3 simple steps for bright blue hydrangeas

I miss all kinds of things about growing plants in the Southeast and in New England, but probably the biggest loss for me is the giant, blue bombs of color in summer you get from a mophead hydrangea.  Sure, you can grow mophead hydrangeas in Iowa, but their flowers will be pink.  I love that blue so much it's worth it to me, even as the lowest of low-maintenance gardeners, to do a little work to get my hydrangeas blue.  Here are three easy steps for you to make sure your hydrangeas bloom blue all summer long. 

blue hydrangea

01. CHOOSE THE RIGHT TYPE
Step one is to choose the right plant.  Many hydrangeas bloom pink, cream, or white, but only a few will bloom blue.  I adore oakleaf hydrangeas and ‘Limelight’ hydrangea, but you’ll never see a bright blue flower on those.  Mophead and lacecap hydrangeas are the only ones that bloom blue (that’s Hydrangea macrophylla and her hybrids.)  Once you have a mophead, select plants that are bred to go blue.  

‘Endless Summer’ hydrangeas are about the only ones hardy enough for Iowa’s winters that will bloom blue.  There are many plants in the ‘Endless Summer’ line, so check the label – they are churning out some crazy color combinations, and if you want the true blue, stick with The Original Endless Summer hydrangea.  That plant is my standby for big blue bombs of color.  ‘Nikko Blue’ is another option, but it’s only hardy to zone 5 and blooms only on old wood – meaning, if you get a bad spring frost and the flower buds get zapped, you won’t have flowers at all that season.  ‘Endless Summer’ blooms on both old and new wood, so you’ll get flowers whether there’s a frost or not.  Out at our acreage, my Endless Summer hydrangeas died back just about to the ground this past miserable winter, and they’re already blooming this year.  

‘Twist and Shout’ is another hardy blue-bloomer, but it’s a lacecap, not a true mophead.  Lacecap hydrangeas have little tiny flowers surrounded by larger ones, instead of just one big ball of color.  They make more of a mess as cut flowers, but they do provide something for pollinators to eat, which the mopheads don’t.  So select a plant that is actually able to bloom blue, is bred for bright blue color, AND is tough enough for your climate.  

02. KNOW YOUR pH
Pink or blue hydrangea flowers depend on what’s going on in the soil.  Mophead hydrangeas bloom pink in alkaline soil and blue in acidic soils, so you need to get that pH down below 7 – ideally 5.5 and lower for a true blue.  Here in Iowa, you’re pretty much guaranteed that your soil is not acidic enough for blue flowers without some help.  It’s worth doing a very simple pH test that you can pick up at any hardware store or garden center- at the very least, it’s fun science to do with your kiddos.  

03. ADJUST pH ACCORDINGLY
The good news is that there are super easy ways to change the pH around your hydrangeas without becoming a soil scientist.  Some people will DIY it with coffee grounds, sprinkling them around the base of their plants.  This may not change the soil enough to get the pH down low for a deep blue flower color, and you’ll have to apply often as the coffee grounds break down.  There’s likely no harm done, though, so feel free to sprinkle away.  Compost is also typically acidic, so adding compost around your shrubs may help too.  And if your compost is mostly coffee grounds, like ours is- even better! 

You can also purchase straight up aluminum sulfate like a real farmer.  You have to mix it with water and apply often- it is so soluble it will wash out of the soil.  But you also need to be careful not to apply too much, as it can be toxic to plants at high levels.  I don't go this route, even though I'm married to an Iowa farm boy.  It's too much measuring and monitoring for me.  

I stick with soil acidifiers like Holly-tone.  Bailey’s makes one also, with blue hydrangea flowers right on the label.  Soil acidifiers are available at every hardware store and garden center near the fertilizer. Use their instructions and included scoop, and the work is done for you. Pay attention to how much you need to reapply, so that your blue blooms stay around all season.  And seriously, read the package instructions so you don’t harm any surrounding plants. 

Mulching with pine straw or pine bark is also a good idea even if you use one of the other options – hydrangeas like moist, rich soil, so a good mulch cover will keep them happy – and the pine straw or pine bark will lower the soil pH as it breaks down.  

