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Bob Byers is a licensed landscape architect.

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Lights, Camera, Action!
by Bob Byers       #Design   #Misc

Cut! If you can’t mentally picture a garden that inspires you, a script if you will, it’s important to search magazines, seek out gardens to visit when you travel, and look at photos of other gardens to find that perfect inspiration. Then you can get started. Include practical concerns like shade, soil, and moisture that will determine good plant choices.

Once you have a good handle on those, what’s next? Begin with the basics: form, color, line and texture. Cut! What again? Yes, there’s something really important to consider. These characteristics apply to every single item in your garden and interact continuously with each other. Just like in the movies, not every actor can be the star. A well-conceived design has a few key elements, protagonists if you will, and a big supporting cast.

Start by deciding what design elements will be your “stars” in each garden area (color, for instance), letting it really shine while other elements are assigned supporting roles. My favorite way to achieve an elegant, sophisticated look is by keeping color and line consistent, using form subtly as a secondary accent, and really letting texture take center stage.

Top: When thinking about texture, remember that some plants like ferns can have quite large leaves, but they’re so finely dissected that the effect is usually a fine texture. However, the vase-like form of some larger varieties make them fine focal points against typical medium textures in borders or masses of coarse-leaved hostas.

Bottom Left: Containers are a great way to add texture and build that special ambience. Notice how the pot complements this semi-formal planting and the snapdragons echo the raised “buttons” decorating the container while dusty miller ties everything together with its finely cut gray leaves.

Bottom Right Sometimes texture needs to step back and let another design element be the star. The lines of this bridge are too spectacular to distract from them and the fine textures of the Japanese maples are the perfect complement, letting the bridge really shine.

But what exactly does texture mean in garden design? Visual texture is best understood as the relative tactile character and size of parts to one another and their setting. Are leaves and flowers small compared to the overall scene (fine textured, e.g. ferns and mosses), or large (coarse textured, e.g. elephant ears (Colocasia spp.)? Most plants fall somewhere in the middle with medium texture (coneflowers and forsythia). Paving, garden art, fences, arbors and everything else in the hardscape also lend texture to the mix.

This photo is overflowing with texture, most of which is provided by the red coleus, elephant ear (Colocasia ‘Elena’), Papyrus and the deep purple Canna ‘Intrigue’.

Density, fuzzy or smooth surfaces, and solid as opposed to segmented or divided elements affect texture, too. Remember, when choosing which textures to highlight, you only need a few stars that really grab your attention.

Ambience, important in every scene, is easily created with good textural choices. Use lots of very large leaves with upright forms like bananas and taro to set the stage for a luau, with all of the tropical flavor implied. Or, let fine textures and low spreading forms transport you to the quiet contemplation of a Zen garden.

In the process, you create sense of place. It’s your stage, the perfect garden setting for your lifestyle. Traditionally, sense of place speaks to local surroundings, but there’s nothing wrong with creating a character that’s quite different to match your home or tastes. Just do it deliberately.

Do you struggle with a small garden? Trick visitors to make it feel bigger. Garden is theater after all. When details disappear in the distance, it’s a visual clue that those elements are far away. Medium textures in the foreground that transition into a background of fine foliage artificially recreate that effect, making your space feel larger. To make a large space feel more intimate, just reverse things to draw the farthest points nearer.

But most gardeners look to texture to add interest to borders. This is where the notion of a few stars and lots of supporting characters really comes in handy. Good border design depends on many elements, but getting texture right is crucial. The majority of border plants are medium textured, so coarse and fine ones provide great accents.

Sometimes tactile texture can really add interest, even if people just look and don’t touch. The amazingly textured fruit of this milkweed relative (Gymphocarpus physocarpus) is a real showstopper everywhere it’s planted.

For borders focused on color, tone down texture and form to avoid chaos since too many design elements fight for attention. A few bold hostas for interest and patches of tiny-leaved mosses filling edges let your color scheme shine without distraction.

But if you love an elegant monochrome, let textures provide pizazz. Try a bed of delicate Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) with a castor bean (Ricinus communis), a large ceramic pot, or a landscape boulder as a focal point.




Look at things in the ice and you’ll learn a lot about design as it covers everything in lacey tracery and shows how simplicity can create true elegance. Take that lesson to heart and remember to keep it simple for real impact. • These elephant ears are hard to miss with their six-foot leaves. Coarse textured plants like this are among the best ways to create accents in your garden.

Simple guidelines like the rule of thirds help get things right. Divide landscape elements into three textural groups: coarse, medium and fine. Pick one that fits your script such as fine textures for a tranquil, peaceful look. Use delicate beauties in approximately two-thirds of your space (think effect – exact calculations aren’t important). Mix and match coarse and medium texture for the remaining third. In other words, fill the bulk of the design with one base texture while others provide accents and interest. Pair the same color or form with one texture throughout and your design will deliver a real punch.

Setting the Stage with Texture

Texture creates interest and richness when properly applied. In particular, different textures can move elements to the front of your design or send them to the back. Bold textures, especially if coupled with a clear, simple shape, will advance to the foreground in your design. As you might expect, fine textures recede, particularly if dark in color. Use texture to advantage bringing accents to the forefront or adding depth with infill.

Don’t forget a hierarchy of accents. Each garden space should have one thing that clearly takes center stage. Whether an Italian tiered fountain for a formal garden, a spectacular Japanese maple for a woodland garden, or that massive vase floating above a sea of bluestar, it should immediately draw everyone’s attention.

That primary accent piece should be relatively large or different in some way from the rest of the scene. Texture can do this beautifully. Think of the impact you could create with a giant umbrella plant (Darmera peltata) in a mass planting of fine textured ferns. Or, what about a single, cut-leaf sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’) among those typical medium textures? Either creates a stunning focal point: Everyone will notice as intended.

For a smaller space or a really clean look, that may be all you need. However, most of us will want some secondary points of interest in each garden as well. And by now, you know what to do! Remember, it’s about choosing your focus and sticking with it. When texture is singing the lead, color, line, and form need to back off into harmony parts and vice versa. The stage is set and it’s time to get started. Action!


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 27 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Troy B. Marden and Sherre Freeman.


Posted: 04/20/18   RSS | Print


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Growing Garlic in Florida
by Marie Harrison       #Bulbs   #Edibles





Other species of garlic are popular in Florida gardens, such as elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum, sometimes labeled Tahitian garlic) and garlic chives (Allium tuberosum). Garlic chives are flavorful in salads, long lasting in bouquets and floral designs, and the long-blooming clusters of flowers are favorites of bees and other pollinators.

If you think the garlic sold in supermarkets is your only choice, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.

Florida gardeners can grow an exciting array of garlics. Generally speaking, two varieties of garlic are grown nationwide. Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon, or hardneck garlic, is suited for areas with cold winters. Gardeners in Florida and other regions with mild winters will have better luck with Allium sativum var. sativum, or softneck garlic. (See sidebar for recommendations.) Garlic is a perennial that is usually grown as an annual.

This Asiatic type is an example of hardneck garlic. Notice the hard scape protruding from the center of the bulb. Most hardnecks are not well suited to Florida gardens.

Artichoke garlics are softnecks and come in a wide range of flavors. The large, easy-to-grow bulbs are favorites of commercial growers and are recommended for most of Florida, except South Florida.

Growing Garlic
Garlic should be planted in the late fall, or even as late as January in Florida. Garlic will begin growing soon after it is planted and will continue to grow all winter long. With the onset of warm weather, it will begin to mature and bulbs will start to enlarge.

Garlic will grow in almost any soil, but a full-sun location and well-drained soil yields the best results. If your soil is very poorly drained, consider planting in raised beds. Prepare the bed by loosening the soil to a depth of at least 6 inches and adding organic matter such as compost or cow manure if your soil is sandy or heavy clay.

When you are ready to plant, separate the bulb into individual cloves. Do not remove the paper-like skin that covers the cloves. To plant, place the individual garlic cloves about 6 inches apart with their pointed ends up at a depth of 1-1½ inches. Mulch the newly planted bed and water well.

Fertilizer needs are minimal. The organic matter naturally occurring in soil or that was added at planting should be sufficient. Too much nitrogen will result in lush top growth, but the bulbs will be small. Sufficient water is important, so do not let the bed dry out.

Harvest garlic in June or when most of the leaves have turned brown and died down but when six or so of the top leaves are still green. Handle carefully so as not to bruise the bulbs. Place the bulbs in a dry, shady place for curing. After they have dried, store in a dark, cool place with low humidity. A brown paper bag placed in an air-conditioned house will provide appropriate storage for most home gardeners.

Floral designers have learned that flowering garlic scapes dry well and hold their form for an extended time. National Garden Clubs Flower Show School Design Instructor Gina Jogan chose dried hardneck garlic scapes painted black for this plaque design.

Garlics for Florida
All sources recommend Creole garlic – of which there are several cultivars – for all of Florida. As a matter of fact, it is the only type that will thrive in the southern reaches of our state. The farther north one travels, the smaller Creole garlic grows. It is very poorly suited for latitudes farther north where winter temperatures are severe and the sunlight is not strong enough to provide the amount of light needed.

In addition to Creole garlic, the artichoke type is recommended for North Florida. The artichoke garlic cultivars, which are generally large, store well and come in a wide range of flavors from very mild to strong. Sometimes artichoke garlic is called Italian or red garlic, although both names are misnomers since they are neither red nor were they grown in Italy.

Several sources for garlic are listed on the Internet. Check out The site lists several reputable growers from which these gourmet garlics can be purchased online. Do not plant supermarket garlic, which has been irradiated and treated with preservatives to inhibit sprouting.

As you can see, there is a garlic for every Florida garden. You will surely be able to find one or several that will suit your tastes. Why not give it a try?

10 types of garlic (Allium sativum):

1. Rocambole
2. Purple Stripe
3. Marble Purple Stripe
4. Glazed Purple Stripe
5. Porcelain
6. Artichoke
7. Silverskin
8. Asiatic
9. Turban
10. Creole


The only type of garlic that thrives in South Florida is the Creole type. Some specific cultivars are ‘Ajo Rojo’, ‘Burgundy’, and ‘Creole Red’,
but all cultivars may be grown.

The artichoke type is recommended for North Florida. Some cultivars
are ‘Red Toch’, ‘Inchelium Red’, and ‘Lorz Italian’.

Supermarket garlic is often the silverskin or artichoke type.

The Creole types will grow throughout Florida.



A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 21 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Marie Harrison and 


Posted: 04/20/18   RSS | Print


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Peony Power
by Tony Mistretta       #Flowers   #Pink







They are simply the flower of Memorial Day and graduations. Many brides favor them in their late spring bouquets. Peonies are pomp and circumstance, romance and low maintenance.








Peony ‘Felix Crousse’

Peonies are one of the best perennial choices for a Midwest garden. The reason is simple: Peonies are hardy and extremely reliable. Once established these beauties are durable and low maintenance. Another admirable aspect of peonies is that, unlike some other perennials, the do not ramble. They come back reliably year after year with little care and produce huge flowers — even enough blooms for cut-flower bouquets.

Peony ‘Gay Paree’.

Peony ‘Salmon Jazz’.

Peony ‘Orchid Anne’.

Peony ‘Guardian of the Monastery’.

Peony Itoh ‘Bartzella’

Rich History
Peonies became popular in Europe in the 1780s after they were introduced from China and Japan, where they had been grown for thousands of years. In the 1800s peonies graced the gardens of Empress Josephine Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson, who included notations about peonies in his writings. Some of those varieties from the 1800s include ‘Mons Jules Elie’, ‘Festiva Maxima’, ‘Felix Crousse’ and ‘Karl Rosenfield’. These were the first peonies used in the cut flower trade in the 1900s. They are also found in some of the oldest cemeteries and homesteads in the United States.

Throughout history, peonies have enjoyed immense popularity, especially in the United States, when a resurgence of interest spurred the breeding and introductions of new cultivars. Peony pioneers of the early 1900s worth mentioning are Gilbert Wild, Edward Auten, Orville Fay, Myron Bigger, William Bockstoce, Oliver Brand, Lyman Cousins, William Krekler and Charles Klehm. Most of these breeders started out as hobbyists. These and other American breeders opened the door for an explosion of remarkable new peony varieties.

The New Breeders
Don Hollingsworth of Hollingsworth Peonies in Maryville, Mo., introduced ‘Garden Treasure’ a yellow intersectional peony. Roy Klehm, who with his wife Sarah own and operate Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm in Southern Wisconsin, continues his family’s tradition of introducing new varieties. There are many more breeders today who are constantly hybridizing and ensuring a succession of new introductions. Most of these breeders and propagators have websites—peony enthusiasts can find and order new, beautiful peonies from around the country.

The newest innovation is the crossing of herbaceous and tree peonies. It was achieved by Japanese breeder Toichi Itoh. This breeding breakthrough opened the door for a new generation of peonies with exceptional form and color. I should mention that thousands of crosses are necessary to produce a new peony of superb quality. These herbaceous-tree peony crosses are referred to as Itoh hybrids or intersectional hybrids, and they include ‘May Lilac’, ‘Bartzella’, ‘Scarlet Heaven’, ‘Garden Treasure’ and ‘First Arrival’.

The different varieties of peonies available range from single peonies with their small center of stamens with one or two rows of petals like ‘Squirt’ or the Japanese varieties like ‘Beautiful Senorita’ whose center of stamens are larger, to doubles with huge fluffy blooms like ‘Candy Hearts’ or bomb types that have a tall, full center of petals. All of these are referred to as “herbaceous peonies” and all of their foliage is removed in late summer to fall.

Tree peonies are quite beautiful, and their care is a little different. They enjoy early day sun and shady afternoons. Their blooms are usually very large, and they have a wide range of colors and styles. A good example is ‘Guardian of the Monastery’. Tree peonies have woody stems and must not be cut down. Let foliage fall off on its own. Tree peonies can reach 5 to 6 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide. They make quite a statement in the shady-with-morning-sun garden.

As Cut Flowers
Traditionally peonies are remembered as the cut flowers taken to cemeteries in remembrance of loved ones. Today’s brides also realize the beauty of peonies for their bouquets and table decorations. And an increasing number of gardeners simply enjoy bringing cut peony flowers indoors.

Peonies should be cut when their buds are showing color and are soft. They then can be put into vases, and some can be put in the refrigerator for later use. This will extend the cut peony season for several weeks.

1. Peonies should be dug in one large clump. Knock away the soil and rinse the clump clean so you can see the roots, as here.

2. If there is no natural division, insert a knife into the center of the clump to cut it apart.

3. Continue to cut or divide the clump until you have divisions that have four to six eyes each.

4. Each division should have enough fleshy roots to support each four- to six-eye section.


2012 Peony of the Year
Peony ‘Amalia Olson’ has been named 2011 Gold Medal Award winner and 2012 Peony of the Year by the American Peony Society.

The Gold Medal award is made available to one peony cultivar per year. Selection is based upon grower observation and experience of its excellence and performance across the peony growing areas of North America. Cultivars which attain this award typically have been in commerce for multiple decades as is necessary for their record to become widely recognized. ‘Amalia Olson’ is no exception, registration of the name dates to 1959. For more info visit

The Midwest Peony Society can be found at

Dividing Peonies
Another tradition is dividing peonies from a grandparent’s or parent’s family home. It is important to dig peonies in one clump. This can be achieved by inserting the shovel 8 to 10 inches deep at an angle toward the center of the plant. This will ensure an entire clump will be removed at once, rather than breaking apart. After lifting the clump from its hole, the soil around the roots should be removed with a blunt stick. Then wash the roots with a strong stream of water.

If there is not a natural division within the clump, insert a sharp knife to cut it apart. Keep in mind that each division should have sufficient roots for each four- to six-eye division in order for the roots to re-establish faster.

How to Plant a Peony
When planting a new peony or replanting a division, keep these tips in mind. Choose a site that receives at least a half day of sun and has well-drained soil. If your site has heavy clay soil, amend the soil —mix 50 percent of the soil with 50 percent compost. Dig the planting hole deep and wide enough to accommodate your peony division with room to spare on the sides. Create a mound in the center of the hole with amended soil. Place the division (or new plant) so that the eyes of the root are 1 ½ to 2 inches below ground. Press soil between the roots then backfill the hole and water thoroughly. Fertilize in the spring with a balanced fertilizer of 10-10-10 or 10-20-10, keeping the nitrogen number at a lower ratio than the phosphorous and potassium. Throughout the year, water the plant when soil is dry. Once established, peonies rarely need supplemental water.

If you are planning a new perennial garden or are revamping an existing one, consider adding peonies for years of enjoyment. The possibilities are endless.


A version of this article appeared in a March 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Ron Capek,, Hollingsworth Peonies, and Tony Mistretta.


Posted: 04/19/18   RSS | Print


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Chives: Edible, Pretty and Easy to Grow
by Karen Atkins       #Edibles   #Herbs   #Recipes

Chive flowers are gorgeous in mass  plantings, as hedges or borders. They are  also edible and stunning in salads. (Elena Elissiva/

When I was a young, inexperienced gardener, I had the fortune of stumbling upon Martha Stewart’s Gardening. The title was deceptively simple, as the book contained intricate herb gardens and rose gardens, which stretched hundreds of feet. But the book became dog-eared as I shamelessly copied loads of ideas she had.

One of the most beautiful, easy and inexpensive notions she shared in that volume was using chives to edge vegetable gardens. The border looked so lush in her photos, and I learned later that in addition to producing masses of lilac star-shaped, edible flowers, chives repel bad bugs and attract beneficial bees. What more could you ask of an herb?

Cooking with Chives

Chive and Bleu Cheese Dressing

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.

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.

Make a chive “broom” by tying a long bunch of chives into a knot. Dunk the ends in warm, melted butter and drag it across fresh lobster or steamed vegetables. Martha Stewart has actually affixed small sticks to make them look like miniature brooms. (Smoczyslaw/

Growing Chives

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) thrive in well-draining, but fertile soil. A mixture of sand and manure or other organic material works well. If your soil is already good, but not particularly well-draining, you can also just mound it up, which will make it drain faster.

Sow seeds ¼ inch deep. (You can also plant transplants from the garden center.) When thinning seedlings, aim for final spacing of 4-6 inches in every direction. Chives can be harvested four times a year and should be cut just an inch or two above the base. The flavor of many herbs intensifies after drying but chives actually lose a lot of flavor. Use them fresh, or freeze them immediately.


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2015 print editions of State-by-State Gardening.


Posted: 04/19/18   RSS | Print


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Japanese Style in the Garden
by Laura L. Bruner, Ph.D.       #Design   #Themed Gardens   #Unusual

The raked sand in this dry garden suggests water rippling around stone islands. Bloedel Reserve, Japanese Garden on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

Japanese gardens have weathered the test of time.

Principles originating centuries ago still guide and inspire garden designers in search of harmony and beauty. Japanese gardens are often described as beautiful, simple, serene and harmonious. For the aspiring designer, intimidating also comes to mind. Some design principles are consistent across all design disciplines, while others seem new and challenging to a Western-minded gardener. Let’s explore the Japanese garden and discuss a few concepts that make this approach so enduring.

Motomi Oguchi writes in Creating Your Own Japanese Garden: A Practical Guide that Japanese designers create according to the following principles:

1.) Each part of the garden should evoke how nature would present itself.
2.) The garden should be a new, creative design that is mindful of past masters’ works.
3.) Create gardens of harmony that recall beautiful scenes in nature.
4.) Be flexible with site conditions, current needs, desires and self-expression. From a Japanese perspective, the human role in the garden is one of participation rather than conquest.

This stroll garden located in Kyoto, Japan, demonstrates shakkei or “borrowed scenery” by allowing views of mountains in the distance.

Formal design principles such as order, unity and rhythm are utilized in Japanese garden design as they are in any other form of design in any culture. The difference is where the Japanese place emphasis.

Plant materials in Japanese gardens are mostly evergreen. Deciduous trees, such as this weeping cherry tree, provide dramatic accents.


A slab bridge in the Hagiwara Tea Garden in California extends a pathway across a stream.

One emphasis is on combining objects in groups of three, often in triangular form for trees and stones. In such a grouping, the larger object is placed in the middle with the smaller ones to the left and right. The grouping forms a triangle and is asymmetrically balanced by varying the distance of the left and right objects depending on their visual weight. The composition is also staggered, attempting to achieve visual balance from multiple perspectives. Another point of emphasis in Japanese garden design is asymmetry. Asymmetrical visual balance suggests a natural setting and contrasts with the design symmetry found in Western formal gardens.

Other design principles in Japanese gardens are more familiar, but with distinct cultural application. Gardens are typically enclosed with a neutral background that interrupts the line of sight. Traditionally, the interior of a Japanese garden was considered sacred and the outside profane. The enclosure sets the garden space apart visually. In the ancient Shinto religion, gods were nature spirits. Therefore, the Japanese perception of the garden as a place to worship nature is not surprising according to Alvin Horton in Creating Japanese Gardens. Japanese gardens are designed for viewing from verandas or inside the residence, not recreation like Western landscapes. The landscape is often composed like a painting with roof eaves, columns and lower tree limbs framing the views. The sky is minimized by deep overhanging roof eaves and screening. The emphasis is on the horizontal plane, low and wide, rather than the vertical.

Shakkei or “borrowed scenery” is a universal design principle found in Japanese gardens in which distant shapes are echoed in the garden design, trees inside the garden blend with those outside the garden and overall garden design harmonizes with its surroundings.

Miekakure or “hide and reveal” is another common principle in which the garden is revealed to visitors gradually and can’t be seen entirely from one vantage point. The principle of fuzei or “wind feeling” is unique to Japanese design. It is the visual perception conveyed when garden features suggest the effect of natural forces, like wind, on the landscape over time. A shaped pine suggests years of strong coastal winds. A moss-covered stone conveys the patina of age.


Top: A stepping stone pathway leads the garden visitor through a traditional entry gate.

Far Left: Bamboo is a natural choice for enclosing a Japanese garden.

Left: Shaped, rugged pines suggest the effect of wind over time.

Certain elements occur consistently in Japanese garden design. The combination of these, along with guiding design principles, can infuse your landscape with a Japanese feeling. Consider enclosure materials such as stone, wood, evergreen hedges and bamboo. Water, either actual or abstract, is an important component. Constructed waterfalls, streams and ponds echo the surrounding Japanese landscape within the garden walls. Raked sand is used to suggest water in other situations. Decomposed granite particles are used because their angular shape holds the precise raked patterns. The patterns suggest ripples around miniature islands of set stones. Functional bridges extend pathways over water or dry streams in the Japanese garden. Bridges are usually constructed of single slab stones or planks.

Water basins and stone lanterns are common elements found in Japanese gardens. They contrast subtly with the natural surroundings.

Utilitarian and decorative stonework is typically granite and schists in shades of gray and soft colors. No pure white or decorative colors are used in stonework. Water basins made of granite in both natural and cut shapes are found in many Japanese garden styles. Ishi-doro (stone pedestal lanterns) are utilized along pathways or in courtyards. Lanterns were popularized by Zen priests and traditionally incorporated into Japanese tea gardens. Stone lanterns are the most common feature found in Japanese gardens today. Their primary use is to subtly contrast with the surrounding natural elements.

Traditionally, plant material has been flowering and non-flowering broadleaf evergreens, conifers, shaped pines and mounding shrubs. Deciduous trees and moss are also important components, though mostly as accents.

Japanese design requires restraint and simplicity; by adhering to these rules your landscape could honor these ancient traditions and provide a respite from the outside world.



A version of this article appeared in a March 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Loren Madsen.  


Posted: 04/19/18   RSS | Print


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Natural Hardscaping
by Diane Beyer       #Design   #Hardscaping   #Natives

Top: Here, very large boulders have been used to create a waterfall feature that blends seamlessly into the surrounding woodlands

Far Left: Using native stones as borders gives beds a natural look. Native stone can be used in many different landscape styles – formal to rustic.

Left: River rocks are great for dry creek beds that divert heavy runoff away from lawns, driveways, and foundations.

More and more gardeners and landscapers are heading “back to the land.” In addition to self-sufficiency, less pesticide use, growing heirloom vegetable varieties, urban homesteading, hardscaping using natural materials is also becoming more popular. This provides a wealth of natural materials for landscaping and design work.

In the mountainous areas, limestone, granite, and slates have been mined for decades, and used as building materials for prominent sites such as the “Hokie stone” used to build Norris Hall at Virginia Tech, or the buildings in aptly named Rockmart, Georgia, contracted using locally quarried Rockmart slate. Fieldstone is a generic term indicating stone that has been removed fields that have been tilled for agricultural use. Fieldstone is also abundant throughout most of the mountainous areas and is a great material for dry walls, steps, and fire pits. River rock of varying sizes, colors, and shapes found in the rivers of the mountains and Piedmont regions are often used to create dry creek beds in areas where runoff may be an issue It can be used as mulch material around shrubs and trees, allowing rainwater to percolate down into the soil. Since it will not wash away as easily as other organic mulches, replacement cost is low, unlike traditional mulch.

Clockwise: Use small stones to highlight unique plant specimens. • Keep the style of your home in mind when planning hardscape features. Borders of natural stone work well with the home’s foundation. • This fieldstone wall serves not only as a border, but also adds an artistic touch. The craftsman spent weeks choosing just the right stones for the perfect results.

In coastal areas, landscape materials such as oyster shells, driftwood, bluestone, and slate are available. Oyster shells make great mulch, and are a beautiful addition to driveways and paths. Be aware that when using oyster shells around plants, they may leach materials into the ground such as salt and lime, causing the soil to change slightly in salinity and pH values over years. Driftwood is abundant along the coast and is an interesting material to use for fences, arbors, furniture, and planters. Bluestone is mined extensively for use as gravel, and can be used to create pervious driveways, walkways, and patios. Slate is another great material for patios and steps.

The wide variety of available materials allows for diverse hardscape styles – from a “beachy” feel to more formal designs.

Keep in mind the style of your home. Unless you are planning an area where the house won’t be a factor, a formal walled garden might not be right for a beach house or a modern sculpture garden in front of a Victorian house. Nature provides so many textures, colors, and shapes, so use materials that will complement your house and landscape.

Top: This rock wall blends in seamlessly with the rest of the landscape.

Far Left: The trailing plants soften the hard lines of the stones.

Left: Slate is a great material for pathways. It is stable and allows water to percolate into the soil.

When purchasing materials, more is usually better, as natural materials are hard to “match” from lot to lot or place to place. If you finish a product and still have an abundance of material, it should be relatively easy to work into your landscape later, perhaps as steps or other type of accent.

And don’t forget about the plants. Choose plants that work with the style you are trying to create. Plants can soften natural materials such as rock and stone and blend the new elements into the existing landscape.

There are a few things to keep in mind when working with natural materials:

• Will the materials need to be eventually replaced due to weathering or decay? If so, how can that be effectively accomplished?

• Know what will be necessary to maintain the area around your new hardscape. Will you be able to do it yourself or will you need to hire a maintenance service?

• Always keep sustainability and the environment in mind. Does your plan allow for water permeability? If not, is there a plan to accommodate water runoff?


A version of this article appeared in an April 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Diane Beyer.


Posted: 04/19/18   RSS | Print


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Taming Tough and Tiny Spaces
by Helen Yoest       #Disease   #Landscaping   #Shade

Pyracantha prunes well into espalier, creating art on a single plane.

In most gardens there are corners, ells, edges and trees, all of which create areas that are tough to work with. Oftentimes, the smaller the spot the tougher it is to tame. Instead of ignoring those tough, tiny spaces, consider plantings that will enhance your garden by taking advantage of these available spaces.

Side Yards
Side yards, or space created by a new addition or any narrow strip near a building or a wall, can seem like a daunting gardening challenge. It takes acrobatics to dig the soil well, drainage is not always great and sometimes the sun in blocked. Instead of viewing the space as one long length, break up the area into small, intimate spaces with curves, seating arrangements or garden art. It can change tough and tiny into cozy and quaint.

If you’re working in a walled courtyard, often this space traps warmth, raising the hardiness zone with a new micro-climate, causing it to be warmer than out in the open. This gives you an opportunity to plant for the added heat and higher hardiness zone the area creates. Also given the confined space, be sure and consider scent. Planting roses and herbs, gardenias and jessamine gives you a heady aroma.

An arbor covered in Carolina jessamine adds more gardening real estate to a tiny lot.

Vertical Gardening
Even the smallest patch of dirt can support the rise of plants to fill a vacant wall, frame a door or garage, cover an arbor or even train a vine up the ell of the house. Carolina jessamine, Clematis armandii or a fast-growing annual such as cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit) works well in these locations. Take advantage of limited planting space by gardening up.

One way to do this is with espalier. When only a dash of dirt is available by an empty wall space in need of a certain something, this ancient technique of training the plant to grow in one plane works well. Espaliered plants are used today for both function and folly. They work great on areas such as a blank side of the house, a brick or cinder-block wall or a retaining wall.

Many plants take well to the pruning techniques required for espalier. Once mature, they become works of art. Pyracantha, loropetulum, camellia, ‘Little Gem’ magnolia, fruit trees, Japanese maple, redbud, quince, fig, forsythia, viburnum and yew all make excellent specimens for espalier.

A hell strip planting in Charleston. This is an example of just how cute an otherwise neglected space can be. Filled with sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) and pansies, it gives spring color to all who walk by.

The Hell Strip
Whether you call the strip of dirt between the sidewalk and the street a tree belt, inferno strip, devil strip, verge or hell strip, this space is notoriously hard for growing plants. A lack of water, trash cans sitting out, dogs doing their business, salt in the winter and trodding people and animals make it challenging. Or perhaps it’s a reluctance due to it being public property maintained by a private property owner. For these reasons and more, gardeners are reluctant to grow a garden along the street. And this is too bad, because these tough little spots are gardens in waiting.

When planting this area, first till and amend the soil. It’s also wise to anticipate where foot traffic will be and where the garbage can will sit each week and provide a landing pad for this specific use. Flagstone works well for this kind of situation.

The best plants for this area are tough, drought-tolerant ones that will thrive in full sun or the dappled sun under city-planted treescapes. As you garden in this space, think beyond trees. Herbs, hellebores, verbenas, bulbs and sedums, as well as prostrate junipers and yews, make ideal low-growing plantings that can take an occasional walk-through by the neighbor’s dog.

Clockwise: A container garden can be used in those tough places where soil doesn’t exist. Keeping the theme of terra-cotta, a variety of plants give warmth and rhythm to a tiny, tough space. • Sylvia Redwine carved garden space out of a patio area. Filled with annuals and a cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus) standard, the space has become a work of art. • Creeping or climbing fig (Ficus pumila) is easy to grow from a tiny bit of soil as seen here climbing the rise of steps of a private home in Charleston. It’s easy to prune, allowing for a garden to exist where nothing else is likely to grow.

Under Canopies
Mature trees offer value to the landscape, but they leave some challenge in covering the ground beneath the canopy where grass won’t grow. The trees’ roots take up a lot of water, and digging between the roots is difficult at best; plus the canopy hides the sun. Luckily there are a few plants that do well under most canopies, such as hardy cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium), toad lily (Tricyrtis spp.), columbines, foamflowers (Tiarella), Japanese forest grasses (Hakonechloa macra), Japanese painted fern (Athyrium nipponicum var. ‘Pictum’), lungworts (Pulmonaria) and Siberian irises.

It’s important to plant small plants under trees for minimal disturbance between the roots of trees. Also, make sure the plants won’t compete with the trees for water.

The courtyard garden of Lacy and Carol Reaves. A series of garden rooms were created in an area formed by an addition. The narrow space with trapped heat is perfect for roses. The sound of the fountain mentally cools the space with its splash, while keeping Japanese climbing ferns happy. • A rocky wall offers an opportunity for planting.

Mother Nature abhors a vacuum and will fill a void with something – anything – because it is what she does. Most often it’s a weed that fills up neglected areas. Take charge of these tough, tiny crevices such as spots between flagstone steps and plant what you want, satisfying Mother Nature at the same time. For shady areas try maidenhair spleenwort, mosses, fern-leaf corydalis (Corydalis cheilanthefolia) and strawberry begonia (Saxifraga stoloniferi). For sunny areas you can use climbing snapdragon (Maurandella antirrhiniflora), sedums and dianthus.

C.J. Dykes took advantage of a space created when the deck was built, designing a garden lush with a fountain, ferns and aucuba. Now this otherwise vacant space has become a private oasis.

Under the Deck
On hilly sites, upper decks leave space below that is often ignored, but they can be turned into a garden instead of a place to store lawn chairs. These are typically shady spots with the deck as a canopy, so plant it up with ferns, hostas, aucuba and cast-iron plants. Fill with ornaments and even a comfy chair. Adding variegated plants helps brighten this otherwise darkened space.


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 24 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Helen Yoest.


Posted: 04/10/18   RSS | Print


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by Monica Brandies       #Advice   #Flowers   #Pruning







When you cut roses for bouquets or when you are deadheading, always cut back to just above a five-leaflet leaf and you will get more blooms quicker. Cut farther back if a bit of pruning is needed, too.

“Going to seed” is not usually a pleasant transformation – for plants and people. But it is part of life. Plants bloom not only to look lovely and give us joy, but also to produce seeds to perpetuate the species. When the seedpods are not needed and not attractive, it pays to carry snippers in your pocket every time you go out in the garden. Even if you want to collect some seeds, only a few seedpods are needed.

For plants that bloom constantly or repeatedly, such as crapemyrtles (Lagerstroemia), removing flowers that are past their peak will result in more and quicker new flowers. This is called deadheading, even though the flowers are not truly dead. Deadheading is an easy chore that can greatly improve the beauty of your garden.

Some plants such as this red spiral velvet ginger (Costus barbatus) have flowers (little yellow ones here) that bloom and then fall away. The red parts are bracts (modified leaves) that hold their color for months but they need to be removed after they lose their beauty.


Deadheading these daisies (Above) didn’t take very long and it made a big difference (Below).


(Above) These red geraniums are just doing their job, going to seed. It is nature’s way to keep the species alive. (Below) Now the seeding stems, along with a dry leaf or two, have been removed and the plant will have to make more flowers instead.

On a few plants, such as gold vine (Solandra spp.), flowers and attractive seedpods appear together. The golden raintree (Koelreuteria paniculata) is covered with yellow flowers in September and then a few weeks later, the pinkish/tan seedpod clusters appear and the trees are still beautiful.

Deadheading can and should be used for annuals, perennials, and flowering shrubs. For the most part, this can be done as you walk around your garden checking for new buds or bugs and just enjoying the day. But just a bit of deadheading can make a big difference. If you have daylilies (Hemerocallis) or Iris, for instance, there is nothing lovelier than the new flowers and nothing that spoils the scene like the old ones.

If you are hybridizing or saving seeds for replanting, you don’t want to deadhead some plants, so don’t ever do this in someone else’s garden unless you ask permission.

Picking flowers for bouquets has the same effect with more reward. With annuals, the more you pick, the more you’ll have. Some flowers, such as Pentas and Impatiens, drop their faded flowers and don’t need deadheading.

This butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium) looks great today, but tomorrow it may need some deadheading.

There are some flowers that bloom so prolifically that the best approach is to shear them back every several weeks to remove masses of seedpods. Do this for Ageratum, Cosmos, Portulaca, Torenia, and narrow-leafed Zinnia.

If your flowering shrubs are low enough, remove the dead flowers before they produce seeds, unless the seeds are decorative or provide food for birds and wildlife. But don’t worry about what you can’t reach. God didn’t intend nature to look perfect all the time.


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


Posted: 04/10/18   RSS | Print


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How to Build a Living Fence
by Jean McWeeney       #Design   #Hardscaping   #How to

The simple wood and wire pergola of the entrance gate is alive with an ‘Old Blush’ climbing rose. This small courtyard garden is the entrance to the mud room and houses herbs, flowers and a rain barrel covered with the same materials as the fence.

Fences can fill a number of needs in the garden: They can enclose a space and define it, they can keep the dogs in or the neighbor’s cats out, they often tell the gardener where to stop planting. But they can also become part of the planting and design scheme itself. That is, they can support plants and allow their form to be seen in their best light. Of course, the typical cottage garden picket fence does a great job – but construction is not always easy or cheap. There is an alternative though – a wood and wire fence.

It is relatively easy to build, economical, and provides support for vines, flowers and plants – perfect for the rustic, cottage look. If you read my article in last month’s magazine, “A New Kind of Raised Planter,” you’ve probably already thought of how nice a wood and wire fence would go with stock tank planters or ponds. You can even build a stand-alone, mobile wood and wire system to provide a vertical element in the garden and the perfect trellis for vines. Once you see how easy it is to construct a living fence, you’re sure to visit the hardware store soon!


This fence, on a deck overlooking a creek, will be home to potted vines. It will also keep the dogs in the area.

A staple gun is used to attach the wire to the wood.

Tools and Materials:

• Heavy-gauge wire fencing, aka cattle panel, hog panel, etc.

• Posts

• Pressure-treated 1x6 skirt board

• Hammer or staple gun

• Wire cutters or electrician’s pliers

• ¾ inch U-staples

• 2-inch galvanized screws


How to:
Make the fence as high as the fencing is wide. Any higher than 48 inches may require a mid-rail for extra support. Set posts 8 feet apart. Dig a trench to bury the fence if you need to keep animals in/out. Attach rails along top and bottom to posts. Roll fencing along top rail and attach top edge with U-staples, making sure to align the top of the fencing to the top of the rail. Similarly, attach to bottom edge of fencing. Once the end post is reached, cut fencing with wire cutters and use plenty of staples for stability. Optionally, ¾-inch-thick pressure-treated lumber can reinforce the attachment at each post; use galvanized screws. An added skirt board will provide reinforcement along the bottom rail.


