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Dig It! Garden Blog

The Scientific Side

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013
 The soil pH testing kit we used
 The samples and the pH value to compare them to.

As many of you know, at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens we have a lot of planting to do each spring. Then the summer weeds spring up and the horticulture team jumps into action keeping them at bay. Much of the time its a simple matter of obtaining the plants and then exerting a little energy to get them into the ground. On occasion, though, we run into some problems. Plants are all unique and each requires something different from the soil its planted in. Some plants enjoy highly acidic soils, while others prefer more alkaline soils.

Not all of the beds that we have at the Gardens are the same pH; many have been altered to allow for a variety of plants. I was sent out to measure the pH of a bed that was almost barren. I was so excited when Justin Nichols, a staff horticulturalist, sent me off on a mission to do this. Although it was very simple, I enjoyed the opportunity to do something slightly more scientific than planting.  Using a Cornell pH testing kit, I found that the pH of the bed was around 6.7. Testing your own soil pH is very simple, you can obtain a soil pH test at your local hardware store or extension service. Once you have a kit, take a small sample of soil and put it into the container provided, then add the indicator. Our standard kit came with two indicators: Chlorphenol red (soil pH range 5.0 to 6.2) and Bromthymol blue (soil pH range 6.0 to 7.2). When you have your sample in their container, add several drops of each indicator to each sample. From my pictures you can see that I did both and found the Chlorphenol red indicated far above any of the given pH values. The Bromthymol blue tested sample was really the only one we needed, showing a result fairly close to 6.7. 

Rhododendrons thrive in slightly acidic soils with a pH between 4.5 and 5.5. To learn more about rhododendrons click here.  As stated before, the pH of the bed I tested was about 6.7. That is just too alkaline to plant the rhododendrons in, so we have to change the soil acidity. In order to do that we will use a product that you can get at almost any garden store in the country, Espoma Soil Acidifier. Using the directions we will mix in the product until the bed reads the pH of 5. This ensures that the rhododendrons will live happily ever after in that bed. I greatly enjoyed taking a break from the crazy world of weeding and deadheading to pull my inner scientist out and do some testing.

-Kristin Neill, Horticulture Intern (July 22, 2013)


“Martha Stewarting”

Friday, July 19th, 2013

Sharmon showing me how to use our surveying equipment


The surveying equipment we used


New Pines emerging from an old tree trunk in the Giles Rhododendron Garden

Looking for a way to escape the aberrant heat of this week’s weather and desiring to further my experience working with our collections management software, I was thankful when our Plant Collections Coordinator and Propagator, Sharmon Provan, asked me to help her map the new additions to the Perennial and Rose Garden. Last week I became more familiar with the BG-Base software, but I didn’t have the chance to use BG-Map (mapping software that links to the plant records stored in BG-BASE). To reiterate, “BG-Base is a database application designed to manage information on biological (primarily botanical) collections.”

In order to map collections and hardscape features in the gardens, we use a total station (an electronic/optical instrument used in surveying). One person feeds data into a Field PC from the head of the station and the other stands at the coordinate (or location of the plant) we are trying to determine with a prism pole. The station determines the coordinates of the pole by measuring the time it takes for a laser to reach the prism pole and reflect back to the station. Even though I was still in the sun, holding a pole is far less strenuous than pulling bindweed, so I was very grateful to be what the other staff members playfully refer to as “the prism princess” for Sharmon. 

It’s fair to say that my palette of skills in horticulture has expanded exponentially since I began my internship in June, but I would argue that just as valuable are the stories of my mentors, the CMBG horticulture staff. Though I’ve heard many excellent stories this week, here’s one of my favorite memories the staff has shared with me. I’m told that when the gardens were first being constructed the horticulture staff was assigned the tedious task of removing dead or severely damaged trees from the woods (or at least removing those trees visible to the public). They would spend days trekking across the grounds trying to make the wooded trails as pristine as possible. Because the staff felt slightly ridiculous cleaning the woods, they refer to this activity as “Martha Stewarting the woods.” After spending the past eight weeks taking in the beauty of our facility, I think even the queen of home décor would have to admit they did an excellent job making our trails look flawless!   

-Montana Williams, Pearson Horticulture Intern   (July 19, 2013) 


The Dreaded Deer Fence

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013
 A view of the deer fence.
Even with the heat, the woods
are truly gorgeous.

