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Peggy Hill is a garden consultant. She maintains a blog about her garden shenanigans at

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The Buzz About Backyard Bees
by Peggy Hill    

Bees are fascinating. You may remember learning about the waggle dance they do to communicate the direction and distance to great flowers, but did you know that the hive entrance guards sometimes accept bribes? That’s right — a bee from another hive will slip one of the guards a little nectar, and then that guard will tell the other guards, “Hey, this is my nephew Joey. He’s okay.” Joey will slip in, steal a little honey and make a quick getaway. And I bet you thought only humans were corruptible.

The only problem with this story is that most of the bees in the hive are women, so Joey is most likely a Josephine. In a hive of 50,000 bees, only a few hundred are males. The bees have complete control over whether the eggs will hatch into males, females or a queen. They usually choose females, because females do all the work. The males just sit around, eating and drinking more than their share. Sound familiar, ladies? In fact, one indication that bee season is over is when the females decide they don’t need the lazy males anymore. They’re tired of taking care of them, so they kick them out of the hive and leave them to die on the ground. Take note, gentlemen, you have been warned…

And if you’ve ever dreamed of being queen for a day, there are only a few days in a queen bee’s life that you could possibly enjoy. These are the days when she soars in the sky, mating with up to 20 males. For the men, it’s drop-dead sex — and I mean this literally. Mating kills the male bees, and they fall out of the ski. Dead bodies litter the ground. After that, all is drudgery for the queen, and she will probably never fly again. She’s not even allowed a bathroom break as she goes about her life’s work of laying eggs. An entourage surrounds her, tending to her every need, grooming her, feeding her, moving her from cell to cell and, most importantly, encouraging her. “That’s a fabulous egg!” “Put another one right here!” “Wonderful!” “You’re the queen of all queens!” “Lay some more!”

We became backyard beekeepers for many reasons: to harvest honey, to help pollinate the garden, to alleviate — in our own small way — colony bee collapse and to have fun. My husband Dale does most of the work. Last fall, he attended a beekeeping seminar and classes at the library and became a dedicated member of our state beekeepers’ association. Dale’s a careful planner, so all of our decisions were thoroughly researched.

The queen is a stranger to the other bees, and they would kill her if they could. It takes several days to chew through the candy plug, and by that time, they’ve accepted her as their queen.

Ten frames of wax usually hang in the hive bodies, but Dale removed several frames to make room before shaking the bees into the box.

Very early on, we had to decide whether to get a “split” or a package of bees. A split is typically something a beekeeper splits from his hive. It may contain several frames of gestating bees/brood and the house bees that take care of them, a frame of honey, a frame of pollen and a queen. If you choose this option, you will likely harvest honey during your first year of beekeeping. A package of bees is just a box of bees and a queen. It takes longer to establish this type of colony, and it will be the second year before you get any honey. As a gardener, this seemed like the difference between starting my own seed and buying a quart perennial. The allure of watching it all unfurl from the beginning was irresistible, so we went with the package.

After learning all we could about beekeeping, we ordered our supplies. The frames required some assembly, but most do-it-yourselfers will find this easy. We were ready and waiting. The bees arrived in a wire box inside of another wire box with wooden handles. We could see them frantically climbing around, on one another, and I’m certain the UPS man was happy to get the buzzing package out of his truck. Dale was out of town when the girls arrived, so I was responsible for moving the cage to the garage and spraying them with sugar water twice a day.

Putting the bees in the hive ranks high on Dale’s “most fun things I’ve ever done” list, and it was exciting to watch. He opened the door on the box and gently shook the bees out over the open hive. Some flew into a small, lively cloud, but most fell into the box. After spending several days in a cramped cage, Josephine looked around and said, “Wow, this is great, we can make this work. It’s much better than that little wire box.”

It was exciting to watch Dale open the package of bees and gently pour them into their new home.

The bees are delighted with their new home.

In just one week, the busy bees covered both sides of the wax base with honeycomb and began stuffing the cells with brightly colored pollen.

During the first week, Dale went into the hive and couldn’t find the queen, but when he saw the small, white larvae in these cells, he knew she was alive and doing her job.

Dale is a proud bee daddy. While inspecting the frames during the third week, I heard him shout, “Look, look, it’s a baby bee climbing out of its cell. Oh, look, there’s another… and another… Yeah! This is so cool.” Dale began pampering “his girls” even more. He fed them all the sugar water they could use, and when the temperature sizzled, he not only relocated the big umbrella from the deck to the bee yard, he also adjusted it twice a day to keep them shaded. 

Watching baby bees push through the papery cap and crawl out of their cell is very cool. This frame would usually be covered with worker bees eager to help the babies, but Dale shook the frame so we could see them.

Cells filled with honey ring the edges of this frame. The bees put a white cap over the honey when it’s done. Many of the cells in the center of the frame are capped brood, where the larvae are developing. Some bees have already hatched and left behind dark, empty cells.


Dale pulls a frame of delicious honey from the honey super.

All that pampering paid off, and our hive grew quickly. When they filled their one-story bee house, Dale added another box. Within three months, they filled three medium-sized boxes. That’s enough honey to get them through the winter, so anything else they make is ours. We were told we wouldn’t get honey the first year, but it isn’t jam that I’m spreading on my toast! In late July, Dale added a queen excluder and a honey super. The honey super is where the honey is harvested. It’s a box exactly like the other three boxes in the hive, but it’s separated from the other boxes by a queen excluder. The queen excluder is a piece of mesh that allows the worker bees to pass from the brood chambers to the honey super, but it excludes the slightly larger queen — no one wants larvae in their honey!

Every time you go into the hive, you set it back about three days, but as a new beekeeper, Dale was enthralled and couldn’t resist checking their progress.

The bees never stop. Even while Dale inspects the frame, they just keep working.

Bob Fanning, a past president of our state beekeepers’ association, says, “I always recommend that a new beekeeper get at least two hives to provide a reference for comparison. If one hive has problems, it is more obvious to an inexperienced beekeeper if there is a second one to compare it to, and thus a red flag that help might be needed.” Following are his estimated startup costs:

Bee suit & veil
Two hive tools
Two hives & related equipment
Two packages of bees
Total estimated cost of two hives

Note: If you decide to start with one hive, it will cost approximately $522.

Phillip Garrison, president of our beekeepers association, has 110 hives. He visited our hive in July and helped me with this article. He estimated that our original population of about 4,000 has grown to a full hive of 50,000 bees. He also told us that in our area beekeepers harvest an average of 60 pounds of honey each year. His advice to anyone interested in beekeeping is to join a bee club, take classes and find a mentor. If you need help finding a bee club, your state department of agriculture can assist you.

Bees are fascinating, and they never stop working. They don’t even sleep. In fact, when Dale shakes the frame and bees fall into the hive below, they just brush themselves off and immediately start working wherever they land. Phillip says, “If only humans could work together as well as bees — there’s no telling how much we could accomplish.”

It’s fun to watch the bees buzz among the flowers and fill their pollen sacks. This little lady is enjoying the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).


For a few extra dollars, you can have your queen marked like the one pictured here. The color of the mark is standardized, but it changes every year so you can tell how old she is. I took this picture at a beekeepers’ picnic, where the frame was securely enclosed in a plastic cage.

From State-by-State Gardening November/December 2012.
Title photo copyright © all other photos courtesy of Peggy Hill.


Posted: 05/22/17   RSS | Print


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Welcoming Butterflies
by Ilene Sternberg       #Beneficials   #Insects

Whatever the size of your garden, you can add excitement and wonder by welcoming beautiful, delicate members of the Lepidoptera family to share your little plot of heaven on earth.

A fritillary butterfly in hand.2

Despite their freewheeling, frivolous demeanor, butterflies follow a deliberate and complex regimen in their day-to-day doings. Their life-cycle consists of four stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult (butterfly), each stage requiring specific food and environments.

The Life Cycle

Butterflies deposit eggs — singly or in clusters — in spring, summer or fall, depending on the species. A good nectar source promotes the production of large numbers of eggs. Some lay eggs on only one or a few plant species, others on many kinds, usually on those appropriate as larval food. Eggs usually hatch within a few days. Nine out of 10 eggs never become adults because predators, mainly birds, think the eggs, caterpillars and butterflies are delicious. 

Emerging caterpillars feed first on their eggshells, then the host plant. They shed their “skin” usually four or five times, growing larger with each stage (called an “instar”). Caterpillars with abundant, high-quality food mature earlier than poorly fed larvae.

A tussock moth pupating on the underside of a leaf.2

The full-sized caterpillar spends about a day forming a green or brown pupa (chrysalis) using silk produced by its glands. The chrysalis has a smooth, hard surface and is suspended by a thin fiber from a stem or twig. Some butterflies, such as skippers, pupate inside a thin covering of silk and leaves. Moths spin a “cocoon,” usually in a shell surrounded by a protective fuzzy, cottony covering.

Depending on the species and temperature, the chrysalis stage usually lasts about two weeks. During this time, they astonishingly develop into an adult. Some species go through a hibernation stage called a diapause, before the pupa splits and the butterfly emerges. During the first few hours, the butterfly’s wings expand, the skin hardens and then it is able to fly, sip nectar, mate and lay eggs, thus repeating the life cycle.

From egg-to-caterpillar-to-butterfly takes about five to six weeks. Some species have only one generation per year. Others may go through two or three generations in a season. Most live only two or three weeks, although some, such as the mourning cloak, which spends the winter as an adult, may live for 10 months or more.

Host Plants for Caterpillars

Zebra swallowtail caterpillar in its green form.1

A zebra swallowtail caterpillar in its striped form.1
Swallowtail Family (Papilionidae)
Black swallowtail: parsley family (Apiaceae family) includes wild and cultivated carrot (Daucus spp.), dill (Anethum spp.), parsley (Petroselinum spp.) and parsnip (Pastinaca spp.)
Spicebush swallowtail: Sassafras
Tiger swallowtail: aspen (Populus spp.), cherry (Prunus spp.), birch (Betula spp.)

Skipper Family (Hesperidae)
Blazing star skipper: grasses 

Snout Butterfly (Libytheidae)
Common snout butterfly: hackberry (Celtis spp.)

Brush-footed Family (Nymphalidae)
Great spangled and Idalia fritillary: violet (Viola spp.)
Buckeye: plantains (Plantago spp.), toadflax (Linaria spp.), snapdragon (Antirrhinum spp.), false loosestrife (Ludwigia spp.)
Painted lady: thistle (Onopordum, Carduus, Cirsium)
Red admiral: nettle (Urtica spp.), false nettle (Boehmeria spp.)
Viceroy and red-spotted purple: willow (Salix spp.), especially black willow (Salix nigra), pussy willow (Salix caprea), poplar (Populus spp.), plums (Prunus spp.), cherry (Prunus spp.)
Hackberry butterfly: hackberry (Celtis spp.)
Monarch: milkweeds, butterfly weed (Asclepias spp.)
Mourning cloak: willow (Salix), birch (Betula spp.), aspen (Populus spp.), maple (Acer spp.), elm (Ulmus spp.)

Sulphur Family (Pieridae)
Cabbage white butterfly: (Brassicaceae family), Brassica spp.: cauliflower, broccoli, kale, mustard, turnip, radish (Raphanus spp.)
Common (clouded) sulphur: clover (Trifolium), alfalfa (Medicago)
Dogface butterfly: leadplant (Amorpha), false indigo (Baptisia), prairie clover (Dalea)

Coppers, Blues, Harvesters, Metalmarks Families (Lycaenidae, Riodinidae)
American copper: sorrel (Rumex spp.)
Sylvan hairstreak: willow (Salix spp.)
Common hairstreak: mallow (Malvaceae spp.), rose mallow (Hibiscus spp.), marsh mallow (Althea spp.), hollyhock (Alcea spp.)
Gray hairstreak: hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)

Source: University of Minnesota, James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History.

Attracting Butterflies to Your Garden

An adult zebra swallowtail.1

Monarch being handled.2

Select a variety of nectar-producing plants in flower throughout the season, especially those that bloom in mid to late summer, when most butterflies are active. Flowers with multiple florets that produce abundant nectar are ideal. (Double flowers are bred for appearance, not nectar production.) Adults will lay their eggs on specific plants that will serve as a food source for the caterpillars that hatch.

Provide shelter. Butterflies prefer to feed and lay eggs away from gusty winds. A row of shrubs or trees provides a windbreak. Plant tall plants at the back and sides of the garden for additional protection.

Wet sand or a mud puddle nearby encourages “puddling.” Though they get their sugar from plant nectar, butterflies need other nourishment for reproduction. For that, they sip from mud puddles, ingesting salts and minerals from the soil. Puddling is mostly seen in males. They incorporate those nutrients into their sperm, which when mating, are transferred to the female. These extra salts and minerals improve the viability of the female’s eggs, increasing the couple’s chances of passing  on their genes to another generation.

Avoid using broad-spectrum pesticides. Although caterpillars will chomp on some plants, they need this to metamorphose. Eventually your garden will attract natural predators for other pests attacking your garden.

Host Plants for Adult Butterflies

A monarch on a butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.).2
Azalea (Rhododendron spp.)
Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.)
Butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.)
Lilac (Syringa spp.)
Sumac (Rhus spp.)
Coneflower (Echinacea spp.)
Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana spp.)
Impatiens (Impatiens spp.)
Marigold (Calendula spp., Tagetes spp.)
Phlox (Phlox spp.)
Sunflower (Helianthus spp.)
Verbena (Verbena spp.)
Aster (Aster spp.)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)2
Bee balm, bergamot (Monarda spp.)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias spp.)
Chrysanthemum (Dendranthema spp.)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.)
Blazing star (Liatris spp.)
Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.)
Ox-eye daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, Leucanthemum vulgare)
Ageratum (Ageratum spp.)
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Dogbane (Apocynum spp.)
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)
Ironweed (Vernonia altissima)
Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum, syn. Eupatorium purpureum)
Nettle (Urtica spp.)
Thistle (Onopordum spp., Carduus spp., Cirsium spp.)

Source: University of Minnesota, James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History.


1. Photo courtesy of © Rose Franklin,
2. Photo courtesy of Ilene Sternberg

From State-by-State Gardening July/August 2013.


Posted: 05/22/17   RSS | Print


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Pint Sized Pollinators
by Dodie Ulery       #Beneficials   #Insects   #Unusual

Green orchid bees on a white lotus flower (Nelumbo nucifera ‘Alba Plena’)

Honey bees in North America are disappearing at a rapid rate. It’s time to find other pollinators for our farms and gardens.

I started seeing tiny green bees about 12 years ago here in Volusia County. There would be five or six on each lotus flower. My insect book had information about dozens of smaller bee species, but not the one I was watching. My search continued to the internet. Information included thousands of species of small bees, however, I could find none like the one I photographed as living in Florida.

When I decided to write about them I sent photographs to several entomologists. I was told that these bees were not orchid bees, because they don’t live in Florida. They’re found in abundance in all other parts of the lower 48, but not Florida.

I didn’t give up. I continued searching. I finally found images on a site called They evidently do live in Florida, even as far south as Ft. Myers and Fort Lauderdale. The images in this article you’re reading are of one particular type: Neotropical Green Orchid Bees, Euglossa Viridissima.

They’re very small insects, 1⁄3 cm long and stay very busy pollinating everything in sight and they’re solitary which means they do not living in hives. The female makes her nest in little hollows in trees, fence posts, walls, firewood, bee houses or enclosed cavities. Mature nests can contain up to 20 cells in each cavity.


Left: Homemade cedar house Middle: Bamboo bee house

I bought a bee house and since then I’ve replaced the bee houses every few years. They’ve steadily grown in numbers over the years.

The male green orchid bee is attracted by fragrant flowers and compounds produced by wood decay, fungi and decomposing materials. They present these compounds to their prospective mates, to be used for the nesting sites.

The honey bee stays close to his hive on cold days and inclement weather. The orchid bee, like the proverbial mailman, doesn’t let any bad weather stop him from his daily rounds. He even flies during freezing weather. They are more productive than honey bees and seldom sting unless they’re held tightly in someone’s hand. If they do sting in response to being mishandled, it’s like a mosquito bite, having very low venom.

When the female finds a place for her nest, she collects pollen from flowers for her young. She forms it into a ball and places the ball at the back of the chosen tube or hole and lays an egg on it. Female eggs are laid at the back of the holes and males at the front. She then collects mud and other compounds to form a cell wall and repeats the process until she reaches the opening where she caps the end with mud. After a long dormant period in the fall and winter, the male emerges first in the spring, about the time the red buckeye and redbud trees bloom. Later, when the females emerge, they mate and the process repeats itself.

The books all say that cold temperatures are needed before spring in order to break the dormancy cycles. In Florida we usually don’t reach those lower temperatures; however we’re doing something right, because I’ve had them here for many years and they continue to be sighted in South Florida in greater numbers.

You can make your own nest block or purchase one online. A 12” piece of untreated 4”x 6” lumber works great. Holes, which we’ll call tunnels, 5/16” in diameter, can be drilled in the wood on ¾ inch centers. Smaller diameter tunnels encourage higher production of male bees. Do not drill completely through the lumber. Drill them as deeply as you can without breaking through to the other side. Shallow tunnels and cavities may produce fewer females. Attach a roof to provide protection from the elements, including rain, as well as the mid-day sun in Florida. Do not use wood preservatives. This year we constructed one out of plastic wood, which is made from recycled milk bottles. Hanging the bee nesting box to face southeast and the early morning sun is advisable and at least three feet from the ground.

When I registered my bee houses on the University of Florida bee site,, I found information on drilling holes of different sizes for different bee species. Check it out!


A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Dodie Ulery.


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Meet the “Other” Pollinators
by Paula Cochran       #Beneficials   #Insects   #Unusual

The Pennsylvania leatherwing, a soldier beetle, consumes nectar and pollinates as it travels. As a bonus, it eats insect eggs, grasshopper eggs, caterpillars, aphids, and mealybugs.

In the move toward more ecologically sound growing practices, there is no insect that has gotten more attention than the honey bee. Though the honey bee is surely worthy of all our efforts, let us not forget to focus our attention on the many other pollinators that provide an invaluable service and are also on the decline.

Three quarters of the world’s crops, including fruit, grains and nuts depend on pollination. The loss of pollinators is not only an issue concerning food sources for humans; it impacts all living things that depend on a sound ecological food source. For example, grazing animals depend on the insect population to pollinate legumes, such as alfalfa and clover. In addition, pollinators like the often dreaded mosquito not only pollinate, they also serve as a food source for fish, spiders, salamanders, lizards and frogs.

In addition to bees, flies, mosquitos, moths, wasps, beetles and butterflies, there are beneficial garden insects that not only pollinate but keep the good versus bad bug population in check.

Syrphid flies, or hover flies, can be significant pollinators. This one is perched on a wild daisy.

While we want our zucchini plants to flourish, in spraying or dusting an insecticide to ensure many loaves of zucchini bread, we’ve opened the door to killing not only the culprit invading our zucchini, but the beneficial bugs and insects that would have taken care of the problem naturally. Pesticides cannot discriminate bad bugs from good bugs.

In killing off today’s “foes” we inadvertently kill off tomorrow’s “friends;” friends who are essential, as without them none of the earth’s ecosystems would survive. Left to their own devices, pollinators will produce larger, more flavorful fruits and higher crop yields and weed out the good from the bad insects naturally.

So who are these other pollinators, and how can they benefit your garden?

When beetles come to mind, most people think of the lady beetle. Yet there are more than 350,000 species of beetles, and they are responsible for pollinating 88 percent of a quarter million flowering plants globally. As pollinators, they prefer fruity and wide-open flowers like aster, sunflower, rose and butterfly weed. In addition, they feed on caterpillars, cutworms, root maggots, spiders, snails, slugs, mites and other beetles.

A clouded sulfur snacking on a marigold. Butterflies as pollinators prefer flowers that provide broad surfaces for landing.

Butterflies and Moths
Butterflies pollinate by day. Their long, curled proboscis (tongue) is like a straw perfect for dipping into flowers for nectar. They prefer flowers with a landing platform (labellum) and brightly colored blooms like zinnia, yarrow and daisies. Once they land, they gather pollen on their long and thin legs.

Moths do most of their pollinating at night. Because light-colored flowers are more visible at night, they prefer light-colored flowers like honeysuckle and primrose.

A feather-legged fly dives face first into a flower. While insects exploit flowers for food, flowers exploit insects to achieve pollination.

Flies are important pollinators. They have small tongues, so they are attracted to simple bowl-shaped flowers like dill, aster and Queen Anne’s lace. In addition, many maggots are predators, and they eat aphids, leafhoppers, scale insects, mealybugs and corn earworms.

Mosquitos are often accidental pollinators of Umbelliferae family (plants with umbrella shaped blooms), including anise, caraway, carrots, celery, coriander, cumin, dill and parsnips. They are also beneficial to plants like goldenrod, orchids and grasses. Despite their reputation as nothing but a nuisance, male mosquitos live entirely off nectar and plant fluids; females also survive on a plant-based diet and only seek blood when they are producing eggs.

A blue-wing scoliid wasp, a bumble bee and a paper wasp share a goldenrod stem. Though bees are the number-one pollinator, wasps contribute to this important activity.

Wasps are not the most efficient pollinators due to their lack of hair, but they have very high-energy and move about frantically, thus, they get the job done. In addition, they bring caterpillars, live insects and larvae back to their nest to feed their young.

Remember the Little Guys
Since the beginning of time, plants and insects have formed a relationship that ensures pollination. But we are now faced with the dilemma that due to human decisions like disruption to native species, introduction of non-native species, modern farming practices and insecticides and herbicides, we now find ourselves in the position of having to help pollinators by making better decisions for the benefit off all living things. Luckily, creating healthy habitats for pollinators is easy to do.

Though it doesn’t look like a “traditional” bee, it is in fact a bee. This metallic sweat bee entangled in a chicory flower will leave the flower glistening with pollen.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Paula Cochran.


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Surprising Pollinators
by Helen Newling Lawson       #Beneficials   #Insects   #Unusual

Bumble bees need a long season of flowers, from spring-flowering plants like this Allium through to late fall bloomers. Bonus: your garden will be beautiful longer, too!
Photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Helping pollinators is a hot gardening trend right now (dare we say there’s a “lot of buzz”?). Initiatives such as the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge are bringing attention to the need to create habitats for at-risk pollinators such as monarch butterflies and honeybees. But many other species – including some surprising ones like flies, moths, and hummingbirds – also act as pollinators, and also need our help.

Native Bees
Honeybees were actually imported from Europe almost 400 years ago. Our continent was already richly populated with nearly 4000 species of bees, all perfectly adapted to pollinate our native flora. Now that commercial honeybees are threatened by colony collapse disorder (CCD), we need to think about how we can help these native species back get back their rightful place in the natural order.

“Bug hotels” like this creative one are a fun backyard building project. (For a fun DIY project, see page 30 in this issue!)
Photo by Helen Newling Lawson.


Several of these bees are ideal gardening companions. In fact, they are far more effective pollinators than honeybees, who moisten the pollen they collect in order to bring back as much as possible. Without a hive to defend, solitary bees like mason bees and leafcutter bees are far less likely to sting, and are non-venomous if they do. And since they don’t make honey, they collect just enough dry pollen on their hairy bellies to feed their own young, allowing the rest to drift where it may.


The blueberry bee is just one of the thousands of other bees in addition to honeybees who need our help. This species and its close relative, the blue orchard bee, are effective pollinators of commercial food crops.
Photo by Jack Dykinga for the Agricultural Research Service.

Bumble Bees
Turns out, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and blueberries need a certain level of vibration in order to shake their pollen loose. Guess who has evolved to have just right amount of “buzz” to make the magic happen? That’s right – the humble bumble.

You can encourage bumble bees to buzz pollinate your crops by building them wooden nest boxes filled with bedding ( has plans online). These will replicate the abandoned rodent holes their colonies would normally seek.

Mason Bees
True to their name, female mason bees build their nests by “mortaring” mud around each egg, laid in individual chambers. They are so reliant on a particular quality of mud that at least one online retailer sells both dried mud powder and a special mud holder to help encourage these native pollinators.

At the very least, allow for an area of exposed, moist soil in your garden. A simple solution might be to leave the earth surrounding your birdbath unmulched. Each time you fill the birdbath (bees need this water, too), the overspill will create a muddy patch.

This will also benefit butterflies, who must collect minerals from mud in a behavior called “puddling” in order to mate.

Mason bees normally build these egg chambers inside a single, larger cavity, such as a hollowed tree trunk (unlike carpenter bees, they are not strong enough to drill their own holes). You can easily recreate a suitable nesting place, and the article beginning on page 30 will show you how! They fly less than 300 feet from their nests, so position them where you want them to pollinate. “Solitary” refers to how they nest and raise their young, not their personality: Mason bees are happy to have neighbors, so you can place multiple nesting sites side-by-side.

Ground-Dwelling Native Bees
Many native bees nest underground, forming complex burrows. Leave a patch of bare soil in a sunny area, and to prevent disturbing their hard work avoid tilling and other ground-disturbing activities (you’ll also limit weed seed germination this way).

Night-flying moths add more “pollination hours” to your garden. In return, they need late-opening flowers and are drawn to lighter colored and strongly sweet-scented blooms.

Agastache is great for attracting nocturnal moths like the sphinx moth.
Photo courtesy of

A number of birds are also pollinators, including hummingbirds. They prefer flowers with a tubular shape, such as perennial sages (Salvia spp.) and chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus).

Helen Yoest of the non-profit Bee Better ( clarifies these are “not your common housefly! These are gentle bee lookalikes including syphid, overfly, midge, and flower fly. These flies go for less glamorous flowers.”

What about bats?
If you’re like me, you’ve heard that bats are also pollinators. And that’s true – but only in the southwestern U.S.

However, supporting pollinators also means eliminating pesticide sprays in your yard. So you may want to try hosting some bats for natural mosquito control. Kirk Lucius, a Forsyth County Master Gardener who has created many bat nesting sites, recommends the building plans available online at

Planting a diverse mix of plants will ensure a healthy mix of pollinator species in your garden – but be sure to eliminate pesticide sprays!
Photo by Helen Newling Lawson.

Planting for Pollinators
The key here is diversity. Some bees, such as mason bees and bumble bees, are generalists, and need many types of flowers. Others are specialists, relying on particular flowers. Some bees have short tongues and some have long, each requiring a different flower shape. It’s best to plant a wide range of flowers to help as many different species as possible.

For more information:


A version of this article appeared in a May 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.


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The Trouble With Honey Bees
by Blake Layton       #Beneficials   #Disease   #Insects

Honey bee queens are easily identified by their much longer abdomens. Queens spend their days laying eggs while being fed and tended by workers.

Honey bees hold a unique place in the insect world. They are one of only a few insects man has domesticated, and they are bred and raised as livestock throughout the world. The honey and wax they produce has been prized by humans for thousands of years and honey bees provide critical pollination for many food crops. These are valuable insects that enhance our lives. Commercial beekeepers derive their livelihood by farming this miniature livestock, and even if you do not keep bees, eat honey or use beeswax candles, many of the fruits and vegetables you eat are more readily available and less expensive because of honey bee pollination.

Honey bees are not native to North America; they were brought here by European settlers to provide honey and beeswax. As settlers moved west they carried honey bees with them, and many of these bees escaped along the way to establish feral colonies in hollow trees throughout the country. But feral honey bee colonies are not nearly as common as they once were, and neither are domestic colonies. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the number of commercial bee hives in the U.S. peaked at 5.9 million in 1947; today there are less than 2.5 million.

If you have paid attention to the news media over the past few years, you probably know honey bees are having problems. One of the most widely publicized is a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, or CCD. This problem, which causes entire colonies of bees to die suddenly and mysteriously, was first recognized in the U.S. in 2006. But CCD is just one of a series of new problems to affect U.S. honey bees over the last 30 years.

Like all livestock, honey bees are subject to a wide variety of health problems. Many of these health problems are diseases, but honey bees are also affected by parasitic mites, exposure to insecticides, other insects that invade the hive, and even other honey bees. Keeping colonies healthy and vigorous is one of the most effective proactive treatments for many of these problems, but with so many new problems this is more difficult and more costly for beekeepers to do.

Male honey bees, called drones, are larger and stockier than workers and have bigger eyes. Drones do not collect nectar and pollen or perform tasks within the hive.

Many people are surprised to learn insects get sick, but they do, and honey bees are no exception. There are many diseases that are specific to honey bees. These include diseases caused by bacteria, fungi and viruses. Some of these diseases affect the brood, or immature stages, while others affect adult bees. Historically, the most serious brood disease is a bacterial disease known as American foulbrood. Infected larvae die in their cells and worker bees spread the disease as they routinely clean cells and feed larvae. Back in the 1960s when quarantining and destroying infected colonies was the standard method of treating American foulbrood (it still is in some states), I had to burn several of my own colonies because of this disease.

There are several other less serious, but still debilitating, brood diseases, including European foulbrood, sacbrood and chalkbrood. Nosema diseases affect adult honey bees. Nosema apis is an “old” disease that afflicts bees that are winter bound inside the hive for too long, causing dysentery and gradually weakening the colony. Nosema ceranae is a relatively new and more serious problem that can cause infected colonies to die out quickly.

Honey bees are also affected by many viruses. With the exception of N. ceranae and some of the viruses, most of the problems mentioned so far have plagued U.S. beekeepers for hundreds of years and both bees and beekeepers are somewhat used to coping with these problems. Many of the problems we are about to discuss are relatively new to the U.S. beekeeping industry, and, in some cases, the best ways of dealing with these problems are still being worked out.

During the 1980s two species of parasitic mites entered the US, causing serious problems for the beekeeping industry and destroying most of the feral honey bee colonies that had become so common through much of the country. Tracheal mites attack adult bees by crawling inside their trachea or breathing tubes and sucking blood through the tracheal wall. For humans, this would be similar to having ticks feeding on the insides of the nostrils. Varroa mites are much larger than tracheal mites and attack developing bee larvae and pupae, as well as adult bees, by sucking blood through the body wall, earning them the nickname “vampire mites.” This is debilitating enough, but varroa mites also spread a viral disease that causes adult bees to have deformed wings. Either of these mites can cause a colony to die out and beekeepers must now spend considerable money and effort to protect their colonies from these pests.


This frame of brood shows some of the things you will see inside a healthy honey bee hive: adult worker bees, capped brood, containing pupating worker bees (center of frame), open cells with white larvae curled in the bottom, open cells containing newly laid eggs, a band of capped honey (along the top of the frame) and capped drone brood (lower corners of the frame).

One of the dilemmas of beekeeping is that honey bees are needed to pollinate certain crops, yet those same crops are attacked by insect pests that sometimes have to be controlled with insecticides. Honey bees also forage on a large number of crops that do not require bee pollination, and foraging workers will fly several miles from the hive. If insecticides are applied when honey bees are foraging in a crop, large numbers of workers can be killed. Beekeepers are familiar with this problem and work to minimize the risk by carefully choosing where, and where not, to place their bee yards and by moving or confining their bees when insecticide applications are scheduled for a crop they are pollinating. Farmers can help by notifying beekeepers before applying insecticides and by scheduling applications late in the day after most bees have ceased foraging.

Although the impact of agricultural insecticides on honey bees is a controversial subject, this may be one of the few honey bee problems that has declined over the past few decades. This is because many of the older broad-spectrum insecticides that are acutely toxic to honey bees have been replaced by products that are more pest specific and less acutely toxic to bees and other non-target organisms. However, there are questions about the potential chronic effects of some of these newer insecticides on honey bees and research continues in this area. The wide-spread use of transgenic (genetically modified) crops, which produce their own internal control of certain key insect pests, has benefited honey bees by reducing the number of foliar insecticide sprays required on many crops. Transgenic crops also are not without controversy – “If these plants produce their own insecticide how does it affect honey bees?” This question must be carefully researched and answered before a transgenic crop is approved. Results of extensive and ongoing research have shown no adverse effects from the transgenic crops currently in use.

Africanized Honey Bees
African honey bees are a subspecies of honey bee that is native to Africa; “European honey bees” refers to several subspecies of honey bees that are native to Europe. There are several key behavioral differences between African honey bees and European honey bees, the most important being that they are much more aggressive and attack with less provocation and in larger numbers. This behavior has earned them the name “killer bees” because their massive attacks sometimes result in human fatalities.

In the 1950s, a few African honey bee queens escaped from a bee breeding program in Brazil and began to interbreed with commercial and feral European honey bees. These “Africanized honey bees” spread through South America, moved into Mexico, and entered the U.S. in 1990. Today, feral colonies of Africanized honey bees are established in all the Southwestern states, as well as in portions of Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida and Georgia, and they continue to slowly spread into the remainder of the Southeast. In addition to interbreeding with European honey bees, Africanized bees will also invade and take over weakened colonies of European bees.

Despite decades of interbreeding with European honey bees, Africanized honey bees still retain their aggressive behavior. Because of the increased potential for mass stinging attacks, gardeners and the general public need to be much more cautious around colonies and swarms of feral bees once Africanized bees arrive in an area. Your state’s department of agriculture and local county extension offices can provide more information about Africanized honey bees and the steps and precautions to take when suspected colonies are encountered. Commercial beekeepers can prevent apiaries from being taken over by Africanized bees by regularly re-queening with purebred queens produced in areas where Africanized bees do not occur.

A solid frame of freshly capped honey is a beautiful sight that represents thousands of “bee hours” of work.

Wax Moths and Small Hive Beetles
Honey bees also have to contend with other insects that will invade their hives and steal the fruits of their labor. Wax moths are age- old enemies that cause millions of dollars of damage to the U.S. bee industry each year by damaging combs and equipment. The moths invade the hive and lay eggs and the caterpillars tunnel through the comb, producing large amounts of silken webbing. Weakened colonies or stored combs are most likely to be attacked; healthy vigorous colonies are usually able to defend themselves against wax moths.

Small hive beetles invaded the U.S. around 1996 and have since spread throughout the country. Adults and larvae crawl over the combs feeding on honey and pollen and contaminating honey and causing it to spoil. They also feed on immature bees, and heavy infestations can cause bees to abandon a hive. As with wax moths, small weakened colonies are most susceptible, but small hive beetles sometimes invade healthy colonies and beekeepers are still working out the best way to control this pest, which now exceeds wax moths in importance.

Colony Collapse Disorder
In 2006, commercial beekeepers began to notice large numbers of hives in which most of the adult bees had suddenly disappeared, leaving the queen and immature brood to die in the hive. Dead adult bees are not found either inside or around the outside of affected hives – they are just gone. This is a serious problem with some beekeepers suffering the loss of more than half their colonies to this phenomenon. Greatest losses occur through the winter and into early spring. Beekeepers normally lose around one of every six colonies to winter mortality, but approximately one third of all honey bee colonies were lost in each of the first two winters after this new problem was recognized, and U.S. honey bees continue to suffer high mortality from this mysterious malady.

This problem is called colony collapse disorder (CCD), and the beekeeping industry is devoting large amounts of time and resources into determining the cause of CCD. So far no single agent has been identified as “the cause” and CCD is currently considered to be a syndrome caused by several contributing factors. Many potential factors have been investigated and many, such as cell phones and transgenic crops, have been largely dismissed as being involved. Some of the factors that continue to be investigated include: varroa mites; a virus disease known as Israeli acute paralysis virus; and Nosema ceranae, a relatively new disease of adult bees. Insecticides have not been exonerated as playing a role in CCD, but despite extensive research, they have not been definitively implicated either. Progress is being made, but honey bee researchers are still working frantically to understand just what causes this serious problem and how to stop it from killing U.S. honey bee colonies.

As you can see, it is not easy being a honey bee; there are so many potential problems that can affect the hive. Some are serious problems that can kill a colony quickly. Others are more minor problems that can weaken a colony and make it more susceptible to other diseases or pests, resulting in a lingering decline. This spring, when you notice a honey bee working some of the flowers in your garden, take a minute to consider and appreciate the benefits she and her sister bees provide, despite the problems they face.


A version of this article appeared in a February 2011 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Blake Layton.


Posted: 05/19/17   RSS | Print


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Super Size It!
by Troy B. Marden       #Design   #Ornamentals   #Unusual









In the background, Dahlia imperialis holds court over Ricinus communis, the castor bean. In October, the dahlia will produce 4-inch diameter pink or white flowers.


I love big plants! Whether I’m designing a large estate garden or a small courtyard, big plants with large, architectural leaves and sometimes stunning flowers always play a role. Keep in mind that the words “big” and “large” are vague terms and everything is relative. A plant that looks very large in the confined space of a walled garden may look quite small on a wide open 2- or 3-acre property. At the same time, a plant that is truly suited to a large garden may quickly overwhelm one that is less spacious, so do your research and choose wisely. Also consider that “big” may refer to the height of the plant (a particularly tall selection), the width of the plant, the size of its leaves or a combination of all three. A very wide-growing plant may be difficult to accommodate in a small space, but tall plants can be used almost anywhere, so don’t let the height of a plant scare you away! In fact, you’ll find that tall plants, even in small spaces, add a dramatic sense of layering and help to create that lush garden effect that we’re all after.

So what are my favorite super-sized plants? I’m glad you asked! Here are a few large-growing favorites that have graced my garden and the gardens of my clients for many years. Some are grown strictly for the foliage, while others also provide beautiful blooms. Some are annual, some perennial, a few are tropical and there are even some shrubs. There should be something for everyone, and I hope they whet your appetite for plants that might be outside of your normal comfort zone.

Arundo donax ‘Versicolor’
The green and white variegated form of the giant reed is always a showstopper in the garden. Looking like a cross between the most graceful ornamental grass and a giant bamboo, it is hardy to Zone 6, dying to the ground each winter and rocketing skyward each spring to a height of 12 to 15 feet. A much improved variety named ‘Peppermint Stick’ has cleaner white variegation that does not fade in the heat of summer, while a smaller and somewhat slower growing cultivar known as ‘Golden Chain’ has green leaves with yellow stripes and reaches a diminutive 7 feet tall instead of twice that!


Arundo donax ‘Variegata’ is a giant member of the grass family that can tower 12 feet above its garden neighbors.


Colocasia gigantea ‘Thailand Giant Strain’
Almost all of us have grown elephant ears at one point or another in our gardens, but I’d be willing to bet that few of you have grown anything as impressive as this giant from Thailand! Reaching a whopping 10 feet tall with individual leaves that can grow as large as the hood of a Volkswagen Beetle, for sheer garden bragging rights this elephant ear can’t be beat. In a mild winter, with good drainage and deep mulch, ‘Thailand Giant Strain’ has survived into Zone 6b, though Zone 7 is probably a more sure bet. Even in more confined spaces, this plant will stand head and shoulders above the rest and can easily be underplanted for layers of interest.

Dwarfing the plants around it, Colocasia gigantea ‘Thailand Giant Strain’ is one of the grandest of all garden plants with individual leaves reaching nearly 6 feet long by 5 feet wide.

Dahlia imperialis
Even the name sounds regal, and regal it is! Perennial to Zone 6b, large trunk-like stems that may reach 3 to 4 inches in diameter by late summer and autumn emerge from ground level each spring and quickly rise to heights of 8 to 10 feet or more. The large, pinnately compound leaves almost resemble an unusual palm tree or bamboo as they hover above neighboring plants. In late autumn – provided we don’t have an early frost – pink flowers appear atop the immense stems and bid farewell to the gardening season. A white-flowered form is occasionally offered by specialty mail order nurseries.

Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurellii’
Perhaps my personal favorite of all of the magnificent members of the banana tribe, the red Abyssinian banana is a showstopper in most any garden. Growing quickly in the hot and humid summers of the South, even a small starter plant can reach 8 feet tall or more in its first season. Green leaves are flushed ruby red and may reach gargantuan proportions up to 8 feet long by 3 feet wide in rich garden soil, though they’re usually just a bit smaller. These plants can be overwintered by cutting all of their leaves back to the trunk in autumn and then digging and storing the remainder of the plant (trunk and roots) in a frost-free garden shed or crawl space to be replanted the following spring.

A bold and daring tropical, Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurellii’ is also called red Abyssinian banana. Individual ruby red leaves may reach gargantuan proportions, nearly 8 feet long by 3 feet wide when the plant is well grown.


Hedychium species and hybrids
Also known as ginger lilies, these beautiful plants are hardy throughout much of the South. Some, such as Hedychium coronarium (white butterfly ginger) are even reliable into Zone 6. In my garden it dies to the ground each winter, though farther south it is evergreen. In late spring it emerges from thick, tuberous roots with the tall stems reaching anywhere from 5 to 10 feet in height, depending on the variety. The tropical-looking foliage is always a welcome foil for other garden plants. In late summer and autumn, butterfly or moth-like blooms emerge from fat buds at the top of each stem, their fragrance carried on the breeze throughout the garden. Other favorites include H. gardnerianum, H. ‘Dr. Moy’, H. ‘Tahitian Flame’ and many others.

Hedychium, or butterfly ginger, comes in a variety of sizes. Some of the most beautiful can reach heights of 8 to 10 feet by autumn when they produce exquisitely fragrant, butterfly-like flowers in colors that range from white to pink, yellow and orange. In Zone 7 and warmer, many are hardy perennials.


Hydrangea aspera subsp. robusta
This hydrangea is not for the faint of heart and is probably best left to the more experienced gardener, but for those of you who want a plant that is both showstopping and unusual enough to stump your gardening friends, it’s the perfect choice! Best suited to protected locations in rich, moist, well-drained soil, Hydrangea aspera subsp. robusta has large, felted, gray-green leaves that may be as long as 18 inches and 8 inches or more wide. Combine this with 12-inch-wide blue lace-cap flowers in midsummer and you have a plant that will have your friends and neighbors asking what brand of fertilizer you use!

The flowers on the “giant” hydrangea are no slackers, either! Approaching 12 inches in diameter, it is one of the largest blooms in the hydrangea family.


Kniphofia ‘Lola’
‘Lola’ is a giant in the world of red-hot pokers, but is still small enough to fit into nearly any garden. With an upright habit, ‘Lola’ stands 5 feet or more tall when in bloom and the individual, brilliant orange “pokers” may be as much as 18 inches long! Nothing will stop garden visitors in their tracks like a well-grown clump of ‘Lola’ in full bloom. Hardy to Zone 6b and one of the best kniphofias for the South, all it requires is good drainage in the winter and it will return to grace your summer garden with magnificent blooms for many years to come. And in case you’re wondering, the hummingbirds will wait in line and fight for their turn at the flowers!

Not all Kniphofia, or red-hot pokers, thrive in Southern gardens, but Kniphofia ‘Lola’ has proven herself for many seasons in my garden. Standing 5 feet tall in bloom with 18-inch long spires of brilliant orange-red flowers, ‘Lola’ is a hummingbird’s dream and a showstopper in the early summer garden.


Musa ornata ‘Red Jewel’
For those of you who are still convinced that “giant” plants don’t have a place in your garden, I present to you Musa ornata ‘Red Jewel’, a dwarf banana reaching only 5 to 6 feet tall, with slender leaves and stems that are not obtrusive in any way. In a very protected location, this plant has overwintered as far north as Zone 6b and should be reliably hardy from Zone 7 south. In late summer on mature stalks, brilliant jewel-like blossoms like the one shown here may emerge from the top of the trunk. In colder zones, this banana can easily be dug and stored in a frost-free place for winter. The perfectly perennial Japanese fiber banana, Musa basjoo, is also an excellent choice, but understand that with time it will grow extremely large, eat up a good chunk of garden space and is nearly indestructible (or removable) once it gets established.

An excellent choice for smaller gardens, Musa ornata ‘Red Jewel’, the red jewel banana is a smaller growing selection that reaches only 6 feet tall and has proven hardy to Zone 7 in protected locations.


Petasites japonicus ‘Giganteus’
This plant is just too good to pass up, but I will issue fair warning that it does spread – rambunctiously – by underground stolons. That said, if you have a large, open area, especially a boggy spot where nothing else will grow, here is your plant! Like something out of Jurassic Park, petasites emerges each spring and quickly unfurls humongous leaves that may reach as much as 3 feet wide on stems 3 feet tall. Its texture in the garden’s understory is second-to-none and you almost can’t help but think there must be some sort of exotic, prehistoric animal lurking under its ground-covering foliage.

For damp locations, Petasites japonicus ‘Giganteus’ makes a stunning deciduous ground cover. Site this plant carefully, as it is a rampant grower and will quickly run over smaller plants that are in its way. Where you can let it romp, it adds a prehistoric flair to the garden.

Podophyllum pleianthum
If you love the strikingly bold texture of the petasites, but prefer a plant that behaves itself, then this Chinese cousin of our native mayapple may just be the plant for you. Glossy green leaves may reach as much as 2 feet in diameter on well-established clumps (this will take a while!) and unlike our native mayapple, it stays put! It is the perfect companion for other shade-loving plants such as hostas, hellebores and many others, and only asks that you provide it with rich, well-amended, woodsy garden soil. Other beautiful and even more unusual relatives include Podophyllum hexandrum, P. ‘Kaleidoscope’ and P. ‘Spotty Dotty’, among others.



A version of this article appeared in a June 2011 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Troy B. Marden.


Posted: 05/09/17   RSS | Print


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Plants to Market
by Kathleen Hennessy       #Propagation

Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) tree seeds are sorted for size and other factors before being selected for the sowing process.

As you walk through your local garden center, have you ever wondered where the plants come from? Why are there so many of one plant and only a few of another? The process of creating enough plants for us to purchase takes a scientific approach, technical skill, and a lot of artistry.

Every home gardener wants to have the latest and greatest new plant. That’s why nurseries work with breeders around the world to find interesting new varieties. Once they find those plants, they’re tested for several years to make sure they perform well and can handle temperature extremes. After testing, the work of creating enough inventory to sell to gardeners begins.

The process of creating plant inventory is called plant propagation. Top nurseries here in the U.S. use several types of propagation methods to multiply plants creating large enough inventories of each particular plant variety.

Plants grown in seed beds are evaluated for size, uniformity, and other characteristics.

Seed Propagation
Seed propagation may be the most familiar to home gardeners. Nurseries start plants from seed, just like we would at home, only on a much larger scale. This is the most common way nurseries grow annuals and some perennials.

At Monrovia Nursery, growers start all of their Japanese maple rootstock (Acer palmatum) from seed. Total production time for these beautiful trees can take six years or more. First, seedlings are planted and transferred into bigger pots as they grow. This process takes a little longer than a year.

The next step is to graft the seedlings. “For Japanese maples, you can’t produce a cultivar from a cutting,” said Ron Kinney, conifer and tree grower manager at Monrovia. So, cuttings of preferred Japanese maple varieties are grafted on to seedling rootstock. At Monrovia’s facility, the grafting process takes about eight months. The grafted trees spend time in a greenhouse, eventually being moved outside to a container field.

Each tree spends a few years in the field, where it is maintained and shaped. The trees are transferred to bigger pots as they grow. When they reach the desired size, they are shipped out to a garden center.

Cuttings grown in a sandy mix have developed roots and are beginning to grow, ready to be transplanted to the next growing media.


Cuttings or tissue cultures of shrubs, trees, or perennials are placed in cells with growing media to develop roots.

Rooted Cuttings
Creating new plants from vegetative cuttings involves taking parts of an existing mature plant called the mother plant. Propagation managers’ work with inventory managers to determine the number of plants needed. Often times, they’re estimating the number of plants garden centers will need three to five years down the line.

Propagation teams cut the stems or branches from the mother plant, then the cuttings are placed in rooting hormones to boost root growth. Stems can be placed in sand or another growing medium that makes it easy for the roots to grow quickly. Once the cutting reaches a certain growth stage, it can be transferred into a pot.

Spring Meadow Nursery, based in Grand Haven, Michigan, provides starter plants, called liners, to nurseries around the country for them to grow on to retail size. “The length of the vegetative propagation process depends on the variety and the time of year,” said Stacey Hirvela, horticulture marketing specialist at Spring Meadow. “Some plants will root very quickly while others take a long time. And some plants will root quickly at one time of the year and more slowly during others.

”At Spring Meadow, the cuttings go right into soil. “The cuttings are brought into our sticking room where a crew will place them into cells or pots,” said Hirvela. “As they pot them up, the trays slide down the line and get watered, which settles the soil around the stem and starts signaling to the plant that conditions are right for root formation.”

At Bailey Nurseries’ facilities, cuttings also go into liners, but some cuttings spend time in sterilized sand. The cuttings are placed in the sandy growing medium in a greenhouse. The sand is a very porous, allowing for good drainage, yet still holds up well under the consistently misting conditions the new cuttings require.

Once optimal root growth is attained, the plants can go into a garden bed, larger liner or a container. They’ll spend time in a greenhouse, out in a container field or split both locations. Here they are watered, fertilized and trimmed to reach their best growth potential. They can also be repotted in larger containers as they grow. It can take two years or longer for the rooted cuttings to reach the size and quality needed for the plant to be sold at a garden center.

Tissue culture involves taking tiny pieces of plants for propagation. The pieces develop into the exact same plant as the one from which the cuttings were taken.

