Thursday, April 07, 2011

Garden Phlox

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A bright, sunny morning here on the mountain. 13° seems a tad cold when I am trying to convince myself that it really is spring but the latest forecasts promise highs of 65 by Monday with lots of rain and melting snows. Today will warm quickly and maple syrup producers around Vermont should be smiling by tonight. At some point today I need to get to Montpelier and purchase another bale of seed planting mix so I can finish up the tomatoes. Some friends laugh at me for waiting so long to plant tomato seeds but I always hope for plants that aren't leggy.

Last night I started work on a web page on the garden phlox that we grow. Over the years we tried and tried to do a good job planting phlox for sale in 1 gallon pots but we were never happy with the outcome no matter how we tempered the potting mix. Last year I think we figured out the cultivation of this plant and in late spring we will plant a number of varieties directly into the garden. By August these should be ready for digging on demand. The new plantings will be an addition to everything Gail and I lined out last fall.

Phlox are a useful garden flower that is regaining in popularity as gardeners learn how to use it better. The native varieties common to New England were probably the ones that typically ended up in farm and home gardens. They were often transplanted from along riverbeds, roadways or wood lines. Their traditional growing areas often showed some amount of shade and their popularity rose from the masses that caught people's attention.

Ask a gardener their sentiment on phlox and do not be surprised to hear "They get mildewy don't they?" This is one of the difficulties with the plant although modern hybridizing is making some headway on the problem. Back in 1999, Dr. Leonard Perry, University of Vermont Plant and Soil Science, released some research on mildew controls for phlox. I remember hearing him speak a couple years after the research and he commented that New Englanders love phlox and dislike mildew but fact is, baking soda didn't provide a bunch more change than modern chemical
controls. I recall him adding that if you continued to use the baking soda, you would create another problem for yourself--soil pH. Over twenty years later I think we are in about the same shape. I don't want to rule out more recently released chemical treatments but safely gardening the way we like to in Vermont looks like it will leave us with some mildew problems on phlox.

During our time trying to learn to make ourselves happy with this plant, we arrived at a couple pointers that may be helpful. Some of these things may work in your gardens too. The first pointer is air circulation. There are a couple conflicts involved with recommendations for planting phlox and they seem to involve good air flow. Gardeners like to see large clumps of well flowered phlox which means that one or more varieties have been growing in close proximity for some time. That means that air flow is impeded and mildew on one clump translates to mildew on the adjacent clump. To mediate this, initially try to plant phlox three feet apart. Some gardeners even say to insure that you have planted other flowers between the phlox so the mildew cannot spread. We aren't that sure about the usefulness of that suggestion although that typically happens anyway by the manner in which we lay out our gardens.

Siting phlox in a shady area is not that good in a place like Vermont where shade is commonly manifested by everyday weather, not just adjacent trees and shrubs. We recommend you bring your plantings out and away from wood lines and anything that will create more shade than you'll see on a cloudy day. At the same time, consider air flow and try to plant where air will get in and around the phlox anytime there is wind in your area. The wood line pointer is probably more important than you think because the roots of trees and shrubs extend into adjacent gardens and interfere with water availability and retention in the phlox. Top watering encourages mildew but allowing phlox roots to go completely dry for periods also stimulates mildew. This is why we recommend morning watering so the plants can be assured of drying off before late afternoon temperature changes.

As we have found, phlox will grow in clay soil but they will not be the glorious plants we wish for. Try a soil that is more friable and has more organic matter and chances are you will be happier too. Since the height range in available plants is 15" to 42", you can experiment with all parts of your garden, front to back, and hopefully find a combination of these variables that will work best in your gardens. Remember air circulation, shade, sun, soil, root competition, and plant spacing and my guess is you will be happier with your phlox. Continue to read about new varieties that express more mildew resistance and spread the word about your success instead of sharing plants that display problems.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where Karl the Wonder Dog does not care about mildew but he does want to go for a walk. Phlox success! Woof! Woof!!

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm
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