Being from the East coast, a blue hydrangea is an emblem of summertime for me.  Moving to the Heartland means I have to work a little bit harder, but it’s worth it for these glorious flowers in my yard.  

Plant picks | Easy evergreen shrubs for Iowa gardens

Oh, winter.  For five months, if we’re not intentional, our landscapes will be mostly brown and grey with a little bit of white now and then.  And we long for color!  Especially when it’s cold out.  Once the perennials die back and the deciduous plants drop their leaves, what’s left in your yard?

While anything that blooms will always grab my attention, conifers actually offer plenty for the landscape: reliable structure, subtle texture, interesting details, and year-round color.  But for the gardener that usually buys daylilies and coneflowers, selecting and investing in a conifer can be a little overwhelming.  They cost more than other shrubs because they grow slowly and spend a long time in the nursery.  So what do you choose when you’re willing to lay down a little more cash for a nice backbone plant?

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But hey- first, what's a conifer?  Or an evergreen exactly?  Let's have a little #horticultureschool.  An evergreen plant doesn't drop its leaves in the fall the way that deciduous plants do.  Evergreens can be lots of different types of plants, depending on where you live.  For example, some plants that are evergreen in the balmy Motherland (that's North Carolina to you) lose their leaves here in the frigid Heartland (that's Iowa!)  So evergreen just means the leaves don't drop all at once in the fall.  Many conifers -what we're talking about today- are evergreen, but not all.  (The few exceptions maybe we'll cover in another hort class.)  Conifers are plants that have cones instead of flowers- think pine trees.  Growing as low creeping evergreens, mid-sized shrubs, and giant towering trees, they can be dramatic specimens or quiet backdrops in your yard. Good?  Okay, school's out. 

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This time around, we'll talk about mid-sized, evergreen conifer shrubs that you can trust to look good in your home landscape.   I’d recommend these three evergreen shrubs that won’t break the bank to any gardener looking for winter color and a reliable backdrop in their yard.

A QUICK DISCLAIMER ABOUT SIZE:
Many conifers grow really, really big.  Like 40-60’ tall.  Think of the forest where Yeti lives. Or, they grow super low, around 12” tall, and creep along the ground.  Think rocky outcroppings along a frigid lake.  But this Goldilocks, middle-sized, perfect-for-your-landscape shrub?  The truth is, it doesn’t really exist.  Almost all the medium-sized conifer shrubs available are just versions of the big guys that grow really slowly.  So in the first ten years or so, the plant’s around four feet tall.  But in 30 or 40 years, it might stand eight or ten feet high.  This is just the reality of growing conifers: they (like all plants) change over time.  What does that mean for a landscape designer?  It means good planning and solutions.  This could mean planning to expertly prune to reduce size over time, or planning to pull out the overgrown plants, or planning to change the landscape beds to suit them in a few decades.  As long as you know this and anticipate it, carry on. 

And now, the plant choices:

THE SPECS:
All of these plants are hardy to at least zone 4, meaning they’ll handle the Iowa winter.  They should require very little maintenance and no pruning if they’re planted in a space suited to their size.  They’re some of the last plants deer choose to munch on (but remember a hungry deer might eat anything).  Plant them in full sun and well-drained soil, and you shouldn’t need to do much to them. 

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Image: thetreefarm.com

SEA GREEN JUNIPER
If I had to pick a tough, reliable, plain green evergreen shrub to use in my yard, I'd first consider Sea Green juniper (Juniperus x pfitzeriana 'Sea Green').  This plant can take parking lot conditions- hot, dry, and exposed- and still look great.  It slowly reaches about 6' tall and 8' wide, making it a perfect plant for the back of a border or along a foundation wall (as long as it doesn’t block windows!)  As a backdrop plant, it’s not just a green meatball: the arching stems and plumes of evergreen foliage give really cool dimension to the plant.


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HINOKI CYPRESS
For a deep green, almost sculptured effect, I love Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’ (hinoki cypress).  This conifer grows more upright, with dense green foliage growing in curved sprays like scalloped edges.  In the first 10 years, expect a height of around 3’, with a long-term mature height of around 6-9’.  The new growth is a lighter green and that fan shape is so pretty, both up close and from a distance.


