Carolina Gardener Web Articles
Betty Earl is a frequent contributor to this magazine and the author of two books on gardening, In Search of Great Plants and Fairy Gardens: A Guide to Growing an Enchanted Miniature Worlds.

This article applies to:



Glorious Ground Covers!
by Betty Earl    

These tough, living mulches fill awkward spaces, fight off weeds and offer a lovely grass alternative.   


Let’s face it. The term “ground covers” doesn’t inspire a great deal of passion. For generations, ground covers have been regarded as plants for covering exposed soil in places where poor soil conditions, deep shade or steep slopes make it hard, or even impossible, to grow grass. But today, many gardeners recognize ground covers not only for their utility but their striking beauty as well.  

Ideally, filling the spaces between plants with more plants instead of mulch provides color and textural contrast, increases habitat and food for beneficial insects and wildlife, beautifies the landscape, gives you ornamental foliage and various growth habits that are particularly attractive during the active growing season and – not surprisingly – might even provide winter interest to boot. If chosen correctly, a yard with established ground covers is a visual treat. 

Over the course of my gardening days I have tried a variety of low-growing plants with varying results. I’ve fallen in love with some and have developed some rather nasty thoughts about others.  

Here are my favorites, all hardy perennials. They include lovely bloomers, must-haves that are a bit aggressive but not invasive and a few fanciful ground huggers.


Shady Characters
At the top of my list is an old-time favorite with versatile modern day use, Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis). Evergreen and self-sustaining once established, it always looks good, and deer and rabbits avoid it. While long, sweeping beds of nothing but Japanese spurge can be monotonous; a well-manicured river swirling around trees, shrubs, large hostas or ferns is a sight to behold.  

Growing 6-12 inches in height, pachysandra grows in nearly any well-drained soil, is fairly drought tolerant and spreads quickly to form a thick mat of glossy, coarsely toothed leaves. Small clusters of bottlebrush-shaped white flowers appear in early spring. Compact ‘Green Carpet’ and ‘Green Sheen’ have shinier leaves; ‘Variegata’ exhibits white edges, but all three are slower spreaders than the species.

Japanese spurge

Not every plant needs to be a show-off to be useful. Take gingers (Asarum spp.) for instance. Both North American wild ginger (A. canadense) and European wild ginger (A. europaeum) will go about their business of carpeting bare soil in damp spots without any coddling. I grow them primarily for their kidney-shaped leaves, since their brown jug-shaped flowers are hidden under the leaves. 

Wild ginger, a dapper ground cover that blankets the earth with enthusiasm, has large, (up to 5-inch) wide leaves and a thick sturdy rootstock that forms a dense network of plants in any woodland setting. For me, the one priceless feature of this deciduous plant is that once established, it can fend off garlic mustard, an invasive thug with which I am in constant battle.  

Wild Ginger

Ornamental European ginger, on the other hand, is the captivating heart-throb of the family. The handsome leaves are a shiny rich green; some varieties have exquisite texture while others are adorned with striking silvery patterns. The plants are susceptible to few pests, are quite drought tolerant once established and remain fresh all season long.

European ginger

For the front of the border, the deceptively delicate dwarf astilbe (Astilbe chinensis ‘Pumila’) forms a compact mound of elegant, lacy leaves topped with wispy, stiffly upright, lavender-rose flower plumes. One of the last astilbes to bloom, it does best in moist soil but is one of the least likely astilbes to fry in hot, dry weather. It is also deer and rabbit resistant. One of the last astilbes to bloom, it does best in moist soil but is one of the least likely astilbes to fry in hot, dry weather.

Dwarf astilbe



The sweet-scented, bell-shaped white flowers of lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) can pack a powerful punch despite their diminutive size. Though completely comfortable in deep shade and easily grown under almost any condition, lily-of-the-valley prefers rich loamy soil and ample moisture. 

Yes, it’s important to know that it can be invasive. And sited in full sun with no additional moisture, it can look bedraggled during the dog days of summer. But place it correctly, contain its spread with barriers, and you will be rewarded with one of spring’s most captivating ground covers. 

As likeable as the common lily-of-the-valley may be, there are less aggressive but charming cultivars that will add additional sparkle and dimension to your garden. Worth seeking out are ‘Albomarginata’ with white-edged leaves, ‘Albostriata’ with cream striping or ‘Aureovariegata’ with yellow. But for me, the less invasive ‘Rosea’ spreading slowly in front of blooming azaleas can totally upstage them, especially when you realize that its flowers are pink.




Sun Lovers

For some of the cutest ground covers, try hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum cvs.) and stonecrop (Sedum spp). With succulent rosettes available in a painter’s palette of colors or covered with cobweb-like hairs and in a variety of sizes, it’s no wonder that hens-and-chicks are the ubiquitous choice for any gardener with a hot, free-draining spot of soil to fill.

Plants spread when the large rosette in the center (hen) produces offsets at the end of runners (chicks). Baby chicks can be plucked off and planted separately where they will quickly root and produce their own colonies.



Three exceptionally gorgeous sedums, part of the SunSparkler series that tolerates cold as well as heat, are ‘Lime Zinger’ (with bright lime-green leaves edged in cherry-red and pink blossoms), ‘Dazzleberry’ (with unusual smoky-blue foliage and giant raspberry-red flowerheads) and ‘Cherry Tart’ (with small, rounded cerise-red toned leaves and deep pink blooms). Butterfly magnets when in bloom, these deer-resistant plants are just under 6 inches high but quickly fill in an area up to 18 inches wide.

Sunsparkler sedum 'Lime Zinger'

SunSparkler sedum 'Dazzleberry'

If you want a colorful, low-maintenance, long-blooming ground-hugging mat of rounded leaves, look no further than blue star creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis). Compact, 3-inch tall deciduous clumps spread carpets of sky-blue flowers between stepping-stones or bare ground. A deciduous plant that tolerates rather heavy foot traffic, it needs well-drained moist soil.

Blue star creeper

Thyme (Thymus spp.) plants are an immense family, known as much for their culinary properties as ornamental ones. The low-growing, spreading thymes are fabulous ground covers in spots where plants receive only light foot traffic. (Many are incredibly difficult to tell apart without the benefit of a label.) Planted in well draining soil, the 2-inch tall creeping thyme (T. praecox) forms wonderfully thick mats of dark green leaves bearing rounded carpets of pale to dark lavender flowers in summer. Other T. praecox cultivars bloom in white and shades of rosy pink.  

Creeping thyme

Just remember, a flourishing ground cover planting depends not only on careful selection of plant material, but also on proper cultural practices. Selecting the right plant for the right place is the most important step in achieving success.


A version of this article appeared in print in Chicagoland Gardening January/February 2016.
Photography courtesy of Betty Earl, SunSparkler sedums, and Stepables.


Posted: 05/19/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

How to: Distinguish Poison Ivy from Its Look-a-likes
by Kerry Heafner    

There are several plants out there that can be confused with poison ivy. Watch as Kerry Heafner takes us through a few of the plants mostly commonly mistaken for this itchy nuisance.

How to: Distinguish Poison Ivy from Its Look-a-likes

- Demonsration by Kerry Heafner.



Posted: 05/19/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Poison Ivy is Everywhere
by Gretchen F. Coyle    

Ask any gardener what grows really well in your garden, and you may get an answer you don’t want to hear: POISON IVY. Unfortunately, it thrives in just about any environment.     

Poison ivy manages to grow anywhere – on islands, marshy areas, and forests. Sand, good soil, or among acidic pine needles, poison ivy grows. Worst of all it grows in sun or shade, climbing up, over and around most everything.     

Gardening books hardly ever mention poison ivy, not even as a warning to be aware when walking or weeding. No one wants to admit it is everywhere. Poison ivy popping up in a private garden is like, well, – mum’s the word.      

Poison ivy is contagious by touching leaves or stems, petting an animal in contact with it, and from smoke where brush with poison ivy in it is being burned. If I inadvertently pull some up, I go inside and wash my hands and arms thoroughly with Soft Scrub.

The above information just makes one itch. Many of us are highly allergic to poison ivy. Horrible itchy welts form with relief varying from Vitamin E and over the counter products to ammonia and ice cubes. If I get bad enough I call my doctor for a prescription of some sort. It is one that keeps me awake, yet does give some relief in two days.     

To add insult to itch a new study has come out stating that poison ivy is thriving with global warming and harmful emissions.      

Your mother was right when she told you, “Three leaves let it be.” Excellent advice.


A version of this article appeared in print in Florida Gardening Volume 20 Issue 2.
Photography courtesy of Gretchen F. Coyle.


Posted: 05/19/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Big Harvest - Tiny Space
by Jan Riggenbach    

Compact vegetable varieties produce a gourmet harvest in a small space.

With garden space and spare time at a premium for most families, gone are the huge backyard plots that once yielded all the vegetables a family could eat. After a move to the city in 2012, my own vegetable garden shrunk from a half acre in the country to a few raised beds. Nonetheless, I’m amazed at the large and varied harvest from my new, much smaller space these last two years. 

‘On Deck Hybrid’ is billed as the first sweet corn variety developed especially for container gardening.

Success for me and other small-space gardeners is due in part to plant breeders, who have developed compact veggies to replace some of the space hogs of the past. Many of these new varieties are ideal candidates not only for small beds, but also for containers, which means you can grow a decent harvest even if you have no ground at all. 

Take ‘Fairy Tale’, ‘Hansel’ and ‘Gretel’ eggplants, for example. All three of these petite, award-winning varieties produce prolific harvests on compact plants.   

A host of small-fruited tomatoes such as ‘Tumbling Tom’ and ‘Red Robin’ make it possible to harvest your fill, even if your only growing space is a few hanging baskets or other small containers.  

Sweet baby carrots like round ‘Atlas’ or short and stubby ‘Caracas Hybrid’ are a gourmet treat, perfect for growing in the shallow soil of a container.  

Winter squash, a notorious spreader, is now possible to grow in a small garden bed, thanks to space-saving varieties, such as ‘Bush Delicato’ and ‘Early Butternut’.

Small-Space Techniques
There are several techniques that also help make today’s small-space gardens successful. Intensive planting works wonders. With no need to save wide rows between crops for the rototiller, you can bunch vegetable plants close together not only to reap a bigger harvest, but also crowd out weeds and conserve moisture. Instead of a single row of green beans, for example, I now plant four rows of seeds only 6 or 8 inches apart to completely fill the 4-foot width of one of my raised beds.  

Rich, fertile soil is important when you’re gardening intensively, but fortunately it’s a lot easier to tend to soil building when space is limited. I was always short of homemade compost for my large country garden, but now I have a ready supply for my new raised beds and pots from one large outdoor compost bin, plus an indoor worm factory.

‘Mascotte’ bean produces plentiful, long-slender beans on compact plants.

Containers and Raised Beds
When growing vegetables in containers, I have the best luck with a mix of one-third compost and two-thirds quality potting soil. For the raised beds, we had a load of timber soil delivered. Water collected in a rain barrel attached to a downspout, fortified with regular additions of a liquid organic fertilizer, helps keep my plants healthy and productive. 

Growing my veggies in raised beds and pots has solved what would otherwise have been a major problem: the walnut trees that ring my new back yard. Tomatoes and their relatives are particularly sensitive to the juglone that is produced by walnut roots. By growing these crops in soil that doesn’t come into contact with the trees’ roots, I avoid the possibility that my tomato plants will succumb to walnut wilt.

‘Astia’ zucchini is a non-rambling bush variety with glossy-green fruits.

Frequent Sowing and Good Companions
Companion planting and successive sowing keep all available space producing throughout the season. Radishes and broccoli raab are so quick to grow they don’t even need a space of their own. Just sow a few seeds of these cool-weather crops around slower growing summer crops, such as tomatoes and peppers, and they’ll be gone before the later crops need more space.  

Leaf lettuce thrives in the partial shade of taller crops. When early crops, such as spinach and peas, languish in summer’s heat, rip out the spent plants and put in new crops, such as green beans and carrots, in the emptied space.  

As autumn approaches, plant a second round of cool-season crops like lettuce, turnips and spinach to take the place of frost-sensitive tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.  

‘Fanfare’ cucumber produces big fruits on a semi-dwarf plant.

Plants on the Up and Up
Vertical gardening is another good way to make the most of what garden space you have. Use trellises for crops such as peas, pole beans, cucumbers, melons and winter squash or let them climb a chain-link fence. Cage or stake tomatoes not only to save space, but also produce better fruits than possible from plants that are allowed to sprawl on the ground.  

In tending my own small plot, I’ve discovered something else: I’m no longer distracted by quantity and can concentrate on quality. No more zucchinis that slip my notice until they’re as big as baseball bats, for example, and no more broccoli ruined by yellow flowers sprouting in the middle of the green heads.





‘Super Bush’ tomato is known for its high yields of heavy fruits with rich tomato flavor.

Best Space-Saving Varieties
Here’s a sampling of vegetables you can grow in a small plot or even in a container.

‘On Deck Hybrid’ sweet corn grows only 4 or 5 feet tall. Unlike most varieties, which require a large number of plants to achieve full ears, ‘On Deck Hybrid’ was bred for better cross-pollination when planted in relatively small quantities. W. Atlee Burpee & Co. recommends planting nine seeds in a 2-foot-wide container. Expect to harvest two to three ears per stalk.     
‘Mascotte’ bean is a 2014 All-America Selection winner, which produces plentiful, long, slender pods on compact plants. The root system makes this variety ideal for growing in a container or window box, or for packing a lot of bush bean plants into a small garden bed. 
‘Astia’ zucchini is a French bush variety with non-rambling, compact vines. The harvest of glossy-green fruits begins early and keeps coming. 
‘Fanfare’ cucumber produces 8- to 9-inch fruits on semi-dwarf plants. Grow them in a container on a trellis and you’ll be rewarded with a long season of fresh cucumbers in a very small space. This disease-resistant variety is a past All-America Selection. 
‘Super Bush’ tomato produces high yields of heavy fruits that have a rich tomato flavor. The compact plants grow only 30-36 inches tall.


The harvest from a single sweetpotato plant completely fills a 24-inch pot with tuberous roots.


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Jan RiggenBach, Renee’s Garden, W. Atlee Burpee & Co., and All-America Selections.


Posted: 05/17/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Green Gardening for All
by Adam Sarmiento    

Here in the 21st century the idea of ecological or “green” gardening is nothing new. As gardeners we have a unique connection to ecology that leads many of us to desire to garden in ways that don’t harm the environment. Most of us approach using chemicals with at least some level of apprehension and concern about both environmental and human health. Scientific research is increasingly confirming suspicions that horticultural and agricultural chemicals are contributing to a wide array of concerns such as cancer, pollinator decline, and poor water quality. Still, much confusion remains about what going green in the garden entails and how practical it is, especially as we age and become less physically able.

The good news is that the biggest challenge in going green is a mental one. Going green won’t necessarily require you to do much differently physically, but it will require you to challenge some of your assumptions about gardening. The following is a list of six things you can do this year to make your garden healthier and more ecofriendly.


We can learn a lot by observing how natural ecosystems contain a wide variety of plants providing different roles and functions.

Embrace Diversity

Most natural landscapes include a plethora of plant species interacting and filling different niches that support wildlife, like pollinators and birds, and environmental functionality, like fertile soils and clean water. The more plant species, especially native, that we bring into our gardens the more potential we have for a healthy ecosystem. Start by taking an inventory of the number and types of plant species you have and then make a list of beneficial plants you could add.

Take Back Your Lawn

The elephant in the room when it comes to a lack of plant diversity in most gardens is the lawn. Our obsession with golf course-like expanses comes with many ecological consequences. Poor water quality, toxic chemical exposure, air pollution, species decline, noise pollution, and habitat loss can all be attributed to the modern lawn. Take stock of how much you actually use your lawn, how it contributes to the design of your garden, and how much you spend to maintain it, and then consider ways to reduce your lawn and replace it with native grasses, flowers, and other beneficial plants. A lawn is essentially an artificially maintained pioneer or newly established ecosystem.  


By bringing together many native and useful plants we can mimic natural systems and create beautiful gardens.

Go Native

Native plants provide beauty, habitat, food, and ecological functionality in the landscape. By observing your local native plants you can begin to see the types of ecosystems you have in your area and the ways in which you can replicate them in your garden. Take an inventory of the origins of the plants you have. You may be surprised to find that you have few plants native to your region. Most states and regions have a native plant society or group that can help you learn about your native plants and the benefits they provide. Many nurseries are offering increasingly more native plants.

Go Organic      

These days, organic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are readily available and provide good non-toxic alternatives. Use of organic products will increase the health of both you and your plants, and increase the long-term fertility of your gardens.


Raised beds like these can make gardening more accessible for those with limited mobility.

Grow Your Own      

The ecological costs of our industrial-scale agricultural systems are numerous. By growing some of your own food you can help mitigate this situation and assure yourself that you are getting the freshest, tastiest, and healthiest food possible. As we grow older and/or have more limited mobility, it can be challenging to continue to grow food. One of the biggest challenges is being able to work on the ground. Using raised beds or taller containers can help alleviate this problem and make your plants more accessible.


Composting is an easy way to make your gardening more sustainable and reduce waste.


Every day good compostable material is dumped into landfills. You can reduce your need for fertilizers and mulch and reduce your contribution to your community’s waste stream by composting your food scraps. You don’t need a fancy bin or to invest much money into the process. A simple well-built pile only requires a small space in a shady part of your property. For urban dwellers or those with limited mobility, a worm bin can provide a good alternative to make use of your compostable materials.      

The environmental legacy of our gardening and landscaping can be one of restoration, protection, and health or one of species extinction, toxic chemical pollutants, and illness. It is up to each of us as gardeners, landscapers, and consumers to decide what kind of legacy we will leave. These six simple steps are a good way to make your garden more ecologically friendly and with some little personal tweaks it can be something you can sustain for a lifetime.    


A version of this article appeared in a March 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Adam Sarmiento.


Posted: 05/17/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

‘Red Peacock’ Crabapple
by Jeff Epping    

In my opinion, ornamental flowering crabapples are the No.1, small-scale ornamental trees for us here in the Midwest. There is no other tree that gives us so much beauty and interest throughout every season. Ornamental flowering crabapples adorn our gardens with fluffy clouds of white, pink or red flowers in spring, a variety of interesting forms from upright columns and full rounded trees to graceful weepers in summer, rich yellow, gold and orange fall color and brilliant yellow, orange or red jewel-like fruit in fall and winter.     

‘Red Peacock’ is one of the very best of crabapples for its excellent disease resistance, which should be the first thing that anyone looks for in a good cultivar. It is resistant to the big five crabapple diseases: Apple scab, cedar-apple rust, fire blight, frog-eye leaf spot and powdery mildew.      

Beyond that, it has beautiful white flowers and shiny, small, orange-red fruit that lasts all fall and winter and then in spring. Migrating birds, especially cedar waxwings, eat the trees clean, as they make their way back north. The form of the plant is quite nice, growing somewhat upright, when young. It spreads a bit with age, and exhibits a nice semi-weeping habit at maturity. A fully mature tree at 25 to 30 years will reach about 20-25 feet tall and about 20 feet wide, so it fits quite nicely into residential landscapes. 






Common Name: ‘Red Peacock’ flowering crabapple

Botanical Name: ‘Red Peacock’ (Malus ‘Red Peacock’) 

Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 7

Flower Color: Coral-pink buds open to soft pink, then white ruffled flowers, 1 to 1 ¼ inch in diameter

Blooming Period: Early to mid-May

Fruit: Orange-red to red pomes, maturing in mid-October, 5/16 to 3/8 inch diameter

Leaves: Dark green, lance-shaped leaf turns yellow to gold in October. Excellent disease resistance.

Type: Small-scale ornamental, deciduous tree

Size: 20-25 feet tall by 20 feet wide

Exposure: Full sun 

When to Plant: Bare-root in March or April; balled and burlap March through May, and again in October; or container from April through October

How to Plant: When planting container or bare-root stock, tease apart and spread out main roots and prune any circling roots. With balled and burlapped stock, remove at least top half of wire basket and burlap. With all, pay close attention to depth of planting. The root collar should be level or 1-2 inches above finished grade. 

Soil: Best in average well-drained soils. Very drought-tolerant once established.

Watering: First growing season, slow soak with a tricking hose or low flow sprinkler to give about 1 inch per week, until plants are well established. In second and third seasons, water during drought. 

When to Prune: Upon planting, prune only broken or diseased branches. Then, structurally prune after one season in the ground. Do major pruning during the dormant season and touch-up water sprouts and root suckers during the summer, as needed.

When to Fertilize: Manure or compost tea in spring if soils are impoverished. No fertilizer is recommended for average or fertile soils.

In Your Landscape: ‘Red Peacock’ flowering crabapple is the perfect tree to anchor a sunny space in your garden. Crabapples are great plants for insect pollinators, a good source of food for small mammals and more than 20 species of birds use them for their fruit, flowers and sap, as well as to nest in. Apparently they love crabapples as much as I do!?


Posted: 05/09/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Building a Garden Pond
by John Tullock    

For me, it all started with an unwanted pine tree. After the tree was cut down and the stump dug out, I was left with a fair-sized hole in the ground. Solution? Build a garden pond! Constructing your own garden pond is not difficult, but certain aspects of the job must be done precisely. Here are some guidelines that will help you avoid common mistakes and create the garden pond of your dreams.     

First, take stock of the materials already in your landscape design. Do you have mostly natural stonework and gently curving paths? Or do you prefer masonry and straight lines? The final design of your pond should work with the rest of your landscape, or it will look out of place.     

Second, consider the location with great care. Most aquatic and bog plants require full sun. Your pond should receive at least six, and preferably eight, hours of daily sunshine. It should be situated in a low-lying location. A pond at the summit of a hill looks completely out of place.      

Third, decide if you want a water-circulation system, i.e., fountain, waterfall, filtration, etc. If so, the planning and design become far more complex. In my case, the pond has none of these features. 

Most people start a garden pond with too many fish and too few plants, and expect it to remain limpid and unsullied all season long. For an unfiltered pond without water circulation, keep the focus on the plants. They are responsible for taking up nutrients that would otherwise feed algae and bacterial growth. My pond is about 1,500 gallons and is home to two large goldfish, Yin and Yang, year round. In summer, I add a dozen or so small tropical fish from the aquarium shop. The little fish feed on mosquito larvae and help keep the pond insect-free during the heat of summer, then die off with the arrival of winter freezes.


Step 1: It is crucial that the top edge of the pond be level around the entire circumference. Any small deviation will show up when the pond is filled. Installing a row of cinder blocks makes leveling easier than if attempted with soil alone.

Step 2: Once the top rim is installed and dead level all around, terraces are constructed to support planting containers later. The pond should be at least 2 feet deep at its deepest point.

Step 3: Once the terraces are completed, with their supporting walls of dry-laid cinder block, the soil used to backfill is firmly compacted. It may be necessary to add more soil in some areas to completely fill the terraces. Low areas will forever trap debris

Step 4: Make sure the rubber liner you purchase is large enough, and allow for at least 1-2 feet of overlap at the top edge. Install underlayment fabric first, then the liner, filling with water to ensure a tight fit. This is best done on a warm, sunny day, when the liner will be more flexible.

Step 5: When the pond is full and has settled for a few days, trim the liner and install copingstones around the upper edge. Complete any contouring of the surrounding area at this point, and the pond and its environs are ready for plants.

Step 6: Enjoy! By late spring the plants are thriving and the pond reflects a perfect blue sky.



A version of this article appeared in a March 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of John Tullock.



Posted: 05/05/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Perpetua Blueberry
by Clara A. Curtis    

‘Perpetua’ blueberry is a delicious way to add four-season interest to your garden.

Gardening in 2016 should be inspirational and eclectic and fun! What better plant to add to your garden than one that exhibits four seasons of interest and produces fruit for your cereal bowl! No more boring gardens stuffed with static plants that are not earning their keep – plant a new blueberry to spice it up.         

‘Perpetua’ – introduced by Fall Creek Farm & Nursery – is a double-cropping blueberry, meaning that it flowers and produces fruit two times a year – once in spring at the traditional time and again in fall when canning the fruits of the garden and jam making is underway. Berries are small and sweet and produced on 4-5-foot branches, which is the perfect height for easy picking of the harvest. As with all plants in the Ericaceae (heath) family, acidic, well-drained but moist organic-rich soils are best. Full sun is required for best flowering and fruit production. To add to the ornamental charm of this plant, new growth is bright yellow with red stems in winter. Leaves are dark green, curly and shiny in summer and turn to red in autumn. Look for this new introduction and others in the BrazelBerries® series this spring in your local garden center retailer. 






Common Name: Perpetua blueberry 

Botanical Name: Vaccinium corymbosum ‘Perpetua’

Family: Ericaceae

Blooming Period: Two seasons of bloom –spring and late summer

Type: Deciduous shrub

Size: 4-5 feet in height with upright vase shape

Exposure: Full sun

Hardiness Zone: 4-8

When to Plant: Plant in spring or fall

Soil: Acidic soils

Watering: Requires well-drained soil with even amounts of moisture to produce best fruit.

When to Fertilize: Fertilize with acidic fertilizer, such as those formulated for azaleas/Rhododendron.

In Your Landscape: Add to the vegetable garden or shrub border as a fruiting plant with four season of interest.


A version of this article appeared in print in Carolina Gardener Volume 28 Issue 2.
Photography courtesy of Fall Creek Farm & Nursery, Inc./Brazelberries.


Posted: 05/05/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

‘Blue Glow’ Agave
by Jean McWeeney    

‘Blue Glow’ agave shows off its colors when backlit by the sun.

If you’re a fan of plants that provide beautiful structure all year long, you will love ‘Blue Glow’ agave. This is a fairly diminutive agave hybrid, growing into a neat, 2-foot-wide rosette that doesn’t pup (grow baby plants around the mother plant). The bluish green leaves are edged with red, with an inner rib of yellow that glows when backlit by the sun. The leaves have barely detectable spines with a small, sharp terminal point. 

This tough plant looks best when used as a focal point in a container or when grouped with two more ‘Blue Glow’ agaves in the ground. It will complement just about any garden style. In my informal garden, ‘Blue Glow’ emerged unscathed from January’s polar vortex!

‘Blue Glow’ makes a nice focal point in a container.





Common Name: ‘Blue Glow’ agave

Botanical Name: Agave ‘Blue Glow’, a hybrid of A. ocahui x A. attenuata

Zone(s): 8-11; most sources say it is winter hardy to 20-25 F.

Color: Bluish green with red margins and a hint of yellow

Blooming Period: Will bloom once every 15 years or so, dying after blooming but leaving rosettes nearby.

Type: Perennial

Mature Size: 24 inches wide by 18 inches tall

Exposure: Full sun to part shade; I recommend morning sun.

When to Plant: In containers anytime, outdoors in spring

How to Plant: Space 18-24 inches apart or singly in a container.

Soil: Very well drained; amend clay soil with grit or gravel.

Watering: Very drought tolerant but appreciates some water in our hot summers.

When to Fertilize: Not really necessary, but diluted fish emulsion in the summer is appreciated.

In Your Landscape: Use ‘Blue Glow’ as a focal point or grouped with other architectural plants.


A version of this article appeared in print in Florida Gardening Volume 20 Issue 1.
Photography courtesy of Jean McWeeney.


Posted: 05/05/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Don’t Cry ‘Uncle’ When You See Ants
by Douglas A. Spilker    

Ants are good guys in the garden, but bad guys in the house. Learn more about these colony-dwelling insects. 

Whether it is a lone ant wandering the countertop or a column on a mission, an ant invasion can be unnerving. Landscaping with organic mulches, movement away from broadcast applications of lawn insecticides and recent mild winters seem to have increased the encounters with these unwelcome visitors. 

Although ants seldom cause serious damage to home lawns, black field ants may construct unsightly soil mounds.

Ants are Number One

Even though ants primarily live outdoors, they are now the number one indoor pest, displacing cockroaches. Ants are social insects living in colonies usually located near house foundations, and in yards and gardens. When ant workers forage for food for the colony, they often enter houses becoming a nuisance by contaminating food. They are also conspicuous when winged individuals, called swarmers, leave the nest to mate and start new colonies. 

Ants invade homes in search of food, moisture and shelter. They are attracted to all foods, especially sweets and grease. Not all food sources are inside, as some ants satisfy their needs by feeding on the sweet honeydew secreted by aphids, scale, mealy bugs and other insects on landscape trees and shrubs. 

Common Ants in the Midwest

Several kinds of ants commonly occur in and around homes ranging from the small pavement ant and odorous house ants, to the much larger black field and carpenter ants. 

Ant workers, like these odorous house ants, lay down chemical trails as they forage that help direct others to discovered sources of food and water.

The pavement ant is noted for its nest of mounded soil found in pavement cracks, along curb edges and driveways. Pavement ants may forage in the home throughout the year, feeding on most types of food. In winter, nests may be found inside near a heat source, even crawling through ductwork voids. 

Odorous house ants can be easily identified because they give off a coconut-like odor when crushed. They nest in mulch, firewood, beneath stones, patio blocks and even in flower pots. Outdoors they especially feed on honeydew secreted by aphids and other insects. Heavy mulch adjacent to foundations has been associated with increased problems with odorous house ants.  

Black field ants and carpenter ants are the largest ants found in the Midwest. Black field ants are primarily found in lawns, where they push up large soil mounds, causing unsightly areas and dulling mower blades. Carpenter ants, as the name implies, excavate wood softened by moisture or rot. Unlike termites, they do not eat wood, but remove it to make their nest, sometimes causing structural damage. Piles of sawdust can be telltale signs of a carpenter ant infestation. Correction of high-moisture conditions such as leaking roofs, loose chimney flashing and rotting window sills should be the first step in carpenter ant management. After replacing infested or damaged wood, make a perimeter insecticide spray to protect the home from re-invasion. Since carpenter ants may nest in stumps and firewood, provide a 50-foot buffer for these from the house. Carpenter ants  are often accused of killing trees, but likely they have taken advantage of nesting in already rotting wood killed from other causes.  

Household Ant Management

A multi-faceted approach is needed for satisfactory ant management. In most cases, ant identification is not needed. The first step is to eliminate sources of food and water attractive to ants. Keep kitchen counters and floors clean and food sealed. Look for other food sources such as garbage “juice” associated with trash cans, and spilled pet food. Dripping faucets and pipes with condensation can be important water sources for invading ants. 

Liquid ant bait is commonly the most effective treatment for colony control, but the ant “storming” phase must be tolerated for a few days, especially if the bait is used indoors.

Spraying the foraging ants that you see may bring temporary relief, but it often fails to provide long-term, effective control. The workers you see are just a small portion of the overall colony. It is important to eliminate the entire colony for satisfactory control. The most effective approach is to use a bait. Liquid baits seem to be the most appealing to ants. Baits contain only a small amount of insecticide. The ants feed on the bait and take it back to the colony where the slow-acting toxin is shared with the rest of the colony. Place bait directly on the ant trails away from children and pets, and replenish it often. Avoid any perimeter sprays near baits, as these sprays may deter ants from visiting. 

Once bait foraging activity subsides, try to determine where the ants might be entering the home. Apply a protective “barrier” around your home by spraying an insecticide up and around the foundation, especially targeting entry points like utility lines and pipes. These sprays will also control other occasional invaders like spiders and cockroaches. Be sure to control honeydew-producing insects on ornamental trees and shrubs. 

On an everyday basis, ants go unnoticed while they live outdoors. However, when they invade our humble abodes, they are no longer out of sight, but are a call for action. Don’t panic and take the action!

Is It a Winged Termite Or an Ant? 

There are several kinds of ants that may live in and around homes. For most of their lives, both ants and termites are wingless, but they can certainly be confused when their winged stages swarm to start new colonies. Ants can be easily distinguished from termites by several traits, but a hand lens might be needed: 

• Ant bodies are hour-glass-shaped (pinched at the waist); termites have thick bodies. 
• Ants have elbowed antennae; termites have straight, bead-like antennae. 
• Ant wings are clear or brownish; termite wings are milky-white or grayish and longer than the body. 
• Although ants are a nuisance, they are far less damaging than termites.


A version of this article appeared in an March/April 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Douglas Spilker, Gary Graness, and Reiner Pospischil.


Posted: 05/04/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Douse the Flames
by Blake Layton    

Fire ants. Just hearing the words will make most Southern gardeners anxiously check their shoes and the ground where they are standing. These non-native stinging ants are established in portions of 12 southeastern states, and six of these states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina – have fire ants from border to border. 

A large fire ant mound can contain more than 200,000 workers. That’s a lot of potential stings!

Fire ants prefer treeless grassy areas such as pastures, roadsides, parks and lawns, and densities can reach 50 to 200 mounds per acre in areas where they are not controlled. Fire ant mounds are unsightly, but it is their stings that make them so notorious. Unlike honeybees, fire ants do not have barbs on their stingers, and this means they can sting more than once. A single fire ant sting is painful, but unsuspecting gardeners sometimes sustain dozens or even hundreds of stings as a result of unknowingly stepping in a fire ant mound. The raised white pustules that result usually persist for about a week.     

Fire ants reproduce by swarming. Winged male and female fire ants emerge from mounds, fly hundreds of feet into the air, find one another and mate. During this time wind currents can carry these airborne ants several miles. Mated females fall to the ground, shed their wings, and attempt to start a new colony. It takes several months for such a colony to grow large enough to be visible above the grass. Swarming can occur any time of the year, but is most common during warmer months.  

The granule of fire ant bait this worker is carrying contains a slow-acting ingredient that does not kill immediately, giving her time to carry the bait back to the mound and share it with other ants.

These brief notes on fire ant biology help answer two of the most common questions about fire ant control. Why do they keep coming back? Because even if you kill every fire ant in the yard, newly mated queens are constantly dropping out of the sky to start new colonies. Why is it that when I kill one mound two or three more pop up to take its place? Because for every large mound you can see, there may be a dozen or more young colonies that are not yet large enough to be seen. Eliminate the foraging competition from the large mound and these small colonies grow faster. This is why attempting to control fire ants by only treating mounds you can see usually produces less than satisfactory results. It’s a lot like playing whack-a-mole.     

So what’s the key to successful fire ant control? One of the most effective ways to control fire ants is to hit them with a one-two punch. Use granular fire ant baits as the foundation of your fire ant control program and keep a can of one of the dry fire ant mound treatment products on hand to spot-treat mounds that survive the bait treatments. When used properly, baits will give around 80 to 90 percent control, leaving a lot fewer mounds to spot treat than if you rely on mound treatments alone.     

A small, hand-held spreader is the best tool for spreading granular fire ant baits. Application rates are low; you will probably need to use one of the lowest settings.

Granular fire ant baits contain slow-acting insecticides or insect growth regulators that disrupt development of the immature fire ants, active ingredients such as hydramethylnon, methoprene, pyriproxyfen, spinosad or indoxacarb. The key to using baits successfully is to spread them over the entire yard, rather than sprinkling them on top of individual mounds. Application rates are low, only around 1-1.5 pounds per acre, which is only a fraction of an ounce per 1,000 square feet. Foraging worker ants will collect the granules, carry them back to the mound, and feed them to the immature ants. Ultimately, the bait will be spread to all the ants in the colony. It can take two to six weeks to begin seeing control from a fire ant bait treatment, but the end results are devastating to fire ants. The other key to using baits successfully is to apply them preventively about three times per year: spring, summer and fall. Don’t wait until you start seeing more fire ant mounds in your yard to apply that next bait treatment. Remember big fire ant mounds start with a single queen and a few workers, and these young colonies are not readily visible. One of the reasons baits work so well is that they kill the small colonies that are just getting started, as well as the larger colonies. 

Dry mound treatments contain active ingredients like acephate, beta-cyfluthrin or deltamethrin. Products containing acephate smell really bad, but they are more effective and work faster than the less odorous products. These treatments are applied directly to the mound; just sprinkle the specified amount evenly over the top of the mound and walk away. Depending on which product you use, it takes a couple of days to a week or so for the mound to die out. For mounds that need to be controlled immediately use a liquid drench containing an active ingredient like carbaryl or permethrin. Dilute in water as indicated on the label and pour the drench over the mound. Liquid drenches kill quickly, but are more messy and time-consuming than dry mound treatments. The key to success with drenches is to use enough liquid to thoroughly soak the mound, about 1-2 gallons.     

Your local county extension office can provide more information on fire ants and how to control them, including more detailed information on how to use liquid mound drenches and other effective control methods not discussed here. Fire ants are persistent pests and gardeners must be equally persistent to achieve and maintain acceptable control. But if you learn to use fire ant baits properly and supplement them with individual mound treatments, then yes, you can control fire ants.



Knock Out Fire Ants with a One-Two Punch 

1. Use a hand-held spreader to spread granular fire ant bait over your yard three times per year. Use the holidays: Easter, Independence Day, and Labor Day to remind you it is time to apply fire ant bait. 

2. Keep a can of one of the dry fire ant mound treatments handy to spot treat mounds that escape the bait treatments.


A version of this article appeared in an April 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.


Posted: 05/04/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Everything About Azaleas
by Donald W. Hyatt    

Azaleas with variegated or boldly striped flowers like the Glenn Dale azalea ‘Cinderella’ should be planted in locations where people can admire their intricate patterns up close.

Azaleas are more than a harbinger of spring. All across the Southeast, masses of red, white, pink and purple azaleas boldly proclaim that the season has arrived. Many people think azaleas come in just four colors, and some may even criticize their use as commonplace. Discriminating gardeners know better. This article cannot possibly discuss everything about azaleas, but it may foster an appreciation for their amazing diversity while providing some practical advice.

All azaleas are really rhododendrons, and fall into two general categories: evergreen or deciduous. Evergreen azaleas are very common in American gardens but they are not native plants. They all originated in western Asia, primarily Japan and China. North America is home to 17 native azalea species and they are all deciduous shrubs. Surprisingly, most are native to the Southeast! Admired in Europe since the 1800s, they have been woefully underrepresented in our gardens.

In the author’s garden, a 40-year old planting of cream and yellow deciduous azalea hybrids grow tall behind the lower growing white evergreen Glenn Dale azalea ‘Glacier’.

Many azaleas bloom so profusely that the foliage can be completely obscured. That does pose some special landscaping problems. With well over 6,000 named cultivars, designers are often unfamiliar with new varieties but must select colors that will harmonize with other landscape features. Brilliant azaleas attract attention but they can be overpowering at times. They can clash with other colors but liberal use of white can help alleviate design problems. Delicate pastel shades are more forgiving. Azaleas transplant easily, so mistakes are easily corrected with a shovel.       

In large landscape plantings, masses of the same azalea variety give the best effect when viewed from a distance. When mature, those plants will grow together creating a single mass appropriate to the scale. Patchworks of mixed colors can be effective in small alcoves.     

Subtle flower features like stripes, blotches, multicolored sports, or blossoms with contrasting borders are best appreciated up close. Double and ruffled azaleas or those with unusual flower forms like ‘Koromo Shikibu’ and ‘Wagner’s White Spider’ with their strap-like petals deserve that same close admiration.

Many azaleas are fragrant, and perfect for intimate garden spaces. Every garden should have at least one ‘My Mary’, a very fragrant yellow native azalea hybrid.      

For many of us, no man-made garden can possibly compare to the beauty of our native azaleas as they occur in the wild. Early plant explorers considered them among the most impressive flowering plants yet known. Many of us agree, and make annual pilgrimages to the southern Appalachians to witness spectacles like the flowering of yellow, orange and red flame azaleas (Rhododendron calendulaceum), or the multi-colored native azalea stand on the top of Gregory Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In June, the native flame azaleas (Rhododendron calendulaceum) erupt into bloom along the Appalachian Trail in the Roan Highlands of North Carolina and Tennessee. Nature’s garden is beyond compare. 

One rare red native species, R. prunifolium, flowers in July and August. Wild populations in Providence Canyon, Ga., seem unfazed by 100 F temperatures and it is the signature plant of Callaway Gardens. Not all native species are heat tolerant, but the “Maid in the Shade” series from Transplant Nursery and the Aromi hybrids make excellent alternatives.      

Flowers only last a few weeks, so always consider a plant’s merits the rest of the year. Some azaleas may have dull foliage but others have very attractive leaves. The glossy, rounded leaves of ‘Glacier’ are legendary, but there are many standouts. Some azaleas have variegated foliage, and the leaves of others may turn dark burgundy during the winter, like a new introduction from Germany called ‘Maraschino’. Some leaves can be small, reminiscent of boxwood, but ‘Segai’ has long, narrow leaves that almost look like blades of grass.      

With deciduous azaleas, leaf characteristics vary and many turn brilliant colors in the fall. Planting them among evergreens can disguise their bare winter branches.     

This slow growing Satsuki azalea in the U.S. National Arboretum bonsai collection has been in training for over 30 years. The Japanese cultivar, ‘Kyoraku’, has small white flowers bordered in pink.

Large-growing varieties are perfect for screening, creating garden rooms, or providing a backdrop for wildflowers or perennials. The purple ‘Formosa’ and pale pink ‘George Lindley Taber’ are favorites in the South but may have difficulty in colder climates. Many Glenn Dale azaleas are hardier, like the bright pink ‘Dream’ that can easily reach 10 feet high and spread 25 feet across. Dwarf varieties like ‘Kazan’, ‘Sandra’s Dwarf White’, and slow-growing Satsuki azaleas make wonderful rock garden companions or bonsai subjects.      

Azalea flowers can range from ½ to 5 inches across depending upon the cultivar. Members of the American Rhododendron Society in the Southeast Region selected a huge, pale lavender-pink developed by Dr. Sandra McDonald called ‘Venus’ Baby’ as their “2015 Azalea of the Year.” Rare cultivars and new releases are often hard to find unless one frequents plant society sales or specialty nurseries.       

Re-blooming azaleas are very popular. Buddy Lee developed the Encore azaleas by crossing a Taiwanese species, R. oldhamii, with other azaleas. He has now introduced 29 hybrids, and recently released a double, dark red called Autumn Fire (‘Roblex’).       

Planting an azalea in the right location is important, but requirements may differ depending upon the variety. In general, evergreen azaleas do best with dappled to high open shade. Plants can take more sun but the flowers do not last well. Salmon, coral, and orange red flowers are especially prone to sun damage. Evergreen azaleas grown in strong sun do become prone to an insect pest called lace bug. This small insect lives underneath the leaves and sucks out the chlorophyll leaving tiny white dots on the leaf surface. There are sprays to control lace bug, but they also kill beneficial insects that eat those pests.

Unusual flower forms deserve close scrutiny, like ‘Wagner’s White Spider’ (left) with its strap-like petals, or the fully double, ivory colored blossoms of ‘Secret Wish’ (right) that look almost like rose buds unfurling.    

Deciduous azaleas require more sunlight than evergreen azaleas, at least three to four hours of direct sun daily to bloom well. In shade, they often survive but grow slowly and rarely bloom.

Azaleas prefer a moist, well-drained, acidic soil rich in organic matter. In heavy soils, consider planting in raised beds. When planting a container plant, break up the root ball to encourage roots to start growing into the surrounding soil. It helps the plant become established. Azaleas are very shallow rooted, so always set the plant at the same level or even slightly higher than the existing soil. Azaleas should be mulched well to maintain soil moisture.       

Be careful with fertilizer since the amount azaleas can utilize depends upon light intensity. The stronger the sun, the more fertilizer a plant might need. It is better to apply two weak applications spaced far apart than risk burning delicate roots with excessive fertilizer. Fertilize after blooming, but avoid late summer or fall applications because plants don’t become dormant which can cause winter damage.     

Heavy pruning should be done in late winter while plants are still dormant. Don’t remove more than one-third of the branches at a time since it can weaken the plant. General pruning to shape plants is done in the spring and early summer, but avoid pruning after mid-July since azaleas will be forming flower buds. Also avoid fall pruning since it encourages late season growth vulnerable to winter damage.     

Try growing some unusual azaleas varieties this year, and find a place for a few native azaleas, too.

Mass plantings of ‘Formosa’ growing near the water’s edge at the Norfolk Botanical Garden provide a strong visual effect in proper scale to the vista.

Azalea Sources     

With so many thousands of named azalea varieties, finding sources for new and rare plants is not always easy. The famous Glenn Dale azaleas were released by Ben Morrison, the first Director of the U.S. National Arboretum, starting in 1941. He eventually introduced 454 cultivars that he selected from the nearly 75,000 seedlings he raised in his breeding project. Nurseries were bewildered with so many choices, and some excellent varieties had very limited distribution. Morrison planted an additional 800 unnamed cultivars at the National Arboretum that he never introduced. They were also excellent selections, and some are arguably better than named forms. When the Arboretum considered removing them in 2011, public outrage saved the original plantings.     

White dogwoods complement unnamed Glenn Dale azaleas on Mount Hamilton at the U.S. National Arboretum. Public outcry saved these azaleas from destruction in 2011 when there was talk of removing the original plantings.

The best sources for rare azaleas are specialty nurseries and plant society contacts. A list of commercial azalea sources can be found on the Azalea Society of America website. Many local chapters have public plant sales, but the rarest plants are usually offered at plant society conventions.