On July 15, staff horticulturalist Justin Nichols and I went on a trek through the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens woods. Our hike was not simply for the fun of it; we were on a mission to check the deer fence. Now, you may have heard of the deer fence before in fellow horticulture intern Carrington’s blog post. The deer fence is the large black fence that surrounds the property. It is necessary to keep the gardens as beautiful as they are. We couldn’t have a bunch of rogue deer running around now, could we? Starting this adventure, I thought it would be simple because I had an experienced deer-fence walker with me, but I was wrong. I totally underestimated the physical demands this task would require. If you enjoy hiking, this walk would be a blast! Climbing over fallen trees and trekking through swamps was a large part of our adventure.

We started off the journey walking along the path next to the fence. The terrain became increasingly difficult once we were ten minutes in. In the heat today, it felt like we were climbing a mountain. The terrain was uphill and covered in rocks, stumps, and multiple trees that we had to push through. Due to my severe lack of coordination, I must say I was not much help in pointing out problems with the deer fence, as I was too busy making sure I didn’t fall. Luckily I was able to stay on my feet the whole trip ’round! When we did find a problem in the fence, such as its being too low, or ripped, Justin and I had some zip ties and U nails that we could hammer into the trees to help keep the fence up. We didn’t have all the tools necessary to keep the fence up, though, so we had to be innovative in a few areas. We were able to rig up sticks as posts and keep the fence a little higher and throw dead limbs and other objects in places where animals could get through the bottom. Since I had never been out on the walk, I had no idea that we found more problems than normal. We did our best to fix each one.

One of the craziest parts of this hike was that we saw a fawn inside the fence while we were walking. Again I was so busy looking at my feet that I was temporarily terrified when Justin screamed. I believe the deer must have been terrified, too, because it took off running. Poor thing ran straight into the fence in its terror! Although its horrible to say, it was quite entertaining to watch it try to escape us. Finally it decided to squeeze under the fence. It was incredible! The fence was maybe two inches off the ground and it managed to wriggle its way out. If you’ve ever seen a video of a cat going under a door, that is exactly what it reminded me of.

We made sure to hydrate before we left, but the heat was so intense that it didn’t last long. By the end of the journey I was definitely dehydrated, and when we got back to the horticulture building I took my place holding a chair down and eating frozen grapes. It was unbelievable how exhausting simply hiking around in the heat could be. It was hard journey, but fun even; and with Justin there is always something to talk about or laugh at! Even though I was so tired, it was a great learning experience and vital to the success of the garden to make sure we keep those pesky deer out!

-Kristin Neill, Horticulture Intern (July 16, 2013)

Public Enemy Number One

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013
A favorite spot of the Japanese beetles
Showing off the size of a single beetle

Being at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens these past few weeks, I’ve been in awe of how beautiful and lush all our plants look. I might be a little biased, but many of the plants in the garden look better than I’ve seen anywhere else before. I must have been blinded by beauty and couldn’t see the problem that was looming in the near future: the Japanese beetles were about to emerge for the season. I’ve been bitten to pieces by mosquitoes and deer flies since working in Maine, but since the Japanese beetles are messing with my beloved plants, they are easily my biggest enemy in the pest world.

It seems impossible that I could forget about Japanese beetles being here because we have just as many flying around at home in Illinois. These beetles were accidentally introduced to North America in 1916 and have since been making their way across the country in a “wave-like” pattern. Montana Williams, another horticulture intern from Colorado, had actually never seen a Japanese beetle until just last week, since the bugs have not yet made it that far west. I have been hoping the wave would die out a bit and we would start getting fewer and fewer beetles. But alas, I will have to keep wishing.

So why do I hate Japanese beetles so much? It’s easy: They destroy beautiful plants for their feeding needs. We would try to get rid of the plants they think are the tastiest, but that’s much easier said than done. The beetles feed on more than 300 different plant species! One of the plants I’ve noticed they are very fond of are roses and they will tear them to unrecognizable shreds. Luckily, the beetles are very easy to spot with their iridescent bodies, so you will definitely know if you have a Japanese beetle problem.

Now here is the second reason I dislike these beetles so much: They are tricky to get rid of. I know of people who have tried different insecticides and sprays in the past, but they don’t seem to affect the Japanese beetles very much. As far as we know right now, they don’t have a predator that will get rid of them naturally either. This leads us to the best way to rid yourself of these nasty bugs: hand picking. Yes, grabbing live bugs is definitely not one of my favorite things to do but they cannot hurt you in any way.

We like to use the soapy water technique here since it is immediately effective. I’ll explain: Fill a bucket with soapy water and head to the most beetle-infested area of your garden. Grab the Japanese beetles and toss them right into the water. (Tip: If you see a big gathering of beetles, try to carefully tip the plant over top of the bucket and brush them off into it. I’ve noticed that if you touch the bugs and miss the first time, they will fall off the plant and get away. This way, the beetles will instead fall straight to their death.) I know this may seem like a tedious task, but it is really the most efficient way of ridding yourself of the beetles.