A version of this article appeared in an April 2011 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Jean McWeeney and Jennifer Estes.


Posted: 04/09/18   RSS | Print


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Unconstructed Play
by Michelle Reynolds       #Kids   #Misc




By planting native trees and plants in the garden, you’ll create a world of exploration. The tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) tree is a host plant for Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies. Plant them and they will come. Host plant to Eastern tiger swallowtail and spicebush swallowtails, sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a good tree for a children’s garden as well. With sassafras, the children can chew on the leaves, make whistles and sassafras tea.

How many times have you been to a child’s birthday party with a bunch of laughing, screaming kids and lots of toys, and what the children end up playing with are the cardboard boxes, ribbons and ties from the gifts, loose parts from one of the toys (and not as they were intended to be used), or a pile of dirt or rocks next door? OK, that proves it – all they really need to play is a dirt pile and a bucket; unstructured play is the secret to happiness.

Children are remarkably imaginative, creative and innovative little souls and are able to find ways to play no matter what the circumstance. It always amazes me to see on the news in the aftermath of disaster (whether from a storm, fire, war, etc.), children playing as if nothing ever happened. Their imaginations and their willingness to work with each other, create games, laugh together, play together and continue on despite the horrors surrounding their community is absolutely amazing. And their resilience and ability to revert to simple games in an ever-changing and modernized world is inspiring.

Clockwise: A large tree in any yard can easily be turned into a play-station. This old hackberry holds a ropes course, a couple of swings, and the tree provides shade for the family’s rustic swing. The whole family can enjoy this space and time together outdoors. • A backyard full of trees is ideal, but even in yards with no trees, a stand-alone multilevel tree house can be built. A ladder, a rope swing and the platforms are all elements for building strength and confidence. • Building forts from branches and brush allow for creative play and also encourages empathy for birds and small animals, and their need for thickets and places to hide.

Elements of a Children’s Garden

Entrance: Build an actual gateway to the children’s garden by constructing an arbor or trellis. Plant butterfly host plants and vines and other wildlife-beneficial plants, a birdbath and feeder, add garden art, and a sign to delineate the space from the rest of the yard. These things will lend the place a feeling of enchantment.

Paths: Gravel, mulch or stone pathways meandering through the garden’s focal points will help lead a child to opportunities for exploration, adventure play, creativity and developing their imagination.

Sensory Planting Area: With the help of the children, plant garden plots with vegetables, flowers, wildlife-beneficial plants and herbs to appeal to sight, smell and taste. Allowing kids to grow their own vegetables is a good way to get them to eat them as well.

Seating and Stepping Logs: Small logs placed along pathways and tree cookies for stepping and sitting encourage balancing, quiet rest and observation of what lives under logs in the forest.

Rock or Dirt Mound: A mound is a more effective version of a sandbox by offering a height advantage as well as excavation possibilities.

Loose Parts: Tree cookies, branches, boards and rocks encourage creativity in building and problem solving.

Fort, Playhouse or Tree House: Incorporate ropes, climbing areas, hammocks, swings or slides into a multi-level play hut to improve hand-eye coordination, and to build strength and confidence.

Modernization is the inevitable path humans have been on for as long as we have walked the Earth. Through cultivation of plants and domestication of animals, we set up permanent settlements and thus began our move away from nature and into a dominion of manufactured living. The gap has grown ever since.

More and more, we are sterilizing our surrounding landscapes, schoolyards and our own properties by displacing nature with fabricated playgrounds. Strict neighborhood covenants and perceived notions of “curb appeal” are dictating what we have in our gardens. Devoid of nature, homogenized landscapes and housing in a land of sameness offer no opportunity for journeys of imagination and discovery. Concrete sidewalks lead us to and from buildings set on asphalt-covered lands across closely clipped lawns and ball fields and back home to sterile yards again. Once back home, it is homework, computers, video games and structured play. We have corralled our children in these small, modern and virtual worlds, leaving little time or space for imagination, creative play or self-discovery. We give our children only limited access to the wonders of the natural world.

Children are born naturalists and have a built-in curiosity and sense of wonder. If we as adults do not do what we can to provide places for children to practice their observational skills, and nurture our own inner child, who are we going to become as a society? It is through our own disconnect that we are separating children from the natural world.

When I was growing up, my family and I would go on hikes most weekends. We had adventures with names – The Railroad Holler Hop, Journey to Bamboo City and the Boulder Crawl to Kidland Canyon. We would stop and play in streambeds, build forts, swing from vines and climb trees. In creeks and in the cattails, we would discover baby fish, frogs and tadpoles, dragonfly nymphs, and other strange creatures. Under rocks, we would find salamanders, beetles, roly polies and ants. We would imagine how the animal and insect world worked and shrink ourselves down to an imagined “Land of the Lost.” Our favorite books were those that reflected our love of nature and sense of adventure and those that encouraged a deeper understanding of the natural world. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was our favorite TV show.

We would walk in the woods near our house, look at nature up close and feel a closeness to a larger force. Those treks in the woods were marvelous adventures filled with lessons in geology, history, the natural world, danger and Southern culture. They helped us look at things in a larger context, helped put things into perspective and helped direct the trajectory of my life’s interests; I believe my experiences in nature then and now help me solve problems, create, and conjure up the courage it takes to experiment, tackle new things and live life to its fullest. The music of the woods – the wind through the trees, babbling brooks, chorus of frogs, crickets, cicadas and katydids – is my soundtrack.


Clockwise: Pathways, rocks, logs and fences help delineate spaces and define the garden. Playing and planting is fun in a space the children can call their own. • Children are inherently imaginative and creative. My neighbor came up with the backyard bucket ride to enhance the zipline in her yard. She climbs the tree ladder, gets in the bucket, zips through the yard and makes a soft landing on a gym pad at the end of the ride. • “If you build it they will come,” works well in the natural world. Build a water feature or simple frog pond, and tree frogs will show up and breed. It is amazing to watch the life cycle of frogs – egg mass, tadpole, legs form, tails disappear, and finally, frogs. Once you have frogs, you’ll have beautiful music to enjoy when the family sits on the porch on a summer’s eve. Be sure not to add fish though, because the fish will eat frog eggs.

For most who live in urban areas, a trip to the woods and into nature is a weekend activity. If we do not live by a forest and we long for those weekend visits, we can construct areas in our communities that mimic the wilds to provide informal play areas for our children to explore daily. Fortunately, there are efforts underway, and by many organizations, to change the trends in schoolyards and churchyards. Outdoor classrooms, community gardens, environmental education programs, nature-based summer camps, outdoor after-school programs and other outreach activities are becoming more prevalent in many communities. These programs take the approach of using place-based education and inquiry learning in outdoor miniature habitats by matching the workshops to state core curriculums. By integrating education gardens into schoolyards and curriculums, teachers hope to reconnect children with nature through hands-on and direct experiences with the natural world.

Tree cookies offer places to step and sit as a child plants and takes care of their garden. Native plants and plants with funny names like Mexican hats (Ratibida columnifera), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) are great combined with herbs such as rosemary, basil and thyme. The combination smells good, looks good, and is sure to bring in the beneficial insects, birds and butterflies that are fun to observe. Harmless roly polies, worms and beetles live underneath the tree cookies and are fun to discover.

We can take it a step further and construct playscapes and naturescapes in our own backyards, where our children will be able to grow into their imaginations. By creating spaces for unconstructed play, we will build pathways that lead children to activities of exploration, adventure play, creativity and imagination, and with these things, come innovation.


A version of this article appeared in an April 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Bob Farley.


Posted: 04/09/18   RSS | Print


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Caterpillar Calamities
by Blake Layton       #Pests   #Vegetables   #Wildlife

Pink-striped oakworm munching on an oak leaf. (2.25 inches)

Every gardener has experienced it, usually more times than they can count. You walk into the garden and discover a plant that’s been defoliated or otherwise damaged by caterpillars. The canna leaves are riddled with holes, the cabbage leaves look like lace, half the tomatoes have worms in the fruit, or the azaleas have been stripped of their leaves. How could this happen so quickly?

Caterpillars are the immature stage of moths and butterflies. Although most gardeners enjoy seeing butterflies and moths in their garden, they feel quite differently about caterpillars. Butterflies and moths are beautiful insects that feed on nectar and do not damage plants, but many caterpillars are voracious pests of vegetable and ornamental plants. Heavy caterpillar infestations can completely defoliate, or even kill, prized plants.

Azalea caterpillars are common defoliators of azaleas, and sometimes blueberries, especially in the more southern areas of the Southeast. (2 inches)

Caterpillars are sometimes characterized as crawling stomachs. From the time they hatch from the egg until they pupate, eating is their primary occupation. They have to take periodic breaks to molt, or shed their skin, but they soon resume feeding. This is why caterpillars are such damaging pests. Depending on species, even one caterpillar can cause a lot of damage, but many moths can lay hundreds of eggs per night.

Fortunately, not all caterpillars are pests. Caterpillars that only feed on weeds or other undesirable plants are not pests and are sometimes considered beneficial. Despite their huge appetites, most caterpillars are picky eaters and will only feed on a relatively narrow range of plants. Tobacco hornworms feed on tomatoes as well as tobacco, peppers and other solanaceous plants, but they won’t eat the leaves of oaks or most other plants. Conversely, pink-striped oakworms love oak leaves but will starve rather than eat tomato leaves. Monarch butterfly caterpillars are one of the few insects that can survive on milkweed, and milkweeds are the only plants they will eat. Secondary chemicals that occur in different groups of plants are one of the key reasons for this host specificity. Compare the odor of crushed tomato leaves to that of broccoli and rosemary and you will get a whiff of some of these chemicals.

Tomato fruitworms usually bore in near the stem end of the tomato. One caterpillar can destroy several fruit, a heartbreaking experience for serious tomato growers. (1.25 inches)

There are a few species of caterpillars that have unusually wide host ranges and these tend to be some of our most important pest species. Tomato fruitworm, Helicoverpa zea, is one of the best examples. This pest actually has three official common names. In tomatoes it is called tomato fruitworm, in cotton it is known as the bollworm, and in corn it is the corn earworm. It is a serious pest of all three crops and also occurs on hundreds of other plants, including many other row crops, vegetable crops, ornamental plants and weeds. These caterpillars can tolerate an amazingly large array of secondary plant chemicals.

Most of our serious caterpillar pests are the larvae of moths rather than butterflies. There are a few butterfly species whose caterpillars are pests, but this list is small. Imported cabbageworm is one example of a pest butterfly species. Black swallowtail butterfly is arguably another, but this depends on whether you are an herb gardener or a butterfly gardener! Would the monarch butterfly caterpillars that defoliated the milkweed plants in the city park butterfly garden be considered pests?

Caterpillars don’t only damage plants by eating leaves; some species cause damage in other ways. Pests such as tomato fruitworms and pickleworms bore directly into the fruit, while pests such as squash vine borers and peach tree borers bore into the stem or trunk. There is even a caterpillar that bores into the trunks of hardwood trees. It is called the carpenterworm.

Newly hatched caterpillars, like these cross-striped cabbageworms, often leave telltale “windowpanes” in leaves where they are feeding. (One-quarter inch)

Gardeners are often surprised by how quickly serious caterpillar damage can occur. “My azaleas looked fine when we were grilling in the backyard Saturday. Now it’s Tuesday, the azaleas don’t have any leaves on them, and we have all these big black and white caterpillars crawling around!” This same phenomenon occurs on many other ornamental and vegetable plants. Small, newly hatched caterpillars eat very little and their feeding often goes unnoticed, but large caterpillars that are almost ready to pupate can eat a lot in a short time. Many caterpillars take in 80 to 90 percent of their total food consumption in the last two or three days of their life – when they become the caterpillar equivalent of teenagers. This is why heavy caterpillar damage often seems to appear overnight.

For an article on how to control damage from these munching machines check out the follow-up article, Control Caterpillar Pests.


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


Posted: 04/09/18   RSS | Print


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Cantankerous Cankers
by Christopher Starbuck       #Disease   #Pests   #Trees

Fireblight canker on ‘Aristocrat’ pear.

Thyronectria canker on honeylocust

The term “canker” refers to a lesion on a twig, branch or stem, usually caused by a bacterial or fungal pathogen. The appearance of cankers varies, depending on the host and the pathogen. Often, the bark of the affected stem or trunk is sunken and discolored. Fluids may ooze from a canker or fungal fruiting structures may appear on the bark covering or surrounding the lesion. In some cases, lesions remain small and isolated, causing no major problems for the host plant. In other cases, the canker spreads widely, causing death of twigs, branches or even the main trunks of trees. The best known example of the destructive potential of a canker disease is chestnut blight, caused by the fungus Endothia parasitica, which caused the virtual extinction of the American chestnut within 40 years of its accidental introduction to the United States in about 1900.

It should not be surprising that bacterial and fungal pathogens would colonize the bark of a tree or shrub. The sapwood, just under the bark, is a rich source of carbohydrates and minerals. Fortunately, bark provides excellent protection most of the time. However, canker-causing pathogens are opportunistic. Mechanical bark damage from lawn mowers, string trimmers, insects or hail can provide easy access to a pathogen. Damage or stress caused by environmental extremes, such as waterlogging, drought, freezing or high temperature can also reduce a plant’s ability to resist attack by a canker-causing organism. Wrapping the trunk of a newly planted tree with a light-colored material to prevent winter sun scald will greatly reduce the chances of canker development. A wide mulch ring will eliminate damage by mowers and string trimmers. However, mulch should never be more than 1 inch deep right next to the trunk (no volcanoes!).

Black walnuts are showing advanced symptoms of thousand cankers disease in this picture taken Sept. 18, 2009. The tree died the following June.

New Disease Threatens Black Walnut
Thousand cankers disease (TCD) is a recently discovered disorder that has the potential to decimate black walnut trees in the Midwest. Initially recognized in Colorado in 2009, this disease had killed tens of thousands of black walnut trees in Western states. Since then, the disease has been discovered in Tennessee, Virginia and Pennsylvania; all states within the native range of the species. If thousand cankers disease becomes widespread in the Midwest, it will kill millions of trees with an estimated economic impact of more than a billion dollars.

Thousand cankers disease is caused by the fungus Geosmithia morbida, which is spread very effectively by a tiny insect called the walnut twig beetle. Each beetle bores multiple holes through the bark, inoculating the phloem at each location with the fungus and causing a tiny canker. The cankers eventually coalesce, destroying the vascular system of the tree and leading to mortality within three or four years.

The most likely way in which thousand cankers disease will spread within the native walnut range is by movement of firewood or logs. You can help slow the spread by educating your fellow citizens about the dangers of moving these materials around the Midwest. Be on the lookout for walnut trees dying from the top and report them to your local university extension office.

There are thousands of fungal and bacterial organisms capable of causing cankers on woody ornamentals. Fortunately, very few of these cause serious problems, especially if resistant plants are planted and maintained with good cultural practices. Fireblight is a troublesome bacterial canker disease commonly affecting plants in the rose family, especially crabapples and pears. This disease, caused by the bacterium Erwinia amylovora, usually starts at the shoot tips of a susceptible host. If left unmanaged, it can cause cankers on the main trunk, leading to mortality. Thankfully, most modern crabapple cultivars are highly resistant to fireblight. However, most cultivars of ornamental pear, including ‘Bradford’, ‘Cleveland Select’ and ‘Redspire’ are no longer considered highly resistant. Pruning out the “strikes” on branch tips during dry weather will reduce the chances that the bacterium can spread within the tree. Cut well below the obviously infected tissue and dip the shears in alcohol between cuts.

Canker development around a walnut twig beetle gallery in an English walnut.

Certain species of trees are commonly affected by fungal canker diseases, often after being predisposed by environmental stresses or mechanical damage. Cankers (Thyronectria) commonly develop on trunks of honeylocust trees as a result of transplanting stress or winter injury. Cankers usually remain isolated and trees recover as they become established, but severe infections can lead to dieback. Fast-growing trees such as ‘Lombardy’ poplar are generally short lived due to extreme susceptibility to the fungus Cryptodiaporthe populeum. Dieback of other poplars and of willows is commonly caused by either Leucostoma or Valsa canker. Again, these diseases are most likely to develop when the host tree is predisposed by stress.

We should be thankful that bark is such a good defense against the thousands of organisms poised to take advantage of any chink in the armor of our trees and shrubs. To help our woody friends repel invasion by canker-causing organisms, we should prevent sun scald, mulch to prevent mower and string trimmer injuries, irrigate during drought and avoid late summer fertilization that may lead to winter injury.


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Christopher Starbuck and Ned Tisserat, Colorado State University,


Posted: 04/02/18   RSS | Print


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A Canna Renaissance
by Garry McDonald       #New Trends   #Ornamentals   #Plant Profile



















Cannova ‘Bronze Scarlet’ has scarlet red flowers and bronze foliage.

Working on a university campus, I can’t help but notice the changing whims of fashion. Lately, the trend among young men is khaki walking shorts, polo shirts, and white crew socks and white sneakers: exactly what we wore on campus in the early 1980s. Like clothes, plants come into and fall out of fashion. Re-discovering old garden plants is usually the result of breeding improved cultivars or someone taking a fresh look at how plants can be used in the landscape. One such plant is canna.

Canna is certainly not a new plant, being very popular in Victorian gardens and into the 20th-century. The original garden plant, Canna indica, commonly called Indian shot because of the small hard round black seeds resembling shotgun pellets, is native to many areas of the Americas, from South America to Mexico, and the West Indies. This species, one of about 20 naturally occurring, is now naturalized over many parts of the world, including the Gulf Coast of the United States, especially along perennial streams and rivers. Modern cannas are hybrids between many species and were once lumped together as Canna x generalis, although this species name is now considered invalid among the taxonomists. Because of the complex hybridization over the decades, instead of a specific species, canna are placed in cultivated plant groups with similar morphological characteristics, such as those with large colorful foliage or those with showy flowers. Other groups are grouped by geographical origin or by use, including those used as food for humans and livestock. An interesting fact is that canna is an excellent plant to use in bioremediation, especially in constructed wetlands, to filter out runoff sediments, excess nutrients, and heavy metal contaminants.

Once a signature plant of formal Victorian plantings, canna has experienced a revival among gardeners.

I don’t suppose there is any one reason for canna falling out of favor over the years, but several factors probably came into play. Canna was a mainstay of the intensely cultivated and managed Victorian and Edwardian gardens of the late 19th and early 20th century. Two world wars, a worldwide economic depression, and social change ended these types of gardens. Home architecture styles changed along with taste in plants and gardening. Smaller gardens and the desire for low-maintenance landscapes also influenced plant choices. Competition from the leisure industry and modern technology further affected garden tastes during the late 20th century. New pests were also contributing factors, especially viruses, which infected canna stocks, reducing plant vigor and flowering. Since propagation was once limited to divisions of the rhizomes, the number of plants that could be propagated were few and virus-infected plants could not be shipped or sold.

Cannova ‘Lemon’ has creamy yellow flowers and is ideal for mixed containers.

The advent of virus-indexed plants and micropropagation through tissue culture eliminated many roadblocks to growing modern-day canna and recent breeding work has re-invented an old plant for new gardens. Last season we were able to trial a new series of canna called Cannova, which are F1 hybrids bred specifically for mixed container plantings, although they can also be used in traditional flowerbeds. These new cannas range from a creamy yellow to scarlet red with both green and bronze leaves. In containers, they adjust to a smaller pot size with smaller foliage but with heavy flower power that readily rebloom. In the ground, they grow taller and flower just as well, although under our conditions they didn’t grow as large as traditional varieties, which for us was a good thing. Based on one year’s observations, they performed better than the Sunburst series, which was one of the first to be bred for small stature. To be safe, we dug up a set of plants to overwinter in a protected spot while the remainder stayed in the ground to test cold-hardiness. With several nights down around 0 F, we’ll see what comes back in May. I always like to test plants for a couple of seasons for landscape performance so the jury is still out.

The cultivar that kicked off a renewed interest in canna was probably ‘Pretoria’ also known as ‘Bengal Tiger’, which is a better descriptor since the variegated foliage is tiger-striped. The flowers, while orange, were not much to text home about, the plant being grown primarily for the foliage. Another cultivar that has great foliage but less-than-spectacular flowering is ‘Bird of Paradise’. This canna has long strap-like green leaves with a flush of subtle purple striping. The flowers are a soft pink and small. Since ‘Bird of Paradise’ grows taller than wide, it adds structure and bulk to a perennial bed. Canna musifolia is a species-type with large banana-like foliage that is green with purplish red stripes and can reach 10 feet tall, so maybe not the best plant for a small garden, but definitely makes a statement. As mentioned above, the Sunburst series come in a range of colors and only grow to a height of 2 feet, making them ideal for containers and smaller landscapes.

The bold foliage of bronze-leafed cannas makes a statement in the garden even without flowers.

Cannova ‘Rose’ has bright rose flowers and green foliage.

Cannas are easy to grow throughout the South and thrive, even demand, full sun. The only exception is the cultivar ‘Stuttgart’, named for the town in Germany, not Arkansas, which has dramatic foliage with cream to white stripes. In the South, ‘Stuttgart’ will need heavy shade to prevent the foliage from burning in the summer. Canna adapts to any average garden soil and enjoys, moist rich soils and can be grown in wet areas, including along the margins of ponds or wetlands. I’ve even seen them planted in tubs and sunk in water gardens. Cold hardiness varies by cultivar, but most are reliable to USDA Zone 7, although we get away growing them in Zone 6b most years. Mulching heavily after they die back to the ground in fall will help them overwinter. If in doubt, they are easily dug in the fall and can be stored in a cool, dark location in a tray containing dry peat moss or wood shavings. Divide if necessary and replant after the soil has warmed in the spring. Cannas respond to grooming, such as removing spent flower stalks and old tatty foliage and some are even self-cleaning. If grown in containers, grower recommendations are to fertilizer the cannas with a liquid feed every couple of weeks during the summer and water well. Cannas are affected by few diseases and the two main pests are the canna leaf roller, which can devour entire leaves, and the lesser canna leaf roller, which stitches the young leaves before they unfurl and munch in the rolled up leaf causing the leaf to collapse. These cause more of an aesthetic problem rather than killing the plant. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) applied at the first sign of damage usually does a good job of controlling them. If the infestation is too bad, I’ve been known to cut the whole planting back to the ground and let the canna start over. It sets them back a bit, but they don’t seem to mind. It is also recommended to remove all the canna detritus in the fall to eliminate overwintering habitat for the pests. The only other serious pests, in a bad year, are Japanese beetles, which feed on the flowers. I usually employ a seek-and-destroy (stomp) strategy of control.


A version of this article appeared in an April 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Garry McDonald.


Posted: 04/02/18   RSS | Print


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Two for One Tomatoes
by Bob Westerfield       #Edibles   #Propagation   #Vegetables





















An actual grafted tomato in our research garden.

If you took a survey of home gardeners and asked them about their favorite vegetable to grow, most likely the tomato would be at the top of the list. Anyone who has grown tomatoes knows that the quality and flavor of homegrown far surpasses that of a store-bought tomato. Anyone who has spent time growing tomatoes also knows that at times they can be finicky and be a challenge, even for the most experienced gardener. If you happen to cherish the more flavorful heirloom varieties, you face even greater challenges when it comes to disease, insects and cultural problems. While the practice has been around for centuries, grafting has more recently become the rage in growing difficult tomato varieties more successfully. With the difficult task of growing these older varieties, grafting may give you the edge to get the job done in your garden.

A cleft graft on the scion with a tapered wedge cut at dual 45-degree angles.

The correct way to cut a splice graft. Both the rootstock and scion are cut in opposing matching angles.

Rootstock cut using the cleft method of grafting. A ¼-inch cut into the rootstock is made into which the scion wedge cut will be inserted.

Ensure the diameter of the rootstock matches that of the scion. This is on a splice graft.

Connect the rootstock of cleft graft to scion.

Graft held together by a grafting clip.

Vegetable grafting is a centuries-old technique used to improve plant production, reduce disease and improve plant vigor. Asia and Europe have been leaders in vegetable grafting for years but has only become popular in the United States over the past ten years or so. Most garden catalogs now include grafted varieties of tomatoes, eggplants and peppers along with some other varieties. Just look at the price of these plants and you may decide they produce vegetables made of gold. It is not uncommon for small grafted plants to sell between $12 and $16 dollars. The extra cost comes in the production of grafting two different varieties of tomatoes onto one. Purchasing a grafted tomato is certainly one way to go, but the process is really not that difficult once you understand a few basics. By following a few steps you can begin to graft your own varieties, save money and have fun at the same time.

Grafting is simply taking the top portion of a tomato variety, called the scion, and connecting it to the bottom half and root system of another tomato plant, called the rootstock. The top portion of the graft produces the flavorful and desirable tomato that you are after –perhaps one of your heirloom favorites. The rootstock provides protection from tomato viruses, diseases, nematodes and other common problems associated with tomatoes. Commercial nurseries often use a standard rootstock you won’t find in garden centers that provides a hardy base for the top portion of the graft. It is perfectly fine, however, to use the rootstock of favorite hybrid tomato you may like such as ‘Beefsteak’, ‘Better Boy’, ‘Amelia’ or some similar hardy variety. The scion portion, or top, being difficult to grow on its own might be an older variety such as ‘German’, ‘Homestead’ or other heirloom variety. In essence what you are doing is exactly what they do with most fruit trees. You are grafting two plants together to get the best of both worlds.

They key to successfully grafting tomatoes or any other vegetables, is to select rootstock and scion that are very similar in diameter. In order for a successful graft to take place, the cambium (area just under the outer skin) of the rootstock and scion must be aligned and in contact with one another. You can purchase transplants for both your rootstock and scions or you can start them from seed. If you are only going to do one or two grafts it may be easier to buy the plants to start with. If you are doing several trays of grafted plants it would be cheaper to seed them and grow them out yourself. It is best to work in a sterile environment, cleaning off your working surface with a light alcohol-based cleaning solution before starting your grafts. Use a clean, sharp razor blade for your cuts.

There are several different methods of cutting your stock depending on the grafting technique you choose. Cleft grafting, otherwise known as wedge grafting, is a common way to graft tomatoes. It basically involves cutting the root stock section horizontally just under the first set of leaves. You should be left with a root system and stem 1-2 inches long. Make a small ¼-inch vertical incision into the center of the rootstock cut. The scion stem should be similar in diameter to the rootstock and then cut into a wedge shape 1 inch or so below the lowest leaves on the stem. The wedge should be about ¼-inch long and is inserted into the ¼-inch slit of the rootstock. Carefully hold these two together while using a plastic grafting clip or grafting tape to secure the two together.

Another type of grafting is called splice grafting. Both the rootstock and scion of matching diameter are cut at 45-degree angles and clipped together with a grafting clip. Splice grafting is easier to do and faster than cleft grafting. Cleft grating however holds the scion more tightly than splice grafting.

After all of the grafts are complete, use a misting bottle to lightly spray the plants to provide them some moisture. Take a final look to see that all the grafts are tight and properly aligned. Cover the plants with a plastic tent or small plastic bag over each container, keeping the plastic away from touching the foliage of the plant. Spray additional moisture inside the plastic to create a slightly humid environment. Place the plants out of direct sunlight, in a temperature between 65-70 F and allow them to rest for two days. On the third day after grafting, carefully lift the plastic and spray just enough water inside to raise the humidity and close the plastic chamber again. Allow the plants to continue to heal for another day and on the fifth day open the plastic up for 30 minutes and once again spray inside the plastic chamber to create humidity. On the sixth day remove the plastic for one hour and then spray the chamber inside the plastic well and close up tightly. On the seventh day remove the plastic for a period of six to eight hours once again returning it after spraying the inside with water. On the eighth day you will totally remove the plants from their protective plastic cover.

Although the scion and rootstock will begin to establish a connection at approximately seven days, it takes about 14 days for the grafting to fully heal. After you remove the plants from the plastic allow them to rest in a room about 65 to 75 F from one to two days to harden off. Begin to put the plants outside to acclimate them to the outdoors for four to seven days before transplanting. Be sure to provide moisture and don’t allow them to dry out. When transplanting into the field you can remove the grafting clips and use small ¼-inch-diameter sticks to help support he tender developing plant. Be sure when transplanting that the graft union remains above the soil line. If it becomes dirty, the scion will root into the soil and any advantages that would have been provided by rootstock will be nullified. Check the plant regularly and look to see that the rootstock also does not sprout out of the ground. Pinch it off before it begins to develop to allow the scion portion to take over.

I have grafted tomato plants in my research trials with the University of Georgia and have had some pretty good success. While I cannot say that grafting is the silver bullet to prevent all disease and other issues, it does seem to have its place with difficult to grow varieties. If nothing else, grafting is a unique look at how many plants are grown commercially and it is fun to see the science first hand at how it is done. Give grafting a try this season and hopefully you will have a delicious crop for your efforts.


A version of this article appeared in an April 2015 print version of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Bob Westerfield.


Posted: 03/30/18   RSS | Print


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The Perfect Garden Soil
by Gary Bachman       #Soil

















Planting a dianthus in soil that has been amended with the great soil recipe.

The problem most of us have to deal with is a soil that is less than ideal, especially in suburban residential neighborhoods. The lots have been cleared of vegetation and the layer of topsoil has been removed. When the home is finished, the builder brings in not the topsoil that was removed, but some other soil guaranteed to be of lesser quality. Remember, the plant roots do not grow through the soil, but around the soil particles. Without great soil there is little chance of having impressive plant growth.

So what does the homeowner have to do to get that perfect soil and the outstanding plant growth?

To help explain the characteristics of a good garden soil, we need to have a little horticulture history lesson. Englishman John Lindley in the 1840s postulated that physical properties were more important than chemical properties. This is not to imply that pH and fertilization are not important, but just to highlight the need for good physical characteristics of the planting soil. Lindley’s list of the requirements of a good garden soil are:

Typical example of a new home soil profile. The dark layer at the top is from the sod that was installed. The layer below is what the builder brought in to level the lot.

1. Have good water holding capacity so sufficient water is available to the plant.
2. Be well aerated; the roots have a requirement for the movement into and out of the soil of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
3. Possess the ability to retain enough nutrients for plant use.
4. Include good percolation characteristics thus allowing irrigation and rainfall to move through the soil profile without causing a water-logged condition.
5. Have high organic matter which improves the previous four characteristics and encourages a healthy microorganism population in the soil.

The John Innes Horticultural Research Institute in the 1930s set out to try and standardize soil preparation to help the gardening public improve garden growing conditions. A mixture of one part native soil, one part composted organic matter, one part coarse sand and one part peat moss gave the best results and also met Lindley’s requirements.

While the John Innes soil recipe is very good for in-ground and raised-bed growing, because of the native soil component it is not well suited for use in containers and window boxes. The fine structure of the native soil tends to cause drainage problems. I like to keep the garden as simple as possible and do not want to have to mix different growing media for different growing styles.

I like to use a soil recipe that is suitable for use in-ground, in raised beds and in container growing conditions. One recipe, three growing styles. I would like to offer the recipe I use for a great soil:

•  6 parts peat moss
•  4 parts vermiculite or perlite
•  3 parts coarse sand
•  3 parts compost (your choice)

This soil recipe can be incorporated into the current bad soil by applying a 6-inch layer and working or tilling in. It is also great for creating raised beds on top of the less-than-ideal soil; in effect you would be creating a large surface container. And of course, use it in any of your favorite containers or window boxes. One mix, three uses, what could be easier?

Close-up of perlite. As the pumice is heated and expands it creates particles of various sizes that aid in loosening bad soil. • Example of vermiculite. Notice the accordion structure of the mica particles after heating and the various particle sizes. These layers will compress if handled too extensively. • The finished product of mixing a great soil. It is a mixture of peat, sand, compost and perlite/vermiculite.

Characteristics of soil amending materials for creating that perfect garden soil
Peat moss:* Peat moss is partially decomposed plant material that forms in cold, anaerobic bog conditions. A vast majority of peat moss used in the United States is imported from Canada. Peat moss has great water-holding capacity, has a slow rate of decomposition and has longevity of several years.

*Editor’s note: There is some controversy about the use of peat moss and the fact that it’s a mined product that is not quickly renewed. Please read up on peat moss and make an educated decision about whether or not to use this product or one of the many suggested alternatives, such as compost.

Vermiculite: Vermiculite is a natural mica material that is mined out of the earth and is widely available. When heated it expands in layers like an accordion and is able to hold an amazing amount of water between the layers. It helps to maintain water-holding capacity and lightens heavy soils. Handling is important – if the accordion layers are compressed they will not re-expand and any positive characteristics will be lost.

Perlite: Perlite is a natural pumice material that is mined out of the earth. It is subjected to high temperature and “pops.” It is lightweight and is used like vermiculite to loosen tight soils thereby increasing aeration, though has little moisture retention. It tends to be a little gritty and may float to the soil surface in heavy rain events. Perlite particles can be crushed from rough handling.

Coarse, sharp sand:The addition of sand helps to moderate soil particle size and improve drainage.

Compost: Compost is organic materials that have decomposed through microbial actions. It is produced from many different organic waste materials. It can be purchased commercially or produced by the homeowner in the backyard. No matter how it is obtained, compost is very beneficial. Compost increases the populations of microorganisms, acts as a slow-release source of nutrients and helps to loosen tight soils.

Now that you have the perfect garden soil recipe, there are steps to take to protect it. Avoid walking on or compacting the soil because this squeezes out all of the aeration and porosity. Be sure to cultivate or dig only when the soil is dry, never wet, as this encourages the soil to be clumpy and lumpy and not loose and crumbly. Make a yearly amendment of composted materials, as this adds life and nutrients.

Naturally good garden soil may be difficult to find, but with proper preparation and the right recipe, that bad soil can become that perfect garden soil. Remember the golden rule of gardening, “If you treat your soil well, it will treat your plants well.”


A version of this article appeared in an April 2010 print version of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Gary Bachman, Ph.D.


Posted: 03/30/18   RSS | Print


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Creative Containers
by Rebecca Stoner Kirts       #Containers   #Decorating   #Unusual

Whiskey barrels are wonderful as planters.

Repurposing all types of objects into creative and sometimes wacky planters is a major gardening trend so hop aboard and I will give you some of my ideas. I have long been a fan of this idea – whether antiques or something you discover in the attic or barn – repurposing provides a vessel with non-traditional flair. Nothing is out of bounds, often the quirkier it is, the more impact it will have. So let your imagination run wild. Pursue the flea markets, rummage through grandma’s attic, or go picking in farm outbuildings; any object is fair game.

First and foremost you must be able to provide good drainage in the vessel. This may involve drilling some small holes or providing a layering material such as small pebbles or charcoal. Be sure to not ignore this step or your oddball planter will be a soggy mess. Sometimes, I find it is better to plant in a clay pot and then place that in the “found” container. That way you do not have to alter the special container, changing its structural integrity.

Please use a good potting soil. Remember drainage is crucial and a good mix of peat, perlite, and vermiculite will ensure a healthy growing medium for your plants. Choose plants with similar growing requirements. Remember these guys are all in the same pool, so they need to have the same basic requirements.

Although the planters are going to provide a lot of the interest, the plants are the main focus. I look at the shape of the planter and try to make sure the plants provide balance and aren’t out of proportion or in danger of toppling over.

Clockwise: Wait … this is for silverware at a garden party, oh no … succulents fill it up much better. • These orchids are very content in their bamboo log home. • Since my son is too old to love it, let’s make it into a planter.

Many interesting containers have only small areas for growing medium. So out of necessity, I have discovered the wonderful world of succulents. Succulents are great for smaller containers. And they can survive where not many other plants could. Plus, the upsurge in their popularity has made many different varieties widely available. Some are beyond interesting and actually fall in to the weird category.

Since I live in an older house, I particularly love finding ways to use items from old houses.

Wooden shutters: I discovered this unique planter as I was repainting my house. I planted succulents along the top pocket of the vertical slats.

Old wood doors: I have seen doors painted a bright color with an attached window box sitting out in a garden … so interesting.

Old drawers: Repaint or at least weatherproof them and voila – instant planter.

My daughter’s old iron bed now rests in the garden with beautiful annuals growing all over it.


Polly wants to be a planter – planted with baby tears (Soleirolia soleirolii) this old birdcage comes alive. • Baskets always are great vessels for basil. • Old milk crates are perfect planters.

Found in the old barn … now looking great full of marigolds (Tagetes spp.).

Wooden boxes are perfect for all these colorful blooms.

Lastly, how about an old cast-iron sink or bath tub – perfect in the garden filled with colorful plants.

Kitchen items can also serve as planters. Look around your kitchen and you may see many items begging to be repurposed. Old colanders, teapots, glasses, bowls, tea canisters, and old baskets are all perfect candidates.

I also love to raid my children’s old toy closet, especially since my kids have told me they have no interest in all the “valuable objects” I have saved. It is now time to repurpose the old trucks, and Hello Kitty canisters. When I see them out in my garden overflowing with plants, it brings back fond memories of my babies.

Another group of items to repurpose for planters are the ones “Mother Nature” hands us. Take for instance that old fallen over and partially hollowed out log – perfect for a planter. How about a stump from a fallen tree, or even an old tractor or car left to sit by the barn, the possibilities are endless.

I could go on and on but I am hoping these ideas will fire your imaginations and you are going to look around and start envisioning plants growing out of oddball containers. Have fun … the options are endless, so start today “thinking outside of the pot.”



A version of this article appeared in an April 2017 print version of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Rebecca Stoner Kirts.


Posted: 03/30/18   RSS | Print


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by Stacey Arnold       #How to   #Irrigation   #Raised Beds   #Unusual

“Grow a typical garden without irrigation or fertilizer.”  – Paul Wheaton

That’s a pretty big claim from a pretty big guy. Towering at over 6 feet tall, Paul Wheaton, The Duke of Permaculture, is credited with introducing hugelkultur to gardeners on this side of the pond. Translated directly, “hugelkultur” (pronounced “hoogel culture”) is German for “hill culture” and quite simply, it is soil piled over wood that you then plant in.