Useful Links:
Azalea Society of America (ASA):

American Rhododendron Society (ARS):

Save the Azaleas:

2016 ARS/ASA Williamsburg Convention:






A version of this article appeared in a March 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Don Hyatt.


Posted: 05/03/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Little Gem Magnolia
by Peter Gallagher    

Little Gem Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
 - Video Transcript, Voiceover by Peter Gallagher, Ph.D.

Little Gem Magnolia, a cultivar of Magnolia grandiflora, is a great option for those more restricted spaces or smaller landscapes, where the traditional Southern Magnolia would be far too large. This cultivar normally reaches a height of only 15 to 20 feet with a spread of 10 to 15 feet. As such, this can fit quite nicely somewhat closer to the home or as part of a border planting along a fence or property line. 

Little Gem is fairly tolerant of a wide range of soils, but does prefer a slightly acid, organic soil with a moderate soil moisture. It works well in semi-shaded to mostly sunny sites and is hardy through USDA zones 7-9. With a minimum of 0o Fahrenheit ]. The flowers are large, creamy white, and quite fragrant. Foliage is evergreen, leathery, and deep green on the upper surface with a golden brown pubescence on the underside.


Posted: 04/22/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Bareroot Roses Old English Style
by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp    

'Gertrude Jekyll' is one of the first roses to start flowering in late spring. Glowing pink blooms are strongly scented, with the quintessential English rose fragrance. It grows to 5 feet tall by 3 1/2 feet wide, or 8-10 feet as a climber. It is hardy in USDA Zone 4.

Plant roses earlier this spring – plus, bring back the historic fragrance and romance of the old roses. Try mail-order bare-root English roses this season. 

If you have had your fill of reliable, plain Jane, but popular shrub roses, allow me to introduce you to the English garden rose (Rosa hybrids). Once you’ve seen an English rose, you will easily recognize it.     

Can you say exquisitely frilly? Can you say divinely fragrant? Can you say disease resistant? Can you say beautiful for fresh-flower arrangements? How about romantic roses with lots and lots of petals? Yes, those attributes all describe the English garden rose.     

English roses can be grown as a standard or a tree form. ‘Winchester Cathedral’, an old rose heirloom, develops a buff center and has an almond and honey scent. 

Personally, I’m really not a rose person. In fact, I generally shun thorny plants altogether. But, I do have a little, coral pink shrub rose called Lady Elsie Mae (Rosa ‘ANGelsie’) and a couple of Amber Flower Carpet roses. I had a red Knock Out (R. ‘Radrazz’), but I tore it out last year, mainly because I was tired of it.     

Despite not being a rose person, I totally get why they are so popular, and I appreciate them, especially the reblooming shrub roses — they are low maintenance and somewhat disease resistant.

Last spring, I was sent a boxful of bare-root David Austin roses ( to trial. There were more roses than I could plant in my small, mostly shady landscape, so I kept a few and donated others to Master Gardeners in the Midwest to try.     

Why buy bare-root roses? Usually the selection is much greater. Most are purchased through online retailers, and are shipped at just the right time for planting. Bare-root roses (as well as other types) are grown on their own rootstock, or they are grafted onto a stronger rootstock. A rose with a bulge or joint atop the root stock is grafted. A rose growing on its own stock does not have the bulge.

“When planting, the fat joint where the stem meets the roots should be positioned at soil surface in warmer areas, or 2-3 inches below surface in Zones colder than USDA Zone 6,” said Michael Marriott, technical manager rosarian for David Austin Roses. For those who choose roses labeled “own root,” which are recommended for colder climates, position the juncture of the main stem and roots at ground level.     

English rose 'Darcey Bussell' boasts fully double, deep crimson flowers with a fruity fragrance. A strong, reliable performer, it averages 3-4 feet tall and wide, making it a good candidate for growing in a summer container.

“I was reminded of too much spacing yesterday on the BBC’s ‘Gardeners’ World’ program, when somebody was showing off their roses and they were all planted much too far apart,” Marriott said. “How can people think that acres of bare soil are attractive? Especially, when it can so easily be filled with beautiful roses. And, of course, exposing the soil is the worst thing you can do to the health of the soil and so health of the roses. The most important (things) are careful selection of varieties and good soil preparation.”      

‘Golden Celebration’ is a fragrant rose that gets about 4½ feet tall and wide. Hardy in USDA Zone 5.

When it comes to pruning, Marriott said we need not be too concerned about whether we cut at three leaflets or five leaflets. Just cut it back in spring, just as new growth begins, he said.

While American roses are bred for their low maintenance and reliability, English roses are bred for their beauty. Roses with 40 or more petals are classified as “very full” by the American Rose Society (, and nearly all English roses seem to have at least that many, but usually in the 60 to 100 petal range. The petal count is what gives the English roses that extra frilly look.     

It helps to have a degree in English lit or history to know who the roses are named after. There’s ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’, ‘Jude the Obscure’, ‘A Shropshire Lad’, ‘Charles Darwin’, ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’, ‘Thomas a’ Becket’ and ‘Princess Anne’ to name a few. ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ is named for the famous garden designer and ‘Munstead Wood’ is named for her garden in Surry.     

Will bare-root roses work for you? You won’t know until you try. Like a lot of woody plants, it may take a couple of years for the roses to become established and provide the flower power you want, said Linda Kimmel, district director of the Illinois-Indiana Rose Society. “The newer ones are more disease resistant. I think they follow the rule of ‘first year sleeper, second year creeper, third year leaper.’”

'The Generous Gardener' climber is a repeat-flowering rose; it also can be grown as a large, rounded shrub with arching stems. It gets about 5 feet tall.


At 4 feet tall and wide, the fragrant, repeat-blooming ‘Grace’ rose works well in a large container. Hardy in USDA Zone 5.

How to Use Roses in the Landscape

• As a hedge or to line a path. Be sure to leave plenty of room between pathways and passersby. Think of the heavenly fragrance of a rose hedge around the patio or deck, or in an area you pass on the way to the mailbox or the garage.

• As an anchor or specimen in a mixed border, with perennials and flowering shrubs.

• As a bed of roses or rose border. Select roses in the same color palette, such as pinks or reds, planted in groupings.

• In a summer container, especially roses that stay in the 4-foot-tall range or shorter. The rose can be the only plant in the pot, or it can have annuals or vines to flow over the edges.

• As a climber. Many shrub roses can be grown against a fence or trellis, even if the plant is not labeled as a climber.


'Charlotte' has upward-facing flowers with an open cup shape and a soft yellow hue, which mixes easily with other colors in the garden. It has a strong, tea rose fragrance. Hardy to USDA Zone 4, it grows to 4 feet tall by 3 feet wide.


Here, the fully-open fragrant flowers of 'The Generous Gardener' are set off beautifully by less mature buds and semi-open flowers. As the more advanced flowers fade, remove them to enjoy the still-maturing flowers.

Tips from Michael Marriott for Cutting Roses for the Vase

•Use sharp, clean snips, and cut the flowers early in the day when they are fully hydrated. Cut flowers that still have tight centers, but with outer petals opened. Select the longest, strongest stems.

•When in the garden, place cut roses immediately in a clean container filled with cool water.

•Once indoors, put the stems under water and snip off another inch.

•Remove lower leaves.

•Add enough cool water to nearly fill a clean vase. Arrange the stems so they are in the water. 

Michael Marriott, technical manager rosarian at David Austin Roses, recommends planting the shrubs 2-3 feet apart to give the illusion of one large shrub.

•Add a flower preservative to the water, which Marriott says keeps bacteria growth at bay, improves water flow and helps flowers open and last longer.

•Place the vase in a cool place out of direct sunlight for the longest show.

•Replace the water every day or so to keep it fresh.

•Every few days, lift the flowers from the vase to snip off an inch or so from the stems so they can continue to take up water.








A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of


Posted: 04/21/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

What is Lasagna Gardening?
by Larry Caplan    

Lasagna gardening is a no-dig, no-spray way to start a garden
- Perhaps you should plant to try one this spring.

The first time someone called my office to ask about lasagna gardens, I was certain that they were trying to pull a fast one on me. I’d seen all the April Fools articles about marshmallow bushes and spaghetti trees, and I thought this was another gag. Turns out, though, this is a seriously neat way to start a new garden area without needing to dig up the existing sod or spraying herbicides to kill it. 

Lasagna gardening is also known as “sheet composting,” “sheet mulching,” or “no-dig garden beds.” This uncomplicated and easy gardening method is appropriate for everyone (including people who may be physically limited or unable to dig traditional garden beds). It’s also a good way to convert grassy areas to gardens without using herbicides or tillers. The sod is left in place, where it gets converted into soil organic matter. The process can be done at any time and at any scale, even piecemeal as materials are available. 

There are several benefits of lasagna gardening over composting. First, you don’t need to buy or build bins, although some gardeners do use lumber or bricks to make a short raised bed and prevent the layers from spilling out. Also, there is no turning or aerating of the pile needed. Earthworms will work their way up through the wet cardboard and materials, and will aerate the bed for you. 

Lasagna gardens, over time, create a high-quality soil without any of the drawbacks of tilling the garden. Tilling the soil can bring weed seeds to the surface, increasing your weed problems. If you are gardening on a slope, soil erosion is a concern. Over-tilling (often done with mini-tillers between the rows as a weed-control chore) can break down soil structure, and affect the levels of beneficial bacteria, fungi and earthworms.

The lasagna garden is built up from layers of brown and green organic matter.

Where and When to Start 

Lasagna gardens are normally built several months before it’s time to plant to give the materials time to decompose. However, for those of you who want to build one and plant this spring, I’ll include a tip to do that successfully toward the end of this article. 

Start by planning where you want to place this garden. A lasagna garden is not the most attractive thing you’ll see in your landscape, so most gardeners tend to hide these in corners. Be sure, however, that the site is conducive to whatever you’re growing (full sun for vegetables for example). Avoid installing the bed over tree roots, septic fields or other utilities. 

The bed should be no wider than 4 feet. This way, you can reach the center from either side for planting or harvesting. The lasagna garden will be extremely loose and fluffy, and any walking on it will compress the material and decrease its usefulness.

The Recipe

The first layer of the lasagna garden should be corrugated cardboard. Large boxes from refrigerators or other appliances are ideal, but even smaller pieces can be used if they are overlapped. This layer blocks light from reaching the soil, preventing weed seedlings from penetrating. It also serves as a carbon source. If you can’t get cardboard, use six to 10 sheets of newspaper, being sure to overlap the edges by 4 to 6 inches. 

The cardboard needs to be moistened before laying it down; however, hosing down a sheet of cardboard rarely works well, as the water just runs off. Experienced gardeners tell me that filling a barrel or even a wheelbarrow with water and letting the cardboard soak in there will allow the water to penetrate. 

Green organic matter can include garden waste, such as these chopped sweetpotato vines.

Next, place a layer of nitrogen-rich “green” yard waste, like grass clippings or fresh vegetable peelings. Compost or rotted manure can also be used. On top of this add a layer of carbon-rich “brown” material, such as dry leaves, sawdust, or straw; you can even use shredded paper, if you have access to large amounts of it. Each layer should be about 3 to 4 inches thick. Continue alternating layers until the bed is as tall as you desire (usually between 18 and 36 inches thick). Be sure to moisten down each layer with your garden hose to encourage decomposition.

 Collect roughly twice as much brown organic matter as green organic matter.

When the bed is as high as you want, cover it with burlap, bark chips or sheets of plastic. This will keep the heat in, allowing decomposition to work faster. It also helps prevent the ingredients from blowing around the yard. Even with the covering, lasagna gardening is considered a “cold” decomposition process. The seed-killing temperatures we seek in compost piles (130 to 160 F) won’t be reached in sheet composting. This means you need to be extra careful not to include weeds that have gone to seed when adding to your green layers. 

Another item to avoid is any meat scraps, bones, grease or other animal products. As with standard compost piles, these materials draw rats and other vermin, and can become rancid and produce foul odors. 

Normally, it would take about six months for this material to decompose well enough to plant in. For gardeners who wish to plant into the lasagna garden immediately, they can add a 2- to 3-inch layer of topsoil mixed with compost as the uppermost layer. Again, since we’re not going to build up high temperatures as we would with a larger compost pile, there should be little risk to young seedlings. 

Plant It Up 

To plant into the bed, make a planting hole by pulling the layers apart with your hands. Set the plant in the hole, pull the materials back around the roots, and water thoroughly. If you want to plant seeds, spread fine compost or damp peat moss where the seeds are to go. Set the seeds on the surface and sift more fine material to cover them.     

Spinach and radish plants thrive in a lasagna garden.

Over the course of the gardening season, the bed will shrink in height as the various materials decompose. This is expected, and is not a big problem. In the fall, rebuild the bed with alternating layers of “greens” and “browns,” and let it decompose over the winter. Be aware, though, that as the various layers break down, there will be temporary deficiencies of mineral nutrients, so be prepared to side-dress your crops with garden fertilizer several times during the season.     

Many gardeners will stockpile the raw “ingredients” of their lasagna garden during the off-season, so they don’t have to scramble for it when they’re ready to build the next section. Cardboard can be unfolded and stored flat in a garage or shed. Newspaper can be stacked and tied into neat, easily handled bundles. Dried leaves can be shredded with a lawnmower and stored in yard bags. During the winter, vegetable peelings and other kitchen scraps can be stored in airtight containers outside where it can freeze, but not be accessible to raccoons, rats and other vermin. 

I hope you try lasagna gardening this year. Drop us a line and tell us how it worked!


A version of this article appeared in print in Indiana Gardening Volume VI Issue 2.
Photography by Patrick Byers.


Posted: 04/21/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

by Kerry Heafner    

Kerry Heafner profiles the loquat (Eriobotrya japonica). Watch as he tells us all about this underused fruit tree that makes an excellent (and delicious) addition to the landscape.

Plant Profile: Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica)

- Video Transcript, Plant Profile by Kerry Heafner.

Home orchards are becoming more and more popular and as folks look for plants that not only produce fruit. They're also looking for plants that are attractive in the landscape. 

Loquats are native of Asia, they’re also called Japanese plum but their in the Rose family like plums, pears, and apples, and a lot of other popular fruit. And as you can see from these specimens they can get quite tall of 20 or 30 feet even, or you can keep them pruned down to a moderate height. 

Loquats have large leathery leaves that look almost old timey or heirloom like and they’re evergreen so you'll have attractive foliage year round. 

Now Loquats are unique among fruit trees here in North America anyway because they flower in the wintertime. Fruit production will occur in late winter or early spring and if the winters are mild enough so pollinators can get to the flowers, when fruit production starts you'll see ripening that will transition from these green little oval shaped fruit, all the way up to these plump yellowish orange fruits that have been described as having taste that range from peach like or banana like or a combination of the two. Either way they're delicious and try them and see for yourself. 

Loquat is a perfect example of a plant that can be used for fruit production but also fits into just about any landscape. In this formal situation this specimen is being grown more or less in an espalier type pattern. It's been pruned to fit up against this brick wall and even though it's a little shady here for good fruit production (which you would want full sun for), it fits right in with its large leathery foliage, with other types of shrubs used in a formal situation. Like these sasanqua camellias that line the wall going down the street. 

Any well-stocked garden center will have loquat trees available, but if you can find someone with a fully mature tree that's produced fruit and the fruit has produced seeds, then you can propagate some. The fruit have one to several seeds that are about the size of coffee beans and this can be germinated right away and with seeds you get new combinations, maybe even a new variety. 

Fully mature loquat trees will set a fruit crop, drop the fruit, and therefore drop the seeds. And when that happens, if we’re lucky, sometimes seedlings will germinate under this mother plant and we can take those seedlings and transplant them elsewhere. 

Here are a few seedlings from this large specimen tree. Here's the seedling that's already two or three feet tall and then we have some smaller specimens right here in the ivy and even one out here in this ajuga. When they're this size you can transplant them into your home landscape. 

Now here’s a seedling we just found under this large tree and the seed is still attached and there's a root system but it's not huge and this is the perfect size for transplanting into your home orchard or landscape. The roots won’t sustain a lot of damage and the stem is still sturdy enough that you can move the plant around. 

So we’re just going to transplant this seedling into some prepared potting mix. I’m going to give the roots plenty of room to grow. And we’ll probably leave it in this pot for the first year and it will be ready to go into the landscape the second year. 

So for something unique in your home orchard or landscape try loquats. For State-by-State Gardening, I'm Kerry Heafner.



Posted: 04/20/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Tablescaping: Celebrate the Season with a Centerpiece
by Peggy Hill with Trace Barnett    

“Wow, that centerpiece looks good enough to be in a magazine. I wish I could put together something half that beautiful. I usually just plop some hydrangeas in a vase – pretty, but totally unimaginative.” That's what I said to my friend and talented designer, Trace, last spring. It was late February, when buds are swollen on bare branches and hyacinth flowers are only a promise, and I loved how the centerpiece celebrated that feeling of anticipation. Trace replied, “Thanks. It’s not that hard; I could teach you.” Thus began my yearlong training, learning how to create impressive centerpieces and tablescapes for every season.

My first lesson began immediately as Trace discussed this spring-themed centerpiece. “I got the idea when I saw those spectacular lichen- and moss-encrusted logs on the side of the road. The different heights add a sense of movement and excitement to the centerpiece. Place the items casually, as you would see them outside, and continue the outdoor theme by using rustic place mats and simple napkins and dishes.” Most of the items came from outside his door. The hyacinth bulbs and the peat pots were the only purchased items for a total cost of just $10. The first version of this centerpiece included old bird nests collected from a fencerow, but when a bunch of baby spiders started crawling out, the nests were quickly replaced with twine balls.

Spring Centerpiece     

Recreate your own: Start by arranging interesting logs cut to various lengths. Add young bulbs and peat pots full of spring blossoms. Trace used hyacinth bulbs and Bradford pear flowers, but daffodils and cherry would work equally well. Use what you have. Tuck small branches, pinecones and moss along the edges.


In mid-May, Trace fashioned this stunning centerpiece using flowers cut from my garden. He gave me some pointers while he worked. “Look at what you group together in the garden. If they complement each other there, they’ll look good in a vase. And play with the form of your vase; here I chose an antique cement urn to contrast with the relaxed arrangement of the flowers. I also like how it looks on this concrete table. You can’t go wrong when you match materials; wood on wood, glass on glass … it always works.”

Early summer arrangement

Recreate your own: Soak floral foam in water overnight and center it in the container. Casually arrange branches of native mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). Cut the lavender blooms of false indigo (Baptisia spp.) slightly longer and add them to the bouquet.


This centerpiece was amazing, and the pictures do not do it justice. However, when I try this on my own, I’ll do it on a much smaller scale, because it was the most time-consuming project of the year. Trace wanted to mimic a country roadside in the fall when the wildflowers make you want to pull the car over and take a walk. We each spent several hours cutting long stems of goldenrod (Solidago spp.), Liatris and asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); then Trace spent another hour adjusting the lengths and arranging.

Fall wildflower centerpiece

Recreate your own: Laws and ordinances regarding picking roadside flowers vary from state to state, and we’re not suggesting illegal activity, but if you live in an area that allows it, cut what you see. Be a good gardener, however, and don’t weaken a plant by over-cutting. Use an informal container such as this dough bowl, which is lined with plastic wrap and aluminum foil to protect it from the floral foam. Cover the foam with the shortest plants, the asters and grasses, and then add the longer stems of liatris and goldenrod. The trick is to use the same color combinations and height variations, and ideally the same plants that you would see on a ride in the country.


By fall, I knew a lot more about centerpieces, and Trace thought it was time I learned how a centerpiece for a dinner party differs from other centerpieces. He charged tuition for this class – a big pot of chili. “It’s important to keep the arrangement low. There’s nothing worse than having to play peek-a-boo around a tall centerpiece when you want to talk to someone across the table. Keep it narrow so guests don’t feel crowded, and make sure the food is the only fragrant thing on the table. Don’t let anything compete with the centerpiece; it needs to look good with everything else on the table: the dishes, the napkins, the china, the linens … everything.” He used four different, yet similar, china patterns, and when he ran out of placemats, he fashioned his own using grapevine left over from the centerpiece. It was a relaxed gathering and the centerpiece matched the mood.

Fall formal centerpiece

Recreate your own: A crowd of pumpkins with unique textures and colors serves as the backbone of this centerpiece. Varieties such as ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’, ‘Galeuse d’Eysines’, the bluish gray ‘Jarrahdale’, or ‘Musquee de Provence’ are good candidates. Or use interesting squash such as ‘Fairy’, ‘Sweet Dumpling’, ‘Turban’ or ‘Potimarron’. Wind dried grapevines around the pumpkins; add red berries, groundsel tree flowers (Baccharis halimifolia) and Eleagnus foliage.


For this, the easiest of the centerpieces, Trace combined logs and branches into a minimalist piece of art, and then transitioned it for Christmas with a few simple additions. He says, “This is the most versatile of the arrangements we’ve done. An attention-grabber inside or out, I use arrangements like this by an entryway or as a fireplace accent.”

Arrangement for winter into holidays

Recreate your own: Hunt for interesting logs and branches then arrange them to suit the space. Absolutely anything, from a large glass vase to an old galvanized bucket, works as a container. Alternatively, you can skip the container completely and just tie the bundle with a natural twine or a strip of burlap.


At Christmas, the everything-must-work-together rule was expanded from just the tabletop to all the decorations. Repeated elements tie things together, but too much repetition is boring. Trace knows how to walk the fine line between the two. He started with a large Noble fir tree where glass ornaments mingle with more natural elements. I recognized the large twine balls from February’s centerpiece. They looked great on the tree, as did the grapevine from the fall centerpiece.     

Magnolia leaves and Noble fir branches cut from the bottom of the tree are components of most of Trace’s decorations, but to varying degrees. The three outdoor centerpieces used Noble fir, Loropetalum and cedar, but they were mostly magnolia.          

Christmas centerpieces

On the dining room table, it was just the opposite, mainly Noble fir with a bit of magnolia mixed in. And whereas outside, the foliage took center stage, naturally shed antlers were the unique focal point in the dining room centerpiece. My favorite Christmas decoration was the little fir tree topped with dried blooms of Hydrangea paniculata. Did you notice those peat pots tucked in the branches? They’re left over from the February centerpiece.


We asked our editor for an extension under the pretense that a New Year’s Eve centerpiece would be a great way to end the article. Actually, we just wanted an excuse for another party. It was a small gathering of good friends, and Trace’s centerpiece was bright and shiny to celebrate the New Year, and yet relaxed and simple to match the mood. I thought the lesson here might be that sometimes it’s OK to break the rules and use an even number of objects, but when I asked Trace about it, he replied, “Well, actually I spray painted five bottles. The last one was drying on the porch when I jumped in the shower. Then I got busy and totally forgot about it.” So the real lessons are start early and don’t worry if things aren’t perfect.

New Year's Eve centerpiece

Recreate your own: Look outside for interesting twigs, branches, roots or other items, and spray paint them metallic silver. If you don’t have mercury glass votives and vases, do what Trace did and make your own. Work outside if possible; you don’t want that smell lingering when guests arrive. Collect glass items and spray the interiors with mirror paint. While they are still wet, squirt with water and either dry upside down or lightly wipe. Use the same technique for the outside of the wine bottles. Arrange small bouquets of white roses and tulips in your hand, re-cut the stems and add the twigs. Create a dense arrangement by grouping things tightly.


I’m sad that my year of training with the master is over. Researching an article has never been so much fun. Hmmm … maybe next year Trace can teach me something else.


Trace’s Tips:
• Repeating elements from your centerpiece, create small, coordinating arrangements in bathrooms or tucked into bookshelves.
• Let fallen petals lie.
• Don’t skimp when you are cutting. It usually takes more than you think.
• Press beautiful leaves and use a paint pen to make unique place cards.
• Tie fresh rosemary around napkins to serve as a natural napkin ring.
• Just as you should always plant in odd numbers – 3, 5, 7 – always use odd numbers of elements.



A version of this article appeared in a March 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography by Peggy Hill and Monica Hill.


Posted: 04/20/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

How To: Prune Crape Myrtles
by Kerry Heafner    

How to Prune Crape Myrtles

- Video Transcript, Demonsration by Kerry Heafner.

Crape Myrtles have been fixtures in the landscapes of homes in the United States since at least the 1700s. And more and more we’re seeing crape myrtle show up in the landscapes of urban settings as well and it stands to reason. They're hardy durable trees, they stand up to heat and humidity well and they tolerate a lot of air pollution and have relatively few pest compared to a lot of other ornamental trees. But they are trees and they do get tall and eventually, especially in an urban setting they start to interfere with the power lines, just like this one is doing right here.

This pruning technique leads to something we call crape murder. These plans have been cut off at about head high leaving the wounds open to all types of fungal and insect pest. So the question is how should a crape myrtle be pruned correctly? Today we're gonna look at how to correctly prune crape myrtles. 

So crape myrtles are being used more and more in urban landscapes and what we see here is a line of them along this busy highway for beautification purposes. And they do need to be pruned, so let’s walk up here and watch some of our local master gardeners prune these crape myrtles. 

So one of the first things we want to look for when we’re pruning on the inside, is any branches that are rubbing, and those will be the first ones pruned out typically. That’s just going to create problems later on as the tree grows and ages. So remove one of the two branches that are rubbing together and that will help open up the inside of the trunks. 

What Jennifer is doing now is just trimming off any of these smaller limbs that the tree will put energy to in the spring time. But we’re more interested in the tree growing up right and out in forming a nice canopy. So a lot of these little limbs on the inside are going to get taken out. 

You want to keep in mind the four D’s of pruning. Diseased, damaged, decay, and dead, and those are the branches you're going to cut out first. 

This is last year's fruit and seed crop, and if we look at these capsules that are just about all of them are completely open. We might still find some of last year’s seeds. Well they’re not going to service the purpose for this year so we want to remove these off of the tree. With an older crape Myrtle like this specimen, we're gonna start with removing the suckers from around the base of it because they won't do anything but zap energy from the main trunks that we want to grow into the tree. 

Now some of the final cuts you want to make on a more mature crate Myrtle are going to happen at the top. Maybe take about the first 6 or 8 inches off of the very top and you're good to go. 

So now you have some basic tips for how to prune crape myrtles correctly and not committing crape murder. For State By State Gardening, I'm Kerry Heafner.


Posted: 04/06/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Two Dozen Cut Flowers You Must Grow in 2016
by Jean Starr    

Ageratum ‘Blue Horizon’, Heuchera ‘Autumn Bride’, Hypericum inodorum and variegated Phlox spp. cool off the hot shades of Zinnia spp. The Easy Arranger wire frame makes it easy to shape the bouquet in a wide-mouthed vase.

Grow the best flowers for stunning indoor arrangements

No matter what size your garden, you can have a bouquet in the making if you plant a few key plants. From long-lasting coral bell leaves to daffodils or hellebores, it’s likely you’re already growing some of the best flowers for a stunning indoor arrangement. 

Sizeable bouquets benefit from a focal point of large flowers — think Hydrangea spp., Dahlia spp., Paeonia spp. and Lilium spp. As extravagant as these show-offs tend to be, they’re often improved by some smaller flowers and greenery. In addition to the big, show-off flowers, tuck a few of these into your garden for great backdrops in a vase.

Allium carinatum ssp. pulchellum adds life to this bouquet of ornamental oregano, echinacea, lilies, larkspur, hydrangea, bell flowers (Campanulas spp.) and Hypericum spp. The Easy Arranger fitted over the opening of the vase keeps the stems straight.

Some plants most gardeners already have can contribute extra charm to a fresh bouquet. The variegated Phlox ‘Nora Leigh’ should be grown more for its foliage than its flowers; the leaves of Heuchera last for nearly a week in a vase. Bread poppies (Papaver somniferum) can be easily started from seed; the double forms mimic peonies in July. One of the easiest-to-grow American native perennials looks great in a vase: Barbara’s buttons (Marshallia grandiflora). Barbara’s buttons will grow well in partial shade, and their pale pink flowers provide dots of color in any arrangement. 

This allium blooms in July on 18-inch stems, making it a great addition to bouquets.

Vase Shapes and Aids for Arrangements     

One of the most useful vase shapes has a semi-narrow body with a wider opening. These provide support for stems, allowing them to curve at the top of the arrangement. The wire supports by Easy Arranger ( are great to use with a variety of vase shapes and sizes, or look for small grouped vases like the Pooley 2 ( And whether they’re called frogs or forms, aids to design can be found at specialty sites or created inexpensively with clear Scotch tape or chicken wire.


Try these this season

Once only available to florists, gardeners now can grow Hypericum inodorum like this ‘Mystical Beauty’ in their own gardens.

Like peonies in July, double-flowered bread poppies mix with Barbara’s buttons (Marshallia grandiflora), larkspur and roses.

1. Ageratum ‘Blue Horizon’

2. Allium spp.

3. Asters (Symphyotrichum spp.)

4. Astilbe spp.

5. Astrantia spp.

6. Campanula spp.

7. Celosia spp.

8. Cosmos spp.

9. Dahlia spp.

10. Dill (Anethum graveolens)

11. Echinacea spp.

12. Eucomis spp.

13. Euphorbia spp.

14. Heuchera spp.

15. Hypericum inodorum - First Editions series 

16. Hydrangea spp.

17. Kniphofia spp.

18. Larkspur (Delphinium consolida)

19. Lilies (Lilium spp.)

20. Marshallia spp.

21. Peonies (Paeonia spp.)

22. Phlox spp.

23. Poppies (Papaver spp.)

24. Zinnias spp.










A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography by Jean Starr, Bailey Nurseries, and First Editions.


Posted: 04/06/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

An Elephant in the Outdoor Room
by Steve Asbell    

‘Small and boldly patterned hybrids like ‘Amazonica’ and ‘Polly’ are only suitable for Zones 10-11.
They may also be grown as houseplants.

Emerging from the garden like a blast of blaring trumpets with its huge leaves held aloft in celebration, you could hardly call the Alocasia a mere “elephant ear.” Sure, their leaves do resemble those of the related Colocasia and Xanthosoma genera, but an alocasia is more dramatic and architectural in every way; with thick trunklike stems that allow it to grow ever higher, a bold silhouette that commands attention and leaf veins so strong and prominent that they resemble the vaulted ceilings of Renaissance cathedrals.       

Sitting beneath enormous backlit leaves, you may feel as if you’re inside a cathedral.

The main selling point of these plants is their size, and some can get downright massive. Alocasia odora and A. macrorrhizos are two of the largest species, reaching 6-8 feet tall. ‘Borneo Giant’ can even exceed 12 feet tall. Some cultivars and hybrids draw attention for reasons other than sheer size. If you don’t want to overwhelm your garden, ‘California’ has small wide leaves and a bushy habit, which make it useful as a ground cover or in small spaces. The leaves of ‘Tiny Dancers’ are so small that they appear almost comical. ‘Stingray’ is notable for its unusual stingray-shaped leaves, while the metallic black A. plumbea nigra stands out for its unusual coloration and sheen.

Alocasia have been favorites of tropical landscape architects the world over, from Bali’s Made Wijaya to Brazil’s Roberto Burle Marx and Florida’s own Raymond Jungles, and now they’ve hit the mainstream with new and exciting cultivars jutting out above the foliage at garden centers all over Florida. They are immensely useful as focal points, accents, container “thrillers,” or even temporary screens. Best of all, these plants captivate and stimulate the imagination.

Alocasia plants are especially suitable for capturing the look of tropical Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Australia where they are naturally found, and when planted along with lady palms (Rhapis excelsa) and birds nest ferns (Asplenium nidus), they whisk you away to an exotic Balinese spa. They’re especially picturesque when grown at the edge of a pool or water feature, where the reflection of their leaves makes them seem twice as large.

Upright elephant ears have such large and dramatic leaves that they contrast well with the textures of most other plants. Combine with bushy natives like firebush (Hamelia patens) and wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa) to add a touch of the exotic. Or go all-out exotic by pairing it with Cordyline, gingers, bananas (Musa spp.), and bamboo.

‘California’ is also ideal as a large-scale ground cover in large landscapes, such as this one at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

For a “rainforest” look plant elephant ears with a variety of foliage plants such as moisture-loving palm trees like Everglades palm (Acoelorrhaphe wrightii) and needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) and an assortment of ferns with different sizes and textures.

While only enjoyed as summer bulbs (rhizomes) up North, upright elephant ears can be grown right in the ground throughout Florida. You can either purchase the rhizomes as-is, or obtain some by dividing established plants. To grow the rhizomes, first plant them sideways in sphagnum moss or coir to prevent rot. Plant the rhizome in the ground after it has grown roots and leaves. While this method is rewarding and affordable, it’s much faster to purchase a plant in a 3-gallon container from the nursery.     

In Zones 8 and 9, plant upright elephant ears from spring through summer. Growers in Zone 10 can plant them year round.

Water collects in the leaf axils, providing hydration for wildlife like this green anole.

This clump at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is made even more spectacular by its placement at water’s edge.




Alocasia are very adaptable, but do best with mid-day shade and plenty of moisture. Choose a spot that stays naturally moist, such as in a low area of your property where water puddles after it rains. If you must grow it elsewhere, amend the planting site with compost and irrigate either by hand or with a soaker hose whenever the plant starts to suffer. Even if your plant is looking terrible during a dry spell, it will likely perk back up when rains resume. Plants grown in shade tolerate drought better than those grown in full sun.      

With the exception of ‘Amazonica’ and others commonly grown as houseplants,  elephant ears can grow throughout the state. While elephant ears are sensitive to frosts and freezes, they quickly rebound to their former stature within a few months, often returning from the stem.     





Grow These Other Elephant Ears   
These Alocasia relatives are also quite impressive and are also thankfully non-invasive.

Container Elephant ears are even more dramatic and imposing when planted along a path.

Colocasia gigantea ‘Thailand Giant’ – Reaching 9 feet tall with 5-foot-long leaves, this elephant ear is probably the biggest.

Colocasia ‘Black Ripple’ – This one has glossy black leaves and is quite resilient. Great for container combinations.

Xanthosoma aurea ‘Lime Zinger’ – Perfect for brightening up a partly shaded garden with its chartreuse foliage.

Xanthosoma violacea – The purple hue of this large elephant ear is a good fit for gardens with subdued palettes.


Elephant Ears to Avoid
Not all elephant ears are gentle giants. These monsters are categorized as invasive and should not be grown in Florida.

Colocasia esculenta – Commonly grown as a summer bedding plant up North. In peninsular Florida, however, it’s very invasive.

Xanthosoma sagittifolium – It’s also – you guessed it – invasive and should not be planted. Grow ‘Lime Zinger’ instead.


Alocasia ‘California’ is an ideal size for small gardens.



A version of this article appeared in print in Florida Gardening Volume 21 Issue 2.
Photography by Steve Asbell.




Posted: 04/06/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Teeny Tiny: Creating a Garden in Miniature
by Debbie Clark    

Flagstones can instantly create patios, raised beds become hillsides, and flat river pebbles stand in for stepping stones.

Miniature gardens can be fairy gardens, gnome or elf gardens, railroad gardens or simply miniature tableaus. Space isn’t a limitation – but you might need to expand your imagination.     

Have you ever wanted a beautiful garden with arbors, water features, furniture and unusual plants? Maybe that garden you dreamed of is not in your budget or you just don’t have the space or time. Why not make that dream come true in a miniature garden? A miniature garden can be planted in a container or in a garden bed. If you are planting in a container, you will need soil and an unusual container for your garden. For both container gardens and in-ground gardens, you will need small-leaved plants, rocks, miniature garden accessories and lots of imagination. Creating a miniature garden in a container can take less than an hour to create. Larger in-ground gardens can take a bit longer, or be an ongoing project, depending on the size. Here is how to create a miniature garden in three easy steps.  

Step 1: Design Your Garden 
Decide if your garden will be in sun, part shade or shade. Light conditions will determine what plants you can select and grow. If you are planting a garden directly in the ground, select your site and take the time to draw up a design. Since this garden will be bigger and in a permanent location, drawing your garden design on paper will make it easier to see the garden as a finished product. Use your imagination in designing. After you have selected a location and created your design, you can now prepare your bed for planting. If you are planting directly into the ground, amend the soil if needed before planting.  

This beautiful miniature garden was constructed in a container. It is complete with a house, plantings and garden tools. This would be a fun project to do with children that would introduce them to gardening.

If you are planting this mini garden in a container, look for a container that is interesting and has good drainage. Containers could be old drawers, wood boxes, bowls, baskets or other items that can hold soil. Fill your container with a good commercial potting soil. 

Step 2: Plant Your Garden 
Many local nurseries and websites carry small plants for miniature gardens. They can be a little pricey to purchase, but you can find some interesting plants with great color, form and texture. You can also use small boxwood shrubs as trees. They can be pruned and shaped to show off their limbs and bark like a real full-size tree. Plants like miniature hostas, sedums, Irish moss (Sagina subulata), wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus), baby tears (Soleirolia soleirolii), creeping golden Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) and small-leaved ground cover plants can all be used in miniature gardening. Plant your garden in a pleasing design like you would a full-size garden using plants in different sizes, shape, colors and textures. Moss can be added to the garden as a ground cover to age the garden and to cover exposed soil. 

Step 3: Add Your Garden Accessories
Most large nursery stores carry miniature furniture, fences, houses, garden tools, arbors, birdhouses and other items or you can buy them online. Look around your house for items that can be repurposed for your miniature garden. When selecting accessories, be creative and always remember to work in scale to all the other elements of the garden. Arrange your garden accessories like rocks, fences, fountains, chairs, animals and fairies to form a pleasing and interesting space in your miniature garden. 

The store-bought walls, castle and fountain create the hardscapes in this vignette, and dwarf plants stand in as shrubs and trees in a backdrop of pea gravel.

When the end of the growing season comes, remove all of your decorative accessories for winter storage. If you planted a container, move your container to a protected area for the winter.  

Growing a miniature garden can be a fun way to garden, and the easy way to have that garden of your dreams.

This miniature railroad garden is located at the Taltree Arboretum and Gardens located in Valparaiso, Indiana.

Thyme, creeping Jenny, sedum, a bonsai tree and other small-leaved plants give the red chairs and wheelbarrow the proper scale.


A version of this article appeared in a Mar/Apr 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Debbie Clark.



Posted: 04/06/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Easy Eggplant
by Barb Henny    

‘Dusky’ eggplant is a reliable Florida summer vegetable.

In 1999, a student came from Sri Lanka to the Mid-Florida Research Center in Apopka to study the genetic relationships of Anthuriums. Mostly he spent hours alone in the laboratory testing DNA samples, but during lunchtime, people crowded around him in the break room. He cooked an eggplant recipe that was delicious. Everyone wanted a taste; everyone wanted the recipe; everyone wanted to go home and plant a garden full of eggplant to cook. 

If you are an average American, you eat less than one pound of eggplant per year. Most likely, you visit an Italian-style restaurant and enjoy an order of Eggplant Parmesan. You think little about this vegetable beyond that one tasty meal.   

On the other side of the world, political, religious and cultural influences favor vegetarian diets. Eggplant is a valuable food commodity in India, where it was first domesticated around 2500 BC.

Buddhist monks introduced eggplant into China around 600 AD. The Chinese called it “Malaysian melon” indicating that the plant had traveled west from India through Southeast Asia before moving north. Economic and agricultural factors in China secured eggplant’s crop value. Today China is the world’s largest producer of eggplant.     

Food historian Frederick Simoons refers to an area of the globe between latitudes 20 and 30°N as the “spice belt” because the majority of the world’s spice crops are grown there. Eggplant thrives in these areas too, and it has married almost every spice signature it has met. Its sweet, mild flavor plays well in dishes in the Middle East and Mediterranean. Vegetarian eggplant doesn’t have to be bland; it can be made quite zesty.      

‘Ichiban’ is a long, thin variety from Japan.

Florida also lies within these latitudes. Our climate is ideal for raising eggplant in a home garden. In southern Florida, without freezes, eggplant can be grown as a perennial. The ease of cultivation might be your first step to enjoying eggplant.      

Variety selection is important. At Eastertime, “egg plants” appear at retail outlets. These are ornamental, potted plant, seasonal novelty eggplants loaded with small white or yellow fruit. They are cute but too bitter to be consumed. I have grown an edible white variety called “Gretel”, but as a traditionalist, I want purple.  “Dusky”, “Black Beauty”, “Park’s Whopper Hybrid” and “Ichiban” have all performed well in my Zone 9 garden.    

Eggplant is reliable. After all, it’s been cultivated for over 4,000 years now. I start seeds in a hobby greenhouse in February. I sow 8-10 seeds into one 4-inch pot filled with pre-moistened commercial potting mix. I cover the seeds lightly with the same mix and water with a sprinkler nozzle or watering can.      

When the seedlings germinate and develop 4 leaves, I separate them, planting one singleton per four-inch pot. I can easily hold them even if they get quite large before transplant into the garden after all chance of freeze has passed in March. In the garden, space transplants 3 feet apart and 3 feet between rows. This may look wide in the beginning, but by May the plants will touch each other.  As your plants become ever larger, you may want to stake unruly branches to keep new fruit off the ground. Eggplant skin scratches easily in the sand.     

Fertilize initially with a liquid feeding (1 teaspoon 20-20-20 per gallon); after that, side dress with granular 6-8-8 about every 2 weeks. Be sure to wash any granular fertilizer off the leaves to avoid burning them. Eggplant needs full sun 6 to 8 hours per day minimum. Irrigate if rain is insufficient. Eggplant leaves will yellow and drop if subjected to drought. Watch for caterpillars; treat with Bt.      

Eggplant thrives in the hottest part of summer. However, when temperatures are consistently above 95°F, eggplant will not bloom or produce fruit. Don’t pull the crop out. Keep up with irrigation and as soon as cool weather returns, flowering and fruiting resumes. Our eggplants produce reliably until late October when overnight temperatures fall into the 40’s. Production slows and our eight-month eggplant season ends. 


Eggplant flowers are a beautiful lavender color.    

Dayawansa Ranamukhaarachchi shared his Sweet and Sour Garlic Eggplant with everyone he met.     

Your second step to enjoying more eggplant might be trying this easy recipe. 


Daya’s Eggplant     

-Peel one large eggplant, slice into rounds and lightly fry in oil until brown.
-In a separate pan, combine these ingredients and heat until the sugar dissolves: 

•½ cup white wine vinegar
•2 Tablespoons sugar
•2 cloves fresh chopped garlic
•½ teaspoon chili powder
•Salt and pepper to taste 

-Add the eggplant to the sweet/ sour sauce and heat together thoroughly. Serve over rice.



A version of this article appeared in print in Florida Gardening Volume 20 Issue 1.
Photography courtesy of Debbie Clark.


Posted: 04/01/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Seeds in Situ
by Deb Terrill    

There’s a special thrill that comes from saying “I grew it from seed.” Try it and see for yourself.     

When I was a child, I spent many lovely, sunny hours in the garden of our neighbor Genevieve. It was a smallish yard, enclosed with a low picket fence, and made to feel private with great pools  of annual flowers that bloomed all summer. There were clouds of tall yellow blossoms I recall, and red vining things that spilled over the fence. I remember being drawn to the low patches of pink and blue petunias that spread out over the sidewalk and perfumed the air on still afternoons. 

Genevieve planted her flowers from seed each spring, sowing them directly into the prepared soil. This simple, inexpensive way of filling a garden with color seems lost today, but that needn’t be the case. Seeds are readily available, and even the busiest gardener can find time to directly sow a few packets. 

Select a spot in your garden to create a bed. Try for a space that gets plenty of sun all day and is accessible with a garden hose. If you have mostly shade, just be careful to choose plants that prefer it. Make sure the space is large enough to accommodate the big splashes of vegetation that will make the effort worthwhile. 

Prepare the soil by weeding thoroughly and raking to break up clumps and make it as smooth and finely textured as possible. Don’t work soil when it’s wet, especially if it’s clay-based. I like to prepare planting beds by sitting on the ground and taking my time breaking up the soil, crumbling it with my hands and working in some compost with a small hand rake.  

Cosmos spp.

You should not use any pre-emergent weed control products in these beds because they will prevent your seeds from germinating, too. After you have a smooth bed of prepared soil, select your seeds. 

Choose seeds that are labeled for sale in the current year and check the package to see that you are not buying something that has a very long germination period. Seeds that take more than 10 to 14 days to germinate may not be the best choice for direct sowing.  

Don’t buy too many kinds of plants. Try three to begin, and include plants with varying heights for an appealing display. A few flowers that do very well when direct-sown include larkspur, cosmos, annual vines, zinnia, daisies, poppies, four o’clocks, cleome, sweet peas and nigella. 

There is no reason why you cannot plant perennials in situ as well as annuals. But do remember that perennials and biennials generally don’t bloom the first year.  

Vegetable gardeners are better versed in planting from seed, but for those who are new to it, some garden plants are better off started under lights or purchased as transplants. Vegetables with taproots such as carrots, beets, radishes and parsnips do not transplant easily, so they are better off sown directly into the garden. The same is true of greens such as lettuce, spinach and kale. 

Early-blooming flowers such as poppies and violas can be directly sown very early, in March, but most seeds should wait until the soil warms up and the danger of frost has passed. You  may start peas and lettuce early too, in late March. I also like to plant lettuce and spinach in late September for a fall crop of greens. 

