spent the past week at the Mid Atlantic Horticulture Short Course, in Virginia Beach. Regular readers and local green people may know this is where arborists, designers, retailers, wholesale growers, turf people, landscapers, grounds people and others go to hone existing skills, learn new ones, hear about new plants and in general learn the things that keep us professional. At the end of the week, the doors are opened to the general gardening public and some of the same speakers put on a day long, themed program that always sells out. This year was a little different for me in that I am now on the board of the group (The Virginia Horticulture Foundation) that sponsors the conference, so I ended up having to work a little more. However, I was still able to attend the following classes, all of which were time well-spent.

- What's New in the World of Irises
Kelly D. Norris, Rainbow Iris Farm
It may have been January outside, but inside the darkened room it was May and the wall sized screen was showing some new versions of one of my favorite perennials. Fortunately the lights were up enough for me to write down the ones I want.

- Crazy About Coral Bells
Dan Heims, Terra Nova Nurseries
If you have fallen in love with all of the new Heuchera hybrids that have been hitting the market lately, well you can thank Dan Heims for about 99% of them. And we Southerners owe him a particular debt for injecting many with Heuchera villosa genes giving them the ability to withstand high heat and humidity.

- Great Trees in Great Landscapes
Robert McDuffie, Virginia Tech
Professor McDuffie leads horticultural tour groups all over the world in search of great gardens, and I was fortunate enough to go on a one of his trips to England and Wales back in 2000. You can see some of the places he visits and his excellent photography here.

- Wondrous Water Plants
Tamara Kilbane, Sarah P. Duke Gardens
Another good class, and one in which I learned, among other things, that the effort to breed hardy water lilies with tropicals to expand the color and climate range is paying off.

- Green Cities
Susan French, Virginia Cooperative Extension
Ms. French introduced us to how municipal landscaping and land management can make our cities greener, more pleasant and more sustainable. The city of Virginia Beach was used as an example and I was pleasantly surprised by what has been accomplished.

- Keeping a Pleasure Garden Pleasurable
Dan Benarcik, Chanticleer
If you have ever had the opportunity to visit the gardens at Chanticleer in Philadelphia, then I do not need to tell you how very special this place is. If you haven't been, then make plans to do so. It is one of the most fantastic gardens in the country.

- Garden Archaeology: Designs from the Past
Michelle Palmer, Cornell University & The Society for Garden Archaeology
Ms. Palmer showed us how the skills of traditional, and not so traditional archaeology are changing what we learn about historic gardens. She highlighted in particular her work at a villa near Mr. Vesuvius. This was class was fascinating.

- Deciphering the World of Hydrangeas
Vincent Simeone, The Planting Fields Arboretum Historic State Park
I am always willing to learn more about one of my favorite shrubs, and I was pleased to see that the majority of Hydrangeas he spoke of were ones I carry at work.

- Behind the Curtain
Nicholas Staddom, Monrovia Nurseries
Mr. Staddon is the Director of New Plants for Monrovia, and he showed us how the people of his company come up with all the new plants they are famous for introducing or promoting. There was no mention of their recent financial troubles, just plants and people, as it should be.

This was just a very small taste of what was available this year. If you would like to see my previous dispatches they are here.

Before I leave this link-heavy post and head back to the battlefield, I feel a need to invoke my usual disclaimer in that I have not been compensated in any way for mentioning any organization, corporation or concern. However I would not refuse a no-strings-attached Iris 'Zooboomafoo', Hosta x 'Empress Wu' or a lovely Melianthus major 'Antonow's Blue'.



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The Big Cut and Clean
by Les Parks - posted 01/17/11

     This past weekend we actually had tolerable temperatures, and I was able to get outside and start the big winter clean up and cut back.  This process will take me about a month to finish and is equally dependent on my motivation as much as the weather.  A lot of pruning will get done, any remaining annuals from last year are pulled up, perennials cut back, and I give all my beds a good thorough cleaning.  I never start this too early, because my neighbor has one of the oaks that hangs on to its big leaves until January, and I don't want to rake more than I have to.  On the other hand, I like to get this done before the spring bulbs start peeking up too far so I can really get in and work the beds without fear of trampling anything.