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GLOBE BLUE COLORADO SPRUCE
I'm usually a fan of soft plants.  I touch everything, so prickly plants are no friend of mine.  But you can win me over if you have a blueish tint, like Picea pungens ‘Glauca Globosa’ (globe blue Colorado spruce) with its gorgeous blue-green or silver-blue bristly needles. Growing with a rounded, flat-topped shape and slowly reaching 3-5’ tall and 5-6’ wide, this shrub will certainly give some color to your landscape in the winter.

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Even without blooms, any of these three conifers will be a great addition to your landscape.  There are so many evergreen “shrubs” that either stay low to the ground or end up gigantic, but these should fit nicely into a residential yard.  Conifers give a feeling of establishment and age to a yard that you don’t get from perennials or deciduous plants, they provide color and interest during the long winter, and they’re worth the investment.  Now when you’re walking into the nursery or garden center looking for one that’s not too big or too small, you can be much more confident about what you’re buying.  Which one would you choose?

Six Questions to help you choose the best Garden Center Markdown (or twelve!)

Happy August! At this time of year, garden centers in Iowa and in other cold parts of the country are beginning to mark plants down.  Well, this girl loves a bargain!  How do you decide if it’s worth it to pull over when you see those 30% off (or more) signs? Don’t be swayed by just any old price cut.   There are a few questions to think about before you load that garden cart. 

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1. What’s this garden center like? Is the place relatively clean and free of weeds?  Do you know if the staff knows anything about plants?  You’re buying living things, and you want ones that have been cared for.

2. How do the leaves and stems look on the plants you’re interested in? Is there a lot of dieback?  Are the leaves brown and curled up, or normal colored and healthy-looking?  Do you see any signs of insects or disease?  You’re looking for strong stems and clean, healthy leaves. 

3. What’s it like inside the pot?  Yes, I really do mean for you to gently slide the plant out of its pot. This is the most important thing!  Does the soil smell earthy and fresh, or sour and gross?  What are the roots like?  Do they wrap around and around the plant?  Are there thick roots right around the stem, if you’re looking at a tree or shrub?  You’re looking for a healthy roots system that isn’t bound up inside the pot. 

4. Is this a tender plant or a tough plant? Are you looking at fussy, hard-to-grow plants?  Are they barely hardy in your area?  If so, they may not make it in your yard.  If they’re tough, tried-and-true garden standbys, you’ll be much more likely to have success. 

5. Just how late in the season is it? For those of us in planting zone 5 and lower, we have to weigh the risk of a late season purchase meaning that an early frost could slow down our already stressed out bargain plants.  However, roots grow when it’s cool out, so fall is a wonderful time to plant!  If we buy and plant when it’s miserably hot and dry, we risk stressing them out even more! This leads us to the last question…

6. Can you take care of them?  If you snag a bunch of marked-down plants and immediately go on vacation for a couple of weeks, leaving them sitting in their pots abandoned on your driveway, chances are they’ll be dead when you return. If you can plant them in the right spot straightaway, and water consistently, you should have great results.

It’s hard work to sit in a pot, often near hot asphalt, all summer.  Plants are stressed from being out there and that’s why they’re marked down.  You can still get a great deal, but you need to check to see if your plant is healthy- both above ground and inside the pot- free of disease, not too tender, AND you can get them in the ground and taken care of as soon as possible.  Use these six questions the next time you see a discounted plants sign, and find out how successful you can be!

6 tips to help you choose the best garden center markdown plant | Red Fern Landscape Design | Des Moines, Iowa | garden + landscape designs for great outdoor spaces

Plant Profiles | Choosing + using luscious garden peonies in your landscape

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I’m so grateful for peony season ... when my very favorite perennial shows off! There is just nothing like the enormous ice cream cone blooms of an old-fashioned peony.  Scent, cut flowers, great foliage - these perennials have it all.  Maybe you have some questions about peonies and are thinking of planting some, now that you've seen them showing off all over the place?  Read on! 