When I first heard about hugelkultur from Paul Wheaton, it was a true “aha” moment. Why are gardeners working so hard to keep their plants watered during the drought of summer when Mother Nature is doing just fine all by herself? No one is watering the plants in the woods during a drought! If there’s one thing that makes me want to throw in the gardening towel, it’s wrestling with a kinked hose when it’s 95 F and 100 percent humidity outside. Just imagine not having that nightmare to contend with anymore!

Cross section of a 2-year-old hugelkultur bed. Even though this picture represents the tall above-ground beds, the premise is the same for smaller “suburban” beds. Look at those happy roots absorbing all that free moisture!
FAQs about hugelkultur:

Q. Won’t the rotting wood tie up the nitrogen in the soil and make it unavailable to the plants?

While the decomposing wood does require nitrogen, think of it more as a nitrogen pantry than nitrogen sink. The nitrogen will be available to the plants in the future once the decomposition process slows down. Besides, if you’re using wood that is already rotting, it’s probably ready to give back much of the nitrogen that it originally consumed. In the meantime, if you see your plants turning a bit yellow, add an organic nitrogen source such as blood meal to supplement. 

Q. What kind of wood should be used for the beds?

For the most part, it’s any wood that you have access to. You can use pine, oak, maple, hickory, ash … whatever you have a good source of in your area. There are only a few types of wood that won’t work as well as others and they are cedar, black locust and walnut. The cedar and black locust won’t harm your plants but they are so slow to break down that they won’t readily give the water back to your plants as you intended. 

For more information:
Paul Wheaton,

Think of the woods where you live. You may have noticed on a summer hike that even during the worst of droughts, there are rotting logs in the woods that are damp with moisture. Some of us may have kicked those logs just to see how rotten they were. I have always been impressed by how much moisture they contain. There are often ferns and mushrooms growing on and around them, all during a drought. As those logs decompose, they act like sponges absorbing rainfall. That moisture is then available to plants near the rotting logs during times of drought. Pretty nifty, huh?

Now, let’s transfer this observation of nature to your backyard. How can you replicate what you’ve seen in the woods? You can either put your logs directly on top of the ground and add soil and compost on top, or you can bury the logs and then add your soil blend. For your hugelkultur beds, it’s best to use wood that is already absorbing and holding water. If you use wood that has been recently cut, you’ll have to wait a season or two longer to realize the benefits. If you use wood that is falling apart due to rot, your beds will perform beautifully, but they won’t last as long. In a perfect hugelkultur bed, you would want to use wood that is a season past its prime for firewood. During the first year, you may need to keep the beds watered until the decomposition process is well under way. Observe your plants and allow them to get a little dry before watering once they’re established. Just as in a conventional bed, they’ll send their roots deeper in search of moisture, eventually tapping into the moisture reserve below.

How tall should the beds be, you ask? That’s a matter of preference. Sepp Holzer, another permaculture guru, makes his hugelkultur beds 6 feet tall and then walks between his beds, harvesting his bounty without ever having to stoop down. That sounds like a refreshing change for a weary back during harvesting season. The hills can be 6 feet tall if you have the space, or they can be at ground level if you bury the wood first. For suburban gardeners, the latter option may be more appropriate, especially if you live in an area with an HOA or other restrictions. I’ve heard of resourceful gardeners that add hugelkultur beds along property lines that just happen to get a little taller year after year. Before you know it, you have a garden bed that doesn’t require irrigation or fertilizer and acts as a screen from your neighbors.

With the help of a tractor, the beds were excavated to depth of 18 inches. You could make the beds deeper, shallower or just pile the wood on top of the ground if you don’t feel up to digging. Hugelkutur beds, as well as permaculture, can be scaled up or down to accommodate your needs.

The beds were constructed in place to accommodate the rotting logs and soil. The 4”x4” posts were planted 12 inches deep to prevent shifting of the sides as the soil settled.

Rotting logs were added to the beds with the assistance of the tractor. These logs are good and rotten, and already contain a great deal of moisture.

The rotting logs have been placed in the bed. You can use long logs or smaller, more manageable sections of a log; again, it’s really about what you have access to in your area. Now it’s time for the compost!

We added a blend of the excavated topsoil and composted horse manure to the beds to cover the logs. Use a shovel to fill in all of the nooks and crannies around the logs. Finish it off with a good watering or wait for a good drenching rain before planting. Fill in any settled areas with additional compost.

Here’s the finished product: two 4’ x 17’ hugelkultur beds that are ready for planting. Yippee!

What type of plants can you plant in a hugelkultur bed? Anything your gardening heart desires. These beds are the perfect home for trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, annuals or vegetables. If you can grow it in your regular garden beds, they can be successfully grown in a hugelkultur bed, just without the fuss of watering them all summer. During the initial decomposition process, the soil is warmer, so you may be able to extend the growing season as well.

What kind of maintenance do hugelkultur beds require? The only difference between these beds and conventional raised beds is that you’ll need to add compost periodically as the beds break down. Remember all of that time you used to spend wrestling with that blankety-blank kinked hose? You can now use it to add a little compost here and there and harvest all of those yummy fruits and veggies.

My family and I partnered with friends, Sean and Anna Taylor, in their vegetable garden to build two hugelkultur beds that reflect a more suburban garden. Even though they have over 5 acres of land, we buried the rotting wood 1 ½ feet deep and added about 2 feet of soil to the top. From the outside, they look like typical raised beds – but on the inside, they are holding moisture and teeming with all kinds of beneficial microbes.

Here is a disclaimer: The wood we used to build the beds was old, pressure-treated horse fencing. To prevent the leaching of the chemicals from the pressure-treated lumber into the garden soil, we lined the beds with plastic strips. In a perfect world, you could use logs, rocks or another natural material to build the sides of the beds to prevent any leaching and skip the plastic since it contains synthetic ingredients.

Fast forward a few months to early June after the peppers and eggplant were planted. These plants thrived with minimal watering and produced loads of eggplants and peppers. Now imagine what you can do in your own garden! Are you tired of watering yet?


A version of this article appeared in a March 2014 print edition of State-by_State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Stacey Arnold. Illustration courtesy of




Posted: 03/30/18   RSS | Print


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by Garry V. McDonald       #Fragrant   #Propagation   #Roses

The first cut is vertical along the rootstock stem about 1 inch in length. Note: Rootstock foliage has been removed for clarity.

Despite their many problems, I still like roses. However, I do insist on having at least a modicum of fragrance and substance. Therein lies the problem. With the exception of a few enlightened rose breeders, the bulk of roses originating over the past several decades have focused on the flower form and color at the expense of fragrance. The newer landscape roses go a long way in their disease resistance and increased flower number, but can lack fragrance and produce flowers with no style; a blaze of eye-searing color perhaps, but in the end not very satisfying. For those of us who think a rose should smell like a rose, it often means seeking out the older, fragrant roses.

Aye, there’s the rub. Because of breeding problems, many of the old-timers, especially hybrid tea roses, don’t root very well – if at all – and if they do root, they have a tendency to be weak. As such, many highly desirable roses are no longer commercially produced or must be mail-ordered from specialty nurseries, often at a high cost. Or, if you’re lucky, a dear friend or relative may grow a rose that is not available in the trade or the name lost so you have no idea how to find the rose.

T-budding a desired rose (the desired plant’s stem cutting is referred to as the scion) onto another rose with a strong root system (the rootstock is the lower, underground portion) can solve this problem. Budding differs from grafting in that a single vegetative bud is used instead of a length of stem with multiple buds. The stock is usually a rose species or cultivar that is easy to root, vigorous and resistant to root pests such as fungi or nematodes. Thornlessness is a particularly desirable trait in rootstock to reduce the incidence of bloody fingers. While many types of grafts require some skill and much practice, T-budding is a relative simple operation that most gardeners can attempt at home with a reasonable chance of success.

The second cut is above and perpendicular to the first cut, resulting in a T-shaped cut.

Steps to T-budding your own roses:

Most rose species are graft compatible meaning that the bud should “take” and grow normally. A vigorous rootstock is important, but might be hard to find. If you know of a rose that has suckered wildly, then chances are the vigorous growth has emerged from the original rootstock and should be suitable. Native or naturalized roses work as well. If these are unavailable, try a landscape shrub-type rose with as few thorns as possible. Cuttings, about the size and length of a #2 pencil can be taken and rooted by various methods. Unfortunately I don’t have the space to elaborate on the finer details of rooting rose cuttings; perhaps in another article. With the exception of the top couple of buds, all the remaining buds should be removed with a knife to prevent suckering. Plants can be T-budded directly in the garden (even on an existing rose), but working with pot-grown rootstock on a bench makes the job easier if you don’t like standing on your head or crawling on the ground while budding.

Materials You Will Need

• Rooted rootstock cuttings about the size of a #2 pencil already potted, established and actively growing (Common rootstock: ‘Fortuniana’, ‘Dr. Huey’, etc.)
• Scion or bud wood of the rose you want: Buds should be well developed.
• Paraffin film, cling film or budding tape
• Sharp pocketknife or budding knife if you have one.
• Large rubber bands (about ¼ inch wide) cut into strips about 4 inches long
• Bandages and first-aid supplies to treat attempted “finger grafts”

Make an upward slice under a well-developed bud being careful not to cut into the bud tissue or into hardwood. The resulting excised bud should be “U” shaped.

Rootstock preparation
Rooted cuttings should be potted up and growing vigorously beforehand. Spring is the time to T-bud since active vegetative growth will allow the bark or cambium to “slip” when cut to insert the bud. Sometimes this means forcing the plant into active growth early indoors. The length of the rootstock stem should be long enough to allow easy manipulation, say about 10 to 12 inches long.

Scion preparation
This is the rose that you want to grow. Choose a stem where the wood is mature, but not old and woody. Canes produced the previous season are ideal. Like the rootstock, a piece about the size of a #2 pencil usually works best. I like to collect the scion wood just before bud break in the spring. The bud of interest will be located in the axil of a leaf and should be plump and healthy. Remove all the foliage, and thorns if you like, before wrapping the scion wood in damp, but not soggy, paper towel and slipping the whole bundle in a food-storage bag will allow storage in a refrigerator for a couple of weeks at least while the rootstock is budding out. Make sure the paper towels remain damp, but not moldy.

T-shaped cut
Using a sharp knife, make a vertical cut about 1 inch long through the bark, but not into the actual wood – about 1⁄16 to 1⁄8 inch deep. Cutting too deeply will cause the stem to snap. Make a second cut horizontally across the other cut, about one-third around the stem and at the same depth. The resulting two cuts should resemble the letter “T”. Carefully insert the tip of the knife into the cut and loosen the bark flaps under the crossbar of the “T”. If the bark is “slipping,” this should be easy. Try not to rip the bark. If this happens, move down the stem a little bit and try again. If you’re a first timer, it’s not a bad idea to try inserting two or three buds along the stem as insurance.

Insert the bud under the flaps of bark from the previous “T” cut. Make sure the rootstock bark flaps cover the bud.

Inserting the bud
Now comes the tricky part. Take a piece of scion wood and look for a nice plump bud that has not yet leafed out. Make a cut about 1⁄2 inch below the bud and cut upward under the bud. The cut should be deep enough to be under the bud (but very important to not slice through the bud), but not deep into the wood and extend about a ½ inch above the bud. A second cut is straight across so when the bud is excised, it resembles a “U” or shield-shape with the “U” at the bottom. Now carefully insert the “U” shaped bud section under the bark flaps of the prepared rootstock. The bud should nestle under the folds of the bark of the rootstock with the top of the bud lining up with the top of the “T” cut. The object is to form a new union between scion and rootstock tissue.

Wrapping the bud
Once the bud has been inserted, it is necessary to wrap to bud to secure it in place and prevent the bud from drying out until the union is healed. Take a rubber band strip, and while leaving the bud itself exposed, wrap the two flaps of bark tightly, extending above and below the inserted bud. Be careful not to dislodge the bud. Next, tightly wrap the rubber band with a piece of paraffin film or plastic cling film. In the old days, melted paraffin was used to dab the rubber band to prevent the bud from drying out. Whatever you use, the idea is to prevent the bud from drying out while the bark heals around the union.

After inserting the bud, tightly wrap the bud with a strip of rubber band. Be careful that the bud is not dislodged. After this stage it is advisable to cover the bud and rubber band with paraffin film or plastic wrap to prevent the bud from drying out.

Growing on
If the bud shrivels to a brown speck after a few days that means the bud didn’t take: Try again. If the bud remains plump and green after two weeks, it means the bud has “taken” and life is good. At this time the top, non-budded part of the rootstock is probably growing like a house afire. Remove the paraffin or plastic wrap but leave the rubber band in place to prevent the bud from dislodging if bumped or jostled. Allow the bud union to heal completely. This might take another two weeks. Now it is time to force the new bud into growth. Forcing new growth is caused by “crippling” the plant by breaking apical dormancy. You “cripple” a plant by breaking the stem of the rootstock above the bud union. You want to bend the stem over until it snaps, but doesn’t break completely off. This allows the bud to be “released” and begin to grow. Once the new bud starts to grow, the hanging stem of the rootstock is removed, leaving only the desired new shoots. The new shoots will still be sensitive to breaking before the new union is completely healed so the plant should be protected and shielded from wind. If the new shoot is too vigorous, it is advisable to prune it back which will force branches to form and reduce the lever action of the stem from ripping the new shoot off. After you are comfortable that the plant is growing, it may be planted out into the garden.


A version of this article appeared in a March 2013 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Garry V. McDonald.


Posted: 03/22/18   RSS | Print


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The Real Dill
by Paige Day       #Herbs   #Plant Profile   #Recipes

The yellow flowers of the dill plant are very beautiful in the garden.

Tall plants may need to be staked to keep them from blowing over. When the seedpods begin to brown, they are ready to harvest.

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are a great combination, but let’s not forget one herb that’s easy to grow and an extremely versatile addition to the garden: dill.

First and foremost, dill is an herb that gives the grower the benefit of a dual harvest. In the spring you can enjoy dill for its flavorful leaves that traditionally complement fish, cucumbers and potatoes. In the fall the seeds can be gathered to add their potent, celery-like flavor to hearty winter breads and stews, or used in pickling. With its versatility and fresh taste, gardeners just might find themselves adding dill to all of their recipes.

Dating back to biblical times, dill has been used for centuries in the culinary and medicinal worlds. Originating in Eastern Europe, dill surfaced in Russia, Western Africa and Scandinavia as well. The name comes from the Norse word dilla, which means to lull, as it was used to ease in digestion and to treat colic in babies.

Dill’s scientific name, Anethum graveolens, belongs to the Umbelliferae family, whose other members include parsley, cumin and carrots, to name a few. These plants are defined by their aromatic qualities and hollow stems. Because of dill’s close familial relationship to plants and herbs such as fennel and parsley, it is recommended that these not be planted together to avoid cross pollination.

In the Garden
Dill is a hardy annual that can reseed itself in some of the warmer parts of the country. Plant seeds in the spring after the last hard frost. Dill grows easily from seed, but likes to be seeded in cool weather.

Sow the seeds in rich, well-drained soil to a depth of 1/2 inch. Once the seedlings emerge, thin to 6 to 8 inches between each plant. Make sure to keep seedlings regularly watered. The hot sun can damage tender fledglings if they are allowed to get too dry.

Seedlings await transplant at the local feed and seed. Buyers should look for healthy transplants with thick stalks, free of any yellowing of the leaves.

If your window of opportunity for seeding has passed, or you are simply interested in adding dill to a container planting, transplants are readily available at most garden shops. Look for plants with a thick central stem and green, healthy leaves. Try to purchase plants that come in compostable pots, as dill has many fragile roots that can be damaged if handled roughly.

Dill’s wispy leaves make an elegant container planting when used alone, or can add height and interest to a container of thyme and oregano. Most herbs do well in containers, as they require limited amounts of space and thrive in well-drained soil.

Although dill is sold with directions to place in full sun, dill appreciates some afternoon shading in hotter regions. Landlocked gardens in Zone 8 or above would be well-advised to allow for some shade, as the sun can scorch the fragile leaves of the dill plant.

Dill seeds in various stages of ripening

Enjoy the Bounty
Dill leaves can be harvested as soon as the leaves emerge by pinching them between your fingers or snipping what you need with scissors. The leaves will add a fresh, green taste to your dishes, and its delicate flavor works well with subtle flavors such as fish or cream sauces. Try sautéing fresh dill with summer vegetables for a delicious change of pace.

Dill is most flavorful when used as a fresh herb, but it can also be dried for use throughout the winter. When drying dill, clip long stalks and tie together with kitchen twine, making a bouquet. Hang the dill in a cool, dry location until the leaves are dehydrated and brittle when rubbed between your fingers. The dry dill can then be placed in containers and kept for cooking.

To harvest dill seeds, allow the dill to flower and go to seed. The seeds will then be ready to harvest. Just remove the entire seed head and brush the seeds out onto a piece of wax paper. Seeds can be placed in jars for use in dill pickles, dilly beans and salad dressings.



Gravlax with accoutrements makes a beautiful display for a dinner party. This Swedish hor d’oeurves tastes similar to smoked salmon.

In the peak of dill season there is nothing more delicious than the culinary delight, gravlax. Gravlax is essentially cured salmon, and highlights the subtle flavor of dill. Similar in taste to smoked salmon, gravlax is easy to prepare and makes a stylish hors d’oeuvres when sliced thinly and served with bread rounds. Found in many fine dining restaurants, gravlax is easy to prepare at home and is a perfect beginning to a dinner party.

• 1/3 cup kosher salt
• 1/2 cup brown sugar
• 3 teaspoons crushed peppercorn (any color will work, but pink or white are especially nice)
• 3 lb. fresh, high-quality salmon filet, skin removed
• A generous bunch of fresh dill

Mix salt, sugar and peppercorn in a small bowl. Rub the fish with the seasoning, liberally covering all parts of the fish filet. Cover fish with dill sprigs. Wrap the fish in saran wrap and then cover with foil. Refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Fish will be cured and have a jerky-like texture. Slice thinly and serve with bread rounds, chopped hard-boiled egg, capers or finely chopped red onion.


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 23 Number2.
Photography courtesy of Philip Oliver and Paige Day.


Posted: 03/22/18   RSS | Print


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Smart Gardening
by Dr. Ayanava Majumdar       #Insects   #Pests   #Tools

(Fig. 1) Details of a sticky wing pheromone trap that can be used to monitor insect pests in farm and garden. The top and the replaceable sticky bottom are held in place by wire hangers. Attractant lure is the piece of red rubber seen in the picture.

Integrated pest management or IPM is a smart way of managing insect pests for economic and environmental benefits. IPM starts with the timely detection and correct identification of pests, leading to intervention using multiple control tactics. Insect traps can be used as a tool for timely pest detection and decision-making in home or commercial settings. Pheromone traps (Fig. 1) are devices that attract and hold insects for periodic observations. Pheromone traps are available commercially from many vendors in the United States, and the cost of traps and lures have dropped considerably in the last decade. The advantages of pheromone traps include nontoxicity, environmental friendliness and ability to detect insects at very low densities. However, the problems with pheromone traps are they only capture flying insects and trap counts do not indicate real crop damage. Despite the disadvantages, pheromone traps answer the question often asked by gardeners: What insect should I look for while scouting and when? This article is based on the results of an insect pest monitoring/crop scouting project recently completed in Alabama. Since the new findings correspond to the previous work done in neighboring states, this article should serve as an important reminder for gardeners across the South to follow recommended scouting procedures and insect management tactics.

(Fig. 2) Fall armyworm activity in vegetable farms monitored using pheromone traps, Alabama, 2010. Note the differences in trap catches between organic and conventional farms.

(Fig. 3) Tobacco budworm (moth) activity on vegetable farms monitored using pheromone traps, 2010. Budworm activity was high in conventional as well as organic farms.

(Fig. 4) Season-long activity of squash vine borer on two organic vegetable farms in north (Marshall County) and south Alabama (Dale County), 2010. Note the high pest pressure detected using sticky wing pheromone traps.

Lessons from the Insect Monitoring Project
In 2009 and 2010, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System conducted a season-long insect monitoring project for pests listed in Table 1. About four organic farms also participated in the program, where small farmers were trained in the proper deployment of insect monitoring systems for IPM decision-making. The project also trained several Master Gardener volunteers in pest identification and management. In two years, this special initiative captured over 8,400 moths from 22 vegetable fields and gardens. The numbers in Table 1 provide evidence regarding the basic pest pressures in Alabama that follows trends seen in adjoining states.

Gardeners can conduct season-long monitoring of insect pests and also determine the migration path of major pests using pheromone traps. Some of the major insect pests monitored in this project had earlier-than-usual peak flight or mating in 2010, e.g., the armyworms and the squash vine borer. This was probably due to the extremely dry conditions that prevailed in early and midsummer. Plant stress due to drought conditions makes them attractive to insect pests; for example, armyworm female moths are known to prefer stressed plants for egg laying.

Other major pests of vegetables include the tomato fruitworm and tobacco budworm, beet and fall armyworm, cabbage and soybean looper. These insect pairs are closely related to each other and caterpillars are difficult to identify in the field. The tomato fruitworm, also known as the corn earworm, routinely attacks row crops as well as horticultural crops, causing economic losses. The caterpillars of the tobacco budworm appear fuzzier than the tomato fruitworm caterpillar due to greater number of microspines and hair on the body. The moths of the budworm and fruitworm are easier to distinguish with or without the use of insect traps. Fall armyworm is a dark brown or grayish caterpillar with an inverted Y mark on the head. The beet armyworm is a greenish caterpillar with a pair of black dots behind the head. Since moths are always first to arrive in your vegetable garden for egg laying, there is a lag-period between the detection of moths with traps and the presence of hungry caterpillars on suitable host plants. Thus, pheromone trapping in backyard gardens provides time to react after detection of moths.


Insect 2010 Trap catches No. of sites 2009 Trap catches No. of sites Peak moth activity
Beet armyworm 978 15 606 7 July, August
Fall armyworm 733 15 674 7 July, August
Southern armyworm 46 13 167 4 August
Tomato fruitworm 120 15 290 7 July
Tobacco budworm 150 15 71 7 August
Lesser cornstalk borer 2307 15 715 1 July, August
Cabbage looper 274 15 83 3 August
Soybean looper 181 15 100 1 August
Corn rootworm 65 5 200 6 June, July
Squash vine borer 605 15 - - May, June, July
Tomato pinworm 54 15 4 6 August
TOTAL 5563   2910    


Can Organic Practices Affect Insect Populations?
Organic and sustainable vegetable production methods, incorporating the use of diverse cropping systems, improved crop varieties and crop rotations, can reduce pest pressures significantly. For example:

• Armyworm activity was found to be lower in organic farms compared to a conventionally-managed farm (Fig. 2). Armyworm activity on vegetables depends on the local climatic conditions. Noticeable caterpillar feeding may be seen when 10 or more moths are captured in sticky wing traps per week.

• Tobacco budworms generally occur in mixed populations with the tomato fruitworms; caterpillars of the latter species can be seen feeding with part of the body inside the feeding hole. In 2010, budworm activity was higher in the organic production system than on conventional farms (Fig. 3), meaning that this insect is highly adaptive to different farming practices.

• Squash vine borer is another pest of concern for many gardeners; organic gardens may have a high population of borers in the soil (Fig. 4). Squash vine borers overwinter as larvae or pupae, so soil preparation in the garden is critical to prevent population buildup of this species. Gardeners can monitor vine borer moth activity by using pheromone traps and then using some mechanical tactics such as row covers and manual removal of larvae if vines are infested. General use pesticides do not provide adequate protection against this insect.

Although the research above has been done in Alabama, this information should be encouraging to gardeners in other states. Thus, organic vegetable production can lead to long-term ecological benefits.

Brown stink bug (Euschistus servus) on okra fruit in a vegetable garden. • Squash vine borer • Tobacco budworm moth

How to Correctly Use Pheromone Traps
Gardeners should purchase pheromone traps from reliable sources, e.g., Great Lakes IPM, ARBICO Organics, Scentry Biologicals, Trécé, Suterra, etc. Purchase sticky wing traps and lures as part of a kit containing plastic tops, sticky bottoms and wire hangers. You can purchase trap kits for monitoring some specific pests that routinely invade your vegetable crops. Only one lure should be used per trap; do not attempt to trap multiple pest species with one trap. Place the active traps at a distance from the actual plot and change the lure every week (more frequently if insects are at peak activity). Hang the traps on metal or plastic poles; do not hang the traps from trees in order to avoid attracting birds and rodents to the trap. Plastic wing traps are very easy to assemble and maintain. Make sure to check traps after a major rain or storm event to replace the lure (lure degrades faster in high heat and moisture conditions). Purchase adequate quantities of wing trap sticky bottoms and lures to last you one full season. The sticky trap bottom can be photographed and stored in self-sealing bags for future reference.

Beet armyworm moth

Early detection of pests is critical to successful backyard vegetable production. Pheromone traps can be used to monitor insect pest activity throughout the season and to correctly time control efforts. Stressed plants suffer more from pest attack than normal plants, so be sure to provide the right conditions for your vegetable plants. Gardeners should avoid unnecessary pesticide sprays because chemicals disrupt the activity of beneficial insects and pollinators. Always read the pesticide label before spraying. When in doubt, seek help from extension personnel in your state.


A version of this article appeared in a March 2011 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Dr. Ayanava Majumdar.


Posted: 03/22/18   RSS | Print


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Mission Impossible
by Leslie Hunter       #Flowers   #Shade

Fragrant variegated Solomon’s seal takes on golden hues in fall. -Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

In an ideal world, all planting beds would have well-drained, rich soils and the perfect amount of sun and water. I was in heaven when I moved from red Georgia clay to rich, humusy Iowa soil, but even that has problems to contend with.

Bottom line, nowhere is perfect and no one understands this better than plants, the ultimate compromisers. They have learned to adapt to just about every complicated growing condition, from sun to shade and wet to dry.

Plants need two things to grow, sunlight and water. As long as they have at least one of those things, they find a way to adapt.

One of the hardest spots to garden is the place where they have neither – dry shade. Already dealing with less sun, these plants also have to compete with larger trees and shrubs for moisture. Here are three perennials that have taken on that challenge and own it with style.

In late summer, fruit of Solomon’s seal goes from blue to black. - Ariec/ • Smooth Solomon’s seal’s flowers dangle under the leaves along the stems. - Rebekah D. Wallace/

Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum spp.)
There are several species of Solomon’s seal that are useful in the dry shade garden. Polygonatum biflorum is a native Solomon’s seal of eastern and central North America and is hardy to Zone 3. A rhizomatous herbaceous perennial typically found in wooded areas, smooth Solomon’s seal creates a 1-3 foot mound of arching upright, unbranched stems. Small, yellow bell-shaped flowers dangle under the leaf axils from April to May and are followed by blue-black berries in the fall.

Fragrant Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriflorum ‘Variegatum’) is a native of Europe and Asia and is very much like its cousin. It differs in size, only 18-24 inches tall, and coloration, the light green leaves are edged in white. The flowers also have a sweet scent. The Perennial Plant Association names this the Perennial Plant of the Year in 2013.Solomon’s seal likes part to full shade and is not a fan of hot weather. If you look this plant up, the descriptions will tell you it grows in moist, rich soils. Most shade plants would prefer those conditions but Solomon’s seal has learned to adapt. It preforms marvelously under the shade of nearby trees where the canopy keeps it cool. The leaves turn bright gold in fall.


For best results, plant bigroot geraniums in dry, shady areas. - Emil Ivanov/

Bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizumi)
Bigroot geranium has so many good things going for it you may ask yourself why you have not planted this one yet. A semi-evergreen rhizomatous perennial, Geranium macrorrhizum has fragrant gray-green foliage, beautiful magenta flowers April through July, fall color and no pest problems, not even rabbits. The 12-24 inch mounds will spread over time by rhizomes or self-seeding, which creates an almost weed free barrier. It does well in full sun to part shade and resents wet feet and hot, humid weather. The dry shade garden is a perfect fit for this tough yet lush looking geranium.

There are several cultivars of bigroot geranium available with bloom colors from the deep magenta of ‘Bevan’s Variety’ to the white of ‘Album’. Hardy to Zone 3, tolerant of shade and drought, and four season appeal make this a must for the dry shade area in your garden.

‘Mrs. Moon’ lungwort, known for tolerating dry shade, has been a popular garden choice for decades. -

Lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.)
Named after a diseased organ, lungwort has an unfortunate name for an outstanding plant. Grown for luminous foliage of gray-green and silver, this rhizomatous perennial produces low mounds of long fuzzy elliptical shaped leaves.

Pink bells that fade to blue hang right above the foliage in midspring. Reaching only 12 inches tall and 24 inches wide, lungworts are a nice alternative to hostas in the shade garden. Hardy to Zone 3, they prefer moist well-drained soil in part to full shade and dislike wet feet. They do remarkably well in dry shade once established.

Pulmonaria are in the Boraginaceae family, having cousins like forget-me-nots (Myosotis spp.) and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginiana). There are several species hailing mainly from Europe, and of course numerous cultivars with variations in the mottling. The white mottling on the leaves are actual air pockets that keep the undersides of the leaves cooler.

‘Silver Bouquet’ has almost silver foliage and ‘Mrs. Moon’ (Pulmonaria saccharta ‘Mrs. Moon’) is an oldie but goody with silver-spotted, dark green leaves.

Dry shade may seem like a frustrating place to try and garden, but before you give up and throw mulch on the problem, give these perennials a chance. Let them show you how tough plants really can be.


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


Posted: 03/22/18   RSS | Print


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Inviting Predators
by Kristi Cook       #Beneficials   #Insects   #Pests







Ladybugs are a favorite of gardeners not only for their aphid-devouring abilities, but also for their simple beauty.

While praying mantids aren’t selective in their meal choices, having a few hanging around is sure to reduce your garden’s pest populations.

If you see a green or brown caterpillar hanging around a group of aphids, it is likely a hover fly larva taking a lunch break.

Plants with clusters of tiny flowers with easily accessible nectar, such as Queen Anne’s lace pictured here, are favorites of pest-eating beneficials.


I don’t know about where you live, but in my neck of the woods fall brings swarms of Asian lady bugs, clinging desperately to my home, vehicles, trees, kids, and even pets. They creep their way into my windows, nestle deep inside every nook and cranny, and crawl in my hair when my path crosses theirs. And while this is, at times, a bit of a nuisance, I remind myself that these little guys are simply trying to find a safe winter hideout until they can venture out again to devour any aphids brave enough to attack my garden. However, ladybugs aren’t the only pest-fighting soldiers out there. Lacewings, hover flies, and parasitic wasps are just a few of the predatory insects worth enticing to your garden.

Of all the beneficial beetles roaming the garden, lady beetles, aka ladybugs, are the most easily recognized garden warriors. Best known as aphid hunters, a single ladybug is capable of cleaning an entire tomato plant of aphids in a single day. Yet the ladybug is just one example of a pest-eating beetle. The large, shiny, black ground beetle is an often-overlooked ally, yet it will happily devour slugs, snails, and caterpillars if left alone. Typically nocturnal hunters, these lumbering beetles prefer to stay cozy under a bed of cool mulch during the hot daytime hours or lounge in the cool shade of a nearby tree until the sun goes down. But don’t worry about planting a shrub or flowers for these guys. Just provide the mulch and refrain from squashing them, and they should stick around.

Dainty lacewings look like tiny green or brown fairies flitting around the garden. And while some species of adult lacewings do enjoy the occasional insect meal, it’s the larvae, aptly named aphid lions, that you really want. These hungry guys devour aphids, mites, thrips, caterpillars, and even the occasional beetle in their quest to reach adulthood. Lacewings are drawn to many of the same delicate flowers as the lady beetles such as fern-leaf yarrow (Achillea filipendulina), common yarrow (A. millefolium), and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), yet they also enjoy prairie sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani), Cosmos, and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare).

Often mistaken for a tiny bee, the stingless hoverfly is a predatory fly whose larvae enjoy a quick meal of aphids, mealybugs, and other small insects. These babies are so hungry, a single larva is capable of consuming up to 400 aphids in a single day! To attract the nectar-drinking adults, intersperse various plantings of Calendula, Cosmos, Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), and yarrow (Achillea spp.).

Parasitic wasps
Braconid, ichneumon, and trichogramma wasps are but a few of the parasitic wasps eager to devour garden pests. Some parasitic wasps deposit eggs on the outside of caterpillars while others deposit eggs within the eggs of pests. Regardless of the method, these tiny wasps rarely have stingers, yet offer an abundance of pest control. Adult wasps are attracted to rosemary (Rosmarinus spp.), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), mustard (Brassica spp.), and nectar from a wide variety of flowering plants.

The true beauty of attracting pest-eating beneficial insects is its simplicity. Requiring little more than nectar-rich flowers, a pesticide-free environment, and a few pests to devour, beneficials will happily take up residence in your yard and garden. Many of these predatory insects play another important role in your garden as pollinators – making them even more beneficial!


Send Out Invites!
The greater the variety of nectar producing flowers the better. Most beneficials are attracted to multiple types of flowers with most flowers attracting multiple species of predatory or parasitic insects. Native predators are attracted to native plants, so be sure to also include these in your predator-attracting plan.

A very brief list of plants to attract beneficial predators:
Dill (Anethum graveolens), yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale,), spike speedwell (Veronica spicata), hairy vetch (Vicia villosa), yellow giant hyssop (Agastache nepetoides)


A version of this article appeared in a March 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Kristi Cook.


Posted: 03/22/18   RSS | Print


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by Monica Brandies       #Colorful   #Flowers   #Plant Profile

These Espicias or trailing violets, would be worth having just for their foliage, but they also bloom. Depending on the variety, flowers may be white, yellow, lavender, pink, or this orange/red.

If you enjoy African violets and do well growing them, you may already have tried some of their lovely cousins. If you have problems with the violets, you may well find the cousins easier to grow.

Many of these Gesneriad plants were started from seeds.

The family Gesneriaceae (ges ner ee AY see ee) includes more than a hundred tropical plants that like temperatures of at least 60-70 F at night and a moist atmosphere. They make colorful houseplants and can also be grown on patios and porches in parts of Florida.

There are many African violet and Gesneriad societies throughout Florida that have annual shows and sales and monthly meetings where visitors are welcome. You can also find them at the State Fair, the Strawberry Festival, and county fairs.

A few years ago I bought some trailing violets (Episcia spp.). These have gorgeous textured foliage in colors of green, bronze, silver, and brown. That would almost be enough, but they also have tubular flowers of white, yellow, lavender, pink, and orange/red. And, for me, they are easier to grow than African violets. There are at least 10 species and many more varieties. They like a spongy soil like the violets and will grow well near any window but will bloom most with some sun. They bloom profusely under artificial lights that are left on 12 to 14 hours a day.

They do best with wick watering since they don’t like water on their leaves. If you go to a show or meeting, ask about this. It is easy to do using items found in most homes and it gives the plants constant and proper amounts of water. Just add liquid fertilizer to the water twice a month. If you put the plants on trays of wet pebbles for humidity, they do even better, but mine grew great even without. They also do well on a porch or patio when temperatures are not too hot or cold, but don’t expose them to rain. They are easy to multiply from cuttings.

This Streptocarpus ’Chorus Line’ leaves have a unique texture and shape. • Gloxinia (Sinningia speciosa) produce large, velvety and brightly colored flowers. • This Streptocarpus ’Chorus Line’ leaves have a unique texture and shape.

I had a cape primrose (Streptocarpus spp.) that bloomed indoors even during the winter. These will grow near any window or under artificial light. While violets usually have one bloom stem per leaf axil, these will produce six to 10 stalks in succession from each leaf so a mature plant has many blooms. They are easy to propagate. Any 2-inch length of leaf will root and can give 20 to 60 plantlets, and each one, potted up, can start to bloom in only one to three months. About every five to six months, repot the plant, dividing it if needed. Remove some of the old soil and root ball, and add fresh soil. These do not like temperatures over 80 F, so don’t put them on the patio.

There are also Chiritas, gloxinia (Sinningia speciosa), lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus spp.), goldfish plant (Nematanthus spp.), and cupid’s bower (Achimenes spp.) and many more. Try some.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 20 Number 2.
Photography courtesy of Andrey Korzun, Tony Hisgett, NZfauna, Montrealais, Alcie Maxwell, Hans Hillewaert, and Monica Brandies.


Posted: 03/12/18   RSS | Print


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Color Eggs with Natural Dyes from the Garden
by Cindy Shapton       #Colorful   #Crafts   #Holiday: Easter   #How to

Eggs soaked in dyes from garden plants vary from pastel shades to deeper, more vivid hues. Have fun experimenting with veggies, fruits, spices and herbs to create a rainbow of colors.

Brightly colored eggs were often given as gifts by the ancient Greeks, Persians and Chinese at their annual spring celebrations. Early Christians gave decorated and dyed eggs as a symbol of Jesus’ Resurrection as early as the Middle Ages to friends, family and servants on Easter Sunday.

Our German ancestors then brought this tradition of coloring “Easter eggs” to America and interestingly, it didn’t really take off until after the Civil War.

Hard to imagine but folks in those days couldn’t go to the department store and buy egg coloring kits. So, what did they use to dye their eggs? If you read the title then you guessed it: flowers, leaves and fruits of plants growing nearby or in their gardens.

It is interesting to note that many of the plant materials that were used as dyes often were cool-season crops that were ready about the same time as Easter. Beets, cabbage, carrots, kale, onions and spinach were some of the vegetables chopped and simmered for dyes. Herbs and seasonings that had been dried were steeped into teas, or canned fruits and vegetables from the pantry were available if needed.

