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Tom Hewitt is a garden writer and consultant from West Palm Beach. He can be reached at

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The Big Changeover
by Tom Hewitt       #Containers   #Summer   #Winter

Containers are always at their peak during the cooler months.

There’s nothing like taking care of someone else’s property to keep you on your toes. Especially when it involves a gazillion containers that must look good at all times. Trouble is, the difference between winter and summer in south Florida is like night and day, and making a smooth transition from one to the other is not an easy task.

I’ve always said that summer unofficially starts around May 1 in south Florida. By then, most winter annuals have begun their downward spiral and it’s time to replace them with those that can handle the impending heat and humidity. But a lot depends on nighttime temperatures, the right location, and other factors. Also, not all of my favorites peter out at the same time, and some even perform well year-round.

At this particular residence, all the containers stay in place and only their contents are changed. Much of the filler material not only serves as a unifying element, but also keeps disruption to a minimum. It is much easier, for example, to let gold moss sedum (S. acre) fill a pot and simply remove some from the center to add a new plant.

Sedum is great filler for smaller pots. • Crown-of-thorns combines well with other succulents. • Madagascar periwinkle is available in dwarf and trailing varieties.

One of my favorites for summer is crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia milii), which I stick in the middle of sedum. I start cuttings in 4-inch pots in late winter so that they can establish roots by the time I need them. I just love their salmon blooms against the chartreuse foliage of creeping sedum. When they get too big, I just pull them out and start over.

I also use a lot of baby sunrose (Aptenia cordifolia) as year-round filler. I find it hard to use too much of it, especially the variegated variety with pale-green leaves edged in cream. If it becomes a bit much, I just add one or two all-green baby sunrose to balance things out. Chartreuse sweetpotato vine (Ipomoea batatas ‘Marguerite’) is another of my favorites for light shade.

In many of my larger containers, I bury potted 1-gallon plants in the center, changing them out from season to season. But the sweetpotato vine, sedum, or whatever other filler I use stays in place. This system also allows me to switch out annuals in shady containers if they’re not receiving enough light to bloom.


‘Marguerite’ sweetpotato vine stays in place, but its centerpiece changes with the seasons.

In smaller terra-cotta containers, I usually just plop in a 1-gallon pot of ornamental moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora). Keeping succulents in their own pots allows better drainage and eliminates transplant shock. It also makes things easier to change out.

I also have my summer stalwarts. Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) is now available in dwarf and trailing varieties. I have one pot that has been blooming nonstop for over a year now. Dwarf Pentas are a given, as well as small Zinnia, Dahlberg daisies (Thymophylla tenuiloba), and short summer snapdragons (Angelonia spp.)  Some even resow right in their containers.

You can’t beat Kalanchoe for winter color and they contrast beautifully with sedums, baby sunrose, and other succulents. I don’t bother starting them from cuttings, however, as they never resemble the showy specimens found in garden centers.

Moss rose comes in many varieties, including this double-flowering one. • Pentas and summer snapdragons love the summer heat. • Succulents take over during the summer months.

I always tuck nasturtium (Tropaeolum spp.) seeds into containers that are in full sun. Lobelia is also one of my favorites. For shady combos, I use Begonia ‘pink and ‘Mona Lavender’ Swedish ivy (Plectranthus ‘Plepalila’).

The sooner you get your summer annuals in, the better. I’ve found that if they’re planted in April, while temperatures are still moderate, they’ll perform better in the long run. Not so for winter annuals, however. Sowing seed or plugging in plants too soon makes them susceptible to damping off or rotting. I wait until late October to start seed and early November to plug in plants.

Though I make sure to apply a generous amount of balanced, slow-release fertilizer at planting time, I also augment this with weekly applications of liquid bloom-boosting fertilizer at half-strength. Plants are usually fertilized to death when you get them, and will stop blooming if not given their usual “fix.” You need to wean them off excessive fertilizing before timed-release pellets kick in.

Another good rule (especially during the summer) is letting things wilt in the midday sun. If they’re still wilted when you wake up, that means they truly do need watering. Most annuals will fade by mid-afternoon until they acclimate. Automatically watering every time they wilt is a recipe for disaster.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 23 Number 6.
Photography courtesy of Tom Hewitt.


Posted: 11/29/18   RSS | Print


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Winter Sowing
by Rebecca Stoner Kirts       #Propagation   #Seeds   #Winter

I had great fun collecting seeds for my winter sowing experiment.

I first heard about the technique of winter sowing for starting seeds while I was listening to a podcast over a year ago. The hosts were homesteaders from Texas. They had extensive gardens and also sold plants. They propagated most of their seedlings using this method. Of course, a quick Google search provided me with much more information.

Each container was filled with 4 cups of good seed-starting medium and I made sure each had good drainage holes.

According to Trudi Davidoff, “Winter sowing is a method by which seeds are sown into containers that act like mini-greenhouses. These seed vehicles are then located outside, experience the chill of winter, and eventually germinate in the spring.” You can read more about her on her website,

I do not have a greenhouse, so finding a suitable area to start seeds is very difficult for me. The idea that I could start seeds outside set my wheels in motion, so I gave this method a try.

Now, after one attempt, I am hooked. That is not to say that I had a 100 percent success rate with no problems. But the pros outweighed the cons, and I am going to use this method of sowing certain seeds again this upcoming winter.

All the containers went outside at the beginning of January.

This is how I did it:
1. I sorted through my recycling to find an assortment of potentially useable plastic containers. Milk jugs, vinegar jugs, vegetable containers, large fruit plastic containers, and beverage bottles all went into the “potential greenhouse” pile.

By the end of April, the first signs of growth appeared.

Parsley was a winner and had a great germination rate.

2. I decided to start with perennials. I have had good luck directly sowing annuals, but not perennials. All summer I collected seed packets, buying them when they went on sale after the planning season rush. I tried to focus on those that I wanted to plant en masse and ones that I have not had success with direct sowing. I tried parsley (both the curly and the flat leaf – I need these for my spicebush swallowtails to munch on); hollyhocks (Alcea spp.), I am still experimenting with this beauty, as it always dies in my garden, but I am determined; butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) to add to my butterfly garden; and various other perennials. I tried to choose seeds that required cold stratification to germinate.

3. Early in January, I enlisted the help of my husband to prepare the bottles. I have a lousy track record with knives, so I thought that would be the best approach.

4. We cut the milk and vinegar jugs open about one-third of the way down and only three-fourths around. It resembled a lid that opened but remained attached. My husband made drainage holes on the bottom of the plastic jugs using a box cutter and a drill. The salad greens containers already had hinged lids and just needed additional drainage holes.

5. I purchased seed starter mix and filled each container with approximately 4 cups of the mix. Next, I made sure the soil was moist.

6. I sowed the seed, following the directions for planting depth and coverage. Then I watered them into their winter home.

7.  I marked each filled container in two places. I used a water-soluble pen and wrote on a plastic knife that I taped to the side and I also labeled each jug by writing directly on the container.

8.  At this point, I wished them all a good growing season and battened down the hatches. I used duct tape to seal the tops and made sure the caps were off the jugs and took them outside. Since I had a somewhat eclectic array of duct tape, including Mickey Mouse from a project with my grandbabies, my winter sowing project table was very colorful.

Through January, February, and March, they endured snow, sleet, and rain and I did doing nothing for them. By April, I was seeing some sprouting, and by May there was significant growth. Near the end of May, I started transplanting my hundreds of seedlings into pots and the gardens.

The backdoor bench became the staging area.

The foxgloves were amazing – all the containers were full of new starts.

So many new healthy starts to transplant, it was amazing … and a bit overwhelming.

I would estimate that I had about a 60 percent success rate. Here are the reasons for the failures:

1. The salad containers worked best. The holes in the bottom of the vinegar jugs and soft-drink bottles clogged up so that the water did not drain efficiently. That caused the containers to fill up with water, destroying the seedlings. Next year I will focus on ensuring better drainage.

2.  My labeling system was a big miss. I double-labeled all the growing bins, but only half of the labels were still legible. I had saved all the seed packets, and had to do a guessing match game. My labeling system needs some serious adjusting before next season.

3. I need to be more proactive when transplanting the seedlings. I lost quite a few due to not separating, thinning, and putting them either into pots or safely in the ground. My lack of experience at transplanting seedlings was an issue. But I learned and will do better next year.

The bonus was that I ended up with hundreds of seedlings – from foxgloves (Digitalis spp.) to parsleys to butterfly weed and more. It also helped me fill the need to get my hands in the dirt even during the winter and gave me something interesting to watch all winter long. Overall, I think my winter-sowing project was a success. I hope you will give it a try.

I took special care transplanting the tender babies to the garden.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Rebecca Stoner Kirts.


Posted: 11/29/18   RSS | Print


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Christmas Tree Alternatives
by Bob Westerfield       #Holiday: Christmas   #Decorating   #Trees

Golden foliage on this ‘Golden Mop’ false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Golden Mop’) can deck any hall for Christmas.  Photo by Betty Adelman

With the Christmas season upon us, many folks have already spent $50 to $100 dollars for a dead, cut Christmas tree, or perhaps dragged their plastic version out of storage. While there is something to be said about having a traditional cut tree such as a blue spruce or Douglas fir, it is hard for me to fathom spending that much money on a dead tree you will only enjoy a few weeks. If you are one of those folks that have procrastinated and not gotten the tree up yet, you might want to think about some alternatives that will work for Christmas morning, but also give you lasting enjoyment in your landscape for years to come.     

There are many conical shaped landscape evergreens that can be purchased as live plants, decorated for Christmas and then planted into the yard. The common Leyland cypress, which is widely grown as a Christmas tree, can be purchased as a live tree in a container. After the Christmas holidays, the Leyland can then be transplanted into the landscape and should survive for years to come. Keep in mind the Leyland cypress, although small as a Christmas tree, can easily grow 75 to 100 feet tall in the landscape, so be sure to give it plenty of space. 

Leyland cypress hedge

If you don’t mind straying a bit from popular tradition, there are many other ornamental plants that can make wonderful Christmas trees. Several of the evergreen hollies can be purchased as live container-grown plants and be kept alive with proper watering until after the Christmas season. Some possibilities would be using a holly such as Ilex ‘Fosteri’, Ilex ‘Nellie Stevens’ or Ilex latifolia (lusterleaf holly). These hollies have attractive green foliage, while often displaying clusters of red berries at this time of year. While naturally cone shaped, a little light pruning could form them into the perfect Christmas tree shape. Some other hollies to consider would be trying one of the holly varieties such as Ilex opaca ‘Greenleaf’, Ilex attenuata ‘Savannah’ or one of the Chinese hollies such as ‘Blue Angel’, ‘China Boy’ or ‘Dragon Lady’. Hollies in general are tough plants that are very forgiving in the landscape. After they serve as your Christmas tree, any of these varieties can be planted in an area that either receives full sun or light shade. However, the China hollies are a little more sensitive to heat and should receive some shade. At maturity, sizes can vary but realize none of these selections will stay small and you should plan accordingly.    

Magnolia ‘Little Gem’

Slow it down! Rather than reaching the 25-foot mature height of its golden cousin the Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Crippsii', Hinoki false cypress ‘Sunspray’ (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Sunspray’) achieves maturity at 10 feet tall. The beautiful sculptural qualities of its fans make the Hinoki false cypress a must-have in my garden. Behind it is the Chinese juniper ‘Robusta Green’ (Juniperus chinensis ‘Robusta Green’) and in the foreground is a dwarf sport of the Japanese false cypress ‘Snow’ (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Snow') named ‘White Pygmy’, which grows to 3 feet or less.

If you really want to try something different for a Christmas tree this year consider perhaps a tree such as the Magnolia ‘Little Gem’. This tree has large dense leaves that are 4 inches long, a lustrous dark green and covered with a bronzy brown felt-like underneath. When planted, it flowers much earlier than the larger Magnolia grandiflora displaying 3 to 4 inch fragrant white blooms. This tree can handle full sun or partial shade, and reaches a height at maturity of 15 to 20 feet.

If you truly want something different and don’t mind a Dr. Seuss look you could go with one of the Juniperus. Varieties like ‘Robusta Green’, ‘Skyrocket’, ‘Montana green’, ‘Moonglow’ or ‘Pathfinder’ may give you the uniqueness you are looking for. These are upright somewhat pure middle formed Juniperus that can even take on a crazier appearance if you prefer with a little pruning. Even false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) could make a unique Christmas tree when you select one of the golden upright forms. After Christmas, false cypress does best when planted in well-drained soil with full sun exposure.

While there is not enough room in the article to cover all the specifics of each variety, you can easily type these names in your computer to see what they look like and what their actual dimensions are. Regardless of which live tree you select, it should be given care similar to your traditional tree. You will need a large basin underneath the container so that you can water your tree every couple of days. Give it enough water to where you see it begin to flow out of the bottom of the drainage holes. Remember to keep these trees away from the heater vents, which may cause them to dry out more rapidly. After the holiday is over be sure to site them properly and plant them in a correct manner. Even though it may be cold, you will need to irrigate them the first few weeks to allow them to become established.      

Perhaps this Christmas not only will there be presents under your tree, but the tree itself will continue to give enjoyment for years to come.



Photos courtesy of Bob Westerfield unless otherwise noted.


Posted: 11/29/18   RSS | Print


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How Toxic is This Insecticide?
by Blake Layton    

Gardeners often have concerns about the toxicity of the pesticides they are using. Pesticide labels provide information on toxicity and how to use and apply products safely.


Few gardeners enjoy applying pesticides, but it is something we all need to do occasionally to protect our vegetables and ornamental plants from pest damage. One question that often comes to mind when planning or applying a pesticide treatment is: “How toxic is this product and how do I handle and apply it safely?” First let’s consider the question of pesticide toxicity, realizing we have limited space to devote to this very complex subject. Although we focus on insecticides for examples here, the concepts discussed also apply to other pesticides.

The subject of pesticide toxicity is quite complex because the toxicity of any given product depends on many different factors. Two of the most important are the species of animal being treated and the route of exposure (ingestion, inhalation, skin absorption, injection or other), but there are many other factors, such as sex, age, health and diet, that also affect the toxicity of a product to a particular animal. Fortunately, toxicologists have developed a standardized method of measuring toxicity, known as the LD50, that is useful for comparing relative toxicities of various products.

Handle Pesticides Safely

• Read label carefully before use.
• Follow label directions.
• Store out of reach of children.
• Keep only in original container.
• Wear all required personal protective equipment.
• Do not exceed maximum label rates.
• Observe re-entry intervals.
• Observe pre-harvest intervals for edible crops.
• Properly rinse and dispose of empty containers.

Simply defined, LD50 is the amount of test substance required to kill 50 percent of the test population. LD50s are usually expressed as mg of test product per kg of body weight, which is equivalent to parts per million. This means the lower the LD50, the more toxic the product.

Determining LD50 values using a standard test species and method of exposure provides a way to compare the toxicity of various products. When developing new insecticides, LD50s are routinely determined for a wide range of insect species to determine if a product has potential use as an insecticide and what insects it will be most effective against. Acute oral LD50 values are also determined for laboratory rats and mice to provide relative measures of acute mammalian toxicity. Ideally, an insecticide should have low LD50 values for the insect pests it is used to control and a high LD50 for rats or mice, indicating low toxicity to mammals.

Now that we have an understanding of LD50s and how they are determined, we can compare LD50s of some common insecticides to LD50s of other products that most people either use regularly or recognize from old murder mysteries (see following table). There are several interesting points to note here. First, caffeine, something most of us consume every day, is as toxic, or more toxic, than most of the listed insecticides. Some insecticides, such as spinosad and azadirachtin, have a lower acute oral toxicity than table salt. Also note that organic insecticides are not necessarily less toxic than nonorganic insecticides. Rotenone is an example of an organic insecticide with relatively high acute toxicity.

Seeing the signal word “Caution” on a pesticide container lets you know the pesticide is classified as having “Low Toxicity.”  Pesticides bearing the signal words “Warning” or “Danger-Poison” are classified as “Moderately Toxic” or “Highly Toxic.”

Before going further we should point out that acute oral toxicity alone does not fully represent the toxicity and hazards associated with a particular pesticide or product. There are many other factors to consider: How toxic is it if inhaled or absorbed through the skin? Can it cause eye damage? Is it caustic? Is it explosive? What is the flash point? Is it carcinogenic? What are the long-term effects of sub-lethal exposure? But, because of time and space constraints, we will continue to focus largely on acute oral toxicity.

The LD50 values in the accompanying table are for pure, active ingredients or technical-grade insecticides, but a cup of coffee is not pure caffeine, and the LD50 of coffee is much higher (lower toxicity) than that of pure caffeine. Likewise, the insecticide you buy at the lawn and garden center is not technical grade, and the LD50 of the formulated insecticide is higher than that of the pure, active ingredient. For example, Hi-Yield Bug Blaster Bifenthrin contains only 2.4 percent bifenthrin, and the rat oral LD50 of this insecticide formulation is 903 mg/kg, considerably higher than the LD50 of technical bifenthrin shown in the table.

Insecticide labels do not usually state the LD50s of the products they contain, but they are required by law to display standardized signal words that indicate their relative toxicity. The following table lists these signal words and what they mean. This table does not show the full range of criteria used to assign signal words because potential hazards from all possible routes of exposure are considered. For example, a product that has an oral LD50 of 3,200 mg/kg but can cause irreversible damage if you splash a drop in your eye will be in Toxicity Category 1 and required to display the signal word “Danger.”

Here a professional contractor sprays a pine tree with carbaryl. Large jobs such as this are best left to the pros.

Now we have a really simple way to answer the question posed in the title, “How toxic is this insecticide?” Just look at the signal word on the container. If it says “Danger-Poison” or “Warning,” you know you are dealing with something that is highly or moderately toxic (or the product has been placed in one of these higher toxicity categories for reasons other than acute oral toxicity). If the signal word says “Caution, Keep Out of Reach of Children” then you know the product is classified as “Low Toxicity.” Most of the insecticide products used by home gardeners today are in this low-toxicity category. Let’s not make too much of this point, but if table salt were labeled and sold as a pesticide, it would also be placed in this category.

Before you can spray an insecticide in your garden, you usually have to mix it with water, and this further reduces the toxicity of the spray. The label for Hi-Yield Bug Blaster Bifenthrin says to use 0.5 fl. oz. per gallon of water. This means you are taking a product with a rat oral LD50 of 903 mg/kg that is classified as “Low Toxicity,” and then diluting it more than 250-fold. Some insecticides are sold as “ready-to-use” sprays, and this usually means they have been pre-diluted. For example, the ready-to-use spray Ortho Home Defense Max Ant & Roach Killer only contains 0.05% bifenthrin.

Notice how the toxicity of a product declines as insecticide concentration goes from 100 percent technical product to formulated product as sold in the store to diluted spray as applied to the plant. The LD50 of pure bifenthrin is 53 mg/kg, but the LD50 of the 2.4 percent concentrate sold at the garden center is only 903 mg/kg, and this is further diluted by mixing with water before it is sprayed.

In addition to the signal words, insecticide labels also provide instructions on how to mix and apply the insecticide safely. Read the label at least twice, once before you buy it and again before you mix and apply the product. One section of the label will tell you what clothing and protective equipment you need to wear when mixing and applying the product. Be sure you wear all of the personal protective equipment required by the label and follow all other directions for safe application. Insecticides are useful and necessary gardening tools, but they must be handled and applied safely.


Acute Oral LD50 values of selected products and insecticides


Vitamin A
Sodium chloride
Ethyl alcohol


Identifying Information

Organic poison from Strychnos trees
In coffee
One of the basic chemical elements
Common pain medicine
Active ingredient in Tylenol

An essential vitamin
Table salt
In alcoholic drinks

A pyrethroid insecticide
Organic insecticide, discontinued
Active ingredient in Sevin
Active ingredient in Bayer Tree and Shrub Insecticide
A pyrethroid insecticide
Active ingredient in Ortho Fire Ant Killer
Older insecticide, sold since 1950s
A microbially produced insecticide
Organic insecticide from neem seed

LD50in mg/kg*



*Acute oral LD50 values, rat or mouse, from MSDS sheets for technical grade (near 100%) product.

Signal Words on Pesticide Containers and What They Tell You*

Signal Word

None required
(may say Caution)





Highly Toxic
Moderately Toxic
Low Toxicity
Very Low Toxicity


Acute Oral
LD50 range

0-50 mg/kg
50-500 mg/kg
500-5000 mg/kg
Over 5000 mg/kg


Acute Dermal  
LD50 range 

0-200 mg/kg
200-2000 mg/kg
2000-5000 mg/kg
Over 5000 mg/kg


*Other criteria considered when assigning a product to a toxicity category include: acute inhalation toxicity, degree of eye irritation and degree of skin irritation.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2013 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Blake Layton and US Forest Service – Northern Region.


Posted: 11/29/18   RSS | Print


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Caring For Your Poinsettia Year Round
by Mike McQueen       #Holiday: Christmas   #Flowers   #How to

People have different opinions about the poinsettia. Some consider it a holiday plant to be enjoyed during the month of December, then discarded with the Christmas tree. Others like to nurture their plants, coaxing them into bloom season after season.

There's no guarantee that your poinsettia will bloom again next December, even with year-round care. But if you would like to try, here are a few tips.

First, be sure to choose a plant with small, tightly clustered yellow buds in the center. Avoid plants that are displayed in drafty areas.

Protect the plant from the elements during the trip from the store to your home. Wrap in layers of newspaper or a double brown paper bag.

Place the plant in a room with plenty of bright, natural light. Keep the plant out of drafts and away from appliances and refrigerators. Never place your poinsettia on a television.

Water only when dry; discard the excess water that runs through the pot's drainage holes. If the plant is wrapped in foil, make sure the pot doesn't sit in water inside the decorative wrap.

A good way to remember when to provide extra attention to your poinsettia is by setting your care schedule to specific holidays. Here's how:

NEW YEAR'S DAY — Fertilize with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer at recommended rates. Continue to provide adequate light and water for prolonged bloom for several weeks.

VALENTINE'S DAY — Check your plant for signs of insects such as whitefly. If your plant has become long and leggy, cut it back to about 5 inches tall.

ST. PATRICK'S DAY — Remove faded and dried parts of the plant. Add more soil, preferably a commercially available sterile soil mix. Keep the plant in a very bright location.

MEMORIAL DAY — Trim off 2 to 3 inches of branches to promote side branching. Repot to a larger container using a sterile growing mix.

FATHER'S DAY — Move the plant outside for the summer; place in indirect light.

FOURTH OF JULY — Trim the plant again. Move it into full sun. Continue to water and fertilize but increase the amount to accelerate growth.

LABOR DAY — Move indoors to a spot that gets at least six hours of direct light daily, preferably more. As new growth begins, reduce the amount of fertilizer.

AUTUMNAL EQUINOX — Starting on or near September 21st, give the plant 13 hours of uninterrupted darkness (put the plant in a closet or under a box) and 11 hours of bright light each day. Maintain night temperatures in the low 60 F range. Continue to water and fertilize. Rotate the plant daily to give all sides even light.

THANKSGIVING — Discontinue the short day/long night treatment. Put the plant in a sunny area that gets at least six hours of direct light. Reduce water and fertilizer.

CHRISTMAS — Enjoy your "new" poinsettia. Start the cycle all over again.



Posted: 11/29/18   RSS | Print


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How to Grow Luffa Sponges
by Denise Schreiber       #How to   #Vegetables   #Vines

Cut luffas ready for use

Luffa gourd seeds

You’ve seen them in drugstores and beauty magazines as bath sponges, but did you know you can grow your own luffas? Luffa aegyptiaca and L. acutangula are members of the Cucurbitaceae family. It is an easy to grow vining plant that will happily connect itself to your garden fence. Since it needs a long growing season, it is suggested that you start the seeds indoors several weeks before your last spring frost.

Soak the seeds overnight to help speed up germination. It will take seven to 10 days for them to germinate. When you plant them in the garden, protect the seedlings from slugs and birds until the leaves are large enough. They need a rich, fertile soil with adequate water. As they grow, you can even self-pollinate the female flowers (they will have several small fruits at the base of the flowers) to increase your yield. As they grow, train them along your fence to help provide good air circulation.

Harvest the gourds when they have dried on the vine or, at the minimum, have turned yellow. The skins will have dried and it is very easy to peel off the outer skin revealing the honeycombed interior. Shake out the seeds (there will be many) and use the handle of a spatula or other long handled object to remove the seeds stuck inside the cavity.

Dried luffa gourd • Luffas soak in a bleach solution to brighten the color • Dried and peeled gourd

Make a 10-1 bleach solution (9 parts water to 1 part bleach) and soak the peeled gourds for 20-30 minutes to lighten up the color. You may occasionally see a dark spot where a seed was stuck to the fibers. It is nothing to worry about although it may not bleach out. Rinse thoroughly and dry completely.

They can be used whole or cut in half for use in the bath or cut into smaller slices and used as scrubbers for dishes and pans.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Top photo ©Jiang Hongyan/shutterstock. Other photography courtesy of Denise Schreiber.


Posted: 11/29/18   RSS | Print


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Southern Jewels
by Bob Byers       #Flowers   #Pink   #Shrubs

As the weather gets cold and dreary, we tend to put away the gardening boots in favor of an easy chair and a good book (or plant catalog). But wait, there’s still something beautiful going on in the garden. Or there should be: camellias. The envy of many gardeners from colder climes, these Southern icons clothe themselves in blooms during warm spells all winter. And in the camellia’s traditional home in the Coastal South, with a little planning you can enjoy these spectacular blooms almost daily for months.

The rest of the year, masses of glossy, dark, evergreen leaves make the perfect backdrop for other plantings of shrubs, perennials or annuals. But as September rolls around, you’ll see the first blooms, and by late October, the fall camellia season is in full swing. Sasanqua camellias decorate fall and early winter with informal 3-4 inch blooms. While sasanquas are beautiful landscape shrubs covered with color, many folks prefer a little more traditional flower form. They find the double, often rose-form, blooms of Camellia hiemalis hybrids are a perfect fit for their style. My personal favorite is ‘Chansonette’, an attractive light rose with a beautifully symmetrical spiral of petals forming each bloom.

By holiday time, early Japanese camellia varieties are showing color. The first in the gardens’ collection is clear pink ‘Debutante’, which is usually loaded with peony-form flowers by Christmas. Formal double ‘Pearl Maxwell’ and others soon follow in quick succession. As the weather gets colder in January and early February, the buds on camellias will stop opening, but we always have early spring bloomers such as ‘Nuccio’s Pearl’ (white, formal double, flushing to pink) and ‘Magnoliiflora’ [‘Hagoromo’] (pale pink, semi-double) offering plentiful fresh flowers for decorating our Flower and Garden Show in late February.

‘Mary Christian’

By the first or second week of March, you’re in prime time! One variety after another will be covering first the plant, then the ground, with thousands of colorful petals. Favorites for me this time of year are ‘Rose Parade’ (rose red, rose form), ‘Satandonz’ (dark red, single), ‘Nuccio’s Gem’ (white, formal double) and ‘Kramer’s Supreme’ (a lightly fragrant red peony form).

Shape Up!
As you’ve no doubt noticed, camellia cultivars are classified by the shape of the bloom. Many sasanquas have informal double blooms that look a lot like those clustered tissues used to decorate floats. Not to everyone’s taste, but certainly different and interesting. During the main season, japonica and reticulata varieties show a broad range of flowers – from single through semi-double, anemone, peony, rose-form double and formal double. Colors are limited primarily to white, pink and red, though a few pale yellow hybrids such as ‘Dahlonega’ and some lavender pinks and purplish reds can be found. With over 3,000 species and varieties registered with the American Camellia Society, there’s a camellia flower to please almost
anyone, so keep looking until you find your favorite.

Single ‘Ashiya’

Semi-double ‘Magnoliiflora’

Anemone ‘Chandler’s Elegance’

Peony ‘Kramer’s Supreme’

Rose-form double ‘Coquettii’

Formal Double ‘Alba Plena’

Camellias thrive on benign neglect once established. One critically important element is a well-draining, acid soil. If you have alkaline soils, try a camellia or two as containerized accent plants. All types prefer part shade with some morning sun or high shade (bright light, but no direct sun – such as under mature pines) to bloom best. Camellias actually tolerate heavy shade but won’t bloom as well in low light. With lots of water, they’ll even grow in full sun. However, in the South you can expect yellowing, discolored leaves on plants receiving more than three to four hours of sunlight. Such plants are often so stressed they’re not an asset, so be sure your plants get shade during the heat of the day.

It’s natural to focus on those beautiful camellia flowers, but the plant itself is a great addition to your landscape. Reaching 12-15 feet tall at maturity, camellias are great for informal hedges, specimen plants or great additions to a mixed border – but remember, they need about 65 square feet per plant!

Most camellias are hardy through USDA Zone 7 but may need a sheltered position in Zone 7a. Plant on the east or north side of the house, where they’re protected from midday and afternoon sun that heats bark and leaves before sudden temperature drops after dark, causing bark splitting. Live in a colder part of the South? Look for the U.S. National Arboretum’s Camellia oleifera hybrids such as ‘Frost Princess’ and ‘Snow Flurry’, bred by crossing the very hardy Korean species with garden camellias for better cold tolerance. Many are considered hardy to Zone 5b.

Like azaleas, camellias are not heavy feeders. An acid-based fertilizer including nitrogen and potassium applied according to directions once or twice after bloom keeps them growing and flowering well. Camellias tolerate dry conditions, but aren’t really going to thrive unless provided supplemental water (about 1 inch a week) during periods without rain. And don’t skimp on space: Though slow growing, mature camellias can be as large as small trees.

‘Donckelari’ • ‘Susy Dirr’ • ‘Debutante’

Camellias have few pest problems but tea scale can become a major issue. Dormant oil is a preferred organic control, but you must be sure to use only during cool weather and thoroughly coat all leaf surfaces for effective results.

The single most important cultural practice for camellias is good sanitation. They are prone to a couple of pests: tea scale and petal blight. Both will be more severe if fallen leaves and flowers are allowed to remain on the ground under the plants. All leaf litter and mulch should be removed back to bare ground after bloom season and replaced with clean mulch. If you do get tea scale, a thorough spray with dormant oil completely coating both sides of leaves is a safe organic control method. Two well-timed applications of a systemic insecticide during the growing season will knock down really bad infestations. Both controls usually need to be repeated a second season to really get scale under control.

Is your garden ready to wow you with colorful winter blooms? If not, next spring is a great time to remedy the situation with a new camellia. Fortunately, you’ve got all winter in that easy chair to find your personal favorite.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2013 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Troy B. Marden, Sherre Freeman, Phillip Oliver, Bonnie Helander, PJ Gartin, Olaf Lellinger, Eric Hunt, Alicia Kwiatkowska, A. Barra, and Clemson Cooperative Extension Service.


Posted: 11/14/18   RSS | Print


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Herbal Teas
by Kate Jerome       #Edibles   #Herbs   #Recipes


Now that the main part of the garden is “mostly” put to bed and the shelves are filled with summer in jars, it’s time to settle in for the long winter. So, how about a warm, soothing cup of herbal tea made from your own homegrown herbs?

Herbal teas have been used for hundreds of years to lessen the burdens of a hard life, help with aches and pains and simply enjoy the flavors of these amazing plants. There are so many herbs with wonderful flavors that make delightful tea to simply drink for enjoyment. We use others, such as chamomile tea to ease us into sleep or spearmint tea to cool us, because they have gentle benefits for the body. The simple process of brewing a cup of tea and taking a few minutes to sit and enjoy it can soften the day and ease your mind.


‘Munstead’ lavender sheds its soft scent in the garden and makes a floral tea or addition to other teas that is reminiscent of a soft summer morning. • The flowers and leaves of bee balm make a delightful tea. In fact, this is the flavoring that makes Earl Grey tea distinct. • Golden sage is a beauty in the perennial garden and makes a spicy, warming tea.


A warm pot of tea made from dried lemon balm is just the fix for winter blues.

Specialty Tea Recipes

Lemon Mint Tea
Make simple syrup of 1 cup sugar and 2 cups water. Bring to boil and as soon as sugar has dissolved, remove from heat. Muddle a cup of fresh spearmint leaves and pour syrup over leaves. Let steep about 15 minutes. Add the juice of one lemon and enough water to make ½ gallon. Serve cool or warm. You can also add a handful of lemon verbena leaves to the spearmint leaves and omit the lemon juice for a milder lemon flavor. Take it a step further and muddle a few stevia leaves with the herbs, and you won’t need to use any sugar.

Andrea’s Lemon Balm Honey Tea
4 black tea bags
¼ cup honey
A small bunch of lemon balm

Add a small bunch of lemon balm to a 2-quart pitcher and muddle or bruise with a pestle. Boil 2 quarts water, pour into pitcher and let lemon balm steep with tea bags. Add honey while warm. Strain and serve warm or cold. If serving cold, add a sprig of fresh lemon balm to each glass.

Lavender Sugar
Mix 1 cup white sugar with 2 tablespoons fresh lavender flowers. Allow to sit overnight and strain out the flowers. Enjoy a spoonful in your tea for a floral note.

Simple Brewing
Let’s get brewing! To make a cup of tea, put one teaspoon of dried herbs into a tea infuser (or you can make your own cheesecloth tea bags). You can find inexpensive infusers at most kitchen stores. Slip the infuser into a cup and fill with boiling water. Let steep for about a minute and remove the infuser.

If you use fresh herbs, you will need a handful of leaves to achieve the same flavor that you get from dried leaves. With fresh leaves, put them in a teapot, gently bruise the leaves with a spoon, and fill with boiling water. You may need to steep fresh herb tea up to half an hour. Strain the liquid as you pour your cup of tea. Tea with the leaves strained can be refrigerated up to about five days.

For a gentle brew, try putting a handful of fresh herb leaves in a mason jar, fill with water, cap and set in the sun for a wonderful solar infusion.

Taste these teas and sweeten if you like. Most herbs have wonderful flavors that are masked by sugar, so use honey if you want a bit more sweetness. In most cases, adding milk or cream will mask the flavor, and in some cases, the herbal tea may actually curdle the milk.

Purple basil makes a soft pink tea that combines beautifully with lavender sugar.

Which Herbs to Use?
Now comes the question of exactly what you can use to make tea. You can try many herbs, as long as you know they are culinary. Don’t be tempted to try anything that is not edible. You can certainly make teas from herb flowers but make sure to check several sources to be certain of the edibility. For example, lavender makes a wonderfully soothing tea, and its flowers are edible.

Herbs are easy to grow and have few problems, so if you’ve not added any to your landscape or patio, stick in a few here and there — in hanging baskets with other plants, tucked into a perennial border or segregated into an herb garden. They actually thrive in poor, dry soil.

Clip leaves as needed for fresh use, or dry them in paper bags through the summer to have a store in winter. Don’t be tempted to use herbs from the grocery store because you don’t know whether they have been sprayed or treated with chemicals. Rinse your own fresh herbs and shake off excess water. Use only leaves, since the stems may be bitter.

Two of the most common herbs used for tea are peppermint and spearmint. Mint tea is the perfect beverage to cool you in summer and lift your spirits in winter. Both plants are extremely easy to grow and will provide you with plenty of leaves throughout the summer. A little caution is in order, though, as both plants will spread quite willfully. Plant them in pots to prevent this.

Beyond these two mints, you can use sage, chamomile flowers, rosemary, lemon balm, raspberry leaves, borage, basil, tarragon, thyme, marjoram and lemon verbena, just to get you started. Each will have a distinct flavor and you will find those you love as you experiment.

Start your tea with one primary flavor, and then add bits of other herbs to create interesting blends. For example, start with mint tea and add lavender flowers or rose petals or even lemon balm for a refreshing tea with floral overtones.

*Before adding any new plants to your diet, please check with a medical professional. If you’ve eaten the herb before, you are probably fine, but new plants may cause allergic reactions or even serious medical problems. Do not try new herbs if you are pregnant, and do not give them to children without checking with a medical professional.


A version of this article appeared in Wisconsin Gardening Volume 1 Number 6.
Photography courtesy of Jim Long and Kate Jerome.


Posted: 11/14/18   RSS | Print


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What Are Nurse Logs?
by Gene E. Bush       #Beneficials   #Environment   #Shade

This hollow log was turned on end and filled with a mix of gritty composted pine bark. Moss and walking ferns were transplanted in it, and take care of themselves.

Being a gardener in shade, I have long been fascinated by logs. I have admired them in nature since childhood. There is something about the sight of one that draws me to it for a closer look; wanting to know about its past life as well as investigate how it keeps on giving even as it takes on a new life. However, it has been only in the last 5 years or so that I have begun to bring “nurse logs” into my garden.

This hollow beech tree will become a nurse log in the shade garden.

Natural Cycles
While alive, deciduous trees shed leaves to decompose beneath their branches, and in death they still keep on giving. Almost from the moment they fall to the forest floor, fungi begin to feed upon the log, slowly creating duff. As the log ages, insects move in to feed upon the decay. Roly polies (aka pillbugs), grubs, worms and beetles move in to dine, creating tunnels from log to soil enriching the surrounding area. In turn, the insects become dinner, as their colonies grow, for small mammals such as raccoons and skunks. Birds flock to the log to search for their next meal. As birds, insects and mammals take the log apart to get at the insects, the log is returned to the soil to become food for the next generation of shrubs and trees — plants of the forest floor.

Nurse Logs
Fallen logs often decompose to form containers in the decayed wood. Often you can see seedlings of trees and shrubs sprouting from the log. Given a large enough fallen tree (and time) you can often see how a row of trees has formed from being nursed and tended inside the log. In a shade garden, they can become even more than nature intended.

Nurse logs in the shade garden provide a design element that is relaxed and natural. Depending upon the size of the log, it lends mass without seeming man-made. It becomes a feature that adds to, but does not detract from, the plants. The decaying logs become containers for tricky, hard-to-grow perennials and vines.

When moving a log to my garden, I dig a trench to match the length of the log. I also want the trench to be about one-third the diameter of the log. With some of the log buried it can wick up moisture and stay damp. I also like to mulch around the log with chopped leaves to add to the natural appearance.

I often use a mix of potting soil and pine bark fines as a growing medium inside the log where small ferns and shade-loving perennials are elevated, and thus closer to the eye.

This cedar is visited by woodpeckers frequently.

Since I garden on the side of a hill, water flow can sometimes be a problem with washouts. Strategically placed and dug-in logs are very useful in slowing and redirecting water flow.

When considering design elements for my garden, I like to include features not only for my ornamental design but also for the environment. I enjoy the wildlife a buried rotting log brings to my garden. My most prized visitor is the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) who comes to the garden each day to dine on his favorite log.

How Long Will it Last?
Some logs will have a longer life in your garden as a design element than others. Pine logs usually last about 4 or 5 years for me. Cedar decomposes very slowly. The size of the log and how decomposed it was when you obtained it helps to determine how long it will last as a feature. I usually count on 5 years when locating a log of any size to my garden.

I have been using logs in my garden long enough that my gardening friends check with me before discarding a fallen tree or large limb. Sometimes after a local storm there is an abundance of downed trees to select from. If you live near a river, there is always the option of collecting driftwood logs. Just make sure you have assistance when moving a log to your garden.

Moss on a nurse log in the shade garden. • Viola walteri ‘Silver Gem’ with Asarum virginica in the hollow of a buried log.

This colorful fungus is one among many that adds color to an aging log.

Favorite Companions
Among my favorite companions for my logs is moss. One of the first transplants to a new log is moss: Relatively quickly it gives the illusion that the log has been there forever. It also adds contrast between the hard wood, and the colors of brown and black, against the softness and green of the moss.

I find small ferns such as the walking fern (Camptosorus rhizophyllus) fascinating when grown in the log with mosses. Oak ferns (Gymnocarpium dryopteris) make perfect drifts along the outside of the log wandering between and around larger perennials. There is no end to larger clumping ferns, both native and non-native, to select from as companions.

If I could have only one vine to grow in my aging log it would be the partridge berry (Mitchella repens). This well-behaved small vine is a ground-hugger of tiny rounded, shiny, leaves with silver stripes down the center. Flowers are twin trumpets of white that become scarlet red berries.

Native woodlanders I look forward to each spring in my garden are toadshade (Trillium spp.), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata) that forms a ground cover, and Canadian ginger (Asarum canadense). Hepatica spp. clumps are treasures of quiet color and silver-kissed fuzzy foliage. Viola walteri scampering about in the log is a gem. Notice that I choose to stay on the quiet side of colors when choosing companions for my logs.

Non-native choices as nurse log companions are the ubiquitous Hosta in small to medium size named varieties. Barrenwort (Epimedium spp.) are a must for ease of growth and a tough but attractive ground cover. Toadlilies (Tricyrtis spp.) are favorite perennials for their intricate orchid-like blooms of late color. For very early color and 12-month foliage Helleborus hybrids will fit nicely.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Gene E. Bush.


Posted: 11/14/18   RSS | Print


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Simple Winter Sheet Pan Dinners
by Kate Jerome       #Edibles   #Recipes   #Vegetables

Chicken sheet pan dinner is roasted in a hot oven for a short time.


Chicken sheet pan dinner takes few ingredients, all of which are readily available.

Basic sheet pan dinner
Serves two

4-6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
4-6 small, red potatoes, quartered
½ red onion, sliced thick
2 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
½ sweet red pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
½ sweet yellow or green pepper, cut into 1 inch pieces
5-6 baby portabella mushrooms, sliced in half
High quality, fruity olive oil
Fresh herbs of choice. Rosemary and thyme are excellent.

Preheat oven to 450 F. Place vegetables in roasting pan and drizzle with olive oil. Rub chicken with a little olive oil and then salt and pepper to taste. Nestle in with vegetables. Sprinkle chopped herbs on the chicken and then roast 35-40 minutes or until a thermometer inserted in chicken reads 170 F, and vegetables are tender. If chicken isn’t browned enough, put under broiler for five minutes.

I love winter cooking. There is nothing that makes you feel cozier than the aromas of garlic, rosemary, potatoes, and whatever else you love to eat. But I’m also all for making cooking as simple as possible. I discovered the beauty of sheet pan dinners a few years ago and have been using them as my go-to for busy days and even for entertaining ever since.

This is a great way to show off all of those delicious fall vegetables, from the root crops, such as parsnips, beets, and turnips to winter squash and potatoes. The combination is really up to you and your family’s tastes. You can change flavor easily by the addition of different herbs. Spice up your dish with chilies or rosemary; mellow it with smoky paprika or roasted garlic. The essence of the sheet pan dinner is that the flavors of everything meld and caramelize in flavors unlike they would be, if served alone. Carrots cooked in the pan with chicken taste totally different than carrots cooked by themselves.

Quick and easy
Best of all, you simply prepare it and slide it in the oven. The only prep time is the time it takes to pare and cut up the vegetables. You can even prepare everything ahead of time and then just refrigerate until you want to cook it. It’s a great way to have a wholesome dinner in half an hour when you come home from a long day at work or in the garden.

When your sheet pan dinner comes out of the oven, pair it with a crisp salad, crusty bread and you have a delicious, home-made healthy meal.

The easiest pan to cook the dinner in is a flat pan with sides. A jellyroll pan can work, but if the sides are too short, you’ll have spillovers. The optimal pan is the bottom of a broiler pan. You can also use a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven, but the flavor may be somewhat different since a smaller surface area and higher sides tend to do more braising than roasting.

The beauty of this recipe is that you can change it into whatever you fancy. Salmon lends itself really well to cooking in a sheet pan as do cod and sole. For vegetarian options, use marinated tofu cut into 1-inch squares or cooked chickpeas mixed with the vegetables. You can go vegan easily by just cooking the vegetables. For any of the recipes, use whatever vegetables you love. Changing them out will give you an entirely different flavor each time.

Green beans and salmon have been roasted and are ready to serve with a lemon garnish.

Salmon with Green Beans
Serves two

2, 4-ounce salmon filets of the same thickness, skin removed
½ pound green beans, trimmed, but left whole
1 clove garlic, minced
Olive oil
½ lemon, sliced½ lemon, cut into wedges
Few sprigs of fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried

Preheat oven to 425 F. Blanch green beans briefly in boiling water (just about five minutes). Rinse in cool water. Toss beans with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and garlic. Place salmon in oiled roasting pan, spreading beans around the salmon. Drizzle salmon with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and dill and place lemon slices on top. Roast 15-17 minutes or until salmon flakes easily with a fork. Serve with additional lemon wedges on the side.

Fall Root Vegetable Medley

1 beet, cut into ½-inch dice
1 parsnip, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
1 carrot, scrubbed or peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
1 turnip, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
Olive oil
Chopped herbs of choice (thyme and rosemary are delicious)
Crumbled feta cheese

Preheat oven to 375 F. Toss vegetables with olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbs. Place in roasting pan and roast 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve hot or at room temperature with a sprinkling of feta cheese. Delicious served over rice.

Salmon sheet pan dinner is served. • Cut the stem ends from green beans in preparation.

Asian Treat

1 block extra firm tofu, marinated and cut into 1-inch thick slices or cubes
1 medium zucchini, cut into ¼-inch thick slices
½ sweet red pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 small carrot, shredded
½ 10-ounce package frozen edamame, thawed
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Preheat oven to 425 F. Toss vegetables with seasonings and place in roasting pan. Place tofu on top, and roast 20 to 25 minutes or until vegetables are tender.


Proteins to choose from:
• Chicken tenders
• Chicken breast
• Pork chops
• Ham
• Kielbasa
• Hot or sweet Italian sausage
• Andouille sausage
• Turkey breast
• Turkey leg
• Tofu. Marinated will have the best flavor. Marinate your own or purchase it marinated.
• Chickpeas
• Salmon

• Zucchini
• Summer squash
• Winter squash such as butternut or Delicata
• Pumpkin
• Tomatoes
• Eggplant
• Peppers, sweet and chili
• Root vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes, parsnip, turnip, kohlrabi, rutabaga, and beet
• Onion
• Garlic
• Mushrooms of all kinds
• Edamame

Herbs (may be used fresh or dried):
• Thyme
• Rosemary
• Dill
• Basil
• Oregano
• Lemon thyme
• Tarragon
• Lemon balm
• Sage
• Parsley


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Kate Jerome.


Posted: 11/14/18   RSS | Print


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A Painted ‘Forest’
by Ellen Zachos       #Art   #Colorful   #Design   #How to






Try this cool idea this winter for long-lasting color











A single painted tree makes a unique garden sculpture and a convenient place to hang small garden ornaments.

When we moved into our new condo, there was a dead mountain ash tree in the backyard. I’d just come back from a visit to Chicago and I’d seen how the parks department there had painted dead trees, turning them into art. Inspired, I painted my own dead tree, and used it to hang wind chimes, lamps, and houseplants summering outdoors. The bright purple was a great accent color in the garden.

By the following summer, when I was ready to tackle a garden makeover, a second mountain ash tree had also died. I cut that one down, dug up the previously painted purple tree (say that five times fast), and checked with the condo association to see if I could use the common space just beyond our garden wall. That became the site for my painted forest – a bit of bleak, unplantable landscape transformed into a permanent art exhibit, all for the cost of a few dollars and some labor. Here’s how you can plant your own painted forest.

Choose trees and shrubs with interesting shapes and sizes to make your painted forest.

Here’s what you’ll need:
Dead trees and shrubs with interesting shapes
Spray paint
Cinder blocks (one for each tree or shrub)
Miscellaneous stones

Here’s what you’ll do:
1. Choose your base materials.
I started out with two small, dead trees, and as my painted forest grew, I searched for shapes that would fit the space. Look for specific heights and widths to fit your overall design plan.

2. Choose your colors.
Do you want a color that contrasts with your immediate surroundings (as the purple paint contrasts with my orange walls) or would you prefer using complementary colors, like teal blue against a backdrop of green oak leaves? The color choice is entirely personal; but, remember that light colors will require more frequent touch-ups, as the paint cracks and the underlying wood shows through.

Lay out a large drop cloth in a location out of the wind to do your spray painting.

3. Paint your forest.
Spread a large drop cloth someplace out of the wind and lay out your trees. Even a slight breeze can cause paint to drift. From a distance of about 8 inches, begin spraying the branches of your tree in light, quick bursts. You will not get immediate coverage with this approach, but resist temptation to apply a thick, solid coat of paint. A single, thick coat will drip, look gloppy, and chip off easily. The application of several light coats gives you more attractive, longer-lasting coverage.

Painted trees are an artistic, sculptural addition to the landscape. Here, they brighten up a spot where a living garden would be impossible to maintain.

4. Dig a hole.
Each tree will be planted in a base made from a cinder block and Quikrete (an easy to mix, fast-drying concrete available at hardware or home improvement stores). Dig a hole large enough to accommodate your cinder block, and deep enough so that the top several inches of the block are below soil level. Put the block in the hole and fill in around the outer edges with soil. Place the painted tree in the hole of the cinder block, and fill in with small- to medium-sized stones to hold the tree in place.