Tissue Culture
A third propagation method is called tissue culture. Stepping into the tissue culture lab at Monrovia Nurseries facility is a very futuristic experience. Every part of the lab is sterile and each technician has a very specific and intricate job. With tissue culture, new plants are created from an original plant using very small cuttings. Technicians separate tiny parts of the plant, then transfer those parts into a growing medium in a sterile container, such as a test tube or glass jar. This method allows nurseries to create several offspring from one parent plant. Each of the new plants is an exact replica of the parent plant, almost like a clone.

Nurseries use tissue culture for a number of different reasons. If enough root stock is not available, tissue culture provides an alternative for propagation. For some varieties, it can be a faster way to create more plants. Creating new plants from tissue culture also protects the availability of varieties. “If we were to have an issue in the nursery, say a particular pest or disease, that wiped out all of the root stock of one type of plant, having a stock of that plant in tissue culture means that plant would not be lost,” said Sam Huang, a craftsman at Monrovia.

‘Great Expectations’ hosta (H. ‘Great Expectations’) is propagated by tissue culture and grown in glass jars until ready to transplant into cells, or other potting media.

As the new plants created from tissue culture grow, they can be transferred to larger containers within the lab and eventually may become plugs – small plants placed into soil. These plugs are brought into the greenhouse to continue the growing process, and eventually are planted into containers and grown in the field.

All three nurseries ship plants to garden centers across the country, providing much of the inventory gardeners purchase. Growing plants to sell to home gardeners is not at all like producing other products. Plants are living things that are affected by weather, water, disease, and many other influences that typically wouldn’t have an impact on other types of consumer products.

Next time you’re browsing through a garden center, take a moment to appreciate the time, talent and artistry these craftsman provide to bring us each wonderful new plant.

Cuttings or tissue cultures are placed in plugs, held in trays until they reach a size where they can be planted into a pot or larger tray. Then, they are shipped to nurseries, greenhouses, or garden centers to finish off, sometimes called growing on, until they are retail ready.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Kathleen Hennessy, Proven Winners/Colorchoice Flowering Shrubs, and Bailey Nurseries.



Posted: 05/09/17   RSS | Print


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Digging In
by Marie Harrison       #Advice   #Misc

Many people move to Florida every year from all sorts of places. Before long, these newcomers realize that gardening in Florida is different than it was “back home.” I was once one of these “newbies,” so I can vouch for the reality check that occurs when people attempt to garden in our sunshine state using the plants and practices that were successful in other parts of the country. Even people who have lived in Florida for years, upon reaching retirement age and finding time to garden, have little notion how to go about it. If you are searching for ways to learn more about gardening and become more involved in it, here are a few suggestions to help you get started.

Bill Hagan, president of the Tri-county Beekeepers Association in northwest Florida, explains the process of caring for beehives to a group of Okaloosa County Master Gardeners as part of their required education hours.

Master Gardener Program
The Florida Master Gardener program offers many opportunities for people to learn about gardening. Sponsored by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, master gardeners are tasked with assisting their county’s horticulture extension agent in providing research-based gardening information to the public. Prospective master gardeners go through an extensive training period by attending a series of classes taught by extension agents and other experts. In return for this training, a certain number of volunteer hours per year are required.

Florida’s master gardener program is overseen by Wendy Wilber, the state coordinator ( While she can certainly answer most questions related to gardening, the master gardener programs and activities are organized first by region and then by county. If you cannot find the information you need online (, or if you cannot determine who your horticulture extension agent is, consult the regional director for your area.

If you are not interested in becoming a master gardener yourself, you can still depend on your horticulture extension agent and the master gardeners in your area for answers to gardening questions. Many of them offer programs, demonstrations, plant clinics, and other activities to assist residents.

Valparaiso Garden Club installed and maintains a pollinator garden at the Heritage Museum of Northwest Florida. This garden is used extensively to teach the students and the public about pollinators and their importance.

Garden Clubs
Garden clubs offer a great way to meet other gardeners. Many of these groups are for gardeners with special interests or in specific areas. My garden club gives members access to a floral design study group and to a horticulture study group. Both of these groups meet regularly and are open to the public as part of the educational outreach of the clubs involved. In addition, a pollinator garden, plant potting parties and plant sales, field trips, youth groups, standard flower shows, and other activities offer something for almost everyone. Learning and teaching about gardening and floral design are both at the heart of garden club activities.

While many garden clubs in Florida do not belong to the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs, they are worthwhile entities and offer much to members. However, they are not organized into a larger unit, and information about them is hard to find. The Florida Federation of Garden Clubs is divided into 12 districts, each with a director. These directors can help you determine which garden clubs are in your area and put you in contact with them.

Members of the Tri-County Horticulture Studies Group visit Dragon’s Meade Daylily Farm in Panama City. This group is an outreach program of federated garden clubs in Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, and Walton Counties. The study group is open to the public and anyone interested in learning more about gardening is welcome.

Plant Societies and Specialty Garden Clubs
For people with very specific interests, a plant society might be a better choice. Many plant societies or other specialty gardening groups can be found in Florida. For instance, the Deep South District of the American Rose Society has 25 active rose societies, 13 of which are in Florida. Most of these groups meet monthly and have programs given by knowledgeable rosarians in addition to activities such as garden tours and rose shows. Their website ( has a wealth of information, including an impressive photo gallery, lists of consulting rosarians and their contacts, upcoming events, and a comprehensive library with articles with information about growing roses in the Deep South. There are several specialty clubs that have an emphasis on specific plants.

The Mary Esther Community Garden offers 4-foot by 10-foot raised beds where residents can grow crops. Many community gardens offer similar opportunities for people who do not have space to garden.

Community Gardens
If you do not have room to garden in your own backyard, community gardens may offer just the solution. The website will help you find a community garden near you. By searching this site, I found three within 10 miles of my home. If you are interested in starting a community garden, help can be found online at

Growing for Food Banks
The Garden Writers Association encourages their readers to Plant a Row for the Hungry. Many gardeners grow more food than they can eat. Estimations indicate that well over 100 billion pounds of food are thrown away each year in the United States. At the same time, over 49 million people do not have the food they need. Through a process called gleaning, much of this waste could feed the hungry. The gleaners collect excess food from farms, gardens, fairs, grocers, farmers’ markets, restaurants, and other sources and distribute it to the people who need it. If this interests you, a toolkit to help you get started can be found at (

There are many opportunities to learn more about gardening. Visits to your local garden center will teach you much about plants that thrive in your area. Attending programs offered by garden clubs, master gardeners, plant nurseries, and specialty groups will help you get started. Trips to botanical gardens, state and national parks, as well as books and magazines are all sources of information. You need only to take advantage of the many available resources to become more involved in gardening.

Standard flower shows, given by garden clubs that are affiliated with The National Federation of Garden Clubs, take place throughout Florida. Garden club members get a chance to show off their best horticulture and floral designs, and visitors can learn much about plants that grow well in their area.

Florida Extension Administrative Districts

Northwest – Dr. Pete Vergot, 850-875-7137,

Counties: Bay, Calhoon, Escambia, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Wakulla, Walton, Washington

Northeast – Dr. Eric Simonne, 352-392-1781,

Counties: Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Citrus, Clay, Columbia, Dixie, Duval, Gilchrist, Hamilton, LaFayette, Levy, Madison, Nassau, Suwannee, Taylor, Union

Central – Dr. Tim Momol, 352-392-1781,

Counties: Flagler, Hernando, Lake, Marion, Orange, Oceola, Putnam, Seminole, St. Johns, Sumter, Volusia

South Central – Brenda Rogers, 813-757-2195,

Counties: Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hardee, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pasco, Polk, Pinellas, Sarasota

South – Dr. Joe Schaefer, 561-993-1280,

Counties: Brevard, Broward, Glades, Hendry, Highlands, Indian River, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Okeechobee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie, The Seminole Tribe

District Directors for the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs

District I, Sharon Johnson, 850-293-4902,
Counties: Santa Rosa, Escambia, Okaloosa, Walton

District II, Louise Michaels, 850-326-1257,
Counties: Holmes, Washington, Jackson, Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Liberty, Gadsden

District III, Lucilla Heinrich, 386-362-5995,
Counties: Franklin, Wakulla, Leon, Jefferson, Madison, Taylor, Hamilton, Suwannee, Lafayette

District IV, Carolyn H. Stevens, 904-247-8269,
Counties: Baker, Union, Nassau, Duval, Clay, St. Johns, Putnam

District V, Louise Allen, 352-799-3160,
Counties: Columbia, Dixie, Gilchrist, Bradford, Alachua, Citrus, Hernando, Levy, Marion

District VI, Kathleen Terlizzo, 386-864-7460,
Counties: Flagler, Volusia, Brevard

District VII, Owaissa Vanderberg, 352-241-9506,
Counties: Sumter, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole

District VIII, Barbara Jacobson, 941-475-9359,
Counties: Pasco, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota

District IX, Kathleen Hawryluk, 239-455-5113,
Counties: Polk, Hardee, DeSoto, Highlands, Charlotte, Lee, Collier

District X, Donna Berger, 772-286-4718,
Counties: Okeechobee, Indian River, St. Lucie, Glades, Martin, Hendry, Palm Beach

District XI, Barbara Horan, 954-698-0109,
Counties: Broward

District XII, Deborah Ann Smith, 305-964-5186,
Counties: Dade, Monroe

Camellia japonica ‘Pleasant Memories’ in the Greater Fort Walton Beach Camellia Society’s show is one among hundreds of beautiful exhibits. Many plant societies exist in Florida where people can learn about gardening with specific plants.

Specialty Garden Organizations in Florida

• American Hibiscus Society, Venice (
• Florida Palm and Cycad Society, Maitland (
• Florida Native Plant Society, Ft. Myers (
• Florida Council of Bromeliad Societies (
• American Bamboo Society, Florida Caribbean Chapter (

Fairchild Garden in Miami houses at least three societies:
• Tropical Fern and Exotic Plant Society (
• Tropical Flowering Tree Society (
• American Orchid Society headquartered at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Fairchild Campus, Coral Gables (

• American Camellia Society (at least 8 chapters in Florida) (
• Florida Forestry Association (


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 21 Number 4.
Photography courtesy of Marie Harrison.


Posted: 05/09/17   RSS | Print


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Squish the Squash Bug
by Darren Sheriff       #Insects   #Pests   #Vegetables

Mature squash bugs resemble stink bugs a little bit, but you will know it’s them when you find them on your squash and melons, some of their favorite foods.

The squash bug is common throughout the United States, and it is one of those creatures that truly has a logical name. The Anasa tristis is a true bug, and you surely want to “squash” it when seen.

Although many insects are referred to as bugs, only the insects in the order Hemiptera are true bugs. One of the characteristics of a bug is that insects of this order have piercing-and-sucking mouthparts, which work like a straw to suck plant sap.

Squash bugs are found from Canada to Central America, and are often mistaken for stink bugs. They even emit a foul odor when disturbed and squashed, just like a stink bug; however, true stink bugs are in a different bug family.

Adult squash bugs are rather big, about 5⁄8-inch long and approximately 1⁄4-inch wide. Adults have wings and are brownish black, sometimes mottled with gray or light brown, and have a flat back.




Here you can see the different stages of a squash bug’s life cycle, from eggs (left) to larva to adult.


The eggs, which are laid in the spring, are elliptical, 1⁄16-inch long, and yellowish to bronze or brick red. They will darken in color as they mature. They are usually laid in clusters of anywhere from 12 to 20 eggs on the undersides of leaves and in between leaf veins. An average female can lay up to 250 eggs.

When the young first hatch they have a light green-blue abdomen and black heads and legs. As the nymphs grow larger, they first turn light gray and then progressively brownish gray, with black legs and antennae. Usually only one generation per year is expected, except in the southern United States, where there can be two generations in one season.

As you can determine from its name, squash would be this insect’s favorite food. They prefer yellow summer squash, winter squashes such as ‘Hubbard’, and some types of pumpkins. There are a few varieties of squashes that don’t seem to show up on their menus as often. These include Royal acorn and butternut. They also seem to not be a big fan of zucchini squash.

This close up shows you the sucking part of the squash bug, which helps classify it as a true bug.

Squash bugs are very shy, and they will scamper away when approached. They like to hide in plant crowns, beneath damaged leaves or any protected spot. Early detection of adult squash bugs is very important, since once they come to town they are difficult to kill and can cause considerable damage with their feeding.

Squash bugs’ feeding on the leaves will cause spots that are initially yellow, then they turn brown and eventually black and crispy. This is from them sucking all the nutrients out of the plant and leaving it to starve. If the population of squash bugs is so bad that they destroy the plant, especially late in the season, they will turn to the fruit. As they feed on the fruit it will cause scars and sunken areas that make the fruit unmarketable and susceptible to rot.

To control squash bugs, one of the most important things to do is maintain healthy plants. Putting plants in the proper place, watering correctly and not overfertilizing are all important. Healthy plants are usually less attractive to pests and they can actually tolerate some squash bug feeding without you losing your entire crop.

Sanitation is crucial. Adult, unmated squash bugs overwinter in the shelter of dead leaves, vines or pieces of wood and will fly to vines when they start to grow in the spring. You can actually use this bit of their habit against them. Adult squash bugs can be trapped beneath shingles or cardboard placed under the plants. This leaves them susceptible in the morning. You can also disrupt the cycle by plowing over your squash garden, or by rotating your crops.

These brown spots are the first sign that squash bugs have been sucking the nutrients out of your squash leaves.

Prevention is your best bet, but if it comes down to using insecticides, there are several out there that are labeled specifically for squash bugs. You will want to scout them out early in the season. Early detection is important because the younger nymphs are easier to control with insecticides. Spray in the early morning hours or the late afternoon – this is the time when the beneficial insects in your garden are less likely to be harmed by the insecticide. Make sure you read the warning labels and follow them explicitly. Beware of the chemical option however, as squash bugs develop resistance to insecticides very quickly.

Within the past decade a disease has been associated with squash bugs — cucurbit yellow vine disease (CYVD). The bacterium is transmitted by the squash bug. It can inflict heavy losses to melons, pumpkins and squash. The affected plants usually exhibit stunting, yellowing and gradual decline beginning about 10 to14 days prior to harvest. The squash bug can also carry the bacterium through the winter and continue to spread it the following spring.

As you can see this “true bug” can really be a nuisance. If you find yourself in the company of it and only have a few vines to worry about, take the title of this article to heart and squish those squash bugs!


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 24 Number 5.
Photography courtesy of Darren Sheriff.


Posted: 05/09/17   RSS | Print


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Ghosts In Our Landscapes
by Pamela Ruch    

Osage orange: a fruit unloved by man and (existing) beast

Maybe you have seen the warty, lumpy, softball-sized green balls along the side of a country road. They fall from the trees in October and, more often than not, are still lying there in December. Maybe you’ve run over them, their soft yellowish flesh giving way with a gentle pop to the weight of your tires. Drivers behind you might notice the pulpy imprint of your passing. Like a pie crust under a rolling pin, the splat in the road flattens and expands with each succeeding set of tires; a day or two later it is likely to have faded to nothing.

The warty balls have a pleasant smell, a little like an orange peel. Unlike most tree fruits, they are not devoured by deer — or other animals either for that matter — but left to rot where they fall. The fruits are called “monkey balls,” “hedge apples” or, more commonly, Osage oranges, also the name of the tree that bears them (Maclura pomifera).


The seeds of the Osage orange are encased in soft, squishy flesh.

There is a theory about why the fruit of the Osage orange tree is so universally disdained (rumor has it that even spiders run from it although this has not stood up to the rigor of scientific investigation). According to science writer Connie Barlow, who is the author of The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms, (Basic Books, 2000), Maclura pomifera is an “ecological anachronism” with a ghost for a dispersal partner. The mastodons and wooly mammoths it evolved with had mouths big enough to take in the entire pulpy ball, and, the theory goes, deposit the seed in the course of their wanderings, enabling the tree species to expand its range to wherever the beasts might roam. As it is now, the tree is, literally, on a downhill slide. Seeds are dependent on gravity, or water, to take them to lower ground.

These Kentucky coffee tree pods (tasted and rejected by squirrels) are short and flat, rather than long and plump because there is not a male tree near enough for pollination to occur.

The Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioicus) is another ecological anachronism. Though native, it is rare in the wild and found mostly on floodplains. Long after the branches are bare of leaves, female trees sport 5-10-inch, tough, woody pods, which fall to the ground in winter to be dispersed by water, if at all. Inside the pods are rounded, hard-shelled seeds encased in a sweet sticky pulp. So tough are the seeds that they resist germination, even after months of soaking — which makes you wonder how the tree was able to persist into the present. Barlow proposes that mastodons, which became extinct about 11,000 years ago, may have been attracted to the sweet pulp, and that they ground the pods between their molars, freeing the seeds and scarifying them so that they would take in water and sprout.

The pawpaw tree is native to the eastern United States. Unlike Osage orange, animals love the tasty fruits.

The theory of ghostly partners extends to other species as well. Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a temperate version of the banana or mango; except that those fruits can be picked when they’re hard and green, and, yes, shippable, whereas pawpaw has a shelf life of about a minute (OK, three days).

Clonal patches of pawpaw can be found in eastern forests, but they are apt to be distant from other patches, so there’s little transfer of pollen between genetically different individuals, therefore no helpful shuffling of genes. This is not a good survival strategy. In the case of the pawpaw, the suspected missing link is the pollinator. The flowers are not built for bees, and, according to Kentucky State University, “the natural pollinators of the pawpaw — various species of flies and beetles — are not efficient or dependable.” Barlow reasons that the pawpaw flowers were once pollinated by an insect, probably a beetle, that is now extinct. If the fruit were less perishable we would have more of an incentive to assume the role of pawpaw pollinator, which would help the species to survive — at least for the human-populated present.

The list of ecological anachronisms includes honey locust and gingko and desert gourds. The “ghosts” that left them behind were imposing creatures such as the mastodon and the giant sloth, as well as obscure insects, like the beetle suspected of servicing the pawpaw. And so, the story of fleshy fruits and woody pods that rot beneath the trees that bore them is the story of the earth. It is populated by the ghosts of dispersal partners and pollinators, a few of which leave behind clues that hint at their existence. Most, in all likelihood, do not.


This article appeared in a December 2014 edition of the State-by-State Gardening Newsletter.
Photography courtesy of Pamela Ruch.


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In Defense of Spiders
by Kristi Cook       #Beneficials   #Insects   #Wildlife

This wolf spider is hiding among the grass hunting for prey and will consume hundreds of insects during its lifetime.

Spiders are perhaps some of the most feared and misunderstood inhabitants of any garden. Quickly squashed into “bug juice” without a moment’s hesitation, these beneficials rarely find safe refuge in their garden homes. Yet, despite their fearsome reputations, wise gardeners learn to appreciate these hungry monsters as they go about their daily business patrolling for pests such as mosquitos, flies, aphids, and leafhoppers. Knowing how to live side by side in harmony is a simple matter of understanding what makes them tick – or twitch.

The black and yellow argiope spider weaves the prettiest of webs, with its zigzagged pattern and lace-like webbing.

Spiders catch their prey in roughly three different ways, depending on the species. The most noticeable are the opportunistic web weavers that spin delicate curtains throughout the garden and then literally hang out until a meal arrives. Other web builders prefer unruly looking cobwebs placed in dark corners to catch their prey, while some ground dwellers create funnel-shaped webs in nooks and crannies along the ground to catch insects and small animals that have the misfortune of falling into the web’s hole.

Some species, however, forego the requisite webs, choosing instead to ambush unsuspecting prey. For instance, crab spiders like to play hide and seek by camouflaging themselves inside or even atop flowers. As soon as a fly, bee, or other insect stops for a sip of nectar, the spider attacks, instantly devouring its catch.

Others are not quite so patient. Wolf spiders and jumping spiders are two species that prefer to take a more active approach to dinner by literally hunting down prey, much like a wolf or fox. Hidden among the bushes or leaves, these spiders stalk their prey, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. Should you happen to have a water source in your garden, you may even find fishing spiders, or what some of us call water spiders. These spiders are so eager to capture breakfast that they’ll dive down into the water to fetch it.

Regardless of how it obtains its prey, each species plays an integral role in keeping the garden’s ecosystem in balance, with aphids, mealy worms, mites, and beetles being just a few of their favorite dishes. To encourage these pest-fighting creatures to call your garden home, utilize a few basic gardening practices such as avoiding pesticides and providing safe havens. For instance, just as mulch keeps your plants cool and moist throughout the summer, it keeps the ground dwellers cool and hydrated as well. Plantings of tall flowers, shrubs, and vegetables offer the perfect place for web weavers to spin their webs. And mass plantings of colorful flowers provide the perfect hiding places for crab spiders, too.

Left: A mother wolf spider attaches her egg sac to her spinnerets and carries it with her until the spiderlings hatch. Upon hatching, she continues to carry her babies on her back until they are mature enough to fend for themselves. Right: This brown sac contains hundreds of spiderlings waiting to be released. Many spiderlings produce balloon-like webbing to help them float to new homes.


Don’t Be Scared!

Despite the commonality of arachnophobia, of the nearly 4,000 species in the U.S., only four – recluses, black widows, hobos, and yellow sac spiders – are generally considered venomous, or potentially harmful, to humans. Fortunately, these particular spiders have one more thing in common – reclusiveness. None are considered aggressive, preferring instead to escape by burrowing into their hidey-holes or scampering away, rather than wasting venom on something too large to eat. As a result, the likelihood of being bitten is quite small with the side effects of a rare bite being easily treated with little to no long-term effects.

Perhaps just as important, these arachnids are like any other beneficial during the cold winter months and need protection from the elements. Old cornstalks, plant debris, and covered ground offer some of the best places to pass the cold days of winter. It’s also a good idea to include a few piles of rocks or wood throughout your garden for those that prefer more solid surroundings during hibernation. Should you accidentally uncover a spider when it’s cold out, don’t assume it’s dead. Just carefully recover and leave that space alone until warmer weather returns.

Inviting spiders into your garden guarantees the occasional surprise encounter. To avoid accidental bites, wear gloves when reaching under rocks or crevices, inside plants, or when removing debris. It’s also a good idea to look first and reach in second. By using this approach, I’ve never had a poisonous spider stick around and try to battle it out. Usually, all I see is its tail end as it runs for cover. If, however, you think a venomous spider has bitten you, seek medical care as soon as possible to reduce the likelihood of complications.

This crab spider hid among the blackberries, waiting to ambush the next creature that landed within striking distance. The spider didn’t hesitate to consume its prey.


Of all the creepy crawlers lurking about my garden, my favorites are undoubtedly the spiders with their dangling legs and ferocious-looking fangs. All too often I find myself mesmerized as I put my picking basket down in favor of studying the intricacies of a glistening spider’s web or kneeling in the grass to watch a momma wolf spider carry her precious cargo around, all the while keeping each and every one of her many eyes fastened on my movements. Learning to appreciate these hungry arachnids is all about understanding their habits and taking a few minor precautions such as donning gloves and practicing awareness.


A version of this article appeared in an October 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Kristi Cook.


Posted: 05/09/17   RSS | Print


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Harvesting Happiness
by Laura Matthews       #Homesteading   #New Trends   #Sustainability and Self-Sufficiency











Andrew Odom in his backyard homestead.

Placing seeds in sweet soil, backyard homesteaders grow food to grow a better life. Within the trend of increased interest in vegetable gardening, there are families who intensively garden, not as a hobby, but as a way of life. In a sense, they create mini-farms.

Bubbling up in about 2007, due in part to food contamination scares, the interest in changing your yard into a garden — known as backyard homesteading — is based on a desire for an overall improved quality of life. Homesteaders grow happier lives by providing food for their own tables. This gives them access to safe and healthy foods and the freedom of self-sufficiency. Important also is the satisfaction that they are gardening sustainably. Some homesteaders raise livestock and most learn food-preservation techniques.

Noticing the pristine quality of the rich soil around his home, homesteader Andrew Odom, author of the blog Tiny Revolution, had a life-changing thought about gardening.

“I looked at the land around me and thought, ‘Here I am driving 30 minutes to buy organic at Trader Joe’s. And I thought, ‘I can do that right here,’ and we just started,” said Odom.

“We started and we thought, this is true freedom,” says Odom, “We can grow and eat whatever we want.” He says that kind of freedom is addictive, “For us, our little taste of freedom happened in the dirt.” Odom raises food with the help of his wife, Crystal. They have a daughter, Tillie.

Andrew Odom moves hay with a garden fork. Homesteaders create mini-farms near their homes.

“Backyard farming is an act of revolution,” says Wilson Alvarez, of Lancaster, Pa., co-owner of Homegrown Edible Landscaping company. “We are actively saying, we aren’t going to eat exactly what you want us to eat. We aren’t going to grow exactly what you want us to grow. And we’re not going to grow it in the way our grandparents did. We’re going to grow in a way that’s best for the Earth.”

Homesteaders come from all classes and from a wide range of political leanings. Common, however, is a deep concern about the health of our soil. Most homesteaders garden organically and try to create as little waste as possible. Another shared trait is the desire to care for their health through food choices.

“We chose to pay more attention to the front end of our healthcare than the back end,” says Odom expressing the preference to pay the farmer for good food rather than pay the doctor to remedy illnesses from poor nutrition.

Several terms define the same culture. Backyard homesteader, urban homesteader, backyard farmer, and neo-homesteader are all used to describe the culture. Odom and Alvarez like the term neo-homesteading. Both families raise a significant portion of their food on their property. Alvarez raises enough to feed a family of four. They like neo-homesteading because they are very much part of the modern world.

Andrew Odom holds freshly harvested eggs.

“We’re neo-homesteaders because while we are rooted in sustainability but aren’t removed from society,” says Odom. “We have our cell phones, Internet, and we like to go to a good rock concert or a movie as much as the next guy. We’re not survivalists at all.

“Neo-homesteading is rooted academically in the understanding that growing our food is a freedom, in being able to source our own food, and in our ability to eat healthily and free of chemicals,” adds Odom.

While neo-homesteaders have no desire to separate from mainstream America, they do enjoy the self-sufficiency that growing food affords.

“When I look out at my garden, I feel very resilient, self reliant,” says Alvarez. “Especially since all my seeds are open-pollinated — regardless of what happens and regardless of outside pressures and influences, this garden is sustainable. I can preserve this garden without any outside input.”

Onions are one of the many vegetables Andrew and Crystal grow.

“I express freedom by planting a seed and watching it grow,” says Odom.

A garden creates independence while conversely creating a community.

“Tomatoes growing in a yard bring people together who’d never met before. If you have a patch of grass you’re never in, no one is ever there. But if you are in your garden, your garden will be a magnet for others. Community is an important product of a garden,” says Alvarez.

For homesteaders, many things come from the soil. A happy life is the most important harvest.

“To me, it’s an investment in the overall quality of our life. It’s not a hipster movement for us. It’s a lifestyle choice,” says Odom.


A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Eric Prine, Theron Humphrey, and Andrew Odom.


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There’s an App for That!
by Kylee Baumle       #New Trends   #Tech & Gadgets   #Tools


In addition to books, classes and magazines, you can glean a lot of gardening knowledge from your smartphone and tablet.

Gardening is a hands-on activity. We need to (and like to) get down and dirty while practicing our craft, but after we’ve come back inside and cleaned the dirt from underneath our fingernails (toenails too, sometimes), we can continue from our chair where we left off in the garden.

Basics never change – plant a seed and watch it grow – but some of the ways we do things have. Seeking help and gaining new knowledge about our plants and how to grow them is very much a part of the digital age, as evidenced by the growing number of garden-related apps developed for use with tablets and smartphones.

When deciding which apps are worth taking up space on your smartphone’s hard drive, be sure to read users’ comments and reviews that accompany the app listings. Keep in mind that not everyone is as comfortable with technology as some, and comments may be a reflection of that.

Here are some of the gardening-related apps that are available in iTunes and Google Play:

Garden Time Planner


Garden Planning

• Gardening Tool Kit (iOS) from Applied Objects. This app, which claims to have it all, does have a lot: a database of more than 1,000 plants, month-by-month advice, idea lists, watering guide and more. $1.99.

• Garden Plan Pro (iOS) from Growing Interactive. Helps you plan and keep track of your vegetable, herb and fruit gardens with suggestions based on your location. $7.99.

• Garden Time Planner (iOS, Android) from Burpee. Vegetables and herbs are featured with all the information you need to have a successful edible garden, including links to videos, region-specific tips and task lists. Free.



Home Outside Palette 

Landscape Design

• Home Outside Palette (iOS, Android) from Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio. One of the best landscape design apps I’ve seen, allowing the backyard gardener to create professional-looking renderings of their own designs, which can be shared via email and social media. A desktop version is being developed. Free, plus in-app purchase options.

• iScape (iOS, Android) from iScape Apps. This is a pretty standard landscape design app that allows you to create images of your design ideas. The basic app is free, but most of the elements you’ll use in your design cost extra. Free, plus in-app purchase options.

Plant Reference and Field Guides

• Landscaper’s Companion (iOS) from Stevenson Software, LLC. With a database of more than 26,000 plants with about 21,000 pictures, this app boasts of being the number-one plant reference guide available. An upgrade with additional pro features is optional. $4.99 basic/additional $4.99 pro upgrade.

Plant Picks for Small Gardens, Leafsnap

Armitage's Greatest Perennials and Annuals

Dirr's Tree & Shrub Finder, Garden Compass


Local Pickins, Farmstand

• Plant Picks For Small Gardens (iOS, Android) from Sutro Media. More than 90 plants are featured as viable choices for small spaces with sorting by USDA Zone, flower color, drought tolerance and more. Basic gardening information plus links to videos and online nurseries are included. $2.99.

• Audubon Wildflowers (iOS, Android) from Green Mountain Digital. Get help with identification of more than 1600 North American wildflowers. Includes range maps, color photos and natural history. Just one of several Audubon apps. $4.99/$3.99.

• Leafsnap (iOS) from Columbia University, University of Maryland and Smithsonian Institution. Uses visual recognition software to help identify plants from your photos of their leaves. Free.

• Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder (iOS) from Timber Press. Based on Dr. Michael Dirr’s classic and popular book, The Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, this app contains information on more than 9,400 woody plants, searchable by 72 criteria. $14.99.

• Armitage’s Greatest Perennials and Annuals (iOS, Android) from Sutro Media. More than 70 genera of plants are featured, including photos and videos with growing tips and why each plant made Dr. Allan Armitage’s list of the greatest. $4.99.

• Garden Compass Plant/Disease Identifier (iOS, Android) from TeamSOA, Inc. Take a photo and submit it and you’ll get identification of plants, diseases and pests from their team of horticulture experts. Free.

• Sprout It (iOS, Android, Desktop) from Växa Design Group in partnership with Miracle-Gro. Get help with plant choices, how to grow, common problems, storage, cooking tips and more. Location based for a personalized experience. Free.

Local Farm Markets

If you don’t grow your own, and you want fresh local produce, these apps will help you locate it:

• Fresh Food Finder (iOS, Android) from Andrew Trice. Free.

• Farmstand (iOS, Android, Desktop) from Mostly Brothers. Free.

• Local Pickins (iOS, Android) from Local Pickins. Free.

The biggest share of gardening apps are developed for the iPhone and iPad, but Android users will find plenty to choose from. Many of the iPhone apps already have Android versions and others have indicated that they’re in the works, so keep checking Google Play for current offerings.

Both iTunes and Google Play suggest other similar apps on the same page as the one you’re looking at, so be sure to take a look at those, too. You can also search on each of those download sites using the search term “garden” or google “garden apps” to find other available apps.


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Michelle Byrne Walsh.


Posted: 05/02/17   RSS | Print


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Minding Your Peas
by Kate Jerome       #Recipes   #Vegetables   #Vines

‘Sugar Ann’ snap peas are among the earliest varieties to ripen.

What’s not to like about peas? The fresh green pods are the epitome of spring. That sweet burst of flavor that explodes in your mouth gives the nod to enjoy the cool spring days, which precede the warm days ahead. Peas are the perfect accompaniment to the sparkling greens of spring, and a quick stop at early farmers markets should give you all you need for delicious spring dining.

There are so many types of peas (Pisum sativum), from garden or English peas that must be shelled, to snap and snow peas with edible pods. If you are purchasing, make sure to ask the farmer which is which, so you know exactly how to prepare them. Since peas are so versatile and can be eaten fresh or cooked, there are a myriad of recipes to take advantage of the early harvest.


‘Super Sprint’ snap peas can be eaten in their entirety when the peas inside are young, or left to mature to produce a shelling pea.

Pod Types
Simply shelling garden peas or snapping edible pod peas and tossing them into salads will give you a burst of spring flavor.

Lightly cooked spring peas make a delectably sweet pureed soup when mixed with sautéed onions and garlic, and of course, a touch of fresh cream (or half and half).

Peas have a texture similar to avocado, so try processing fresh peas until smooth and adding to your favorite guacamole recipe. The sweetness of the peas is perfect with creamy avocados. The lime juice will keep the avocados as bright green as the peas and give a piquancy that delights the senses.

Grow Your Own
All types of peas need similar growing conditions and they are so easy to grow that it’s a waste not to get them in the ground every year. They finish their season early, so their garden space can be filled with summer vegetables, such as green beans or cucumbers.

Some pea varieties are compact, not growing much more than 2 feet, but others can produce vines that are 4-5 feet tall. And even though the seed package may say the peas don’t need support, putting them on a trellis or fencing will make them produce better and be much easier to pick. Branches from pruned trees or shrubs stuck in the ground make a great trellis.

‘Oregon Giant’ snow peas will keep producing well into summer, long after other peas have given up.


Green Pea Dip Bruschetta

Green pea bruschetta will make a surprising addition to your tapas bar. Easy- to-make, green pea puree serves well as a spread or dip for vegetables.

1 cup shelled garden peas(or thawed frozen peas)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup fresh basil leaves (you can change the herbs to suit your taste)
Salt and pepper, to taste

Pulse in a food processor until almost smooth, but with some texture. Serve as a dip for fresh vegetables or spread puree on toasted slices of French bread and top with a dollop crème fraiche, crumbled cooked bacon and a garnish of frisee or pea shoots.

Plant Early
Peas can be planted out in spring, a month before the last frost, and then again in late summer for harvest in fall. The earlier the start they get, the better they will produce, since they tend to shut down as soon as the weather gets hot.

Soak the pea seeds overnight to help with germination, and sprinkle the peas with legume inoculant, if you haven’t grown peas before. If you grow peas every year, take a shovelful of soil from the old planting site to inoculate the new planting bed.

Peas thrive in average garden soil that is well drained and rich with organic matter. Best of all, they need no fertilizer. Prepare your planting bed and poke the seeds 1 inch deep in a row about 2 inches apart on both sides of a trellis. When the peas appear, tuck about 2 inches of organic mulch around the plants. As they grow, gently direct the vines onto the trellis. The plants will do the rest.

Harvest daily. Pick garden peas when the pods are plump and shiny. Pick snow peas when the peas inside are just beginning to show, and snap peas when they are plump, but not bumpy with mature peas inside. If you make it to the kitchen with any peas that aren’t eaten along the way, refrigerate immediately to stop the sugars from turning to starch. Blanch and freeze what you cannot eat in a couple of days.

Peas are beautiful when used as ornamentals, too, such as ‘Blue Pod’ peas and ‘Swiss Giant’ snow peas, which have lavender flowers.


Pea Shoots

Pea shoots are a delicious, healthy addition to salads and soups.

Leftover pea seeds from last year? Since it’s a good idea to start your outdoor pea crop with new seeds each year, use these extra pea seeds to make a delectable crop of vitamin-packed pea shoots.

First make sure the pea seeds have not been treated with a fungicide (it will say so on the seed packet). Next, soak the peas overnight in warm water.

Get a flat tray ready with 1 inch or so of sterile potting soil. A flat that annuals come in from the garden center works well, because it has drainage holes. Make sure to put a tray underneath to catch the drips.

Gently moisten the soil and sprinkle the surface with the soaked peas. They can be quite crowded, since you are not growing them to maturity. Don’t poke down into the soil and don’t cover with more soil. This will slow down germination.

Cover the flat with another flat, a roasting pan or something to keep the humidity high. Check daily. Once the seeds germinate, remove the cover and move into the light.

You can start harvesting when the shoots are 3-4 inches tall. It will take about three to four weeks to get to this size. If they get much taller, they tend to get tougher.

Snip the shoots close to the seed, gently wash and refrigerate. You may be able to get a second growth, but this is not always successful. Then, put the seed and roots into the compost bin and start again with new seeds and fresh soil.


A version of this article appeared in March/April 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Kate Jerome and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.


Posted: 05/02/17   RSS | Print


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Protect Yourself
by Monica Brandies       #Health and Safety   #Insects   #Pests

Verna and Robert Dickey of Brandon have this sign in the shady part of their garden.
A relative made it for them.

To reduce the number of mosquitoes by hundreds, empty any standing water so mosquito larvae will not have time to hatch into bloodsuckers. Keep goldfish in rain barrels that are not completely closed, to eat the larvae. Frogs can add a few thousand tadpoles that will also eat the larva in the summer. Both keep the water cleaner.

If you have neither of these, you can gather Spanish moss and put it in any of your containers and it will kill most of the mosquito larvae. A little crushing of the moss will open cells to release their properties in the water. The moss also adds nutrients to make the water a fertilizer solution.

You can buy and put in the water in rain barrels mosquito dunks, solid donuts of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that last for up to 30 days, or selective microbial insecticides granules that work quickly but usually need to be replaced every 7 to 14 days. Keep a large container of the granules for broadcasting. Sometimes mosquitoes even hatch in wet potting soil. In which case, that also gets a sprinkling of granules. These can be used in fishponds and birdbaths without any harm to anything except larvae and caterpillars.

Dump anything that holds water twice a week.
Birdbaths, non-chlorinated wading pools, garbage can lids, and pottery will all attract breeding mosquitoes. Be sure to empty the saucers under flower pots even if you put clean water right back in.

This mosquito is sucking blood from a human host. This species of mosquito can transmit West Nile virus.


Work wisely.
There will be many more mosquitoes in the shady parts of the garden than in the sunny parts. Wait for the sun to dry the rain or dew before you work in the shade. Don’t do evenings at all if possible. That is when the mosquitoes are the worst. Evenings are good for bike riding. If you move fast enough, they won’t bother you.

Invite nature’s help.
Feed birds or put up a bat house. Keep clean water for both. A mature bat can eat several hundred mosquitoes every night. Encourage frogs, toads, and dragonflies to take up residence by planting tall grasses and native plants around ponds and streams.

Citronella, candles or torches filled with oil offer excellent protection in smaller areas, such as on the patio while dining or entertaining.

Citronella: Candles or torches filled with oil offer excellent protection in smaller areas, such as on the patio while dining or entertaining. A fan on the porch is also effective. Mosquitoes don’t like windy conditions. Make the most of any breezy times we have.

It is only the females that add our blood to their diet of nectar. They lay eggs on the surface of stagnant water that hatch four to 14 days later into wriggling larvae that begin to feed on water dwelling microorganisms including fungi, bacteria, and algae. Try to get all of that water dumped on the roots of the roses before those hatch into mature mosquitoes

Wear long pants and high socks in the garden, long sleeves if you can. Before I go out I splash my homemade orange oil on my arms and around my face. It works well in the cool months, but once the rains start, I still get a few bites. I am sure I’ve had a thousand or more bites in my lifetime and they don’t bother me near as much as they did when I was a child.

To make orange oil, cover a pan full of citrus peels with water and bring it to a boil. Then sit it on simmer for one to two hours and then let it cool for several hours or overnight. Strain the liquid through a colander. It is really not oily, but more of an emulsion. Keep it in the refrigerator or freeze some for longer use.

When Florida’s citrus season has passed, you can still buy citrus from California in the summer and save the peels in a plastic bag in the refrigerator until you have enough to fill a pan ¾ full. Check my book on Citrus for more details and many more ways to use orange oil.


Left: The more you eat garlic; supposedly the less the mosquitoes bite you. They like blood that is sugary.

Center: Rosemary leaves appear needle-like, and are fragrant when crushed.

Right: Basil (Ocimum basilicum) will help to repel mosquitoes and can also be used to make essential oils that can be applied to the skin as repellents.

Use the plants that repel mosquitoes.
Herbs can help. There are many plants that we are not using as much as we should, especially to repel mosquitoes. One is the pinecone ginger (Zingiber zerumbet). These plants start to flower July 4,when the cones or bracts are apple green. The little flowers are almost all gone by the time the cone turns red, but most of the value of this plant is the lanolin-like liquid that comes when you squeeze the pinecones.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is one of those wonderfully fragrant herbs, and if you rub some of the leaves on your skin, this could also help repel the mosquitoes. You can put rosemary leaves in any meat, fish, or game dish, vegetables, cheese, eggs, and dry beans.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) plants, especially some of the strongest varieties such as African tree basil (O. gratissimum) and the holy basil (O. sanctum), will keep the mosquitoes away. They don’t like the scents of any type of basil. Neither do other pesky insects. Eat basil in salads and casseroles. They are also a good poultice for any bites or stings.

Mints, Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus), and beautyberry (Callicarpa spp.) leaves are also helpful. You can eat the mint and oregano.

Willow LaMonte of Herbal Delight Gardens in Valrico, Florida, often has people coming to her nursery, which is open by appointment, for talks and festivals. She says, the better your nutrition, the less the mosquitoes will bother you. They like to eat blood with lots of sugar and such. She has most of the herbs mentioned at her nursery.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 22 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Yvonne Lelong Bordelon, Monica Brandies, and Tom Butzler.


Posted: 05/02/17   RSS | Print


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The Blended Garden
by Ellen Zachos       #Edibles   #Ornamentals

What is your idea of a perfect garden? Abundant flowers and lush greenery? Ripe vegetables and plump fruits? These days, with smaller yards and longer work hours, few gardeners have the space or time to care for both a kitchen garden and a separate ornamental garden. When you plant a blended garden, you can feed both body and soul.

Here are eight plants that do double duty, combining beauty and deliciousness. You might not recognize them all as ornamental plants, but each one is as lovely as it is tasty.


1. Who doesn’t love blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum)? They’re sweet, delicious, and good for you because they are high in antioxidants. But did you know this shrub is also a gorgeous landscape plant? The fall foliage of blueberries is brilliant red, and it makes this a plant to grow for its looks alone. If you want to harvest the fruit, you may need to net your shrubs as the berries ripen. Birds like blueberries as much as humans do.

The fall color of blueberry is reason enough to plant this fruit-bearing shrub in the garden.


2. Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris ssp. vulgaris) is a traditional vegetable, but the ‘Bright Lights’ cultivars are pretty enough to grace any ornamental garden bed. Stems and midribs come in bright orange, yellow, red, or white, and contrast nicely with the green leaves. They have an upright growth habit, and look especially pretty clustered in groups of three to five plants. Find a sunny spot at the front or middle of your garden for this lovely edible.

Leaf lettuces, Swiss chard, rosemary, and peppers light up this edible container just as well as its floral counterparts


3. Elderberries (Sambucus nigra) have a history of use in wine, jellies, and baked goods. They are attractive, green-leaved shrubs, and look especially pretty when covered with large umbels of white flowers in spring. New cultivars, like Black Lace (S. nigra ‘Eva’) or Black Beauty (S. n. ‘Gerda’) have been bred for their finely cut, purple leaves, and are outstandingly ornamental. Try them for their dark purple foliage and pink flowers. Like other purple-fruited elderberries, the fruit of these ornamental cultivars is also edible. Red-fruited elderberries (S. racemosa) are not generally considered edible or tasty.

Elderberry flowers produce an abundance of pollen.




4. Most people grow beets for their tasty roots, but ‘Bull’s Blood’ beets (Beta vulgaris ‘Bull’s Blood’) offer so much more. They produce striking, deep maroon foliage (approximately 12 inches tall), which is edible, just like regular beet greens. Plant them at the front of a sunny border for their shiny, deep red leaves, then harvest and enjoy eating both the foliage and the beetroots. For extra impact, interplant them with a chartreuse-leaved ground cover like creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’).




‘Bull’s Blood’ beets have striking deep red foliage that makes them interesting bedding plants.






5. I’d grow okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) just for its looks. Its showy blooms rival those of its hibiscus cousins, but you get edible pods as a bonus. Try ‘Red Burgundy’, ‘Bowling Red’, or ‘Red Velvet’ for gorgeous bright-red stems and fruit to go along with the pretty flowers.






Grow okra for its tasty fruit and get lovely flowers as a bonus.






6. Red mustard greens (Brassica juncea ‘Red Giant’) are as pretty to look at as any ornamental annual. Plant a row at the front of your sunny border where you’ll appreciate the gorgeous foliage all season long. Add a few leaves to salads and stir fries, and let the plant keep growing up until frost. And if you let them go to seed, you’ll probably find a few volunteers in the garden next spring.





Here, ‘Giant Red’ mustard is used as an ornamental annual, growing alongside hostas and Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’.





7. Malabar spinach (Basella alba) isn’t really a spinach, but it tastes remarkably similar. Unlike spinach, it thrives in summer heat. In the United States, Malabar spinach is sold as an ornamental annual vine, but in Africa and Asia it is grown as a vegetable. Flowers are small and white or pink, followed by dark purple ornamental berries. Foliage is lush, textured, and shiny, and the vine’s thick stems quickly cover a trellis or pyramid form. The cultivar, ‘Rubra’, has showy red stems.




The red stems of Malabar spinach (Basella alba ‘Rubra’) contrast beautifully with its edible green leaves. This annual vine grows 15 to 20 feet in a single season.





8. You’ll see Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) on restaurant menus and in grocery stores, but rarely in garden centers. Yet this bright-yellow sunflower is perfect for the back of a sunny border. Jerusalem artichokes grow to be 4 to 8 feet tall and under ideal conditions, can spread quickly. Unlike most sunflowers, they produce a tasty tuber. After the first frost, dig up half your tubers to bring into the kitchen and use them in soups, stews, and salads.




Jerusalem artichokes are statuesque sunflowers, with tasty tubers just beneath the soil. Harvesting the crop every fall keeps this fast-growing perennial in bounds.


All of these plants are multi-taskers: lovely to look at and tasty, too. All of them make excellent choices for the blended garden.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Patti Marie Travioli, Christina Salwitz, Patrick Byers, W. Atlee Burpee Company, and Ellen Zachos.


Posted: 05/01/17   RSS | Print


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Cactus Care
by Nick Yorlano       #Succulents   #Xeriscaping

This is a dormant Texas prickly pear.

Succulents take many forms and come in many shapes and sizes. They are also widely known for their ability to survive in less-than-ideal conditions. Cacti are a type of succulent that is distinguished from other succulents by having areoles. It may seem a little unusual to think of cacti outside of the western United States, however, there are many excellent reasons to grow perennial cacti in the Southeast. First, they are low-maintenance plants: they don’t need supplemental watering as long as they receive normal rainfall within the first 60 days of being planted during the growing season. Once established, they can survive months without a single drop of water. Secondly, most cacti are deer/rabbit resistant. Thirdly, some varieties have flowers as large as 4-6 inches wide that attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees. Lastly, there are spineless and some with non-functioning spines.

While most of us do consider cacti native to the arid Southwest, we do actually have native cacti right here – in the good old humid South.

Here is an example of cacti that appears to be many different species. However, they are all different forms of claret cup.

Prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) is a wide-ranging family of cacti with some very impressive winter hardy perennial forms – some have been known to survive temperatures as low as -40 F. There are numerous perennial prickly pear cultivars and mutations. Texas prickly pear (O. engelmannii. var. lindheimeri) is one of the most versatile perennial varieties in the Southeast. This cactus has a wide shrub form that can be trained to grow 4 feet high and wide.

When choosing a site in the landscape, know that they need full sun and well-drained soil – raised beds are great, but if planting inground, make sure the soil is well amended with plenty of organic matter. When planting in pots, cactus pads do better if placed on top of or barely nestled into the soil. A good potting mix for Texas prickly pear is pine fines mixed with 10 percent sand and 10 percent small gravel.

During colder weather, Texas prickly pear will dehydrate, giving them a drooping appearance. Sometimes the cactus pads can break off. The pads will root in during the spring if they are left on the ground next to the plant or replanted in another location. This dehydrating is an adaptive behavior that allows them to survive freezing temperatures.

A tree cholla growing and flowering near Nashville.

Tree cholla or cane cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata) are exceptionally cold hardy perennial cacti well suited for USDA Zones 5-8 in the southeast, but have been known to survive even colder temperatures.

This cactus can obtain a fairly impressive size of 6-8 feet tall and up to 6 feet wide. In their native habitat, tree cholla can reach up to 10 feet tall! Planters or exceptionally well-drained areas, such as rock gardens or raised beds, are excellent places to plant cholla. If growing cholla in planters, use the same soil mixture described above for Texas prickly pear. In landscaping beds, they can adapt to various soil types as long it is well-drained area and in full sun. The most common flower color is magenta, but there are also pink, red, and white forms. Like perennial prickly pear, chollas also dehydrate themselves. They have a shriveled look through the winter months, but quickly break dormancy in the spring.