Carrots are two dyes in one: Use the tops for a yellow color and the roots for orange. • Chopped beets are an old-time favorite for dying eggs pink. • Kale is readily available in the garden in early spring and makes a lovely green dye.

Here are some suggestions for plant dye materials to get the colors you like for the hot or cold process, but feel free to experiment.

Generally speaking, 4 cups chopped vegetables or fruit and about 3 tablespoons of spices in a quart or so of water with 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar will give the best results.

Blue – Violet blossoms; canned, frozen or fresh blueberries (crushed); chopped red cabbage leaves; purple grape juice
Green – Chopped spinach or kale
Yellow-green – ‘Yellow Delicious’ apple peels from four to six large apples
Yellow – Orange or lemon peels, chopped carrot tops, celery seed, ground cumin, ground turmeric or ½ teaspoon of saffron threads (continue soaking in refrigerator overnight)
Orange – Yellow onion skins (about 12 – this is a good time to make onion soup!), shredded carrots
Pink – Chopped beets, cranberries, raspberries, red grape juice
Salmon – ½ cup of paprika
Burgundy – Red wine used in place of water (add vinegar)
Brown-tan – Strong coffee (about a quart)
Red – Red onion skins (lots – you can save them up ahead of time), cranberry juice (use in place of water but remember the vinegar), canned cherries with syrup

Dyeing eggs with herbs, veggies and fruit is an easy and natural process that the whole family can enjoy. Like the petrochemical dye kits, this can get messy and will stain clothes, countertops, floors, pets and whatever else it comes in contact with, so plan accordingly by wearing old T-shirts and covering the work area with a plastic tablecloth.

There are three basic processes using natural plant materials to color eggs:

1.  A hot process where plant material and eggs are boiled together.
2.  A cold process where plant material and eggs are prepared separately.
3.  Eggs soaked in herb tea.

For the hot method: This is a quick process that boils and dyes eggs at the same time. Place a single layer of white eggs in a non-aluminum pan covered with cold filtered water. Add a splash of white vinegar (about a tablespoon) to set the dye. Add plant material to produce the color you wish. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 10 -15 minutes. Check the color with a slotted spoon periodically.

If the color is good, pour off the hot liquid and rinse eggs until they are cool, then store in refrigerator. If you want a deeper color, strain the hot liquid through a coffee filter and cool while you are rinsing the eggs. Then place the boiled eggs in a glass bowl and cover with the strained, cooled dye liquid and place in refrigerator until desired shade is achieved. It won’t take that long, less than a day or overnight. More than 12 hours will only make colors muddy looking.

Grapes in the form of juice or wine can be used to dye eggs shades of blue to burgundy. • It’s no surprise that cool-season vegetables like red cabbage have a long tradition of egg dying for springtime Easter eggs.

Here are some easy color combinations to try for the cold-dipped process:

Pale yellow – Soak eggs in turmeric dye for 30 minutes.
Orange – Soak eggs in onion skin dye for 30 minutes.
Light brown – Soak eggs in black coffee dye for 30 minutes.
Light pink – Soak eggs in beet dye for 30 minutes.
Light blue – Soak eggs in red cabbage dye for 30 minutes.
Royal blue – Soak eggs in red cabbage dye overnight.
Lavender – Soak eggs in turmeric dye for 30 minutes, then cabbage dye for 30 minutes.
Chartreuse – Soak eggs in turmeric dye for 30 minutes, then beet dye for about five seconds.
Salmon – Soak eggs in turmeric dye for 30 minutes, then beet dye for 30 minutes.

For a mottled look, wrap uncooked eggs with leaves or onion skins followed by a piece of cotton muslin. Gather and tie up tightly with some cotton string. Cover wrapped eggs with water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Drain and rinse with cool water before unwrapping.

For the cold-dipped method of natural dye, place natural plant material (about 4 cups) or spices (3 tablespoons) in about a quart of filtered water. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of white vinegar and simmer for about 30 minutes. Cool to room temperature and strain into glass bowls. Place cooled, boiled eggs in dye for about 30 minutes; for a darker hue place in refrigerator overnight. This is another easy method with children. Use the same plant materials as used in the hot method above.

Herb tea can be used to dye eggs naturally. Simply pour boiling water over herbs in a covered non-aluminum pan, quart jar or tea pot. Steep for 10-15 minutes then place cooled, boiled eggs in the tea and soak for 30 minutes. For darker hues, continue soaking eggs in tea overnight in the refrigerator. This gives some interesting soft shades of color and is easy for kids to help with.

Use 1-3 teaspoons of dried herbs for each cup of boiling water (use three times the amount if herbs are fresh). For darker shades, add a little more. I usually make about 3-4 cups of tea for each herb I choose to use. Added vinegar works well for spices but isn’t necessary for herbs.

Steep the flowers of calendula for a natural herb tea dye. • Eggs soaked in lavender tea have a light blue-green color and smell like a warm summer’s day in the garden.


Herb tea egg dye combinations:

Yellow to peach – Calendula flowers
Yellow – Chamomile flowers
Dull green – Dill weed
Sage green – Sage leaves (no surprise here)
Medium green – Green tea
Light pink – Rosehips
Yellow to orange – Safflower petals
Red – Hibiscus flowers
Light brown – Cinnamon
Light blue-green – Lavender buds
Light purple – Blackberry leaves
Brown – Oolong tea
Mottled orange-brown – Rooibos tea

If you plan to eat your naturally dyed eggs, be diligent to refrigerate after the coloring process is complete.

To make dyed eggs that can be used for several years, poke a hole in both ends of fresh eggs with a pin or small nail. Blow the yolks and whites out into a bowl (quiche fixings). Be sure to pierce the yolks so it is easier to blow out without passing out! These beautiful eggs can be displayed by hanging from branches or wreaths on the front door.

It is a good idea to write down what dye or combination works well – I know you think you will remember next year but just in case, go ahead and make a note. Dyeing eggs from natural plant materials is fun for the whole family and makes a great science project for the kids.

Try brown eggs too, I love the different shades they produce.

Make this the year you go “green” and start a new tradition of dyeing Easter eggs the natural way, just like great-great-grandmother did using materials from the kitchen and garden.


A version of this article appeared in a March 2011 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Cindy Shapton.


Posted: 03/12/18   RSS | Print


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The Great Tall Plant Rebellion
by Scott Beuerlein    

This prairie-inspired garden demonstrates the riot of summer colors and textures possible with tall perennials. Although the majority of tall plants stand well on their own, planting them together almost ensures they do not flop.

Sometimes you have to ‘go big or go home.’ Here are several reasons why you should add grand, tall plants to your garden design palette.

There’s a battle raging for the heart and soul of horticulture. Admittedly, this is a little below most people’s radar, but it is real nonetheless. Virtually every new plant that breeders and nurseries bring to market is a downsized version of its former self. For their purpose, which is retailing, these smaller new plants (each with a trademarked name evoking candies or cakes) are perfect. They neatly fit on shelves, scream for attention with their hyper-tinted foliage and flowers, and there is not one shopper entering a garden center who hasn’t got room somewhere in their garden for at least one. But there is a fly in the ointment here. Despite each of these plants being a triumph of skill, despite their breathtaking appeal, and despite the fact that I have allowed breeding company marketers to buy me more than just a few drinks at trade shows, I’ve just got to say it: A garden filled with nothing but compact caricatures of once free-roaming wild plants can only be described as a red hot mess! It’s unnatural. It’s too contrived. It feels weird. It doesn’t work.

Here is where the insurrection rears its head. In complete contradiction to the direction of retailers is the path that many – maybe most – top designers and virtually every public garden is taking. That path is gardens that are chest high in bold sweeps of massed or creatively paired plantings of big, bold perennials and grasses. “Blueberry Caramel Cream Tart heucherella,” if it exists, need not apply.

The inspiration comes from natural landscapes, usually the richness of the American woodlands and prairies, and it is a response to the environmental issues of our day. These plantings are composed largely of close-to-species cultivars or pure species plants – often native but not always – to create communities of flora that fill space with diverse tapestries of foliage, texture and bloom. The resulting gardens not only provide a full menu of environmental services, such as mitigating storm water runoff, reduced irrigation and less mowing and maintenance, they also provide for a diversity of wildlife. Equally important, they are connecting people to nature far more directly than gardens ever have before. And people – even non-gardeners, maybe especially non-gardeners – love it!

Blooms that are at eye level is but one of the many great benefits of tall plants.

Perhaps the best example of this style is the High Line in the meatpacking district of New York City. More than a million people a year, New Yorkers and tourists alike, walk the 1.5 miles of raised railroad beds now converted to garden. The engagement of people to nature is palpable every step of the way. This Piet Oudolf design is not all wild and wooly. There may actually be a handful of “Blueberry Caramel Cream Tart heucherella,” if it exists, littered about along with some vignettes of woodland, but it is the mass plantings of sunny forbs and grasses that dominate. Here, surrounded by skyscrapers and the din of the world’s greatest city, these plantings literally buzz with the activity of insects and birds. Ironically, the visitors who parade through are somewhat hushed with reverence, as though visiting a museum. Nevertheless, most visitors simply cannot resist the impulse to caress a grass, sniff a flower, take a photograph, ponder and perhaps change. This is a garden that impacts people’s lives! And it has economic impact, too. This part of Manhattan was something of a backwater until the High Line was made. Now, it is busy with the construction of new apartments and refurbished office spaces. Wonderfully, copycat gardens are appearing on the rooftops and balconies of many adjacent buildings.

High Line Park is a 1.45 mile-long linear park in Manhattan located on a retired section of elevated railway. You can take a virtual stroll through the park with Google street-view.
Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns  CC BY 2.0

The High Line, of course, is not mining this vein alone. Most other public gardens are right there with them. Many have legacies of formal gardens they admirably maintain and honor. But almost without exception their new efforts are aimed squarely at creating gardens that mix the richness and beauty of natural plants growing in natural spaces. Longwood Gardens, near Philadelphia, is one of our oldest and most prominent of public gardens, and it is a perfect example. Nearby Chanticleer is much younger, but their approach is the same. In these two gardens, letter-perfect formal gardens of the old estates are reverently maintained, but new projects on the outer grounds are brilliant examples of new horticulture. The Meadow Garden at Longwood is something everybody needs to see. Chanticleer’s mastery of plants and spaces in a host of natural settings is awe inspiring.

This new direction of design isn’t solely for public gardens. Many college and corporate campuses are trying their hand as well, and even dirt-poor municipal and county parks are also taking up the mantle. It is, after all, more cost effective to cover ground with plugs or even seed in great sweeps of tall, sometimes aggressive, perennials and grasses than in almost any other manner. Plus, there is the net gain from all those environmental “services.” A growing number of homeowners are jumping on board as well.

True, these gardens are quite different from our traditional view of gardening, and it might be something of an acquired taste. The same is said about two very popular things: coffee and beer. I don’t know anybody who enjoyed the first taste of beer. I didn’t. But I really, really like beer now, and so do most of the people I know. So visit some of these gardens. Try some tall plants. Before long, I guarantee the natural beauty of big plantings of big perennials will turn you into a revolutionary!

Witness how these billowing grasses and perennials at Cincinnati’s Ault Park soften what could be an otherwise runway-like pathway, transforming it from merely a means of getting from here to there into an enjoyable stroll of the senses.

Try This At Home

It’s easy to work tall perennials into the home landscape. Sure, an abundance of space makes using tall plants easier, but it is not a necessity. Tall herbaceous plants look fine planted against a screen or structure of any sort – shrubs or fencing for example. A foreground of midheight perennials such as Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) or ‘Purple Smoke’ false indigo (Baptisia‘Purple Smoke’) will make the design look more natural, and might help support their taller friends and hide their legs. Some tall perennials don’t need support or their legs obscured. Giant coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) and prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) are two good examples. Neither flops, and both have photogenic legs. Pull them forward, if you’re feeling liberated. If your border needs to eat more turf to accommodate bigger plants, so be it! More plants, less turf! This should be every gardener’s mantra.

Great coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) is a favorite tall perennial. From powder blue foliage erupts stems that hold bright yellow flowers 6-8 feet above the ground.

Every garden should have an 8-foot clump of Lilium superbum pumping heady fragrance into the twilight garden in early summer.

12 Favorite Tall Perennials

•  Aster tataricus‘Jindai’
•  ‘Gateway’ Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum‘Gateway’)
•  ‘Gold Lace’ swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
•  Prairie gayfeather (Liatris spicata)
•  Regal lily (Lilium regale)
•  Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
•  Great coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima)
•  ‘Henry Eilers’ sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia tomentosa ‘Henry Eilers’)
•  ‘Herbstonne’ shining coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida ‘Herbstonne’)
•  Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)
•  Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
•  ‘Fascination’ Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’)

Aster tatarica ‘Jindai’ explodes with an incredible display of bright blue flowers extremely late in the season. Pollinators also love it for the vital energy that will carry them through the winter. 

Any of the Silphium species add height, texture, color and enormous interest to any garden bed.

Eupatorium maculatum ‘Gateway’ and many other tall perennials not only produce amazing flowers that can be enjoyed during the growing season, but their spent seedheads remain through fall and sometimes well into winter providing beauty and forage for birds.

Don’t be afraid to toss in the occasional tall annual. Plants like Tithonia speciosa, Verbena bonariensis, Cosmos spp. and others provide a very long season of bloom and nectar for pollinators as they stretch towards the sun.

From State-by-State Gardening March/April 2015. Photography by Scott Beuerlein unless otherwise noted.


Posted: 03/12/18   RSS | Print


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Mulch Primer
by Ilene Sternberg       #Advice   #Misc   #Soil


These are the ‘Who-What-When-Where-Whys’ of mulch. And you thought mulch was just a pile of stuff on the ground…


A modest layer of mulch year round keeps soil cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Weed beds before applying. Mulched soils warm up slower in spring and cool down slower in fall than unmulched soils.

• Mulch vegetable or flower gardens after soil warms up in the spring. Cool, wet soils slow seed germination and increase decay of seeds and seedlings. Acceptable mulch is cool or warm, never hot, to the touch. Mulch should never smell like vinegar, alcohol or ammonia.

• Winter mulching reduces repeated freezing and thawing, which cause bulbs or shallow-rooted plants to heave out of the ground. After the ground freezes, but before coldest temperatures, apply a loose mulch cover, (such as straw, hay, pine boughs) to insulate plants. By then, rodents looking for warmth should have found other nesting places.

How Much

• More is not better; never apply deeper than 4 inches. Only roses and marginally hardy plants need extra consideration. Good snowcover provides perfect insulation and keeps soil temperature and moisture at adequate levels. Bitter cold with no snowcover offers the biggest threat to plants. Supplement mulch as needed, and remove any protective applications that exceed 4 inches in spring.

• Purchase mulch bagged or bulk. Bulk is cheaper in large volumes. Bagged mulch, usually in 3-cubic-foot bags, is easier to handle.

What NOT to Mulch

• Covering crowns of evergreen plants, shasta daisies, ground covers, sedums, lupines, peonies or iris may bury, not protect, them.

• Piling mulch against tree trunks invites chewing insects, rodents and fungi.


Shredded hardwood bark is decorative and improves the soil.

Cypress bark mulch.

Inorganic mulches don’t enrich soil, but are sometimes inexpensive, recycled or aesthetically appropriate:

• Newspaper—Use black ink only (color dyes may be harmful to soil). Anchor three to four sheets with grass clippings or rocks to prevent them from blowing away.

• Landscape fabrics (“geotextiles” water-permeable weed barriers of tightly woven, spun-bound or meshed polypropylene polymers)—These easily degrade when exposed to ultraviolet light. They often are used under a more decorative product such as shredded bark. Some, however, are coated with carbon black and can be used alone.

• Shredded recycled rubber tires—Available in several colors and are used in parks, schools, highways and industrial sites.

• Stone, pebbles, gravel and crushed brick—These are fire and deer resistant and add color and texture.

Organic mulches must be sufficiently decomposed or they can damage plants. When material is fresh, microorganisms that decompose organic material utilize a lot of nitrogen. Later in the decomposition process, the organisms release nitrogen. This principle applies to many organic mulches, including manure, leaves and sawdust. For loose mulches, such as straw, leaves and evergreen boughs, this is not a concern. Stir mulch periodically to break up unsightly but harmless mold that can form on top, more likely occurring if mulch is too deep.

• Manures, compost and peat moss—Though all are good for soil enrichment, they can mat, shed water, block air flow to soil and encourage weeds. Weed seeds from animal feed in manures are sometimes introduced. A 3- to 4-inch layer of mushroom compost suppresses weeds, encourages worms, provides nitrogen and improves soil texture.

• Composted municipal sludge—Now available as a mulch (some trade names include EarthlifeTM, ComtilTM and TechnaGroTM). In the future we’ll see more composts containing municipal garbage, paper pulp, yard wastes and other by-products.

• Hulls, cobs, shells, cottonseed, peanut or rice hulls, crushed corn cobs, spent hops, licorice root, tobacco stems—These are usually inexpensive but usually only available locally. Cocoa hulls (which are toxic to pets), buckwheat hulls and licorice root make excellent mulch, but are sometimes hard to find and expensive.

• Sphagnum peat moss—This contains long fibers which resist decomposition and is usually quite acidic.

• Pine needles and shredded cones—These make excellent mulch for evergreens and plants that thrive in acidic soils such as rhododendrons and blueberries.

• Straw and hay—These are good winter protection for perennials, strawberries and small plants. If left as permanent, additional nitrogen (1 lb. nitrogen per 1,000 square feet) is suggested, since they decompose readily. Weed seeds can be introduced.

• Lawn clippings—Do not use clippings from lawns treated with herbicides. Layers thicker than 2 to 3 inches tend to compact and rot. Spread immediately to avoid rotting. Add additional layers as clippings decompose. These work wonderfully in the vegetable garden.

• Leaves—Studies suggest that freshly chopped leaves may inhibit the growth of certain crops, so it may be advisable to compost the leaves over winter before spreading 3 to 4 inches deep (slightly more if using dry leaves).

• Shredded, chipped or chunked bark—This is the most popular landscape mulch due to its appearance, serviceability and cost. Shredded hardwood and cypress bark, chipped and chunked pine, fir and eucalyptus bark are decorative and ultimately improve soil condition. Smaller chips are easier to spread, but larger chips last longer. Eventually, shredded hardwood raises soil pH, particularly injurious to acid-loving plants.

• Wood chips, shavings, sawdust or waste wood—These are more wood than bark, decomposing rapidly, and they need supplementing with fertilizer at the rate of 1 lb. nitrogen per 1,000 square feet.

Photo Credits:
Photo 1: VMJONES - istock
Hrdwood bark: Mark Herreil - Istock
Cypress bark: Courtesy of Ilene Sternberg


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2012 print edition of State-byState Gardening.


Posted: 03/12/18   RSS | Print


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Native Baptisia is Only the Beginning
by Kylee Baumle       #Blue   #Natives   #Plant Profile






The use of native plantings continues to grow in popularity, but here’s one native that fits gardens of all types. Baptisias are sturdy, textural and fuss-free plants.







‘Twilite’ exhibits a unique bicolor bloom in violet and yellow and is a vigorous grower.

If you were to see a bloom from a Baptisia sp., without benefit of seeing the rest of the plant, you might think it’s a type of pea. See the entire plant, and that thought probably wouldn’t occur to you. It is, however, indeed a member of the legume family – Fabaceae to be exact – just like peas.

Native to central and eastern North America, Baptisia australis is an easy grower for those in USDA Zones 3 to 9. It’s not particularly picky about soils, nor moisture, being drought tolerant once established. It even thrives in clay. It grows in full sun to part shade and it’s not bothered by any notable pests or diseases. No doubt these things are what earned it the title of Perennial Plant of the Year in 2010.


‘Solar Flare’ is strongly vase-shaped, with blooms starting out yellow and aging to a beautiful scarlet. • The dried seedpods of baptisia sound like rattles when shaken and are often used in floral arrangements. • Baptisia ‘Starlite’

Native and Hybrid Varieties

‘Midnight’ has a two-fold bloom period, extending the display for a full month.

Baptisia is commonly known as wild indigo or blue false indigo, due to its use as a plant dye. Though not as superior for dyeing as true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), which is native to tropical climates, it is much more commonly found and is a somewhat suitable substitute. The sap of Baptisia australis turns dark blue when exposed to air.

Though the native baptisia flowers are a deep blue color, in recent years many new cultivars have come on the market, in luscious new shades and combinations of colors. All have the characteristic glaucous foliage, but blooms can be found in hues of yellow, violet, scarlet, blue and varying combinations of these.

From the Chicago Botanic Garden plant breeding program, Dr. Jim Ault has hybridized (and introduced through the Chicagoland Grows program) the Prairieblues series of baptisias, which have been extremely popular.

Like other plants to have come out of the Chicago program, the Prairieblues baptisias are especially well suited to the climate and growing conditions of the Upper Midwest, although they will also grow well in other zone-appropriate areas around the country and the world.

The Decadence series, hybridized by Hans Hansen and introduced by Walters Gardens and Proven Winners, is suited for smaller gardens, with four varieties – ‘Lemon Meringue’, ‘Dutch Chocolate’, ‘Cherries Jubilee’ and ‘Blueberry Sundae’ – having a mature height of 3 feet and a similar spread. Hansen is also responsible for another newer variety, ‘Vanilla Cream’, which has bronze foliage as it emerges in the spring.

Other available cultivars include ‘Purple Smoke’, ‘Carolina Moonlight’, ‘Chocolate Chip’ and ‘Wayne’s World’, a white variety introduced by Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina. Be sure to check plant tags for cold hardiness, because some cultivars are hardier than others.

Typical of many native plants, Baptisia australis has fewer individual blooms than most hybrids.

Companion Plants
Since baptisias tend to have a vase shape, they lend themselves well to low underplantings, such as:

• Pinks (Dianthus spp.)
• Coral bells (Heuchera spp.)
• Small hostas (‘Blue Mouse Ears’ or ‘Maui Buttercups’)
• Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum)
• Coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides)
• Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’ or ‘Aureola’)

Online Sources for Baptisia
Proven Winners

Garden Crossings

Plant Delights Nursery

Bluestone Perennials, Inc.

White Flower Farm

Growing Baptisia
Baptisia is a versatile plant, lending itself well to prairie gardens, foundation plantings and as a specimen plant. It’s easily grown from seed and can be winter sown. With its deep and extensive root system, it’s not recommended to move or divide an established mature baptisia.

Consider carefully where you want it, making sure you allow enough room for its full potential growth of 4 feet tall and wide. Remember that most varieties will splay out farther as the season progresses, especially if you allow its seedpods to remain. This can be controlled a bit with the use of peony rings. The plant can also be pruned to about 15-18 inches tall after flowering, which limits the flopping throughout the rest of the season.

If you choose to let the quirky seedpods remain, they will extend this plant’s interest well into the fall season. First appearing as elongated balloon puffs of green on the flowering stems, as the weeks go by seedpods darken and harden into rattling pods. As the plant senesces, the podded stems break away, and the seeds inside fall to the ground.

If you don’t want seedlings the following spring, cut the seedpods before they turn black and hard, but don’t discard them! They can provide marvelous texture to a bouquet, as many florists know.



‘Starlite’ has a more arching habit and is also more compact, topping out at 3 feet in all directions. • Yellow Baptisia ‘Carolina Moonlight’.


Nitrogen Fixation
Because baptisia is a legume, it is a plant that gives back to the soil in that it has nitrogen-fixing properties. Nodules form on the roots and convert nitrogen into a form that the plant itself uses, which also enriches the soil, helps it compete with adjacent plants and lessens the need for any supplemental fertilizing.

With all this going for it, baptisia is one plant that should be in every garden. It asks for little, but gives so much.


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Chicagoland Grows, Bailey Nurseries, and Kylee Baumle.


Posted: 03/12/18   RSS | Print


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Get to the Point
by Troy B. Marden       #Ornamentals   #Plant Profile   #Xeriscaping







In this Zone 6 garden, Agave americana ssp. protoamericana survived several winters outdoors when it became too large to dig and move in from the garden each fall. A cage filled with dry leaves to keep moisture off of the plant during winter helped in its survival.

Have you ever visited California or the American Southwest and admired the beautiful agaves, or century plants, that dot the hillsides and grace the gardens throughout the region? Their subtle colors and stunning architectural forms are welcome additions to any garden, but being from the desert where dry soil and dry air prevails means taking a few extra steps in order to grow them successfully in the damp and humid South. Proper siting, soil preparation and in colder parts of the South, winter protection, are essential to growing agaves successfully, but the rewards are worth any amount of effort.

Agave parryiis available in several forms. Several are hardy to at least Zone 6b and will perform well in the garden as long as they have excellent winter drainage.

Dasylirion wheeleri has performed extremely well in the garden at UT’s West Tennessee Research and Education Center in Jackson, Tenn. It’s easily hardy to Zone 6 if it is well protected through its first winter or two.


The Cold Hardy Species
Not all agaves are hardy when it comes to surviving cold winter temperatures, especially in the Upper South, but there are a few species whose native habitats are at high elevations, making them very tolerant of cold winter temperatures and even snow! Some of the hardiest species include:

Agave havardiana
Agave lechuguilla
Agave neomexicana
Agave ovatifolia
Agave parryi
Agave parryi
ssp. Huachucensis
Agave toumeyana
Agave toumeyana
var. bella
Agave utahensis
var. kaibabensis

Agave parryi ssp. huachucensis is one of the hardiest of all agaves, surviving easily into Zone 6 as long as the soil is extremely well drained and the plant is protected through its first two winters until it is well established. Gravel mulch helps keep the base of the plant drier in winter.

How to Grow Hardy Agaves
The most important thing to remember when growing hardy agaves is that their cold tolerance is directly related to how dry they can be kept during the winter, especially for the first winter or two after they’re planted. In the South our winter weather patterns are often cold and wet for long periods of time and this combination can mean almost certain death for many species.

Agave ovatifolia is one of the most beautiful of all agaves and has fared better than most in the cold, wet winters of west Tennessee. Given the protection of a cloche for the first winter, the plants have been on their own ever since and are growing beautifully.

Proper soil preparation is extremely important. Jason Reeves, the horticulturist at UT’s West Tennessee Research and Education Center in Jackson, Tennessee has found success with agaves and other plants from the desert Southwest by thoroughly amending the existing garden soil with “turkey grit,” available from most farm and feed stores. Mix your existing soil at least 50/50 with the turkey grit and then apply a “mulch” of pure turkey grit around the base of the plant at least 1-inch deep. Because drainage is so important, you’ll find it beneficial to build low mounds of soil (6 to 8 inches high is sufficient) and to plant your agaves high in the tops of these mounds rather than digging holes and planting your agaves low, where water can gather and freeze around the crown of the plant.

Extra protection from winter rains is very helpful for the first winter or two. If your new agaves are small, this can be achieved by covering them with inexpensive plastic cloches, or bell jars, raised slightly off the ground by using bricks or wood blocks. These miniature “greenhouses” will help keep young agaves nice and dry during the winter until they become established — usually a couple of years. They can be found from several online sources. For larger plants, support rings — the kind often used for peonies and other perennials with gridded tops and three or four legs that can be pushed down into the ground — can be covered with heavy-duty clear plastic and placed over the tops of plants to keep them dry. The sides won’t be covered, but remember you are trying to protect them from rain and winter moisture. Cold temperatures, if you’ve chosen hardy species, shouldn’t be a problem.

One of the most beautiful of all hardy desert plants, Yucca rostrata ‘Sapphire Skies’ survives all the way to Zone 5, performs exceptionally well in the South and is an excellent choice for adding living architecture to the garden.


Not hardy, but very easy to grow, Agave attenuata ‘Variegata’ makes an excellent container subject and an easy winter houseplant for a well-lit room. It is perfect for a partly shady location in the summer garden, preferring less light than many other agaves.

Not hardy, but so beautiful that it is worth any amount of effort to overwinter it, Furcraea foetida ‘Variegata’ makes an excellent container plant or can be grown in the ground and dug and moved indoors for the winter. Its rubbery, spineless leaves pose less danger to the person whose job it is to move it in and out.

After the first winter or two, cold-hardy agaves should be established well enough to survive the winters without protection as long as the soil has been thoroughly amended and plants have been mulched with turkey grit around the base to help keep the crown of the plant dry.

In addition to thoroughly amending the soil for drainage, choosing the right site from the get-go is also important. Our natural instinct as gardeners is to plant these desert plants in the most open and exposed parts of our yard in full sun, but a protected location near the house, a wall, fence or hedge can also add to your success. Many of the hardy species of agave are found growing in the wild alongside scrub oak and pine, as well as shrubby desert plants that provide a bit of shade during the hottest part of the day.

Non-Hardy Agaves
In addition to the hardy species that are available for us to grow in our gardens, there are many beautiful species and varieties that make excellent subjects for garden containers during the summer months and carefree houseplants during the winter. I grow several species that are not hardy and that spend their winters in pots in front of a south-facing window in a barely heated utility room that stays cold, but doesn’t freeze. My favorite is Agave attenuata ‘Variegata’ because its spines are not as dangerous, making it easier to move in and out of the house and because of its reasonably small size, it can be kept for many years. Another favorite tender species is an agave cousin, Furcraea foetida ‘Variegata’, which also spends its summers outdoors and winters inside. It makes a large plant eventually, so be sure you have room to accommodate it once it’s full grown.

Agave Companions
Many hardy succulents, such as sedums, hens-and-chicks and others make excellent companions for cold-tolerant agaves, but some of my favorite companions — or maybe even substitutes for gardeners who aren’t ready to tackle agaves — are the many beautiful yuccas that are on the market today. Native to a wide range of climates, you can find yuccas of all sizes, shapes and colors that will thrive in gardens from Zone 4 to Zone 10. Some grow in large, ground-level clumps while others are trunk-forming and after some years will rise above the ground on stout stems. Variegated forms add even more interest to the garden throughout the seasons.

Agaves may not be for everyone, but for the adventurous gardener who loves to explore unusual plants, agaves can bring an entirely new dimension to the garden and their architectural form blends beautifully with many popular garden plants. Give them a try!


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


Posted: 03/12/18   RSS | Print


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Movement in the Garden
by Helen Yoest       #Design   #Misc   #Ornamentals

Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) bending hello, entering the driveway.

Wind blowing, water flowing, grasses swaying and children playing – movement brings a garden to life.

It seems unimaginable for a garden to be still. Do you often find yourself looking at something moving from the corner of your eye, or do you look to a sound made by the moving wind? Movement engages you in the garden. Movement can be introduced with plants or personality; look around your garden to see how you can add more movement in your garden.

Leaves Rustling
Certain trees hold their leaves throughout the winter. White oak trees will hold on to their leaves, turning brown and dry, until new spring growth pushes out the old. As the wind rises, their leaves rustle. This sound draws the eye to the leaves of the oak tree, shimmering like the grass skirt of a hula dancer.

Certain shrubs, such as the spice bush (Lindera glauca), also hold their leaves when dormant. The dried, spice-colored leaves provide a rattle in the wind during the winter months.

‘Karl Foerster’ grass, Calamagrostis x acutiflora in motion.

Grasses Swaying
Grasses are valued for their form, texture and three solid seasons of visual interest. Their flexibility during each of these seasons also provides movement in the garden. Swaying in the wind, they bend in the breeze like an anemometer for speed – the more the wind, the more the bend. During the winter months, watching the hay colored grasses is mesmerizing, taking the mind to summer days gone by.

A good one to try is the perennial Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, which stands upright and erect until the breeze begins, creating movement in the garden.

Muhlenbergia capillaris colors up pink in the fall, then turns tan for the winter months. Left uncut, the grasses add interest in the winter garden as they move in motion to the seasonal winds.

Native switch grass, Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’, can grow 4 feet tall with nice red tones in the summer, growing darker burgundy as the fall progresses. In the winter ‘Shenandoah’ is blond and bold, ready to bend in the slightest breeze.


Left: While the fountain itself doesn’t move, the water swirling and falling in various directions in this pool creates both movement and sound in the garden. Right: Moving water from the fountain can be heard through the garden.

Water Flowing
Where water flows, wildlife flocks. Seen and heard from afar, the wildlife are attracted to moving water. From four-tiered fountains or recirculating ponds to a gurgling urn with only enough flow to continually coat the sides, moving water will entice birds and other wildlife to sip or dip. This brings a lot of movement to the garden, as birds scurry for seeds and squirrels dig for acorns.

The sound of the water itself is also a benefit. It buffers ambient noise, creating a focal point to be enjoyed in our Carolina gardens throughout the year.

If you have water in your garden you likely also have fish, another good source of movement. Fish move left, move right and circle around. They wiggle and wag looking for little bites to eat and making sure all is well in their water world. Watching fish move through the water is calming and cathartic. During feeding times the fish are fun to watch as the scurry for position, breaking the water to grab little nibbles.

Birds Feeding
Birds actively come and go from the garden creating commotion in their motion. Keeping stalks and seed heads through the season is a good way to invite birds to alight in your garden. And you can’t beat the delightful experience as the seed heads rustle and move in the breeze.

Watching birds feed on the seeds is entertaining from the motion they cause when loosing balance to the stalks moving in the wind. Finches alight on verbena-on-a-stick (Verbena bonarienis), purple coneflowers (Echineaca purpurea) and phlox, resulting in wobbling, in-the-air antics.

A hummingbird hovers contently while sipping from bee balm.

You can also attract birds with man-made feeders. Certain feeders will allow multiple birds to alight at once. It is not unusual to see a mix of bird species feeding on the same feed. Black-oil sunflower seeds will attract the greatest variety of birds to your feeder, including cardinals, nuthatches and finches. For brown thrashers use a ground-level, tray-type feeder.

Put out peanuts and wait for the woodpeckers you probably didn’t even know you had come to feed. Taking seeds, filling their bellies and coming and going from the feeders, brings hours of pleasure watching the birds as they move about.

Hummingbirds are also fun. Catch them during the spring, summer and fall before they migrate south. They will stop in mid-air to sip from nectar rich flowers. Adding nectar feeders filled with clear sugar water will invite hummingbirds to your garden. Use 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. Cannas, Turk’s cap lilies (Malvavisus drummondii), bee balm (Monarda), salvias and many other trumpet shaped flowers will bring hummingbirds to your garden.


Left: The pink-spotted hawkmoth moves at night. Right: Butterflies move in the garden from flower to flower.

Insects Inspecting
Growing plants to attract butterflies will lead to butterfly arrival – flirting, floating and flying from flower to flower. The garden moves with life day and night with moths, bees, wasps, praying mantises and beetles. Zinnias, lantana, Joe-Pye weed and other umbel-shaped flower heads act as a landing pad for the butterflies to alight.

Basils, if left to flower, will also bring in bees, as will salvias, lavender, rosemary, crossvine and many more pollen-producing flower heads.

The American flag ready for a breeze.

Whirligigs, Flags and Wind Chimes
Accents that go round and round, wave in the wind and chime with the breeze all add movement in your garden.

Whirligigs will add motion to your garden, and a lot of charm to boot. Found in as many shapes as there is imagination, whirligigs make the most of the wind.

The American flag is the flag icon for movement and glory in the garden. Hanging on the front porch column, surrounded by germaniums and shrubs, it proudly waves in the wind.

Don’t forget wind chimes. From tiny ones that sound like Tinkerbell’s wand to large ones that chime with deep tones in major winds, chimes are sure to charm.

Invite kids to the garden to add movement.

Children Playing
Backyard play is the American way. Whether in your own yard, a park, at grandma’s house, or a neighbor’s yard, a space to run and be free is what a kid needs.

When kicking a ball, playing tag and chasing fireflies, children’s precious movements bring life to the garden. Give kids a little freedom in your garden and they’ll delight in their ability to roam freely in outdoor spaces.

Locate your movement makers where they can be observed. Place a fountain where it can be seen from the front window. Plant nectar-rich plants near the back porch where you can see the movement they bring while sipping an iced tea. Add grasses along the driveway to bend hello as you come home.

If none of these suit you, just add a whirligig at the front door where you will be sure to readily witness wind in motion.


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 23 Number 2.
Photography courtesy of Helen Yoest, Troy B. Marden, Frank Leung, and


Posted: 02/28/18   RSS | Print


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Recipe for Roses
by Hugh Conlon    

‘Mr. Lincoln’


Roses (Rosa spp.) contribute beauty and fragrance to any garden. There are many varieties of roses to pick from, many wanting little extra care. To get your roses off to a great start, plant them in the right spot and select the best varieties. Rose breeders continue to introduce varieties that are more resistant to pest and disease problems.

Here is a step-by-step “recipe” for growing roses. Steps one through five are of critical importance if you want to avoid lots of extra care in years to come. Follow steps six through 10 on a timely basis and your roses will flourish.

1. Choose Good Genetics– Buy only the best rose varieties (cultivars). Hybrid teas, floribundas, grandifloras, and shrub roses are the four most popular categories of roses for Southeast gardens. Discussions of other types of roses – such as miniatures, tree standards, and climbers – are not included here. Visit reference rose gardens near where you live to learn the best rose cultivars for your area. See sidebar below.

2. Location, Location, Location– Roses grow and bloom their best in full sun with moist, well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter. “Ideal sunlight” is from sunrise through early afternoon. Roses require a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight daily. The more shade, the fewer flowers. Roses desire a slightly acid soil –pH 6.2 to 6.5. Apply ground limestone (either hydrated or dolomitic) to raise soil pH or powdered sulfur to lower pH. Amounts to apply will be indicated on your soil test report. Fall is the best time to apply lime or sulfur, as nutrients will work down into the soil over the winter.