5. Finalize the “planting.”
Mix your Quikrete next to where you are doing the “planting.” Pour it immediately into the hole of the cinder block, using a dowel to push the concrete down around the stones, and up to the top of the cinder block hole. Straighten the tree so its placement is exactly right and hold it while the Quikrete sets. This will take 5 to 10 minutes, after which you can let go of the tree and it won’t move.

6. Tidy up.
Quikrete takes four hours to fully dry. When this time is up, check your work, and cover the base of the tree and the cinder block, with soil, river stones, or mulch.

This project is so easy and visually striking, you may find yourself planting multiple painted trees to create your very own painted forest.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Ellen Zachos.


Posted: 11/13/18   RSS | Print


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Bringing the Outdoors In
by Kenny Coogan       #Containers

Aloe vera

As a transplant from the North, I find the line between indoor and outdoor plants a blur. Scheffleras, palms, and bromeliads flourish in the Florida landscape, while in New York they’re only thought of as houseplants. Continue reading for a guide to keeping plants indoors, whether to overwinter them or for year-round enjoyment.

It would be hard to imagine a house in the 1970s without macramé and hanging plants in the family room. People have had houseplants long before then. With the invention and perfection of glass windows, people began bringing the outdoors in. During the Victorian era (1837 to the early 1900s) indoor plants were considered a symbol of respectability. Today people care for houseplants for companionship and to nurture one’s soul and for countless other reasons.

Aglaonema ‘Two Tone Moonstone’

(Aloe vera)

Display Tips: By growing aloe near your kitchen you can more efficiently treat a burn. Pretty plump, elongated leaves fan out from a central base. The pups can be cut off in spring or summer to propagate even more medicinal goodness.
Fertilizing: Spring to fall - feed monthly. Winter - do not feed.
Indoor Temperature: 65-75 F
Light: Bright
Water: Slightly moist. Requires less water in winter.
Zones: 9-11

Bamboo Palm
(Chamaedorea seifrizii)

Display Tips: This slow growing palm has tropical bamboo like leaves. With compact foliage, it grows to about 7 feet tall in the house.
Fertilizing: Monthly
Indoor Temperature: 65-80 F
Light: Low to moderate
Water: Slightly moist
Zones: 10-11

Chinese Evergreen
(Aglaonema commutatum)

Display Tips: They tolerate low light situations better than most houseplants. This plant has a lot of varieties to choose from. Developed by the University of Florida, ‘Golden Bay’ shows off gray-green leaves with a creamy-white center and silvery variegation. ‘Silver Bay’ has silvery leaves outlined in rich, deep green. ‘Red Gold’ offers bright colors such as red, gold, green and cream on one plant. ‘Romeo’ has long, slim silver leaves marked with dark green. Pothos, ZZ plants, and Sansevieria’s make great complementary plants due to their hues and textures.
Fertilizing: Spring to fall - feed monthly. In winter, every 6 weeks.
Indoor Temperature: 65-75 F
Light: Low indoor light, near a North or East window.
Water: Slightly moist
Zones: 10-11


‘Neon’ pothos • Chinese Evergreen ‘Silver Bay’ and ‘Limelight’ Dracaena

(Codiaeum variegatum)

Display Tips: Easily seen in the landscapes of Florida – Technicolor crotons offer homeowners a wide range of options to choose from for their interior design. Also known as Joseph’s coat, this plant is one of the most widely sold foliage plants. They are easy to propagate and come in bold leaf colors such as red, yellow, orange, and yellow-and-green combinations. Some of my favorite varieties include, ‘Bush on Fire,’ ‘Gold Dust,’ ‘Lauren’s Rainbow,’ ‘Mammy,’ and ‘Zanzibar.’
Fertilizing: Every 2 weeks in spring and summer. Monthly, the rest of the year.
Indoor Temperature: 60-85 F
Light: Bright light is preferred. Will benefit from spending summer outdoors, if acclimated to the sun first.
Water: Slightly moist
Zones: 9-15

Crown of Thorns
(Euphorbia milii hybrids)

Display Tips: Solid and variegated varieties are available. ‘Jingle Bells’ has soft pink bracts touched with red and green. ‘New Year’ has buttery yellow bracts that change to cherry red as they age. ‘Pink Christmas’ has cream-colored bracts that develop pale pink and reddish streaks. ‘Spring Song’ grows creamy yellow bracts. In Thailand this plant is known to bring the caregiver luck in life, based on the number of flowers the plant produces. A local Thai temple has a plethora of these beautiful blooming bracts flanking their walkways.
Fertilizing: Every 2 weeks in spring and summer. Monthly, the rest of the year.
Indoor Temperature: 50-90 F
Light: Bright
Water: Allow soil to dry between watering.
Zones: 10-11


Display Tips: With around 40 varieties to choose from, Dracaena will provide a bold splash of color and texture that will surely fit any indoor aesthetic. Different than the other varieties, ‘Florida Beauty’ has rounded leaves that have generously dabbled golden-yellow marks. ‘Limelight’ featured in an earlier issue of Florida Gardening, is a fantastic variety for brightening up your home with its chartreuse leaves. ‘Janet Craig’ is one of the most common houseplants of all time. It features dark green, shiny leaves and is easy to grow. When mature, its stems resemble woody trees with many reaching 5 to 6 feet.
Fertilizing: Every 2 weeks in spring and summer. Monthly, the rest of the year.
Indoor Temperature: 65-75 F
Light: Moderate to bright
Water: Slightly moist
Zones: 9-11


Crypanthus spp. • Elkhorn Fern • Fiddle leaf fig

Earth Star
(Cryptanthus spp.)

Display Tips: Young plants look great in terrariums, while older plants are ideal for humid rooms where space is limited. It makes a great addition for low windowsills, where they can be enjoyed. A bromeliad, their flowers are small and hidden and it makes their starlike, wavy, sharp-tipped leaves the primary reason to grow them. Strong light strengthens the pink color of the leaves.
Fertilizing: Apply half-strength fertilizer every two months.
Indoor Temperature: 60-80 F
Light: Bright
Water: In spring and summer, keep roots slightly moist. Water less in fall and winter, but do not let roots dry out completely.
Zones: 10-11

Elkhorn Fern
(Polypodium grandiceps)

Display Tips: A gnarly version of a bird’s nest fern, this plant can tolerate more light exposure than other ferns. (A.k.a. Climbing Bird’s Nest Fern, Dwarf Elkhorn Fern, and Fishtail Strap Fern) Grows to 18 inches high and 18 inches wide.
Fertilizing: Not a heavy feeder, but benefits feedings during periods of new growth.
Indoor Temperature: 60-75 F
Light: Low
Water: Moist soil
Zones: 10b-11

Fiddle Leaf Fig
(Ficus lyrata)

Display Tips: A tough plant that easily adapts to various conditions, this musical fig is a very large specimen plant and possesses slightly wavy green leaves. When outside they can reach a towering 40 feet tall and produce edible fruits. Each leaf can grow more than 12 inches wide. These plants convey elegance and look great as single specimens or when their trunks are braided.
Fertilizing: Feed three times a year with a high-nitrogen plant food.
Indoor Temperature: 60-85 F
Light: Bright to moderate
Water: Avoid overwatering, but water if soil is dry to the touch.
Zones: 10-12


Flowering maple • A variety of Sansevieria cylindrical • Haworthia sp.

Flowering Maple
(Abutilon hybridum)

Display Tips: Related to hollyhocks, this plant produces delicate papery blossoms year-round, when adequate light is provided. In addition to pots or hanging baskets, abutilon can be trained to look like a tree. Abutilon has been hybridized to dozens of named cultivars. Variegated cultivars tend to have weaker blooms. Once the plant is about 3 years old, take 4-inch stem cuttings as an insurance policy.
Fertilizing: Every 2 weeks in spring and summer. Monthly, the rest of the year.
Indoor Temperature: 65-75 F
Light: Bright
Water: Moist, well-drained soil.
Zones: 9-11

Cape jasmine
(Gardenia jasminoides)

Display Tips: Yes, this fragrant plant can be kept indoors, especially if the right cultivar is selected. ‘White Gem’ is the most popular container gardenia. It has an upright growing habit and can reach 24 inches tall. ‘Radicans’ is another dwarf variety that is good to train as bonsai. ‘Veitchii’ is sometimes called everblooming gardenia. It is a taller variety and is a good choice for large sunrooms.
Fertilizing: Feed every two weeks with a formula that contains micronutrients, especially iron.
Indoor Temperature: 60-75 F
Light: Bright
Water: Slightly moist soil – avoid overwatering.
Zones: 8-11


Display Tips: Due to their petite size, haworthias can be grown in novel containers like decorative tins, mugs, or teacups. They make great accent plants for dish gardens.
Fertilizing: From spring to fall, feed monthly. In winter, do not feed.
Indoor Temperature: 70-80 F
Light: Bright, indirect light.
Water: Allow soil to dry between watering.
Zones: 9-11

Sansevieria trifasciata hahnii

(Hibiscus rosa-sinensis hybrids)

Display Tips: Hibiscus grows the largest blossoms of indoor plants. To control the size of the plants you can lightly prune in early summer and more aggressively in the fall. ‘Dragon’s Breath’ features bold red flowers with white swirls in the center. The flowers can reach 8 inches. ‘The Path’ is bright yellow with a magenta center.
Fertilizing: Every 2 weeks in spring and summer. Monthly, the rest of the year.
Indoor Temperature: 65-85 F
Light: Bright, including direct sun.
Water: Moist in summer, allow to dry between watering in winter.
Zones: 9-11

Moth Orchid
(Phalaenopsis spp. & hybrids)

Display Tips: Flowers last 6 weeks or longer. Grow alongside or in foliage plants to showcase their bright flowers.
Fertilizing: Use half strength fertilizer weekly during spring and summer.
Indoor Temperature: 65-80 F
Light: Moderate to bright
Water: Allow soil to dry between watering.
Zones: 10-12

Mother-In-Law’s-Tongue, Snake Plant
(Sansevieria spp.)

Display Tips: This plant is a staple in landscaping around my neighborhood. Up North it was a household mainstay. Sansevieria can live 20 years or more, outlasting many mother-in-laws. Although this plant tolerates neglect – it responds to good care, again like mother-in-laws. ‘Cylindrica’ is an interesting variety with round stems that grow up out of the pot like pencils. These stems can also be braided together. ‘Futura Robusta’ is a compact variety that has silvery-green leaves mottled with dark green. ‘Moonshine’ is one of the most beautiful varieties, with silvery green leaves. It’s especially spectacular mixed with the dark-leaved varieties.
Fertilizing: From spring to fall feed monthly. In winter, do not feed.
Indoor Temperature: 65-75 F
Light: Bright to moderate
Water: Slightly moist, in winter water less.
Zones: 9b-11


Oxalis • ‘Golden’ pothos

(Oxalis sp.)

Display Tips: This plant is sometimes considered a weed in Florida, yet sold and displayed as a houseplant up North. Some people say weed, some say houseplant. Also known as a shamrock plant, its triangular clove-like leaves support the delicate flowers.
Fertilizing: Every two weeks
Indoor Temperature: 60-75 F
Light: Bright to moderate
Water: Light
Zones: 8-11

Peace Lily
(Spathiphyllum wallisii)

Display Tips: The ubiquitous houseplant, peace lilies are good to have around. Small varieties grow to about 16 inches tall, while larger ones can reach 6 feet. Cut the flowering stems when the blossoms turn green. Once settled, they will flower in early summer. Some cultivars have been bred to bloom intermittently.
Fertilizing: From spring to fall feed these plants a diluted solution at half strength, monthly. In winter, every 6 weeks.
Indoor Temperature: 65-75 F
Light: Low to moderate
Water: Keep slightly moist.
Zone: 10

(Epipremnum aureum)

Display Tips: Place on top of a tall piece of furniture or filing cabinet to make the most of its runners. I recently saw an impressive display at a restaurant that had a 20-foot-long pothos sprawling along the ceiling. ‘Golden’ has green heart-shaped leaves streaked with golden-yellow variegation. ‘Manjula’ is similar and shows off variegated green leaves edged in a creamy white color. ‘Satin’ has dark green heart-shaped leaves adorned with irregular silver spots. It’s excellent in hanging baskets or climbing up a moss or wood totem.
Fertilizer: Every 2 weeks in spring and summer. Monthly, the rest of the year.
Indoor Temperature: 60-80 F
Light: Moderate to low
Water: Allow soil to dry in between watering.
Zones: 10-11

Variegated Schefflera arboricola

(Schefflera arboricola)

Display Tips: While all green varieties grow faster, ‘Trinette’ is the most commonly grown variegated cultivar and it looks great as an accent.
Fertilizer: Monthly
Indoor Temperature: 65-80 F
Light: Bright
Water: Allow the soil to dry in between watering.
Zones: 9b-11

Swedish Ivy
(Plectranthus australis)

Display Tips: Great for the workplace or at home. This ‘beginner’ hanging basket plant produces cascading stems with scalloped leaves. If you are limited on space, you can prune back its vines in the fall. Stem tip cuttings can be taken in the summer, after it has bloomed.
Fertilizer: Fertilize from late spring to late summer, when the plant is blooming. If it’s cut back in the fall, no fertilizer is needed.
Indoor Temperature: 60-75 F, can tolerate low temperatures of 40 F for short periods of time.
Light: Moderate
Water: Moderate
Zones: 9-11




A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 22 Number 6.
Photography courtesy of Kenny Coogan.


Posted: 11/01/18   RSS | Print


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Lemony Herbs
by Carol Michel       #Edibles   #Herbs   #Plant Profile

The same chemicals that give lemons their unique taste are present in several easy-to-grow herbs.

No lemons? No problem. If you want to enjoy a homegrown lemony taste, consider growing some lemony herbs in your garden. The five most common lemony herbs are lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodus), lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora), lemon basil (Ocimum x citriodorum), and lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus).

What do all these herbs have in common? Other than lemon being part of their common name, they all contain some of the same chemical compounds that give lemons their familiar lemony taste.

How lemony these herbs taste depends on the amount of these chemicals they contain. According to Debra Knapke, honorary president of the Herb Society of America (2014 to 2016) and co-author of several books including Herb Gardening for the Midwest (Lone Pine, 2008), the amount of lemon taste in lemony herbs can vary based on the soil they are grown in, the amount of sunlight they get, and the weather.

“Individual plants’ chemistry can vary with culture, soil type, and weather. Rainy weather can actually ‘water down’ the flavor of herbs. Plants not in the proper light conditions can also produce less of the chemicals that give an herb its flavor. And the lack of soil fertility, or too rich a soil, can change the percentages of these chemicals. In other words, where and how an herb is grown can impact its flavor. Those who grow grapes for wine call this ‘terrior,’ and it also applies to growing herbs.”

Fortunately, in the summertime in the Midwest, we can grow lemony herbs in the ground or in containers with the same basic care we give most of our annual flowers.

Lemon balm grows well where it gets a little shade during the day.

Lemon Balm
Grow lemon balm as an annual plant. It will grow as tall and wide as 24 inches. Plant it after all danger of frost has passed in a location that is well-drained with good soil and a bit of shade during the day. It responds well to cutting back, so keep cutting and using fresh sprigs of lemon balm throughout the growing season because it loses much of its flavor when dried. You can purchase plants in the spring or grow them from seed. Lemon balm leaves are frequently used to make tea.

Lemon Thyme
Grow lemon thyme as an annual because it is not as hardy as English thyme. Like most thymes, good drainage is necessary, and they often do better in soils with sand or small gravel added to ensure they are never in standing water. Trim thyme frequently and use the trimmings to flavor fish and other cooked dishes.

Lemon thyme should be grown as an annual in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 and 6. • Lemon verbena is a tropical plant that grows well in containers and can be overwintered indoors in its dormant state. • Both lemongrass and lemon basil grow well in containers.

Lemon Verbena
A tropical plant, lemon verbena should only be planted outdoors after all danger of frost has passed where it can be grown in a container or in the ground. In a tropical climate, it can grow to be a large shrub. In the Midwest, it makes a nice potted plant. It prefers full sun and fertile soil, and it should be fertilized regularly. Whole, dried leaves will retain a lemony scent, which is released by crumbling. If you choose to overwinter your lemon verbena plant indoors, don’t overwater it when it is in its dormant period. Overwatering is the most common reason lemon verbena plants don’t survive their dormant period indoors.

Lemon Basil
Grow lemon basil the same way you grow other basil plants. Start plants from seeds or buy plants to transplant in the garden or an outdoor container after all danger of frost has passed. Snip the leaves to use in a variety of dishes, including desserts. Because of the volatity of the oils that produce the flavor, lemon basil should be added right before serving in hot dishes.

Lemon basil is easy to grow from seed or small plants.

A favorite in Asian dishes, lemongrass is also grown as an annual; it should be planted outside after the last frost in the spring. It prefers full sun and moist soil. Consider growing it in containers where you would plant a grass-type plant for its form. The bottom 5 or 6 inches of the stem is most commonly used in cooking.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Carol Michel and W. Atlee Burpee Company.


Posted: 11/01/18   RSS | Print


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Various Vinegars
by Rebecca Stoner Kirts       #Edibles   #Herbs   #How to

Top: Garlic chives make great vinegar.

Above: Dark basil is so beautiful in the garden and it is by far my favorite herb to use in vinegar.

Right: Prepped and ready to be put into my collection of jars.

Here it is winter and I am yearning for the taste of my favorite fresh herbs. I prepared for this moment by making a variety of herbal vinegars in the early fall. It is a great easy way to add a gourmet zip to so many recipes – from salads to meats. Additionally, herbal vinegars can be used for cosmetic uses, medical purposes, plus household uses. Who would have thought you could have herbal vinegars on hand to beat the heat, as well as to battle illnesses and insects.

Vinegar is one of the oldest foods known to man. It was discovered more than 10,000 years ago. Throughout history, vinegar is mentioned more often than wine in ancient books and writings. In fact, vinegar means sour wine or sharp wine. It is theorized that vinegar was discovered by winemakers when they messed up a batch of wine. Since this was a fairly common occurrence, new uses for vinegar were constantly being invented.

Four Thieves Vinegar

• 2 tablespoons chopped lavender flower
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
• 2 tablespoons chopped mint
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh anise hyssop
• 4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
• 1 quart white wine vinegar or apple cider (preferably raw)

Toss the herbs and garlic together in a 1-quart Mason jar, cover with vinegar, and allow to marinate seven to 10 days. Then strain the vinegar through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean quart jar. Store as you would any herb vinegar. Good for vinaigrettes or for braising meats.

Recipe adapted from a recipe by Jean Vainet, a renowned herbalist of the 20th century.

For instance it is said that four robbers used a vinegar concoction to ward off the plague epidemic in Marseilles. Thieves supposedly rubbed vinegar on their arms and clothes and it allowed the men to walk among the dead and dying and steal from them, to this day we still have a vinegar called Four Thieves Vinegar.

It is possible to make your own vinegar, however, the most practical way to begin this adventure is using store-bought vinegar. The flavoring ingredients to be added in each mixture should be determined by the variety of vinegar used, however the vinegar used must have at least 5 percent acidity.

Many consider wine vinegar as the best for blending and balancing flavors. I find it is very good choice with an herb such as tarragon. Even though many think that regular distilled vinegar is too strong for blending delicate flavors, I love using it to make basil, dill, and chive vinegars. It is important to make sure that the vinegar does not overpower the herbs and spices and that it is a taste you enjoy.

Apple cider vinegar is regarded as a tonic because of its richness in potassium and other nutrients. These qualities make it a good complement for stronger herbs, such as an apple-scented mint or fruits.

I used sherry and champagne vinegars for special gifts. Their milder flavor pairs well with delicately flavored herbs. It is very good for making into a salad dressing. Rice vinegar is great to use for flavoring Oriental dishes. I make a very nice lemon vinegar using lemongrass and other lemony herbs.

I do not use malt vinegar, as it is very heavy and too bitter to blend and I leave balsamic vinegar with its beautiful flavors to be appreciated on its own.

Clockwise: Dill vinegar pairs great with cooked cabbage, or in potato or egg salad or coleslaw. • I use fresh red raspberries, blackberries, or blueberries and make tasty, as well as beautiful, fruit vinegars. • The leaves of opal basil turn the vinegar such an incredible color.

Becky's Faves
Here are some of my favorite herb vinegar recipes

Basil Chile Garlic Vinegar: Play around with different basils, but to your favorite, add two to three peeled cloves of garlic, plus six to 15 dried red chilies, to a jar about 3/4 full of basil. Cover with warm red wine vinegar. Suggested usages: Dressing for garden fresh tomatoes, salad dressing, beef, or chicken marinade or add a splash to your Bloody Mary!

Dark Opal Basil Vinegar: Fill a jar with dark basil, add white wine or distilled vinegar and watch the magic happen. Talk about an amazing hue. I love this as a dressing with olive oil on fresh veggies. It is a great marinade as well.

Lovely Lemon Vinegar: All lemon herbs in the jar – lemon verbena, lemon balm, lemon grass, lemon basil, then add some lemon peel. Cover with white wine vinegar or champagne vinegar. This is a wonderful marinade for fish or chicken or over fresh veggies.

Salad Burnet Vinegar: Fill the jar with salad burnet leaves and blossoms and then cover with white wine vinegar. Because this plant has such an amazing cucumber flavor, it is lovely over a fresh cucumber salad, in cucumber soup, or over fresh veggies. I love the pink hue!!

Chive Vinegar: So many options here. I love chive blossom vinegar, using the early pink blooms add zip to the vinegar and a beautiful hue. But the garlic chive blossom vinegar has a very subtle vinegar taste.

Tarragon Vinegar: The perfect fish marinade – fill the jar with sprigs of fresh tarragon (lightly crushed), and then cover with white wine vinegar.

Vinegar is a natural preservative, but it is imperative that you make sure everything is sterile. I often use different containers to cure the vinegar in, rather than the jars that I will put the final product into. I sterilize the containers as if I were canning. One easy way I discovered is to immerse the glass containers in boiling water for 10 minutes. Glass containers work the best but make sure the lids are non-corrodible metal, such as the two-piece canning jar lids. The lids go through a similar sterilization process. It is advisable to have the herbs and vinegar ready to put into the warm, newly sterilized jars.

To prepare the vinegar for the initial bottling, I heat it to just below the boiling point, or at least 190 F. I have the herbs already in the jars and then I pour the warm vinegar over the top. I use a funnel for this step. I fill the jars leaving just a little head room and then put on the lid. Let them sit undisturbed while cooling.

I can always use a good blossom picker when making chive blossom vinegar.

Always use fresh herbs picked before blossoming for the best flavor. Use only the best leaves or stems and discard any that are discolored, damaged, or excessively dried out. I gently wash the herbs, (remember you are trying to preserve the oils) blot dry, and spread on paper towels. As a general rule, I use about 1 cup of fresh herbs to 2 cups of vinegar.

Garlic chive vinegar adds a subtle taste that is great on egg salad or on steamed broccoli.

Find an area to allow the filled jars to sit for at least three to four weeks to develop the flavors. Be sure and find a good dark place, as sunlight will alter the flavors. Be patient the best is yet to come. Always label what the vinegar is. Things tend to look different after a month in a vinegar bath.

Once the vinegar has “cured,” it is time to strain it into a beautiful bottle. Repurposed antique bottles are a great idea. Nothing is prettier then a collection of herb vinegars in antique jars on a shelf. Since each vinegar develops its own unique hue, they present quite a display.

For the final bottling, prepare the jars and lids as before. I always add a decorative herb sprig or a few berries, or perhaps an herbal blossom. Then, using cheesecloth and a funnel, I strain the vinegar into the bottles. Do not allow any part of the decorative herb to stick out of the vinegar, as it could mold. Be sure to clean off the outside of the container. If this is a bottle that I am going to cork, I again will sterilize the cork put it into place and then dip it into some hot wax to seal it. Sometimes the wax drips down the bottleneck, creating a decorative look. For optimal flavor, use the vinegar within six to eight months and always store in a cool, dark place.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Rebecca Stoner Kirts.


Posted: 11/01/18   RSS | Print


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Every Gardener’s Challenge
by Dwain Hebda       #Colorful   #Shade   #Slopes

This stunning example successfully draws together problem elements of a hillside with limited sunlight through effective use of hardscapes, mulch, strategically placed boulders, and smart planting.

Every yard has them – those troublesome spots that just don’t want to cooperate with your grand vision for the yard of your dreams. Maybe you live in a beautifully wooded area, where even at the peak of the afternoon, dappled sunlight is the best you can hope for.

Maybe your yard isn’t flat and level, where the natural slope of the yard drains off water and topsoil and makes it difficult for plants to take root.

Or maybe you overlooked the fact that the lovely second-story deck you wanted would create a dark and inhospitable area underneath where nothing will grow.

While there’s no miracle cure, there are steps the backyard gardener can take to bring life and interest to barren areas.

Red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is an easy-to-grow addition to shady areas in the yard. Under consistently moist, part-sunny conditions the plant colonizes to provide springtime color.

If you live in the woodlands, you revere your tall, stately trees. Trees are often the first step of yard design and are so versatile you can create a formal and manicured design just as easily as a natural, rustic one.

But trees also present challenges. Not only because of the shade they cast, but their roots compete for nutrients and can choke out other plants.

If you’re starting from scratch, you’re in a more advantageous position because you can ask all kinds of questions at the nursery and develop a strategy for companion plants before the tree ever goes in. Those living in established neighborhoods generally don’t have that luxury and must adapt landscapes to the trees that are already there.

One strategy is to go native – choosing plants would likely be there anyway if civilization hadn’t come along. Native plants are those indigenous to your area and therefore have adapted to the challenges of a particular region or ecosystem. There are hundreds of native plants to choose from and with a little homework, you’ll find several options to meet your needs.

A word about native plants: They don’t deliver the explosion of color of an Impatiens bed or the neat, manicured look of other plants. They do, however, bring a natural feel to any yard, and with a little experimentation and a good eye, can balance the other parts of the yard that are able to support your prized specimens.

You should also take special note of the less-desirable qualities of native plants; some are poisonous and some are so aggressive that they can be hard to contain.

That said, some suggested native plants for your wooded shady spots include columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) an easy-to grow, self-seeding plant that produces attractive foliage and will naturalize into large colonies given the right conditions. The plant will grow in full sun, but also works in a wooded setting provided it gets at least some sunlight. Blooming in April and May, it features 1-2-inch drooping bell-like flowers in red and yellow. Hummingbirds love them and after the bloom season, enjoy the attractive foliage. In some areas, it will go dormant during the heat of summer, but is still a great plant. Columbine will tolerate a range of soils, the key is keeping the ground moist, but well drained.

Lance-leaf tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata) grows in small clumps 1-2½ feet tall featuring bright yellow, four-lobed flowers. A southern species, greater tickseed (C. major), grows slightly taller. The plant will grow in a variety of poor soils, poor light, and tolerates drought.

Reclaim a wooded hillside with a lovely collection of shade perennials including hostas and ferns. Note the subtle terracing effect created through use of larger rocks and the leveling effect of the hardscape path to control run-off.

If you’re struggling with a yard that has erosion problems and rocky soil, you might consider a retaining wall or terracing to correct the problem. Needless to say, this option can be quite expensive, depending on the size of your yard and the extent of your problem.

One lower-cost option is to create a rock garden, particularly if you live in a hilly area where erosion will have exposed the rocky terrain beneath. A rock garden will hold enough soil to support certain plants. Better still, you can control the quality and composition of the soil to best support the plants you plan to grow there.

If light isn’t a problem, consider bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), which has an erect, clump-forming habit and blue flowers in the spring, feathery green summer foliage, and golden fall color. Eastern purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) are showy, flowering perennials that do well in sunny yards.

If the rock garden is also dealing with shade, think ferns. Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) is a great option, as is Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum), whose silvery leaves provide a nice contrast to neighboring plants.

Clockwise: Native plants are often ideal for hillsides and other poor-soil areas, and you can tame their sometimes-unkempt appearance by combining creeping and upright varieties. • Bluestem varieties, such as Amsonia hubrichtii seen here, are a showy and reliable addition to any southern rock garden. • Brighten rocky areas in your yard – natural or man-made – with a spray of coreopsis to fill in spaces and lend color to a problem area.

Growing plants under a raised deck or other structure is tricky, dependent entirely on the location and the ability of sun to penetrate the space at the appropriate angle. In a backyard where sunlight is already reduced due to many mature trees, for instance, the ability to grow plants under the deck may be severely limited.

Certain ground covers may be the gardener’s best bet in these situations. Among these are bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), which will send up tiny blue flower spikes in spring when planted in part sun, but will provide a dense mat of foliage even in full shade. There are countless cultivars, including solid green and variegated foliage.

Bigleaf vinca (Vinca major) is another versatile ground cover, especially since it is winter hardy in Zones 7-9. It prefers part shade, but will tolerate nearly full shade in moist, humus-rich soil. Once established the plant is aggressive, but is reliably used on slopes or banks to stabilize soils and curb erosion. Pale violet blue flowers appear in spring and continue intermittently into autumn.

Another plant to consider is Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis), a shrubby, evergreen ground cover that grows 8-12 inches high and spreads by rhizomes to form a dense carpet of rich, dark green foliage. The plant produces tiny white flowers and loves the shade; be sure to thin periodically to promote air circulation.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of ©Imran Ashraf/, ©Hannamariah/, ©Jon bilous/, ©Elena elisseeva/, ©eqroy/, and ©civdis/


Posted: 10/31/18   RSS | Print


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Following Directions
by Bob Westerfield       #Advice   #Health and Safety   #Pests

Be sure to follow labeled directions carefully when applying herbicides. Pre-emergent herbicides are applied before the weeds germinate and need to be watered in well after application.

In a world of litigation and lawsuits it is no surprise that any pesticide being sold for profit must contain legal labeling. While it seems like a simple and common sense thing to do, many people never read the labels, or if they do, they don’t really understand them. Consumers flock to the stores on Saturdays purchasing an arsenal of weed killers, insecticides, and fungicides, many times not fully understanding what they have bought or how to correctly apply it. And unfortunately, sometimes the workers in the chain store garden centers are not much more knowledgeable than the consumers. With a basic understanding of pesticide terminology, you can better select the proper product and apply it safely in your home and landscape.

Perhaps it would be best if we explain a few important terms up front. Any chemical, whether manmade or organic, will have a label that contains both the active ingredient and most often a trade name. The active ingredient is the scientific chemical name of the product. The trade name is usually in larger print on the bag and is more of a selling tool to get your attention. It is important to know that a chemical can have many trade names, but the active ingredient name will always stay the same. A good example is Roundup. Many people know this product – but the active ingredient is actually glyphosphate. However since the patent on the product was lifted, it now has dozens of trade names including Cleanup, Farmworks, Karate and countless others. They all contain glyphosphate.

Another important thing to know when searching for a product the correct concentration. On the label the active ingredient will be stated as a certain percentage of strength. It will then list the rest of the percent as other ingredients. This can include water, oils, powders, or other substances. What you really want to know when you are buying products is how strong is the active ingredient that you are purchasing. A product under one trade name may be substantially cheaper than another but it could be due to the fact the active ingredient is at a much lower percentage.

The main label on a pesticide will list the trade name and then more importantly, the active ingredient, which is the true chemical in the product. Trade names can vary but active ingredient names do not.

It is also important to understand other terminology. When it comes to herbicides (weed killers) they will be labeled as either pre- or post-emergent. Pre-emergent means that they should be applied prior to the weeds you are trying to control have germinated. Post-emergents are applied after the target weeds have germinated and are actively growing. Both pre- and post-emergents will normally have certain requirements that should be listed in the label or directions. For example, many pre-emergents should be applied just prior to a rainstorm or watered in shortly after application. This helps move the product into the soil. Post-emergent treatments may require the addition of a surfactant, which is an oil-based product that helps the chemical stick to the leaves of plants. The directions may also call for the product to be applied during specific temperature ranges and allowed to remain in contact on the foliage several days prior to rain or irrigation. It all boils down to learning to read the complete label and instructions. Many people claim that the products do not work, but in actuality, they did not follow instructions. Another thing to keep in mind is that most herbicides work best when plants are not dry or suffering from drought.

The directions on the container will contain vital information such as how to apply, environmental precautions and first aid treatments.

When it comes to product selection, you will also have to choose a type of formulation. The formulation is basically the way the product looks prior to application. Liquid and emulsible concentrates are normally mixed at a certain ratio with water and then applied as a spray on the targeted area. Powders are also usually put into liquid but must be agitated or stirred frequently to keep them from settling. Granular formulations are normally spread out of a hand spreader or fertilizer-type applicator. Once again pay careful attention to what the directions say in terms of how much product to apply. Usually directions will state how much product to put out per acre or per 100 or 1,000 square feet or other area measurement. Remember that millions of dollars has gone into research on the product you are using and what rates to apply. It seems like many people have the philosophy that if the directions say 1 ounce of product, 2 ounces will work twice as well. This is simply not often true. By increasing the rate over the recommended amount you may simply be wasting product and also risking the danger of injury to your plants. At a higher rate some chemicals can cause burning and do more damage than good.

Beyond the active ingredient, amount and type of formulation the label also contains other vital information. Usually in the largest print down near the active ingredient label you will see some type of hazard word. It will normally say Caution, Warning or Danger. The most dangerous pesticides will usually say Danger-Poison. This indicates that even a small amount could kill animals or humans if ingested. Most homeowner chemicals will not have that label but will carry the warning or caution label. Each of these labels still carry precautionary statements about how to safely handle the product and apply it. It will mention protective items such as rubber gloves, possibly goggles, or even a dust mask. A product with a warning label is more toxic than one that has a caution label. Basically these cautionary words are scientifically assigned based on how much of the product it would take to kill a human. Fortunately, the directions will almost always state medical advice on what to do if the product enters your body either through your skin, eyes, or ingestion. Even products officially labeled as organic must describe their safety hazard with one of these three words. It never hurts to have the poison control center number in your phone or on a board near your phone should you ever need it. The national poison control hotline number is 800-222-1222.

Chemicals should be carefully measured and only applied at labeled suggested rates to avoid wasting product and causing potential harm.

The final things normally covered in the label or directions are things such as environmental hazards and proper disposal procedures. Some pesticides should never be applied near a well and so this is normally stated in the precautions. Other products such as insecticides might be deadly to either fish or even honeybees if applied incorrectly. If there is ever a question about whether to apply the product in a certain location, it is always best to go back and thoroughly read the label first. Most products also have a help line number printed on the container where you can call for free advice or directions on how to safely apply the chemical.

Many folks have chemical phobia and would never consider applying a pesticide to their home or landscape. The truth is that we have many household products right under our sink that are probably more deadly than half of the chemicals used in the landscape. The real key to applying these products safely and successfully is learning how to more intelligently read the label and follow the approved directions.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Bob Westerfield.


Posted: 10/31/18   RSS | Print


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5 Houseplant Enemies and What to Do
by Lisa Eldred Steinkopf       #Containers   #Insects   #Pests

Healthy houseplants cozy up a seating area without worry about insects or diseases.

You may notice yellowing or dropping leaves, or a sticky substance on the leaves or floor before you ever see a pest. Those are some of the symptoms that may clue you in that your plants have a problem.

Hitching rides
If you recently purchased a plant, it may have been harboring pests that were undetectable at the time you bought it. This is the reason to always quarantine your houseplants for a month or so when you bring them home from the store or garden center. That way, if the plant has pests, you will see them before they spread to your other plants. If, after a few weeks, you see no obvious pests, it should be safe to move the plant to its permanent home.

Another scenario: Pests can hitch a ride on plants you bring in from their outdoor summer vacation. You may not see any pests, but their eggs may be there. They hatch and now are observable with the naked eye.

Mealy bugs are easy to spot against the succulent green foliage of a jade plant (Crassula ovata). • Mealybugs are extremely slow moving insects, which like to hide in plant crevices and under leaves. • This Schefflera arbicola is losing leaves and looking sad because of an infestation of scale. The honeydew is literally dripping off the plant.

Pests 101
Regardless of how they arrived, the pests are now in your home and you need to identify them and decide on a treatment plan. We are going to talk about the top five most common houseplant pests, how to detect them and how to get rid of them.

These are extremely slow moving insects, which like to hide in plant crevices and under leaves. When the infestation is bad, mealybugs are very hard to eradicate. Mealybugs love cactus and succulents, so be vigilant. On cactus, mealybugs resemble the fuzzy areoles that surround the spines.

Mealybugs suck the life out of plants. The symptoms are yellowing leaves and overall loss of plant vigor. The most obvious sign that you have mealybugs, though, is the sticky honeydew (insect feces) that covers the leaves. If it is an extreme infestation, the honeydew can drip on the floor.

The scale is obvious on this bird’s nest fern (Asplenium spp.).

Scale looks like brown bumps attached to your plant. Scale is 1/16 to ¼-inch long, depending on the type. Scale only moves in juvenile, crawler stage, which is when they are easiest to kill, but harder to detect. Scale usually isn’t obvious until it is in the adult form and not moving. Scale also sucks the life out of plants, causing yellow leaves and an overall lack of vigor.

On many plants, especially Ficus and Hibiscus, it is very hard to tell you have scale on their brown bark. Scale also secretes honeydew and quickly can become a very big problem. It is difficult to eradicate.

Spider mites reveal themselves on this palm frond with tiny dots in the leaves and webbing. The palm also has a few scale insects gnawing away.

The third pest isn’t an insect at all but a mite, an arachnid, such as spiders and ticks. Their feeding makes for a speckled leaf, because the mites suck juices out of the plants. If numbers are large, webbing will appear. The speckling and webbing are probably all you will see. Mites are so small, less than 0.04 inch, they are not easy to see with the unaided eye.

Dry conditions contribute greatly to the proliferation of the mites. Keep your soil evenly moist and the humidity high to reduce their population. Insecticides do not work on mites, so a miticide must be used. An insecticide kills mites’ natural enemies, which makes the problem worse. Miticide does not kill the eggs, so it has to be reapplied at 10 to 14 day intervals.  Always read and follow the label directions.

Thrips may only be 1/10 inch long and can be very hard to detect.

Thrips also may appear on our indoor plants. Like mites, thrips are very hard to see. They may or may not have wings and are very small, from less than 1/10 of an inch to about ½ inch. They are quite often found on African violets (Saintpaulia hybrids).

Spilled pollen on the petals of the plants is a telltale sign of thrips. The worst thing about thrips is their ability to spread virus and disease.

Fungus gnats
The last pest is the most obvious because it flies around. Although easily detected, fungus gnats are frequently incorrectly identified. People think they have fruit flies in their plants. I tell people if you don’t have any rotting fruit, you don’t have fruit flies. Fungus gnats, which are black and about one-eighth inch long, and resemble fruit flies, but live in too-moist soil.

Let soil dry out between watering. If the infestation is extremely bad, the soil, or at least the top couple of inches, will need to be replaced. Fungus gnats live and reproduce in the top 1 inch of soil. I really believe commercial potting mix is too heavy for most houseplants and is the instigator of the problem. Add one-third perlite to two-thirds of the bagged potting mix to make it faster draining.

Fungus gnats resemble fruit flies and live in houseplants’ potting mix that is too wet.

Get control
How do you eradicate these juice sucking insects? One way is to get some cotton swabs, dip them in rubbing alcohol, and touch each one of the insects. The alcohol dries them out and removes their protective coating. Obviously, this would be a procedure to use if you catch the problem early.

Another solution and it can be used in combination with the alcohol, is neem oil. I use a product called Bonide Rose Rx, which contains neem oil and seems to help keep insects under control by smothering them.

If these remedies do not work, a systemic insecticide may be your next step. Bonide Houseplant Insecticide has a very low percentage of the insecticide imidicloprid. The product, placed in the soil, moves through the plant when watered. The insects chew on the plant and die. I wouldn’t recommend using this on plants your cats or dogs would chew on, or where children are present. Always read and follow the label directions.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Lisa Eldred Steinkopf, lightkeeper/, Keith S. Eldred, P.M.J. Ramakers/, and Jim Baker/


Posted: 10/31/18   RSS | Print


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Bats Are the Good Guys
by Denise Schreiber    

A Little brown bat

Halloween is coming, and we all are carving pumpkins and decorating the yard with funny and scary creatures. However, the one creature that strikes fear into everyone’s heart is very real – the bat.

When you think of bats, visions of Dracula in the old movies probably pop into your head, with him saying, “I vant to drink your blood,” as he attacks, drinks said blood, and then turns into a bat and flits away. And then there are the old sayings such as someone “has bats in their belfry” meaning they are crazy, someone is “blind as a bat” or my favorite, someone is “bat s**t crazy” (which can sometimes describe me at certain times of the year).

Put your fears aside – there aren’t vampire bats in our area, although there are plenty of beneficial species “hanging around.”

There are several species of bats that live in our area, with some rare species that visit occasionally. All of this area’s bats are known as evening bats or common bats. They are the only mammal that can fly. Bats belong to the family Vespertilionidae, and they are insect eaters (so no worries about your neck there).

Giant brown bats

I’m sure you are thinking, “Why should I care about bats?” For a number of reasons – including tequila and chocolate. While nectar-loving bats aren’t native here, they do live in other parts of our country. Many night-blooming plants are pollinated by bats, such as the blue agave (the main ingredient in tequila), the cocoa plant (a key component in chocolate) and other plants like mangoes and bananas.

There are so many misconceptions about bats that we have to set the record straight. Bats are not prone to rabies any more than any other mammal. Bats are not aggressive, and do not attack people. Bats are not covered in lice. Bats’ droppings, called guano, do not carry diseases including tuberculosis.

Eastern small footed bat

Now, with all that being said, you also need to be cautious if you find yourself dealing with bats. If you find a bat on the ground, you should call your local game commission officer and don’t try to do relocate it yourself. If you are cleaning out an area that has been the roosting place for a colony of bats, and if there is a lot of residual guano, you should wear a protective mask. If bats have found their way into your attic, call a reputable pest control operator to remedy the situation. Extermination is not a good practice because poisoning the bats can result in poisoning other animals that feed on the carcasses. There are no pesticides approved for bats. If you do have bats, seal up the area after they leave in the fall so they don’t return to the same place. Don’t seal it up in the summer, because you would be trapping in their young who cannot yet fly. Plus the smell of rotting bats in the attic might be enough to make you move.

Now why would you want to have bats hanging around your neighborhood? Because they can eat up to 100 percent of their body weight worth of insects each night. They consume approximately 1,200 insects per hour. Moths, gnats, crickets, beetles, locusts, mosquitoes, fruit flies, and other bugs are frequently eaten by bats.

Some species of bats migrate south for the colder weather, but many bats hibernate underground or in caves during the fall, winter, and early spring. Their body temperatures drop and respiration and heartbeat slow. Once the insect population begins to rouse in the spring, the bats wake for feeding.

Bats actually have very good eyesight, contrary to popular belief. Their well-developed hearing gives them the advantage in the dark for catching insects. Bats use echolocation for finding their prey. They give off a series of high-pitched squeals (usually inaudible to us), which echo off landmarks such as buildings or trees and allow them to locate the insect. Those sound bursts may only last 2.5 milliseconds, but they are long enough for them to target their food.

The bats that live in our area include the big brown bat, the little brown bat, the Indiana bat, the northern long-eared bat, the small-footed bat, the silver-haired bat, the red bat, and the hoary bat.

Hoary bats are the largest bat of the Eastern forests, and they roost in trees, preferably conifers. They eat mostly moths, but will also eat beetles and mosquitoes.

Indiana bat

The big brown bat is next largest in size, and it is an important deterrent of insects for farming communities. Their food includes stinkbugs, leafhoppers, and June bugs, all of which are major agricultural pests. Big brown bats have been known to live as long as 19 years.

The little brown bat is the most common bat in our area. Little brown bats make several feeding flights in an evening, and they are one of the most prolific eaters of insects. Females only bear a single pup (baby) each year.

The small-footed bat, also known as Leib’s bat, is one of the smallest bats in North America. It resembles the little brown bat, but it is less common. Very little is actually known about this bat.

The Indiana bat often hibernates in large caves in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kentucky. Indiana bats are also known as the “social bat,” because they typically roost in large groups of approximately 250. Unfortunately, cavers often disturb their hibernation, and can awaken them and force them out into the cold. The Indiana bat was listed as federally endangered under the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1967, due to the dramatic decline of populations throughout their range.

Silver haired bat

Silver-haired, red, and hoary bats all migrate south for the winter rather than hibernate.

Unfortunately there is a fatal disease that is taking a high toll on many species of bats called white-nose syndrome. The disease, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, is caused by a fungus that thrives in the cold environments where bats hibernate. Hibernating bats with white-nose syndrome will often display this white fungus on their noses and on other hairless parts of their bodies. The Indiana bat has been severely affected by this disease. It prevents them from flying properly. There has been a lot of research into halting the spread of this disease.

So the next time you are outside in the evening and you hear bats flying above you, just remember they are eating insects while you are enjoying your margarita and chocolate candy.


A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Forest Service Southern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, SRS,; Jerry A. Payne USDA Agricultural Research Service; US Fish and Wildlife Service; and Lassen NPS.


Posted: 10/05/18   RSS | Print


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Passalong Plants
by Bill Pitts    

Clockwise: Cosmos bipinnatus is a sporadic reseeder in my garden, while its orange-yellow cousin C. sulphureus is more aggressive. • Shirley poppies are easy to grow and will volunteer, but for the best show, sow more seeds every fall. • Bishop’s flower (Ammi majus) is an annual cousin of Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota).

Walk into nearly any garden center and take a look at the French marigolds (Tagetes patula). You will see dwarf plants with large, very double blooms, almost always in plain orange or yellow. I’ve bought them when I needed quick and familiar color. That said, there is much more to the French marigold.

Grow some heirloom varieties and you will discover just how unusual and beautiful these supposedly common flowers can be. There are marigolds that become sprawling 4-foot shrubs, marigolds that look like idealized wildflowers, and others that defy comparison. There are marigolds with stripes, splashes, daubs, or gilded edges. The colors range from clear buttery yellow to dark velvety maroon, with many shades of brick, burnt orange, and gold between. There are even marigolds with leaves that don’t smell like marigolds. Unlike the usual hybrids, these nearly forgotten varieties attract lots of beneficial insects to the garden. Their extensive root systems can even reduce root knot-nematodes.

French marigolds are only the beginning. There is a whole universe of heirloom flowering annuals out there. Most of them thrive in Florida, and many of them are truly extraordinary.

I have a garden buddy that does not think much of heirlooms. He prefers the cutting-edge hybrids offered by the big seed sellers. So I was pleased when he paused to admire an old Browallia americana variety in my garden. He did not recognize the sprays of blue flowers because they were so airy and delicate compared to the compact hybrid browallias usually seen in garden centers. He asked me how I grew them, and I got to tell him they spring up in the shady spots every year, all on their own.

Clockwise: This old variety of Ageratum, said to be grown by Thomas Jefferson, has adapted to my garden, becoming more vigorous every year. • Open-pollinated zinnias, like those of Sunset Mix by Peace Seeds, seem more vigorous than hybrids in my garden. • Many annual heirlooms, such as this toadflax, can be grown as wildflower lawns.

Many heirloom annuals will reseed, though not all are as dependable as browallia. If I sow Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoeas), toadflax (Linaria maroccana), and catchfly (Silene armeria), all three will continue to pop up here and there in the garden for several years afterward. At some point they will disappear completely and I will start over, either with seed I have saved or a new pack.

Other heirloom annuals are true wildflowers that will thrive, year after year, with next to no help. Blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella) and common tickseed (Coreopsis leavenworthii) – both old Florida garden favorites – are native to much of the state. Some wildflowers, such as annual phlox (P. drummondii) and Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) are naturalized. A few aggressive exotics, such as cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit), can become weedy if you don’t keep them in check, but are worth the danger.

Order a packet of hybrid pansy seeds (Viola x wittrockiana) and you will likely spend four or five dollars for 25 seeds. You pay a lot for a little because these seeds have been bred under carefully controlled conditions and trademarked. Contrast this with Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor), an old cottage garden favorite. You will typically spend only two to three dollars for a packet of hundreds or even thousands of Johnny-jump-up seeds. With hybrid pansies, you’ll end up with a couple of dozen bedding plants at best. With the Johnny-jump-ups you can sow an entire cool-season “lawn.” (It’s even prettier if you mix them with a pack of sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima). While the hybrid pansies will be predictable, resembling those in the catalog, the heirlooms will have more variation. Some plants will stretch upright. Others sprawl. The purples and yellows will be intense in one, pastel in another. A few will be pale clear blue, nearly white. Even the scents vary. You could try culling out weak or unusually vigorous seedlings, in hopes of making them more alike, but why bother? With heirloom flowers, surprises are part of the fun.