Beehive cactus (Escobaria vivipara) is a neat variety best suited for troughs or planters. This is a small plant, usually reaching 2-6 inches tall and 8-20 inches wide. There are numerous cultivars, ranging from almost all white spines to almost all black spines. They are best suited for USDA Zones 5-8, but have been known to survive much colder temperatures. When planting in a container, use a very coarse soil such as pine fines with some sand, small gravel, and plenty of organic matter. This cactus also requires full sun. To survive the winter, it will compress itself into a tight little ball.

Claret cup (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) does best in USDA Zones 5-9. Claret cup comes in numerous forms with gorgeous scarlet red flowers. They have a clumping habit and grow anywhere from 1-3, sometimes as much as 12, inches tall and 1-3 feet wide depending on the form.

Above: The cacti pictured are different forms of the same species of lace cactus – Echinocereus reichenbachii ssp. perbellus, E. reichenbachii ssp. baileyi.

Left: E. reichenbachii ssp. baileyi goes fully dormant for winter, but is beautiful when it's flowering!


Lace cactus (Echinocereus reichenbachii) Lace cactus will bloom pink, purple, and magenta. They rarely grow taller than 8-12 inches tall and 2-3 inches wide. When planting in pots use the same soil mixture recommended for the prickly pear. These cacti do very well in planters, troughs, rock gardens, and in the landscape in well-drained soil and full sun. During the winter, Echinocereus compress itself as much as 60 percent in order to survive below-freezing temperatures.

These unique succulents are perfect for modern, xeric, or unorthodox landscaping. They are versatile and available in an almost limitless array of sizes, forms, shapes, and colors.


A version of this article appeared in a May 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Nick Yorlano.


Posted: 05/01/17   RSS | Print


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by Cindy Shapton    

When you are digging in the garden do you ever wonder about the world down under? I’m not talking about Australia but the microscopic life that lives just under our feet. An unseen communal of bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa – microorganisms that may be micro-small but are macro-mighty when it comes to building healthy soil.

Resist working up soil before planting so as not to tear up long strands of fungi networks.

In case you can’t recall from biology class or maybe never really understood the whole microorganism business, here is a simple breakdown as to why these tiny guys (and gals?) are so important.

An island in your yard for trees and hardy perennials mulched with wood chips will help create the right environment for fungi to thrive and lessen any compaction problems.

Microorganisms down under work 24/7 to:

•  Decompose organic matter

•  Replenish soil nutrients

•  Make humus

•  Help roots grow

•  Get nutrients up to the plant

•  Break down herbicides and pesticides

•  Destroy “bad guys”

•  Help control diseases

And you thought soil was boring, right? Turns out there is an underground community of microbial workers that combine their natural talents to form a balanced soil food network that helps make your soil happy, healthy and productive so you can grow the best possible plants.

So, we can all agree that bacteria, fungi and nematodes are vital to healthy garden soil, but without a powerful microscope how can we be sure we have a good supply of microbes?

With some old-fashioned common sense and a few questions, I feel confident you can deduce your garden’s microbial condition by asking yourself a few questions:

1. Do you use chemical fertilizers? In plant and soil science classes I was taught that plants see no difference in organic or inorganic (Chemical) fertilizer. Well, they may not see the difference but the results are definitely different and once you start applying chemical fertilizers you have to continue because, you guessed it, created addicts.

Vegetables and annual flowers do best when the soil has a higher ratio of bacteria to fungi.

Straw mulch in the kitchen garden provides more food for the bacteria that help veggies grow.

This may sound harsh, but the truth is, when you apply chemical fertilizer you kill off mass amounts of microbes so the plants become dependent on the inorganic fertilizer and can’t do without it.

2. Is rototilling or turning soil part of your spring and fall garden ritual? This may seem like a good idea, spread some fertilizer or compost, and then work it into the soil. In reality, rototilling and hand digging or turning actually breaks up long strands of fungi and makes the soil particles so fine that there are no longer any air pockets, devastating soil structure along with microbe diversity, two very important factors of healthy soil. Along comes rain or overhead watering and the soil starts to compact, plus you have brought weed seeds into the light that now are happy to germinate.

3. After a good rain, does your garden puddle? This is one sign that your soil is compacted and doesn’t allow drainage. Compacted soil changes in structure and chokes out microbial diversity. Nematodes and protozoa become small in number or disappear, while many fragile root fungi (mycorrhizal) drown which causes an imbalance – making your plants at risk for nutrient deficiencies, disease, root rot and perhaps eventual death.

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you probably already surmised your underground friends are struggling, died an ugly death or simply vacated the premises. But no worries, you can fortify or rebuild a microbial network with a little know-how and some muscle in as little as six months.

Step one: Add organic matter and some homemade microbes in the form of compost. Compost and compost tea (use an aquarium pump to bubble tea) are teaming with microscopic life to add to or create a community of microbes doing their jobs to boost your soil’s ability and fertility to grow healthy flora by working together.

Compost will also help the soil structure by adding space for air and allowing water to drain properly. Aerating compacted soil and spreading a ½-1 inch of compost will go a long way to get the healing process started.

Raised beds are a creative fix for areas that have been compacted or where the amount of soil is impeded by rocky terrain or heavy soil that doesn’t naturally drain well.

Step two: As gardeners we know that mulch helps to keep moisture in and weeds out of our soil but it also helps to keep soil from compaction. It is also vital to our hard working microbes since they like many of us really love to eat. Applying green mulches like grass clippings, straw, alfalfa meal and comfrey around annuals and vegetables will ramp up needed food sources for bacterial microbes which are necessary for good growth and development.

Trees need mycorrhizal fungi to grow strong roots help resist diseases.
Raised beds help microorganisms thrive and are a quick fix for rocky terrain or areas that don’t drain well.

Most trees, shrubs and perennials need a soil with more fungi activity (think forest floor) so spreading a layer of brown, carbon mulch like woodchips, pine straw, and brown leaves can help create the right environment for fungi to thrive. Up to 2 inches of mulch should be plenty.

Mulch spread on top of compost works like a microbial sandwich inoculating both the soil and the mulch to amp up bacteria and fungi production. But, according to Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, authors of Teaming with Microbes, to have an even bigger effect on plants, a nutrient cycler needs to be added on top of the mulch in the form of what they term as a “protozoa soup.” This soup is easy to make yourself by soaking fresh grass clippings, alfalfa, hay or straw in de-chlorinated water for three to four days. They recommend an aquarium air pump and air stone to keep the soup aerobic. Simply pour soup on top of mulch and get ready for some great results.

With the right environment and a little help from millions of unsung microbial heroes, you can have soil that is alive and kicking, which in turn grows strong, healthy plants, which makes you look good and just might create a little garden envy in your neck of the woods.


A version of this article appeared in a May 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Cindy Shapton.


Posted: 05/01/17   RSS | Print


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What Are Champion Trees?
by William “Jack” Rowe       #Trees

The sycamore Champion of Alabama (Platanus occidentalis) is almost 5 feet in diameter, 115 feet tall, with a canopy 102 feet wide.

You may hear people speak of them reverently. You might catch word of a “big tree,” an important tree, a “Champion Tree.” But trees don’t compete for titles; they grow their own crowns and are made into trophies instead of receiving them. Trees do compete though. Rooting space, water, light, pollinators, producing many seeds, and so on are the prizes trees, by their nature, seek. It’s the winners of these competitions that we humans notice and some of these winners are named Champion Trees.

In 1940, American Forests, a Washington, D.C.-based, non-profit forest conservation group, began a program called the National Register of Big Trees. The biggest trees on that list are declared Champion Trees. Every year they post a list of the national champions by species. Almost every state in the union has its own Champion Tree program from which the National Register of Big Trees draws the national champions.

At only 22 inches in diameter and 38 feet tall, you’d think this wasn’t a Champion Tree. However, for a dogwood, this tree is magnificent and very long lived in a time when dogwood anthracnose is decimating dogwood populations.

To be considered a “big” tree or Champion, someone has to nominate it. The nominator takes measurements and sends them to the local program coordinator. The coordinator then comes out to certify the measurements and compares the tree to other Champions by species and region. There are several reasons for this. Success for the tree is making use of its resources and reproducing. A live oak that is 70 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter requires several decades of growth to reach this size. A water oak might achieve this size in just 40 to 60 years (if it survives to that age). Other nomination considerations are the natural range and environment for that species. The southern live oak is unlikely to be long-lived and large north of USDA Zone 7, but the water oak ranges much farther north, and is more able to withstand winter and dryer weather. Go even farther north though, and the water oak becomes a short-lived runt compared to other more northerly adapted trees such as willow oaks or red oaks.

At 5 feet in diameter and 52 feet tall, this is a colossal redcedar. Older redecedars have beautiful, crenellated trunks and their thin, tight bark allows the observer to view every ripple of the underlying wood.

Champion status is decided by measuring three basic parts of the tree: trunk circumference, canopy width and overall height. These measurements are scored using a point system. One point for every inch of trunk circumference, one point for every foot of height and one point for every one-quarter of the average crown spread. This process sounds difficult but is actually easy. The formula for scoring a tree is: trunk circumference (in inches) + height (in feet) + one-quarter of the crown spread (in feet) = total points. If a tree’s score qualifies for Champion status the state coordinator will come to the tree and certify the measurements. Once qualified for Champion status, a tree is awarded a plaque and bragging rights on the state Champion Tree register and is automatically considered for national status by American Forests.

Anyone can participate in the program through their local Champion Tree Coordinator. Each year the list of Champions grows and changes. The locations of these trees will often surprise you, as they tend to be hidden in plain sight. Very often, these trees have histories or stories attached to them making them even more special.


Left: The Helen Keller Water Oak is a large and long-lasting specimen of a generally short-lived species of oak.

Right Top: Described in settlers’ diaries as the “Big ol’ Oak,” the Big Live Oak predates the signing of the Constitution and has been a meeting site for much of its existence, before colonization and after.

Right Bottom: The historic description of the scene of General Andrew Jackson in the tree graced with silvery hanging moss seems like it could be today. The Andrew Jackson Live Oak and its surroundings are protected by an elevated boardwalk and fence to prolong its life.


Since Champion Trees represent some of the more successful trees of their species and within their regions, they are also important as a source of improved tree stock. If a Champion Tree still displays good characteristics, i.e. strong structure, successfully coping with damage, disease resistance, beauty, etc., they become a valuable resource of genes for our future forests and landscapes. Some nurseries and states support Champion Tree seedling programs to share these particular trees with the public.

Learn more about the National Big Tree program at the American Forests website:


A version of this article appeared in Alabama Gardener Volume 13 Number 7.
Photography courtesy of Brian Hendricks, William “Jack” Rowe, and Danny McWilliams.


Posted: 04/21/17   RSS | Print


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Be a Weirdo
by Steve Asbell       #Trees   #Unusual

The largest tree in this photo is a baobab, which stands out for its swollen trunk. Baobabs are native to Africa, where they are revered as sacred.

There’s something rebellious and exciting about growing unusual perennials in your garden, especially with the diverse choices we have here in Florida. Still, why stop there? Anyone can stash a few odd potted succulents on their patio, but only the most ambitious of gardeners dares to let their  freak flag fly by planting a weird tree in their yard. Here’s an introduction to some of the most peculiar species our state has to offer.

First, one weird tree that you shouldn’t plant. Northerners are familiar with Norfolk Island “pines” (Araucaria heterophylla) as houseplants and living Christmas trees, but in coastal South Florida they rise up to dizzying heights beside high-rise condos like random toilet brushes in the sky. Even if that’s the look you’re after, be advised that they’re among the first trees to get struck by lightning or fall during hurricanes.

Instead, choose a smaller tree like the flying dragon citrus (Poncirus trifoliata, Zones 6-11). If you’re willing to sacrifice the palatable fruit of normal citrus trees for something more wicked, this cold-hardy tree will stop visitors in their tracks with its twisted corkscrew branches and its long, recurved thorns. The native persimmon (Diospyros virginiana, Zones 4-9) isn’t that weird, but its cherry-sized fruits are only ready to eat when they’ve nearly rotted. One of the native persimmon’s relatives is the black sapote (Diospyros digyna, Zones 10-11), and its disgusting-looking overripe fruit tastes and feels like chocolate pudding. Jaboticaba (Myrciaria cauliflora, Zones 9b-11) has the bizarre distinction of developing flowers and shiny black fruits on its limbs and trunks. It takes 30 years to do so, but is a great tree in the meantime.


Left: The pond apple’s primitive flowers bear a passing resemblance to those of its distant relatives in the Magnoliales order.

Right: Even though the jaboticaba doesn’t produce these spectacular cauliflorous fruits until it’s at least 30 years old, its manageable size and other attractive features are reason enough to plant one.


The custard apple family (Annonaceae) has its share of oddities. The native pawpaw (Asimina triloba, Zones 5-9) produces a custard-textured fruit with a flavor reminiscent of bananas and tropical punch. Even weirder is the pond apple (Annona glabra, Zones 10-11), which develops gnarly, buttressed trunks to help it “breathe” in swamps and relies on wild boar and alligators to disperse its seeds. Rollinia deliciosa (Zones 10b-11) is known as “snotfruit” for the phlegmy consistency and texture of the fruit’s flesh, yet it tastes like lemon merengue.

The bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla, Zones 6-9) is a deciduous temperate tree with huge, tropical-looking 12-36-inch long leaves. Clusia rosea (Zones 10b-11) goes by the name “autograph tree” because if you etch your autograph on the leathery paddle-shaped leaves, it will stay embossed until the leaf falls away. You might point and laugh at the native gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba, Zones 9b-11) for its flaky and peeling red trunk, but it’s a great tree that should be planted more for its drought and hurricane tolerance.

Some trees may have personality, but others seem to take on a life of their own. Banyans (Ficus benghalensis, Zones 10-11) are known for sprouting in the canopy of other trees, putting down snaky roots and eventually wrapping around a host until it becomes a behemoth with numerous muscular trunks. Our native strangler figs (Ficus aurea, Zones 9-11) aren’t as destructive as the introduced banyans, but you probably won’t be inviting one into your garden any time soon. If you can’t resist that wild banyan look, choose the less invasive native shortleaf fig (Ficus citrifolia, Zones 10-11) instead.


Left: Strangler figs and banyans have adventitious roots that hang down and eventually become new trunks. When a tree is mature, they can take up city blocks.

Middle: The shaving brush tree’s manageable size and drought tolerance make it suitable for the home landscape. If you can’t provide the good drainage it requires, it also makes a good container plant or bonsai.

Right: The rose of Venezuela (Brownea grandiceps, zones 9b-11) isn’t a member of the Bombacaceae family, but does have explosive blooms.

Our next group of odd trees are members the Bombacaceae family and are related to hibiscus, okra, and cotton. The silk floss tree (Chorisia speciosa, Zones 10-11) and its close cousin the silk cotton tree (Bombax ceiba, Zones 10-11) both have extraterrestrial-looking prickly trunks, spectacular flower displays and seed pods that open up to reveal silky tufts of cotton. Both are often called “kapok” trees, but the true kapok (Ceiba pentandra, Zones 9b-11) is an enormous rainforest tree that produces the kapok fiber of commerce.

The Bombacaceae family has some other odd trees worth seeking out. Baobab trees (Adansonia spp.) are known for their massive swollen trunks, and the shaving brush tree’s (Pseudobombax ellipticum, Zones 9b-11) bare limbs fill with cigar-like flower buds that open to reveal a fiber-optic display of pink or white stamens.

The rainbow gum (Eucalyptus deglupta, Zones 9-11) is the only eucalyptus in the Northern Hemisphere and has rainbow-hued strips of peeling bark along its trunk. Though it has recently made its way into garden centers, be advised that it reaches well over 200 feet tall in its native habitat.

When choosing a tree, just remember that if a plant is rarely grown, there might be a reason. It could simply be new or hard to propagate, or it might just not be a good fit for most gardens. Do your research and make sure that you can accommodate the tree’s needs before you take it home.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 21 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Steve Asbell.


Posted: 04/20/17   RSS | Print


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Native Trees for the Landscape
by Scott A. Zanon       #Natives   #Trees

American Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea or C. flava)

So what is a “native” tree? It can be any tree from a state or region. The deciduous trees considered for this article are native to North America, and once established, should grow and survive in their planted areas. Most are tough trees rarely affected by urban life and environmental issues.

Some gardeners seem highly interested and motivated to plant native trees. Native trees appear to adapt better to landscape environments compared to alternative species, and they help protect and restore biodiversity. Natives are effective for use in urban, suburban and rural developed landscapes.

Below are 15 trees to consider for your landscape or property with important notes and descriptions about each. I hope you carefully study these and consider planting a few in your property. They are durable yet functional native tree choices.


Serviceberry, Juneberry, Sarvisberry, Saskatoon, Shadblow, Shadbush
(Amelanchier spp.)
Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 6-30 feet tall by 4-10 feet wide; cultivars are 12 feet tall by 10 feet wide

One of the best four-season small-medium ornamental trees that is available either multi- or single-trunked. It functions well in a naturalistic setting or as a specimen. There are many species and cultivars to choose from (I prefer A. laevis, but all are wonderful).

Common Pawpaw, Custard Apple
(Asimina triloba)
Zones: 5 to 9
Size: 15-20 feet tall and wide

This is a small tree that has the largest edible fruit native to North America. The pawpaw is native to shady, rich bottom lands, where it often forms dense undergrowth (thicket) in the forest. It is a native understory tree that needs regular watering during the growing season and does not tolerate heavy, wet, alkaline soils. Fall color is a translucent yellow.



Common Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum)



Common Baldcypress
(Taxodium distichum)

Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 50-70 feet tall by 20-30 feet wide

This large, deciduous conifer is an upright, stately pyramidal tree with russet brown fall color. Use as a focal point or specimen. It is superb in exceptionally moist areas where the infamous “knees” form if roots are submerged. Versatile, it is also dry site capable. Some chlorosis may occur in high pH soils.

River Birch
(Betula nigra)
Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 40-60 feet tall by 40 feet wide

This large, fine-textured shade tree is also considered an ornamental because of its peeling bark (I like the cultivar ‘Heritage’). Some chlorosis problems may occur in high-pH soils. Available as a multi-trunked form of three to five trunks, this fine specimen tree is perfect for areas along streams or ponds. It does prefer moist soils.

Sugar Maple, Hard Maple, Rock Maple
(Acer saccharum)

Zones: 3 to 8
Size: 60-80 feet tall by 40 feet wide

This stately large shade tree is one of the best. It may be used as a specimen or autumn accent tree and is a landscape standout. Many cultivars are available, and its brilliant, long-lasting fall foliage is often spectacular.



Cucumbertree Magnolia
(Magnolia acuminata)

Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 50-70 feet tall and wide

This is an excellent large shade tree that provides great character for larger properties. It is the hardiest of the native Magnolia species. Nursery-grown cultivars have showy yellow flowers and are becoming easier to find. These make fine specimen trees for the landscape.

Cucumbertree Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata)


American Hornbeam, Musclewood,
Blue Beech

(Carpinus caroliniana)

Zones: 3 to 9
Size: 25 feet tall and wide

This is a small understory tree tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions. Typically found along streams and rivers, and it is good in naturalized areas as it will tolerate periodic flooding. It is also tolerant of pruning and can be used as a hedge or screen. This tree is not drought tolerant.

Black Tupelo, Black Gum, Sour Gum
(Nyssa sylvatica)

Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 30-50 feet tall by 20-30 feet wide

An excellent large shade tree mainly used as a specimen. This is one of the best and most consistent native trees for fall colors of red (and occasionally yellow), but should not be planted in alkaline soils as it prefers acidic soils. It has lustrous dark green summer foliage with consistent striking autumn color. There are a number of great cultivars available in the trade.


Shingle Oak, Laurel Oak (Quercus imbricaria)



Shingle Oak, Laurel Oak
(Quercus imbricaria)

Zones: 4 to 7
Size: 60 feet tall and 70 feet wide

This is a large, spreading shade tree that performs well in dry sites and features lobe-less glossy dark green oblong leaves. The leaves shine like laurel. This tree is also very cold hardy and urban tolerant. It is a good tree for street and park uses, and is an oak that is relatively easy to transplant.

Kentucky Coffeetree
(Gymnocladus dioicus)

Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 60-75 feet tall by 40-50 feet wide

This is a choice large tree with semi-filtered shade and a beautiful bold winter canopy. Older trees are majestic and handsome. It can get somewhat dirty with the pods and leaflets. Prune only in winter or early spring. This tree is dioecious, so the males do not fruit. It is tolerant to heat, drought and cold. Male (fruitless) cultivars available.

American Hornbeam, Ironwood
(Ostrya virginiana)

Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 25-40 feet tall by 25 feet wide

An attractive small-to-medium understory tree that is a slow grower. It does well on dry sites and once established, grows very well. It is not tolerant of salt so avoid roadside plantings. Use in naturalized areas. This tree can be difficult to find in the nursery trade, but it is worth the search.

Yellow Buckeye
(Aesculus octandra or A. flava)

Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 60-75 feet tall by 40 feet wide

A handsome large shade tree that is preferable to Ohio buckeye (A. glabra), because it is less susceptible to leaf scorch. It features large showy yellow flowers in April with attractive dark green palmate leaves that change to a beautiful pumpkin color in fall. Considered to be the best large buckeye tree.

Eastern Redbud
(Cercis canadensis)

Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 15-25 feet tall and wide

This is a popular, small ornamental tree with showy spring flowers. Eastern redbud is a strikingly conspicuous tree in the spring because it flowers before other tree leaves form. Best for naturalized, woodland (understory) settings. There is a plethora of superb cultivars now readily available.


Common Sassafras
(Sassafras albidum)

Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 30-60 feet tall by 25-40 feet wide

This attractive medium native ornamental tree has spectacular autumn color. It makes a fine specimen or it is excellent as a thicket in a naturalized setting. Found as single or multi-trunked forms. It is practically impossible to transplant, and thus must be container grown.


American Yellowwood
(Cladrastis kentukea or C. flava)

Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 30-50 feet tall and wide

This choice medium ornamental shade tree is excellent as a specimen or in groupings. Gray beech-like bark on its vase-shaped form coupled with a nice yellow fall color makes this an attractive choice. Flowers attract bees. Prune only in the summer, as it is a profuse bleeder.


Common Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)


A version of this article appeared in an May/June 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Scott A. Zanon.


Posted: 04/20/17   RSS | Print


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Abiotic Disorders in the Landscape
by Wayne Porter       #Trees

Circling roots can eventually girdle the trunk or other roots of this Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia). Small roots like these can be safely removed.

Plants are often subjected to stresses in the environment that are not results of insects or diseases. These stresses are referred to as “abiotic” diseases. These abiotic disorders result in the plant being less vigorous and in many cases dying. The majority of these stress situations are the result of human activities.

Abiotic problems often involve multiple factors. A plant’s response to these factors can be subtle in nature and accumulate over time making them difficult to diagnose. It can be even harder explaining to a homeowner how they harmed their plant by something they did years ago.

Typical symptoms of abiotic problems include very slow growth, poor foliage color, leaf scorching, the presence of lichen, limb dieback, or plant death. Following is a discussion of some of the more common abiotic problems that occur in the landscape

This live oak (Quercus virginiana) died because it was planted too deep.


Proper Tree Planting

•  Determine where the root flare is located.
•  Dig the planting hole two to three times wider than the root ball, but no deeper.
•  Gently place the tree in the planting hole with root flare at or slightly above grade.
•  Backfill planting hole with excavated soil and water to eliminate air pockets.
•  Apply 2-4 inches of organic mulch. Keep away from trunk.
•  Stake only if necessary with wide webbing. Tree must be able to move in the wind.
•  Water throughout growing season with 1 inch per week.
•  Remove stakes and ties within one year.

Planting Too Deep
One of the most common and serious problems associated with tree planting is planting too deep. Many trees and shrubs are set too deep at the time of planting, or they settle over time. A planting depth of only 1 inch too deep can cause eventual problems. It is not uncommon to see trees planted as much as 3 or more inches too deep. If a tree looks like a telephone pole going into the ground, then it is planted too deep.

Various symptoms point to excessively deep planting. New growth may develop each spring, but dieback of branch tips occurs during the stress of summer. Advanced symptoms of depth-related stress are cankers and deep cracking of the bark.

Making sure the root flare of a tree is at or slightly above grade when a tree is planted easily prevents this problem. (See tree planting sidebar)

This tree suffered damage when a string-trimmer was used to cut basal watersprouts.

Mechanical Damage
Mechanical damage leaves tree and shrubs vulnerable to disease organisms. Damage comes from vehicles, string trimmers, lawn mowers, construction equipment, garden tools, animals, or other human activities. String-trimmer injury is particularly harmful for trees and shrubs with thin bark. Repeatedly bumping into the same area of a trunk without cutting the bark can damage or kill the growing point under the bark and result in reduced growth. Creating a machine-free zone around trees and shrubs with mulch will greatly reduce mechanical injury.

Improper Mulching
Mulch is used around plants to help conserve soil moisture, moderate soil temperature, reduce weeds, and keep equipment away from plant trunks. The recommended depth is 2-3 inches for most organic mulches. Many gardeners, believing more is better create mulch “volcanoes.” When mulch is piled up against the trunks of trees and shrubs, the bark stays too wet and decay can occur and the entire plant may die. Keep mulch several inches away from the trunk to prevent this scenario.

Mulch “volcanoes” create an ideal environment for disease organisms. Keep mulch 2-3 inches away from the trunk.

Girdling Roots
A girdling root is a root that circles around the trunk or other roots at or below the soil line, gradually cutting off the flow of nutrients. Some trees, such as maples, elms, and birches, are particularly prone to their formation. Trees and shrubs that are container grown and have become pot-bound frequently develop girdling roots. It is important to spread or cut circling roots at planting time to prevent future problems.

Mechanical Root Damage
Most of the feeder roots of trees or shrubs are within the upper 6 inches of the soil. Any digging, trenching or roto-tilling within the root area of established trees or shrubs will cause harm. Damage usually occurs when establishing a new flowerbed, planting shrubs under trees, installing a sprinkler system, or paving a driveway or patio area. The degree of damage depends on the depth of the digging and the amount of ground covered. Root damage may haunt the plant months or even years later, depending on the environmental stresses that occur after the damage.

This huge live oak is showing dieback of branches due construction damage that cut feeder roots.

Construction Damage
Construction damage impacts trees and shrubs in numerous ways. There is severe root loss or injury, compacted soils, loss of leaf area, and grade changes. The impact on trees can be short term, but it usually sets the tree up for a gradual decline or death that takes several years. Anytime the soil grade is lowered or raised even a few inches, existing shrubs and trees become predisposed to various stresses. Keep construction equipment and building materials outside the drip line of trees.

Humans unknowingly inflict these abiotic stresses on trees and shrubs in the landscape. It is amazing how forgiving plants can be, considering all the pressures we humans put on them. Only further education about landscape maintenance will reduce these human-caused disorders.


A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Wayne Porter and


Posted: 04/19/17   RSS | Print


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What? Me Worry?
by Jonathan Heaton       #Disease   #Pests   #Trees

Insects form galls on the leaves of trees and shrubs, including elm (Ulmus spp.).

As an arborist, I work with a lot of people who care deeply about their trees and shrubs. Almost once a week, I will get a call from someone who is alarmed that something new they’ve noticed on their tree might be a major problem. Sometimes it is a problem that needs help, but often it is something that looks bad, but isn’t. Here are some of the common issues that arise.

Leaf and Twig Galls
Some insects, wasps and mites use a chemical to lay eggs inside of leaves or twigs that causes a swollen area, called a gall, to form. This provides a nice place for the egg to grow into an adult. Most of the time these are not significant enough to harm the tree and no treatment is needed. However, treatment may be warranted if the majority of the leaves are heavily damaged, or if a lot of branches and twigs are dying.

Seasonal Evergreen Needle Drop
Evergreens shed their leaves, just like deciduous trees. Although deciduous tree leaves last one season, evergreen leaves, called needles, last for two to seven years, then turn yellow and fall. This can look pretty alarming, especially on white pine (Pinus strobus), but it is normal. It is still worth taking a close look because there are several fungal diseases that will cause early needle loss. Normal needle loss will have needles that are uniformly yellow, whereas diseased needles will have black spots and uneven coloration.

White pine and many other conifers normally shed needles in fall.

Dead Branches
Trees naturally shed branches, and some species are more prone to this than others. Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis), ash (Fraxinus spp.), pin oak (Quercus palustris) and birch (Betula spp.) are examples of trees that shed branches. As long as the leaves have normal color, size and density, there is no issue. Be on the lookout for several branches dying from the tip back, because this is a sign of a problem.

Moss and Lichens
Trees provide habit for many other organisms, including mosses and lichens that grow on the trunk and branches. These are not causing any harm.

These harmless holes in the trunk of an Austrian pine (Pinus nigra) have been made by a sapsucker.

Sapsucker Damage
A sapsucker is a type of woodpecker that drills lines of holes on the trunk to feed on the sap and the bugs it attracts. Most of the time a healthy tree can deal with the damage. 

There are enough bugs in the world to keep entomologists busy for several lifetimes. Watch for damage to the plants, and become familiar with the common culprits for plant damage in your area, but realize that most bugs you see are harmless.

‘Harmless fungi form a condition called smooth patch on a bur oak.

Smooth Patch
This is found especially on bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa). Fungi feed on the rough, dead outer bark of the tree leaving smooth patches. This doesn’t cause any harm to the tree.

Anthracnose and Leaf Spot
Anthracnose and leaf spot are generic terms for fungi that damage the leaves of plants. Oaks and ashes are the most common trees to see anthracnose. Look for distorted and curled leaves with black and brown dead spots. Leaves affected by anthracnose will fall from the tree in late spring to early summer. Unless the tree has lost a majority of its leaves, or is severely impacted for more than one year, treatment is not generally warranted. Treatments are available for severe cases, or where aesthetic impact is important. Most of the time, the best defense is good general care, such as water and mulch. Fertilizer if a soil test shows that it is needed.

Many people would disagree that squirrels, the insatiable chewers that they are, are not a serious problem. At least for the trees, they are not. Squirrels make nests out of plant material. Sometimes they will pick a tree to harvest twigs from and will chew off the tips of dozens of branches, leaving a carpet of branch tips on the ground. It is alarming, but won’t cause serious issues for the tree.

Fall Webworm
These caterpillars eat foliage from trees and build silky tents around the branches. Except in severe cases, they are not a problem for the tree and treatment is not needed. To help keep the population under control, clip out the tents and throw them in the trash.

This bug feeds on plants and covers itself in a substance that looks like spit. It does not cause severe damage. If the population is becoming large enough to be a nuisance, treat them with the spray of a hose, insecticidal soap or horticulture oil.

The spittlebug covers itself with a harmless, spit-like substance, which gives the insect its name.

Carpenter Ants
I’m listing this with the caveat that they are a serious problem for your home and can be a sign of a serious problem in a tree. However, with trees, ants are not the cause of the problem. These large black ants eat wood that is already dead. Carpenter ants signal there is dead wood in the tree. Dead wood, or decay, can be a structural weakness for the tree that the ants can make worse. If the ants are present, I recommend having an arborist inspect the tree.

Thin-skinned trees, such as a young red maple (A. rubrum), frequently develop a crack in the bark as a result of growth.

Ash Flower Gall
These tiny eriophyid mites attack the flowers of ash trees, making them distorted and black. It is unsightly, but doesn’t cause any harm. I don’t recommend treatment for this pest, unless you absolutely cannot live with the way it looks.

Bark Cracking on Maples
Many smooth-barked trees, especially maples (Acer spp.), have vertical cracks that appear in the trunk. This is because of the way that trees grow, not any kind of weakness or problem. A situation that can look similar that is a problem is when the bark is damaged during the winter, due to rapid heating from the sun. The difference is that there will be dead wood and peeling bark in the area damaged. Wrapping the trunk of thin-barked species with fabric during the winter can prevent this.

Ultimately, I’m always happy to take these calls, because it means that people are paying close attention to their trees. I encourage you to pay attention throughout the year. If you’re in doubt about something you see, do a little research or check with a local expert to be sure. If nothing else, you will gain a greater appreciation for the many nuances and complexities of nature.


A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Jonathan Heaton and Bartlett Tree Experts.


Posted: 04/19/17   RSS | Print


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The Lore of Big Old Trees
by William J. Rowe II       #Landscaping   #Trees

We’re lucky in the Southeast. We have more trees in our towns and landscapes than most other parts of the United States. It probably goes back to the time when air-conditioning wasn’t even thought of yet and comfort, let alone just breathing, during the summer was dependent on having large shade trees.

This situation does have drawbacks. Arborist bills for instance. Having someone take care of that branch 40 feet up is pricey. Then there are all those roots, the shade, and fall leaves complicating lawn maintenance. If that sounds strange to you, hang around the extension office sometime and count the calls about thin grass and surface tree roots. Dense shade also changes the species of plant life usable in the parts of a landscape under trees. Often, nursery stock, particularly from the big-box stores, hasn’t been selected for shade and tree root competition.

That said, nearly everyone wants a big old tree. New ones are fine and dandy and full of promise, but it’s the large and aged that we enjoy most. These trees give us a sense of history, anchoring our homes and towns to a place in time and memory. Large trees are also amazing providers – from actual monetary value to physical, mental, and social health. The list of benefits, mainly from mature trees, is long and well researched. If you are unaware of just how important trees are and how well documented it is, try out Dr. Kathleen L. Wolf’s wonderful collection of work at The Human Dimensions of Urban Forestry and Urban Greening:, it’s a great place to learn more.

There are some important differences between young and old trees that any gardener needs to know. It’s impossible to overstate how easy it is to fatally damage a big tree. Another interesting thing is that a big tree won’t show you that it has begun to die for years. The problems usually show up long after the action that pushed the tree over the edge, leaving you shaking your head as you write a big check to an arborist.

Massive old tree in lot obviously filling all the space.

Trees’ lives are complicated by 4 important things
Trees strive for balance, always. The balance we’re talking about is one in which resources are balanced between growth and maintenance. Growth and health of trees depends on resources being taken up by roots (mostly water), sugar being made by leaves, and pathways through the tree’s system for it all to be moved around. Old trees, even in a good situation, generally grow slowly. The cause of the slowdown is how much more tree the trees’ systems have to maintain and defend. Large, older trees have usually occupied all of their environment that they are able to. Their roots are spread out far and wide and the canopy is extended to its maximum. Removing branches or roots, or otherwise damaging the tree’s system will result in a loss a large older tree can’t balance out. Which brings us to problem number 2.

Most of the tree is already dead.
The interior parts of a tree are mostly dead and often aren’t even functioning other than as a sort of support pole and dumping ground for compounds the tree makes that it doesn’t want near the living parts. A big beautiful tree is actually a thin layer of living tree wrapped around its mostly dead interior. That mostly dead interior is also something the tree must vigorously defend. The bark over everything is generally that first defense. Once the outer layer of the tree is opened up, whether by pruning cuts, storms, or just accidents, that interior is now open to whole realms of nature that really want a chance at that interior. Since there is no life without injury, the tree develops defense systems to handle invasion by the outside world. Which brings us to the next big fact about trees.

Healing wound in trunk.

Trees can’t heal.
Not the way we do. An arborist will often say, “Trees don’t heal, they seal.” An injury to a tree is forever. After all, the tree is mostly dead with a dressing of living tree over it. Breaking through the bark leaves only the living layers around the edges of the wound to deal with injury. Trees typically do this by walling off the wound by plugging the cells with toxic compounds and then growing over the wound from the edges. The damage remains, hopefully sealed off forever. It is extremely common for older trees to be coping with numerous wounds and hollows caused by pruning, abrasion, tears, and breaks both above and below ground. Maintaining these compartmentalized pockets take up resources, further slowing growth. The extra resources needed to handle a new problem could be the resources the tree needs to grow enough to live. Which leads us to the fourth issue.

Trees have to grow.
It’s growth or death. Every year, a new ring on the trunk, new leaves, new flowers, new fruit, new stems, new bark, new roots. To stop growing is to die. Even when trees are obviously dying, growth is taking place wherever the tree can make it happen.

Large live oak shading lawn and home.

So living with your big old tree means keeping its needs in mind. Think of it as a really wonderful older pet out in your landscape. You don’t purposely injure a pet. You wouldn’t let just anyone cut it. You wouldn’t take away things it needs to live. We often make exceptions and rearrange our lives for our dogs and cats, why not our trees?

Garden With Big Trees

Trenching in lawn near a tree.

First, Do No Harm
The number-one killer of trees of any age is people – usually the very people who care about them. There are two kinds of damage that nearly every gardener does to their tree. The first is mower and string trimmer damage. Constant damage to trunks and structural roots by lawn equipment create more injury for the tree to wall off and maintain. For big trees, damaging structural roots could lead to destabilization.

The second is root cutting. Removal of tree roots is particularly devastating to trees. All trees need a constant flow of water from their root system to live. Removing a root, say an inch in diameter or larger (or just cutting through one) effectively removes miles of root system from the tree. This has the effect of putting the tree into a drought, even if it’s raining. The tree is now unbalanced. It has big water demands and now no way to satisfy them. Decline begins. Also, damage to large roots can allow decay to creep in. Many a hollow tree became so because of root damage.

Once a tree is mature, big structural changes to its canopy are usually not needed or recommended except when our lives and property are threatened by the tree. Pruning of large and older trees should be limited to crown cleaning, which is the removal of dead or damaged limbs from the canopy. If you fear for the structural integrity of an older tree’s canopy, discuss cabling and bracing with an ISA certified arborist.

Kill Some Grass
The effort many gardeners put into growing grass under the canopies of trees is amazing. If you garden WITH your older tree, remove the competition by killing off grass and mulching. This mimics the natural environments that trees evolved in, forests. Your tree will do much better and you won’t be slaving over and spending so much on turf.


Big old declining tree with dead branches

Embrace The Shade
Too often, we try to raise plants that can’t get along with trees, especially in the shade under the canopy. Read up on woodland gardening and select shrubs and perennials and even some annuals that get on well in the understory of forests.

Don’t Fertilize Your Tree To Death
Fertilizer is not the answer to everything, particularly trees. For older trees the problem is giving them lots of nitrogen, which boosts stem and foliar growth. This new burst of growth can actually create demand for water that the root system may not have access to. Be sure to have your soil tested and have your tree’s condition assessed by an ISA certified arborist before spreading lots of fertilizer around. If you want to fertilize plantings around an older tree, try the trick of foliar fertilization. Use one-eighth-strength liquid fertilizer and spray it onto the foliage of the plants you want to receive the extra nutrition. This will save you time, spare the tree, and save some money on fertilizer too.


A version of this article appeared in an April 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of William J. Rowe II.


Posted: 04/19/17   RSS | Print


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History of the Rose
by Martin Stone, Ph.D.       #Flowers   #Roses

The simple flower shape, blush pink petals, and large clusters of flowers throughout the summer have made ‘Ballerina’ a favorite for decades.

Roses are more than prickly garden plants with exquisite flowers. They are much more than roots and leaves, stems and petals. They are the ultimate symbol of beauty, displaying perfection and romance. But beyond this, they are metaphors of society and us throughout history, as well as today.

Aristocracy and the Rose
In medieval Europe, roses in the garden were symbols of aristocracy. There were only a few elite ruling families of the day, and there were just a few elite rose families, too.

Any aristocrat of the day would tell you that peasants were not capable of appreciating beauty for its own sake. Peasants could not discern the hint of pink in the petal of a rose no more than they could discern the subtle scents of fruit and musk from wine.

After laboring in the fields all day, it is unlikely that a peasant would have had the time or energy to return home and cultivate a bed of roses. There were meals to prepare, and they did not like to get out in the night air for fear of contracting a disease.

Napoleon and Josephine’s Contribution

In the early part of the 19th century, roses and much of the world underwent a dramatic revolution. Turbulence was especially high in France where Napoleon was scrambling to the pinnacle of his government. Josephine apparently did not share her husband’s ambitions and grew weary of the pretentiousness of the courts, endless social events and her husband’s infidelities. She found refuge in Malmaison, her mansion nine miles west of Paris. From Malmaison, she devoted the remainder of her life to amassing the single largest collection of roses the world had ever seen.

In a few short years, her garden equaled her aspirations; roses grew side by side from China, Egypt, the Near East and anywhere Napoleon’s army marched. Though he was estranged from his beloved Josephine, he continued to support her garden habit by sending her living specimens. The genetically and geographically diverse roses were allowed to hybridize, and the new combinations still echo throughout our gardens to this day.

Introducing the Hybrid Tea
A second seminal event in rose history, perhaps the most important, happened a few decades after Josephine’s garden reached its zenith. In 1867, a French rose breeder crossed ‘Madame Victor Verdier’, a hybrid perpetual, with ‘Madame Bravy’, a tender tea rose. The result was the first hybrid tea aptly named ‘La France’.

The appearance of ‘La France’ began a lengthy love affair between hybrid tea roses and the gardening public. These new roses had a suite of favorable characteristics that the rising middle class loved. Their greatest attraction was cold hardiness combined with a remontant, or reblooming habit. They remain the most popular garden roses today.


The white petals of the Cherokee rose represent the tribal mother’s tears, and the golden center, the gold taken from their native lands when they were forced to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.


Native or Not?
Closer to home, roses played an important role during the Civil War. The Cherokee rose (Rosa laevigata) is a prickly-stemmed rambler that is graced with pretty, simple, single white flowers. It was commonly planted on the graves of fallen soldiers to assist families in grieving and in part to mark the site.

The Cherokee rose was long thought to be a native of the southern and eastern United States. Indeed, its range was similar to the geographical distribution of the tribe’s original location before they were forced along the Trail of Tears. But despite public opinion, it is an import from China. The mystery remains as to when it arrived, how it made the journey, and why it naturalized so rapidly.

Though the leaves show wear and tear from summer, nutritious rose hips are a great food for wildlife. This hip has already been sampled.

Black Sheep Of The Family
Though a few roses are native to North America, none have made the jump into the mainstream. Even the wildling you might encounter hiking through a field or forest is likely to be R. multiflora, a native of Japan. Introduced into this country as a durable and hardy rootstock for grafted roses, its vigor has served it well in its adopted home. Once sold as a living fence, R. multiflora is now known as an invasive plant and an outlaw in several states.

The Yellow Rose Of New York City
The “Yellow Rose of Texas” was made famous when it was compared to a beautiful woman in song. While the flowers are indeed yellow, it is not native nor is it from Texas. According to Thomas Christopher in In Search of Lost Roses, this rose is known today as ‘Harrison’s Yellow’ which originated as a chance seedling in New York City and proved to be extremely tough. The dense thorns repelled cattle and its drought and cold tolerance provided excellent survival skills. Turns out that it was the rose planted along the Oregon Trail across the west.

‘Summer Wind’ is an exceptional rose from famous rose breeder Griffith Buck. Buck roses are known for their hardiness, fragrance and beauty.

A Nation Divided
In our country today, roses are a metaphor of our divided society. Some rosarians are great fans of the hybrid teas while others are lovers of old-fashioned roses. Their philosophies are so dissimilar that we might use the red state-blue state analogies that simplify the demographics of presidential politics.

On one side of the aisle are gardeners who espouse old-fashioned roses, those roses that appeared before the first hybrid tea, ‘La France’. They seek the simpler structure of flowers and cherish the flat blooms with just a few delicately colored petals. For many admirers it is the scent of the old-fashioned flowers that is so attractive. From spicy to musky sweet, it is the fragrance that has galvanized their allegiance to these old roses.

The other side of the aisle embraces the hybrid teas. Repeat blooming is more highly prized to them than to expend a year’s flowers in one glorious blaze of color. They seek perfection in a single bud perched on a long stem. The latest garden center offering is exciting each spring and they likely will purchase a rose because it is named after a popular person. In recent years, big sellers have been ‘Dolly Parton’, ‘Reba McIntire’ and ‘Diana, Princess of Wales.’

Knock Out rose combines high disease resistance and prolific repeat blooming.

A miniature rose growing to a couple of feet tall, ‘Sweet Chariot’ features large, pink-purple flowers that smell like pepper. The fragrance is enhanced during the warmth of midday.

Centuries Of Cultivation
If roses in our gardens were indicative of society in the past, it remains true today. Consider the wildly popular hybrid tea rose, an amalgam of plant parts fused by humans to create a being far superior than the sum of its parts. Hybrid tea roses are composed of a rootstock and a beautiful grafted top portion.

The top of the rose produces its raison d’etre, the slender-tipped flower buds that open to reveal nature’s perfection. The buds appear in a brilliance of colors and demand our attention from across the garden or a crowded room.

Roses are beautiful garden plants, and yet, they are so much more. Though we have innocently cultivated them for centuries, they have been a barometer of social status and change. So, the next time you visit a friend’s garden or plant a rose in yours, remember, your choice has a long history of social prominence. Choose with your heart, and you may learn something about yourself, too.


A version of this article appeared in a May 2005 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Martin Stone, Ph.D.


Posted: 04/10/17   RSS | Print


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Sustainable Fertilization
by Kathy Fitzgerald       #Fertilizing   #Permascaping   #Soil

“Feed the soil, not the plant.” I experienced this pivotal epiphany when my husband and I attended Plant Delights Nursery’s class, “The World of Soil.” For the first time I really got it that good dirt is alive, and – this is the really important part – the more alive the dirt, the healthier the plants are in it.

Shortly thereafter I read Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, a layman’s guide to soil science. Lowenfels and Lewis illuminated the ecosystem of living soil in a powerful way. I became a true believer.

A History of Fertilizer
Before World War I, farmers everywhere used only composted manures, kitchen and garden wastes and seaweed to amend their fields, because that’s all there was. When hostilities ceased in 1918, armaments manufacturers faced severe profit cuts. They figured out that the same ingredients used to make firearms – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – also enhance crop performance. An aggressive marketing campaign launched the commercial fertilizer industry.

Crop yields rose dramatically, but so did pest problems and soil depletion. The new, “synthetic” plant foods came in the form of chemical salts, which had to break down in the presence of water before their nutrients became available to the plants. The salty byproducts of this reaction didn’t magically disappear from the soil, they accumulated. Exposure to salt causes soil microbiota to dehydrate and die. That’s why, once you start using synthetics, you have to keep on using them. Their mode of action essentially renders the fertilized soil sterile.

The Espoma Company’s Organic Traditions line of products includes single-element fertilizers as well as their familiar Plant-Tone, Holly-Tone and Rose-Tone, all with non-burning, low N-P-K numbers.

A Cautionary Tale
When I worked at a garden center, a customer once special-ordered 75 flats of centipede-grass plugs. Because the plugs looked a bit peaked on arrival, the owner asked another employee to sprinkle them with a little 8-0-24 fertilizer. The hapless girl spread an entire 50-pound bag on the 6 by 12 foot area. Even though we watered and watered, trying to leach the stuff out, the shock proved too much for the plugs. They all died from an extreme case of root burn.

This same death-by-fertilizer can happen in your own garden. Avoid it by learning to work with your soil instead of against it. Fertilizers labeled “organic” have dramatically lower N-P-K numbers than synthesized formulas. For example, compare Espoma’s Plant-Tone’s analysis is 5-3-3 to Osmocote’s 18-6-12. Lower numbers mean root and foliar burning are simply not possible.

Nature’s Way
In nature, fungi and bacteria consume and excrete nutrients in the soil. Protozoa, worms and arthropods consume and excrete the microbiota. Birds, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals consume and excrete the protozoa, worms and arthropods, in turn providing food for fungi and bacteria. This is the nutrient delivery system Mother Nature devised, devoid of human intervention. When you consider undisturbed habitats like forests, grasslands and rainforests, you have to admit Mother Nature knows what she’s doing.

We make a top-dress for our planting areas with generous helpings of a mixture of 1 16-ounce cup of kelp meal and 6 16-ounce cups of Holly-Tone to each 50-pound bag of Black Kow. (I opened the Holly-Tone from the bottom. Sorry.)

We can make our own gardens sustainable by replicating natural processes. The best way to do that is to treat your soil with annual topdressings of composted organic matter, either purchased or homemade. Incorporating compost into the soil improves drainage in heavy soils and increases moisture retention in sandy ones, but most importantly it attracts and feeds the bacteria and fungi at the base of the nutrient chain.

N-P-K Explained

The three primary elements plants need to get out of the soil around them are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). For a very simple explanation, nitrogen produces lush, green foliage; phosphorus, in the oxide form of P2O5 or phosphate, encourages blooming; and potassium, as potash or K2O, aids in growing healthy roots.

Also known as the “guaranteed analysis,” the three digits emblazoned on most fertilizer packages refer to the percentage by weight of each primary element per bag of mixture. For example, a 40-pound bag of 10-10-10 works out to 10 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus, 10 percent potassium and 70 percent of inert ingredients. In this particular case, the inert ingredients are 28 pounds of itty-bitty rocks.

Commercial fertilizers aren’t entirely counterproductive. Self-contained systems, like pots, benefit from their use. Most potting mixes are soilless, and therefore sterile, meaning there’s no microbiota to kill. Both houseplants and outdoor seasonal containers appreciate occasional applications of either granular or water-based nutrition. Whatever you use, always follow label directions. When it comes to fertilization, more is absolutely not better.