The purpose of this blog post is to tell you that you’re not alone. No, the beetles are not just attacking your plants out of spite; it’s happening to all of us. Unfortunately for everyone, Japanese beetles are here and it doesn’t seem like they’re going anywhere for a while. Here at the Gardens, we are doing our best to fight off this plague of awful beetles to save as many of our plants as we can. Even if it means killing Japanese beetles one by one every day, one beetle can make all the difference. 

-Carrington Flatness, Horticulture Intern (July 14, 2013)

Off To Orono

Friday, July 12th, 2013

One of the amazing Malus spp. at
the Littlefield Ornamentals Trial Garden


What a wonderful color combination
these Astillbe spp. have made in the
Littlefield Ornamentals Trial Garden

A spectacular view of the
Orono Bog Boardwalk

Yesterday, on July 11, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens horticulture interns got to head out on yet another fun field trip day. The plan was to head to Orono, Maine, to see the different horticultural aspects of the city. Being an alumnus of the University of Maine, with a vast knowledge of the area, staff horticulturist Will Bridges was the obvious choice to be our leader for the day. 

We started our journey touring the UMaine campus and seeing the different plantings that embody the school. Being a recent college graduate, it was quite bittersweet to be back on a college campus again so soon. I have discovered, though, that I just love seeing how college campus landscapes vary from school to school. We even got to sneak a peek inside the Roger Clapp Greenhouses and see the different collections they have acquired.

While on the campus, we stopped by the Lyle Littlefield Ornamentals Trial Garden. This garden was started in the 1960s by Lyle Littlefield when he was a professor of horticulture at the university. The garden has an extensive variety of ornamentals that have been planted throughout the decades. It was fun walking through this garden with Will because he knew a lot more about this particular landscape than the average person does. He was around when some of the plant material was added to the landscape and told us some fun facts about the garden that few people would know.

The next stop on our trip was to visit the UMaine Cooperative Extension Penobscot County Master Gardener Demonstration Garden. This garden had different plantings in various plots from Master Gardeners in the area. There was also a small section dedicated to the recent All-American Selection (AAS) plants to show how they would perform in a landscape. I loved seeing the AAS plants because some of them are so new that I had never heard of them before!

The last stop of our day was the Orono Bog Boardwalk. Just over one mile long, this bog boardwalk really shows off the vast vegetation changes that can come with a bog habitat. The informative signage on the boardwalk was phenomenal in helping us identify the plants and wildlife in the area. The landscape of the open bog (as seen in the picture to the right) was truly breathtaking since we had never seen anything like it before. All in all, it was a very fun and educational day for our group.

-Carrington Flatness, Horticulture Intern

Living Collections

Thursday, July 11th, 2013
The Field PC I used to record plants
now blooming in our gardens
The renovated Front Entrance, with
modified road and new moss planting

 Our beautiful Clematis ‘General Sikorski’ with our beautiful gardener, Meagan Deveau, in the background

Last week I was able to work with our Plant Records Coordinator and Plant Propagator, Sharmon Provan, who has been educating me on Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens’ plant collection management methods. A large part of her job involves working with BG-Base and BG-Mapping software, a system that allows us to control our inventory and accurately document, label, and curate our plant collections. I have been keeping track of which plants are blooming on a hand0held device called a Field PC- a digital personal assistant that is invaluable for collecting field data- and then uploading my results into BG-Base, then to a searchable public plant database called FloraFind. This program allows users to locate a specific plant at the Gardens, find out what’s blooming, find a garden feature, or even to build a personalized tour through our gardens.

In addition to managing our living collections, Sharmon is responsible for ensuring the efficacy of our propagation program, managing our greenhouses, and maintaining our front entrance garden. I didn’t know one person could be capable of running so much! Currently one of her more problematic tasks is managing the erosion problem of our front entrance; all the rain we’ve been receiving lately keeps washing out the soil along the front entrance stone walls. 

To fix this recurring issue, we spent a day laying and compacting stone dust, hoping to redirect rainwater to our drain holes and away from the entrance plantings. After we modified the road, we collected moss from around the grounds and transplanted it along the stone walls. Luckily the weather has been incredibly accommodating for transplanting and many of the plants have established successfully.

– Montana Williams, Pearson Horticulture Intern






Practice For The Future

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

 Dr. Michael Dirr speaking. (Photo by
Director of Horticulture Rodney Eason)

 Example of a splice graft

Last Monday, July 1, I had the unique opportunity to participate in  Dr. Michael Dirr’s propagation workshop at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. This would have been an interesting experience for anyone, but to me it was more than that. For a couple of years now my future goals have been focused in the area of plant breeding. This plant propagation class was a wonderful opportunity to learn the basics. The workshop only fueled my desire to complete school and become more involved with plant propagation.