Clockwise: This sunflower, bred by Peace Seeds, is the result of natural crosses between many old varieties of Helianthus annuus as well as some wild species. • Although heirloom annuals can be used in formal mass plantings, many, such as this poppy and Florida-adapted phlox, blend especially well in meadows and cottage gardens. • Toadflax, like many heirloom annuals, attracts beneficial insects to the garden.

This variability allows heirlooms to adapt to a site – and to a gardener. If you save seeds from your favorite open-pollinated zinnias (Z. elegans), for example, many of the plants that grow from these seeds will have the traits you admired in their parents. Save seeds from the second generation, and these traits will often become more pronounced in the third. If you keep this up a decade or two, you will eventually develop a zinnia especially adapted not only to your garden, but to your tastes. The zinnia will become an expression of you.

There is much more to the French marigold than the orange and yellow pom-poms found in most garden centers.

For me, this is part of the magic of gardening, but I still don’t save my zinnia seeds. To select truly the best zinnias would mean growing a lot of zinnias to choose from – more zinnias than I have the space for. Instead, I grow a few examples of the prettiest heirloom zinnia varieties I can buy. My favorite, far and away, is Sunset Mix from Peace Seeds. Dr. Alan Kapuler created this mix by planting many old zinnia varieties in his garden, allowing them to cross naturally, and collecting the seeds from the best plants over decades. These zinnias are not only beautiful, but far more vigorous than any other zinnias I have ever grown, including the hybrids.

With heirloom annuals that dependably self-sow, there is also a process of selection going on, but it is Mother Nature who does the choosing, not me. The gaillardia and coreopsis come back stronger – and in greater numbers – each spring because they are the offspring of plants that did best in my garden the previous year. I expect them to be better still in the future. You can speed up this process by starting with seeds from strains already adapted to Florida, such as those offered by the Florida Wildflowers Growers Cooperative.

As much as I love heirloom annual flowers, sometimes one will disappoint me. Peruvian zinnias (Z. peruviana) are always spindly in my garden. When I allow balsam impatiens (I. balsamina) to self-sow, the resulting plants have washed-out blooms. I have yet to grow an heirloom moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora) I am satisfied with. But these exceptions are few. Usually when I go to an heirloom variety, I never look back.

Not all heirloom annuals are dainty. Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) will grow 6 feet tall and nearly as wide.

Obtaining quality seeds can be a challenge. The flower sections of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Baker Creek Heirlooms are a good place to start. For difficult-to-find seeds – like the browallia – try J.L. Hudson. For truly outstanding French marigolds, sunflowers, and zinnias, I turn to Peace Seeds.

Some of the best sources for heirloom annuals are fellow gardeners who share or swap seeds. If you are lucky enough to be passed a few seeds “over the fence,” grow them, and keep passing them along.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 23 Number 5.
Photography courtesy of Bill Pitts.


Posted: 10/05/18   RSS | Print


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Gardening Goofs
by Douglas A. Spilker, Ph.D.    

Do not add diseased garden plants, like these tomatoes, to the compost pile. Composting will not kill the pathogen, making it a source of disease next year.

One positive aspect of living in an area with four actual, distinct seasons is that each spring starts afresh – with enthusiasm and excitement for gardening, with an expectation of doing better than the year before. With a promise to learn from mistakes, we move optimistically into another growing season. Learning from others’ goofs may help you avoid these pitfalls:

Right plant – Right Place
Too many gardeners choose plants solely based on looks, not their required growing conditions. Ignoring this will likely result in failure. For example, it is a mistake to plant sun-loving plants in deep shade or in the spring under a leafless tree or planting shade-loving plants, such as Hosta, in an open area. They may look great at first, but then just dwindle away. Instead, study your landscape and note the various locations for light availability and duration, drainage, and soil conditions. Respect the specifics on the plant tags of new plant material or look up the information from websites.

Choosing the “right plant for the right place” is an important consideration for all types of landscaping. For example, never try to grow shade-loving Hosta in full sun, as leaf scald will undoubtedly result.

Select with your head, not your heart
Attempting to grow plant varieties that are a bad match for your climate is a losing battle. Do a bit of research before selecting your plants to increase your chance of success. Selection of plants that bring back sentimental memories is fun, but make sure they’ll be able to survive your climate.

Give ’em space!
Trees and shrubs that appear properly spaced when you plant them may still end up too crowd as they mature. That will result in competition for water, sun, and nutrients. Give trees plenty of room to grow; you can always fill in later.

Stagger shrubs and larger plants to provide more breathing room. The results may look odd initially, but after a few years, they will fill in. Proper spacing improves air circulation, which reduces the development of diseases such as powdery mildew, which thrives in high humidity.

Deadheading the spent flower heads of ‘Indian Summer’ brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba ‘Indian Summer’) will encourage the setting of new flower buds.


Do you Deadhead?

Most gardening goofs are just doing something wrong; however, NOT doing something can also have undesirable consequences. The monotonous task of deadheading is too often neglected. Flowers need to be removed before they set seed in. order to prolong the blooming season. Deadheading is nothing more than removing dead or spent flowers, and actually encourages plants to set more flower buds. Most annual flowers, such as Petunia, Zinnia, and marigold (Tagetes spp.), as well as perennials like Rudbeckia and Echinacea, all flourish from deadheading. Learn which plants in your landscape benefit from deadheading, get to it, and see the amazing results!

Don’t toss just anything into the compost pile
A good trend is the increased use of backyard compost bins. By adding compost, you improve the overall texture of your soil enabling it to retain and drain water better. However, even though it is really easy to just toss pulled weeds and diseased leaves into the compost bin, fungal and bacterial pathogens can overwinter in dead plant material and seeds of weedy plants will not be killed during the composting process. Contaminated compost can easily reintroduce this year’s troubles into next year’s garden. Take the time to ensure you dispose of contaminated material properly, to reduce chances of infecting next year’s plants

Wait for the results
An avid gardener will tell you that proper soil health is the secret to success. Your soil’s pH level, mineral balance, density, and aeration are all factors in plant success. Most cooperative extension service offices provide soil testing services for a minimal charge. However, as the growing season approaches, the longer it will take to get your results and recommendations. If you do not submit your samples early enough, you might be tempted to start gardening before receiving the results. But wait, improving soil conditions after plants are in the ground is challenging at best.

Surprisingly, soils with extreme organic matter may have excessive potassium levels that can inhibit plants’ ability to absorb other nutrients. This rhubarb plant suffers from nitrogen deficiency. Get that soil tested to ensure the right balance.

Did I waste my money?
Although fall is the best time to establish cool-season lawns from seed, Midwestern winters commonly thin turf, making spring overseeding very tempting to bring back the turf density before summer hits. The spring application of a combination pre-emergent crabgrass preventer and fertilizer is a routine practice for most homeowners. However, you cannot do both tasks simultaneously – the crabgrass preventer will also kill emerging turfgrass seedlings! Do one or the other, or you will have wasted your money on the grass seed!

More is not better!
Using pesticides is sometimes a necessity after other pest control options have failed. Whether using natural or conventional pesticides, they should always be used according to the label instructions and precautions. Recommended application rates, application sites, and pests controlled have all been determined through extensive research and testing. There is a tendency to believe that if the labeled rate is good, then double that should be twice as effective. NOT TRUE. This is faulty logic. Higher rates may actually harm plants. Many liquid products contain petroleum-based ingredients to enhance the product’s performance, and higher rates of these products may cause leaf burn. Always read and follow the recommendations on the pesticide label for best results. (It’s the law.)

As gardeners, we’re constantly trying to reduce our gardening gaffes, but Mother Nature always seems to throw something new at us. But as they say, hope springs eternal … and there’s always next year!


A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Douglas A. Spilker, Ph.D.


Posted: 10/05/18   RSS | Print


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No Judgement
by PJ Gartin    

Butterfly bush’s open growth habit is obscured when planted in masses. They also ease the vertical transition from the water to the cabbage palms and contribute to the setting’s balance and scale.

There isn’t a single gardener on this green Earth who doesn’t harbor plant prejudices. Some of us moan that Zinnia are too common, while others judge Agapanthus as old-fashioned and boring. Surely, I’m not the only one who’s tired of seeing yellow swaths of Chinese hibiscus (H. rosa-sinensis) interspersed with croton (Codiaeum variegatum). This pair, along with their faithful sidekick, Vinca, has been so overplanted at commercial sites that home gardeners now refer to them as “shopping-center” plants.

Oh, but let’s not confine our rant to herbaceous flora. Ligustrum, Pittosporum, and Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata) are so pervasive that we no longer pay attention to these durable shrubs.

Rather than relegating an oversized rose-of-Sharon to the center of a lawn, reduce its size and let it join the garden party.

Rose-of-Sharon isn’t the only chubby overgrown shrub that lends itself to severe pruning. This potted oleander (Nerium oleander) adds a sparkle of color to this earth-toned enclosure while also providing vertical interest.

Although we’d rather eat compost than inflict our gardening opinions on others, the truth is that most of us are garden snobs. If we stop pointing fingers, we’d be more successful with our own garden designs. It’s time to remove our horticultural blinkers and accept that it’s not what you plant but how you grow it.

Take rose-of-Sharon or althea (Hibiscus syriacus). We plant it in the wrong place, then blame it for looking unattractive – not us. This periwinkle-blue-flowering shrub is often found all by itself in the middle of a lawn, surrounded by nothing but grass. Yuck. Several planted closely together to form a screen look only slightly better. But get this – when reduced to a few tall stems and layered with other shrubs and perennials, it becomes a stunning addition to a small garden.

This tall hibiscus (8-10 feet) blooms in late spring or early summer – about the same time bigleaf and lacecap hydrangeas (H. macrophylla) are in full flower. When rose-of-Sharon’s star-shaped blossoms twinkle in the morning sunlight above hydrangea’s bluish hues, the overall effect is exquisite. To complete this setting, play off the subtleties of rose-of-Sharon’s scarlet blossom centers by incorporating wisps of a similar color near it.

Turning ordinary plants, such as rose-of-Sharon into attributes isn’t difficult. All it takes is patience and a discerning eye. Rather than bidding an undesirable plant good riddance, consider how it might look in a different location, or if it could unify an assortment of plants with contrasting textures and heights. If an annoying shrub grows too close to a building but can’t be transplanted, consider coaxing it into a more interesting shape and espalier it to the structure. Many ornamental shrubs, including rose-of-Sharon, are amenable to this technique.

Why are ligustrum, pittosporum, and Japanese yew so omnipresent? Because they’re relatively disease-proof and shrug off our heat and humidity. This is why landscape architects regularly include them in design plans. These evergreen shrubs also make excellent foils and backdrops for other plants.

Shrubs with open growing habits, such as butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.), often look better when grown in front of the much denser ligustrum, pittosporum, and Japanese yew. If fuller shrubs are not available, plant masses of butterfly bush closely together. When in full bloom, the crowding transforms this plant’s airiness into clouds of breathtaking color.

Ordinary shrubs aren’t the only plants that can be transformed into valuable garden companions. Trees are exceptional modifiers of scale. Tall ones soaring above and from behind a house contribute to the overall spatial organization of a property. Trees also help to frame and enhance architectural detail.

Italian or Mediterranean cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) has an unfavorable reputation among some gardeners. This is because it often ends up as an out-of-proportion towering screen in front of a house. However, this tall (30+ feet) columnar evergreen makes an attractive accent near a building, and several planted along an expansive brick wall interrupts monotony. When several are situated behind a home, they enhance the visual relationship between the house and the front yard.

This intentionally exaggerated sketch of an Italian cypress-filled landscape is meant to show how planting groups of them presents a dramatic effect.

For a more interesting effect, place a trio of cabbage or sabal palmetto at the edge of a property instead of lining them up in a straight line across the front.

Rather than installing Italian cypress in straight lines, consider planting odd numbers in a cluster. They look more interesting if they are not the same height. Varying heights also eliminates the angst of trying to maintain symmetry and, if some of the crowns begin to tip downward, this will add additional interest. Another plus to grouping several together is that if one becomes damaged and must be removed, its replacement will not look shockingly out of place.

Cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto) is another tall tree that is regularly planted in straight lines. Although some horticulturists argue that South Carolina’s state tree should remain in maritime forests and not home landscapes, this hasn’t stopped determined gardeners from planting them. But instead of placing a pair at the end of the drive or a row of them in front of the house, consider planting a tightly clustered trio near the edge of a property.

Turning run-of-the-mill annuals and perennials into dazzling garden accessories frequently requires a slightly different approach because so many of them grow close to the ground. Because of this, we conceptualize horizontally and skip the vertical part of the equation. Low-growing plants need taller companions in order for us to notice them. That’s why we’re smitten with window box arrangements. We approach them at eye level. A similar strategy is to provide seating next to a large container filled with small plants for a face-to-face encounter.

Resist planting in rows because they are static. Abandoning symmetry opens up opportunities to play off light and shadows and offers new approaches for creating transitions. Even if the overall garden design is formal, don’t be afraid to create surprises. Make a border more visually engaging by letting Coreopsis peek out from behind a Japanese yew.

In conclusion, overused or seemingly lackluster plants don’t deserve banishment. Instead, figure out how to reconnect these plants to our landscapes. When our yards and gardens speak to us – even when they’re brimming with workhorse shrubs and trees and ordinary flowers – we’ve mastered the power of scale and proportion. And once we understand the importance of three-dimensional organization, we’re free to continue our gardening adventure without worrying about what’s currently popular or out of date.


A version of this article appeared in a October 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography and illustration courtesy of PJ Gartin.


Posted: 10/05/18   RSS | Print


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Super-Sized Sculptures
by Kelly Bledsoe    

Sculptures trigger feelings and emotions, so it is important to determine which sculpture fits into which garden.

Throughout the years, I have explored and taken pictures of lots and lots of gardens. I am always amazed and intrigued by the personal touches gardeners add, and lately my eyes have been drawn to selectively placed, oversized sculptures.

These super-sized sculptures seem to have a calming effect and perhaps this is why I am so drawn to them in my perpetually chaotic life. These larger-than-life sculptures strategically situated in the garden, without distraction from nearby plants, structures or any other elements, have captured my interest and a good bit of my spare time.

Super-sized sculptures can be manipulated by adjusting the closeness and distance through garden design. The impact of the sculpture depends on angles and distance.

Garden sculptures, when chosen and sited carefully, not only enhance a garden, but also emphasize design and plantings throughout the seasons. One of my favorite pastimes is to take a path less traveled when searching for unique garden art. It is fascinating to discover unusual displays of metal and ceramic art that provoke responses such as respect, pleasure, beauty, awe, humor, reflection, mystery or surprise. And isn’t that what we as gardeners do in our gardens … strive to elicit emotion?

I especially love the overly exaggerated pieces that literally stop you in your tracks and make you contemplate the piece and everything around it. A sculpture placed in the exact right position focuses, intensifies and animates the environment around it. It relates to weather, light, and the close and long-distance views that enhance and personalize your garden.

Positioning sculptures is just as important as selection. A properly placed sculpture will automatically draw one into the garden.

Sculptures, no matter how large, must coexist with the natural setting.

Gardens and sculptures relate together so intimately that even subtle changes in lighting can offer a different perspective on pieces in different seasons.

In a garden, a sculpture relates to everything around it – weather, light and vegetation.

Meadows or expansive stretches of lawn are ideal locations for bold pieces of art. The negative space surrounding such a sculpture perfectly complements it, allowing the viewer plenty of time to peacefully take it all in, and to think. It’s the scale and proportion of the art combined with large and open spaces that work so well together.

In addition to grandiose works of art, incorporating any amazing art piece will bring a unique and inimitable flavor to your backyard. An essential principle to remember when adding art to your garden is to not overdo it at any point. Your backyard is a space where you still want nature to play the lead role. Whatever you add to this setting must complement the serene, or perhaps the spectacular, green canopy. But that is all it can and should do. Never clutter your garden with too much. Sometimes a single art installation, such as an interesting statue or super-sized sculpture, will do.

Many sculptures are placed on plinths, platforms or supports to secure them permanently in place. Because of the large size of garden sculptures, once set down they are rarely moved.

Choosing a sculpture with a particular garden in mind determines or reinforces the theme and feeling of a garden.
Abstract or realistic … the sky is the limit when searching out garden sculptures.


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 26 Number 8.
Photography courtesy of Kelly Bledsoe.


Posted: 10/04/18   RSS | Print


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Focal-Point Plants
by Shannon Pable    

Take an ordinary plant and do something extraordinary with it to create a focal point.

Have you ever wondered why some gardens suck you in, transporting you to another dimension, your curiosity pulling you around every corner, while others have about as much interest as your sock drawer, leaving no lasting impression? What element is missing?  

A focal point is that element that is used to draw your eye into the garden. Your gaze will stop at this element. Then your eye will travel to adjacent plants and details that you may not have noticed otherwise. Having a series of focal points, each just visible from a distance, will help guide you through the garden, from one garden room to the next. 

What makes a plant a focal point? It could be form, color or texture, something that catches your eye that is unique from anything else surrounding it. It is large enough to stand on its own, but you must be mindful of scale. If it’s too small for the “garden room,” it will not be noticed. And if it’s too large, it will completely overpower the garden and be out of balance. You will want to select a plant that has year-round interest unless it’s used in a garden area that is only visited during a particular season, such as summer. 

Where should a focal point go? Tara Dillard’s book, Beautiful by Design, does a wonderful job explaining this and more about focal points. The placement of your focal point might be a view from your kitchen window or from the garden gate. It might be next to a garden bench or just barely visible, leading you down a winding path. 

Focal points can be static or dynamic. A statue is static; it’s not going to change unless you physically do something to it. Obviously, plants are dynamic — they are ever transitioning from season to season, usually changing in color and increasing in size. Using a plant as a focal point not only can change in appearance, it can also change in location: One plant might dominate over another during a specific season, thus moving your focal point.

A Few Pointers

  • To make your focal point pop, use a contrasting solid color backdrop, preferably evergreen if it’s plant material.
  • Be sure to select a focal point for more than just flowers. Flowers are beautiful but short term. Think about foliage and form too! 
  • In formal gardens, the placement of your focal-point plant might be in the center of a view with symmetrical plantings on each side. In an informal garden, it might be slightly off center, but balanced, and a bit more unpredictable.
  • Remember that if you prune a plant into a topiary, thus creating a unique shape, you have created an interesting focal point. So use your imagination and turn the plain and ordinary into cool and unusual! 

The following list of focal-point plants include picks by a few great local designers followed by some of my own favorites. And I must admit, I’m very partial to conifers because of their four-season color and beautiful form. I also love the interesting branching structures of contorted and weeping deciduous trees.

Interesting Focal-Point Plant Picks from Local Designers

Danna Cain, ASLA, Owner of Home & Garden Design, Inc.

  • Verdon hinoki cypress
    Verdon hinoki cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Verdoni’
    A very slow-growing upright, but compact and slightly contorted, conifer that has green on its inner leaves with a golden hue towards the foliage tips; 5 to 8 feet tall by 2 to 3 feet wide; full sun; Zones 4 to 8; evergreen.  
  • Cypress ‘Carolina Sapphire’, Cupressus arizonica ‘Carolina Sapphire’
    A fast-growing pyramidal (similar in shape to a Leyland cypress) conifer with bluish-gray foliage; 30 feet tall by 8 feet wide; full sun; Zones 7 to 10; evergreen.
  • Camellia x ‘Taylor’s Perfection’, cross of C. sasanqua and C. japonica
    A dark green shrub with large,  pink semi-double flowers in late Jan/Feb; 6 to 8 feet tall and wide; filtered sun; Zones 7 to 10; evergreen. 

Daryl Pulis, Owner of Mrs. Green Thumb 

  • Bark of a ‘Natchez’ crapemyrtle.
    ‘Natchez’ crapemyrtle, Lagerstroemia indica ‘Natchez’
    A fast-growing tree with beautiful cinnamon-colored exfoliating bark, white blooms in summer; 30 feet tall by 20 feet wide canopy; full sun; Zones 7 to 10; deciduous. 
  • Contorted mulberry, Morus alba ‘Contorta’ 
    An interesting shrublike tree with contorted branches, producing fruit in fall; 15 feet tall and wide; full to part sun; Zones 5 to 10; deciduous. 
  • Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum
    A beautiful and stately deciduous upright pyramidal (top flattens out with age) conifer; can reach up to 130+ feet tall with a 60-foot-wide canopy; sun to shade; Zones 5 to 10. 

My Favorite Focal-Point Plants 


  • Weeping blue Atlas cedar

    Weeping Alaskan cedar

    ‘Rasen-Sugi’ cryptomeria
    Weeping blue Atlas cedar, Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’
    Graceful weeping cedar with blue-gray foliage; 8 to 10 feet tall by 10 to 20 feet wide (size/shape greatly depends on how it is trained); full sun to part shade; Zones 6 to 9; very slow growing. 
  • Weeping Alaskan cedar, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’ 
    Deep emerald green, upright conifer with weeping foliage; 25 to 30 feet tall by 10 to 15 feet wide; full sun to part shade; Zones 4 to 7; try the cultivar ‘Green Arrow’ for a very narrow specimen.
  • Deodar cedar, Cedrus deodara 
    A pyramidal tree with beautiful, airy, soft blue-gray foliage. For golden foliage, use ‘Aurea’. For a dwarf weeping form, ‘Crystal Falls’ grows 8 to 20 feet tall by 6 to 10 feet wide (depends on how it is trained), or ‘Feeling Blue’, 2 to 3 feet tall by 6 feet wide (more of a prostrate form).  
  • ‘Frosty’ Himalayan pine, Pinus wallichiana ‘Frosty’ 
    When I first saw this at Jody Karlin’s nursery, I said, “Wow!” Beautiful, silvery, long, airy needle-like foliage; pyramidal shape; 8 feet tall by 5 feet wide in 10 years; full sun to part shade; Zones 5 to 7. 
  • Weeping temple juniper, Juniperus rigida ‘Pendula’ 
    A gracefully weeping, upright juniper with grayish green foliage; 20 feet tall by 10 feet wide (size/shape depends on how it is trained); full sun; Zones 5 to 8. 
  • Weeping white pine, Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’ 
    I’m in love with this specimen! A graceful and soft medium-green, weeping white pine; 6 to 10 feet tall by 10 to 15 feet wide (depends on how it is trained); full sun to part shade; Zones 3 to 8.
  • ‘Wate’s Golden’ pine, Pinus virginiana ‘Wate’s Golden’ 
    Upright tree with dramatic golden yellow foliage in winter (yellow-green during warm months); 15 to 20 feet tall by 10 to 15 feet wide (very slow growing but can reach 40 feet tall, yet easily trained to remain dwarf); full sun (can take part shade but golden color in winter won’t be as intense); Zones 4 to 9.
  • Golden hinoki cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Crippsii’ 
    A slow-growing pyramidal conifer that is green on the inner leaves and golden towards the foliage tips; 30 feet tall by 15 feet wide; full sun; Zones 4 to 8; evergreen.  
  • ‘Thunderhead’ dwarf Japanese black pine, Pinus thunbergii ‘Thunderhead’ 
    Deep emerald green, stiff needled, compact tree/shrub with a rounded form; 6 to 8 feet tall by 4 to 6 feet wide in 10 years (slow growing and easily trained); full sun to part shade; Zones 5 to 8. 
  • Weeping Canadian hemlock, Tsuga canadensis ‘Sargentii’ 
    Deep emerald green, small-needled weeping conifer; 6 to 8 feet tall by 6 to 10 feet wide in 10 years (slow growing and easily trained, basically as tall as it is staked); part to full shade; Zones 4 to 7.
  • Weeping Norway spruce, Picea abies ‘Pendula’ 
    Grayish green, small-needled weeping conifer; typically 3 to 6 feet tall by 2 to 6 feet wide in 10 years (slow growing, will grow to 3 feet tall then will crawl along the ground unless staked upright, which is typically the case); full sun to part shade; Zones 2 to 8. I wouldn’t have believed that they would do well here if it weren’t for my neighbor who has had two very healthy specimens for 10-plus years in her landscape. 
  • ‘Raywood’s Weeping’ Arizona cypress, Cupressus arizonica glabra ‘Raywood’s Weeping’ 
    Grayish blue foliage; tall narrow conifer with weeping branches; 20 to 25 feet tall by 2 to 3 feet wide; full sun; Zones 5 to 8.
  • ‘Rasen-Sugi’ Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica ‘Rasen-Sugi’ 
    Emerald green foliage, somewhat unusual asymmetrical shape with very unusual twisted, wiry-looking foliage; 12 to 15 feet tall by 6 to 10 feet wide; full sun to part shade; Zones 6 to 9. 

Other evergreens:

  • Camellia (Camellia spp.)
    Beautiful deep green evergreen foliage. C. sasanqua bloom in the fall and C. japonica bloom in winter. One of my favorites is C. japonica ‘Black Magic’ — very glossy, holly-like, showy foliage with the deepest red, semi-double flowers that are shiny, almost waxy looking; 10 feet tall by 6 feet wide; part shade; Zones 6 to 9.

‘Emily Bruner’ holly.
  • Holly (Ilex spp.)
    There are so many hollies to choose from, but here are a few that I think stand out more than others:  

Weeping yaupon holly, Ilex vomitoria ‘Pendula’ 
Deep green, small leaves; upright with arching/weeping branches; red berries in autumn; 10 to 15 feet tall by 6 to 10 feet wide (size depends on how it is trained); sun to part shade; Zones 7 to 10.  

‘Emily Bruner’ holly, Ilex ‘Emily Bruner’ 
Emerald green, shiny spiny leaves; upright pyramidal; large bright-red clusters of berries; 20 feet tall by 15 feet wide; full sun to part shade; Zones 7 to 9. 

‘Goshiki’ false holly, Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ 
Variegated holly-like leaves with new growth pink to bronze; mounding form (easily shaped); 8 to 10 feet tall by 4 to 6 feet wide (slow growing, 4 to 6 feet tall in 10 years); full sun to shade; Zones (6)7 to 9 (in Zone 6 leaves might be frost damaged). 

  • Needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix)
    This is an incredibly cold-hardy, native shrub palm; 6 feet tall by 10 feet wide; very slow growing; full shade to part shade; Zones 6 to 10.

Deciduous (woody plants):

  • The burgundy foliage of the Japanese maple brings your eye to the garden entrance.

    Very young Japanese maples can be placed in containers for better effect.

    ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud
    Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)
    Japanese maples come in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors and forms. Any Japanese maple is a beautiful focal point year round because of its foliage and branching structure. Some of my favorites include:  

Coral bark maple, A. palmatum ‘Sango-Kaku’ 
Beautiful chartreuse foliage turning bright yellow in fall with coral-colored bark (more intense color in winter and on new growth); a fast grower to 15 to 20 feet tall by 10 to 15 feet wide; full sun to part shade; Zones 6 to 8.  

A. palmatum ‘Inaba Shidare’ 
A beautiful laceleaf, wide mounding tree with great leaf color (deep burgundy in spring, turning red then bronzy green in summer, then intense red in autumn); tolerates our heat and sun well; 5 to 7 feet tall by 8 to 12 feet wide; sun to part shade; Zones 5 to 9.  

  • Variegated redtwig dogwood, Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’
    This multi-stemmed shrub yields vivid red branches on new growth in winter (usually pruned low to the ground to produce the new growth); 6 to 8 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide (usually pruned shorter); small fragrant white flowers in spring; variegated foliage during the warm seasons; full to part sun; Zones 2 to 8.
  • ‘Snow Queen’ oakleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’
    This is a more upright oakleaf hydrangea; blooms in May and persists through summer; beautiful red/burgundy fall foliage (depending on the cultivar, there’s quite a range of fall leaf color available) with leaves often hanging on through winter; cinnamon-colored exfoliating bark; 8 feet tall and wide; full to part shade; Zones 6 to 9. Another beautiful cultivar is ‘Harmony’ with incredible flowers.
  • Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii
    Small, slow-growing, typically multi-trunked native tree with tiny white flower clusters in spring turning to red berries in late summer/fall with exfoliating bark; 15 feet tall and wide; full sun to part shade; Zones (6)7 to 9. This lovely tree should be utilized more in the garden.
  • Lacebark elm (Chinese elm), Ulmus parvifolia
    A fast-growing, beautiful shade tree. Forms a very dense shade canopy, with beautiful exfoliating bark creating splendid winter interest; 40 feet tall and wide; full sun; Zones 4 to 9. For a denser, tighter mounding canopy, try the cultivar ‘Athena’. 
  • Weeping winged elm, Ulmus alata ‘Lace Parasol’
    Its graceful weeping and arching habit lends an Asian feel to the landscape. Its unusual winged, corky bark adds interest in winter; 6 to 10 feet tall by 10 to 12 feet wide; full sun to part shade; Zones 6 to 9.
  •  Lavender Twist weeping redbud, Cercis canadensis ‘Covey’
    This weeping redbud is a cultivar of our native redbud and is a spectacular specimen for small spaces. Its shape and size are easily manipulated. Does not get much taller than it is staked at the nursery, typically 6 feet tall and wide; blooms in late winter followed by long thin seedpods in the summer. Naked branching structure in winter is spectacular; part to full sun (best blooms with more sun); Zones 5 to 9. For a purple-foliage specimen, try ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud, reaching about 15 to 20 feet tall and wide.
  • Weeping dwarf cherry, Prunus x ‘Snow Fountain’
    White blooms in early spring, and interesting branch structure in winter; 12 to 15 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet wide; full sun to part shade; Zones 5 to 8. 
  • Dura Heat river birch, Betula nigra ‘BNMTF’
    This is the more heat-tolerant cultivar of our native river birch that will hold onto its leaves better in summer. This cultivar offers lustrous, dense, deep green foliage turning buttery yellow in the fall with creamy white, gray and cinnamon exfoliating bark; fast growing, 40+ feet tall x 25 feet wide; full sun; Zones 4 to 9. Prefers moist soil and can tolerate wet. For a smaller, more compact cultivar, try ‘Little King’ — 12 feet tall and wide. For a dwarf weeping form, try ‘Summer Cascade’ river birch — 6 to 8 feet tall by 8 to 10 feet wide (size depends on how it is trained). 
  • ‘Bonfire’ peach, Prunus persica ‘Bonfire’
    A dwarf patio peach with purple foliage, showy pink flowers in spring, a prolific fruiter; 4 to 5 feet tall by 5 to 6 feet wide; full sun; Zones 5 to 9. 
  • Contorted black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Lacy Lady’
    Very interesting, contorted branches; fragrant yellow spring blooms; 15 feet tall and wide; full sun; Zones 4 to 9.
  • Contorted filbert or Harry Lauder’s walkingstick, Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’
    This is probably the most common of all contorted-growth specimens with a very cool branching structure and catkins in late winter; growth reaching 10 feet tall and wide; full sun to part shade; Zones 4 to 8; extremely slow growing. 
  • Possumhaw, Ilex decidua
    A nice wide, vase-shaped, small, multi-branched tree; 15-plus feet tall and wide, with brilliant red berries in winter; full sun to part shade; Zones 5 to 9. For a smaller but similar specimen, try winterberry, Ilex verticillata. Note: Hollies are dioecious — the female plant needs a male companion for pollination to produce berries. 
  • Weeping bald cypress, Taxodium distichum ‘Cascade Falls’
    A very interesting branching structure displayed in winter; typically 6 to 8-plus feet tall and wide (size and shape easily manipulated); sun to shade; Zones 5 to 10.

Specialty Nurseries to Visit: 

Maple Ridge Nursery 
Superb selection of Japanese maples and conifers.

Wilkerson Mill 
One of the most extensive collections of hydrangeas and so much more.

Specialty Ornamentals 
Great variety of conifers and other woody ornamentals.


Danna Cain, ASLA, Owner of Home & Garden Design, Inc.

Daryl Pulis, Owner of Mrs. Green Thumb

A version of this article appeared in Georgia Gardening Volume 9 Number 7.
Photography courtesy of Shannon Pable.


Posted: 10/04/18   RSS | Print


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Cactus Collecting
by Timothy J. Malinich       #Plant Profile   #Xeriscaping

Several species of Mammillaria will not only flower every year, but may also reward you with brightly colored fruit.

Cacti (singular cactus) catch the eye of many hobbyists. They are easy and rewarding to grow, fun to display, and readily available. People are often hesitant to grow them because they fear the reputation of these desert denizens. Here are a few tips that will hopefully de-mystify the collecting of cacti.

Names given to cacti tend to create confusion for the collector. Common names used by hobbyists often include entire groups of related plants. For instance, the genus Gymnocalycium has about 71 species, but they are all referred to as “chin cactus” for the dimple between each cluster of spines on the rib.

Each cactus does have its own scientific name, listed as Genus species, where the genus is general and the species more specific. Even that has gotten confusing as taxonomists (people who identify, describe, and name plants) have reclassified hundreds of cactus species. Growers, collectors, and suppliers may or may not adopt those changes, so you may find two or three scientific names referring to the same plant. When you research plants, look for synonyms of the name in the listing.

Some easy-to-grow cacti, such as Gymnocalycium, will also flower on a regular basis if provided the correct balance of light, water, fertilizer, and winter rest.

Plant Collections
Cactus hobbyists quickly run out of room for their collection. Consider the size of the plants as your interest sharpens; think of how it might fit into your home or greenhouse. Many of the globose plants, such as Gymnocalycium, will remain small their entire life. A 30-year-old G. horstii can still be less than 10 inches tall and 6 inches wide. Columnar cacti, such as Cephalocereus or Cereus, however, can reach heights of 50 feet and will outgrow a typical indoor ceiling within 10 years.

Cleistocactus and Oreocereus are also tall columnar cacti, but more manageable in size. In cultivation, they may reach several feet in height; difficult to manage, but still possible. Clump-forming plants, such as Opuntia (prickly pear, bunny ears) or Mammillaria, are manageable as far as height, but will need room to spread as they mature.

Growing Cacti
Cacti prefer very well-drained soil. They have a limited root system that cannot handle large amounts of moisture. A small root system in a large pot and a soil mix that holds plenty of moisture will create ideal conditions for root rot. Choose a pot that seems too small for the cactus you are planting. A pot that is only 2 inches wider than a globose (short and round) plant is large enough. If you want to plant a group of cactus plants, keep each one in its individual pot and use filler, such as stone, between the pots in the planter.

Most terrestrial cacti prefer a well-drained, gritty substrate. In habitat, cacti such as this small Coryphantha, thrive in a rocky environment.

Use pots that have drainage holes. Either clay or plastic are fine. Clay is more forgiving of overwatering, as it will dry out faster; if you tend to overwater, go with clay pots. Plastic is cheaper, cleaner, and can help hobbyists that might not be able to keep up with watering. As your plants grow taller, you will notice that they become top-heavy and tip over easily. Clay pots can add more weight to the base for top-heavy plants.

Choose the planting medium carefully; even those listed as cactus soil might not have enough grit to provide good drainage. You can make improve a mix by adding perlite, grit, coarse sand, or pumice to improve its drainage. A mixture of 3 parts good potting soil and 1 part extra drainage material is a good place to start. In nature, cacti grow in a mixture of rock, grit, silt, and some organic matter. After planting you may have to use stakes or rocks to hold the plant upright until it roots into the new pot.

Fertilizer and Water
There is this misunderstanding that cacti like to be starved and dry. They are desert plants, but they do have a season during which they grow and reproduce. The goal of the grower is to keep them dry and dormant in the off-season, but provide ample water and nutrients during their growing season.

If you don’t have a greenhouse, this means gradually moving the plants outside in the spring after the danger of frost. Cacti will do just fine with regular watering and fertilizing during the growing season. Use a water-soluble fertilizer mixed just under full-strength. Slow-release fertilizers are even better, but put them down early in the season according to label directions.

As fall approaches, gradually let the plant dry and move it to its overwintering location. During the winter, only water enough to keep the cactus from shriveling; depending on conditions, this could mean a small drink every few weeks – never soak the roots during dormancy.

Spines add texture and interest. The long and thick Thelocactus lophothele spines make this plant both dangerous and attractive. Handled with care, it can be grown without too much pain or loss of blood. • Spine-proof gloves, paper collars, tongs, and smart handling will keep you and your plant safe during regular maintenance. Note that the roots are a spine-free zone to hold during transplanting.

Spines provide the texture and interest that attracts a collector to a plant. But no matter how careful you are, you will likely get an occasional puncture from your plants; many punctures if you are not careful.

Spines grow from the same area that would normally produce leaves. They grow from their base (like your fingernails) and push new spine outward from the base. If you look closely at a large spine you can see the growth ridges running across the spine.

Cacti are not as indestructible as people think. In nature they often get their start under a nurse plant, which provides shade and shelter from the wind. This clump of Echinocereus will eventually outcompete the nurse plant that has sheltered it since it was young.

Barrel cactus (Ferocactus) grows a thick coat of large spines, making them unapproachable from any angle. Each spine is capable of inflicting a deep puncture wound. Mammillaria have a central spine with a hook on the end. They are fairly flexible and won’t readily pierce skin but will hook onto clothing or hair. Opuntia produce thousands of glochids – clusters of very small spines that break off and stick to skin. Their small size makes them difficult to remove and they can be very irritating, as hundreds can bury themselves in your flesh at the lightest touch.

Tools for handling cacti vary from grower to grower. Several layers of folded newspaper can be wrapped around a cactus without damaging the spines too much; corrugated cardboard also works. There are also reinforced gloves made for working with thorny plants.

There are many great resources available to the cactus hobbyist that provide much more detailed information about individual plants and cultivation than this article has room for. If you have an interest in cacti or succulents, join one of the many associations across the country.

The Cactus & Succulent Society of America (CSSA) publishes a great journal for hobbyists. Their website,, has a list of state and international affiliates.

With a little research and understanding, it is easy to quickly develop a great cacti collection. This is the year to get hooked by cacti.


A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Timothy J. Malinich.


Posted: 09/18/18   RSS | Print


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Fall Gardening Strategies
by Randel A. Agrella       #Fall   #Seeds   #Winter

Many hardy veggie types lend themselves to winter sowing – seeding in very late fall, just before the ground freezes, for super-early sprouts the following spring.

The summer garden is largely finished and your fall crops are growing nicely, but there’s still plenty to do: Winter is on its way and doing the right work now can really put you ahead next spring. The life in your garden may slow down during winter, but never absolutely ceases. So why not use your garden’s downtime to your advantage? You can, with a range of fall gardening strategies.

It’s best to do any garden cleanup promptly, but most of us own a backlog by season’s end. Now’s the time to make amends. Pull up spent veggie plants and weeds. Most such debris is fodder for the compost pile, but never compost diseased material – burn or otherwise dispose of it instead. You don’t want to chance harboring pathogens and spreading them next season. Healthy material from disease-prone crops, such as tomatoes or squash, should be composted separately and the compost reserved for the flowerbeds. As for the rest, into the pile it goes, shredded first if you can manage it.

In certain situations it’s better to leave the ground bare, such as when the presence of insect pests is suspected or on low ground, which dries out slowly in spring.


To Mulch or Not to Mulch?

Often, under a thick layer of mulch is the best way for your garden to pass the winter. Chopped alfalfa, shown here, is a fabulous mulch that enriches the soil.

That is the question. A good mulch slowly feeds next year’s soil as it decomposes. Mulch protects overwintering plants, supports soil microbial life, and prevents weed seeds from germinating in the meantime. Literally, any organic matter will work, but each material has its unique composition, so select something that’s appropriate as well as readily available. Use a coarse fibrous mulch, such as straw, if the goal is to slow runoff and keep soil in place. Or select something extra nutritious, like beet pulp or alfalfa hay or meal, to beef up fertility.

Clean cultivation (meaning leaving the ground bare) has its value as well. Exposed soil is subject to wider temperature extremes, and may get colder during deep winter, possibly destroying overwintering insect pests. I recommend clean cultivation after squash, cucumber, and melon crops, since these are especially prone to insect depredation. I also suggest it for any patch that had an unusual pest outbreak. It’s no magic bullet, but one can hope. That’s part of what makes us gardeners!

‘Tom Thumb’ lettuce sprouting immediately after the snow melted, weeks before this ground could be worked for spring planting.

Plant a Cover Crop
An alternative to mulching is planting a cover crop. Seeded in autumn, cover crops make slow growth until winter shuts the plants down; they then remain in suspended animation all winter, maybe making a little growth during mild spells. The plants take up soluble nutrients that might otherwise leach away in winter precipitation, holding them in their own tissues. These stored nutrients are released back into the soil when the cover crop is incorporated (dug back into the soil). Leguminous cover crops, such as winter pea, hairy vetch or clovers, will actually increase net soil fertility by their nitrogen-fixing action.

An enormous added benefit is the organic matter cover crops supply. This can be substantial when the cover crop is allowed to make some spring growth prior to incorporation. I like to mow a cover crop before tilling it in, which makes the work of incorporating it easier.

A cover crop can even segue into next year’s no-till bed with a little planning. A dense planting of winter wheat or rye, for example, can be knocked down in spring with a weed-whacker, leaving fresh mulch (that you didn’t have to load, unload, tote, and spread!) into which you then plant the next crop. It takes some fine-tuning, but it can be very useful indeed.

Winter-sown peas not a month after the snow has gone.

Winter Sowing
If you can plant a cover crop to overwinter, why couldn’t you plant some actual veggie crops and do the same? You can. You can sow seeds for next spring’s crops into well-worked and properly amended soil in fall. The seeds wait patiently for the soil to warm, sprouting in due course. From winter-sown seed you’ll often see sprouts far earlier in spring than you could ever plant them, so it’s a great technique to obtain the earliest possible spring crops. It’s best suited for hardy vegetables, such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, and parsnip. But a range of slightly less hardy crops work as well, such as beets, carrots, and turnips.

The trick is timing the plantings correctly. In most cases, you want to sow the seeds in late autumn, after the soil temperature is low enough to prevent immediate germination, say, below 40 F. You want the seeds to remain dormant until winter begins to wane – many types would of winterkill as plants but will sail right through as seeds. The result is the earliest possible seedlings to usher in the new gardening season, early harvests as well.

Consider your fall gardening options carefully, make a plan, and plunge in. You’ll be ready to hit the ground running, next spring, and your garden will be ahead of the game.


A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Randel A. Agrella.


Posted: 09/18/18   RSS | Print


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The Joys of Garden Journaling
by Pam Ruch       #Fall   #Misc   #Tools


The Journaling Life

Journaling is a practice, and it is an awakening of the mind. When you begin the practice of active observation, you will feel yourself changing. If you are naturally inquisitive, you will become more so. You may also find that drawing elements of nature — the bark of a tree, a flower, a cicada shell — serves as a meditative, and therefore restorative, experience.

Once the explosion that is summer comes to a screeching halt, gardeners are susceptible to “garden fatigue.” Ah, but fall is for reflection — on the successes and failures of the year’s garden, on the “bones” of the landscape, on the cyclical nature of life. It is a time for slowing down, observing, writing snippets of poetry. It is the perfect time to start a garden journal.

Journaling may take various forms. One person’s journal might be a recording of bloom times; another’s might be filled with drawings and notes on vegetable varieties. Regardless of how you journal, you’ll find that developing the habit of acute observation will bring surprising discoveries.

Put together a kit and you’ll be ready to journal at a moment’s notice.

Step 1: The Kit
A journaling kit should be simple and lightweight. The essentials:

• A shoulder bag or backpack.
• A journal. Choose one that is spiral-bound, so it opens flat. You will find yourself transfixed by the head of a sunflower, a bark pattern, or some other wonder, and your arm may be the only available ledge.
• Drawing pen. Fine-point drawing pens are excellent for outlining the shape of a leaf, or jotting down notes. I prefer sepia to black, as it creates a softer, more natural image.
• Pencils. Inexpensive mechanical pencils (such as BIC brand) stay sharp. Also carry a soft lead pencil, such as an ebony pencil or a 4B, for shadows.
• Colored pencils. Rather than carrying a whole set, choose the few that you are most likely to use. Or, take color notes and add hues later at home.
• A camera. Shots of insects can be enlarged and identified later.
• A hat. Not only does a brimmed hat offer sun protection, it keeps insects from aggravating you as you write or draw.
• Insect repellent. Spray your hat and clothing.
• A magnifier. An inexpensive 10x lens can be attached to a string and worn around your neck.
• Optional: Binoculars and field guides.



April 5 • April 20 • May 20
Spirea leafs out around a praying mantis egg sac

Step 2: Journaling Rules
Of course there are no real rules — your journal is yours to use however you wish. That being said, I will share the practices that have been valuable to me.
• Give yourself the gift of time, that is, turn yourself over to your journal completely for an hour or two, with no expectation other than to discover what there is to discover.
• Start each page by writing the date, the time, the place, and a note on the weather. This will help bring the experience back as you review your journal.
• Turn off the cell phone. If you are to become immersed in the experience, you will not want to be distracted.
• Turn on your curiosity. There are mysteries everywhere. Open your mind to them.

Step 3: A Few Journaling Exercises

Curious about what’s inside a goldenrod stem gall? Open it up and see.

If you’ve never journaled before, try these exercises:
• Hold a leaf in one hand. Very slowly, with your other hand, draw its outline, looking only at the leaf, and not at your paper. Follow every serration or wave of its edge with your pen.
• Take 10 to 15 minutes to just listen. Write down every detail of sound — the cawing of crows, the rustling of leaves, highway sounds. Create a haiku, a three-line poem with 5-7-5 syllables per line, respectively, if you wish.
• Observe a specific spot on successive days or weeks, and document the changes with drawings, words or photos.
• Collect seedpods. Examine their architecture. Describe or draw them.
• Find something in your landscape that puzzles you — a weed you don’t know by name, a gall or an egg mass. Document it with a drawing, and then try to solve the mystery.


A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography and Illustrations courtesy of Pam Ruch.


Posted: 09/17/18   RSS | Print


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Harvesting and Storing Veggies and Fruits
by Charlotte Kidd    

It’s helpful to label the jars with the date and ingredients.

My neighbor, we call him “Farmer Mel,” does something I find baffling. He practices serious delayed gratification. Throughout summer and into fall, he freezes about 50 quarts of homegrown, luscious, sweet, red, ripe raspberries. He, his wife, grown kids and grandkids enjoy them all winter.

Fascinating! When I start plucking my ever-bearing raspberries, one nibble leads to another … and another. I’m red-tongued and empty-handed long before reaching the kitchen! Scrumptious berries are immediately irresistible. I’m fine freezing chunks of butternut squash for winter cooking though.

Yes, I admire Mel and his like. Here’s to those with the patience, fortitude and foresight to preserve their yummy, excess garden bounty for leaner days.

Farmer Mel freezes his raspberries, peaches and sweet potato fries.

Let’s count the ways we store vegetables and fruits. Doris Stahl, retired Pennsylvania State University Extension educator, goes down the list: canning, dehydrating, fermenting, freezing, freeze-drying, pickling, preserving as jams, jellies or fruit strips. Gardeners can also store produce in a root cellar, in the ground or in a cold frame.

Canning: Hot Water or Pressure
Canning is a way of preserving vegetables and fruits by cooking and vacuum-sealing them in glass bottles to kill bacteria. Hot-water canning involves processing the fruit or vegetable in hot water and vacuum-sealing the jar airtight. Pressure-canning is processing and vacuum-sealing in a specialized pressure cooker.

Hot-water canning is making a creative comeback. Pressure-canning is more complicated so it’s less popular.

Canning and processing food safely is fun and serious business. Botulism or food poisoning can occur when bacteria survive despite the cooking. See the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Library information at National Center for Home Food Preservation offers a free, self-paced, online course about home canning and preservation. This course, “History, Science and Current Practice in Home Food Preservation” webinar is offered at

Also visit the Purdue University website

Dehydrating and Air-Drying
Dehydrating and air-drying removes water from fruits, herbs and vegetables.

Beans (Limas, soybeans, favas, peas, cow peas) – Let bean pods dry on the plant. Pop open the pods. Take out the seeds. Dry totally. Store in a glass jar with an airtight screw-top lid.

Hot Peppers – Hot peppers dry better than sweet peppers, says Stahl. Cut the peppers in half. Put well-dried halves in a single layer on a rimmed cookie-baking sheet. Slide the baking sheet into a gas oven with a pilot light. No need to turn on the heat. Let them dry for several weeks. Check every few days. When the peppers are dry, grind them up to store in an airtight container out of the light. Reconstitute in water.

Sally McCabe demonstrates how to lift a jar from the hot-water canning pot.

Herbs – Dehydrate woody-stemmed herbs such as oregano, rosemary, thyme, sage and savory in the oven or microwave. Or air-dry by tying stems and hanging bunches upside down in low light or spreading stems on trays to dry. Freeze herbs with tender leaves such as basil, dill and chives in olive oil for sautés and sauces.

Pickling is preserving vegetables in vinegar, spices and hot or cold water in air-tight jars. We pickle vegetables such as beets, radishes and members of the cucurbit and cruciferous families to eat right away or to hot-water can. One pickling technique involves refrigerating the pickled vegetables for a short time, a week or two. Hot-water pickling (canning) preserves vegetables for months.