In my own garden, I trundle out the wheelbarrow every spring and combine 1 16-ounce cup kelp meal, 6 16-ounce cups of Holly-Tone (Plant-Tone if your soil is already acidic) and a 50-pound bag of Black Kow or other composted product. I distribute it liberally right on top of the mulch (mine is shredded leaves). Some may rake back their mulch first, but that’s too much work for me, I just go back and ruffle the mixture in with a garden claw. Either way, the idea is to get the composted material in contact with the soil.

The 2,700 square feet of planting space in my yard takes about 25 bags of Black Kow, or roughly one amended wheelbarrow load per 100 square feet. Come July, I usually toss around another dose of Plant-Tone and kelp, without the Black Kow, depending on the weather.

A New Mindset
Once you realize it’s the soil that needs feeding instead of the plants, understanding fertilizer becomes easier. By mimicking nature and limiting synthetic inputs, we become facilitators of the vital interconnectedness that living soil represents, to the better health of our plants, our planet and ourselves.



A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Jeffrey Heyden-Kaye ( and Kathy Fitgerald.


Posted: 04/10/17   RSS | Print


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Clematis 101
by Ilene Sternberg       #Flowers   #Plant Profile   #Vines

Clematis ‘Étoile Violette’

Virtually all clematis books are British. I think it’s some kind of law. According to those books, you may pronounce it “klem-a-tiss,” “kli-mah-tiss,” “klem-at-iss” or “klem-ay-tiss.” The plants are fabulous, and will respond no matter how you address them. Most Americans only spiral one up their mailbox post, but the Brits have been exploring the potential of almost 300 species and even more varieties and cultivars, using them far more imaginatively in their gardens for eons.

Clematis can reach 30 feet or be shorter than 2 feet. Flowers can be 10 inches across, or tiny stars, flat, cupped, turk’s cap-, bell-, urn- or tubular-shaped; sometimes delightfully scented, with fluffy, silky seedheads; and boast a broad spectrum of colors. In addition to greeting you while you peruse your junk mail, they can grace a container, clamber up a fence, ramble over rocks, climb trees, lace through shrubs and scamper across the ground. These buttercup relatives can also be alpine plants or little shrubs, not vines at all.

Susan Austin of Completely Clematis Specialty Nursery in Ipswich, Mass. (, has some pretty avant garde ideas about how to grow clematis. She uses cinnamon as a bactericide and fungicide. To battle periods of drought that can stunt growth and flower size, she recommends (in addition to deep planting, thorough watering once a week and heavy mulching) stuffing pre-moistened hydrogel (Soil-Moist or Terrasorb) into 6-inch-deep holes dug every 12 inches around each plant. Her trick is to soak the polymer beads in warm water prior to use. She says effects last as long as three years, by which time plants should be well established.

Avant-garde (C. ‘Evip033’)

Clematis have been customarily classified according to their pruning requirements. In Trouble-Free Clematis: The Viticellas (Garden Art Press, 1998), John Howells regroups them into 12 categories in order of their progression of bloom, dwelling more on the characteristics of the types and claiming the newer format is more useful and easily understood. Frankly, while I find attempts to systematize this mind-boggling array truly admirable, I am equally confused by both methods of organization. But, what do I know? I can’t sort socks, let alone clematis.

Clematis ‘Piilu’

Culture is more or less similar for all 12 groups. Like poppies, they should have their crowns sunk several inches below soil level when planted. Clematis fare best in good, neutral soil. Dan Long of Brushwood Nursery ( in Athens, Ga., says, “Amend soil with organic matter and consider some bonemeal, too. Plant clematis at a 45-degree angle – actually lean it over in the hole – to promote more shoots from the base sooner.”

“Never tease the roots of C. orientalis, C. alpina, C. macropetala or other fibrous-rooted types when planting,” Austin cautions. Taunting those temperamental roots can trigger sudden death. This sensitivity also makes transplanting difficult.

Most clematis can be pruned in early spring or late winter down to the first pair of buds, but leave pruning of early blooming kinds for after flowering or you’ll lose the spring show. Unless they’re tangled, you may leave them alone altogether. Broken stems, though, can invite a fungus, Phoma clematidina, that causes a stem rot and leaf spot disease where stems unexpectedly collapse in a melodramatic faint, which mainly affects large-flowered clematis hybrids. Species clematis, their cultivars and small-flowered hybrids are much less susceptible. Cut affected stems to ground level and the plant often recovers, usually the same season. Don’t be so quick to remove “dead” clematis. Sometimes dead-looking stems have perfectly fine growth at the top, and plants often resurrect magically after having been gone for years. Clematis sometimes lose their lower leaves as the season progresses. Underplanting with shallow-rooted, noninvasive plants can provide cover for this shameless nudity.

Clematis viticellas and its cultivars are easy to grow. I can’t say enough good things about the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Gold Medal winner ‘Betty Corning’. Little lavender-blue fairy hats abound continuously from early spring until frost. Her leaves are pristine and never turn black. Stems are plentiful and sturdy. ‘Etoile Violette’ is no prima donna either; she is vigorous, floriferous and nearly indestructible. Dan Long, smitten with yellow C. tangutica ‘Lambton Park’, says, “Small-flowered clematis combined with disease-resistant roses are hot these days. People want performance in the garden without trouble or chemicals to get there.”

‘Prince Charles’ and ‘Margaret Hunt’ are two of Susan Austin’s recommendations for prodigious bloom. Beautiful Baltic cultivars are now the rage in Britain. Susan also is smitten with C. integrifolia ‘Aljonushka’, with strawberry colored blossoms.




Top Left: Clematis ‘Duchess of Edinburgh’

Bottom Left: Josephine (C. ‘Evijohill’)

Right: Clematis ‘Rooguchi’

While most clematis prefer having their heads in sun, Blue Moon (C. ‘Evirin’) and ‘Silver Moon’ show their true colors (pale lavender, almost gray) in shady settings. My latest crush is the enticing C. integrifolia x ‘Rooguchi’, bearing nonstop 2½-inch deep-purple open-bell-shaped flowers with recurved sepals, and a loose, sprawling habit. It blooms even in shade from May through September.

Three reliable, virtually infallible large-flowering types are white ‘Henryi’, purple ‘The President’ and blue ‘Ramona’.

I’m working my way through Christopher Grey-Wilson’s book Clematis: The Genus (Timber Press, 2000). According to that, I still have 661 other clematis I haven’t tried.

Clematis terniflora


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Ilene Sternberg.


Posted: 04/10/17   RSS | Print


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Foodie Favorites
by Pamela Ruch       #Edibles   #Vegetables

Start hybrid broccoli and onion seeds about eight weeks before the last spring frost.

You’ve grown heirloom tomatoes. You know what it means to cook with superior ingredients. So take it to the next level. Enjoy roasted salad turnips with the slightly piquant base of the greens still attached, sweet baby broccoli tossed in garlic butter, tender mini beets, and grilled radicchio. If you can grow tomatoes, then there’s no reason you can’t grow gourmet delicacies in your backyard garden as well.

Or Just Harvest Them When Small

Growing gourmet vegetables can be as simple as harvesting the vegetables at a small and tender size.

Summer squash can be plucked with the flower still clinging to the baby fruit, stuffed with ricotta, rolled in egg and then breadcrumbs, and gently fried.

Beets, harvested at a tender 1-inch diameter and roasted, go beautifully with salad greens and goat cheese.

Baby greens can be planted in wide rows and cut at about 5 inches. Harvest the tender greens three, or even four times, in succession.

For an attractive and tasty salad, grow short rows of textured greens, such as lettuce, mizuna, arugula, and red mustard.

Baby broccoli
Hybrids of gai lan (Brassica oleracea var. alboglabra, aka Chinese broccoli) and traditional broccoli (Brassica oleracea var. italica) have the advantage of producing mini heads over a long period of time. You might encounter relatively new hybrids and cultivars as well, including broccolini (Brassica oleracea italica xalboglabra), ‘Aspabroc’, and ‘Brokali Atlantis’ and ‘Brokali Apollo’. By any name they are tender and sweet.

Grow: Plant seedlings 15 to 18 inches apart a couple of weeks before the last frost date. Harvest frequently, and be sure to plant flowers nearby to attract beneficial insects.

Eat: Simpler is better. Blanch the stems and heads for 2 minutes and then toss them in butter and garlic. A squeeze of lemon juice will amp up the flavor.

Try growing onions (Allium cepa) from seed. Cipollini and torpedo type onions, seed-grown shallots (Allium cepa var. aggregatum), and leeks (Allium ampeloprasum Leek Group) are worth the extra effort. Start them at least eight weeks before the last spring frost or buy transplants, offered online by some seed companies and specialty growers. Cipollinis and shallots are sweet and mild, and wonderful roasted. Torpedo onions are excellent raw.

Grow: Plant onion and shallot seedlings 3 to 4 inches apart in the garden, leeks at least 6 inches. Once plants are well established, weed the rows and mulch with straw. Most gardeners pull onions when the tops fall, but they can be harvested at any stage.

Eat: Melt a couple of tablespoons of butter in a skillet, add skinned onions and shallots and a teaspoon of sugar, and toss them over medium heat until they start to brown. Add some water or wine, lower the heat, and cover. Twenty minutes later remove the lid and reduce the liquid to a glaze.

Also known as corn salad, mache (Valerianella locusta) is a welcome cold-weather treat; with a little protection it will persist into spring. The flavor is mild and slightly nutty.

Grow: Sow mache seeds about 1 inch apart in late summer or early fall. It will not germinate in heat, so wait for a cool spell. If it is not up to size in fall, protect it with straw or a cold frame, and harvest in early spring.

Eat: Serve mache French-style, with beets and walnuts and a red wine vinaigrette, or use it as a salad green.

Radicchio and salad turnips are problem free in the garden.

The chicory clan is a varied group that includes endives and escarole. They have in common a distinctive bitterness, which some gourmands love, others, not so much. An understated chicory, radicchio (Cichorium intybus var. foliosum Radicchio Group) is mild in taste and beautiful in the garden – a real pleasure to grow and eat.

Grow: Start seeds indoors as you would broccoli, and plant seedlings about 12 inches apart a week or two before the last frost date.

Eat: Cut radicchio heads into wedges. Rinse with water, drizzle with olive oil, and roast at 400 F on one side for about 10 minutes until wilted, then turn to roast the other side. Then season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with balsamic vinegar.

Salad turnips
Also known as Hakurei turnips (Brassica rapa), these mini turnips are the size and color of ping-pong balls, and so sweet they can be eaten raw. They are quick to mature, and the greens are not just edible, they are truly delicious.

Grow: Sow seeds about 1 inch apart from early spring through early summer, and again in late summer. Harvest the row continuously as the turnips grow to size.

Eat: Slice thin and use raw in salads, or cut them in half, leaving about an inch of green, and roast at 400 F with an assortment of other vegetables.

Tatsoi can be grown easily in a container.

You might recognize tatsoi (Brassica narinosa) as the Asian green from supermarket salad mixes. Sweet and mild, it can be cut leaf-by-leaf for salads, or harvested whole for braising. Not only is it delicious, it is packed with vitamin C and calcium.

Grow: Scatter seeds in a wide (about 8 inches) row or container, so that seeds fall about an inch apart. When plants develop their mature leaves, cut them individually, or wait and harvest whole rosettes.

Eat: Use in salads, or lightly sauté until wilted as you would spinach. Tatsoi is also excellent in soups, added at the very end.


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Pamela Ruch.


Posted: 04/10/17   RSS | Print


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Extreme Makeover
by Tom Hewitt       #Themed Gardens   #Xeriscaping

In an arid garden, pay special attention to texture and form.

Whenever someone asks me about the easiest plants to grow, I always direct them to the Garden of Extremes at Mounts Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach. More often than not, they’re amazed at just how beautiful an arid garden can be.

The new Garden of Extremes at Mounts is really a makeover and expansion of the old Sun Garden. Designed by Mounts’ horticulturist Joel Crippen, it’s now four times its previous size, featuring an even wider array of plants that thrive under full sun, dryness, high winds, low fertility, and other adverse conditions.

Arid gardens don’t have to be boring, Crippen notes. Describing this one as “a desert in perpetual bloom,” he’s allowed Madagascar periwinkles (Catharanthus roseus) and Coreopsis to naturalize. No matter what time of year you visit, there is always plenty in bloom.



Left: Crippen spent more than a year designing and installing the garden.

Top Right: Winding pathways take you to all corners of the garden.

Bottom Right: Something is always in bloom, any time of the year.

The project wasn’t easy. Because of heavier soils in this particular area, Crippen found it necessary to make raised beds and mound soil to facilitate drainage. But this also allowed for more interesting topography, which includes a walkway and steps that ultimately lead to the garden’s highest point.

Things aren’t always as they seem. “What the viewer doesn’t consciously notice,” Crippen says, “is that the rocks in the beds are smaller than those used in the walkways, which are also two different sizes. This optical illusion tricks the senses into feeling that the space is much larger than it is.”

To elevate beds, excess soil was brought in from other areas of the garden. But since it lacked uniformity, it was amended with perlite, coarse sand, and peat moss to improve percolation. After plants were installed, white drain rock and pea gravel were used as ground cover, which further improved drainage. This also helped reflect more light, compensating for shade cast by trees on the opposite side of the walkway.

A huge mousetrap tree is one of the most popular plants in the garden.

Several large ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata) already on site were repositioned to create a “forest effect.” Ponytail palms, Crippen notes, are not true palms. They are members of the Agavaceae family and often used as houseplants. But they make good landscape specimens in Florida gardens (Zones 9-11) if given good drainage.

Turk’s cap is one of several Caribbean cacti in the garden.

Most people think of cacti as desert dwellers, but there are actually many species native to the tropics. Crippen included several Caribbean species in the garden, and hopes to collect more. Dwarf Turk’s cap (Melocactus matanzanus) is especially showy, forming a red bristly cone from which colorful red flowers and seeds emerge.

Turk’s cap can be hard to grow, but not ladyfingers (Mammillaria elongata). Its cylindrical stems are matted with golden spines. Crippen thinks the abundance of spines on Caribbean cactus may actually help shed excess water. Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) also grows here. Endemic to Mexico, it’s rare and critically endangered in the wild.

When people think of Florida cactus, prickly pears (Opuntia spp.) come to mind. Florida boasts nine native species, and several large specimens are in the garden. Crippen hopes to include many cacti native to the Keys. Several Florida cacti remain endangered, including Simpson’s applecactus (Harrisia simpsonii), mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera), and Key tree-cactus (Pilosocereus robinii).

Kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos spp.) also draw attention when they bloom. These natives of Australia love dry, sandy soils, and usually behave as short-lived perennials in Florida. The trick is to keep them dry enough during our summers. Their orange, tuberous flowers are covered with hairs, giving them a velvety appearance.

An Australian import, kangaroo paws is a showstopper when it blooms.

One of the most popular plants in the garden is a huge mousetrap tree (Uncarina grandidieri), which sports yellow, petunia-like flowers most of the year. Even when not in bloom, it boasts beautiful form. Mousetrap tree gets its common name from its thorny fruit that forms a trap “not even a mouse can escape from.”

Other unusual plants in the garden include desert fig (Ficus petiolaris), desert orchid (Eulophia petersii), and Cape rush (Chondropetalum tectorum). Cape rush was chosen, Crippen says, “to suggest the persistent survivors of an extinct riverbed.” Other creative touches include using pools of blue-green glass to mimic a mirage, stone statuary, and huge pots in earth tones.

Crippen eventually wants to include members of almost every plant family “just to keep things interesting.” Many herbs that like it on the dry side can also be found here, including rue (Ruta graveolens), thyme (Thymus), Artemisia, rosemary (Rosmarinus), and lavender (Lavendula). Anything planted here must get by on rainfall alone, since there is no supplemental irrigation.

Crippen keeps a close eye on the garden, but says he only needs to weed about once a month. That’s another benefit of extreme gardening. In an age when time is money, arid gardens more than earn their keep.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 22 Number 2.
Photography courtesy of Tom Hewitt.    


Posted: 04/10/17   RSS | Print


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Side by Side
by Mary K. Stickley-Godinez       #Advice   #Design   #Hardscaping

This walk meanders through a narrow side yard, but all along the way visitors are presented with lush plantings and featured pots.

It’s a forgotten spot, a space we pass through without thought, or where we hide things like trashcans, woodpiles, or composters. And in most of them you truly want to just shut your eyes and run through it as quickly as possible. But why would you want to have any spot in your yard that is ugly or unbeautiful? Use every scrap of soil you have. Even those narrow side yards can be part of the wonderful adventure of your home landscape.

There wasn’t a lot of room for plants in this garden. But the area was perfect to display the owner’s collection of hypertufa pots.

There are so many good reasons to make these spaces part of your garden. Keep in mind – most people that visit your garden come through the side yard in order to reach the cookout. I want my guests to be welcomed with something incredible from the first steps out of their car. This is also an area where you can be incredibly creative. The smaller size means you can incorporate some really fun paving details without a lot of expense. And this is a great place to feature some really interesting plants, as they will be seen up close and personal.

The side yard is often a microclimate too. So for you plant nerds out there, this spot is usually warmer and protected from cold winds. Meaning, you can put less hardy plants in these areas. And in my book, bragging rights are everything!

And, honestly, these areas are great spots for storage. After all, the heat pump has to sit somewhere. But don’t settle for ugly. Use that creative spark lurking in your innermost soul to put together some really cool screening and plantings.

A long narrow space tends to lend itself as the spot for a walkway just because of its shape. But nothing makes a long narrow space look longer and narrower than a straight-as-an-arrow path. Instead, make the walkway meander or zigzag through the area. Then fill the undulations with interesting plantings or art to encourage visitors to slow down.

Another method to make the walk seem shorter is to make it narrower in the middle, much like an hourglass. You are walking through a more open area, and then you pass through a narrow archway or a thick planting of trees and shrubs, only to emerge back into a wider space, which, in a few more steps, leads to your backyard.

Make an ENTRANCE, something that really says, “You have arrived!”

However you design the walk, don’t be timid. Make the walkway an adventure, stuffed full of wonderful things to slow your step make you dawdle a bit. This is the place to impress your visitors. So give it lots of wow factor!

You may need to store wood or hide the heat pump. But use something creative like these two doors repurposed into a trellis for an annual vine.

If you have a wider area, an intimate little garden room with an entrance on each end and a wide spot in the middle can be the perfect solution. The entrances can be archways, gates, or posts. I’ve even seen an actual screen door that had to be opened to walk through. The wider spot in the middle can contain a small patio, a tiny lawn space, or a simple bench surrounded by interesting pots and planters. A caution about any garden seating, make sure if you sit in it, that there is something interesting to look at and not a blank wall of a house. The point again is to create a space where you stop and take notice rather than rush right through.

And the result of that intimate garden room? You will find this will become the spot where you linger when you need some garden therapy, a quiet evening glass of wine, or a snuggle with your partner.

So you see this space really isn’t the “no man’s land” of the garden. It is an important area that prepares visitors for the wonders of what they are about to see and experience in the rest of your garden. So make it great.




A version of this article appeared in an April 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Mary K. Stickley-Godinez.        


Posted: 04/10/17   RSS | Print


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Control Caterpillar Pests
by Blake Layton       #Advice   #Insects   #Pests

Large tobacco hornworms can quickly strip leaves from backyard tomato plants. Prevent heavy damage by controlling caterpillars while they are still small. This one is 3 inches long.

Caterpillars are vexing pests to many of the plants we grow in our home landscapes and vegetable gardens. There are numerous different species of pest caterpillars, most of which specialize in feeding on a particular group of plants: azalea caterpillars sometimes defoliate whole plantings of azaleas; heavy infestations of bagworms destroy arborvitae trees; tobacco hornworms strip the leaves from homegrown tomatoes; squash borers kill squash and pumpkin vines. And the list goes on.

What is the best way to control caterpillar pests and keep them from causing so much damage? The key to successful caterpillar control is to treat while they are small. Newly hatched caterpillars are much easier to kill than caterpillars that are an inch or more in length and almost ready to pupate. More importantly, by controlling the critters while they are small, you avoid most of the damage they would otherwise cause. Most caterpillar pests do about 80 percent of their feeding in their last few days as a caterpillar. Wait too late to treat an outbreak of caterpillars, and you may get revenge — but you won’t prevent most of the damage.

Squash vine borers kill squash and pumpkins by boring into the stem of the plant. Successful control requires treatment before newly hatched caterpillars bore into the plant. This one is 1 inch long.

The problem is that small caterpillars are tough to spot. So how do you know when it is time to treat? With some crops you have to treat preventively based on plant development or time of year. Tomatoes are a good example. Unless you treat preventively once your plants begin setting fruit, you could be disappointed at harvest. “Oh, no, this tomato has been ruined by fruitworms, so has this one, and here’s another!” Preventive treatments are also necessary to control pests such as squash vine borers and peach tree borers. Because such pests are safe from insecticide sprays once they are inside the plant, it is necessary to treat before newly hatched caterpillars have bored in — you need to have the insecticide residue on the plant before the eggs hatch so hatching caterpillars have to crawl over treated surfaces. With peach tree borer, this can be accomplished with a couple of well-timed treatments applied to the lower trunk after harvest is over, but preventing squash vine borers requires spraying plants weekly once plants begin to bloom.

Fall webworms build unsightly webs in pecan and other trees, but it is not always safe and practical to spray large trees in urban settings.

Fortunately, preventive treatment is not necessary for all caterpillar pests. In many cases, it is possible to take a more reactive approach and wait until you see early warning signs of a caterpillar infestation before spraying. Newly hatched leaf-feeding caterpillars often begin by feeding on the undersides of leaves without chewing through the clear upper epidermis. This results in small windowpane-like spots that should alert observant gardeners to potential caterpillar infestations. Watch for these windowpanes or other early feeding signs; check the undersides of the leaves to verify the presence of caterpillars, and treat if necessary. This approach works best for leaf-feeding caterpillars in vegetable crops, ornamental shrubs and annuals.

There are also situations where the “do nothing” approach may be the best plan. Hardwood trees can be attacked by a variety of different caterpillars, and heavy outbreaks may sometimes cause severe defoliation. But most home gardeners do not have the equipment to treat a 60-foot tree and, even if you hire a commercial applicator, there are still drift and liability issues to consider. Fortunately, mature hardwood trees can tolerate a single heavy defoliation without suffering serious long-term consequences. Is it really worth the time and expense to spray large shade trees for an outbreak of defoliating caterpillars? By the time the problem is noticed, it’s likely that the caterpillars are almost fully grown and nearly ready to pupate. Small, recently planted trees are a different matter. If a tree is still small enough, you can treat it safely and effectively; if you can detect and treat an infestation in time to prevent severe defoliation, it is usually worth doing so. This will keep the young tree growing and protect it from unnecessary stress.

Newly hatched caterpillars, like these cross-striped cabbageworms, often leave telltale “windowpanes” on leaves where they feed, an early sign of caterpillar infestation. This one is a quarter-inch long.

Bagworms only have one generation per year. Insecticide sprays must be applied while caterpillars are active, before they have pupated for the year. This one is 2 inches long.

What insecticides work best for caterpillar control? One of the most effective active ingredients available to home gardeners today is spinosad. Spinosad is sold under many different brand names, and products containing spinosad are readily available in local lawn and garden centers. Spinosad is labeled for use on most vegetable crops and ornamental plants, and some formulations are even approved for organic gardening. Primarily for caterpillar pests, spinosad also controls thrips and some leaf-feeding beetles, but it is not effective on sucking insects like stink bugs and aphids. Organic gardeners may wonder what happened to the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) products. Bt products are still available, but they are not nearly as effective as spinosad.

Pyrethroid insecticides, with active ingredients like bifenthrin, cyfluthrin, permethrin, and lambda-cyhalothrin, are also very effective on most caterpillar pests. Pyrethroids are broad-spectrum insecticides that control a wide range of insect pests, but they also have the potential to trigger outbreaks of pests such as spider mites, whiteflies or aphids. This happens because these three groups of pests tend to be less susceptible to pyrethroids than the beneficial insects that help control them. Use pyrethroids when you need to control multiple pests, but don’t count on them to control mites, whiteflies or aphids. For example, pyrethroids are a good choice for treating tomatoes for tomato fruitworms, because they work well on fruitworms and will also control stink bugs and hornworms. Spinosad is a better choice for treating arborvitae for bagworms, because it is less likely to trigger a mite outbreak.


A version of this article appeared in an April 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Blake Layton.


Posted: 03/31/17   RSS | Print


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Springtime Tips to Spruce Up Your Lawn
by Kathleen Hennessy       #Landscaping   #Spring   #Turf Grass

Be sure your mower blade is sharp. Dull blades can give a ragged cut and leave grass blades dull and brown.

Step outside and take a deep breath. That new season smell may have you itching to get started on yard-care tasks, but the best advice is to be patient.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to lawn care to starting too early. Raking and mowing when the grass is wet can actually do more harm than good. Early in the season, when the ground is wet, the roots of your grass can easily be pulled out of the soil. So, wait until the ground dries out.

Raking is the best way to help fight the effects of winter snow cover. It reduces matting caused by snow, allowing air, sunlight and fertilizer to reach more of the plants and roots.

Lucky or not? Clover is a common perennial weed.


Dandelion is a perennial weed that is best treated in the fall with a postemergent herbicide.

Weedy Intervention
Spring is also a good time to begin the war on weeds. Different weeds require different treatments, so the first step is to determine what type of weed you are dealing with. There are two basic types of weeds. Annual weeds, such as crabgrass, sprout early in the season from seed. Perennial weeds, such as dandelions, survive season to season.

If you have a small weed problem, the best way to tackle the situation is by hand weeding. If the problem is larger in scale, chemical herbicides can help. Spring is the best time to treat annual weeds.

“Annual weeds are best controlled with herbicides called pre-emergents,” says Van Cline, senior agronomist at The Toro Company. “Pre-emergents nip the new weed seedlings at germination, preventing them from maturing.” Pre-emergent herbicides can be found in liquid or granular form, and can also be an ingredient in spring fertilizers.

Iowa State University researchers say corn gluten has proven to be an effective, natural pre-emergent herbicide.

Perennial weeds are best treated either by hand weeding or with postemergent herbicides. Fall is actually the best time to treat perennial weeds, but if you have a crop of dandelions already growing in your yard, spot treatment with a post-emergent or broadleaf herbicide will do the trick.

The best defense to control weeds is a healthy, thick lawn. Remember to mow high (3-4 inches tall) and follow other good horticulture practices.

When it comes to fertilizing your lawn, experts say waiting until the fall works best. Feeding your lawn in the spring can create a lot of top growth, which may look nice, but can develop grass that is weaker and less able to handle periods of stress, such as drought or summer heat. Put fertilizing on your late-August, early September to-do list.

Don’t forget to tune-up your mower before the season starts, and make sure you have fresh gas in the tank.

Get Mowing

Once your grass gets growing, you can turn your attention to your mower. A little spring maintenance can help your machine run smoothly throughout the season.

Fresh Fuel
Be sure to use fresh gas and oil. Gas that is older than 30 days can break down, causing engine trouble.

Nothing over E10
Choose the correct formula for your machine. Most outdoor power equipment is not designed to run on fuel blends containing more than 10 percent ethanol. Using E15 may affect performance, damage the engine, and cause problems that may not be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.

Sharpen your blade
Dull blades can literally give you lawn a bad haircut, leaving the grass ragged. If you haven’t had it professionally sharpened in a while, take it to your local outdoor power equipment dealer.

Make sure to keep the mower blade sharpened for a clean cut and to reduce damage to grass.



A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2014 edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Sleven/, craetive/iStockphoto, Kathleen Hennessy, The Toro Company/


Posted: 03/31/17   RSS | Print


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Potting Sheds: A Gardener’s Haven
by Sharon Thompson       #Design   #Misc   #Tools


Gardening requires gear, and gear requires storage. But gardeners’ gear is often relegated to nooks and crannies in garages where it soon collides with cars and the paraphernalia of other family pursuits. We often spend half our gardening time looking for the tools of our trade.

A place to play with plants and to store stuff is the dream of many gardeners. But where to put that horticultural hideaway? What should it look like? How should it function? Following are two examples to give you inspiration for building your own potting shed.

A Useful Bench
For Millie Headrick of Lexington, S.C., a secluded spot in a side yard became the perfect place to pot and play.

Like many of us, she stowed her gardening gear in the garage, but had no designated work area. She relied on two saw horses and an old door set up in the driveway when she needed a flat work surface. At the end of the day, this “portable” table had to be dismantled and put away.


Tired of hauling her table and sundry potting supplies in and out of the garage, she decided to create her own work station.  “I went to Lowe’s and walked around looking for inspiration. It had to be easy for me to put together – I wasn’t interested in nailing, hammering or sawing.”

She chose 2 by 6 treated lumber in the longest length she could find – 12 feet – for the top, and cinder blocks for the foundation. “I used three boards laid next to each other for the top surface since they fit perfectly on top of the block – no carpentry skills involved.”

Tucked into a service area behind a privacy fence, the bench shares a wall with her husband’s workshop. The back of the workshop already had an extended roofline where mowers and wheelbarrows were stored, so her husband built two storage cabinets to link the spaces together. One cabinet is outfitted with shelves for short items with rectangular wire bins attached to the door to hold small tools – trowels, gloves, pruners.  The other cabinet is designed for storing long-handled tools – shovels, rakes and hoes.

Headrick’s “do-it-herself” potting bench shares a wall with her husband’s workshop. The generously proportioned bench provides ample work space and the storage cabinet keeps long-handled tools organized and accessible. The adjacent cabinet provides shelf and bin storage for smaller items.

A watering station at the end of the bench nestles in a corner made by the privacy fence and workshop wall. Outfitted with large J-hooks, the fence provides tangle-free storage for hoses. Millie uses pots to soften the functional arrangements of water connections.

Before constructing her potting bench, Millie leveled the footprint and paved the area with square, cement patio pavers, eventually expanding the adjacent floor surface with bricks. This previously unused space is now her nursery area, where sick plants are nurtured and out-of-season plants wait their turn in one of her container creations.

“My potting bench is something I threw together years ago out of desperation. Now that my husband is retired, he wants to build me the “ultimate potting bench.” If the bench was in a more visible area of the yard I would opt for something more attractive, but I’m happy with the old one. It’s not pretty, but it’s functional.”


Kathy and Steve Aiello turned a gazebo located in the middle of their garden into this charming and functional potting shed.


Inside the compact potting shed, tools, potting supplies and a work surface share space efficiently.

A Conversion Shed
Drenched in the shade of a giant oak tree, Kathy and Steve Aiello’s West Columbia, S.C., garden is an inspired arrangement of horticulture and hospitality. Brick paths wander past huge containers billowing with specimen plants, while several water features and seating areas encourage guests to linger. Located in the middle of it all is Kathy’s potting shed.

Before the shed took shape, Kathy stored a burgeoning ceramic container collection and gardening equipment in the garage, using an old table for her potting chores. Seven years ago, when she decided she needed a potting shed, Steve agreed. “I figured if her gardening stuff was somewhere else, I would have more room in my garage workshop.”

So Steve converted a gazebo which sat in the middle of their garden into a potting shed. The original 6 by 6 footprint became the foundation for a charming structure complete with a glass door, metal roof and outdoor shower.

The Aiello’s use architectural pieces and old farm implements from family tobacco farms to personalize their garden, and the potting shed is no exception.  Its push-out windows came from her grandparent’s house, as did the mule collar and metal tractor seat that decorate the back wall.

Inside, a stainless steel counter provides quick clean-up, recycled cabinets provide drawer storage and a garbage can stores potting soil. Shovels and rakes hang in the corners, while pegboard above the counter organizes hand tools.

Light filtering through an antique stained glass window, one of many in Kathy’s extensive collection, adds an artful touch. Although the shed has no sink, there’s a hose bib just outside the door that is part of an outdoor shower arrangement.

Kathy’s favorite part of the shed is its convenience. “I love having everything right at hand, plus its size is a good scale with the rest of the garden. If it was any bigger, it would be stuffed with more containers,” Kathy said.

As these gardeners discovered, with a little imagination and a bit of sweat equity, a horticultural play station is easy to create.



A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 23 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Sharon Thompson.


Posted: 03/31/17   RSS | Print


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Hey Good Lookin’
by Tom Hewitt       #Design   #Natives   #Shrubs

‘Schillings Dwarf’ is a dwarf form of yaupon holly that responds well to tight shearing.

Native shrubs are often overlooked because they’re considered nondescript, lack year-round interest, or are difficult to shape. It’s true that the majority of native shrubs look best in informal landscapes, but I’ve found several over the years that work well in formal gardens as well.

Every native shrub has its place, but those used in formal settings are held to a higher standard. To begin with, they should have attractive foliage year round, offer pretty, non-messy flowers or fruit, grow slowly, and respond well to shearing. Consider their mature size also, as you don’t want to keep hacking them back to keep them in scale.

This is especially important with shrubs used for foundation plantings, as there is great variability in the heights of many natives. In time, most shrubs get bigger than we think they will, so it’s best to use smaller cultivars when available.

Dahoon holly (Ilex cassine) eventually reaches 25 feet or so, but can be kept much shorter. Its narrow form makes it a great choice for a small tree incorporated into a foundation planting. Female trees produce bright red berries loved by birds. (Make sure you plant a male tree in the vicinity to ensure maximum fruit set.) Zones 8-10.



Top Left: The berries of Dahoon holly and other natives are loved by wildlife.

Bottom Left: Firebush blooms year round in southern Florida.

Right: Jamaican capers produce fragrant flowers, followed by colorful fruit.  

Dwarf yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘Schilling’s Dwarf’) is just perfect for training into little 3-foot balls. It doesn’t produce red berries, but new growth has a reddish tint. It makes a nice accent or low hedging material, and even works well in large containers. Zones 8-10.

Firebush (Hamelia patens) blooms year round in southern Florida with orange-red tubular flowers loved by butterflies (especially zebra longwings) and hummingbirds. It reacts well to shearing, so it can be trained into just about any shape you want. Songbirds love its blackish berries. I have one in heavy shade, but it really prefers full sun to light shade to look and bloom its best. Zones 10-11.

Jamaican caper (Capparis cynophallophora) is one of my favorite vertical accents for the corner of a house. If left untrimmed, it can reach 20 feet, but I keep mine at 8 feet or so. April through June it produces sweet-smelling flowers loved by bees, followed by colorful seedpods. I have one in deep shade, though it prefers full sun to partial shade. Zones 10-11.

Lignum vitae (Guaiacum sanctum) can also get pretty tall, but is incredibly slow growing. Make sure you give it plenty of room to grow, so it can ultimately develop its picturesque form. Its blue flowers are followed by yellow seedpods that split to expose red seeds. Zones 10-11




Top Left: The seedpods of lignum vitae are extremely ornamental.

Bottom Left: Natives used in formal gardens should have naturally tidy shapes.

Right: Simpson’s stopper (L), Jamaican caper (C), and white indigoberry (R) make a great native combo for a formal landscape.


Simpson’s stopper (Myrcianthes fragrans) is one of my favorite native shrubs. In time it makes a handsome small tree, but I keep them between 4-5 feet. It has small, fragrant leaves, as well as fragrant white flowers followed by orange fruit favored by birds. I have several in deep shade, though they prefer full sun to medium shade. Smaller cultivars are on the market, including ‘Compacta’ and ‘Geode’. Zones 9-11.

Dahoon hollies are good small trees in foundation plantings.

Walter’s viburnum (Viburnum obovatum) has small dark green leaves and a naturally rounded shape. It blooms profusely in the spring, and then on and off throughout the year. Though it will perform in deep shade, it’s much happier with at least some sun. Though its size is extremely variable, I have no trouble keeping mine at 3 feet or so. There are several dwarf cultivars on the market, including ‘Reifler’s Dwarf’ and ‘Mrs. Schiller’s Delight’. It does have a tendency to produce suckers, so I simply take a spade around them every so often to remove them. Zones 8-10.

White indigoberry (Randia aculeata) is also highly variable, though I keep mine at 4 feet or so. Its stiff branches and spines at the base of its leaves can be irritating, so I use gloves when trimming it. It produces fragrant white flowers much of the year, followed by white fruit with purplish to almost black pulp. Both male and female plants flower, but only females produce fruit. It prefers full sun to light shade. Zones 9-11.

So there you have it: several native shrubs that look not only look good, but behave themselves as well. Just be careful when using them outside their natural range, as they may lose their evergreen status during winter. Although areas next to a house offer more protection, you don’t want any shrubs used in foundation plantings to drop all their leaves or get kicked back annually by freezes.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 22 Number 2.
Photography courtesy of Tom Hewitt.


Posted: 03/30/17   RSS | Print


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Poison Ivy Primer
by Ilene Sternberg       #Health and Safety   #Poisonous Plants   #Vines

Leaves can be glossy or dull, dark or pale green, and hairy or not.

Itching to get out in the garden? Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans aka Rhus radicans) includes several subspecies, and is only one of multiple sumacs, many of which are also rash-producing, and the one you’re most likely to tangle with in your own backyard. It belongs to the Anacardiaceae family along with mangoes, cashews, smoke tree (Cotinus sp.), and other desirable relatives, which, likewise, may produce severe allergic reactions.

Our North American “brand” spreads from coast to coast, from Canada through Mexico, Asia to Guatemala, Europe and Australia. Only primates are sensitive to urushiol (the plant’s toxic substance). Cats, dogs, goats, and deer are immune, but they can transfer the problem to humans via their fur.

The rash can also spread through airborne soot and ash, so never burn the plant. People inadvertently use poison ivy twigs for firewood. (Inhaling urushiol particles can cause asthma and swollen eyes.) Once the stricken victim has bathed, the rash is not contagious to others. Many people don’t exhibit symptoms with their first encounter. About 80 to 90 percent of people are susceptible to poison-ivy-induced rashes. People have gotten rashes from 20-year-old herbarium specimens and garden tools they haven’t used for years. We expect problems in spring and summer, when sap and pollen are plentiful, but in winter, dormant plants are equally dangerous.

The axiom “leaves of three” does apply to poison ivy, but the plants can have four, five or seven
leaves as well.


Poison ivy can take the form of a ground cover, a vine, or a shrub. It adheres to trees with hairy roots.

Identifying poison ivy

The familiar “three” leaflets can be four, five, or seven smooth-edged, lobed, or toothed, tiny or large, glossy or dull, dark or pale green, hairy or not, and can form a small deciduous plant, long vine, or huge shrub. Juveniles form ground covers and spread by runners until they find a climbable support structure (such as trees, walls, telephone poles). Mature plants can reach 100 feet with a 6-inch trunk diameter.

Once you’ve had a close encounter of the blistery kind, you’ll soon be able to recognize it in its many sinister disguises. But, even if you never set foot outdoors, handling clothing or any object that has brushed against the plant can bring the poison ivy experience to you firsthand. The oil attaches to skin and cell proteins, causing our immune systems to react. The fluid emanating from blisters is mostly white blood cells and serum produced by our bodies. Almost all body parts are vulnerable to the sticky urushiol that produces the characteristic rash. Places where skin is tender, between fingers for example, are most sensitive.

Killing the rash

Cleansing within 10 minutes of contact may arrest the initial outbreak, and this can help prevent further spread. The rash may appear within a few hours to a week or more after exposure, and most rashes disappear within three weeks or sooner. Water alone can dilute the oil.

Home remedies for poison ivy rashes abound. Success has been reported using various soaps, chlorinated water, Aloe vera, vitamin C, tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia), iodine, vinegar, sassafras leaves, plantain leaves, salicylic acid, even honey or banana peels.

Once a rash develops, aluminum acetate (Burrows solution), baking soda, colloidal or oatmeal baths, aluminum hydroxide gel, calamine, kaolin, zinc acetate, zinc carbonate, or zinc oxide applied to the skin can help, as can corticosteroids and antihistamines used both topically and internally. Menthol, benzocaine, and pramoxine sprays often can numb the itch.


Poison ivy can have red fall color and white berries.

Nevertheless, even “evil” poison ivy has beautiful fall color, and provides a source of cover and food for wildlife. Bees visit the flowers, deer browse the fruits and foliage, and cottontail rabbits feed on the twigs and bark. Its white berries are savory to at least 60 species of birds.

Killing the weed

But you probably don’t want poison ivy in your garden. Using proper personal protection (such as long sleeves and pants, gloves, and eye protection) cut vines and pull them away from trees. Dig up roots. Mow or cut young shoots until the plant dies. Supposedly environmentally friendly herbicides, such as a citrus-based weed killer, and those formulated from soap-based fatty acids can rid large garden areas of poison ivy. Non-selective herbicides with the active ingredient glyphosate, and selective herbicides containing triclopyr also can do the trick. Or enlist one of the lucky 15 percent of the populace who seem to be immune to poison ivy’s charms to weed the plants out for you.

Or rent a goat – they can eat poison ivy with no ill effects.


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Joseph LaForest/ and U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Posted: 03/29/17   RSS | Print


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Aprils Remembered
by Troy B. Marden       #Colorful   #Flowers   #Spring










About 15 years ago, I finally learned the secret to growing great foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) in the South. Easy to start from seed in August, I plant new plants each autumn to flower the following spring.


As I was scanning my photo library, considering the many garden plants I could write about for this article, I came across a file of photos, all taken during the month of April – not all in the same year, but all in April – gardens ranging from Jackson, Miss., to Louisville, Ky. It reminded me just how abundant the garden is this time of year. This is the season when gardening seems effortless. Well, almost. The weeds are as high-spirited as the annuals and perennials, so diligence in their control is necessary; but still, the garden is lush and growing rapidly, and the vibrant green of spring radiates from its very heart. There is a certain pristine quality about all of the plants emerging fresh and new.

Denizens of the shade appear early to take advantage of the available light before the trees are in full, leafy dress. Native wildflowers mingle with their counterparts from across the sea. Exbury hybrid azaleas in flamboyant shades of gold and orange command attention from across the garden, while subtle ephemerals such as lords-and-ladies (Arum maculatum) catch the eye of the more astute and curious. By midsummer, their foliage will have faded, leaving behind spires of berries that will eventually ripen to sensual shades of red.

Left: One of the Exbury hybrid azaleas, Rhododendron ‘Gibraltar’ commands attention from across the garden with its flaming orange flowers borne in large clusters on bare stems. Middle: The white flowering form of the Japanese roof iris (Iris tectorum ‘Alba’) makes itself at home at the edge of a woodland garden with morning sun and light afternoon shade. Right: ‘Heavens to Betsy’ is a form of our native woodland geranium (Geranium maculatum), selected and named for its very large and glossy foliage that remains attractive throughout the summer. Its pink blooms are an added spring bonus.


On the eastern edge of a friend’s garden in Memphis, where morning sun streams in under the high limbs of the resident oaks, white Japanese roof iris (Iris tectorum ‘Alba’) unfold their silky petals – a plant whose delicate appearance belies its rather tough and vigorous nature – and Saruma henryi, a distant and unusual Japanese cousin of some of our native gingers, bears its soft yellow, though fleeting, three-petaled blooms. Rather than creeping along the ground, it forms an upright clump with its flowers appearing at the top of its stems rather than ground level.

In my garden, April means anticipating the yearly flowering of a native woodland geranium I selected and named almost 15 years ago, Geranium maculatum ‘Heavens to Betsy’. In bloom, its typically pink flowers may not stand out as anything special or unusual, but the plant was really selected for its foliage, growing to nearly double the size of typical G. maculatum and taking on a glossy, polished sheen. Long after its flowers have gone, the foliage remains beautiful and provides welcomed texture against the broad, pointed leaves of Hosta and the lacy fronds of a dozen or so species of fern. It almost reminds me of a miniature mayapple (Podophyllum).

In the sunny garden, life is stirring, too. Shrubs such as Weigela florida ‘Rubidor’ are practically throwing a temper tantrum with deep, red blooms set off by newly unfurled leaves of screaming gold, demanding your attention. Wildflowers bloom here as well, and one of which I will never tire – Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) – takes center stage now with its pale, powder blue flowers. One of the few perennials that offer good fall color, its foliage turns a luminous shade of gold in the garden.

Top Left: Weigela florida ‘Rubidor’ is not for the faint of heart with screaming, new gold growth playing the gaudy and great foil for its red flowers. The foliage remains bright gold throughout the summer. Bottom Left: Saruma henryiis an unusual Chinese cousin of our native wild gingers. Growing upright, rather than creeping along the ground, its soft yellow flowers appear at the top of each stem in midspring. Right: Iris ‘Flying Solo’ has quickly become a garden favorite. Known as a “median bearded” iris, its slightly smaller and fragrant flowers are borne in great profusion in mid-April.

As April comes to an end, the bearded irises begin to flower, and their show will continue well into the first weeks of May. One of the first to appear is ‘Flying Solo’, an iris known as a “median bearded” variety because of its slightly smaller flowers, borne in great profusion. Given to me by my friend Kelly Norris of Rainbow Iris Farm in Bedford, Iowa (, it has grown astoundingly fast and even as a small clump, afforded me nearly three weeks of bloom its first full season in the garden. It is a winner in my book! It will be followed later by a tall bearded iris lovingly known as ‘Back Door’, a plant raised from seed by a gardener in my hometown in the 1960s who has long since passed on and who grew it by the “back door” where most visitors came and went. It was passed on to me more than 30 years ago and in 2010, I was able to locate one plant that still remained. It will flower for the first time in my garden this year.

Alongside the iris and helping carry late April’s show well into the month of May are the foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea). Many years ago, I finally learned how to grow these most successfully. Even though their seeds are tiny, they are not difficult to grow. I start them in early August in small trays, keeping them warm and evenly moist, and wait the two to three weeks it takes for them to germinate. Sow them as thinly as possible in the tray so the plants have room to grow for a few weeks after they sprout. Once plants have three to four leaves and are ¾ of an inch or so tall, I transplant them to individual 4-inch pots where they will continue growing until it is time to plant them outside in late October. By then, they should fill their pots completely with lush, green leaves and be ready to go out into the garden. They will overwinter, despite cold weather, as green mounds of leaves. Growth will begin again in late March and continue through April, with the rosettes expanding to nearly 2 feet wide before sending up their 4-to-6-foot towers of blooms near April’s end.


Left: Lords-and-ladies (Arum maculatum) appear in spring and their foliage lasts until late summer, followed by foot-tall spires of red-orange berries. Right: Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), a tough native wildflower, puts on a multi-season show with pale blue spring flowers, feathery summer foliage and spectacular golden fall color.

April continues my love affair with the spring season. Its abundance of blooms and the exuberant growth that comes with plentiful rain renews my soul and my gardening spirit. Each day brings a new discovery, a new bloom and a renewed sense of optimism for the season ahead. I hope it does the same for you.


A version of this article appeared in an April 2013 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Troy B. Marden.


Posted: 03/29/17   RSS | Print


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Lighting Enhances Landscape Use and Beauty at Night
by Joe VanDerZanden       #Design   #Health and Safety   #Tech & Gadgets

Dramatic path lighting and uplights create a welcoming entryway and show off architectural details.

When designed and installed correctly, landscape lighting is perhaps the most dramatic enhancement the homeowner can add to the landscape. Unlike many other exterior improvements that may solve a single problem or achieve a singular goal, illuminating the landscape has multiple benefits. Adding landscape lighting not only makes your home more appealing at night, it adds security and safety while illuminating all sorts of outdoor activities long after dark.

“Wow” Factor“
For the money, landscape lighting is about the most dramatic aesthetic improvement you can make to the exterior of your home,” said Matt Diemer, Outdoor Lighting Specialist at Landscapes by Design located in Slater, Iowa. “It is just such a great finishing touch. When done right, outdoor lighting showcases all the best architectural details of the house and the landscaping which complements it.”

Nighttime curb appeal is a result of sound design principles and quality products, he said. When first meeting with clients, Diemer generally has two design priorities that he always discusses.

“First, I want to use lights to create a distinct entrance to the home,” he said. “It should be clear where a visitor should go – and it should look really welcoming and dramatic.”

Just a team player in the landscape during the day, a specimen tree along a stream becomes a major focal point at night when featured with up lighting. The stream also has underwater lighting.

The second design objective he tries to achieve is the creation of a focal point. “Many of my clients already have a focal point in the garden or on the house that goes unnoticed at night,” he said. Whenever possible, Diemer likes to see these features become star attractions at night. Such features might include fountains, specimen plants, statuary or even a beautiful front door.

As with many professionals, Diemer works almost exclusively with LED bulbs. The quality of light is better and bulbs last longer than incandescent or halogen. LED fixtures will cost more up front, but will eventually pay for themselves in longevity and energy savings.

A Safe and Secure Home
Whether new or old, the extent of outdoor lighting in many landscapes is a floodlight attached to the front of the house, some glaring porch sconces next to the front door and maybe a bright light post next to the driveway. This type of high-intensity lighting tends to leave areas of the property in total darkness and does little to add beauty or intrigue to the landscape.