‘Queen Elizabeth’

3. Bed Preparation– Proper siting and soil preparation goes a long way toward disease management. The location should allow good air circulation and not be surrounded by tall landscape plants. If soil drainage is questionable, consider growing roses in raised beds that are at least 6-8 inches tall and sitting atop gravelly soil base.

‘Julia Child’

4. Planting and Planting Depth– Improper planting depth is a common landscape mistake. Do not plant rose plants too deep and avoid over-mulching, which simulates excessive planting depth. Consider planting roses in the fall rather than spring.

5. Never Crowd Roses– The foliage of rose bushes should not touch that of adjacent plants. For disease and insect prevention, good air circulation and capturing all of the sun’s rays are imperative. Better yet, leave at least 10-12 inches between plants. Information on the plant tag regarding height and spread is usually incorrect, generally undersized.

6. Pruning and Deadheading– Develop an open-centered or vase-shaped shrub. Prune in late February or March, reducing plant height and spread by two-thirds on most shrub types. Prune hybrid teas and grandifloras to a height of 18 inches. Prune smaller-growing shrub-types such as Drift and Flower Carpet series less, maybe 25-33 percent growth reduction. Prune again in mid to late July, cutting back one-third the plant’s height. In addition, eliminate some interior older wood on 3-year-old and older roses. Deadheading during the growing season leaves less pruning to perform in late winter and late summer. Roses can provide five to seven nice flowering cycles annually with timely pruning/deadheading.

‘Sweet Drift’

7. Mulching– Organic mulches are best for roses. Maintain a minimum of a 2-3-inch layer of pine straw or pine bark at the start of spring. Over time, pine bark mulch tends to acidify and hardwood mulch raises soil pH. Do not pile mulch around plants. Fine or aged bark and/or wood chips will necessitate extra nitrogen fertilizer to be applied.

‘Home Run’

8. Fertilization– Following late winter pruning, apply a three-month-rated, controlled-release fertilizer at the rate of 1 (established bed) to 2 (new beds) pounds of actual nitrogen (N) per 1,000 square feet of bed area. Higher rates may be needed for new beds and those showing low levels of fertility. Once annually, phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg) levels should be applied to rose beds (amounts determined by soil testing). Fertilize after the late summer pruning at one-half the spring season application rate. An alternative method is to feed with water-soluble fertilizers through the growing season. Roses don’t need fertilizing during June and July. If a soil test report diagnoses magnesium deficiency, use Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate), available at most local pharmacies. Epsom salt will improve leaf color and promote new cane growth around the shrub base.

9. Insect Management– Aphids, Japanese beetles, eriophyid mites, and flower thrips are the major pests of a rose garden early spring through late summer. Consult with your state land grant university website or county extension office for pesticide recommendations. Spinosad, horticultural oil, acephate, and many other contact and systemic insecticides should provide a good management care.

10. Disease Management– In general, modern rose varieties are more disease resistant. In your search for the “perfect rose,” always select varieties that are highly resistant to blackspot and cercospora leaf spot diseases.

‘Double Pink’

The Tough Crowd
Roses highly resistant to blackspot and cercospora leaf spot*

Resistant cultivars
(<2% foliage infected)
Blushing Knock Out (‘Radyod’)
Brite Eyes (‘Radbrite’)
Double Knock Out (‘Radtko’)
Pink Double Knock Out (‘Radtkopink’)
Pink Knock Out (‘Radcon’)
Kashmir (‘BAImir’)
Knock Out (‘Radrazz’)
‘Moje Hammarberg’
My Girl (‘BAIgirl’)
‘White Dawn’
Wildberry Breeze (R. rugosa ‘Jacrulav’)

Moderately resistant
(<10% foliage infected)

Carefree Sunshine (‘Radsun’)
Como Park (‘BAIark’)
Fiesta (‘BAIsta’)
Forty Heroes (‘BAInial’)
Homerun (‘WEKcisbako’)
My Hero (‘BAIhero’)
‘Palmengarten Frankfurt’
Super Hero (‘BAIsuhe’)
Wild Spice (‘JACruwhi’)
‘Wild Thing’

*University of Tennessee Resistance Screening Program Of Garden Roses (2006-2012)

Common Rose Diseases:

Foliar diseases:
Black spot
cercospora leaf spot
downy mildew
powdery mildew

Stem diseases:
Botrytis blight
crown gall

Root diseases:
Phytophthora root rot

Systemic diseases:
rose mosaic virus
rose rosette virus




A version of this article appeared in a March 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Hugh Conlon.


Posted: 02/27/18   RSS | Print


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Starting Veggies Indoors
by Rita Randolph       #Propagation   #Seeds   #Vegetables


Spring is just around the corner and even though I caution folks about planting and seeding too early in the season, truthfully… it’s safe to go ahead and start a few things indoors.

Taking care to read your seed catalogs, choose the varieties that are recommended for your area and be sure to read how long it takes to produce each crop. Some items may not take as long as others. For instance, lettuces can be directly sown into containers and grow quickly in cooler temperatures, yet tomatoes benefit from seeding into one container at a warm temperature, and then transplanted into a larger container to grow a better root system before being put into the ground. Squash, cucumbers and melons are faster crops, and like to be sown later, closer to planting time. Sow multiple seed directly into 3- or 4-inch pots, and then, once developed, directly plant them into the garden.

Reputable seed companies all offer specific information about each type of vegetable or plant they offer. Some companies offer better information than others, and I depend on these as a reference guide. It’s a good idea to check the varieties for how large they grow, for instance; determinate bush tomatoes don’t take as much room as indeterminate vine varieties. Store your seed tightly closed in a refrigerator (not a freezer) when not in use. Many varieties will last for years if stored properly.

This south-facing window is perfect for starting an indoor seeding area.

When wanting to garden indoors or start your plants inside, the first thing to do is dedicate an area just for this purpose. Find a south-facing window if possible because it provides the most light for ensuring healthy starts. If not a south window, select the brightest one you have. You can always move plants away a few feet if it becomes too hot to handle.

You need a sturdy table or two for seeding and related equipment. Anything from a folding card table to a sturdy work bench will do. Cover it with plastic so moisture won’t ruin the surface. Then set up a stand with a fluorescent light fixture or two for your plants after they begin to grow. There are grow lights of all kinds, but fluorescents are cool lights and still provide the wide spectrum necessary to keep seedlings and other plants from stretching. You needn’t turn the lights on yet – wait till right after the seeds germinate. Remember, a leggy plant is not a healthy one, and you might as well purchase new plants or start over if stretching becomes a problem.

Invest in a small sprayer for watering seedlings. You don’t want to pour water from a watering can or it will wash out your soil, cover seeds too much, and cause uneven moisture.

The next thing you need is a heat source under the trays for the root systems to develop. Heating mats made especially for this purpose are available in all sizes and prices. It’s a good investment, especially if you keep your home or growing area cool. The rooting zone of most vegetable and annual seedlings should be 68 to 78 F, and uniform heating is best.

It’s recommended that you begin with a tray that acts as a capturing device for water and does not drain indoors. You can always remove excess water with a sponge if it builds up. This will prevent spills on the floor and furniture and may also help with keeping humidity levels up in the growing area.

Use trays that hold water and place capillary mats in them. Water the capillary mat before placing seeded pots on it. This will help keep humidity levels up and improve drainage.

Place a “capillary mat” in the tray you plan to set your seeded pots in. A capillary mat is a spongy fiber about ¼ inch thick, much like quilt batting. When you water your seeded pots, this mat will wick away excess moisture from some containers while providing it for others. It makes the watering more uniform throughout the system, keeping the plants moist but not wet. Seed that’s germinating will require 100% humidity but don’t like to stay constantly wet. After sowing seeds in your trays, place them on the capillary mat inside the tray that does not have holes in it.  Then water in well with a sprayer or spray bottle. A light spray is best, so you don’t flood or wash seed into each other. If you get tired of pumping a spray bottle, you can use a larger volume one that doesn’t require as much work. A 1-gallon sprayer works great. Be sure to wet the capillary mat too, but not soak it to the point of water pooling anywhere.

Sow seeds thinly in your pots, not too crowded. Many seed companies will specify approximately how many seeds per square inch. Overcrowding will result in stretched, unhealthy seedlings. The more room you give them, the better your plants will turn out. Cover seeds with extra mix, only as deep as the seed is in diameter. Small seeds only need a dusting of mix over them while larger seeds like a little more. Be careful not to bury your seeds or they may not come up at all. Be sure to label your seed as you sow with a waterproof pen. You’d be surprised how fast you’ll forget what you sowed!

Use a specialized “seeding mix” avoiding any media with any fertilizer, as this will inhibit germination. Scatter a few seeds and cover lightly with more mix.

After seeding and watering them in, cover the tray with another tray, preferably black or dark in color, balancing it directly on top of the other like a lid. Most seeds like to germinate in total darkness (just check your varieties), and this tray will hold in humidity and shut out light, as well as keeping the warmth in from your heating mat. At this point, I usually cover the seeded trays with a sheet of plastic to “chamber” the trays. This way I know 100% humidity was held underneath for the seeds to germinate more uniformly, without drying around the edges of the trays. Check your seeds a couple of times a day for moisture, being careful not to let them dry out or remain too wet.

Remove the lids on the trays as soon as the first two leaves appear. Keep checking your trays, and as soon as most seeds have germinated, then turn on the lights. Keep the lights a foot or two away from the young plants so they don’t dry out too quickly. As the plants mature you might want to lower the fixture a little closer, being sure to check frequently for drying out or wilting too much. Try not to water in the evening hours since wet foliage overnight is a disease waiting to happen. This extra light not only helps keep plants short and healthy, but also helps to prevent many water-borne diseases and stem-rots.

Cover seed trays and pots with lids, and then cover the area with a sheet of plastic.

When young seedlings are an inch or two tall it’s time to decide whether they will be planted out into the ground, transplanted into larger pots or hardened off for later. Reducing the average temperatures, withholding some water, and yet still maintaining high light conditions will accomplish this “hardening.” You can do this indoors, or take them outside on good days, placing them in a partial-shade location so they don’t “sunburn.” Be sure to bring them back indoors on chilly nights below 57 F.

Divide and transplant your seedlings before they get too crowded. Continue to grow under lights until ready to out into the garden.


• Select seeds that are best suited for your area (zone) or growing needs.
• Construct a table and lighting system.
• Assemble trays that hold water in addition to growing trays.
• Use capillary mats to improve drainage.
• Use a “seeding” mix, avoid any media with added fertilizer.
• Invest in a sprayer for watering seedlings.
• Check growing conditions for each variety before you start.
• Remove any covering as soon as seeds germinate.
• Check your new plants and mist as needed at least twice daily, but avoid watering in the evening hours.

When transplanting young seedlings, the stem is sometimes buried up to the first set of true leaves. Many plants will root out from the stem creating better development and structure. Be careful not to pack soil mixes too tightly around the necks of these young plants as they might bruise easily. Simply sift the soil up around their necks and water in. At this point I choose a weakened, half-dose of water-soluble fertilizer or root stimulator. An organic, water-soluble solution is also a good choice to add beneficial microelements and get them off to a great start. Keep plants under lights until they go outside, and be sure to stay on top of watering needs until established in the garden.

Record keeping is really important if you ever hope to be successful at growing your own plants. Keeping notes of the date sown, plant variety, how many seeds you sowed and when they matured enough to transplant will really help you with timing your crops each year.


A version of this article appeared in a March 2010 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Rita Randolph.


Posted: 02/27/18   RSS | Print


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Dragonfly Fascination
by Douglas A. Spilker, Ph.D.       #Colorful   #Insects   #Wildlife

The striking azure color of the very common blue dasher only develops as the dragonfly matures.

Dragonflies with their ominous beauty, vivid colors and their spectacular flying maneuvers have provided hours of entertainment for many gardeners. Dragonflies are widespread across the United States and can be enticed to visit most yards. There are more than 450 species found throughout the United States and Canada. They range in color and size from the small eastern amberwing to the very large and brilliantly colored green darner. Although these insects tend to stay close to their birthplace, they are strong fliers that will explore surrounding areas. So if you garden even remotely near fresh water or a wetland, you can lure dragonflies to your yard.


The giant darner is thought to be the largest dragonfly found in the United States, with a wing span of up to 5 inches. Here it is shown during mating.

The eastern amberwing is one of the smaller dragonflies and looks very “wasp-like” in flight.

Their Water World
There is a good reason that you see dragonflies and damselflies around ponds, lakes and streams: They are aquatic insects that spend the majority of their lives developing in these wetland habitats. A dragonfly can have a life span of more than a year, but spends very little of that time as an adult dragonfly. There are three stages of the dragonfly life cycle: the egg, the nymph and the adult dragonfly. Most of the life cycle of a dragonfly is carried out in the nymph stage, which you will not likely notice unless you are attentive when cleaning out the bottom of your pond. Once the dragonfly eggs hatch, the larvae begin as wingless nymphs that look like little alien creatures. These six-legged nymphs live in the water feeding on other aquatic insects and small fish, while they grow and develop into dragonflies.

Dragonfly nymphs live in ponds or marshy areas because the waters are calmer than in a stream or river. When dragonflies are present, it is an indication that the ecosystem is in good shape since they are very sensitive to pollution. Once the nymph is fully grown, and the weather is right, it will complete its metamorphosis into an adult dragonfly by crawling out of the water, up the stem of a plant to shed its skin. Though dragonflies are predators, they themselves are subject to being preyed upon by birds, frogs, spiders, fish, water bugs and even other dragonflies, especially during this vulnerable stage of emergence. Once they become mature adults, their exceptional vision and nimble flight abilities make them a difficult catch.

An eastern pondhawk perched devouring its recent prey.

Voracious Hunters

Dragonflies tend to perch on upright sticks, plant stems and even plant stakes, basking in the sun’s warming rays. This widow skimmer appears to have just avoided being another’s meal!

Dragonflies are predators of anything they can hunt down, especially small insects like mosquitoes, midges, flies, mayflies and even honeybees. They may look menacing but pose no threat to humans. Dragonflies are known as the aerial acrobats of the insect world. Adult dragonflies have two pairs of transparent wings, with each wing having the ability to beat independently, making them capable of flight in all directions. Therefore, dragonflies are highly maneuverable hunters and very adept at intercepting prey in midair. By forming a basket with its legs, a dragonfly can scoop up both flying and perched insects without stopping. No toxins are used, and their prey is usually eaten alive. Some of the larger species, like darners, will just open their mouths and swallow small insects in flight.

Although the nymph stage may last from months to years, the adult stage only lasts about six weeks during midsummer. This is the last stage of a dragonfly’s life, and the stage for reproduction. Females can be seen laying eggs by tapping the tip of their abdomens directly into the mud or on emergent plants in the shallow water at edges of streams or ponds. In addition to searching for prey, males patrol their territories seeking females and driving away rival males. Mating pairs can often be seen flying or perched in tandem.

Eastern amberwing on a water lily flower.

You Ought to Be in Pictures
Dragonflies need water, so installing a pond or pool is an assured way to attract them. Even a small water feature like a half whiskey barrel can be enticing. Dragonflies seem to be more active when they have an opportunity to warm themselves, so place your water feature where it will receive midday sun. Although it is enjoyable to watch dragonflies dart about on a summer’s day, it is even more fascinating to see them up close, maybe capturing a photo of their brilliant colors and intricate wing venation. Dragonflies tend to perch on upright sticks, plant stems and even plant stakes, basking in the sun’s warming rays, or devouring their recent prey. It is best to forego the urge to trim the vegetation right down to the pond’s edge, but rather be sure to leave a fringe of tall grass or weeds as resting places. The dragonflies will likely repay your kindness with some astonishing poses!


A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Douglas A. Spilker, Ph.D.


Posted: 02/27/18   RSS | Print


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Those “Other” Magnolias
by Scott Beuerlein       #Fragrant   #Flowers   #Trees

‘Yellow Bird’ magnolia is my personal favorite. The abundant and bright flowers in the spring are usually late enough to be unaffected by late frosts.

There are three reasons people don’t plant magnolias anymore: 1) Everybody assumes “magnolia” means only the saucer magnolias (Magnolia x soulangeana) they remember from their youth, which, 2) ate all of Grandma’s front yard, and 3) had its flowers blasted every third year by a frost. Now, listen to me carefully: These reasons are dumb.

First, not every yard is a postage stamp in need of a Lilliputian tree, so let’s stop pretending that they are. And a drop dead gorgeous floral display two years out of three already beats a river birch. In fact, it is on par with the vaunted yellowwood, which only blooms every other year. For those without a calculator, this is also two out of three if you start the count on a good year, but only one of three if you don’t. And, yet, that math works just fine for every snooty horticulturist I know. They all slobber over yellowwoods (and so should you). But all of us should also slobber all over saucer magnolias. For goodness sake, plant them if you have the space. But, if you legitimately haven’t got the room, or if you’re stubborn, you have got some fantastic magnolia options – the “other” magnolias.

Left: The flower of Ashe’s magnolia is almost identical to M. macrophylla. It’s as pretty as any flower out there as it opens. As big as a serving bowl, its lemony fragrance will make your day. Right: Fall color comes in browns and golds for most magnolias, but this should not be underrated for beauty.


The leaves of the umbrella magnolia aren’t as large as the bigleaf magnolia, but they can create a tropical sense of lushness in the landscape. Their flowers are incredibly beautiful, if somewhat malodorous.

Bigleaf-Type Magnolias
Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) lives up to its name. The big floppy leaves can get up to 3 feet long and 18 inches wide. They are the biggest single leaf in the temperate forest. When they shed their leaves in the fall, you can bet every kid will be carrying one around. The flowers are equally fascinating. Fragrant and massive (12 to 18 inches wide), they appear sporadically over a month or so of spring. In full sun, they’ll grow low and wide, maybe 40 feet high by 40 feet wide, but in shade they stay trim and slim as they stretch for the sun. In nature, their range extends from Louisiana to New York. They are USDA Zone 5 hardy. Woefully underrepresented in nurseries, they are definitely worthy of a persistent search.

Ashe’s magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla subsp. ashei) is a smaller growing, shrubby subspecies of the bigleaf, maybe reaching half the size of its cousin. Its native range is restricted to the panhandle of Florida, but it too is USDA Zone 5 hardy. Leaves and flowers are a bit smaller, befitting its diminutive size, but very much worth the price of admission.

Umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) is another native bigleaf type that is good for naturalizing. Occasionally you see it for sale. It’s a USDA Zone hardier than M. macrophylla, but I like bigleafs and Ashe’s magnolias better. Umbrella magnolia is a scruffier tree, often with multiple suckering stems, and flowers that, although beautiful, are malodorous. It grows to 30 feet tall and 25 feet wide.

Left: ‘Butterflies’ magnolia has become relatively popular due to its abundant, bright yellow flowers. Right: The height and grandeur of cucumber magnolias is often surprising to those who know only common landscape magnolias.

Yellow-Blooming Magnolias
Cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata) is a native, tall, narrow species that can legitimately be mistaken for an oak from even a short distance. They carry themselves with that exact same stately grandeur. You can see in them the family resemblance between magnolias and tulip poplars. The National Champion, which can be found in Stark County, Ohio, is 96 feet tall, 80 feet wide, and 299 inches in circumference. As magnolias go, their flowers aren’t much to look at. Relatively small, a little drab, and 30 feet up in a tree, this matters little. With a tree this grand, flowers aren’t that important. Except in this case, they are for a surprising reason: This species, and its rarer, little brother, M. acuminata subsp. subcordata, when bred with other species – many of them Asian in origin – provides the yellow blooms of such spectacular cultivars as ‘Butterflies’, ‘Daybreak’, ‘Elizabeth’, ‘Goldfinch’, ‘Gold Star’, ‘Solar Flare’, ‘Sunburst’, ‘Yellow Bird’, and many others. These are all wonderful, relatively new additions to the magnolia menu that sparkle in the spring landscape. Moreover, the cucumber magnolia parentage often produces an upright tree that fits very well in almost any landscape. They bloom later, enough so that frost seldom blasts their blooms. Easy to move and grow, these should be plopped right down in that special place in the garden.

Sweetbay magnolia flowers bloom sporadically for four to six weeks in the spring. Their lemony fragrance is fantastic. Later in the summer come the fruits, which are almost as showy.

Sweetbay and Southern Magnolias
These are by no means rare or difficult to find, but there are some interesting variations to know for northern gardeners. The southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) is listed as USDA Zone 6 hardy, but only some are reliably so. Look for cultivars such as, ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’, ‘D.D. Blanchard’, ‘Edith Bogue’, and ‘Kay Paris’, and provide a sheltered location if you can. Southern magnolias are capable of living almost anywhere and in deep shade.

The variation in sweetbay magnolia (M. virginiana) is surprising, and this offers much potential to select one perfect for your garden. For instance, ‘Henry Hicks’, ‘Green Shadow’, and ‘Northern Belle’ are all upright, tall, and evergreen reaching up to maybe 30 feet in gardens. Most of the other selections, and virtually all of them sold as the species, will be shrubbier and deciduous. The fall color – a collage of yellows, golds, and browns – is uniquely beautiful.

So hunt down some of these plants. Grow them. Enjoy them. Easy and beautiful all year, they offer so much.



A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Scott Beuerlein.


Posted: 02/27/18   RSS | Print


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Shop Smart
by Helen Newling Lawson       #Misc   #Spring

Take your time to examine all parts of the plant before buying. | Photo courtesy of UGA CAES.

Shopping for new plants is fun, but it can also be costly. Luckily, there are a few simple guidelines that can help you buy wisely and make the most of your plant dollars.

First: Find a reputable nursery. They will do a lot of the work for you by demanding healthy plants from their suppliers, keeping them watered, and watching for signs of diseases.

Don’t be afraid to take the plant out of the pot and examine the roots. Healthy roots are usually white or light brown and should not have any type of unpleasant odor. | Photo by Erika Jensen.

Next, take a bottom-up approach to picking a healthy plant. “The root of the problem,” isn’t just a figure of speech when it comes to plants. This means looking past the colorfully branded pot and bright blooms and tipping the plant out to have a look at the roots before you buy (yes, we promise it’s okay). Healthy roots are generally white or light brown. Dark brown, smelly, or rotten-looking roots are a sure sign of potential problems. Roots that are circled or packed into the pot are not necessarily a problem if you can untangle and spread them before planting. If the roots seem too thick to be straightened, or are too packed into drainage holes to pull the plant out of the pot, move on. On the other hand, if half the soil in the pot falls away, the plant may have just been “moved up” to a larger container and you are paying more without the benefit of a developed root system.

While you’re at it, feel the soil to make sure it’s not excessively dry. A plant stressed by lack of water can take longer to recover. Look for weeds growing in the soil to avoid bringing hitchhikers home.

Don’t overlook obvious problems on leaves, such as yellowing, leaf spot, or wilting. Examine the undersides of leaves and along stems for insects such as scale, whitefly larvae, or leaf miners.

You want woody plants to have even, undamaged branches. Depending on the plant or specific cultivar, look for the desired form, whether it is compact growth, straight trunks, or even a leggy look, such as crapemyrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) or chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus). Legginess is, of course, not always a desirable characteristic; shrubs will rarely fill out at the base.

Learn what common pests look like so you can avoid bringing them home. Scale insects, shown here, don’t crawl or look much like bugs in their adult stage, and some species are brown or gray, making them harder to spot. | Photo by Plutarco Echegoyen,

If you’re in the market for trees, Tim Daly, Agricultural and Natural Resources county extension agent, recommends looking at the caliper ratio, which is the relation of the circumference of the trunk to the height of the tree. He says it can vary by species, but a good rule of thumb is a 4-inch caliper (diameter): 10-14 feet tall. Another good rule of thumb to know is that each inch of trunk thickness needs 10-12 inches of root ball diameter. Measure 6 inches above the soil line.

Finally, thoroughly research before you buy to know the mature size and all growing requirements. The plant tags do have some useful information, but are not your best resource. A healthy plant in the wrong place is still a problem waiting to happen.


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


Posted: 02/27/18   RSS | Print


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Getting in Shape
by Susan Jasan       #Design   #Hardscaping   #Landscaping

Just one portion of an expansive property with extensive gardens, the owner has utilized the broad curves to facilitate mowing. However, they’ve gone a step further by creating a mowing edge along the beds that not only includes the vertical edge of the bed, but the horizontal mowing strip for the mower wheels, thus eliminating any need for trimming.

A little planning ahead can maximize your enjoyment and minimize headaches when dealing with your landscape – the maintenance in particular. A simple concept, yes; but most often overlooked. This particularly applies to the layout and design of your planting beds.

What could be so hard about that? It isn’t hard actually. In reality, it is quite easy when given some forethought.

Take for example a planting bed with square corners. Yes, they are easily made with straight-edged materials such as landscape timbers or railroad ties. However, typically they’re more time consuming when it comes to mowing and trimming.

Now consider the curved garden shape. Curves are often considered more “organic” or “natural.” And when curved edges are using in a garden border, mowing can be easier – but only if done correctly. This is particularly true when using a riding mower, but it also makes more work when mowing with a push mower. If the radius of the curve is smaller than the turning radius of your lawn mower, you’ve just created a trimming nightmare that will take a lot of the fun out of your mowing.

The grass path through this narrow area was planned to be wide enough for a mower. It keeps maintenance down, while still achieving a meandering pathway through a narrow space. • The broad sweeping curves of this garden allow for easy mowing. The repetition of colors draws the eye from foreground to the background. • This owner very intentionally designed the wide sweeping edge of their garden for easy maintenance.

In the case of a riding mower, be aware of the turning radius of your lawn mower. If you’re not sure what that is, then make as tight a circle as you can with the mower and measure the radius. For those fortunate to have a zero turn radius mower, you still have maneuvering room to consider. In either case, always design your planting beds so that you can mow in a continuous motion without having to stop and start to get into all those tight little turf areas.

A general rule of thumb is to be sure your curves are never tighter than a 6-foot radius. Remember too that the wider the radius, the more sweeping the curves, typically the more pleasing design…not to mention easier care.

Where your garden edge meets pavement, whether it’s the driveway, a sidewalk, or a patio area, the transition to the hardscape can take several forms: The edging simply “T’s” into the hardscape, or the edging curves and seems to disappear into the edge of the hardscape. There are pros and cons to both approaches:

The T Transition:
PRO: The T makes an abrupt clean edge and makes a strong definition for the planting bed.

CON: When mowing, one will have a 90-degree turn to make with this transition.

The Curved Transition:
PRO: It makes mowing very easy as one follows the gentle curved edge as it meets the hardscape edge.

CON: It makes growing plants in the narrow transition area very difficult.

There’s no right or wrong, there’s just a difference in style and choices.

Clockwise: Sometimes straight lines are a must to achieve the intended design, despite the added maintenance. Here the formality of this garden requires the straight bed edges along with the highly manicured plantings. • Here a tree base is mulched, edged, and planted. The circle bed is large enough to make mowing easy by simply mowing around the edge with a radius similar to the typical riding mower. • The irregular shapes of the stones in this patio area are reflected in the irregular shape of the garden border. In this application it works well, particularly as the junipers (Juniperus spp.) creep across the surface.

Remember to keep the above radii in mind when mulching trees. Even small starter trees will grow large, so start by giving them some extra room and mulching around them at the same radius as your mower. If the “bare” mulch area seems too much to you, then plant annuals in the mulched area until the tree grows. With the mulch, you’re also protecting the trunk of the tree from lawn mowers or string trimmers that can damage bark and ultimately kill your young tree.

Probably one of the most common mistakes made by gardeners is lining the edge of the driveway with plant material. What makes this particularly problematic is that most driveways are quite narrow. Typically, driveways are 20 feet wide, allowing two vehicles to be parked side by side. However, this doesn’t allow for the 4-5-foot space required to open a vehicle door and to step out of the vehicle. The result: crushed plants.

The planting bed along this fence line serves a dual purpose. The first, as a screening and accent between the driveway area in the foreground and the pool area beyond. The second purpose is less obvious, but extremely important. The planting bed is planned at 5-foot depth: the standard overhang of the back of a vehicle. Between the 5 feet and the soft plants, should a vehicle back into this area, the plants will soften the blow, and the depth helps prevent any damage to the fencing.

The curved edge of this planting utilizes a steel edge between the pavers and the mulched bed. This helps keep the mulch from washing into the walkway. Note that when using a curved edge for a paver walkway, there are many more cuts required to get the geometrically shaped pavers to fit well along the curve.

If you’re ever tempted to “soften the edge of your driveway” with a border, be sure that your guests won’t be trampling your hard work. If you have an oversized driveway that has extra space for egress from vehicles, then be sure to plant your greenery away from the edge of the concrete.

While we’re talking about sidewalks, remember that it is best to have (at a minimum) a 54-inch-wide sidewalk for the main approach your home. Most residential walkways are 48 inches wide and can be found as narrow as 36 inches. Reality: two people walking comfortably side-by-side typically requires 54 inches. The economics of the cost of concrete may dictate what you can afford, but whenever possible keep the approach to your home grand, and reduce the width of the more utilitarian areas if possible.

And just as you plan for visitors, be sure to avoid narrow turf areas where a mower cannot fit. This too makes for more maintenance, which with a little planning can be easily avoided.

Generally, curves are easier to maintain, the broader more sweeping forms being the easiest. Reserve straight lines for those formal gardens where you fully expect to spend extra time on maintenance. Some of the greatest gardens are built on geometry of angles and lines, so if that’s your style, by all means make the most of it and enjoy!


A version of this article appeared in a February 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Susan Jasan.


Posted: 02/01/18   RSS | Print


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Winter Wakeups
by Leslie Hunter       #Colorful   #Ornamentals   #Winter

‘Jelena’s fragrant flowers fill the winter garden. • Flowers bloom on red twig dogwoods in early summer • Northern bayberry drops its leaves in winter to reveal it’s bluish-gray fruit.

Right now we are in the thick of it. Cold, dark and dreary days of winter are surrounding us with a blanket of plain white, brown, and gray. Depressing to a gardener that longs for shimmers of green and color, any color will do.

Typically we go to the catalogs, books, and internet to find treasures for the coming spring, but there are gems to be found in the winter garden if you plan for it. There are many shrubs, deciduous and evergreen, that fill corners of gardens throughout the year bringing yearlong interest. Here are three shrubs that keep working even when the world goes blah.

The flowers of ‘Arnold Promise’ perfume the winter landscape. • The foliage of ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel turns red in fall. • ‘Jelena’ and other witch hazels offer beautiful fall color.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia)
A cross between Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica) and Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis), these hybrids are like rock stars of the winter landscape, emerging with shaggy, fragrant, and vibrant axillary clusters of blooms in the doldrums of February into March.

Medium to large shrubs, hybrid witch hazels are often upright-spreading and loosely branched. They can be pruned in the spring after flowering to retain shape. Ranging from 15-20 feet tall, they make a statement in the shrub border all year long. Like most witch hazels, they prefer well-drained, moist, acidic soil but what they get is usually less than perfect clay type soils, which they tolerate just fine. Full sun is best for flowering, but they will also grow in part shade. Make sure to provide supplemental watering in times of drought to prevent leaf scorch.

‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel’s fragrant flowers bloom mid- to late winter.

Witch hazels, in general, are known for their four-season appeal. Lovely gray-green foliage in summer is followed by bright yellow-to-red fall colors that drop revealing smooth, gray bark. H. x intermedia cultivars, such as ‘Arnold Promise’ and ‘Jelena’, burst onto the stage in February with much needed cheery yellow-to-deep orange sweetly scented bands of crazy haired flowers that stretch in the sun’s warmth. On cold days the strappy petals will curl in to preserve themselves from freeze damage, thus extending the bloom time.

Plant H. x intermedia near a walkway so you can enjoy not only the cheery colors but also the sweet fragrance of this gray day buster.

The stems of native red twig dogwoods glow in the winter landscape.

Red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea)
Red twig dogwood has a good descriptive name, but it does not do the plant justice. It is more than just “red twigs.” This shrub offers four-season appeal with white flowers in spring, interesting summer foliage, white berries late summer, and beautiful fall colors, but winter is when it really turns heads with its electric red haze.

A native to North America, red twig, or red osier as it is also called, is a medium-sized, loosely branching stoloniferous shrub often found in wetlands and along roadsides and banksides for erosion control. Reaching 6-9 feet tall if left unpruned, this fast growing shrub can make a dramatic statement in the winter scape. Many cultivars introduced, such as ‘Isanti’, are more compact, but all benefit from pruning a third of the branches down to the ground every year or two to maintain the fiery colored stems that appear with new growth.

If you plan on only growing for the winter stems, this shrub can be coppiced (cutting down all branches to the ground) every year or two, but this will sacrifice any flowering or fruiting, which benefit wildlife.

Red twig dogwood should be placed in an area of the garden that can be seen from the warmth of your house, but also an area where it can spread out its feet a little. Against a south facing garage wall will definitely show off its beauty. Full sun to part shade is preferable and it is another shrub that likes moist conditions but is tolerant of most soil conditions.

The fruit of northern bayberry almost glistens in the winter landscape.

Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)
Northern bayberry is a native shrub you may be not be familiar with, but it is worth getting to know, especially for winter interest.

A deciduous medium-sized shrub up to 9 feet tall and wide, bayberry makes an excellent hedge. Don’t plant as a lone specimen, for it needs both male and female plants to produce the attractive grayish-white berries that cover the bare stems.

Gray-green, leathery, oblong aromatic leaves cover this shrub throughout the growing season, creating a handsome screen. Flowers are insignificant in the early summer but once the leaves drop in the fall, the beautiful berries can be seen encasing the branches. The berries are covered in a wax used to make bayberry candles and soaps.

Tolerant of poor growing conditions, such as wet soils, drought, and even salt from roads makes this a versatile shrub in any garden, but added winter interest makes this a real winner. Plant in sun or part shade, once established this shrub is very low maintenance.

Bayberry almost glistens in the winter landscape with the grayish white berries covering the branches like mini snowballs. These gems also bring in colorful birds to feed on the fragrant fruits creating a playful and colorful scene in an otherwise drab landscape.

There are many shrubs that bring appeal to the winter scape whether it is from interesting architecture, colorful stems, interesting fruits or even unexpected flowers. There is no need to feel so gloomy about winter; there is color to be found!



A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Leslie Hunter and


Posted: 02/01/18   RSS | Print


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Plant Selection Key to Reducing Allergies
by Diana M. Rankin       #Health and Safety   #Spring   #Weather

Common ragweed is one of the most allergenic of all pollen sources, rating a 10 on OPALS. It is an annual weed and should be removed from the garden before it blooms.

Do you or does someone you know suffer from seasonal allergies, hay fever or asthma triggered by pollen? Are you tired of watery itchy eyes, a scratchy throat, a runny nose, sneezing and a stuffy head whenever you venture into your backyard? No, this isn’t a commercial for the newest antihistamine or decongestant miracle drug. Instead, it’s about how to have a garden that is virtually allergy-free.


Change in Ragweed Pollen Season (1995-2013)
This map demonstrates how the ragweed allergy season is increasing from south to north. This seems to be caused by a combination of warmer temperatures, later fall frosts and increased carbon dioxide in the air.


Prevalence of Pollen-Related Allergies
In 2013, the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology estimated 16.9 million adults and 6.7 million children were diagnosed with allergic rhinitis, commonly known as hay fever. Seasonal allergic rhinitis is usually caused by sensitivity to tree, grass, weed or other plant pollens.

Common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) alone affects an estimated 26 percent of all Americans. A single ragweed plant can produce up to 1 billion pollen grains in a season and these are carried long distances by the wind. The ragweed season is getting longer in many parts of the country. “Warmer temperatures and later fall frosts allow ragweed plants to produce pollen later into the year, potentially prolonging the allergy season for millions of people,” said a 2014 Environmental Protection Agency report. Furthermore, higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stimulate plant growth, leading to more overall pollen production. We can look forward to longer, possibly more severe, hay fever seasons triggered by all kinds of wind-borne pollen.

What’s a Gardener to Do?
Avoidance is the key in allergy relief, wrote Thomas Leo Ogren in his book, Allergy-Free Gardening, (Berkeley, TenSpeed Press. 2000). Here are some suggestions:

• Eliminate allergy-causing plants in your yard and avoid exposure to those plants elsewhere.
• Don’t plant allergy-triggering plants near the home or garage entryways.
• Stay away from plants with pollen carried by the wind. This includes ragweed and several tree species.
• Remove ragweed and related weeds, such as pigweed (Amaranthus palmeri) and lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) before the flowers appear.
• Avoid being outdoors between 5 and 10 a.m., when the air is most saturated with pollen grains.
• Monitor pollen counts using local weather media and online resources, such as, or with a pollen alert app for your smart phone. (For reviews of these apps, visit,
• Avoid being outdoors on windy days, especially when pollen counts are high.
• Wear a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health- or NIOSH- rated, 95-filter mask if pollen counts are high.
• Take medication prior to going outdoors, but only as directed by your allergist.
• Select only garden and landscape plants that will not contribute to pollen allergy symptoms.


‘Boulder Blue’ is a beautiful grass for the perennial border, but blue fescues are rated 9 on OPALS. Do not plant it in your allergy-free garden. • The herb borage has blue flowers, which are a favorite of bumblebees. These are perfect flowers, meaning that both male and female parts are within a single flower. • In the spring, pine trees shed copious amounts of pollen. The OPALS rating, however, is only a 4 because the pollen is waxy and not very irritating to mucous membranes.

Plants for a (Nearly) Allergy-Free Garden
Allergy-Free Gardening is one of the best resources for finding which plants have the greatest allergy potential. Each plant is rated on the Ogren Plant-Allergy Scale, trademarked as OPALS. This scale of 1 to 10 is based on Ogren’s groundbreaking research on the allergy-potential of hundreds of plants, including cultivars of the most allergenic landscape plants. In addition to pollen, the scale considers the potential for contact dermatitis, odor allergy and whether or not a plant is poisonous. A rating of 1 indicates the most allergy-free and 10 the least allergy-free.