Ethnic favorites include the Pennsylvania Dutch Chow Chow mix of solid vegetables – carrots, cauliflower, peppers, celery, corn – in a sweet-sour brine. Pickled summer squash is a contemporary dish. Pickled watermelon rind is a long-standing tradition. For pickling details, visit

“Fermentation is a big thing in epicurean cooking,” Stahl notes. Fermenting involves adding salt or sugar to activate the good bacteria and lactic acid. Yogurt, cheese and olives are fermented. Fermenting cabbage makes German sauerkraut or the hot, spicy Korean staple kim chi. It is science – so do your research, starting with this website,


Sasha Gettle holds the ‘Purple Top White Globe’ turnip, an excellent winter keeper.

Freezing is easy and convenient, says Stahl. Peppers, celery, beans, corn, berries, peaches, apricots, tomatoes are freezable. Techniques vary according to the type of produce. To parboil or not? Check a reputable source such as this USDA link for important specifics:

Though frozen fruits stay flavorful, many lose their texture. Stahl likes frozen raspberries and apricots for sauces, purees and baking. Farmer Mel spoons his raspberries on breakfast yogurt and ice cream. He turns frozen whole peaches into peach cobbler and peach-berry buckle. His favorite partially baked-and-frozen sweet potato fries crisp up in the toaster oven before becoming dinner.

Preservation by Alcohol
Do this preferably with vodka or gin, though rum, tequila or brandy will do, too. “The best thing is German Rumtopf,” Stahl explains. As each fruit comes into season, pick the ripest. Layer each type in a large clay pot or glass jar with a lid or cover. Pour vodka or another liquor on the fruits. Keep adding fruit and liquor until the winter holidays. Then spoon the Rumtopf over holiday cake or ice cream. The alcohol preserves the fruit and keeps it solid, says Stahl.

‘Squash Honey Boat Delicata’ is a winter squash that stores well.

Storing Vegetables for the Winter
Randel A. Agrella takes a pragmatic approach to storing winter vegetables – easy, efficient and effective. He is a manager and horticulturist for Comstock, Ferre and Company in Wetherfeld, Conn., but Agrella brings gardening experience from his Missouri home. “I like to encourage people to eat more seasonally,” Agrella says. He extends his carrot crop into winter by mulching with a few inches of hay (without seeds), straw and sawdust. Missouri winters are mild so the soil doesn’t freeze deeply, he explains. He and his family dig up carrots through spring.

In colder states, mulching with 5-7 inches of salt hay can keep carrots and Daikon radishes dormant and edible until early spring, adds Stahl. “If not frozen, they’ll last into February or March. It’s the freezing-and-thawing cycle kills them.” She also suggests placing a cold frame over in-ground root crops. Putting hay bales or sandbags on the cold frame’s plate-glass top can stop the soil below from freezing and thawing.

Winter squash, onions and sweet potatoes are best kept in what Agrella calls “pantry conditions” – a fairly dry, low-humidity environment at about 60 F. A cold bedroom will do, he says. “Most winter squash store well for two to three months.” Ensure good air circulation, he adds.

“A lot of root crops – rutabagas, turnips, carrots, fall radishes – and head cabbage can be stored cold at 34 to 38 F in high humidity,” Agrella explains. Those are typical root cellar conditions that can be adapted to many basements. Gardeners can simulate a root cellar, he continues. “Informally close off a corner of the basement. That will automatically maintain a cool temperature.” How? Hang a plastic drop to isolate a small, cold storage “room.” Leave the vegetables open to the air. Look through the produce twice a month for spoilage, sprouting and dehydration. The “one rotten apple spoils the barrel” theory is true, Agrella says.



A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Charlotte Kidd and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company.



Posted: 09/17/18   RSS | Print


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Organize a Plant Swap
by Martha Walsworth    

Plant swaps are a fun, organized way to share an abundance of plants. It is also a good way to make sure you have new varieties of plants that you want without having to buy them.

Here are some suggested guidelines for organizing a plant swap.

Choose a location.

A good site is one that is easily accessible, has ample parking space, does not require a long hike to and from the car, has plenty of space to display plants and room to mill, and yes, has bathroom facilities. For summer swaps, consider a shaded area for the benefit of both the plants and the people. Be sure to have a “just-in-case” location in the event of inclement weather.

Some options include private homes, public parks, community centers, schools or churches. Most places will donate space for free. (Be sure to ask permission!)

Pick a date and time.

Have two or three dates in mind and poll the participants to determine the best time for the majority. Good times are spring and fall; you are either opening or closing a growing season. Usually allow two to four hours for the swap.

Resources needed

You will need tables, chairs, pens, boxes, bags, blank labels, table coverings and cleanup supplies.

Decide on how many and who to invite.

A garden club, your neighborhood, a church group, etc. Ten to 25 is a good number to invite. A group larger than this is not as conducive to an intimate and friendly atmosphere. Large, really large plant swaps have been successful, but if you are just starting out, perhaps a limited number is advisable.

Form committees

•  To receive plants and number them.

•  To set up tables.

•  To be responsible for name tags for participants.

•  To clean up.

•  To be in charge of food if you choose to have a simple meal. A sign-up sheet works well for a potluck. Be sure someone is assigned to plates, cups, napkins, etc. Make sure there is sufficient seating for everyone. It might be wise to have each participant bring his or her own chair.

Establish rules in advance. Make them known to everyone.

•  Set up a one-for-one ticket system. For every plant you bring, you can take one.

•  Have lists of available plants to give out.

•  Decide if vegetable plants will be acceptable. Herbs? Annuals and/or perennials? Bulbs?

•  Bring only healthy plants.

•  Label plants with both the common and botanical name. Include your name too.

•  Pass along any specific care information.

•  Do not trade plants contaminated with noxious weeds or nuisance plants.

•  Do not bring nuisance plants to trade.

•  Decide if you will accept seeds as a trade for a plant or if you will have a “seed swap” table only. If you do have a seed swap table, determine what the seed packets will be like. They should be marked clearly and with the name of the plant (common and botanical), the color, growing tips, number of seeds in the packet, whether or not it is open-pollinated or hybridized. (Heirloom seeds – usually open pollinated – will give consistent returns each year and keep a diverse gene pool.) Discourage commercial packets of seeds from participants.

Decide on the actual method of the swap.

One way is to number each plant as it arrives. Then slips of paper go into a hat, each slip with a number. There should be the same number of slips as there are plants to be swapped. After all of this is completed, the drawing is done. At the conclusion of the drawing people often beg pieces of a plant they want to try, or give away plants they don’t want. This, of course, is not the only way to conduct a plant swap, but it might be the simplest way to start out.


After your plant swap is done, evaluate it. What worked? What didn’t? Write it all down while it is still fresh in your mind. Put your notes, receipts, photos, invitations and mailing lists, list of participants, etc., in a file in the event you want to host another one. If not, maybe it would be helpful to someone else.


•  Some gardeners will bring extra plants. What will you do with them?

•  Ask for donations from area nurseries. They may have a surplus to give away as advertising for their store.

•  Have a door prize plant.

•  Have a plant ID book on hand.

•  Use a donation jar to help with expenses.

•  Take pictures. Write an article, and submit it to your local newspaper.

Remember: Good planning is essential, however, as the poet Robert Burns said, “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.”

Expect a certain amount of chaos, and don’t get discouraged. Have fun!


From State-by-State Gardening September 2007


Posted: 09/17/18   RSS | Print


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It’s All the Buzz: Basic Beekeeping
by Charlotte Ekker Wiggins       #Beneficials   #How to   #Insects

Hands-on experience is the key to successfully learning how to keep bees.

Spurred by worldwide honeybee declines, more gardeners are learning how to keep honeybees. Overuse of pesticides, diseases and disappearing habitat have all contributed to honeybees’ record losses since 2006, when historically-stable U.S. honeybee populations first plummeted.

It is estimated that honeybee pollination contributes $25 billion in increased value to U.S. agriculture. One of out every three bites of food we eat is pollinated by honeybees.

Clockwise: More homeowners are adding bees to their gardens to help pollinate plants and crops. • Beginning beekeepers start by purchasing a nucleus colony from bee suppliers, which are half the size of regular hives. Bee sellers focus on pulling bee colonies through winter so they can be split and sold to beginning beekeepers. • Honeybees may be a specific breed or a genetic combination bred for traits such as gentleness, hygienic behavior and honey production. Local bees are best since they are acclimated to local conditions.

Hobby beekeepers start by attending basic beekeeping classes. Most classes focus on teaching what beekeepers need to know to help honeybees through their first winter including bee biology, the basics of a hive and bee behavior.

Local beekeeping clubs can supplement classes. Club meetings offer an opportunity to meet other beekeepers and to learn from each other.

Clockwise: Honeybees are responsible for pollinating one third of food crops, including pears. • Municipal ordinances vary across the Midwest about whether hives can be kept within city limits. • Beginning beekeepers learn bee biology and behavior through observing bees on hive frames. • Beginning beekeepers invest about $500 in basic beekeeping equipment, not counting hives and bees.

Hives can be simply painted or become works of art by a children’s art class. Concrete blocks and bricks are popular weights to keep hive lids from blowing off.

Bees are available for pickup and delivery March through May. Beginning beekeepers get ready by either making their own equipment or ordering pre-made hives that still require some treatment, such as painting, prior to occupancy.

Bee clubs make the process easier by reviewing how to place hives, how to build frames and how to install bee packages and nucleus, or nursery, colonies. Learning about local conditions contributes to successfully hosting these European imports.

Honeybees will fly 2-5 miles from their hives. They do best in gardens with plants blooming throughout the year, and they have a penchant for yellow, blue and white flowers with short stamens so they can easily pack pollen.

Beekeeping advice varies because beekeepers keep bees for different reasons; pollination, honey production and the sale of bees have different practices and techniques. Regardless of why someone keeps bees, scientific studies have proven that successfully hosting honeybees is also good for native bee species and other pollinators.


A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Charlotte Ekker Wiggins and Cheryl Hinchman.


Posted: 09/05/18   RSS | Print


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Get Your Green Fix
by Lisa Eldred Steinkopf    

Visit a locally owned garden center near you to find healthy, well-maintained houseplants.

Dieffenbachia has beautiful foliage and is a good medium-light plant.

Now that fall has arrived and there are fewer garden chores, you may be wondering what to do now. If you miss taking care of plants, purchase a houseplant to get your green fix inside. Houseplants not only add some green, but some believe that houseplants may improve your mood.

Don’t run out and buy the first plant you see, though. First determine the best plant for the desired location. Do you have a bright room with several windows or a room that doesn’t receive any direct sunlight? Choosing the right plant for the spot is the key to success. In addition to the amount of light a plant requires, you need to know the plant’s mature size to make sure it won’t outgrow your space.

How do you determine the amount of light you have to offer a prospective plant roommate? Is its potential location facing north, south, east, or west? Is sunlight blocked by trees, awnings, or adjacent buildings? An east-facing window supports many plants, as it provides morning light – a soft, medium light level. A north-facing window usually only provides enough light for non-flowering plants; opt for dark, large-leaved plants, such as Dieffenbachia and Philodendron. Another option is a plant that is newer to the market, but relatively easy to find – the ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia). These sturdy plants have shiny green leaves and are drought tolerant because of their fleshy roots. If you’ve killed your share of houseplants, this one may be for you. Do not overwater it, as that is the biggest killer of this plant (and many other plants).

Clockwise: African violets have a reputation as “grandma plants,” but they can’t be beat for their flowering power. Place them in a medium-light location, such as an east-facing window, and they will bloom almost constantly. • Chinese evergreens (Aglaonema) are beautiful, easy houseplants. They are great for medium-light situations. • Pothos are easy to care for and don’t require much light, with the exception of variegated varieties. If they don’t receive enough the light, they will revert to all green.

ZZ plant is one of the easiest-to-care-for houseplants.

A spot with southern exposure provides the most light, giving you many options, including cacti and succulents. But this is a harsh, bright light that can burn plants such as African violets (Saintpaulia), Begonia, and ferns. If you have a specific plant in mind that requires a low-light location, but you only have a south-facing area, a sheer curtain will provide enough protection to prevent burning. West-facing locations can also support a wide variety of plants.

If you want a vining plant that will do well in low light, consider the heart-leafed philodendron (P. hederaceum) or pothos (Epipremnum spp.).

If you have an east- or west-facing window, consider flowering plants such as peace lily (Spathiphyllum), African violet, or a Phalaenopsis orchid. An eastern exposure is also perfect for ferns and begonias.

After you’ve done a bit of research and have a list of potential plants it’s time to go shopping. Before purchasing a plant, examine it to make sure it is healthy and free of any pests or disease issues. Check under the leaves, in the axils (where the leaf meets the stem), and along the stems. Do you see anything moving? Are there any holes in the leaves? If you see white cottony patches on the plant, it may be infested with mealybugs. Brown or white bumps on the plant that shouldn’t be there could indicate a scale infestation. Are there yellow or brown leaves? If so the plant may have been over- or underwatered. If you see symptoms of any potential problems, look for a different plant. It is important to start out your plant parenthood with a healthy, pest-free plant. If it is cold outside, make sure your plant is wrapped in a paper sleeve before leaving the store to protect it from the elements.

Air plants (Tillandsia) require very little maintenance. Give them plenty of light and a good soaking once a week. • These Calathea are healthy and beautiful. They are great plants for spots that receive only low to medium light. They do prefer a bit more humidity, so place them on pebble trays with water.

Look closely at the plant you are buying. If you see white cottony material in the axils of the leaves or on the leaves, such as pictured here, move on. These are mealybugs.

Odds are, your plant will be in the ubiquitous green or black plastic nursery pot and you’ll more than likely prefer something more attractive. It’s perfectly fine to move the plant into two different containers, just make sure the new container is approximately the same size; you don’t want to move it to a larger container until it is actively growing in the spring. However, if it appears to be rootbound and needs water more than once a week, go ahead and use a larger container, but water it carefully throughout the winter. Your new plant won’t need any fertilizing until you see new growth in the spring.

Enjoy your plant this winter and if it doesn’t look as good by the time spring arrives, it is okay to put it on the compost pile. Don’t feel guilty – there is always next fall.


A version of this article appeared in a September 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Lisa Eldred Steinkopf and Peggy Hill.


Posted: 09/05/18   RSS | Print


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High Tunnels and Low Tunnels
by Patrick Byers    

By building high or low tunnels, you can extend the gardening season throughout the fall and begin spring planting earlier. Here’s how.


These raised beds are covered with low tunnels constructed with plastic hoops. Netting stretched over the hoops protects the vegetables from deer and birds.

My vegetable garden is a place of exercise and relaxation, but my ultimategoal is to grow food. Unfortunately, inclement weather, spring and fall frosts, insects, bird pests and deer reduce my garden’s productivity. Through the use of inexpensive and easily-built high and low tunnels, I can address these challenges that face all vegetable gardeners in the Midwest.

What is a tunnel? Basically, a support system, anchored to the ground, that holds a protective covering above the vegetables. High tunnels are often a semi-permanent part of the garden, covering a larger area and allowing the gardener to work within the tunnel. Low tunnels generally cover a single row or bed, and are easily placed and removed as needed.

The design of the support system for a high or low tunnel is determined by cost, application, and the ingenuity ofthe gardener. With high tunnels, especially those that are permanent and must stand up to wind and snow load, supports should be strong and durable. Welded wire fencing panels, commonly 50 inches by 16 feet, can be bent into a support shape. Plastic PVC pipe, generally 1-1½-inches in diameter, can make effective bows. Durable high tunnels can be built using metal pipe, such as the top rail from chain link fence, bent to the proper shape. Low tunnels are supported by a wide range of materials, including light metal pipe bent to shape, heavy wire hoops and plastic pipe.


Permanent and semi-permanent tunnels are often anchored to the ground using baseboards of a rot-resistant wood. The baseboards are attached to metal stakes or anchors that are driven into the soil. Metal or PVC high tunnel hoops can be set inside larger diameter pieces of pipe that are driven into the soil, or set in concrete. The metal or wire hoops for low tunnels are generally pressed into the soil. Tunnels can be further stabilized with ropes stretched over the tunnel and attached to stakes driven in the soil or hooks on the baseboard.

Protective Coverings

A wide range of protective coverings are available; choose the covering that meets the need. Greenhouse-grade 4-mil polyethylene plastic film will give several years of use for tunnels intended to extend the gardening season. Heavyweight spunbonded row cover will provide similar cold weather protection, particularly when several layers are placed over a high or low tunnel. Lightweight row cover or fine netting provides protection from insects. Larger mesh netting excludes birds and deer.

A word about ventilation with plastic film-covered tunnels — the temperature inside a sealed tunnel warms rapidly on sunny days to a point thatplants are damaged, and ventilation is needed to remove this heat. Ventilation is provided by sides that roll up or down, as well as ends that open. What this means, of course, is maintenance — the gardener opens and closes the tunnel to provide needed ventilation. Ventilation is usually not as much of a concern with row covers, which allow excess heat to escape through the fabric.

Two Designs: High and Low

I’d like to discuss two easily constructed tunnel designs.

The first is a high tunnel that uses fence panels for support. A baseboard frame is built of 2-by-6-inch lumber, 8 feet wide and 21 feet long, attached on the outside face to metal stakes driven into the soil. Fencing panels are bent into a “U” shape and placed inside the frame. The fence panelsare connected with plastic zip ties, and the ends are attached to the baseboard with a board strip. Five panels are needed for this dimension; larger tunnels are easily constructed using additional panels. The panels were covered with a single layer of plastic film, which is attached to the baseboard with furring strips. The end walls were constructed of plywood, with a ventilated door that is opened when needed. The high tunnel has about 6½ feet of headroom and plenty of growing space.

The second design is a semi-permanent low tunnel, which uses ¾-inch metal pipe that is 10 feet long for support. The pipe is bent into the desired hoop shape using a template, allowing for coverage over a 4-foot-wide bed. The hoops are placed 3 feet apart over the bed, pressed into the soil, and connected with a purlin, using duct tape. A 2-by-4-inch baseboard is attached at ground level along the upwind side of the hoops, using a screw through each hoop. A wiggle wire channel is attached along the upper face of the baseboard, and the covering is attached with the wiggle wire. The covering is stretched over the hoops, and secured on the other side with sand bags. The covering ends are bundled together, tied, and secured to a stake driven into the ground. This tunnel is intended to provide for winter vegetable production and for protection from insect pests during the remainder of the growing season.


Low Tunnel Construction

A low tunnel is easily constructed using metal bows bent to the proper shape.


Pressed into the soil over the bed and stabilized with a purlin.


Connected with a baseboard that also serves to anchor one side of the covering with wiggle wire.


And a covering secured with sand bags.



A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Patrick Byers.



Posted: 09/05/18   RSS | Print


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Plant an Awesome Autumn: Trees for Fall Color
by Scott A. Zanon       #Fall   #Orange   #Trees

Trident Maple

‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.’
- Chinese Proverb

Autumn is the time for football and to relish the most beautiful of our four seasons. Many trees have been waiting to show off their foliage. One of the great things about living where we do is the ever-changing seasons. For a few weeks, nature puts on one of its most spectacular displays as trees complete the growing season in a brilliant display of fall colors.

Fall color is controlled by both the plant’s genetic factors and the environment, not Jack Frost. Carotene and xanthophyll (carotenoids) are yellow pigments produced in foliage all year along with chlorophyll, the green pigment. In autumn, when short days and cool temperatures slow down the production of chlorophyll, the remaining chlorophyll breaks down and disappears. The yellow pigments that have been masked by chlorophyll then show up and give certain trees their yellow and golden colors.

Some plants produce anthocyanins (red and purple pigments) that may mask the yellow pigments. Anthocyanin production increases with increased sugars in the leaves. A fall season with sunny days and cool nights increases the sugar content of the leaves and intensifies autumn red hues.

The combination of carotenoid and anthocyanin pigments produces the orange colors in trees.

The tans and browns of oaks are caused by tannins, which accumulate as the chlorophyll disappears. Fall color starts in September and ends in November. Frost and freezing temperatures will stop the coloration process and blacken the leaves.

Some of you may ask, “Why are tree fall colors more intense some years?” Cool night temperatures for an extended period below 45 F but above freezing helps develop more anthocyanins in the leaves, bringing out more intense fall colors in trees. Sunny days allow the leaves to trap the sugars from the dwindling chlorophyll, thus creating the spectacle of fall colors. Calm days help enhance the viewing time and duration of fall foliage.

Here is a list of my recommendations of trees with great fall color to consider. Many also have features that merit use year round in the garden. Some are common, others are not, but all are worth the search for that autumnal glow.

Trident maple (Acer buergerianum)
Zones: 5-9
Size: 20-30 feet tall and wide
Fall Color: Yellow-orange-red, but late and at times variable
Recommended Cultivar: Aeryn (‘ABMTF’)

Paperbark maple (A. griseum)
Zones: 4-8
Size: 20-30 feet tall by 15 feet wide
Fall Color: Bronze-red; late, often October and November

Paperbark Maple

Red maple (aka swamp maple) (A. rubrum)
Zones: 3-9
Size: 70 feet tall by 40 feet wide; cultivars are smaller
Fall Color: Green-yellow to yellow to red; cultivars are best for dazzling orange-red fall color
Recommended Cultivars: Autumn Flame (‘Pete’s Red’), ‘Autumn Spire’, Red Sunset (‘Franksred’), ‘October Glory’ and ‘Red Rocket’ 

Sugar maple (aka hard maple; rock maple) (A. saccharum)
Zones: 3-8
Size: 60-80 feet tall by 40 feet wide
Fall Color: Yellow-orange-red and striking
Recommended Cultivars: Adirondack (‘Adirzam’), Fall Fiesta (‘Bailsta’) and ‘Green Mountain’

Serviceberry (aka juneberry, sarvisberry, saskatoon, shadblow, shadbush) (Amelanchier spp.)
Zones: 4-9
Size: 6-30 feet tall by 4-10 feet wide; cultivars 12 feet tall by 10 feet wide
Fall Color: Yellow to orange to red in October often in spectacular fashion
Recommended Cultivars/Species: Rainbow Pillar (A. canadensis ‘Glen Form’), A. x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’, A. laevis ‘Cumulus’ and juneberry (A. lamarckii)

Common pawpaw (aka custard apple) (Asimina triloba)
Zones: 5-9
Size: 15-20 feet tall and wide
Fall Color: Yellow

Katsuratree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum)
Zones: 4-8
Size: 40-50 feet tall and wide
Fall Color: Varying from yellow to apricot to occasionally orange-red; leaves release a warm and spicy fragrance, reminiscent of cotton candy
Recommended Cultivars: ‘Morioka Weeping’ and Red Fox (‘Rotfuchs’)

Kousa dogwood (aka Chinese dogwood) (Cornus kousa)
Zones: 5-8
Size: 20-25 feet tall and wide
Fall Color: Burgundy in late autumn
Recommended Cultivars: Samaritan (‘Samzam’) and ‘Wolf Eyes’

Ginkgo (aka maidenhair tree) (Ginkgo biloba)
Zones: 4-9
Size: 60-80 feet tall by 40-60 feet wide
Fall Color: Golden yellow in November
Recommended Cultivars: ‘Autumn Gold’ and Presidential Gold (‘The President’)



American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
Zones: 5-9
Size: 60-75 feet tall by 40 feet wide
Fall Color: Yellow-orange-red-purple
Note: I am not a fan of this tree, other than its excellent fall color, because of the messy fruit

Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)
Zones: 5-8
Size: 70 feet tall by 25 feet wide
Fall Color: Cinnamon brown
Recommended Cultivars: ‘Ogon’, synonyms ‘Golden Oji’ and ‘Gold Rush’

Black tupelo (aka black gum, sour gum) (Nyssa sylvatica)
Zones: 4-9
Size: 30-50 feet tall by 20-30 feet wide
Fall Color: Outstanding fluorescent yellow, orange, scarlet and purple
Recommended cultivars: ‘Tupelo Tower’ and ‘Wildfire’

Black Tupelo

Sourwood (aka lily-of-the-valley tree; sorrel tree) (Oxydendrum arboreum)
Zones: 5-9
Size: 25 feet tall and 20 feet wide; 50 to 75 feet in the wild
Fall Color: Yellow-orange and red-purple


Persian parrotia (aka Persian ironwood) (Parrotia persica)
Zones: 4-8
Size: 30 feet tall by 20 feet wide
Fall Color: Beautiful yellow to orange to scarlet colors when exposed to full sun

Sawtooth oak (Quercus acutissima)
Zones: 5-8
Size: 40-50 feet tall and wide
Fall Color: Clear yellow to golden yellow in November

Shumard oak (Q. shumardii)
Zones: 5-9
Size: 50 feet tall and wide; 100 feet tall in nature
Fall Color: Russet red to red; sometimes outstanding

Common sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Zones: 4-8
Size: 30-60 feet tall by 25-40 feet wide
Fall Color: Yellow-orange-red in October; spectacular

Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia)
Zones: 5-7
Size: 25-40 feet tall and 10-20 feet wide
Fall Color: Orange to red with occasional hues of red-purple

Common baldcypress (Taxodium distichum)
Zones: 4-9
Size: 50-70 feet tall by 20-30 feet wide
Fall Color: Russet-orange-bronze

‘Frontier’ elm (Ulmus‘Frontier’)
Zones: 5-8
Size: 40 feet tall by 30 feet wide
Fall Color: Red-purple-burgundy 

Frontier Elm


A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Scott A. Zanon.


Posted: 09/05/18   RSS | Print


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Shrubs for Summer
by Bill Johnson       #Ornamentals   #Shrubs   #Summer

‘White Moth’ maintains its white flowers throughout the growing season. • Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Gold’ has a unique color variation of orange berries and is one of the taller cultivars, reaching 8 feet tall. • Emerging Spring leaves of ‘Center Glow’ show the warm reddish-yellow colors that will last throughout the year.

When it comes to shrubs for the home garden, there are quite a few varieties to choose from. I recommend that before purchasing a shrub or two, a basic question should be asked – do you have room for something that can grow anywhere from 5 to 15 feet tall? Some gardeners have lots of room and some might not, so it’s a point I believe that needs to be considered. However, if you do have the room, one good thing about shrubs is once they’re established, they require very little maintenance.

There are five shrubs that I really like that can be grown successfully in Zones 3-6:

• Smokebush (Cotinus coggygria)

• Panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata)

• Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

• Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)

• Viburnum (V. cassinoides), (V. dentatum), (V. rafinesquianum), and (V. sieboldii)

‘Velvet Cloak’ is a striking cultivar with deep red leaves and burgundy plumes. • Cotinus ‘Grace’ has large oval leaves that make this cultivar stand out. • Golden Spirit is one of my favorite varieties, very unique with yellow leaves and white plumes.

Smokebush cultivars are large, deciduous shrubs that are best used toward the back of the garden, as they reach 10-15 feet tall. Their showiness comes not from the flowers, which are actually quite small, but from the large airy flower plumes that appear in late spring and last throughout the summer, changing from pink to pinkish purple. From a distance they give the plant a “smoky” look, thus the common name. Complementing the plumes are the very striking leaves. In some cultivars they are dark red to purple, which will last throughout the growing season. For the ones that begin with green leaves, that color will change to scarlet to gold in the fall adding a lot of color to the landscape.

A few cultivars I recommend are:

• Golden Spirit (‘Ancot’) – bright yellow leaves, 8-15 feet, Zones 4-9

• ‘Velvet Cloak’ – purplish red leaves, large dark red plumes, 10-15 feet, Zones 5-9

• ‘Royal Purple’ – large maroon leaves, 8-15 feet, Zones 4-9

• ‘Grace’ – large oval magenta purple leaves, 8-15 feet, Zones 5-9

Clockwise: Ilex verticillata ‘Afterglow’ is one of the taller winterberry cultivars, up to 6 feet. • Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’ is a very popular cultivar • Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’ creates a copious amount of red berries that will satisfy birds as well as brighten a landscape summer through winter.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a deciduous holly native to North America. It’s best known for its profusion of berries, which are a great food source for birds and can last on the branches throughout the winter into spring, thus the common name. In areas where there is winter snow cover, the brightly colored berries are quite striking against the white snow. This species is dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants. The berries only form on female plants, which requires a male pollinator nearby. When purchasing these, make sure you are selecting the appropriate cultivars for your situation.

A few female cultivars I recommend are:

• ‘Afterglow’ – red berries, up to 6 feet tall, Zones 4-8

• Red Sprite (‘Nana’) – red berries, 3-4 feet tall, Zones 3-8‘

• Winter Red’ – bright red berries, 3-5 feet, Zones 3-9

• ‘Winter Gold’ – yellow/orange berries, 5-8 feet, Zones 3-9

The cultivars ‘Jim Dandy’ or Mr. Poppins (‘FARROWMRP’) are needed nearby to pollinate ‘Afterglow’, ‘Winter Red’, and Red Sprite. ‘Southern Gentleman’ is required for ‘Winter Gold’.

Clockwise: The striking yellow leaves of ‘Dart’s Gold’ provide the perfect background for the white flower clusters. • The leaves of Coppertina turn a darker copper as they age. • Little Devil is a dwarf variety, reaching only 4 feet tall. Its pinkish white flower clusters attract many pollinators.

One of my favorite seasons is fall because of all the amazing leaf colors. If you’re looking for incredible, year-round color, look no further than ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius). Ninebark is a deciduous shrub, 5-10 feet in height and similar spread, with foliage similar to that of maples (Acer spp.). The leaf colors range from burgundy to yellowish gold to cinnamon throughout the year. In late spring, clusters of white flowers will emerge, attracting pollinators.

A few cultivars I highly recommend include:

• ‘Center Glow’ – red/golden yellow foliage, up to 8 feet, Zones 2-8

• Coppertina (‘Mindia’) – coppery orange with pink flowers, up to 8 feet, Zones 3-7

• Diabolo (‘Monlo’) – dark brown to burgundy foliage, up to 6 feet, Zones 3-7

• ‘Dart’s Gold’ – golden yellow/lime green foliage, up to 6 feet, Zones 3-7

• Little Devil (‘Donna May’) – dwarf cultivar, burgundy foliage, 3-4 feet, Zones 3-7

Clockwise: American cranberry bush cultivars, such as ‘Wentworth’ have the largest berries. These are must-haves for birders. • The berry clusters of Ironclad age from red to black. • Downy arrowwood has some of the larger berries, ranging from deep blue to black. • Viburnum cassinoides has berries that turn from pink to blue, creating an amazing visual for the garden. • Viburnum dentatum ‘Red Regal’ • Viburnum dentatum ‘Christom’ Blue Muffin • Viburnum dentatum ‘Ralph Senior’

If you’re a serious birder, I recommend several species and cultivars of Viburnum. The berries are a great source of food for many bird species, especially late in the year after other food sources are gone.

Some to consider include:

• Witherod viburnum (V. cassinoides) – pink, blue, red, and black berries, 5-12 feet, Zones 3-8

• Arrowwood viburnum (V. dentatum)

• Blue Muffin (‘Christom’) – 5-10 feet, Zones 3-8

• ‘Perle Bleu’ – heavy blue fruit display, 5-10 feet, Zones 3-8

• ‘Ralph Senior’ – blue to black fruit – 5-10 feet, Zones 4-8

• Red Regal (‘KLMseven’) – 5-10 feet, Zones 3-8

• Downy arrowwood (V. rafinesquianum), Zones 3-8

• Siebold viburnum (V. sieboldii)

• Ironclad (‘KLMfour’) – large 5-inch veined leaves with reddish black fruits, 10-15 feet, Zones 4-8

• American cranberry bush (V. trilobum) – ‘Wentworth’ – scarlet red fruit clusters, 5-10 feet, Zones 3-8

Pinky Winky is a recent introduction with upright flower clusters that turn deep pink as they age. • The flowers of Vanilla Strawberry transform from white to pink to red. • ‘Limelight’ has upright flower clusters that begin greenish white, turning pink in the fall.

Panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata) is becoming more popular as more new and amazing cultivars are introduced. It’s a rapidly growing, upright deciduous shrub that can reach 4-8 feet tall. Several have pure white flower clusters, but many of the newer cultivars sport blooms that emerge white but as they age, they take on shades of pink and red.

A few of my favorites:

• Great Star (‘Le Vasterival’) –  4-8 feet with fragrant flowers, Zones 3-9

• ‘Limelight’ – 4-8 feet with chartreuse to pink flowers, Zones 3-9

• Pink Diamond (‘Interhydia’) – 4-8 feet with white to pink flowers, Zones 3-8

• Pinky Winky (‘DVP Pinky’) – 4-8 feet with white to pink flowers, Zones 3-9

• Vanilla Strawberry (‘Renhy’) – 4-8 feet, flowers changing from white to pink to red, Zones 3-8

• ‘White Moth’ – 4-8 feet, flowers white throughout the season, Zones 3-8

If you have the space, adding some of these shrubs will definitely enhance the look of your garden.


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Bill Johnson.


Posted: 08/02/18   RSS | Print


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A Buffet of Choices
by Maureen Heffernan       #Decorating   #Ornamentals   #Vegetables

Rainbow-colored carrots in a glass vase filled with water makes the top arrangement of carrot tops with cilantro stems seem “rooted.” The cilantro stems also add fragrance and texture.
Arrangement and Photo by Julie Walker.


Last spring I attended a floral arrangement demonstration program at Myriad Botanical Gardens that changed the way I look at creating floral arrangements. The instructor, Dundee Butcher of Russian River Flower School in Healdsburg, California, created arrangements that were simple, yet sophisticated and beautiful, using edibles – from puckered dark green kale to cauliflower to purple carrots to eggplants, these arrangements were unique and lovely. Since that class, when I go to the grocery store or farmers’ market, I see not only what to make for dinner, but also what I could use to make the centerpiece.

The colors and fragrances of vegetables, fruits, and herbs rival those of floral arrangements and add a unique twist to table arrangements. Their shapes are as fascinating and gorgeous as their rich colors in all shades of the rainbow.

Your summer garden is filled with exactly what you need to make easy, delicious arrangements – either formal or casual. Once you see your vegetable and/or herb garden in this light, endless creative options await!  Produce becomes works of art and your appreciation for their beauty and their taste is taken to a new level. They can be used alone or mixed with flowers and ornamental foliage for captivating results.

Before you actually start arranging, it’s best to gather all your materials and tools. You’ll need some type of vase or other vessel – anything from pitchers, to bowls or glasses can be used – and pruners or scissors. Other items you may want to add to your toolbox include floral foam that holds water and stems in place; a flower frog, a weighted piece to place at the bottom of a container that holds stems in place; floral tape to hold foliage and flower stems in place; and chicken wire that can be bunched up to fit the container or cut, placed flat, and taped across the container opening. All of these items support stems to keep them upright or gently angled so they don’t flop over.

A lower, rounded arrangement with a large purple eggplant, Queen’s Anne’s lace, orange roses, collard greens, and sweetpotato vine.
Arrangement by Roberta Rowland. Photo by Leslie Spears.


How to start? Start with the same principles of floral arrangements.

Autumn sage adds a touch of red to this small arrangement of kale, broccoli, and yellow marigolds.
Arrangement by Roberta Rowland. Photo by Leslie Spears.

A vertical informal arrangement of yellow Coreopsis with wispy sprays of Mexican feather grass, lyme grass, and stems of cilantro for fragrance.
Arrangement by Roberta Rowland. Photo by Leslie Spears.

• If you choose to start with the container, allow its height, shape, color, etc. to help you determine the look of the arrangement. If you are starting with plant material, select a suitable container.

• A general rule of thumb is that your arrangement should be about one and half times as tall as your container for balance.

• Fill the container at least three-fourths full with water before you start arranging.

• Always cut the stems before placing them in water so they will be better able to absorb water and therefore last longer.

• Next, decide if you want your arrangement to be vertical, horizontal, or triangular. There are many other options, but these are the most common.

• Start building your arrangement using your greens/foliage first. They will be the foundation or frame of the arrangement.

• Think of putting your arrangement together like designing a garden. Plant the trees first, then smaller shrubs, and finally add accents of flower color. Select varying heights, colors, and textures that complement each other.

• Next add your secondary items. If you have made your frame using chard leaves for example, you may want to fill in the rest of the arrangement using lighter, lacier carrot tops or cilantro stems. Long stems can be upright or allowed to gently arch. You could also use a larger edible, such as an eggplant or zucchini, as the focal point.

• To finish, add your color accents – these are the “frosting” on the piece. Think red radish, purple basil, Queen’s Anne’s lace, nasturtium, or any other flower or smaller vegetable or fruit. A bunch of grapes or cherry tomatoes can look beautiful especially hanging over the edge of a low bowl. Add sprigs of curly parsley throughout add more green texture.

Try colorful carrots placed upside down or small colorful peppers. Simply play around with the arrangement until you’re pleased with the overall balance, form, and color.

This couldn’t be easier: Filling a cylindrical glass vase with bright red radishes and their foliage floating in water.
Arrangement by Maureen Heffernan. Photo by Leslie Spears.
Baby bok choy makes beautiful centerpieces by just adding sunflowers and radishes with red autumn sage (Salvia greggii) and pink waxflower (Chamelaucium uncinatum) for a pop of color. The arrangement is sitting on a “plate” of collard greens.
Arrangement and Photo by Julie Walker.
Ornamental millet contrasts beautifully with a simple, cream-colored pitcher.
Arrangement and Photo by Julie Walker.

Fast and Easy
For the easiest and quickest arrangements, just use one or two items. For example, in a smaller container, add bunches of thyme with yellow nasturtium flowers. Or mix dark green kale leaves with sunflowers or bright red grapes for a beautiful contrast and informal summer appeal. Even easier, fill a tall glass cylindrical vase with radishes or cherry tomatoes and line them down your table.

Next time you go grocery shopping or visit a farmers’ market, look at the produce section the same as you would as a floral shop – with so much potential arrangement material!


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.


Posted: 08/02/18   RSS | Print


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by Derek Fell       #Edibles   #Plant Profile   #Vegetables

Pods of the dwarf hybrid okra variety ‘Annie Oakley’ showing correct size that pods should be harvested for good flavor and tenderness.


Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a staple of many Florida gardens. This native of North Africa is related to tropical hibiscus and enjoys our hot, humid weather. Indeed, okra is an important commercial crop for Florida, mostly centered on Dade County, estimated at 1,500 acres.

A fast-growing, self-pollinating annual, it produces white, hibiscus-like flowers followed by succulent, edible pods. The more you pick the pods, the more the plant continues to produce, eventually reaching a height of 8 feet. However, the pods must be picked before they exceed 4 inches in length, otherwise they turn fibrous and eventually dry into a horn shape.

Popular in Southern and Indian cuisine, okra is frequently used in gumbo and as a side dish with Indian curries, either boiled, steamed, fried, or roasted. Okra pods also make delicious pickles. The glutinous substance in okra pods is used to thicken soups.

Edible pods begin to appear within 60 days of direct seeding. The flowers last only a day, but dozens of flowers will form all along the stalk. Pick the pods by cutting the stem with a sharp knife close to the base of the pod. If left to mature, the pod turns woody and brittle and the seeds will turn brown and get hard as a bullet.

Before sowing, soak the seed overnight in lukewarm water to hasten germination. Wait until the soil has warmed and there is no danger of frost. Plant 1⁄2 inch deep, spacing plants 6 inches apart in rows 3 feet wide. Alternatively, start seed indoors three weeks before outdoor planting to gain healthy transplants. Choose a sunny location and a fertile soil that drains well. Sandy soils suit okra just fine, providing the soil pH is close to neutral. Adding compost and general-purpose, slow-release organic 10-10-10 fertilizer will improve yields. While okra is famously drought tolerant and heat resistant, do not let a week go by without watering.

Avoid planting in soil with nematodes, as these tiny worm-like creatures will invade the roots. Other pests include mites, whiteflies, caterpillars, and stinkbugs, most of which can be controlled with an organic pyrethrum spray or insecticidal soap. Where nematode infestations are a problem, consider growing okra in a raised bed using sterilized topsoil or potting soil. Okra will tolerate crowding and in raised beds or containers can be spaced 3-4 inches apart.

Quick Facts

• Of all varieties available to home gardeners, ‘Annie Oakley’ is especially noteworthy since it is a dwarf hybrid and begins cropping several days earlier than other non-hybrids, when the plants are still short and stocky. Choose this one if you wish to grow in containers.
• Okra makes delicious pickles simply by packing them nose-to-toe in glass jars and pouring in a store-bought pickling spice combined with cider vinegar. Pack in 4-pint canning jars.
• For long storage okra also freezes.
• The flowers are edible with a lettuce-like flavor and the petals can be added to salads. You could also float them in shallow dishes of water as a table decoration.

Okra ‘Burgundy’ pods turn green when cooked.

Okra ‘Clemson Spineless’, developed by Clemson University, is the most popular among home gardeners.

In southern Florida (Zones 10 and 11) okra can be harvested 10 months of the year by staggering plantings March through May. To maintain a warm soil temperature and to deter weeds, consider planting your okra through black plastic.

The pods can be green or burgundy depending on the variety. Recommended green varieties include ‘Clemson Spineless’ (an All-America award winner), ‘Annie Oakley’ (a hybrid dwarf selection), ‘Cajun Delight’, and ‘Emerald’. Two burgundy varieties are ‘Alabama Red’ and ‘Burgundy’, both of which turn green when cooked and can be used as an ornamental in mixed flower borders. Even when not in bloom or fruit, the burgundy plants are decorative.

Heirloom varieties tend to be extremely thorny along the stems and sharp enough to snag clothing. While modern varieties are mostly spineless, a few thorns may still occur and so gloves should be worn to harvest the tender pods.


A version of this article appeared in a print edition of Florida Gardening Volume 21 Number 4.
Photography courtesy of Derek Fell.


Posted: 08/02/18   RSS | Print


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Odd Tools for Odd Jobs
by Bob Westerfield       #Summer   #Tools   #Unusual


By the time we hit the hot months of July and August, most folks would rather be sipping cold tea in their air-conditioned homes rather than working out in their gardens or mowing their lawns. By this time, garden chores such as mowing grass, weeding flowerbeds and tending to our vegetable garden have been a major part of our schedules throughout the spring and early summer months. While most gardeners are usually equipped with the proper tools to accomplish necessary tasks, there are a few oddball tools out there that may be worth taking a look at. Many of these tools are designed to accomplish specific jobs that would otherwise be very time consuming and much more frustrating. The right tools can definitely make the job easier and more enjoyable. Here is a quick look at some of the equipment out there and how to decide what you really need.

The first rule of thumb is not to set out to stock up on all of these more obscure implements before you have the basics. Once that’s done, you can begin collecting specialty gardening tools. While there are about as many tools out there as there are gardening chores, some are practical choices that you will use often. We will cover the basics, as well as some of the more niche and “luxury” tools out there.

Instead of buying separate string trimmers, tillers and pruners, you may want to look at buying a combo unit. You simply switch out different attachments for many odd jobs.

We all have had issues with garden pests and plant diseases at some point. This makes a pump sprayer an obvious first choice. They are versatile because they can be used for various purposes, such as treating plants with insecticidal soap or feeding them with a nutritious mist of plant food or fertilizer. Handheld sprayers are great for a beginner since they are lightweight and easy to use. These are ideal for smaller jobs.

The next step-up would be a backpack sprayer that can hold up to four times the amount of liquid that a handheld sprayer can. Both types work virtually the same. There are even models of sprayers that are either battery powered or gas powered with small motors that handle the chore of pumping the tank to build pressure. If you do a lot of spraying, these can come in handy.

Saw-toothed shovels are designed to penetrate hard or rocky soils.

With pests under control, it is time to plant new plants or transplant existing ones. This can be done easily with the right tools. Although a basic hand shovel is fine, there are tools available to make the job more efficient. Hand cultivators or small tillers make planting larger areas easier because they loosen the soil quickly and efficiently. If you have confined flowerbeds, a poacher’s spade might be more useful than a regular spade or shovel. A cross between the two, it is great for use in smaller areas.

If bulbs are your passion, the next tool that might find its way into your garden shed is a bulb planter. These oddly shaped tools are designed to remove a plug of dirt, making a perfect hole for planting a bulb. A dibbler is a tapered tool that pokes holes in the soil much the same way, but they can also come in handy when dealing with seedlings and transplants.

Trenching shovels are designed in a way that allows you to dig narrow, horizontal ditches. This is a handy tool for installing irrigation or electric wires in your landscape.

Most backyard gardeners own a basic garden or spading fork. These are great for many jobs, but you might find yourself in need of a hand fork, which is just a smaller version that is useful for transplanting. A square-mouthed shovel is also a great addition to your collection of “scooping” tools, and is often used to clear gravel, soil, sand or other material from driveways, patios, etc.If lawn care is your top priority, there are many tools from which to choose. Beyond the lawnmower, you will want to purchase a combination string-trimmer-edger-tiller. These combo units use the same power head, but have detachable ends where you can put the various tools in place. If you desire a clean edge for your beds, driveway and walkways, use the edger attachment. If you need to trim around the fence or another area, attach the string trimmer head. The model I have also runs a small chain saw pole pruner to remove small branches, as well as a tiller attachment for tilling up small beds.

The size of your yard and your budget will determine which route you might take. If you have an endless budget, you might consider purchasing a robotic mower. These have been on the market for a while now, and the prices have dropped a bit. They are still quite expensive and can be tricky to put to use in yards that are not level; plus, they usually only cover an area of up to 3⁄4 of an acre. This luxury would be equivalent to having a full-time gardener on staff. These machines are quiet and energy efficient, which adds to their appeal.

The WOLF-Garten® Draw Hoe is ergonomically designed for comfort and features an extra sharp blade to break up soil and weeds in one effortless motion.

In addition to lawn mowing, there is also the job of aerating. While this is not an every-season job, it is something that should be periodically done in order to maintain a healthy lawn. A spiking fork is a specialty fork used to aerate lawns. If you have a small yard, you can purchase a handheld fork; you might even want to purchase aerating sandals. You can find these in garden catalogs as sort of a novelty, but tromping around your yard wearing those actually gets the job done! For larger areas, it is generally recommended that you rent a professional aerator.

There are also specialty tools for trimming, such as shears, which come in many different sizes, shapes and varieties. Some gardeners even own sheep shears, which are great for trimming grass low to the ground where that’s needed. A lot of shears serve multiple purposes, but some are very specialized, such as deadheading shears, fruit and flower shears, or thinning shears. Start with a multipurpose style and decide from there if you need something more specialized. You can now purchase pruning clippers with ratcheting action or special grips for those that might have issues with hand strength or arthritis. If you are a serious gardener and have gotten into grafting, you might want to purchase a grafting kit. These often come with grafting wax and several specialized grafting tools, made solely for this job.

There are many unique tools available to help control weeds. The Weed Popper uses strong spikes that are pushed under the weed, which is then “popped” out when your foot presses down on the lever.

When it comes to digging, there are so many new shovel designs out there designed for specialty jobs. Traditional spade shovels now can be purchased with a toothed edge to penetrate hard or clay soils. Trenching shovels are specialty digging tools that remove soil horizontally; those come in handy when installing underground irrigation or wires. You may also want to consider a long narrow transplant shovel, designed to lift out root systems of plants you need to move.

With everything trimmed, pruned and edged, it is time to think about watering. Many watering options are available with different types of hoses, sprinklers and hose attachments. There are some interesting options on the market now that make this job easier, and sometimes entertaining. Traveling sprinklers are an easy way to reach many areas of your yard without the trouble of dragging your sprinkler from place to place. I even came across a sprinkler that doubles as a pest deterrent. When it senses a yard pest (bigger than an insect, of course), it turns on and runs for a while. Think of the giggles coming from your kids when a squirrel gets scared away when the water turns on.

Now that your shed houses not only the basics, but also your new collection of toys, I mean specialized tools, you can sit back and know that your summer gardening chores will be much easier and maybe even a little fun! But make sure to relax and grill up a burger or two.


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Spitfire at en.wikipedia, Bob Westerfield, and


Posted: 08/01/18   RSS | Print


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Biochar to the Rescue!
by Scott Burrell       #Environment   #Fertilizing   #Sustainability and Self-Sufficiency

Watching and waiting. Once the “jet engine” noise of inner barrel low oxygen charring and volatile gas consumption begins, the smoke becomes minimal. If enough oxygen were available one would see complete combustion with only ashes produced. Former Vice President and 2007 Nobel Prize recipient Al Gore noted, “One of the most exciting new strategies for restoring carbon to depleted soils and sequestering significant amounts of CO2 for 1,000 years and more, is the use of biochar.”