When you bring your seeds home, examine them before planting. Those that are large and easy to handle, such as beans or nasturtiums, will be planted more deeply than the finer seeds. The smaller the seed, the more light it needs to germinate, so fine seeds should be scattered on the surface and barely scratched into the soil. Soak larger seeds for up to 24 hours in tepid water. This will ensure that they are fully infused with water and won’t dry out as easily. Soaking will also speed germination. 

Tiny seeds can be soaked, too. They may then be mixed with sand to make them easier to broadcast over the soil. Many gardeners report that blanketing the bed with a thin layer of bagged seed-starting mix makes a better place for fine seeds to settle in and helps them hold moisture. 

Zinnia spp.

By starting your planting with a well-saturated bed and fully moist seeds, you will be able to get through brief periods of drying out without losing your planting. But you will still need to mist the soil daily with a gentle-spray hose wand. 

Rain is very helpful, but a hard rain can cause the seeds to float or clump into furrows and low-lying soil pockets. If at all possible, listen to the weather forecast and try not to plant when heavy rains are expected within the next week. If this does happen, just thin the seedlings and try tamping the extras into the empty spots. 

One of the joys of direct sowing is the bonus of having repeat plants in following years. Many flowers such as larkspur, four o’clocks, viola and poppies will self sow and come up year after year. I have a stand of blue larkspur that I planted 10 years ago and it still lines my walkway with a mist of blue flowers from May through June. The seeds fall at will and the volunteers move around a bit in the garden, but it is wonderful to find Johnny jump-ups and forget-me-nots popping up here and there among the vegetables and perennials … and the occasional sidewalk crack.


A version of this article appeared in Chicagoland Gardening Volume XX, Number 2.
Photos courtesy of Patsy Bell Hobson, Chuck Eirschele, and Bigstock-Pressmaster.


Posted: 03/29/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Hottest Plants for 2016
by Maria Zampini    

Who wouldn’t fall in love with star-shaped violet-blue, sweetly-scented flowers of ‘New Love’ clump-forming clematis

Check out these cool new plants for the new gardening season. 

Although the frost-free date in your area is probably a couple of weeks off, there is no reason you can’t dream of spring — sun, warmer temperatures, birds chirping, digging in the soil and the smell of earth and rebirth. Of course you look forward to replanting favorites that perform well year after year. But you can’t help but ponder what “new” items you might want to incorporate into your landscape.     

Some of the hottest new plant introductions debuted in this year’s New Varieties Showcase at the Farwest Trade Show in Portland, Ore., and they’ll be available soon through your local growers, landscapers, retailers and mail-order nurseries.     

Tomato or potato? Have both with ‘Ketchup ‘n Fries’, a sweet cherry plant grafted onto a delicious white potato plant.

Let’s start with some incredible edibles. One of the Plant of Merit award winners was ‘Ketchup ‘n’ Fries’ (Solanum lycopersicum/Solanum tuberosum 'Ketchup 'n' Fries'), a cherry tomato grafted onto a white potato (no, I’m not joking). This crazy, cool duo has been featured on “Good Morning America” and “The Colbert Report.” On this plant you can pick tomatoes throughout the growing season, and then cut the plant off at the base. Wait a couple weeks to season and sweeten the potatoes, and then you can harvest those. You can grow this two-in-one plant in large containers or in the ground.     

Purple Pixie grape (Vitis vinifera 'Pinot Meunier Purple'), also sold as Patio Pinot in the HGTV Home Plant Collection, is the first true dwarf grape in the world. It provides clusters of miniature grapes with a sweet, tart flavor. The fruit can be enjoyed fresh or as a garnish. It is best grown in a container, but it can also perform in the landscape. Hardy to USDA Zone 3.     

The Brazelberries brand has added a new blueberry to their line called ‘Perpetua’ (Vaccinium corymbosum 'Perpetua'). It is a true double-cropping blueberry that bears a midsummer crop followed by a second crop in the fall. The berries are somewhat small, mild and sweet. The shrub is upright, vase-shaped and hardy to USDA Zone 4. It will reach 4-5 feet tall and wide, and as with all blueberries prefers acidic soil. The new canes are bright yellow and red in the winter providing color against the snow.     

For the perennial lover and pollinator provider, consider Butterfly ‘Rainbow Marcella’ coneflower (Echinacea 'Rainbow Marcella'). Unlike other Echinacea spp., this beauty goes through a unique color transformation opening a bright tangerine-orange, and then changing to a deep mauve from the center outwards. Sturdy stems provide a mounded bushy habit reaching 18-24 inches tall and wide; it is hardy to USDA Zone 5. It will perform well in the mixed perennial border or as a focal point with long-lasting color in a mixed container.  

Butterfly ‘Rainbow Marcella’ coneflower is like getting two echinacea for the price of one due to its unique color change;  bright tangerine-orange blooms change to a deep mauve.

While Digiplexis Illumination ‘Apricot’ of the Southern Living Collection is only hardy to USDA Zone 8, it is a worthy container plant for northern gardens. It is undeniably a pollinator magnet as bees and hummingbirds will simply flock to it. It performs well in full sun to part shade. Digiplexis come in other colors, too, including ‘Flame’, ‘Berry Canary’ and ‘Raspberry’.     

Brighten up a container or the landscape bed with the striking chartreuse with green edge foliage of ‘Eversheen’ carex.

If you’re after fine foliage, which provides consistent color all growing season while other plants go in and out of flower, then here are a couple of prime choices. First up is ‘Eversheen’ sedge grass (Carex EverColor 'Eversheen'). Part of the EverColor Series of Carex spp. from breeder Pat Fitzgerald of Ireland, ‘Eversheen’ provides a striking chartreuse foliage with a green edge. Reaching around 16 inches tall, this compact, mounding ornamental grass is ideal in mass plantings, the perennial border or in a mixed container.     

Another fine foliage option is ‘Old Fashioned’ smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Old Fashioned'). But don’t let the name fool you; it’s not the Cotinus sp. your Grandma had. This more compact version boasts purple new growth that matures to a eucalyptus-like blue-green color. In autumn, the leaves turn a fluorescent mix of red, pink and orange that will knock your garden boots off. At approximately 6 feet tall and 5 feet wide, it is best used as a specimen in the landscape, but can also be trained into a small tree. An added benefit is that its airy blooms make a great cut flower. Oh, and did I mention it is deer resistant, too?   

‘Old Fashioned’ cotinus is a perfect shrub choice for its deer-resistant foliage.

No matter what they say, you can always make room in the yard for another rose or hydrangea. From the breeder of Knock Out roses, Will Radler, comes Peach Lemonade rose (Rosa 'Radpastel'). It provides multiple colors as the blooms begin a pleasing lemon yellow then as they fade, turns to a blush pink. Because it can bloom from summer through fall, you’ll end up with both yellow and pink flowers at the same time. This carefree, disease-resistant rose is hardy to USDA Zone 3 and matures at 3 feet tall and wide.     

This multi-colored rose starts out lemon yellow and fades to a blush pink; Peach Lemonade is sweet as the drink.

As gardeners we’re always looking for something to brighten up shady areas. That’s where Back in Black ‘Zebra’ hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla Back in Black 'Zebra') comes in. The bright white flowers contrast against the lush green foliage and black stems (yes, I said black). Each individual bloom on this mophead looks like it was edged with pinking shears. It flowers on both new and old wood reaching 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide. 

A truly unique hydrangea, Inspire (Hydrangea macrophylla 'H21-3'), is a mophead but the individual flowers look like stars. The “stars” start as small flowers, and then turn into large, double flowers. It, too, blooms on both old and new wood, but it will get 5-6 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide. 

For a ruffled flower look, then ‘Spike’ hydrangea (H. macrophylla 'Spike') is the one for you. The mophead blooms will vary in color depending on soil pH. Its size ranges from 4 feet tall to 3 feet wide.

Any of these hydrangeas are excellent in the landscape in mass plantings, in the shrub border, as a specimen or in larger mixed containers.     

If you’re a better-than-average gardener, love tropicals, and don’t mind bringing them inside after the summer season has ended, then try either ‘Little Angel Blush’ brugmansia (Brugmansia × hybrida 'Little Angel Blush'), also an Award of Merit winner or ‘Little Angel Yellow’ brugmansia. Large, fragrant, trumpet-like flowers hang from this subtropical shrub and bloom all summer long with no breaks. These are beautiful in larger containers and can reach 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Please note that all parts of a brugmansia plant are toxic, so this may not be a good choice for homes with pets or small children.     

Oh, so many new plants to choose from, so little room in the landscape. It reminds me of a line from one of the “Indiana Jones” movies: “Choose wisely.”  

Photo Gallery

The white flowers of Tuxedo weigela (Weigela × 'Velda') give a contrasting pop against its dark foliage.

Digiplexis, such as Illumination ‘Apricot’, while not hardy to our area, are a pollinator magnet for bees and hummingbirds. That makes them a worthwhile seasonal container plant. 

Purple Pixie grape is the first true dwarf grapevine. Enjoy it in a container on your patio deck or in the landscape; it is USDA Zone 3 hardy.

A version of this article appeared in a Jan/Feb 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
All Photos Courtesy of the Oregon Association of Nurserymen.


Posted: 03/28/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Proper Seed for a Proper Lawn
by Neil Moran    

Establishing a lawn is a lot like entering a relationship with someone. You get out of it what you put into it. Fortunately, growing grass is a little less complicated. Here is some expert advice on starting a lawn from seed, patching up a bare spot, laying sod and one option that requires very little mowing.

Be sure to keep newly seeded grass evenly moist. This may mean watering for 10 or 15 minutes twice a day.


When talking lawns, I tell folks to scrimp on the kid’s shoes, but not on lawn seed. Since you’re about to invest considerable time and effort preparing a lawn for seeding, it is important you don’t fall short by purchasing poor quality seed.

Fortunately, there are seed companies out there that do for grass seed what Maytag does for washing machines, including offering a warranty.

When shopping for grass seed, one of the most important things to look for, besides the particular grass seed mixture, is germination date, according to Joseph Rivera, a lawn care expert for the Scotts Co.

“Always check the test date,” Rivera said. “Every year that passes after the initial test date, the germination rate goes down 5 percent.”


Cool Season Grasses

The best seed varieties for Upper Midwest lawns are the cool season grasses: Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) and fescue (Festuca ssp.). Perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne L.) is often thrown in a mix because it establishes itself quickly. However, it will eventually die out after the other species have established themselves. Kentucky bluegrass grows well in sunny locations while the fescues grow best in shade.

Reputable seed suppliers, such as Scotts, Pennington and GreenView, sell blends to fit any growing situation. They also offer fertilizer blends with recommended rates and time of application, which are usually spring, summer and fall.

“Our seed is guaranteed to grow anywhere – cool season, warm season – and we offer a product guarantee. If a customer isn’t satisfied with the product they can send in the UPC for a refund,” says Rivera.

Before seeding your lawn have a soil test done. Check with your county cooperative extension agency ( for where to have this done. A test will not only give you an indication of existing nutrients in the soil, but also the pH. The test results should provide specific recommendations for adding fertilizer and other nutrients.

“I would really recommend a soil test be done, to know where you’re at,” said Paul Hoffman, a 35-year veteran in the turf industry and product expert for Growth Products Ltd., which markets Simple Success brand of natural or organic fertilizers and amendments.


Establishing a Lawn

Despite what you may have heard, starting a new lawn isn’t that difficult. The first step is preparing the soil.

• Remove all large stones and any debris from the area to
be seeded.

• Work the ground with a rototiller when the soil is fairly
dry. Avoid tilling wet soil.

• Rake out any clumps of roots.

• Continue to work the ground until the clumps of soil are busted up pretty good.

• The top 6 inches should be sandy loam; that is, fairly dark, rich soil. If you’re in stubborn clay or even gravel, buy quality topsoil, free of clay, gravel and large quantities of sand, from
a local contractor.

• Finally, take a garden rake to level and smooth out the soil. Flip the rake tines facing up and drag it across the soil.

• Apply a fertilizer before you start seeding. A walk-behind rotating spreader works well. Use the same spreader to apply the seed to the recommended rate per square feet.


Water, Water, Water!

The best times to sow grass seed in the Upper Midwest are spring and early fall. The seed germination period is crucial and can only be accomplished successfully by keeping the seed moist until it begins to sprout. This means you should water the freshly seeded lawn two to three times a day, keeping the seed moist but not saturated, until the grass comes up, Rivera recommended.

After it has sufficiently sprouted, apply at least 1 inch of water twice a week. You can determine how much an inch of water is by placing a container, such as a tuna can, underneath a sprinkler to see how long it takes to fill to an inch. Try to keep the kids and pets off the newly established lawn until it is well established. Mow the new lawn when it’s about 4 inches tall. Remember to keep the lawn at 3 to 3 ½ inches tall.


Bill Carney developed the Proplugger 5-IN-1 tool as a way to transplant plugs of grass and to dig holes for bulb planting.

Repairing Bare Sport

Repairing bare spots in a lawn is similar to establishing a new one, only with less work. Simply work the ground to be seeded with a garden rake, scuffing up the soil. Apply the seed to the loose soil per the recommended rate and water as you would a newly sown lawn. Many companies sell encapsulated seed or blends that include a mixture of mulch. These help retain moisture, requiring less watering.

Another way to repair a bare spot in the lawn is with the Proplugger 5-IN-1 kit. This tool removes good turf, or plugs, from one area of a lawn to transplant to repair a bare spot in another area. Cool season grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, have underground rhizomes that will fill in bare spots, so the plugs need be spaced only about 6 inches apart.


Installing Sod

Sod is for those who look for instant gratification
and have a few extra bucks to spend. While establishing sod is a more expensive alternative to seeding, there are many advantages to sodding, according to Bob Hoffman, owner of B & B Hoffman Farms, Inc., in
Elk River, Minnesota.

“The true advantage is it instantly raises the value of your property,” said Hoffman. He pointed to other advantages, including the fact that you can start with a weed-free lawn, no worry about the kids bringing in dirt before a seeded lawn is established, and less chance of losing topsoil to erosion.

“I know of one guy who had to seed his lawn three times due to the seed and soil washing away with the rain,” Hoffman said.

Prepare the area to be sodded the same way you would for seeding, he said. He suggests corralling a few friends or neighbors over on a weekend to help lay the sod or hire a reputable landscaper to do it for you. Water it in initially and continue to water regularly up to about 10 days and then start to cut back. Water it well during dry spells. After about two weeks you can turn the kids loose on a thick carpet of grass!

No-mow lawn seed contains fescue grasses that grow well in shady areas.

No-Mow Lawns

Some people are opting out of high maintenance lawns, which require copious quantities of water, fertilizer and countless hours behind a lawn mower. No-mow lawns, which require little to no mowing, may be a good option for folks who want to give up the time-honored, but time-consuming, task of maintaining the perfect lawn. No-mow lawns are a particularly good option for cabin and cottage owners.

“It’s a really great solution in the right situation,” says Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery, in Westfield, Wisconsin. The right situation, according to Diboll, is a well-drained soil with at least 4 inches of good topsoil. He says to avoid planting it in wet clay.

“A lot of people use it for their cottages in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan,” he said. “Man it’s great. It grows slowly and you don’t have to fertilize it.” Diboll said the last thing he wants to do when he has a weekend at his cottage is mow the lawn. Also, with a no-mow lawn, he doesn’t have to worry about fertilizer going into the lake where he fishes.

The mixture of six fescue grasses that make up no-mow seed is particularly suitable for the cool season climates of the Upper Midwest, and also shady areas. In fact, Diboll formulated this no-mow species in the 1990s after he witnessed the failure of buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides). He recommends sowing it from late August to mid September in the Upper Midwest.

Prepare the seedbed for planting a no-mow lawn as for a regular lawn. It is critical that weeds be removed from the area to be seeded. Diboll says this can be done with an herbicide, by covering the seed bed with a tarp or a season of rototilling. “Make sure any existing vegetation is completely eliminated,” he cautioned.

No-mow blends are best seeded by using a walk-behind rotary spreader. Water for the first three weeks, after which time you can put the hose away for good.

Don’t sell the mower just yet. Some folks like to mow their no-mow lawn once a month throughout the season, while others will opt for a June mowing to clip off the seed heads and then one just before the snow flies, which is a good practice for any lawn where you want to prevent thatch build up.

Sod gives an instant lawn but requires about the same amount of prep work as sowing seed.

The Proplugger 5-IN-1 tool removes good turf, or plugs, from one area of a lawn to transplant to a bare spot in another area. Cool season grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, have underground rhizomes that will fill in bare spots.


(A version of this article appeared in March/April 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening )


Posted: 03/17/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Lion’s Ear
by Karen LaSarge    


Few plants give so much for so little attention. Native to South Africa, Lion's Ear (Leonotis leonurus) is an annual flower that produces a fall display of riotous orange, fuzzy tubular blooms on long velvety stems. In USDA zones 8a and warmer, it is grown as a tender perennial. It successfully overwinters indoors.

The flowers are in compact clusters arranged in whorls around the stem, and are a beacon of nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies. White and apricot flower forms exist, but may be difficult to locate in retail markets. Fertilizing is beneficial, but many plants do well without it.

Deer purportedly avoid it. It's also fairly drought tolerant to boot, making it suitable for xeriscaping. As it can grow at a good rate by root suckers, it's a perfect plant to share with your friends. But who would want to?

It's winter hardy on the Gulf Coast, but persistent hard freezes in the low 20s may kill it. Mulch if temperatures are unusually low, and it may survive. It blooms more densely if cut back in the early spring. In most areas, think of it as an annual set to burst into fiery bloom, and you'll wonder how you ever planted a garden without it.





Botanical Name: Leonotis leonurus

Size: Approximately 4-6 ft. tall x 4 ft. wide

Sun Exposure: Full sun, light shade.

Water Requirements: More in summer, can take drought once established.

Zones: Hardy to Zone 8a. Grown as annual in colder climates.

Soil: Neutral pH, loamy well-drained soil.

Propagation: Seed, cuttings or dividing clumps.



Posted: 03/09/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Spring Ephemerals
by Margaret Gratz    

In early spring the weather is notoriously fickle. There are always a few halcyon days to beguile us, but March, seemingly on a whim, will invariably turn tempestuous. Gardeners, ever impatient for spring, often despair. In March, frustrated but experienced gardeners have learned to bide their time.

To alleviate the gardener's frustration and before the garden becomes labor intensive, may I suggest a walk in the woods? Early spring is the season for spring ephemerals, which are the loveliest most delicate wildflowers found in nature. These wildflowers, as the word ephemeral implies, are usually short-lived, but their beauty will abate your despair.

The spring ephemerals bloom on the forest floor in the leaf litter before the trees completely leaf out. In early spring, as the days lengthen, the sunlight can penetrate through the woods and warm the ground. A walk in the woods in search of these wildflowers is like going on a treasure hunt. But when you come upon these wildflowers, please resist the urge to dig. Wildflowers should never be dug from the wild unless it is a rescue mission. Take your camera and field guide along instead of your trowel.

My Favorite Spring Ephemerals:

Trillium/Little Sweet Betsy - Trillium cuneatum

Trilliums are among the best loved and most sought after wildflowers. One of the most common is Trillium cuneatum. This trillium has lovely mottled green leaves with purplish spots. The erect flowers are a deep maroon.
There are red trilliums, white trilliums, yellow trilliums and even twisted trilliums, and some are very rare indeed.  


Virginia Bluebells - Mertensia virginica

The common name for this wildflower is most descriptive. The clusters of blue flowers are indeed bellshaped, and the five yellow stamens hang down like little clappers. And they are truly blue; however, the buds are pink. Virginia bluebells are the epitome of the word ephemeral. This showy flower will completely disappear without a trace by summer's arrival.  


Bloodroot - Sanguinaria canadensis

Whenever I am unduly impatient for spring, I go out and scratch around in the leaves like a towhee to see if the bloodroot is about to emerge. Bloodroot dares to bloom when spring is but a promise. This wildflower has pure white flowers with bright yellow centers, and they shine like stars in the brown woods. The heart-shaped leaves are attractive long after the flower is gone.  


Woodland Phlox - Phlox divaricata

If you should venture out for a woodland walk in early spring, a lovely fragrance may waft your way. If so, it will probably be woodland phlox. 
Woodland phlox is not only fragrant, but its periwinkle blue flowers are enchanting. This wildflower often colonizes to create a lavender blue carpet on the forest floor. 


Dwarf Crested Iris - Iris cristata

Iris cristata, a native plant found growing on wooded slopes, is as beautiful as any commercially grown iris. And this is one wildflower that is not delicate. It is a tough plant and will multiply.  


Jacob's Ladder - Polemonium reptans

This wildflower has celestial blue flowers. The leaves are pinnately compound and do resemble a ladder, which makes for easy identification.  


Hepatica/Liver Leaf - Hepatica americana

Peeping through the brown leaves, this charming wildflower was so named because its leaves reminded someone long ago of liver. Even the botanical name, Hepatica, is Latin for liver. Trust me - the name will not deter you from appreciating this enchanting wildflower. 

There are many more early spring wildflowers that can be found growing naturally in the woods, and many of these wildflowers will fare very well in the woodland or rock garden at home. These wildflowers are perfect for shade gardens.

There are many spring ephemeral wildflowers that can be ordered from specialty catalogs, but these days, even the most familiar seed catalogs such as Park Seed and Wayside Gardens now sell some of these plants. Again, please purchase these plants from reliable sources - do not dig from the wild.

This spring, I sincerely hope that you will venture out in search of wildflowers. The hike will be invigorating, and once you have seen these spring ephemerals growing in their native habitat, you will become a wildflower devotee. Your passion for wildflowers will not be ephemeral.

Sources For Wildflowers:

Woodlanders Gardens

Easy Wildflowers

Wayside Gardens

Niche Gardens


Posted: 03/09/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

How to: Prune Roses
by Kerry Heafner    


How to Prune Rose Bushes
Demonstration by Kerry Heafner


Posted: 03/08/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Strong Bones
by Cynthia Wood    

Redoing container plantings has always been a recurring task in my garden. Recently, however, I’ve realized that it’s easy to choose plants that look fabulous all year long. Adding year-round potted pleasures to the garden not only makes my work as a gardener easier, it also helps me refine the “bones” of the garden by adding strong focal points and year round color. There’s a perfect plant for every location.

Boxwood (Buxus spp.)

Few plants evoke southern gardening traditions as strongly as boxwood. Boxwood have tiny green leaves that look the same throughout the year. Most cultivars grow slowly and will thrive in full sun or partial shade; they are very low maintenance and generally hardy in Zones 4-9.

Small cultivars, ranging in size from 1-5 feet high and 2-4 feet wide, are perfect choices. Plant them in pots that are at least as tall and wide as the plant and choose a location that provides some protection from harsh winter wind. Boxwood require a loamy potting soil that drains well. They should be watered regularly, especially during hot, dry summer months. Boxwood benefit from the addition of several inches of compost to the top of their potting soil every spring. Since boxwood are shallow rooted, other plants shouldn’t be added to their containers.

Three interesting ones to consider are ‘Glencoe’, a hybrid selected by the Chicago Botanic Garden for use in containers; ‘Green Mound’, a globe-shaped hybrid; and ‘Green Mountain’, a hybrid with a pyramidal shape that adds an interesting sculptural element to the garden.

Boxwood are a traditional choice for containers in most gardens.


If you’re looking for a plant to add architectural interest and drama to a container planting, then Yucca is an excellent choice. Y. filamentosa has upright, sword-shaped leaves that are edged with curly “hairs.” There are both green and bicolored varieties.

Yucca prefer full sun to partial sun and are highly tolerant of heat, humidity, and drought. To avoid root rot in winter, plant them in a loose soil that drains well. Hardiness varies by species and cultivar. Yucca look lovely planted alone in a wide, shallow, bowl-shaped container.

There are several bicolor yuccas that are especially dramatic in containers and are medium sized (2-3 feet tall and equally wide). Both Y. filamentosa ‘Color Guard’ and ‘Wilder’s Wonderful’ have leaves with creamy golden centers and green edges. The leaf edges of ‘Wilder’s Wonderful’ have a bluish tint.

Yucca can add instant architectural interest to the garden.


Small sedum plants are striking when planted in groups of pots.

Sedum are a group of succulents known for their colorful, fleshy foliage and ease of culture. They prefer well-drained soil and full to nearly full sun. They are generally hardy in USDA Zones 4-9. Once established, they require infrequent watering. The low-growing, creeping varieties are perfect for small accent containers and as companion plants in larger pots. Try planting sedum in groups of differently sized hypertufa pots. For more textural interest, add a large pot of moss.

Some Sedum develop interesting coloration during winter. Try S. spurium ‘Tricolor’, a low-growing creeper with pale green leaves edged with white. In winter, the leaves become pinkish. S. rupestre ‘Angelina' is another creeping variety with chartreuse needle-like foliage that turns orange in winter.


Slow-growing dwarf or miniature conifers are available in a variety of colors and shapes. Pyramids, globes, and irregular weeping forms can be found with green, blue-green, and yellow foliage. Dwarf conifers grow 1-6 inches annually; miniatures grow less than an inch annually. Growth habits range from compact to loose and open. Most dwarf and miniature conifers need moist, well-drained soil with lots of organic matter. They can be grown in sun to partial sun; they should be watered regularly and given some protection during periods of extreme cold. Most are hardy in USDA Zones 4-7 or higher.

Dwarf hinoki cypress can be used to draw attention to entrances.

Dwarf and miniature conifers generally don’t need extensive root space, so they can be planted in wide saucer-shaped bowls or troughs. Containers of conifers are striking when used as a solitary specimen near gates or grouped along a path to highlight different growth habits. Chamaecyporisobtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’ is a dwarf hinoki cypress with an irregular upright habit; C. obtusa ‘Ellie B’ is a miniature. Low-maintenance Picea glauca var. albertiana ‘Conica’ is a dwarf Alberta spruce with a compact, pyramidal growth habit and dense needles. It can be pruned as a topiary. Thuja occidentalis aurea ‘Goldenhas a very small globe shape with golden foliage.


Heuchera are low-growing, mounding plants with ruffled, heart-shaped leaves. They’re grown primarily for their colorful foliage and are available in a variety of colors – purple, burgundy with silver venation, chartreuse, and bronze. Most Heuchera prefer full to partial shade, but some newer caramel-colored cultivars can withstand more exposure to sun. They are hardy in USDA Zones 4-9. Plant Heuchera in rich, well-drained soil.

Heuchera can be used alone in medium-sized pots or as companions with other potted plants. They are excellent choices for adding interesting colors to winter gardens. ‘Paprikahas bright coral to orange foliage and can withstand full sun. ‘Velvet Night’ changes color with the seasons – red in spring, taupe in summer, and ruby red in fall. It tolerates heat, humidity and some drought. ‘Ginger Peach’ is a rapid grower with large amber ruffled leaves. It tolerates full sun and will quickly fill a container.

There are so many ways to design container combinations that look lovely year round and so many plants to consider. While there’s nothing more traditional or striking than an arrangement of containers of various sizes planted with boxwood near the entrance to a home, don’t forget nontraditional choices. Not interested in conifers or yucca? Then make a simple pot of moss, perhaps the most elegant choice of all. Consider the fleshy, prickly holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum ‘Rochfordianum’), maybe even a hardy palm. Experiment and discover the beauty of year round container gardens.

Holly fern is an evergreen variety that combines nicely with pansies for additional color in fall, winter, and spring.

The Basics

Container size: Choose an attractive container that is large enough to allow for growth and is the right shape. Some plants require deep containers, while others grow well in wide, shallow ones. Drainage is also important, so be sure that the container has drainage holes.

Container durability: Choose containers that can withstand winter cold and summer heat without cracking. Line the inside of the pot with bubble wrap for extra protection for the pot and plant.

Potting soil: Select a potting soil that is appropriate for each plant. Repot the plant and replace the soil after three to four years, if necessary.

Moisture: Container gardens require frequent watering, especially during hot summer months and again during early winter. Continue watering container plants until the soil is frozen.

Plant: Review the growing conditions for the plants you’re considering – full sun, partial sun, shade, etc. Make sure that the plants you choose are hardy in your area. Remember that pots won’t completely protect a plant’s roots from the cold. Avoid selecting a plant that requires a lot of attention. Look for plants that are particularly suitable for growing in pots.

Location: The right plant in the right pot in the best location in the garden. It’s always best to determine the location before filling the pot.


Consider leaving billowing dead grasses in pots all winter; just cut them back in early spring before they break dormancy.


A version of this article appeared in a March 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening. Photography courtesy of Cynthia Wood.



Posted: 03/08/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

The Metaphysical Garden
by Maria Zampini       #Garden Profile   #Landscaping

This is the front entrance to the “Meditation Pavilion” that won the 2014 “Project of the Year” Grand Award in the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association Landscape awards program.


This garden designer created her own green space by combining her knowledge of horticulture as well as spiritual principles, sacred geometry, Eastern thinking on healing and other philosophical fundamentals.

Like me, Nancy Drobnick grew up helping her Dad in the nursery business. Unlike me, her husband and partner in Miriam’s River House Designs, Cliff, is a certified public accountant, and a numbers man. The moment I stepped into the garden they have been renovating together since purchasing a 3-acre wooded riverfront property in Bentleyville in 2000, I knew I was entering the most out-of-this-world private garden I’ve ever had the privilege of touring.

You might think that statement is just one woman’s opinion, but you’d be mistaken. The Drobnick’s garden has won numerous design awards from the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association, the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, and most recently was named a 2015 “Best of Houzz” for design.

Nancy has been studying metaphysical principles for more than 40 years, and during that time her passion for it and plants have merged together to come forth in her plantscapes. I believe there is a right place for every plant in the landscape. However, in Nancy’s designs there is also a philosophical logic behind where and how each plant, stone and piece of artwork is placed. Their garden is different because it isn’t just pretty to look at; there is a true rhyme and reason for placement often centered on spiritual principles, sacred geometry, Eastern thinking on healing and other philosophical fundamentals.

Designer-Owner Nancy Drobnick stands at the opening to a small “Stone House Ruin Garden.” It is part of a dynamic garden design that traces the sun’s movement of time throughout the year.

Nancy says, “We believe that everything around us has a story to tell about the Universe’s purpose and our purpose within that framework. That’s what metaphysical design is in a nutshell. It is the combined philosophical concepts of many disciplines all woven into a theme to enhance our journey in conscious awareness. Through the design process we use these concepts in our structures and gardens, weaving them into a tapestry of our client’s journey.”

When conceiving gardens and structures, Nancy sees herself physically in the design and can visualize and interact within the space, even before it is designed or built. She feels that the beauty of metaphysical design is that it evokes curiosity and thoughtfulness both which help to facilitate conscious awareness. For instance, she says that the “Sun and Moon Garden,” just one of their award-winning projects, was created out of an interest in the cosmos and how we all fit into the Universe. She feels it speaks to the balance in life and how interdependent we all are, often upon forces we cannot even see.

Cliff and Nancy love seeing the joy and feeling of peacefulness others get when they interact with their gardens and structural designs. It is not only rewarding from them, but equally so for their lucky visitors. For more information about each of the individual gardens that compromise the Drobnick’s property, visit 


Photo Gallery

This Japanese tea house has been featured and highlighted on numerous times in the past two years for its unique artistic qualities. This design was also named a Gold Award winner in the 2012 Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association Landscape Awards program.

A view from inside the Japanese tea house. Metaphysical design incorporates the importance of inside and outside views enhancing one another.

The designed stone “Inukshuk” communicates to the viewer what lies ahead on the path.

The “Green Arbor” roof comes alive with plant material that complements the horticultural aspects of the surrounding garden. This “Green Arbor”won a 2014 Gold Award in the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association Landscape awards program.

The “Stone House Ruin Garden” hosts the sacred geometrical time clock that was chosen in a national competition to be on the Herb Society of America’s 2013 Calendar Cover. This garden was also named a 2012 Gold Award winner in the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association Landscape Awards.

The front of the Japanese tea house prior to the “River Blessing” ceremony in August 2015.

The “Sun and Moon Garden” inner design documents the solar system and the cosmos. Besides its APLD honor, it was also named a 2014 Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association Gold Award recipient.

The “Stone Arch” entrance to the “Sun and Moon Garden” won a 2014 Gold Award for structural design in the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association Landscape Awards competition.

The completed “Sun and Moon Garden” walkway, which along with the “Stone Arch” and the inner “Sun and Moon Garden” area, won an International Gold Award from Association of Professional Landscape Designers in 2014.


(A version of this article appeared in print in Ohio Gardener, Volume 6, Issue 02. Photography by Maria Zampini)



Posted: 03/08/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

My Favorite Plectranthus
by Tom Hewitt    

Members of the genus Plectranthus are such interesting plants. Their soft fuzzy leaves are fun to touch and each has its own unique scent. They’re also among the easiest plants to grow if you give them what they want.

What they mostly want is to be left alone. Most like to dry out between waterings, but people often hasten their demise by overwatering during our long wet summers. Plectranthus need extremely well-draining soils, which is why I choose to grow most of mine in containers.

Vicks plant (P. tomentosa) is a good example. I grow this one as a novelty, since it’s not very pretty as it ages. I keep it compact as long as I can by pinching back, but its base eventually gets woody and its stems get leggy. That’s why I prefer to start new plants from cuttings every few months. If I have a stuffy nose, I break a leaf in half and inhale its aroma. Some people inhale the steam from crushed leaves infused in hot water.

Lobster flower makes a great container subject.

Lobster flower (P. neochilus) lasts longer and stays tidier for me than Vick’s plant. Also known as skunk plant, it makes a nice ground cover for dry areas in partial shade. As its name suggests, it has a very pungent scent when bruised. It also seems impervious to pests, including snails. Cats and dogs won’t go near it, and it’s actually used to deter snakes in parts of Africa. It also makes a nice container plant, as it takes less pinching than Vick’s plant to keep it in bounds. A bank of lobster flower in bloom is a sight to behold, but it’s very cold sensitive and only reliably hardy in USDA Zones 10-11.

One species I can’t resist growing from time to time is silver spurflower (P. argentatus). I put it in my front flowerbed, where its large silvery leaves contrast nicely with blue salvias and others. It grows to 2 feet or so, and produces spikes of white flowers during the summer. Most sources advise you to remove the flowers, since they supposedly detract from their foliage. But I actually find them attractive. Silver spurflower is a short-lived perennial for me, so I keep it going from cuttings.

Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’ has some of the showiest blooms of all.

Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’ is another one I love for its flowers. It’s definitely an accent plant, and not one that mixes well with others. It simply grabs too much attention with its showy spikes of lavender flowers. But it looks great in containers, where it can bloom for months on end in areas that receive bright (but not direct) sunlight. I grow it mainly during the winter, as it rots out easily during our summers.

Cuban oregano, or Mexican mint, (P. amboinicus) makes a great container plant, as long as you remember to pinch it back often enough to keep it compact. Sooner or later it always outgrows my containers and I end up starting over with cuttings. I’ve grown several different varieties, and find variegated ones quite ornamental. Variegated forms of Swedish ivy (P. verticillatus) are also quite attractive, and great fillers for shady containers.

It’s worth noting that many coleus species previously classified in the genus Solenostemon are now classified as Plectranthus. Sun coleus in particular are great for containers. In general, the smaller and darker the leaf, the more drought and sun tolerant they are. Sun coleus live much longer than old-fashioned seed varieties.

One plectranthus I’m currently experimenting with in the Mounts’ butterfly garden is false boldo (Plectranthus­). Though it reportedly grows to 5 feet or so in south Florida, it has stayed much shorter so far. If it blooms as well in the garden as it does in the Mounts’ nursery; it just may become my new favorite!

Left: The blooms of false boldo are quite impressive. Right: Lobster flower makes a great container subject.

Most Plectranthus like morning and late afternoon sun, but appreciate a break from the sun during the hottest part of the day. Cuban oregano and sun coleus like more sun than most. Make sure you water early enough to allow leaves to dry before nightfall. In the Mounts’ nursery, we start Vicks plant, Cuban oregano, and lobster flower in 6-inch pots, three cuttings to a pot. We fill pots three-fourths with potting soil, and then top with a  50/50 mix of perlite and peat moss. This allows cuttings to take quickly before they have a chance to rot out.  


Photo Gallery:

Vicks plant has a very pleasing fragrance.

Cuban oregano is sometimes known as Mexican mint.

Sun coleus are bred to take more sun than seed varieties.


Swedish ivy is a classic for shady containers. Right: Silver spurflower looks good in the mixed border and has pretty blooms.


A version of this article appeared in print in Florida Gardening Volume XXI Issue I. Photography by Tom Hewitt.




Posted: 03/03/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Beware the Hair!
by Blake Layton, Ph. D.    

Gardeners normally think of caterpillars as pests that injure plants they are trying to grow, but some caterpillars can actually injure people, stinging or causing skin rashes. However, most caterpillars cannot sting because they are not equipped to do so. Although many caterpillars have spines or hairs on their body that look like they might sting or cause irritation, there is usually no venom associated with these spines or hairs, and they are usually not able to penetrate human skin. Stinging caterpillars have special, sharp spines or hairs that are linked to venom glands. Unlike bees and wasps, caterpillars do not actively sting; rather, the stings occur when an unsuspecting victim accidentally presses an area of skin against the caterpillar.

Severity of caterpillar stings varies considerably depending on species, degree of contact and individual sensitivity. Lightly brushing the back of your hand across an Io moth caterpillar (Automeris io) may only cause a slight prickling sensation, but leaning back against a puss caterpillar (Megalopyge opercularis) that has crawled inside your shirt will probably cause much greater pain. Eye or mucous membrane contact is usually more serious than skin contact.

You cannot tell whether a caterpillar can sting just by looking at it. Some of the most dangerous-looking caterpillars are actually quite harmless. The hickory horned devil caterpillar, also known as the royal walnut moth (Citheronia regalis), is a good example. These large caterpillars are sometimes found in late summer or fall, crawling about in search of a place to pupate. The orange and black spines located on the back may look dangerous, but they are just a bluff. The cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia) is another large caterpillar with wicked-looking, but harmless, spines.

  Mature hickory horned devil caterpillar's spines may look formidable, but they are harmless. (5 inches)

  The spines on this cecropia caterpillar (Hyalophora cecropia) are not as dangerous as they look. (4 inches)

 The horn on the rear of the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) is soft and pliable and will not penetrate the skin. It is not a stinger. (3½ inches)

Gulf fritillary larvae (Agraulis vanillae) are covered with spines, but they do not sting. (1¾ inch)

Many people are intimidated by the “horn” on the rear of the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta), a large, green caterpillar that often defoliates backyard tomato plants. This horn is a distinguishing trait of most sphinx moth caterpillars. It may look a bit like a stinger, but it is flexible and harmless. The spine-covered gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) feed on wild maypops (Passiflora incarnata) and other passionflower vines (Passiflora spp.) in butterfly gardens. They certainly look prickly, but they do not sting. The orange color is to warn potential predators that they are poisonous if eaten.    

Io moth caterpillars (Automeris io) look like they can sting and they can. They are heavily armed with sharp, venomous spines. Buck moth caterpillars (Hemileuca maia) are similarly armed. Intense contact with a buck moth caterpillar, such as inadvertently sitting on one while wearing shorts, can even leave a caterpillar shaped scar. Fortunately, buck moths have only one generation per year, but in some regions the wandering prepupal caterpillars can be quite numerous in spring to early summer.

The saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea) is another stinging species. This unusual caterpillar belongs to the group called slug caterpillars, and most slug caterpillars have stinging spines. Crowned slugs (Isa textula) are only about ⅝ inches long, but can cause unpleasant stings if one drops down your shirt collar on a windy fall day. One of our strangest-looking stinging caterpillars is the monkey slug, also known as the hag moth (Probetron pithecium).

Io moth caterpillars (Automeris io) are well armed with stinging spines. (2½ inches) 

Buck moth caterpillars (Hemileuca maia) can cause painful stings and can even leave scars. (2½ inches) 

Saddleback caterpillars (Acharia stimulea) look like they can sting – and they can. (1 inch) 

Crowned slug caterpillars (Isa textula) have a border of stinging spines. (⅝ inch)



One of our most harmless-looking caterpillars causes the most painful stings. Puss caterpillars (Megalopyge opercularis) may look cute and cuddly, but their stings can send people to the hospital. Victims usually report intense pain that radiates through the armpits and across the chest from stings on an arm, or through the groin area from stings on a leg. Even dead caterpillars or shed skins can cause stings. Fortunately, puss caterpillars are not common, but outbreaks occasionally occur on shrubs in home landscapes or public grounds.

Puss caterpillars (Megalopyge opercularis) may look pettable, but their sting can be extremely painful! (1 inch)
Hag moth caterpillars or monkey slugs (Probetron pithecium) have stinging spines at the tips of the tentacles. (1 inch) 

Eastern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) do not have stinging spines, but those hairs can cause an irritating rash. (1¾ inch)

Many hairy caterpillars can cause rashes or dermatitis when they come in close contact with the skin. Symptoms range from mild irritation to an intensely itching rash with reddened, inflamed skin.   

Eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) is one species capable of causing skin rashes. This is the caterpillar that builds tents in the forks of wild cherry trees in early spring. There is only one generation per year, but mature larvae sometimes end up dropping down a shirt collar while wandering in search of a pupation site. These hairs can also cause problems if consumed. Of course, people rarely eat caterpillars, but grazing horses sometimes do. Pregnant mares that inadvertently ingest wandering eastern tent caterpillars will often abort their foals, a phenomenon known as mare reproductive loss syndrome.

How do you avoid having unpleasant encounters with stinging caterpillars? Knowing which caterpillars are capable of stinging helps. Teach children to recognize the stinging species most common in your area and teach them to be wary of any spiny or hairy caterpillars. Be especially alert during outbreaks of stinging species. People who live in areas where buck moth caterpillars are common know to look before sitting when these caterpillars are out. Gardeners are more likely to encounter stinging caterpillars than most folks because they spend more time outside working in the yard and garden. One of the best defenses is to wear gloves and long sleeves when pruning, hauling limbs and doing similar chores, especially in the fall when many of these stinging species are most common.


A version of this article appeared in a State-by-State Gardening February 2009 print editon. Photos by Blake Layton.


Posted: 02/23/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

New Plants to Try in the Midwest
by Susan Martin    

Our eyes are often bigger than our gardens, and we end up with more plants that we can use or plants unsuitable for our gardens. With a little advance research, you’ll be happier with your purchases in the long run. Here are 10 solid recommendations for you to consider.

Monarch Promise Butterfly Weed (Asclepias hybrid)

For the gardener who has everything, this is a completely novel annual butterfly weed that attracts monarchs and other butterflies, bees and hummingbirds with its brilliant orange-red blooms all summer long. Its variegated foliage is a remarkable mélange of silvery green, cream, pink and orange tones. Monarch Promise looks fantastic as a thriller in combination containers or paired with other colorful annuals and perennials in the landscape. Buy it as soon as you see it. Monarch Promise will be in short supply this year, and will surely sell out quickly this first year. Full sun. 24-30 inches tall. Annual.

Monarch Promise butterfly weed (Asclepias hybrid) offers the total package: dynamite blooms and fantastic foliage. 1

Meteor Shower vervain (Verbena bonariensis)

Meteor Shower verbena quickly rose to the top of everyone’s favorites list during the trials at Proven Winners. This is a shorter, fuller version of the species, with a key improvement being that plants set little seed, so it won’t become invasive in your garden. Butterflies and bees swarm its dainty periwinkle-purple flowers all summer. Use it as a flowering thriller in your containers, sprinkle it liberally throughout your landscape, and be sure to snip a few stems to accent your fresh bouquets. Full sun. 30-36 inches tall. Annual.

Meteor Shower Vervain (Verbena bonariensis) is very easy to grow in any sunny location and blooms all season long. 2

FlameThrower coleus (Plectrantus hybrid)

Loads of new coleuses have made their debut over the past two years and 2016 will yield more, new, must-have varieties. The FlameThrower series, which includes Chili Pepper, Chipotle and Spiced Curry, has incredibly distinctive, lightning rod-shaped leaves, and maintains its bushy habit all season in sun or shade, with very little maintenance. It is very late to flower, which is a desirable trait for coleus. Equally impressive with a similar look is Marquee Special Effects coleus, also debuting in 2016. Sun to shade. 18-24 inches tall. Annual. 

The new FlameThrower series of coleus (Plectranthus hybrid) delivers outstanding all-season performance in sun and shade  with very little maintenance required. 3

Coleus Flame Thrower  Spiced Curry 4

Coleus Flame Thrower  Chili Pepper. 5


‘Sandy’ Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)

This 2015 All-America Selections award winner has everything you want in a head of lettuce. Sown from seed, you’ll have baby lettuce ready to pick in 30 days, or mature heads in 50 days during the cool growing seasons. Its sweet, dark green, frilly leaves are slow to bolt, even in the heat, and are resistant to powdery mildew, downy mildew and tip burn. ‘Sandy’ is well adapted to grow in containers and raised beds, but can also be grown in the garden. Sun to part sun. Under 10 inches tall. Vegetable.