To start, we went over what a seed is. Understanding the basics of a plant and a seed is extremely helpful in getting further into the research. Since I am only going to be a sophomore at NC State, I have not taken any plant breeding classes yet; much of what I learned at this workshop was completely new to me. We learned about leaf cuttings. stem cuttings, and hardwood cuttings. Then we discussed the many different methods of grafting, and that was one of my favorite parts of the workshop.

Back in North Carolina, we have an event in Guilford County called the Tomato Tasting Festival, hosted by A&T University Farm. I have been helping out with this event through the North Carolina Cooperative Extension for four years and love it immensely. Seeing the test plots filled with 40 plus varieties of tomatoes is incredible. I was talking to one of the horticulturalists working on the tomatoes when she mentioned grafting. I had never heard the term and didn’t really understand the application. Ever since that moment I’ve been curious as to what it was. All the research in the world can tell you what it is, but until you actually have hands on experience you will never really know. In Dr. Dirr’s workshop, we discussed several different types of grafting. I then tried a splice graft on my own. It was a lot harder to splice and tie then I had expected, but it was priceless practice. I really learned more at this propagation workshop than I thought I would,  and I loved every second of it. Everything I learned last Monday will be extremely helpful to me in both my classes and my research in the future.

– Kristin Neill, Horticulture Intern

Noble Science

Friday, July 5th, 2013
Dr. Michael Dirr teaching (photo by
Director of Horticulture Rodney Eason)
An example of a “nobel tree” in my
front yard in Boothbay Harbor:
Acer platanoides ‘Royal Red’

Last Saturday I attended our 2013 symposium, “Trees in Your New England Garden and Landscape,” with my fellow interns and Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens Horticulture staff members. The symposium began with keynote speaker and renowned woody-plant expert Dr. Michael Dirr who delivered a lecture on the importance of “noble trees” and new tree introductions. He defined a noble tree as an inspiring species immense in stature, architecturally elegant, that spans generations. Dr. Dirr’s rationale for planting these trees included aesthetics, carbon dioxide sequestration, wind abatement, shade, storm water mitigation, and even their ability to discourage criminal activity.

Dirr’s fervent opinion of the importance of planting trees and consistently searching for new cultivars inspired me to better communicate the significance of plants to my peers. In college my friends playfully mocked me for choosing to study horticulture. Many of them thought my interest in plants was “nerdy” or simply a hobby only their grandmothers’ fancied. Because I’ve never been very skilled with words I was often left unable to defend my field of study, but thankfully the importance of horticulture is undeniable and I don’t need a degree in communications to articulate humanity’s need for it.

While it has always been easy for me to list the benefits of plants – providing food and oxygen, regulating the water cycle, carbon sequestration, as a derivative for medicine, and as the backbone of all habitats – the value of public gardens is more difficult to communicate. When I try to describe what botanical gardens do, I rely on four simple words – education, conservation, research and display. Botanical gardens serve their communities by cultivating community, preserving native and exotic plants, and educating the public on notable plants and sustainable horticultural practices. They provide an aesthetically pleasing environment for everyone’s enjoyment. It is suspected that institutions like Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens will be instrumental in the mitigation of the effects of climate change, and because of their placement throughout the world, they may help move species around and help ecosystems adapt to changing climates.

– Montana Williams, Pearson Horticulture Intern 





Fairy Fun!

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

Those stairs took me forever,
but I think they add a
nice homey touch to the stump.


One of the hardest parts about
building a fairy house is adding color!

Those fairies sure do know
how to decorate!

One of my favorite parts of the fairy
house is the stone design of the
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens logo!

Fairy house building has been a tradition for more than 100 years in Maine, especially on the coast and on the islands. A fairy house is a small structure that is built in the woods and is usually found at the base of a tree. They use natural materials like, twigs, driftwood, and leaves. As a general rule, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens does not allow the use of live plant material; this is to ensure that we do not harm the natural habitat around the fairy house building area.

On one of my first visits to the Gardens, I was about 14 years old, and I came with my two younger cousins. I fell in love with the Gardens and was absolutely loving being here. My cousins, on the other hand, were not. Being boys of 10 and 8, all they wanted to do was play in the woods or go home and kayak. It was only when we got to the Fairy House Village that they finally stopped complaining and became excited about being here. They were fascinated by the Fairy House Village. To be honest, it is truly something magical to behold. We all got started right away building our own fairy houses. Our first fairy house was really quite pathetic. But you can only improve from there!