The Big Clean Up

     I have managed to eliminate all of the lawn from my yard which is now heavily planted with a mix of trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals.  Many people have commented that it sure looks like a lot of work, and yes it was when I first got started.  Now it takes significantly less time than maintaining a lawn, and to my eye it is much more interesting.  However, the big cut and clean is probably my most involved garden task.  When I am all done, I'll be able to look out at the garden with a sense of accomplishment and will know that the garden, and the gardener, are both ready for spring.



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January is Green in Charm City
by Les Parks - posted 01/08/11

     This past Thursday several of us from work went to Baltimore for the day.  Our goal was the Mid Atlantic Nursery and Trade Show, or as it is more commonly known, MANTS.  This trade show is sponsored by the nursery associations in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.  MANTS is one of several such shows around the country, and although equipment, mulches, stones, software and pottery were on display, it is primarily a plant-centric event. The show is an opportunity for companies to introduce new plants and products, publicize their inventories, handout price lists and try to strike up some new business.  There was indeed a lot of glad handing, back slapping and schmoozing going on among all the plants.

 Display from Sandy's Plants

     Unfortunately for the armies of sales people, I have already booked most of my spring purchases.  I attend MANTS to see what's new and to touch base with some of my current vendors, as well as making contact with people I may want to do business with in the future.  I also go, because where else am I going to see so much green under one roof in January.  MANTS attracts close to 1000 exhibitors, so to see everything I needed to, I had to wear blinders and ignore anything not pertinent to me.

 Coleus Collection

     MANTS is also a way to check the pulse of the green industry in general, and I can honestly say that the patient is stable and guardedly optimistic about recovery from several challenging years.  There were more than a few key players missing from this year's show, victims of the economy or their own mismanagement.  Also absent this year were the bargains being offered last year as most wholesalers have shed excess inventory.  So what does this mean for the average gardener?  I think it means that for the most part there will be plenty available this year, but if there is something you really want, buy it early.  I would also expect to see stable prices at garden centers, but few deep discounts.


(You can view a gallery of my MANTS photos from this year and last, by clicking here.) 




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The Month for Something Different
by Les Parks - posted 01/03/11

     Well the holidays are finally over, which for me is a mixed blessing.  One reason for this is that I work in retail, and any of you who have that experience listed on your resume know how it colors your Christmas experience.  However, as a gardener I need the holidays to distract me with lights and glitter from the fact that it is now winter and my time outside is brief.  The winter doldrums are one of the reasons I discovered and enjoy garden blogging, and it was in January three years ago that I first started A Tidewater Gardener.   I figured if I couldn't actually be out in the garden, then I could be talking about it with other gardeners and seeing what they were up to, and now it has nearly become an obsession that knows no season.

      So in honor of the month in which people attempt new things, I have started to blog for Virginia Gardener.  I hope you will follow along as Jan and Alan and I share our thoughts on my favorite topic - gardening.  Playing in the dirt was once just something I did when I wasn't working, but now it is my work.  Over the years I have helped many of my customers with plant ID, selection, plant care and with pest issues.  So if you have a question of that nature, please ask and I will give it my best shot.  Just a word of warning though, sometimes I am opinionated, and I can't answer any off-topic questions.  My plant knowledge comes at a cost, in that on most other topics I am a complete idiot.


     For my inaugural post I would like to share the above picture with you, because for me it says something new is coming, even in the depths of winter.  This is a Hime flowering quince (Chaenomeles'Hime') given to me by a good friend.  She could not tell me exactly which species it was, but she did say it was long flowering.  For me it begins in December and has blooms on it well into April, more than long enough to help me make it through the cold months.  I took the picture last week after the third greatest snowfall Norfolk has had since records have been kept, and I have decided to take my cue from the quince and enjoy what this season has to offer.  I hope you will follow along as well, and before we know it, spring will be here.




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