Plant profile: Pro info and tips about garden peonies for home gardeners

What you need to know:

Growing peonies is a pretty easy endeavor.  They are hardy and happy in zones 3-8, and for generations have thrived in central Iowa's zone 4-5 gardens.  Stunning blooms appear in late May and can keep on coming into early July, depending on the plants you choose.  Plant a few different cultivars and create a long-lasting show from the display of blooms.

Garden peonies (Paeonia lactiflora and hybrids) have been grown for centuries because of those show-stopping flowers. Some perennials will bloom for months in your garden (hi, coreopsis, scabiosa, and catmint! I'm looking at you), but peonies are in and out in around a month or month and a half.  So fleeting and yet so totally worth it.  And the fragrance! Amazing. More and more cultivars are appearing all the time - crosses with tree peonies (Peonia suffruticosa and hybrids) bring more colors, larger blooms and sturdier stems to the mix. 

Garden peony blooms come in three basic types: double, semi-double, and single.  Each has a totally different flair and affect in your landscape.  If your early summer landscape was cast out of Steel Magnolias (and why wouldn’t it be?!?!?) then those doubles would have to be Truvy – extroverted, enthusiastic, and definitely head-turning. The double flowers have row after row of fluffy petals forming a large cone-shaped bloom.  Singles, with one or two rows of large, fluttery petals surrounding a center of stamens, are more along the lines of M’Lynn – delicate, elegant, and subdued.  Semi-doubles still come across as pretty restrained to me, more like Clairee- but they won’t get overlooked!  All have a place and a role to play in the landscape.  What you're left with for the rest of the summer and into the fall is this fabulous glossy foliage - a great backdrop for other plants in your garden and fantastic filler for cut flower arrangements. 

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Combinations:

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a whole sweeping area simply filled with peonies (has anyone been to the Boboli Garden in Florence?) , but a great early summer combo is a mass of peonies planted with big globe allium bulbs.  Try Allium ‘Ambassador’, Allium ‘Globemaster’, or Allium stipatum ‘Mount Everest’.  Layer the peonies with later-blooming perennials for color all season long.  Try pairing them with hardy geranium and sedum for a romantic and refined summer show, or with asters and coneflower for a laid-back, informal garden. 

PRO TIP: CHOOSE CAREFULLY WHEN YOU'RE SITING THESE BEAUTIES.  PEONIES ARE LONG-LIVING, AND THEY DON'T LIKE TO BE MOVED. 

Problems/Concerns:

The only issue I ever run into with peonies is powdery mildew on the foliage later in the summer.  Try to prevent this problem by 1) cleaning up and disposing of foliage in the fall and 2) opening up your plantings to allow good air flow.  If you have powdery mildew anyway, treat it with a conventional fungicide (read and carefully follow the label!!!) or try a mix of baking soda, liquid soap, and dormant oil.  Growing a Greener World's website has a great post on powdery mildew control.

Where to get them:

Check at your local garden center and talk to their buyer about cultivars you're interested in!  If you're patient or on a budget, I highly recommend Van Engelen Inc for wholesale pricing.  Often the bare-root peonies we've gotten from them in the fall will bloom the following spring!

Plant Profiles | Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata)

RFLD_Magnolia_stellata

One of my very favorite ornamental trees, Magnolia stellata, or star magnolia, is just a showstopper in the springtime.  Its strappy white blooms flutter in spring breezes (or sometimes FLAP in Iowa's bluster!) and are such a welcome sight early in the season. 

The tree is native to Japan and handles our central Iowa culture and climate well.  It grows to around 15-20' tall with a spreading, rounded habit, making it an easy addition to most home landscapes- thatshape is like a neutral in an outfit - it goes along with anything!  Its deep green, leathery foliage is lovely in the summer, but its season to shine is right now- early spring in zones 4-8. 

The darling blooms will last as a cut flower just about a day, but they're worth it.  Up close you can see the hot pink tones on this unknown cultivar at our farm. 

RFLD Magnolia stellata blooms

With no real pests or disease issues to worry about, you only have to be prepared for the occasional early frost to nip these beautiful buds.  It will happen on occasion throughout the years, but I think this beauty is worth the risk. 

Clematis color cues

People often ask what plants to combine in a garden - How does a person choose? Take this clematis as an example.  What blooms would work with this simple stunner?