Although a motion-activated halogen light over the garage provides certain functionality, using numerous, smaller fixtures that produce a lower intensity light will illuminate a larger portion of the property and provide greater visibility at night.

Not only does it appear dramatic, low-intensity lighting placed all around a home creates a secure environment with no dark spots.

Different from security is lighting that addresses safety needs in the outdoor landscape. One of the things that Diemer is always sure to address on any lighting design project is the need for safe passage through the property.

“I like to walk the landscape with the homeowner and inventory those areas that could be potential hazards at night,” Diemer said. Tricky garden paths, steps, stairs and deck areas all should be appropriately lit to prevent trips and falls. Diemer also considers other factors when it comes to safety lighting. He wants to know if the homeowners have mobility issues, young children or pets. “Safety should really come first,” Diemer urged. “The upshot is that there are so many terrific-looking fixtures available in so many styles, that safety lighting can also be quite attractive.”

Good lighting design, including strategic downlighting, can contribute to the mood and atmosphere in outdoor entertaining areas.

Practical Applications
Interior lighting designers make important design decisions based on the function of a space. It is clear that a busy family kitchen has different lighting requirements than a media room. The same principle applies to outdoor lighting.

For instance, decks and patios equipped with down-lighting fixtures will create a natural, subdued and romantic atmosphere. When designing and installing lights for outdoor entertaining spaces, Diemer thinks “less is more.” He wants to provide adequate light so guests are comfortable, but not distracted by high-intensity spotlights. “You should have just enough light to discern the salsa from the guacamole – but not much more.”

Other entertaining areas require different lighting. Outdoor cooking areas may require task lighting, similar to what is used inside the home.

With the addition of lighting, a beautiful garden can be enjoyed long after the sun goes down.

Go With a Pro
Landscape lighting can improve the appearance of the home and provide other benefits, all of which create a safe, comfortable and relaxing atmosphere. Because design choices, styles and product types are many, consulting with an experienced outdoor lighting specialist can be a tremendous advantage. As with any large-scale outdoor project, talk with a professional before considering taking a landscape lighting project on yourself.

A professional installer will have access to much higher-quality products and a greater selection. Manufactured to meet the rugged climate of the Midwest, these fixtures provide enjoyment longer than products found elsewhere.

Installation may require some disruption to your landscape. A professional installer will have the experience and equipment needed to bury wire and install fixtures causing the least amount of damage to your property. Installation also may require the services of a licensed electrician to relocate outlets or power supply.

An experienced outdoor lighting expert will be able to address your lighting needs by matching the appropriate design solution and products to your project.

There are many of types of lighting fixtures and bulbs. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Your lighting designer will be able to recommend the best fit for your project.


A version of this article appeared in Iowa Gardener Volume 2, Number 1.
Photography courtesy of Kichler Lighting.


Posted: 03/19/17   RSS | Print


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Hoo Gives a Hoot
by Kenny Coogan       #Beneficials   #Environment   #Wildlife

Building a nest box and placing it between 10-30 feet off the ground will invite these pint-sized predators to your garden.

Closing up my potting shed one evening, I heard an eerie, but welcomed, soft neigh originate from a cluster of oak trees in the corner of my yard. Thirty seconds later, I heard a horse-like whinny call in the opposite corner from the 40-foot-tall clumping bamboo. I was surrounded. I quickly went to see if they had moved in the nest box that the previous owners had attached to an oak tree about 15 feet off of the ground – they had not.

A few short weeks later, after the courting had subsided, I saw the two new residents: Mr. and Mrs. Screech Owl. I checked a few weeks for signs of chicks and it appeared that they were unsuccessful. Then one night a fully feathered chick popped its head out of the nest box! The next day two chicks flew the coop.

Hosting and inviting owls to your garden has many advantages. Although not seen as often as diurnal birds, when owls are spotted it is a thrill for all. Their distinct vocalizations often give their locale away, as they fly silently with their fringed feathers hunting for vermin. Having pest control working not only for free, but throughout the night unseen, is an added bonus. Owls are an environmentally safe form of pest control – no harsh chemicals needed. These nocturnal birds will coexist with your songbirds because they are active at different times, so you can still enjoy your passerines. Here we profile four distinct owl species. Any garden can accommodate these and other native raptors with a few organic changes to your landscape.

Eastern Screech Owl
Megascops asio
Call: Descending trill, tremolo or whinny
Height: 6.3-10 inches

Besides the several mature live and laurel oaks on my property providing shelter for owls, another possible attractant is my brush pile. This pile decomposes large bulky items that I do not have the time or resources to make small enough to fit in my two compost bins. While large branches create structure, small twigs, leaves and grass clippings provide nesting material for songbirds and shelter for small animals like reptiles and rodents – the latter being a popular menu item for owls. Adding a bird feeder near the brush pile will invite songbirds to recycle your yard waste into nesting material. Leaving seeds and nuts on the ground will entice rodents, which in turn entice owls.

Barn Owls
Tyto alba
Call: Long harsh scream, a few seconds long
Height: 12.5-15.5 inches

Barn owls are found throughout the world. They can take up residence in abandoned sheds, barns and silos. Designating a rustic area of the garden where pruning and maintenance are kept to a minimum will encourage these birds to move in. Reducing widespread exterior lighting such as flood lights will also help.





Barred Owl
Strix varia
Call: Eight or nine notes, described as “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”
Height: 16–19 inches

While owls get a majority of their water from their diet, the barred owl will especially appreciate ponds, birdbaths and other water features. Barred owls are one of a few owl species that hunt aquatic animals such as snakes, fish, invertebrates and amphibians. These birds can be found naturally in wetland areas and are sometimes called swamp owls.


Great Horned Owl
Bubo virginianus
Call: Deep hoots: hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo
Height: 18-25 inches

Great horned owls are one of the largest species in the US and can eat prey items as large as skunks. Leave large, bare branches or snags to encourage nest sites. These roosts will also serve as lookout posts for these perch and pounce predators.






A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 20 Number 2.
Screech owl photo by Milo Anderson; great horned owl photo ©; all other photos for this article by Kenny Coogan.


Posted: 03/19/17   RSS | Print


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Some Enchanted Evening
by Troy B. Marden       #Fragrant   #Flowers   #Themed Gardens   #White

After a long day at work, nothing is more relaxing to me than an evening stroll through the garden. The colors are more saturated in the sunset light than any other time of day, and after dark, the garden takes on a life of its own. In an attempt to attract nighttime pollinators, flowers often unleash intoxicating fragrances that permeate the damp, evening air. Some even open in time-lapse fashion, and I find myself mesmerized watching their petals unfurl. Many of these plants are easy to find and to grow, which makes them all the more appealing. If I had to narrow the list down to just a few of my top favorites that make my garden come to life every night, the list might look something like this:

Brugmansia, or angel’s trumpet, is a popular specimen for containers and also thrives in the ground. Its spectacular blooms are borne most profusely in late summer and autumn.

Angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia spp.):
This outstanding tropical offers bold foliage and spectacular pendant-like blossoms ranging from pure white to soft pink to pale yellow. It is an outstanding specimen for large containers but is also perfectly at home planted in the ground, where it can be underplanted with smaller companions. Planted in the garden, it is occasionally perennial in Zone 6b and will be fully hardy farther south, though it may not sprout until very late spring when the soil has warmed thoroughly. After sunset, the flowers release a powerful fragrance that attracts pollinators to the blooms.

‘Athens’ sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus ‘Athens’):
The yellow-flowered form of one of our most popular native shrubs, ‘Athens’ sweetshrub has soft, greenish yellow flowers with an intense fragrance that I can only liken to that of fruity bubblegum. This fragrance is most noticeable during the evening hours, and I love to plant them near a screened-in porch or patio area that is frequently used for dinner or entertaining after dark.

Calycanthus floridus ‘Athens’ is a perfect selection for the evening garden. Its fragrance permeates the air after sunset.

Moonflower (Datura inoxia):
Sometimes called moonflower because of its enormous, pure white blooms that truly glow in the dark on a moonlit night, Datura can be found growing in pastures and along roadsides under the most difficult conditions. It is just as tough in the garden, where it is unbothered by pests of any kind and opens its nighttime blooms from midsummer to frost. Note: The seeds of Datura (and of its close cousin Brugmansia) are poisonous. Plant them far away from the curious fingers and mouths of young children, as well as pets.

‘Tahitian Flame’ ginger lily (Hedychium ‘Tahitian Flame’):
With its architectural form and highly variegated green and white leaves, ‘Tahitian Flame’ is a welcome addition to the evening garden. Perhaps more important than its foliage is the warm, spicy fragrance that the flowers emit. While the flowers are fragrant throughout the day, the air hangs heavily with its exotic perfume after dark.


Left: Datura stramonium is often found growing wild in pastures and along roadsides. Its 6-inch wide, pure white flowers open at dusk and attract nighttime pollinators to the garden. Middle: Hedychium‘Tahitian Flame’ has heavily variegated green and white leaves that light up the evening garden. The intoxicating fragrance from its flowers intensifies as the sun goes down. Right: Even in winter, evening can be one of the most beautiful times in the garden. Helleborus niger ‘Josef Lemper’ has pure white blooms that shine in the moonlight on a clear winter night.

‘Josef Lemper’ Christmas rose (Helleborus niger ‘Josef Lemper’):
Summer is not the only season when I love my garden after dark. Planted near my front door, Helleborus niger ‘Josef Lemper’ shines on cold, moonlit nights in winter, and it flowers from late November through early March. Growing just 12 inches tall and about twice as wide, it is the perfect companion to hosta, ferns, heuchera and other shade lovers. Its evergreen foliage is also a welcome addition to the winter landscape.

‘Hyperion’ daylily (Hemerocallis ‘Hyperion’):
I have grown the popular ‘Hyperion’ daylily in my garden for more than 30 years — it’s one of the longest-lived perennials I know. My first plant came from my great aunt, who was an accomplished gardener. That original plant has resided in my parents’ garden for three decades and divisions from it have recently found their way into my current garden in Tennessee. Its sweetly scented, lemon yellow flowers open in late afternoon or early evening and emit their fragrance throughout the night before closing in midafternoon the following day.


Left: Hemerocallis ‘Hyperion’ is an old-fashioned favorite whose fragrant, lemon yellow blossoms open each evening and remain open through the following afternoon. Middle: ‘Annabelle’ smooth hydrangea is one of our most popular garden shrubs. Its large, white blooms are perfect additions to moon gardens or other areas of the landscape lit by moonlight or landscape lighting. Right: Moon vine (Ipomoea alba) opens its flowers at dusk and attracts nighttime pollinators such as sphinx moths, sometimes called “hummingbird” moths. Its flowers will remain open through midmorning the following day.

‘Annabelle’ smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’):
This most popular of garden shrubs really needs no introduction. Its huge blooms glow like white orbs after the sun goes down. On a moonlit night, I can see them in the garden from several hundred yards away as I approach my driveway and from the screened-in porch. They have an almost otherworldly appeal as they appear to float in midair.

Towering spires of creamy white blooms on the white martagon lily stand like ghostly sentries in the garden after sunset.

Four o’clock opens in late afternoon each day from early summer until frost. Their strong, sweet fragrance permeates the evening air and is carried on the slightest breeze to the farthest reaches of the yard.

Moon vine (Ipomoea alba):
Closely related to morning glory, moon vine opens its enormous, pure white flowers at sunset and flowers until sunrise the following day. Moon vine is a vigorous, fast-growing annual vine. Seeds can be sown directly in the garden around the first of May, and you will have your first flowers in midsummer. Moon vine can climb 15 to 20 feet in a season, so be sure to provide it with a sturdy trellis, fence post or tree trunk to climb on. The sphinx or “hummingbird” moth is its primary pollinator and can be seen drinking nectar from the enormous flowers each night.

Martagon lily (Lilium martagon var. album):
The white martagon lily towers above its neighbors and offers drama and a strong element of architecture to the evening garden. Thriving in rich, well-drained soil in part sun, this plant is sure to impress garden visitors at any time of day or night. Growing from a bulb about the size of a tennis ball, well-grown plants can have more than 50 buds per stalk and will bloom over a period of weeks in early summer.

Four o’clock (Mirabilis spp.):
This is another old passalong plant that I have grown since childhood. Their flowers open in late afternoon and unfurl so quickly that you can actually watch them open, if you catch them at just the right time. Their sweet fragrance perfumes the garden throughout the night, attracting moths and other pollinators to their blooms.

‘Missouri’ water lily (Nymphaea ‘Missouri’):
If you are fortunate enough to have a pond or water garden large enough to accommodate it, ‘Missouri’ is one of the most beautiful of all water lilies. Its pristine, white blooms are nearly the size of a dinner plate. It begins blooming in midsummer and continues each night through late fall. As a tropical water lily, it needs warm water temperatures to thrive — a perfect choice for Southern climates.

If you are fortunate enough to have a large pond or water feature and enjoy growing water lilies, one of the most spectacular is Nymphaea ‘Missouri’. Its pure white, 10-inch wide flowers open after dark and remain open until about midmorning the following day.


A version of this article appeared in a June 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Troy B. Marden, Hugh and Carol Nourse, and Leandra Hill.


Posted: 03/19/17   RSS | Print


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Fire in the Landscape
by Kelly Bledsoe       #Design   #Misc   #Summer










An above-ground fire pit is a permanent garden element, handsome and useful whether or not there is a fire going. If topped by a wide ledge it provides a perfect perch for roasting marshmallows.


Earth, wind, water and fire – yes, fire in the landscape. The glow of a flickering flame invites guests to relax, and it’s a great way to create an interactive environment in your garden. Fire lures guests in and provides a connection with the garden that’s enjoyed both physically and visually. Fire adds a mesmerizing element of mystique and magic to your landscape.

A well-designed fireplace or fire pit can also provide a beautiful focal point in your yard. They have become quite popular in recent years, especially for those who do not like to limit time spent outdoors to summertime.


The traditional fireplace is the kind of design most people associate with fire. Most of these traditional outdoor fireplaces are pre-fabricated and come with spark-protection screens. They can be built into a wall or be free standing.

When searching for the right outdoor fireplace, there are a few things to consider. First, before beginning you should always check with your city and county building inspectors to verify established ordinances, permits and licenses.

Bowl-shaped burners are often called fire pits or fire bowls. This type of outdoor fireplace usually has an open fire design, is portable, and most come with handles and wheels. This is a less expensive option, but keep in mind it has poor ventilation, resulting in improper burning of firewood and smokier output.

Chimineas, originally from Mexico, are easily identifiable by their chimney, which provides great air ventilation promoting a cross draft to allow fuel to burn properly. The traditional chimineas are rounded in shape and made of clay. Modern versions vary in shape and size and may be made out of cast aluminum, cast iron or copper.

Fire baskets are the newest rage in outdoor living. Larger ones, placed strategically in the landscape or poolside, provide a romantic ambience.



Then choose the location. Fireplaces or pits should be located a safe distance from your house and other structures. It should be clear of trees and overhanging vines and branches. Start with a level surface to aid in construction, and if you plan to build your structure on an existing deck, make sure the deck can support the weight and is heatproof.

Finally, research the different options and choose the one that fits your landscape design. With those cool autumn nights upon us, take the initiative to implement the element of fire into your landscape. The hot cocoa, marshmallows, laughter and stars are all waiting for you!


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 22, Number 8.
Photography courtesy of Kelly Bledsoe.


Posted: 03/18/17   RSS | Print


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Making a Moon-Moth Garden
by Dr. Charles Allen       #Flowers   #Insects   #White

Hummingbird moth on moonflower

Many people enjoy their gardens during the daylight hours and head indoors as the sun starts to set. But if you install a moon-moth garden, you’ll find yourself anticipating the approach of late afternoon and early evening when you’ll be able to watch the flowers open followed by the night insect visitors (mostly moths).

Jimson weed flower

Blossoms of the night-blooming or angled loofah

Did you know that “vespertine” refers to plants with flowers that open at night? In biology, we use the word “niche” to mean the function that an organism performs in the community, and butterflies, bees and hummingbirds fill the niche of pollinating during the daylight hours while moths take over that niche when the sun goes down. All three of these insects (bees, butterflies and moths) and hummingbirds are attracted to flowers not to pollinate them, but to gather nectar for their own food directly or, in the case of the bees, to be made into honey. The transfer of pollen from one flower to another (pollination) is a secondary spin-off of nectar gathering. With darkness, moths have a more difficult time finding their nectar sources, so those night-pollinated flowers are usually light colored – white, light yellow, etc. – and they often have a strong fragrance. There are a number of moth species that fill the niche of night pollinators but the most spectacular and noticeable are the generic group of hummingbird moths. Some of these are technically called sphinx moths or hawk moths but I call them all hummingbird moths because they look, fly and hover like hummingbirds. They also have a long proboscis similar to the long beak of a hummingbird. My first exposure to hummingbird moths was as a kid – I noticed what I called hummingbirds visiting the four o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa) flowers near our front porch; it was not until many years later when I learned about hummingbird moths that I realized those hummingbirds that I thought I saw as a kid were actually hummingbird moths.

Over the past few years, I have spent many evenings outside around my moon-moth garden and almost always I am rewarded with a visit by one or more hummingbird moths. I have also witnessed my cat trying to catch one!

As mentioned earlier, four o’clocks are good hummingbird moth-attracting flowers, no matter what their color. These flowers also seem to be the first to open as the daylight hours disappear, and have the strongest odor of my moon-moth plants.

Allen Acres Moon-Moth Garden with desert thorn apple (large white flowers) in foreground, jimson weed (right rear) and night-blooming loofah on trellis in background.  

Desert thorn apple or devil’s trumpet (Datura metel) is another good plant. It has very large, pure white flowers that the hummingbird moths seem to really like. Perhaps there is more nectar in large flowers. The only drawback to this plant is that it cannot sustain the production of these flowers for a long period of time. The related jimson weed, Datura stramonium, is also an attractant. The flowers are smaller but the moths will still visit these flowers as well. I have observed that the moths seem to shy away from the dark-flowered varieties of daturas. Other species of datura will also work as long as the flowers are white or very light colored.

I like to add moth-attracting flowers through the use of vines, and the best for that is moonflower (Ipomoea alba). Another vine that will attract hummingbird moths is the night-blooming or angled loofah (Luffa acutangula); it is also called ridged loofah, vegetable gourd, silk squash and vine okra. The flowers are yellow and open at night and the fruit is long and narrow and can be eaten when young. There is another species of loofah, Luffa aegyptiaca, that also has yellow flowers but they open in the morning; the fruit is short and develops the fibers early, and thus is not edible but better suited as a “sponge.”

Allen Acres’ quarter moon-shaped moon-moth garden

Hummingbird moth and its long proboscis in a four o’clock bloom

Four o’clocks, datura, moonflower and loofah are the four varieties that I have used in my moon-moth garden, but I have also observed hummingbird moths at a white spider flower (Cleome hasslerana). An interesting vine is the largeroot morning glory (Ipomoea macrorhiza), a lavender night-opening vine that is native to south Florida. This is a great hummingbird moth nectar plant but it is very picky in soil requirements; it only grows in very sandy soils.  

To enhance my moon-moth garden, I have created one planting area in the shape of a quarter moon and placed the daturas and four o’clocks in this bed. Nearby and just to the north and west of the quarter moon-shaped bed, I placed another L-shaped bed with a trellis. In this bed, I plant moonflowers and the ridged loofah. These two vines bloom later than the daturas so I have a staggered flowering period for the moths. I created other beds nearby and populate them with more daturas, four o’clocks and white spider flowers. I also have larger plants of other moth-attracting plants, including gardenia or cape jasmine (Gardenia jasminoides), almond verbena (Aloysia virgata) and night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum). I see lots of hummingbird moths visiting porterweed (Stachytarpheta urticifolia) just before daylight, when these flowers open, getting their share of the nectar before the bees and butterflies visit it during the daylight hours.

So plant a moon-moth garden. You’ll extend your enjoyment of your outside spaces and help provide nectar to not just the day insects, but the nighttime ones as well.


A version of this article appeared in a September 2011 edition of the State-by-State Gardening enewsletter.
Photography courtesy of Dr. Charles Allen.


Posted: 03/18/17   RSS | Print


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The Ecological Benefits of Bats
by Alison McCartney       #Beneficials   #Environment   #Wildlife






The eastern pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus) can be found all over the eastern half of the United States from Canada down to Central America.


Bats are an incredibly diverse and ecologically beneficial group of animals. Worldwide there are nearly 1,000 bat species representing almost a quarter of all mammal species. They are the second largest order of mammals in number of species (second only to rodents), and can occupy virtually every habitat worldwide except in the most extreme desert and polar regions. There are forty-five bat species native to the United States. Nearly 40 percent of these species are threatened or endangered, and around the world, many more are declining at alarming rates. Six U.S. species are listed as endangered and 20 are considered species of special concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Declines have been primarily attributed in the past to human impacts such as habitat destruction, direct killing, disturbance of hibernating and maternity colonies, cave vandalism and use of pesticides and other chemical toxins. Negative human perceptions of bats can have a huge detrimental effect on their conservation. More recently, declines have been primarily attributed to a disease called white-nose syndrome. This disease was first discovered in January 2007 and has caused huge bat mortalities among hibernating cave-dwelling bats. Extensive research is currently being done to try and determine causes and possible cures for this disease.

Big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) provide the ecological benefit of consuming large quantities of agricultural pests.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding bats and bat behavior that have given this group of animals an undeserving negative reputation. One common misconception regarding bat behavior is that they are hostile or aggressive animals. Bats are not aggressive and in general, will do their best to avoid people. People are much more of a threat to bats than bats are to people. Another common misconception is that all bats carry rabies and other diseases. In actuality, less than 0.5 percent of bats have rabies. The chance of contracting rabies from bats is even further diminished if you simply never pick one up. Although the likelihood of contracting rabies from bats is very small, because rabies is a serious and fatal disease you should never pick up a bat, and you should contact your local health department if you have been bitten by a bat.

Bats are actually very beneficial. Most bats are insectivores and therefore provide the ecological benefit of acting as a natural pest control. An individual little brown bat or gray bat, for example, can consume over 1,000 mosquitoes in one hour. With increased fatalities occurring from West Nile virus, bats can be thought of as a natural source for controlling mosquito populations and therefore reducing occurrences of the virus. Bats also help to control agricultural pests. Big brown bats, for example, are predators of several agricultural pests such as June bugs, moths and beetles. Mexican free-tailed bats consume huge quantities of the corn earworm moth, which causes over $1 billion in crop damage a year.* Many farmers in the U.S. have installed bat houses on their farms to try and encourage the growth of bat populations. Large bat colonies on farms can greatly reduce insect populations and therefore reduce the need for pesticides.

Bat houses can aid in the conservation of bats by providing artificial roosts for bats whose natural habitat is declining. Hundreds to thousands of bats can occupy a single bat house. These relatively cheap houses have been found to be very successful in providing shelter for many bat species and reducing insect abundance in the immediate area. If you are interested in controlling insect populations on your property and aiding in the conservation of bats, you might consider putting up a bat house.


Left: Rafinesque’s big-eared bat (Corynorhinus rafinesquii) is a rare bat species found in the Southeastern United States. Right: Bat houses have been found to be very successful in providing shelter for many bat species and reducing insect abundance in the immediate area.


Besides being beneficial as a natural pest control, bats in the western U.S. also provide the ecological benefit of pollinating many plants. The agave plant, for example, which is used to produce tequila, is pollinated by bats. Other plants that rely on bats for pollination include bananas, peaches and cashews. There are many species of fruit bats or flying foxes in other countries that solely eat fruit and provide the benefit of seed dispersal. Through their droppings they will disperse seeds and have been known to reforest entire areas. Fruit-eating bats have played a major role in regenerating rainforests in areas that have been cleared.*

If you would like to learn more about bats or become involved in bat conservation, visit the Bat Conservation International website to find out more:


*editor's note: The range of these bat species is limited within the US. Research bats in your area before trying to attract a specific species.

A version of this article appeared in a February 2011 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of and AlisonMcCartney.


Posted: 03/17/17   RSS | Print


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Nighttime and Evening Gardens
by Alan Branhagen       #Fragrant   #Flowers   #Themed Gardens   #White

Magnolia grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’

Many of us work all day and by the time we get home to garden or relax in the garden, dusk is upon us. In the evening, the bright colors of the day recede and disappear and the creams, silvers and whites begin to glow with the fading light. We need some time to de-stress, relax and unwind from the day and we’re usually not in the mood for some energizing red colors anyway! A garden designed for evening and the night is the perfect match for many of us.

There are other great reasons for an evening garden. Many gardeners really like the classic white and silver flowers or other whitened hues like pink, cream, sky blue and silver. These are colors of the evening garden because they show up nicely in low light — often appearing to glow. With night lighting, they can simply shine!

Most white flowers also emit intoxicating fragrances that enrich the evening garden and soothe our senses. I can think of no finer time than sitting on my back deck when the scents of the jasmine, gardenia, lilies, flowering-tobaccos and magnolias start to tickle my olfactory nerves. These flowers are not fragrant for our enjoyment but to attract pollinators, mainly moths. Yes, thank the underappreciated moths for many of our fragrant plants. Most are beneficial, and at dusk, the hummingbird-like sphinx moths enliven the garden experience with their blur of fast-beating wings.

Smooth hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens) including the cultivar ‘Annabelle’ have immense flower heads of gorgeous white in midsummer.

A premier evening garden should have a complete mix of plant types from evergreens and small trees to shrubs, vines, perennials, bulbs, annuals and tropicals. Using this complete pyramid of plant types ensures a beautiful space and a structured design, as well as incorporating the best evening garden players. Use an evergreen to block an unsightly view or prevailing wind, a couple (or a few) small trees or pruned-up large shrubs to create a delightful “human-scale” feel by a favorite chair or surrounding an intimate seating area. Shrubs can be used as screens and backdrops, while a mix of herbaceous perennials, bulbs and annuals can create beautiful borders, ground covers or fill containers. Tropical plants really add polish to the most exquisite of evening gardens.

‘Golden Ghost’ Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora ‘Golden Ghost’) can be really striking, especially with reflected night lighting.

Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana).

Evening garden evergreens are those with variegation and whitened needles that give many “blue” needles. Chalky blue varieties of blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Koster’) or Korean pine (Pinus koraiensis ‘Silveray’), Swiss stone pine (Pinus cembra) and the variegated pines like Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora ‘Golden Ghost’) can be really striking, especially with reflected night lighting. In Zone 6, the hardy Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’) shines with polished leaves that reflect moonlight and white, intensely fragrant flowers.

Some superior small trees for the evening garden begin with the sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), whose lustrous leaves are whitened underneath and reflect light wonderfully while the small white flowers emit a lemony fragrance that can perfume an entire garden. Many of the larger panicle hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’, ‘Tardiva’, ‘Unique’ and others) can be trained up as little trees and their huge white, mid to late-summertime flowers create a spectacle to enjoy as you spend time outside at night. ‘Harvest Gold’ crabapple (Malus ‘Harvest Gold’) is also a phenomenal evening garden tree with white fragrant flowers in spring and soft yellow fruit in fall that are shockingly luminescent with night lighting.

Many of our native azaleas (Rhododendron arborescens, R. atlanticum and R. viscosum) and their hybrids excel as evening garden plants and bloom from midspring to midsummer depending on the variety. Other classic plants of the evening garden are the smooth hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens) with the cultivars ‘Annabelle’ and Incrediball™ having the most immense flower heads of gorgeous white in midsummer. Nearly everblooming roses (Rosa sp.) are also stars including the classic grandiflora rose ‘Iceberg’ but my favorite evening garden rose is the David Austin rose ‘Heritage’ with blush-pink flowers with incredible fragrance. Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) also is an underutilized shrub with new varieties like Vanilla Spice™, ‘Sweet Sixteen’ and Sugartina™ Crystalina glowing with spires of fragrant white flowers later in summer.


Left: Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)  Right: ‘White Lights’ azalea

Some favorite vines of the evening garden include annual moonvine (Ipomoea alba), white-flowering native wisterias (Wisteria frutescens) such as ‘Clara Mack’ and honeysuckles. Do not plant the sweet Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) as it is an invasive exotic, but try selections of woodbine honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenoides) like ‘Graham Thomas’ for evening fragrance.

Perennials in my evening garden are structured around various white-flowering cultivars of garden phlox (Phlox paniculata hybrids) starting with early blooming varieties like ‘Minnie Pearl’ to later varieties like ‘David’. White-flowering cultivars of daylilies (Hemerocallis ‘Gentle Shepherd’, ‘Limefrost’ and ‘Sunday Gloves’) also put on a show with some lighter yellow varieties like ‘Going Bananas’ and late-blooming ‘August Frost’. White-flowering coneflowers Echinacea purpurea also are evening favorites with ‘Fragrant Angel’ and ‘Pow Wow White’. There are many others, but these three groups provide a great sturdy backbone and all are lightly fragrant too.

Formosa lily (L. formosanum)

No evening garden could be without the lilies: their fragrance is unsurpassed! Try hardy varieties of Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum) and regal lilies (Lilium regale) for earliest bloom followed by Oriental hybrid lilies like ‘Casa Blanca’ and simply magnificent hybrid Orienpet lilies like ‘Silk Road’ and ‘Triumphator’ for spectacular towers of flowers. Later species lilies such as Formosa lily (L. formosanum) and Lilium speciosum will give you a whole summer of blooms.

Classic evening garden annuals begin with the Datura species whose huge white trumpets open after the sun sets, often with a waiting honeybee to gather a snack before bedtime. These flowers are a delight for anyone to watch as they unfurl right before your eyes. The flowering tobaccos (Nicotiana alata and N. sylvestris) are king of the fragrant evening annuals with white flowers that open up and emit intoxicating scents to lure the delightful sphinx moths. Four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) are another evening garden beauty that don’t open until their namesake time but remain so through the night.

Gardenia jasminoides

And what evening garden in our Zones would be without some containers filled with tropical plants — a real gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides) exudes the most phenomenal scent of any plant and can’t be manufactured or mimicked. Jasmines (Jasminum spp.) and angel’s trumpets (Brugmansia spp.) are others with spectacular and fragrant flowers that shine for evening display.

So plan and plant an evening garden around your favorite outdoor summertime space; you will create a beautiful, relaxing and enjoyable place for you to spend your end of the day or for you to entertain in. It also allows you to savor the moderated temperatures beyond the daytime’s heat and explore a sweet range of plants that really shine at that time. These classic plants look great at any time but really are stars of the nighttime garden.

Other Stars of the Evening Garden:

Small Trees and Large Shrubs:
Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)
Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)
Rose-of-Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus ‘Diana’)
Ashe magnolia (Magnolia ashei)
Star magnolia (Magnolia stellate)
Mock orange (Philadelphus ‘Snow Velvet’)
Seven sons (Heptacodium miconioides)

Azaleas (‘White Lights’, ‘Northern Hi-Lights’ and ‘Viscosepala’)
Flowering quince (Chaenomeles ‘Jet Trail’, ‘O-Yashima’)
Fothergilla (Fothergilla spp.)
Oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia)
Lilacs (Syringa ‘Angel White’ and ‘Betsy Ross’)
Koreanspice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii)

Hardy Bulbs:
Hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis white and cream cultivars)
Daffodils (Narcissus ‘Cheerfulness’, ‘Mount Hood’, ‘Stainless’,‘Thalia’)

Acidanthera (Gladiolus calianthus)
Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima ‘Snow Princess’)
Euphorbia Diamond Frost®
Old-fashioned climbing petunia (P. x hybrida)

White bleeding hearts
(Dicentra (Lamprocapnos) spectabilis ‘Alba’)
Hardy hibiscus cultivars with white flowers
Hostas (Hosta plantaginea and others with white variegation or white flowers)
Miscanthus grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’‘Variegata’ and others)
Variegated sweetflag (Acorus calamus ‘Variegata’)
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)

Sweet or tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans)
Japanese pittosporum (P. japonicum variegated cultivars)
White mandevilla (M. x amabilis white-flowering cultivars)


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Alan Branhagen.


Posted: 03/17/17   RSS | Print


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Best Bang for your Buck
by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp       #Flowers   #Propagation   #Shrubs

Above: Nigella, or love-in-a-mist, graces the spring and early summer garden with subtle shades of blue, pink or white flowers.

Left: Rudbeckia hirta ‘Indian Summer’

Gardeners like plants that are easy to grow and those that multiply without a lot of effort, especially if they have a lot of ground to cover.

Some perennials and annuals self-sow, casting their seeds to the wind to root some place else in the landscape. These can be transplanted to desirable locations or shared with others. Neatnik gardeners may be less enthused about self-sowing plants, so be selective about which ones you introduce to the landscape.

Some shrubs spread by suckering, sending up stems to form what’s called a colony. Winterberry holly is an example. Still others sprout new plants from branches that root where they touch the ground, a process called layering. Hydrangeas are very easy to propagate this way.

Here’s a sampler of plants that keep on giving:

Self-Sowing Annuals
Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) has blue, pink or white flowers and fine, ferny foliage in spring and early summer. It does best in full sun, but tolerates light shade. It gets about 12 inches tall. Nigella makes a lovely cut flower and the seeds are edible.

Chinese forget-me-not (Cynoglossum amabile) has tiny blue flowers in spring and early summer. It does best in full sun to part shade and makes a good companion for spring-blooming bulbs. If given adequate moisture, it will produce flowers off and on through summer. It can be used as a cut flower. Don’t confuse this annual with the perennials Myosotis sylvatica or Brunnera sp., which also are called forget-me-nots.

Gloriosa daisy (Rudbeckia hirta) comes in lots of colors, from orange and yellow to red. This native plant does best in full sun and well-drained, average soil. Gloriosa daisy is a great cut flower. The seed heads also are a source of food for birds. Some rudbeckias are perennial or biennial.



Far Left: Purple coneflower 

Left and Above Middle: The native columbine blends nicely with ‘May Night’ salvia and a Knock out ™ Red rose in late spring.

Right: False sunflower


Self-Sowing Perennials
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) readily scatters seeds throughout the garden to create new plants. This native plant does best in full sun to light shade in average, well-drained soil. It gets about 2 feet tall and is a long-lasting cut flower. The dark brown seed heads are attractive in the winter landscape and they serve as a food source for finches all year. Hummingbirds visit this plant in summer.

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a short-lived perennial that makes up for its fast life by sowing its seeds throughout the garden. This is another native plant that is almost evergreen, frequently holding on to its green foliage through the winter. It does best in full sun to part shade in average soil. There are several hybrids, such as the McKana series, which also self-sow a bit. Columbine is a beautiful cut flower. Hummingbirds like it, too.

False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), sometimes called ox-eye daisy, gets up to 5 feet tall with great branching characteristics, which produce many yellow daisy-like flowers that are great for cutting. A native plant, it does best in full sun and average soil.


Left: ‘Winter Red’ is a cultivar of a native holly introduced by Simpson Nursery in Vincennes, Ind., in 1977. Middle: Ilex verticillata‘ Jim Dandy’ Right: ‘Brilliantissima’ is a red chokeberry that spreads by suckers to offer four seasons of interest.

Shrubs that Colonize
Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is dioecious, which means it needs a male and female plant to produce berries. And it’s the bright red berries in winter that make this shrub worthy of a spot in the medium to large garden. This native plant does best in average soil that is a bit on the wet side in full sun to part shade. If it’s happy, the species will get up to 9 feet tall and will colonize to cover a 10-foot area. This is a deciduous holly, so it drops its leaves in fall. There are many cultivars worthy of smaller gardens, including the female ‘Winter Red’ and male ‘Southern Gentleman’, which were introduced by Robert Simpson of Simpson Nursery in Vincennes, Ind. Winterberry holly is a food source for birds in winter, but the berries are poisonous for humans. It has great fall color and small, insignificant flowers in early summer.

Chokeberry (Aronia sp.) comes in black (A. melanocarpa) and red (A. arbutifolia) and will spread by suckers or self-sowing. The native species gets about 8 feet tall and wide. It adapts to wet or dry areas in full sun to part shade. ‘Autumn Magic’, ‘Morton’ and ‘Viking’ are good black chokeberry cultivars. ‘Brilliantissima’ is a nice red one. Although these suckering shrubs produce showy berries, the fruit is at the bottom of the menu for birds. They will eat the berries only after the fruits have gone through several freezes and thaws. Chokeberry has small flowers in early summer and beautiful fall color. (Some sources might list this plant under its new botanical names: Photinia pyrifolia for the red and P. melanocarpa for the black.)

Layering is simple to do.

A Sampler of Shrubs to Layer:

Fothergilla sp. Lilac (Syringa sp.) Viburnum sp.
Hydrangea sp. Magnolia sp. Weigela sp.
  Smokebush (Cotinus sp.)  

Shrubs for Layering
The easiest way to propagate some shrubs is by soil layering. Here’s how:

• In spring, select a flexible branch that will bend to the ground.
• Remove all side branches from the branch.
• About 12 inches from the tip of the branch, make a slanted cut on the under side.
• Make a slight depression in the soil where the cut side of the branch touches the ground. Fill the depression with high quality potting mix or rich organic matter. The cutis where the roots will form.
• Anchor the branch to the soil with lawn staples, bent wire or a stone.
• Apply a mound of soil about 1 inch deep and 6 inches long on top of the branch at the cut area.
• The cut section of the branch should root in eight to 10 weeks. Tug gently on the branch to see if it has rooted. There also might be new growth, which is the surest sign of a well-rooted branch.
• With a spade, snips or other tool, sever the new branch between the mother shrub and the newly formed rooted portion.
• Transplant to the shrub’s new location.



A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2011 print edition of State-by-State Gardening Magazine.
Photography courtesy of Ron Capek, John Herbst, All-America Selections, Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp, The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, and Bailey Nurseries. Illustration courtesy of Gardening Techniques, Alan Titchmarch.


Posted: 03/13/17   RSS | Print


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Here Comes the Sun
by Erika Jensen       #Bulbs   #Seeds   #Tech & Gadgets

Snapdragons are among the plants that benefit from an early start under lights.

If you've ever tried to grow seedlings in a south-facing window, you know why supplemental light is necessary. Tall, spindly seedlings with floppy stems and pale green leaves are a good indicator that your plants are not getting enough light. Although some gardening books and online sources say that seedlings can be grown in your windowsill, I've never had this work successfully. It could be that in some sunny southern states it actually does work, but here in the Upper Midwest, the natural light from a window just isn't enough. Even a south window will provide only a few hours of direct sunlight and a couple of hours of indirect sunlight, and that's just not enough to grow good plants.

Enter the light cart. I have mine set up in my living room, in a south-facing window where my plants will get a little outdoor light plus artificial light. I'm a thrifty gardener, and plants are expected to pay their own way around here. For this reason, I skipped the expensive light sets advertised in gardening catalogs and purchased a plastic shelving unit at Menards. Because watering is one of my biggest challenges indoors, I turned the shelving unit upside down, which provided a pan-shaped area that catches any overflow from my flats. I use regular 48-inch shop-light fixtures, plugged in to a power strip, which is plugged into a three-prong grounded outlet. Making your own light cart is so ridiculously easy. Here are a few more ways to make sure you get the best seedlings that no money can buy.

The writer uses an inexpensive plastic shelving unit for a light cart.

Light Basics
One of the most affordable options for lighting is also just fine for producing healthy seedlings. Forget about the expensive grow-light bulbs (the violet-tinted ones). They might be better for flowering plants such as African violets, but are not needed for seedlings that are vegetative or leafy. Fluorescent bulbs come in several options, including warm-white (a pinkish or tan color) and cool-white (bluish white color). It's a little better to use one cool-white and one warm-white lightbulb, because they provide a wider spectrum of light. Fluorescent lights come very close to duplicating natural light from the sun. Don't use incandescent lights, which are mostly red light and produce a great deal of heat in proportion to their light output.

In order to fool your plants into thinking it's spring, you'll need to leave your lights on for 14 to 16 hours daily. This duplicates the light levels that they'd get during May and June. I turn my light set on as soon as I wake up in the morning, calling out “wake up little guys,” and turn it off when I go to bed at night. If you're the forgetful type, you can purchase a timer for the lights. Nothing terrible will happen if you forget to turn them off, but the plants will appreciate a rest period while they go through important metabolic processes.

Light levels are highest close to the bulbs, so keep them just a few inches away from the plants. Fluorescent lights are cool, so little, if any, damage will occur to the plants should a leaf accidentally touch them. Your lights will function best if they are clean (dust yearly), limit the number of times you turn them off and on, and don't let the ambient room temperature go too low (keep it above 50 F).

T12, T8 and T5 Fluorescent Bulbs
It turns out that fluorescent bulbs come in a range of options, like everything else these days. T12 bulb is the older-style bulb, the kind that's been around for a long time. Although cutting edge in its day, it is being replaced by the T8 bulb. This is much more energy efficient, as well as brighter, and is easily spotted because it is skinnier than the regular T12. A T8 bulb will work in a regular light fixture and can be purchased at most hardware stores.

The T5 bulb goes one step further in efficiency. It uses about the same amount of watts per foot as the old T12 bulb, but is approximately twice as bright. The bad news is that for now, T5 requires a special fixture and is not available in longer lengths at your local hardware store. Online, find them by searching for “GE Starcoat T5 HO Fluorescent Lamps.” I’ve noticed that some seed catalogs, which also sell equipment, offer T5 bulbs as part of their grow-light set-ups.

Keep the fluorescent lights a couple of inches away from the plants. Move the lights up as the plants grow.

Over the years, watering has been one of my biggest stumbling blocks. Watering cans tend to distribute water evenly over all surfaces, including ones that shouldn’t get wet. That might not be a big deal if your light cart is in the basement on a concrete floor, but since mine's in my living room, I can't spill very much before I have a huge mess. Bottom watering is a good option, but don't let your plants sit in water for very long, or you'll have problems with root rot. The other option is to remove the flats to a sink or bathtub and water them there. Either way, it's a bit of a hassle.

Root Pruning
Professional growers sometimes talk about "air pruning" their roots. This just means that they allow some airflow underneath their flats. The roots will stop growing when they encounter the air gap. This prevents the well-known problem where roots grow out of their containers and form a mass hanging at the bottom of the plant. Ripping off these roots during the transplanting process can be hard on the plant. To create an air gap, you can support your flats using PVC rails or another building material such as wire screens.

Joe Schmitt, a professional flower grower in Madison Wis., uses a large-scale grow-light setup in his basement. He produces thousands of seedlings annually.

Rotating Flats
While you're checking and watering your plants, it's not a bad idea to rotate them. If the light from your fluorescent lightbulbs is a little uneven, you frequently end up with plants leaning in toward the center of the light fixture. By rotating the flats, you can achieve more even growth. This also gives you a chance to notice any problems and address them right away.

Of course, the best reason to start plants from seed under lights is that it’s fun. Watching young plants grow is a good way to chase your winter blues away and welcome the season.


A version of this article appeared in a March 2014 edition of the State-by-State Gardening eNewsletter.
Photography courtesy of Erika Jensen and Joe Schmitt.


Posted: 03/09/17   RSS | Print


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Give Your Vegetable Garden a Makeover
by Karen Atkins       #Ornamentals   #Vegetables

Left: Fence the garden in permanently. Most vegetable gardens are small enough that you need to set less than a dozen posts. Doing this once is easier than struggling with marauding rabbits and temporary fencing year after year. Middle: I compelled my children to let me relocate their play house as a focal point for a new vegetable garden. The best site for a proper vegetable garden is in full sun, as close as possible to the kitchen. Level the area for raised beds, and allow room to push a wheelbarrow when planning pathways. Right: Add accents to your garden. Here, cast iron rabbit finials add interest.


Plants themselves can be ornamental. Why grow regular dark green kale when you could instead grow ‘Rainbow’ kale?


Tomatoes don’t have to be fastened to wooden stakes in rows. Here a circular tuteur supports tomatoes “tied” by ‘Grandpa Ott’ morning glories (Ipomoea purpurea ‘Grandpa Ott’).


A National Gardening Association survey calculated that 25 percent of all U.S. households had vegetable gardens in 2011. Now more and more of us know what goes into and onto our food. These gardens give us so much. Is it greedy then to ask that the gardens also be pretty?

Of course not. Americans have had gorgeous vegetable gardens ever since Colonial times. A tour of the John Blair garden in Colonial Williamsburg will convince you of this, and provides many lessons. Since early Americans could not survive without homegrown produce, they invested a little more time in the beginning just setting them up properly. Where we typically banish vegetable gardens to some sunny corner of the yard, colonists put them in a prominent place, usually as close as possible to the kitchen. Rather than just tilling up a patch of dirt with no regard to slope, they completely leveled the area and built raised beds to permit proper drainage and soil cultivation. And these beds were not just simple squares thrown together with no further thought. There was a pleasing symmetry to the designs of the beds and the pathways. Ornamentals were tucked in between fruits and vegetables.

Espalier is just a fancy word for training. I’m coaxing this apple tree into a candelabra shape.

It was during the rush to establish Victory Gardens after World War II that we lost our way. It was admirable to want the commercially farmed and canned produce to go to the troops. But it was then, in our hurry to establish these utilitarian gardens, that we stopped requiring our vegetable gardens to also be beautiful. Now that’s a trend worth reversing.


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2013 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Karen Atkins and The National Garden Bureau.


Posted: 03/07/17   RSS | Print


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Accessorizing Your Fence
by Loretta Gillespie       #Decorating   #Vines

Top: By staggering these ceramic pots, an interesting vignette was formed along a weathered board fence. These pots are pretty, even unplanted. These particular pots have been fired, so it is safe to leave them outdoors year round.

Above: A rectangular wall fountain in the shape of a sweet cherub fits perfectly on this brick wall, its jet of water spilling into a koi pond below. A moss window box filled with begonias, hosta and ‘Plum Pudding’ heuchera makes a lovely counterpoint to the fountain by echoing its shape. Companion plantings include canna and variegated ginger.

Top: A row of birdhouses with copper roofs perch along the top of a fence, giving it a symmetrical look, while providing a place for birds to nest. Left: An outdoor fireplace mantle made of brick can also be decorated just like your fence or the mantle in your home. Just treat it as if it were the same. Here, a mirror was added to create light behind the stained-glass panel. Plants, a rustic bluebird house and a vintage-style lantern were used as accessories. Right: This garden features a fence used as a backdrop for a metal trellis. Climbing vines, like this Clematis, add color where you need it

Accessorizing your fence not only adds interest, it gives the eye a contrast to the green plant material, resulting in both of them looking better.

You can use practically any type of weatherproof material, including glass, ceramic, plaster, aluminum, metal, wood, concrete or plastic. You might have something that needs painting – don’t be afraid to try something new and different like red or bright orange. You can always repaint or rearrange it!

Start by thinking of the fence as a backdrop. You will use your plants to give the area texture, but you’ll want something to make visitors say “Wow! Why didn’t I think of that?” Browse consignment stores for unusual finds to fit your garden décor or theme. Look around your garage, attic, basement or barn. Check out decorating magazines to see how decorators pull objects together. Use items that will withstand the weather, like an old picture frame or vintage shutters.

Look in your kitchen; there are lots of waterproof items that will make great garden wall vignettes. Chipped coffee cups make great little planters, as do cracked or damaged plates and bowls.


Left: Sometimes we have a gate even with no fence! Here a metal basket was added to the gate. A black-eyed Susan vine, has escaped from the confines of the container and scrambled all over the fence, giving it a carefree, inviting look. Middle: Hanging mirrors in a garden give the impression that you are looking through a portal into another garden. Right: Accessorizing a fence or wall doesn’t have to be complicated; something as simple as this stone bowl atop a wall gives it a lot of character.

What if you have a gate with no fence? Accessorizing it will give it a carefree, inviting look. Think baskets or metal wall pockets.

Accessorizing a fence or wall doesn’t have to be complicated; even something as simple as a stone bowl sitting on top of a wall adds character. Don’t have a bowl? Use the basin of a birdbath, instead.

We know that adding mirrors to our homes brightens up dark corners, reflecting light back into the room and giving it a feeling of depth. Hanging them outside does the same thing by giving the viewer the impression that he/she is looking through a portal into another garden.

Use climbing vines, like Clematis, to add color where you need it. This gives you several options. It isn’t necessary to attach everything to the fence itself. Stone, brick or weathered wood brings out the vibrant color of the blooms, while allowing the lines of your artwork or statuary to be shown to their best advantage.


Top Left: While more pricey than some other options, statuary is always a good choice. Without this dog, the view of this area would be rather monotonous and without focus. Statuary defines it. Bottom Left: By outlining the shape of the fountain with metal half-baskets in much the same way a mat emphasizes a painting, you can enhance the look of both the fountain and the baskets. Planted with begonias, these cheerful additions to a fence can bring color to eye level, making it a focal point for visitors who stroll along the flagstone path below. Right: This garden wall is covered with creeping fig, making it a living backdrop for an interesting statue.

While more pricey than some other options for accessorizing a wall or fence, statuary is always an excellent option. Utilizing statuary keeps a woodland or city landscape from being monotonous and without focus. Statuary defines it, giving the viewer a focal point by incorporating the surrounding landscape to create a beautiful scene.