Biochar – you may have never heard of it, but in many research circles, and in a few select backyard lots, biochar is the stuff dreams are made of, particularly given our need for better soils, better air, better plants, and better climates. Biochar is a type of charcoal very unlike the grill’s charcoal briquettes, which are a mixture of powdered devolatilized coal, a small portion of raw or carbonized sawdust, and intentional ash additives. Biochar is the result of heating biomass under the exclusion of air – a process known as pyrolysis. Renewable lignin-based resources from nut shells to manures to wood, switchgrass, wheat straw, corn shucks and other green materials, can be the fuel used to create a very stable, very porous carbon rich product that can last hundreds of years. Biochar’s primary use is for soil enrichment, but it can do much more than that.

In the 1950s, Dutch soil scientist Wim Sombroek discovered dark, carbon-rich soils in the Amazon basin that supported productive farms in areas – many of them typically unproductive jungle cutovers – that previously had poor, even toxic soils. These dark soils known as terra preta, or black earth, had been “cultured” sometimes over hundreds, sometimes even thousands of years by the addition of biochar, by accident (wildfire mainly), or by intention, allowing the soil to retain vital organic matter, plant nutrients and moisture, essential for good plant growth. Unlike other raw materials we’re more familiar with, such as fertilizers, additives, composts or manures, biochar is not assimilated, transformed, or broken down, but is thought to remain unaltered in the soil through successive generations of biomass. Still enriched hundreds of years after they were amended, these dark soils have generated great interest in using biochar not only to improve soils but to sequester carbon by tying up the carbon in solid stable form from otherwise unused biomass as well as increasing plant growth, which consumes greater amounts of CO2 in the process then slower-growing plants. Thus, potentially, mankind could reduce – if done on a massive scale – the greenhouse effect of elevated carbon (CO2) levels currently in the atmosphere. And consider this, increased plant growth could also result in increased oxygen production at a time when oxygen levels in our atmosphere are falling. Wow, that’s big picture thinking for a gardener just wanting a better backyard!

A homemade biochar maker. Note the drilled air holes at the top and bottom of the 55-gallon metal barrel. Also note the removable metal seal rim attached to the removable smokestack/cover combo. The seal allows for lower oxygen ingress once the burning process is well along. Commercial production of biochar uses a number of alternative processes including kilns and gasifiers to achieve the same end product.

Biochar and compost mix three weeks after initial combustion. Some impoverished nations use urine to complete the preparation of biochar for use in the soil. Whether compost or urine, the aim is to stabilize it. This initial one time application will ensure the biochar does not compete for nutrients while setting up a good environment for the future microbe/nutrient/water/carbon matrix.

Just a wee bit more science. Why is it so stable? Mainly because the aromatic rings that make up the structurally altered carbon in biochar are so difficult to break. Voila, a long lasting, incredibly stable, soil amendment. If biochar is indeed the same product found in terra preta soils, which have also been discovered on other continents (for instance, Japan has a long history of using charcoal in soil), it is the realization of what gardeners and environmentalists dream of: It maintains balanced moisture levels during wide climate changes; it improves air permeability in otherwise dense clays soils; like humus and clay minerals it increases cation exchange capacity thus increasing soil fertility; it decreases leaching of essential nutrients making them available for microbial use while its pores provide a great habitat for microbes; and all the while it increases the buffering capacity and doesn’t itself deteriorate and have to be annually amended like fertilizers, which is all too good to be true. But, there is more: Like activated carbons, some biochars have activity levels high enough to act as detoxifiers of poisoned, sterile or dying soils. Imagine if we’d had biochar reclamation following the dustbowl years in the 1930s!

Let’s move beyond the science to the practical. How do we make it, how do we use it? Since we are talking about combustion, the material used needs to be reasonably dry (20-30 percent water weight or less). At Reynolds Community College in Goochland, Virginia, where I worked, one of my very capable volunteers, Bill Swanson, built a simple two-barrel “retort,” basically a stove of sorts. Ours was made of two metal drums dedicated to the pyrolysis, i.e., low oxygen burning, of dry wood and other dry biomass to make biochar. Ours used twigs and short pieces of excess untreated lumber up to 2 inches thick that we packed into the open end of a 30-gallon metal barrel. Wood chips or sawdust will not work well in this design as they pack too tightly and not enough heat is developed. There are other suitable designs such as kilns, pits, and gasifiers. Our 55-gallon open-end empty drum was inverted and placed over the open end of the 30-gallon wood -filled drum. The two barrels, now one unit, were turned over and the space between the two barrels was filled with dried wood. Air holes – cut or drilled – around the base as well as just below the upper rim of the 55-gallon barrel allowed for limited O2 access. Once the wood between the barrels was ignited and vigorously burning the outer barrel lid, complete with a stovepipe was seated to retain heat and make the process more efficient. The heat from this burning wood chars the wood in the inner oxygen-restricted barrel (if there was too much oxygen it would burn to ash), which gives off volatile gases while drawing in oxygen through the space where the barrels meet at the bottom. Once that charring process really gets started you’ll hear what sounds like a jet engine rushing sound of exiting hot gases and water vapor heading out the smoke stack with virtually no smoke. In the space of 90 minutes burn time you’ve created biochar! When the process is complete and cooled, remove the lid and dump out the inner barrel of biochar. If it’s been “cooked” right it will have a clinking sound, almost glassy when dropped or shaken.

Properly carbonized wood forms a rigid, easily crushed material lacking any pockets of undercarbonized material. The biochar will not feel greasy and the black dust will wash off one’s hands with just water – no soap necessary unless it was incomplete charring.

To prepare our biochar for garden use, we wrapped it in a tarp and ran over it repeatedly with the truck to crush it into 1⁄2-inch or so pieces. Fresh biochar needs to be further prepped by mixing it with compost (in some countries urine is used to stabilize the biochar) or a balanced fertilizer. We mixed it with compost and let it sit for three weeks. The biochar will attract and hold nutrients and microbes from the compost. This only needs to be done once to prevent competition with plants for nutrients.

The study and refinement of biochars for reintroduction of endangered or threatened coastal plant species to coastal barren habitat in Massachusetts is just one of the many ongoing biochar initiatives. The biochar we made at the college was introduced to the new educational vineyard recently established. Who knows, the results may well lead to stronger plants with less need for chemical controls. Who yet knows the full promise of biochar?



A version of this article appeared in a September 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Scott Burrell.


Posted: 08/01/18   RSS | Print


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Make it Last
by Richelle Stafne       #Edibles   #Fruit   #Recipes

Items to gather to prepare for freezing fruits and vegetables: freezer pens, canning labels, resealable freezer bags, vacuum-sealable bags, plastic freezer containers, canning jars, etc. To save time, gather items in advance to be sure you have everything needed for specific produce.

There is a fine line in a productive summer garden where the harvest goes from plentiful to growing “out your ears.” Of course, you can give extra produce away or donate it to a local soup kitchen, but another option is to freeze the abundant harvest. I grew up on a rural farm where food preservation was a way of life. From snapping green beans for canning to washing blackberries for freezing, we learned to help from a young age. Here are tips to help you get started with freezing produce at home.


Selecting Produce

Be sure fruits, vegetables and herbs are harvested at the right time (morning is best) and picked at the peak of ripeness. Freezing will not improve quality. Those to be frozen should be prepared as quickly as possible. In other words, waiting to see how much food is left at the end of the week and hurriedly deciding to throw it in the freezer is not the best way to go. Choose fruit and veggies without disease or insect damage. Rinse produce thoroughly, sort and dry. Pulling out a bag of tomatoes from the freezer only to find a tomato hornworm hitched a ride into the bag is a good way have an entire bag end up in the compost. Though freezing food may change the texture, most of the flavor and nutritive value will remain after thawing.


Freezer burn is the name for dry,
tough surfaces that sometimes form on frozen food. Prevent with moisture/vapor-proof containers and remove all air from packages.

Prevent ice crystal
by freezing
produce quickly, only a few pounds
at a time, and by using quality freezer

Beverage tip!
Freeze whole, rinsed berries in ice cube trays filled with water to add frozen festivity to cocktails, lemonades and iced teas.

Herbs for freezing:
• Clip fresh, young leaves in morning
• Clean the leaves
• Dry them
• Place in sealed plastic bags (remove the air) or airtight container Try these herbs: basil, borage, chives, dill, lemongrass, mint, oregano, sage, savory, sorrel, sweet woodruff, tarragon, thyme


Choosing the Right Container

Containers for freezing foods should be airtight, moisture/vapor resistant, capable of withstanding freezing and thawing, and should be able to be labeled. The particular container chosen depends on what is being frozen and what you plan to do with it after freezing. Containers could be glass canning jars (wide mouth is best), plastic bowls with lids or sealable, plastic freezer bags, which includes durable bags used with food preservation vacuum-sealing machines.


Gathering the Necessary Tools

•  Washed, cleaned and dried freezable containers

•  Freezer-compatible labeling markers and label tape

•  Freezer paper (used in some circumstances)

•  Clean and sanitized work space

•  Hair net and gloves are advisable but clean hands are fine

•  Colander

•  Knives and cutting board; avoid iron and galvanized cooking utensils and equipment

•  For vegetables, a deep pot for blanching and another container or sink basin for ice water bath


Preparation of the Fruit or Vegetable

How to Freeze Okra
1.    Select fresh pods less than 3 inches in length.
2.    Wash and trim pods, leaving cap whole.
3.    Label and date freezer bags/containers.
4.    Blanch okra in small batches for four minutes.
5.    Prepare ice water bath in a large container or sink basin.
6.    Emerge blanched okra into ice water for 5 minutes, until cooled.
7.    Remove and drain okra.
8.    Pack okra pods (whole or sliced) into clean, freezer bags, squeeze out air and seal.
9.    Repeat using the same blanching water and ice water bath.
10.    Freeze up to one year at 32 F or below.
11.    Enjoy deep-fried or add to gumbos, vegetable soup, stir-fry, etc.

Prepare fruit as it will be used – peeled, chopped, pitted, etc. Food that will darken or degrade rapidly should be prepared in small batches so as it is prepared, it is put into containers and frozen. Four types of fruit packing are used: dry pack, sugar pack, syrup pack and unsweetened pack. Sugars and syrups are often used to improve texture and flavor after food is thawed, but is not essential. Berries can be frozen in a single layer on a tray, then transferred frozen to freezer bags. Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) can be added according to package directions to prevent fruit discoloration. Most vegetables (except onions and peppers) should be blanched (briefly heat treated by boiling or steaming) before freezing. Blanch and immediately follow with ice water cooling. Vegetable type and size determine blanching time.


Why Blanch Vegetables?

Improperly frozen grapes covered with ice crystals. Avoid by using quality freezer bags and freezing smaller batches at one time to ensure rapid freezing.

•  Stops enzymatic reactions within produce

•  Seals in flavor, color, nutrients, and preserves quality and texture

•  Destroys bacteria and insects

•  Removes dirt


Darren Scott, food scientist and sensory specialist at the Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center at Oklahoma State University, says the quality of frozen food depends on the treatment the food receives prior to freezing, how the food is frozen, and the post-freezing storage conditions. He further states that “freezing does not stop enzymatic action and will not kill bacteria.” Mr. Scott adds that self-defrosting freezers that go through a warm-up phase each day may allow partial thawing of foods. This is important because some bacteria are capable of growth at temperatures just slightly above freezing, and he cautions “bacteria are capable of rapid growth.”



A general rule of thumb for properly frozen food is that it will last six months to a year. Vacuum-sealed foods usually last longer depending on the food product.


Strawberry Kiwi Freezer Jam (uncooked)
Makes 5, 8-ounce jars

This recipe uses freezer jam pectin, which means the recipe uses less sugar
  • 1½ cups granulated sugar
  • 1 pouch (1.59 ounces) freezer jam pectin
  • 2 cups crushed, hulled (cap removed) strawberries (or raspberries)
  • 2 cups diced, peeled kiwi fruit (or mashed banana)

In a medium bowl, combine sugar and pectin, stirring until well blended. Add fruit. Stir for 3 minutes. Ladle into freezer jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Apply lids tightly. Let stand at room temperature until thickened (about 30 minutes). Freeze up to one year (or enjoy immediately). Thaw before use.


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2011 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Richelle Stafne.



Posted: 08/01/18   RSS | Print


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Create a Tiny Plant World Under Glass
by Lisa Eldred Steinkopf       #Containers   #Crafts   #Terrariums




The finished terrarium is covered with a glass plate to increase the humidity. It is very important to keep an eye on your newly planted terrarium for a few weeks. There is a fine line between too much moisture and not enough. If your terrarium steams up excessively, remove the cover to let it air out a bit. Then return the cover.


As the saying goes, “What is old is new again.” This can definitely be said about terrariums. They were popular in Victorian times, all the rage in the ’70s, and are having an amazing resurgence. Garden centers offer classes on making terrariums and little plants being hybridized are endless.

Let’s talk a little bit about how terrariums came to be. Like a lot of discoveries, it was by accident. Dr. Nathaniel Ward put a cocoon into a jar with some soil. He never saw it become a moth, but was surprised by the appearance of a fern. He left it to grow, and it did just that for four years, until the cap of the jar rusted.

Controlled climate
This accidental discovery changed plant exploration forever. Ward made what was called the Wardian case, a small portable greenhouse. This spurred the successful movement of plants from faraway lands back to England and other northern countries. Plants enclosed in Wardian cases were safe from salt water on ship voyages, and because they were enclosed, they did not require the precious fresh water needed for the sailors.

Even though we aren’t moving our plants on ships, the concept of a terrarium is still useful today. It can grow plants we would otherwise have a very hard time cultivating in our homes. It keeps humidity-loving plants happy and healthy. If you keep your house a little on the cool side, a terrarium keeps your plants warm.

Plant selection
Most plants that are appropriate for terrariums require medium light. Place a terrarium in a bright area, but out of direct sun, because that may cook the plants. If your plants suffer from your sporadic watering practices, terrariums are almost self-sufficient, once they are established.

Making a terrarium can be fun, and the possibilities and themes are limited only by your imagination. This is also a lot of fun to do with children. I made a small terrarium for my niece for her 6th birthday and she loved it! Take a cue from the Victorians and the ’70s and create a plant world that has come and gone in style, but has stood the test of time.


Select a glass container. The larger the container, the greater your plant selection. Make sure it is a clear container, because colored glass does not allow enough light in. This was found at a garage sale.

Make sure the glass is sparkling clean before you begin.

Gather your materials, including the soil and miniature houseplants. Keep in mind the mature size and growth rate of your plant as you make your selections.



Many different items can be used as decorations in your terrarium. Here I’ve gathered a sampling of things I might use: shells, glass pieces, cork bark, figurines, decorative rocks, moss, lichens, and wood pieces.

I use E-6000 glue to affix small nails to the bottom of figurines. This makes sure they don’t fall over in the terrarium.

If you choose a container that is tall and has a small opening, making terrarium tools is a must. I tied bamboo stakes to ordinary kitchen utensils and a cork to make long planting tools.


Add soil to your container, making the depth at the rear of the container deeper than the front. This allows all the plants to be seen and adds interest to the planting. I do not add drainage material. I would rather have more soil room for the plants. If you need to shorten the root ball of your plant, cut it half way up the middle and spread the root ball out. This will not hurt your plant, and keeps more roots on the plant.

All the plants have been added along with some decorative items. At this point, carefully add water to settle the soil and hydrate the plants. Clean the sides if water or soil splashes on the glass.

After planting and decorating the terrarium, add a soil cover. In this case, I used orchid bark. Moss or pebbles could also be used.



A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Lisa Eldred Steinkopf.


Posted: 07/16/18   RSS | Print


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Crazy Crawlers
by Blake Layton       #Insects   #Pests

Tersa sphinx caterpillars occasionally devour pentas growing in butterfly gardens.

Where there are plants there are caterpillars. As an avid gardener, you are probably familiar with several species of caterpillars, particularly those that damage some of your favorite plants, such as tobacco hornworms, cabbage loopers, and tomato fruitworms. But our gardens and landscapes are host to hundreds of other caterpillar species. Many of these are so small and inconspicuous they are rarely seen. Others are large and even colorful, but because they occur sporadically or do not usually damage prized plants, they are less familiar. We see them occasionally, but we don’t really know much about them. Let’s become more familiar with a few of these caterpillars. The species discussed here are all moths as adults and most are rarely serious pests, though there are some exceptions. You probably won’t see all of these caterpillars during any given growing season, but you are likely to encounter most of these during your gardening career.

Tersa sphinx
These striking caterpillars vary from brown to green, but the spots and other markings are fairly consistent. The “horn” on the rear identifies this as one of the sphinx moth caterpillars, the same family as the tobacco hornworms that plague backyard tomato growers. Because they have a fairly narrow host range, tersa sphinx caterpillars are not especially common, but they are fond of Pentas, and can severely defoliate those planted in landscape beds. This can present a minor moral dilemma for butterfly gardeners. Do you control these caterpillars in order to have more pentas blooms for visiting butterflies, or do you let the caterpillars have the pentas so they can develop into moths? Tersa sphinx moths are quite sporty looking, with a streamlined appearance and approximately 3-inch wingspan, but like most moths, they only fly at night, which makes them harder to observe. An insecticide that contains the active ingredient spinosad, applied according to label directions, is a good option if you choose to protect the pentas.

Walnut caterpillars often leave large hairy clumps of shed skins stuck to the trunks of pecan or walnut trees.

Walnut caterpillar
Walnut caterpillars undergo a significant change in appearance as they grow. Young caterpillars are red with longitudinal yellow stripes, while older caterpillars that are nearing time to pupate are black with long, fine white hairs. These caterpillars specialize in feeding on walnut (Juglans spp.) and pecan (Carya illinoinensis) trees where they cause a rather unusual defoliation pattern. Often they will strip all the leaves from a particular limb without affecting the rest of the tree. This is because the eggs are laid in masses and walnut caterpillars like to remain near their siblings when feeding. All caterpillars molt, or shed their skin, several times as they grow. When it is time for walnut caterpillars to molt, the entire family group crawls to the trunk or a large limb, clusters together, sheds their skins, and then moves away, leaving a hairy mass of shed caterpillar skins behind. Gardeners are sometimes perplexed to discover what appears from a distance to be the skin of a dead possum or some other small mammal stuck to the trunk of their tree.

Saltmarsh caterpillars are quite hairy, but they are not “stinging caterpillars.”

Saltmarsh caterpillar
These hairy caterpillars do not sting, but they occasionally occur in outbreak numbers and can damage field crops, vegetables, and tender ornamental plants. They are an exception to the rule that caterpillars do not normally feed when in the wandering phase. Larger saltmarsh caterpillars actively move around on low-growing vegetation in search of food. Outbreaks usually begin in crop fields or weedy areas, but wandering caterpillars will occasionally appear in managed landscapes. Saltmarsh caterpillars vary in color, from light tan to black, and fully mature caterpillars are about 2 inches long. Adults are medium-sized, heavy-bodied moths with white forewings speckled with black.

Giant leopard moth caterpillars overwinter as large caterpillars and complete their development the following spring.

Giant leopard moth
Most gardeners encounter this insect in fall or winter when they move an item that has been lying about for a while and discover a big, hairy caterpillar curled underneath. These caterpillars seek out protected sites to overwinter but remain as larvae until the following spring. Despite those stiff black hairs, this is not a “stinging caterpillar.” Look past the hairs and you will notice narrow red bands on the skin. Mature caterpillars are about 3 inches long; young caterpillars are black with orange bands and the hairs are not as thick. Giant leopard moth caterpillars have a fairly wide host range, including some ornamental and vegetable plants, but they are rarely numerous enough to cause serious damage. The heavy-bodied moths have white wings covered with large black spots. Often there are a few blue spots on the thorax and the upper surface of the abdomen is covered with iridescent blue and orange markings.

Forest tent caterpillars occasionally occur in huge outbreaks that can totally defoliate thousands of acres of hardwood forest, as well as urban shade trees.

Forest tent caterpillar
Despite their name, forest tent caterpillars do not build tents; they spin inconspicuous silk mats on the bark of their host tree where they molt and rest when not feeding. At feeding time, all the caterpillars move out together, following trails of silk to the leaves and returning, again all together, along the same trails. Populations of forest tent caterpillars vary greatly from year to year. During heavy outbreak years, these caterpillars can be so numerous that they totally defoliate oaks (Quercus spp.) and other hardwood trees. This can include individual trees in home landscapes, as well as thousands of acres in large forests. Fortunately, trees defoliated this early in the year will produce new leaves and suffer little long-term adverse effect. Most trees can survive several successive years of such defoliation, though there may be a reduction in trunk growth rate. During heavy outbreaks the large numbers of wandering caterpillars, combined with their fecal droppings and severe defoliation of shade trees, can be quite disconcerting to homeowners and landscape managers. Fortunately this is a short-lived phenomenon, so control measures are generally not recommended. There is only one generation per year and this occurs in early spring, with eggs hatching shortly after trees leaf out. The caterpillars pupate in late spring and emerge as moths 10 to 14 days later to mate and lay eggs. Eggs are deposited in a mass that encircles twigs of host trees and these eggs hatch the following spring.

Cecropia moth caterpillars grow up to become one of the largest moths in North America, with wingspans up to 6 inches.

Cecropia moth caterpillar
Cecropia moths belong to a group known as the “giant silkworm moths,” which also includes polyphemus and luna moths, along with several other species. As large and colorful as cecropia caterpillars are, you might wonder why you don’t see them more often. It’s because they spend their lives feeding overhead on the leaves of trees such as maples (Acer spp.), birch (Betula spp.), and wild cherry (Prunus spp.). Mature caterpillars are over 4 inches long and form their cocoons on twigs and leaves in the tree canopy. Big caterpillars grow up to be big moths, and cecropia moths are some of the largest moths in the country, with wingspans up to 6 inches. You might not think a moth that’s primarily marked with various shades of brown could be described as colorful – until you see one!

Greenstriped mapleworm: Their name describes them and indicates their favorite host. The adults are called rosy maple moths and this name is equally descriptive.

Greenstriped mapleworm
This descriptively named caterpillar feeds primarily on maple trees. Most years they go largely unnoticed, but in years when populations are unusually high, they can cause heavy or complete defoliation. Fortunately, trees usually recover with little long-term effect. In Southern states there are two or three generations each year. Mature caterpillars pupate in the soil underneath their host tree. The surprisingly beautiful adults are called rosy maple moths.

Banded woolly bear caterpillars can’t really predict severe winters, but they are very good at surviving them.

Banded woolly bear
You have probably seen banded woolly bears crawling across a road or driveway, and you are probably familiar with the folk tale that the width of the rust-colored middle band foretells the severity of the coming winter. Banded woolly bears are not really good at predicting severe winters, but they are very good at surviving them. They have special compounds in their blood that help them survive being frozen, even when ice crystals form inside their bodies, and even when exposed to repeated cycles of freezing and thawing. Like the giant leopard moth, banded woolly bears overwinter as nearly grown caterpillars and pupate the following spring. Mature caterpillars are about 2 inches long and the width of the rust-colored band is quite variable. Although these insects complete two or three generations each year, they are most commonly seen in late fall when they are in search of a place to overwinter. Banded woolly bears have a wide host range, feeding mostly on herbaceous plants and weeds, but rarely damage ornamental plants. This is another hairy caterpillar that is not a stinging caterpillar.


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Blake Layton.


Posted: 07/16/18   RSS | Print


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Press On
by Cindy Shapton       #Crafts   #Decorating   #Flowers

Pick your favorite herbs and flowers to press after the dew is dried.

Spray adhesive on the back side of pressed fern foliage then apply to thick card stock or textured paper to make a fern botanical picture in a jiffy.


Pressing botanicals is just one more way for plant lovers to get their fix while feeding the artist within. Just pick a basketful of your favorite flowers, herbs, leaves, seedpods, or whatnot to place between papers in a press and forget about it until the process is finished.

This is such a fun project …  and educational as well. Once a plant or parts of a plant are pressed, it is easy to see the details that might otherwise be missed. The shape and texture of leaves, the way the flower(s) are attached to the stem, unique variations and leaf proportions, seed formations, and lots of other intricate elements suddenly come to life.

People have been pressing plant material for hundreds of years. The oldest examples were found in an Egyptian tomb dating back to about 300 B.C. Before cameras, botanicals were pressed for collections and herbariums around the world as a way for botanists to record their finds. Although pressed botanicals were used in art long ago, it was the Victorians who really brought botanical pressed designs into fashion.

Isn’t there something so romantic about opening an old book in an antique store and pressed flowers fall out? Or going through a box of your grandmother’s books where you find a posy flattened on the page of her favorite poem. Those botanicals tell a story.

Flower pressing is a great way to get children (of all ages) outside – away from electronics – opening up their senses and imaginations. Not to mention this activity gives you “two to one,” the pressing and then later, the creative process that turns it into a work of art.

The good news is you don’t need expensive equipment to become a plant presser. Let’s break it down and get started:

An overview of plant materials.


Create an herb-themed picture; use a pencil to write the plant names.

The Press
There are many items that can be used for a press, such as old telephone books, and how about those encyclopedia sets? Check out thrift stores for large heavy books without glossy pages.

I sometimes use scraps of plywood cut into squares about 15 by 15 inches. This size can vary depending on the size of the paper you use to separate plants that will go between the plywood squares. Newspaper is what I use (8½ x 11 inches) as blotting paper between the plywood along with various cardboard pieces added to the stack to make the press more substantial. The order of the stack is plywood on the bottom, newsprint, plant material, newsprint, and cardboard, repeating until the stack is the height you want then add the top square of plywood.

Don’t scrimp on the blotting newsprint paper – use 10-20 each time. I usually build my stacks 12-18 inches tall.

Add a cement block or a couple of heavy bricks to sit on top of your makeshift press or books to do the actual pressing and you are in business. Store your press in a warm or cool, humidity-free spot for a month to complete the process.

Of course you can buy an actual flower press or make a flower press using any of the many ideas online. They are prettier and handy if you want a portable press; these are nice for children as well.

Plant Material
Harvest only the best blooms at the peak of their perfection; some discolored or bug-eaten leaves are okay if real is what you are going for, but blooms need to be at their best. Pick mid-morning after the dew has dried or early evening before dew sets in. Of course you can prune away a bad leaf on a plant before pressing if it is not essential or discard later.

If a complete botanical, including the roots, is your objective, carefully remove as much soil as possible from roots, gently run water over roots until clean, blot with paper towels, and then proceed with pressing the whole plant.

Experiment with plants to press – thinner material dries easier, but thicker plants, such as sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) or Zinnias can be done with extra sheets of blotting paper. Sometimes you will want to cut the stem away from the flower or leaves so they will lay flat. They can be put back together on paper.

You probably already have most supplies for making pressed botanical pictures.

Using a toothpick, place drops of clear-drying glue to the backs of pressed leaves and flowers to hold in place on a background.

Start with the long stemmed pressed plants along with a few leaves.

Making a Picture

1. Use card stock, watercolor paper, handmade paper, or whatever you wish as long as its acid free and sturdy. Cut to the size needed for the frame you use.

2. Arrange your picture with the pressed plant materials.

3. Carefully add drops of glue (Elmer’s white or clear, rubber cement, and tacky glue are some I have used) to the backside of each leaf, stem, and flower with a toothpick. Just make sure the glue you use dries clear. I have found that the spray adhesive glue works great for large fern leaves.

4. Using a number two pencil, label botanicals and sign your name and date if you wish.

5. Place your finished picture in the frame and voilà – you have a beautiful art piece to help bring a little nature indoors.

Supply list:
• Telephone or other large book with non-glossy pages
• Newsprint newspaper for blotting-drying
• Scape plywood
• Flat cardboard pieces
• Cement block or heavy bricks
• Tweezers
• Glue – white, rubber cement, tacky, or spray adhesive
• Toothpicks and a small paper plate to put glue on for dipping
• Acid-free card stock, watercolor paper, handmade paper, etc.
• Number two pencil
• Scissors
• Various sized frames with glass – check thrift store or yard sales

Add leaves with different shapes and textures and a few more stems to create a layered, multidimensional look. • Place in glass frame and you have a botanical masterpiece.

Add pressed cosmos, top with matting, place into frame and viola.

A few of my favorite botanicals
Annual and perennials: sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), Aster, bachelor’s button (Centaurea montana), pansy (Viola x wittrockiana), Vinca, ‘Victoria Blue’ salvia (S. farinacea ‘Victoria Blue’), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), ferns, Hydrangea (separate flowers), Dianthus, Cosmos, roses (Rosa spp.), Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), ornamental grasses, dusty miller (Senecio cineraria), Geranium, Celosia

Herbs: Cilantro, dill, sage (Salvia officinalis), lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), thyme (Thymus spp.), tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), fleabane (Erigeron spp.), lavender (Lavandula spp.), mints (Mentha spp.), chicory (Cichorium intybus), comfrey (Symphytum officinale), borage (Borago officinalis), parsley (Petroselinum crispum), milk thistle (Silybum), bee balm (Monarda spp.), pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), Mexican sage (S. leucantha), papalo (Porophyllum ruderale), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum).

Once the pressing is finished, very carefully lift the plant material from the blotting paper or book pages. A pair of tweezers is helpful. Unused materials need to be kept in a covered container (I use a small plastic tub with a tight cover) out of humidity.


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Cindy Shapton.


Posted: 07/16/18   RSS | Print


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Botanical Names
by Louise Roesser    

Do botanical names cause you confusion, get you tongue-tied or seem unnecessary? There actually are reasons for the scientific mumble jumble. In addition to gaining an understanding of the scientific names of plants, knowing just a little “Latinese” will place you a step higher in the gardening world.

Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707 to 1778) revolutionized the plant classification system during the 18th century when Latin was the most widely used international language of science and scholarship. Known as the “father of modern plant and animal classification,” he based his system on structural (morphological) similarities and differences, particularly regarding the reproductive organs, which are least likely to change over time. Linnaeus began his classification system by separating the plant kingdom into major divisions, based on evolution.

The example below shows how the pink flowering dogwood is classified.

Kingdom: Plantae (the plant kingdom)

Division: Trachaeophyta (vascular plants)

Class: Angiospermae (angiosperm – a flowering plant or one that produces seed in ovaries)

Subclass: Dicotyledonae (dicot – a plant having two cotyledons: the first leaflike structures that form at the first node on a stem)

Order: Cornales

Family: Cornaceae

Genus: Cornus

Specific epithet or species: Cornus florida (flowering dogwood)

Variety: Cornus florida var. rubra (pink flowering dogwood)      

If we look beyond the intimidating Latin names (often incorporating Greek), we begin to see a very simple classification system. The naming of plants is based on a latin two-word “binomial” system – bi meaning two, nomen meaning name. The genus (plural – genera) is listed first, always capitalized and consisting of a group of one or more plants that share one or more characteristics. For example, all plants in the genus Acer are types of maples and are found in the Aceraceae family. A generic name is either a noun or a word treated as such with a masculine (ends in -us, -er, -is or -r), feminine (ends in -a, -ra, -is or -ris) or neutral (ends in -um, -rum, -is or -re) gender. Exceptions are plants with endings that are the same for all three genders (-ans, -ens, -x and -or).

‘Audray Bicolor Rose’ globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa ‘Audray Bicolor Rose’)

‘Luxuriant’ bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia ‘Luxuriant’)

Epithet, Species

The specific epithet, also known as the species, is a group of plants within the genus that possess certain differences but are capable of possible interbreeding. Written as the second part of a scientific name and always lowercase, the species can often convey to us more specific information about a particular plant, such as size (usually relative to other species of the genus), growth habit, color or habitat. Acer rubrum is a red maple (rubrum meaning red), and Acer saccharum is a sugar maple (saccharum refers to sugar). Species that contain proper names usually indicate the collector or someone who has studied a particular plant. In the case of chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), the species name honors Gotthilf Henry Ernest Muhlenberg (1753-1815), a Lutheran minister and botanist from Pennsylvania. The species name can also indicate the origin of a plant, as with Camellia japonica (of Japan) and Cercis canadensis (the redbud), indicating it is from Canada.


The variety is a subgroup name for a plant that differs only slightly from the species. It further delineates a specific plant and follows the genus and species. Varieties are indicated by “var.,” as in Rosa gallica var. officinalis. A botanical variety will sexually breed true to form in nature.


Dragon Wing begonia (Begonia x hybrida ‘Bepared’)

Cultivars (a combination of the words cultivated and variety) are plants that are bred for their desirable characteristics and must be maintained by humans through controlled sexual (seeds) or asexual propagation. Cultivar names are either English or Latinized and are indicated by an enclosure in single quotes as in Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’. Like the species, the cultivar may offer descriptive information that may help gardeners when choosing a particular plant.

A cross between two or more species is a hybrid and is denoted with an “x” as in Abelia x grandiflora. (Hint: This Abelia species has larger flowers than others.) Did you guess that? If so, you are catching on.

The naming of plants is based on a set of rules by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN), which was first published in 1930. Botanists make plant name changes only when necessary to conform to the code.

What Do Those Words Mean?

Descriptive Prefixes          

albi-, leuco- – white
alterni- – alternate
angusti- – narrow
brevi- – short
grandi- – large
hetero- – differing
lati- – broad
longi- – long
micro- – small
macro- – large, long
rotundi- – round
semper- – always

Designating Plant Habitat             

aquaticus – water
arvensis – in fields
maritimus – by the sea
palustris – in swamps
pratensis – in meadows
sativus – cultivated

Designating Plant Appearance

gracilis – graceful, slender
humilus – low
procumbens – trailing
pubescens – downy hair surface
pumilus, nanus – dwarf
repans, reptans – creeping
tuberosus – forming tubers

Designating Plant Parts

caulis – stem
carpus – fruit
florus, anthos – flower
folium, phyllon – leaf

Designating Plant Geography

americanus – Americas
australis – southern
borealis – northern
canadensis – Canada
carolinianus – Carolinas
chinensis, sinensis – China
occidentalis – western
orientalis – eastern
virginianus – Virginias

Designating Color

albus – white
atropurpureus – dark purple
aureus – golden
bicolor – of two colors
coccineus – scarlet
concolor – same color both sides
discolor – different color each side
flavus, luteus – yellow
glaucus – whitish with a bloom
niger – black
ruber – red
sanguineus – blood red
variegatus – variegated
viridis – green

Designating Plant Attributes

annuus – annual
communis, vulgaris – common
officinalis – medicinal
perennis – perennial
pulchellus – beautiful
rugosus – wrinkled
setaceus – bristle-like
spectabilis – showy, handsome
vernus – spring flowering

Why Not Keep It Simple?

So why not just use common or vernacular names? They are usually much easier to remember and pronounce, but there are problems associated with them. A plant may have several common names, depending on the country it is grown in, section of the country or even among different garden clubs. Without botanical names, it would be impossible to keep plants in order, to tell one from the other or even to order your favorite from a catalog. Also, if you are inquiring about a plant in another country, the botanical name is the same all over the world.

When it comes to selecting and purchasing plants for your home and landscape, how can botanical names be useful? Begin by becoming familiar with genera of common landscape plants such as Ilex (hollies), Quercus (oaks) and Juniperus (junipers) to name a few. Next, familiarize yourself with descriptive species names.

Gold-edged winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’)

One of my favorite winter-blooming shrubs is Daphne odora (winter daphne). With its fragrant purple-pink flowers, winter daphne clearly lives up to its specific epithet. The cultivar Daphne odora ‘Alba’ bears white to creamy white flowers. Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ bears leaves with narrow, irregular yellow margins and pink flower buds that open to pale pink or white.

If you are looking for an accent tree or shrub for your landscape, you might want to try Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa’ (origin – China; torulosa meaning twisted). Looking for a colorful evergreen dwarf shrub? Nandina domestica ‘Nana Purpurea’ (dwarf purple) might be just the right cultivar for you.

Although gardeners still use common names every day, occasionally there is a real need to use a little “Latinese.”


Dictionary of Plant Names - Allen J. Coombes

Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners - William T. Stearn

The American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants - Christopher Brickell and Judith D. Zuk

Making Sense of Botanical Names - R.P. Madsen and A. McDaniel


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2005 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Louise Roesser.


Posted: 07/16/18   RSS | Print


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Cut and Come Again
by Kristi Cook       #Edibles   #Pruning   #Vegetables

Loose leafed lettuces like this black seeded lettuce and any variety of spinach perform very well as cut and come again choices.

One of the many joys of growing your own food is the nearly constant supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. Freshly picked tomatoes, cucumbers, berries, and squash are some of the most delightful summer treasures. Yet many crops, such as lettuce, onions, and Swiss chard, tend to be thought of as single-harvest vegetables, making it necessary to provide enough space for large plantings as well as a keen attention to succession planting in order to receive several weeks worth of these single harvest crops. Many of these vegetables, however, are capable of producing multiple harvests if you provide just a little extra attention to the harvesting methods and give them a bit of time to recover from each picking.

Swiss chard is another good cut and come again performer with fast regrowth.

Be Picky
Leafy vegetables are among the easiest to coax into producing more than one picking and take advantage of two different approaches to continuous harvests. For instance, if you enjoy salads loaded with tender baby leaves select a cut and come again lettuce mix. These mixes are often labeled as mild, spicy, or a blend of both to suit a variety of taste preferences. Simply prepare the seedbed and broadcast seeds across several feet rather than making neat and tidy rows. Spacing between seeds is not critical as these blends will be harvested while still in the smaller stages of growth. After seedlings sprout and leaves reach a few inches in height, you can start harvesting leaves as you need them.

Perhaps the easiest method for gathering these small leaves is to grab a handful of plants by the tops and snip about an inch or two above the crown. Cut as many handfuls from your growing patch as your family needs for a day or two and leave the rest for the next cutting. Depending on your climate and the varieties chosen, these freshly cut lettuces will produce new leaves from the crown and will be ready for cutting again within a couple of weeks.

This Swiss chard already has edible baby leaves within a week of the initial cutting. However, resist the temptation to cut all of the baby leaves in a single cutting as the plants do need the leaves temporarily to help regenerate it’s energy stores.

Alternatively, if you prefer the larger, crunchier leaves of more mature lettuces, opt for the loose leaf varieties and larger leafed spinaches. Plant the seeds or transplants at the recommended distance and allow the outer leaves to mature to the stage that you prefer. Once the preferred size is reached, break or cut the outer two to three layers of leaves close to the bottom of the plant and leave the central portion intact. Over the next couple of weeks the central leaves will become the outer leaves and will continue to lengthen in size. Repeat this cutting and regrowing cycle until the plant’s regrowth slows. Once it has slowed significantly or shows signs of bolting (or going to seed), pull the entire plant and enjoy as a final meal.

Succession planting every one to two weeks for four to six weeks total works very well with these larger lettuces as well as the baby lettuces to allow for harvesting of some of the plants while the freshly cut ones rest and produce new leaves.

When cutting Swiss chard, try to avoid cutting into the new growth hidden within the center of the stalks to allow the new leaves time to grow and replenish the plant’s energy stores.

Cut ‘em Down
Other cut and come again choices include Swiss chard, green onions, chives, and garlic. These tasty treats add variety to salads and other meals and shouldn’t be overlooked. All of these vegetables continuously produce their growing leaves from a central point. Once the leaves of each of these plants reach a usable size, simply cut them above their growing point. Swiss chard and chives should be left with 2”-3” of growth across the entire plant while green onions and garlic should be cut just above the beginning of the white portion of the stalks to allow for regrowth. The one thing to remember with these cut and come again choices are that each cycle typically produces somewhat smaller new growth. I have found it best to limit the number of cuttings to no more than three times with two cuttings generally producing the best results.

One added advantage to the cut and come again talent of most lettuces, onions, scallions, and garlic is the ability to grow these vegetables in containers in late summer and early fall that can later be brought indoors to continue their regrowth cycle for a while longer. However, because these particular vegetables are dependent on the amount of daylight they receive to continue growing, you will need to provide supplemental lighting during the shorter days of winter to delay the drive to go dormant.

Cut and come again vegetables are an easy way to harvest extra tasty veggies time and time again from crops that are typically harvested only a single time. With just a little attention to growing habits and provided enough time to recover, a single planting can provide several weeks of fresh produce.


A version of this article appeared in a July 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Kristi Cook.


Posted: 07/03/18   RSS | Print


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Refresh Summer Perennials
by Gloria Day       #Advice   #Pruning   #Summer

Drumstick allium is one of the most reliably perennial ornamental onions for central United States. It blends well with other flowers in the garden and in vases. • Phlox is one perennial that truly benefits from deadheading all season long, re-blooming until the frost nips. • Helleborus needs winter leaves removed just in time to reveal the showy blooms, often peeking through a late winter snow.

Keeping a garden at its best requires planning and a little effort. Spring through fall, here are a few tips for refreshing your perennials.

Echinacea can be deadheaded early in the season and the flowers can be left later in the season to provide seed for overwintering birds.

Start deadheading daffodils (Narcissus spp.) and tulips (Tulipa spp.) in early May, taking care to pinch off the flower heads and cut the stems, never the nourishing leaves.

Allium seed heads can be left on the plant to provide interest or cut, whichever you prefer. They can be quite interesting spray-painted for dried arrangements.

After Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum) bloom and fade, the labor-intensive task of deadheading begins. Although time consuming to cut each stalk back to the next bud, it is worth the effort when it produces a second or third bloom.

The method of deadheading Rudbeckia is similar to that for Shasta daisy, cutting the stem back to the next new bud. In fall, leave the seeds for wildlife.

Buddleia, whether dwarf or 10 feet tall, should be deadheaded frequently. Some varieties can be considered invasive due to self-seeding. The number of seedlings can be controlled by deadheading, both an environmental friendly task to prevent unwanted seedlings and to encourage continuous blooms. Cut the stem back to the next “V” junction on the branch. You will have larger flowers throughout the season, which translates into more butterflies visiting the garden.

Aster and Chrysanthemum flowers can be snipped off after the bloom fades and will give the plant a face-lift.

Sedum can be deadheaded after it flowers and dries, particularly the ground cover types. The dried flowers of taller sedum, such as ‘Autumn Fire’ or ‘Autumn Joy’, may be left on to provide winter interest if the stems are strong and the plant remains upright.


Salvia is another mainstay perennial that needs to be consistently deadheaded. It becomes unsightly after it blooms and dries. A quick snip at the tips will extend the life of the plant until frost.

The spent flowers of Dianthus should be trimmed above the mounding foliage.

Perennial Geranium needs a midseason haircut in order to rebloom. Cut back the top one-third of the plant.

Coreopsis can be treated the same way, using sharp hedge shears to expedite the task.

As the season progresses, keep up with deadheading and you will see a tremendous increase of both vigor and blooms.





A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Caleb Melchior and Gloria Day.


Posted: 07/03/18   RSS | Print


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Friends or Foes?
by Bill Pitts       #Advice   #Sustainability and Self-Sufficiency   #Vegetables

While I consider French marigolds (Tagetes patula) an essential potager plant, some gardeners believe it is a bad companion for vegetables because it can attract pests, such as spider mites.

The “Three Sisters” is one of the most famous examples of companion planting. Pole beans, corn, and pumpkins are grown together on hills, and each of the plants helps the others. The corn gives the beans something to climb, while the pumpkins serve as a living mulch, keeping the roots cool and moist.

I find the three sisters get along best when I stick to varieties closest to those the Native Americans would have used. An heirloom field corn provides a sturdy support for beans, but when I tried a finicky modern sweet corn, the whole planting came tumbling down in a tangled mess, and these famously good companions became bad ones.

I have found that vegetables and herbs of different families make great companions, but bad ones if you are practicing crop rotation over a period of years.

Some plants will always make bad companions. I once saw roses (Rosa spp.) interplanted with Agave. These plants had completely different cultural requirements. The gardener could not keep the roses happy without making the agaves miserable, and vice versa. In the end, both suffered.

But usually I find the question of whether plants will make good companions more complicated. In the spring, a row of trellised tomatoes can provide shade for an underplanting of lettuce, preventing them from bolting as quickly, therefore extending the harvest. They make good companions. But the same relationship turns bad in late fall and winter, when the days are short. The lettuce needs all the sun they can get. That problem can be fixed easily enough: Plant lettuce south of the tomatoes in the fall.

If you practice crop rotation, mixing lettuce and tomatoes can create complications. Basically, crop rotation is planting to avoid growing vegetables and herbs of the same family in the same spot season after season. It’s a great way to reduce problems with pests, diseases, and nutrient deficiencies. But to practice crop rotation any length of time in a small home garden usually involves arranging plants according to family. If you pair lettuces with tomatoes, you have devoted that spot to both the nightshade family and the aster family. If you add carrots to the mix on the grounds that “carrots love tomatoes,” you’ve got a third family. It is easy to imagine how any crop rotation scheme could become muddled in just a year or two. Plants of the same family would wind up in the same spot one season after the next. Problems would ensue, and the lettuces and tomatoes would no longer seem such good companions after all.


Clockwise: Artichokes take up a lot of space, attract all sorts of pests, and don’t produce much, making them an all-round bad companion in the vegetable garden, but in my mind, they are still 100 percent worth it. • Artichokes take up a lot of space, attract all sorts of pests, and don’t produce much, making them an all-round bad companion in the vegetable garden, but in my mind, they are still 100 percent worth it. • I am still uncertain whether this foxtail millet made a good companion to my tomatoes, or for that matter anything else in the garden, but the birds enjoyed eating the seeds.

Perhaps try planting lettuce with sunflowers (Helianthus annuus). They belong to the same family, so the rotation scheme stays neat. The sunflowers will provide some shade in late spring. The following season the bed could be planted with vegetables of any other family, though gardeners who are serious about crop rotation believe that certain sequences are better than others.

Huauzontle, a delicious Mexican vegetable, introduced me to the technique of trap cropping and, through it, the discovery of many bad companions in the garden.

I once planted a bed of spinach, Swiss chard, and huauzontle, a delicious Mexican vegetable, because all belong to the family Amaranthaceae. I expected the chard to be devoured by worms, as it usually is in my garden. I expected the huauzontle to thrive because it is a vigorous half-wild plant, very similar to lamb’s quarters. But I was wrong. The worms all went to the huauzontle. They preferred it to the spinach and even the chard. I did not know it at the time, but I had stumbled upon a companion planting technique called “trap cropping.” Basically you protect one vegetable (the chard) by pairing it with something the bugs like even better (the huauzontle).

This experience led me to try other trap crops, and I soon learned that good companions can become bad ones in this area too.

For several years, stinkbugs were worse than usual. They would suck the juice from tomatoes, making hard discolored spots, which would eventually rot, ruining the fruit. Remembering the huauzontle, I turned to trap cropping as a solution. My plan was to lure the stinkbugs away from the tomatoes with things they like even more.

I read all I could on the subject and learned that stinkbugs love okra, sunflowers, and certain grains, such as sorghum. If I planted enough of these, the stinkbugs would leave the tomatoes alone. That was the theory. I told a gardening friend what I was up to and she gave me a stern warning: “You’re only going to attract even more bugs, and your tomatoes will be worse off than ever.”

Whether okra makes good companions for tomatoes may depend on the planting arrangement.

She was right. That spring the garden swarmed with stinkbugs. They feasted on everything indiscriminately, including the tomatoes. Wondering where I had gone wrong, I turned to a university specialist in trap cropping. He told me I should have planted a ring of sunflowers, sorghum, and other trap crops around my entire yard, with the tomatoes in the middle. I have not tried this yet.

Recently, I have been growing vegetables in containers, and one of the things I love about this way of gardening is that it gives me the freedom to mix things up. There is little need for crop rotation because some or all of the potting medium is replaced from season to season. I have found that when I plant all sorts of vegetables together, mixing up species and families, they find a harmony I could have never planned. The kale shades the lettuce, and both protect the even more delicate corn salad, and for whatever reason the kale is happier, too, suffering from fewer aphids than in the past.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 23 Number 4.
Photography courtesy of Bill Pitts.


Posted: 07/03/18   RSS | Print


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Gardening Questions You Never Really Thought to Ask
by Douglas A. Spilker, Ph.D.       #Misc   #Pests   #Uncategorized   #Vines

Oaks typically alternate years of heavy acorn production, just like fruit trees.

Often when pulling weeds or mowing the grass, my mind drifts to some of the challenges in the world. I don’t mean solving world hunger or anything, but just considering some of those gardening questions not discussed on radio shows. This happens in a “stream of consciousness” where one thought or question runs into another and another and so on.

As I mow, I often wish that I could quit mowing my grass and let the seedheads develop. Would this fill in the bare spots? I know my neighbors wouldn’t like it, but I also know there are cultural reasons that this doesn’t work. Most perennial grasses, like Kentucky bluegrass and fescues, are hybrids; they commonly do not produce viable seeds. Better keep mowing and avoid nasty letters from the homeowners’ association.

Nutsedge tubers (nutlets) can persist for years in the soil waiting to appear in lawn bare spots.

Mowing has its own hazards. Last year my oak tree was raining acorns, and mowing was like skating on marbles. It was driving me nuts — why were there so many this year? Oaks typically alternate heavy acorn production years. It takes a lot of energy to produce the fruit (nuts), and therefore less goes into making the flower buds for the next season. I think “off” years can also occur when a late spring frost blights the flowers, reducing nut development.