There are many factors that inform a decision about plant combinations.  One way to help the decision is to get to know the delicate intricacies of the colors of the plant.

Purple clematis - Clematis jackmanii - is familiar, sure.  It's common and somewhat pedestrian - one of your neighbors probably has one scrambling along a mailbox. But if you look closer, it's also remarkable: ruffled purple cross-shaped blooms, silvery-white and even bold hot pink.

Consider plants that could echo those color details.  Try it with Silvery-white lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina).

Or pair it with soft white and deep purple mountain bluet (Centaurea montana 'Amethyst in Snow')

You could also continue the purple-silver combination into deep summer with purple-pink sedum (Sedum 'Matrona') and artemisia (Artemisia schmidtiana 'Silver Mound')

The best part about thinking through all these choices?  Getting to enjoy the subtle details of your blooms.

Cool Colors in the Fall Garden

Colors like reds, golden yellows, and cheerful oranges dominate our fall gardens.  These warmer colors are synonymous with fall.  But as summer winds down, many of us aren’t ready to let go of the riot of summer color and give way to fall’s muted reds and golds. Cool colors are a counterpoint to the rusty hues typical of fall – think blue, soft pink, and purple. Fall color on foliage is lovely, and I really can’t say enough about ornamental grasses, but the pollinators agree- we still want flowers! Luckily, there are plenty of plants out there that deliver quite a punch late in the season. Here are some plants to try in your yard for contrast - bold, cool colors to punch up your golden fall garden.

Bonus- most garden centers and nurseries are marking prices down by now, so you can score these garden energizers at a discount!

Perennials(plants that die back in winter but return the next growing season)

Asters (Aster species and cultivars) are the quintessential fall perennial, mounding in waves of blue, purple, pink and white at the end of the season. Most asters are hardy to zones 4 or even 3, and make a great show late in the season.

Airy stems and tiny blooms of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) look great massed together. Grey-blue and deep purple colors hold up against the yellows and oranges of surrounding plants.

The larger garden sedums, or stonecrop (Hylotelephium spectabile and hybrids) are a staple in the fall garden. These plants emerge fairly early in the summer and act as great fillers while other plants are on display. Their bold, waxy foliage is pretty all on its own, whether you’re growing plants with clear green leaves, variegated white, or hues of purple. As many other plants in the garden fade back, sedum blooms begin to color up and show off. Vibrant pink is an unusual and welcome color in the fall garden.

Plant care: Many fall-blooming plants can get leggy during the growing season and topple over when their blooms are at their peak. Two ways to handle this problem: support the plants by staking or pinch them back mid-summer. Asters and hardy mums can be sheared back by 1/3 in late June – they’ll thank you by growing more compact and put on a great show in autumn. Taller stonecrops, like “Autumn Joy” and “Matrona”, do well to be staked, tied back, or planted near some supportive neighbors, like shorter grasses and rounded perennials. These sedums have such great blooms that the extra effort is worth avoiding the disappointment of a split stem just when your garden really needs a blast of color.

Annuals(plants that can’t make it through our winters, or finish their life cycle in one growing season)

Annual Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha) – this plant is hardy to around zone 8, and can take some cooler nights. The electric blue-purple on its fuzzy stems catches your eye and contrasts with yellows and oranges around it.

Zinnias (Zinna cultivars), large and small- zinnia’s bright colors blaze like a Latin festival in your garden. While these plants can succumb to powdery mildew late in the season, there are a few tricks to make them worth your while. Plant tall ones far back in a distant bed and you can’t notice the leaves until you’re up close. Seek out mildew-resistant varieties and consider the air flow around your plantings. Cut back and clean out foliage at the end of the season and dispose of it so no spores are held in the garden.

Enjoy these fall beauties as your garden slowly rests from summer’s abundance. Their cooler blues and pinks will play a starring role against the classic fall colors of pumpkin orange and golden yellow in surrounding foliage.

Fall Container Gardens- Shopping

At any garden center right now, next to the pumpkins, there are so many options for fall container garden plants.  While pansies and mums are the most common choices, you don't have to be limited.

