Monday, April 2, 2012


The lawn conversion begins

            Big doin’s at the Fitzgerald homestead as spring careens into the promise (threat?) of an early summer. We’re deep into the conversion of the lawn into vegetable garden. Why? Two reasons: 1) it’s the sunniest part of the yard; and 2) since we can no longer afford to water the grass, it’s pretty scruffy-looking out there.

Tim built two four-by-ten raised beds last week, already planted with potatoes and peanuts and covered with bird netting until they sprout. Two more, slightly smaller beds are on tap for today, because a visit to Christine, grower extraordinaire, netted me 30 sturdy seedlings of tomatoes, sweet peppers, cucumbers, squash and broccoli. They gotta get in the ground soon.

Potato grow-bags, phase 1
            Grow-bags in blue, red, orange and beige—an experimental addition—add to the circusy ambiance out front. The four jumbo ones for potatoes surround the scraggly, agonizingly slow-growing paperbark maple (Acer griseum). With luck, the four tomato and three pepper bags will be lining the sidewalk by the end of the day, completely blocking our diagonal shortcut across the yard. Oh, well.

The blackberry patch
             Have two baskets crammed with cucumber and nasturtium seeds hanging from the front porch above the blueberry patch. Planted four plants of three different cultivars of thornless blackberries (‘Ouachita,’ ‘Natchez,’ and ‘Darrow’) on one side of the New Bed’s pergola: four seeds of each of three types of melons are on the other side. 

            I still haven’t figured out where to put the fig.

            Out back, 15 row-feet of potatoes are in, and the strawberries are flowering merrily. As usual at the beginning of the season, I’m full of hope and enthusiasm. We’ll see how it goes as summer settles in.

The front-yard excavations come on top of burgeoning springtime client needs, curtailing computer time. My editor-friend Sally asked me to write a Field Note for May’s issue for American Nurseryman, due early April, which is how I spent most of Sunday. In the interest of sanity (mine), I am also using it here. Allow me to introduce you to…

  RUELLIA CAROLINIENSIS: Wild petunia, Carolina ruellia

Ruellia caroliniensis
            Funny how things work out. Ruellia caroliniensis arrived at my coastal North Carolina home a decade ago in three two-and-a-half-inch pots from Woodlanders Nursery in Aiken, SC. Subsequently, I spent hours every summer trying (unsuccessfully) to keep it contained in the border and out of the lawn. Then last spring, Oak Island’s budget-busting sewer installation went operational, meaning I could no longer afford to water my grass. As a consequence, the stalwart green foliage brandished on sturdy heat-, salt- and drought-defying stems sprinkled with cheerful little lavender-blue blossoms became welcome—nay, encouraged—to spread wherever it wanted.

            The genus Ruellia is named for Jean de la Ruelle (1474-1537), personal botanist and physician to France’s Fran├žois I. Although “petunia” figures in the common names of most of the 150 or so species and their flowers bear some rudimentary resemblance to one another, ruellias are not petunias: they belong to the acanthus family.
R. caroliniensis, close up
Highly adaptable, Carolina ruellia prefers full sun to light shade and well-drained soil, but pretty much tolerates whatever environment it finds itself in, making R. caroliniensis a natural for managed wildflower gardens and meadows, cottage-type borders, and lawn conversion, diversification and naturalization projects. It’s not so good for formal designs because, like all the Acanthaceae, its seed capsules explode, spewing seeds to impressive distances from the mother plant.

            Today’s time-restricted gardeners can’t ask for a more easygoing plant. Emerging from dormancy as early as February here in southeastern North Carolina, the first one-inch-wide blooms open around the end of April. Individual flowers last only one day, but their production continues steadily, although seldom prolifically, into October. In shady locations, growth is leggier and bloom sparser. As for maintenance, all you need do is cut down the dead stalks (or not) once they go grey and crunchy. Fertilize only if you wish to encourage rampant tendencies. 

R. caroliniensis, naturalized
Propagation by seed is a breeze: in fact, some deriders of the species say it self-sows with too much abandon (to which I can testify, from the days when I strove for a perfectly monocultured lawn). Still, Ruellia caroliniensis plays well with its neighbors. In my yard, it has shared about five square feet with a clump of Iris tectorum for ten years without apparent detriment to either.

            Nor did wild petunia harm the centipedegrass it seeded itself into. It stayed at about the same height as the lawn—two to three inches—and tolerated mowing very well, despite curtailed flower production.  

Pubescent stems
            The pleasantly mid-green colored foliage is ovate to lanceolate and slightly hairy on the reverse. Pubescent ("hairy," in hort-speak) stems never require staking, even in the dreadful heat and humidity of southeastern summers.

            Native to the southeastern half of the United States (New Jersey to Florida, southern Pennsylvania to Nebraska), Carolina ruellia is reliably hardy in Zones 7/8 to 10. While similar to R. humilis (short ruellia), R. caroliniensis’ leaves have petioles, and its stalks are longer. Not that it matters—I’ve yet to see either commonly available in the trade. Funny how things work out.

            Heads-up, locals: If you'd like to take on a Carolina ruellia or three, email me at Predictably, I have plenty to spare, with more sprouting daily.

            Thanks for dropping by.