If you love the look of a decorated wall or fence, start collecting your favorite things and have fun giving them a new purpose.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 20 Number 2.
Photography courtesy of Loretta Gillespie.


Posted: 03/06/17   RSS | Print


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Blue Ribbon Gardening
by Jessica Pierson       #Advice   #Edibles   #Misc   #Vegetables

Growing and exhibiting vegetables is an exciting way to get more than food from your vegetable patch. In addition to possibly winning a ribbon and a small amount of prize money, you’ll get the thrill of competing, the opportunity to learn about new varieties and inspiration for the future.

Typically, a county or state fair’s horticulture category includes commonly grown vegetables such as tomatoes, corn and beans. Categories such as chili peppers, leafy greens and kohlrabi may be included. Many fairs also have just-for-fun categories such as longest cucumber, garden freaks and oddest root vegetables.

Almost any gardener can participate. Few supplies are required, and you can grow in containers, raised beds or traditional gardens. The key to success lies in following the four P’s of exhibiting: Plan, Prepare, Proceed and Place.

To get a premium book with entry categories and rules, find your county fair online (for example, and look for “Fair Book” on the home page. Winners actually win money, although not very much.

Choose your venue. Garden clubs sometimes have judged shows, but also consider the county or state fair. Most counties have a “premium book,” available online, that lists the different departments and entry categories. Vegetables are typically in the horticulture or home economics department. For example, the listing in the Will County premium book lists three bean categories: Beans, green (20); Beans, yellow (20); and Lima Beans (20). The number means 20 beans for each entry.

The premium book also lets you know the rules. The rules are very important, says James Schmidt, an Illinois State Fair judge and University of Illinois Extension staff member. “Get a show book,” he advises. “Look at the classes and see if there’s something interesting to enter.” He notes that it can be “heartbreaking” as a judge to see an excellent entry that has a mistake that could have been prevented by reading and following the rules. He also warns against assuming the premium book will be the same from venue to venue – careful reading is a must!

Once you know which vegetables you would like to grow, begin searching for suitable varieties. Hybrids are often suggested because they have some disease resistance and offer consistency among fruits. With tomatoes, for example, hybrids have been developed that offer resistance to some or all of five common diseases: verticillium, fusarium wilt, nematodes, tobacco mosaic virus and alternaria stem cankers.  Choosing ‘Big Beef VFFNTA Hybrid’, for example, would give you resistance to all five pathogens.

Another reason hybrids are encouraged is that they will produce fruits with greater uniformity and consistency than open-pollinated or heirloom varieties. Whether you generally root for the hybrid or non-hybrid team, for exhibition purposes, hybrids will give you the visual appeal sought by many judges. Look for the word “hybrid” or “F1” to denote hybrid status.

A final planning consideration is timing. If you have decided, for example, to enter the corn category and the fair is on August 1, you need to find a variety that will be at its peak color and flavor a few days before that time. Corn takes anywhere from 58 days (‘Earlivee’) to 92 days (‘BiQueen’). Taking into account Northern Illinois’ fickle spring weather and an average annual last hard frost date of April 20, a variety that can be planted in late May would be ideal, giving the crop approximately 75 days to mature. Two varieties that meet those conditions are ‘Ambrosia’ (a sweet white corn) and ‘Sugar and Gold’ (a sweet bicolor corn).

Armed with your seeds, premium book, and dreams of summer, now consider how to best prepare your seeds and media for a blue-ribbon crop. Proper soil analysis is the first step. Learning the pH of your soil and the fertilizer requirements will help your plants more closely resemble the picture on the front of the seed package. A pH chart for vegetables can tell you what pH they need. Your soil test will also help you better understand what nutrients may be deficient in your soil. (North Carolina State University Extension has a helpful pH chart at

Also decide whether to start your seeds indoors or wait to direct sow. Since you will need to have your vegetables ready for exhibition by a certain date, starting seeds indoors gives you a head start as well as a more controlled environment. Some varieties, such as leafy greens, root vegetables and beans, do not transplant well, however. Checking with a reliable source, such as Extension material or a trusted friend, can help you decide.

With a prepared seedbed, now turn your attention to planting your seeds. Sow your first crop a few days before you expect to have ideal conditions. The next crop should go in a few days after you think conditions are ideal. Plant a final crop a week after germination or transplanting has been successful. Planting in sequence will help ensure a ready crop of vegetables to choose from when it is time to show your vegetables later in the season.

During the growing season, follow a regimen of weeding, watering and watching. Be on the lookout for the following:

•  Signs of disease or pests. Identify the disease and begin a treatment program right away: Check with the University of Illinois Extensions webpage for identification and treatment recommendations.

•  Drastic changes in environmental conditions, such as available light, wind and precipitation. Try to provide ideal growing conditions.

•  Splashing liquids on the plant leaf during watering. Fungal diseases and leaf scorching can result from not watering at the soil level.

•  Cuts, bruises and other defects. You may need to trim off stems that rub on a developing fruit, watch for abnormal growth patterns, and keep developing fruits off of the ground when possible.

Another technique used by experienced exhibitors is to train the vegetable plant to grow in a certain way by “stopping,” disbudding or thinning the plant. Cucumbers can be stopped by taking off the terminal bud (the leaf bud at the top of the stem). This encourages the plant to produce stronger and bushier side growth. Disbudding is the process of removing lateral or side flower buds from a plant to encourage erect upward growth. Tomatoes respond well to disbudding, which can encourage better fruiting. A final technique, thinning, involves selectively removing some of the fruit or entire plants to encourage the remaining fruits or plants to grow larger.

When the big day draws near, it’s time to put your exhibition game into high gear. The most important step as you prepare your entry is to read the premium book and take your time. The premium book tells you exactly what your entry should include, from the type of display plate to size and quantity of items allowed. Knowing how many specimens and their size is important before you head out to the garden armed with your clippers.

The timing of when to pick is important as well. Varieties such as sweet corn and leafy greens do not hold well. Root vegetables and squashes are less perishable and therefore can be picked earlier. Generally, it’s best to pick just before the peak of ripeness as some ripening will occur while your product is on display.

When you go to the garden to make your selections, Schmidt offers the following advice:

•  Don’t fall for “biggest is best.” Larger vegetables can be woodier and/or less flavorful than normal-sized counterparts. A uniform exhibit is crucial to success.

•  Stick with one variety per entry. Don’t include ‘Blue Lake’, ‘Derby’ and ‘Top Crop’ bush beans in the same entry. Though it can be tempting to choose the best-looking among the three, judges want to see only one variety in an entry.

•  Choose vegetables that are nearly all the same in size, color, size and maturity.

•  Use your seed catalog or other horticultural guides to determine the fruits that are most “true to type.” The photographs in a seed catalog most often portray ideal shape, color, size and texture.

•  Use your premium book as a guide to select the best candidates. For example, if onion tops need to be 8 inches long, choose only the ones that meet that standard, even if there are more attractive ones with 6½-inch tops.

•  Don’t panic if you can’t find all perfect vegetables. Schmidt says that “there may be minor imperfections to the vegetables, but if they’ve been cleaned, washed and trimmed well, they make a good appearance.”

•  Don’t be afraid to ask fellow exhibitors and friends their opinion before you pick your vegetables. Their objectivity and experience can help you see things you might have overlooked, such as the ideal shade for an eggplant.


Vegetables are judged by a variety of criteria. The rutabaga (top) won its blue ribbon for being the largest one in the competition. Uniformity, color and shape are also important.

When you’ve chosen your specimens, remember to cut the stem according to the premium rules. Cut or dig carefully to prevent bruising or damaging delicate plant parts. Post-harvest produce should be kept in the refrigerator in a closed container. Some varieties do best with a dampened paper towel in the container, especially fresh herbs such as basil and cilantro. More do’s and don’ts can be found in Schmidt’s article, “Exhibiting Vegetables” at

The final step is to prepare your entry. Depending on the variety, dirt can be washed off with a soft brush or cloth, or by washing gently in the sink. Wipe dry to discourage fungal growth. Wrap in newspaper or cloths for transport and place in a sturdy container such as a laundry basket or bushel basket. Pack a few extras, too, as “insurance.” Remember to fill out your entry card properly and bring the required size/color/material plate and other required props for exhibition.

Once you arrive at the fair, you are ready to set up your display. Place the required number of specimens on the plate in an attractive arrangement. Double check to make sure everything is the correct length and, as Schmidt strongly suggests, recount your specimens. He notes a common beginner mistake is usually something simple “like putting the wrong number [on the entry card]” or “not making a last counting before you step away.” Now it’s time for the judges. Schmidt says that he loves being a judge because he gets to see gardeners show off their talents and take pride in the competition. He also really enjoys interacting with the exhibitors and developing relationships with them (Hint: talk to your judges; they are people, too!) During judging, the horticulture building is usually closed for a few hours. Once the judging is over, you are welcome to take a peek for a blue, red or white ribbon bedecking your labors of love.

One more encouraging piece of advice from Schmidt is specifically for beginners. “It’s fun to see new people become interested in exhibiting at fairs and watch them grow in their skills as gardeners and exhibitors.  It’s fun to see the faces of novices when they get that blue ribbon or even better – best of show for that crop.” Remembering those 4 P’s – planning, preparing, proceeding, and placing – can carry you and your veggies all the way to the top!


A version of this article appeared in Chicagoland Gardening Volume 20 Number 2.
Photography courtesy of Jessica Pierson.


Posted: 03/05/17   RSS | Print


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Fresh Foundations
by Helen Newling Lawson       #Advice   #Design   #Ornamentals   #Shrubs

The foliage of ‘Sunshine’ ligustrum adds a vibrant accent to your landscape. In this landscape, moving it away from the perimeter of the house created a brightly lit entryway path.
Credit: Courtesy of Southern Living Plant Collection

Foundation plantings – usually evergreen shrubs – have always had a reputation for being boring. To make matters worse, many of the South’s go-to choices are now also suffering from a host of disease and insect problems.

Luckily, there are several new introductions that make fantastic, low-maintenance substitutions with similar growth habits. Some even offer a fresh twist with colorful foliage or flowers that can add some pizzazz to your plantings.

What’s the trouble?
If your foundation plantings are failing, one of these could be the reason why:

Boxwood blight – Caused by a fungus, this disease was first seen in the Southeast in Virginia in 2011 and had spread south to Georgia by 2013. It causes brown leaf spots and defoliation of boxwood shrubs (Buxus spp.) and can also affect Pachysandra and sweetbox (Sarcococca). It spreads by contact, so buy plants from a nursery that participates in a boxwood blight management program. There is no cure – fungicides can only be used as a preventive.

Leaf spotEntomosporium maculatum, the same fungus responsible for taking out red tip Photinia, has now claimed numerous Indian hawthorns (Rhaphiolepis spp.) as its victims. Tiny red spots on both sides of the leaves are the first sign of trouble. These can progress into large gray spots with maroon edges, then leaf drop, and eventually death of the plant when leaf drop is severe. Moisture encourages spread of this disease, so clean up diseased leaves quickly (bagging, not composting) and try to keep the upper branches dry by irrigating at the soil level.

Distylium (shown here: Blue Cascade ‘PIIDIST-II’) is a tougher, disease-resistant alternative to cherry laurels, junipers, hollies, Indian hawthorn, and boxwood.
Credit: Courtesy of


Shot hole disease – Although it may look as though an insect is munching holes in your English laurel (Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’) leaves, it is actually a sign of a bacterial disease. Wet leaves also enable this disease to spread, so avoid overhead watering and give your shrubs enough space to dry quickly.

Scale insects – These insects spend their adulthood attached to branches of numerous shrubs – including juniper, Euonymus, and Cleyera – feeding on their sap. If your plants are yellowing or declining, look for white, gray, or brown “bumps” lining the branches. You may also notice ants or black sooty “mold” (actually a fungus), both results of the sap secretions. Treatment depends on the species of scale and their life stage (active “crawler” or attached adult), so call your local extension office for help.

Just plain ugly – This may not hurt the plant, but it can be hard on the eyes. Eleagnus (sometimes called “ugly Agnes”) and Euonymus are two commonly planted-but-often-loathed shrubs. (Former Southern Living editor Steve Bender, writing as the “Grumpy Gardener,” described golden euonymus as “the awfulest of the awful” things you can plant in front of your house.)And sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with the shrub other than the fact that it’s just too big to serve as a foundation plant.

Shades of Pink viburnum has glossy, dark green leaves and pink flowers and is a great substitute for Indian hawthorn.
Credit: Courtesy of Greenleaf Nursery


Our builder installed five Loropetalum shrubs in a 10-foot-square area below our dining room window. They were a fairly new introduction at the time – our house was built 15 years ago – so maybe they didn’t realize each one would ultimately grow to at least 15 feet tall and wide, or more likely, they just didn’t care. (Since then, a number of dwarf varieties of Loropetalum have come onto the market much better suited for foundation plantings.)

I ripped out four of the five to allow one enough space. Instead of constantly pruning the one remaining, I tried to limb it up into a small tree. However, it has refused to accept its new identity, so rather than wasting time pruning, I keep cutting back sprouts from the base of the trunk. I’ve decided it’s time to part, and will replace it with an actual small tree.

Love the look of a tidy row of clipped shrubs but hate shearing? Micron holly maintains its low, mounded shape without pruning and is a great substitute for boxwood.
Credit: Courtesy of Greenleaf Nursery

What’s fresh?
New introductions offer many different options. Most of these recommendations have a compact, tidy growth habit, saving you the tiresome maintenance of pruning. Be sure to check the expected mature size to make sure you’re choosing an option that best fits your space and remember, “dwarf” just means smaller than the species.

Whether they burst into bloom, have a “first flush” of color on their new growth, or have a unique hue all year, most of these choices add the excitement of color to their reliable nature.

No “bad seeds.” Plants such as Ligustrum and barberry (Berberis spp.) had a well-deserved bad reputation for invasiveness. Newer varieties have been bred to be sterile, keeping them only where you want them.

Above all, each of these has exceptional resistance to disease, drought, insects, deer, or all of the above. Each offers a significant improvement over its predecessors.

Some promising new stars
Distylium – This evergreen, low-growing shrub is billed as resistant to insect, disease, and deer problems – a resistance “home run” that can replace problem-prone ‘Otto Luyken’ laurel as a reliable foundation or backbone planting, with layered branches that provide texture and require little to no pruning.

October Magic Ruby camellia (C. sasanqua ‘Green 02-003’) – Imagine a tidy evergreen hedge of glossy, deep green leaves that bursts into flower every fall with striking, fully double red flowers. Who said foundation shrubs were boring?

Eureka Gold dwarf yaupon (Ilex vomitoria ‘HOGY’) is another option for bringing bright yellow-green foliage into your plant palette. Dense, bushy plants grow 4-5 feet tall.
Credit: Courtesy of Greenleaf Nursery


Ligustrum sinense ‘Sunshine’ – Spread a little ‘Sunshine’ to add the trendiest color in gardening today, golden yellow, to your landscape. If you’re up on your botanical names, you know that we’re talking about privet, which comes with its own bad reputation for invasiveness, so rest assured this variety is sterile and will not reseed. (Note: In Tennessee, by law, L. sinense – including sterile cultivars – cannot be propagated, sold, offered for sale, or released within the state. – Ed.)

Moonlit Lace viburnum (Viburnum x ‘sPg-3-024’) – A cross between V. tinus and V. davidii, this shrub has glossy, textured, evergreen leaves with showy, rounded clusters of white flowers that appear in spring, making it a drought-tolerant, similarly sized replacement for Indian hawthorn. Shades of Pink (V. tinus ‘Lisa Rosa’) is another lovely choice, but can reach up to 5 feet tall if unpruned.

Mojo pittosporum (P. tobira ‘CNI Three’) has variegated, shade-tolerant foliage and a delightful springtime fragrance. Yet it’s tough enough to handle even salt spray in coastal areas.
Credit: Courtesy of Southern Living Plant Collection

Pittosporum – Another Indian hawthorn substitution. As a bonus, its small flowers bring a wonderful fragrance in spring, perfect for an entryway.

Micron holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘Gremicr’) – Want the traditional look of neatly clipped shrubs with no shearing? This slow-growing, very compact dwarf variety has a “very interesting texture” and a tidy, mounded shape.

To give your new stars their best chance to shine, take the time to plant them right.

First, amend the soil with organic matter, such as compost. If poor drainage contributed to past problems, you should definitely pay attention to this step.

Next, plan your placement. While it may look sparse (especially if you are replacing overgrown shrubs), make sure to space them to allow for their mature size. And even though they’re called foundation shrubs, don’t cram them too close to the house. They’ll look better, stay healthier, and attract fewer bugs to your home if you give them some breathing space.

Or, instead of using them to line the foundation of your house, make them the foundation of a standalone planting bed. These evergreen workhorses are a great way to add structure and backbone to any area. I recently used a curving row of ‘Sunshine’ ligustrum to add a bold sweep of unifying color through the center of my perennial bed.

Finally, take the time to dig good holes. This means wider, not deeper, than their containers. Water well when planting and during their first year to get them established. Read up on their particular care requirements to see when and how to fertilize.


A version of this article appeared in a March 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.


Posted: 03/04/17   RSS | Print


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A Helping Hand From the Birds and Bees
by Alan Pulley       #Birds   #Insects   #Wildlife

Baby chipping sparrows nesting in my evergreen hollies. Fledglings need food every few minutes. So when birds nest in your yard, they consume a lot of nearby insects, providing organic pest control.

I watched one summer day as a male northern cardinal hopped from one tomato cage to the other, each time peeking into the tomato plants as if he were looking for something. This continued for a few minutes until he finally came out from under one of the plants with his prize – a big, fat, juicy hornworm.

Those familiar with growing tomatoes know the type of damage that these worms can cause if left to run free on your tomato plants. Once the cardinal knew where the food was, he returned throughout the summer, keeping my tomato plants pest-free.

When it comes to gardening, many think of wildlife as problematic, when, in most cases, just the opposite is true. As most gardeners can attest, there is a lot that goes into managing a garden. No matter the size, there’s always something to do – like soil prepping, weeding, watering, planting – you get the idea.

With all that we do to help improve our chances for success, we’re not the only ones in control. Believe it or not, there are other busy workers out and about giving us a helping hand, and their presence could determine the success or failure of our efforts – and no one does this better than our native wildlife, especially the birds and bees.



Left: Keep flowers in and around your vegetable garden to attract more pollinators to your yard. I’ve also added a snag (dead tree) to the center of this flower garden. As it decays, it will attract insect eating woodpeckers and makes for a nice climbing feature for native vines, like virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana). Right: Leaving some areas intentionally messy, like this winter brush pile, will enhance habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Attracting birds to our gardens provides a great natural benefit beyond just watching them in the backyard. Birds are willing assistants that help maintain a natural balance between plants and pests. Most birds eat a variety of insects, including caterpillars, aphids, mosquitoes and other critters that may not be welcome in the garden. Fortunately, they go to work for us at just the right time. In order to feed their young the protein they need, birds that eat seeds and berries in the fall and winter switch to a more protein-based diet consisting of insects and other bugs in the spring and summer. Fledglings are insatiable and need food every few minutes. So when birds nest in your yard, they consume a lot of nearby insects, providing organic pest control and helping to eliminating the need for chemical insecticides. In addition, finches, sparrows and towhees consume countless quantities of weed seeds, making them useful landscapers – helping control unwanted plants. Hummingbirds, orioles and other birds that sip nectar are efficient pollinators of garden flowers. This can give flowerbeds an added color boost from extra blooms, which will in turn attract even more pollinators. Get the point?

If you live in an open area, consider adding a birdhouse made for purple martins. Purple martins consume a lot of insects and are a joy to watch.

For a quick start, consider adding a basic birdfeeder filled with black-oil sunflower seeds. A birdfeeder will attract a variety of birds to your backyard in no time. Pay special attention to native plants and trees that already grow in your area. Native species establish quickly and are more recognizable to birds and other wildlife. Consider adding a small water source at ground level to not only attract birds, but to invite toads as well. Toads are a great asset to the garden and, like birds, help keep the insect population under control.

A typical mason bee house attached to my garden shed. Mason bees are extremely effective pollinators.

Simple Mason BeeHouse Construction

•  Obtain a 4-by-4-inch piece of wood (untreated) approximately 8 inches long. On one of the sides drill holes that are 3-1/4 inches deep with a 5/16th drill bit. Do not drill all the way through the block.

•  Add a ½-inch piece of plywood on top of the 4-by-4 that overhangs a little to help provide some protection from the weather.

•  Securely place the bee house on a building, fence posts or tree. Try and place it on the south side if possible.

•  Scatter a few of these houses throughout your yard and community.

•  In late fall, move the little bee house into a shed or garage (cool dry area) for the winter months; however, be sure to put it back out in early spring prior to the larva emerging.

Over the years I have developed a greater appreciation for all the butterflies, wasps, bees, flies and other bugs that buzz around our gardens. Without them, many of the fruits and vegetables that we know and love could not reproduce. Did you know that a bumblebee hovering over a tomato flower can create a vibration that will improve pollination much more efficiently than we ever could do by shaking the plant ourselves? Nature is full of amazing pollinators.

We’ve heard and talked about the ongoing loss of the honeybee population. It is still a mystery as to why these bees are disappearing, but we are starting to tap into the use of other types of pollinators, such as our very own native bees. Native bees deserve more credit for producing the foods that we enjoy each day, and are actually more adapted to pollinate our native plants more efficiently than that of the European honeybees. One of these pollinators is the solitary bee, or mason bee (aka orchard bee).

Mason bees may not provide us with honey, but they are extremely effective pollinators, and in a one-on-one battle can outperform her honeybee cousin. Unlike social bees that live in colonies, mason bees nest alone in natural holes creating individual cells for their brood that are separated by mud dividers. They cannot drill their own holes but will often use holes created by carpenter bees or any other small hole or crevice found in nature. Mason bees build their nests in spring, when the redbuds bloom and the eggs and larva winter over and hatch the following spring. They are great pollinators to have in and around the garden. We can help attract mason bees to our own gardens by purchasing or making special housing for them to nest in. Consider adding one to your own garden.

These are just a few ways that we as gardeners can help and improve our situation for a healthier sustainable garden. Evaluate your own backyard and ask yourself what can be done to help keep a natural balance in your landscape. The benefits of plants and animals go far beyond what we could ever imagine. And believe me, I need all the help I can get!


A version of this article appeared in a March 2015 print version of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Alan Pulley.


Posted: 02/28/17   RSS | Print


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The Top 10 Reasons Your Tomatoes Fail
by Bob Westerfield       #Advice   #Edibles   #Fruit   #Vegetables

Heavy soils and overwatering can lead to fruit cracking as the plants pull in too much water.

If you took a survey of the millions of gardeners in America asking which vegetable is the most popular, no doubt tomatoes would either win the contest or be at the top of the list. Anyone who has ever grown a backyard tomato knows that there is no comparison to the flavor and quality of a freshly grown tomato compared to one purchased at the supermarket. While tomatoes are arguably the king of the vegetable garden, they can be challenging at times because this tropical fruit can be finicky. As one of the state vegetable specialists for the University of Georgia, I receive hundreds of questions each season regarding various vegetable issues. By far, tomato problems exceed those of any other vegetable. Whether that is because they just have more problems or because of how popular they are, they are definitely not easy to grow. Here I will outline what I see as the top 10 issues that can lead to tomato failure in the garden.

Planting too early
A frequent sight in late February after an unusual warm front – Bonnie plant trucks traveling down the road, delivering healthy transplants of tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables to garden centers throughout the South. A few warm days in February or March will send gardeners into a frenzy of buying plants and getting them into the ground. Tomatoes are tropical in nature, and planting them too early can lead to a number of problems. Tomatoes need to be planted based on soil temperatures and not necessarily air temperature. In the South, we can have air temperatures as high as 70 F, and yet the soil will remain quite cool. I prefer to let the soil warm up to a steady 60 to 65 F before I set out tomato plants. Using a soil thermometer, determine the soil temperature before purchasing your tomato transplants. Setting tomatoes out too early has no advantage, and doing so will more than likely lead to some problems. Stunting, tomato leaf curl and catfacing are some common disorders that occur when tomatoes get too cool.

Wrong soil pH
It probably goes without saying, but the pH of your soil is one of the most vital issues to be addressed. The pH directly correlates to the alkalinity or acidity of the soil and greatly affects how well your tomato will be able to absorb nutrients and grow. Typically, I see problems with a low pH more often than a high pH, but neither is conducive to proper growing. Tomatoes do best in a slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.2 to 6.8. Soil testing at least every other year is imperative to get an accurate handle on your pH level. The pH can be adjusted by adding the proper amount of agricultural lime if it is low or adding sulfur if the pH is too high. Test and adjust your pH several months before the growing season begins to give amendments enough time to affect the soil.

Strong cages or some other form of sturdy support is important to prevent heavy branches from breaking.

Too much nitrogen
I wish I had a dollar for every time someone called and said they have a 10-foot-tall tomato plant that looks great, but with no blooms. I typically respond that they must be using a liquid fertilizer and 99 percent of the time I am correct. The liquid fertilizer itself is not the problem, the high concentration of nitrogen is. While nitrogen is an essential nutrient for growing healthy tomatoes, too much of a good thing can be damaging. Nitrogen’s primary function is to encourage new green growth on a plant, and excessive amounts can “over-encourage” this. Liquid fertilizers are usually high in nitrogen and difficult to calibrate. People tend to use more than necessary, resulting in a lush green plant with no blooms, and therefore, no tomatoes. Fertilize your tomatoes at planting time and don’t fertilize again until the plants have small baby tomatoes, about the size of a dime. You can then feed the plant additional nitrogen without fear of losing the crop.

Improper support for the vine
Many folks growing tomatoes for the first time don’t realize how large they can get as the vines begin to sprawl out in every different direction. Tomatoes, even under normal conditions, can easily reach 4-6 feet tall. When they put out a heavy set of fruit, this adds additional weight to the viny branches. Adequate support in the form of a cage, trellis or some type of string system, must be provided to prevent the tomato from toppling over. Some of the tiny little cages I have seen for sale are just not adequate enough to hold up the weight of a heavy-bearing tomato plant. I prefer to use strong cages made out of hog wire with 4-inch square holes. I pin them into the ground with metal tent stakes to keep them secure. Tomatoes that are not well supported will bend over and break, which will eventually lead to the demise of the entire plant.

Improper watering
In order to produce a successful tomato crop, they must receive sufficient water. Tomatoes do best when the soil is kept evenly moist, neither too dry nor too soggy. Overhead irrigation should be avoided to help prevent potential disease problems that may occur if the foliage stays wet, as well as to avoid watering non-target areas. Hand watering at the base of the plants, soaker hoses or drip irrigation are the best methods to irrigate your plants. Depending on the type of soil you have and how much rainfall received, you may need to irrigate your tomatoes two to four times a week.

Weed competition
Any time you till the soil or dig into it to plant your vegetables, you are more than likely pulling up millions of weed seeds as well. Weeds compete for nutrients and moisture while also looking unsightly in the garden. No matter how you look at it, there is nothing good about a weed and they should be kept out of your tomato garden. Heavy competition from weeds can cause tomatoes to appear lethargic and greatly decrease their yield. Control weeds by using mulch, landscape fabric or labeled herbicides. Keeping weeds out is easier than removing them once they have emerged.

Warm, humid environments are the ideal place for diseases to thrive, so crops in some areas must be watched carefully.

Failure to control diseases
Anyone who grows tomatoes in the South will undoubtedly have to battle an array of diseases that can attack tomatoes. The list of potential diseases is a long one, but failure to pay attention can result in complete failure of the crop. Disease probably takes out more tomatoes each season than anything else. To combat diseases, begin by selecting resistant cultivars. Plant your tomatoes with adequate space around each plant to ensure optimal airflow. At the first sign of disease symptoms, pick off and remove affected foliage. Virus-ridden plants should be completely removed from the garden site. Depending on the disease, chemical controls may be necessary to help stop the spread of the problem.

Failure to control insects
Very similar to diseases, insects love the South almost as much as the people who live here. While the majority of bugs you see in the garden are probably beneficial, there are a small handful of guys that can wreak havoc in the garden. The best way to control insects is to be out in the garden regularly and on the lookout for any signs of attack. Depending on the type of insect, control can include anything from handpicking to organic or chemical options.

Poor soil drainage
Depending on where you live, you may be blessed with dark, loamy soil and no drainage problems. However, many of us have to deal with heavy clay soils that drain slowly and can hold moisture for days. Continuous excess moisture around tomato roots can lead to root rot and other potential diseases. If you are dealing with heavy soils, combat poor drainage by adding a minimum of 4 inches of good topsoil into the mix. Better yet, consider using raised beds – 6-8 inches or higher – to grow your tomatoes.

A lack of calcium in the soil or a calcium deficiency caused by uneven watering can result in blossom-end rot.

Lack of calcium in the soil
If you grow tomatoes, you may experience a physiological problem known as blossom-end rot. Blossom-end rot is due to a lack of calcium, either not enough in the soil or if adequate moisture is not provided, the roots aren’t able to absorb the calcium needed. This causes a black, leathery sunken spot on the blossom side of the tomato, rendering it inedible. It is a fairly common problem and worth mentioning.

There are certainly many more problems a gardener may have when growing tomatoes, but these are the most likely. The good news is that all of these can be prevented or cured to some extent, and by following the advice I have given, you should have plenty of tomatoes for your table, as well as some to give away to your friends.


A version of this article appeared in a March 2014 print version of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Bob Westerfield.


Posted: 02/28/17   RSS | Print


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Dahlias for Smiles, Not for Show
by Caleb Melchior       #Colorful   #Flowers   #Ornamentals

‘Kelvin Floodlight’

My grandfather’s neighbor grew dahlias – giant things, with huge, coarse leaves. Their stems were trussed to stout bamboo poles, held captive to protect the hope of a flower. He’d pinch out most of the flower buds, trampling them into the ground, squeezing the plant’s energy into one tremendous effort of bloom. Then the day would come when the flower finally broke open. It would hang heavy, its stem weak from bondage to the pole. He’d cut the flower from the plant and carry it off for prizes in a local show (like you would a cow or a giant turnip). I don’t grow those dahlias.

My dahlias are the blobs of color that smile in the background of paintings by Van Gogh and Monet. Their flowers are of all different sizes and shapes. Some are tiny, carried in loads of pompom bloom. A few are large, even the size of a Frisbee. Their heavy heads hang down to make a one-flower bouquet, glowing when the summer light gets low. I can cut as many as I want for bouquets, knowing that there will always be more in the garden.


To grow dahlias as I do, it’s important to take several things into consideration. Dahlias are tropical plants, originating in Mexico and the Central American Peninsula. While often treated as annuals in the northern U.S., dahlias are perennial geophytes that regrow from underground tubers. If you decide to grow more unusual varieties unavailable from local nurseries, it will be necessary to order tubers in early spring. Pot the tubers in rich potting mix, water them in well and grow them on for a few weeks in a cold frame or greenhouse until the nights warm and all danger of frost has passed. Otherwise, wait until it’s warm and find the stockiest plants you can at your local nursery.

Dahlias require rich soil, high in organic matter, to thrive. They need regular moisture, but are highly sensitive to overwatering early in their growth season. Later on, once summer heats up, they may require daily watering. At least six hours of direct sun per day are essential for them to thrive. Afternoon shade can help prevent the flowers of brighter varieties from fading.

Once your dahlias have settled into their various situations, they will grow primarily in leaf and plant mass for much of the summer. Smaller varieties can flower heavily throughout the summer, since they put less energy into growing. Larger varieties put their effort into growing strong stalks and massive plants throughout the summer, occasionally dropping hints of their coming autumn glory, but not doing much until the nights cool.

While some of the smaller dahlias run little risk of falling over, even when full of flowers, it is essential to incorporate supplemental support systems for the larger-flowered varieties. Different growers utilize various methods for supporting their dahlias. I have experimented with different systems of stout posts and twine for the larger varieties. However, repurposed tomato cages also yield excellent results. Stout cages are often the best option, supporting the structure of the plants without constraining their growth.

Dahlias take up space. It is essential to consider their size at maturity. Consider your selections’ eventual sizes before giving them dainty neighbors.

Collectors and dahlia aficionados have elaborate systems for categorizing dahlias. The American Dahlia Society’s classification website lists more than 40 different classifications. For most gardeners, however, the biggest differences occur in plant size and flower shape. To start, consider these five top performing varieties: ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, ‘Fireworks Mixed’, Mystic Spirit, ‘Edinburgh’ and ‘Kelvin Floodlight’.

‘Fireworks Mixed’, ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, Mystic Spirit

‘Fireworks Mixed’ is a seed strain with flowers striated in a range of citrus colors – lemon, orange, scarlet and magenta. Its flower form is single, like ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, but the plant has bright green foliage. ‘Fireworks Mixed’ was originally promoted for its ability to bloom heavily in its first year when grown from seed. It is an excellent bushy plant with abundant flowering throughout the season.

‘Bishop of Llandaff’ appeals even before its first scarlet flowers burst open. Its foliage is nearly black and finely dissected, making an excellent background for the bright flowers. Far removed from the massive blooms of the dinner-plate varieties, ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ is continually arrayed with a myriad of glowing scarlet flowers. Seedlings with similar dark foliage but variously colored flowers are often sold as ‘Bishop’s Children’.

Mystic Spirit (‘Best Bett’) is another clonal selection with dark foliage. The leaves are less finely dissected than those of ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, with strong purple tones. Its flowers are also single, with eight apricot petals. Again, they are carried in abundance on a bushy and easy to grow plant.

‘Edinburgh’ is a larger variety, growing to 4 feet high and wide, with flowers between 4-6 inches across. Unlike the three previous varieties, ‘Edinburgh’ has fully double flowers, in what is classified as the “Decorative” style. Each of its mulberry petals appears to have been dipped in white paint, giving it a striking appearance. ‘Edinburgh’ is one of the most abundantly flowering dahlias, particularly when the nights cool off in the fall.

‘Kelvin Floodlight’ will give the impression that you have gardening superpowers. It is a giant, with pale gold flowers that can reach 10-12 inches across. ‘Kelvin Floodlight’ is a little later to bloom than the smaller-flowered varieties, but will always have a few flowers once it begins. Because each of these enormous flowers requires so much energy from the plant, it rarely produces more than two or three flowers at a one time.

These five dahlias are only a few out of the vast array of dahlia cultivars available to gardeners. They might not help you win a flower show, but they will make you smile every day with their brilliant colors and fantastic blooms. If prizes are what you value, concentrate on turnips.


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2014 print version of State-by-State Gardening
Photography courtesy of Caleb Melchior and Jim Kochevar.


Posted: 02/24/17   RSS | Print


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Spring Garden Cleanup Yields Happy, Healthy Plants
by Anne Larson       #Fertilizing   #Landscaping   #Spring

Many weeds can germinate under the snow during the winter, so a thorough spring weeding reduces headaches throughout the gardening season.
(Photo courtesy of Agnieszka Pastuszak - Maksim,

As the last significant snow of the season nears, thoughts turn toward getting your ornamental gardens ready for the year. The tasks that need to be done include:

• Raking leaves, sticks and other garden debris out of garden beds.
• Cutting back old foliage on perennials and some shrubs.
• Digging any weeds that have begun growing over the winter.
• Pruning branches on small trees and shrubs, as needed.
• Fertilizing perennials and trees and, if desired, applying a pre-emergent weed treatment.
• Mulching and freshening your beds’ edges, as needed.
• Tools you’ll need include a fan rake, pruners or shears, tarp or organic debris bags, weeder, wheelbarrow, garden or mulch rake, spade or sidewalk edger. Debris can be composted.

A good weeding, cutting back foliage and fertilization paves the way for a colorful spring and a succession of bloom throughout the garden season.
(Photo courtesy of Barbara Helgason,

The first order of business is cutting and removing stems and stalks left behind from last year’s perennials. For most, cutting back to the base will be best. For perennials with “crowns” from which new foliage appears (e.g. Astilbe, Alchemilla, Heuchera, Geranium and Sedum), use caution. You do not want to cut into the crown. Rather, remove any winter-damaged leaves that may remain on the plants.

Ornamental grasses should be cut to 4 to 6 inches high. Siberian iris (I. siberica) is cut the same way. In both cases, watch for dead spots, which may appear in the center of the clump. That is a sign that the plant needs to be divided. Lift the plant and slice off the edges and transplant those. Discard the dead center.

Remove matted leaves, which may have accumulated in the garden over the winter. If not removed, the leaves can inhibit growth, as well as harbor insects or diseases.

Cleaning out dead limbs and leaves from shrubs is another important chore. If it is hard to get your hand into the center of the shrub to pull out leaves, a weeder can be helpful. The other important task for shrubs such as Spiraea spp., burning bush (Euonymous alata), lilac (Syringa spp.) and dogwood (Cornus stolonifera, C. sericea, C. racemosa, C. alba), is to take out old or diseased branches. This makes room for new, more productive shoots and also promotes good air circulation through the plant. This is best done when snow cover has receded but the plant is still dormant.

A good way to deal with extremely dense spirea (except weeping varieties, such as S. thumbergii) is to shear the shrub to the size of a large basketball, then gently lean on the remaining branches. The ones that snap are dead and should be raked out of the center. In the case of lilac and dogwood, remove no more than a third of larger or discolored canes each year to encourage more flowering.

Organic mulch, such as wood, compost or pine needles can really make your plant colors pop while retaining soil moisture, moderating soil temperature and reducing weeds.
(Photo courtesy of Oocoskun,


Fertilizers and Weeds
Once the perennials and shrubs have been trimmed back and cleaned up, provide fertilizer and nutrients to help the plants grow, and some type of weed control.

For insect control, hands-on weeding and scouting for bugs are effective. For weeds, there are several products on the market that suppress seed germination or root growth. Ask your local garden center what works best in your area. In all cases, make sure to read the labels and apply as recommended.

Apply fertilizer to encourage growth in perennials and shrubs. A fertilizer with balanced amounts of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) is typically recommended, such as 12-12-12. Natural, organic fertilizers and compost will have different ratios, such as 18-0-3 or 5-2-0.

If your beds have rock mulch, your work is done. If you use wood or other organic mulches, apply after putting down your fertilizer and weed control. If your gardens have natural edges (garden bed abutting lawn), recut the edge with a spade or sidewalk edger and remove excess dirt and grass.

A thorough spring cleanup ensures that your garden gets off to a good start when rainfall is more available. It also provides a head start controlling weeds and insects. Lastly, a clean garden allows spring-blooming bulbs to have their own show.


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2013 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Agnieszka Pastuszak - Maksim,, Oocoskun,, Barbara Helgason,


Posted: 02/24/17   RSS | Print


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Shishito Peppers
by Cynthia Wood       #Edibles   #Fruit   #Vegetables

Sautéed shishitos are the perfect cocktail snack or accompaniment to a light meal.

While on a food and native plant pilgrimage to Austin, Texas, I was offered a small plate of charred, wrinkly green peppers sprinkled with sea salt. The waiter said that the peppers were called shishitos and that they were native to Japan. I was told to eat them like candy – everything but the stem. The flavor was mild with an undertone of smoke and a subtle hint of spiciness. Most of the peppers were mild, but occasionally I would bite into one that was hot, but not mind-numbingly so. Within a few minutes, I had devoured the entire plateful and was clamoring for more. These odd looking little peppers were seriously addictive.

Shishitos are prolific and can produce 30 or more peppers per plant at one time.

Within the next few months, I found the peppers at fine restaurants from Texas to Maine and even in specialty supermarkets. Unfortunately, this chef’s darling is pricy and not always available. The solution, however, is simple: Grow them at home. If you can grow bell peppers and jalapenos, then growing shishitos (Capsicum annuum) will be easy. They can be grown from seeds or small plants can be purchased at many nurseries – ‘Mellow Star’ is a popular variety.

Shishito plants can become leggy and benefit from metal cages to support them.

Left on the vine, shishitos turn bright red, but don’t become hotter.

When working with seeds, plant them indoors approximately six to eight weeks before the last frost. Provide a source of heat under your container to encourage germination. After all danger of frost is past and the soil is uniformly warm, transplant young plants to the garden. Be sure to harden off the plants first. They can be grown successfully in the ground or in large containers, such as half whiskey barrels. Choose a location in full sun with well-drained, rich soil high in organic matter. If necessary, amend the soil with compost. Space the shishito plants approximately 3 feet apart as they can become quite large and tall – up to 4 feet high and several feet wide. You may want to grow them with some type of support, such as wire cages, that will keep the plants from toppling over and breaking while also making harvesting the peppers easier.

After the shishito plants begin to flower, feed them regularly with a balanced fertilizer, such as 5-10-10. Applying fertilizer earlier tends to make plants produce more foliage and fewer peppers.

Although shishitos are a hot weather crop, they tend to drop their blooms when temperatures are consistently above 90 F. Be patient and provide the plants with a regular supply of water. At the end of the summer, harvest shishito peppers when they’re 2-3 inches long and still green. It’s not unusual to find 20 to 30 peppers on a single plant. If you miss some and they turn red, no matter. They’re still quite tasty. According to shishito lore, most of the peppers are mild, but approximately 1 in 10 can be spicier. Not fiery hot, but noticeably hotter than their counterparts. They’re a culinary surprise and that’s part of the fun of eating them.

Shishito peppers are tough plants and easy to grow; they’re quite tolerant of benign neglect. They have few pests, just occasional aphids and slugs that can usually be dealt with by hand picking or a blast of water from the garden hose. The most persistent pest that you’ll have to deal with when growing shishitos is your best friend or neighbor. Once they realize that you have a steady supply of these treats in your garden, they’ll expect a bagful on a regular basis.

Shishitos should be sautéed over high heat until they are charred but still crunchy.


A version of this article appeared in a March 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Cynthia Wood.



Posted: 02/24/17   RSS | Print


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Old-Fashioned Plants
by Norman Winter       #Colorful   #Flowers


Summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum)

There is something special about old-fashioned plants, the ones we sometimes label as “heirloom.” They are the first ones spoken for at plant swaps and the ones that ring the cash registers at those special plant sales. They are found at many garden centers in the spring or fall depending on season but not in quantities you can rely on. In other words, you better be the first one there when they hit the shelves.

Summer Snowflake
One such plant is the summer snowflake. This persevering little trooper of the lily family, known botanically as Leucojum aestivum, doesn’t really receive the accolades it deserves. First, consider that it is a rock-solid perennial, cold hardy from Zones 4 through 9. This means that just about the entire United States can grow it. The bulbs multiply freely, giving you many more to add to your garden. In fact, they appreciate being divided about every three to five years and planted in the fall.

They are native to the Mediterranean region – North Africa – and have been in cultivation since the 1500s. You see them flourishing in old cemeteries, and almost like an archaeological beacon, they will point out where old farmhouses once stood.

The little bell-shaped flowers have a slight fragrance and are comprised of three sepals and petals (tepals) that look quite similar, each bearing a green, jewel-like dot at the tip. Each stalk or scape usually bears two to six flowers.

If you are blessed with an abundance of rocks, you will have quite a companion for growing in the adjacent streams of soil, or you can plant it in beds with jonquils and spring-blooming shrubs.


Larkspur (Consolida ajacis)

Once May arrives, the rural roads in the South are like a giant painting of cottage gardens, thanks to the larkspur, Consolida ajacis. The spiky 2-4-foot blossoms come in shades of blue, pink, white and even two-toned. Though they are considered annuals in the South, their reseeding capability makes them one of the most persevering plants in the garden – returning for years. You’ll find them in the cracks of the sidewalks and in places you never dreamed. This means you will want to do a little larkspur management.

This is a rare plant in the garden center and to have those incredible blossoms in May is an issue of timing. Larkspurs should be seed-sown in the fall. Lightly sow the seeds on top of loosened, well-drained soil and tamp with a garden hoe. The seeds will germinate with the cool rains of fall, forming small plants. Seedlings can be transplanted in late winter if handled with care.

Plant yours in bold drifts with Knock Out roses (Rosa ‘Radrazz’), Coreopsis and our next old-fashioned plant, the ox-eye daisy.

Ox-eye Daisy

Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)


Rose campion (Silene coronaria)

There is just something about fresh, springtime white. Daisies are the flowers young ladies seem to find most enchanting. Perhaps it is because they are among the most favored wedding flowers. Known botanically as Leucanthemum vulgare, it is native to Eurasia and is tough as nails.

It is so tough it can be grown along the roadside or in medians. While it is not a repeat bloomer, you are just about guaranteed that it will be back next year. You can also count on your patch being a little larger than before. This is where it sometimes gets a bad rap, as it spreads by underground rhizomes and can reseed as well.

The ox-eye is like a Shasta with a wildflower appearance. Many consider it a “Shasta extender.” In other words, it blooms first, ending just as the Shasta begins. This could cause your neighbors to think you have a super-green thumb with daisies blooming for so long.

The ox-eye seems to be a perfect match for Early Sunrise coreopsis (Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Early Sunrise’), ‘Homestead Purple’ Verbena, yarrow (Achillea spp.) and the glorious larkspurs mentioned above and our partner below, rose campion.

Rose Campion

Rose campion is native to northern Africa and southern Europe, but seems most at home in our cottage gardens. The felt-like leaves were once used for lamp wicks. The old botanical name we grew up with was Lychnis from the Greek word for lamps. The new name, however, is Silene coronaria. It is considered a biennial or short-lived perennial, yet it always seems to reseed, meaning those wonderful iridescent, rose-colored blooms and showy silver foliage is always present in the garden.

The flower show starts in May with flowers opening one at a time, lasting only a day. But the bloom period lasts into summer. Keep the mulch to a minimum, which allows the most opportunity for reseeding.

The plants will reach about 3 feet tall; allow for one of the most incredible drifts of color in any garden. In addition to the partners mentioned above, consider it an absolutely heavenly companion with other gray-leafed plants, such as Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’.

Garden Phlox

Left: Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) Right: Peacock phlox

Phlox is treasured by gardeners across the country. But it is also one of dozens of plants that are passed over because they are typically not in bloom come shopping time.

The phlox I am referring to is called summer phlox, or garden phlox, Phlox paniculata. It is native to the U.S. – over a large area – and you more than likely will buy one of more than 100 varieties available.

Most get fairly tall, 3-4 feet, and would look great planted at the rear of a perennial garden. Taller selections may require some support to keep their large blooms from falling over. There are great new compact selections such as the Peacock series.

To really create a dazzling display, give yourself plenty of room. Make your beds large enough to plant in informal drifts. Combine with other summer perennials such as Coreopsis, daisies, Rudbeckia and various salvias. By combining with other perennials, you may not have to give the taller varieties support – or if you do, it will be hidden.


Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana)

Obedient Plant

When August arrives, any blooms are welcome, and the obedient plant, one of the most persevering native perennials provides a bounty. Physostegia virginiana is native to 39 states and Canada.

Feeding bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, it’s perfect for the backyard wildlife habitat. The spiky texture is incredible with its pink to purple blooms rising 2-4 feet. The tubular flowers align vertically in columns along the stem. The lower flowers open first with the bloom proceeding upward over time. The obedient plant is in the mint family and is aggressive. The plant name actually comes from the way the flowers, when bent, will maintain the position, obediently, for quite some time. But that is where any obedience ends.

One of my favorite combinations is to partner it with the old-fashioned yellow-flowered tansy (Tanecetum vulgare). The yellow flowers, borne on 3-4-feet tall plants, form an idyllic, late-summer complementary color scheme. An informal drift of flowers would look quite at home against a white picket fence, completing a cottage garden setting.

Country Girl Chrysanthemum

Country Girl chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum x rubellum)

The Clara Curtis or Country Girl chrysanthemum is not only an heirloom, but it is still in major production. Unrivaled fall displays of large rose pink flowers on plants that return year after year is the reason. Known botanically as Chrysanthemum x rubellum, it is one mum that will indeed be a long-term perennial.

Whether you call it ‘Clara Curtis’ or ‘Country Girl’, do your part to ensure that your children can grow up with this flower. Plant them in full sun to produce the most floriferous, compact plants. A little afternoon shade is tolerated. The soil must be fertile, organic, rich, moist, but very well drained. Drainage may indeed be the key to winter survival.

One of the prettiest displays I have seen of ‘Clara Curtis’ was growing with tall, purple Gomphrena. The pink flowers also combine wonderfully with purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) and muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). Grow with burgundy-leafed coleus selections. The fall bloom cycle also works well in the perennial garden with the Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) and Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’.

We live in an age of great new plant development, but there will always be room for these old-fashioned plants that have stood the test of time.


A version of this article appeared in Georgia Gardening Volume 12, Number 1.
Photography courtesy of Norman Winter.


Posted: 02/02/17   RSS | Print


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Space-Saving Herbs
by Kenny Coogan       #Herbs   #Ornamentals   #Variegated

Place herbs adjacent to grills and food prep areas, which are all small, underutilized locations that will encourage you to use them.

If you could only grow one group of edibles, herbs should be at the top of your list, due to their versatility in the kitchen. They are also easy to grow, due to their forgiving nature and generally not picky on their soil conditions.