Although they don’t produce real nuts, I don’t recall having any nutsedge (also known as nutgrass) in my yard last year, but there it is. Where did it come from? It may have been hiding there for a while. It is not uncommon for their persistent tubers (nutlets) to be trucked in with the top soil used during yard grading. Watch also for infested soil with nursery stock that might introduce nutsedge into landscape beds.

Although nutsedge is a challenge in lawns, the common yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta), known by many names including sour clover (taste it and see why), is nearly impossible to eradicate in flowerbeds. Does it spread by spontaneous generation? It is important to remove plants before seedpods develop, because when ripe, they explode at the slightest touch, launching seeds as far as 10 feet. I am convinced this is how it spreads.

Speaking of explosions, why do earthworm masses try to commit suicide after a heavy rain? There are several theories as to why earthworms surface when it rains. I always assumed it was to keep from drowning in waterlogged soils, but earthworms thrive in moist environments. Some say it is easier for them to migrate to another location or to find mates. However, I like the theory that they scatter because raindrops cause soil vibrations that scare them into thinking a mole is coming. (Sounds more exciting to me.)

Murphy’s Law?

I’m convinced that Murphy was a gardener. Take for instance my iris bed. I started with a nice assortment of bearded irises. Over the years, I lost a few for various reasons, but some always came back. Finally one year, one color took over — guess which one? The ugly purple-brown ones. And don’t even mention my favorite yellow pear tomatoes. I searched all over town looking for transplants, and found the very last one in a local nursery. I was so happy to get it planted in time for the next rain. Not more than a week later a big storm came through. The only damage in the whole garden was the broken stem of my sole pear tomato. Murphy did it again!

Earthworms aren’t the only soil-borne critters we seldom see. Why don’t we see cicadas more often? Cicadas live most of their lives underground, within 2 feet of the surface, feeding on tree roots. After 13 to 17 years, cicada nymphs emerge synchronously and in tremendous numbers. Within two months of their emergence, eggs have been laid and the cicadas have returned underground chewing on roots for another 13 to 17 years.

Squirrels don’t chew on roots, but they can chew through anything that is not metal, but that doesn’t mean they don’t chew on metal. But why do they have to gnaw on our new patio furniture? The front teeth of squirrels, just like beavers, continue growing throughout their lives. To keep them trimmed, they chew on “stuff.” If they run out of nuts, they chew on your house, your property or anything else to keep their teeth trimmed.


Squirrels might not eat the metal, but they can do plenty of damage to patio furniture. • Vines (like this Mandevilla sp.) twine according to their genetics, not due to the hemisphere they live in. • Rabbits are not my friends.

If you don’t trim vines, they undoubtedly will twine around any support. What causes vines to wrap one way or the other? Most vines twine counter-clockwise, though about 10 percent go clockwise. Some do it both ways. Unlike swirling water down the sink, the twining direction of vines is not dependent on whether the plant grows north or south of the equator. Simply, twining direction is genetic; some species go one way, while others go the other way.

There are many mysteries in the gardening universe, some which will never be solved like: “Why do rabbits go for vegetable seedlings when they must cross yards of lush green grass to get there,” and, “Do cutworms have a mean streak by felling a seedling with one bite then moving on to the next?” I’m sure you have many of your own gardening mysteries that also keep your mind flowing like a stream (of consciousness).


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Douglas A. Spilker, Ph.D.


Posted: 07/03/18   RSS | Print


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How to Make Potpourri
by Denise Schreiber       #Fragrant   #How to   #Misc

The original French term for potpourri meant “rotten pot,” referring to the moist method of pickling flowers and leaves. More common now is the dry method using flowers and leaves that are picked just as they reach maturity full of fragrance and color. It also incorporates seeds, spices, dried leaves and flowers, berries, dried fruit slices, barks, seedheads and cones to add a variety of textures to the mixture. The best potpourris have a subtle, natural scent that comes from the combination of all natural ingredients. Different ingredients contribute aroma, texture, color and bulk. Many herbs contribute fragrance as well as color and texture.

Start collecting your flowers and herbs for drying early in the day, after the dew has dried and before the sun becomes too hot. This way they retain their fragrance and color. They can be hung upside down in a dark area or where there is a breeze. They can also be placed on a cookie sheet lined with foil or parchment paper in the same area. When they are completely dried, you can store them in a glass mason jar with a tight-fitting lid to keep out moisture. (Plastic allows some moisture to get into the flowers.) Store away from light until you are ready to make your mixture.

Flowers from top left: roses, dried lavender, bee balm (red petals) and mixed dried flower petals.

What to Use
Some plants you can use for potpourri include roses and rose buds, lavender, any member of the mint family, calendula, pansies, violets, lemon verbena, strawflowers, larkspur, scented geranium flowers and leaves, rosemary flowers and leaves, thyme flowers and leaves, angelica, gomphrena and statice — just to name a few. You can also use balsam needles, cones from evergreens, juniper berries, citrus peels (without the white pith), cloves, cinnamon sticks, star anise, allspice, cardamom and vanilla pods.

This large dish contains chopped orris root, and the small dish has powdered orris root and vanilla oil fragrance.

Birch bark

Combine the flowers and other ingredients together and mix by gently tossing. Make sure the fragrances complement each other.

Consider the effects of each ingredient. A citrusy scent including orange peel and lemon verbena or a mint to stimulate and refresh, or florals such as lavender and rose are soothing. Camphors like eucalyptus and balsam will cool, while spices like cloves, cinnamon and vanilla add warmth. Woods and barks (like cedar and birch) complement other scents while adding bulk, and fruits such as dried apple slices, rosehips and juniper berries add visual appeal.

I also like to add a few drops of an essential oil and a fixative, which can be purchased from a craft store or herb shop. A fixative keeps the scent from fading. Fixatives include orris root, gum benzoin, oak moss and vanilla beans. It’s fine to put more than one fixative to work in a potpourri; use at least 20 percent total fixative by weight. I like to use about 1 tablespoon of orris root to 1 cup of flowers and leaves. Gum benzoin has a sweet vanilla scent, but I use only ½ ounce to 4-6 cups of flowers.

After mixing up the potpourri, store in a jar for about six weeks in a warm, dark dry place to allow it to cure. You can add a drop of essential oil once a week and stir it in until you obtain the desired fragrance.

When the potpourri is finished, place it in an open decorative bowl and enjoy. You will probably have to refresh it with essential oil from time to time, but it should last several months for your enjoyment.

You can play around with the ingredients to suit your own personal taste. You can also make sachets of potpourri to give as gifts or to scent closets or drawers. Small organza bags are ideal for this and are available at craft stores.



A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Denise Schreiber.


Posted: 07/03/18   RSS | Print


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Planting for the Future
by Dawn Seymour    

This pine has been reprimanded over the years to conform to the elements where it lives. Branching short and stiff, trunk curved and needles clinging as if refusing to fall to the floor below littered with evidence of life gone on before.

An intimate part of the human race is connected to the existence of trees. We track our lineage with a “Family Tree.” We reference our health and well-being with the “Tree of Life” and the very first man and woman on earth ate the forbidden fruit from the “Tree of Knowledge” in the Garden of Eden.

Trees are a mark of history. We look at the number of rings to determine the age of a tree. We look at the characteristics of the rings, such as how thick or thin they are, their color and other attributes to determine the types of years that have affected the growth of the trees and other living organisms. We can see drought, earthquakes, forest fires, fast or slow growth, pressure points from another tree, damage from construction and so forth reflected in the historical replication of the rings. They even clean the air and water for us without as much as a rustle. There are songs written about them, people and treasure buried near them and a cherry tree has even led the juvenile tirades of a President.

The installation of trees in the landscape gives height, color, food, shelter, sometimes fragrance, structure, shade, a cooling effect for our homes, a place to hang a swing and a sense of permanence. Some people plant trees to mark an anniversary, or a holiday, or even the birth of a child and it is done as a ritual as well as an act of hope that generations to come will know the “specialness” of that particular tree. When we are looking to plant a tree we should look at it as a permanent structure and make the best choice for that particular variety.

What gives us the right to take for granted the growth and future of one of these magnificent creations? I am always dismayed when someone refuses to acknowledge the proper way to add a tree to their landscape and instead gives an indifferent shrug and says, “It won’t be my problem! Let the next guy worry about it.” So, let’s look at some key points for choosing the right tree for the right location.


How much room is there for a tree? Know the height and width.

Does anything interfere with the installation of a tree? Look for potential issues with power lines, septic systems, foundations, sidewalks, driveways and other trees.

Ask yourself “What do I want a tree for?” Is it for food, a wind break, shade, decoration, flowers or structure?

Ask yourself “What type of growing area do I have for a tree?” For example, is the area boggy, dry, rocky, clay, loam, sheltered, exposed, sunny, shady, windy?

This oak is beautiful in any season, but without the leaves there is clear evidence that it has been maintained intelligently through the years. This tree was lovingly developed around without interrupting its existence.


Do some research. Go and look at the tree you think you want to install in a proper application so you have a good grasp on what this tree will grow up to be. It is difficult to look at a 10 gallon tree at a garden center and picture it 25 feet tall and 20 feet wide. A great place to look at trees as they mature would be an arboretum. They place trees in locations that are nurturing and that allow that tree to grow into what it is supposed to be. Often they have planted them several years previously and it will give you a great idea what that tree will look like in 25 or 30 years. The research will also help you decide exactly what variety of tree you want so you won’t deviate from your choice unless the alternative is comparable.

Set a budget. How much do you want to spend on a tree? The larger the tree you start with, often the more it will cost. However, ornamental trees can be very small in comparison to a woodland type tree and be three times the price. That has lots to do with how long it takes for a variety to reach the size it currently is and how much maintenance goes into growing it.

Get professional assistance. Ask a garden designer or garden center employee to help you select the best tree. Each variety has different characteristics of growth that will ensure a strong end result. Maples should have upright, rounded branching and a straight trunk, for example, whereas a Japanese maple may have slight curvature in the trunk and more lateral, open branching. Make sure the tree is not loose in the container or that the root ball is broken apart.

These pears were placed with good forethought. There is plenty of space for them to grow to maturity and they grace the entrance of this home without overwhelming it.


Notice how the unscrupulous stripping of the branches on this tree have caused uneven growth as the weight of the tree falls heavily to one side.

Dig the hole 2 ½ times larger than the root ball or container and mix in 1 part compost, 1 part peat moss, and 2 parts original soil. This creates a healthy space for your tree to grow in with loose soil and nutrients.

Water the tree in well. There are Treegator® watering bags that you can purchase that hold 15 to 25 gallons of water and have little weep holes which the water slowly escapes through. This waters the tree deeply without you having to stand there with a hose for an hour or carry buckets back and forth.

Mulch well. Mulching does not mean having a perfect circle around the tree but rather covering the virgin dirt with grass clippings, wood chips, sod or other materials (depending on the location of the tree installation, of course. We don’t want sod in the flower beds after all.)

Only stake if necessary. If your new tree is in a location that gets prevailing winds, stake the tree loosely so that it won’t blow down but it has a little room to move to establish “standing on its own two feet.” Do not leave any stakes attached to the tree that may have come with it as those are usually only there for shipping purposes.

A well placed tree will dress up even the simplest abode or make secret a favorite spot. Responsible tree ownership is part of taking care of the space we’ve been given. Select your trees carefully, install them responsibly and enjoy them enthusiastically.

A version of this article appeared in a July 2012 State-by-State Gardening eNewsletter
Photography courtesy of Dawn Seymour.


Posted: 07/03/18   RSS | Print


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5 Must Have Herbs for Summer
by Patti Travioli       #Annuals   #Herbs   #Summer

Tulsi, or holy basil, should be harvested before the flowers develop. You can dry the leaves for tea or make a tincture. You can also incorporate the leaves into stir-fries, soups, or sauces. A sacred plant of the Hindus and used in Ayurveda medicine.

I can recall being a new gardener going to my local greenhouse to find some annuals for the front yard. My mother was a gardener, always planting several flats of double Impatiens, Begonia, and marigolds (Tagetes spp.). On my way to the colorful flowers, I stopped to look at the herbs. They smelled so fresh, some even reminiscent of lemons. How adorable those with tiny variegated gold and green leaves were. Some were fuzzy and gray. I decided to plant some herbs along with my annuals. That was the summer I broke free from my mother’s way of gardening and went out on my own. The fragrance and flavors of the herbs were more powerful to me than the colors brought by the annuals. In the years that followed, I learned how to grow, harvest, and preserve herbs.

Anise hyssop is a hardy perennial to Zone 4. It grows straight and tall with several branches, creating a very full plant. The lavender flowers and leaves can be harvested and dried to be used as a tea, which has a slight black licorice flavor. Anise hyssop also makes a good cut flower in a mixed bouquet. Look for the native species or newer cultivars.

Following are my five must haves for any garden:

1. Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Number one, hands down, my favorite – visually and as an edible. The secret of growing basil is that it likes the HEAT. Don’t plant this until two weeks after your last frost date. You can start it indoors, buy a transplant at the garden center, or sow seeds. I pinch off the tips of the stems and leaves all summer long, and at the end of the season I harvest the whole plant to make pesto. You can grow green or purple varieties. If you already grow basil, think about adding Tulsi, also called holy basil (O. tenuiflorum). Harvest and dry the leaves before flowering for a heavenly, good-for-you tea. Allow a few plants to flower. The bees love this plant.

Basic Summer Pesto

6 cups freshly harvested basil leaves, washed and dried
¼-½ cup olive oil
½ cup Parmesan cheese
¼ cup pine nuts or walnuts
2 or more garlic cloves
Pinch of salt

Place basil in a food processor and pulse just enough to chop up. Add olive oil and pulse a few more times to mix. Add remaining ingredients. Pulse until texture is chopped small, but not so small that it turns into a paste. Adjust ingredients to your preference. Serve over pasta, with bread, or on chicken. Freezes well.

2. Mint (Mentha spp.)
There are many types of mints, not just spearmint (M. spicata) and peppermint (M. xpiperita); I include anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), sometimes called licorice mint. Not only do the lavender flowers look great in the perennial garden, those with leaves can be dried and steeped into a black licorice flavored tea. A perennial in Zones 4-9, it can grow up to 3 feet tall. It will not spread as rampant as other mints, but it can re-seed. The bees love this North American native.

3. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
Parsley is a biennial, which means that it will grow leaves only the first year, and flower the second year. You can start from seed, but with sporadic germination you may want to purchase a plant to transplant. Harvest in bunches by cutting the stems to the ground. Parsley prefers full sun and can grow up to 1 foot tall.

4. Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Dill is a wonderful addition to the garden that also supports beneficial insects when in flower. Don’t bother wasting your money with a transplant; dill prefers to be directly sown into the garden. A must-have summer flavor for any fermented vegetables, not just cucumbers. Grilled salmon with a squeeze of fresh lemon and sprinkling of freshly harvested dill is a real summer treat. When selecting dill to grow, pay attention to the variety. Do you want the leaves or the seed head?  The variety ‘Fernleaf’ is an AAS winner that is very slow to bolt (flower) and produces a lot of leaves. It stays pretty short and makes a great container plant.

5. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Not only does it smell great, bees love it and the flower buds can be added to make delightful lavender shortbread cookies. A perennial for Zones 5-8, this plant loves the full sun and needs well-drained soil. It doesn’t like soggy roots or leaves! At my farm, it grows in sand and I rarely water it. Harvest the buds then allow to dry and save for making salves, soaps, or just put in a bag to enjoy the fragrance year round.

The flowers of this lavender plant have opened too much to harvest for culinary purposes, but this is perfect timing for this honeybee. Once the flowers are spent, remove them, which will allow the plant to bloom again later in the summer.

Summers spent in the garden should be experienced by all of our senses. Who said herbs don’t offer a visual appeal? How many shades of green are there? Gray and purple foliage are gorgeous! Not only will you enjoy them over the summer, but if you preserve them, you can enjoy them all winter. Nothing reminds me of the summer garden as much as opening a container of pesto, mixing it with some olive oil, and soaking it up with some bread or adding it to pasta. If you don’t have an herb garden, tuck some additional textures and smells into your annual beds, you may be converted, just as I was.


A version of this article appeared in Michigan Gardening Magazine Volume 6 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Patti Travioli.


Posted: 06/20/18   RSS | Print


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The Way of the Weave
by Kristi Cook       #Advice   #Edibles   #Vegetables

I grow my tomatoes in double rows, which provides plenty of shade for the roots and soil once the plants fill out. • Secure twine tightly at each end post and in-line post to ensure twine doesn’t slip as plants grow heavier and taller. • The Florida weave method keeps plants upright and off the ground as they grow.

Here’s a single plant up close. As the plant grows it will fill out the spaces, making the twine less visible.

When looking down on top of the plants, you should see a row of twine running down each side.

I don’t know about you, but I there’s one thing about growing tomatoes that I don’t care for – caging them. No matter what type of caging system I’ve tried, be it the classic flimsy tomato cage, the sturdier cattle-panel version, or the whole tying the plant to a stake (kind of like a witch-burning), no caging method has worked. Before summer is halfway over, both tomatoes and plants are on the ground with the first heavy rainstorm or windy day. And forget about trying to get those giant plants back into their homes! However, all these troubles disappeared the summer I discovered the Florida weave trellising system. Also known as the basketweave system, weaving tomato plants between stakes and twine is economical, simple, and a major time saver – something all of us gardeners can use!

To get started, all you need are a few sturdy stakes and twine. For stakes, nearly anything sturdy and rot-resistant will work, provided it is tall enough to set at least 8 inches into the ground and reach the top of the tomato plants. Some use thick wooden stakes, others use rebar, and still others use T-posts, each with benefits and drawbacks. Wooden stakes, for instance, are inexpensive. However, because it’s best to use untreated lumber around food crops, the wood will usually rot enough during the first season that it won’t be usable the following year. Another drawback is that it can snap under heavy loads and windy conditions more readily than the other options. Rebar and T-posts are quite durable under heavy loads, won’t rot, and are easily set into the ground without breakage. The downside is the higher initial cost. Yet, because rebar and T-posts won’t rot and don’t break easily, you’ll get many years’ use out of them making them much less expensive in the long run.

You can use any strong, non-stretching twine. Many gardeners use jute or sisal, but I have found these can stretch too much after a heavy rain when my plants are full and pushing against it, causing the entire system to fail. Over time, I’ve switched to synthetic baling twine that I recycle from my horses’ hay bales and have had no failures so far. As with all things, though, it’s best to use what you have on hand and experiment with your particular setup to see which materials you prefer.

Now for the easy part. First determine where you want your tomato plants to go and set a post at each end of the row. Plant tomato plants as you normally would, every 2-3 feet. If the rows are on the shorter side, space posts every 2-3 plants. If rows are on the longer side, place a post between every plant to provide extra support.

Once the plants reach 8 inches, start weaving. Tie twine to an end post at 6-8 inches off the ground and secure tightly. I like to wrap it a couple of times and hook it under the teeth of the T-post, which I find helps keep slippage to a minimum. Bring twine to the next post, placing twine against each plant. Make sure to keep the twine snug, otherwise growing plants will push the twine out and the system won’t work as well. Securely wrap twine at the next post, and continue down the length of the row. Once you reach the row end, wrap again, and repeat down the other side.

When finished, the plants will be sandwiched between the two rows of twine. Check at least once a week, adding a new row of twine for every 6-8 inches of new growth.

The Florida weave trellising system is an economical, timesaving, and highly effective method for keeping tomatoes off the ground. And while many claim this system is best for determinate varieties, I’ve found it works just as well for my indeterminate ones, despite the fact that I don’t prune. So grab a few stakes, a bit of twine, your tomato plants, and give weaving a try.


A version of this article appeared in a June 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Kristi Cook.


Posted: 06/20/18   RSS | Print


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Warming Up With a Fire Feature
by Debbie Clark       #Decorating   #Hardscaping   #Misc

Imagine sitting around a naturalistic rock fire pit, such as this one, enjoying hot dogs and s’mores with your family.

Imagine yourself sitting around a warm fire. Can you hear the snapping and crackling of the wood? Do you feel the warmth of the fire on your hands and face? Can you hear and see your family and friends talking and laughing as they sit around the fire, toasting marshmallows? That could be your backyard, if you had a fire feature.


This natural gas fire feature is a combination of fire and water. It is decorative, functional and an eye-catcher in any garden or patio. • This gas fire feature is made of a concrete pillar and a copper bowl. It heats up those cold fall days, yet it is also a decorative element for any garden or patio. • This Chiminea is made of wrought iron and copper. It is small, portable, inexpensive and available in most retail hardware stores. It is a fire feature that a homeowner can add to their landscape without expertise knowledge or help.

Fire features come in all sizes, shapes and styles and there is one for every budget. If you have been considering adding a fire feature to your landscape, take the time to do your homework. Here are several things to consider:

This is another fire feature that is easy to build from precast concrete block. This one is fueled with natural gas and features lava stones and metal decorative logs.

• How much do you want to spend? An outdoor fireplace can be expensive to design and build, but a portable fire pit can be inexpensive and purchased from a local hardware store.

• Where do you want to locate the fire feature? How far away from your home should it be to be safely located?

• A fire feature is a focal point of your landscape. Will it complement your property and house architecture? Will it add value to your property?

• What type of building materials do you want to use?

• Do you want natural gas, propane or a wood-burning fire feature?

• Will you need to have a gas line installed?

• Do you have local and state laws restricting outdoor burning or seasonal restrictions?

• Do you have neighborhood or association restrictions?

• Will you need construction permits?

If you have been thinking about adding a fire feature to your landscape, start with a budget. Then shop around for the best choice for your family. A fire feature makes a great focal point in any outdoor living space, and it creates a warm, wonderful place to entertain family and friends all year round.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Debbie Clark.


Posted: 06/20/18   RSS | Print


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The Perfect Plants
by Mary K. Stickley       #Irrigation   #Succulents   #Xeriscaping

Euphorbias can be a little “spread-y” and self-seed easily, but the interest they add to a garden is worth the extra weeding. Be careful, though, as some people may be allergic to their sap.

Saving water is such an important aspect of gardening these days. But, for me, saving maintenance time is just as important. I want a beautiful garden, but I don’t have the time or energy to work hard to make it that way. So, while I do have some special babies that need lots of tender loving care, I’m always on the lookout for great filler plants that look really good — even when I ignore them.

One category of plants that fits this bill perfectly are succulents. These plants are best characterized by thick, fleshy leaves or stems with a heavy skin, all of which are designed to hold and conserve water. In general, these plants really want nasty soils and little water. They thrive on neglect. So much so, that when my guilt gets the better of me and I give them a little treat of water or fertilizer, they usually repay my kindness by dying.

Don’t be afraid to bring non-hardy succulents out to the garden in the summer. These can add spectacular seasonal texture and interest to the space. • Sempervivum doesn’t flower often but when it does, it produces this wonderful, star-shaped display. • Sedum ternatum, ‘Gray Ghost’ sempervivum and Sempervivum arachnoideum are plants that thrive with little water and terrible soil.

Some of my favorite plants are the many species of Sedum. These plants come in so many shapes, sizes, colors, textures and growing habits, that I could create a beautiful garden with year-round interest using only these. There is the ubiquitous ‘Autumn Joy’, with its pale green foliage and pink flowers that turn maroon later in the season. But I also have an upright variety called ‘Postman’s Pride’. It has deep purple foliage all year long. Add the pale, pink flowers in late summer, and the combination is perfect.

Another type of succulent that I love is Sempervivum. When I was growing up, we had a strawberry pot with hens and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum) stuffed in all the holes. I was rather bored with their plain green coloring back then, but I recently found some of the other varieties that are available, such as S. arachnoideum that has a tiny web of hairs connecting the tips of each leaf. ‘Atropurpureum’ has large leaves that turn a dark purplish red in winter, and ‘Grey Ghost’ stays smoky blue all year long. ‘Ann Christy’ has narrow, red leaves edged in green fringe, and S. cantabricum produces chicks that look like the 1970s bric-a-brac pompoms that lined the inside roofs of Mexican taxis. They all love to be tucked in between the cracks in rocks, and the only care they want is a bit of weeding to be sure they aren’t overrun by faster-growing plants.

Clockwise: Wonderful combinations can be created with many shapes, sizes, textures and colors. This ‘Blackie’ sempervivum mixes nicely with Sedum pachyclados. • Prickly pear cactus loves to be ignored, and yet it rewards you by covering itself with yellow flowers that later transform to red fruits. • Mix succulents into your perennial gardens. A fun look is to set hypertufa pots into the space. These pots are perfect for succulents.

I also really love Euphorbia. These plants have a very bad reputation because they tend to seed themselves all over the place if they are happy. They also have a thick, sticky, white sap that many people are allergic to. But what foliage colors and patterns! Donkey’s tail (E. myrsinites) is a pale sky blue with little spiky leaves that surround the stem and hang down perfectly over rocks and boulders. Snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata) is an annual with green and white leaves that always grabs the spotlight when it matures in August.

There are also cacti you can use in your garden. The only cactus native where I live in Virginia is the prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa), and most others are not hardy in winter. But I place a number of aloes, agaves and other cacti in the garden in summer and bring them back inside for winter. In doing this, I can add ever-changing seasonal interest to my garden while giving my “inside kids” a summer vacation.

All of these plants are wonderful to use in the landscape. They are easy to grow and create a lot of interest. They have few pest or disease problems. So put a few in your own garden, and you will also agree — they are truly the perfect plants.


A version of this article appeared in a May 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Mary K. Stickley.


Posted: 06/20/18   RSS | Print


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Using the Olla to Beat the Summer Heat
by Brandee Gruener       #How to   #Irrigation   #Sustainability and Self-Sufficiency

You can make an olla out of an unglazed clay pot, a matching saucer and a tube of silicone caulk.

Keeping the vegetable garden hydrated during the heat of the summer is a challenge when the sun beats down for weeks, the rain barrels run dry and even heat-loving crops wilt under summer’s fiery breath. Water restrictions have even become commonplace in many parts of the country, making watering the garden even more difficult.

Water-efficient systems such as drip-line irrigation can make a big difference. But gardener Scott Belan found a cheaper and simpler solution by building an olla out of a humble clay pot. This watering solution satisfied Belan’s personal philosophy in gardening: Look to the cultures and climates that make the most sense for your surroundings.

Ancient Mediterranean people buried ollas, or unglazed clay vessels, to slowly seep water into crop soils. Spanish settlers first introduced the idea of irrigating with ollas (pronounced oy-yahs) to the Americas. The concept is regaining popularity among environmentally minded gardeners.

Every gardener frets over keeping summer crops irrigated, but Belan, a member of The Nature Conservancy’s international climate change team, probably spends more time thinking about it than most.

“I think water is probably the biggest issue related to climate change that we’re going to deal with in the next 10 to 15 years,” Belan said.

He is constantly experimenting with ways to conserve every drop of water he can. Belan has five rain barrels that hold 300 gallons of water, a downspout that irrigates a backyard bog garden and now the ollas.


Making and Installing an Olla

Belan keeps pests out of his ollas with old brass finials he found around the house.

Ollas can be purchased from suppliers like Urban Homestead Supply (, or you can make your own with an unglazed clay pot, a matching saucer and silicone caulk. Shorter pots work well for plants with a shallow root zone, while taller ones are more beneficial for deep-rooted plants. A narrower vessel takes up less space in the garden.

Place a saucer on the top opening of each pot like a lid. Use silicone caulk to seal the vessels. After the caulk has cured, bury the pots upside down in the garden, leaving the drainage hole exposed. Keep the pot filled with water, and because the clay is unglazed, the water will seep out slowly, keeping nearby plants well watered.

Belan uses whatever is handy to keep pests out of his ollas, including brass finials, wine corks and rocks.


The Results

Red okra in Belan’s garden grew significantly taller due to irrigation by the olla.

The first year, Belan planted cayenne peppers, rainbow Swiss chard and red okra in two raised beds irrigated by ollas. As a test, he irrigated only one side of his okra bed. Plants directly surrounding the ollas gained the most benefit and grew significantly taller.

During hot spells, the water would sweat out every two or three days. That’s less frequent than the daily watering that many vegetables require in summer. Water is often wasted while hand-watering large areas, with even more water lost through evaporation at the soil surface. As an additional benefit, ollas don’t get foliage wet, which can attract disease.

Since discovering that his ollas have a limited range, Belan has decided to use them this summer for vegetables that are traditionally planted closely together in a hill. “I'll be planting a small cucumber called ‘Silor Mini’ in one olla bed this year, and basic heirloom patty pan squash in the other,” Belan said.

Belan also believes strongly in using plants that adapt well to the climate. Because of that and his culinary interests, he plants a variety of Asian greens he can cook up in stir-fries through the summer.

Being immersed in the science of climate change has led him to think about gardening in different ways. Ollas have helped him survive the hardest part about gardening in the South – the summer.


Tips for Using an Olla:

-Use unglazed clay vessels so that water can wick into the soil. Clay pots work well, but a jug with a narrow neck will take up less of your valuable planting space.

-Seal the open end of each clay pot with a saucer and silicone caulk. Once you install the olla, almost anything can serve as a cap – a handy stone or even brass finials and wine corks.

-The olla benefits plants growing directly around it. Plant seeds in a circle around the vessel.

-Vegetables traditionally planted in a hill, such as squash, melons or cucumbers, lend themselves to this type of irrigation.


A version of this article appeared in a July 2011 State-by-State eNewsletter.
Photography courtesy of Brandee Gruener.


Posted: 06/20/18   RSS | Print


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Enchanted Evenings
by Katie Jackson       #Design   #Misc   #Tech & Gadgets

These vintage lamps give an enchanting look to the evening landscape.
Photo: ©breslavtsev oleg/


Many technological options are available to enhance outdoor lighting – so many in fact that it can be hard to choose one. If you spend a little time deciding what you want to achieve with your lighting scheme you’re bound to find a device or system that works for you.
Photo: Katie Jackson

A moonlit garden is enchanting, but sometimes the moon needs a little help shedding light on a garden’s nighttime beauty. That’s when it’s time to turn to technology.

One of the most helpful developments in the outdoor lighting realm is the increased availability of LED (light-emitting diode) bulb, a technology that has been used for decades in appliances and electronic devices but only recently has become more affordable for the average consumer. While LED lights still cost more than traditional bulbs, they are safer, sturdier, more energy efficient, and longer lasting than halogen and incandescent bulbs, so they easily pay for themselves over time.

LED lights also now come in a broad palette of colors and styles, from basic spotlights to handsome pendants and lanterns and even sparkling party lights.

Those party lights, which typically are decorative strings or ropes that can be draped around patios, pergolas, and in trees and shrubs to charming effect, are among the hottest trends in outdoor lighting. No wonder, since they come in a variety of colors and a plethora of styles such as tiny winking lights, warmly glowing globes, and even novelty bulbs in the shapes of animals, fruits, stars, and the like. Because party lights are usually plug-in systems, they are especially well suited for temporarily lighting outdoor events or holiday decorating, but they can also be used year round.

For those who don’t want to spend hours stringing and linking strands of lights, there’s another technology that has burgeoned in popularity during the last two or three years – laser lights, which use a single plug-in projection device to create a big-picture light show.

Photo: ©bangkokhappiness/ • Photo: ©welcomia/ • Hard-wired, low-voltage lights are easy for almost anyone to install. These make walkways safer and more attractive. Photo: ©bruskov/

Outdoor lights can be controlled with the touch of a finger thanks to electronic timers and kits or hubs that allow you to use your smartphone or tablet to turn lights on and off, dim them, and even change the color and pattern of some. Photo: Katie Jackson

These systems offer both static and moving displays of white or colored lights in beams and patterns that range from firefly-like twinkles to full-fledged extravaganzas complete with music. Though they may not be as elegant as traditional lights, laser lights offer an easy and entertaining option for holiday and special event decorating or to fill large outdoor spaces with light. These can also be left up year round, though using them judiciously is important: Your neighbors may not appreciate a year-long light show and you don’t want to contribute to excessive light pollution!

As wonderful as it is to have all these options, it’s also important to manage them, and technology is helping with that, too. In addition to the hardwired, battery, and solar-powered timers and motion and light sensing devices, you can also find remote-controlled lighting and systems that can be controlled with smartphone or tablet applications to dim, turn lights on and off, change colors and patterns, and even sync lighting to music.

It’s not as easy as downloading an app, though. You have to invest in a hub system that can connect your lights to a remote or cellular device, but the options are plentiful and prices range from affordable to extravagant.

Before you invest in any of these, spend some time exploring your options. You may want to ask a landscape or outdoor lighting specialist for guidance. But whatever you do, find a way to enjoy your enchanted evenings.


A version of this article appeared in a June 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.


Posted: 06/11/18   RSS | Print


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Fill in the Blanks with Shrubby Annuals
by Jan Riggenbach       #Annuals   #Ornamentals   #Shrubs

The scarlet-orange daisies of Mexican sunflower provide a haven for butterflies.

I can’t wait for shrubs to fill the bare spots in a new landscape. So I don’t!  Instead, I plant some select annuals that quickly grow into big, bushy plants that can fill the void in a matter of weeks.

Castor bean
Castor beans (Ricinus communis), for example, turn into a wonderful privacy hedge, growing quickly from big, easy-to-plant seeds. When we moved to a new lot, I planted some purple-leaf castor beans along the side boundary. Neighbors were amazed how big the plants grew in a single season. And by the end of the summer, passers-by were exclaiming over what some called a “beautiful Japanese maple hedge.”

The plants vary in size depending on variety, but most grow at least 6 feet tall and wide, some much taller. In earlier times, their huge fan-like leaves earned them the name palm of Christ. They come in your choice of red or purple leaves, with varying colors of flowers and stems.

One of the most popular morning glories, ‘Heavenly Blue’ is a vigorous, quick-growing vine with blue blossoms.

Castor bean plants are rarely available at garden centers, but that’s no problem. You can buy packets of the big seeds, which are easy to handle and quick to sprout. Plant them directly in the ground in May after danger of the last spring frost, or give the seeds a head start indoors in March if you’re really eager for your new “hedge.”

Some people object to growing annuals because of having to replace the plants every spring, but there’s no extra cost here. You can simply clip dry seed heads from the plants in autumn and save them for replanting the following spring. Sometimes, castor beans even self-sow, if you allow some seeds to fall to the ground. (Beware, though, if you have kids or pets that might be attracted to the seeds: castor beans are poisonous.)

An old-fashioned annual with a charming name, kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate produces arching sprays of pink flowers atop large, heart-shaped leaves.

Plants for cutting
Although the majority of today’s annuals grow in the shape of little mounds, such as Petunia and marigolds (Tagetes spp.), a handful of others offer quick, inexpensive relief for a young landscape.

When the landscape needs some quick bushy “shrubs,” another of my go-to annuals is Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia). These plants grow 4-6 feet tall and about as wide, and are covered with scarlet-orange daisies that are adored by butterflies. The big daisies also make excellent cut flowers. Mexican sunflowers grow well in hot, dry sites and need no coddling.

Tall varieties of annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) have plenty to offer in colorful flowers, seeds for birds, and heights up to 5-6 feet. For the most shrub-like shape, choose branching varieties, such as ‘Autumn Beauty’, ‘Moulin Rouge’, or ‘Strawberry Blonde’, rather than single-stem varieties.

Romantic thoughts
I think I’d want to grow kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate (Persicaria orientalis, formerly Polygonum orientale) even if I didn’t love its arching spikes of small pink flowers and its big, heart-shaped leaves. Just the name of this heirloom annual makes me smile. You get the idea: The stately plant shoots right up to 5-6 feet, tall enough to rise above almost any garden gate. And kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate is very good at self-seeding for future years.

Masses of large, airy flowers decorate spider plants.

Prolific bloomer
Spider flower (Cleome hassleriana) is another old-fashioned annual with a shrubby shape. Size varies by variety, of course, but it’s not unusual for this annual to grow 4-5 feet tall. The dramatic plants are covered with masses of large, airy flowers in blends of pink, purple, rose, or white that are a favorite for cutting.

Ornamental tobacco
Woodland tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris) shows off best in the evening. Although the white tubular flowers are droopy by day, at night the blossoms stand at attention, attracting hummingbird moths and emitting their sweet perfume. These bushy plants grow 4-6 feet tall.

Unlike most cockscombs, ‘Cramer’s Amazon grows into an impressive 5- or 6-foot tall plant.

Most cockscombs (Celosia spp.) don’t approach the size of a shrub, but one called ‘Cramer’s Amazon’ (C. argentea) grows an impressive 5-6 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide. The spiky flowers are an almost fluorescent magenta and are excellent for bouquets. Like other cockscomb varieties, it’s easy to grow. Just be sure to allow extra time to search for a source of the sometimes elusive seeds or transplants.

Best of the rest
‘Purple Majesty’ millet (Pennisetum glaucum) is an easy-to-grow annual ornamental grass that grows 4-5 feet tall in one season. It features bright purple leaves and flower stalks.

Lantana (L. camera) has occupied a soft spot in my heart since our first year on an acreage in Iowa. The area was suffering a severe drought, and grasshoppers ate almost everything I planted. But they didn’t touch the scented foliage of the lantanas. Butterflies, on the other hand, flocked to the flowers.

I’ve kept lantanas going ever since, cutting them back every autumn enough to fit into 6-inch pots for wintering indoors under lights. Their mature size varies, but in years with ample moisture, some grow into bushy plants 5 feet tall and wide. Their multi-colored flower clusters are always a delight.

Even some kinds of coleus (Plectranthus scutellariodes) grow big enough to have a real presence in the landscape. Some big, bushy varieties that help fill landscape gaps include ‘Burgundy Sun’, ‘Saturn’, and Colorblaze Marooned.

A Vine Way to Screen the Scene
With the help of a trellis or fence for support, annual vines can provide quick shade or privacy, while you wait for permanent plantings to grow.

Morning glory (Ipomoea spp.) is a quick-growing favorite that reaches 8-20 feet tall and blooms in blue, crimson, lavender, pink, violet, white, or bicolor, depending on which variety you choose. Soak the seeds overnight to soften the hard seed coat before planting in the garden after danger of frost.

Here are a few other annual vines that grow quickly from seed to offer quick cover:

• Purple hyacinth bean (Dolichos lablab) boasts striking lilac-colored blossoms, shiny purple pods, purple-veined leaves, and purple stems.

• Cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit) comes in your choice of red or white flowers adorning ferny foliage.

• Climbing nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) varieties, such as ‘Jewels of Africa’ or ‘Spitfire’, perk up the landscape with their bright, sunny colors. The plants thrive in poor soil.

• Moonvine (Ipomoea alba) shows off at night with its huge, white blossoms.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Jan Riggenbach.


Posted: 06/11/18   RSS | Print


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A Kitchen Garden in 5 Easy Steps
by Cindy Shapton       #Design   #Edibles   #Raised Beds

We chose this spot for our kitchen garden – in full sun, already fenced in, water nearby, and not too far from the kitchen door. Perfect!

Do you have a yard full of grass and a longing for fresh produce to feed your family? Why not install a kitchen garden? One that is easy to build and won’t require much maintenance, where you can grow fresh veggies, small fruits, herbs, and maybe even some cut flowers.

Sound too good to be true? Follow these 5 simple steps and you will be growing in no time.

The fence actually adds more gardening space by providing a structure for vining crops to grow vertically. These luffa, or “dishcloth,” gourds bloomed nonstop until frost and produced a pile of sponges while delighting the bumblebees.

Step One: Where and How Big (or small)?
“Location, location, location,” is a term used often in the real estate business, but it also applies to choosing the perfect place yard for a kitchen garden. Use the following criteria to find the best location:

1. Sun – Chose a site that receives full sun six or more hours per day. A level spot is ideal, but a hillside can work, you will just have to do some terracing to keep your garden from running away.
2. Water – A hose bib, rain barrel, or other water source nearby is essential since a productive garden needs approximately 1 inch of water a week.
3. Proximity – Ideally, your kitchen garden should be in a “high-traffic” area close to the kitchen or doors where you see and walk by it daily. This way you won’t forget to water, weed, or harvest on time. You are also more likely to notice any problems in their early stages, when they are much easier to rectify.
4. Call 811 – Know where your utility and gas lines are and don’t plant a garden on top of a septic tank or drainage area.
5. If you have a fence that you can incorporate into your plot, all the better to protect your plants from critters (if that is a problem) and vertical space for vining crops.

Now that you have the perfect location, you need to determine the size. If this is your first garden, start small. Be successful, not overwhelmed. Gardening takes commitment and time, but don’t worry if this is your first foray in food growing – there’s no better way to learn then to just jump in.

One way to think of the garden is in square footage and how much is needed per person. Once that is established, then you can fill in the blanks, so to speak, with plants. Mel Bartholomew, author of Square Foot Gardening, suggests one 4-by-4-square-foot garden per adult to grow salad; another 4-by-4-square-foot garden to grow enough vegetables for supper meals; and a third if you’d like extra veggies for preserving. That is a total of 48 square feet per adult.

A quick and easy garden: Using a 25-by-4-foot-wide roll of landscape fabric and six or eight large wheelbarrows of compost dumped in mounds, I created a cucurbit boarder in a couple of hours that required no glyphosate and no weeding. You could plant any vegetables in mounds and tomatoes and climbing beans would love the fence.

I added cardboard to extend the bed to sidewalk and to reinforce the fabric where I accidently tore it with the wheelbarrow. Then I threw down some old hay, planted seeds for squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, and gourds. I added more straw mulch after the plants emerged.

John Jeavons writes in his book How To Grow More Vegetables that the average person needs 100 square feet for fresh vegetables and another 100 square feet for vegetables to preserve. The square footage will need to be increased in a row-type garden to allow room for paths between rows.

I’ve heard others recommend two 4-by-4-foot raised beds per family member to grow vegetables for fresh use with enough leftover to preserve.

In my kitchen garden, I have three 4-by-8-foot raised beds per person, which is 96 square feet per person. By planting spring, summer, and fall crops I usually have enough to eat fresh with plenty to preserve and share. I also sow seeds in succession throughout the season in order to have a continual harvest using less space.

Step Two: Prepare the Site
Before building beds all you are going to do is cut the grass short (unless its winter) and then cover the entire area with landscape fabric or thick cardboard, being sure to overlap well so no unwanted flora can pop through later. The ground covering will remain as a foundation for raised beds or mounds of soil that will be brought in and placed on top. You may need to use rocks or boards to hold it down until you get everything in place.

We built raised beds using 10-inch wide pine boards. It’s more interesting and fun if the beds are different sizes and shapes.

Step Three: Build the Beds
If you decide to go the DIY route, there are a several ways to actually construct the beds. These are two that are quick and easy using pine boards. You can adjust to your building materials.

For one 4-by-8-foot bed you need three 2” x 10” x 8’ boards. Cut one in half. Using corner brackets (3” x ¾”) on the inside of the box, connect the boards together with screws. For added support, use a 4-foot board in the center of the bed. This is optional, but may keep bed from bowing later. If you don’t have corner brackets, use a 2” x 2” x 10” wooden stake and install several screws from the outside boards into the stake on each corner.

Another fast, easy way to create garden beds that will last is to use treated lumber totally lined (sides and bottom) with heavy black plastic. Place them in a sunny spot (before lining) and they are ready to go. No need for a weed barrier underneath the beds.

What materials should you use to build the beds? There are several options, depending on your desires and pocketbook. You can use wood that hasn’t been chemically treated; pine boards work and are inexpensive, but will have to be replaced about three to five years. Plastic or composite boards may not look as natural and will cost more, but they will not have to be replaced. Treated lumber will last a long time and can be used if you are willing to staple in a heavy plastic liner. Cedar is a good choice – it costs a little more, but is natural and is not prone to rotting quickly.

Stacked stone or brick is pretty and will never rot. Concrete blocks are inexpensive and easy to use plus create nice pockets for perennial herbs, but don’t look as nice.

Raised beds or mounds can be anywhere from 4-12 inches or deeper. Root crops, such as carrots and potatoes, benefit from a deeper bed whereas crops such as salad greens and peppers don’t need deep beds.

We set our wooden beds on top of plastic before filling them. This is composted horse manure we bought in bulk from a local farmer.

This is what it looks like two years later. The plastic is still under the entire area and the space around the beds is covered with wood shavings we got – for free – from a local sawmill. I add fresh shavings every spring.

Step Four: Fill the Beds
Soil is the foundation of your kitchen garden so this is where you really want to spend your time and money. Don’t settle for mediocre when you can have a magnificent productive garden with fewer insect and disease problems.

When it comes to filling the beds or making mounds, you have several choices. You can buy a mix of soil-type products to fill the beds. Mel Bartholomew, author of Square Foot Gardening, recommends equal parts of compost, peat moss, and vermiculite.

A mix of potting soil, topsoil, peat moss, leaf mold, compost, and soil conditioner will give you nutrient-rich fill with great drainage.

How much compost or mix does it take to fill a bed? For a 4-by-8-foot raised bed that is 10 inches deep, it will take 1 cubic yard to fill. For mounds, I dump one large wheelbarrow full per mound.

Now simply enjoy your fresh and organic produce to feed your family … there’s nothing better. Check out these ‘Circus Circus’ carrots we grew! • The border garden provided fresh, organic produce through the summer and we harvested pumpkins, gourds, and winter squashes in the fall. • ‘Lemon’ cucumber is an old-fashioned variety that Grandma grew. The fence was perfect for them to climb up.

Step Five: Plant!
Make a list of the vegetables you actually like to eat. Include one or two that you can’t get at the store – this will motivate you when it’s hot and you’re tired. Since this article is about installing a garden, we’re not going to list every potential vegetable, cultivars, planting times, etc. That’s an entire other article!


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 30 Number 5.
Photography courtesy of Cindy Shapton.


Posted: 06/11/18   RSS | Print


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The Procrastinator’s Garden
by Carol Michel       #Raised Beds   #Summer   #Vegetables

Once built, a raised bed garden makes it easier to plant earlier in the spring without having to till a garden.

If you are reading this well after Memorial Day, and you are wishing you had planted a vegetable garden this spring, but think now it is too late, you are in luck. It is not too late to plant a vegetable garden and reap an abundant harvest.

With a few adjustments from the traditional approach of planting earlier in the spring when you believe there will be no more frost in the garden, you can enjoy late-planted vegetables.

Here are some tips for a late-planted vegetable garden.

Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and green beans can all be planted late and still produce a good harvest.

Forget cool-season vegetables
Cool-season vegetables include cabbage (Brassica oleracea), broccoli (Brassica oleracea var. italica) and cauliflower (Brassica oleracea var. botrytis), plus lettuces (Lactuca sativa), spinaches (Spinacia oleracea), peas (Pisum sativum) and radishes (Raphanus sativus).

Some vegetable varieties, such as ‘Basket Boy’ tomatoes are ideal for growing in containers and can be purchased well into the growing season.

These crops should have been planted well before the last frost, and they will quickly fade out as the days get warmer. Even if you still find plants for these vegetables for sale, don’t be tempted to buy them and plant them late. Just make a note to plant earlier next year. Of course, if you bought plants earlier and just never planted them, go ahead and plant them now. You may still get a small harvest before they bolt and send up a flower stalk.

Check number of days to harvest
Look at the days to harvest on the seed packets. Since you are planting late, you are no longer concerned about the last frost of the spring. You should figure when your first frost is historically likely to happen. Then count back from that date to see how many days are left in the growing season.

Many vegetables, including snap or green beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) and summer squash (Cucurbita pepo), need as few as 50 days from seed sowing to produce their first crop. These are good choices for late sowing in the garden. You can also still sow seeds for beets (Beta vulgaris) and carrots (Daucus carota sativus).

Forget the idea of growing vegetables like winter squashes (Cucurpita sp.), muskmelons (Cucumis melo) and pumpkins (Cucurbita maxima), which in some cooler years need every day from the last frost of spring to the first frost of fall to produce a worthwhile crop. For other in-between crops, which usually need 60 or 80 days to harvest such as sweet corn (Zea mays), choose an earlier-ripening variety.


Setting up a stock tank planter takes a bit of time, but it will make it easier to quickly plant in future years.

Raised beds to the rescue
If you never seem to find the opportunity when the weather is good, the soil is dry and you have the time to till up the ground for a vegetable garden, consider building a few raised beds. Once built, raised bed gardens are easy to maintain from year to year. In the spring, the soil in the raised beds warms up faster so it is ready with little prep for you to sow seeds for cool-season crops in late March and plant other crops earlier, too. Just remove overwintering weeds, rake the soil and plant.

Buy bigger plants
Start off with bigger plants of tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), peppers (Capsicum annuum) and eggplant (Solanum melongena) to plant in the garden. Many of these vegetables are purchased as seedlings in the springtime or started from seeds indoors six weeks or so before they can be planted outside. If you are planting well after Memorial Day, look for plants that have been potted up to grow in bigger containers and plant those in your garden. Avoid seedlings that have been languishing on the garden center shelves in their original small pots. They won’t take off suddenly in your late planted garden.