2015 AAS winner ‘Sandy’ Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is well-adapted to  grow in containers and raised beds. 6

SunSparkler Sedoro ‘Blue Elf’ (xSedoro)

A brand new intergeneric cross, this is the world’s first Sedumx Orostachys cross that is hardy to USDA Zone 4, hybridized in West Michigan. In colder zones, this plant can be treated as a tender succulent, and brought indoors for winter. Steel-blue rosettes of tightly packed, succulent leaves form a low, 15-inch wide mound that becomes covered in sweetly fragrant, deep pink flowers, which attract bees and butterflies in late summer and early fall. Excellent for rock gardens, edging sunny pathways, and troughs. Full sun. 3 inches tall. USDA Zones 4-9. Perennial.

SunSparkler ‘Blue Elf’ (x Sedoro) is the world’s first USDA Zone 4 hardy  Sedoro. Its steel-blue foliage is blanketed by deep pink flowers from  late summer into fall. 7

Take It Easy shrub rose (Rosa ‘WEKyoopedko’)

“Take it Easy is an outstanding new rose that lives up to its name. It raises the bar and establishes a new standard for all roses of its type and class. It is the best new rose to come down the garden path in the last 10 years,” said rosarian Frank Vonn Koss of Ray Wiegand Nursery. This is a worry-free, lightly fragrant, classic red rose, with naturally pest and disease resistant, dark green, shiny foliage. Its excellent vigor and low maintenance mean you can just Take It Easy and enjoy its beautiful blooms. Full sun. 3-4 feet tall. USDA Zones 4-9. Shrub.

Take It Easy rose (Rosa ‘WEKyoopedko’) is the new gold standard  in red shrub roses, with naturally disease resistant foliage and lightly  scented blooms. 8



A version of this article appeared in a State-by-State Gardening Jan/Feb 2016 print edition.


Photo Credits: 
1 Photo courtesy Hort Couture
2 Photo courtesy Susan Martin
3-5 Photos courtesy Ball Horticultural Co
6 Photo courtesy All-America Selections
7 Photo courtesy Susan Martin
8 Photo courtesy Weeks Roses


Posted: 02/22/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Designing Mini-gardens Using Potted Plants
by Bill Shores       #Containers

Container gardening is so enjoyable because of its possibilities for creative expression. There is an almost endless variety of ways to design and use containers. For example, in a classic design, a container is filled with a pleasing arrangement of plants with differing heights, textures and colors. This method can result in stunning arrangements; however, it does have limitations.

Red and orange ornamental peppers spice up this arrangement, surrounded by yellow French marigolds, red geraniums, Swiss chard and the perennial pink-flowering turtlehead (Chelone).

Why not expand on the classic container method and make a larger ensemble of plants? Something we could call a “mini-garden” made up of any number of potted plants arranged in a pleasing way. These mini-gardens offer the same creative potential as the single classic container but with added advantages: a more natural, cohesive feel, greatly increased visual impact and the option to rearrange the mini-garden as the season progresses.

Another advantage is that plants in a mini-garden  have plenty of room to grow in their own container, which allows for larger and lusher growth. In addition, plants that are placed together in a cluster will create their own microclimate, protecting each other from wind and extreme heat or cold.

To make a mini-garden, start by choosing an existing feature to serve as a backdrop. Good features include a wall or corner, a large potted plant such as a tree, a column or perhaps a shelf mounted on a wall. Potted plants of different heights are arranged to form a base or backdrop. Adding potted plants around the base mimics the way that living systems build up in nature around base with features such as ponds, boulders and trees.

Choose plants with different heights, placing the larger plants towards the back with medium plants in the middle and smaller ones along the front. However, avoid rigidity in placing plants by height. Using layered plants of different types will make for a casual, naturalistic arrangement. As needed, add several containers of the same or similar plant for more cohesion and order, and to avoid an overly busy arrangement.

For a more formal look, use deliberate repetition such as a ring of potted specimens of the same plant around a larger pot. If space allows, this formal center could be flanked by more casually placed plants around the sides. Feel free to change it up, move things around or switch out plants as needed until you get the desired effect.

Pay attention to the design and colors of the containers as these will form part of the design. It can be fun to make a mini-garden using pots of the same colors. Plants that have attractive tops but long, leggy stems such as dracaena work well in mini-gardens as mid-sized plants can be placed in the arrangement to hide the bare stem. Another way to provide a pleasing layer is to place some of the mid-to-small size pots on bricks to achieve the desired height.

Be sure to pay attention to light conditions. Generally, it is best to use plants with similar light needs. For example, make a shade mini-garden using a variety of shade-tolerant plants. That said, some of the plants in the back of the mini-garden may be in partial to full shade when they’re part of larger, more complex arrangements that are ostensibly in the full sun.

Once you get started on using container designs, you will discover the many advantages and delights they provide. You may then decide to make mini-gardens a key part of your container gardening toolkit.


Photo Gallery

With a touch of red against a collection of chartreuse-leaved houseplants, this shady back porch comes alive. The tall striped dracaena ‘Song of India’ anchors the display, surrounded by caladiums, a wood fern, syngonium, calathea and ‘Gartenmeister’, a red-orange blooming fuchsiasu. The ever-invasive mint is kept under control in a blue pot on the left.

A large container grouping needs a large plant as an anchor or center  of attention. Here  that role is played by the giant banana plant (Musa spp.)  that towers over  an assortment of red-leaved caladiums, snake plant (Sanseviera spp.)  and others.

A collection of cascading greens is transformed into a living sculpture against by a nondescript beige wall, accented by simple rough-hewn stone shelving.


A version of this article appeared in print in Chicagoland Gardening Volume XXII Issue I. Photography by Bill Shores.


Posted: 02/19/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Growing Figs in the Midwest Is Hard, but Rewarding
by Chris Eirschele    

Gardeners who have searched for bold leaves on a tall easy-to-grow plant for their indoor garden are familiar with Ficus by such names as the rubber plant (Ficus elastic) and the fiddleleaf fig (Ficus pandurata). But, it is Ficus carica that goes beyond the endearing foliage to produce a harvest of edible fruit gardeners with stoic green thumbs are sure to enjoy.

It can be said that gardeners who attempt to grow plants on the edge of their hardiness Zone push the proverbial envelope. For Midwest gardeners living in hardiness Zones 5 and 6, growing fig plants outside will be a challenge, albeit worth the fresh fall harvest.

Midwest Strategies for Growing a Fig Tree

Ficus carica produces fruit on a large deciduous shrub or a short tree, ranging from 10 feet to 30 feet tall. Considered a Mediterranean plant, this fig tree likes growing in hot temperatures and is evergreen in Zones 8 to 10. On the other end of the spectrum are hardiness Zones 5 and 6, where fig plants living outside must be heavily protected or brought indoors to survive the winter months. Outside during the growing season, figs should be planted in well-draining sandy soil (not rich soil) and positioned in full sun.

Midwest gardeners will have better success growing fig plants by thinking ahead on plans for winter protection. Locating a fig on the south side of a building will provide that sunny exposure and, at the same time, give it a wind break against harsh winters. Butting the small tree up against a trellis or training the fruit tree into an espalier form against a structure will add stability.

Ficus carica can be grown in a large pot, such as in a whiskey barrel. The tree should be staked and be limbed up or kept pruned to a manageable size for easier moving later to an inside location.   

Gardeners start pruning their fig trees when the plant turns dormant. Pinch back stems and cut back limbs to create a strong central trunk and to later prevent issues with snow load, no matter the style of garden or technique used growing a fig.

Fig Trees Bundled Up Against Snowy Winters

Winter protection surrounding fig trees is paramount for survival in hardiness Zones 5 and 6. After the tree is pruned down (to as low as 4 feet tall,) young branches can be folded up against the center and encased along with the lower trunk in burlap. Layers of extra mulch should be placed on the ground under the tree’s canopy.

If a young tree has not already been staked up the center or trellised, install a stake — especially if the fig plant is sited on a windy location. Gardeners may want to encircle a temporary fence around the tree with chicken-wire and fill the inside with straw or leaf mulch.

Fig trees living in containers can be moved indoors to overwinter. A conservatory-like setting, a warm greenhouse or an unheated basement are all reasonable choices. Gardeners will want to add protection depending on the circumstances but reducing the amount and frequency of watering is appropriate as fall turns colder. When the last of the spring frosts are gone, un-layering the protection around a fig tree a little at a time will help acclimate the plant to late spring temperatures.

Fig Plants to Tolerate Colder Climates

Fig trees like ‘Chicago Hardy’, also called Ficus carica ‘Bensonhurst Purple’, fit into small garden designs and will cast a bit of shade in a kitchen garden.1

Fig plants have similar attractive foliage forms. This is Ficus carica ‘Peter’s Honey’, which produces a yellowish-green fruit with amber flesh.1

The fruit of a fig plant is small, but may add an unexpected colorful flair to the edible garden. ‘Chicago Hardy’ fruits evolve from purple to deep brown.

Midwest gardeners should choose cultivars of fig plants that have demonstrated winter hardiness and only need a shorter growing season to produce a harvest.

Cultivars of Ficus carica like ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘Chicago Hardy,’ which is also called ‘Bensonhurst Purple’, produce small fruits but, more important, they are noted for the good winter hardiness. The ‘Chicago Hardy’ fig develops a dark purplish brown skin.

At a trial planting at Powell Gardens in Western Missouri, ‘Peter’s Honey’, ‘Atreano’ and ‘Mission’ Fig’ produced substantial plants in their Heartland Harvest Garden.

The fig tree has dark green foliage that features large highly defined lobed leaves. The foliage growing on the tree will cast shade across a small area of garden, but the plant is not grown for its flower display. Gardeners working hard to grow figs, though, will be rewarded with fresh fruit.


1. Chris Eirschele
2. Logee's Plants for Home & Garden


Posted: 02/17/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Dappled Willow Worth Pruning Tasks
by Neil Moran    

The new growth on the dappled willow (Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’) has a pink hue.1

One of the more popular ornamental trees for the Midwestern landscape is the dappled willow (Salix integra 'Hakuro-nishiki'). It appears to have everything going for it: a weeping appearance and grayish green foliage that is highlighted with streaks of pink and white. It is also fast growing, offering the lure of instant gratification.

Let’s not forget it is also a willow, which as we well know, can get a little unruly. Which is not to say you shouldn’t plant dappled willow, but rather a-gardener-beware warning appears to be in order. Dappled willow sprouts branches and shoots from just about every possible growing point. Despite it having the discipline of a young puppy, it is still a worthwhile plant for the landscape and will withstand the most brutal winter Mother Nature can throw at us. It is also listed as deer resistant.

The Japanese cultivar of dappled willow, ‘Hakuro-nishiki’, has been growing in my backyard for about three years. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t part with it anymore than I’d discard my favorite gardening tool. I just need to accept a few realities about growing this beautiful dappled willow. Following are a few tips.

First, you need a fairly moist soil and a sunny to partially sunny location. Dappled willow will like a spot in your yard where water naturally runs after a rain, including rain gardens. Allow your dappled willow plenty of elbow room. It will grow to 15-20 feet high and just as wide if you don’t keep it pruned. It grows best in fairly moist soil that has been amended with compost. Avoid planting dappled willow in a sandy upland area, where it’s dry. It is best to plant dappled willow in early spring or early fall, while there is still good moisture in the ground.

We’ve got our dappled willow growing in an island bed in a sandy loam soil that never needs watering, even during summer dry spells. We quickly found out that nearby shrubs were planted too close to the willow. Keep shrubs and perennials at least 6 feet away from the trunk of the willow. Like any tree, add mulch around the base of the plant to help maintain moisture and keep weed trimmers and mowers from damaging the trunk. Be sure not to let the mulch touch the trunk of the tree.

Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’ can be pruned in midsummer after the variegation of the leaves fade. In just three years, this specimen has encroached on its neighboring shrubs, which will have to be moved.2

Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’ can also be pruned as a shrub or grown as a standard, where all the branches are pruned.

Expect to prune this plant fairly often. Suckering around the base of the plant can be downright problematic, dictating that you prune them once or twice per season.



The other type of pruning required is the type that will keep this tree from getting too tall and wide. Late winter, or in summer after the variegation has faded, are the best times to do this. Use loppers and pruning shears to keep this ornamental tree tamed and contained. If you’re not experienced in pruning you should probably read up on it a little before getting out the snips. What will be required is some thinning of the branches and heading-back the terminal growth. This keeps the tree contained at about 10 feet tall and about 8 feet wide.

Salix integra is a species native to Japan and Korea, and is associated in those countries with streams, seeps and marshes. Harry Van Der Laar, a famed Dutch Hosta breeder, introduced Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’ to the west in 1979. The species Salix has been associated with basket making throughout the ages, and the bark of certain willows contains aspirin compounds, which have been used by moms and apothecaries alike.  

Tips for planting dappled willow:

•    Plant in early spring or fall.
•    Plant in moist soil and a sunny to partially shady area.
•    Water frequently the first year.
•    Fertilize once a year in the early spring.
•    Be prepared to do some pruning of suckers and the actual branches.
•    Salix integra is hardy in USDA Zones 4 through 9.


1. Photo courtesy of © Blackosaka
2. Photo courtesy of Neil Moran


Posted: 02/11/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Small Fruits to try in the Midwestern Landscape
by Kate Jerome       #Edibles   #Fruit

When the summer fruits start appearing in the farmers’ markets, everyone goes into a frenzy. We love the sweetness of strawberries, raspberries and currants, but many of us are daunted when growing our own. The good news is that it’s not very hard, and you can actually incorporate some of them right into the landscape. Most of them are attractive in their own right, so you get the pleasure of a beautiful yard and garden that pleases the eye and palate.

Most small fruits do well in the home garden and are relatively easy to cultivate. All you need is a sunny site, fairly well-drained soil and good air circulation. Once planted, monitor the moisture levels and mulch with a few inches of good organic matter, such as compost. Soon you will be rewarded with a wondrous bounty.

When choosing plants, be sure to select disease-resistant cultivars and purchase certified disease-free plants. This will go a long way to preventing disease and pest problems.

Strawberries (Fragaria spp.)

These luscious fruits make a superb edging for flower and shrub beds, and they also perform well in containers, hanging baskets and window boxes (as annuals). Strawberries are classified according to the time of harvest, so planting more than one type will ensure you will have berries all summer. In general, it takes about 25 plants to supply fresh fruit for a family of four.

June-bearing strawberries produce all their berries in a two-week period in summer, and they are available in early, mid and late-season varieties. Planting some of each will provide berries for four to six weeks. Everbearing strawberries produce two smaller crops, one in June and one in fall. A third type, called day-neutral, produce fruit all season long, although they have fewer berries in total than June-bearing.

Alpine strawberries taste like SweetTarts and make a beautiful border.

Strawberry season seems so fleeting, but you can stretch it with different varieties.

Alpine strawberries (F. vesca)

This petite type of strawberry is also called “fraise des bois,” which means strawberries of the woods. These bear small, intensely flavored berries with a candy-like flavor. They bear spring to frost, do not produce runners and will reseed themselves in the garden. They make a stunning edge to a flower or vegetable garden and will grow in partial shade.

Currants (Ribes spp.)

There’s nothing quite so pretty as strings of red jewels hanging in the sunlight. Currants make a lovely 3-foot-tall hedge or foundation plant with graceful arching stems and soft yellow fall color. Currants come in red, white and black, with reds being slightly tangy, whites being quite sweet and blacks with a musky, strong flavor. One happy side of growing currants is that they can take some shade. They take little care, except annual pruning, and will produce buckets of fruits for the best jelly in the world.

Red and white currants are self-pollinating, so you only need one variety. Black currants need two varieties planted together for pollination.

White, red and black currants. Photo CC BY SA 2.0 Tatiana Gerus.

Gooseberries (Ribes spp.)

Gooseberries are closely related to currants, although the fruits are larger. They grow on thorny shrubs with arching stems, and the berries can be picked green for traditional gooseberry tart or jam (they need plenty of sugar!), or with a blush of pink for fresh eating. They are self-pollinating and can also be grown in partial shade.

Gooseberries are traditional British fruits that we can add to our landscapes and pies!

Bramble Fruits (Rubus spp.)

Raspberries are often referred to as the food of the kings and for good reason. The taste of a warm raspberry right off the bush will make you cry. Raspberries come in summer-bearing types, which produce their berries all at once in midsummer, and everbearing, which produce a small crop in midsummer and a larger crop in early autumn.

With each type, the canes that bear the fruit die after they’ve finished bearing, and new canes are produced from the crowns. One thing to be aware of with raspberries is that they produce underground rhizomes so they need to be managed in order to keep them in place.

Raspberries come in red, black, purple and gold. All are delicious! Reds are traditionally cultivated, while blacks (also called blackcaps) are native and found wild all over the Midwest. Purple types are a bit more tart and gold berries are soft and sweet and often hard to find in the market.

Blackberries grow wild in the Midwest, and although the wild berries are small, they have extremely intense flavor. Domesticated blackberries have large berries and a milder flavor.

Blackberries produce fruit on second-year canes, so they need pruning to keep them bearing well. When harvesting, make sure that the berries actually fall into your hand to ensure that they are completely ripe and sweet. Otherwise, they may look ripe, but can be quite sour. Also, they tend to lose their high gloss when ready to pick. Blackberries can spread well outside the original planting site, so take care to keep them inbounds.

Native Fruits

For a different take on fruits in the landscape, consider adding an elderberry or serviceberry to your yard. These are native plants that have tasty fruits that feed us and wildlife. 

Watching birds hang upside down in a serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) will have you laughing and getting out there to taste what is so good to them. Serviceberries are traditionally used as landscape ornamentals, and they produce lovely dark red to purple berries that are delicious when made into pies, jam and fruit leather.

Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis, S. nigra) produce great clouds of white flowers followed by inky-purple berries that make absolutely wonderful syrup, jam and wine.

Amelanchier spp. Photo CC BY 2.0 Erich Ferdinand.




A version of this article appeared in print in Wisconsin Gardening Volume II Issue VI. Photos by Kate Jerome unless otherwise noted.



Posted: 02/11/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

A Grass for the Masses
by Frances Fairegarden    


At the top of the steps leading to the knot garden, pink muhly, flanked on each side by
Knock Out roses, presents itself as swinging saloon doors.

It stops traffic in our small town. In the middle of fall, cars come to a screeching halt as the drivers see the stand of pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) rimming the upper left curbing of our circle driveway. It must be the unexpectedness of seeing a swath of pink cotton candy backlit by the soft angle of fall’s lower light that causes this reaction. In early mornings, it is often sprinkled with dew or sparkled with frost, giving the appearance of glistening pink diamonds that would have caused even Elizabeth Taylor to feel intense envy. It is a thing of wondrous awe.

Pink muhly grass waves its pink magic wands like no other. Hardy in USDA Zones 5–10, it requires the sharpest of drainage to prosper. In nature, this grass colonizes the sand dunes along the Gulf of Mexico and the Southern Atlantic coast. My eyes were first blessed to see a blanket of pink illuminated by the setting sun while walking along the boardwalk to the ocean’s edge in South Carolina. It was an epiphany of beauty and totally unexpected. The light, the site and the mass of plants packed tightly together made it appear as if one continuous layer of pink fluff had come to rest on the Earth’s surface.

After seeing that first sea of pink on an October afternoon, plants were located, purchased and hauled back home to our garden, then located in Zone 6. The composition of the soil was anything but sandy; it was more like the stuff of brick-making dense red clay. The planting area had the requisite drainage, but the plants did not live through the winter.

We later moved to Houston, TX, where the soil was sandy and the pink muhly grew naturally. It was placed in our new garden so the setting sun would make the pink muhly grass appear aflame in the fall. It was lovely but not nearly as spectacular as the scene at the South Carolina seashore. The grass was a big player in a small garden dominated by pine trees and yaupon hollies (Ilex vomitoria). More massing was needed to achieve the remembered pink haze.

With backlighting, pink muhly grass, shines along the driveway and stops passersby in their tracks.

In April, pink muhly grass begins growing after being cut to the ground in late winter. Planting spring bloomers around the grass will help give interest until it gains momentum over the summer for the big fall show.

Three years later, we moved back to Tennessee, propelled by the birth of our first grandchild there. This time we settled in a small town that was more than 100 miles to the west and south of our former garden in warmer Zone 7. The soil was still shovel-breaking red clay interspersed with rocks (hardly the light and airy environment of sandy shores beloved by a native grass), but determination sometimes overrides logic. The first fall, a couple of pink muhly grasses in 1-gallon pots joined Knock Out roses in the circular bed that jutted into the space of the driveway.

Looking across the driveway stand of Muhlenbergia capillaris, the original planting can be seen in the round bed by the steps leading to the front door.

The color of the rose blossoms was the perfect marriage to the rosy pink of the muhly grass. Together, they turned the fall garden into a magical fairyland. The same plantings were duplicated on either side of the steps at the top of a hill in the backyard with delightful results. After the gravel driveway was paved with concrete, with some of the gravel tossed along the edge of the upper curbing to help with leveling, the only lawn on the entire property was planted to the left of the garage. The mix of bluegrass and tall fescue did well enough, except for the rocky part at the edge where leftover sand had been spread after stucco was applied to the lower cinder block portion of the garage. Years of applying special grass-starting mix, raking rocks, diligent weeding and faithful watering could not grow the desired lawn there. The idea of trying a stand of pink muhly, like we had seen at the beach years earlier, was carried out with divisions taken from the existing plantings of the driveway bed and the top of the hill. In total, 50 plants were nestled closely together in three narrow rows with hardly more than one living sprig per plug. Not only did every piece live, but they grew and flourished quickly in the sandy gravel and clay mixture. After being cut down to ground level each year in late winter, it was top-dressed with soil conditioner to keep weeds from invading until the grass could fill in.

It was somewhat sparse for the first few seasons, but its potential for greatness shone through when the rising and setting sun was positioned just right in the fall. Patience paid its dividends each year as the muhly grass filled in more until it became a writhing serpent of pink. Gentle breezes or violent storms, wind, rain, ice or snow, the pink muhly stand along the driveway is the object of desire for all who see it, whether they are gardeners or not.



Muhlenbergia capillaris requires full sun and excellent drainage for the best results. Winter temperatures should not dip lower than -20 F, although solme garderners have seen it survive in a protected Zone 4 microclimate. The optimum time for moving or dividing is during the cooler months when rainfall or hand-watering can be done in abundance — although pink muhly is extremely drought-tolerant once established, it needs copious amounts of water to get the roots settled in to its liking. Ask your local nursery to carry the pink muhly. And ask your landscaper to install a mass of it on a slope where the autumn sun can bring out the highlights. Or, you can do what I did and buy a couple of pots and patiently divide them until a sweep of pink perfection is achieved.


Pink muhly grass can be planted in a swath or alone as a focal point.

Pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) looks like a waterfall when covered with December snow.

Botanical Name: Muhlenbergia capillaris

Common Name: Pink muhly grass

Hardiness: USDA Zones 5–10

Height: 3 to 6 feet

Spread: 1 to 3 feet

Growth Habit: Clumping

Growth Pace: Moderate

Light: Full sun is best, but part shade is tolerated.

Maintenance: Low; yearly cutting to the ground

Tolerance: Deer tolerant, drought tolerant, salt tolerant

Characteristics: Native, self-seeds, showy flowers, showy foliage, showy seed heads

Bloom Time: Fall

Flower Color: Pink fading to purple and lavender

Uses: Beds and borders, containers, naturalizing, specimen plant or focal point; may be grown as an annual

Seasonal Interest: Winter, summer, fall

Growing Conditions: Tolerates a wide variety of soil conditions from moist to dry, acidic to alkaline, sandy to clay. Established plantings will not need supplemental watering, but the grass will get larger with liberal irrigation. In areas where perennial, Muhlenbergia capillaris won’t start growing until mid to late spring. Major growth and flowering happens when the weather is hot. Winter color is light tan, and it will remain standing and attractive until finally collapsing in January. It can be cut down to ground level at that time (or before) if a neater appearance is preferred. Self-seeding occurs best if it is allowed to stand into midwinter. Seedlings will have fine, flat blades with a slightly bluish tint to distinguish them from lawn and other grasses. Babies show up most reliably in gravel paths.



(A version of this article appeared in a State-by-State Gardening April 2014 print edition. Photos by Frances Fairegarden.)


Posted: 02/10/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Pruning Tips to Salvage an Overgrown Landscape
by Bob Westerfield and Adrianne Todd       #Landscaping   #Pruning   #Shrubs

As a horticulture specialist for the University of Georgia, I certainly get my share of frustrated homeowners that want me to help them recover their house from their overgrown landscape. Where they once had a beautiful vista of their backyard or swimming pool, they now suddenly have a blob of green obscuring the view. Many times, they are uncertain whether they should try to prune the bush down a few feet in hope of getting their window back, or go through the arduous task of yanking out the beastly plant altogether. While the best solution would have been to plant the appropriately sized plant to begin with, we do not always have that luxury when we purchase a used home. Renewal pruning, sometimes called rejuvenating pruning, is one option that can help recover a severely overgrown plant or landscape. This radical pruning technique can buy some time and add many years to your existing overgrown plants.

Extensive Rejuvenation
Using a pruning saw, prune the plant to a height of 6-15 inches.

Unpruned Shrub
Gradual Rejuvenation
The first year, prune every other branch to 6-8 inches. The following year, prune the branches previously left untouched.

It might be helpful at this point to define exactly what rejuvenating pruning is. In simple terms, it means taking an existing overgrown shrub and pruning it back radically to a height of 6-15 inches. When radically pruning a shrub, you are essentially removing all existing branches as well as any damaged trunks, giving the plant a second chance of being a shapely and attractive shrub. A plant that has been rejuvenated through pruning be reminiscent of a coat rack when you finish the job. However, done properly at the right time of year, the shrub will re-flush within the same season, once again providing a more manageable plant in your landscape. A chemical hormone in the base of the plant triggers a positive response, signaling to the many hidden buds to regenerate and sprout new growth.

When it comes to pruning plants in this radical fashion, the time of year in which you do it means everything. Severe pruning should be done just prior to the new spring growth. In most cases, this means that your rejuvenating pruning should be done anytime from late January through late February. If your plant is an early blooming variety such as an azalea, you will definitely lose the bloom in the upcoming season. However, the reason to employ such a severe pruning is to salvage an overgrown plant that is no longer welcome. Blooming plants will recover and provide a show again the following year.

It is important to consider that not every shrub out there can be radically pruned and rejuvenated. Bearing that in mind, the fortunate fact is that the majority of plants can. On the short list of what not to prune severely would be juniper varieties, boxwoods, pine species, cedars and most hardwood trees. They will not recover well from a hard pruning. That leaves a long list of many plants in the landscape that can be cut back hard in order to bring back new life. Most large-leafed shrubs such as hollies, ligustrums and similar plants recover well from this type of pruning. Even many small-leafed shrubs such as yaupon, azalea or Japanese hollies come back readily when severely pruned for recovery reasons. If you are in doubt about whether the plants you have can be severely pruned, or you aren’t even sure what type of plant you have, take a branch or sample of the plant to your local extension office for identification. This might save a lot of later grief.

This large luster leaf holly should have been cut back closer to the ground to form a totally new plant. As it is, the new emerging branches will be very unproportional to the existing stubs.

Another example of not pruning severe enough. This plant should have been taken down to a height of 8 to 10 inches from the ground.

When it comes to giving our shrubs a crew cut, there are a few techniques that work best. Depending on the diameter of the limbs, your selection of pruning equipment may vary. While a small hand clipper could easily cut back a Knock Out rose or butterfly bush, you need heavier artillery to tackle overgrown hollies and larger stemmed plants. Pruning saws, particularly the razor sharp folding type sold in most nurseries, perform well on larger branched shrubs. In the most severe cases, I sometimes use a small chainsaw to eliminate half or more of the upper half of the plant and then use large lopping shears or a pruning saw to make finishing cuts, 6-8 inches at the base of the plant. Your final cuts should always be as clean as possible and done at a slight angle to allow water to run off. The final result is to have a cleanly cut stump with short stems protruding out on a slight angle. While you may be tempted to use a pruning seal, or paint, on these exposed stems, our research shows that leaving them open to heal is the best method for a speedy recovery and flush of new growth. As the plant begins to shoot out new growth in the spring and summer, you may need to trim it and pinch it back a few times to create a fuller shape.



If the thought of pruning your beloved shrub down to the ground is just too much for you to bear, there is an alternative. You could consider doing what is called a two-year renewal pruning. Basically, the technique is the same, except in this case, you only prune out every other main branch to 6-8 inches. This leaves every other branch untouched to provide a less drastic, early look to your landscape. The following year, prune the branches you previously left untouched, allowing the ones you pruned out earlier to continue to re-flush.

This holly is almost lost in the other shrubs due to its overgrown size. A renewal pruning can salvage the plant for years to come.

The same overgrown holly now taken back severely to encourage a more manageable plant to form from the base.

Within the year this holly has began to sprout up new shoots making it a more manageable size.

Rejuvenating pruning is a great alternative to completely removing overgrown shrubs in your landscape. Rather than going to the expense and trouble of uprooting the old and putting in a new shrub, you may be able to pull a few more years out of the old plant. When done properly, this method of pruning can make an existing landscape go from being completely overgrown and unsightly to nearly new and attractive.


(Photos courtesy of Bob Westerfield. Illustrations courtesy of Virgina Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University.)


Posted: 02/10/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Myrtle Mania
by Allen Owings       #Flowers   #Trees

New varieties of crapemyrtles (Lagerstroemia spp.) are currently available in abundance. We could almost say, “Enough is enough.” Yes, it is overwhelming with the numbers of new crapemyrtle varieties. Developers are introducing plants with the goals of smaller growth habits, dark foliage (such as burgundy and black), earlier blooms, and darker flowers (better red, purples, etc.). In one recent evaluation, new crapemyrtles went from fewer than 20 varieties to over 50 varieties in a very short period of time.

Nationally and regionally, we have a perceived “over-abundance of new plants” because all the major wholesale nurseries that sell plants over large sections of the country desire their own line of crapemyrtles, their own line of azaleas, their own line of hydrangeas. This leads to a large number of new variety introductions at the same time and also leads to confusion in the minds of consumers.

Crapemyrtles are the most widely planted summer flowering tree in the southern United States. There are crapemyrtle festivals, crapemyrtle trails, and crapemyrtles are official shrubs and trees of cities and states around the country. There is no doubt as to their current and continued popularity.

With so many new varieties how do you know which to choose? How do you know which are the best? Trials are ongoing at several land grant universities (LSU, Stephen F. Austin State University, University of Florida, Mississippi State University, and others) around the southeastern United States. Before buying, a decision should be made on the desired at mature size and the foliage color (new varieties include many with burgundy and black foliage) that would best enhance your landscape.

For smaller landscapes, consider the Early Bird series. These crapemyrtles grow to only around 6 feet. Early Bird Lavender (‘JD818’) is promoted as a very heavy earlier bloomer and is the earliest-flowering crapemyrtle at LSU trials. Other colors in the group include Early Bird Purple (‘JD827’) and Early Bird White (‘JD900’).

The Princess series are also dwarf varieties. These were developed in Missouri but are being marketed as part of the Garden Debut program by Greenleaf Nursery. This series includes cherry red Holly Ann (‘GA 0701’), magenta pink Kylie (‘GA 0803’), cherry red with cotton candy pink Zoey (‘GA 0702’), lavender Jaden (‘GA 0810’), and rose pink Lyla (‘GA 0804’).


Princess Lyla has nice rose pink blooms and is performing very well in these landscape trial gardens.

Larger flowers and earlier blooms on dwarf plants are characteristic of the Early Bird series.

Darker red flowers are being achieved in crapemyrtles. Miss Frances is a new release that is not yet available at retail garden centers. 

 (click on photo to enlarge)

Another series of dwarfs is the 4-foot, nicely mounded Razzle Dazzle collection. This includes the fuchsia Berry Dazzle (‘GAMAD VI’), cherry red Cherry Dazzle (‘Gamad I’), Dazzle Me Pink (‘Gamad V’), pure white Diamond Dazzle (‘PIILAG-I’), neon rose Strawberry Dazzle (‘PIILAG-II’), and pink Sweetheart Dazzle (‘GAMAD VII’). These are being used in some states as replacements for mass plantings of Knock Out roses.

The first crapemyrtle with dark foliage to debut was Delta Jazz (‘Chocolate Mocha’). This variety is part of the Southern Living Plant Collection’s Delta series. These are classified as semi-dwarf, which generally indicates heights of 8-12 feet. Four additional varieties have been released: Delta Breeze (‘Deled’), a light lavender; Delta Eclipse, brilliant purple (‘Deleb’); Delta Moonlight, white (‘Delea’); and Delta Flame, dark red (‘Delec’). Delta Fusion (‘Delee’) and Delta Fuchsia (‘Delef’) are new to the group for 2016. Burgundy foliage on these plants stays burgundy from spring through fall.


Delta Jazz was one of the first crapemyrtle varieties with burgundy foliage.

Black foliage of ‘Ebony Embers’ crapemyrtles contrasts nicely in the landscape with red blooms.

Midnight Magic from Bailey Nurseries keeps the dark burgundy foliage color spring through fall.

Delta Fusion has hot pink flowers and is a new release from the Southern Living Plant Collection.

(click on photo to enlarge)

The darker burgundy (usually called black by horticulturists) foliage of the Ebony crapemyrtles was developed by breeder Cecil Pounders at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service. These are being sold under the Ebony name and also the trademarked Black Diamond name by J. Berry Nursery in Texas. These plants mature at 8-10 feet and, like the Delta crapemyrtles, retain leaf color spring through fall. Flower colors include three shades of red, white, and blush. New releases in the Black Diamond group have pink, magenta, and purple flowers.

For “down on the farm” landscapes, consider planting the Barnyard Favorites from the Gardener’s Confidence Collection. Red Rooster (‘PIILAG III’) is “something to crow about,” Pink Pig (‘GAMAD VIII’) is “something to squeal with delight” about and Purple Cow (‘GAMAD IX’) can be used to create an “udderly majestic garden!” These are medium sized but leaf spot is a problem on these plants in the more coastal south. A plant similar to Red Rooster is Enduring Summer Red (‘PIILAG-V’) from Ball Ornamentals.

The Magic series from Plant Introductions, now part of the First Editions program by Bailey Nurseries, includes ‘Coral Magic’ (salmon pink), ‘Purple Magic’ (dark purple), ‘Plum Magic’ (fuchsia pink), ‘Moonlight Magic’ (white), and ‘Midnight Magic’ (dark pink). Most of these have reddish, plum, or burgundy spring leaves, and some of these varieties retain this color through summer and into fall. Mature height is 8-12 feet.

As you can see, it is easy to be overwhelmed with new crapemyrtles. The mid to late spring months are the time when most new crapemyrtles are added to the landscape. Educate yourself on new varieties and try the ones that are most appealing to you.


Some of My Favorite Traditional Crapemyrtles

‘Natchez’ – upright grower, 30-35 feet, white flowers

‘Muskogee’ – tight upright grower, 25-30 feet, lavender flowers

‘Acoma’umbrella-shaped canopy, 12-14 feet, white flowers

‘Tonto’ – upright growing canopy, 16 feet, red flowers

‘Sioux’ – tight upright growing habit, 16 feet, hot pink flowers


Keys to Crapemyrtle Success in the Landscape

•           Full-sun location
•           Well-drained soil
•           Soil pH of 6.0-6.5
•           Fertilize late winter/early spring at start of new growth
•           Prune crapemyrtles by thinning branches in the winter months – do not top
•           Mulch by “going out” not “going up” – avoid piling mulch around the trunk
•           Monitor for insects (aphids, crapemyrtle bark scale)





A version of this article appeared in a State-by-State Gardening March 2016 print edition. Photography by Allen Owings.



Posted: 02/09/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Know Your Landscape
by Yvonne L. Bordelon       #Health and Safety

In a well-planted suburban yard many flowering and fruiting plants provide color, form, and texture as well as food for us and our wildlife friends. However, lurking among these lovelies are plants that can be toxic.

In fact, a few of our favorite fruit trees have leaves, twigs, and seeds that are poisonous if eaten. While some flora can cause skin irritation upon contact, others produce allergens that can cause respiratory distress.

As we move toward sustainability, we must be proactive in identifying and learning about all of the plants in our yards. We should also strive to educate our children about which plants can be eaten and those that are potentially harmful. My mother used to say, “Don’t forage unless you know exactly what you are putting in your mouth.” That is a good rule to live by.

The 10 common landscape plants covered here range in toxicity from somewhat toxic to deadly and represent only a few of the scores of potentially harmful vegetation. If you have small children or pets that frequent your yard, it would be best to not add potentially toxic plants to your landscape.

Although very rare, if poisoning does occur, seek medical attention immediately. Be sure to bring along a sample of the plant that was ingested. Also be prepared to give the name of the plant (if possible), as well as how long ago it was eaten; how much and which parts were eaten; the age of the individual and his/her symptoms.

Ten Potentially Hazardous Landscape Plants

Daffodils (Narcissus spp.)

These colorful perennial bulbs naturalize readily and bloom in early spring each year. They are also deer and rodent resistant.

Toxic Parts: The entire plant (but especially the bulb) contains toxic alkaloids.

Symptoms: Care should be taken when handling narcissus because contact with the sap can cause skin irritation. Ingestion causes severe gastric distress, but recovery usually occurs in a few hours. Consuming large amounts may cause trembling, convulsions, and even death.

Lantana camara

This attractive plant with flowers in shades of gold, orange, pink, and red is planted in containers, hanging baskets, and butterfly gardens.

Toxic Parts: The green, unripe fruit, which contains lantadene A, is highly toxic. The ripe berries seem to be safe and are eaten by wildlife.

Symptoms: Consuming green berries will result in severe digestive distress, difficulty walking, and vision problems. In severe cases, circulatory collapse and death may occur.

Oleander (Nerium oleander)

Oleander is planted in the landscape for its beautiful flowers and drought tolerance.

Toxic Parts: All parts of the plant are highly toxic and potentially fatal, including the flowers and nectar. Smoke from burning the plant can also be harmful. Eating one leaf can be lethal for humans.

Symptoms: Severe digestive disorders, slowed pulse, irregular heartbeat, dilated pupils, coma, and sometimes respiratory paralysis and death.

Azaleas (Rhododendron spp.)

Native and imported rhododendrons are hardy shrubs with colorful, fragrant spring flowers making them good foundation plants.

Toxic Parts: The leaves, flowers, and nectar contain poisonous grayanotoxins.

Symptoms: Consuming azalea leaves can cause burning of the mouth, salivation, watery eyes, and runny nose, which may be followed by severe digestive distress, very low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and paralysis, but is rarely fatal to humans.

Castor (Ricinus communis)

It is grown as an ornamental for its striking foliage and rapid growth. In the South it is also grown commercially as a source of castor oil, which is used medically and in industry.

Toxic Parts: The deadly poison ricin is concentrated in the seeds, but lesser amounts are also found in the leaves. The FBI classifies ricin as the third most poisonous substance known. The poison is released when the seed’s hard skin is broken.

Symptoms:Poisoning can occur through either contact or ingestion of broken seeds resulting in severe gastric distress, rapid heartbeat, convulsions, and hemorrhaging. Death from kidney failure may occur up to 12 days after eating the seeds.

Morning glory (Ipomoea violacea and I. tricolor)

The heart-shaped leaves and colorful flowers of the fast-growing vines brighten up trellises, fences, and arbors and attract butterflies and other pollinators.

Toxic Parts: The seeds, which contain amides of lysergic acid (similar to LSD, but not as strong), are hallucinogenic and potentially dangerous, but not fatal.

Symptoms: Eating the seeds can cause nausea and hallucinations.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Digitalis is cultivated as a medicinal plant for treatment of the heart and also as a cool-weather ornamental for its tall spires of purple to white flowers.

Toxic Parts: The entire plant contains potent glycosides (digitalis) that affect the heart muscle.

Symptoms: Overdose can cause pain in the mouth and throat, gastric distress, severe headache, irregular heartbeat and pulse, tremors, and in severe cases, convulsions and death due to cardiac arrest.


Cherries and Plums (Prunus spp.)

All members of the Prunus genus have attractive flowers, tasty fruit, and colorful fall leaves.

Toxic Parts: The leaves, twigs, bark, and seeds (also called stones or pits) contain a cyanide-producing compound called amygdalin.

Symptoms: Consuming the toxic parts can cause anxiety, confusion, dizziness, headache, vomiting, and pulmonary distress. In severe cases convulsions, coma, and death may occur minutes after large doses.


Yew (Taxus spp.)

These evergreen needled trees or shrubs with pollen cones (male) and reddish berry-like fruits (female) are used as ornamentals because they lend themselves well to pruning.

Toxic Parts: All parts except the red fleshy aril around the seeds contain derivatives of taxane, including Taxol, which is used in chemotherapy cancer treatment.

Symptoms: Ingesting the plant can result in digestive distress, abdominal pain, irregular heartbeat, dilated pupils, collapse, coma, and convulsions. Fatalities may occur when large amounts are eaten or when the seeds in the fruit are chewed and swallowed.


Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans)

The flowers of this fast-growing native vine attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

Toxic Parts: Contact with the leaves and flowers can cause skin irritation. All parts, except the fruit, are slightly toxic if ingested.

Symptoms: Consuming the plant can cause gastric irritation and dilated pupils. Contact causes skin redness, swelling, and numbness in the hands.



A version of this article appeared in a Jan/Feb 2016 State-by-State Gardening print edition. Photography courtesy of Yvonne L. Bordelon.



Posted: 02/08/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Kylee’s Pumpkin Torte Recipe
by Kylee Baumle       #Recipes

•  1 yellow cake mix (take out 1 cup)
•  3 eggs •  1¼ cup white sugar
•  ¾ cup butter
•  ¾ cup evaporated milk
•  1 teaspoon cinnamon
•  1 large can pumpkin pie mix 

Mix the cake mix (less 1 cup) with one egg and ½ cup butter. Press into the bottom of a greased jelly roll pan (10½ by 15½ by 1 inches). 

Mix until smooth: pumpkin pie mix, 2 eggs and evaporated milk. Pour on top of the crust. 

Mix 1 cup cake mix, sugar, cinnamon and ¼ cup butter. Sprinkle on top of the pumpkin mixture. Bake at 350° F for 45 to 50 minutes. Cut into squares and serve with whipped cream. Store in the refrigerator.  Pumpkin torte may very well become a new favorite at your house! It’s delicious served warm from the oven or after it has been refrigerated. 


Posted: 02/01/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Leaf Castings Capture the Beauty of Leaves
by Sharon Bowen    

The first time I saw a leaf casting was in the garden of a friend. It was a heart-shaped hosta leaf preserved forever in concrete. Painted a light blue-green, it had intricate veining and was just deep enough for a birdbath. I knew then and there I had to have one.

Leaf castings capture the beauty of leaves. They're made from leaves fresh from the garden. My own garden didn't have any large-leaf plants. So I added some elephant ears this spring and waited for them to grow. When the leaves were big enough, I made my first casting. Leaf castings can be a bit tricky to make, but even a beginner can turn out a good one.

Plan Ahead

Concrete leaf castings take about a week to make from start to finish. Once the leaf is cast, it should be left undisturbed for 48 hours to dry. Then, the leaf is removed. Edges are smoothed, and the surface cleaned. Finally, it can be painted and sealed.

Making a leaf casting is messy work. So wear old clothes, and find a spot you can clean up easily. A garage or shop is an ideal workplace. But a covered area outside will work as well.

Weather is a consideration. Choose a time when the weather is cool. You don't want the concrete to dry too quickly. If you work outside, work in the shade and pick a time when rain is not expected for at least two days.

Gather Supplies

  • A corrugated box or pan large enough for the leaf
  • QUIKRETE Concrete Resurfacer
  • Play sand
  • Water in a cup and spray bottle
  • Acrylic paints and paint brush
  • Polyurethane or sealer
  • Plastic container and sturdy spoon or paint stick for mixing the concrete
  • Thin plastic like a plastic garbage bag (Cut off both side seams so it is one large piece.)
  • Brush with nylon bristles, paint scraper or metal file
  • Rubber gloves
  • Dust mask (for mixing concrete)
  • Safety goggles

Choose a Leaf

Elephant ears, caladiums and hostas leaves are good choices. But you can use any leaf with well-defined veining and smooth edges. Select leaves without tears or holes. Leaves with a fuzzy back, like fig leaves, are hard to remove and leave a textured surface. Since large leaves require additional support, choose leaves less than 12" wide.



Mound the Sand

Pour the sand into the corrugated box or pan. (While any flat, sturdy surface will work, a box or pan with sides will reduce the mess.) Mound the sand in the middle of the box slightly larger than the leaf. Gently press the front of the leaf into the sand and make a small lip (1/4'') around the leaf. This is the area that will support your casting, The lip helps keep the concrete on the leaf.

Remove the leaf. Spray the sand with water, and pack it down for a smooth, firm surface. Keep in mind that the size and shape of the mound directly affects the casting. The taller the mound, the deeper the casting will be. If you're making a birdbath, you'll want a tall mound of sand.

Cover the sand with plastic leaving enough on both sides to wrap back over the leaf. The plastic keeps the concrete away from the sand, and it keeps in moisture.