There are also some general rules, which Ogren discusses in his book.

• Avoid plants that are pollinated by the wind, rather than insects. Wind-pollinated plants have small, inconspicuous green or brown flowers in dense clusters, and the pollen grains are small, light and dry, so that they can be carried easily by the wind. These include Artemesia species, such as tarragon and wormwood; conifers; spring-blooming deciduous trees; and grasses, especially un-mowed Kentucky bluegrass, zoysia grass, junegrass, timothy and orchard grass.
• Select bright, highly colored, lightly scented flowering plants. These have heavy, sticky pollen that bees and other insects move from flower to flower in the pollination process. Examples are: crab apples (Malus domestica), Petunia, roses (Rosa), Dianthus, daylilies (Hemerocallis hybrids) and Zinnia.







Above: Coralburst Crabapple (Malus ‘Coralcole’)

Right: Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ is an excellent selection for the allergy-free, perennial border. Tubular pink flowers are insect-pollinated.

Plant Parts and Pollination
Finding out how the male pollen makes its way to the female flower parts is the best way to know a specific plant’s potential for causing allergy symptoms.

• Perfect flowers are those that have both male and female parts inside a single flower. Pollinating insects only need to move the pollen a short distance from flower to flower. Perfect-flowered plants include apples (Malus) and roses.
• Monoecious plants have separate male and female flowers on the same plant. The pollen is transferred from one flower to the other by gravity or by wind. Examples of monoecious plants are corn and oak.
• Dioecious plants are separate-sexed; that is, individual plants in the species are either all male or all female. For pollination to occur, the wind must carry pollen from the male plant to the female. Examples of dioecious plants include ash, willow, poplar, holly and some maples.

Red Sunset is a female red maple selection, thus pollen-free. It was named Iowa Tree of the Year in 2000.

For the allergy-sufferer, perfect-flowered plants are the best choice. Monoecious plants should be avoided along with male dioecious plants. Female dioecious plants are acceptable, but beware that some, such as ginkgo (G. biloba), bear messy or unpleasant fruit. There are also some female-named cultivars, such Red Sunset red maple (Acer rubrum ‘Franksred’), that are excellent choices for the home landscape.

Although it can be challenging to plant a nearly allergy-free garden and landscape, it is definitely possible. You may not be able to plant some of the things you would like to have, but there are many, many others that are good substitutes. As Ogren’s book emphasizes, anyone can have a garden that is very nearly allergy-free through avoidance and careful selection.


A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of, Diana M. Rankin, Bailey Nurseries, bendicks/, and Van Meuven.


Posted: 02/01/18   RSS | Print


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Little But Mighty
by Kenni Lou Walker       #Garden Profile   #Misc

The bed displays a variety of flowers and interesting elements.

Opportunities abound for beautiful gardens in manufactured housing and condo communities. Zellwood Station, historically a railway station, is a resident-owned 55+ adult community with manufactured homes and many amenities, including a challenging PGA-level golf course. The rolling hills cradle numerous lakes and ponds as well as wooded areas. Each of the 1,040 homes includes a small plot of land, as well as homeowner association guidelines that limit architectural and landscaping options. Examples of what can be accomplished under these circumstances abound within Zellwood Station, including Jeanne Bakkuum’s small space. Jeanne is one of those homeowners who have maximized her small space, transforming it into a beautifully manicured area that provides year-round beauty. She used color, texture, height, and variety to create a head-turning landscape nestled a compact space.

Jeanne hails from Nashville, where her love for gardening was inspired by the fact that where she lived was once a dairy farm, giving her “unbelievably” fertile soil.

A hanging basket of orchids that dangle under the Lagrostrum tree.

Living in Florida, Jeanne was fascinated by the variety of plants that bloomed year round and thus began her decades of experimentation. She persisted through a myriad of successes mixed with a few “learning opportunities.” Though her gardens are now well established, Jeanne continues to try new looks and new plants.

The largest garden began as lawn that was a challenge due to persistent chinch bugs. Jeanne replaced her St Augustine grass with zoysia grass, which is relatively free from pest and disease problems, but not without its challenges. The most common of which is thatch buildup that requires periodic removal. But after several years, the lawn developed into a thick, perfectly plush carpet.

The back side of the garden displays a memorial container, rocks and driftwood.

Jeanne carved out a well-defined garden in a raised bed filled with fertilized soil in full sun surrounded by a dry moat. She used golden trumpet plants (Allamanda cathartica) and Knock Out roses (Rosa cvs.) to anchor the space. She likes the Knock Out roses for their bright color and minimal maintenance – requiring just a bit of rose food and only early spring and late fall pruning. Deadheading prolongs the blooming season for several months. This season, the space also displays red geraniums (Pelargonium spp. and cvs.), purple mophead hydrangeas (H. macrophylla), purple and white Petunia, green and pink polka dot plants (Hypoestes phyllostachya), and Mexican petunias (Ruellia spp.).

The garden is enhanced by two family mementos. “Mary Frances” is a statue of a young girl with a bird perched on her outstretched hand. She was a Mother’s Day gift from her son Gary. A planter from Jeanne’s late husband’s memorial lies on its side, spilling out lavender blue periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus). Look closely and you can see a variety of river rocks, porous airy pumice, and lava rocks that embellish the space.

Surprises are found at every turn, such as this beautiful Plumeria.

Surprises are found everywhere you turn in this garden. Different varieties of yellow, white, pink, and mixed orchids hang gracefully from a tree-form Ligustrum. Asiatic jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum) covers the ground at the base of a tree. More orchids hang from the carport and a collection of succulents – including blue chalksticks (Senecio serpens), Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), and ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) – is displayed in interesting containers on pedestals of varying heights.

At the end of our visit, Jeanne shared some of her gardening tips:
•  Group plants with similar sun requirements.
•  Don’t be afraid of color.
•  And above all: Be brave!


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 23 Number 1.
Photography courtesy of Kenni Lou Walker.


Posted: 01/31/18   RSS | Print


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Green Gardening for All
by Adam Sarmiento       #Landscaping   #Natives   #Sustainability and Self-Sufficiency

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

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 five things you can do this year to make your garden healthier and more ecofriendly.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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 five 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: 01/31/18   RSS | Print


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Out There Plants
by Garry V. McDonald       #Misc   #Unusual   #Vegetables

Teosinte is a wild ancestor of modern corn and produces edible grain, although not anything like regular maize. Teosinte flowers late in the summer so it is dicey if the ears will mature before frosts occur in most temperate zones.

At the risk of being a little too outré, I grew some plants that are not the usual garden suspects. These are plants known in the business as “straight species,” and are closer to wild types and not grown in normal suburban gardens. Give these plants a shot once you get tired of the standard garden fare.

(Zea mays var. parviglumis)

Teosinte is a vernacular name given to several Zea species and botanical varieties, all progenitors of modern maize and native to Mexico and Central America. The variety I grew came from the Balsas River Valley in south-central Mexico, which is thought to be the center of corn’s domestication more than 9,000 years ago. I’ll admit the plants weren’t the most ornamental species I’ve ever grown, but they were definitely conversation pieces and I was able to bring samples to one of my classes for show-and-tell (students need to know where their food comes from). This variety is a short-day plant, meaning they did not start flowering until September and can be hard to get ears to ripen if autumn arrives too early. Seed need to be soaked in warm water overnight before sowing to aid germination. To ensure success, I started transplants in May and set out in early June. The plants “tiller,” or throw up multiple stems, forming a dense clump unlike modern corn, which has been reduced to a single stalk and an exact number of ears depending on the cultivar. Unfortunately they had all the usual corn pests, which were a pain. The “ear” on this teosinte is only about 1 inch long with triangular hard kernels. Off the wall maybe, but was fun to grow and interesting to show visitors.

Mt. Pima tobacco is native to the mountains of western Mexico and has beautiful rosy-pink flowers that are fragrant in the evenings. • This native tobacco is used by the Santo Domingo pueblo in New Mexico for rain ceremonies.

(Nicotiana tabacum)

I don’t roll my own or countenance smoking, but I thought it would be interesting to grow tobacco, traditionally used by indigenous people because of the large bold foliage and fragrant night-scented flowers. Ornamental flowering tobacco is commonly a hybrid of Nicotiana alata, N. langsdorfii, or N. sylvestris bred to be so short and compact that there is little character or substance left to make an impact in the garden. I grew two heirloom varieties: one was a selection from the Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico traditionally used in rain ceremonies and the other form used by locals from the Mount Pima area of the western Chihuahua region of northern Mexico. The variety from Mount Pima turned out to be a winner, with beautiful pink-toned flowers produced over a long period over the growing season. I did cut the plants back about midsummer when they started to go to seed and the rejuvenated plants re-flowered until I finally pulled the plants in October. The extract from tobacco leaves is considered a powerful nicotine-based insecticide, which may be true, but I finally pulled the plants because caterpillars kept eating the leaves … go figure. The Santo Domingo variety didn’t perform as well, although the white flowers were beautiful and the evening fragrance was sweet. I went in with transplants in June and they quickly bolted and never produced the large velvety leaves I was expecting. I shall try again next season, possibly direct seeding. Both types produced a zillion seed so I have seed for next year or give to friends.

Small in stature, this chili pepper native to south Texas and Mexico packs a wallop when it comes to heat.

Chiltepin pepper
(Capsicum annuum var. glabrisuculum)

This chili pepper is one I collected years ago growing under a mesquite tree in the Texas Hill Country. The fruit are tiny, but can pack a big wallop, coming in at 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville units, which is chili-head speak for pretty dang hot. Perennial in its native haunts, most of us will have to grow it as an annual. Mine often reseed from year to year and I find they tend to make better plants if left to their own devices. Of course they never come up exactly where I want them, so I always start some transplants to set out. They need warm soil to germinate so I usually break out the heating mat for this one along with the other peppers. The handsome plants are compact with very dark green foliage and ornamental small, round, bright red fruit. Protected in mild areas, they may overwinter and are useful for Christmas decorations. Used in cooking, a little bit goes a long way, but I like them for flavoring soups and chili and also to make a vinegar-pepper sauce. Some folk will even roast them over a mesquite wood fire to give them a smoky flavor. There are many other pepper species that are ornamental as well as useful. My tabasco (Capsicum frutescens) pepper plants grow 4 feet tall and are as pretty as any garden annual or perennial when full of fruit in the fall.

(possibly Petunia axillaris x P. integrifolia)

This unimproved variety of garden petunia has been in my family for several generations.

I have no idea where this particular petunia came from. It’s always been a part of my life and one of the earliest plants I remember. They came up all over my grandmother’s rose beds, possibly originally from my great-grandmother, who I understand was a keen gardener. As a young child I loved the violet-flowering forms and pulled up the white-flowering forms. Over time, I inadvertently and unknowingly selected a line of highly scented violet-flowering forms that would survive mild winters. Time passed and I wasn’t around to thin the herd so the white-flowering forms re-emerged. More time passed and I thought they had died out completely, when a couple of years ago, some long-dormant seed must have gotten exposed and sprouted. Most were pale violet to lilac but still fragrant. I couldn’t find any seed, so I collected cuttings and brought them back and put them out in a petunia trial I have planted at our research center. Last fall I couldn’t find any seed and forgot to get cuttings before an unexpected freeze, so I assumed I’d lost them again. I can’t explain it, but by some quirk of nature, and after some autumnal rain this past season, petunias emerged. Imagine my surprise when I discovered violet flowers along with pure white flowers. So it looks like I’m back in business.

The gardening life is full of surprises. Other plants I’ve grown in the past that are kind of out there but ornamental included maroon and white cotton, purple-leaved sugarcane, and beans spotted like a palomino horse.


A version of this article appeared in a February 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Garry V. McDonald.


Posted: 01/30/18   RSS | Print


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Add a Woodland Garden
by Gene E. Bush       #Natives   #Shade   #Themed Gardens

This mature oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) shelters native wildflowers beneath its large leaves.

My woodland garden is now 30-plus years old. During all those years of reading magazine articles, purchasing gardening books and attending numerous symposiums, two teachers have stood out above all else. I would highly recommend both as your next shade garden gurus. Wisest of all woodland gardening gurus is the forest trail closest to you for frequent visits and observations.

It can and will teach you all you need to know about gardening in the shade. The more you visit and observe forests, the more you are capable of learning. A local wildflower guide will give you names to those plants you see while hiking the trails. Now you know the names of the plants that you find attractive and want to include in your shade garden. Knowing the names means a purchase at your local garden center, or perhaps a mail order, can be made.

Polygonatum sibericumis a bit over 5 feet of stiffly upright, clumping stems. Leaves and stems are blue-green and the small white flowers hang like tassels in the leaf junctions.

Shade garden or woodland garden?
Perhaps the words “shade garden” would fit many gardeners better than “woodland garden.” Many gardeners will not have the opportunity to garden beneath mature trees, but rather will garden in the shade of a building. However, the needs of the two environments are very similar.

Nature has created an environment in our deciduous woodlands that is centered on seasons. Some perennials awaken early in late winter before the leaves appear on trees; quickly bloom, set seed and then go dormant as the canopy closes above. Some plants will not bloom until the last gasp of fall. Foliage will become very important as it will often change colors with the seasons. All have adapted to surviving and thriving at the feet of the tall trees that demand first share of water and nutrients.

There are many levels of growth in a forest that translate into garden design. Tall shade trees, with an overall canopy above that takes first serving of available light, have a root system that all plants below must compete with. Beneath the largest trees are medium trees followed downward in size by shrubs. Finally it is on the forest floor where the perennials, tubers and bulbs are located. Vines begin the journey upward once more from floor to ceiling of the shaded environment.

Soil composition
We gardeners attempt to do what it took nature hundreds, even thousands, of years to accomplish. We want that optimal growing environment of humus-rich garden soil that is well-drained, but retains moisture. Mother Nature accomplished that with falling leaves each November — leaves that eventually crumbled along with the twigs and limbs; sometimes entire trees that fell over and rotted among the carpet of dead foliage. Insects lived and died among the leaves and limbs, adding to the layer we refer to as forest duff. Soil is a living web of fungi, bacteria and living organisms that are both visible and too small to be noticed when we disturb the soil.

Shade distinctions
Shade is nothing more than an obstruction between you and the sun.

Some woodland plants grow at the edge of the forest, some grow in the center where shade is darkest, and others grow in a clearing or thicket. There is a variation in the amount of light some woodland plants need to bloom well and thrive. You will need to determine how much light your garden has to offer so you know where to place your plants.

Mark the boundaries of your garden, and begin to check the area at various times of the day. As the sun moves from east to west the intensity and duration of available light changes from hour to hour. The premium placement for a woodland garden is an eastern exposure, for it is the most gentle of exposures, protected from the hottest part of the day.

A shaft of sunlight shines through dogwood (Cornus sp.) foliage in the center of this shaded garden. A hedge shields the garden from full force of the sun.

Creating by emulating Nature

When beginning a shade garden, the soil should be loosened, usually to a depth of 8 to 12 inches. Since we are disturbing a living web when loosening the soil, I add a good compost, along with organic matter such as aged hardwood mulch to compensate, and mix thoroughly. I always top-dress with chopped leaves or composted hardwood mulch that will decay in a year or two, adding to the top layer as a water-retaining and temperature-regulating blanket.

I am a firm believer in using native plants. Begin with what grows in your region — for nothing encourages more gardening like success. Plants native to your area are already adapted to your climate and soil. Create by emulating what nature is showing by example.

If, at some point in your shade gardening success you wish to expand your horizons, there is another related world to explore. There are shade-loving plants from around the temperate world known as non-native or exotic plants. Many are related to our natives. There is no end of hardy plants available to a shade gardener. Mostly it is a shortage of awareness.

Take that walk, purchase that wildflower guide, and create a bit of nature in your yard.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Gene E. Bush.


Posted: 01/30/18   RSS | Print


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Make More Green
by Gerald Klingaman       #Containers   #How to   #Propagation

As winter approaches, gardeners are faced with a dilemma – keep the plants or the spouse? I suspect more than one marriage has ended over a fundamental disagreement about the need to move the patio jungle into the living room. Good gardeners live on a slippery slope because they want their patio plants to flourish during their respite outside, and before you know it, it’s decision time. Do I save the philodendron or the favorite easy chair?

But there is a way out – propagate the overgrown vegetation and bring in small, manageable plants. Leave the big ones outside to see if they will survive the icy blast of winter. Of course they won’t, but you can appease your conscience by proclaiming their sacrifice to be part of a winter hardiness test you were conducting.

Terminal cuttings of several houseplants ready to stick into the rooting bag.

Cutting Propagation Basics
While there are a number of different methods of plant propagation, here we will concentrate on just one kind – cutting propagation. Cuttings are used to propagate trees and shrubs, herbaceous perennials and a wide array of houseplants.

Because plants vary so much in size and shape, a number of different cutting types are used in propagation. The most basic cutting is called a terminal cutting, consisting of a stem with a few leaves attached. The length of the stem will vary depending on the kind of plant, but 3 to 5 inches is a good range for a wide variety of plants. Usually the cutting will contain four to six leaves. For easily rooted plants, the basal cut can be anywhere on the stem, but for more difficult to root plants, make the cut just below a node. Don’t be greedy and make the cutting too big because large cuttings with lots of leaves loose water quickly. Wilted cuttings quickly turn into dead cuttings. Avoid stems that have flowers. For example, chrysanthemums root easily in the early part of summer before flower buds form, but after the buds appear rooting is much more difficult.

When you try leaf bud cuttings of pothos, crowd as many as possible into the pot. • Each leaf of a vining plant such as pothos is a potential cutting.

Leaf-bud Cuttings
Single-eye or leaf bud cuttings are used to propagate plants with large leaves or those that require lots of growing points to create a full appearance. These cuttings consist of an inch of stem above and below the resting bud and a leaf. The term “single-eye” is usually used to refer to plants that have alternate leaf arrangement such as pothos or nephytis, while “leaf bud” is used for plants with opposite arrangement such as coleus or hydrangea. For leaf bud cuttings with opposite leaves, just trim off one of the leaves. Plants with really large leaves – such as some coleus cultivars, hydrangea cuttings, rubber plant and other similar plants – usually have their leaves cut in half, simply so they don’t take up so much room in propagation.

This new plant started from a fallen leaf of a burro’s tail sedum.

New rhizomes are emerging from this mother-in-law’s tongue, but it took almost eight months for them to appear.

Leaf Cuttings
Some plants have the ability to regenerate new plants directly from leaves using leaf cuttings. Leaf cuttings are used only for houseplant propagation, and if another method of propagation is possible, it is preferred because this is a slow procedure. Relatively few species of plants can be propagated by leaf cuttings with African violets and its kin, succulent leafed plants in the jade plant family, some sedums and hens-and-chicks, many peperomias, the fleshy leafed begonias such as rex and beefsteak begonias, sansevieria, and a few other miscellaneous plants making up the list. Leaf cuttings are unique in the vegetable world in that the plant must not only form new roots, it must form a new shoot. Some plants such as rubber plant and chrysanthemum form roots from a leaf but lack the ability to produce a new vegetative shoot so you are left with a eunuch.

Succulent leaves from sedums and echeverias can be simply scattered on the surface of a pot like so many jellybeans and they will eventually root and form new plants. African violet cuttings are made by removing a mature leaf and petiole and then sticking the petiole in the rooting medium. Rex begonia leaves may either be laid flat on moist media or cut into pie shaped wedges (each wedge must contain a major leaf vein) and inserting the pointed end into the media. Usually eight to ten weeks is required to produce a new growing point using leaf cuttings, so patience is a virtue with this type of propagation.

Moisten the stem and then dip the cuttings in rooting hormone.

Using Rooting Hormones
Most plants have the ability to form roots on their own, but the speed and uniformity of rooting can be increased dramatically by using one of the commercially available rooting hormones. The hormone involved, auxin, occurs naturally in plants. Auxin has many functions including stimulating cell division, which is why flowers turn to face the brightest location in the garden, stems grow upright when tipped over, and why the apical growing point suppresses the growth of buds below it on the stem. Stimulation of rooting, while important to propagators, is a relatively minor role for this important plant hormone.

Rooting hormones are available from most garden centers and home stores under brand names such as Rootone or Dip’N Grow. The first is a powder that contains auxin at a concentration of 1000 parts per million active ingredients; Dip’N Grow is a liquid that is diluted in water and can have a range of concentrations depending on the amount of water added. If stored in a cool, dry location, they maintain their effectiveness for years. The 1000 ppm concentration of the powder is ideal for most houseplants, but a higher concentration is desirable if you get ambitious and attempt to root woody plants.

The rooting powder is applied by first dipping the bottom half inch of the cutting in water and then dipping this portion in the hormone. Tap the cutting to remove any excess powder. To avoid getting moisture and debris in the hormone container, remove a small quantity of the powder before dipping the cutting and then discard any unused material. When liquid hormones are used, the basal 1/2 inch is inserted into the solution for a five second count.

A 6-inch pot, fresh potting soil, a plastic bag and a coat hanger make an ideal rooting environment for many houseplants.

Creating the Right Rooting Environment
The most conspicuous role for roots is water uptake, so obviously cuttings without roots get dry in a hurry. Hence it follows that the most critical environmental requirement for rooting is to provide conditions that keep the plant from wilting. The most obvious way to prevent wilting is to simply stick the cuttings in a vase and allow them to root in standing water. This actually works for a few plants such as pothos, coleus and even African violet leaves, but the roots formed in this low oxygen environment don’t function very well when finally transplanted to soil. Oftentimes a new root system will have to form when the water-rooted cuttings are transplanted to soil, so rooting in soil is much preferred to rooting in water.

Crowd the cuttings in, mixing and matching plants as needed to fill the rooting bag.

Place the finished pot in a location where it receives bright light but not direct sun.

An easy way to prevent wilting is to provide a high humidity environment that prevents excessive water loss. On a small scale this can be accomplished by using a plastic covered rooting pot or, if more cuttings are needed, to build a rooting box. The plastic traps the water vapor released from the reservoir of moist soil, keeping the air at 100 percent humidity, which prevents wilting. I have had plants survive in this terrarium-like environment for two years with absolutely no attention. Because no moisture is lost from the system, they will not dry out. Use any good, high quality potting media for rooting. To ensure you have the proper moisture level in the media, wet the mix the evening before you take your cuttings. Depending on the ease of rooting, roots will begin appearing in three to six weeks for most herbaceous plants and houseplants. You can build a similar setup from a two-liter soft drink container by cutting the jug in half about 4 inches from the base. Put moist soil in place, stick your cuttings in, and then use tape to reattach the top of the container. Rooting containers must never be placed in direct sun or the plants will be roasted, just like they would be if left in the car on a sunny afternoon in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

You can crowd a dozen or more cuttings into the container, mixing and matching a wide assortment of plants. Don’t worry if cuttings touch. If moldy leaves show up in a couple of weeks, open the bag and remove the leaves. Or, if you want to propagate a new favorite plant, the rooting bag can be used to produce a nice full plant in short order. If this is your goal, don’t be stingy with cuttings. To make a nice attractive pothos pot, stick 12 to 15 single eye cuttings in a 6-inch pot. Really crowd them in. Each leaf bud will produce a new shoot and in a few months you will have a full, well-proportioned pot. For cuttings with upright growth such as jade plant, nephytis or aluminum plant, stick three to five terminal cuttings all in one spot in the center of the pot. As the roots form, the plants will begin to grow and in no time you will have an attractive, full plant. If you use only one cutting to start a new plant, you will eventually be able to grow a nice plant but it will take years to do so, not months.

After a month or so, give the plants a gentle tug to see if they have rooted. Once they are rooted, remove the plastic bag and allow the roots to develop a couple weeks longer before transplanting. If you were propagating just one kind of plant in the pot, no transplanting is needed. Make the vow now to go easy on the fertilizer so that this new baby won’t turn into another giant that will overpower your living room when winter rolls around.


A version of this article appeared in an October 2003 print edition of State-by-State Gardening Magazine.
Photography courtesy of Gerald Klingaman.


Posted: 01/17/18   RSS | Print


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Lighten Up
by Tom Hewitt       #Colorful   #Flowers   #Shade

Shade gardens can be surprisingly colorful if you choose the right plants.

With the exception of butterfly gardens, I much prefer shady gardens to sunny ones. Shady gardens are more restful, cooler during the summer, and provide an abundance of green. But they can also present a challenge when it comes to adding color. Fortunately, there are many more options available than most people realize.

That said, it must be noted that precious little blooms in deep shade. That’s why I go to such great lengths to lighten things up. Every year or so I have my trees selectively pruned to let in as much light as possible. This also lets in more rainfall, as heavily shaded gardens tend to be a bit on the dry side.

When designing a garden from scratch, it’s better to pick trees that provide filtered light rather than dense shade. In southern Florida, jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia), tamarind (Tamarindus indica), and false tamarind (Lysiloma latisiliquum) come to mind. I love the dappled shade provided by royal poincianas (Delonix regia), but have issues with their surface roots and brittle nature. With any tree you choose, keep its ultimate size in mind and space trees far enough apart so their canopies don’t compete.

Clockwise: Spiderworts bloom in full sun, but also love the shade. • Mussaendas benefit from shade during the hottest part of the day. • Tropical hydrangeas love partial shade in southern Florida.

Thinning out lower-level vegetation also helps; that will allow more early morning and late afternoon sun to penetrate the interior. This also helps improve air circulation, which is essential to the overall health of any garden. When selectively pruning, make sure you maintain a plant’s natural shape as much as possible.

Light to moderate shade (especially in southern Florida) allows you to grow a number of things normally thought of as sun worshippers, such as Pentas, Hibiscus, Crossandra, tropical sage (Salvia coccinea), Angelonia, and spiderworts (Tradescatia spp.). Leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum) does best in light shade, as do most bromeliads.

Balsam is an impatiens relative that loves shady areas.

I grow shade-loving annuals in pots on my patio. One of my favorite combos is lobelia (Lobelia erinus), Begonia ‘Dragon Wing Pink’ and creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia). Other shade lovers include Ageratum, Viola, wishbone flower (Torenia fournieri), balsam (Impatiens balsamina), and Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’. ‘Marguerite’ sweetpotato vine (Ipomoea batatas ‘Marguerite’), golden pothos  (Epipremnum aureum), Ajuga, and polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya) make good fillers. Shade actually reduces the stress on many annuals as summer approaches, making them last longer.

Many tropical bulbs prefer varying degrees of shade. Some of my favorites are Amazon lilies (Eucharis grandiflora), blood lilies (Scadoxus spp.), Crinum, and Amaryllis. Blackberry iris (Iris domestica) also appreciates light shade, as do walking iris (Neomarica spp.) and African iris (Dietes spp.).

In deeper shade, however, it is better to rely more on foliage than flowers. Shady-loving annuals and perennials with colorful leaves include Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus), blood leaf (Iresine spp.), stromanthe (Stromanthe sanguinea), Calathea, peacock ginger (Kaempferia pulchra), variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’), ‘Lime Zinger’ elephant ear (Xanthosoma aurea ‘Lime Zinger’), aluminum plant (Pilea cadierei), and Anthurium.

Azaleas (Rhododendron) continue to be my favorite blooming shrubs for shady gardens. But this far south, countless other shrubs appreciate at least some relief from the sun during the day, like tropical hydrangea (Dombeya spp.), Mussaenda (‘Marmalade’ is my absolute favorite), and blue ginger (Dichorisandra thyrsiflora). For deeper shade, plume flowers (Justicia spp.) offer showy blooms in every color imaginable, and are great for “jazzing up” dull areas.

Florida cat whiskers do well in light shade. • Begonia odorata ‘Alba’ tolerates more sun than most begonias, but still prefers some shade. • The leaves of Stromanthe will actually burn in full sun.

Nothing adds class and dignity to an all-green garden like white. Fortunately, two of my favorite white-blooming shrubs also appreciate some shade. Both white candles (Whitfieldia elongata) and Florida cat whiskers (Orthosiphon aristatus) also attract butterflies. There is also a purple-flowering form of cat whiskers, but it never lasts long in my garden and I hesitate to recommend it.

Many shrubs with variegated or colorful leaves also like light to moderate shade, such as caricature plant (Graptophyllum pictum), copperleaf (Acalypha spp.), sanchezia (Sanchezia speciosa), zebra plant (Aphelandra squarrosa), ti plants (Cordyline spp.), and miagos bush (Osmoxylon lineare).

Plants will quickly let you know when they’re getting too much shade. Leaves drop, plants get spindly and refuse to bloom, and you begin to experience pest and disease problems. Firebush (Hamelia patens) and beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) are classic examples. Conversely, plants with scorched leaves are usually begging for more shade. Do your homework and always put the right plant in the right place. With so many options available, why do anything else?


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 22 Number 1.
Photography courtesy of Tom Hewitt.


Posted: 01/17/18   RSS | Print


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The Lure and Lore of Hellebores
by Charlotte Kidd       #Colorful   #Flowers   #Plant Profile






They are mostly problem-free, with delicate-looking flowers that appear early in the spring. They have a long rich history, and deer hate them. What’s not to love about hellebores?

Looking for an evergreen perennial with elegant, richly colorful flowers that thrives in shade and doesn’t tempt deer? The leafy hellebore (Helleborus spp.) is the gardener’s favorite for those qualities and more.

Mostly problem free, hellebores bloom from late winter to early spring across the United States in Zones 5 and 6. Their drooping flowers can be pink, mauve, white, speckled, green, burgundy, yellow, bi-colored, black-purple and more. They last into the summer, becoming greener or darker with maturity

Cut the flowers short to bring indoors and float in a shallow dish or vase. When little else is in bloom, these beauties will delight for many weeks, changing color as they age. The Perennial Plant Association named hellebore “Plant of the Year” for 2005.

Helleborus‘ Double White Spotted’

Hellebore History
In Elizabethan lore, hellebores and hollies planted near your door would keep your home free of evil spirits and witches. Is your dog misbehaving or your cat off its food? Hellebores were also thought to prevent evil spirits from bewitching animals, according to Frances Owens, docent at the Folger Shakespeare Library Garden in Washington, DC.

In Elizabethan England (1500s to 1600s), herbs and flowers were thought to have magical powers and medicinal benefits before they had culinary appeal, explains Owens. People used plants as protection from spiritual harm, to help solve day-to-day problems, and for herbal healing.

Beware though. Every part of the hellebore is poisonous. This is why deer don’t browse the leaves. The name tells all. The genus name, Helleborus comes from the Greek “elein,” meaning “to injure” and “bora,” meaning “food” alluding to the plant’s poisonous nature.

Hellebores Today
Love knows no danger. For some, the hellebore is as captivating as the orchid. Plantsman and author David Culp vividly remembers being drawn to them some 30 years ago in Georgia and outside his 1910 home in North Carolina.

“This love affair has been going on a long time,” Culp says. “They come in every color except red and blue. I like all the forms—singles, doubles, semi-doubles. Once you fall under their spell, they’re highly addictive. It’s like falling in love—you can’t get enough.

“I do anything I can to encourage people to appreciate the lure and magic of hellebores,” adds Culp. At home in southeastern Pennsylvania, Culp cultivates and breeds new strains of Brandywine Hybrids™—hand-pollinated, self-pollinated, and open-pollinated seedlings—when he’s not speaking, teaching and otherwise promoting his passion.

Developed with loving care by David Culp, Helleborus x hybridus ‘Brandywine’ has strains of many colors.

In late February, clip off the dead and damaged leaves to make way for the hellebore’s flowers.

Planting and Feeding Hellebores
Culp and Glick offer these tips from their decades of growing experience.

•  All parts of the hellebore are poisonous, so it is best to wear gloves when handling the plant.
•  When planting or transplanting hellebore seedlings, do not squeeze the plant at the meristem, the growing point at the soil level.
•  Spring and fall are good times to plant hellebores because they push growth in cool weather.
•  Choose a rich, moist garden area, neutral to acidic soil (5.5-7.0 pH) with good drainage in shade, part shade, or some sun. (Wet soil encourages rot.) Dig a planting hole twice as deep and twice as wide as the pot. Crumble half the loose soil back into the hole. Plant the soil from the pot even with soil level around the hole. Just cover the crown with soil. Planting too deeply inhibits flower production.
•  Water deeply, and then water again with a mixture of kelp or a product to reduce transplant shock.
•  Mulch with double ground hardwood bark mulch, leaf mold, or similar organic material.
•  In the next growing season, you have a choice of nutrients. Top dress the soil with well-aged manure and leaf compost. Or apply liquid fertilizer (20-20-20) at one-quarter strength every four to six weeks. That’s one-fourth the recommended amount of fertilizer per gallon of water. When mature, measure on a good quality granular or time-release fertilizer.

Barry Glick, aka Glicksterus maximus aka The Cyber-Plantsman, is so smitten by hellebores he’s devoted more than 6 West Virginia acres to them. He cultivates some 68,000 hellebores on the hills of Sunshine Farm & Gardens in Renick.

Culp and Glick have developed their own beautiful, intricate strains of the popular Lenten hellebore (Helleborus x hybridus). Both have traveled the world seeking to appreciate what’s available, meet and share with those of like minds, and create their visions of the “best.”

Culp’s quest is for the best color and form in his Brandywine Hybrids™. He relies on collected seeds from wild-grown plants in their native habitat. “We offer only the best species for the garden and serious collector,” he explains. “For the past 14 years I have traveled to personally hand select parent plants from the best breeders from around the world.” His hybrids, he says, “add an undeniable grace of form, which is especially useful in natural or woodland gardens.”

Glick boasts hands-on and high-tech for his ‘Sunshine Selections’. His true F1 hybrids start from worldwide collections, go to the lab for tissue culture production, then to his nursery.

Left: ‘Spotted Lady’.  Right: ‘Professor Straub’.

“The ‘Sunshine Selections’ are the results of years and years of controlled breeding, fanatic attention to detail, insane obsessive compulsiveness and copious record keeping,” Glick details. “Each year I painstakingly hand-pollinate almost 1,000 parent plants that I’ve selected for a multitude of qualities such as depth of color, anemone flowers, double flowers, size of flowers, shape of flowers, vigor, symmetry, lack of symmetry and floriferousness.”

Hellebores are in the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family. Orientalis hybrid, now referred to as Helleborus x hybridus, also known as the Lenten rose, Lenten hellebore or Oriental hellebore is the most popular variety. Its colorful hybrids and cultivars bloom from March into May. Their 1½-inch to 3-inch flowers stand among green, leathery, palmate leaves. Herbaceous clumps from rhizomes range from 12 to 18 inches tall, 18 to 24 inches wide. The large flowers droop at a 45-degree angle—a survival mechanism as protection against weather that can destroy pollen and as a shelter for pollinators.

Pink and mauve Helleborus x hybridus with light green foliage plays well with purple-red Euphorbia on a slope at the Scott Arboretum, Swarthmore, Pa.

Other Species

Helleborus niger The Christmas rose or black hellebore. White flowers appear in late winter or early spring; the sepals age to pink. This is the oldest variety.

Helleborus viridis The green hellebore or bear’s foot.

Helleborus argutifolius The Corsican hellebore with pale green, cup-shaped flowers and leathery foliage.

Helleborus foetidus AKA stinking hellebore, has drooping clusters of pale green, bell-shaped flowers and evergreen foliage.

Interestingly, hellebore flowers don’t have petals. Rather each flower has five colorful sepals surrounding bisexual flower parts. Sepals are the plant’s adaptation to attract early season pollinators (like honeybees and wasps) and to protect the plant’s reproductive parts, explains Culp. Unlike petals, these sepals also actively photosynthesize, which is why they stay intact and darken through the season.

Glick adds hellebores are, “wonderful companion plants for snowdrops (Galanthus spp.), primroses (Primula spp.), foamflowers (Tiarella spp.), barrenwort (Epimedium spp.), lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.) and… well, just about anything that pleases you.”



A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2011 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Ron Capek, North Creek Nurseries, and Charlotte Kidd.


Posted: 01/17/18   RSS | Print


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Keep Your Friends Close, but Your Anemones Closer
by PJ Gartin       #Colorful   #Flowers   #Plant Profile






Move over pansy, cyclamen and snapdragon. Anemone (A. coronaria) is the new darling of the cool-season bloomers. After showing up in garden centers around mid-December last year, this scintillating Mediterranean native was snapped up faster than a gardener can say “ranunculus.” 

Anemones’ blossoms have fewer petals than its cousin, the lusciously frilly Persian buttercup (Ranunculus asiaticus). Both species belong to the ranunculus family (Ranunculaceae), whose colorful blossoms and crowfoot foliage have been admired for centuries. Anemones are found in a palette of vibrant colors — from pristine white to shades of periwinkle blue and brilliant purple. One variety even sports bright red petals with an inner band of white that surrounds navy blue stamens. When multiple clusters are placed along the edge of a flowerbed, it’s like growing bunting in your garden.

More often than not, anemones display a simple overlapping ring of poppy-shaped petals. No wonder folks sometimes call it poppy anemone. Fancier cultivars sport an extra row of petals while other varieties are reminiscent of miniature pom-pom dahlias.

Dahlia-like anemones comingle with pansy, viola and the fast-growing ground cover henbit (Lamium maculatum ‘White Nancy’).

No matter which kind you chose, anemones guarantee month after month of visual pleasure if you know what makes it tick: full sun, regular watering and well-drained soil. Wet feet promptly send it to the compost heap.

Fortunately, other cool-season annuals share anemones’ horticultural needs; so rather than sacrificing old reliable favorites such as pansy, cyclamen, or snapdragon, comingle them with anemones. Viola and starflower (Tristagma uniflorum) also make good companions. But if you crave sharp color contrast, white sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) makes the perfect foil. It’s robust, but never upstages its taller neighbors.