Containers like SmartPots are ideal for growing vegetables and take little time to fill and plant.

Grow vegetables in large pots
Grow your vegetables in large containers. If you missed what you thought was the window of opportunity to start a vegetable garden because you didn’t have an area tilled up and ready to plant, and still don’t have time to prepare a garden for planting, set up a container garden.

There are many options for container gardens, ranging from large plastic pots to specialty growing pots, such as SmartPots ( These specialty pots are made out of a heavy, breathable fabric that encourages better root growth, which in turn grows a stronger plant.

Or consider something even larger and more permanent using galvanized stock tanks. In areas where the soil is poor but there is plenty of sunlight, these are a good option to consider.

Regardless of which container you use, use a good soil mix to grow the vegetables in, and remember to fertilize and water regularly. Some container-grown vegetables might need to be watered every day during the hottest days of the summer, so put the containers in a location where it is convenient to water them.

Also, look for varieties of vegetables that are labeled as “patio” or otherwise suitable for containers. These are becoming more common in the garden centers each year.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Carol Michel and Court’s Yard and Greenhouse.


Posted: 06/11/18   RSS | Print


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Waterwise Garden Design
by Helen Yoest       #Design   #Sustainability and Self-Sufficiency   #Xeriscaping

The fountain in the author’s garden, “Helen’s Haven.” The fountain is refilled with rainwater collected from the roof. The bed surrounding the water feature is an oasis bed, receiving extra moisture from the splashing water as it spills from one tier to the next.

There was a time when I thought of water as a renewable resource. Deep down, I still want to believe this. Although our water supply is replenished (some years more than others), the distribution of water over my property varies. The gain doesn’t always equal the loss though – some years we take more than nature gives.

Since I come from an area that receives an average of 44 inches of rain a year, you may be surprised to hear me touting waterwise garden design. Out West, this is a way of life. However, on the East Coast, we have experienced long periods of drought in recent years. If Raleigh’s annual rainfall came as 1 inch every week, there would be little need for waterwise design. But it doesn’t. Summers, in particular, can be hot and dry. It wasn’t until we experienced the worst drought in 100 years, with outdoor watering restrictions and no major rain in sight, that I began to take note.

Being waterwise goes beyond plant choices and bed placement.

Think about other garden features as well. A major focal point in my front garden is a 6-foot-tall, three-tiered fountain. It is a fantastic feature – it makes a soothing sound, attracts wildlife and is beautiful to look at. I refill the water with harvested rainwater I capture in a 250-gallon converted food-storage container. These containers are easy to find, since they are intended for one-time use only. After they’ve been used, they either go to the landfill, or clever people find ways to repurpose them. They are great at capturing rain with only slight modifications. My “harvester” sits at the corner of my property, next to the house. The drain spout diverts rainwater into the harvester, with overflow going into an oasis bed. I have a hose hooked up at the bottom of the harvester. When the fountain needs refilling, all I need to do is turn the valve. If I don’t have water, I don’t turn on the fountain. It still provides water for the wildlife when it’s not running. When the fountain is running it’s a signal to all that we are rain rich, for the moment anyway.

Waterwise gardening is not new, but gardeners seem to have drifted away from the benefits and techniques of this design. This strategy is not limited only to gardening in periods of drought, but is a practical and effective way to garden anywhere, while at the same time practicing good environmental stewardship.

One of the major components of waterwise design is grouping plants with similar needs. This design principle has saved me countless hours of watering, plus the cost associated with that. But I soon realized a water-saving design also helped map my garden, thereby simplifying my plant choices.

In the past, before acquiring a plant I would only think of the plant’s sun requirements. If it needed extra water and I loved the plant, I didn’t pay much attention to where I’d plant it. I assumed I would be able to meet its needs. I rarely did, of course. Now when I select a plant, I not only look at its sun requirements, but its water needs as well. I know exactly where the plant will go, based on the map of my waterwise garden. Today, I’ll put a plant back on the shelf if I can’t meet its sun requirements and also find room in the appropriate bed. Although it was hard at first, looking back, I have no regrets. With so many great plants out there, I’ll just keep looking for those that work in my design.

Waterwise design doesn’t limit you to only drought-tolerant plants. It’s a planting scheme that uses all different kinds of plants, from agaves to tropicals, and places them based on their water requirements. The beds in a waterwise garden are divided into three zones: oasis, transitional and xeric.

An oasis zone is an area close to a water source. Sources can be drain spouts, rain barrels or a faucet and hose. The area around your front door is also considered an oasis zone, because you can easily water your container plants with water collected indoors.

Hosta thrive in the oasis bed next to the fountain.

Hardy Begonia edge a transitional zone bordering an oasis bed. It is watered every two weeks.

A transitional zone is an area about midway from the house to the property line. Plantings in this zone should be sustainable, requiring only occasional supplemental water. Typically, these are island beds, alongside driveways or raised beds.

This mixed border at Helen’s Haven is a transitional zone, receiving supplemental water only after six weeks without rain. Even then, only the thirstiest plants are watered with harvested rain.

A xeric zone is at the property’s perimeter. Plants in these zones should be tough and not require supplemental water.

Salvia, lavender (Lavandula spp.) and mugo pine (Pinus mugo) are happy in a xeric zone.

Helen Yoest’s rock garden is a xeric zone with lush plantings among the rocks.

It’s not difficult to be a waterwise gardener. Get a rain gauge to know exactly how much rainfall you receive. Only water when plants need it. Even the thirstiest plants, once established, only need approximately 1 inch of water a week. (However, container gardens may need daily watering in the heat of the summer.) Remember to mulch – its moisture-holding ability is one of your best defenses against drought!

Waterwise doesn’t mean that it can’t be lush. This is a transitional to xeric bed, receiving no supplemental water.

Cleome appear to be happy no matter which zone they’re in.

Tickseed (Coreopsis spp.) makes a great addition to transitional or xeric beds.

A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 26 Number 6.
Photography courtesy of Helen Yoest.


Posted: 06/08/18   RSS | Print


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Gardening Under Your Trees
by Theresa Badurek       #Design   #Shade   #Trees

Gardens under trees often have a mix of sun and shade, which allows for greater plant diversity. 

I am a true Floridian and I often seek out shady spots for relief from the sun. I will even park my car far from an entrance if there is a shady place beneath a tree: Shade before convenience. But shade can be less than convenient in the garden – many plants require sun to thrive, especially for flower and fruit production. If you are fortunate enough to have trees in your landscape, you may have challenging or shady areas to plant. But gardening under trees can be rewarding for several reasons, personal comfort included!

Don’t be afraid, embrace that shade! A shady spot under a tree can become a favorite outdoor garden room. The branches overhead enclose and define space, making a more defined “room.” Follow these tips and enjoy your oasis under the trees.

Understand Your Shade
Some trees, such as pines (Pinus spp.), have a tall canopy and create light dappled shade, while other trees, such as oaks (Quercus spp.), may create densely shaded areas. Shady areas can be very wet or very dry, so you must also know your site’s water situation before planting. Observe the area throughout the year before making decisions. Watch the sun come up and set to see how the shade patterns vary. Be mindful of deciduous trees that let in more light when during the winter.

This is bad pruning (lions-tailing) done to increase light below. This tree is likely to fail in a windstorm.

Respect the Roots
The majority of tree roots are located in the top 18 inches of soil. Be careful when planting under trees and try to avoid disturbing too much of the root zone. Hand dig, avoid cutting large roots, and consider planting in phases rather than digging up the entire area at once if planting a large area. Planting smaller plants is also helpful, and it saves you money! Bonus: Smaller plants are easier to establish with less water and quickly catch up to their larger counterparts.

Color and Contrast Make a Difference
Many plants that thrive under trees do not have colorful, showy flowers. For the greatest impact under trees or in other shady areas, focus on light, bright colors, such as white and yellow. Dark flowers won’t show up in the shade. Other good color choices include light green, white, or yellow foliage to contrast with the darker, shadier greens. Variegated plants also work. Vary leaf textures and sizes for greater visual impact.

This blend of colors and textures makes a shady garden lively. Note the use of color in the building to add interest.

Introduce Color In Creative Ways
Plants aren’t the only things that provide color. If you can’t find a suitable plant for a particular spot, consider a brightly painted bench, pavers, or art to add a splash of color to your shady area. The key is to have one main focal point or feature – don’t clutter the space.

Always Keep Water Needs In Mind
Many (not all) shade plants like moist soil, but don’t let that fool you into overwatering. The shade itself will help keep the soil moist longer than the surrounding landscape. Try to choose plants that only need water during their establishment period. Be sure to match new plants with similar water needs to the tree you are planting under – don’t drown your tree!

Beware Invaders!
Many invasive plants thrive under trees, but don’t plant them! Some clamber up your trees and can cause serious damage; some will spread throughout your yard, making more weeding work. All of them threaten our natural areas and our native wildlife. Some common invaders spotted under Florida trees include tuberous sword fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia); oyster plant (Tradescantia spathacea); nandina (N. domestica); elephant ear (Xanthosoma sagittifolium); and in southern Florida, golden pothos (Epipremnum pinnatum ‘Aureum’).

Check the invasive potential of new plants for your garden – many are still sold in nurseries. The University of Florida/IFAS Extension has a website where you can search plants by common or botanical names to see if they are invasive: There’s also the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council (, which also lists plants by both common and botanical names. Both are excellent resources.

These plants are only suggestions. Now that you know what to think about, you can find many more that will suit your garden perfectly. Plants listed as understory trees and shrubs are typically great choices for planting under trees. Generally pines and palms with more dappled shade are more likely to partner with part-shade plants; oaks and other shade trees will likely need full shade plant companions. With careful plant selection and some color and contrast in the design, your garden room under the trees might just become your favorite summer garden sanctuary!


Top to Bottom:
• Holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum)
• Silver saw palmetto (Serenoa repens ‘Silver’)
• Wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa)
• Variegated ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’)

If you are looking for plants that will bloom well under trees you might consider*:
Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) N/C, native; marlberry (Ardisia escallonioides) C/S, native; azalea (Rhododendron spp.) N/C/S, natives available; camellia (C. japonica, C. sasanqua) N/C; thryallis (Galphimia glauca) C/S; gardenia (G. jasminoides) N/C/S; firebush (Hamelia patens) C/S, native; oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) N/C/S, native

For plants with fancy foliage you could find inspiration with*:
Copperleaf (Acalypha wilkesiana) C/S; variegated ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’) C/S; grape holly (Mahonia fortunei N/C; wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa) C/S, native; lady palm (Rhapis excelsa ‘Variegata’) C/S; silver saw palmetto (Serenoa repens ‘Silver’) N/C/S, native; coontie (Zamia pumila) N/C/S, native

Finally, if you have dense tree cover, the following plants will still deliver*:
Southern maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris) C/S, native; pipestem (Agarista populifolia) N/C, native; marlberry (Ardisia escallonioides) C/S, native; cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) N/C/S; holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) N/C/S, native; needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) C/S, native; lady palm (Rhapis excelsa ‘Variegata’) C/S


*N=North FL, C=Central FL, S=South FL


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 23 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Doris Heitzmann, UF/IFAS Extension, Pinellas County and Theresa Badurek.


Posted: 05/30/18   RSS | Print


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After the Tulips
by Gloria Day       #Design   #Flowers   #Perennials   #Summer

Drifts of Heuchera sp. and Acorus ‘Ogon’ now cover the rock garden where Crocus sp. and daffodils (Narcissus sp.) preceded these perennials.

The glory of the spring was upon us. The first crocus had bloomed, winter aconite made a carpet, the hyacinth crowns were showing, the tips of the daffodils and tulips were emerging and suddenly everything burst into color. Like the finale of a fireworks display, there was much excitement in the garden. Ah, spring.

But a few weeks later, the flowers faded, petals fell to the ground, the stems were bare and there was only leftover foliage to watch wither away. Not so exciting.

It’s often painful for a gardener to wait for nature to take its course. It is tempting to cut back the greens, tie them up neatly or braid them into something tidy. But don’t. Let the foliage die back slowly before removing it or you risk taking the food away from the bulbs and weakening next year’s colorful spring display. Photosynthesis is quietly at work replenishing the strength for the bulbs to produce flowers again.

Clockwise: The strap-like foliage of daffodils is easily hidden by the similar foliage of daylilies. • Plumbago sp. grows thickly to carpet the understory of a tree where a variety of bulbs are planted. • ‘America’ peony strides in to take its place in the next garden layer.

Gardeners can design the next layer to help camouflage the spent spring-blooming bulbs’ greens. While the late blooming Allium spp. are making their show, other perennials emerge and sidestep the bulbs to cover the dying foliage.

The large leaves of a peony grow, seemingly overnight, from a tiny fuchsia tip to a 20-inch full bouquet. Masses of dark green peony leaves will create an arch over the earlier blooming bulbs.

Tall hosta and variegated Solomon’s’ seal will become the featured plants after the daffodils and Virginia bluebells have disappeared. • Allium ‘Globemaster’ and German iris mingle with catmint to camouflage the former tulip bed.

Hosta spp., coral bells (Heuchera spp.), leadwort (Cerastostigma plumbago), daylily (Hemerocallis spp.), Liriope ssp., Nepeta spp. and Iris spp. will create the next layer in the garden, and easily will camouflage the bulb foliage as it dies back completely. Be generous with a variety of perennials until you find what combinations please you and distract your eye from the spent foliage.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening Magazine.
Photography courtesy of Gloria Day.


Posted: 05/30/18   RSS | Print


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Avoiding Bad Neighbors
by Diane Beyer       #Advice   #Beneficials   #Vegetables






Keep these plants away from each other







Lettuce and spinach are friendly neighbors and get along with almost everyone. Be careful not to shade these early garden goodies with taller plants.
(Photo courtesy of Barbara Pleasant.)

Everyone has had an experience with a bad neighbor. There are various reasons for considering a neighbor “bad,” but most of them have an element of “chemistry” in them somewhere. Some people just don’t get along. It’s no different in the plant world. Since plants are restricted in place and not able to move away from bad or undesirable neighbors, they must employ other methods. Plant communities use chemistry to repel or subdue those that may pose a threat to a thriving population.

There are several other things to consider when deciding what to plant with what:

• What growing conditions do the plants require? Plants that have different requirements for soil pH level, sun exposure, nutrients, or moisture should not be planted together and expected to thrive. Plants also release varying amounts of nutrients, such as nitrogen and potassium, which can affect the growing conditions of nearby plants by altering proximate pH levels.

• In contrast, do not plant two heavy feeders together, as one will inevitably bully the other by sucking up nutrients needed by both.

• How tall do the plants get? This should be taken into account when planting small annuals or large trees. If plants, such as tomatoes, are planted next to sun-loving plants, such as bush beans, chances are good that the beans will suffer from the shade of the taller, more aggressive tomatoes. It is possible to plant plants of varying heights together if the smaller ones are oriented such that they receive the most sun exposure.

• Plants that require large amounts of water will scavenge water from surrounding soils, harming nearby plants that are not as effective at water consumption.

• Plants that attract similar pests and/or diseases benefit from not being planted in close proximity.

Planting fennel near peppers may cause stunted fruits. The peppers are edible, just not pretty. (Photo courtesy of Diane Beyer.) • Although sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) may affect the growth some veggies, they do provide an excellent nectar source and also distract birds from other plants and fruits. They may also help repel aphids. (Photo courtesy of Jeanne Grunert.)

While the list above is a good start, there is a more complex consideration to be made and it involves chemistry. Many plants release compounds called allelochemicals that repel or inhibit growth of other plant life. Some allelochemicals are non-selective, killing or repelling most other plant life in an effort to maintain survival of the species. Other allelochemicals are more selective, seeming to only inhibit plant life that may compete for the same nutrients, light, or moisture. This biological phenomenon is called allelopathy.

The word allelopathy comes from two Greek words: allelon, which means “of each other” and pathos, which means, “to suffer.” Plants can employ allelopathic tactics in various ways. Some plants contain allelochemicals in their leaves, thus enabling them to repel and inhibit nearby growth through gases expelled through transpiration or through the decomposition of dropped leaves. Other plants contain the repelling chemicals in their roots. As these toxins are released into the soil, roots or nearby plants absorb them and are stunted or killed. Allelochemicals can also affect or hinder seed germination. When used correctly, these chemicals can be a very effective method of weed control.

Studies have been able to show the effectiveness of this chemical warfare in some species. For example, the aggressive, invasive tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) produces ailanthone, a chemical that exhibits non-selective, post-emergent herbicidal activity similar to glyphosate. This explains why, when you see “groves” of tree of heaven along a highway or under a power line, there is NOTHING else growing in that grove. Eventually, is left unchecked, they will overcome any other vegetation in the area, including native trees.

Another example, black walnut tree (Juglans nigra) exudes a chemical compound called juglone from the leaves, stems, and roots. Juglone can damage or even kill susceptible plants, such as solanaceous crops.

So how does all this affect your vegetable garden? There has been much ado about companion planting, but not much about what NOT to plant together. Some of the following is based on science, some on anecdotal evidence – regardless, it might be worth a shot!

Some diseases require two or more hosts to complete their life cycle. Cedar-apple rust is one of these, so planting the eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) near your apple orchard is not a good idea, as the rust disease will infect the fruits causing spotting and possible fruit drop.
(Photo courtesy of Diane Beyer.)


Carrots: Parsnips and carrots are both susceptible to the same soil-borne diseases and carrot flies and so it’s best to plant them away from each other.

Tomatoes: Tomatoes do not like brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, kale, etc.) as they become stunted and crop production is reduced. Brassicas contain glucosinolates, sulfur-containing phytochemicals that are possibly offensive and detrimental to the tomato plants. Even though studies have shown that consumption of brassicas could reduce the risk for multiple types of cancer in humans, tomatoes are not impressed. It is also not advisable to plant corn near tomatoes, as the two plants are prone to similar fungal diseases and may attract the same insects.

Potatoes: Potatoes are somewhat of a garden thug in that they make many enemies. It’s probably a chemical thing. Don’t plant these tasty tubers near asparagus, brassicas, carrots, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, peppers, squash, tomatoes or sunflowers!

Beans: Avoid planting beans near chives, garlic, onions and leeks. Pole beans can also stunt and be stunted by beets, but bush beans seem to do fine.

Brassicas: Avoid planting veggies from this family near potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, or eggplant, as these four plants like a fairly acidic soil pH around 5.5 to 6.5 whereas broccoli, cabbages, and kales like a more neutral soil.

Squash: Avoid planting near brassicas and potatoes, as they have different growing requirements, and potatoes may employ chemical warfare!

Sunflowers: Although sunflowers provide lots of high protein nectar for pollinators, they also contain allelopathic chemicals that are especially effective on beans and potatoes. Planted around a garden, sunflowers can serve to keep weeds down and also draw well-needed pollinators.

On a positive note, spinach gets along with everyone! You’ll still have to keep in mind that most spinach is shorter than other veggie tops and excessive shading will be detrimental.

Black walnut trees produce juglone to inhibit the growth many plants. Plants most vulnerable to the black walnut’s toxicity include nightshades such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes. Others easily tolerate juglone, including melons, beans and carrots.
(Photo courtesy of Diane Beyer.)

Some vegetables also inhibit cropping of the same species in the same location from year to year. Disease and pest prone broccoli is one of these and the probable reason it will leave behind a deterrent residue after being harvested is to aid in preventing disease and pathogens from overwintering and attacking early spring crops of the same type. Thus, the need for crop rotation.

In the general landscape, be aware that there are other plants containing allelochemicals. If you have issues with plants growing near each other and all other factors check out, there may be chemical warfare afoot. Here are some common offenders:

• Aster and goldenrod (Solidago spp.) inhibit sugar maples (Acer saccharum) and tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera).

• Kentucky bluegrass will inhibit Forsythia and black cherries (Prunus serotina).

• Junipers (Juniperus spp.) inhibit grasses.

Don’t let any of this scare you away from trying different combinations. Good, healthy soil with lots of organisms can break down the toxins into more benign elements. And a well-draining soil may allow the toxins to move below the root zones of nearby plants. On the other hand, some soil microbes can assist with allelopathy. That’s how it goes with neighbors.


A version of this article appeared in a June 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening Magazine.


Posted: 05/29/18   RSS | Print


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High and Dry
by Cindy Shapton       #Irrigation   #Summer   #Vegetables






A kitchen garden’s survival during a drought, or periods drier than normal requires planning, preparing and making smart, water-saving decisions along the way.






Eggplant, once established, can handle a dry spell with less water.

Start with the Soil
Add organic matter and compost to your garden soil before sowing seeds or planting veggies. This will help the soil retain more water and to absorb more rainfall when it does come.

Choose the Right Plants
Choose plants that have low to moderate water needs or those that can better handle drought and water restrictions.

Pile it on! Mulch with newspapers, cardboard, leaf mold, grass clippings, straw, etc. My neighbor Jack puts down a heavy layer of leaf mold around his plants in his garden, followed by layers of cardboard, topped with – you got it – more mulch. By doing this, he helps his vegetables survive an unexpected drought without having to provide supplemental water. Evaporation and water runoff are minimized.


Clockwise: Rich organic soil is key to growing vegetables in dry conditions. • Most peppers like it hot, and once fruit is set, will keep on producing in a dry spell. • To extend cool-weather crops or keep warm-season crops cooler, provide some type of shade with row covers. Using an old screen door is a creative way to provide shade cover for spinach, lettuce and mustard while providing a platform for sun-loving cucumbers to roam.

Understand When Water is Essential
Seeds need moisture to germinate, and all plants need consistent water to get established. After that, most vegetables benefit from 1 inch of water per week, at least until fruit set. During extreme temperatures, that amount may need to be increased.

When Watering
Water deeply once every four to six days so roots learn to search for water deeper in the earth. This will help when rainfall is inadequate in mid to late summer.

Drip irrigation is less wasteful, with water going directly to individual plants. Soaker hoses also do a good job of delivering water where it is needed most. Watering at dawn or in the evening at the bases of plants will allow soil to soak up moisture before it can easily evaporate from the heat of the sun. Avoid overhead watering altogether, if possible.

If water for irrigation is unavailable or water restrictions are in effect, invest in rain barrels to collect water to help your garden through dry periods.

Clockwise: Plan ahead to save water with a rain barrel in case of drought or dry periods. • Growing tall plants, such as sunflowers, on the west and south side of the garden helps cool veggies when weather becomes “too hot to handle.” • Purslane is sometimes referred to as a weed, but this tasty plant can take the heat and drought and never skip a beat in the kitchen garden or in a container. Use it like you would okra to thicken soups or eat it raw in salads and on sandwiches.

Mustard greens are growing up under these cowpeas, which produce shade while the heat is too intense for the spicy greens.

Sweetpotatoes need regular watering until they are established, but they would rather have too little than too much moisture. During their last month before harvest, no water is required at all.

Some veggies to consider

Amaranth: Steam young leaves; eat seeds.
Beans: bush and pole
Cowpeas: i.e. purple hull peas
Peppers: chile, banana, jalapeno, habanero, etc.
Swiss chard, spinach (New Zealand and malabar) if in shade

Provide Natural Shade
Plant in blocks rather than rows to create shade for roots and reduce evaporation. Raised beds work well when vegetables are planted close enough for leaves to shade the soil.

Control Competition
It is important to keep your garden weed-free, since weeds will compete with your plants for water. Remove plants that are struggling or have finished their major production, giving young plants easier access to soil moisture.

Keep an Eye on the Thermometer
When daytime temperatures reach 95 F and nighttime temperatures stay 85 F for more than a couple of days, many warm-weather crops, such as peppers, tomatoes and eggplants, will come to a standstill and stop setting fruit; blooms may simply fall off, taking future harvests with them.

Cool Off
When extreme heat is predicted, it is time to provide shade for the kitchen garden. Drape shade cloth over frames or hoops, allowing enough room for air movement around plants. Or, lightweight floating row covers can be placed directly on plants, helping to lower temperatures by about 10-15 degrees and hold some of the moisture in.

Extend Cool Crops
If you are trying to grow cool-season crops, such as lettuce, chard, spinach or other greens, in the warmer season, try growing sunflowers or trellises of climbing beans at the end(s) of the kitchen garden on the south and west sides, providing a cooler climate for them.

Growing vegetables in the heat of a dry summer can be challenging, but so worth it when you bite into a fresh, juicy tomato that you grew yourself in your kitchen garden!


A print version of this article appeared in Kentucky Gardener Volume 11 Number 5.
Photography courtesy of Cindy Shapton.


Posted: 05/29/18   RSS | Print


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Tasty Ways to Support Your Local Farmers
by Jacqueline DiGiovanni       #Advice   #Edibles   #Homesteading

Summer CSA crates include warm-season peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers and fresh herbs.

With scares over contaminated, big-ag produce the last few years, consumers have become more interested in where their food comes from, how it is grown and how far it traveled to get to their tables.

People have become more interested in growing their own vegetables and herbs, or when space and time do not allow for that, they shop at farmers markets. Some consumers take it a step further and partner with a farmer to grow their food through a community supported agriculture program, or CSA.

Tips for Shopping Farmers Markets
If you are new to farmers markets, expect your experience to be educational and fun. Some have musical entertainment, children’s activities and more. There’s a lot of ‘community’ in farmers markets, where regulars recognize and greet each other.

Markets can be under cover, indoors, outdoors or a combination of settings. Many have baked goods and prepared or frozen foods. Some sell seedlings for your garden, such as heirloom tomatoes. Some operate year-round or are seasonal, such as summer or winter markets.

Consider leaving your purse at home or in the car and stowing your ID, keys and cash in a pocket. It’s easier to shop with less to carry, and farmers really don’t want you to set anything on top of their produce.

If you are concerned about accessibility, call ahead and ask about where to park or less busy times. Strollers are usually welcome. Dogs are usually not welcome. Take your own shopping bag. Use small bills: $1s, $5s, $10s. Check with your market to see if credit or debit cards will be accepted.

Understand what’s in season. Walk through the market to see which stalls have the produce you are looking for. Prices may vary from stall to stall. Prices will likely be higher than in grocery stores.

Many farmers markets participate in WIC, Senior Project, Project Fresh, SNAP, Double Up Food Bucks or other programs that make healthful eating more affordable. If food samples are available, try them. Expect to be surprised.

Sweet corn is a popular item at farmers markets and CSAs in mid to late summer. A heavier ear means better sweet corn.

Bulk Up
For most farmers, local means grown within the state. Learn when to buy in bulk. If you want to pickle cucumbers, can tomatoes or put up jams and jellies, ask the farmer when produce will be available in bulk. You can make arrangements to pick up that half bushel when the produce is at peak flavor.

Bulk buying will usually save you money. Ask questions about crops coming in late or early. Ripe has more to do with the weather than the calendar. Some farmers offer suggestions on how to prepare their vegetables. If there is not a line of people waiting, ask for ideas.

Ask Questions
Ask your favorite farmers if they sell at other markets on different days, or if they have a farm stand. Learn the meaning of words: organic, sustainable, pesticide free, naturally grown, local, non-GMO. If this is important to you, investigate markets and growers ahead of time.

Don’t lecture the farmer on growing practices, just move to the next stall. If the farmer has something you would like to grow at home, ask questions about when to plant and when to harvest.

Collect business cards from the farmers who have the produce you love. Learn their names and visit their stalls often. Be sure to introduce yourself and let them know you enjoyed what you bought earlier.

How CSAs Work
You may notice the same farmers at several markets trying to reach enough people to sell the crops they harvested. This need for an expanded customer base has led to Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs.

With CSAs, there is still a direct connection between farmer and consumer, but the consumer pays in advance for a share of everything the farmer harvests. In good years, consumers get great value for their investment. In not-so-good years, there will be plenty of produce, but less variety. The farmer and subscribers share the risks and rewards.

Farmers markets and CSA crates are stocked with in-season produce and herbs.

Weekly Pickup or Delivery
Usually, CSAs provide a box of produce weekly. The produce varies throughout the season. For instance, snow peas may be in early season boxes and tomatoes won’t show up until mid summer. Ask your farmer for a schedule of what crops mature when. The schedule won’t be exact because Mother Nature has a hand in how things grow.

Before you select a CSA, ask yourself a few serious questions. If a weekly share consists of 15 pounds of vegetables, will your family eat that much? In the fall, there will be rutabagas, collard greens and cabbage. Will your family eat any of it? Also, CSAs are an adventure, best enjoyed with a good vegetable cookbook and great optimism.

CSAs are likely more expensive than buying produce at a grocery store, but you are getting freshly harvested food and you know how it’s grown. Some CSA subscribers split the cost and produce with another family, neighbor or friend. Some farmers offer half-shares. Some farmers have a 12-week season and others a 20-week. There are more year-round CSAs now, thanks to hoop houses, greenhouses and good storage practices.

Selecting a CSA
Ask around for recommendations. You likely will be driving to pick up your weekly basketful of produce, so make sure you can schedule the trip. Some CSAs deliver their products to a central location and subscribers go there to pick up their food. If you might miss a pickup, ask ahead of time what options you have. Don’t expect a refund.

In exchange for a little bit of your time, you can find the farmer who offers exactly what you’re hungry for either at a market or in CSA. This is the year to begin a long-term relationship with a farmer.


A print version of this article appeared in Michigan Gardening Magazine Volume 2 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Natalila Pyzhova/, Jacqueline DiGiovanni, and viki2win/


Posted: 05/29/18   RSS | Print


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Fruit Tree Friends
by Alan Branhagen       #Beneficials   #Fruit   #Trees

Companion planting is the idea that certain plants attract beneficial insects and fix soil nutrients in the edible garden. It’s not a dog-eat-dog world out there; it’s a bug-eat-bug world that forms the food chain that feeds us.


A ground cover of strawberries is below a ‘Saturn’ peach in full bloom.

Fresh fruit picked off your own trees is a hot horticultural pursuit these days. Homeowners envision delectable apples, pears, peaches, plums and cherries dripping from their trees. Well, truth be told, there’s a lot of work that goes into those beautiful fruits. Bumps and blemishes from an army of fruit tree pests are the reality of the orchardist.

Organic gardeners know the first step in pest control is to work with Mother Nature. The majority of bugs in the garden are good guys: beneficial insects that pollinate and form the framework of the web of life. Every time one of these beneficials stops a pest, it is one step towards a productive and healthier garden. Planting plants that attract the good guys is a good leap forward in designing and planting a successful stand of fruit trees. The plants that attract pollinators and protectors and aid in providing soil nutrients and improved vigor are called companion plants.

Much about companion plantings is pure garden lore, unproven by scientific research, or has conflicting results. All of the plants described here are utilized at Powell Gardens’ Heartland Harvest Garden, which is the largest edible landscape in the country.

The first step is to always choose fruit tree varieties hardy and adapted to your specific region and select varieties of proven disease resistance. Even after growing the most recommended varieties for our region, Powell Gardens saw marked pest reductions and healthier trees after they were moved from our nursery in a fescue field to their permanent location in the Heartland Harvest Garden where they were surrounded by companion plantings.


A dwarf ‘Red Delicious’ apple tree thrives with lemon balm (beneath) and chives (foliage in the background) as companions.

Apples | (Malus pumila varieties and hybrids)

Apples suffer from a host of maladies from apple scab to pests like the coddling moth, Oriental fruit moth, flat-headed apple borer and others. Apples are not self-fruitful so they must have pollinating insects (native bees are best) to cross pollinate compatible varieties. “Wild roses” are great shrubby companions to apples because they host predatory insects. Try Illinois prairie rose (Rosa setigera), rugosa roses (Rosa rugosa), short Arkansas prairie rose (Rosa arkansana), apple rose (Rosa villosa formerly  R. pomifera), sweetbrier rose (Rosa eglanteria) as well as a few new single-flowering cultivars such as Rainbow Knock out and ‘Oso Easy Fragrant Spreader’.

Long-blooming, self-sowing anise hyssops (Agastache foeniculum) can attract beneficial insects. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) planted around the trunks of young apple trees protect them from apple borers, prevent apple scab and attract beneficial insects to their flowers. Deadhead chives or you’ll have pernicious seedlings. Mulleins (Verbascum spp.) act as traps for stink bugs that can damage young fruit. Plant perennial Verbascum chaixii, which reblooms if deadheaded and will self-sow lightly. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is another perennial that attracts parasitic insects to control pesky caterpillars, though other members in the carrot family also work.

Ground covers of strawberries (Fragaria x ananassa) serve as host to apple-protecting insects. White “Dutch” clover (Trifolium repens) not only provides nitrogen to the soil but attracts predatory insects like various species of ground beetles. It also blooms early with the apples helping to attract pollinators. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is also a good companion where it can be confined.


Pears | (European Pyrus communis and Asian Pyrus pyrifolia varieties and hybrids)

Pears are close apple relatives and also not self-fruitful. They require pollinating insects to cross-pollinate different cultivars of each species. Pear flowers are malodorous so various native flies, wasps and beetles are the pollinators. Chives also protect the trunks of young pears from borers so plant them around their bases. Three groups of mints are great companion plants. True mints (Mentha spp.) are outstanding companions to pears, but they need to be controlled or in confined spaces. Bergamots and beebalms (Monarda spp.) are good companions, but mountain mints (Pycnanthemum spp.) might be the best. Native perennial mountain mints attract an assortment of flies and wasps when in bloom—and no, they don’t attract house flies and yellow jackets. Fennel is another must near pears. We recommend dark bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’) for color contrast.


Yellow-flowering marigolds, white-flowering garlic chives and the flower stalks of dill going to seed are companions to peach trees in Powell Gardens’ Heartland Harvest Garden.

Peaches and Nectarines | (Prunus persica and var. nectarina or nucipersica and hybrids)

Peaches are self-fruitful but still require pollinating insects like honeybees. Garlic (Allium sativum) and garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are the two most important companions to peaches as they deter their worst pests, the two species of peach tree borer moths. Plant these around the trunks of the trees. You may grow the garlic as a crop but be sure to deadhead garlic chives because, just like chives, it is a pernicious seeder and difficult to remove once established. Garlic chives’ fall bloom attracts an array of beneficial insects. 

Strawberries are an essential ground cover beneath peaches as they are an alternate host of a parasite that attacks Oriental fruit moths (supported by research). Plant wild strawberries and let them be or plant your favorite cultivars of June-bearing or ever-bearing varieties, which require a bit more seasonal care. Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is another perennial ground cover companion with ferny leaves and daisy-like flowers. It attracts beneficial insects but does not provide habitat for borers.

The annuals borage (Borago officinalis), dill (Anethum graveolens) and marigolds (Tagetes patula) are companions to peaches. We’ve had good results from all three.


Cherries | (Sweet Prunus avium and pie Prunus cerasus, their varieties and hybrids)

Sweet cherries are mostly self-infertile (‘Lapin’ is an exception) and require a compatible cultivar for cross pollination. Pie or sour cherries are self-fruitful but require pollinators. There are hybrids between the two groups (‘Danube’, ‘Jubilieum’) that have wonderful sweet-tart fruit and are also self-fruitful. Cherries are closely related to peaches and also suffer from the peach tree borer so the use of garlic and garlic chives near the trunks is beneficial. Utilize the same companion plantings as for peaches. 


Plums | (Prunusspecies and their hybrids and varieties)

Plums are mainly self-infertile and need another cultivar for cross pollination. Plums are also closely related to peaches and do better with the same companion plants. The plum curculio weevil is the bane of this plant, so plant white clover, which promotes ground beetles. Weevils are controlled by plants in the Laurel family, which includes our native spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and we’re going to add it as a companion beneath plums. 


Garlic chives bloom in fall and attract many pollinators and beneficial insects. A Viceroy butterfly and other insects are nectaring on the flowers.


A version of this article appeared in a June 2011 edition of the State-by-State Gardening eNewsletter.
Photography courtesy of Alan Branhagen.


Posted: 05/28/18   RSS | Print


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From Drab to Fab: Half-Hardy Salvias for Summer Fun
by Caleb Melchior       #Colorful   #Flowers   #Summer

‘Black and Blue’ azure sage (Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’) mixes well with other warm-weather annuals, blooming from midsummer to frost.

My first garden experiences with tropical sages were a bit drab. Six-packs of mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea) from the grocery store bloomed through the summer with flowers the color of new Levis. The next year, to be fancy, I grew the seed strain ‘Strata’. Its flowers were closer to the color of dirty overalls. Then, of course, there was red Texas sage (Salvia coccinea) and its variety ‘Lady in Red’ — far more elegant in name than in physical reality — plus its bizarre faded pink variant ‘Coral Nymph’.

Yes, they were reliable. They needed little attention, they tolerated heat and drought, and stayed colorful throughout the summer. But they didn’t do anything that a plastic cactus wouldn’t.

Up close, the vibrant blue of ‘Black and Blue’s flowers stands out within its dark navy-black bracts.

Then I met ‘Black and Blue’. ‘Black and Blue’ sage (Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue') has stunning cobalt flowers held in navy-black bracts. Unlike the dinky habits of many old-fashioned salvias, it grows large and luxurious, 24 to 30 inches high in one season, with rich green pebbled foliage. ‘Black and Blue’ spreads 18 to 24 inches wide over one growing season. As long as its roots are protected, it survives the cold as far north as USDA winter hardiness Zone 6. Where winter-hardy, it will slowly spread to 36 inches across. The flowers are produced regularly throughout the hot months, but become especially profuse with the arrival of cool autumn nights. 

Rarer than ‘Black and Blue’, with a lighter habit and flowers in a pale shade of blue, West Texas cobalt sage (Salvia reptans West Texas form) is an extraordinary perennial that’s rarely encountered in gardens or nurseries. Cobalt sage (Salvia reptans) is an indigenous North American salvia species that occurs throughout the western United States. West Texas cobalt sage is a specific form selected from wild populations for its upright habit and cobalt-blue flowers. Throughout the spring and summer, it grows into a 40-inch high mass of bright green, upright stems with small linear leaves. In August, it ripples into a fantastic mass of tiny pale-blue and deep-blue flowers. The narrow stems contort under the weight of the flowers, swaying airily into surrounding plantings. Use it to strew a pale blue veil of fresh flowers through the faded mass of the late summer garden. West Texas cobalt sage is winter hardy through Zone 5. It thrives in well-drained, even gravelly soils.

A rare perennial, West Texas cobalt sage (Salvia reptans West Texas form) self-sows daintily in free-draining soils, making in an excellent filler for garden edges that are forgotten by the gardener.

If your garden is drowning in late-summer blues, plant ‘Wendy’s Wish’ sage (Salvia x ‘Wendy’s Wish’). Its fine flowers, which are the color of ripe raspberries, are carried abundantly on dark purple stems decked out with weirdly scalloped leaves. The leaves are an unusual color as well, about 30 percent gray and 70 percent green, with the purple of the stems leaking into the leaves along their veins in cool weather. While its parentage is unknown, ‘Wendy’s Wish’ is quickly becoming a favorite of gardeners across the country. It blooms off and on throughout the summer, erupting into a giant mass of bright pink flower wands in autumn. Depending on growing conditions, it can reach anywhere from 30 to 48 inches high and wide. It is perennial in USDA Winter Hardiness Zones 8 and warmer. Farther north, include it in your garden schemes as a quick-growing tropical for summer and autumn fun.

Opening just a few flowers at a time, Andean sage (Salvia discolor) has elegant pale gray-green bracts that hold sensational almost-black flowers.

Unlike the three other sages featured here, Andean sage (Salvia discolor) won’t draw your attention from across the garden. Instead, it repays close consideration. One of the oddest little salvias, Andean sage has flowers the color of crushed black velvet, with just a hint of purple to their sheen. Few other flowers have such a deep hue. The sheen of the sage flowers’ surfaces makes them particularly intriguing. Only a few of the “black” irises and ‘Queen of Night’ tulips come close to the same richness and depth. Its leaves are smart as well, felted gray-green on top and white underneath. Andean sage is easy to grow, in sun or part shade, reaching 18 inches high and 24 inches across in most growing seasons. It is also winter hardy to USDA Zone 8, but may return further north with good drainage.

Whether inclined to the subtle or the show-stopping, no gardener could be bored with these four fantastic sages. Their vibrant colors and generous flowering will transform your summer plantings. Say goodbye to drab — welcome these fab four tropical sages into your garden today.


A version of this article appeared in a June 2014 edition of the State-by-State Gardening eNewsletter.
Photography courtesy of Caleb Melchoir.


Posted: 05/28/18   RSS | Print


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Basil in the Kitchen and Beyond
by Marie Harrison       #Edibles   #Herbs

‘Italian Large Leaf’ flowers later in the season and has a tendency to make foliage taste bitter rather than sweet. Prune out flower buds (seen here), as they appear to prevent bloom.
Photo Credit: Andrea Dee

Basil is a favorite herb among cooks. Almost any tomato dish, soup, salad, sauce, or pasta can be enhanced by basil. It blends well with other commonly grown herbs such as parsley, rosemary, oregano, thyme, and sage, as they all add to its flavorful possibilities.

The foliage of purple varieties turns green quickly when grown in a shady site.
Photo Credit: Andrea Dee

Many people grow basil to make pesto. Most recipes call for a couple cups of freshly picked basil, a half-cup of parmesan or Romano cheese, a half-cup of high quality olive oil, a third-cup of pine nuts (or you may substitute walnuts or other favorite nuts), and about three cloves of minced garlic. Simply place the basil leaves and nuts in a food processor and pulse them several times. Add the garlic and cheese and pulse several more times. Be sure to scrape down the sides of the processor before proceeding. Add the olive oil in a slow stream while the processor is running. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Now you’re ready to add your creation to many recipes.

Basil is best used fresh; however, it can be frozen for winter use. Before freezing basil, dry it in a well-ventilated area. If it is not completely dry after three or four days, finish the drying process in an oven that is set on the lowest temperature. Leave the oven door partially open, and check often. Pack the dry herb in plastic freezer bags. Press the bags to remove the air and make sure they seal completely.

Growing Basil
Plant basil in the spring after all danger of frost has past. Prepare a space that receives full sun and has moist, but well-drained soil. Seeds can be sown indoors six weeks before the last frost date and transplanted outside after the soil has warmed. If only a few plants are wanted, purchase seedlings at almost any nursery in the spring. In the sunny South, mulch will help retain soil moisture, and a bit of protection from the hot afternoon sun will help the plants stay strong and hydrated.

The author’s stash of ‘African Blue’ basil is ready to plant in a container or in the garden. Since it does not produce seed, you must propagate by cuttings. All its blue coloration was lost during the winter since it did not receive any direct sun. Once it is planted outside, its attractive colors will return, and it will grow for another season. In the author’s garden, this basil tops out at 3 to 4 feet tall.
Photo Credit: Marie Harrison

Basil is an annual suited to summer weather, or it can be at home in a south-facing window that sun shines through for at least six hours of the day. Growing indoors will give you a year-round supply of this fragrant and flavorful herb. Just be sure to provide a nutrient rich soil that is kept somewhat moist. Fertilize every month or so at half the recommended strength. If sunlight is not possible indoors, basil can be grown under fluorescent lights turned on for ten hours daily.

To keep basil producing young tender leaves, pinch off the center shoot while the plant is young to force side growth. Remove any flowers that develop if you are growing basil for culinary use. Harvest just as buds start to form but before flowers bloom. Use the fresh leaves for your favorite recipes.

Basil roots easily. To keep summer favorites for the following year, place a few stems in water. Roots will form, and you can plant the newly rooted plants in containers for your windowsill or save them for the spring garden.

Other Uses for Basil
My favorite use of basil is as a nectar and pollen source for pollinators. Hundreds of bees and other pollinators buzz around a blooming plant. Many of the plants are beautiful and brighten the garden with colors of purple, red, bright green, and combinations of these. Children are enchanted when offered a leaf of basil to smell, and it is a fragrant addition to a bag of herbal potpourri. Even adult gardeners are seldom able to walk by the basil without running a hand over the plants, which releases a whiff of the distinctive aroma.

All-America Selections winner ‘Siam Queen’, prized for both culinary and ornamental uses.
Photo Credit: All-America Selections

Types of Basil
(Ocium spp. and cvs.)

Many types of basil offer multiple choices for the gardener. It comes in various sizes, colors, scents, and flavors. A few of the author’s favorites include:

1. ‘African Blue’ (O. kilimandscharicum x basilicum ‘Dark Opal’)
Dark green leaves with purple streaks provide the background for pink to purple flowers that pollinators love.

2. Sweet Basil (O. basilicum)
If you grow just one plant for culinary use, sweet basil is probably your best choice. Several cultivars are ‘Genovese’, ‘Italian Large Leaf’, and ‘Lettuce Leaf’.

3. Sweet Thai (O. basilicum var. thyrsiflora)
This one, too, is a great producer of flowers for pollinators. In addition, the purple stems and purple-veined leaves on a dark green background, along with attractive purple flowers clustered at the top of each stem, makes it a standout in the garden.

4. ‘Dark Opal’ (O. basilicum ‘Dark Opal’)
Dark Opal basil adds color to the garden with its bright purple stems and leaves topped by lilac flowers. The strong flavor stands up to cooking and adds a beautiful color to vinegars.

5. ‘Spicy Globe’(O. basilicum ‘Spicy Globe’)
If you want a small type of basil for pots or a compact plant to use as a border, ‘Spicy Globe’ is a good choice. Growing to just 10 inches tall, it has small leaves and a rounded form.

6. Christmas Basil (O. basilicum ‘Christmas’)
Glossy green leaves and purple flowers are gorgeous in the landscape. Use it to add fruity flavor to salads and drinks. Expect it to average 16 to 20 inches tall.

7. Cinnamon Basil (O. basilicum ‘Cinnamon’)
Cinnamon basil enlivens fresh arrangements with its dark purple stems and lilac flowers. Its delightful fragrance and spicy flavor make it particularly desirable in fruit salads and as garnishes. Growing from 25 to 30 inches tall, it provides plenty of stems for cutting.

8. Holy Basil (O. tenuiflorum syn. O. sanctum)
A revered plant in the Hindu religion, Holy basil is also referred to as sacred basil or Tulsi. Its leaves can be used to make tea. It is a beautiful plant in the garden with mottled green and purple leaves and it grows 12 to 14 inches tall.

9. Lemon Basil (Ocimum xafricanum)
Use generously in salads and fish dishes. Place a sprig of this lemon-scented herb in a glass of iced tea for a delightful summer treat. Plants grow 20 to 24 inches tall and bear light green leaves and white flowers.

10. ‘Siam Queen’ (O. basilicum var. thyrsiflora ‘Siam Queen’)
A 1997 All-America Selections winner, ‘Siam Queen’ has a rich but not overwhelming anise flavor and aroma and is especially good with fish and beef dishes. Purple flower clusters bloom on the plant, making it an ornamental garden standout.


A print version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 21 Number 3.


Posted: 05/18/18   RSS | Print


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Gardening for the Birds
by Robin Trott       #Birds

Besides plants, one of the best ways to attract robins and other birds is to provide a source of water for drinking and bathing.

Spring is my favorite time of year, full of new beginnings and teaming with possibilities. I love strolling the aisles of local nurseries and garden centers to see what’s new and what’s different. Although the temptation is great to purchase one of each, I try to limit my purchases to plants that attract birds and butterflies. There are many options to choose from, no matter the size or scope of your garden. Here are a few favorites to include in the yard each year, and some tips for planting and placement.

Under the hummingbird and oriole feeders, plant a container garden with many bird friendly plants, including red cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit), scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus), nasturtiums (Tropaeoplum majus), firecracker plant (Cuphea ignea), a variety of herbs, and sunflowers (Helianthus annuum).

Red cypress vine is an annual that is easily started by seed. A member of the morning glory family, red cypress vine attracts hummingbirds and butterflies with its dainty, trumpet-shaped flowers.

A bird friendly container garden includes (left to right) scarlet runner beans, sweet bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), sage (Salvia officinalis), lemon basil (Ocimum x citriodorum), firecracker plant, nasturtium, and sweet Italian basil (Ocimum basilicum).

Firecracker plant was a new addition to my containers last year. This tropical shrub attracts native pollinators, butterflies, and birds. If planted in a container, you can bring it inside when the nights get cold, and treat it as a houseplant until the days warm again.

Nasturtiums are annuals that start easily from seed, and come in a variety of colors and sizes. Nasturtiums attract hummingbirds and native pollinators, and their spicy, edible flowers and leaves are a nice addition to a summer salad.

A variety of amaranth, including, ‘Red Tails’, ‘Green Tails’, ‘Hot Biscuits’, and ‘Opopeo’ please seed-eating finches and other small birds.

Dramatic amaranth
These annuals can be upright and up to 60 inches tall (Amaranthus cruentus), or trailing (Amaranthus caudatus). They come in a bunch of colors, from the upright brown of ‘Hot Biscuits’ to the trailing red of the traditional ‘Love Lies Bleeding’.