Place the leaf on the plastic with the back of the leaf up.

Check to be sure the stem has been cut even with the leaf.




Mix the Concrete

Always wear protective gear when working with concrete. Concrete will irritate the skin, eyes and lungs. Always wear gloves. Use a dust mask and eye protection when mixing or filing concrete.

The amount of concrete you need depends on the size of the leaf. Pour water in the plastic container, and then add the concrete. Stir slowly to avoid air bubbles. Keep adding concrete a little at a time until it's the consistency of toothpaste.

The right consistency is crucial. The mixture should be thin enough to capture the details of the leaf, but thick enough to stay on the leaf and not slide off.

Let the mixture stand for about 10 minutes to thicken before applying it to the leaf. If the concrete seems too dry, add a small amount of water (or spray with water). A little water makes a lot of difference.

Make the Casting

Spread the concrete over the leaf starting at the stem and working towards the edge. Stop about 1/4'' from the edge. Apply the concrete a little at a time building up the center (3/4'' to 1 1/4'') and tapering to the (3/8'' to 1/2''). The larger the leaf, the thicker the casting needs to be.

It is crucial to keep the concrete from sliding over the edge. If it does, it will puddle on the front of the leaf and ruin the texture.

Pat the concrete to remove air bubbles and ensure a good casting. Take a minute to smooth the surface of the concrete, and then fold the plastic back over the casting.

Allow it to dry for 48 hours without moving it. Check it occasionally. If it is drying too fast, then spray it with water. Remove the leaf and clean the edges. Unwrap the plastic and turn the leaf over.

If the front of the leaf doesn't have any concrete on it, simply peel away the leaf. Use a brush with nylon bristles to gently scrub away stubborn leaf parts. Smooth the edges or any rough spots on back with a metal file.

If the front of the leaf has concrete on it, try to remove it. Wearing gloves and safety glasses, try to gently pry off the excess concrete with a paint scraper. If it won't come off, try to blend it in or file it away with a metal file. This is delicate work that often ends with broken leaves.

Let the casting cure for another day.

Paint and Seal

First, clean the casting. Take the leaf outside and pour water on the front and back of the leaf. Gently wash off any concrete dust or particles. But, don't soak it.

If you're an experienced painter, then get started. If not, first practice by painting the back of the leaf.

Start with a wet brush and two or more colors. Add a little water to the paint for a wash. After the first coat dries, add highlights. Use a lighter color and paint the center of the leaf. Let it dry a few minutes, then wipe off the excess paint. Paint the veins another color, if desired. Dabble and play until you get the look you want. If you don't like what you've done, either wipe if off or paint over it.

After the back dries, paint the front of the leaf.

Let the paint dry for a day, then finish with a polyurethane or sealer. Apply at least two coats, and let it cure for a day or more before moving it outside.

Now, find a place for it in your garden and enjoy. (Just remember to move it indoors or turn it over for the winter. Water freezing in it may cause it to break.)

Leaf castings are truly one-of-a-kind creations. Each casting is a learning experience, and the next one is an opportunity to try something different. You may find this creative outlet habit-forming. One thing is for certain. You'll develop an appreciation for the beauty of leaves. I'm already planning to add a large hosta to my garden next year -- one with heart-shaped leaves, prominent veining and delicious texture.





Posted: 01/27/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

The Rosenbaums’ Garden
by Jean Starr
Specially-made wicking beds provide consistent watering and produce healthy plants.

Debby and Ken Rosenbaum have built their garden from the ground up. Literally. Ken was raised on a farm and is a machinist by trade; Debby’s a city girl. They shared a common love of fresh vegetables and grew what they could while raising a family. After their two daughters left home, Debby found she had more time on her hands. Now she has a full-time summer job growing fruits and vegetables.

Throughout the fall she preserves the bounty in hundreds of jars and freezer bags. During the entire year she decides what she will grow next season – the toughest job and also the most fun. She won’t grow ‘German Johnson’ tomatoes again. “They have such huge cores and not much flavor.”

‘Jersey Giant’ is on her list for this season. She likes a tomato that is meaty and flavorful with very few seeds, and the description in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog ticks all the boxes. Debby’s favorite tomato for canning is ‘Amish Paste’, which is very meaty and large enough for easy processing. So far, her favorite for slicing is ‘Super Sioux’, an improved version of a 1944 variety bred at the University of Nebraska for its tolerance to heat.

‘Oran’s Melon’ will remain the Rosenbaum’s go-to cantaloupe for its flavor and relatively short ripening time. In contrast is ‘Golden Midget’ watermelon, which was “beautiful but flavorless with a ton of seeds.”

While Debby makes the seed list, Ken works up devices to make the mechanics of growing easier and more fun. The most ambitious so far are the 11 raised beds based on a concept developed by Colin Austin, an Australian who established a system called the wicking bed. Essentially underground ponds, the beds are ideal for areas with widely fluctuating rainfall.

One advantage of the wicking bed system is that the plants require no overhead watering. The 4- by 8-foot beds feature two rows of red cedar boards set up over a reservoir that the Rosenbaums fill with water gathered from five rain barrels surrounding the house and garage. When the barrels are full, they fill up a water cart and transfer it to a 550-gallon tank that they use for all of their watering needs.

“The water is clean, contains no salts or extra minerals,” Debby explains. “The plants are healthy because they’re watered from below, using no overhead watering. Ken built the portable tank cart. He made a wooden frame to fit inside the cart and used ratchet straps to hold the tank in place.  After mounting a pump on the top, at the rear of the tank, he fit the necessary PVC pieces and hose adapters to enable drawing the water out of, or filling, the tank.”

As there is usually plenty of rain in the spring, the Rosenbaums’ garden has water that sometimes lasts through the season. Each wicking bed is set up with a drainage system in case of excess rain. The beds are numbered, which helps Debby plan second crops and cover crop rotation, planting buckwheat after the final harvest of onions, carrots, strawberries, salad greens and beans.

Another advantage to raised beds is that they provide support for netting and covers. “The netting around the bean bed helps keep the beans from sprawling all over the ground,” says Debby. “And they’re easy to pick by reaching into the top of the enclosure.” The variety Debby grows is ‘Calima’, a French fillet bush bean she prefers to ‘Cantare’.

Two crops of carrots yielded two types of insect challenges, but didn’t result in total loss. The first crop of ‘Kuroda’ met with carrot fly, a problem they prevented in the next crop by using a row cover from planting to harvest. Unfortunately, they had a problem with soil-dwelling nematodes, which caused distorted growth. It took Debra more time to can the carrots, as the gnarly roots were more difficult to peel.

The wicking beds aren’t the only place for plants. Ken devised some heavy-duty tomato cages for the front garden, and potatoes are grown in several large potato grow-bags. The front yard garden started, as many garden projects do, when a huge tree fell. They created raised rows and covered the soil with sheets of 6 ml. clear plastic to help warm it. The area is at the top of a slope and subject to some strong winds. One such wind came through in early August and flattened the ‘Amish Paste’ tomatoes. While Ken shored up the cages and went back to the mental drawing board, the tomatoes kept churning out fruit the rest of the season.

Melons and zucchini sprawl along the slope leading up to the ‘Amish Paste’ tomatoes.

They’ve had great results from potato grow bags, harvesting 80 lbs. of ‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes from 14 bags. “We’ve found the Yukon Gold to be the best keepers,” Debby says. She cures them in the garage before storing them, layered between newspaper in cardboard boxes, a method that assures they’ll last until the next spring.

When Debby decided to try eggplant, she chose a variety called ‘Rosita’, which she grew right by their front door. The plant was as decorative as it was productive, its neon pink fruit an eye-catching embellishment to the healthy foliage. According to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, the variety was developed in Puerto Rico in the 1940s.

With so many crops to juggle, Debby sought out a system. She keeps tablets of notes throughout the season and has found Clyde’s Vegetable Planting Chart ( to be helpful when determining what, when, and where to plant. 

With Ken’s talents for building and Debby’s knack for organizing planting and harvest, they’ll never lack for fresh vegetables. After the crops are stowed away for the winter, they go over successes and failures and decide what to grow the next year. Last year they ended up with 39 flats of plants clamoring for light in early spring. Ken set up rows of grow light fixtures in their basement over any space they could clear. There is always extra, luckily for their two daughters and their children, who they hope will discover the joys of growing.

Last summer they invited their two 12-year-old grandsons to stay for a week. They were kept quite busy and went home with some new skills.

“We called it ‘life-lesson’ week. They learned how to grill, and each of them made a raised bed for their mothers,” said Ken. “They did absolutely every part of it, using a miter saw, drill, measuring tools. They were so proud.”


At a Glance

•  Cost for each wicking bed is $250-300 for red cedar 4-by-8 boards, sand, river rock, pond liner, weed-barrier fabric, PVC pipe, shade cloth, and miscellaneous hardware. Each wicking bed is filled with a 50/50 mixture of compost and topsoil.

•  Choosing seeds: look for seed companies with websites that offer reviews of each plant. Pay attention to where each reviewer gardens, as many plants will respond to each region differently.

•  Tip for ordering seed: Debby recommends ordering in December for the best availability.

•  Learn about potential insect or disease problems with the vegetables you grow and how to mitigate the risk if possible.

•  Always rotate crops in order to reduce pests and diseases.

•  Use the sturdiest stakes or tomato frames you can find and put them in place at planting time.


Typical Design

A. Most water is on or near the surface, which maximizes the evaporate rates (wastes water) and encourages weeds to germinate. B. Tree roots and couch grass can easily invade the bed.


Wicking Design

A. Surface soil is drier as it is further away from the water source. B. Water Rises from the bottom up. C. A Liner prevents tree roots & weeds such as couch from getting in to the bed. D. Water reserve only has to be topped occasionally.


Additional Photos

The Rosenbaums’ row of wicking beds shows how they can be fitted out for a variety of crops.

Seeds germinate readily in the raised beds, which can be covered for protection from frost and pests.

Yukon Gold potatoes are planted in potato bags


Debby and Ken Rosenbaum sit amidst the squash and melons in the front garden.


A version of this article appeared in print in Chicagoland Gardening Volume XXII, Issue I. Photography by Jean Starr. Illustrations by John Ditchburn (Ditchy) of Urban Food Garden in Austrailia (


Posted: 01/25/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Winter Sowing
by Beverly Thevenin    

Most people probably think the only way to start seeds in January is to pot them and place them on racks under special lighting in the basement or dining room. However, there is an easier and cheaper method called winter sowing. The snow may be falling, the wind may be blowing and the temperature definitely dropping, but that is the perfect time to winter sow some seeds, put the containers outside and forget about them. (Well, almost.)

Ten years ago my husband and I built our home, and a big, empty yard cried out to be filled. While looking for seed starting methods online, I stumbled upon the website This method sounded too good to be true: Use freely available recycled containers, grow plants for mere pennies and achieve healthy, hardy seedlings with no damping off. Trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, vegetables and herb seeds planted in the warm indoors patiently wait outside for the right temperature and lighting to germinate.

The USDA describes winter sowing as, “A propagation method used throughout the winter where temperate climate seeds are sown into protective vented containers and placed outdoors to foster a naturally timed, high percentage germination of climate tolerant seedlings.”

After further reading about the method online at the GardenWeb Wintersown forum, I gathered the supplies and dug in (so to speak).

Most materials for winter sowing can be found around the house.

Constructing the Containers

Search the recycling bin for milk cartons (plastic and cardboard), plastic coffee cans, produce boxes for strawberries and spinach, large soda bottles, cat litter tubs, cottage cheese containers and drinking cups.

The preparation of the container depends on the type used. All containers need a height of at least 5 inches with drainage holes and ventilation slits in the top. For milk cartons, cut small holes or slits in the bottom and cut the container in half, but leave a hinge at the handle corner and remove the top cap. The pouring hole will provide the ventilation and allow for rainwater to enter. For cardboard orange juice containers, cut the box and remove the top portion. To create a top once planted, stand up two wood skewers. Attach the clear plastic bag to the container with tape or clothes pins. The tops of all containers should be clear to translucent.

Planting the Seeds

Unlike indoor seed propagation, there is more wiggle room in the timeline for winter sowing. To get a basic sense of the schedule, January is the perfect month to sow the perennial seeds that need a period of cold stratification, such as rudbeckia, delphinium and milkweed (Asclepias). I start hardy perennials that don’t need the freezing and thawing cycles in February and March, as well as cold hardy vegetables such as lettuce. Summer vegetables and annuals get potted the middle of March through April. Tomatoes are one of my favorite veggies to winter sow; and leeks, which require a long growing season, do wonderfully. Fill the prepared container with 3 inches of good potting soil and water thoroughly.

Sprinkle the seeds, pat down and either cover with soil or leave exposed, depending on the seed requirements.

Secure the lid depending on the type of container used. Cover smaller containers with plastic bags or plastic wrap. Duct tape works well on milk cartons and lasts through the winter.

Label the carton by either writing the name of the plant on duct tape with marker and taping to the bottom (which prevents fading) or on top with a Decocolor Paint Marker (which holds up to the sun).

Set the container into the garden and let nature do her work. If the weather is dry, supplemental water may be necessary. As the seedlings grow, create more ventilation in the lid.

The kitchen garden assortment includes lemon thyme, onions, dill, carrots and oregano.

Transplanting the Seedlings

After providing water and increased ventilation as the weather warms up, plant the seedlings into the ground at the same time greenhouse grown plants would be planted. No need to harden off.

Depending on how thickly the seeds were sown, there are several methods for planting. If thinly sown, gently remove each seedling and plant individually. If thickly sown, either use the Brownie method, removing the soil and seedlings in one clump and cutting the soil into bite-size pieces, or the Hunk-O-Seedlings, scooping out a spoonful of seedlings. Plant the hunk, and let the seedlings fight it out. 

Due to some serious procrastination, I transplanted my last jug of leeks July 1st this last year, but had a bountiful harvest for soup, quiche and casserole. Tomatoes have been known to grow through the milk jug lid before I get them planted, yet go on to produce large, meaty fruit.

With winter sowing I’ve been able to grow and experiment with many varieties I would have been hesitant to try. My wintersown Passiflora incarnata climbs on the trellis (although it has yet to flower); Malva sylvestris mauritiana, Digitalis grandflora and Thalictrum rochebrunianum reach for the sky; hostas help fill the empty spaces; and poppies, Impatiens balfourii and Lychnis coronaria reseed with wild abandonment.


A version of this article appeared in print in Chicagoland Gardening Volume XXII, Issue I. Photography by Nancy Rosene.


Posted: 01/25/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Come on Life ... Give Me Lemons
by Rebecca Stoner Kirts    

‘French Drop’ lemon marigolds (Tagetes patula ‘French Drop’) show what a pop yellow flowers can add to the lemon herb garden.

Oh ... the clean, fresh smell of lemons, who can resist a tall glass of lemonade? It seems I always have a few lemons on the counter, but inevitably I don’t use them quickly enough and they become shriveled and tasteless. So my alternative to getting that fresh lemon taste is to run out to the herb garden and choose from one of my many lemon herbs.

I have had a long fascination with herbs that carry the scent of lemons. They are so easy to grow – anyone who has grown lemon balm will not refute that fact. Most have beautiful blooms and interesting foliage and their uses are numerous and varied, ranging from culinary to crafting to medicinal.

While my children were in grade school, I would often take baskets of herbs to share with their classmates. The kids loved to crush the leaves and were fascinated by all the aromas. Asking the kids to identify the scents always proved to be interesting. By far, my favorite response was from one particular little boy who was smelling the different lemon herbs. His face lit up and he started jumping up and down proclaiming he knew the answer. He proudly shouted that these herbs smelled like Pledge!

Of all the lemon herbs, the easiest, and probably too easy to grow, is lemon balm. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis, USDA Zones 3-7) seems to be one of the first herbs in many gardens – probably because many gardeners are eager to pass it along due its rambunctious nature. I keep mine quite happy and under control on the side of an outbuilding. It is protected from the hot summer sun and yet seems content to stay within bounds. I trim it back midsummer only to have another flush of growth before winter. It is a very hardy perennial that will without fail die back in the winter and return in the spring.

This herb originated in the Near East and was brought to America by the colonists. Thomas Jefferson grew it in his gardens at Monticello. Its genus name, Melissa, means honeybees, and I can tell you from personal experience that bees love my lemon balm. There is an old wives tale that says, “A grove of lemon balm will hold a beehive together.” My bees have been so strong next to the lemon balm that I believe this is true.

Lemon balm makes a very soothing tea, adds a nice addition to fruit or lettuce salads, and is great on fish, chicken, and vegetable dishes. Be sure to always add the leaves at the very last minute with hot dishes to obtain the most intense flavor. What other herb in the garden tastes so good and helps keep fleas away when stuffed under cushions?

Even though lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora, USDA Zones 8-10) is not hardy in my area, no lemon garden should ever be without it. I usually plant it in a pot and bring it in to a protected area during the winter. It usually drops its leaves but rebounds with vigor in the spring. Please check if you are farther south, as it may be hardy in your area. The plant itself tends to be a rather sprawling, whimsical plant. But please don’t judge this plant on its appearance alone; its real beauty is in the heavenly scented leaves. I love it chopped over vegetables or in salads. It can also be used as a replacement for lemon zest in most recipes.

Lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus, USDA Zones 5-8) is a very beautiful perennial in the garden, plus its intense lemon flavor is a great accent on grilled fish or chicken. It forms a beautiful mound in the garden. ‘Archers Gold’ is one variety I have had great luck growing.  

Of course no herb garden of mind would be without lemon basil (Ocimum citriodorum, USDA Zones 2-11). I grow both the smaller leafed lemon basil as well as the larger leaf ‘Mrs. Burns’. This herb grows so easily from seed, but do keep the blossoms cut down until the end of the season to ensure the most intense lemon flavor.

I am particularly fond of the lemon-scented geraniums (Pelargonium crispum, USDA Zones 10-11). They are widely known for their insect repellent qualities, but offer so much more. The cultivar ‘Prince Rupert’, sometimes sold as ‘Variegated Prince Rupert’, has beautiful variegation and a stiff upright nature and is a fun addition to lemon drinks. These are not winter-hardy in most areas, but can easily be bought in to overwinter. I often take cuttings and keep them for spring planting. I never discard the fragrant leaves, instead I stuff them in panty hose and hang in closets to repeal moths and mosquitoes or incorporate them into my lemon potpourri.

Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus, Zones USDA 10-11) is the new kid on the lemon block. Don’t be fooled by the small plants available in the nursery in the spring, a 4-inch pot will be a large, attractive grass by fall. The leaves are great dried and may be used in potpourri, teas, and cooking. The white fleshy part of the stem is used extensively in Asian cuisine.

Lemon bergamot, also known as lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora, USDA Zones 3-10) is another worthy addition to any lemon garden. Its fragrant purple to pink blooms attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

So if life gives you lemons, no worry just pitch them aside and head straight for the garden and use the lemon herbs.


Lemon balm has one of the highest concentrations of lemon oil.

“Thyme” to sit and think how to use all the lemon thyme!

The varying hues of different varieties of lemon thyme provide wonderful contrasts.

‘Archers Gold’ thyme forms greenish gold mounds of goodness.


A version of this article originally appeared in a State-by-State Gardening February 2016 print edition. Photos courtesy of Rebecca Stoner Kirts.


Posted: 01/19/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Get The Taste of Tarragon with Mexican Mint Marigold
by Tom Bergey    


The flavor of French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa) is highly prized by world-famous chefs and weekend culinary gurus alike. True tarragon can be tricky to grow, but gardeners do have a very suitable alternative, Mexican mint marigold. Though not quite as complex as true French tarragon, Mexican mint marigold does possess the same strong, sharp and sweet anise flavor associated with tarragon and shared, to some extent, by other plants such as anise and fennel. It is grown as a perennial in Zones 8 and warmer and grown as an annual in colder climates.

As with most plants, Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida) has several common names including sweet mace and Texas tarragon. It should not be confused with the mint family as the common name would imply, but it is in fact a type of marigold though it hardly resembles the common garden flower. The glossy green leaves are long, narrow and pointed, and the golden-yellow, three- to four-petaled flowers are rather small, barely the size of a dime. Mexican mint marigold is not an unattractive plant by any means but is primarily grown for its flavor and aroma and not as an ornamental.


For common use, only one or two plants will be necessary. Plants started from seed will have slightly longer leaves and a more sprawling habit than the stockier upright plants purchased from a nursery. Plants from seed also seem to be slightly stronger and sweeter in flavor.

Dig a large hole for the new plant. Remove the plant from its container and gently spread the roots.

Plant the herb slightly deeper than it was in the pot and water in.

If you lack the time and inclination to start plants from seed, simply transplant from your local greenhouse or favorite herb nursery. When purchasing plants, look for bushy, healthy specimens in 2.5-inch or larger pots. Check under the leaves to make sure there are no pests hiding and gently pinch the leaves. Doing so should release that wonderful aroma of tarragon and ensure that you have the real deal.

Plant Mexican mint marigold in a fairly sunny spot. If you have room in an existing garden that currently grows sun-loving plants, your new herb will be quite happy there. The mature plant will grow to about 2 feet tall and between 12 and 18 inches wide, so plan accordingly. The best measure you can take to ensure success with growing this herb is to provide a loose, well-drained soil. Dig your planting area deep and break up the soil as much as possible. Add some compost and extra nutrients to the planting area if you feel the soil may be weak in this area. A fairly neutral pH between 6 and 7.5 is ideal. Set your new plant in the soil just slightly deeper than it had been growing in the pot. Water it in well and you’re done.

Mexican mint marigold is fairly drought tolerant and will be fine with moderate watering throughout the growing season. During especially dry parts of the year, keep an eye on it and give it a nice slow soaking at the first sign of wilt. If a particularly hard winter is predicted, it may be wise to provide a good straw mulch over your plant. Be patient the following season as Mexican mint marigold is very slow to break dormancy in the spring.

Those with a limited garden area (or those in zones colder than USDA Zone 8) may choose to grow Mexican mint marigold in a container. Provide a good-sized pot for your plant – a 12-inch or larger clay pot or a gallon-sized plastic pot will work well. Again, a good and loose growing medium is required, so don’t skimp on your potting mix for this herb. At the end of the season, you can try moving the potted plant to the garage to overwinter and gradually reintroduce it to the outdoors in the spring.



Simple and basic herb harvesting techniques apply to Mexican mint marigold. A small pair of scissors and a basket or some other container are all that is required. Harvesting can begin anytime after the plants are established in the garden. You may harvest the leaves one at a time if only a few are needed or take 3- to 4-inch sections from the tips of branches if larger amounts are required. Frequent topping of the plant will encourage branching and a bushier and healthier plant, but avoid taking more than half the plant at any one time.

It is recommended that you harvest this and all culinary herbs in the morning before the direct rays of the sun reach the plant. Direct sunlight extracts the oils from the herb, and although herbs harvested in midday will smell wonderful, they will lack much of their flavor in the kitchen.

Once you have harvested your herbs, return to the kitchen and gently submerge the fresh leaves in a bowl of room temperature tap water. Swishing the herbs back and forth in the water will remove any soil, dust, or unwanted pest from the leaves. A nice run through a salad spinner will remove most of the soil moisture from herbs, allowing them to be used immediately or stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator. If you do not have a salad spinner, gently blot the herbs between paper towels. Harvested and stored properly, fresh herbs can be held in the refrigerator for over a week with little loss of flavor or quality. If harvesting Mexican mint marigold during its blooming period, handle the flowers in the same way as the leaves. After you spin dry the plant tops, remove the flowers and store them in plastic containers lined with paper towels. The flowers are edible, possessing the same flavor as the plant and make a wonderful addition to meals either as part of a salad or a colorful garnish for meats and vegetables.


I usually insist that herbs be used fresh but Mexican mint marigold is one of those herbs that will actually maintain much of its flavor and culinary appeal when properly dried.

The dried leaves are used to make a wonderful tea that is popular in Latin America. Additionally, the dried leaves and flowers are perfect additions to potpourri, herbal wreaths and dried flower arrangements.

Cut stem sections to between 6 and 12 inches long. Arrange in small bundles of about four stems each and secure the cut end of the stems with a rubber band wrapped tightly around the stems. Use a paper clip bent away from itself to form a “S” hook with one end attached to the rubber band on your bundle and the other end to hang from a hook or a screen mesh attached to the ceiling. Hang your bundles upside down in this manner either in the garage, a work shed or even in the attic. Use a small fan to provide some air circulation around your bundles. Do not dry the bundles in direct sunlight or areas with high humidity. Utility rooms with washers and dryers, kitchens (particularly in front of the window) and bathrooms are the worst places to dry herb bundles.

After a few weeks, check your bundles. The leaves should be quite brittle and fragile. If they are flexible at all, they are not completely dry. Leave them for another week or so. Once dried, transfer your bundles to a newspaper-covered table and begin stripping the leaves from the stems, and then transfer the dried material to airtight containers for storage. Make sure you label the containers so you know what they are. Dried stems that are going to be used in arrangements or potpourri may be left hanging until needed.



When it comes to using Mexican mint marigold in the kitchen, your only limitation will be your own imagination. Because of its strong, unique and sweet flavor, it can complement practically any food. The fresh leaves can be added to salads or chopped and sprinkled over fresh fruit, steamed vegetables, any type of meat, or baked in bread recipes. A little can be used to add flavor to pasta and pizza sauce or baked in your favorite lasagna dish. It makes tasty herb butter, wonderful herb vinegar, and can be mixed with any combination of other ingredients to make superb sauces and condiments.

If using as a substitute for French tarragon, use the same amount of Mexican mint marigold as called for in the recipe. Remember, the general rule is, if a recipe calls for a tablespoon of dried herb, use three times that amount of the fresh herb. When adding the herb to soups or sauces that are cooked or simmered, add this herb at the very end of the cooking process to avoid flavor loss. With a little experimentation and creativity, you may find that the easy-to-grow and wonderfully tasty Mexican mint marigold is one of your all-time favorite culinary herbs.


Marigold Chicken


• 1/4 cup fresh Mexican mint marigold leaves
• Two cloves garlic
• Three to four small green onions
• 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
• 1/4 cup honey
• Four boneless, skinless chicken breasts

With a knife or food processor, mince the Mexican mint marigold, garlic and onions and scrape all into a small bowl. Add the mustard and honey and blend to make a thick paste.

Cut a pocket lengthwise in the middle of each chicken breast and spoon in one tablespoon of the honey-mustard mixture. Season the breast with salt and pepper and bake at 350° F for 20 minutes, turning once, or grill the breast over hot coals for four minutes on each side. Pour remaining honey-mustard sauce over cooked breast. Serve and enjoy!


A version of this article originally appeared in print in Oklahoma Gardener Volume II Issue V. Top photo by M. Martin Vicente all other photos by Tom Bergey.


Posted: 01/15/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Cream of Cauliflower and Chive Soup
by Karen Atkins       #Recipes

Cream of Cauliflower and Chive Soup

Cream of cauliflower and chive soup. (Sarmis/

This soup is easy, fast, crazy inexpensive and pretty enough to serve to the fussiest dinner party guests. You can make it a few days in advance without the half and half, salt, pepper and chives. Then, just reheat it until it is warmed through, adding the half and half, salt, pepper and chives just before serving. What more could you ask of a soup?


3 tablespoons of butter
2 small heads of cauliflower, chopped, including the stem (about 8 cups)
6 ¾ cups of chicken broth
1 cup of half and half
2 cups chopped chives
2 or 3 whole, long chives per bowl (for garnish)
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon white pepper


Melt the butter in a large Dutch oven. Toss in the chopped cauliflower head and stems and stir for a few minutes. Add the chicken stock and cook over medium heat until it boils. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the cauliflower is tender, about 20 minutes. Allow the mixture to cool, so that you can handle it easily. Get out a large bowl and set it by the blender. Next blend the soup in batches. When it is completely smooth, transfer from the blender to the bowl. When the entire mixture has been blended, transfer it back into the pot. At this point, you can either reheat the soup or refrigerate it and finish it later. To finish the soup, bring the mixture back up to a simmer, then add the half and half, salt and pepper. At the last minute, stir in the chives. Garnish with a few long chives.


Posted: 01/11/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Chive and Bleu Cheese Dressing
by Karen Atkins       #Recipes

I found this recipe long ago, in Gourmet magazine. It is a keeper. The only difference here is that I’ve doubled it. You will be glad I did, since it keeps for a week in the refrigerator. This dressing is so sharp and alive. It is wonderful on a typical mixed salad. Add bacon and it is off the chain! It also serves as a gorgeous sauce over warm or chilled beef tenderloin, a pretty and elegant sauce. The recipe already contains black pepper, but it really sets the flavor off if you also grind fresh, cracked pepper over top of the sauce just before serving it.


1 cup buttermilk
1 cup mayonnaise
½ teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 small garlic cloves, minced
½ cup fresh parsley leaves
4 tablespoons finely chopped chives
4 ounces crumbled, firm bleu cheese
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper


Combine buttermilk, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and garlic in the blender and pulse until smooth. Add parsley and pulse until chopped. Then add the cheese and only pulse a few times. You want the cheese to stay chunky. Stir in the chopped chives and pepper at the last minute, before serving. After pouring dressing, grind fresh, cracked pepper over your dish.


Thumbnail photo by A. Pitch CC BY 2.0


Posted: 01/11/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Grains + Fruit = Tasty Granola Recipe
by Karen Atkins    

Oven-toasted granola stays crunchy, even in milk.1

Dried figs have such a beautiful shape when simply halved and mixed with granola.2

Karen Atkins’ friend accuses her of going off the chain for adding banana chips to a recipe already high in calories.3

Toasting coconut concentrates flavor and produces a heady aroma.4

During the winter months, the avalanche of seed and plant catalogs I find in the mailbox reassures me that there will be fresh fruit again next summer. Still, to get these catalogs, I have to trudge through 2 feet of snow. And for too long, in my opinion. So how do I keep the faith? I celebrate dried fruit instead by making mounds of granola.

I have tried countless recipes for homemade granola. Trust me, this is the one my family and friends like the best. It was first inspired by Sarah Chase’s Open House Cookbook. Ina Garten then added more dried fruit to it for the The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.

I took Garten’s adaptation and switched from vegetable oil to walnut oil. It gives the granola twice as much nutty flavor. I also changed up the fruit for more color, crunch and variety. My addition of banana chips drove it right over the top.

There are as many innovations in granola making, as there are permutations. If you are like me and can’t leave good enough alone, use mine as your starting point. Or, to avoid all of the experimentation I had to endure, just go right to the good stuff.

Granola Recipe

Ingredients (this recipe makes 12 cups):

4 cups rolled oats (not the quick-cooking kind)
2 cups sweetened, shredded coconut
¾ cups walnut oil
½ cup good honey
1 cup small, diced dried apricots
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup quartered figs (Garten likes these finely diced but I love the shape of them halved or quartered.)
1½ cups banana chips
1 cup roasted cashews (Garten likes these unsalted, but I like them salted.)

If, after reading the ingredients, you begin to wonder how granola won its reputation as a healthy food, I’m right there with you. It may be from the association between granola and hiking. After all, hikers need lightweight snacks and extra calories! 


Preheat oven to 350 F. Toss the oats, coconut and cashews in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, mix together the oil and honey. Pour the oil and honey mixture over the oat mixture and stir thoroughly. The oil helps the oats crisp up, so you definitely want to ensure that everything is coated. Pour the mix onto a 13-by-18-inch baking sheet. It is smart to use one with sides, because you will be stirring it from time to time while it bakes, and you don’t want it to spill out.

Bake 45 minutes, but depending on the depth of the pan, the timing may be different. Just pull it out and stir it with a spatula every 10 minutes or so. As it begins to brown, you will need to stir it more frequently. Keep a close eye on it, since coconut easily burns.

When the mixture has evenly browned, take it out of the oven and allow it to cool – still stirring it occasionally. If you can, set it on a trivet so it can cool from the bottom, which helps prevent overcooking. After it has cooled completely, mix in the apricots, cranberries, figs, banana chips and cashews. You can store it in an airtight container for a week or two, if you like. Mine never stays around that long, especially if anyone is home to smell the aroma as it bakes.

More Ways to Enjoy Granola

•  Top a fruit and yogurt parfait with it.

•  Eat it dry by the handful.

•  In a bowl with milk

•  Layer it (alternately), with pudding and cake several times to make trifle.

•  Roll a banana in peanut butter. Then roll it in granola and slice to serve. 

•  Roll a banana in melted chocolate, coat with granola and freeze. 

•  Bake an apple with it, drizzled with butter until it is crisp.

•  Make gifts by putting granola in a mason jar or simply wrapping it in cellophane.






From State-by-State Gardening January/February 2014.


Posted: 01/11/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Cover Crops in the Vegetable Garden
by Jack Horan    

Brandon Hines incorporates winter rye and hairy vetch cover crops in spring at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, Goldsboro, NC. (Photo courtesy of Jack Horan.)

If you have harvested everything from your vegetable garden and decided not to plant cool-season crops, then now is the time to start a cover crop, which just means planting something to cover up the dirt. Big-time farmers plant cover crops such as clover and rye, and backyard gardeners can reap the same benefits for their dormant gardens during the winter months with a cover crop.

The benefits are many, according to Suzanne O’Connell, a graduate student at N.C. State University who researches cover crops on organic vegetable farms. Growing a cold-weather cover crop reintroduces nutrients to the soil, improves soil quality, can control weeds, breaks the cycles or diseases or pests, attracts insect pollinators and decreases soil erosion for gardens on a slope. “It’s adding work in one sense, but you really are improving your soil and adding nutrients,” O’Connell said.

Leaving your spent vegetable garden’s soil bare through the winter lets rain and snow leach out nutrients such as nitrogen. That nutrient loss is on top of those lost in the summer to vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and corn.

With summer gardens spent, fall is an ideal time to plant a cover crop, since most cover crops require between two and four months to reach their desired stage. Prepare the soil as you would for any other crop, applying lime or fertilizer as needed by a soil test. Broadcast cover crop seeds by hand.

O’Connell recommends five cover crops for all regions of the Southeast. They are easy to germinate and easy to get rid of in the spring when the garden is to be replanted with vegetables.

Crimson clover


(Above photos courtesy of Suzanne O’Connell.)
  • Crimson and berseem clover (Trifolium incarnatum, T. alexandrinum) – Plant six to eight weeks before the first frost date. Clovers are part of the legume family, which can fix nitrogen in the soil and thus boost nitrogen for next spring’s garden. Mow one or two times when about half of the crop is flowering. Allow the residue to decompose for at least two weeks before planting vegetables.

  • Cereal/winter rye (Secale cereale) –
Plant six to eight weeks before the first frost date. A cold-hardy crop, rye will grow well into the spring. Rye increases soil organic matter as it decomposes. Mow one to two times when at least 12 inches tall, or when half of the crop has immature seed heads. Allow residue to decompose for at least two weeks before planting vegetables.

  • Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) –
Plant in the spring or fall during a two-month period of mild weather. Buckwheat establishes quickly, suppresses weeds and attracts pollinators. Mow one to two times when half the crop is in flower and before hard seeds have formed.

  • Soybean (Glycine max) –
Plant in early to midsummer, between spring and fall crops. Mow before pods have formed or when pods are still green and have not matured. These legume family plants can fix nitrogen in the soil.

  • Oats (Avena sativa) –
Plant eight to 10 weeks before the first frost date. Oats grow during the fall and die when cold weather rolls in. They form a surface mulch, increasing soil organic matter as they decay.


Maintenance for cover crops is minimal other than watering if a long dry spell occurs.

In late winter or early spring, gardeners can blend cover crops – “green manure” – into the soil. First, mow the crop and let it dry out for a week or two. Then work the crop into the soil with a garden tiller or by hand with a shovel or pitchfork. O’Connell said that gardeners can either mix in the entire cover crop or create 1- to 2-foot-wide planting strips, leaving the rest as surface mulches that will decompose over time and serve as walkways. Such strip tillage works well with grain-type cover crops like rye and oats.

Spreading leaves over the garden will increase the amount of soil organic matter and control weeds, but the garden doesn’t benefit from that process as much as it does with a cover crop. Instead, O’Connell recommended composting leaves with other yard and household waste, and then adding the compost to the garden as a soil builder and natural fertilizer.

Cover crops also provide an aesthetic benefit. They add color, texture and blooms to a vegetable garden so that it looks vibrant and productive throughout the year.


Where can I buy cover crops?

Cover crop seeds are available at many garden stores as well as online through seed companies. For a list of cover crop seed sources, visit Noth Carolina State University Cooperative Extension's list of cover crops




Posted: 12/18/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Outside Influence
by Daniel Keeley       #Holiday: Christmas   #Decorating

Organic elements, like the fresh greenery, sugar pinecones and sculptural Manzanita branch
seen here, combine with beautiful, earth-toned ornaments for an elegant, yet rustic feel.

How to Bring a Touch of the Garden to Your Holiday Decorations

As a garden and exterior designer, I can’t help but incorporate natural and outdoor elements when decorating for the holidays. And hey, if you think about it, the holiday season is the perfect time to bring the outdoors in. I mean, at what other time of year do we traditionally cut down real trees and put them in our living rooms?! So, as an expansion on this age-old tradition, try bringing some of your garden and the outdoors inside your home when decorating for the holidays this year. Here are some of my favorite techniques.


Naturally Festive

A simple amaryllis planted with green moss in a small garden container makes the perfect garden-inspired holiday decoration for the top of a piece of furniture.

Using natural items and organic materials is one of the easiest ways to bring the outdoors in for the holidays. Besides the ubiquitous Christmas tree, fresh evergreen wreaths and garland are a great place to start, and they will give your decorations a natural grace and fill your home with wonderful aromas. But also keep in mind the potential of other items such as pinecones, dried or fresh vines and sculptural tree branches. These items can even be gathered right from your own garden (did someone say, “FREE”?) and used in combination with basic greenery … whether it is real or artificial.


Freshly Seasoned

As with any occasion, fresh flowers are also the perfect ingredients for your holiday décor. Especially with flowering bulbs such as narcissus and amaryllis, you can introduce a living, growing and natural element to your decorations. Plus, they last for weeks! These bulbs can easily be found at nurseries and garden centers around the holidays and potted in your favorite decorative containers, or you can buy them already planted, as well. Either way fresh, flowering bulbs will fill your holiday home with the colors, scents and liveliness of the garden.


Winter Wonderland

Live narcissus in small garden planters, fresh moss, pinecones and a dusting of artificial snow make the perfect outdoor-inspired centerpiece for the holidays.

We all dream of the perfect white Christmas with freshly fallen snow blanketing the ground and the treetops. Well, regardless of the weather you can create your own white Christmas, and it is actually a great trick for bringing not just the feeling of the outdoors but also the feeling of being outdoors to your holiday decor. By recreating the illusion of fresh snow, you can conjure up a garden-inspired fantasy where the flakes just stopped falling! Simply sprinkle artificial snow on decorations, trees or table arrangements and let it pile up as it would naturally. If you’re afraid of avalanches … no problem: Use spray adhesive along with the artificial snow to add sparkle to items such as branches, pinecones and ornaments.


Here are a few additional tips:

1) Artificial snow is usually sold for use with miniature holiday villages, so look for it near the villages themselves.

2) Some artificial snow is nothing more than shredded plastic bags. Skip this and get the good stuff.

3) Finally, when decorating “let it snow” liberally for the best effect!


In From the Cold

Another great way to add a bit of the garden to your holiday décor is to bring some of your favorite decorative elements (such as a birdbath, statue or planter) in from the cold. For example, pile a bunch of colorful Christmas tree ornaments or naturally beautiful pinecones in a birdbath and place it next to your tree for an unexpected touch. Or, drape a statue with lush greenery and a big, festive bow for a dramatic holiday focal point. And, your smaller garden planters are perfect for potting up those narcissus and amaryllis bulbs. Even larger containers can be put to good use by filling them with fresh evergreens or interesting branches from the garden and grouping them around the Christmas tree, using them to dress up an entryway or placing them in an empty corner.

Happy Holidays!


Additional Photos
click on any photo to enlarge


Garden décor, such as this stone finial, can be decorated and brought inside for the holidays to add an unexpected outdoor touch to your décor. Here, fresh greenery, elegantly glittered pinecones and an earth-toned bow combine to create an elegant, understated focal point.


Garden statuary, such as this handsome bust, can be moved indoors during the holidays to create a dramatic and garden-inspired statement.


Establishing an outside influence doesn’t mean your decorations have to be traditional. Here, frosted trees and fresh poinsettias are planted in large, contemporary garden containers for a sleek, sophisticated approach to the holidays.


A variety of evergreens, sandblasted Manzanita branches and miniature pinecones lend an organic contrast to the shiny ornaments, mirrored obelisks and glass lamps in this tabletop arrangement.


On this staircase banister, huge sugar pinecones and pheasant feathers were used instead of traditional ornaments to decorate artificial garland. The result brings the outdoors into this holiday home in a dramatic and unexpected way.


A single narcissus bulb, lichen moss and an architectural branch bring a touch of the holidays and the outdoors to this powder room.


Live narcissus and fresh moss in a festive container bring a touch of the holidays and the outdoors to any room.


Live narcissus and English ivy in a festive container bring a touch of the holidays and the garden to this tabletop.


Evergreen trees potted in garden urns combine with vines, greenery and bright red berries to create a woodsy yet elegant mantle decoration.


Image: ARGARDWEB 12, 2011 (17)
Natural pinecones and fresh Spanish moss were used to add organic beauty to this stairway decoration.


Natural pinecones were combined with greenery and bright red berries to create this organically beautiful centerpiece.


Real pinecones, vines, greenery and moss topiaries were placed along with simple candlesticks and given a “fresh” blanketing of snow to give a garden-inspired grace to this large tabletop.


Pheasant feathers and butterfly ornaments used as a tree topper bring the feeling of the garden into this holiday décor.


(Photos courtesy of DK Design)



Posted: 12/18/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Poinsettia Combinations
by Susan Frakes       #Holiday: Christmas

This large arrangement holds seven 4-inch plants. The dumb cane (Dieffenbachia spp.) gives height, along with the Norfolk Island pine. The Diamond Frost euphorbia adds the look of dainty white snowflakes. The variegated ivy hangs over the edge of the 14-inch container.

Poinsettias have decorated homes for many years. A single poinsettia can be an awesome sight sitting alone on a table, showing off its striking color, or colors. And their colors are astonishing – from various shades of red, pink, purple, to white or multi-colors. With names such as Monet Early (‘PER2009’), Jingle Bells (‘PER 2110’), ‘Prestige’, ‘Shimmer’, Maren (‘Beckmanns Altrosa’) and ‘Luv U Pink’, there are over 100 varieties of poinsettias. So why combine poinsettias with other plants? Plant combinations take you beyond the ordinary to extraordinary! I enjoy creating combinations that scream “Look at me!” Garden centers have made it easy to do this by having poinsettias in all sizes from teeny tiny to very large ones. The selection of foliage plants to complement the poinsettias also come in various sizes.

The first step is to select your container. The container can be anything that holds enough potting mix to accommodate the number of plants you want to use. To create a tabletop arrangement, you may choose a 10-inch bowl. A bowl of that size would accommodate a 5-inch poinsettia with room for other plants or two 4-inch poinsettias with less room for other plants. The nice thing about having so many sizes of poinsettias to choose from is that you can make a combo in just about anything – from a small ornate container, such as a sleigh, to a huge combo in a ceramic pot. Tabletop urns can transform arrangements into conversation pieces. I am partial to using plastic inserts that I can drop into my decorative container. They come in various sizes as well.

This stunning combination shows off a smaller variety of poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Tapestry’). It is surrounded by a dark-leaf peperomia (Peperomia caperata ‘Raspberry Ripple’) and a delicate fern (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Sprengeri’). The sparkle of tiny white flowers come from Diamond Frost euphorbia (E. hypericifolia ‘Inneuphe’).

For a beautiful display, surround a Norfolk Island pine with red and white poinsettias and add a striking trailing pothos (Epipremnum aureum ‘NJoy’).

Drainage is important for the health of your combination. Never leave your container in standing water. If you are using a non-draining container, water lightly and carefully. I use a small watering can with a small spout. This makes it easy to control the direction and amount of water. Your plants’ roots need air along with water.

The potting mix you use should be a soilless mix. It is important to use a medium that is light and fluffy. It helps with drainage.

Be careful and protect the surface where you place your container. A non-draining pot will still damage the surface where it sits. I use surface protectors such as cork with plastic or coasters under my containers. They are thin and not noticeable.

The basic principles for making indoor arrangements are the same as outdoor arrangements. The difference is the plants you use. For some height in my outdoor container, I like to use Sky Pencil holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’). Inside, I would use a Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla).

There are many foliage plants that you can use to pull out the color of your poinsettia. A soft look could be achieved with the addition of ferns. Dracaena lends a bolder style.

These white poinsettias stand out more with the addition of the variegated rubber tree (Ficus elastica ‘Tineke’). Tucked in around the poinsettias are small 3-inch containers of asparagus ferns. Two 4-inch autumn ferns (Dryopteris erythrosora) are added for more texture.

This festive tin is planted with red and white poinsettias. The Norfolk Island pine gives height to the arrangement. The chartreuse color of the spikemoss (Selaginella kraussiana ‘Gold Tips’) adds interest.