Although anemones look charming in window boxes — or any other type of container as long as there’s good drainage — it also cheerfully thrives in herbaceous borders. If you have ample room, plant anemones in exaggerated abundance. It’s stunning. While planting and caring for masses of them might at first seem overwhelming, horticulturists Robin Smith and Daryl Bonnette have mastered the art of growing anemones. Smith, who is supervisor of grounds at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, depends on plant geek extraordinaire Bonnette to keep thousands of anemones blooming throughout the sprawling campus.

Masses of double-petaled purple anemone nod in the sun. Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) sways in background.

Whether you’re growing a few or many, Bonnette prefers purchasing them in 6-inch pots rather than smaller ones and offers this advice, “Don’t touch or mess up the roots,” she says. Larger-sized containers hold three plants instead of one, and if not separated at planting, you’ll avoid damaging the roots. An additional plus to this strategy is that hole digging is reduced by a third. If you’re really in a hurry, simply drop the entire pot in the ground. No matter which method you choose, space trios 2½-3 feet apart.

Another important reason for planting in clusters of three is that anemones produce a single 2-inch blossom per stem. Although each plant is capable of sending up four to five flowers at a time, bunching groups instead of scattering individuals packs more visual punch.

Anemones’ flower factory dramatically slows production when spent flowers are not removed. You’ll need a sharp pair of snippers to cut off the stem at soil level. While you’re at the base of the plant, look for new buds beginning to form. Once the old stalk is removed, it doesn’t take long for another bud to shoot skyward.


Clockwise from top-left: Starflower is a reliable perennial bulb that never gets tall enough to upstage anemone. • Easy to care for and low growing, the white version of sweet alyssum accentuates anemones’ many colors and contributes texture and continuity to the overall ensemble. • Add patriotic flair to your winter garden with botanical bunting. Red, white and blue anemones will continue to bloom into late spring. • The Coronaria species of anemone is indigenous to countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.


Where Can I Get Anemones?

If your favorite garden center does not have tubers next autumn, the following mail-order sources offer A. coronaria:

American Meadows

Brent and Becky’s Bulbs

Willow Creek Gardens

One might think that pushing anemones to flower beyond their natural capability with a blossom-enhancing fertilizer makes horticultural sense, although Smith says it doesn’t. She recommends periodic doses of 6-24-12, “but don’t use a bloom booster.” Gardeners who prefer a strictly organic approach toward nutrients should be prepared to fertilize slightly more often. An easy way to tell if an anemone is low on fuel is to look for hints of yellow on lower leaves.

Although anemones are usually considered an annual, some manage a repeat performance the following year. Expect to see hints of green pushing up through the soil in mid to late September. While it’s too late to plant tubers now — that should have been done this past autumn – garden centers should have an ample selection of blooming anemones.

For gardeners who prefer true wildflowers, two species of anemone are native to North America: Canadian, or sometimes called meadow, anemone (A. canadensis; Zones 2a–6b) and tall anemone (A. virginiana; Zones 3a–9b). Sometimes difficult to locate locally, plants can be found online.


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 26 Number 1.
Photography courtesy of ©i-pag/ and PJ Gartin.


Posted: 01/16/18   RSS | Print


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Clean the Air with Houseplants
by Neil Moran       #Containers   #Environment

Cluster air purifying plants to create a green scene.

After lengthy studies, the folks at NASA have definitively established that indoor plants can help astronauts breathe cleaner, less toxic air while in outer space.

What NASA found in a study, performed in conjunction with the Associated Landscape Contractors of America, is that houseplants can effectively remove chemicals that foul our indoor air, including formaldehyde and benzene, two known carcinogens.

In addition to adding beauty, texture and fragrance, houseplants also serve a vital role in keeping the air clean in our homes and workplaces. Here are a few tips for growing healthy houseplants that just might help keep us healthy.

Pothos trails from an end table.

The key to growing air-purifying houseplants is proper placement and consistent care. In general, houseplants like to be placed in areas with humidity around 45 percent, which is a desirable range for most homes. What they don’t like is an environment that is extremely dry, which is often the case when placed near indoor heat sources. Conversely, they won’t thrive where cold drafts prevail, either.

Light Requirements
Not all houseplants have the same light requirements. Most prefer filtered light to direct sunlight. If a south-facing window is your choice for plant placement, a thin, partially transparent curtain will help filter the harsh light, especially in summer when our days are longer and the sun more intense. Some plants, such as geraniums and hibiscus, will actually thrive in the direct sunlight, while rubber plants will do better in a shady corner.

Many people often proclaim, “give me a houseplant and I’ll kill it.” Or, if a plant looks sickly or the leaves are turning yellow, they insist it needs fertilizer. Most likely the culprit is over- or under watering. More plants are killed with kindness than neglect. The ideal method to water most houseplants is to provide a good soaking of room temperature water, then let it dry out before watering again. There are exceptions to the rule: African violets and poinsettias enjoy a constantly moist—but not wet—growing medium.

Always provide good drainage! Remove any decorative baskets or plastic wrap your houseplants might have come in. Check to make sure that there are drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. Although it’s fine to set plastic saucers or trays under the pots to catch excess water, don’t let the plant sit in standing water for more than about an hour.

Root bound plants, like this wandering Jew (Tradescandia) should be transplanted to a slightly larger pot or split up into multiple plants.

Choose a time to water and try to stick with it. A weekly schedule is ideal; if you miss a week your houseplants won’t die, but after several weeks of neglect you’ll be accused of being a plant killer.

Potting mix
Houseplants do best in a quality growing medium. The mix should be a loose, sterile blend of soilless ingredients — including sphagnum peat moss, perlite and vermiculite. I like to bulk up this mixture by tossing in a few of my own ingredients. Lately I’ve been adding a handful of fine clay, used for potting bonsai, to help retain moisture. A third of the mixture in my pots is a sterile compost or other organic amendment. This material results in improved water- and nutrient-holding capacity and better-looking houseplants.

A light feeding with houseplant fertilizer will keep your plants nice and green. It also will help the plant fend off insect and disease problems. A slow-release fertilizer will keep plants fed over a three-month period. Or use a light monthly feeding of a water-soluble fertilizer specifically formulated for houseplants. Always read and follow the label instructions.

Pests and Disease
The first line of defense for insects and disease is prevention. This is particularly true of disease problems, such as fungus and mildew, which are much easier to prevent than treat. Always use sterile mixes for potting and repotting and keep leaf litter cleaned up. Be careful when bringing plants in from outdoors, from a friend down the street or the garden center. Infestations are not uncommon from these sources and can be easily avoided.

These plants are easy to grow and will filter toxins, such as formaldehyde, xylene and even small amounts of carbon monoxide, from the air:

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
Boston fern (Nephrolepsis exaltata bostoniensis)
Marginata (Dracaena marginata)
Peace lily (Spathiphyllum)
Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum)
Golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum)
Areca palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens)
English ivy (Hedera helix)
Snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata)
Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis)

Give new plants a shower or quarantine them for a few weeks of observation before introducing them to your other houseplants. Fungus problems, such as powdery mildew, can be controlled by treating with a fungicide as a preventative measure on plants susceptible to the disease.

Despite your best efforts, it is still quite possible to be plagued by insect and diseases. At least with insects we know who’s showing up for dinner. There’s about a half dozen insects that will try to undermine your efforts to grow nice houseplants.

Sucking Insects
Aphids, spider mites and scale are common sucking-type pests that will go after your houseplants. The telltale sign of an infestation of these critters is a sticky substance on the leaves. Aphids, a very tiny soft-shelled insect, will appear as a cluster under the leaves and around the stems. A spider mite infestation is evidenced by a thin webbing throughout the upper portion of the plant. Spider mites thrive in warm, dry conditions. Scale is a hard-shell insect that appears as brown spots, mostly on the leaves. Schefflera is particularly susceptible to scale. To a lesser degree you may encounter whiteflies and thrips—at least we did in the greenhouse. You can use a plant-based insecticide containing pyrethrum to control these bugs. Always read and follow the product’s label instructions.

A good initial treatment for all of the above infestations is to take the plant outdoors in warm weather and wash the insects off with warm water. In cold weather, give the plants a shower in the bath tub, sink or shower. Once dry, spray the plant with a plant based insecticide.

Quarantine the infested plant from your other houseplants. Severe infestations may warrant discarding the plant in the dumpster.



A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2013 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Neil Moran and Proven Winners.


Posted: 01/16/18   RSS | Print


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Pick a Pot
by Chris Eirschele    





Small, large, wide, narrow, made from metal, wood, plastic, stone or clay—the humble container is the foundation of the celebrated container garden. Here are some tips on choosing just the right vessels. 


The pot, which holds the soil and plants, is the foundation of any container garden. As container gardens have exploded in popularity, there is simply no longer just the clay pot in which to grow a pansy. Complicating the picture is the myriad of plants hybridized to grow in the limited space of a container garden.

Containers for growing plants can be made from metal, wood, plastic, stone or clay. The planter may be as big as a 4-foot-tall urn or as tiny as a 4-inch-diameter saucer. Pots can be porous, quickly drying out in hot summer sun, or impervious to water, creating an unintended boggy garden.

A single embossed urn planted with simple yellow pansies is still able to make a dramatic focal point, easily drawing the eye to that part of the garden.

Location, Style and Plant Favorites
When planting a container garden, gardeners may think it is a matter of deciding which is first—the pot or the plant. Consider the style and space for a container garden and then the type of plants one chooses to grow.

The location will determine the container garden. Is it on a windy balcony or set on a grassy surface? One rustic whisky-barrel, cut in half, can hold a small, but still weighty perennial bed or child’s vegetable garden. A mammoth plastic pot can be a water garden but still requires occasional draining. On the other hand, a collection of 6-inch clay pots or metal containers of assorted sizes can become a container garden, too.

These days, the selection of plants for containers is rarely regulated to traditional annuals or the odd houseplant summering outside. Plant breeders have introduced gardeners to dwarf perennials, miniature evergreens and determinate vegetable plants purposely bred to thrive in confined environments, sometimes for more than one growing season.

Making Drainage Holes in a Container

Containers without holes for drainage require gardeners to answer some questions: Is the container necessary in a garden? Is it worth the potential cracking to make a hole? Is it possible to use the container as a decorative cover (for example, a nursery pot within the pot)?

Here are some tips for making a drainage hole in a pot:
•  Create a ¾ inch diameter hole for every square foot of base for good drainage.
•  Drill approximately 1 foot up, on each side for containers that will be set on the ground.
•  Choose three smaller, well-spaced holes over one large hole.
•  Make the holes with a nail or a pickax on metal containers.
•  Use a drill with a standard bit for wooden surfaces.
•  Use a masonry drill bit on stone and terra-cotta (wet the surface first).

Choosing Container Materials
Gardeners should think about the material of their containers. This will help determine how they might have to adjust their watering routine (porous or impervious) and which plants benefit from what type of container materials (plants that like dry conditions versus boggy sites).For example, the short-rooted sedum is traditionally planted in 4-inch-deep saucer-styled clay pots, which ensures that the roots will not become water logged. The porous material of clay or terra-cotta will dry out faster under full summer sun, and for succulent plants this is a good thing. However, a planter growing vegetables all summer will benefit from a hard plastic material inhibiting the quick loss of moisture.

Eclectic containers or pots not originally intended for growing plants present the greater challenge, not only for their material and structure but for their size. Very tall urns may have been created for indoor use when originally made, while original metal watering cans and stone troughs had an entirely different purpose at the outset.


Clay pots are the traditional container used for many centuries to grow plants where no planting bed is available. Accumulation of salt and cracking are two disadvantages for using this type of material. • A collection of eclectic containers to hold soil and plants is an informal garden style often found in cottage settings. A bushel basket is an inexpensive, albeit unusual, container but effective when lined with plastic that has been punched with holes. • A plastic green flower box with a tray is a versatile container for growing plants indoors, as well as outside. Placed on a solid surface outdoors, the tray can be turned upside down. This allows the water to drain away from the bottom but not damage a deck or patio surface.

Right Plant in The Right Pot
Gardeners will want to determine container size needed to maintain the health of the plant and for aesthetic appearance, a version of “right plant, right place” or in this case, right size pot. For health reasons, the container needs to be big enough for the roots to grow, for soil to be added and plants watered. Containers that are too large inside can be adjusted by altering the planting space and filling the lower section with Styrofoam peanuts, newspaper or a false bottom. Plants in too small of a pot will quickly outgrow their space; a conundrum solved only by potting the plants in a larger pot or allowing them to die.

No matter how simple the container garden, gardeners take pride in the appearance of their plants. Choosing the correct style and color of a container is part creative license but scale between pot and plant may be more than just good looks. A tall evergreen in a container less than 24 inches in diameter and height will not have much space to thrive, while a good gust of wind is liable to topple it.

A flower garden in one pot is filled with Calibrachoa, Lantana, Bacopa and a trailing licorice plant

A combination of perennials and annuals in a mixed planting has become a popular idea for the summer garden. It is not unusual to see three or five quart-sized plants at the local garden center crammed into a stylish container. Unless the gardener is changing out some of the plants mid-season or the planting is meant for a one-time event, if the idea is appealing, consider starting with a larger container and staging them together each in their own pot or starting with smaller transplants.

Iron hay racks and hanging baskets are lined to hold in soil. The liners can be made of coconut husks or sphagnum moss, making the container extremely porous but aesthetically attractive. A plastic liner with drainage holes can also be added between liner and soil to hold in more moisture.

Water Drainage
The most important feature of any outdoor container is its ability to drain water. Iron hanging baskets and hay rack planters are made to be used with liners that do not require making holes; the liners made of coco husks are very porous. In most containers, though, drainage holes are necessary for growing plants successfully.

Generally, holes are placed at the bottom of a container. Some manufactured containers will have a plug installed, giving the gardener the option to remove it; do not forget to do this before adding soil. Wooden barrels or baskets have uneven openings between slats or weaving; in this case, gardeners will have to decide if a plastic lining is needed to hold in soil; if so, holes should be punched into the lining.

Containers set flush on the ground present a particular issue. That is, of water soaking back up into the container when too much water is flowing out too fast. Where possible, drilling holes on each side of the pot will improve this situation. A second remedy is to rest the pot on a set of cement steppers (or pot feet) to provide open space between the container and the ground.

Overwintering Pots Outside
Gardeners who live in cold regions (like Zones 5 and 6) and keep their containers outside have special challenges in maintaining a container garden. A simple solution is to only grow plants that live one growing season and empty then store all containers in the basement or garage until spring. Plants like coleus and annual geraniums can be propagated and overwintered indoors and entire tropical plants can be moved indoors to a sunny window.

But for gardeners who want to push the proverbial envelope, some plant lovers employ strategies designed to improve their chances of keeping perennials from one year to the next. Choose the hardiest perennial species or cultivar for the region, water well before the first frosts appear and move the pot to a protected location. Wrapping pots in bubble wrap and burlap, and banking around the container with mulch or straw bales are other useful tactics.

Container gardens are a viable option to grow a plant collection, whether it is for ornamental value or as a source of fresh food. The right pot, planter or basket is the foundation to creating a thriving garden.


A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2011 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Proven Winners, Chuck Eirschele, and Chris Eirschele.


Posted: 01/16/18   RSS | Print


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Grow Succulents!
by Brittany May       #Plant Profile   #Succulents










Succulents are available in a variety of textures and colors.

Succulents are a great way to begin gardening, teaching children to garden, or building the confidence of a person who doesn’t exactly have a “green thumb.” Succulents seem to thrive when you ignore them. They require very little care after planting. In fact, making sure the pot has good drainage, and that the soil has extra pumice and horticultural sand to promote drainage is as difficult as it gets. Thoroughly watering your succulents once every week or two is usually enough.

If you have ever looked at the little succulent section of the garden center, you have seen the myriad of colors, textures, and sizes that are available. You can have so much fun learning to mix and match all of your favorites to create the most unique vignettes. Don’t be afraid; be willing to make some mistakes, and you will have so much fun! Of course, you will find a favorite that you just love to grow!


String of pearls about to bloom • String of pearls in a chicken planter • String of pearls in a windowsill

String of Pearls
If you are ready to start growing succulents now, I would suggest beginning with the lovely variety known as string of pearls (Senecio rowleyanus). This simple little plant adds so much whimsy to any area of the garden, porch, or windowsill. And, if you don’t have a green thumb, this is an excellent plant to start with. They even bloom an adorable little white flower with colored stamens.

Succulents are available in a variety of textures and colors

Many years ago, I had several pots of these odd little plants, but for one reason or another, I no longer had them. I stumbled across this lovely planter at a local garden shop, and of course, the beautiful string of pearls was sitting right next to it. So, I had to start growing them once again, and yes, I have missed them.

This lovely little plant is great for anyone. It is compact and so simple to grow that it makes a perfect addition to a small apartment! Whether you place it on your windowsill, or plant a hanging basket, it will add a touch of green and life to any spot! You can also trim this plant very easily to maintain a size and shape that is perfect for your area.

String of pearls is easy to maintain, and actually doesn’t appreciate too much attention. If it is over 45 F, leave it outside in the direct sunlight. This plant thrives in warm temperatures, but also needs a period of dormancy. However, once it dips below 45 F at night, bring it indoors and set it near a window where it will still receive around six hours of light a day. Avoid placing it next to a heating source, or air vent.

If you purchased your plant from a garden center and it is in a plastic pot with gardening soil, the first thing you will want to do is re-pot it immediately. The plastic pot will hold moisture. Choosing an unglazed terra-cotta pot is a much better choice, as it will allow moisture to escape. Just like the other succulents, string of pearls prefers well-drained soil. Adding pumice and sand to normal potting soil will work, or you can find soil that has been pre-mixed for succulents.

When watering, it is best to drench it very well, then forget about it for a week or two. Too much water, and you will likely have a problem with root rot.

Trimming and pruning the stems is good for the plant. Take any stem that seems to be dropping pearls and cut it back. This will promote healthy new growth.

Trimming the string of pearls.

I love putting them in containers like this or hanging baskets so the tendrils can grow long. Your new plant will start off very small, but with a little care, the tendrils can easily reach 2-3 feet long. The pearls themselves actually hold water for the plant, and you can tell when it is getting too dry because the pearls (leaves) will begin to shrivel.

Another neat thing about this plant is the fact that you can easily create more! When everyone starts begging for a cutting, or you just want more plants, you can simply trim off a 5-6-inch piece, remove the pearls from 1-2 inches of the stem, and push it into the soil. In just a of couple weeks, new roots will begin to form. Be careful, this can be very addictive, and may lead to obsessive string of pearl propagating

Once again, string of pearls does not like attention. You can fertilize it in the spring, maybe once. Never fertilize it in the winter during its dormant time. There are specialty fertilizers created for succulents, or something simple like worm castings would be perfectly fine.

The downside to this plant is that it is toxic. Because of this, it may not be the ideal indoor plant if you have young children or pets. The pearls, if ingested, can cause vomiting and diarrhea, and the liquid inside the pearls can irritate the skin. For these reasons, special care should be taken if this is going to be an indoor plant.


A version of this article appeared in a February 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Brittany May.


Posted: 12/28/17   RSS | Print


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Pixie Perennials
by Jeanne Hilinske-Christensen       #Ornamentals   #Perennials

SunSparkler’s ‘Blue Elf’ sedum pairs nicely with ‘Fine Gold Leaf’ sedum in a hypertufa trough of hardy succulents.

Defined as petite, pint-sized, or pixie, short-statured perennials deserve space in the landscape among their height-endowed relatives. Their small growth habit gives them the advantage of fitting into tight spots and other space-restricted areas.

Ground cover sedums
‘Blue Elf’ sedum (Sedum x Orostachys ‘Blue Elf’) grows to a maximum height of 3 inches, but spreads 12-15 inches wide. Being an intergeneric hybrid, the result of a cross between a Sedum and an Orostachys, it is also known as xSedoro ‘Blue Elf’. (xSedoro is a combination of sed from Sedum and oro from Orostachys.) Like most stonecrops, ‘Blue Elf’ grows best in sunny, dry sites.

In late summer, its dark pink, fragrant flower clusters bloom just above the steel blue rosettes of foliage. Useful as an edging plant or en masse, this drought tolerant butterfly attractor grows great in containers. It is marketed as one of the SunSparkler series of sedums. Hardy in Zones 4-9.

Another sedum with the same size, growth habit, and site requirement as ‘Blue Elf” is ‘Emerald Carpet’ (S. tetractinum ‘Emerald Carpet’). The green rounded leaves form a mound that provides the perfect backdrop for the small, pinkish star-shaped flowers. In fall, the foliage takes on a bronze to burgundy hue, adding color to the garden dominated by the browning foliage of other garden occupants. Hardy in Zones 4-8.


Clockwise: Sedoro ‘Blue Elf’ works well in a rock garden setting. • Stachys spathulatai grows like a dwarf version of ‘Hummelo’ (S. officinalis ‘Hummelo’). • The foliage of Mukdenia becomes more attractive as the growing season progresses.

Dwarf betony
Stachys spathulata, formerly Stachys minima, grows 4-8 inches tall. Commonly known as dwarf betony, the ground hugging, dark green foliage has mat-forming abilities, making it ideal to hold soils in place. Beginning in mid-summer, the rose-purple tubular flowers bloom in whorls on stems held above the foliage. Not too particular about site conditions, it blooms best in full sun. Spent flowers can be removed to encourage rebloom. Great as an edging plant, it can also be planted in containers.  Hardy in Zones 5-8.

‘Crimson Fans’ (Mukdenia rossii ‘Crimson Fans’) is a low-growing perennial that provides three seasons of interest. Usually growing to less than 1 foot tall, the white bell-shaped flowers of this early bloomer announce spring well before many of the traditional spring-flowering bulbs. The maple-like green leaves are edged in red through summer, slowly turning dark red by fall. It provides an attractive border in a woodland garden. Grow in part shade and well-drained soils. Hardy in Zones 4-8.

‘Blue Mouse Ears’ hosta
Considered a miniature or dwarf hosta, yet despite its size, ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ can handle the bullying of heavy shade and the juglone of walnut trees (Juglans spp.).

The tips of the thick, blue-green to grey leaves curl a bit resembling a mouse ear. Hummingbird-attracting lavender flowers bloom in midsummer, adding a few more inches to its normal height of about 8 inches. It earned Hosta of the Year honors in 2008 by the American Hosta Growers Association. Hardy in Zones 3-8.

Pennsylvania sedge, also known as oak sedge, can be used in dry, shady sites as an alternative to turf.

Pennsylvania sedge
This is a bit of a misfit in the sedge world, where most prefer to grow in moist to wet sites. Not Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), a North American native. Although it can tolerate shady, wet conditions, it is partial to dry, well-drained soils in part shade. Growing under a height of 8 inches, the grass-like, light green foliage tends to grow in clumps, making it useful as an edging plant and a lawn substitute. Hardy in Zones 3-8.

Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) is a ground-hugger that may be better suited for an ornamental planting than an herb garden. Tiny, grey leaves grow on hairy stems that may reach 6 inches in height and form a mat usually with a 1-foot spread. Since it will rot in wet conditions, excellent drainage is a must for this plant. Grow in a dry, well-drained site in full sun. It is not a prolific bloomer, yet in summer it sports tiny pink flowers. A favorite use of this plant is a filler between stepping-stones. Hardy in Zones 5-8, but may need winter protection in some Zone 5 locations.

Firewitch dianthus was the Perennial Plant Association’s 2002 Perennial Plant of the Year.

The genus Dianthus offers several petite perennials. ‘Tiny Rubies’ (D. gratianopolitanus ‘Tiny Rubies’), Firewitch (‘Feuerhexe’), and ‘Zing Rose’ (D. deltoides ‘Zing Rose’) are a few of the low-growing types with foliage height under 6 inches. They bloom late spring into summer and will rebloom if spent flowers are removed. They form mats of linear foliage and display pink or red flowers. Plant in full sun in well-drained soils. If allowed to remain wet, the crown may rot. Hardy in Zones 3-8.

As small-space gardening continues its popularity and container gardening remains steady, pixie perennials will reach new heights as valued plants. The fairy garden fad created the trend for tiny plants, and now many of these plants have escaped the land of miniatures to inhabit beds and borders in reality sized landscapes. 


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of, Susan Martin, Jeanne Hilinske-Christensen, and


Posted: 12/28/17   RSS | Print


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The Florida Weepers
by Jane Jordan       #Flowers   #Trees

Weeping bottlebrush trees are both practical and beautiful – low maintenance and an abundance of blooms. Their bright red blooms attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

There are hundreds of types of weeping trees, but only a few that grow well in Florida. If you’re looking for a plant with cascading branches that reach toward the ground, or merely curve downward, consider the following:

Weeping bottlebrush tree (Callistemon viminalis, Zones 9-11) is one of the most popular and attractive weeping trees. It is a moderate to fast grower, maturing to about 15 feet tall. The bright red flowers that resemble bottlebrushes appear at the end of the branches and each flower is made up of long stamens that form the distinct blooms.

Bottlebrush trees bloom heavily in spring, but will also bloom sporadically throughout the rest of the year. They do well in a wide variety of soils, except for those that are highly alkaline. They are evergreen and can be grown in either sun or part shade. Water regularly and fertilize three times a year – spring, summer, and fall. A supplement of bone meal will increase blooms.

This tree shouldn’t be pruned unless you want a symmetrical fringe effect. Weeping bottlebrush trees attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees, and are perfect for adding a tropical effect or as a focal point.


‘Anderson Crepe’ tropical hibiscus produces numerous beautiful pink flowers on delicately arching branches.


Weeping tropical hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis ‘Albo Lacinatus’, also sold as ‘Anderson Crepe’ or ‘Shirley Temple’, Zones 9-11) is a shrub that is often trained into a single trunk. It produces large delicate pink flowers that form year-round on gracefully arching branches. They grow up to 12 feet tall and may need some cold protection in central Florida.

Tropical hibiscus like to be watered regularly and fertilized three times a year. A supplement of bone meal will increase blooms. They are fast growing, low maintenance, and are best trimmed sparingly, if at all, to promote the weeping effect. They can be used amongst other plantings, but they look most spectacular as a single specimen. Don’t plant near walkways unless you don’t mind cleaning up the litter of old blooms.

Yaupon holly has bright red berries in winter.

Angel’s trumpets have flamboyant flowers that are powerfully fragrant at night.

Weeping yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘Pendula’) is a Florida native that has an extreme and very distinct weeping growth habit. It usually grows up to 20 feet and, like other hollies, has dark green evergreen leaves and produces clusters of bright red berries each winter. This tree requires very little maintenance or water once established. It does best in sun or partial sun and is happy in a wide range of soils and conditions.

As with all hollies, you will need to buy a female holly if you want a tree that produces berries. Both male and female plants produce small white flowers in spring that attract pollinators such as bees. When planted in full sun, they grow very dense, making them ideal for screening. Yaupon hollies provide food and shelter for birds and wildlife in late winter.

Angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia spp., Zone 10) is popular not only for its beautiful weeping flowers in shades of white, pink, peach, or yellow, but for its intoxicating nighttime fragrance as well.

Angel’s trumpet is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) and most parts of this plants are highly toxic and extremely dangerous to ingest.

Although classified as a multi-stemmed evergreen shrub, it is often considered a weeping tree, as it can be trained to grow into a single trunk. It does well in full sun or partial shade and and reach 14 feet. Angel’s trumpet prefers enriched soil, regular watering, and fertilization three times a year. As with the plants above, bone meal will boost blooms.

These truly spectacular plants have a wide variety of uses – as a show-stopping specimen, a stunning addition to a flower border, or in a container as a focal point.

Weeping higan cherry (Prunus subhirtella ‘Pendula’, P. pendula ‘Pendula Rosea’, Snow Fountains, aka ‘Snofozam’) is the only weeping cherry species we can grow, and then, only in North Florida. When I think of a classic beautiful weeping tree, this is the one that comes to mind.

This weeping cherry is magnificent. Generally used as specimen trees, they are fast growing and can reach 30 feet tall. They are deciduous and the flowers, in various shades of pink, appear in early spring before the leaves emerge. It also produces black cherries that, while inedible, attract wildlife.

Higan cherry trees are strongly weeping ornamental trees with light pink flowers that cover the branches before the leaves emerge in spring.

Weeping higan cherry trees require full sun, well-drained soil, and should be watered regularly until established. The tree can be trimmed after flowering to maintain its shape, but when considering where to plant, be sure to choose a location so that the weeping effect will not be hindered as the tree grows.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 23 Number 1.
Photography courtesy of Jane Jordan, Sandy Poore, Richelle Stafne, Troy B. Marden, and Peter Burka.


Posted: 12/28/17   RSS | Print


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Love Those Lilies
by Denise Schreiber       #Bulbs   #Flowers   #Perennials

Plan to plant a garden full of these charming old-fashioned bloomers. True lilies are both old (namely the species lilies) and new again (there are many new cultivars and crosses). Order or buy some in late winter to plant this spring.

The lily is the queen of the garden, hands down. The intoxicating fragrance of a ‘Casa Blanca’ lily on a warm summer’s eve drifts across the garden enticing you to linger. The fragrant ‘Star Gazer’ is one of the most popular lilies in flower arrangements. The tiger lily is a friendly reminder that not all lilies are proper cultivated ladies – this is the wild child in the group. The ubiquitous Easter lily graces many homes in the spring and other lilies stand in the garden towering over everything else there. The term “gilding the lily” means trying to make something more beautiful than a lily, which I believe is impossible.

‘Forever Susan’ lily

Many plants that have “lily” as part of their common name (such as daylily, calla lily, lily of the valley or peace lily) are not “true” lilies. True lilies belong to the genus Lilium. The bulbs are made of fleshy, overlapping scales with no protective covering.

True lilies have stiff stalks with relatively narrow strap-like leaves from top to bottom. Large, showy flowers develop at the tip of each stem. These flowers may be trumpet shaped, bowl shaped or bell shaped with reflexed petals. They might nod downward, face outward, or turn upward. Many lilies are incredibly fragrant, while others are grown for their unique color or markings. There are short ones, tall ones and many in between. There are early-, mid- and late-season plants so you can have them blooming all summer long.

Go Deep, No Bones
So how do you grow something so beautiful? Many gardeners are a bit timid when it comes to growing lilies. According to Becky Heath, of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, an online retailer at, “I think the biggest mistake gardeners make with lilies is they don’t plant them deeply enough. Of course, roots form at the base of each bulb, but on lilies, roots also form ‘up the stem,’ which helps to anchor the beautiful, but often heavy, flowerheads and helps keep them from falling over. I don’t love seeing staked plants in the garden! Planting that deeply also helps protect the bulbs from the ‘underground bulb monsters,’ because we have found that they often go to whatever is the easiest food to gather. Lilies, in most soil types, ought to be planted at least 8 inches deep – in light soils, they can go even 10 inches deep. If it’s impossible to plant that deeply, just build up the soil on top of the bulb once it’s planted!”

Becky also notes, “Don’t put bonemeal in the hole, because it isn’t as nutritious as it was during our parents’ time, and it attracts rodents and dogs, who love to dig up the bulbs searching for the ‘bones’!” She suggests using a bulb fertilizer such as Bulb-Tone when planting, and in the spring use a phosphorus-rich formula such as 5-10-10.

Lilium ‘Manisa’

Plant in Sunny, Dry ‘Bouquets’
For best effect, plant lilies in groups of three or five bulbs. Space the bulbs 8-12 inches apart depending on the size of the bulb. Divide and replant large clusters of bulbs every three years, or when it seems they are not blooming as well as when they were first planted.

Never plant lilies where water collects after heavy rainfall. Well-drained soil is an absolute must. Add lots of organic matter to clay soils to improve drainage.

Lilies are pretty much a carefree plant, with just a few exceptions. Botrytis is a fungal disease that causes reddish spots on the leaves. This can be caused by overhead watering, not enough sunlight and poor air circulation.

Lilies need a minimum of six hours a day of direct sunlight and eight hours is better. Squirrels, mice and voles can dig up the bulbs and eat them; rabbits, groundhogs and deer prefer to eat the stalks and flowers. Spraying liquid repellent on the foliage is usually enough to deter them, because by the time it wears off, more desirable food is available.

The red lily beetle can sometimes be a serious problem on lilies.

Clockwise: This ‘Casa Blanca’ lily was crossed with another variety naturally. • Lily ’Muscadet’ • Martagon lily ‘Sutton Court’

Lily Classifications
There are many types of lilies (Lilium spp.), more than 80 species and thousands of hybrids. They are classified according to their origins, parentage and flowers.

Division 1: Hybrids of Asiatic species such as Lilium davidii
Division 2: Hybrids of Martagon lilies
Division 3: Hybrids of L. candidum and L. chalcedonicum
Division 4: Hybrids of American species lilies
Division 5: Hybrids of L. longiflorum and L. formosanum
Division 6: Aurelian hybrids, Trumpet lilies and L. henryi crosses
Division 7: Oriental hybrids
Division 8: All other hybrids
Division 9: All other species and their cultivars

Orientals and Aurelian/Trumpet lilies are among the most fragrant, but with new breeding techniques other lilies are being grown with fragrance. Orientals and Aurelian/Trumpets are also some of the tallest lilies, some reaching 7 feet tall when mature. Asiatics tend to be shorter and earlier blooming, and Martagon lilies are those little delicate bell-like flowers that hang in great quantities.

If you want to grow lilies for bouquets, you should grow several bulbs and plant them in succession every year. Cutting the lilies reduces their vigor for the following year, so you should cut from one bed where you are doing the succession planting. Many people who use them for cut flowers also have two beds, one for enjoying them and the other for cutting them.

You can also propagate your own lilies by a couple of methods. One is to remove the stem bulbils as they dry at the leaf axils and insert them in to bulb pans filled with a well-draining but moist potting mix, covering them with some grit. Place them in a cold frame until young bulbs develop – then you can plant them in the garden. You can also lift the dead bulb and stem after flowering and remove the bulblets and replant them (at twice their depth) in the same type of bulb pan and you can plant them out in the garden.

When purchasing bulbs, always purchase fresh bulbs and plant them immediately or they will shrivel and die.

If you plant many different kinds of lilies in your flowerbeds, you will be rewarded in the garden for many years to come.


A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Denise Schreiber and Brent and Becky’s Bulbs.


Posted: 12/26/17   RSS | Print


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Growing Microgreens
by Gary Bachman       #Edibles   #Seeds   #Vegetables

The bright colors of cilantro and ‘Ruby Red’ Swiss chard are beautiful.

Microgreens are a fun way to add variety to your daily meals. They are nutrient dense, colorful and have fresh flavors along with tender crunch. I have been growing microgreens about five years and they are easy for the home gardener to grow.

What are Microgreens?
Microgreens are young, immature densely grown seedlings of selected vegetables and herbs. At harvest, ranging 7 to 21 days after germination, microgreens are approximately 1-3 inches tall. At this stage, the harvested microgreens will consist of the stem, cotyledon and developing true leaves, depending on the species grown.

Microgreens versus Sprouts
There can be confusion when talking about the differences between microgreens and sprouts. Sprouts are seeds that are geminated in a high-humidity system and the entire plant (leaves, stems and roots) is harvested and consumed. Microgreens are seeds that are geminated in soilless media or on hydroponic mats and only the stems and leaves are harvested for consumption.

Growing microgreens in small containers allows the home gardener to grow a variety of colors and flavors in a relatively small area.

Uses for Microgreens
Microgreens have a variety of uses. They are used as vegetable confetti, adding flavor, texture and color to meals. They are added to salads (or can be the salad itself), sandwiches or used as a colorful garnish.

Nutrition Benefits of Microgreens
Microgreens are rich in phytonutrients. Research has shown that certain microgreen varieties have high concentrations of vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin and violaxanthins. The microgreen varieties red cabbage, cilantro, garnet amaranth and radish are especially nutritious when compared to the fully-grown vegetable.

Vitamin C is an essential nutrient as well as an important antioxidant. According to research, the content of this nutrient is six times higher in microgreens of red cabbage, 10 times more in garnet amaranth and greater than one and a half times in radish. These levels are higher than broccoli, which is recognized as an excellent source of vitamin C. The carotenoid beta-carotene, essential in protecting cell membranes, has been measured as three times and more than 260 times greater in microgreens of cilantro and red cabbage compared to levels found at maturity. Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids that impact the health of our eyes. Cilantro microgreens have five times higher concentrations than the mature plants. Vitamin E concentrations in red cabbage microgreens are 40 times higher than the mature plant.

Microgreens are easy to grow under fluorescent shop lights on moveable shelves.

Growing Microgreens
Microgreens grow quickly with minimal effort, either outdoors on the porch, in front of a window or inside under lights.

There are a couple of different methods for growing microgreens for home use. The first uses a hydroponic pad or mat that retains water. These can be in either troughs or trays without holes. The microgreen seeds are sprinkled onto the pad where they germinate. The roots grow into the pad to absorb water. Moisture in the grow pad needs to be monitored on a daily basis.

The second method is to grow the microgreens in a peat-based potting medium and is much easier for the homeowner to be successful. This is also the recommended method for gardeners with limited space.

The peat-based medium can be placed directly into any container that does not have holes. The peat-based medium also can go directly into a standard 10-by-20-inch bedding flat tray without holes. You can also use small pots and place in the tray without holes. Small plastic kitchen containers or reusing plastic clamshells will also work fine.

Whichever method you use, the microgreens will need to be watered. Bottom watering is effective, especially if growing on the kitchen windowsill. When using grow mats, care must be taken to not overwater or to dislodge the germinating seeds.