Or, they can also be short – 18-24 inches – and brilliant green (A. hypochondriacus ‘Green Thumb’). Whatever you fancy, there is an amaranth for everyone. For greater selection, start your plants from seed indoors four to six weeks before last frost, and transplant outside when all danger of frost has passed. Amaranth attracts small-seed feeding birds, such as finches, sparrows, buntings, pine siskins, and redpolls.

Fetching phlox
Tall garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) is a hardy (USDA Zone 4), native perennial that attracts the first butterflies and hummingbirds that arrive in the spring. Phlox prefers full sun and well-drained soil, and will quickly spread to their mature size, 36-42 inches tall and 18-24 inches wide. Dozens of different phlox cultivars will grow in the upper midwest, but many are quite prone to powdery mildew. Their sweet smell, spectacular display, and bird attracting properties make them worth the effort. For best success, look for disease-resistant varieties, such as ‘David’s Lavender’, ‘Bright Eyes’, ‘Laura’, or ‘Nicky’.

Best placement
Place your bird friendly garden within 20 feet of trees that provide protective shelter and a place to perch. Select a variety of plants for season-long blooms. A source of water is an important feature in a bird friendly garden. Birds get most of the water they need from foods, but they will use the shallow open water provided by a birdbath for drinking, bathing, and cooling themselves down in the heat of the summer. Once the birds discover the safety of your lovely garden, you will continue to see them through the season.

Make sure you have your binoculars, bird book, and camera close at hand so you won’t miss a single moment!


A version of this article appeared in May/June 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Jarruda/ and Robin Trott.


Posted: 05/18/18   RSS | Print


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Sorry, We’re Closed
by Rachel Williams       #How to   #Pests   #Wildlife

Two woven wooden plant protectors covering organic cabbages, with kohlrabi to the foreground and orange marigolds acting as companion plants to deter pests to the rear.
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / marilyna

Gardening is harder than it looks … just when we think we know what we’re doing, our beds are attacked by outside forces. How to prevent ultimate defeat? Rather, how to be at war with nature, when you’re trying to be in harmony? Be your garden’s ally – provide adequate reinforcements by instituting an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan using some of these methods. As with insects, our ecosystem is delicate. Please think through your actions carefully – you wouldn’t want to go get your legs waxed and end up leaving with a bald head.

Okay, the bad news first: There’s no such thing as 100 percent pest control. You cannot expect perfection when growing your own vegetables. Taking that into consideration, decide how much damage you – and the plant – can tolerate.

When it comes to growing to vegetables, you must be proactive. Doing things such as planting extra to feed the trespassers or planting trap crops to distract them. The timing of your plantings is important. If a crop is flexible, grow it when pests are less active. Plant seedlings in containers where they can grow stronger and better able to survive infestations or. Select (devote your space to), more hardy plants. Be patient! Sometimes pests will be a bother for a few years, but then move on. Reduce the attractiveness of your garden by staying on top of weed control, trimming overgrown areas, and removing fallen fruit, nuts, birdseed, and foliage. Harvest your crops as early as possible and fill in empty spaces.

Holes in the ground made by a chipmunk.
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / photosampler


When it comes to control, the first step MUST be positively identifying the attacker(s). If you’re not sure exactly what is damaging your crops, your local extension office can help – just put the damaged plant in a sealed bag and take it up there. That said, after properly identifying the offender, it is important to act quickly.

Liquid repellents are best for preventing animals from browsing damage. If a liquid repellent is recommended apply only when temperatures are above 40 F. It’s important to thoroughly spray all parts of the plant, especially the undersides of the leaves. One disadvantage of liquids is that they require frequent re-application, including after every rainfall. Predator urine, such as coyotes and foxes, is said to repel armadillos, deer, domestic cats, gophers, groundhogs, moles, possums, porcupines, rabbits, shrews, voles, and woodchucks.

Granular repellents are best for keeping animals out of areas, such as sprinkling an “invisible fence” around the garden. It may take several applications before the animal will get the hint.

Motion-activated deterrents, especially sprinklers, will frighten away almost any varmint with startling bursts of water.

Fencing, though probably the most expensive solution, is nearly unanimously considered the most effective. To keep deer out, the fence must be at least 8 feet tall; to keep burrowing critters out, it must also be 2-3 feet underground. Adding electric wire gives your garden the ultimate level of protection.

Liquid repellents are best for preventing animals from browsing damage.
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Accessony.

Types of pests, their favorite crops, and how to stop them:

Voles are aboveground herbivores that consume roots and crowns of plants in the ground AND in containers. Moles are underground (therefore easily undetected) insectivores that eat both “good” and “bad bugs.” Their underground tunnels can damage plant roots and leave plants exposed to attack by other animals.

Chives, garlic, leek, onions, and shallots are good repellent crops. Castor oil has a wide array of uses. Thoroughly mix 8 tablespoons of castor oil, 1 tablespoon of liquid dish soap, and 1 gallon of water. Pour this mixture into the mole runs. You can also spray this mixture on plants and in areas they are active.

© Can Stock Photo Inc. /LeniKovaleva

Kitty Keepaway

Hot neighborhood topic: How to keep cats out:

Some have reported success after planting rue, lavender, and pennyroyal.

Laying chicken wire on top of your soil (cut holes for your plants) – cats don’t like walking on it.

Because cats prefer to dig and poop in loose dirt, mulch with sharp-edged pinecones, holly branches, eggshells, or stone mulch.

Water guns, blood meal fertilizer, and fruit peels have also been suggested.

Rabbits eat a wide variety of vegetation, especially when food is scarce elsewhere. Rosemary, sage, thyme, and onions are effective repellents and can be planted along with other crops.

Some gardeners use a hot pepper spray to prevent rabbit munching: Grind jalapeno peppers in a food processor, adding 1 tablespoon of water at a time until it’s liquid. Strain out the pepper pieces with cheesecloth into a jar, add a drop of nontoxic school glue and two to three drops of liquid dish soap. This mixture should be stored out of direct sunlight until you’re ready to use it. Before spraying the plants, mix the concentrated liquid with water at a ratio of 1 part pepper liquid to 10 parts water. Allow at least a week between applying the spray and harvesting your crop.

Squirrels are only active during the day. They nibble on flowers and trees and chew on wooden furniture and homes. If you’re sure your problem is squirrels, try wire fencing, netting, or sheet metal. There are also several commercial repellents available.

Armadillos love to eat grubs and they dig plants up when they are looking for them. Use wood chips around plants and/or fencing at least 1 foot underground.

Birds can be frightened away by placing materials that make a noise around the garden – wind chimes and aluminum pie pans are popular deterrents.


A print version of this article appeared in Alabama Gardener Volume 17 Number 4.


Posted: 05/18/18   RSS | Print


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Short, Tall and In Between
by Helen Yoest       #Advice   #Design

Layers of growth give height at each plane of planting, here with roses, dahlias, euphorbia, salvia and much more all tucked-in tightly so no mulch can be seen.

Each gardener, whether novice or experienced, begins a new garden full of fresh hopes and desires. Desires vary – one gardener may wish to grow fanciful flowers in a cutting garden; others may want a wildlife habitat with diverse plantings to feed birds, bees and butterflies. Another may want to grow a vegetable garden, with an added desire to make it as beautiful as it is functional.

Most gardens start out as either a border or a bed. A border is usually a strip of ground, typically along the edge of the property. This garden might be in front of a fence or hedge, or along the foundation of your home. A bed is often thought of as the same thing as a border, but I think of a bed more as an area that doesn’t have a backdrop – typically an island in the middle of a grassy area. However, the terminology isn’t what’s important, but rather the design of each to best suit its space.

Whether working on a bed or border, planning your garden to provide the best view from any angle will benefit both you and your plants. When designing a border with a backdrop, the general rule is to place the plants with the shorter plants in front, stair-stepping up as you go, ending with the tallest in the back.

A simple planting of cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) rising above a medium-high variety of mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) provides interest and openness. • Art in the garden can add height when the perfect punctuation point is needed. Adding height at different levels keeps the eyes busy with inspection. • Foundation plantings (those hugging the house) don’t have to be round and green. Adding various heights to be viewed as you come around the corner creates more garden in tight places. The bright, chartreuse of elephant ear plants (Colocasia spp.) color pops in a container the color of the evening sky.

Of course there are always exceptions to these rules, and ultimately your aesthetic will determine the look of your garden. As an example, some plants are “see-through” plants, such as tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis). If sited based on height alone, it would most likely be planted in the back of the border, but since it’s light and airy, many gardeners place it in the middle of the garden. Keep in mind that from a purely practical point of view, it’s not advisable to plant your garden with taller varieties casting shadows on the shorter plants.

When planning a garden bed, such as an island or a circle, plant placement is somewhat different. This garden can be viewed from all sides, so the plantings in the middle of the bed should be taller than those on the outside, gradually getting shorter closer to the edge. Rather than a stair-step, think of the layout more as the lines of a mountain – the highest point in the middle, then decreasing as you move toward the outer edge of the circle.

A sunny spot filled with sedums, roses, grasses, yucca and heuchera keep company with a rustic trellis, which serves up some height and structure.

Plant Labels
Without firsthand knowledge of how a plant will perform in your garden, reading and paying close attention to the plant label will provide you with the most useful information. Labels tell you how tall and wide the plant should get. This guidance can help determine if the plant will meet your design needs. If you’re looking for a plant to serve as a ground cover along your garden border, a plant with an ultimate height of 24 inches will not suit your needs.

The use of a pond gives interest at ground level, also providing movement from the fish to draw the eye in. A diverse planting scheme keeps the rhythm of the bed flowing.

This curbside bed creates drama at the stop sign, but it also makes the passage down the sidewalk a special event.

Most labels also usually recommend how far apart plants should be spaced, generally based on half the distance of a mature plant. I know many gardeners like to plant annuals closer than the recommended spacing for a dense display. This method works well for annuals that will only inhabit the garden for one year, but for trees and shrubs you should heed the label information. They’ll not only be competing for resources, crowding could also potentially spoil your design aesthetic.

When selecting plants for your design, choose a variety – some of each in the low, medium and tall range – to create appropriate scale in your garden. Ideally, the front of a border or sides of a bed should gradually step up in size. Resist the urge of wanting a plant so badly that you get it, even though it doesn’t fit your size requirement, vowing to pinch it back to make it work. The extra effort is not needed, especially since there is such a variety of plants to choose from.

It’s also true that plants can’t read. So even though the labels are a good guideline, sometimes a plant won’t stick to what is listed on the plant tag. The sun, shade and even soil can stunt a plant, or if planted in a certain location where it’s overjoyed, it can take over a spot beyond your desires. That is just part of the fun of gardening – the discovery and learning about plants and the garden you have to grow them. This spring, create your own design to bring beauty through height in your garden. With a gradual slope from short to tall, all of your plants will be noticed.



A print version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 25 Number 4.
Photography courtesy of Helen Yoest.


Posted: 05/18/18   RSS | Print


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Wasps: Garden Friends or Foes?
by Blake Layton       #Beneficials   #Insects   #Pests

Some species, such as the braconid wasp pictured here, are parasitoids. The female wasp lays eggs in a range of hosts such as tomato or tobacco hornworm caterpillars (shown in inset photo). The developing larvae feed inside the unlucky caterpillar before emerging and spinning cocoons. A short time later the wasps will emerge from their cocoons and the weakened caterpillar will die.

When most people think of wasps, they think of paper wasps, and they probably think of them only as pests because of unpleasant past encounters with these stinging insects. However, the world of wasps is much larger and more complex than this!

Our gardens abound with hundreds of species of wasps that vary greatly in size and life habits. Most of the wasps in our gardens are tiny, parasitic species that do not sting people and go largely unnoticed. These are definitely friends because they help control pest insects. There is also a group of wasps known as sawflies whose larvae look like caterpillars and feed on plants. These are usually foes because they damage landscape plants. Two other groups of wasps are the social wasps, such as paper wasps, and the solitary wasps, such as mud daubers and cicada killers. Wasps in both these groups are capable of stinging, and they definitely qualify as foes when they do so, but paper wasps also have a beneficial side.

Most gardeners are familiar with two common types of paper wasps: The small brown and yellow banded wasps, often called guinea wasps, and the larger red and black wasps most gardeners know as red wasps. Actually, there are several different species within each of these types, and to further complicate matters, guinea wasps are often incorrectly called yellowjackets. Yellowjackets belong to a slightly different group of social wasps, and the yellowjackets we have in the South usually build their nests in the ground.

The guinea wasp on the far left has brought home some “caterpillar burger” to feed to the hungry larvae.

The domed white cells of this guinea wasp nest contain maturing pupae, and you can see larvae peering out of some of the open cells. Look closely and you will see a small white egg in the bottom of some of the center cells.

Wasp nests are easiest to control early in the season when there are only a few adult wasps. The aerosol wasp sprays work well, but be careful; there is always a risk of being stung when dealing with wasps.

Paper wasps live in communal nests usually with one reproductive female or queen and dozens of female workers. The papery nests are built of wood pulp the workers collect using their strong mandibles. Paper wasps build their upside-down-umbrella-shaped nests in sites protected from direct rainfall: under eaves, in dense shrubs, in that fertilizer spreader hanging on the back of the tool shed and similar places. These nests do not survive the winter.

Paper wasps overwinter as mated females in protected sites such as hollow trees, attics or wall voids. Overwintered females emerge in the spring and begin building a nest, and successful nests grow larger as the summer progresses. That nest in the fertilizer spreader may contain only one or two adults in April, but by late summer, when it is time for that end of season fertilizer application, it may be as big as Granddad’s straw hat and contain dozens of wasps. What a nasty surprise! “Experienced” gardeners know to check for wasp nests before moving infrequently used equipment, pruning shrubs or working in areas where wasp nests might occur.

Female paper wasps are equipped with venomous stings, which, unlike the stings of honeybees, are not barbed, allowing them to sting repeatedly. Wasps do not go looking for people to sting but will readily attack if they feel their nest is being threatened. Paper wasps have a Jekyll and Hyde personality. When encountered as individuals out foraging for prey or wood pulp, they are not aggressive and rarely sting, but their attitude is much different when their nest is disturbed. Wasp stings hurt, and some people are more sensitive than others. Wasp stings can even be life-threatening to a small percent of people who are hypersensitive.

Both bees and wasps feed on plant nectar, which is loaded with sugary carbohydrates but has little protein. Bees meet their protein needs by collecting pollen, which they carry back to their nests in special pollen baskets on their legs or abdomen. Wasps cannot collect pollen because they do not have these pollen baskets and their bodies are not hairy like bees. This is why paper wasps are not good pollinators. Social wasps meet most of their need for protein by preying on other insects: catching them, chewing them up and carrying these little balls of bug burger back to the nest to feed their young. This is where their beneficial side comes in. Paper wasps are voracious predators of caterpillars and play an important role in the biological control of many caterpillar pests.

As a graduate student at LSU, I was involved in a research project to evaluate the effects of insect-induced defoliation on soybean plants. Our plan was to artificially infest the plants, which were growing in large outdoor pots, with soybean loopers to achieve varying levels of defoliation. This technique had worked quite well in previous greenhouse experiments, but when we placed our young caterpillars on these outdoor plants and came back to check on them the next day, they had all disappeared. We released more caterpillars the following day and waited around to see what was happening to them. Paper wasps appeared by the dozens, methodically searched our plants and removed every caterpillar! In the end, we were forced to place a screen cage over each plant to protect our caterpillars from the paper wasps.

In this case, we viewed the wasps as foes because they were interfering with our research, but most gardeners and farmers consider wasps as friends when they are preying on caterpillar pests. Some organic gardeners and farmers even place special structures in their landscape to encourage wasps to nest there and help control caterpillar pests. Of course, they place these structures in out of the way places where they will not accidentally disturb them during the summer.

In the end, the answer to the question: “Paper wasp, friend or foe?” depends on where you encounter the wasp. Is she away from the nest foraging for prey or on the nest around the tool shed? Wasp nests built in places where people are likely to come in close contact with them are definitely hazards and should be eliminated as soon as possible, preferably while they are small. Most gardeners keep a can of aerosol wasp spray handy for this purpose. It is good to know paper wasps have a beneficial side, but this knowledge will not lessen the pain of their stings.

Happy hour for wasps? This red wasp and yellowjacket are indeed imbibing
the alcoholic flux oozing from this tree wound.


From State-by-State Gardening June 2009.
Braconid wasp photo by John Tann.
All other photos courtesy of Blake Layton.


Posted: 05/18/18   RSS | Print


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Perfect Slices
by Barb Henny       #Fruit   #Plant Profile   #Vines

Delicious seeded and seedless varieties are available.

If you’ve ever grown cucumbers in your garden, you can grow watermelons. Cucumbers and watermelons are in the same plant family and have very similar growing requirements. To grow watermelons, all you need is a little more space for the crop’s vigorous vines to run.

Watermelons need a long, warm growing season. Frost will damage or kill seedlings. Florida’s warm conditions make our state first in the nation in watermelon production, especially in the winter months when Florida becomes the only domestic supplier from December through April.

All Florida zones can plant watermelons in March and all zones can plant a fall crop in August. If you have a luxuriously large garden, you can choose a seedless watermelon variety to grow. Seedless watermelons require two varieties be grown at the same time to ensure pollination. Seeded varieties do not need a pollinating companion and may be a better choice for most home gardens.

Many Florida gardeners still practice direct seeding and bare-ground culture. But starting seeds in small pots will give you a three to four week head start and increase chances for success. Fill a 4-inch plastic pot with potting soil and moisten the soil. Plant two seeds into each pot about 1½-2 inches deep. Seeds take about 10 days to germinate. Seed germination will be slow if soil temperatures are less than 70 F. Some growers allow both seedlings to grow in one pot/hill. Others pinch to one seedling per pot.

Watermelons need space. Allow 5 feet between plants and 10 feet between rows. Mulching is recommended to keep the soil moisture even and keep weeds in check. Black plastic mulch warms the soil, allowing earlier planting. It is true that watermelons can be trellised, but you must provide a sling to tie each fruit as it develops.

Watermelons come in three categories: mini (4-8 pounds); personal (8-12 pounds); and picnic (up to 30 pounds or more). If you’re growing on a trellis, make sure it can handle the weight.

Water the transplants when you set them out, and then water once or twice a week. This crop needs a steady water supply. Not too wet, not too dry.

Fertilize 10 days after transplanting, using your favorite product. Fertilize again – lightly – after the watermelon vines bloom. After this bloom stage it is very important to maintain even moisture in the soil. If your immature watermelons get dry and then a heavy rain event occurs, the sudden uptake of water may cause the rind to split and the crop will be lost.

Weeding can be done with a hoe until the vines fill in. After that, weed by hand to deprive insects and diseases a safe harbor from which to attack your crop. Be on the lookout for caterpillars including armyworm, budworm, earworm, pickleworm, and cabbage looper. Taking care not to twist the central vine, gently roll the developing melons over and look underneath. Caterpillars hide and eat the rind on the underside of the fruit. If needed, treat with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) according to package directions.

Transplant watermelons to ensure a good stand.

Foliage diseases on watermelons (and cucumbers) can get ahead of a gardener very quickly and can be very discouraging. At watermelon planting season, timing is everything for disease control. Plant before the rainy season starts in spring, or plant after the rains stop in the fall. Prevention is the most effective cultural control for leaf diseases.

Depending on the variety, your watermelon should be ready to harvest from seed in 80 to 100 days. It’s oh so easy to tell when cantaloupes (also in the same plant family with watermelons and cucumbers) are ripe … the fruit falls off the vine. With watermelons, the vine will turn brown but does not release the fruit.

Some harvesters are expert at “thumping” the watermelon and detecting a change in the sound. I look at the spot on the bottom of the watermelon where the fruit was laying in the field. An unripe watermelon has a white spot; a ripe and ready watermelon will have a creamy yellow spot.Take your warm, freshly harvested watermelon from the garden to the kitchen sink and wash it under running water. Use a vegetable brush to remove any soil or gritty sand clinging to the rind. Pat dry with a clean terry cloth towel.

Watermelons do not continue to sweeten or develop more color after harvest. If you must store your harvest, place your watermelon in a cool, shaded area between 50-60 F. Storage life is about 14 days for uncut watermelons. Extended time in a refrigerator at temperatures less than 45 F can cause a loss of flavor. Once cut into cubes or slices watermelon has a very short shelf life, so eat your sweet fresh harvest promptly.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of Florida Gardening Volume 21 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Barb Henny.


Posted: 05/11/18   RSS | Print


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Floriferous Floribunda Roses
by Linda Kimmel       #Colorful   #Flowers   #Roses

‘Lady of the Dawn’ tends to have arching canes and can reach 5 feet tall if unchecked. Some preventive spraying is required, as it will develop black spot in humid weather. Hardy to USDA Zone 6b. Although, I see ‘Lady of the Dawn’ in many outdoor gardens looking marvelous, for me, it was more vigorous in a pot that I overwintered in a cold frame. • ‘Kimberlina’ is a blooming machine of shell pink flowers, backdropped with glossy dark green foliage. • ‘Ketchup and Mustard’ flashes an unusual color combination of deep velvety red on one side with a yellow reverse.

Floribunda roses are the result of crossing hybrid tea and polyantha roses. Some believe that nurseryman Peter Lambert, from Trier, Germany, first experimented with crossing hybrid tea roses with polyantha roses as early as 1903. But the first successful cross of this combination that was marketed to the public was made by Dines Poulsen, a Danish hybridizer, who studied and worked several years with Lambert. Poulsen dubbed this new variety of rose a “hybrid polyantha” or “Poulsen roses.” Poulsen’s goals were to create roses that would survive harsh winters, have good disease resistance, and would display the form, beauty and color range of the hybrid tea class along with the repeat bloom profusion of the polyantha roses.

Around 1940, these floriferous varieties became recognized as an official class, categorized “floribunda.” Eugene Boerner, chief hybridizer of Jackson and Perkins, ushered in the floribunda craze in the United States, hybridizing more than 60 floribunda roses during his career, with 14 winning the All-American Rose Selection award.

‘Iceberg’ parades a flurry of clean white blooms. It is disease resistant, can reach 3 to 5 feet tall, and will complement any garden design.

The Floribunda’s Personality
Floribunda rose blooms may appear in clusters or as individual flowers. The varieties that bloom in clusters offer a bouquet atop every stem. Individual flowers can be small (2 inches) to large (5 inches). Bloom shapes can be hybrid tea form (a high-centered flower with a circular outline and petals that spiral outwards from the center) or decorative (absence of a high center and often their most beautiful stage is fully open with stamens showing). Blooms may have only a few petals, such as ‘Playboy’ or ‘Playgirl’ (four to 12 petals); or, they may have several petals, as in ‘Julia Child’ or ‘Heaven on Earth’ (41 petals or more).

There is a full spectrum of floribunda colors, including stripes, as in ‘George Burns’ or ‘Scentimental’. Some floribundas even have reverse coloration: ‘Ketchup and Mustard’ is red on one side and yellow on the other. Regardless of color, size, or shape, floribunda roses are always in bloom, providing a spectacular display throughout the season.

‘Playboy’ holds its petals for a long time, especially considering it is a single (four to 12 petals) and will repeat rapidly. Per the literature, it is disease resistant, but mine will get black spot, so a preventive fungal spray program is recommended.

Floribunda rose plants tend to be shorter and wider than most hybrid teas, ranging in height from 1½ to 5 feet, making them versatile in the garden, perfect for planters, smaller gardens, hedges, or borders. Because of their bushy growth habit, they will blend in nicely with and enliven any existing perennial garden. Don’t let their small size fool you, floribunda roses are tough plants – they are disease resistant and hardy. They can flourish in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 11 and Zone 4 with winter protection.

Although not often acclaimed for their fragrance, the floribunda class does contain several highly-perfumed varieties, including ‘Sheila’s Perfume’, ‘Honey Perfume’, ‘Sunsprite’, and ‘Julia Child’.

When selecting roses for your landscape, consider what kind of gardener you are. What roses do you love? Is fragrance a necessity, or can you live without it (providing the roses have other great attributes, such as vitality and striking colors)? How much work are you willing to invest weekly? Are you mainly interested in an easy-care garden – one where roses flourish with a typical perennial-garden-type care, such as soil preparation, planting, feeding, and watering? Or are you willing to invest a little time doing chores such as cleaning, deadheading, and spraying?

‘Sheila’s Perfume’ has a lovely hybrid tea form, and mostly one bloom per stem, rather than clusters. The yellow blended colors and magnificent fragrance makes this rose a necessity. Hardy to USDA Zone 6b, winter protection is recommended.

Do your homework and select wisely when purchasing any new rose. Most important, start with healthy, disease-resistant, winter-hardy roses. Many local garden centers and big box stores will carry some floribundas, but for the best selection, mail-order them.

No matter your personal preferences, the floribunda class of roses has a rose you can live with and love.

‘Nana Mouskouri’, when fully open, displays an interesting red stigma surrounded by yellow stamens. The sweet fragrance keeps the pollinators attracted and busy.

Easy Care Floribundas
Floribunda rose care, for the most part, is no different than caring for any other roses in your garden. The principles below can be applied to nearly all roses (except for old garden roses and climbers, which may have different recommendations for pruning).

Roses prefer the sunny side of life, requiring at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day. A sunny east-facing garden is ideal. Roses can be planted on the south or west side, just remember to supply additional water, as the site may become hot in midsummer. Pick a location where you can see or visit your roses often, enjoying the brilliant colors, various forms, shapes, and the wonderful fragrance. Frequent visitation also serves in early detection and prevention of disease or insect damage.

Ensure good air circulation. A gentle breeze dries the morning dew on the foliage, promoting health and reducing foliage fungal disease.

‘Blueberry Hill’ is a prolific bloomer with a mild apple fragrance. It is listed as hardy to USDA Zone 5; however, most mauve roses are a bit tender, so I suggest some mulch at the base of the plant for spring freeze protection.

Good soil drainage is a must.
Invest in the soil for a happy, healthy rose now and years to come. For many gardens, a good soil mixture consists of equal parts sand, compost, and existing soil. However, the percentages of these three ingredients may vary, depending upon your individual microclimate and garden conditions. Yet, nearly all soils will benefit from adding compost. All compost, regardless of the source, should be well mixed and aged. Compost can be homemade with leaves, grass clippings, and kitchen vegetable scraps, or composted horse manures, or mushroom compost.

The ideal pH for roses is 6.0 to 6.5, or slightly acidic. Rose roots absorb nutrients in the form of a slurry; the slurry consists of dissolved nutrients blended with water. Soil pH determines how that slurry, and thus nutrients, are absorbed. If pH is out of range, certain life-sustaining nutrients may be blocked from the plant.

If the soil has been properly amended at planting time, other than adding a handful of bone meal in the bottom of the hole, nothing more is needed the first year. The second year, add an organic soil conditioner (or a homemade concoction of alfalfa meal, bone meal, blood meal, fish meal and cottonseed meal) in the early spring (around March or April) and again in midsummer (July or August). A well-balanced granular or slow-release fertilizer may be added annually in the spring, and worked into the top layers of the soil without disturbing the rose roots. Every two to three weeks, provide a liquid supplement of alfalfa tea, manure tea, or use a hose-end sprayer liquid fertilizer with routine watering. Liquid fertilizers provide a pick-me-up for the plant and a quick boost for bloom production.

Falling in love with the color and rich fragrance, ‘Julia Child’ personally selected this rose to bear her name.

Roses are forgiving of a few pruning errors; they will survive a mishap or two. So, relax and get it done.

Spring pruning is done while the plant is still dormant. Start with sharp, clean pruners. Remove old, damaged, diseased or dead canes. Cut away weak, small, or crossing canes, and bottom spindly suckers. Dormant canes should be cut back to healthy tissue, usually indicated by a white crisp center. As a rule of thumb, cut back the remaining canes by about one-third to one-half. If you fail to prune back to healthy wood, the cane may experience dieback. In which case, you will have the opportunity to practice your pruning skills again.

Summer pruning usually consists of deadheading or removing spent blooms. This encourages new flowering, and keeps the garden clean. Also trim the bush for desired shape and style. Stop deadheading after the September flush -- this allows the plant’s metabolism to slow down and harden-off for winter.

Playgirl’ blooms are large, flat, and ruffled. It is the result of a cross between ‘Playboy’ and ‘Angel Face’. Its growth habit and floriferous blooming characteristics are like ‘Playboy’. The mauve color, wonderful fragrance, and winter tenderness (hardy to USDA Zone 6b) is inherited from parent ‘Angel Face’.

Mulch after planting and water routinely. Mulching helps to conserve water and suppresses weeds. One to two shovels of mulch for winter protection may be added for tender varieties.

Inadequate watering of roses is the main reason they fail to thrive, and, weakened roses are vulnerable to disease. If necessary, install a drip system or use soaker hoses. It is said in the rose world, the three most important things about taking care of roses are: first, water; second, water; and third, water.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Linda Kimmel.


Posted: 05/11/18   RSS | Print


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Lazy Daisies & Tired Tulips
by Andrea Dee       #Bulbs   #Perennials   #Propagation   #Pruning

















Older tea roses can be pruned back to a compound leaf with five leaflets.

Have you noticed your obedient plant rebelling into a doughnut shape with an empty hole in the middle? Has ‘Rozanne’ lost her vigor, with less and less flair each year? Are your spring tulips a carpet of green instead of red? Or maybe your friends are dying for a piece of your lungwort? While most flower gardens start out lush and colorful early in the season, late summer and fall often yield a less desirable look. Don’t be afraid to chop on your plants, you won’t hurt them. A little deadheading and dividing can go a long way in the perennial garden.

The rights tool for the job is essential! Check out these garden helpers: garden “sheep” shears

Perennial knife for dividing

Bypass pruners for deadheading

Japanese soil knife (Hori Hori)

Pruning Perennials
On average, perennials bloom three to four weeks, however when deadheaded some can bloom for several months. A plant’s physiological purpose for flowering is to make seed in an effort to reproduce immediately after blooming. As gardeners our interest is not always in seed production, but more in a bounty of blooms. Perennials can be manipulated to bloom most abundantly when deadheaded through the season and fertilized midsummer if necessary.

Some flowers like reblooming daylily (Hemerocallis spp.) and Iris and others that flower atop a long stalk, have stems that can be removed all the way back to the crown after flowering. This practice will encourage new buds to flourish later and keep the foliage clean and orderly. Keep height in mind when planting these types of perennials in the garden. Often the foliar crown is much shorter than the flower stalk so you may want to plan your garden design so that another plant can fill the voided space after pruning. Tall perennial grasses like switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and ‘Karl Foerster’ grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) make nice backdrops to long flower stalk perennials with low-growing foliage.

Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum), bee balm (Monarda spp.), Scabiosa, Geranium and a whole lot of popular perennials are naturally long blooming but with some extra deadheading can keep their show of flowers even longer. Simply pinch back dead blossoms to the first good set of healthy leaves and new buds will generate quickly.

Some plants like coreopsis (C. verticillata) have so many blooms to deadhead it may be difficult with a pair of pruners, midseason hedging a few inches into the canopy is recommended to force out a second show of color. Wait until these perennials are almost done blooming and there are more seed heads than flower buds gracing the foliage canopy before hedging back.

Tools for pruning perennials range from a simple hand to a sharper blade. Deadheading blooms can easily be done by pinching back blooms by hand, or pruning with a pair of scissors, “sheep” shear pruners, or needle-nosed pruners. Pruning of stems and foliage will likely require a pair of heavy-duty pair of bypass garden pruners.

Dividing Perennials
When plants are three to five years old they often need rejuvenation and benefit from division. This is also a great time to expand your garden with all the new starts you will dig up!

When choosing plants to divide remember, perennials that flower between early spring and mid-June are best divided in the fall, and perennials that flower after mid-June are best divided in the spring. However peonies, oriental poppies, and true lilies should infrequently be divided in the fall.

Daylilies can become overcrowded quickly, and sometimes full of weeds like this one. A little attention can give you a whole new garden! • Don’t be afraid to chop at daylilies, they are very tough and quickly re-establish. • Drop a small daylily start in the ground and you’ll have blooms in no time!

It is time to divide bee balm, Astilbe, blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora), Chrysanthemum, garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) and Salvia when clumps start to die out in the middle. If your lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), bleeding heart, daylily, yarrow (Achillea spp.) or iris become too woody, or start to show yellow leaves, it may be time to divide and replant them as well. Perennials like coneflower (Echinacea spp.), speedwell (Veronica spp.), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) can overrun a small garden, and should be divided also. Ornamental grasses can be divided in fall, but have so much aesthetic value even while dormant in the winter that most gardeners prefer to leave then until spring for pruning.

Once a plant shows an inch or two of green shoots, use a sharp spade to dig up a large clump for division. You can use an old kitchen knife, a perennial knife, or my favorite a Japanese soil knife called a Hori-Hori to separate vigorous shoots and root. Tough, woody roots from the middle are hard to establish and should be discarded to the compost pile. Replant offsets at the same depth they were originally growing. Water plants to be divided well a few days before digging and again at planting time, and continue to water regularly throughout the next few weeks to re-establish roots.

Bulblets are offshoots that grow from the main bulb underground and can be divided and replanted. These small bulbs can take several years to mature.

Deadheading and Dividing Bulbs
Flowering bulbs too can benefit from division every three to five years. Daffodil (Narcissus spp.), Crocus, bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), grape hyacinth (Muscari spp.) and snow drop (Galanthus spp.) all have a naturalizing habit and do not necessarily need to be divided to thrive. Tulip, Dahlia and iris can be rejuvenated to increase bloom size and bounty every few years.

Whether you plan to divide bulbs or not, deadhead blooms as they die back and leave waning foliage until it’s yellow and collapses. This is a true test of patience for any gardener, but it is important that the foliage continues to photosynthesize and store energy in the bulb for the subsequent season. Some gardeners ease their eyes and tidy their tulip and daffodil beds for summer during this several weeklong natural process by bending and tying browning foliage into bundles with string or a rubber band. If you do plan to divide bulbs, dig after foliage declines and energy is stored. Always dig bulbs instead of pulling to minimize damage of both the bulb and root hairs. Harvest bulblets, which are usually attached to the mother bulb and re-plant. The original mother bulb can also be re-planted and will often be rejuvenated itself.

Hostas are easy to divide with a sharp spade and will re-establish quickly.

Host a Garden Party
Spring and fall are an excellent times to host your family, neighbors and friends for a “dividing” party. There will be plenty of plants to share!


A version of this article appeared in a May 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Andrea Dee.


Posted: 05/11/18   RSS | Print


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The Best Defense
by Ron Strahan       #Pests   #Turf Grass   #Vines


















Pink oxalis should be spot treated with glyphosate.

Gardeners take pride in the appearance of their landscapes. However, nothing detracts from the beauty of flowerbeds like weeds. Along with being aesthetically displeasing, weeds in flowerbeds compete with desirable plants for water, nutrients and light. If weeds are out of control, expect fewer flowers and more headaches. For most people, backbreaking hand removal is relied upon exclusively to remove weed problems. Hand pulling may be successful for a few weeds, but for most weed problems it is only partially effective. Weeds have very effective defense mechanisms that reduce the effectiveness of hand pulling. Annual weeds often break at the stem when pulled, leaving the root or single stem available for potential reestablishment. Perennial weeds like purple nut sedge (Cyperus rotundus) and common Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) have underground structures that are left in the soil after hand removal. You have probably noticed that these weeds re-infest the beds very quickly. In reality, hand pulling weeds is one of several practices that should be used to optimize weed control in flowerbeds. These additional practices include the use of mulch, preemergence herbicides and, to a limited extent, postemergence herbicides.

I am a big fan of using mulch in flowerbeds. Mulch essentially serves two weed-control purposes: It is a physical barrier to the emerging seedling, and it prevents sunlight from reaching the soil surface. Blocking sunlight is important because some weed seeds, such as crabgrass (Digitaria spp.), need light for germination. Also, sunlight is necessary for the new weed seedling to begin photosynthesis for growth and development.

There are several materials available that are suitable for mulch such as compost, leaf litter, pine bark, pine mulch and pine straw. Even newspapers can be used as a barrier to weed emergence. Mulches must be thick enough to block light to be effective. As a rule, mulch trees to a depth of 3 to 4 inches and shrubs to a depth of 2 to 3 inches.

There’s no doubt that mulch is very beneficial, but mulch alone usually will not hold back most weed infestations. It is important to use mulch in conjunction with hand pulling, preemergence herbicides (prevents weed) and postemergence herbicides (kills emerged weeds).

Mulch such as pine straw is an important weed-control strategy.

Preemergence Herbicides
Wouldn’t it be great to just be able to spray an herbicide in the flowerbed that cured all of your weed problems and caused no harm to your landscape plants? Unfortunately, postemergence herbicide options used to remove existing weed problems are very limited, since plants in flowerbeds can be very injury prone. Less injurious preemergence herbicides are the backbone of weed control in flowerbeds. You are really missing out if you don’t use them regularly in your flowerbeds. Some preemergence herbicide choices available to homeowners include dithiopyr (Hi-Yield Turf & Ornamental Weed Stopper with Dimension and some formulations of Preen), trifluralin (Treflan, Preen and Miracle-Gro Garden Weed Preventer), oryzalin (Surflan) and benefin plus oryzalin (Amaze Grass & Weed Preventer).

Preemergence herbicides work by forming a barrier in the upper 1⁄2 to 1 inch portion of the mulch or soil where most seeds are germinating. These types of herbicides kill weeds as they attempt to emerge from the soil. Since these herbicides have no effect on existing weeds, applications must occur before the weeds germinate. All existing weeds should be removed by hand or carefully spot treated with a non-selective herbicide, such as glyphosate (Roundup or generics), prior to treatment.

Most consumer preemergence herbicides should be applied directly on top of the mulch and existing landscape plants then watered in soon after application to move the herbicides into the zone where weed seeds are germinating. It is always a good idea to rinse off landscape plants to remove herbicide granules. If you are putting down new mulch in the flowerbed, apply the preemergence herbicide on the old mulch before adding the new mulch layer.

In most cases, preemergence herbicides should be applied every two and a half to three months. Consult product labels concerning desirable plant tolerance and application methods. Preemergence herbicides can be effective on several annual weeds including crabgrass, goosegrass (Eleusine indica) common purslane (Portulaca oleracea) and mulberry weed (Fatoua villosa). Most troublesome perennial weeds, such as purple nut sedge and Bermudagrass, are not controlled with preemergence herbicides.

Postemergence Herbicide Options
It is important to control weeds with mulch and preemergence herbicides, because once they have emerged your options become more limited, since there are very few selective postemergence herbicides available, especially for broadleaf weeds. There is good news when it comes to selectively controlling most summer grasses such as crabgrass and Bermudagrass. Summer grasses are controlled with herbicides containing the active ingredients fluazifop (Ortho Grass-B-Gon) or sethoxydim (Vantage, Fertilome Over the Top II, etc.). These types of herbicides only kill grasses and are usually safe over the top of most non-grass landscape plants including shrubs, perennial ground covers and bedding plants. They are even safe for over-the-top applications in grass-like plants such as daylily (Hemerocallis spp.), iris (Iris spp.), monkey grass (Liriope spp.) and mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus).

Sedges, like purple nut sedge, can be controlled by directed sprays of halosulfuron (SedgeHammer, Monterey Nutgrass Killer) or imazaquin (Image Nutsedge Killer). Consult the product labels thoroughly for sedge-killing herbicides before you use them. Additionally, glyphosate (Roundup, etc.) can be carefully spot treated or applied as a wipe (paintbrushes and sponge mops can be used as applicators) for hard to control weeds. Spraying glyphosate is not always safe in landscape plantings due to the potential for drift. I have had some success using a paintbrush or a sponge mop to wipe glyphosate on weeds in my flowerbeds. Glyphosate can be very effective on perennial plants in landscapes, because it is systemic and moves effectively into roots and underground storage organs.

Common Weeds That Infest Flowerbeds

1. Spurge (Chamaesyce spp.)
There are several types of spurges that are common in landscape beds. Spurges are members of the Euphorbiaceae family and are prolific, seed-producing annuals that thrive in hot weather. Under optimum growing conditions, plants can go from a germinating seed to producing their own flowers in only three weeks. Some spurges have a more prostrate growth habit that can form dense mats, whereas many spurge species grow more upright. Spurges emit milky latex from broken stems that can be helpful in distinguishing this plant from other species. The plants are difficult to manage in flowerbeds due to heavy seed production and the inability to be successfully removed by hand. Plants often break at the stem during this process, leaving the root and several buds or a single stem available for potential reestablishment.

Control: Spot-treat existing plants with glyphosate before applying preemergence herbicides. Most preemergence herbicides work well on spurge. However, the problem usually is in the frequency of the application because spurge control starts breaking four to six weeks after the herbicides are applied. Consumer preemergence herbicide options include Preen, Surflan and Amaze.

2. Wood sorrel (Oxalis spp.)
Wood sorrel are members of the Oxalidaceae family and are perennial weeds that produce underground storage organs that make hand removal difficult. The plants are heavy seed producers and possess a very efficient method of seed distribution. Wood sorrel has three heart-shaped leaf components that vary in color from dark green to reddish purple. The plants are often called clovers, but they actually are in a different plant family. There are several species of wood sorrel that are common landscapes. Yellow wood sorrel (O. stricta) grows more upright and produces below-ground storage organs. Yellow wood sorrel produces thousands of seed and has a very effective method of seed dispersal. At maturity, okra-shaped seedpods burst open and expel seed 10 to 12 feet in all directions. Pink wood sorrel (O. crassipes) has very large leaves, pink flowers and commonly infests border “grasses” like mondo and liriope.

Control: Most preemergence herbicides that work on spurge work well on oxalis. Hand removal is difficult because underground storage organs are left in the soil when the top areas are removed. When possible, spot spray or wipe existing plants with glyphosate before applying preemergence herbicides such as Preen, Surflan and Amaze.

3. Mulberry weed (Fatoua villosa)
Native to Asia, mulberry weed is a summer annual that is a member of the Moraceae (mulberry) family. The plant has an upright growth a habit and can grow to a height of 3 to 4 feet. Leaves are triangular, serrated and prominently veined. Plants resemble seedling mulberry. However, mulberry weed has pubescent leaves and stems and is herbaceous. Mulberry weed has unique feathery flowers that first appear purple and then brown as they mature. Plants are prolific seed producers and can forcefully expel seed up to 4 feet. The weed develops quickly — it can go from seed to flower in fewer than two weeks and produce several generations in one growing season.

Control: Hand remove existing plants. Consumer preemergence herbicide options include Preen, Surflan and Amaze.

4. Chamberbitter (Phyllanthus urinaria)
Chamberbitter is an extremely invasive summer annual that is a member of the Euphorbiaceae family. Chamberbitter resembles hemp sesbania (Sesbania exaltata) or mimosa (Acacia baileyana) seedlings. However, the most distinguishing characteristic are the round seed capsules located on the underside of slender branches. Chamberbitter needs temperatures consistently above 75 F, so these plants tend to germinate a little later in the spring than many other flowerbed weeds. Populations of chamberbitter have increased significantly since their introduction from Asia because of their prolific seed production.

Control: Light may be necessary to stimulate chamberbitter germination, so thick mulch is helpful in reducing plant populations. Chamberbitter hand pulls very easily, but frequent germination and high populations will keep you busy. Preemergence herbicides available to homeowners have performed poorly on this weed, so diligent hand removal and mulch will be very important.

5. Florida betony or rattlesnake weed (Stachys floridana)
A square-stemmed perennial weed native to Florida, Florida betony or rattlesnake weed is a serious problem in landscapes during the fall and spring. What makes this weed such a problem is its ability to overtake flowerbeds in a short time and the lack of good control options. There may be more common weed problems, such as nut sedge, but betony is more difficult to remove once it gets established.

Although the plant does produce seed, the weed mainly reproduces by rhizomes and tubers. The tubers resemble the rattle on a rattlesnake’s tail, hence the nickname “rattlesnake weed.” Hand pulling only removes the shoots but leaves the rhizome and tubers. Betony is easily spread from flowerbed to flowerbed when landscape plants are shared or purchased from commercial growers that produce plants in areas where the weed infests. We see this weed most often in the fall and spring. It goes nearly dormant during hot weather and is not noticed as much in the landscape during the summer. I am flooded with calls from landscape maintenance companies and homeowners concerning the control of Florida betony this time of the year. There are no preemergence herbicide options, and weed barrier fabrics have not been effective.

Control: Glyphosate provides control of the weed, so spray or wipe with highly concentrated solutions in sensitive areas. Repeated applications are always needed.

6. Nut sedges (Cyperus spp.)
Purple nut sedge ranks as the number-one weed problem in the world and is the most common weed infesting flowerbeds. Yellow nut sedge (Cyperus esculentus) prefers moist environments and is more common in irrigated beds or during wet growing seasons. Both are grass-like plants with an extensive system of tubers that allow the plants to reproduce rapidly in landscape beds. Homeowners often call nut sedge “coco” or “nut grass,” however, these weeds are sedges and not grasses. In fact, sedges are in a totally different plant family from grasses. Herbicides that kill true grasses, such as Grass-B-Gon, will have no effect on sedges.

Control: Nut sedges are very difficult to manage consistently in landscape beds. Neither purple nor yellow nutsedge can be controlled by hand removal, and mulches are only slightly effective. Preemergence herbicides that are available to homeowners provide no control of nut sedge. However, postemergence herbicides with the active ingredient halosulfuron, such as SedgeHammer, can be an effective option when used as directed in flowerbeds. The herbicide works very slowly and may take as much as a month to kill the sedges. It will not prevent nutsedge re-infestation in the flowerbed. The herbicide will have to be applied periodically as nut sedge plants emerge. Consult product labels for lists of tolerant plants and application techniques.

7. Common Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon)
Common Bermudagrass is the most widespread grass problem infesting flowerbeds. This perennial warm-season grass originated in Africa and grows well in Southern climates. The grass is widely used for lawns, athletic fields and golf courses, but it is very invasive in flowerbeds. Common Bermudagrass is characterized by its dark green color, fine texture and the production of rhizomes (below ground stems) and stolons (above ground stems) that allow the plant to establish quickly in the landscape.

Control: Hand removal is not an effective method for controlling common Bermudagrass infestations in landscape beds. Since the weed mainly reproduces by plant parts (not seed) and creeps into flowerbeds, preemergence herbicides have no effect on the weed. Frequent applications of grass-killing herbicides, such as Ortho Grass-B-Gon and Fertilome Over the Top II, can be effective in managing Bermudagrass in landscape beds.

8. Torpedograss (Panicum repens)
Torpedograss is a perennial rhizomatous grass that is considered one of the most invasive grasses in the world. Although the plant does produce seed, the seeds are not viable. The weedy grass solely reproduces vegetatively by robust rhizomes.

The spread of torpedograss can mainly be attributed to the movement of soils infested with torpedograss from one location to another usually during flowerbed construction. The weed is a very common problem in landscape beds all along the Gulf Coast.

Control: Complete control of torpedograss may not be possible. Grass-killing herbicides normally prescribed for flowerbeds, such as sethoxydim and fluazifop, are just not very effective on torpedograss, although fluazifop is a little better than sethoxydim. Glyphosate is the best herbicide on the weed, but high rates and multiple applications are necessary for control.

9. Bushkiller vine (Cayratia japonica)
Bushkiller vine is a perennial herbaceous vine with compound leaves containing five leaflets. It produces salmon flowers, eventually bearing fruit with two to four seeds. Thankfully, the seed are not thought to be viable. The plant solely reproduces vegetatively. Native to Asia, bushkiller vine gets its name because the vine climbs over desirable plants and kills other plants by blocking out sunlight. Few weeds take over areas as fast as bushkiller vine, which rapidly engulfs landscape shrubs and ground covers. I am seeing infestations of this weed all along the Gulf Coast.

Control: Bushkiller vine can be suppressed with repeated applications of two herbicides, glyphosate and triclopyr (Ortho MAX Poison Ivy & Tough Brush Killer, Hi-Yield Brush Killer), applied as directed sprays. Unfortunately, the vine intertwines in the landscape and makes herbicide applications very difficult. Often, it is necessary to treat freshly cut plants or wipe the weed directly when spraying the herbicide is too risky in the landscape. Don’t expect to get rid of it with one application. Start your bush killer management program in the spring as the vine emerges. Be sure to treat properties nearby, because the weeds will rapidly re-infest treated areas again.

The best defense against weed infestations in flowerbeds is a combination of mulch, periodic hand pulling and an aggressive preemergence herbicide program. When applicable, use postemergence herbicides for emerged sedges and grasses. On really tough existing weed problems, spot apply a non-selective herbicide like glyphosate. In areas where spraying glyphosate is not possible because of drift, wipe the solution on the weeds with a paintbrush or even use a sponge mop as an applicator. The chart on page 29 provides a list of some herbicides available for landscape bed weed control. Consult product labels for tolerant plants, application rates and procedures.


 Preemergence Herbicides

 Active ingredients

Weeds Controlled


 Benefin + oryzalin