Ornamental versions of cold-hardy edible plants offer a range of color, texture, and size for your fall container garden.  Consider swiss chard, mustard greens, kale, cabbage, and herbs like sage.

Be discerning when you're shopping!  Some fall plants have been on the garden center floor for a while, so check the roots!  Carefully slide the plants out of the pots and check for healthy roots.  Make sure the 6-packs of pansies have six healthy little plants in there!  The season doesn't last all that long in Iowa, but it's worth having healthy plants to enjoy.

Loading the cart with fall annuals

Loading the cart with fall annuals

Little helpers with fall annuals

Little helpers with fall annuals

This is a great activity to include children in.  Our kids got into counting out the plants, looking for matching colors, and checking to make sure the plants were healthy.  They carried plants to the cart and tried different arrangements for the fall container garden at home.  With so much fall foliage to choose from, you can have awesome containers without relying on the ubiquitous mums!

So many fall annual choices for fall container gardens!

So many fall annual choices for fall container gardens!

Hellstrip Plantings- Great Grasses

I've noticed the landscaping outside an office building near me for a few months.  The strip of ornamental grasses between the parking area and the road has consistently looked amazing.  The "hellstrip" - that area that is baked in the sun and surrounded by asphalt - is a tough area for anything to grow.  These grasses make it look easy.  The tawny flower heads are looking great right now, but even as new green shoots they held their own.  The plants completely fill the space.  Dense and soft and airy, they really change this narrow, l-o-n-g space.  Just imagine what it would feel like if the same strip was filled with rock! A planting in a nearby hellstrip shows another commonly used plant - a Stella d'Oro daylily.  It's so sad! 

These daylilies looked great in early summer, I'm sure, but no longer.  Part of the deal with hellstrip plantings is that this area requires plants to be okay with low, low maintenance and high, high stress.

Can't wait to see these golden beauties as they age into autumn color!

Great native plant option- Smooth hydrangea

Looking for a showy native shrub?

It seems that new hydrangea cultivars appear everywhere you look, but this old stand-by is tried and true. Consider Hills-of-Snow smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Grandiflora’) for your garden. It was discovered growing in the wild in Ohio around 1900 and is native to moist, wooded slopes and stream banks from New York to Iowa and across the southeast.

This lovely granddame is covered in large (2-6”) flower clusters from early June into the fall. Blooms emerge pale green, age to creamy white, and then dry to a tawny brown. While it is considered hardy to zone 3 or 4, it may die back almost to the ground in harsh winters. Since it blooms on the current season’s wood, this won’t affect its flower display and could even help it – pruning to 6” in late winter to encourage vigorous stem growth. Any pruning should be done before the growing season, so that flower buds aren’t cut off.

Hills-of-Snow smooth hydrangea wants consistent moisture, part shade and average, well-drained soil. It will tolerate full sun if it doesn’t dry out. In a good location, expect this shrub to grow quickly to reach a height of 6’ and easily spread 5’ or more. Expect its blooms to nod during a rainfall, but they’ll stand up again- they aren’t as big as those of their cousin ‘Annabelle’, and the stems can handle the weight pretty well.

Elegant enough for a formal courtyard of native plants with cinnamon ferns (Osmunda cinnamomea) and foamflowers (Tiarella spp.), Hills-of-Snow hydrangea also plays well with other wood’s edge natives like asters (Aster) and columbine (Aquilegia). 

With so many excellent hydrangea options on the market, I could never pick a favorite, but this tough garden stunner is a great one to consider.   (Okay, actually oakleaf hydrangea - H. quercifolia - is my hands down favorite, but that's for another post...)

They're up!

Spring is a great time to move.  Growth hums out from all directions, and the light changes as the trees green up.   We have witnessed central Iowa come to life in our first two months here.  Now even the cornfields are green - lawns are relishing the cool nights and warm days, perennials are up and flowering, trees provide gentle shade.

We didn't intend to do anything in the landscape in our rental home, but a bare strip along the driveway begged for some veggies.  I planted bean seeds last Sunday - just a week ago.  The soil is thick clay and we didn't have much hope, but then all at once the little army of will-be beans stood proudly in their rows.  Even if it isn't official yet, welcome, summertime!