I used coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides) a lot last year in my combinations and was very pleased with how they performed indoors. Coleus colors vary from lime green to vibrant red. New varieties are entering the market every spring. I take cuttings of my summer coleus plants and have them to use indoors with my poinsettias. Hopefully, you will find coleus displayed with poinsettias this year. Their decorative foliage adds more interest and creativity. It pulls the color of the poinsettia out even more.

Every holiday season I pull out my festive baskets and create arrangements in them. Some are given away as gifts, while some decorate my home. Placing a drip pan in the bottom of the basket helps the basket last longer and keeps it tidier. I like using a variety of small plants and depending on my basket size, I usually use three different plants. The Norfolk Island pine is one of my favorites. It can be decorated with tiny ornaments or bows. It stands tall while my small poinsettias surround it. Tuck in a small container of ivy to soften the edges. A small African violet (Saintpaulia spp.) can add some color also. Cover the soil with moss for a nice finished look. Keeping plants in their original containers allows you to change it up easily or take it apart after the holidays. Just remove the moss to water the pots individually.

Grouping plants together is another way to create poinsettia arrangements. Clustering is another name for it. With the help of plant stands, you can elevate plants and surround them with plants placed below. Place a tall dracaena on a plant stand and put a large poinsettia at the base. It will hide the plant stand. Tuck in a small container of ivy next to the poinsettia. The pots can be covered with foil or placed in decorated containers. Remember to take the foil off to water.

Poinsettia combinations go beyond the ordinary and give a beautiful plant a whole new exciting look. It can be a small arrangement or one on a grander level.

This year, when you pick out your poinsettia, look around for something exciting to go with it. You will be surprised how a plant that has been around for a very long time can take on a whole new look.

Poinsettia Partners

Try these exciting foliage plants with your poinsettias:

Neon pothos (Epipremnum pinnatum)

Pilea (Pilea mollis ‘Moon Valley’)

Fittonia (Fittonia argyroneura ‘Mini White’)

Silver lace fern (Pteris ensiformis ‘Evergemiensis’)

From State-by-State Gardening November/December 2013.
Photo credits: Neon photos by Quinn Dombrowski. Pilea by Nagarazoku. Silver lace fern by Forest & Kim Starr. All poinsettia photos by Susan Frakes.


Posted: 12/18/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

How to Make Compost
by Kerry Heafner       #Homesteading   #Video

How to Make Compost
- Demonstration by Kerry Heafner

You know fall of the year is the perfect time to start rejuvenating your garden beds for next spring, and in this vegetable garden, the perfect thing to do is add compost now so it can settle in and nutrients can be released in time for the spring plant. So, come on back with us and we’ll show you how to set up a compost pile.

Now, setting up a compost pile for your own home garden couldn’t be simpler, and the good news is that the materials needed will come at little to no expense. So, that’s always a plus.

In this case, I’m using some four-foot fence post that I got from the local garden center, and I’m simply going to hammer these into the ground in a circular pattern. Now, when the fence post are in the ground, I’ll wrap some hardware cloth - or really you can use any wire you have available. Two by four wire works perfectly. I’m going to wrap the wire around this, and that will do two things. First, it will keep the material being composted contained. Second of all, it will allow good airflow across the pile because keeping the compost pile oxygenated during the composting process is going to be key.

Now that we have our compost pile blocked off, it’s time to start adding the materials, and the first thing we’re going to add is some finished compost. And, that’s simply because finished compost contains all the microorganisms that will kickstart a new compost and carry on the decomposition process. Now we have some finished compost in there for a good microbial foundation.

The next thing we want to add is some kitchen scraps, and I’m often asked, “Well, what can we compost out of the kitchen.” Well, really anything plant based. What you want to avoid are animal products like meat scraps and bones. Those will be very slow to breakdown and they might invite some uninvited guests to your compost pile and we don’t want that.

What I’m going to put in here now are just simply some kitchen scraps, and you’ll see it’s banana peels, some old leaf petioles off of greens, some carrots tops, some cherry tomatoes that are a little past their peak. And, you’ll also notice some egg shells. A wonderful source of calcium. And, you can find egg shells very readily. So, any of this material would be perfect for the compost pile.

Now, this is going to be kind of a magic ingredient we’ll add to the compost pile. These are coffee grounds, and you can get these from your local coffee shop. They’re often very glad to give them away because all they do with them is throw them away anyway. Coffee grounds are a wonderful source of nitrogen and they will also help improve the soil – workability of the soil – tilth you’ll sometimes hear it called. And, we’ll put this into the compost pile as well. We don’t want too much, but just enough to get the compost pile to heat up. And coffee grounds are a good source of nitrogen.

Now, we’re going to cover this with some type of organic material – leaves, hay, straw anything like that will work. I’m going to use some maple leaves that I’ve raked up out of the yard. And, we’ll put this on top to sort of keep everything under the layer of leaves warm and that’ll start decomposing. There are also insects in these leaves that will start decomposing all this organic matter as well as soil fungi and bacteria. So, we’ll keep the leaves on top of that, and that will allow the compost pile to stay warm so the microbes can start doing their thing breaking all this wonderful organic material down.  

Now the last thing to go on the compost pile is some water. We want to keep the compost pile, not saturated, but just moist enough to promote good microbial growth.  All of these bacteria and fungi that are going to breakdown this material need moisture. In the process of decomposition, a lot of heat will be generated. It’ll even be possible to come out here on a cold winter day, open up the compost pile and watch steam literally erupt out of the center of the compost pile. So, over a period of months, this material will break down and will have that wonderful black gold material that will be ready to go in the garden in the springtime.

Now, it’s going to be very important to come out periodically and turn the compost pile with a shovel or some time of garden tool. Now once the compost pile has stopped heating up, the compost is finished. And at that point it’s ready to harvest and go into the garden bed.


Posted: 12/16/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Muhly grass
by State-by-State Gardening       #Ornamentals   #Video


Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)
 - Video Transcript

As a single specimen or planted en masse, muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is dramatic, drought resistant and easy to grow.

Hardy in USDA Zones 5-10, the growing conditions for muhly grass are precise, requiring full sun and excellent drainage for the best results. The optimal time for moving or dividing is during the cooler months, when rainfall or hand watering can be done in abundance – although muhly grass is extremely drought-tolerant once established, it needs copious amounts of water to get the roots settled in to its liking.

Not likely to be noticed in the spring or summer, it puts on quite a show in the autumn landscape. When other ornamental grasses are falling down and showing ragged foliage, muhly grass will be covered with a cloud of wispy flower heads held height above the wiry foliage. This effect is amplified when planted in large masses. By late summer, muhly grass will grow to about 30 inches by 30 inches. The plant will increase in size and flowering capacity each year. Cut back to about 6-8 inches in late winter to allow room for the new season’s growth. Fertilize in early spring. Provide full sun and only minimal irrigation.   

This perennial native of the prairies and coastal barrens, ranges from New England to Mexico. It’s becoming increasingly popular as a colorful, low-maintenance, water-conserving, three-season addition to the landscape.


Posted: 12/03/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Reusing Salvaged Brick
by Brandee Gruener    

Paths are an essential part to any garden. They help improve access to plants, invite visitors to enter and provide an aesthetic improvement as well. Brick paths can be an elegant addition to any garden, but starting from scratch with new brick can be cost-prohibitive. If you want the elegance of brick without the sticker shock, look into salvaged bricks. They bring both elegance and an historic element to your garden.


In my own garden, I decided I wanted a series of elegant brick walks to divide my front lawn and echo the charming brick columns on the front porch. During my research I feasted my eyes on photos of brick walks with subtle geometric designs. Then I began to look at the price tag for pallets of fresh, identical red brick, and I decided to change direction slightly.


My eyes turned to the bricks I’d gathered from my property and the neighbors’. My new plan became creating a brick-lined, gravel path that connects the driveway to the front walk in a manner perfectly in tune with my historic neighborhood. The final result was a unique and more satisfying walkway than any new materials could have created. And the price tag was perfect: less than $100 in rock and landscape fabric.


Garden designer Frank Hyman has used salvaged brick to create dry-stack walls on his own property as well as to install a Charleston-type garden pathway for a client. For the pathway he used leftover brick from a dismantled chimney at his client’s historic home. One reason he chose salvaged brick was for the patina of age that comes with the older materials. “I just love the color, you can’t beat it,” Hyman said.


With new brick, one can wait years for interesting textures to develop. Salvaged bricks add immediate interest through their rich colors, worn and moss-covered surfaces and unusual stamps. The size, texture, and color of each brick is customary to the manufacturer and the time period in which it was formed and baked. One brick in my walkway is stamped by “Borden Brick & Tile Co.,” a brick manufacturer from the early 20th century. So now what would have been an ordinary brick path is a conversation piece.


Recycling those bricks also saved a trip to the dump and kept them out of the landfill. The EPA estimates there are 1,900 landfills in this country used for construction and demolition materials. I used excess bricks to create a border for the garden beds, unifying the entire landscape. And installation is just as simple with recycled materials.


Collecting the Brick


If you’re looking to collect bricks for a path or a wall, first you need to know the amount of brick you’ll need for your project. Design your path and with stakes or a garden hose mark off the area you want to pave. To create a brick-lined path, measure the length of the path to estimate how much material you will need – a standard brick is 8 inches long, so calculate the length of your path, multiply by 2, and divide by 2/3 for the total number of bricks needed. For a full brick path, you can calculate square footage and use a materials calculator online.


Second, start a treasure hunt. Hunting for the right bricks for your project can require patience. I spent several months collecting bricks, but it was worth it for the price tag. Start with your backyard; what could be more authentic than bricks from your own homestead? Then ask your neighbors for permission to hunt around their yard. Older properties can hide a treasure trove of bricks that served as a foundation, a walkway or a chimney in a former life.


You can also try commercial listings like Craigslist, local businesses under renovation or used building supply companies. These bricks aren’t free, but they’re a better price than new and sometimes it’s the best way to get what you need.


If you collect from multiple sources, you’re bound to end up with bricks of different sizes and shapes. That can make the project tricky, but it also adds variation for those who appreciate an eclectic look.

Building Your Path


Once you have enough brick, gather the necessary materials: rock screenings, gravel and landscape fabric. To determine how much screenings and gravel you will need, multiply the width and length of your project for square footage. You will need about a 2-inch depth of screenings and 2 to 3 inches of gravel. The easiest way to determine how much you need to buy in yards is to use a materials calculator easily found online.


Use a spade to dig out the path to a depth of at least 4 inches, cutting the sides as vertically as possible. Cover the base of trench with landscape fabric. Fill the trench halfway with screenings or coarse sand and rake it even. Tamp the screenings down if the underlying soil is soft.


Lay out bricks along each side of the path. This will require extra care if they are different shapes and sizes. Line up the outer edges of the bricks, rather than the inner edges, for a neater appearance. Any eroded or broken sides should face inward to be filled in with gravel.


If you have bricks of different sizes, use extra screenings where needed to bring thinner bricks up to height. A mallet or board can be used to gently tap out-of-line bricks into place. Be careful, because bricks can be rather brittle and break easily. Finally, fill in the path with gravel and rake.


The extra work of finding salvaged brick is all worth it for the lived-in charm. Through investing a bit of time and patience, you’ve created a beautiful brick path that complements any garden.


Photo Gallery


With reclaimed brick, you don’t have to wait for weather and nature to produce interesting textures. Salvaged bricks add immediate interest with their rich colors, worn and moss-covered surfaces, and unusual stamps.


A brick-lined path complements the front-porch columns of this historic home. Salvaged brick can also add immediate “lived-in” charm for newer homes.


Reclaimed brick also works well for garden borders. This project made good use of hollow brick deemed unusable for a pathway. Each brick was installed on its side to hide the holes.


Look for interesting stamps and textures for your salvaged brick projects. This stamp from Borden Brick & Tile Co. accents an eclectic collection of bricks of many sizes and colors.


Even busted and broken bricks serve a purpose, adding a whimsical touch to the herb garden.


This gardener collected brick from torn-down buildings and chimneys to construct a series of paths and dry stack walls around her home.


She also incorporated salvaged brick in the steps leading up to her home. The mixture of stone and brick give the garden an eclectic and one-of-a-kind feel.















Posted: 11/30/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

How to: Select a Fresh Cut Live Christmas Tree
by State-by-State Gardening       #Holiday: Christmas   #How to   #Video


How to: Select a Fresh Cut Live Christmas Tree
 - Video Transcript, Demonstration by Kerry Heafner

Today we’re going to show you how to select that perfect live Christmas Tree.
Now the first thing to consider when selecting a live Christmas tree is the height of the tree vs the height of the room it’s going in. Make sure you select a live tree that is going to be proportional to the height of the ceiling in the room the tree is going to be standing in. So, when you go to a Christmas tree farm they’ll often times have these poles marked off at different heights. Now, this tree is approximately 8-feet tall, which means, when you get it in the stand it’s going to be at least a foot taller. So, make sure the room that this tree will go in has a ceiling that’s at least 10-feet tall.

Now, in addition to height, we have to think about the other end of the tree and take some time to lift the bottom branches away and have a look at the trunk. Having a straight trunk on a live Christmas tree is going to be important in terms of setting it up on the stand. Generally, you’ll find that on something like a leyland cypress, the trunk is going to be very straight and uniform. On the other hand, trees like this Carolina sapphire cedar, can often times have a trunk that grows a little crooked throughout the growing season, and that will affect how the tree sits in the stand after its been cut.

Another thing you want to look for when selecting a live Christmas tree is the overall shape. And, we all think of the perfect Christmas tree having a perfect conical shape, and the fact is that they’re pruned to have that shape. The growers come in periodically and prune the trees so that they look like that perfect Christmas tree that we all think of.

Rub your hand across the Christmas tree and feel the needles. The branches should be soft and playable, and the needles should not easily fall away from the tree. You also want to make sure the tree is uniformly green, and every once in awhile you’ll see a tree that will have some dead growth in it. For example, if you look at this leyland cypress, you’ll some a few brown branches mixed in with the green ones. Typically, the grower will have those pruned away so there’s not a hazard if you’re going to use electric lights.  

So there you have some basic tips for selecting that perfect live Christmas tree. For State-by-State Gardening, I’m Kerry Heafner.


Posted: 11/27/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Respect Your Houseplants
by Kylee Baumle    

Maybe it's not a greener thumb you need, but a change in attitude. 

Growing plants inside our homes has been done for centuries. The desire to surround ourselves with plants in our very non-natural abodes is a testament to the connection we feel with nature. Even those who don't grow houseplants usually enjoy seeing them in other people's homes and places of business.

So why do some people shun them? If you ask a group of people why they don't have houseplants, the number one reason they'll give is that they kill them. Newsflash: Everyone kills houseplants.

It's true that no one enjoys seeing brown-tinged leaves or yellowing foliage sitting next to them while they’re watching TV, or eating dinner, or especially when they're entertaining guests. A sick or dying houseplant doesn't exactly give off positive vibes about itself or the person who is supposed to be taking care of it.

But all houseplants are not created equal. Some are quite forgiving, and there truly are plants that survive and even thrive in homes where they may not receive optimal care. Fortunately, those plants are readily available in garden centers.

A Different Point of View

It might not seem all that unusual to find plants living with people in homes where gardeners reside. After all, it's just an extension of what they do out in their gardens, and especially in northern latitudes, houseplants are a way to continue enjoying the growing process when the weather outside prevents it.

However, even some of the most active outdoor gardeners shy away from growing plants indoors for various reasons. Perhaps a change in attitude towards the whole houseplant idea is in order.

Consider this: Annual bedding plants are a booming business. Each year, millions of dollars are spent on them, with the spring months garnering the most sales. Petunias, begonias and the like fly out of the garden centers and into flowerbeds, where they'll brighten landscapes for five months, maybe six, weather permitting. And then what? Frost happens. Those lovely flowers that we enjoyed for what is always a too-short summer are reduced to mush. We may mourn the end of summer and fall, and maybe those annual plants, but even as we were putting them in the ground such a short time before, we knew they wouldn't last.

What if we started to view houseplants in a similar way? Most people think nothing of buying a bouquet of fresh flowers for the table when entertaining guests or for special occasions such as Valentine's Day, an anniversary or a birthday. For the same amount of money (and usually less), a beautiful houseplant can enhance the same space for a much longer period of time.

Take an orchid, for instance. Most orchid blooms last two or three months. They aren't particularly expensive, they're easily found in garden centers (and even grocery stores), and they often can last for years and rebloom.

Stop being so hard on yourself, and give yourself permission to kill a houseplant or two. Even if you only get six months out of a particular houseplant, that's six months of enjoyment. Most houseplants will live much longer, decades even, but if they don't, it's a low-cost excuse to try something new.

An Investment with Added Value

Live plants offer more than just aesthetic benefits to our environment. Not only do they look nice, studies have shown that we accomplish more and are happier doing it when live greens are in our midst.

It is a well-known fact that trees and plants provide us with fresh air to breathe by converting carbon dioxide to oxygen and they continue to do that when they're growing inside. In 1989, NASA conducted studies to see if plants could be used to improve the air quality in space, and they found that some plants are especially good at purifying it.

Peace lily (Spathiphyllum spp.), snake plant (Sansevieria spp.), Philodendron spp. and English ivy (Hedera helix) are just a few of the common houseplants that are known to remove common toxins such as benzene and formaldehyde from the air. Using plants in this way helps avoid sick building syndrome, often found where air is recirculated rather than introducing fresh air through open windows.

Decorate Your Space

It's often the subtle things that add spark and give character to an interior design or a particular style. Throw pillows, a piece of art, or even a strategically placed stack of books can be just the thing that gives a room a finishing touch.

Using houseplants in the same way can change the mood of a specific design by virtue of its architectural form. Many succulents, which are relatively easy plants to care for, have unique forms that work with many different styles.

The containers that are chosen can also shift the vibe for the plants that are grown in them. Textures, colors, shapes, even groupings of several plants in similar containers, can add to the overall effect in a room, often being a focal point.

Tips for Success

Sometimes people sabotage their houseplant-growing efforts without intending to do so. All plants are not created equal, but growing plants inside your house isn't that much different than growing container plants outside. Good drainage is essential, and potting soils are designed to make this easier. Many of them have plant food added that will feed your plants for the first three to six months or so.

If your container doesn't have drainage holes in the bottom, you can always use your container of choice as a cachepot to hold the original plastic pot that does have drainage holes. When it comes time to water, just take the inner container holding the plant out and water it at the sink.

If frequency of watering seems to be an issue for you, remember that most houseplants are killed by overwatering. As a general rule, don't water until the first inch of soil is dry to the touch. When in doubt, it's usually best to err on the side of dryness and hold off a little while longer.

Light requirements may be a little more tricky, but there are plenty of plants available to fit your particular indoor situation. Plants don't necessarily need to be placed in front of a window to do well. Just as light conditions vary outdoors (full sun to full shade), they'll vary in your house too, so take note of that when you're choosing your houseplants.

10 Easy Houseplants

•  Pothos (Epipremnum aureum)
•  Jade plant (Crassula ovata)
•  Aloe spp.
•  Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
•  Dieffenbachia spp.
•  Rubber tree (Ficus elastica)
•  Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema spp.)
•  Snake plant (Sansevieria spp.)
•  Philodendron spp.
•  Peace lily (Spathiphyllum cochlearispathum)

Remember This

No one's perfect and it's pretty much guaranteed you will kill a plant or two, but it's also pretty much guaranteed that you'll have success. Just as you gain experience gardening outside over time, you'll learn how to keep your houseplants happy as well. Plants aren't like a piece of furniture designed to last forever, but many plants live long and happy lives in spite of their owners.

Most plants are somewhat forgiving of less-than-ideal conditions (some more than others), so with all the benefits of growing plants inside your home, it's time to give it a go, don't you think? 



Photo Gallery


Air plants (Tillandsia spp.) are an easy grower, needing no soil and only weekly watering. Because of this, they can be used in a number of ways, here highlighting a grouping of white ceramic vases.


This bromeliad plays well with its container, its mottled foliage echoing the color. Placing it in front of the mirror on this mantle makes the plant look larger and more lush.


A sunny window is an opportunity to group several plants together to create an indoor garden. Plants love company, often growing better en masse due to a higher humidity level, which most plants love. These are kept in their individual containers.


This heavy wooden sphere has nooks and crannies that can hold soil and small plants. It's coated with polyurethane to protect it from rotting.


A ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) in a cachepot inside this vintage piece of luggage gives life and color to the arrangement on a bedroom dresser.


Are these copper containers (from H. Potter) the focal point, or the plants in them? Both, and notice the art piece that's been added to the mix, creating a lovely vignette in this window corner. When planting several plants together, be sure they have the same light and water requirements.


Snake plant (Sansevieria spp.) is one of the easiest houseplants to grow. A group of them can form an effective room divider or screen, as seen in this entryway.


Placing a container with drainage holes inside a cachepot allows you to put plants in unlikely locations, such as this open drawer, which provides an opportunity for a little drama with ivy spilling out.


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




Posted: 11/25/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Candied Brussels Sprouts with Bacon
by Karen Atkins       #Recipes


1½ pounds Brussels sprouts

2 cups chicken broth

½ cup melted butter

4 tablespoons apricot liqueur *

2 tablespoons Panko (Japanese bread crumbs)

6 slices of crisp cooked bacon, crumbled

½ teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper


Simmer Brussels sprouts in chicken stock over medium heat until tender. Drain. Mix sprouts with butter, liqueur, salt and pepper, to taste. Top with Panko and bacon. Broil until golden and crisp. Serve warm.


* You can make your own apricot liqueur with our recipie from Karen Atkins.


Posted: 11/25/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Apricot Blue Cheese Spread
by Karen Atkins       #Recipes



1 pound of softened blue cheese

1 pound of softened butter

½ cup of apricot liqueur *

½ cup of toasted, candied pecans (available in small bags in the salad toppings section of the grocery store)



Vigorously beat blue cheese and butter together until they are completely combined. Add the liqueur and chill. Just before serving, stir in pecans, and then serve on crackers or ham sandwiches.


* You can make your own apricot liqueur with our recipie from Karen Atkins.


Posted: 11/25/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Apricot Liqueur
by Karen Atkins       #Recipes

Making your own fruit liqueurs is easy and inexpensive. In addition to enjoying them on their own, or you can enhance appetizer and entrée recipes with your own custom concoctions. While they make beautiful gifts presented in jars or bottles that have been purchased at a grocery store, I’ve had great luck finding more distinctive gift jars and bottles at Goodwill and the Salvation Army for only a dollar.

The General Process

Select firm, ripe fruit and place it in a crock with a tight fitting lid. Cover the fruit completely in alcohol, allowing none at all to pop up above the spirit chosen. Store in the refrigerator.

Now wait.

You can wait any length of time, from a few days to a few weeks. Just sample it from time to time until you are satisfied with the flavor. Strain the mix by pouring it through a coffee filter placed in a straining cone. Add sugar syrup, and then decant the filtered mixture into sterilized glass containers and cork. Mature for two or three months in a dark cabinet. That’s it! 

This recipe yields a gorgeous amber-colored liqueur with great fragrance. It looks like a jewel in cut glass decanters. Any liqueur can be used in recipes, but try this as a starting point, and then develop you own variations on the theme.



1 pound fresh apricots

3 cups vodka

1 cup sugar syrup *



Remove pits from apricots and slice them in half. Combine the fruit and alcohol in crock. Steep about two weeks in the refrigerator, gently shaking the mixture every few days.  Squeeze the fruit and strain it until the liquid is clear. Add sugar syrup and decant into bottles and cork. Mature in a dark place for two to three months.


* Recipe for Sugar Syrup: Boil 2 cups of sugar in 1 cup of water, then pour the mixture into a clean glass jar. Cover.


Try your homemade apricot liqueur in our recipies for Candied Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Apricot Blue Cheese Spread.


Posted: 11/25/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

How to: Make a Succulent Planter Out of a Book
by Sarah Marcheschi       #Containers   #How to   #Video

 How to: Make a Succulent Planter Out of a Book
 - Video Transcript, Demonstration by Sarah Marcheschi

Hi, I'm Sarah! Today I'm going to show you how to use an old hardcover book and turn it into a planter for a little succulent. All you'll need for this project are some old hardcover books, (you can find them at Goodwill or a thrift store), some clamps, some plastic to line the hole (I'm using these plastic bags that a lot of people have at home), a stapler, a hot glue gun, I'm using this wood glue (It's Guerrilla wood glue), and a small paint brush, I have some spar urethane that I'll spray on to coat everything, a drill (and I have a 3-inch hole saw attachment on the drill), some small succulent plants and I have some bowls of gravel, sand, and a succulent cactus potting mix here.  

So, we'll use a clamp like this. To clamp our book to the table, and now we're all set to drill. Now we're ready to start drilling, so position your drill where you want it on the cover of the book. Right about in the center is what I'm going to do, and you'll drill down through the top cover and then through the pages. You're going to have to stop every so often, take a pliers and clean the pages out this hole attachment because it will start to build up, um, as you drill through the book, and then just keep going. Now using the clamp to hold the cover down and hold the pages tightly closed. We're going to apply our wood glue to the inside of the hole, and around the outside of the edges of the pages. Be sure to use plenty of wood glue here because the pages ... the paper will soak it up.

Now after the wood glue dries, We're going to open the top cover and staple our plastic liner in to the hole. So, push this down into the hole like this, and then we'll take our stapler ... now I'm trimming away the excess plastic, and then we're just going to apply some hot glue. Glue it down, and then we're going to glue the front and back covers down as well.

Now once the hot glue is dried, we'll use one of our clamps to hold the book and spray it all around with our clear coat.  Now, you'll want to let the clear coat dry about 24 hours. I did one yesterday, so we already have a dry one to work with here. And then you'll just start planting. So first, I'm going to put a little sand into the hole, and then some of my pebbles (like that so that we have a little drainage area in the bottom), and then we'll put our soil in. And last, but not least, we'll pot up our succulent. So, we'll break up the roots a little bit here. Succulents are very shallow rooted plants, so they don't need a whole lot of depth to make them happy. Just nestle it in there. There goes a little bug from our potting soil. And then just dust away any excess soil.

We've potted up our succulent and if you'd like to dress it up a little bit. Maybe you're going to give it as a Christmas gift or just as a decoration around your own house. I've collected a few little ornaments. I have a little snowman here that we'll just hot glue right to the edge. So, take your hot glue gun, put a little glue right down there. Press it down and let that dry. And you have a nice little succulent planter using an old book.


Posted: 11/05/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Oleander (Nerium oleander)
by Peter Gallagher       #Plant Profile   #Shrubs   #Video

Oleander (Nerium oleander)
 - Video Transcript, Voiceover by Peter Gallagher, Ph.D.

Oleander, also known as Nerium oleander, is a summer-flowering evergreen shrub, native to Asia and the Mediterranean region. It is hardy to about 15° F. This is an excellent plant for tough sites, tolerant of heat, drought and air pollution, drying winds, salt spray and sandy, dry soils. It can be found growing very well in bright exposed sites with no irrigation and minimal maintenance.

Oleander makes a wonderful screening or enclosure plant in sunny areas. It can also form a fine backdrop or integral component of a mixed border. With some 400 varieties available, there is a wide choice of flower, color and size. All parts of this plant are toxic when ingested; therefore it should not be planted near children’s play areas or pet yards.

Place in a protected setting (moist rooting medium, moderate shade, and high humidity) until rooted in a 3-4 week time period.

Oleander reaches a height of 6 to 12 feet with a similar spread. Renewal pruning [removal of the oldest, heaviest canes close to ground level] is a great way to maintain a vigorous and healthy plant.

This could be done at most any time, but generally late winter is a good time to perform such maintenance. Look for plants with multiple stems and even branching. A deep green foliage color is indicative of a healthy plant which will more readily adapt to your new site.

Additional Notes:

Oleander could also be used as a houseplant or containerized summer tropical in cooler climates ... to be moved indoors in winter. Many of the dwarf cultivars seem to be a bit more sensitive to the colder climate winters, so you may want to stick with the full-size cultivars or consider planting in a somewhat protected site, such as near a building, in a courtyard, or in a container that could be moved in on very cold nights.
Plants are fairly easily rooted from cuttings taken in summer or fall.Treatment with a rooting hormone will help with achieving uniform and rapid rooting.

This is a fine plant, but you should use some discretion in selecting an appropriate site.


Posted: 11/02/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

How To: Change a Sprinkler Nozzle (Part 2)
by Peter Gallagher       #How to   #Irrigation   #Video

How To: Change a Sprinkler Nozzle (Part 2)
 - Video Transcript, Demonstration by Peter Gallagher

The items that we will be using for today's project include an assortment of nozzles, and then the tool for the appropriate nozzle, and then finally there's a collar. You can find these tools at a local dealership that specializes in irrigation equipment or at someplace like Lowe's or Home Depot.

Alright. So, now we're in the field, and this head has already been installed. So, it's in the ground, and what I need to do is change the nozzle on it because I did have the wrong size nozzle initially. It's probably a number 2 nozzle, and that wouldn't be big enough for a 360 degree radius - which is what we are using. Instead I'm going to put in a number 6 nozzle, so I've selected a nozzle. It's a number 6 nozzle.

And, we are going to go ahead and use the little tool. This happens to be a K-Rain. So, I'm gonna use the tool for picking that up. We'll lift it out of the ground, and in order to make it easier to make that installation, I am going to go ahead and use this collar to hold this in the upright position. So, I'll set it down here, and it's going to drop down to the point where it hits the collar. So, it's going to be hard to see.

So, I'm going to unscrew the little set screw that's in there until it gets to the point where I can remove the nozzle. It feels like it's up high enough. I'll take a quick look at it. I think I'll lift this up. What we do is, we'll grab the nozzle, and then just kind of gently pull it out. So, there's the old nozzle, and we'll take the new one with the little wings up toward the top - the tabs. And, that screw of course has to go in where those tabs are. So, we want to make sure that we put it in so that it kind of lines up with the screw tabs. So, it's right about there, and then we push it in all the way. Such that when we turn the screw in it will hold that in place. I'll turn this around, and then we'll look at it to see that it's going to the right place. Push it in a little further. Okay. I'm going to keep going. Uh, looks like that's down far enough to hold it in place. Shouldn't be any problem. I'll take the collar off and let it pop down.

So, that's the way we adjust the irrigation heads. I'm Peter Gallagher with State-by-State Gardening. 


Posted: 10/30/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

How To: Change a Sprinkler Nozzle (Part 1)
by Peter Gallagher       #How to   #Irrigation   #Video

How To: Change a Sprinkler Nozzle (Part 1)
 - Video Transcript, Demonstration by Peter Gallagher

Alright, now once we have installed an irrigation system – especially a turf irrigation system, we have to look at adjusting it and getting it to work correctly.  

The items that we will be using for today's project include an assortment of nozzles, and then the tool for the appropriate nozzle, and then finally there's a collar. You can find these tools at a local dealership that specializes in irrigation equipment or at someplace like Lowe's or Home Depot.

For example, this particular head is a Weathermatic Turbo head, and this is the tool that one would use with that. And, it's specific to that type of head. So, you have to know that. What happens is, uh, this end here is used for lifting it out of the body. And, you can see what it looks like when it's pulled up like that, and then you can drop it back down again. Or, there is this little collar, and that works for some of these as well. Not for all of them, but for this one it does work quite nicely. That collar can be placed in here, and the neat thing about it is it holds this in the open position so you can work with it.

These nozzles are numbered from 1 in this case to 13. Thirteen is a very large nozzle. But the nozzles, the smaller the number the smaller the nozzle. And for the most part, what happens is that the numbers are pretty closely aligned to the number of gallons per minute that come out of the nozzle. So, a small nozzle like 1 will let about 1-gallon per minute come out. And another one maybe a 5 will be about 5 gallons per minute. And, the 13 would be thirteen gallons per minute, for example. What we typically try to do is use a larger nozzle on a head that is set to go like 360 degrees or 270 and a smaller nozzle for those that are set to go only about 45 degrees. So, uh, we want the precipitation rates to match. So, in order to match the precipitation rates, we would have to go, for example, a number 1 on a 90 degree, a number 2 on a 180 degree, number 3 on a 270 degree, and a number 4 on a 360 degree nozzle.

Okay, so let's say that I take one of these nozzles. Choosing the appropriate size for the condition. And, I will be placing it into the head, uh, It has to be pushed in so that these tabs are at the top or these wings are at the top like that. And then it gets pushed in just as far as you can. And it, uh, probably I got it just about as far as it can go, but I want to just make sure because if it's not in all the way, then it's hard to get the screw to go down and it's not going to stay in properly.

Okay. So, I've got it down. It's at an angle. It isn't just straight across. It's at an angle, so that water will squirt upward. Okay. Now I take this tool. So, I turn this it's engaging that screw and putting it down into the nozzle. If you look at it, you may be able to see the screw is actually down here, and it's holding that nozzle in and keeping it from coming up. That same screw can go down a little further and it can block some of the water and spread it out a little bit, but normally we want it to be just above where that hole is for the nozzle. So, then I can take that out and then the nozzle is set and ready to go. Okay, so then I'll take this out.

So, that's the way we adjust the irrigation heads. I'm Peter Gallagher with State-by-State Gardening.


Posted: 10/30/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

How to: Dividing Orchids
by Peter Gallagher       #Flowers   #How to   #Ornamentals   #Propagation   #Video


How to: Divide Orchids
 - Video Transcript, Demonsration by Peter Gallagher, Ph.D.

Here's an example of an orchid that has been in the same container for probably about ten years in the greenhouse. It really should have been divided 2 or  3 times in that period of time, but since it was not, we will try to show you what you would do to get that back in better shape.

First of all, I'll take away all of the dead leaves and some of the rhizomes that are not in very good shape. But, it's almost impossible to get this out of the container, so what I'll do is actually break the pot. So, breakup the pot in order to get it out of the container. And then once that is done, then we can start fooling with the plant itself with the roots and rhizomes.

Alright, now there are a lot of roots in here and what we need to do is to separate those and try to divide this and by the way division is a little different from separation. Separation as we did with bulbs is actually just puling them apart. These actually have to be cut. So, division is where you actually take a knife and make some cuts in strategic locations. So, we will take the knife and cut some of these rhizomes or these back bulbs, pseudobulbs back apart. And, as I say the terminology gets a little confusing on these, but basically we're working with stem structures. And, we'll pull some of that apart after we make some cuts. See that is very, very tight in there. And it has needed to be separated or divided up in order to, uh, invigorate the plant so that we can maintain good flowing as well.

Okay, so here we've got this much, uh, here and that still is a little more than we want, but some of these are not good. So, they need to be cut out. So, I will take a clipper and cut some of those away. Ones that are brown are not going to produce anything. They need to just be removed. So, I'll cut those out, and here's another one. And another. Now we're getting down to a little bit more manageable size of plant. This one can just be pulled out completely.

Now as we remove these, it opens up this whole plant structure and it looks a lot better in terms of having exposed roots. The, uh, stems are more, uh, further apart and able to take advantage of the medium in which it's planted and so forth. We can dip it into a clorox solution – a 10% clorox solution, and that will help to prevent fungal diseases with that. And then this as it is or maybe even divided one more time i think i might take one more off of there.

Okay. This is a good size to, uh,  replant into a loose mixture of either pine bark or some other type of fur bark that would be used for the orchid and fertilized of course to invigorate it as well. This probably could be divided into two as well. So, as you'll see from this plant that we had, one plant, we'll probably get one, two, three, four, five, six ... we'll probably get about eight plants off of it, or maybe more, maybe ten. Uh, and they'll each be about this size and then perhaps in a year or two, we'll be able to have some really nice flowering out of these orchids.


Posted: 10/26/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

How to Divide a Boston Fern
by Peter Gallagher    

How to: Divide a Boston Fern
 - Video Transcript, Demonstration by Peter Gallagher, Ph.D.

Today we are going to learn how to, uh, divide up a Boston fern. For this, we need a good, sharp knife.

So, we'll take the, uh, Boston fern which is overgrown, and get it out of the pot to begin with. So, we may have to, uh, we may have to actually cut the pot in order to get it out of there. So we take this and pull the pot from it, and take it, the roots out of there. Discard the pot, of course. We will be getting some new pots for it.

And, we have a pretty large cluster of roots and rhizomes in here. So, uh what we'll do is take a knife and it may be a little, uh, you may be a little afraid to do this if you haven't done this before. But, it isn't going to, uh,  be a real problem for the plant. Actually, you'll be doing it a favor by cutting it apart and putting it into another container. Or, into more than one container so that it has much more room to grow. And, you'll end getting a much healthier plant because of it because new growth will develop from that.  

Now, as I pull the plant apart, you'll see that we've already got two pieces from it. Two  large pieces, and I'll go ahead and cut it one more time – each one of those into another piece. And then, we'll actually have four. Four of our, uh, new starts for this fern. So we'll take that, and I will pull it apart. I will leave the foliage on there, so that it will support the new growth. But, you may want to remove some of the dead, uh,  fronds and so forth from there. But, these are all attached to underground rhizomes and it has an established root system. So this, could be potted individually into another container. And, it'll probably take somewhere around, uh, oh 3-4 months before it starts looking like it's filled out and it makes a good containerized specimen.       
Here's another one, of course, that we could use, and then this one we'll divide into two more. So, we'll end up with four, or maybe we could even do more than that. We might get five or six out of that big specimen. But we'll have several new ones to begin with. So, that's Boston fern.


Posted: 10/19/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

The Fabulous Four
by Sarah Marcheschi    

For years, I flatly refused to grow houseplants. I really just don’t have the space, I would tell myself. There’s not nearly enough sunlight in here. And think of the time commitment!

The truth is, a couple of spectacular failures early on, (I’m looking at you, Venus flytrap), bruised my ego and diminished what enthusiasm I did have for bringing the garden indoors.

But of course, like many of us who while away the chillier months perusing glossy gardening magazines, I like a project. And eventually the lure of getting my hands in the dirt proved too strong. So after a bit of research and some trial and error, I’ve rounded up a few of the hardiest, least demanding houseplants out there. These guys are almost un-killable.

Epipremnum aureum

If you don’t have a wall of windows bathing your home in golden afternoon light, or even a sunny kitchen windowsill, then pothos (Epipremnum aureum) is for you. Considered by many to be the perfect starter houseplant for its low (almost no) maintenance tendencies, pothos is a leafy vine that does best in bright, indirect or even low light and tolerates infrequent watering. While the plant can reach lengths of 40 feet or more in tropical conditions, simple pruning will keep it to a size better suited to your living room. In addition to being easy-care, pothos also acts as an air purifier, removing pollutants such as formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and benzene from indoor spaces. Flowering, while possible, is rare, but with a profusion of attractive, glossy, heart-shaped leaves in shades of green and creamy yellow cascading over the edges of your pot or hanging basket, you won’t mind a bit.


As you might expect of a plant native to the humid tropical forests of the Americas and West Indies, philodendrons (Philodendron) like bright, dappled light, warmth, and moisture to thrive. Typically climbers that scale trees in the jungle, (philodendron actually translates to “tree lover”), these houseplants are available in vining and non-vining varieties. If you choose to grow one of the vining varieties, such as the popular heartleaf philodendron, you can let it cascade over a bookshelf or help it climb on a stake or pole. Other varieties, such as the lacy tree philodendron, have a bushy, upright growth habit. While philodendrons will tolerate low light, they should be kept out of direct sun, as foliage is susceptible to burning. Make sure to keep soil evenly moist, but avoid overwatering by letting the top inch of soil dry out between drinks, especially in the winter when plant growth slows down. 

Sansevieria trifasciata

Are you just a tad absent-minded? Always forgetting your keys or whether the electric bill got paid? I have the plant for you. Snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata), so named due to the shape and sharpness of leaves, is popular indoors because of its striking appearance and easy care. With stiff spiked leaves that can stand 3 feet tall, mother-in-law’s tongue will tolerate low light, though it prefers a bright room and requires little in the way of pruning or repotting. Native to West Africa, where the dry season lasts for months, this plant likes dry soil; watering can be as infrequent as once a month or less in winter. Propagation is easy, either by division, or by removing and potting new spikes that shoot up through the soil. And contrary to what the common moniker implies, mother-in-law’s tongue actually makes the atmosphere around your house a little less toxic. These plants also filter out pollutants such as formaldehyde from the air.

Aspidistra eliator

I discovered cast iron plant (Aspidistra eliator) when it kept turning up as a bit of filler in arrangements from my local florist. I loved the contrast of the sleek, dark green leaves against more brightly colored rose and peony blooms and had to learn more about it. In addition to its popularity in the floral industry, aspidistra has been commonly grown as a houseplant for nearly 200 years, and with good reason. A favorite in dimly lit hallways and drawing rooms since its introduction to Victorian England, it earned the nickname cast iron plant because of how well it holds up in the face of adversity. In other words: this is a tough plant to kill. Aspidistra will tolerate extreme temperature fluctuations, low light, pollution, dust and erratic watering. It is relatively free of diseases and pests and, although slow growing, can live for decades, with tales of prized plants being handed down through generations. Choose a location for aspidistra where it will be out of direct sunlight, though bright indirect light is fine, and let soil dry out between watering for best results.

From purifying the air to enhancing interior design, houseplants undeniably make our living spaces better. And these are just a few of the easy-care varieties available to the indoor gardener, so there has never been a better time to abandon your excuses and apprehensions and grow something!


Posted: 10/15/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Egomania in the Universe
by Carolyn Ulrich       #Propagation   #Seeds

What happens to the vibrant dangling bells of fuchsia (Fuchsia hybrida) after they stop blooming? They turn into very interesting seed pods. 

In June I start checking the seedpods of celandine poppy, bloodroot and wild geranium. Already the showoff part of their lives has passed and they are moving on to the next phase – making merry in the plant kingdom. In other words, developing seeds.

All nature wants to reproduce itself. (Talk about egomania.) And when it comes to propagation, my three native woodland spring-bloomers can run amok, tossing their seed hither and yon, no doubt getting a little help from birds and the wind along the way.

Consider the celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), for example. I started with one plant, a division given to me maybe 15 years ago by my neighbor across the street. Five years ago, on a whim, I decided to count the plants then occupying a shady corner of my backyard. I came up with 60.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) are nearly as prolific, and I never know exactly where they’ll pop up from year to year. As long as I have space for them to show their faces, they’re welcome.

Seed Smarts

Seeds come in all shapes and sizes, each with its own unique strategies for dispersal. Some develop “wings” (think maple tree samara, or “helicopters”) that spiral down on the wind, while others hitch a ride by being super light (think dandelion fluff). Some have hooks so they can latch onto animal fur (Illinois tick trefoil). Others offer tasty treats to ensure they get eaten, then later deposited, by birds (apples and cherries). And the biggest seed of all, the coconut, is dispersed to new locations by floating on ocean currents.

The common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) forms seed pods in September. After ripening for a few weeks, they finally burst open around the end of October. Photo by Ron Capek.

Seeds are housed in a great variety of casings. Common milkweeds produce large protective pods and large seeds. But pinecones are also seed-housing vehicles. Within a second-year cone of a white pine, there are reputedly so many seeds that one cone could populate an entire meadow within a couple of years. And some pines – Jack pine and pitch pine specifically – depend on fire to pop open their cones and release the seeds. A forest fire has the added benefit of clearing debris from the forest floor and making the site suitable for seed germination and growth.

Yew trees don’t produce cones but enclose their seeds within red berries that are eaten and spread by birds. Last fall, while walking in a neighborhood church garden, I realized with a start that I was looking at a 1-inch tall yew seedling. Three years earlier, I had a similar experience in my own backyard when I discovered a 1-inch tall conifer growing amid a flat carpet of Arabis procurrensground cover. Was it a spruce or a juniper? Now that it has survived three winters (including the polar vortex) and has “soared” to an impressive 7 inches, I realize that it’s a juniper.

I have two other seed-grown trees in my yard. One is an American elm (Ulmus americana) growing between my house and that of the neighbors. By the time I first noticed it, the tree was already several feet tall so I just let it keep going. Now it is 3 stories tall, literally as big as the house. Keeping my fingers crossed that it doesn’t succumb to Dutch elm disease! Back by my garage there’s a burr oak I transplanted from a spot in full shade where a squirrel had planted it. Still not an ideal location, but if I have a chance of growing a burr oak, I’m going to jump at it. So the oak will stay where it is, grumbling a bit as it inches slowly upward towards more light.

Seed Collecting

Passively taking advantage of what nature bestows is one thing, but the region is full of people who actively venture forth to collect, exchange and sow seeds. The annual Garden Show sponsored by the Porter County Master Gardeners in Valparaiso, Ind. started as a simple seed exchange. It has since expanded into a multi-faceted destination for winter-weary gardeners but still includes the seed exchange.

One of the Valparaiso stalwarts is Master Gardener Beverly Thevenin who began collecting and trading seeds when she moved into a new home 10 years ago and wondered “How can I fill this yard?” By trading online she acquired seeds for flowering plants such as four o’clocks, nasturtiums, tithonia, sweet William, poppies, hyacinth bean and blackberry lily. She also grows lesser-known annuals such as snow daisy (Tanacetum niveum) and Balfour impatiens (Impatiens balfourii), a Himalayas native sometimes called poor-man’s orchid that grows in the shade and is beloved by hummingbirds. Although her garden is now filled, she keeps collecting seed, mainly to donate to the Valparaiso show.