When you consider that purchasing a cut bunch of herbs is the same price or more than a small potted plant, it just makes sense to grow them yourself.

We all have small areas that we pass by every day that we overlook. We should stop thinking of an herb garden as a dedicated garden bed for herbs, and start integrating our herbs into our existing landscapes. It is true that some can be used as ground cover, but they do not have to be given that much space. Place them pots in between your flowers or other edibles. Exhibit them near small, underutilized locations such as on front steps, windowsills, back porches, in your kitchen, adjacent to grills and food prep areas and you will be encouraged to use them often.

Garlic and chives planted in blocks make use of an otherwise useless space. By having herbs along the walkway, cooks have it easy.

Indoor Herb Options:

Basil (Ocimum species)
Chives (Allium species)
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Mint (Mentha species)
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Shade Tolerant Herb Options:

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Mint (Mentha species)
Shiso (Perilla frutescens)
Thyme (Thymus species)
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Sage advice
Herbs are great for not only cooking, but also for adding textures, scents and visual appeal to your garden. Luckily for us, herbs will grow in just about anything. They are easy to grow in containers for yearlong supply or for those with limited space. Herbs don’t need to be fussed over. Aside from starting with a high quality organic soil that contains trace minerals, I do not fertilize my herbs. If you find that your plants are lighter green or have mottled leaves you can add a diluted liquid fertilizer that contains nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and a small amount of trace elements every two weeks.

Investing in a loose potting soil that maintains moisture is ideal. Herbs generally have small root systems and don’t mind drying out in-between waterings. Thyme and oregano will not be as flavorful if they get a lot of water. Oregano will even grow in poor soil.

Far left: Variegated Cuban oregano hanging from a small basket makes use of a small space by going vertical.

Top: Sage (Salvia officinalis) can grow quite large. Some cultivars are more compact such as Yugoslavian cutleaf, dwarf common and germander sage.

Left: Rosemary planted in a decorative pot by the backdoor makes it easy to incorporate the herb into any Mediterranean dish.

By regularly harvesting, you will get bushy herbs. Pinch terminal growth every few days to keep plants looking full.  The more you harvest the more you get. During the growing season, you could use the “cut and come again” approach to use them in the kitchen every day. You must use them or you will lose them. Harvest before they set flowers.

Most herbs will require plenty of sun, typically six or more hours. For herbs grown indoors, a south- or east-facing window is best. Herbs that are labeled as full sun elsewhere may do best in partial shade in the South. Not many herbs can be grown in full shade, but many can grow in lightly shaded areas.

Small pots, like those seen in many magazines which show 2-3 inch terracotta pots with herbs growing in them, in reality dry out very quickly. If I cut a large part off for cooking, I try to root the stem. If even a small portion of the cuttings make it, I am happy. I can’t have enough herbs. I do use small pots for newly rooted cuttings. Some herbs, you may not want to ever plant in your garden, like mint, due to its spreading properties.

Left: Genovese basil, a cultivar of Ocimum basilicum, is an Italian variety that can get up to 2-feet tall. Middle: I didn’t always like Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus), likely because I ate it raw the first few times.Grow this plant as an annual. Right: Toothache plant (Spilanthes acmella) may enhance the immune system, improve digestion and help nausea. The name comes from the numbing properties it has when the leaves and flowers are chewed.Grow this plant as an annual.

The more soil mass you have, the more flexibility you will get. By using larger pots you will not have to be married to your plants. You can leave them for a few days and the soil mass will allow for the correct moisture retention.

Thyme’s a wastin’
Now that you are familiar with some herb basics, try it yourself. Kick off the summer with some of these flavorful combinations.

10 Container Combos — Create flavorful fares in one pot

Theme Thriller Filler Spiller
Appe-Thai-zing Tiny Thai Pepper Thai Basil


Baked & Loaded Garlic Chives Oregano


Herbes de Provence with American Twist Lavender/Rosemary Marjoram/Savory



Indian Fusion Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) Curry (Helichrysum italicum)


Momma Mia Flat-leaf Parsley Box Basil

Hot & Spicy Oregano

Powerful Pesto African Blue Basil Cinnamon Basil Dwarf Nasturtium
Pucker Up Lemon Verbena Lemon Balm Lemon Thyme
Soupofficial Stew Tarragon Sage Lemon Thyme
Tea Time Chamomile Lemon Balm Peppermint/Spearmint
Tex-Mex Flat-leaf Parsley Cultantro (Eryngium foetidum) Cuban Oregano


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 21, Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Kenny Coogan.



Posted: 02/02/17   RSS | Print


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Boost Your Curb Appeal
by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp       #Decorating   #Landscaping   #Ornamentals

Shrubs and small trees provide multi-season interest with geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) adding spot color for the summer. The curved patch of grass helps show off the plants and soften an area near the walkway.


Keep shrubs and trees from blocking walkways. When shrubs get this big, it’s usually best to take them out.

Make sure the edges of landscape beds are crisp, neat and weed free.

Whether you are planning to sell your home or just update the look, there are a few things you can do in the landscape to boost your property’s curb appeal.

“Stand in front of the house and look at it with fresh eyes,” said Glen Kemery, a real estate broker with Snyder Strategy Realty, Inc., in Indianapolis. “Pay attention to the details.”

Is the paint cracked, peeling or faded? Is the trim crisp and clean? Are the shrubs pruned properly? Consider taking some of them completely out, especially the overgrown, misshapen ones, he said.

Consumers value properties with an attractive landscape about 11 percent above the base price, according to Smart Money magazine. Several studies show a well-designed landscape adds 15 to 20 percent to the value of the home.

You want to make sure your yard looks good, without a lot of weeds, and that your grass is green. When potential buyers look at that, they think, “wow, if the outside looks this good, the inside must look good, too,” Kemery said.

Whether selling the house or just spiffing it up, people are interested in low-maintenance landscapes, said Judy DePue, a landscape designer for 35 years and owner of New Vistas Landscaping in Goshen. DePue is a certified fellow of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers.

A lot of old-fashioned evergreens, such as yews (Taxus spp.) and junipers (Juniperus spp.), need regular pruning to keep the size in check, she said. “The newer look is not everything is filled with all greens.”

DePue said one of the color trends is burgundy and other wine-colored hues, such as the USDA Zone 3-hardy Little Devil ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Donna May’). It has an upright habit, is somewhat resistant to powdery mildew and is 3 to 4 feet tall and wide. Pink flowers pop against the deep burgundy foliage in spring. Many landscape designers and homeowners use this shrub as an alternative to Japanese barberry (Berberis thubergii), which is on some states' invasive species list.

Little Devil ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Donna May’) is a low-maintenance shrub with trendy burgundy foliage.

Dwarf plants don’t usually need a lot of pruning, she said. Among DePue’s favorites is ‘Green Gem’ dwarf boxwood (Buxus x ‘Green Gem’). This slow-grower will get about 3 to 4 feet tall and wide, but keeps its lush, evergreen mound with little or no pruning.

Preferring low-maintenance tree and shrub plantings, DePue shuns annuals, perennials and containers for spot color, emphasizing that many require more work, such as watering and deadheading, or planting every year.

For an instant, fresh new look, paint the trim around the door a contrasting color.

Add a new light and stylish, decorative house numbers to spruce up the porch.

Besides replacing plants, another way to give your home a facelift is to paint the trim or add other coordinated, complementary color schemes, said Betty Schelle of Indigo Gardens and Design in South Bend. Schelle, a former stay-at-home mom, founded her business three years ago.

“Pick an accent color and refresh the paint on the window trim or the front door, and repeat it again in the landscape with flowers or pot color,” she said. “The color theme repeated makes the house look clean and uncluttered.”

Add the color to the mailbox and enlarge the house numbers to an Art Deco or another appropriate style, said Schelle, also a member of APLD.

If your house sits back from the road, go with specimen plants with bold foliage. Fine-textured plants will not catch the eyes of passersby, if your house sits 50 feet away from the road, she said.

Replace outdated metal awnings with more fashionable eyebrow pergolas above windows or an arbor over a door. Adorn the fixture with perennial vines, such as Clematis spp., Kentucky wisteria (Wisteria macrostachya), American wisteria (W. frutescens) or honeysuckle (Lonicerea spp.), which will also provide some cover over porches and doorways. Climbing black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata), hyacinth bean (Lablab purpurea), scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus) and morning glories (Ipomoea purpurea) are good selections for annual vines.

If changing foundation plantings, make sure to plant the new shrubs 3 to 4 feet away from the house to allow for a maintenance alley for washing windows or painting, Schelle said. Widen narrow borders around the house and plant shrubs and small trees for textural and seasonal interest.

Lastly, she said, plant annuals. Whether trying to sell your house or perk up the look of the landscape, a $60 investment in three flats of bedding plants goes a long way in adding color, sass and eye appeal, she said.


A version of this article appeared in Indiana Gardening Volume 6, Number 2.
Photography courtesy of Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp, elanathewise/, Bailey Nurseries, jlende/, seeman/


Posted: 02/02/17   RSS | Print


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Where Are They Now?
by Steve Frank       #Insects   #Pests   #Winter

Cercropia moth caterpillar feeding on cherry leaves.

People don’t often think about insects in winter. Frankly, most people don’t think about insects at all except when they are being tormented by mosquitoes in the summer. As gardeners, though, we tend to consider insects and the natural world more frequently than other people. We notice tomato hornworms nibbling tomato leaves and spiders scurrying from under squash leaves. In the flower garden we notice the praying mantis waiting patiently for prey and butterflies visiting flowers we planted just for them. In winter though, insects seem to disappear. What happens to the pests that drive us crazy and the other bugs that fascinate us during warmer months?

Contrary to popular belief, a cold winter won’t eradicate garden pests. Insects didn’t become so successful by dying out each winter. They have evolved many different ways to cope with the lethal cold that befalls much of the country each year. Many insects, like birds, just get out of town and migrate south to Florida or Central America. A well-known example of this is monarch butterflies, which migrate thousands of miles each fall to southern California and Mexico, only to return each spring. This is also the strategy of potato leafhoppers, which migrate north from the Gulf Coast each spring to feed on squash, maples and many other plants.

The majority of insects have found ways to survive the winter without transcontinental migration. Scarab beetles such as Japanese and June beetles, spend the winter underground where temperatures remain fairly constant. To achieve this, adult beetles lay eggs in the summer from which grubs hatch. The grubs burrow into the ground, feeding on plant roots. As they become larger they burrow deeper and spend the winter 12 inches or more below the surface.

Japanese beetle grub with parasitic Tiphia wasp larvae attached to thorax (note lump behind legs), which feeds on grub fluids.

Perhaps more interesting than the grubs are the parasitoid wasps that use the grubs as food and a free ride below ground for the winter. Adult wasps in the genus Tiphia are 1/2 an inch long and feed on nectar. Female wasps burrow into the ground following the scent of their preferred grub species. They sting the grub to paralyze it long enough to attach an egg to the grub’s body. The wasp larva is a parasite of the live grub piercing its skin and drinking its juices. While the grub moves down the wasp larva is carried deep in the ground where, in its final stage, the wasp larva eats the entire grub and spins a silk cocoon in which to spend the winter.

Other insects, which spend the winter exposed to freezing temperatures, have physiological ways to cope. Spending the winter in a non-feeding life stage is one way to cope with extended periods of cold weather and inactivity. Eggs are a non-feeding life stage of most insects and a common way to spend the winter.

Praying mantids exemplify this behavior. The insect has one generation per year that begins and ends with a large brown egg mass. In the fall, adult female mantids release brown foam that hardens around a twig or a stalk of grass. Each foamy mass contains hundreds of eggs that will remain dormant all winter and hatch in the spring. Look for these when cleaning up the garden in fall. Although the pest control benefit of mantids is mixed – they consume pests but also spiders, butterflies, bees and other beneficials – they are one of the most interesting insects to watch and a favorite for classroom show-and-tell.

Praying mantis egg case deposited on the dried stalk of ornamental switchgrass.

Another insect that spends the winter as eggs in a foam-like mass is the eastern tent caterpillar. You can easily spot the oval masses on cherry twigs in winter when leaves have fallen. Each contains hundreds of caterpillar eggs. Prune them off to avoid dealing with big silk tents in the spring.

Butterflies and moths often spend the winter as a pupa, commonly known as a cocoon. You may find silken cocoons stuck in sheltered locations such as under tree bark or on the ground under leaf litter or mulch. The cecropia moth caterpillar spins its cocoon attached to a tree branch. Caterpillars are 3 to 4 inches long with spiny red, blue and yellow tubercles. Caterpillars feed on cherry, maple, apple and other trees all summer. In the fall they spin a large brown cocoon with a tough outer layer to protect them from predators.

Most insects and spiders will remain in your yard and garden throughout the winter. Research has found that leaf litter and mulch will help preserve predatory insect abundance in winter, and reduce pest problems in spring.

Many gardeners work hard to plant the correct flowers to attract and feed butterflies and other beneficial insects in the summer. Allow stalks of perennial flowers and grasses to remain in the garden through the winter to provide shelter for many insects and preserve the eggs and pupae of butterflies and other insects that may be attached to them. Considering the needs of butterflies and other insects when winterizing your garden could increase their abundance in spring and help conserve some threatened insect species.


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 22, Number 9.
Photography courtesy of Steve Frank.


Posted: 02/02/17   RSS | Print


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Winter Planning for the Spring Garden
by Ruth Mason McElvain       #Design   #Spring   #Winter

A little planning now will help you enjoy a lush, prosperous garden when summer comes.

Whether you are a veteran victory gardener or an eager beginner with a few pots, experts agree that a little advance scheming makes for a better garden, saving time, money and wear and tear on your own momentum. February, with its frigid air, freezing rain and slumbering garden, is a perfect time for planning.

A good place to start is to read gardening books. From the great offerings in the State-by-State Gardening Bookstore to the many different websites and blogs, winter reading helps you visualize your garden. There is plenty of historical and modern inspiration out there just waiting to fire up your imagination.

Once you have done your research, you are ready to plan. The looming choices you have to make are location, size, soil preparation and plants.

Graph paper works great to map out the dimensions of your garden, and even plan wwhere you will plant them, giving each one appropriate spacing.

First things first – when it comes to having a successful garden, location is key. For a vegetable garden, the best spot is a sunny location with at least six to eight hours of full sun, away from shade trees, shrubs and underground septic tanks, but conveniently located near a water source. It is an added bonus if your garden is visible from a window, delighting your eye with its green sprawl and luring you out for a few minutes a day for garden tending.

Knowing how much water each type of vegetable needs can help you figure out where to place them in your garden, so you do not have plants that like wet feet beside plants that need a little dryness.

Size and Soil Preparation
Make your garden a realistic size, tailored to your experience, lifestyle, motivation and physical capabilities. Plan your garden dimensions to ensure that you enjoy pleasant industry in the greenery and insect hum, but not so big that you begin to dread unmanageable chores.

Once you map the perimeter of your garden, investigate good soil preparation in order to prime this essential element for healthy garden growth. It is never too late to perform a soil test, available through the cooperative extension service. While it might be too cold to plant anything just yet, it is a great time to take advantage of some of our warmer days to get outside, turn over your soil and add compost or other necessary amendments.

Vegetable Choice
Researching which plants to put in your garden might just be the most fun part of this process. This is where you get to peruse gardening catalogs and magazines, dreaming about what you are going to plant this spring. Make sure they will fit your garden’s hardiness zone and conditions, as well as your own personal taste. If your vegetables’ growing habits match your garden and your fork returns eagerly to them on your plate, you are bound to enjoy your garden more with fewer disappointing harvests.

Make sure to order your seeds early, not only so you will have them when planting time arrives, but also to ensure the best selection from the distributors.

Mapping it Out
Start with rough sketches on graph paper so you have a good to-scale garden layout. Remember to include 24-inch-wide footpaths. This is an optimal distance to conserve as much growing space as possible, but still give reasonable access outside the beds so you do not compact the soil. It also leaves room for working tools such as wheelbarrows. Establishing 4-foot-wide beds allows an average gardener’s reach from either side into the middle for comfortable planting, staking, weeding and harvesting. Include room in your plan for present or future garden ornaments, water features, abodes for beneficial garden creatures and a nearby work counter with a water station.

When it is time to pick exactly what you want to plant, consider planting dates, water requirements and good companions. Then, create a simple chart, reducing important references for each plant to a single line. A 10-row table allows a space for the vegetable name, planting date, planting distances, mature size, watering ratio of 1- inch/per frequency in days, notes or tips, yield per plant, companions and enemies, days to harvest and harvesting guides. This chart conveniently compares planting information, and correct vegetable layout ensures the best harvest.

Drawing your plan out on loose-leaf graph paper gives it some portability so you can take it right out with you to the garden when it is time to plant.

It is helpful to research companion plants that work well together. For example, this information may prompt you to place sweet potatoes with pole beans in the same bed because roots and legumes are often mutually beneficial. But if you are using your table, you will notice that the sweet potatoes prefer watering at three weeks while the beans crave a deep drink every five days. Each deserves neighbors with comparable needs. Making these arrangements and rearrangements on paper first is a good reason for planning.

Once you have chosen your vegetables, charted their information, and planned your garden dimensions and design, it is much simpler to populate each bed with appropriate citizens. Make another graph with the planting distances drawn to scale to determine how many of each vegetable your garden can support. Your own loose-leaf garden journal can bring this portable mini-library right out to the garden at planting time.

A realistic garden plan also helps you order seeds appropriately. You know ahead of time that you will need cool-weather, seeds such as garden peas and beets, early. Slow growers such as peppers and tomato seeds need to have six to eight weeks before the first frost, so you can start them indoors and transplant in late spring. Your plan will alert you to the proper ordering time to get the seeds and plants in hand when needed, or better yet, avoid missing out on some craved vegetable because you did not order before they sold out.

Making a chart with the specifics for each plant can help put all the information you need right at your fingertips.

High-Tech Planning
To polish your garden plans even more, take a spin with some of the excellent, online, interactive planning tools such as the “Grow Planner” iTunes app, featured on This one enables you to draw the dimensions and shapes of your beds and drop in vegetable shapes from an extensive list. The program automatically spaces vegetables correctly, creating a list as you go that you can access later and print with planting dates, quantities, spacing and seed sources. It is just one more tool in your arsenal to help you hone your gardening skills.

February is a great time for the savvy gardener to plan and be a jump ahead of the good garden weather that is just a few weeks away. Your garden can burst into life when the scribbles on a February graph emerge in summer as a happy green jungle of juicy delights, right in your backyard. Most of all, it is just more gardening fun until we can get back in the dirt.

A version of this article originally appeared in a February 2013 State-by-State Gardening E-newsletter.
Photography courtesy of Ruth Mason McElvain.


Posted: 02/01/17   RSS | Print


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Celebrate With a Bouquet
by Melinda Myers       #Fragrant   #Flowers   #Roses


The holiday of love is just around the corner, and the most popular presents are bouquets of tulips, roses, and other cut flowers. Throw in a bottle of Champagne or a lovely dinner, and the evening will be yours. Remember, too, that both women and men appreciate a beautiful bouquet!

To give the perfect Valentine’s Day bouquet, select the freshest flowers, protect them from the cold when transporting, and provide proper care.

Whether you purchase your flowers from a florist, winter farmer’s market, garden center or grocery store, look for bouquets with lots of buds that are just starting to open. These will continue to open over time extending the beauty of the bouquet.

Avoid flowers that are fully opened or with loose pollen. This indicates they are past their prime.


Tall varieties of lisianthus (Eustoma spp.) can sometimes be purchased at florists or bucket shops, or you can grow them in the garden. Look for seeds from online retailers.

Flowers from shops
Make sure to wrap the purchase before leaving the store. A plastic or paper wrapper will protect the flowers from cold weather.

Once home, remove any of the foliage on the bottom of the stems. Submerged greenery decays and rots, releasing fungi and bacteria in the water. This plugs the vascular system of the cut flowers, preventing them from absorbing needed water.

Remove the bottom inch or two of the stem just prior to placing in the water. Cut the stems at a 45-degree angle with a sharp knife. Cutting on an angle prevents the stems from sitting flat on the bottom of the vase, providing maximum exposure of the water absorbing vessels.

Place freshly cut flowers in a clean vase with warm, about 100 F, water that contains floral preservative. The warm water speeds the uptake of water by the flowers while the floral preservative feeds the flowers and prevents fungi and bacteria from forming.

Keep the vase filled with the preservative and water mix. Recut stems every few days to keep the flowers fresh. Remove faded flowers and rearrange the remaining blossoms to maximize enjoyment.

Further extend the life of Valentine bouquets by displaying them in a cool location away from direct sunlight, hot spots, and drafts inside the home.


Make a fresh cut on the stems of roses before arranging them in a vase.

Droopy roses
Roses, especially red, are a favorite Valentine’s flower. There is nothing more disappointing than when the stem just below the blossom bends, ruining the bouquet. Fortunately there is an easy cure. Remove the roses from their vase. Recut the stems and submerge the whole rose – stem, leaves, flowers, and all – in a sink or tub of warm water. Leave the roses submerged for 20 to 60 minutes until they revive.

In the meantime clean and refill the vase with fresh water and floral preservative. Recut the stems on a slant, under water if possible and arrange the roses back in the vase. The now perky roses will last for a week or more.


Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are easy to grow and are appreciated in the garden by bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. We humans enjoy them as cut flowers indoors.


Grow your own annuals
Don’t limit cut flowers to special holidays. Consider growing a few of your own to enjoy fresh throughout the growing season and in dried arrangements year-round.

Select a variety of annuals and perennials that bloom at different times. The choices are many and you may be surprised to find you already have many candidates already growing in your landscape. Here are just a few to consider.

Annuals are an easy group of flowers to start with. They bloom all season long providing an ongoing source of flowers to enjoy. Zinnias are heat and drought tolerant and look great in the garden or vase. Select disease resistant ones for maximum beauty and minimal care.

Grow a few dwarf sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) from seed for late summer and fall bouquets. Consider pollen-free varieties, such as ‘Chocolate Cheery’, ‘Pro-Cut’, and ‘Sunrich’, which are less messy and last longer as cut flowers.

Include cockscomb (Celosia spp.) varieties with crested, plumed, or wheat-type flowers. They are heat and drought tolerant. Just be sure to rinse away any insects that may be hiding in the blossoms before moving them indoors.

Increase the wow factor in bouquets with lisianthus (Eustoma spp.) also known as prairie gentian. It may be hard to find in the garden center but are commonplace in the florist’s cooler. The delicate flowers are one of the longest lasting cuts you can grow in the garden. Grow in full sun with consistently moist soil. Taller varieties will need staking in the garden but the extra work will be rewarded with beautiful bouquets. Look for seeds for tall varieties at online retailers.


There’s nothing quite as fragrant as a bouquet of fresh-cut peonies (Paeonia spp.). Many florists will have these in season, or grow your own for years of pleasure.

Grow your own perennials
Add a few perennials to the list. Include spring, summer, and fall bloomers for months of enjoyment. Peonies (Paeonia spp.) have long been grown for their spring blossoms in the garden and for the flower vase. Many varieties are fragrant, adding to their appeal. Grow these long-lived plants in a sunny location with moist, well-drained soil.

Irises come in a rainbow of colors and make great additions to spring bouquets. Purchase plants in spring or rhizomes in late summer. Follow planting directions on the tag for best results.

Harvest a few roses (Rosa spp.) to display in a vase or combine with annual or perennial flowers. Harvest a few of the rose hips for winter arrangements and displays.

Plant a few coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) for the bees and butterflies to enjoy and to use as cut flowers. And once the petals fade the remaining seed head, cone, looks great in dried arrangements.

Liatris, also known as gayfeather, is a popular perennial with florists and gardeners. The spikes of white or purple flowers are long lasting. Use these for a bit of vertical interest in the garden and arrangements.

Grow a few hardy mums (Chrysanthemum spp.) for fall bouquets. This last splash of color makes the perfect fall bouquet. Select from the many flower sizes, shapes and colors for the season finale.

And don’t overlook bulbs and herbs. The early blossoms of spring flowering bulbs provide a bit of winter relief. The fragrant flowers and foliage of herbs make them nice fillers in bouquets. And harvest a few evergreen sprigs, hosta leaves and lady’s mantle (Alchemilla spp.) for greenery. Force a few flowering shrub branches to add form and color to your spring bouquets.

Flowers from the garden
Extend the beauty of cut flowers from the garden with proper harvesting and conditioning. Harvest the flowers early in the morning when the plants are crisp and full of water. Use sharp shears to make the cut.

Collect flowers with buds that are just starting to open. When back in the house remove the bottom leaves, cut the stem and place in warm water for several hours or better yet overnight. Recut the stems before creating the arrangement.

Bottom line, if it is blooming in the garden it is worth trying a in a vase. You just might be surprised.


A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of, assy/, Nile/, Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp, elm98/


Posted: 02/01/17   RSS | Print


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Versatile Winter Squash: Stuffed or Gratin
by Kate Jerome       #Recipes   #Vegetables   #Winter

Winter squashes come in all sizes and shapes.

A cold winter evening is just the right kind of weather to fire up the oven and bake the fruits of fall and winter, savory winter squash (and that includes pumpkins). The aroma that drifts through the house will make even the pickiest eater hungry. Best of all, because they store so well, you can usually purchase all types through the winter months.

Most winter squash is Cucurbita moschata; pumpkin is sometimes C. mixta, and sometimes C. pepo or C. maxima.

Winter squash is a long-season plant, and should not be sown outdoors until the soil is quite warm. It needs full sun, plenty of moisture as it ripens the fruits, and fertile soil. It’s important to watch for squash vine borer throughout the season, but otherwise squashes are fairly easy to grow. Just give them plenty of room. If you don’t want to grow your own, shop farmers markets for winter squashes.

Begin harvest in late summer-fall
Winter squash begins ripening in August and continues into October. Although most winter squash can be harvested when young and used like zucchini, the point to growing winter squash is usually to keep them over the winter. Winter squash is ready for harvest when the rind is hard enough so that you cannot make a dent in it with your fingernail. This means it has cured enough to store well. By the time the first frost arrives, the squash should all be ready to harvest.

To control fungal problems in storage, wash squashes well with soap and water. For extra protection, you can dip them in a mixture of one part bleach to six parts water, making sure to get the stem end. Then, they are best stored on wire racks or someplace with good circulation and cool conditions, such as the basement. Squashes should ideally be stored at 50-55° F, and if your basement is warmer than that, be sure to check them periodically for rotting.

New varieties for small spaces
Some newer varieties that are becoming quite popular are dwarf and semi-dwarf forms of the traditional squashes. These produce shorter vines and smaller fruit, making them easier to handle in tight spaces, and easier to cook for two people. Pumpkin is the king of winter squash. We usually connect them with Halloween because of the jack-o-lantern, but they are also really tasty to eat.

Pumpkins, especially small pie pumpkins, make a delicious winter meal.

Pumpkin pie made from fresh pumpkin is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, and pumpkin is also very good when baked and mashed like potatoes.

For years, the most popular winter squash was acorn squash, mostly because it was commonly available year-round. This baseball-sized green ribbed squash has bright orange flesh. But there are so many others available now that there’s no need to limit yourself. Delicata squash, which is oblong, cream to yellow with dark green stripes, and Sweet Dumplin’ are some of the sweetest squash you’ll ever eat. They have rich orange flesh like a butternut, but are infinitely sweeter. There are hundreds of types of winter squash out there, from buttercup and blue Hubbard to spaghetti and butternut squash.


Stuffed Squash
Acorn, Delicata, or any small squash

2 oblong or round squashes, cut into 1-inch thick slices, seeds and membrane removed
6 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, chopped
1½ tablespoons curry powder
2 apples, diced
23 cup apple juice
½ cup cranberries, fresh or frozen

Sauté onion in butter, add the curry and cook for one minute. Add the rest of ingredients and sauté until liquid evaporates. Place squash rings in a shallow baking pan, fill with sauté mixture and bake at 350°F for 40 minutes.




How to prepare
All it takes to bake most winter squash is to cut them in half and invert them on a rimmed cookie sheet. Remove the seeds before baking, especially if you want to toast them, or you can bake with the seeds intact and remove them after baking. They will come out easier this way.

Bake for an hour or so, depending on the size of the squash, at 350° F and serve with butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, or stuffed with whatever sounds luscious. Flesh should be soft when pierced with a fork. All winter squashes are cooked the same way, and can be interchanged in almost any recipe.

The cooked flesh freezes well, and if you measure it in one-cup batches and place it into freezer bags, it’s ready to pull out for use whenever the mood hits to make muffins or squash bread.

Spaghetti squash is a little different, in that when it is cooked, you can separate the flesh into strands, which really do resemble spaghetti. The “spaghetti” is delicious with a little butter and Parmesan or even spaghetti sauce. And it doesn’t have the high calories of pasta.


Butternut Squash or Pumpkin Gratin

3 cups torn day-old bread
2 cups cooked squash (any with rich orange color)
2 tablespoons olive oil
12 cup chopped onion
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 cup ricotta cheese
14 cup Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
34 teaspoon salt
14 teaspoon pepper
Fresh bread crumbs or panko


Cover bread with hot water and let stand until softened, 3-5 minutes. Drain and set aside. Sauté onion and garlic in oil until tender. Mix bread, squash, and rest of ingredients in large bowl. Add onions and garlic. Spread in oiled, 2-quart casserole and sprinkle with bread crumbs. Bake at 350°F, uncovered 35 minutes, until slightly puffed and beginning to brown.


A version of this article appeared in a January February 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of MSPhotographic/iStockphoto and Kate Jerome.


Posted: 12/28/16   RSS | Print


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2017 New Varieties
by Lori Pelkowski       #Fruit   #New Trends   #Vegetables


Okra ‘Candle Fire’ offers bright red fruits for eating or floral displays.

It’s that time of year again. The 2017 winners of the coveted All-America Selections Vegetable Awards, which recognizes only the tastiest, easiest-to-grow vegetables, have been announced. The AAS’s mission is “to promote new garden seed varieties with superior garden performance judged in impartial trials in North America.” I am growing these new varieties this year because, although they may be short in stature, they are heavy on harvest and big on flavor.

Pea ‘Patio Pride’ (Pisum sp.)
Pea ‘Patio Pride’ only needs 40 days to maturity, making it perfect for succession plantings. Sow the seeds directly into a container or in the ground about 8 inches apart in full sun in early spring, and then again at two week intervals to keep the peas coming throughout the spring and early summer. The plants are so pretty, I will plant some in a container on the patio in early spring with colorful pansies for a combination ornamental and edible display. ‘Patio Pride’ will grow to about 2 feet tall – no staking needed – and will reward you with a consistent harvest over many weeks. Pick the pods of ‘Patio Pride’ early for best flavor and tenderness. I will sow seeds again in midsummer for an early fall harvest, keeping the young plants watered and shaded from the worst of the summer sun as they grow.

Squash ‘Honeybaby’ (Cucurbita sp.)
‘Honeybaby’ F1 is a productive variety of winter squash that produces a lot of fruit on a compact plant. These shorter vines grow 2 to 3 feet tall with a vigorous, bushy habit that results in healthier plants that resist powdery mildew later in the season. Even though the vines are shorter than other butternut-type winter squash vines, stake ‘Honeybaby’ vines to help support the blocky, wide fruit. You can expect eight or nine 1⁄2-pound fruits per plant. Sow seeds in full sun about 10 inches apart as soon as soil temperatures reach 65 F to ensure maturity in about 90 days. I will plant them as the centerpieces of two large containers with purple sweet potato vines trailing over the edge The dark-purple leaves should make a nice complement to the deep orange fruit.‘Honeybaby’ is sweet and nutty, and meatier than similar winter squash varieties. Enjoy ‘Honeybaby’ baked, steamed, or cooked in soups, sauces, and stews.


‘Mini Love’ is a red and juicy little watermelon with few seeds.

Watermelon ‘Mini Love’ (Citrullus Sp.)
‘Mini Love’ F1 is a personal-sized Asian watermelon, perfect for smaller families, or smaller gardens. The 3- to 4-foot vines produce up to six fruits per plant and can be grown in large containers. This deep-red fleshed watermelon has a thin but strong rind that can be carved for fruit salad presentations. ‘Mini Love’ has a high sugar content, making it sweet, crisp, refreshing, and juicy with few seeds – a true summer delight for watermelon lovers. Sow seeds indoors one month before the last frost date (around May 15 in our area) for transplants, or directly in the ground in full sun once the soil has warmed in spring. Space the plants 3 to 4 feet apart, and keep the soil moist for the first weeks. You can expect up to five light-green striped fruits per plant, each weighing 7 to 9 pounds. I will grow these in my small garden where tomatoes grew the previous year, and add lots of compost to the soil to make up for the nutrients depleted by the tomato plants.


A Golden Oldie

Cucumber ‘Straight-8’, the AAS Vegetable Award Winner for the year 1935, remains a favorite with home gardeners because of its reliable production and great taste. A dual purpose cucumber, ‘Straight-8’s sweet and mild flavor makes it good for either eating fresh or pickling. Plant ‘Straight-8’ seeds about 1⁄2-inch deep in full sun about 6 inches apart, or plant groups of five seeds set about 4 or 5 feet apart. The plants are short, about 3 feet tall. Harvest the fruit when they reach about 8 inches long and 2 inches in diameter for best flavor.

Okra ‘Candle Fire’ (Hibiscus Sp.)
Okra ‘Candle Fire’ F1 is a unique red okra with rounded pods that are a brighter red color than the other reddish okras available. ‘Candle Fire’ received high marks from the AAS judges for productivity, taste, texture, and tenderness as well as for the ornamental value of red pods on red stems. ‘Candle Fire’ thrives in the heat, and is disease resistant even during the hottest, most humid days of summer.

Sow seeds 18 inches apart in full sun after soaking them in water overnight for best results. Expect up to 30 fruits per plant in two months from sowing seeds or one month from transplants. It is maintenance free, except for the frequent harvesting. Enjoy okra ‘Candle Fire’ fresh or boiled. I will grow these in the garden so in the fall I can use the dried fruits in flower arrangements.

Try Something New
I have grown many AAS Vegetable Award Winners in the past, with great results. This year’s crop looks very promising, and I am looking forward to a long gardening season with lovely, prolific plants in the garden and containers, and delicious fruits and vegetables in the kitchen.


A version of this article appeared in Pennsylvania Gardener Volume 7 Number 1.
Photography courtesy of All-American Selections.


Posted: 12/28/16   RSS | Print


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Gardening With a Purpose
by Kenny Coogan       #Environment   #Homesteading   #Permascaping   #Sustainability and Self-Sufficiency


My frizzle chicken using the stepping stones to patrol for pests within my purposeful garden.

Recently I picked up the Bill Nye book Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World. The science guru suggests that in order to be long term residents on this planet we need to start making small, impactful changes to our daily life. Using different forms of energy, like solar panels, and growing our own food were some of his suggestions.

Edibles in the Landscape
Three years ago when I purchased my 1-acre homestead, I was not given a blank canvas. The yard had more than 20 large oak (Quercus) trees, a pool, and grass. The grass was a mix of invasive species and the medium- to high-maintenance St. Augustine grass. Grass lawns are good for children and dogs to play on, high foot traffic areas, swales, and a place for the occasional vehicle to park on. However, if your lawn area doesn’t serve a purpose, you might consider a lower-maintenance ground cover instead. Asiatic jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum), perennial peanut (Arachis glabrata), beach sunflower (Helianthus debilis), sunshine mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa), ornamental sweetpotato vine (Ipomoea batatas), or mulch are all great alternatives to a water-guzzling, fertilizer-demanding grass yard. My front yard is still a mix of grasses, but my backyard now has mulched pathways with edible and ornamental plants in loosely defined beds surrounding the large oaks.

To me, who wanted to garden purposefully everywhere in my yard, the oaks presented a few problems. I want to grow large amounts of tropical fruits and seasonal vegetables. Since the oaks shaded much of my yard, I focused on plants that could handle moderate amounts of shade. After some experimenting, I discovered that many vegetables do quite well with some shade here in the sizzling Sunshine State.

I understand that the oaks are purposeful. They provide much needed shade in the summer and leaves, which are composted, in the fall and winter. Their roots also help with soil erosion on my steep incline of a homestead. To make them more useful I planted various edibles at their base. Now passion fruits (Passiflora edulis), luffas, and other gourds scramble up their trunks to reach the sun. Visitors are quite impressed when they see oak trees “producing” fruits.

Passion fruit now falls from the oak trees in my yard.

In addition to my seasonal vegetable garden, I have interplanted edible plants between the oaks. Edibles that I keep as shrubs include katuk (Sauropus androgynus), cranberry hibiscus (H. acetosella), moringa (Moringa oleifera), and chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius). I also have some specimen fruit trees such as jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum), white sapote (Casimiroa edulis), and loquat (Eriobotrya japonica).

Bees making their home in a screech owl nest box.

Attracting pollinators
To increase my yields, I encourage various forms of pollinators. After a pair of screech owls raised two owlets, honeybees moved into the next box. On hot days, the hive, which is 15 feet off the ground, is covered by bees cooling their hive by flapping their delicate wings.

In addition to being attractive, the passionfruit vines, which have a very small footprint, attract bees and butterflies. Rather than having one designated butterfly garden, milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is dispersed haphazardly throughout the yard to promote the flow of pollinators.

Currently I am growing two varieties of luffa. Luffa acutangular, which blooms at night, and L. aegyptiaca, which blooms during the day. These attract different pollinators such as butterflies and moths. When harvested, the luffas are used to scrub chicken food bowls, birdbaths, and plant pots.

To increase the purposefulness of the yard, I am slowly replacing pure ornamentals with specimens that are both useful for humans beyond aesthetics, and attractive to pollinators. Natives such as beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) are attractive, feed wildlife, and can also be used to make a palatable jelly.

Pinecone ginger or shampoo ginger (Zingiber zerumbet) is also scattered throughout my homestead. I can definitely make space for a plant that is colorful, vigorous, and used as a natural soap/shampoo in my yard.


Mulch and leaves help with weed suppression.

Close to one of my banana circles is a good-sized compost bin I easily made using four pallets. Garden scraps are recycled there and feed the bananas (Musa spp.). When the leftovers have decomposed to fine rich compost they are returned to the very gardens they originated from. By actively composting, we are encouraging nature’s natural way of recycling.

In addition to my pallet compost bin, I have a smaller plastic bin near another vegetable garden and a brush pile in the far back discrete corner of my yard. The brush pile is more of a passive compost area, where large branches and logs provide homes for native wildlife such as reptiles and birds.

Since the backyard is comprised of mulched pathways and stepping stones, there is no need to rake the oak leaves as they fall. The leaves provide nutrients to the plants and impede weed growth. Mowing over the leaves will break them apart and allow decomposition to happen more quickly.

Raising animals
As a person who is childless by choice, I do not have the joy of raking leaves into giant piles for a child to destroy by jumping and running through. Instead, I happily have a flock of domestic ducks and chickens to patrol my yard for pests and yes, play in the leaves. The backyard poultry eat leaf-destroying slugs and harmful beetles. All of which is done without the use of chemicals. As an added bonus, the birds provide a great number of eggs weekly, which I do not see human children contributing.

One of my chickens crossing one of my many mulched pathways.

Sustainable features
Incorporating sustainable features into the design such as rain gardens, bioswales, and ways to harvest rainwater is a must if you want every inch of your yard to be purposeful. A rain garden is a low section of the landscape planted with plants that like to get their “feet” wet. The garden collects rainwater, giving it a chance to “strain” out impurities before draining into the aquifer.

Due to my yard being at such an incline, I have four cypress trees (Taxodium distichum) planted at the bottom of my property where an ephemeral pond occurs during the rainy season. This seasonal pond is surrounded by edibles including watercress, water chestnuts, and various types of bananas. According to IFAS, good flowering plants for rain gardens include blue flag iris (Iris versicolor), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), spider lily (Hymenocallis liriosme), and milkweed. Many of these are native and will attract butterflies and other wildlife.

Bioswales, which are often seen in parking lots, reduce runoff water and increases groundwater recharge. In addition to bucketing water from the ephemeral pond to water my vegetables I also have several rain barrels. Unfortunately, these barrels are filled within a day or two of heavy August rains and are used quickly when the rains stop in the fall. In-ground cisterns may be a better option for those who truly want to be sustainable as Florida presents two opposing seasons: dry and flooding.

How do you utilize every inch of your garden? Send me a message to share your ideas. We would love to hear from you.


My front yard is still a mix of grasses but my backyard now has mulched pathways with edible and ornamental plants in loosely defined beds surrounding the two dozen large oaks.



A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardener Volume 22 Number 1.
Photography courtesy of Kenny Coogan.



Posted: 12/28/16   RSS | Print


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The Harmonious Garden
by Kelly Bledsoe       #Advice   #Decorating   #Misc

left: The Woodstock Emperor gong is a dynamic addition to the garden. The bronze gong catches and reflects the sunlight brightening your garden while the subtle tones evoke a sense of peace. right: The lyrical ring of delicate garden bells brings wonderful music to a quiet garden.

Step into your garden, close your eyes and listen. What do you hear? Does your garden sound as pretty as it looks? Along with texture, color and fragrance, sounds help create a unique environment in your garden. Enhancing and manipulating these sounds make you the backyard conductor of your own garden orchestra. Composing a garden symphony is easy, just start with what you already have and build on it. So grab your wand (trowel) and begin.

The gentle hum of Mother Nature’s beauty is a great foundation. The sound of running water, the rustling of foliage, the call of birds and the buzz of bees create the underscore of your garden. Preserving and enhancing these garden sounds is a priority. Providing birdhouses, and nesting areas for wildlife will ensure a steady supply of natural sounds. Planting flowers that attract insects and bees will help keep these natural musicians in your garden.


left: An outdoor water fountain enriches the garden with mesmerizing water sounds while also providing visual stimulation. top right: A large fountain makes a grand statement in the garden. It can block out unwanted background noises while adding a distinct element of elegance. bottom right: A gently cascading waterfall is the most soothing of all sounds in a garden. Stacking flat stones is a perfect method of imitating the natural flow of water while enhancing the visual appeal of your garden.

Consider a fountain, brook or waterfall as the string section of your symphony. Rustling leaves murmuring in the wind add harmony. And when creating your garden’s design, choose plants that not only look good but “sound” good as well. Bamboo shoots braying side by side create rhythm. These are the woodwinds. Trees such as beech and oak cling to their leaves long into the winter where the whipping winds create soulful sounds. Soft hemlocks and pines can help mute unwanted noises by providing a green sound barrier while crescendos of dropping acorns add the element of surprise.

Metal gongs and silver wind chimes make up the brass section. Chimes, gongs and bells fill the air with a variety of sound. The addition of hand-tuned musical metal brings healing sounds to your patio or garden. The tranquil melodies of these outdoor musical instruments, powered by nature’s gentle breezes add to the harmony of your garden. Their physical movement contributes to the overall intrigue of the composition.


left: Rain chains and bells softly contribute to the sounds in the garden. Placing a rain barrel underneath enhances the sound of the falling rain while also conserving water. center: Wind chimes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials and are one of the most common sources of garden sounds. right: A garden bell hung near an entryway or gate is said to attract luck. Just another reason to include one in your garden.

Sometimes, the natural world brings an element of sound to brighten up your garden. Big fuzzy bees like these create a soothing hum as they go about finding nectar and spreading pollen.

Bullfrogs and cicadas are the percussion in the symphonic garden. Lush plants and secluded ponds foster habitats that will encourage these natives to keep the beat. Raindrops hitting the surface of a birdbath or dripping from a gutter chain also help keep time in the garden. Wind socks, wind spinners and flags crack and thrash in the current adding their voice to the garden song.

When creating your garden symphony leave no stone unturned. Consider walkways, wind chimes, flags, plants and fountains as your instruments. Their movements should harmonize with each other while creating distinctive sounds of their own. The most interesting garden symphonies combine a wide array of sounds. A well-balanced garden symphony will combine natures beauty with man made accessories to create a melodious paradise restorative to the soul.


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 22 Number 9.
Photography courtesy of Kelly Bledsoe.


Posted: 12/20/16   RSS | Print


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Contained Expression
by Daniel Keeley       #Advice   #Containers   #Design


A pair of lipstick-red planters, planted with dome-shaped boxwood, adds height, color and a bold sense of style to this outdoor living space, while also creating a cozy nook for the sofa and framing the view to the green space beyond. The rectangular planters are planted with sheared boxwood hedges and help divide this space from another adjacent seating area, lending intimacy to both rooms.

The practice of container gardening has been around for hundreds, even thousands of years, with containers traditionally being used to house rare and exotic plant specimens, to allow tropical or cold-sensitive plants to be moved indoors for the winter, or to display arrangements of brightly colored, botanical overachievers. In any case, the plants they contained tended to be the emphasis rather than the containers themselves. In today’s modern gardening world, however, there are all kinds of different and exciting options when it comes to containers. Modern materials combine with bright colors and new, inventive designs to give us garden containers that can truly make a statement on their own, regardless of what is planted in them. This rising trend of using bold, architectural planters is the perfect way to express yourself and to add a stimulating new dimension to your garden and outdoor living spaces.

The texture and unique shape of this tall planter, along with a dramatic yucca plant, are the perfect finishing touches for the empty corner of an outdoor living space.

Pick It
The first step is to choose the perfect container. As with any project in the garden, I recommend first considering your home’s style and choosing a container to complement it. That is not to say that your planter selection necessarily has to match the style of your house. By design, modern-day architectural containers tend to be on the contemporary side, but they can still be right at home in a traditional setting. In fact, some of the most compelling design statements are made by contrasting different styles, for example, a sleek, brightly colored planter in an otherwise subdued, formal setting. In addition to complementing the style of your house, your container should also complement your own personal style and personality. After all, it is your statement we are making here!

Next, consider the size, shape and color of your container. In terms of size, you should err on the side of larger versus smaller since objects tend to appear smaller outdoors. Plus, a larger planter will be easier to keep watered, will give plants more room to grow and will make a bolder statement, and that is what we are trying to achieve! As a practical matter, you should also consider where your container will be located and choose one that is appropriately sized.

The same reasoning applies to choosing a particular shape. First and foremost, your planter should fit into the space it will occupy. Some other shape guidelines to keep in mind are that tall planters will add drama to a space and are good for flanking an entrance or framing a distant view. By contrast, shorter containers may allow for an uninterrupted view of something desirable and evoke a feeling of serenity. Similarly, planters with hard lines and sharp angles can make a particularly strong statement and are good for defining spaces, while round or curved containers may be more versatile and seem more inviting.

This sleek, oxblood red planter and variegated yucca plant add color, texture and excitement to a white-walled modern entry that is otherwise devoid of color.

When it comes to color, the matter is mostly one of personal preference, but also keep in mind any surrounding elements, such as flowering plants and building materials, and avoid any colors that might clash. To make a more powerful statement, pass on muted colors and earth tones and instead go for more powerful hues, such as primary colors, black or white. You might also consider the lightness or darkness of where your container will go. For example, a bright yellow planter will stand out and lighten up a dark, shady area, whereas a black or dark blue container may have little to no impact there.

Finally, think about the material choices available for your container. From resin and fiberglass, to modern metals, to stone and stone aggregates such as terrazzo, the material your container is made of will affect its texture, weight and durability in the face of exposure to the elements, as well as normal wear and tear.

Bronze-colored jars add to this home’s main entry. The metallic finish and waffle texture propel the jars’ impact beyond their relatively subtle color. Creeping juniper add an understated touch of greenery.

Place It
Closely connected to the process of choosing the perfect container is the process of determining where it will go and, therefore, where you will make your grand statement. The most important factor to remember here is prominence. To have the proper impact, your planter needs to be in a prominent location where it will not be overlooked. Some of my favorite ways to use architectural containers include the following:

Entryway: A pair or grouping of containers is a great way to add interest and a sense of importance to any entry, whether it is to your home, office or garden. You can even create an instant point of entry simply by placing a pair of matching containers at the outer edge of any given space.Focal Point: It is hard to get much more prominent than a singular focal point, and a compelling container makes a great one indeed. For the most impact, place yours in the middle of a space, at the end of a walkway or in line with a strong line of site from within your home.


Boundary: To be appealing and to function properly, every space needs boundaries, and architectural planters (particularly squares and rectangles) are perfect for defining spaces.


A series of strong-lined rectangular planters helps define a patio boundary, drawing a distinct line between living space and landscape. The contrast of the planters’ form to the rolling hills of the pastoral scene beyond adds to their impact.


A sleek, bowl-shaped planter filled with a sculptural yucca and seasonal flowers reinforces the architectural statement made by this home’s pergola-covered entry.

Plant It
Many of you are avid plant lovers, I know, and are probably saying, “Can we get to the plant in planter already?” Well, don’t worry; we are here! And not to burst your bubble, but one of the best things about bold, architectural containers is that almost doesn’t matter what plant or plants you choose, since the container makes such a statement all by itself. But this also means that you can choose any number of plants that might interest you and the impact your container has will be just as powerful regardless of your area’s climate or gardening zone. Here are just a few things to keep in mind: As always, choose plants that are appropriate for the amount of sunlight or shade to which they will be exposed. Also consider a plant’s form and decide whether you want to ramp up the drama of your architectural planter with an equally structural planting or tone it down with something soft and subtle. Finally, go back to the color you chose for your container and pick plants that will be complementary.