Last Thursday I got the opportunity to try out my fairy house building creativity again! The morning started off with me scratching my head, having absolutely no idea where to start. There are simply too many directions you can take in building a fairy house. There is no way to compare houses because they are all unique. Every fairy house created is beautiful and brilliant in its own way.

Finally I just decided to go down to the Shoreland Trail and walk along the shore finding decorating materials. Luckily I stumbled upon an intriguing piece of driftwood that became the main feature of my fairy house. After that it was just a burst of creative energy to decorate and make the house fairy suitable. In the end, even though it took a few days to design and decorate, I think it turned out well. I tried to make mine original and represent the Gardens in the best way possible, so I did my best to design the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens logo in stones.

On July 5, we are starting what are called the Fairy Fridays. You can find more information about dates and events at Fairy Friday…And One Weekend. Be sure to keep an eye out for all the fairy houses designed by members of both the horticulture staff and volunteers. Come out and join us in all the fun of Fairy Fridays!!

– Kristin Neill, Horticulture Intern

A Bright New Entrance!

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013
All the bunchberry sod is down,
and it looks great!
Just a couple of the huge
ostrich ferns we transplanted.
The completed front entrance
this past week.
 The new rhododendron bed
 Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Autumn Fern’

The main entrance on Barters Island Road is one of the first impressions you get of Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Sadly, it is also the most overlooked and is generally left alone. Not this week, though! Sharmon, the Gardens’ plant records coordinator and plant propagator, and I worked extremely hard  adding and rearranging to make the entrance more inviting. Next time you come to the gardens, be sure to check out all that we’ve done.

To start, we added a couple of Ilex verticillata ‘Southern Gentleman’ to fill in the gaps and help cover the weeds that are growing in the woods behind the entry.  Then we started on our main project: We transplanted a couple of Christmas ferns to the bed to make a smooth palette for the bunchberry sod. Unlike my colleagues, I did not mind working with the sod at all. The bunchberry sod was very thin and easily cut into the correct shapes needed for the bed. The only problem we had with it was that we didn’t have enough to fill the bed. To make the space look more filled out, we spread the sod out a little and filled in the gaps with sensitive ferns.

When the first side was finished, we moved to the side with the sign. This bed was filled with an assortment of ferns, assorted rhododendrons, Pulmonaria ‘Cotton Cool’, and Pulmonaria ‘Diane Clare’. We took the rhododendrons and the pulmonaria completely out of the bed. The rhododendrons were moved in the another bed that was empty and had only a telephone pole in it. We gave the pulmonaria to another horticulturalist for use in a bed elsewhere in the garden. This is just one example of how plants are used and reused from one side of the grounds to another.

After things were taken out, we started to rearrange the ferns. Our goal was not to create a completely organized bed with straight lines, but to have a more natural setting and, as Sharmon put it, “a bed of organized chaos” was the goal. We rearranged the ferns so that for the most part like ferns were near each other. Some very neat autumn ferns were added to the mix to give it a splash of color. I fell in love with autumn ferns, or Dryopteris erythrosora, after planting them. Their colors are incredibly vivid, and they will really add a pop of color to catch the eye when they grow in a little.

We decided to add a little height, and a slightly different texture, to the bed behind the autumn ferns. We had much fun digging up huge ostrich ferns, or Matteuccia struthiopteris, from the hillside behind the Cleaver Event Lawn & Garden. We transplanted quite  a few to different places all around the front entrance. By adding a few to the other side of the driveway, we could keep the theme going throughout the whole area. Keeping the theme means having the same plant or very similar plants carry over into another bed. To finish it off we added three different types of clematis to the base of the sign, then tied them to get them started on their climb. We added, Clematis ‘Matka Urszula Ledochowska’, Clematis ‘I Am Red Robin’, and Clematis ‘General Skikorski’. Two of the three have already bloomed or are just finishing now; the third, the General Skikorski, is just about to bloom. The blooms will be the classic purple and will hopefully brighten up the sign a little  bit.

While we were redoing the front, Diane Walden, a staff horticulturalist, and Director of Horticulture Rodney Eason were busy planting the Zen pots that line the two stone walls at the entrance. These pots are full of color and really do brighten up the entrance and lessen the sharpness of the straight stone walls.

 Although it may not seem like much, we put a lot of hard work into making the front entrance more cared for and inviting. The new beds are starting to fill out and will look wonderful for years to come, and the pots bring some color to the area. Surprisingly, there is still more to be done! Keep an eye out for more exciting changes at the entrance!

– Kristin Neill, Horticulture Intern