Another avid northwest Indiana seed collector is Master Gardener Laura Tucker whose interest runs to native plants, particularly milkweeds, the only plants on which monarch butterflies can lay their eggs. She also collects seeds from Joe Pye weed, New England aster, black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower and anise hyssop. Once seeds have been collected, they need to be cleaned, a task that can be tedious when dealing with the fluff of New England aster and milkweed, but Tucker generally finds seed cleaning relaxing. She’s even part of a local seed-cleaning group.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) is an unusual early-blooming prairie plant whose seeds are hard to see and even harder to clean, but definitely worth the effort.

Seed collecting in the prairies and woodlands gets under way as early as June for spring-blooming plants and continues until November, explains Bob Porter, natural areas manager for the Chicago Park District’s North Park Village Nature Center. What happens to the seeds that are collected? At the Nature Center they plant them on site in areas that need more natives. Other groups that collect seed at local prairies and savannas exchange with each other or make donations to schools, garden clubs and community groups that are developing their own gardens and native plantings.

In my garden I always gather seeds of Penstemon digitalis, a handsome white-flowering Illinois native, and larkspur, a purple-flowering native of the Mediterranean. Both are easy to collect. The penstemon seeds are readily visible as green, then brown, balls that turn black when they’re ripe. Larkspur seeds form in 1-inch pods that turn from green to brown as they ripen. Each pod contains several seeds, and when they’re black, I toss them in places where I want them to grow the following year. As for the aforementioned celandine poppy, wild geranium and bloodroot, they clearly need no help from me. They’ve been doing quite well on their own.



A version of this story appeared in print in Chicagoland Gardening Volume XXI Issue V. Milkweed photo by Ron Capek. All other photos by Jeff Rugg.



Posted: 10/12/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Waldorf Salad Recipe
by Karen Atkins       #Recipes

The first Waldorf salad recipe is credited to Oscar Tschirky, a maître d’hotel at the Waldorf Hotel, later named the Waldorf-Astoria. It was introduced in the late 1800s, at which time it did not include nuts. The nuts first appeared in the 1920s and I’ve never been served one without them. Thankfully.

Serves four before dinner, or two for a meal


½ cup sliced grapes
2 chopped apples (I leave the skins on for added color.)
2 large celery stalks, chopped
¼ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup sour cream
2 tablespoons lemon juice and zest from one lemon
1 cup roasted walnuts, chopped
1 head Boston Bibb lettuce
Salt and Pepper to taste


Whisk together mayonnaise, sour cream, lemon juice and lemon zest. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour over a bowl containing the apples, celery and grapes, and toss. Top with toasted walnuts and serve over lettuce beds.

Variations on a theme: For a hearty dinner, add chunks of baked chicken or turkey. Or, as a side for salmon, substitute cranberries for the grapes, and add chopped dill.




Posted: 10/12/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Baked Apples Recipe
by Karen Atkins       #Edibles   #Recipes

Serves four (or make the filling and refrigerate it so you can bake them one at a time, to spoil yourself)


4 apples
¼ cup apple cider
3 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons raisins
½ teaspoon cinnamon



Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Combine all ingredients except the apple cider until evenly mixed. Using a melon baller, scoop out the center of each apple. Carefully slice the bottom of the apple so that it will sit flat in the pan. Stuff the apples with the filling and place in the pan. Pour the apple cider in the pan, and bake for 45 minutes. Serve warm.


Posted: 10/12/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Holly Fern (Cyrtomium falcatum)
by Peter Gallagher       #Plant Profile   #Video


Holly Fern (Cyrtomium falcatum)
Video Transcript

Holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) is native to Asia and southern Africa it performs quite nicely in zones 8-10. This one with a minimum temperature of about 10°F. It makes a fine 18-24 inch   ground cover or container specimen. It will typically fail to thrive in wet or poorly drained sites. Holly fern prefers partial shade to deep shade. Try to avoid southern or western exposure. Holly fern is propagated from spores found on the undersurface of mature leaves, but it is usually planted or transplanted as one or two gallon plants.

It prefers a loose organic slightly acid soil. Cyrtomium falcatum can usually be found at most well-stocked nurseries. Alternatively you may be able to get a start from a friend thinning out or dividing an existing clump of ferns. The combination of bright green color, coarse texture, striking form and evergreen foliage makes this an ideal choice for that well drained, shady spot in your landscape.


Posted: 10/02/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Decorating Pumpkins Without a Knife
by Susan Randstrom Bruck       #Crafts   #Decorating   #Fall   #Kids

Customize your Halloween decorations with one-of-a-kind, art pumpkins, kale, ornamental cabbages and fall mums.

Here’s a kid-friendly project that won’t send shivers down your spine.

When autumn winds turn bone-chilling cold and children dream of becoming vampires, parents might want to have some crafty ideas in their bags of tricks. If you don’t feel like getting pumpkin slime all over the kitchen this year, try this DIY project that doesn’t require 30 minutes  just for cleanup.

Black paper cutouts contrast wickedly against orange or white pumpkin-y backgrounds. Reveal the darker side of your pumpkin with  skeletons, rats or other scary cutouts.


Gather natural elements that are plentiful in October, such as colorful leaves or flower petals.

Golden-yellow, petals and green ferns dance around the stem of a ghostly-white pumpkin. Top it off with a stem of bittersweet.

Since decoupage is the art of decorating an object with paper cutouts, I used a pumpkin as my object. Look for cutouts made from thin paper or try flat, natural elements from your backyard. I looked for inspirational cutouts that are easy to find in October such as pre-cut, black paper crows or oak leaves and real foliage or flower petals. Whether you use scary cutouts or natural materials, the cutouts must be thin enough to lie flatly on the pumpkin in the decoupage process. Watch how innocent pumpkins
will reveal their darker side – even without the eerie flicker of candlelight.

Gather your supplies and start the haunting!


•  One small jar of “Outdoor Mod Podge.” This brush-on adhesive triples as a glue, sealer and finish. Crafters often use it for decoupage projects because it is non-toxic, dries quickly and is water-based for an easy cleanup – perfect for children and adults. (It is available at craft stores or online at

•  Look for your favorite paper cutouts on text-weight paper. (Tip: Cutouts won’t adhere and lay flat on a rounded pumpkin if you use thick paper.)

•  Select your favorite orange, white or blue-gray pumpkin or gourd – any size will work. (Tip: Use a smooth-skinned pumpkin because it’s easier to keep the cutouts flat when applying Mod Podge.)

• Find inexpensive, one-inch wide brushes for applying thin coats of Mod Podge.

•  Scissors.

•  Newspaper or plastic to protect table surfaces.

How to:

1.  Thoroughly clean pumpkin with water and pat dry.

2.  Choose the best side of your pumpkin for the front view.

3.  Plan your design with your chosen art elements.

4.  Brush a thin layer of adhesive on the pumpkin (only where you want to place the first cutout). Place cutout on pumpkin and brush on another layer of Mod Podge to seal it. Go over it lightly with a brush to flatten the paper and remove any creases or bubbles.

5.  Continue to add more cutouts or leaves to make any pattern you choose. Repeat process.

6.  Allow Mod Podge to dry approximately 15-20 minutes between each coat. (Adhesive will turn from white to clear when it is dry.) You will want to apply three to four coats over each cutout or leaf before you are finished.

7. When you are finished applying images, brush on a layer of Mod Podge over the entire pumpkin for a continuous, glossy surface.

8.  Allow pumpkin to dry for 24 hours before placing it in a protected outdoor area. Finished pumpkins can be enjoyed indoors too, but they won’t last as long in a warm home (approximately 1-2 weeks). m

Sources for Paper Cutouts

•  Dover Books clipart in book or cd format at

•  Martha Stewart decoupage art is available at craft stores and online at

•  Best of all, make your own designs!


Posted: 10/02/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Hoo Gives a Hoot?
by Kenny Coogan       #Birds

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. With five distinct owl species in Florida any garden can accommodate these native raptors with a few organic changes to your landscape.


Eastern Screech Owl
Megascops asio

Call: Descending thrill, 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.



Burrowing Owl
Athene cunicularia

Call: Series of rattles, clucks, and chatters
Height: 7.5-10 inches

Many burrowing owls can be found in the south from Cape Coral to Fort Lauderdale. These birds, unlike the others on the list, prefer open areas and are active during the day. Fewer trees allow them to monitor aerial predators, such as hawks. Burrowing owls live in 5-6-inch diameter holes in the ground, and unlike their name suggests, prefer to move in pre-dug nests. If you have thick grass, clear a 2-foot circle and dig a burrow at a 45-degree angle. Place the soil in front of the burrow to create a watch post for the 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 the largest species in Florida 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.


Building a nest box and placing it between 10-30 feet off the ground will invite these pint-sized predators to your garden.


Photo credits: Ccreech owl photo by Milo Anderson; Great horned owl photo ©; All other photos for this article by Kenny Coogan.


A version of this article appeared in print in Florida Gardening, Volume XX Issue V.



Posted: 10/01/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

No Room to Grow
by Paula Pettis    

A variety of crops can be grown in raised beds. Raised beds can be 12 inches tall or waist high, it is the preference of the homeowner. These taller beds require very little bending for the harvest and are a beautiful addition to the backyard.

As Audrey Hepburn once said, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” I can safely say that we all believe in tomorrow and love planting gardens. The biggest obstacle that faces many homeowners is the lack of space for a garden. Who wants only one tomato plant? Not me! There are several ways to get the biggest bang for your buck and take advantage of very little space.

Raised garden beds have proven to be a huge success and produce a bounty of vegetables and herbs. Raised beds are made out of a variety of items such as hay bales, treated lumber, cinder blocks, stone, fencing, and pallets. Raised beds can be built up on legs so that no bending down is required and can be as simple or fancy as you may like. A bed that is longer in length and no wider than 4 feet will make harvesting easier by allowing you to sit at the edge of the bed and easily reach the produce rather than having to step into the garden.

The key to the success of any of your gardens is LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION! Gardens that are placed at the very back of your property will be forgotten about. Incorporate your gardens into your outdoor patio areas where they are easily accessible for watering and harvesting. Gardens need sunlight so placement will be subject to the sunniest area. Fence in a small area for raised beds and make it attractive. Vegetables and herbs can be combined with your flowering plants. Container gardening has reached far beyond pretty flowers and now includes vegetables as well. Many homeowners have great success with containers. The beauty of raised beds and containers is that you can control your soil. Many homeowners are plagued by poor soil conditions which results in terrible gardens. Always use a nutrient-rich garden soil when preparing your gardens. This is a great time to use your compost pile!

As with most projects, things can get a little overwhelming at first. If this is your first garden, start small. A lot of vegetables can be grown in a 10-foot square bed. A thick layer of mulch will help conserve moisture in the soil and help keep weeds at bay. Stay on time with the harvest. Picking vegetables when they are ripe allows the plant to redirect its energy toward growing the next crop. As one crop is finished, go ahead and remove the plants and plant another vegetable in its place. Succession plantings will lead to several harvests spread out over several months. Since space in your kitchen garden is at a premium, plant those vegetables that you will want to harvest a little at a time.

Even if you build have a beautiful raised garden bed or containers, pests may become a problem. Ants are a big problem for many homeowners. Sprinkle ground cinnamon where you do not want ants – they will not cross a line of cinnamon. A huge problem with planting a tasty garden is that deer will want to taste it too! Many people build a fence around the garden but it has to be a tall fence. A few other tips are to hang scented dryer sheets from posts, shrubs, or trees; hang bars of soap from trees that surround the garden; last but not least, my grandmother’s tried-and-true method, which is to bag up hair from her local salon and sprinkle it around the garden. Of course, all of these methods will have to be repeated every few weeks but it is worth the effort to keep the deer from eating your crops.

Herbs are a wonderful addition to mixed containers. I have found that many of my clients harvest their herbs more frequently when they are in containers just a few steps away from the door. Upright rosemary and lavender make wonder thriller plants while cilantro, parsley, basil, and chives are great fillers. I have used a wide variety of herbs for spiller plants such as mint, oregano, prostrate rosemary, and thyme. Terra-cotta pots filled with herbs are a great addition to flowerbeds. The pots add texture and height to flowerbeds.

Stepping outside your backdoor to harvest fresh and delicious vegetables to cook and serve; what could be better than that?



This small area of the lawn was transformed into a kitchen garden only a few steps from the back porch. While the garden beds are edged with stone and landscape timbers, the garden is not raised. The harvest from this garden will provide enough vegetables for immediate consumption by a family of four and excess that can be canned or frozen for future use.


A bounty of squash is easily harvested from this raised container garden. Back aches and weeds are a thing of the past.


Adding pots of herbs to the flowerbeds create additional color, height, and texture. This flower garden is planted on the outside perimeter of a fenced garden. Keeping all of the plants to harvest in close proximity of each other will make harvesting easier.


Raised garden beds allow year-round gardening in most areas. As you see, hoops were added to these beds to provide easy protection from the cold. The homeowner can remove the cover as needed.



A version of this article appeared in a State-by-State Gardening print edition in October 2015. Photography by Gary Bachman.



Posted: 09/30/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Plant Your Bulbs in Turf!
by Erik Healy    

Planting bulbs in turf is a great way to enhance your landscape and add a spark of interest to your lawn. Plantings can either be annual or perennial, and you can choose from a wide variety of bulbs. It adds a naturalistic touch to your lawn and provides a little surprise beauty during those times when you’re not mowing as often. Now is a great time to plan and plant your own turf-bulb surprise.

First, choose a bulb that is perennial in your area.

Next, find the area where you want to plant. Remember, you must be willing to not mow the turf until the bulb foliage dies down. Waiting to mow is crucial. Around March gardeners across the South start sharpening their mower blades in anticipation of warm weather, myself included, but for bulbs to perennialize they must be allowed to keep their foliage after flowering so they can store energy for the following year.



Another important factor is irrigation. If bulbs receive too much water during the summer they tend to rot. Turf under trees generally stays drier and is a great place for establishing a perennial bulb planting. Ipheion uniflorum (spring star flower), pictured here with the bicycle, is a great choice for the South.


Ornithogalum umbellatum (star of Bethlehem) is another great bulb that will perennialize in turf. 
This photo was taken at my friend Jenks Farmer’s family home (


In turf areas that are more formal, an annual bulb planting might be a better choice. Instead of having a mass of bulbs, organic flowing lines work well with formal designs.

It’s easy to plant your own formal bulb design in turf. Follow these few simple steps, and you will amaze people with your garden creativity next spring.


Use a can of spray paint to draw the lines of the design you want.
Then use an edger with a metal blade to cut a trench for planting.


In this type of planting, small bulbs work best. Since this is just an annual planting,
space the bulbs close together for maximum effect during the bloom time. 


Make sure the bulbs are just below the turf,
then cover the trench with sand and water-in the bulbs


Crocus vernus
 ’Flower Record’ is a great small bulb for this style of planting. 


In an annual planting, once the bulbs have finished flowering you remove the bulbs from the turf. This makes a clean slate for a new design next year, and also means you don’t have to wait to mow until the foliage dies down. 


For more pictures and information on bulbs in the South, visit Moore Farms Botanical Gardens at


Posted: 09/30/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Zen Gardens
by Claudia C. Swanson    

It seems that now, more than ever, people are trying especially hard to make their busy lives less stressful and more meaningful. Gardening can help in a subtle way that few other activities can manage, and the guiding principles of Zen gardening can lead to the creation of a truly calming, harmonious, and uplifting environment. These gardens are not designed to excite the senses in the way that Western plots do but are places for the spirit to find peace and tranquility in which to grow. Zen Buddhism requires that every task is performed with love – and it is the love and care that is put into them that gives them a serene and kindly atmosphere. Zen means meditation, and gardens that have been designed along Zen principles are places where contemplation, prayer and meditation are possible and encouraged. This type of garden, therefore, is designed to be a soothing and reflective place that will remain visually the same, year after year. The special style of Zen gardens ensures that by using rocks and plantings in both a symbolic and natural way, by devising pathways that require care when walking upon them, the visitor unwittingly follows Zen ways. This concept of gardening deserves serious consideration since it can become a part of our more traditional practices of landscaping.


Only when you have no thing in your mind and no mind in things are you vacant and spiritual, empty and marvelous. – Te-shan/Tokusan, 780–865


The aim of the Zen garden is to create a perfect harmony of yin and yang. Everything in the universe is influenced by these two forces; yin is the feminine, dark, negative, cold aspect of nature, while yang is the masculine, light, positive, active, hot aspect. All things can be divided into either yin or yang, although everything contains an element of the other: neither can exist alone. In a Zen garden, there is water and land. Water is yin, and land is yang. In a dry garden, the raked gravel or sand represents water and the rocks represent islands or mountains. Without understanding the importance and symbolism of sand and rocks in a Zen garden, many discount karesansui, or dry sand and rock gardens. In fact, this type of garden has an emotional and spiritual depth rarely found in gardens today.


Raking patterns hold symbolic meanings. For instance, the rings around the rock may represent water lapping at an island’s edge.


To be enjoyed and fully understood, a karesansui garden requires a very different mental, emotional and even physical approach from that used to appreciate a typical garden. The art of the gardener is to create a garden in which the two elements are in perfect balance. Because the gravel or sand in a dry garden represents water, it is raked into patterns. These patterns are not abstract, but indicate the ripples or waves of water lapping around the island rocks. Those gardens that incorporate shrubs (not all of them do) use azaleas, cut-leaf maples, conifers and bamboos to represent land or yang. Moss is sometimes used as a substitute for yin, water.


Rocks, stones, sand and gravel are the principal components of a karesansui garden. The sizes, shapes, colors and numbers of rocks are important factors to consider. For example, a long vertical rock can be used to symbolize heaven, while a rock placed horizontally may symbolize the earth. In contrast, a rock placed diagonally represents humanity. Three is considered to be an auspicious number, and in this case, the selection of three rocks represents heaven, earth and humanity. Seven and five are also regarded as auspicious and rocks in Zen gardens are arranged with this in mind. To appreciate a grouping of rocks and stones, allowing the imagination and intuition to flow is important. Formations may be composed to resemble mountains or volcanoes, animals or even families.


Zen gardens often use plant material very sparsely. This design principle can focus the viewer’s attention more clearly on the simple beauty of small things.


Karesansui was originally designed with the guiding principle that “less is more.” Dispensing with any plant or rock that is superfluous to the overall design enables viewers to slow down their thinking and sooth their emotions. If one walks quickly past such a garden, nothing is absorbed from it. Sand that is raked adds a powerful element of texture to a garden. As the sun travels its course throughout the day, shadows are cast in the ridges, introducing an added dimension that would not exist if the plot were smooth. Viewing these gardens in moonlight can be especially appealing since the moon can create an ethereal glow when reflected by the sand particles. The manner in which the sand is raked can help determine the emotions that are evoked upon seeing a dry sand garden. The very act of raking the sand creates a feeling of calm purpose. Wavy lines may indicate fluidity, as in water, while straight, narrow bands can add strength and power to the design. Each viewer will interpret the composition in its entirety with the attitude that he or she has towards the world. This will help determine what he or she understands.

Cross patterns are static; can represent conflict or change

Straight lines can represent journey

Wavy lines represent fluidity and motion


When considering a dry sand and rock garden, you must first decide if the garden is primarily for looking at, sitting in, walking around in, or in conjunction with another garden or living space. A karesansui garden can be the perfect solution for forlorn, neglected places or an unused restricted space, viewed from within a house, office or other place. It could even be used to transform a balcony into an inviting oasis, instead of home to a few sad, potted plants. In city areas that are often shaded by other buildings or structures, a raked sand garden can provide a stunning reprieve from the harshness of traffic, etc. Some gardeners may choose to begin with an area of lawn or flowerbeds they have surrendered to weeds.


Although all of this makes the creation of a true Zen garden a challenging task, there is still one more factor to consider. The finished garden must celebrate nature and even transcend it if possible. Understanding this type of garden requires a change of attitude. It challenges one to answer the question, “What is a garden?” The intent is to encourage new ideas, embrace different concepts and “think outside of the box,” but mostly relax, enjoy and be happy. It is an observance of tranquility and evolution. Most gardens (and gardeners) continue to be a work in progress, changing with the seasons, the universe and ourselves. What better way to celebrate the beginning of a new season of gardening than by embracing a practice of simple serenity?


Before you begin, remember...


1. Size of the garden is not as important as location. Will it be for viewing, resting or walking through?

2. A more level area is ideal, but almost any site can be worked.

3. An area free from obtrusive objects works best (no swing sets, dog pens, etc.).

4. Plan on spreading the rock dust, sand or gravel at least 4 inches deep.

5. Choose rocks, stones and boulders carefully. Search for those that have “character” and be sure to vary the sizes. Do not make them too small, though. Remember to choose odd numbers.

6. Proceed slowly, with intent. This is a project that deserves every consideration.

7. The tool that is used to rake the sand or gravel will have impact on the finished effect.  It too, must be chosen carefully.

8. You can later decide to add plants, select statues or a water feature that can be incorporated into the design.

9. Free your mind.


(Photos by Claudia C. Swanson & David Liebman)



Posted: 09/30/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Lilac Chaste Tree
by Peter Gallagher       #Flowers   #Plant Profile   #Video

Lilac chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus)
Video Transcript

Lilac chaste tree also known as Vitex agnus-castus provides a dramatic flower display at a time when spring flowering plants have faded and prior to most of the summer flowering shrubs. In fact it has the potential for reblooming in the heat of summer.

The overall growth habit and twisted multi-stemed truck lend an aged look to the landscape similar to that of ancient olive trees of Italy or old established grape vines. Lilac chaste tree makes a great plant for the zones 7-10. Tolerating a minimum temperature above 0°F. This plant might be found in an older established garden where it performs very well in a dry exposed sunny spot. A loose sandy soil is quite suitable. A fresh layer of mulch is always helpful to avoid extremes of temperature and moisture loss.

The foliage actually adds much to the character and ornamental value of this plant. Opposite, ornately-compound leaves with 5-7 leaflets per leaf. The Lilac chaste tree grows into a wide spreading tall shrub or small tree about 10-15 feet in height and spread. The grey-green flowers and blue flowers combine to add a unique focal point to the landscape.


Posted: 09/28/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

How to Turn Compost into Liquid Fertilizer
by Kerry Heafner       #Fertilizing   #Video


How to Turn Compost into Liquid Fertilizer
Video Transcript

Today I'm going to show you how to take compost that you can generate at home and turn it into a liquid biologically active fertilizer that you can use in your home garden.

All you'll need to do this is:
• a bucket or other large container that will hold water

• aquarium pump and an air stone for an oxygen source for our soil microbes. And we'll put that down in the water and let it bubble. We'll also use the oxygen to help dechlorinate the water if you're using city water

• We'll put our compost in a mesh laundry bag which will function like a teabag. We'll measure our compost in a plastic measuring cup, and then we'll provide the soil microbes in the compost tea with a carbohydrate source. And for that, we'll use unsulfured molasses.

We'll start by scooping some of the compost we collected while ago into our laundry bag. Now this is a mesh laundry bag, but you can use whatever you have lying around the house – like an old T-shirt or a sock just any piece of cloth water can permeate through and soak the compost. And for this size of container, I'm going to use four or five good scoops. Some is going to fall through, but that's okay. Now I'm going to tie this up. This is going to act basically like a big teabag. Water will steep through this and over time discolor the water. The water will turn a tea colored brown.

Now the microbes in the compost will need an extra source of carbohydrates while the tea is brewing. For that we're going to use unsulfured molasses. We'll let this brew for 24 hours and we should have compost tea tomorrow morning.

Well it's been 24 hours since we started our batch of compost tea. Before I left yesterday I covered the barrel with some boards to keep all the bubbles, uh, on the inside. So, we'll remove these and see how we did. And I would say, judging from all the bubbles in here, looks like we did pretty well. All these bubbles indicate a lot of oxygen in here. So, that means our soil microbes are really active, and the population in here has increased exponentially.

Now, here's why we call this compost tea. As you can see the liquid is dark or tea colored. And at this point it's ready to use. And because it is a biologically active fertilizer, we have to use it right away.

You can use compost tea just about anywhere in the garden. Even on seedlings that are just getting started. At this critical stage in the plants life, the root system needs to have access to available nutrients, and the microflora in our compost tea will certainly help them. So, we're getting these seedlings off right with a healthy root system. That will mean a healthy plant later on. So, if you're looking for an affordable, easily obtained, organic fertilizer for your garden you can't do any better than compost tea.

For State-by-State Gardening, I'm Kerry Heafner.


Posted: 09/25/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Tree Ivy
by Peter Gallagher       #Plant Profile   #Video

Tree Ivy
Video Transcrpit  
As much as one might appreciate the oddity of tree ivy, or x Fatshedera lizei, this cultivar ‘Angyo Star’ is an even brighter addition to the garden with its variegated white and green foliage. This introduction from Japan was brought to the United States by Ted Stevens and is hardy in zones 7 through 10 with a minimum winter temperature of 0°F. Dr. Michael Dirr made a note of the cultivar Angyo Star a few years ago predicting a successful market, and it looks like that is beginning to happen.

This is a somewhat slow growing plant, but that's not necessarily a drawback. It's not likely to become invasive or to require anything more than an annual shearing to direct growth. Tree ivy would make an excellent plant for a wall or trellis, as an espalier, or as a loose ground cover on a difficult slope. It could also be used quite nicely in a container or planter as part of a mix with annuals or other nonaggressive perennials.

Tree ivy requires routine irrigation during the initial year following transplant and prefers a moderately moist, well-drained soil thereafter. But, avoid wet sites as this would tend to predispose the plant to root diseases.

Since Tree ivy doesn't normally come true from seed,  propagation is limited to vegetative techniques. It can be propagated by layering - that is bringing a branch into contact with the ground, making a small cut in the bark, and covering it with moist loose soil, sand or peat moss until rooted. Soft wood cuttings in early summer or semi-hard wood cuttings in early fall would also work. If you have a shady spot for this plant give it a try. It will make you a new friend.


Posted: 09/25/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

How To Start Vegetable Seeds
by Kerry Heafner       #Edibles   #Fall   #Propagation   #Seeds   #Video


How To Start Vegetable Seeds
Video Transcript

Today I'm going to show you how to get your seeds started for your fall vegetables.

You can start vegetable seeds in just about any container you have available. Whether it's an egg carton or the containers from your grocery store delicatessen, even to the flats and six packs you save from your spring and summer flowers that you buy at your garden centers. The only requirement is the bottom of the container allow adequate drainage so we don't have seeds sitting in saturated soil. That'll lead to fungal issues and a condition called damping off as the seeds germinate. What I've done with this flat is line it with paper towels so it'll hold soil and allow adequate drainage at the same time. So, all we have to do is fill this flat with our soil until it's level and then pre-moisten the soil. And again, with compost and a mixture of vermiculite and Pro-Mix, moistening the soil ahead of time won't be a problem.

If the vegetable produces small seeds, it's best to start by broadcasting the seeds over a flat that's already been filled with soil. So, we can just put a thin layer of soil on top and we don't have to worry about planting depth. Lettuces are an excellent example of a vegetable that produces small seeds. So we're just simply going to broadcast the seeds over the surface and water them in. Okay, so what we're going to do is open the seed packet and because these seeds are so small we'll be careful not to have too many seeds in any one place across the surface of the soil. So, we want to distribute them as evenly as we can. And as you can see, these seeds are no not only small, but they're dark colored. So, that means there're going to be difficult to see once they hit the soil. Okay, now the seeds are in, and all we have to do is cover them with a thin layer of soil. Lettuce seeds, celery seeds and other types of fall vegetables might need light for germination, so we don't want to cover them too thick – just enough so they don't wash away when we water them in, and we absolutely will water them in so they can start imbibing water. That will start the germination process.

Swiss chard is basically a beet that doesn't produces the bulbous root. And they're seeds – what we call seeds anyway — that have several small seeds attached to them. So, in effect we are planting a fruit. Now, swiss chard needs to be planted at about 1/4 of an inch deep, and I'm using a craft stick that's been pre-marked against a ruler at 1/4 of an inch. This way I know exactly how deep I'm making the hole and how deep the seed is planted. So, I'll just come in and make the hole. And again, because the stick has been marked, I don't have to worry about planting these seeds too deep. We're planting two because almost inevitably one won't germinate or will be a weaker seedling, and we'll simply pull that seedling out and have the stronger seedling remaining. And now all we have to do is come in with our fingertips and cover these seeds like so, and they're ready to be watered in.

So, starting seeds for your fall vegetable garden — or any time of the year for that matter — can be just as simple as that. For State-by-State Gardening and the LSU Ag Center, I'm Kerry Heafner.



Posted: 09/18/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

How to Save Tomato Seeds
by Kerry Heafner       #Edibles   #Propagation   #Seeds   #Video


How to Save Tomato Seeds
video transcript

Well, today I'm going to show you how to save seeds from everybody's favorite crop. Our homegrown tomato. So, lets go back to the kitchen, and I'll show you how to save tomato seeds.

So, we're going to start by simply slicing a tomato open. And you can see how the seeds are kind of embedded in this juice on the inside. Tomatoes are actually berries. They're fleshy, mini-seeded fruits, and we're going to have to get the seeds out by simply squeezing the contents into this bowl.

Now, the next step is simply pouring all the seeds along with the juice and some of the pulp into a mason jar like you might use to make pickles in. The idea now is to allow the contents of the jar to ferment so microorganism can digest away all the pulp and the jelly around the seeds that might impede germination next season. And the way we're going to do that is we're are going to simply cover the top of the jar with a piece of precut cheese cloth. And you can find cheesecloth in any home center or paint store. And we're just simply going to put the lid down over the cheese cloth like that and make sure it's secure. Now, we'll set this in a dark area in the kitchen — say on top of the refrigerator or way back in back the kitchen cabinets and allow it to ferment for a couple of weeks.

So, here we are about two weeks later. and this is our jar of seeds and you'll notice a couple of things. first of all there's the layer of mold growing on top of the liquid. I know it looks gross, but those microorganisms are crucial to this process. They digest away the pieces of the pulp and the jelly like substance that coated the seeds inside the fruit. You'll also notice that some of the seeds have settled to the bottom of the jar, and those will be the viable seeds. The nonviable seeds are still suspended in the solution.

So, to get the seeds out of the bottom of the jar. We are going to take the lid off, remove the cheesecloth   and pour the contents of the jar mold and all (well maybe we'll leave some of the mold in the jar … as much as we can anyway) into this handheld strainer. And now we'll just run this under a stream of water to wash the seeds off.

So, after washing our seeds are now clean, and we're ready to spread them out on some wax paper to dry before we package them up. So, now we're going to pour the clean seeds out of the strainer onto some wax paper, and we're going to use wax paper to prevent the wet seeds from sticking down like they would if we used regular paper. And we're just going to spread these out so they can air dry for a couple days. So, after several days of air drying our seeds are ready to be poured off the wax paper in to some coin envelopes which are available at your local office supply store. And I've precut the wax paper to a smaller size so we can deal with it a lot easer. And I've creased it to make pouring the seeds a lot easier. Some are inevitably going to jump away. So, now our seeds can be stored until next season. All we have to do is label the envelope so we make sure we have the right variety next year.

Good luck saving seeds for your vegetable garden next season. I'm Kerry Heafner with the LSU Ag Center.


Posted: 09/18/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Celery Root Remoulade Recipe
by Deb Terrill       #Edibles   #Recipes

Homemade Gravadlax with Celeriac Remoulade

The tan root is a twisted mass of somewhat hairy skin covering a pale flesh that is riddled with small holes, fissures and spots. Getting past its unfortunate exterior and uncovering the slightly woody stuff inside yields the reward of a concentrated celery flavor in a crisp, non-stringy and less watery form. This flesh gives great flavor to soups and stews, and is pretty good as a salad too, especially in the form of the classic remoulade.

1/3 cup Hellman’s Real mayonnaise
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
2 tablespoons whole-grain mustard
2 tablespoons prepared yellow mustard
1 tablespoon ketchup
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
Salt to taste
2 cups shredded celery root

Combine all sauce ingredients and mix well. Add celery root and toss to coat.



Photo CC BY 2.0 Becky York.



Posted: 09/03/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Creamy Celery Root Soup Recipe
by Deb Terrill       #Edibles   #Recipes


3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds celery root (Celeriac), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
5 shallots, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ cup dry white wine
5 cups chicken broth
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream

In a heavy-bottomed stock pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the celery root, garlic and shallots, and stir until the shallots are translucent, about 2 minutes.

Sprinkle with salt. Add the white wine and begin scraping the bottom of the pot, loosening any brown bits, until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5-7 minutes.

Add the chicken broth, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until the celery root is fork tender,
15-20 minutes.

Purée until smooth with an immersion blender or in batches in a standard blender. Return to a clean pot, stir in the cream and simmer gently until the soup reaches a creamy consistency, about 5 minutes. Taste for salt.

For an exceptionally silky soup, strain through a fine wire strainer, return again to a clean pot, and gently reheat again to just a simmer.


Photo CC BY SA 2.0 Ewan Munro.


Posted: 09/03/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Nutty Raisin Rainbow Chard Salad Recipe
by Karen Atkins       #Edibles   #Recipes


This salad is hearty and contains enough protein to call it dinner. Besides being good for you, it is ridiculously pretty. Serves four.

Salad ingredients

4 cups rainbow chard (tender, less mature leaves) chopped

1 onion, sliced

½ cup roasted red bell pepper, chopped finely (jarred roasted red peppers save so much time)

½ cup halved, toasted and salted cashews

½ cup crumbled feta cheese

Dressing ingredients

It can be used in any salad or as a dip for steamed artichokes or other vegetables. Yields 2 cups, so cover what you don’t use, cover tightly and refrigerate.

¾ cup white balsamic vinegar

½ cup raisins

1½ cups grape seed oil. (I know you’ll want to substitute olive oil, and you can, but dressing will be heavier and lack a little brightness.)

4 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon of salt


Step 1: Carmelize the onions.

If you have never carmelized onions you need to start now! After learning you’ll get compliments like I did, “Mrs. Atkins, you make vegetables taste like candy!” I love to be a hero when it isn’t hard.

If you triple the recipe when you make carmelized onions, they’ll get you out of making dinner another night. Just buy small, individual baguettes and deli roast beef and cheese. You can butter the bread, and toast the sandwiches under the broiler until the roast beef and baguettes are warmed through, with the cheese melting all over the onions.

Put a tablespoon or two of butter in a pan over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, drop onion slices in evenly. Every 5 to 10 minutes, stir the onions and space them evenly out again on the pan, being careful to keep the heat low enough that they become translucent, but don’t burn. After about 40 minutes, they will smell and taste amazing.

Step 2: As onions cook down, make the dressing.

Combine vinegar and raisins a pot and bring it to a gentle simmer for a few minutes, so that raisins plump up. Fish the raisins out and set them in a bowl. Poor the vinegar in a blender, and then add honey and oil slowly in a stream, and blend slowly. Finish blending the dressing with a teaspoon of salt. Since this recipe makes so much extra dressing, it is easier to refrigerate it in the blender or in a recycled dressing bottle you can vigorously shake.

Step 3: Assemble the salad.

Toss desired amount of dressing with rainbow chard, onions and peppers and load into bowls. Top with scattered toasted cashews, feta and cracked fresh pepper. For the best contrast, serve the chilled ingredients topped with warmed onions and warm dressing.


A copy of this recipe appeared in a print edition of State-by-State Gardening July/August 2015. Photo © Hojo/


Posted: 07/22/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Wilted Rainbow Chard Recipe
by Karen Atkins       #Edibles   #Recipes


There are many recipes for wilted chard in which the greens are sautéed and then simmered in stock until they are extremely tender. This is not that kind of recipe. To retain the crunch, freshness, and color, just gently warm the chard in oil you’ve infused with flavor. Serves four.


2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

6 cups rainbow chard (leaves chopped roughly and stems sliced thinly.)

3 teaspoons red pepper flakes (I use more, so you could too!)

Salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste




Melt butter in olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and allow garlic and simmer gently for a few minutes – browning the garlic but not burning it. Toss in chopped chard and turn repeatedly to cover all of the greens in the oil mixture. Sauté until warmed through and slightly wilted. Serve warm, right away, with salt and pepper to taste.


A copy of this recipe appeared in a print edition of State-by-State Gardening July/August 2015. Photo CC BY ND Stefania Pomponi.


Posted: 07/22/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Recipe for Organic Soil Conditioner that Roses Love
by Linda Kimmel       #Roses   #Soil

‘New Dawn’ climber is extremely vigorous, upright, and it blooms heavily in the spring. Deadheading encourages repeat blooming. Photo by Linda Kimmel.

(Mix by volume)


2 parts alfalfa meal

1 part blood meal

1 part cotton seed meal

1 part fish meal

1 part bone meal


Place the ingredients into a large bin, small wagon or wheel barrow. Since this job can create considerable dust, protect yourself with a dust mask and work in a well-ventilated area. Use a small shovel to mix the ingredients well. Use about 2 cups of the mixture around mature rose bushes, and 1 cup around miniature roses or smaller shrubs. Apply this mix twice a year, once in the early spring (March-April) and again late summer (July-August). A large plastic drinking cup from a fast food restaurant makes a great scoop. Work the organic mix into the topsoil and water well. All of your plants, flowers and turf will love this organic soil conditioner. Share any leftovers with other garden plants, or save the leftovers in a plastic bucket with an air-tight lid for later use.


Posted: 03/23/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ Seed Catalogs
by Jill Sell    

The pumpkins on the seed catalog covers were drawn so huge that Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater could have made a house for his wife from one of the pumpkin shells. The pictured giant red strawberries were so voluptuous children could hardly hold them. And the pink roses were flawless, of course, and all prize winners.

The Buist Seed Co. of Philadelphia wanted customers to feel wealthy and successful if they used the company’s products. This cover is from the Buist’s Garden Guide and Almanac, published in 1896.  Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Washington, D. C.

Welcome to the wonderful world of vintage seed catalogs. Before photography became a vital part of print and online catalogs, artists drew fantastic images of eggplants and green beans, dahlias and daises to entice customers into buying seeds and bulbs. Reality was sketchy. But as every good gardener today knows (as he or she thumbs through the mound of catalogs that come in the mail and online this time of year), it didn’t really matter. Seed companies were selling the dream, not unlike modern times.

Yes, there were exaggerations in both plant appearance and performance as promised by the catalogs. But many professional and amateur art critics and gardeners consider the illustrations to be delightful and endearing. Who can resist pictures of ears of corn with perfect rows of kernels? Or hollyhocks so tall you would need a fireman’s ladder to reach the top blooms?

The Smithsonian Institution (SI) Libraries’ online seed catalog collection is one of the best places to view fabulous art of this kind, without ever having to set foot out into the cold. SI’s trade catalog collection features about 10,000 seed and nursery catalogs published from about 1830 until the present. The catalogs are held in the National Museum of American History Library in Washington, D.C., and viewing them in person is by appointment only. Items do not circulate. But fortunately, gardeners and art lovers can page happily through the catalogs online for free.

However, it isn’t just the pictures of plump peaches and twirling vines of heavenly blue morning glories that make the catalogs so impressive.

“Trade catalogs are important resources,” said Joyce Connolly, a museum specialist with SI’s Archives of American Gardens department. “The catalogs tell us what was going on decades ago in terms of scientific, cultural and artistic trends. If we didn’t have the catalogs, a lot of information would be missing. Catalogs were an important means to sell seeds, but they tell us so much more.”

The core of the collection was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1982 by the renowned Burpee seedmen family and included catalogs from the famous W. Atlee Burpee Co. of Philadelphia, as well as other mail-order companies. Burpee, and later his son, David, developed such classics as the ‘Big Boy’ tomato, ‘Ambrosia’ cantaloupe and ‘Iceberg’ lettuce, as well as scores of flowers with improved color, blooms and health.

The elder Burpee was a pioneer in mail-order seeds, writing most of the information in the catalogs himself. According to SI, by 1915 Burpee was the largest seed company in the world. The company sent out a million catalogs a year and received 10,000 orders a day.

“The Burpee Co. was scrupulous in tracking how effective their ads were in certain magazines, ” said Connelly, adding that SI has a collection of some of the company’s business records, including account books, seed trial results, diaries and of course catalogs. 

Marca Woodhams, a retired Smithsonian Institution Libraries staff member who still volunteers her time there, considers the “real gems” of the total SI seed catalog collection to be those catalogs created between 1830 and the 1930s. She has written that the catalogs give us a look into not only the history of botany and plant introduction in America, but social history and graphic arts in advertising.

Woodhams’ dates make sense. Before there were seed catalogs as we know them, sample books were created by companies to sell their goods. The books were carried from store to store and house to house by salesmen. The illustrations of peonies of epic proportions and whoppers of watermelons were often hand-painted watercolors, stenciled art or engravings.

In the 1830s, mass catalogs were printed using chromolithography that allowed colorization at the printer. The inexpensive method allowed seed catalogs to reach thousands more customers, but the heyday of the charming hand-painted art by amateur artists was mostly lost.

But thanks to the Smithsonian and other botanical libraries, those of us who love to see drawings of pristine, eye-tearing onions and children in straw hats and overalls all looking like cherubs in the garden, some of the art and information has been saved. Some catalogs also offered chickens, plows, trowels, sprinkling cans and “exotic” citrus fruits to grow indoors.

The William Henry Maule Co. of Philadelphia wanted buyers to know that anyone who bought their tomato seeds would be standing knee-deep in tomato plants when harvest season arrived. This is the cover from Maule’s Seed Catalogue for 1887. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Washington, D. C.

“Old seed catalogs are one of the hottest things in botanical literature right now,” said Gary Esmonde, librarian with the Cleveland Botanical Garden’s Eleanor Squire Library in Cleveland, Ohio. “There are really two reasons. The first is because of the interest in the beautiful, unique art. The second is because botanists and horticulturists are studying the cultivars in the catalogs that are no longer around.”

The Midwest can claim the Burpee dynasty, of course, but there were other important seed companies from the era as well. William Henry Maule expanded his family’s lumber business in Philadelphia and published Maule’s Seed Catalogue for 1887. The cover depicts a jubilant grower standing knee deep in a field and holding a tomato the size of a bowling ball. The company’s mail-order business flourished.

SI holds two catalogs from the Henry F. Michell Co in Philadelphia: Michell’s Highest Quality Seeds (1898) and Michell’s Seeds-Plants-Bulbs-Etc. (1904). The latter’s cover shows a smiling red-cheeked young boy pushing a wheelbarrow full of sweet peas while his dog runs alongside him. Catalogs from the late 1800s by the McGregor Bros. in Springfield, Ohio, show roses that it considered “floral gems.”

J. J. Harrison and Jesse Storrs founded Painesville Nurseries in 1853 in the Ohio city of the same name. But they called their company, which sold ornamental trees, fruit, roses and shrubs, Storrs & Harrison. They were big on roses, too, but an 1898 catalog cover boasts “velvet sod lawn grass” planted in front of a mansion.

The SI holds additional seed catalogs published by Midwestern seed companies, including the George H. Mellen Co. and Samuel Wilson, Seedman.

Some of the most romanticized catalogs came from the Buist Seed Co. of Philadelphia. Wealthy looking women dressed in the latest fashionable long dresses were shown playing lawn games on estates or rowing boats filled with an abundance of vegetables the size of beach balls. Gardening in a long formal dress and petticoats just doesn’t seem to fit modern times, however. But for a vintage catalog, the scene looks perfect.


Editor's Note: To see these and other seed catalogs from the past, visit the Smithsonian Institution website.


Posted: 03/02/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Do Not Touch These Backyard Bugs
by Paula Cochran    

While you are in your garden, you will come across a great variety of bugs and insects. Some look so soft and furry you just want to cuddle them. Others appear downright scary and dangerous and send some running in fear. Yet, when it comes to backyard bugs, looks can be deceiving.

These cute caterpillars have bristles that are poisonous and can cause an allergic reaction
ranging from itching to a serious rash.

Take the adorable hickory tussock moth caterpillar, for example. Rarely will you find a cuter caterpillar with its furry white hair and black markings that make it resemble a smiling cow. Many an admirer has picked up this adorable little creature and let it crawl upon their skin. What they likely didn’t realize before holding this caterpillar is that the hickory tussock moth caterpillar has a few black bristles mixed in with its downy white. These bristles are poisonous, and can cause an allergic reaction ranging from itching to a serious rash. Despite the fact that they will nibble some plants, I let them be — they will eventually turn into beautiful tiger moths.

Another quite beautiful “bug” tends to cause unmerited fear in many — the black and yellow Argiope spider. Its appearance can indeed be intimidating to someone not familiar with this garden friend. They are large spiders; the female’s body is 1 1/2 inches long. Add to their size their large web with a telltale zigzag down the center and eight long legs, six of which are clawed, and they can indeed be intimidating. Like most spiders, they can bite, but it’s unlikely they will do so unless provoked and even then their bite is not considered serious. Like all spiders, they are beneficial in your garden. the black and yellow Argiope spider’s main detriment is their large web — which can just be a nuisance.