A version of this article appeared in a March 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Daniel Keeley.


Posted: 12/19/16   RSS | Print


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Exotic Flavors
by John Tullock       #Edibles   #Fruit   #Herbs   #Unusual


Saffron, the bright red stigmas of Crocus sativus, is frequently overlooked as a candidate for the home herb garden.

If, like many of us, you have been trying to eat more locally produced food lately, no doubt you have already learned how to keep the produce bin stocked with beans, tomatoes, lettuce and corn by growing them at home or visiting the local farmers’ market. Nothing beats local produce for flavor and nutrition, and eating close to home helps conserve the fuel that would have been used to transport the food across the country. But what about those wonderful, exotic flavors like ginger? They will always have to come from far away, right?

Not necessarily. Spotting a basket of really high quality organic ginger labeled “Product of Alabama” in a local store suggested to me that many tropical and subtropical seasoning plants might not be that out of reach for the average gardener. In October 2010, the Knoxville News-Sentinel published a story about Roger Kane, a Knoxvillian who successfully grows bananas, figs, citrus fruits, even pomegranates, in pots that he moves into his garage for the winter. That cinched it.

This year, with a little luck, my ginger will come from the garden, along with some other flavors most gardeners seldom consider. If you want to try growing your own, here are some tips and techniques.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) grows from the fleshy rhizome sold in grocery markets as “ginger root.”  Choose a plump, healthy looking specimen with numerous “eyes” like potatoes. The best time to plant is in spring, but you can grow ginger any time if you can protect it from frost. Purchase the rhizomes in quantity when they are on sale and store them dry and cool until you need them. Soak the rhizome in a bowl of lukewarm water overnight before planting if it has become shriveled.

A ginger rhizome is ready to plant when the eyes begin to show signs of development.

Select a container at least four times larger than the piece of rhizome you are planting. A 12-14 inch azalea pot works well. This will allow for the development of an extensive root system. Fill the container three quarters full with a good, well-drained potting mix containing plenty of compost. Place the soaked rhizome on top of the mix with the eyes pointing upward. Cover with more potting mix and water well. Place the container in a plastic bag in indirect light until green shoots appear. Then remove the bag and water well. Keep the plant in bright, indirect light and never allow the soil to dry out. Growing plants need protection from wind and should be brought indoors any time the temperature is headed below 50 F. The ideal growing temperature is 75 F to 85 F.

It can take as long as a year for a container-grown ginger plant to reach its mature height of 2 to 4 feet. Plants started indoors in February will nevertheless produce a harvestable crop by the following September. You can achieve more robust growth by transplanting a container-grown specimen to the garden when nighttime temperatures are reliably above 50 F. Select a spot with good drainage, partial sun and rich soil. Dig in plenty of compost and sand if your soil is heavy clay. After transplanting, feed the plants every three weeks with a soluble organic fertilizer, such as fish emulsion or liquefied seaweed. Ginger thrives in hot, humid weather and thus adapts quite well to muggy Southern summers. If you are the impatient type, you can carefully harvest a few tender shoots from the outside edge of the clump for use during the summer months. This “baby” ginger is not as pungent as the later mature crop will become.

When the leaves begin to turn yellow late in the season, it is time to harvest. Dig up the rhizomes, and immediately replant the ones you want to grow next season. If you keep the containers cool and dry, they probably will not sprout again until mid winter.

Fresh ginger freezes well. Just peel, chop and place in suitable containers. You can also store chunks or slices of fresh ginger in a jar, covered with brandy. Either way, the fresh ginger taste is preserved.

Lemon grass grows rapidly in full sun and rich, moist soil.

Lemon grass
Essential to Thai, Vietnamese and other Asian cuisines, and a good source of lemon flavor, lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a tropical perennial that can be grown outdoors in very mild winter regions, but must be wintered indoors or started anew each season in most parts of the South. Because it needs a large container for its prodigious root system, starting over each year is the best technique. Visit the grocery store in early spring to buy new starts. Lemon grass is sold in bunches of several stems with most of the foliage removed. Each stem has a bulbous base. You may see tiny roots or root buds sticking out from the base. When planted, the basal portion quickly roots and grows into a clump a yard or more in height and about as wide. Insert the stem about an inch into a small pot of damp soil mix, and roots will quickly form. When new roots protrude from the drain hole in the pot, you are ready to transplant outside, but wait until all danger of frost has passed and the weather is warm.

If sited in full sun and rich, moist soil, lemon grass grows with amazing rapidity. Plants should be fertilized regularly. Add compost to the bottom of the planting hole, and side dress monthly with additional compost, fish emulsion or seaweed extract. The ideal growing temperature is 75 F during the day and 60 F at night.

The leaves of lemon grass have sharp, serrated edges that can deliver a nasty cut. Wear heavy gloves and a long-sleeved shirt when working with them. To harvest, select stems with bases is about half an inch in diameter. Remove foliage with clippers, and trim to 8 or 10 inches in length. Stems will keep well under refrigeration for a week or two, or you can chop and freeze them. Lemon grass can also be dried and used to season herbal teas. Lemon grass grown outdoors often takes on a reddish cast, enhancing its decorative value in the landscape. You could even use it as a protective, although temporary, hedge.


Lemon tree in a terra-cotta container.

Citrus Fruits
Citrus trees have a lot to offer: lustrous green foliage, richly fragrant flowers, and of course, their delicious fruits. Unfortunately, they are not hardy and must be grown in containers in all but the frost-free areas of the country. Choosing appropriate cultivars for container culture, however, will enable anyone to grow citrus, if you can provide them with a cool, well-lighted space during the coldest weather. Fruit production begins in the second year after transplanting, and increases as the tree gets larger. Therefore, as the tree grows, choose the largest pot that you consider portable enough to be moved inside when necessary. Younger trees, however, should not be “overpotted.”Any good potting mixture is suitable for citrus trees, as long as it drains well, although commercial mixes intended specifically for citrus are widely available and recommended. Several authorities suggest avoiding both peat moss and pine bark in mixes intended for citrus. Water when the top 1 inch of growing mix feels dry. Feed once when the plants move outdoors, and again about three months later, using a good, balanced organic fertilizer. Glossy, dark green leaves indicate that the plant is receiving adequate nutrition. Err on the side of less food and less water. Too much of either will result in leggy, unsightly growth and poor fruit production.

Commercially-produced citrus tree cultivars are grafted to one of two rootstocks: sour orange or trifoliate orange. Try to locate stock grafted to trifoliate orange, as this rootstock is both smaller and more cold tolerant than the sour orange. The smaller size will adapt better to a container, and greater cold tolerance means you can wait longer to bring plants inside in autumn and take them back outdoors earlier in spring.

Nothing is quite like the unique, indescribable flavor of saffron. The dried stigmas of an autumn crocus, Crocus sativus, saffron is seldom considered a choice for the home herb garden. Nevertheless, saffron crocus is as easy to grow as its spring-blooming cousins, and will repay your efforts many times. A few pinches of dried saffron can set you back 10 dollars in the grocery store.

Saffron grows well in Zones 6 through 9, and prefers good, well-drained soil in full sun. A patch of 10 square feet, enough to accommodate about 50 corms, will provide an increasing abundance of spice as the plants mature and multiply. Set them out in summer, while they are dormant, 6 inches apart and 3 inches deep. You can overplant, if you wish, with annual flowers or summer herbs such as basil. Pull up the annuals when the weather turns cold, or when you see the new green shoots of saffron poking through the soil in autumn. When the lovely lavender-blue flowers open a few weeks later, harvest by picking the bright red stigmas by hand. You can use them immediately in such Mediterranean dishes as paella, bouillabaisse and risotto, or dry them for a few days before storing in an airtight container for later use.

With a little ingenuity and close attention to choosing the proper cultivars, gardeners anywhere can enjoy exotic flavors from a backyard plot.


A version of this article appeared in a February 2011 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of, John Tullock,,


Posted: 12/19/16   RSS | Print


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11 Plants that Love the Cold
by Ben Futa       #Colorful   #Feature   #Winter

As the Director of the Allen Centennial Garden, a public garden on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I’m always on the lookout for plants that extend the season of interest for our visitors. Plants that are hardy, easy to grow and dependable rank high on this list of some of our favorites.


Those That Linger
Plants in this category push the boundaries of what’s possible in the face of hard frosts. These plants thrive in cool temperatures and reward you for keeping them around, despite winter’s imminent arrival.


Left: #1 Pansies, Center: #2 Snapdragons Top-Right: #3 Kale Bottom-Right: #4 Forget-Me-Nots


1. Pansies
Most commonly used as an early spring bedding plant, pansies perform just as well (if not better) in autumn through the frosts and light snowfall of early winter. While not a guarantee, fall-planted pansies have a chance to overwinter and start blooming all the earlier the following spring.

2. Snapdragons
Typically thought of as champions of the summer garden, snapdragons are a powerhouse when it comes to delivering color late into the season. The key to their continued flowering is constant deadheading. If the plants are allowed to set seed, they’ll cease flowering. However, this might be desirable in your garden, as snapdragons can reliably reseed for many years in the right space. At the Allen Centennial Garden, we have a red snapdragon that has come back reliably and repeatedly for many years in our rock garden.

3. Kale
A standby of traditional fall bedding plants, kale varieties give some of the best displays when temperatures begin to fall. Both ornamental and edible kales are durable through frost; however, the ornamental varieties tend to be the go-to choice as their purple, red, and white pigments intensify with each cool day. I’ve used ornamental kale in container arrangements through December. Combined with evergreens, Osage orange fruits, golden dogwood stems and a few twinkle lights, kale can make an amazing holiday display.

4. Forget-me-nots and Poppies
The blue forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica) and most poppies (Papaver spp.), with the exception of Oriental poppies (Papaver orientalis), are cool-season annuals. Cool season annuals can be direct sown in fall for a jumpstart on an early spring display. These plants will form a tight rosette of growth in fall similar to a mini head of lettuce and then erupt into flower when the garden begins to come alive in mid-April and May. Any of these plants can be sown indoors in February and March and treated as true annuals; however, plants that are fall sown will produce a much more impressive display.


Those That Punch through Snow
Plants in this list don’t waste any time in late winter and early spring – they can’t wait to get up and get growing. Some even create their own heat to melt the snow around them!

Top-Left: #7 Witch Hazel Bottom-Left: #5 Winter Aconite Center: #6 Skunk Cabbage Right: #8 Hellebores


5. Winter Aconite

Without question, winter aconite is my favorite plant in this list. The charming Eranthis hyemalis is one of the earliest harbingers of spring, often pushing up through pockets of melting snow in mid- to late February. Growing only a few inches tall, on warm and sunny days the cheerful yellow buttercup flowers open up and exude a mild and charming honey-like aroma. Growing from small rhizomes that, when dormant, could easily be mistaken for a clod of soil, winter aconite easily naturalizes throughout a garden by reseeding. Seeds mature by mid-May to early June, and with a little help from a gardener, they fall and germinate at the soil surface. Within one to two seasons, these new plants will be blooming and producing seed of their own. After the plant sets seeds, the foliage withers away until the following spring. Winter aconite thrives in a woodland garden or mixed perennial border, and it doesn’t require many rhizomes to start your own colony. Before you know it, you could have a golden ground cover in February that honeybees and other pollinators adore.

6. Skunk Cabbage
Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is one plant that literally forces its way up through snow and ice. A native plant along swamps, streams and ponds, skunk cabbage is a fascinating plant with an ability to create and regulate its own internal heat, much like any mammal. Maintaining an average temperature of 36 F, it produces this warmth as it metabolizes oxygen and starches stored in its roots. True to its name, skunk cabbage produces a potent odor to attract pollinating flies that are normally attracted to decaying meat. The flowers resemble a sort of mottled purple, red and brown hooded cap. Big, tropical-like leaves emerge following the flower and remain through mid-summer when the plants go dormant until the following spring. While skunk cabbage requires specific growing conditions, its sheer intrigue and unique adaptations make it worth growing to beat the winter blues.

Other Plants that Love the Cold

Iris reticulate

Helleborus foetidus


7. Witch Hazel
If skunk cabbage is the “stinker” of the spring garden, then witch hazel is its sweet, sultry and spicy counterpoint. A deciduous shrub native to North America, Hamamelis vernalis is a truly marvelous plant. Clusters of spider-like flowers cover the stems and bloom January to March. On warm days (30 to 40 F), witch hazel emits a powerful and intoxicating fragrance. The sweet, spicy and sometimes fruity aroma has been compared to baked goods and fruits like concord grapes. Flower color ranges from a strong and pure golden yellow to burnt orange and a deep pinkish red. These multi-stem shrubs appreciate regular moisture throughout the growing season and can tolerate full sun to part shade, making them a great choice for rain gardens and low-lying areas.

8. Hellebores
One of the classic early spring plants, hellebores come in a range of different colors and bloom types, with new varieties introduced each season. Hellebores straddle two categories on this list – those that push through snow and those that are evergreen. The deep green, palmate, serrated leaves of the hellebore retain their color through winter and into early spring. Each season, new flower buds and leaves emerge from the plant crown, making the old leaves redundant. It’s a personal preference whether or not to remove the old leaves in spring – it won’t do any significant harm or good to the plant beyond vanity. The only real challenge with hellebores is that, despite the incredible diversity and beauty of their flowers, the flowers face downward. If possible, planting them along a shaded wall or raised area will allow you to enjoy the flowers more fully. They also make tremendous cut flowers, allowing you to enjoy them right at eye level on the kitchen table.


Those That Are Always Around
When talking about winter interest and evergreen plants, most of us instinctively gravitate to conifers. Conifers certainly perform an important function in the winter landscape and have earned their rightful place in this category, but there are a number of evergreen plants that can add a new punch.

Left: #9 Oregon Grape Holly Center: #10 Carex 'Ice Dance' Right: #11 White Willow

9. Oregon Grape Holly
A colony-forming shrub, Oregon grape holly (Mahonia aquifolium) truly is a plant for all seasons. Big, bold, glossy, holly-like leaves are evergreen throughout winter and great for use in wreath making around the holidays. Best planted in part to full shade in organic, acidic soil, Oregon grape holly will deliver a show throughout the year. Huge panicles of showy yellow flowers dance on top the stately leaves in spring, followed by clusters of jewel-like, edible blue-black berries in late summer. Plant at least two to three plants in a small colony to encourage optimum fruit set. Single plants likely will not fruit well, if at all.

10. Carex ‘Ice Dance’
Sedges are a rich and diverse genus of plants, and C. ‘Ice Dance’ is a stand out performer for its wide bold leaves, up to 24 inches tall, outlined in white. When planted close together, several carex plants will quickly form a ground cover – a great alternative to traditional ground covers such as winter creeper (Euonymous fortunei). Leaves of this carex are evergreen throughout the winter, and in fact, the plant can suffer (or at least look pretty bad) if cut back in fall or spring. Adaptable to shade and part sun, ‘Ice Dance’ is a versatile and durable plant.

11. White Willow
The common name of this plant really doesn’t do it justice, as the winter stems of this willow are anything but white. A range of cultivars of Salix alba are available; however Salix alba var. vitellina is a standout in the winter garden. Gradation of color from golden yellow to orange to deep red cascade from the base of each stem to the tip. I prefer them to shrub dogwood for this reason as most dogwoods are a single, solid color and lack such a striking color gradient. During the growing season, these plants are fairly unassuming with regular simple green leaves. Winter is when they really “come alive.” For the best display, cutting the stems back to the ground no later than early spring will force a flush of new growth. This not only helps keep the plant under control (willows are notorious for being aggressive); it also provides a great source of material for winter containers, wreath making and more.


A version of this article appeared in Chicagoland Gardening Volume 22 Number 6.
Photography courtesy of Pan American Seeds (photo 1), Ben Futa (photos 2 & 5), Joe Desousa (photo 3), Joshua Mayer (photo 4), Ron Capek (photos 6 & 8), Christopher Tildrick (photo 7), Andrey Zharkikh (photo 9), Midwest Groundcovers (photo 10), and D. Brown (photo 11).


Posted: 11/28/16   RSS | Print


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by Tom Hewitt       #Edibles   #Flowers   #Pink


The flowers of true roselle start off pale yellow and age to pink.


People are often confused when it comes to roselles. That’s understandable, since true roselle and false roselle do look alike. But since both are used for different purposes, it’s important to know the difference.

True roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is the more famous of the two. Also known as Florida cranberry, its calyces (collective term for the sepals of a flower) were used by early Floridians to make a substitute for cranberry sauce. Roselle calyces, and products containing them, were once a popular commercial export in Florida. But due to freezes and other factors, the trade died out following World War II. Now roselles are back, thanks to a renewed interest in Florida heritage plants.

The calyces of true roselle are harvested while they’re still tender, crisp, and plump.

Jamaican Sorrel Drink

1tsp. whole cloves
5 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp. allspice
4 cups fresh calyces
1 large piece of ginger, smashed
1 gal. water

Boil all ingredients for 20 minutes and remove from stove. Cool in refrigerator overnight. Strain, then add honey or sugar to taste, along with a splash of rum.

Dried true roselle calyces can be found in specialty markets.

False roselles resemble Japanese maples.

True roselle has never been out of favor in the Caribbean. Known as sorrel, its “fruits” are harvested some 10 days after flowering, while still tender, crisp, and plump. These are used to make a drink that’s very popular at Christmas-time. Various recipes add rum, ginger, and sugar. In Africa they are frequently cooked as a side dish, eaten with pulverized peanuts. Closer to home, true roselle is also one of the main ingredients in Red Zinger tea!

The calyces of true roselle produce their own pectin, so none needs to be added when making jams and jellies. Roselle fruit combined with pineapple chunks, raisins, and nuts makes a nice conserve. The juice of true roselle is also used to treat medical ailments in many parts of the world. Roselle tea is very high in vitamin C, and delicious hot or cold.

The flowers of true roselle are especially pretty, opening a pale yellow, then fading to pink. Like most hibiscus species, they only last a day. Young leaves are used as a spinach substitute in some parts of the world, though I find the leaves of green false roselle far more palatable. The University of Florida IFAS Extension lists ‘Victor’ as a particularly good variety of true roselle for south Florida.

False roselle (H. acetosella), or maroon mallow, looks more like a Japanese maple. Its claim to fame is its tart leaves that can be added raw to salads or cooked as a vegetable. They’re a great source of vitamin C and antioxidants. Its flowers are also occasionally used in teas and other drinks, where they offer more color than flavor. The calyces of false roselle are not fleshy, however, and are generally not eaten.

False roselle is very ornamental in the mixed border.

Roselle Tea

Bring cup of water to a boil, and then add 3-4 fresh or dried calyces. Reduce heat and simmer until water is bright red (8-10 minutes). The longer you steep it, the brighter the color and stronger the flavor. Sweeten as desired, and serve either hot or cold.

The short-lived flowers of ‘Red Shield’ are very showy.

Some false roselles show considerable variation in their leaves.

Even today, roselles continue to be grown more for ornamental purposes than consumption in Florida. Nonetheless, they are attracting the attention of food and beverage manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies who feel they may show promise as a natural alternative to synthetic dyes.

‘Red Shield’ is the most common form of false roselle. Trouble is, it self-sows everywhere. But its burgundy foliage and deep pink flowers make it well worth growing. Many cultivars of false roselle are available, including ‘Mahogany Splendor’ with deeply serrated leaves, ‘Haight Ashbury’ with tonal varieties of cream, pink and burgundy, and ‘Panama Bronze’ with dark green leaves tinged with bronze. Dark-leaved varieties of false roselle need full sun to bring out their rich colors.

Most people treat roselles as annuals, though they often perform as short-lived perennials in my garden. I grow them for show, but some folks grow them as a food crop like tomatoes or okra (to which they’re related). False roselle looks great in the mixed border, where it offers great contrast in color and form.

Though we sell roselles year round in the Mounts nursery, most are started in late spring, since calyces require some four months to mature. Roselles are photoperiodic, meaning they do not begin to flower until the days become shorter in the fall. Calyces ripen progressively from the lowest to the highest, and are easier to break off in the morning than at the end of the day.

Roselles are usually started from seed, but may also be started by cuttings. If left on the bush, pods will eventually turn brown, split open, and release their seed. In fact, the easiest method to collect seed is just to let a few flowers dry naturally. Seed contains irritating little hairs, however, so wear gloves when collecting it. If you prefer to start plants from cuttings, use a soilless mix for optimal success.


Roselles at a Glance

Hardiness: Zones 9-11, Zone 8 with winter protection
Height: 4-5 feet
Light: Full sun to partial shade
Habit: Annual or short-lived perennial
Blooms: Late fall through winter


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardener Volume 20 Number 6.
Photography courtesy of Tom Hewitt.


Posted: 11/23/16   RSS | Print


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Poinsettias — How a Christmas Tradition was Born
by Carol Chernega       #Holiday: Christmas   #History   #Red


Poinsettia ‘Silver Star’

It has long been a custom in Mexico to place flowers around church mangers on Christmas Eve. Folklore tells the tale of a poor young child who could not afford flowers. An angel appeared to him and told him to pick some weeds by the side of the road, and place them on the manger. When he did, the weeds turned into beautiful red flowers that the Mexicans called Flor de la Noche Buena, or the Flower of the Holy Night.

How did Flor de la Noche Buena become one of the most popular potted plants in the U.S.?

That story starts in the early 19th century, when Joel Poinset was named the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. During a trip in 1828 he discovered an unusual tree called Cuetlaxochitl. The Aztecs had distilled the red bracts of this plant to make dye, and used the milky sap as a treatment for fever.

Poinset loved the vibrant color of the plant and sent home cuttings to be given to friends and botanists. Gradually, it became available for sale under the name Euphorbia pulcherrima, Latin for “the most beautiful Euphorbia.”


Poinsettia ‘Plum Pudding'

Facts and Myths

The colored parts of the poinsettia are actually modified leaves called bracts. The true flowers are in the center of the bracts and are usually yellow and white.

It’s a myth that poinsettias are poisonous. Studies have shown that even if a 50 pound child ate 500 bracts, it would not kill her. But the plant can cause stomach upset in pets and humans, so it’s best to avoid eating it. The milky sap can also cause skin irritation.


Buy the Best

Here’s what to look for when buying a poinsettia. First, the foliage should be dark green. Avoid foliage that has brown spots that indicate poinsettia scab. The colored bracts should not have green around the edges. Don’t purchase plants that are drooping or wilting, especially if the soil is wet. This can be a sign of root rot. Don’t buy plants with fallen or yellowed leaves, or that have yellow pollen starting to fall from the flowers. This is an indication that it’s past its prime. White spots the size of a dime indicate powdery mildew.

Before leaving the store, make sure the plant is completely covered. Even a few minutes at temperatures below 50 F can damage the leaves, shortening its life. Put it inside the car with you, not in the trunk.


Poinsettia ‘Strawberries and Cream’


Placement in Your Home

Once you’re home, place the plant near (but not touching) a sunny window, in a room that has temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees. Poinsettias don’t like changes in temperature, so don’t place it near heat vents or fireplaces, or near outside doors that are constantly opened and closed.


Poinsettia ‘Twilight Monet’


Check the soil daily and water it when it starts to get dry. When watering, remove the foil that usually surrounds the pot and allow the water to drain away completely. Fertilizer isn’t necessary while the plant is blooming.



You can get your poinsettia to bloom again next Christmas by following these steps.

In early spring, cut the plant back to about 8 inches. Continue watering regularly, and fertilize with a balanced houseplant fertilizer twice a month.

Once all danger of frost has passed, you can place it outside in a shady spot. Avoid full sun. Continue to water and fertilize. By early summer, it should start to get bushy. Prune it back to keep it compact.

Once the nights start getting colder, take the poinsettia back inside. 

Now comes the crucial part. Starting in early October, the plant will need 14 continuous hours of darkness. Put it in a closet or cover it with a large box for 14 hours every night. The room should have an even temperature of between 60 and 70 degrees at night. During the day, bring it out into a sunny room for up to 10 hours. 

Continue to water and fertilize.


If you’re lucky, you should have Flor de la Noche Buena by December 12, National Poinsettia Day.


Poinsettia 'Carousel'


A version of this article originally appeared in a December 2013 State-by-State Gardening E-newsletter.
Photography courtesy of Ron Capek.


Posted: 11/21/16   RSS | Print


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How to Force Bulbs
by Jennifer Williams       #Bulbs   #Flowers   #How to   #Winter


Bring spring early to your home with a stunning display of spring bulbs indoors. Hint: For a longer flower show, bring bulbs out of chilling at one- or two-week intervals.

Are you looking for a way to brighten up the long winter days? Forcing spring bulbs is simple and fun and brings some color to the gray of winter. While not a very intensive activity, it does require some planning. Start by gathering the following supplies:

• Potting medium and soil scoop or small trowel
• A variety of containers
• Watering can or access to a water source
• Spring-blooming bulbs
• Metal or plastic plant labels and writing utensil
• Cold storage location and plastic bags or wrap if using a refrigerator

Step 1: Choosing Your Bulbs

For the best results, purchase high quality bulbs. Smaller bulbs will be easier for beginners. Inspect your bulbs to ensure they are dry, firm, and free of mold or decay. There are countless online suppliers that will ship bulbs out in the autumn, but my first stop is always to my local nursery to see what they have in stock. Some great choices for beginners include crocus, small daffodils, grape hyacinths, snowdrops, miniature iris, and tulips.

Step 2: Potting the Bulbs

Planting bulbs outdoors requires little effort – simply dig to the proper depth, drop the bulb in, backfill the soil, and forget about it. Forcing bulbs takes a little more precision for best results, but isn’t much more difficult.

• Begin with clean, sterile pots (a 1:10 bleach solution will clean your used pots and allow you to get more wear out of your summer annual pots). It is important to consider where you will be chilling your bulbs before choosing pots to ensure you have enough space.
• Loosely fill the container with soil with a minimum of 1 inch on the bottom, but allowing room for the bulbs (according to the chart below).
• Place bulbs into the pot as close together as you can without them touching. Do not push the bulbs down into the soil.
• Lightly fill around the bulbs with potting medium, leaving about ¼ inch from the top of the container for watering.
• Water the container until the soil is evenly moist.


For a fun twist, mix up your bulbs in the pot to create a miniature garden in a container. Make sure to pay attention to the individual planting depth requirements.

Step 3: Chilling Out

The key to success is giving your bulbs adequate time to chill in temperatures of 35-48 F (40 F is ideal). Depending on your fall and winter climate, there are several options: a north-facing shaded area outdoors will keep your bulbs cool without the sun heating containers above ambient temperatures. If outside is not an option, unheated attics, cellars, or garages will also work.

Finally, if you have some room in your refrigerator, that will keep temperatures the most stable for your bulbs. (See chart for chilling requirements.) Outdoor storage generally does not require extra watering, but those kept in covered or indoor locations need to have regular watering to keep soil moist (covering with plastic wrap or placing in a bag with vents cut will help reduce water needs).


If you are fortunate enough to have an extra refrigerator, or even an extra crisper drawer, to chill your bulbs, go for it! It will maintain the ideal temperature, but make sure to store your apples elsewhere to eliminate exposure to ethylene gas, which will spoil the bulbs.

Step 4: Forcing the Bulbs

When you have reached the required chilling time, it is time to start bringing your pots out into the sun. In the home, the ideal location is a cool spot that receives bright, indirect sunlight. It is important to transition your plants slowly by keeping their temperatures at 50-60 F for the first week. Your bulbs will begin to grow and bloom within two to three weeks.



Daffodils (Narcissus)
Tulips (Tulipa)
Crocus and grape hyacinth (Muscari)
Iris reticulate
Snowdrop (Galanthus)
Hyacinth (Hyacinthus)

Planting Depth

Half the bulb should show above the soil line
Only the tip of bulb should be above the soil line
Cover bulbs with 1 inch of soil
Cover bulbs with 1 inch of soil
Cover bulbs with 1 inch of soil
Cover bulbs with 1 inch of soil

Chill Time

12-15 wks 
10-16 wks 
8-15 wks 
13-15 wks 
15 wks 
12-15 wks 


A version of this article appeared in November/December 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Jennifer Williams.


Posted: 11/21/16   RSS | Print


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Create a Space-Saving Herb Garden for your Wall
by Kathleen Hennessy       #Containers   #Herbs   #How to


I really enjoy cooking with fresh herbs, but buying the packaged variety at the grocery store can really add up. So, this winter I’m growing my own indoors. We created a space-saving herb garden to hang on our kitchen wall. The design keeps herbs handy without taking up limited shelf or counter space.



• Clean glass jars
• Hose clamps
• Board
• Small rocks
• Potting mix
• Mending plates
• Picture wire and d-hooks
• Plants


 Step 1

Select a sunny space on the wall or under a bright light. Measure the area where you’re going to hang the herb garden, then cut the backing board to size. We chose a scrap piece of cedar and sanded the board. We left ours natural, but you could easily paint or stain the wood to match your décor.

 Step 2

Attach clamps to the jars to make sure they’ll fit snuggly. We used simple duct clamps purchased at a home center. Then, remove the clamps from the jars.

Step 3

Lay the jars out on the board. If you’re stacking them, make sure to leave enough growing room for the plant. Make a mark where the clamp will attach to the board.


 Step 4

Attach the clamps to the board, using mending plates to hold the clamps in place.

 Step 5

Line the bottom of the jars with rocks for better drainage.

 Step 6

Add a good potting mix and insert the plants. Pack soil around the plant, lightly tamp it down, and add a little water.



 Step 7

Attach heavy-duty picture frame hooks and wire to the back of the board.

 Step 8

Attach the jars to the board, tightening the clamps.

 Step 9

The final step is to hang your finished project on the wall.



A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Kathleen Hennessy.


Posted: 11/17/16   RSS | Print


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A Room With a View
by Vicki O'Neal       #Decorating   #Design   #Landscaping


An existing deck is transformed into an outdoor room with the addition of a new arbor and gracious set of stairs to the backyard.


“Outdoor room” has become quite a buzz phrase. But what does it really mean? You won’t find it in the dictionary, because there is no true definition. An internet search, however, will bring you all sorts of interesting results. An outdoor room is really any exterior space that is furnished or outfitted around a specific function. It’s a room with a purpose and a view!

Did you know that statistically, the average person spends in excess of 90 percent of their time indoors? For that reason I like to approach the design of outdoor spaces and rooms from the inside out, so to speak. Designs that integrate while capitalizing on views, circulation paths and functional relationships create a sense of cohesiveness and flow from the interior to the exterior, inviting us outdoors.

Planning and Design
Some outdoor rooms are truly rooms, with walls and ceilings that enclose them. These might be a breezy sunroom with lots of high windows and skylights, a conservatory, screened porch or veranda. Other designs might include decks or patios with columns, planters, benches, retaining walls or other architectural and landscape elements. Open and freeform layouts can create an implied sense of enclosure with the use of a more limited palette of design features. A change of material underfoot, for instance, along with nice furnishings and container plantings can define an area. For transitioning a steep slope, the use of multi-level terracing inherently solves challenging site conditions while creating found spaces for outdoor rooms. In any case, a well-designed outdoor room brings the best of both worlds together – our indoor comforts blended with a wonderful connection to nature.

Overhead structures give a strong sense of enclosure, whether they are solid construction or an alternative design. Imagine an arbor with the romance of a flowering vine wrapping through it, an architecturally built roof with columns, the flexibility of a retractable awning or of course, the open sky. Choosing a particular style or motif for architectural features and accents can set a strong design theme or lend a sense of exotic, faraway places. As always, the styles you choose will greatly impact the character of the completed design.

Lighting for outdoor rooms can have a conventional approach or may be avant-garde with fixtures hung from tree limbs, mounted to columns, posts, walls or in unexpected places. Light fixtures may be integrated into stairways or retaining walls for safety and interest. Lighting plays an important role in establishing a mood and creating visual movement. Accenting blooms and foliage of perennials, annuals and vines are just a few of the possible horticultural effects. Various design elements, although very nice during the day, take on a bit of magic when illuminated in the night. Your eye is always drawn to the light, and in turn to the specific features chosen for accentuation.

The arbor provides a structure for vines to climb, supplies shade and creates a lovely setting for colorful containers and hanging plants.

Outfitting Your Outdoor Room
Furniture options for outdoor rooms are continually being updated and expanded. One of my favorites is the double chaise lounge that has separate backs for flexibility so that one person can be sitting while the other is lying down. Sophisticated choices in outdoor furnishings and accessories have transformed the design of exterior spaces to a level that rivals the refinement of a well-appointed interior. The limitations of outdoor furnishings of the past have given way to stylish offerings in synthetic wicker, wrought and cast aluminum, teak and other sustainably harvested woods. Twig furniture lends a country and rustic feeling to a scene.

Furniture and fabrics have been re-engineered for durability and colorfastness. Exterior rugs now visually mimic their interior counterparts and offer new options in design. The use of color and pattern for visual pop, the addition of statuary or sculpture, perhaps the drama of billowing draperies – all of these elements add to the excitement and endless possibilities for creating an outdoor room. Let your imagination roam!

Many outdoor rooms incorporate the convenience of an al fresco kitchen. These kitchens can be outfitted with components that raise the bar for cooking and entertaining. Infrared grilling systems, power burners, built-in refrigerators, sinks and storage units offer flexibility in configuration and functionality. Often these units are integrated into low  masonry walls faced with natural stone, faux stone or brick. Stainless steel and decay-resistant wood cabinetry are options for freestanding units. If budget permits, combining the kitchen with a fireplace, overhead canopy or bar seating creates a high-styled solution with substance. Countertops may be of natural stone, solid surface materials, granite or concrete. The materials and finishes should be chosen for durability and to coordinate and complement other outdoor features and style.


The newly created setting provides a beautiful and functional outdoor room while transforming the aesthetics of the entire backyard.


A favorite annual flowering vine is Ipomoea alba, or moonflower. The immense pure white flowers and lush deep green, large foliage complement the white arbor and railings. Moonflower is the nocturnal cousin of the common morning glory. Flowers open at dusk and are quite fragrant.


A water lily sits peacefully in this container that has been made into a small fountain. On the right is Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’).

The Featured Project
The starting point for the creation of this entertaining, dining and relaxation space was a large existing deck which had serious limitations for enjoyment. The original deck almost spanned the width of the home, but the only outside access was from the driveway on the far end of the deck. Equally problematic, from the back door of the house the rear yard could only be accessed by walking across the deck to the driveway and around. The flow was cumbersome and awkward. Even the family dog could not gain easy entry to the rear yard.

The first design priority was to modify the circulation by installing a new set of stairs from the deck into the backyard.  The stairs were positioned directly across from the center of the home and the exterior door. This area was also identified as the natural placement for the dining table due to its appropriate size, convenience and great visibility from the yard and interior of the home. A new arbor creates three-dimensional definition and complements the architecture of the home. The arbor supplies shade and a lovely habitat for colorful containers, hanging plants and a structure for vines to climb. The newly created setting provides a beautiful and functional outdoor room while transforming the aesthetics of the entire backyard.

One of the final touches included installing a cleverly positioned plant shelf around the outside perimeter of the deck for display of an impressive collection of bonsai and other plants. The shelf elevated the plants out of harm’s way and simplified access for maintenance.

Our outdoor spaces and rooms come alive when we join the scene. These spaces are created and intended, after all, to allow us to gain full enjoyment of all our surroundings, and to support and enhance our lifestyles. They are a backdrop for our lives. These spaces draw us to the fresh air, become the setting for celebrations and provide us with peaceful havens for retreat.


Nighttime brings its special magic for outdoor dining.


A version of this article appeared in Virginia Gardener Volume 8 Number 9.
Photography courtesy of Vicki O’Neal.



Posted: 11/17/16   RSS | Print


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Soup-er Farmer’s Market Feast
by Kathleen Hennessy       #Fall   #Recipes   #Holiday: Thanksgiving   #Vegetables

Your local farmer’s market is loaded with all the ingredients for your fall feast.


In my mind, there is no better time to be in the kitchen than right now. The cooler temperatures cry out for warm, hearty meals that bring everyone together.

Normally I’m the only one in our house who will eat squash. But, there is something about this creamy, slightly spicy, butternut squash soup that makes it pass the test. Paired with a second season greens salad and a loaf of fresh bread – all purchased at the farmers market – it’s perfect for a fall lunch or dinner.


2 medium butternut squash
4 tablespoons finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups chicken broth
½ teaspoon dried marjoram
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼  teaspoon sea salt
18 teaspoon ground cayenne
¼ teaspoon Sriracha sauce
8 ounces cream cheese, softened (you can use light or regular cream cheese)

Roasted butternut squash is ready to be added to the soup


An immersion blender creates a smooth
and creamy soup.

Garnish the soup with a little fresh rosemary,
add sea salt and ground pepper to taste,
and you’re ready to eat.



Cut the butternut squash in half and clean out the seeds. Place the squash on a jellyroll pan and roast in the 350 F for an hour or until soft.

While the squash is roasting, heat olive oil over medium heat in the bottom of a large soup pot. Add the butter and heat until it is melted. Add the chopped onions and cook just until they’re translucent. Add the broth and spices to the onion and heat to a boil.

Lower the heat. Remove the squash from the oven and scrape the flesh from the skin and put in the soup pot. Discard the peels.

Add the cream cheese and mix everything together with an immersion blender. If you don’t have an immersion blender, you can process the squash and the cream cheese separately in a food processor or blender, then add to the soup.

Heat the soup through, making sure it doesn’t boil.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2016 print edition of
State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Kathleen Hennessy.


Posted: 11/02/16   RSS | Print


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4 Great Garden Getaways
by Steven Royer    



Even gardeners need a place to refresh, garner new ideas, and simply enjoy another garden and see new plants. There are many places in South Florida to explore and enjoy, however, there are four gems that stand out in my mind. Each has a unique story and inspiration to touch a gardener’s soul.


1. Naples Botanical Garden

At the heart of the garden, the cool pools filled with exotic water lilies are a modern reminder of Monet’s water lilies. Adjacent to an outdoor concert venue it is a perfect setting to relax and enjoy music.


Visitors are welcomed by the cool tropical lushness of Kathryn’s Garden. Aroids, ferns, and other shade-loving plants thrive around a refreshing water feature.


Naples Botanical Garden is the newest gem in the crown of South Florida. While NBG was founded in 1993, the garden as it is today completed the First Master Plan phase and opened in 2014.

Each of the gardens that emerged treat the visitor with modern designs using stunning specimens found in the tropical/sub-tropical regions. The moment you enter, Kathryn’s Garden, with a lush, shady jungle pool, greets you. The next area, Irma’s Garden, treats the senses with some of the most charismatic and unusual plants. That is just the beginning of the experience. Each subsequent garden promises something more and never disappoints.

There are more than 12 distinct garden plantings so far, including a children’s garden, orchid garden, and water garden. These are arranged to not just educate about the pants themselves, but to inspire through arrangement and aesthetics. The new Karen and Robert Scott Florida Garden will highlight vistas into the natural area (restored wetland) in the garden. Showcasing natives then inviting visitors to explore the true nature of the state.


Several of the gardens were designed by landscape architect Raymond Jungles. As the director Brian Holley emphasized, “We had the opportunity in designing the garden to incorporate plants in landscapes rather than focus on taxonomic collection displays.” The result is a must-see series of landscapes.


Left: No matter where you turn in the garden there is a vast array of colors, textures, and variety of plant material. Right: The Lea Asian Garden features a Javanese temple ruin with bamboo, edibles, and other exotic Asian plants. The garden features old and new design elements representing the plants and culture of the Asian tropics.


2. Bok Tower Gardens

The new welcome center.
Gentle plantings surrounding a water feature set the serene mood for the gardens to come.


Bok Tower Gardens is nestled in Lake Whales and began as a vision and gift to the community by Edward W. Bok, an immigrant from the Netherlands. The garden itself sits at 298 feet above sea level and highlights the unique structure of the Singing Tower carillon. This historic garden is considered one of the greatest of the famous landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmstead, Jr.

Rolling pathways lined by delightful plantings give cause for reflection and enjoying the
day in the garden.

The Singing Tower carillon can be seen from nearly everywhere in the garden and in season its melodies entrance visitors.

Treasures to be discovered in the new
Children’s Garden.


The original gardens were not focused on flashy color and exotic plants but designed to enhance the peace and tranquility offered by the bells in the tower. Lush green landscapes with gentle presentations of color still earmark the style of the garden today. Walking the old garden plantings instills a visitor with a sense of place and quiet reflection, as evident in the reflecting pools under the towers mirroring the beautiful structure.

In 2012 Bok Tower Gardens initiated construction of a master plan, the first additions to the gardens in 87 years. The new gardens gently mirror and contrast the old with a style that blends to the theme of peace and reflection. The newer gardens include a pollinator and edible garden complete with outdoor kitchen to entertain and educate. The garden is also christening its Children’s Garden with areas for the smaller gardeners to both learn, have fun, and burn off some of that extra energy.




3. McKee Botanical Gardens

The original stone bridge was rediscovered and now is a highlight to the garden.

McKee Botanical Garden brings us to Vero Beach on the east coast. McKee is a special place, dating back to the 1930s, making it one of Florida’s first tourist attractions. Originally 80 acres of tropical hammock, the original developers hired William Lyman Phillips, from the Frederick Law Olmstead firm, to design the basic infrastructure of streams, ponds, and trails. Collections of waterlilies and orchids accented the native flora, giving it an exotic, jungle ambiance. As time passed, it became neglected and forgotten until the 1970s, when the land started being developed. All but 18 acres were developed and in 2001, McKee Botanical Garden was dedicated.













Left Top: The new additions to the garden blend into the feeling of old Florida, using natural materials and dense plantings to give a coherent look. Right: Attention to detail adds to the feeling of old Florida that made McKee famous. Left Bottom: Winding paths and waterways make the exploration of this jungle paradise special. There are vistas and plants to discover at every bend.

Now visitors are treated to that feeling of “old Florida” in both the jungle atmosphere and the historical features of the garden – including the world’s largest solid mahogany table. Trails meander through the rediscovered waterways and there are treasures to be discovered in every corner. One of my favorite plant groups is the ferns and there are many to be found among the winding trails. The garden is definitely a revisiting of that subtropical woodland it was known for in its heyday.


4. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Some of the newer underplantings accent the palms and trees adding interest to the landscape.

The tropical greenhouse has been renovated and displays some more sensitive tropical plants. The adjoining butterfly house showcases some of the colorful fauna from the tropics.

Fairchild displays an expansive variety of plants, from diverse tropical and subtropical environments. Their efforts to explore and collect new species will undoubtedly add even more interesting things to discover.

The Baily Palm Glade, like many of the garden rooms, overlooks a tropical lake and highlights the many varieties of palms in the garden.


Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is found in the lower east coast near Miami, in Coral Gables. Originally the home of the famous plant explorer David Fairchild, in 1938 the garden opened as the continuation of his dream to explore, display, and share plants from around the world.

The extraordinary collections focused greatly on palms, cycads, and tropical flowering trees. In more recent years the gardens have expanded their displays, adding understory plantings to highlight and enhance the collections.

Recently Dr. Chad Husby has been exploring tropical regions, focusing on Asia and the surrounding regions, looking for new plants to bring back. These plants are making their way into the garden and in time, given performances, will potentially find their way into our plant palettes.

This is of course not an exhaustive list of gardens to explore. There is a myriad of small and worthy gardens to find – the University of Southern Florida’s small but lush garden pops into mind. Botanic gardens have inspired and encouraged gardeners since the first one – Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia – opened in 1730. Today they continue to provoke the imagination and provide places of refection and information for gardeners to enhance their own spaces. I encourage gardeners to take advantage of these institutions. Whether learning what and where to plant or to simply enjoy the world of plants they are invaluable spaces.


When You Go
Keep in mind, even Florida has seasons. Many of the gardens look the most spectacular in the summer (prepare appropriately) but there is something to be seen in all seasons, especially with the tourism industry and the desire to wow visitors year round. The gardens also have annual events that can be wonderful for learning or simply enjoying an enhanced experience. Check their websites for dates and other information that will help you plan and make the most of your visit.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden-
Naples Botanical Garden-
Bok Tower Gardens-
McKee Botanical Garden-





A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardener Volume 21 Number 6.
Photography courtesy of Steven J. Royer.


Posted: 11/02/16   RSS | Print


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Antique Roses Never Went Out of Fashion
by Linda Kimmel       #Fragrant   #Roses


“I feel as if I had opened a book and found roses of yesterday, sweet and fragrant, between its leaves.” – L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island (1915).


R. spinosissima ‘Altaica’ — Cream to white blooms with yellow stamens. Flowers form along the entire stem (instead of at the ends). Blooms early in the spring season and will cover the entire bush, resembling a mound of snow. The plant is upright, bushy, prickly and will reach 4 to 6 feet.


What is an antique rose? Sometimes antique roses are called heirloom, heritage, vintage or old garden roses. Whatever your preference of terminology, they are a wonderful class of roses whose date of introduction precedes 1867. They are extremely fragrant, grow without chemicals, and are adaptable in a wide variety of growing conditions. They can create a mood of romance, or nostalgia, stirring up sentimental memories of your grandmother’s yard with sprawling roses on the fence or trellis.

‘Alba Maxima’, also known as the “the great double white,” can be grown as a climber, reaching 8 to 10 feet high. Being disease resistant, hardy and beautiful, it is a lovely addition to any garden.

‘Königin von Dänemark’ is one my favorites. Beautiful, light pink, very double blooms that are fragrant. The bush is disease free and winter hardy.


Antique roses are a delightful piece of living history. They have endured the trials of time—found growing in old cemeteries or abandoned homesteads, surviving decades without human care or maintenance. While momentarily forgotten or replaced by newer remontant varieties, antique roses have prevailed.

As we move towards a “greener” earth, antique roses are making a strong comeback in modern gardens. They are easy to care for, resistant to disease, winter hardy with nice floral performance and fit comfortably in borders and perennial beds without seeming out of place.

There is great diversity in the antique rose classes: Understanding their personalities will help you choose the right rose for your garden. All rose recommendations are well known and suitable in USDA Zones 5 and 6. In addition, they all can be planted in the early fall.

Old Roses: Species (wild or native) and their hybrid counterparts
Species are wild flowering shrubs. Generally, they have a simple flower form of four to eight petals and drench themselves in blooms from late spring to early summer. Environmentally friendly, the flower provides pollen for bees and their prickly stems provide safe havens for the birds to build a nest. Rose hips (seed pods) produced after flowering provide winter interest for landscapers and a healthy food source for various wildlife. Because of their role in the food chain, species roses are often included in food forest and land restoration projects.


R. gallica versicolor ‘Rosa Mundi’ is an eye-catcher in the garden with semi-double pink flowers, striped with white. The bush is compact and suitable for smaller gardens. It is a sport or a mutation of the R. gallica officinalis ‘Apothecary’s Rose’.

‘La Belle Sultane’ is less known than some other Gallica roses, but provides a striking color contrast of violet to deep-crimson blooms. Long canes and attractive foliage provide movement and contrast in a mixed perennial border.


Gallica roses
Gallica roses (Rosa gallica) are native to southern and central Europe, being one of the oldest classes of garden roses. They were cultivated by the Greeks and Romans for their medicinal benefits and were used to treat nearly everything from war injuries to common headaches. Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife (in the early 1800s), managed a magnificent rose garden at her Chateau de Malmaison. The empress collected roses from around the world with two-thirds being Rosa gallica.

Gallica roses tend to be smaller shrubs, 2 to 4 feet tall, and once blooming. They are semidouble to very heavily petaled (100 petals), pink to brilliant purple and wonderfully fragrant. They are extremely winter hardy and actually prefer cooler climates over temperate Zones. They are easy to grow in poor or gravely soil and full sun.

Damask roses
Dating back to biblical times, Damask roses (Rosa × damascena) are the queen of fragrance. With their delectable perfume, it is no surprise Damask roses are regarded as symbols of love and beauty. Flowers are utilized by the perfume and cosmetic industries for their “attar” or essential oils. In Eastern cultures, they are often used as culinary spices, herbal teas, jams or desserts. Because of their remarkable qualities, Damask roses have been used extensively in hybridization programs and have given rise to thousands of new rose varieties.

Damask roses in the right climate may grow 7 feet tall — definitely much taller than Gallica roses, but are just as hardy. Their growth habit is sprawling with open airy branches and small clusters of blooms. Their colors range from shades of light to medium pink, with a few light reds. A few varieties will bloom twice a year with the first flush being the most spectacular.

Alba roses
Alba roses (Rosa hybrid) are a small class of antique roses, dating back to the Roman Empire. Alba roses are the easiest to grow, even tolerating some dappled shade. They are very winter hardy, have good disease resistance and are deliciously fragrant. They are vigorous, growing 5 to 8 feet in one season. Their canes can be lanky. As their name implies, Albas are mostly white to very pale pink.