Answers to your gardening questions
effective Deer Fence!
- A Real Resource-Saver!
Welcome through Fred's Garden Gate! As population and agriculture expands in many parts of the country, water is becoming more and more precious. Drillers report deeper wells and reduced output; testing labs are reporting more and more contamination; and the red flag is up: we must be more careful with not only the amount of water we use on our garden soils, but must also be a lot more judicious about the types and amount of chemicals we apply.
The trend now is toward utilizing more drought-tolerant species and varieties - especially those which require far less fertilizer and pesticide application.
Artemisias (also called "wormwood" - referring, according to ancient ecclesiastical tradition, to the herb which bittered the waters in the desert of the ancient Israelite's wanderings) are among the most useful and colorful plants for a drier corner of the garden.
Listed among those plants called "the silvers and grays" by most gardeners, over the millennia they've developed an almost furry leaf surface giving the plants a somewhat silvery appearance. Experts in the field credit the silvery surface with reflecting excessive light and heat from the sun, and protecting the plant from the drying effects of desiccating winds.
At least one, Artemisia judaica ludoviciana (the wormwood of the Bible), has foliage which produces a pungent odor when disturbed or crushed and an extremely bitter sensation if tasted. Related to western sagebrush, an extract of this tough plant is used as flavoring in absinthe ("bitters"). A solution made from the liquefied (in a blender) leaves and soft stems is highly effective as a pest repellant when sprayed on leaves which bugs, woodchucks, rabbits and deer are apt to nibble on.
Another, Artemisia abrotanum (or "southernwood") releases a most pleasantly-fragrant aroma which delights the senses and adds a new dimension to the garden. This one reaches a height of two to three feet and is a close cousin of tarragon. It is sometimes called "Bible plant" because of its fresh, minty fragrance when pressed in the pages of a book - particularly a very old book that might otherwise have a damp, musty odor.
Without a doubt the most popular and common artemisia is A. schmidtiana nana, "Silver mound." An effective edging or accent plant in full sun, reduced water and little nutrition, the silvery foliage forms a half-ball shape, especially if the new growth is lightly - but thoroughly - sheared when the plant reaches about four-inches tall in the spring. Dried tips may be used to good effect in arrangements, and holiday wreaths and decorations.
One last group worthy of mention are two more A. ludovicianas: "Silver King," and "Silver Queen." Both can be highly invasive and will develop new plants from the tiniest fragments of root. "King" is very useful for drying, reaching a mature height of about two feet. "Queen" is preferred for drying and has slightly wider leaves and a more upright habit. (Hint: try using glycerin before drying to preserve a softer, more natural look. For more information, check out Dry Flowers, Part 4. To return, use your "back" button in the browser toolbar).
All of the Artemisias mentioned above are easy perennials in our chilly USDA Zone 4. They prefer the hottest, sandiest and airiest spot you can find for them. A very small amount of some form of nutrition in the spring is about all they ask, and they benefit from pinching or shearing during early spring to keep them short, compact, and not looking like the cat just trampled them.
I know of no diseases of any significance which infect artemisia, and precious few insects will even come close to them. One small worm, the larva of a little moth, will make a cozy home for itself (complete with pantry) by sewing top leaves together with silk. A light spray of BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) at the first sign of their arrival should do the trick. Pyrethrum, also a natural, non-chemical insecticide, is also very effective. Pyrethrum, you'll recall, is the product of a popular perennial: painted daisies.
Drying is done in late summer, after their small, rather insignificant flowers have opened. Cut bunches of ten or fifteen stems, at whatever length you need or desire, tie with florist's wire, twine or a "twist-em," and hang up-side-down in a sheltered, dry place until all moisture has evaporated.
Once thoroughly dried, they can be stored, loosely, in large cardboard boxes, or left hanging. Storage in closed plastic bags is not recommended because of the possibility of mildew and mold.
So, there you have a "primer" on artemisia. Remember: they're ideal for saving water, for very desirable low maintenance and reduced use of both water and chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers). Artemisia can be planted just about any time the ground isn't frozen, so look for late summer and fall savings at local nurseries and garden centers.
Until next time, keep an eye peeled for the weeds which flourish in the cooler weather of fall...and enjoy your weed-free garden!
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