LEFT: The main detriment of the black and yellow Argiope spider in your backyard garden
is their large web — which can just be a nuisance. RIGHT: The myth that daddy long legs
have deadly venom is just that – a myth. Even if they did, they cannot bite humans because
their fangs are too short to penetrate skin.

Daddy long legs are found almost everywhere and often times in groups. Though often referred to as spiders they are not. Simply put, spiders spin webs, have a distinct waist and more eyes. A common myth about these harmless bugs is that they are venomous and dangerous, but, the fact is, their fangs and mouth are so small they couldn’t bite a human if they wanted to. What they actually do is eat spiders, aphids, other insects and even bird droppings.

Being pierced by a wheelbug can be described as excruciating.

The wheelbug, a member of the assassin bug family, can stir a different reaction. They are neither scary nor cute in appearance. Rather, they are quite impressive and regal, being up to 2 inches in length, and sporting an armor-like spiny wheel on their back. They also sport a large fang that they use to stab and kill their prey. More than one handler has been stabbed by this fang and its pierce has been described as excruciating. And when they say excruciating, they don’t say for a moment, they say excruciating for days. The wheelbug is, however, considered a beneficial insect, so enjoy viewing your wheelbug, then let it go back to eating stink bugs, caterpillars and aphids.

When threatened, American oil beetles emit a chemical called cantharidin;
the chemical gives them their name as it is oily and causes a nasty blister on human skin.

Another “bug” found browsing about the garden is a beautiful black and bluish fluorescent beetle named the American oil beetle. These beetles hang around the garden munching on leaves and flowers waiting for a bee to land. When the right moment appears, they hitch a ride on the unsuspecting bee and hitchhike back to the hive where they dine on bee larvae. A member of the blister beetle family, these beetles share a unique, and unpleasant, defense mechanism. When threatened they emit a chemical called cantharidin; the chemical gives them their name as it is oily and causes a nasty blister on human skin.

There are literally thousands more bugs, insects and spiders running and flying about. Most serve a purpose, whether considered by humans to be good or bad. With their never-ending array of colors and patterns, they can be tempting to pick up and examine more carefully. There’s nothing wrong with that: Just be sure you know who you should handle and who you should not.


Posted: 02/17/15   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Savory Okra Pickles Recipe
by Ruth Mason McElvain       #Edibles   #Recipes

For this recipe, you need six very clean wide-mouth pint jars, sterilized as directed by manufacturer, 6 lids and 6 bands separated into a shallow pot of boiling hot water.


2-plus pounds of freshly picked, washed whole okra no more than 3 inches long, tops trimmed close

3 cups white vinegar

3 cups water

¼ cup pickling, kosher or sea salt

1 heaping tablespoon sugar

1 large lemon in 6 slices

6 peeled cloves of fresh garlic

6 grape, scuppernong, or cherry leaves

Spices per jar:

¼ teaspoon each of celery and dill seeds, black peppercorns, and red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon mustard seed


Stir first five ingredients together in a pot until dissolved; bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer.

Remove one jar at a time from the canner, pouring any water in it back into the pot, setting jar on a clean, folded towel. Into the bottom of each jar, put a lemon slice, garlic clove, a leaf, and the spices as specified. Pack okra pods into the jar, alternating upside down and right side up to maximize jar space, with a little less than an inch of jar space left above the packed okra. Using a canning funnel, pour hot brine into jar leaving ¼ inch headspace, running a knife around the inside edges to release bubbles and topping off brine to ¼ inch headspace should it drop. Wipe off jar rim with a clean towel dipped in hot water, retrieve a lid from hot water and place on jar; tighten on a band to just snug, and put jar back into canner. Repeat until all jars are filled. Add boiling water to cover jars 1 inch or dip out water until they’re covered 1 inch. Keep at a low boil for 15 minutes. Remove jars onto to a towel away from any drafts where the popping of lids sealing on the jars will sound as they cool. When completely cool, lids should not give or bounce when pressed. Label contents and date. Will keep for months on pantry shelves. Chill overnight before eating.

As my okra plants may give enough fruit for just a jar at a time, I often process one jar alone: Easy! Pack ‘em, season ‘em, process ‘em in a small pot on the back burner while I surf on my nearby computer!

From Carolina Gardener Issue IX Volume XXVI. Photo courtesy of Ruth Mason McElvain.


Posted: 11/18/14   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Classic Pepper Sauce Recipe
by Ruth Mason McElvain       #Recipes

Wash and sterilize several saved bottles such as those for soy sauce, beer, small wine bottles, soft drinks, vinegar, Worcestershire and other appropriate bottles saved or bought for pepper sauce. Preferably have pouring spouts with caps, one for each jar. Lids, corks and wine spouts also work.


2-3 pounds fresh picked hot peppers like tabasco (my choice)

‘Poinsettia’ and ‘Cayenne’ peppers, washed, stem popped off, and a slit cut into each pepper (Note: Wear gloves for this step!)


Drop peppers into a bottle in a uniform direction, shaking down as you go until the bottle is filled halfway to the bottle neck, then add ½ teaspoon pickling salt and 1 small peeled garlic clove.

Pour boiling undiluted cider vinegar into the bottle with 1 inch of space left, cap, cool, store; best after a few weeks of curing. Delicious on peas, greens, beans, eggs, tacos, soups, and any food that begs for tangy heat. As the liquid level drops, hot vinegar can be poured in several times more, until the flavor wanes, then shake out the peppers and open a new bottle.

From Carolina Gardener Issue IX Volume XXVI. Photo courtesy of Ruth Mason McElvain.


Posted: 11/18/14   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Dress for Gardening Success
by Michelle Byrne Walsh    

I am the last person you would ask about the latest ladies’ fashion. Really. I still own sweaters older than my sons. They are in college. But I do know a great bargain when I see it, and I like to look a little spiffy. Plus, I am very into comfort. So maybe you really should ask me what I like to wear in the garden. This year, it is full-skirted dresses of all sorts (on the cheap, too).

It’s a funny story how this all started: Last year on a sunny Saturday afternoon I was working in the front yard. (I live in a subdivision.) I was on my hands and knees weeding (you know how it is). Before an hour had passed, I had greeted both neighbors on either side of us as they left to go to sports events, talked with my friend and her husband, and I must have waved to about five cars filled with acquaintances as they drove past. Then I looked down and realized: I was dressed like a bum. I was wearing my usual gardening “uniform”: my son’s old Led Zeppelin T-shirt (two sizes too large with a hole in the sleeve), old black sweats with fuzzy worn out knees and a White Sox baseball cap. I and I realized something else: I actually don’t like Led Zeppelin or the White Sox that much — I was just reusing the clothes my sons and husband were going to give away to Goodwill or AmVets.

Then and there I decided that I was going to dress up a little to garden outside. All of my friends and neighbors see me outside in the garden, why not look nice?

So I went online and shopped for “garden clothes.” I quickly became rather depressed: some of those outdoor outfits cost more than my “good clothes.” So then I headed out to the resale shops. We donate to AmVets, Cancer Federation Donations and Goodwill when we can; why not check out what the resale stores have to offer?

I was in heaven. Most dresses were $5 or less. At that price who cares if I get them filthy? But most of them washed and dried beautifully with little care.

Your neighbors might think you are pretty fancy if you wear a dress like these in the garden.


This second-hand dress featured bees and a hive — but its shorter length necessitates leggings.

Looking and feeling cool in blue tones (fun resale shop finds, but not the gloves or shoes).

Is the hat a bit too much?

You can still rock the concert T-shirt underneath a denim sheath dress.

My criteria: comfortable, low cost, cute and comfortable.

The clothes had to let me move freely. I recalled that women back in the old days wore full, long-ish skirts when they worked (think about the photos of 1800s’ farm wives or today’s Amish women). This type of dress seemed to be the perfect marriage of function and form. I chose dresses with full skirts made of cotton or a durable, breathable fabric. Some dresses I chose were sleeveless for summer, but I also sought out those with half or three quarter sleeves because I burn easily. I add T-shirts and turtlenecks beneath the sleeveless dresses when the weather is cooler (so I can still use the Zeppelin T-shirt after all).

Dresses with patch pockets became especially prized, as pockets held seed packets, gloves and my cell phone. You could also use aprons to add pockets to these types of outfits.

You might want to choose dresses with straight skirts and shorter hemlines, which are very adorable. However, take heed: if you do “deep bending” in the garden (rump high in the sky) you would be wise to add leggings underneath. Modesty is a good thing.

In addition to my roomy calf-skimming dresses, my other must haves are: nitrile gloves, rubber boots or clogs, and a hat with a large brim to keep my face and neck from getting sunburned. Sunglasses are nice, too. Most of these things are hard to find at the resale shops; you might have to visit a garden center or go online to find them (and, gasp, pay retail).

Nitrile gloves are a wonderful invention: they fit closely so you can pick out tiny seedlings, but the nitrile, which is like a rubber-like coating, is tough and somewhat waterproof. I also found out that they come in the most delightful colors. I buy a few new pairs each spring. They are sold by many companies, including Wells-Lemont, Womanswork and Garden Works as well as at Foxgloves (, although they aren’t lined with nitrile coating, are also durable and close fitting; plus, they look just like dress gloves from the 1950s. Couture for compost!

Although many jobs (such as heavy digging, moving rocks and kicking behinds) will require protective footwear, such as work boots, I often wear old athletic shoes (again these probably made me look like a bum). However, lately I have come to love the rubber/foam/plastic waterproof shoes and boots made by several manufacturers, including Sloggers, Muck Boot Company, Crocs and Ladybug. They slip on and off, are waterproof and offer decent foot protection. Some are cute, too.

Lastly, always don a hat. Wide brimmed hats protect your head, face and neck from sunburn and can be that “certain something” that makes an actual “outfit.” Baseball caps don’t offer much in the way of sun protection for your neck, cheeks and ears, but in early mornings or later afternoons that might be OK. They still hide bad hair. You can score some great deals on hats at resale shops, but I also like those sold at local garden centers by Sloggers, Columbia, Womanswork, online at, and many others.

And then, if you dare, add some fun accessories like red bandanas secured with resale shop or garage sale pins, plastic jewelry and funky earrings (not dangling earrings, though for safety’s sake).

Now when I am in the front yard I look like a crazy garden lady, but at least I don’t look like a bum.




Posted: 11/03/14   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Growing Wild: Eight Outstanding Wildflowers for Fluctuating Climates
by Gladys J. Richter       #Flowers

Genetic parents of giant, present-day sunflowers, Helianthus are very hardy, care-free garden choices that are a desirable food source for a variety of wildlife.

Weather in the Midwest can take its toll on plants, especially those less suited for its fluctuating conditions. Having an appealing four-season landscape often requires gardening with plants that adapt.

When considering plants for your garden, look to nature. Native perennial plants withstand local soils and climates. For both beauty and brawn consider the following wildflowers to keep your landscape in bloom from spring to fall.


For old-fashioned cottage charm, phlox are an outstanding choice. Two species native to the Midwest that do well in a garden setting are wild sweet William (Phlox divaricata) and perennial phlox (Phlox paniculata). Wild sweet William blooms April through June. Growing 10-18 inches tall, it is a good candidate for the front of borders. Phlox paniculata flowers later between July and October. It is much taller, growing to 24-48 inches tall. Both come in shades of blue, lavender, rose and white. Phlox add color to shady, damp areas, and are butterfly magnets.

Growing tips for success: Keep your soil moist, but not soggy. Replenish soil with a side dressing of organic humus each year. Perennial phlox reproduces via seeds and rootstock and can form dense colonies that may be divided.


Commonly referred to as spiderwort or blue jacket, Tradescantia provides a burst of blue to the home garden. Spiderwort adapts well to a variety of growing conditions, including full sun, partial shade, dry soil and moderate moisture. Its tall, sturdy stems grow up to 36 inches tall. This is a “morning” plant, with its flowers closing by early afternoon. Each tri-petalled flower blooms for only one day before folding into a watery deep blue droplet. The blue-green foliage and vivid blue flowers of spiderwort complement plants that sport bright yellow blossoms.

Growing tips for success: Tradescantia vigorously multiplies in rich soil. Divide mature plants in the fall so they may become established for the spring bloom.

Delicate spiderwort blossoms provide a pop of blue in the garden. Their grass-like foliage adds an additional layer of texture.


Including wild bergamot (Monarda spp.) in your design will help your garden become a hummingbird, butterfly and moth haven. For the Midwest, Monarda bradburiana and Monarda fistulosa are well-adapted and easy to grow. Wild bergamot, often referred to as bee balm, produces pink, rose, white and lavender blossoms. Growing height is between 22-36 inches tall, which makes them good candidates for most home gardens.

Growing tips for success: Wild bergamot tolerates a wide range of growing conditions, but blooms best when planted in well-drained, loamy soils in full sun. Monarda can become prolific. Divide plants every few years to prevent overcrowding. A combination planting of both Monarda bradburiana and Monarda fistulosa will provide a continuous bloom period from April through August.


The Midwest abounds with different Echinacea species and their hybrid crosses. Most are pastel pink to magenta, but one species, Echinacea paradoxa (native to the Ozarks region) is bright yellow. Easy to grow in a variety of soils, coneflowers not only brighten the landscape with color, but also attract bees and butterflies. In autumn, their stems stand tall, topped with rich dark brown seed heads favored by goldfinches and other songbirds.

Growing tips for success: Most coneflowers are very hardy and can tolerate a wide range of soils and moisture conditions. For a deep magenta color, try purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), which sports large, showy flower heads. Echinacea purpurea grows up to 36 inches tall and thrives in moist, rich soil where it can quickly multiply and produce an appealing wildlife oasis.


Just as its common name of butterfly weed suggests, Asclepias tuberosa, is a favorite of butterflies, from the rare regal fritillary to the common yellow sulphur. Butterfly weed pairs well with other wildflowers in an open, sunny garden. It can adapt to nearly any soil type, except extremely rich ones. In nature it can be found in fields, along country roads, and in dry, disturbed soil areas. Asclepias tuberosa blooms at a height of 24-36 inches tall in varying shades of orange from July to September. Rich red and bright yellow varieties are sometimes available.

Growing tips for success: Butterfly weed has a very long taproot, which makes it difficult to transplant. Seeding it directly into the garden or transplanting it while very young increases viability.

Many butterflies, including the regal fritillary, are attracted to Asclepias tuberosa.

Butterfly weed is very hardy and adaptable to a spectrum of growing conditions. It seems to thrive even in rocky soils.


Rain gardens are appealing solutions for wet landscape areas. Lobelia plants, which grow naturally near streams and lakes, require wet soil conditions to thrive and do well in a rain garden setting. Lobelia siphilitica, known as blue lobelia or great lobelia, is a nice autumn- blooming choice for the home gardener. Its five-lipped flowers come in shades of blue, lavender and dark violet. The plants grow between 24-36 inches tall with stems that may be branched or unbranched. If you prefer bright red instead of blue, cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is the perfect choice.

Growing tips for success: Plant lobelia in a soggy area of your yard, or plan to water regularly. Both Lobelia siphilitica and Lobelia cardinalis self-sow and pair well with other wildflowers that tolerate saturated soils.


For sunny soils such as those found on dry upland prairies and glade areas, blazing star is a hardy beauty. Stems stand straight and tall to meet the sky with their lavender- to rose-purple blossom wands. Liatris pycnostachya is often one of several Liatris species available to home gardeners. Reaching a height up to 5 feet tall, this plant can create dense stands for large-scale sites. It is a good accent plant for smaller gardens where it attracts butterflies and other pollinators.

Growing tips for success: Liatris can thrive on poor soils and are drought-tolerant. Soils that are too rich produce lanky, unsupported plants. Liatris does best when planted in association with other prairie wildflowers and native grasses. When planting in small groups, plan to stake the tall stems to prevent them from toppling during storms.

During their migration, monarch butterflies enjoy sips of late summer nectar from blossoms of blazing star.

Liatris pycnostachya is extremely drought-tolerate and provides both outstanding color and interesting architecture to a native garden setting.


To add height to your garden, try Helianthus spp., the native sunflowers. Bright, ray flowers with large central disks adorn tall branching stems that can reach heights over 12 feet tall. Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) and ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis) are often available at native plant nurseries in the Midwest.

If Helianthus species are difficult to find for your garden design, Rudbeckia hirta pairs very well with nearly all other wildflowers.

Growing tips for success: Wild sunflowers do best when planted in groups in full sun. Leave the seed heads to mature for wildlife to feed upon.

Rudbeckia, commonly referred to as black-eyed Susan, is a welcome addition to the wildflower garden. This is a good companion plant to many other native wildflowers.


Most wildflowers do best when directly seeded into the garden. There are nurseries that also specialize in native stock in the form of started plants. Below are a few sources located in the Midwest.

Missouri Wildflower Nursery, Jefferson City, Missouri

Naturally Native Nursery, Toledo, Ohio

Pizzo Native Plant Nursery, Leland, Illinois

Cardno JFNew Native Plant Nursery, Walkerton, Indiana

Meadowood Native Plant Nursery, Hummelstown, Pennsylvania

Photos courtesy of Gladys J. Richter


Posted: 10/20/14   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Facts and Folklore About Late-Blooming Wildflowers
by Jill Sell       #Flowers

In October, we tend to think the native blooming plants’ seasons are completed. But there are a number of beautiful native wildflowers whose blooms, foliage and seedpods add interest to October and late fall woodlands and prairies. Several species adapt to home gardens and can be found in garden centers or ordered from specialty native plant nurseries. Plus, each has an old story to tell.

Black-Eyed Susan and Sweet William

Gardeners who are romantics at heart (aren’t we all?) can’t resist the tale of a dark-eyed woman and her heartbreaking attempt to find her lover, Sweet William, aboard a sailing ship. The story is told in the poem, Black-Eyed Susan, by British poet John Gay. Lines include: “All in the downs the fleet was moored/the streamers waving in the wind/When Black-eyed Susan came aboard:/‘O! Where shall I my true-love find?/Tell me, ye jovial sailors, tell me true/if my Sweet William sails among the crew.’”

Many gardeners plant black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and Sweet William (Dianthus barbarus) together, because of their appearance compatibility without even knowing the tender poem.

The native, black-eyed Susan blooms into late autumn. (Some gardeners say its blooms will last longer if exposed to afternoon shade.) Its bright yellow ray flowers with dark brown centers are 2-3 three inches across and grow on stems up to 2 feet tall. The plant is considered an annual to a short-lived perennial and does well in moist to dry soil.

Black-eyed Susans are common in many rural, suburban and even urban gardens. A number of cultivars have been developed, and dwarf varieties are available. Just be forewarned — black-eyed Susans are also on the menu for deer, rabbits and other wildlife, which have been known to consume the entire plant. Best reason to plant them: Cut flowers will last a week or more indoors.

Maximilian sunflower blooms into October and adds a sunny spot in a home garden where other wildflowers may be fading.

Maximilian Sunflower

The Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) may not have the biggest, showiest head of all sunflowers. But its ability to bloom during late summer and fall and to stay green until very late fall makes it a welcome choice when most other plants have gone to sleep. Maximilian sunflowers can grow to 8 feet tall and are used as living screens in yards to cover outdoor air conditioning units, sheds or utility poles. The plants’ spreading habit is a gift for gardeners who want to fill in a particular area, especially where erosion control is needed. A grouping serves as cover and food for wildlife.

This yellow sunflower prefers moist, clay-like soils. If overfertilized the plants will grow tall and weak and heads will droop or break stems. What it doesn’t like is shade. It is a good choice for native prairie gardens. We can thank Maximilian Alexander Philipp, a German prince who was more interested in botany than royalty and who studied the great American Plains, for the plant’s name. Maximilian sunflowers were also a favorite of Native Americans, who used the plant for food, oil and thread. Best reason to plant them: Sunflowers just make you smile any time, especially late in the season.


Common boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) is a native perennial that was one of the most popular home remedies until aspirin took its place. Herbalists vary as to the origin of the plant’s name. Some say the plant, with its clusters of tiny, flat white flowers, was used by Native Americans and early colonists to treat dengue, a viral infection. The muscle pain from the infection was said to be so intense it felt as if one’s bones were breaking. A bitter tea made from dried leaves was used to treat the fever and colds.

Others look at the plant’s appearance and say that’s the source of its name and use. The leaves do not have individual stems and are attached directly to the main stem of the plant. It looks to some that the stem grows right through the leaf. That gave some herbalists the idea that the plant could be used to set bones. Boneset leaves were wrapped inside bandages around early splints.

Common boneset prefers moist to wet soils and blooms from June into October. It grows to the height of about 4-6 feet. Best reason to plant it: It’s interesting to have such a historical and important native wildflower in a backyard garden.

Another common name for black cohosh is fairy candles, based on the folklore idea that the wildflower looks as if wood sprites could use the white flowers to light their way through a dark woodland.

Black Cohosh and White Baneberry

Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) has many common names, including black bugbane, black snakeroot and black rattle root. But the name “fairy candles” perhaps is the most gentle and imaginative. The fluffy white spikes of tiny white flowers suggest a way for woodland sprites to find their way through the dark forest. The plant’s other common names refer to its seed that rattle in seedpods, which form after the perennial plant ends blooming in late September or early October. Because it was once used as an insect repellant, the name bugbane also became popular.

Black cohosh’s claim to fame came about because of its herbal reputation to treat feminine concerns, including menopause. Studies vary about the plant’s effectiveness for eliminating symptoms. The National Center for Contemporary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) both provide significant information about the plant’s benefits.

Black cohosh (a low-maintenance choice for woodland gardens) features flower stalks that grow to 6 feet tall. The plant prefers moist soil and dappled sun. Propagation is by seed, but that is more difficult to accomplish than by root division. Best reason to plant it: Its seedpods add interest to an autumn garden.

White baneberry is the perfect wildflower to grow in a home woodland garden if the gardener is looking for an unusual fall fruit.

A cousin of black cohosh, white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) blooms only for about two weeks in May and/or June. Its small white flowers are arranged in a rounded cluster that contains about 10 to 25 flowers. It’s a bloom that is delightful, but not showy. But the modest flowers are not the reason gardeners covet the plant in backyard woodland gardens. It’s the dramatic and mysterious fruit that develops in fall.

The waxy, blue-white berries are about a 1/2-inch long and are vertically grooved. Each has a dark purple, dark brown or black dot. The plant is also called “doll’s eyes” because of the fruit’s appearance, a reference to the eyes that were once made for vintage china dolls. The berries are located at the ends of bright red stalks. In the best tradition of Halloween lore, the plant looks to some as if the eyes of deceased individuals have been collected on one plant. Add the fact that the word “bane” is old English for “murderer,” and you have a great spine-tingling story.

But it gets even better for our macabre tale. All parts of this 2-foot tall perennial are toxic. Fortunately, the berries are bitter and most anyone who would attempt to eat them would think twice. The plant also causes external skin reactions, so many gardeners use gloves when handling the plants.

White baneberry is not an easy plant to grow in a residential garden. In the wild, the plant prefers cool woodlands, and duplicating the conditions can be challenging. But propagation is possible, and fresh seeds should be sown in fall. Best reason to plant it: It’s a terrific conversation piece in any woodland garden.

Photos by Jane Rogers


Posted: 10/06/14   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

A Few Native Plants That We Call Weeds
by Pamela Ruch       #Natives

Did you know that many of the weeds we pull from our gardens year in and year out are native plants that offer the same benefits as our much-loved butterfly weeds (Asclepias spp.) and coneflowers (Echinacea spp.)? I didn’t, until I resolved to learn more about the rampant volunteers in my garden community. What’s more, we think of Northeast natives as being mainly perennial forbs, shrubs and trees, but there are quite a few very common native annuals underfoot.

Clearweed (Pilea pumila) is a wind-pollinated annual in the nettle family, and like nettle, it is a favorite larva food of butterflies. Commas, red admirals, question marks and others depend on this non-prickly, low-growing plant with nearly translucent leaves. Clearweed’s roots are shallow, making colonies of this plant very easy for the gardener to eliminate, should he or she choose to do this. The trick is to get it done before the plentiful seeds scatter.

Another native annual that you may have seen clambering wildly through trees at an amazing pace is the bur cucumber (Sicyos angulatus). Its tendrils wind counterclockwise around anything they can grab — petioles, pine needles, even themselves — and given a foothold can create a smothering cover on top of a tall stand of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria sp.) in about three weeks. I know this for a fact. Turn your back and an abandoned car will literally disappear! Bur cucumber flowers are tiny, but apparently very sweet; they are a favorite pollen source for native bees.

Clearweed typically grows in colonies.

What’s under this pile of bur cucumber? Could be anything!

Wild lettuce (Lactuca spp.) is a fast-growing native annual or biennial that provides pollen for bees and seeds for finches. Some types, such as Canada lettuce, can grow to impressive proportions. And yes, wild lettuces are edible. That goes for the non-native prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola) — distinguished by the prickles on its leaf midribs — as well. Wild lettuces are the very same species as domesticated lettuce, and have similar flowers. Their seeds can float gently into your garden on the wind, which explains how a weed of such stature can suddenly just appear.

Pilewort (Erechtites hieracifolia) has a look somewhat similar to wild lettuce, though it is a little less colorful. But that does not stop wasps, bees, flies and butterflies from sipping its nectar. It will pop up anywhere — between the cracks of pavement, along chain link fences. It’s as though it bided its time throughout natural history until America industrialized, just so it might offer its services to urban pollinators.

Wild lettuce can reach impressive proportions.

Pilewort often stands alone.

Everyone knows jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) as the plant with the juicy stems that reputedly relieve the itch of a poison ivy rash when crushed. This native annual forms dense colonies along moist roadsides, and is often found in close proximity to poison ivy, which, by the way, is also a wildlife-friendly native. Multitudes of spotted orange flowers dangle from jewelweed’s stems, mostly hidden from view. Close observation, however, may gain you a look at the hummingbirds, bees and butterflies that pollinate the blooms and feed on the nectar. Even more entertaining are the fruits, which are shaped like mini pea pods. The fruits explode to eject the seeds when they are ripe enough (or gently squeezed) in a distribution mode aptly called “ballistic dispersal.” Yes indeed, fun for all ages.

Spotted spurge (Chamaesyce maculata) can be maddening in the garden; its ground-hugging frame goes unnoticed until … surprise! The thousands of inconspicuous flowers on each plant become three-seeded capsules. Pick the floppy weed-mat up and you may notice ants busy at work, carrying off the small white seeds. They drop a few along the way, of course, which explains why tiny stems of spotted spurge peek out at you from every little crack in the patio. To its credit, birds eat the seeds.

Jewelweed, also called Touch-me-not, attracts bees … and daddy long legs too.

Spotted spurge, like other spurges, has milky sap.

So there you have it. Weeds are native plants too. What I have taken away from my limited weed study is a more thoughtful posture toward the landscape. As gardeners, we try to control our environment, weeding out the rampant and the unadorned so that we can plant something “better.” Will I let these native weeds have their way in my garden? I will not! But neither will I forget to appreciate the subtleties of plants that I often thoughtlessly extract — plants that provide for the many creatures, seen and unseen, that live among us.

And certainly their reproductive prowess is deserving of respect.

Photos courtesy of Pamela Ruch.


Posted: 08/25/14   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Wild Quinine
by Roy Diblik       #Hot Plants

This underused plant has everything going for it: flowers through most of the summer; an upright, beautiful habit; and tremendous fall and winter interest. Wild quinine grows 36-40 inches tall with a spread of 18-24 inches. This architectural plant mixes well with grasses. In summer, the white, flat, mounded clusters of flowers look like summer clouds floating through the garden. In fall, the seedheads, stems and foliage turn dark brown, creating a strong presence going into winter. I especially like it with hardy geranium (Geranium sanguineum) and Moorhexe purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea spp.caerulea ‘Moorhexe’).

Common Name: Wild quinine

Botanical Name: Parthenium integrifolium

Color: Flat-headed clusters of white flowers.

Blooming Period: June through August

Exposure: Full sun

When to Plant: Throughout the growing season as long as you water regularly until established

Soil: Moist to slightly dry

Watering: Keep moist until established. Thereafter, does not need supplemental watering.

When to fertilize: Needs no commercial fertilizer. Nutrients can be provided by mulching with leaf compost every two to three years.

Hardiness Zones: 4 through 8

In Your Landscape: I like to grow it with ornamental grasses, coneflower (Echinacea spp.)andGeranium sanguineum.

From Wisconsin Gardening Volume II Issue VI. Photo courtesy of Roy Diblik.


Posted: 08/15/14   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Golden Showers Threadleaf Coreopsis
by Roy Diblik       #Hot Plants

Yellow-blooming Golden Showers Coreopsis brightens a perennial planting bed.

If you’ve grown Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’, C. rosea, ‘Limerock Ruby’ or C. grandiflora ‘Sunray’, you might have been disappointed. All are good plants when used within their capabilities, but none are tough, adaptable plants. For that, you need Coreopsis verticillata Golden Showers ‘Gradiflora’. This plant is durable. It’s little used because of the misfortunes of the others.

It’s a plant that’s very tolerant of soil and moisture conditions. It can survive on average rainfall and will tolerate some dry soil. I have grown this coreopsis since 1982 and have successfully planted it in many gardens. In addition to nice, golden yellow flowers from early July into September, this plant has beautiful fall foliage color. The foliage turns a very nice yellow, maturing to dark brown by mid-November.



Common Name: Golden Showers coreopsis or tickseed

Botanical Name: Coreopsis verticillata

Hardiness: USDA Zone: 4 through 9

Blooms: Daisy-like, golden yellow, 1-1   inch diameter, clustered densely at the top of the plant.

Blooming Period: Early July into September

Exposure: Full sun to light shade

Size: 12-24 inches tall and wide

When to Plant: Throughout the growing season

Soil: Average,well-drained soil (can tolerate moister soils).

Watering: Keep moist until established. Thereafter, does not need supplemental watering.

When to fertilize: Needs no commercial fertilizer. Nutrients can be provided by mulching with leaf compost every two to three years.

In Your Landscape: I like to grow it with Echinacea purpurea ‘Rubinglow’ in a 30/70 split, or with Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ in a 40/60 pairing.

From Wisconsin Gardening Volume II Issue IV. Photo courtesy of Roy Diblik.


Posted: 08/08/14   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Help Your Container Plants Beat the Heat
by Lori Pelkowski       #Advice   #Summer

The Profusion series gives the vigorous habit and unabashed blooming we expect from zinnias in a tight, compact, dainty-looking plant. This tough guy will bloom continuously until frost.

Do your container plantings need a facelift during the dog days of summer? When summer temperatures reach into the 90s for days on end, plants in containers wilt in the heat just like we do. Sprucing up overworked container plants and worn-out soil can help keep them colorful and cheerful even the hottest summer.

Try these pot and basket rejuvenating tips, along with heat and drought tolerant plants, to freshen up your containers during the long hot season.

When your container annuals pass their prime, water them thoroughly and wait a few hours. Then remove them from the container and trim the roots by one third. Cut back straggly plants by one third as well, and don't worry if this includes cutting off flower buds. Cut off all the dead and fully bloomed flowers. This will invigorate the plant.

The dirt in your garden beds may be great for growing plants in the ground, but plants in pots are a different story. When used in a container, even the best garden soil tends to harden to the point of being deadly to plants. Garden soil can also contain insect larvae, weed seeds and harmful spores. Purchase soil that is specially formulated for potted plants to provide the correct levels of aeration, water retention and trace nutrients.

So re-pot your newly trimmed plants with fresh soil mix. Bagged potting soil may be enhanced with plant food and a moisture retainer. These mixes are perfect for outdoor containers. If you can't find them, use regular potting soil and add a time-released plant food like Osmocote and a moisture retainer such as Soil Moist. Follow the package directions for using the correct amounts for the size of your container.

Fill the bottom of extra large containers with gravel or small stones before adding the potting soil to prevent them from toppling. Also do this for any containers that do not have drainage holes. Fill two thirds of the container with potting soil, then water it. Add more soil until the container is three-quarters full. Arrange the plants in the container, making holes to accommodate their roots if necessary. Fill in soil around each plant, and be sure to plant it at the same level it was previously. Water the pot well and add more soil as it settles if needed.

A layer of mulch on top of the potting soil helps protect the planting from losing moisture through evaporation. Shredded hardwood mulch works well, and can be purchased by the bag at a local garden center. Or try decorative mulches such as pebbles or packaged moss. Be creative!

Put newly trimmed and repotted plants in a shady area to prevent them from going into shock. They should look radiant and ready for their permanent spot in a few days.

Water potted plants when the soil just below the surface feels dry. Commit to watering your containers once a day, maybe even twice during the heat of the summer. Plants in a sunny location may need water several times a day. Watering in the morning and early evening will prevent sunscald and water spots on the leaves. When the soil surface is dry but before the plants begin to wilt, water slowly and thoroughly, until water runs out of the bottom of the pot. Shallow window boxes and hanging baskets dry out faster than deep containers. Try not to let any containers dry out completely.

Don’t despair over summer-weary containers. Try these easy tricks to revive them. Or, if your local garden center still has healthy-looking plants, try these pretty annuals that laugh at the heat.

Osteospermumis a tongue twister that means South African daisy. These beautiful plants are smothered with pretty flowers with unique purple eyes, and they love the sun. This is a great choice for the middle of a large container, between the tall focal point and the low trailers. The South African daisy comes in pink, purple, cream, white, yellow and orange, and smiles right through the hot, dry summer.

The South African daisy is stunning on its own, or paired with trailing plants like petunias. Try it with white for a calm effect, or deep purple for some extra punch.

Verbena is a lovely hanging plant whose purple, hot pink, red or white flowers beautify baskets, window boxes, and container edges. They barely notice heat and drought, and revive quickly if they wilt. The purple is almost blue; a large bowl of red, white, and purple verbena makes a patriotic addition to a patio table. Try them in boxes along the railings of a sun-soaked deck, or in simple baskets hung in the perennial border for added height.

Feathery gaura flowers look like butterflies floating over the container. It is shown here with pink verbena and white lobularia. Verbena and lobularia are similar in habit and flower type and can be interchanged to customize the color scheme of the pot.

Everyone is familiar with the marigold, lovingly grown by children in paper cups. The common marigold comes in some very uncommon color combinations, and sizes from mini to pompom. The small and medium flowered marigolds are best in containers. Like the South African daisy and the verbena, marigolds love being deadheaded and will respond well to being cut back if they start getting tired.

Portulaca is a low-growing plant with pointy, succulent leaves and small flowers in colors from magenta to cream. Portulacas are true sun worshippers that love hot, dry conditions. They look lovely hanging over the edges of containers, baskets and window boxes that have the sun beating on them all day. Shear them back to about 3 inches if they get straggly.

Gazania, also known as the treasure flower, has bright daisy-like flowers. They are easy to find in garden centers, and they transplant well. Plant gazania in the hottest, windiest, most exposed site -- they'll love it. The flowers are marvelous, and come in yellows, oranges, pinks, bronzes and reds, with black markings at the base and stripes of contrasting color down each petal.

The Zinnia Profusion series rewards gardeners with hundreds of single, star shaped flowers. Unlike the larger zinnias, Zinnia elegans is a medium-sized plant with tiny leaves. It grows in an elegant globe shape with cream, yellow, orange or red flowers. The orange looks great with purple mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea 'Victoria Blue'). Both will bloom freely even through summer drought, and the color and texture combination can't be beat.

Nasturtium boasts loads of cream, yellow, orange, pink, red or mahogany flowers that are often splotched with contrasting colors. All parts are edible, and add a peppery flavor to otherwise bland green salads. A low growing, trailing plant, the nasturtium has intriguing, heart-shaped leaves. It is a fast-growing annual that seems to thrive on neglect. Nasturtiums are a cheerful presence in containers or hanging basket.

Nasturtiums love to hang, trail and ramble. Use the heart-shaped leaves and pretty flowers to garnish outdoor meals. The entire plant is edible with a subtle peppery nip.

Photos courtesy of Proven Winners.


Posted: 08/07/14   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Summer Turf Blues
by Bob Westerfield       #Advice   #Summer

As we continue in the blistering dog days of summer the idea of a cold drink and air-conditioned room seem much more appealing than working out in our landscape. The hot sticky days often cause us to neglect some outdoor chores such as giving our turf a good check-up.

Although turf in general, if managed properly, can be one of the toughest plants out there, it does need a little care to make it through the end of summer and get it ready for the cooler months ahead.

Disease problems can certainly be on the rise during the hot humid conditions that exist in late summer. Although there is not enough room to cover all the diseases and details in this article, there are a few generalities that can be made.  Most diseases occur due to some form of mismanagement. Many diseases will manifest themselves when the fertility is poor – either too much fertilizer or not enough. They can also occur due to poor irrigation practices – usually over watering. Soil compaction, heavy shade and improper use of herbicides can also help the on-start of disease.

Disease issues on turf can be severe in the late season if left unchecked.

That being said, it stands to reason that a better maintenance program will go a long way to both preventing and curing diseases.  Although fungicides are available to treat diseases, they are seldom applied correctly and can be expensive to use.

Begin by aerating your turf if it hasn’t been done in a year or more. This involves borrowing or renting a machine called an aerator that will punch small holes in the ground. These holes will allow better infiltration of both water and fertilizer by breaking up the compacted surface. An aerator with hollow tines is much better than one with solid spikes, so look for this when finding equipment.

Core aeration is an important maintenance step to help break up soil compaction, thatch and increase moisture and air flow.

Don’t neglect checking on the fertility of the soil. Chances are that you put out an application of fertilizer this past spring, but then failed to remember to feed your grass throughout the summer. Most grasses respond best to split applications of fertilizer, two to three times per year. August is a good month to put out the final application of fertilizer on warm season grasses such as bermuda, centipede, zoysia and St. Augustine. The best method to determine how much to put out would be to have your local county extension service run a test on a soil sample. Just call the local office and they can explain how to take the sample. The results will also reveal whether or not you need to add lime – an important factor in nutrient management.

Water management is also vital to a healthy, disease free lawn. If you have an automated irrigation system, now is a good time to make sure it is working properly. Set out small plastic drink cups at various locations and run your system for 30 minutes. Check the cups to see how much water has accumulated throughout the different zones. You may be amazed over time how uneven the water distribution really is. This will alert you to the possible need to clean or change outlet heads or perhaps change the direction or how long the system runs. Regardless of whether you use an automated system or single sprinkler and hose, a few standard rules apply. Water established turf less frequently – but more thoroughly to encourage a deep root system. Set the system to deliver either half an inch twice a week or better yet one inch one time per week. Most turf are very drought tolerant and can actually go several weeks without supplemental irrigation before extreme stress sets in. A good way to tell when turf really needs to be irrigated is when the grass blades begin to slightly roll up and the lawn takes on a bluish-grey color. Watering at night is also a great way to better manage your turf. If you water between the hours of 9:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m., you will conserve water normally lost to evaporation, and you cut down on disease problems as the turf has time to dry out during the day.

As you walk around accessing your turf’s needs, does the grass feel spongy under your feet? It may need dethatching. Thatch is a layer of dead roots/stems that can continue to build into a thick mat that is unhealthy for the lawn. Grass clippings do not contribute to thatch, so have no fear about not bagging your cuttings. Thatch come again from poor management – over fertilization, too much water and not mowing often enough. You will need a thatch rake for small areas or rent a vertical mower to dethatch larger lawns.

Weeds may also be present in your late summer turf. Most weeds that you see now will be mature and difficult to control with herbicides. Cutting the grass often will prevent most weeds from going to seed. Spot treatments with herbicides may be effective on some easier to control weeds. A preemergent herbicide program will be a better alternative for next year. Early spraying of young emerging weeds is essential for good control in the future.

It is important to keep a handle on turf weeds before they get out of hand. Be sure to select the proper herbicide for the turf type you have.

If managed well, a lawn should give years of enjoyment and allow you more time to spend out of the hot sun doing indoor hobbies. Following these tips will ensure that you have the healthiest and greenest lawn on the block.

Photos courtesy of Bob Westerfield.


Posted: 08/06/14   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Three Great Fruit Trees for the Midwest Garden
by Patti Marie Travioli       #Edibles   #Fruit   #Trees

As a kid, I didn’t care as much about the holiday meal as much as I looked forward to enjoying the homemade jams and freshly baked desserts. As an adult, I try to create something new for the holiday meal, while still including some traditional recipes.

It’s even better when I harvest the fruit from my yard. I recall my grandfather taking us for tractor rides to harvest apples from old trees near the woods. The fruit may have been imperfect to look at, but the crisp flavors were so tart and sweet. We would take them back to the house and cook them down, then take turns stirring with the wooden pestle, watching the warm apples ooze through the vintage cone-shaped metal sieve, transforming into sauce. If you have room, try growing these three fruit trees, which will provide delicious seasonal freshness all through the winter — apple, pear and tart cherry.

Site Selection

Fruit trees grow best in sunny areas, preferably on high ground in a sandy-loamy soil. Avoid low-lying areas where frost pockets can settle in early spring, damaging flowers and fruit. A south-facing, slightly sloping incline is best.

When to Plant

Early spring, while small trees are still dormant, is the best time. Although autumn will do, research has shown that spring-planted trees establish more quickly. Wrap the trunk with a protective wrap made specifically for trees to deter animals from chewing on the soft bark. This is especially important in the fall.


Provide enough space to allow good airflow for each tree. Most dwarf fruit trees can be planted 10-12 feet apart, but some varieties may need to be 15-20 feet apart. Make sure you know the mature size for the variety you plant.


The best time to prune fruit trees is when they are dormant. I like to prune during our January thaw into February. Pruning is not only a good horticultural practice, but an art form, as well. A general rule is to prune all suckers that grow at the base of the tree and anything crossing or growing vertically. The tree should have several open spaces throughout the branches.

Insects and Diseases

Using integrated pest management, or IPM, practices is the best defense against many insect and disease problems you will encounter while growing fruit trees. Various phases of growth, such as petal fall or size of fruit, are signals to look for certain pests and diseases, or perform certain pruning techniques.

Pears encounter the same problems as apples, and cherries may share some, but have their own, as well. It is important to know how to identify each pest and which ones may pose a problem at what time of year. Identification and timing are the keys.

For example, scale is a problem pest that peaks in mid-May, and is typically not a problem after June, but could peak again in July. To deal with this pest, you would apply horticultural oil in April. If you want to grow these fruits organically, you need to start with varieties that are resistant to the diseases they are most prone to, as well as using approved organic methods for insect and disease control.

Insects and disease found to be the most problematic with apples and pears include the European red mite, apple scab, leaf roller, aphids, powdery mildew, fire blight and plum curculio. For cherries, fruit fly, plum curculio, cherry leaf spot, American brown rot and powdery mildew are issues.


Most apples (Malus spp.)grow well in USDA Zones 3 through 8, depending on the variety. Apples grow best when they have another variety for cross-pollination. Harvest time is August through October. Apples are eaten fresh, sliced and frozen, dried, sauced and frozen or canned, or preserved as apple butter or jam.

Recommended Apple Varieties 

• ‘Braeburn’ - Sweet and crisp; great fresh or baked; USDA Zones 5-8

• ‘Gala’ - Sweet and crunchy; great fresh or baked; USDA Zones 4-9

• ‘Ginger Gold’ - Sweet and spicy; great fresh or baked; USDA Zones 5-9

• ‘Honeycrisp’ - Sweet and juicy; great fresh or baked; USDA Zones 3-6

• ‘McIntosh’ - Sweet, tart and juicy; great fresh or baked; USDA Zones 4-6

European or Asian Pear

European pears (Pyrus communis) are hardy in Zones 4 through 9 and grow best in a sunny space with a well-drained soil. European pear varieties best for the Midwest gardens are ‘Bartlett,’ ‘D’Anjou,’ ‘Harrow Delight,’ ‘Spartlett’ and ‘Harrow Sweet,’ which is said to be more fire-blight resistant. You can eat them fresh or preserve them by canning or making jam. I especially love a spiced pear jam infused with ginger. 

The Asian pear (Pyrus pyrifolia), sometimes called an apple pear because of its apple shape and pear-like skin, grows well in Zones 5 through 9, and is best for fresh eating. Harvest season is August through September.

Tart Cherry

Most tart cherries (Prunus cerasus) are self-pollinating, but planting two varieties may increase fruit quantity. For tart cherries, try growing Balaton (‘Bunched of Újfehértoí’), a newer Hungarian variety that is a little sweeter and matures about a week later than the traditionally grown ‘Montmorency’ or ‘North Star.’ Tart cherries grow well in USDA Zones 4 through 8, depending on variety. Harvest time starts in mid-June.

When tart cherries are harvested at their peak, it is easiest to pit them. Place them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and put in the freezer until frozen. Once frozen, place them in a freezer storage container. This method keeps the cherries from freezing together in one big clump. Once thawed, you can use the frozen cherries for pies, muffins or jam. Dried tart cherries are one of my favorite things to add, along with nuts, to my oatmeal.

For more information:

Apples –

Michigan State University Extension –

Enviro-weather –

National Organic Program –

Holistic Orchard Network –

From Michigan Gardening Volume I Issue VI. Photo by Patti Marie Travioli.


Posted: 08/06/14   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Other People Are Reading