The microgreen seeds should be evenly sprinkled onto the moistened growing medium. The amount of seed varies by variety and the stage of growth you want to harvest. Many varieties are only grown to the cotyledon stage and are sown thickly. Others are grown to the first true leaf stage and need more room, so the seed are sown less densely. For example, the amount of red cabbage seed required for a 10-by-20-inch tray would be 2-3 teaspoons versus 2-3 tablespoons of radish seed.

After sowing the containers or trays, they should be covered with a clear dome or even a paper towel to retain humidity until the seeds germinate. The cover can be removed after a few days.

Because of the amount of seed needed, buying seed packets from the local garden center is impractical. Seeds for microgreen use are readily available in bulk. There is a listing of seed companies that supply microgreen seeds and supplies at the end of this article.

When growing microgreens, it’s more economical to purchase seed in bulk.


Microgreen Crop Species

Microgreens can be grouped by the rate of growth after sowing. There are well over 50 different varieties of microgreens available. Below are some varieties that I have grown and are good choices to start with.

7 to 10 days
Pea shoots – ‘Dwarf Gray Sugar’
Radish – ‘Hong Vit’, ‘Red Rambo’, ‘Daikon’

10 to 15 days
Mustard – ‘Red Giant’, Golden Frill’, ‘Ruby Streaks’
Kale – ‘Blue Curled’, ‘Red Russian’
Pac choi – ‘Green’, ‘Red Choi’
Cabbage – red, ‘Kogane’
Purple kohlrabi

16 to 25 days
Beets – ‘Early Wonder’, ‘Bull’s Blood’, yellow
Amaranth – ‘Red Garnet’
Scallions – ‘Evergreen Hardy White’
Swiss chard – ‘Bright Lights’, ‘Ruby Red’
Basil – ‘Dark Opal’, lemon, Thai


Sources for materials and seeds:
Johnny’s Selected Seeds,
Living Whole foods,
Kitazawa Seed Company,

Good quality, fresh seed is required to successfully grow microgreens at home because you want to have very even germination. But even with high quality seed, the germination times can be a little erratic. A technique called seed priming can be useful. Seed priming involves placing the seeds in an environment where the germination process is allowed to begin before planting.

For example, gray sugar peas will germinate in waves over the course of five or six days. These are big seeds and simply soaking the seeds overnight will even out their germination times.

For microgreen varieties that have small seeds, try this seed-priming technique. In a container with tight fitting lid, place ½ cup vermiculite, 2 tablespoons water and the seed. Place in a warm location, such as the top of the refrigerator, and leave for a couple of days. After the radicle begins to emerge, spread the vermiculite and seed mixture on the growing medium. This method works well for a 10-by-20-inch tray.

I have found the book Microgreens: A Guide to Growing Nutrient-Packed Greens by Eric Franks and Jasmine Richardson to be a great resource. The authors really go into depth to guide the homeowner who wants to grow their own microgreens.

Harvesting microgreens is usually a one-cut process, so knowing the rate of growth is important. Being able to succession plant will ensure a steady supply of microgreens for your family to enjoy.

Microgreens are fragile and using a sharp pair of scissors is the easiest method to harvest. Simply grab a bunch and cut 1-2 inches long. The microgreens can be stored in a plastic storage bag or container in the refrigerator. As with any fresh vegetable, always wash before consumption.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Cindy Graf and Gary Bachman.


Posted: 12/26/17   RSS | Print


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Homegrown Holiday Wreaths
by Sandi Crabtree       #Holiday: Christmas   #Decorating   #How to

Dried yarrow, sea holly, milkweed pods and Chinese lanterns are nestled among a base of arborvitae and boxwood creating a Williamsburg-style arrangement.

In a world surrounded by mass- produced goods, there is a special kind of joy that comes from receiving gifts that are hand-crafted or homegrown. Join in the trendy, handmade movement that’s sweeping the country by creating one-of-a-kind wreaths from garden materials.

Gardener Sue Boyle has been creating homegrown, handmade wreaths for years. Her designs are based on those coveted Colonial Williamsburg wreaths seen in the historic area and pictured on Christmas cards. Their beauty comes from a combination of fresh evergreens, dried seedpods and flowerheads, herbs, berries and often fresh or dried fruits and other natural items. These gathered materials make the wreaths desirable for the holiday season and beyond. “It takes less than two hours to create the wreath, from gathering to completion,” Sue said.

An evergreen base of arborvitae and boxwood is created by overlapping and securing 6-8-inch-long cuttings on a wire wreath form with paddle wire.

Colorful flowerheads like sea holly (blue) and yarrow (yellow) and pods from Chinese lanterns (orange) and milkweed (tan)were collected in the summer and dried for wreath making.

By placing larger items first (yarrow and milkweed) the smaller items (Chinese lanterns and sea holly) are able to standout creating a multidimensional look.

A hand-crafted Williamsburg-style wreath showcasing materials grown in the garden lends a unique accent to this home’s façade.

A recent snowfall created pockets of ice between the dried materials on this handmade wreath. To extend the life, this type of arrangement should be kept away from excessive moisture by positioning it in a protected area outdoors or kept inside the home away from heat sources.

Materials Needed:

 •  16-inch wire wreath base
 •  22-gauge florist paddle wire
 •  Wire cutters
 •  Pruners
 •  Hot glue gun
 •  Glue sticks
 •  A mix of seedpods, flowerheads,
    herbs, berries and twigs from the


Gather Materials
Look for available garden materials such as arborvitae, cedar, juniper, boxwood and holly, as well as pine, fir and spruce trees that also provide cones. Choose interesting seedpods such as milkweed, Siberian iris, peony, poppy and hibiscus. Papery hydrangea heads, colorful dogwood twigs, rose hips, winterberries and leathery leaves make good additions.

If you don’t already have some of these plants growing in your garden, consider planting them for next year’s wreaths. Yarrow, sunflowers, celosia, salvia, lavender, gomphrena, strawflower and goldenrod hold their colors well when dried. In the summer, when flowers are fully open, cut them at midday when dew is gone, remove the foliage and hang them upside down or dry them standing upright in a well-ventilated moisture-free area like a shed or attic.

Take 6-8-inch cuttings from several evergreen shrubs (and remember, you are pruning, so keep the overall shape of that shrub in mind). For the wreath shown here, Sue noted, “You’ll need about a half-bushel of evergreens; I used a mix for interest.” If you don’t have evergreens, maybe a neighbor would allow you to trim some in exchange for a sample wreath (wink-wink).

Assembling the Base
Secure the paddle wire on the back of the wreath form, then place an evergreen cutting flat on the front of the form. Using the paddle wire held in your hand, with wire extending between your middle and ring finger, use the paddle to help pull the wire snugly around the frame, securing the greenery in place. Lay the next cutting on top of the first so the greenery covers the previous stem and wrap around the frame with wire. Continue this technique until your wire form is covered with greenery. Tie off the wire, and then make a hanging loop on back. Remember to pull the wire snugly so evergreens don’t fall out as they lose moisture.

Decorate the Wreath
Cut stems of dried flowers and seedpods long enough to allow the items to nestle in among the evergreens but not flatten them down. Then add some hot glue to the end of the stem and insert it in between the evergreen stems to secure. Here you will need to create some balance by placing the items around the wreath on the front, sides and inside the center. Continue filling the wreath with your selection of materials until you have a visually pleasing arrangement and then stand back in awe. You may decide not to give away your beautiful creation.

Caring for the Wreath
For outdoor use: Keep your wreath in a protected area away from rain and snow. Depending on the weather, it should keep for several weeks in the cold.

For indoor use: If the wreath is kept dry indoors and hung on a wall away from heat sources, it will slowly dry and retain its shape and flower color for a few months to a year.

No matter where it is displayed, eventually, the greens of the wreath will fade to a golden brown.


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


Posted: 12/01/17   RSS | Print


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Do It Yourself Cold Frames
by Kristi Cook       #How to   #Sustainability and Self-Sufficiency   #Winter

Due to drainage issues in this particular area, I chose to place this cold frame on top of a raised bed rather than flat on the ground. Once spring planting season arrived, the frame was lifted off and stored until the next winter.

Winter gardening is the busy gardener’s dream come true – bountiful harvests with little to no weeding, watering, or other tiresome work. However, you do need to provide a bit of protection for winter veggies. DIY cold frames can be both inexpensive and highly functional, and constructed using materials you may already have on hand.

How Cold Frames Work
Just like children, winter gardens need protection when the mercury plunges. However, the goal is not to create summer-like conditions. Instead, cold frames limit the freeze/thaw cycles by collecting solar heat, blocking chilling winds, and deflecting soaking rains. These traits tend to keep temps inside approximately 10-20 F above outside temps, depending on materials used.

Construction Basics
Cold frames are simple to build. The goal is to create a bottomless box no higher than 12-18 inches in back, no lower than 8 inches in front, and as deep/wide as you need. While there’s no hard and fast rule on height and length, try to keep it on the lower side to best retain heat. And while many construction plans recommend slanted tops to provide optimal solar heat acquisition, it is not entirely necessary as long as placement is in full sun. Use what’s on hand to keep costs down, such as scrap untreated lumber, bricks, masonry blocks, or hay bales, and don’t worry about slanting the top unless you want to do so.

To create the light (or lid) you need some type of translucent material to allow the sun’s rays to enter the box. Recycle old storm doors or windows, shower doors, salvaged greenhouse panels, Lexan, or other clear material to further increase savings. If none of these materials are available, use heavy-duty plastic sheeting. You can build a frame for the sheeting or simply drape it across the box and secure with blocks, water jugs, or other heavy items to prevent heat escaping.

While cold frames with solid lights and wooden sides are nice, straw bale frames work just as well. Place bales in a rectangle to the desired width, or leave the front open for easy access. If leaving the front open, be sure the light you choose touches the ground to hold heat in. Create a light out of heavy-duty plastic sheeting or an old transparent door. If using sheeting, drape across the entire bale to best facilitate heat retention. To keep the plastic in place, fill old jugs with water or sand and lay on top of the edges. Simply roll one side up to gain access to the goodies inside and replace when finished.

Site Selection
Choosing a site couldn’t be easier. Walk your garden and select the sunniest spot available. Check to ensure it’s not in a low place that collects rainwater, as cold winter rain pooling under the frame will end your winter garden. It is also beneficial to place the frame in an area with some protection from winter wind, such as near shrubs or other tall plantings, provided they do not block valuable sunlight. However, stacking hay bales or other large items along the windward side of the frame days can provide temporary wind protection in the event of especially cold and windy.

Additional Considerations
While you want to keep heat in, there will be times when you have to ventilate excess heat. Keep a thermometer in the center and monitor throughout the day until you it’s time to vent. In most cases, outside temperatures of 20 F and higher require venting for at least part of the day. At the cooler end, you may need to lift the light only a few inches. Warmer weather will call for wider openings.

However, you may also need to occasionally provide additional insulation. When temps drop into the single digits, add extra insulation by placing a heavy blanket or several inches of hay across the top and sides. Just be sure to remove during the day when temps rise to avoid overheating.

Constructing a cold frame with readily available materials provides inexpensive protection for the winter garden. And with a little creativity, you can build a frame that costs you nothing more than time.


Build Your Own!
By Michelle Byrne Walsh

Here are steps to build your own cold frame

1. Assemble materials. Our list included: one double-pane window, two large sheets plywood, two small door hinges, 1 inch pipe foam insulation, door and window insulation tape, stainless steel wood screws, wood glue (or other weather-resistant glue, we used Gorilla Glue) and exterior paint. The tools you will need are a saw, saw horses, drill, screwdriver, measuring tape, pencil and eye and ear protection for the power tools.

2. Decide the dimensions of the box. Because our window measured 29 by 33 inches, we made the box those dimensions. And because the window should slope southward to take advantage of the low angled sunlight, we made the front of the box 6 inches tall and the rear wall 18 inches tall.

3. Measure and trace the shape of your pieces on the plywood. Templates or patterns might be helpful. And do the math for the sloped sides! Because your window will rest on the top of all four walls, be sure the sloped sides are the same length of the window (the bottom of the side walls’ measurements will be different).

4. Cut the wood walls.

5. Glue and screw the walls together. We chose butt joints, but if you are a skilled woodworker and are using solid wood boards (versus plywood), other types of joints might be desirable.

6. Remove the window’s existing hardware, if needed. Attach the window to the frame using door hinges. Here we reused the existing hardware holes drilled into the window’s frame.

7. Paint the box. You can choose a color to match your house, as done here, but be sure to paint the interior of the box white for maximum light diffusion.

8. Attach pipe insulation to bottom of frame– this will protect the wood from the soil and help “seal” the frame to the ground. If needed, attach peel-and-stick door/window insulation to areas where window doesn’t seal tightly.

9. Fashion a sturdy prop stick. I used scrap wood and covered the top with left over insulation foam.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Kristi Cook and Michelle Walsh.


Posted: 11/28/17   RSS | Print


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Cold-Hardy Bromeliads
by Steve Asbell       #Plant Profile   #Unusual   #Winter








“Cold-tolerant bromeliads can be a bit harder to find than those sold as houseplants, but the effort pays off.”


Florida is often portrayed as a magical land of never-ending summer without wintery woes of frosts and freezes, but despite what your friends saw on their vacation to Orlando or the Keys, those of us in the northern half of the peninsula get freezes every winter. Winters here aren’t a walk in the rainforest, but you can still create the illusion with cold-tolerant versions of your favorite tropical plants.

Few plants recreate the look of a rain forest more readily than bromeliads and despite their tropical appearance, anyone in Florida can get away with growing a handful of the hardiest species in their gardens. They look great just about anywhere; whether showcased as an accent, massed as a ground cover or grown vertically on a tree stump or hanging baskets. With their cups filled with collected rainwater and the occasional tree frog, they can complete the picture of tropical abundance; especially if planted alongside evergreen shrubs and ground covers, cold tolerant palms and winter annuals.

This list is by no means exhaustive, so think of it as a brief introduction to frost hardy species, hybrids and selections that can be grown throughout the state. If you’re trying to determine a bromeliad’s cold-tolerance, here are some good rules of thumb: Hybrids involving cold hardy species are often hardy themselves, and bromeliads along the fringe of the South American tropics are likely to take more cold as well. For example, many of the toughest species grown in north Florida are from the Mata Atlantica rain forest that spills over from Brazil into Argentina and Paraguay. An obvious way to see what will grow in your area is to see what is already there. One of my toughest plants was a Billbergia hoelscheriana spotted among overgrown weeds on an old abandoned lot.

Billbergia hybrids • Aechmea species • Aechmea apocalyptica

The Aechmea genus is an excellent starting point with a vast variety of impressive inflorescences atop fountains of lush and leathery foliage. The aptly named matchstick plant’s (Aechmea gamosepala) tall scape of pink ‘match sticks’ with tips of blue blooms have made it a favorite passalong plant all the way along the southern coast from Texas to South Carolina. Many of the other hardy Aechmea are spectacular variations on that theme, such as the densely clustered matchsticks of Aechmea cylindrata or the orange and gray ones of Aechmea apocalyptica.

For a large and imposing specimen, try growing Aechmea distichantha. It’s bold enough to stop visitors in their tracks, and when planted near a window it’s spiny enough to stop burglars in theirs as well. Some other hardy Aechmea species include A. winkleri, A. blumenavii, A. kertesziae, A. calyculata and A. caudata.

Every now and then I see the narrow leaves and pendant blooms of a Billbergia colony hanging from an oak tree in old neighborhoods, proving their resilience to cold and drought over the years. Billbergia nutans, or queen’s tears, is a commonly-grown houseplant with unimpressively dull and grassy sharp-edged leaves, but around Easter it erupts into bloom with pendant pink inflorescences of airy blue and green flowers. Billbergia pyramidalis stands in stark contrast with its fireworks of pink pom-poms erupting from a vase of wide and glossy apple-green leaves. Though it may get damaged by freezes, it usually recovers if grown in the ground and mulched. Most Billbergia species and hybrids will also take a freeze, especially old hybrids like ‘Hoelscheriana’, and ‘Windii’

Aechmea distichantha

The Neoregelia genus has many species that will do well in zone 9a, but they can be iffy in zone 8. A couple of the most hardy are ‘painted fingernail plant’ (Neoregelia spectabilis) and Neoregelia concentrica, as well as their hybrids. Most in this group are grown for their flat rosettes of colorful leathery leaves, but the short inflorescences are attractive in their own right as they coyly peek out of the water collected in the cups. Neoregelia species are ideal for placing at the bases of trees where their branching stolons and roots help them effectively climb the trunks to create a natural vertical garden.

Vriesea is another genus worth trying where temperatures don’t fall below 20 degrees; especially those hailing from the Atlantic Rain Forest in Brazil. Vriesea philippo-coburgii, V. corcovadensis and V. vagans are especially resilient, as well as the intergeneric hybrid Vriecantarea ‘Inferno’.

Dyckia ‘Red Planet’

All of these bromeliads can be grown in the ground, but some actually prefer to grow there. These are all spiky and dramatic plants that can withstand dry soil, intense sun and any animal foolish enough to try one for dinner. One tangle with those recurved spines will convince you to plant these away from the edges of your beds! Pinguin (Bromelia pinguin) usually outlives the gardeners who plant them, and Dyckia hybrids like ‘Cherry Coke’ have become popular recently for their drought tolerance and tight and spiny rosettes of stiff, arching leaves.

If a forecast of record-breaking cold has you shaking in your shoes, there’s no harm in uprooting your bromeliads and bringing them indoors for a more comfortable night. Even hardy bromeliads sometimes succumb to long periods of cold, damp weather, but you can prevent rot by flushing out the water in each plant’s vase periodically. If you smell a rotting odor, rinse out the vase, remove any dead or dying leaves and let it dry out by turning it upside down for a week.

Cold-tolerant bromeliads can be a bit harder to find than those sold as houseplants, but the effort pays off. Within a couple of years, that lone Aechmea caudata shipped to your doorstep will have bloomed, multiplied and formed a clump of glowing variegated foliage. You can easily order bromeliads online from sources like, and local bromeliad societies usually have sales that are open to the public.

So yes, it really is possible to grow one of the most tropical looking plants in your frosty garden. Just think - with a few cleverly placed specimens and a backdrop of evergreens, you can smugly chat away with your jealous relatives in Jersey while you sip a pina-colada and gaze upon your luxuriant jungly garden from the comfort of your Florida home. Bravo, bromeliads.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 20 Number 1.


Posted: 11/28/17   RSS | Print


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Holiday Decorating from the Garden
by Kelly Bledsoe       #Holiday: Christmas   #Decorating   #Winter









“Start some new traditions and beautify your home”




If you’re looking for some great new traditions to start with your family and want to get away from all the excess of the holidays, why not adorn your home with the beauty from your garden? Look for organic touches like pine cones, fresh greenery and berries, and make use of simple items that create ambiance. Try not to go overboard, remember, the idea is to simply make your home more festive.

Placing natural evergreen arrangements on the front porch is a perfect way to send out a welcoming greeting to visiting family and friends. You can set the tone before your guests even walk in by flanking the front door with festive garlands and wreathes. Mailboxes adorned with boughs of evergreen and bright bows send out holiday greetings to neighbors. Strategically placed gazing balls take on a festive tone when incorporated against a backdrop of bright red holly berries. Decorating fences, birdhouses and lanterns is another way to portray holiday cheer.

Don’t limit yourself to pine branches – adorn your mantel with a garland of magnolia branches. Their lush green leaves with coppery undersides are a beautiful alternative. The look of magnolia leaves is clean and classic, they’re easy and quick to display and they hold up well over time. Hanging vintage stockings on the corner of the mantle is a great way to add a splash of color.

Clippings from plants in your backyard such as pepper berries, hollies, winter- berry and birch branches can be placed in tall planters or holiday keepsakes such as vintage Santa boots is an easy way to say Merry Christmas!

When creating centerpieces for your holiday table, steer clear of complex arrangements. Small glass containers filled with cranberries from the grocery store provide a rich, bold splash of color. Pillar candles create depth, and a simple twig star is a beautiful focal point.

Don’t forget to take advantage of Mother Nature’s holiday gifts as well. An unexpected snow gives you the opportunity to throw some holiday whimsy into your front yard. Snow sculptures glow with holiday cheer and will surely put a smile on the faces of all who pass by.

One big advantage of a minimalist approach to holiday décor is that it affords you more time to relax and revel in the joy of the season with family and friends. It’s the process of putting up the decorations together, and the memories you create along the way, that matter most.


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 23 Number 9.
Photography courtesy of Kelly Bledsoe.


Posted: 11/28/17   RSS | Print


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by Peter Loewer       #Plant Profile   #Unusual   #Vines

Looking through a jumble of monstera leaves, one lacks only an ambling boa constrictor to complete the feeling of being lost in a jungle.

It was AMC’s Mad Men that first reminded me of Monstera deliciosa, a houseplant that was popular during the 1950s and 60s. It was so prolific that variety stores of the day sold fiberglass pots just for the plant in colors of red, yellow, white or avocado, with shiny brass rods to hold the containers up off the floor.

Today, many once-popular horticultural trends are just as passé as swim-tops for men and iceberg lettuce in a salad. Remember when everybody had an air plant pinned to the curtains in most rooms of the house and gardeners were happy to have plain white petunias? If you don’t recall those days of yore, you certainly will not remember the popularity once surrounding the Monstera deliciosa, or Swiss-cheese plant. Other common names include ceriman, breadfruit vine, hurricane plant, Mexican breadfruit and the fruit-salad plant. Along the coastal parts of Sicily it’s called Zampa di leone, or lion’s paw, and it also does very well in many areas of Central America.

A xerograph (or glass lithograph) featuring my aunt’s monstera that reached for the skylight in her living room.

George and Virginia Elbert described the plant nicely in their book Foliage Plants for Decorating Indoors, written in the 1950s. “Out-of-doors in the tropics they climb to the very tops of trees, creating a giant tapestry of overlapping leaves. Indoors they are being used to some extent in high-ceilinged, sunny and warm, principally southern-oriented displays. Whether they will continue to be is the question, for they are all rampant vines.”

It is true they are rampant vines. My aunt had a monster plant in her high-ceiling living room, and over the years the vine reached the ceiling and arched over, requiring guy-wires. The plant only saw its end when they sold the house and moved.

The botanical name, Monstera, is Latin for strange or monstrous, and points to some of the oddities associated with this rambling vine. These include aerial roots that usually never touch the ground and large, glossy leaves full of deeply lobed cutouts and neatly cut round or oval holes, hence the common name Swiss-cheese plant.

No one has ever successfully proven why the leaves are full of holes, but it has been suggested that heavy tropical rains could drain through without causing undue damage. Also, hurricane-force winds can whistle right through the leaves, thus leaving the vines safely clinging to their hosts.

The metal sculpture above is a monstera leaf about 20 inches high, including the stem.

The 3-foot, glossy green leaves are most attractive, especially against a white wall or twining around a window where they enjoy partial shade or diffused sunlight. I like to keep one around for the striking leaves.

Monstera has a juvenile form where its leaves are split but have not yet developed the holes. This form is known incorrectly as Philodendron pertusum. There is also a cultivar available called ‘Variegata’ that bears irregular light-yellow or off-white patches on the leaf, as if a house painter had flung paint at the plant. I would stay away from it, unless you have a penchant for truly odd variegations. Monstera plants are available almost anywhere houseplants are sold.

To care for your plant, temperatures should never fall too far below 50 F. An excellent soil mix is one-third each of good potting soil, compost and sand. The soil should be kept evenly moist.

Propagation can be done by stem cuttings, which should include two or more stem segments or buds. These can be taken at any time of the year. Root them in warm, sandy compost. Seed, when available, will also germinate with ease if started in a warm place.

A picture of the monstera’s flower and the developing fruit taken at the Biltmore Conservatory in Asheville, NC.

The big event occurs when a monstera plant is comfortable in its position. It will show you by flowering and then producing fruit. The flowers themselves are very small and criss-cross a greenish-yellow spadix that is enclosed in a white, waxy spathe. They resemble a calla lily or a white Jack-in-the-pulpit, which is not surprising since they all belong to the Araceae family. Over a few months’ time, the spadix begins to resemble a large ear of corn as it continues to turn yellow, and then the covering of scales falls away.

In a salute to the happy memories of the 50s and 60s, you can’t go wrong with a monster in the house.


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 24 Number 9.
Photography courtesy of Peter Loewer.


Posted: 11/28/17   RSS | Print


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Resolutions for a Better Harvest
by Jan Riggenbach       #Misc   #Seeds   #Winter

I don't wait for January to make resolutions for the New Year. While the memory of the successes and failures of the recent season is still fresh in my mind, I like to make a list of resolutions as soon as I’ve put my garden to bed for the winter.

Here are just a few of those resolutions I’ve made over the years that have resulted in more fun, less work and a better harvest:

  • If pear trees are struggling with fire blight, evidenced by branches that look like they’ve been burned, replace them with varieties such as ‘Moonglow’ and Starking Delicious, which have built-in resistance to the disease.

The first line of defense against fire blight is a variety such as Starking Delicious, which has built-in resistance.


  • Late plantings of zucchini usually escape damage from vine borers.

    Keep the zucchini crop coming by planting zucchini seeds in June or early July. Late-planted zucchini usually avoids the dreaded squash vine borer. There is also less damage from squash bugs, another serious pest of squash.
  • Along with the usual large-fruited tomatoes, also plant some varieties that have early, small to medium-sized fruits. They will provide a dependable harvest even if brutal summer weather keeps large-fruited tomatoes from producing.
  • Keep tomatoes as far away as possible from mature walnut trees to avoid walnut wilt, which kills the plants. If necessary, plant tomatoes in containers so their roots won’t come in contact with those of a walnut tree.
  • Allow dill and fennel to self-sow in a back corner of the garden, so there will be plenty of extra plants for the larvae of the beautiful swallowtail butterflies to devour.
  • Make permanent raised beds using materials that won’t rot, warp or swell. I settled on Bear Board, a recycled plastic lumber that can be worked and fastened with the same saw, drill and screws that you’d use with wood.

A raised bed made from Bear Board resists rotting and warping.

  • To reduce problems with mildew, leaf spot and other foliage diseases, use soaker hoses, not overhead sprinkling, watering the soil instead of the leaves. Install rain barrels at downspouts so plants can enjoy the benefits of rainwater even during dry spells.
  • Replace summer-bearing raspberries with a fall-bearing variety, such as ‘Heritage’. Advantages include simplified pruning by mowing off all canes in late winter or early spring, no worry about damage from winter’s cold or browsing animals, and no remaining canes to infect new shoots with disease.

Fall-bearing raspberries are much easier to manage than summer-bearing varieties.

  • Practice patience in spring. Don’t rush the season. Remember that heat-loving plants such as peppers, eggplant and sweetpotatoes are set back by nighttime lows of 50 F despite the lack of frost.
  • Spread out the harvest of lettuce and other salad greens by making small sowings every two weeks, rather than all at once. Keep the salad bowl full in the heat of summer by relying on shade cloth or planting lettuce in the shade of tall plants, such as corn, and by planting heat-resistant greens such as ‘Summer Crisp’ (Batavian) lettuce.
  • Don’t let weeds get established. For an organic solution to the weed problem, spray herbicide-strength vinegar, such as Burnout Weed & Grass Killer, when weeds are still small.
  • Once the tops die, don’t hesitate to harvest garlic and onions, which can rot in wet soil. Remember to plant a storage onion such as ‘Copra’ for long-term winter keeping.
  • For an easy way to add organic matter to the soil, sow oats for a green manure crop in August and  September in any empty garden spot as other crops finish.
  • Keep composting during the winter with a worm bin in the basement using kitchen wastes, such as fruit and vegetable peelings, eggshells and coffee grounds. Use the liquid that drains from the bin as fertilizer, and enrich the soil in the vegetable garden in spring with worm castings.
  • Clean up all the dropped fruit and leaves around trees and remove any dried “mummies” still hanging from the tree to eliminate disease problems such as apple scab.
  • Check supplies, such as plant labels, floating row covers and pesticides. Order before the spring rush.
  • Find a reliable way to keep rabbits and deer out of the garden. I chose a black polypropylene fence fabric, plus rodent barrier. What a relief!

One last ongoing resolution: Make notes of which crops produced too much and which ones produced too little. Adjust annually for your family’s changing tastes. Don’t forget to check amount of stored produce. Plan next year’s plantings accordingly.

No matter how carefully I plan, there are always glitches along the way. Weather is the wild card. But I love the challenge of trying to make the garden better every year.

Saving Seeds for a New Year
Don’t toss those leftover seeds. Most vegetable and herb seeds save surprisingly well. Beans, peas, tomatoes, peppers and dill seeds are particularly long lived. Onion and corn seeds, on the other hand, are much less dependable.

To preserve leftover seeds to plant next spring, wrap in tissues a half-cup of dry milk powder from a newly opened box or silica gel. Secure the packet with a rubber band and put it with your seeds in an airtight container.

Silica gel is a good choice because you can use the same powder year after year. Simply empty the tissue packets and heat the silica gel in the oven at a low temperature until blue dots reappear.

Research suggests that the refrigerator is the best place to store seeds. If you have too many seeds, choose another cool space, such as a cabinet in the basement.


A version of this article appeared in Iowa Gardener Magazine Volume 1 Number 6.
Photography courtesy of Jan Riggenbach.


Posted: 11/28/17   RSS | Print


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Perennial Planning 101
by Jennifer Williams       #Colorful   #Flowers   #Perennials

A tried and true perennial favorite, black-eyed Susan can be seen in gardens across the country. In the South they are perfect for a perennial bed, adding beautiful bright blooms through the heat of summer.

Creating a 100 percent pure perennial bed can be quite a daunting task. The thought of planning a flowerbed that provides interest from spring until fall is enough to have the most seasoned landscape designers running for the hills. With this simple plan, you can dip your toes into the wonderful world of perennials without creating a panic.

Choosing plants with interesting foliage and/or long blooming periods will help you achieve this with less variety. My top pics for long-lasting bloomers:

Rudbeckia spp. There are so many amazing varieties out there, but all of them will put on a brilliant show from spring through fall with very little maintenance. My favorite is Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’

Echinacea spp. The classic coneflower is a great addition to the perennial garden, putting on a grand show through the summer. With the near countless varieties available, choices run well past the classic purple and into fuchsia, orange, white, and more.

Hemerocallis spp. Daylilies are the last of my favorite tried-and-true classic garden perennials. The possibilities are endless – counting the number of varieties is akin to counting the stars. Virtually every color of the rainbow is available, tall, short, and everything in between. For the front of border, ‘Stella d’Oro’ is still my favorite.

Great for the front of the garden, butterfly-shaped blooms sit atop airy 18-24-inch flower stalks. Guara is excellent for the front of a perennial garden. • Echinacea fills in a perennial garden, giving some medium height to the design and producing blooms throughout the summer. It is also a known self-seeder, so look for new baby plants in the spring that may be in the wrong spot and move them to prevent crowding your other plants. • There is no question as to why ‘Stella D’Oro’ is a standard in the landscape industry. It is a proven re-bloomer that will bring you golden color from spring through fall. It is on the shorter side, reaching only about 12 inches tall.

Other factors to consider in choosing perennials for your design is the leaf shape, height, and how it declines. Plants with a variety of leaf shapes will add texture to your planting and interest when others are not blooming. For example, Iris have beautiful flowers, but also add a lot of structure with their sword-like leaf blades that stand tall through most of the growing season. Likewise, using several varieties of Hemerocallis, which has more grass-like leaves, could leave your bed looking bland and even messy. Add contrast with the flatter leaves of balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), Salvia or the feathery leaves of yarrow (Achillea millefolium).

The issue of height is rather straightforward; remember those class photos from elementary school? Keep it simple – taller plants in the back, shorter in the front. Do not let them overshadow the others or you will sacrifice blooming potential. Additionally, consider the foliage height versus the bloom height. Some perennials have flower stalks that will rise above the foliage, leaving behind leaves that will fill in your background.

With bright chartreuse leaves and a black to blue ombre in the blooms, Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ will provide interest from summer to fall, reaching heights of 2-5 feet and spreading just as wide. • Yarrow has nice evergreen foliage in the South, adding some interest year round. However, the flowers are the true heroes here, ‘Strawberry Seduction’ is a beautiful red and yellow variety, a great addition any perennial garden. • Adding some height and bloom variety to the perennial garden is red hot poker or torch lily (Kniphofia spp.). It has grass-like leaves and shines even in the back of the garden.

Finally, consider how the plant declines after blooming. Are the leaves going to stick around, are they going to look raggedy, or even disappear? If your plant is going to leave a blank space after flowering, simply place it next to something that will fill in with foliage as the season progresses.

Lastly, when creating your bed design you will want to make sure your plants “flow” from one variety to the next. In this plan, plants will intermingle, but provide a large impact throughout the growing season. Planting in groups of 3, 5, 7, or 9 will help with the flow and provide sweeps of color as each plant begins to bloom.

Mixing textures, colors, and blooms can be achieved in many ways. The combination of orange lilies and blue balloon flowers is a beautiful example of companion planting that brings out the best of both species.

One final tip: Remember to factor in your area: The farther south you are, the earlier things will warm up, and of course, the opposite for those in the more northern regions. Following these simple tips and choosing your favorites will lead to a beautiful perennial flower show throughout the season.


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


Posted: 10/31/17   RSS | Print


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‘Leave’ the Color
by Chris Eirschele       #Colorful   #Ornamentals   #Unusual








The red veining of a prayer plant repeats the hot colors of the croton; the Chinese evergreen cools off the display.

It does not matter how you come to embrace growing plants inside. Indoor gardening, putting plants in containers rather than in the ground, is a unique style. The hobby consumes a plant lover’s life no matter how innocently the introduction came about.

We fast become unsatisfied with seas of green plants indoors, and we search for unconventional color combinations to spike our foliage color.

Finding houseplants that tout vivid hues is easier these days. Plant breeders have a reputation for busy imaginations; splashes of yellow, orange, purple, or red, and all manner of combined palettes have taken over the benches of garden sellers. The array of choices for indoor gardeners seems never ending.


Clockwise: Rex begonias offer more colors these days, but still not as many as coleus. Rex begonias add highly textured leaves to a houseplant collection. • The tropical wandering Jew (Tradescantia pallida), a traditional houseplant, is as beautiful with its mix of purples and greens as it was many years ago; one pot can give a room that “wow” look. • I tried a coleus called Apple Brandy in a part-shade location outside. For the chartreuse color to seep deeper into its mature leaves, gardeners growing it inside will have to play with the light exposure.

Coleus Hybridizer Names a Few Must-Have ‘Hawaiian Shirts’

In a brief interview, coleus hybridizer Chris Baker, owner of Baker’s Acres Greenhouse, in Alexandria, Ohio, shared his thoughts on coleus that have recently been developed. In previous publications – and probably out loud publicly – Baker has been quoted as calling coleus “the Hawaiian shirts of the plant world.”

Q: As breeders develop more and more coleus for sunnier locations outside, how should indoor locations be adjusted for newer coleus, so gardeners can grow some of the “cooler” discoveries?

A: All of the major breeding companies test their new varieties in full sun because that’s where the money is. If they perform well in lower light, it’s a bonus. If grown indoors, the plants should be given as much light as possible to avoid stretching. Most of the enthusiasts that I know who overwinter their crop use grow lights in the darker months.

Q: My experience has shown that older strains of coleus, when grown indoors, become “woody” over time. Have you seen newer hybrids behaving differently?

A: I haven’t noticed much woodiness in any of the newer varieties. The tall growers will get that way over time. The newer shorter varieties won’t.

Q: From your collections, such as the Signature Coleus Collection with the thick puckered leaves, or the Under the Sea series with deeply dissected leaves, please make several suggestions for coleus (and colorful foliage) to try indoors.

A: Of the Signature series’ varieties, I would recommend Gnash Rambler. In the Under the Sea series, Sea Urchin Neon, Sea Urchin Red and Sea Urchin Copper varieties, and the Sea Monkey Purple and Sea Monkey Rust varieties should be good for indoor growing.

Ball Horticulture has some good smaller plants in their Flame Thrower series and Terra Nova has Color Clouds series ‘Hottie’, ‘Maharaja’, ‘Marrakesh’, and ‘Macaw’.– Chris Eirschele

Unconventional Houseplants
Traditional houseplants have their colorful constituents. Do you recall the cream outlined veins against the dark green background in a nerve plant (Fittonia verschaffeltii), or the pink in a tabletop tropical polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya)? Both are small houseplants.

Among Tradescantia (sometimes labeled as Setcreasea) species, the familiar wandering Jew (Tradescantia zebrina) and the purple heart (T. pallida), each alone are able to fill a hanging container. These easy-to-grow houseplants will create a picture of perfect purple color framed in any window. Tradescantia ‘Pink Stripe’ is a newer version with stripes running the length of each leaf. Like its cousin, this tropical houseplant often is used outdoors in summer months, too.

The pothos (Epipremnum aureum) grows variegated heart-shaped leaves on vines so long they are often used to line the top of an elongated living room window. However, the heavily defined creams and yellows against deep greens come from having very good light exposure, usually an east- or south-facing window. The pothos or devil’s ivy ‘Marble Queen’ is so “frosted” you are left guessing if the backdrop is the cream or the green.

Indoor gardeners are in the habit of taking annual plants indoors, including coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides), geranium (Pelargonium spp.), and Begonia spp. The Chinese lantern aka flowering maple (Abutilon sp.), so-called for its flowers or its foliage form, is excellent if you have a window with very bright light and the space. Abutilon ‘Souvenir de Bonn’ outlines its maple-like leaves in cream, and the Abutilon ‘Variegatum’ foliage is splashed with yellow. For flower color, try the ‘Pink Lady’, which produces the abutilon’s iconic bell flowers in pink. All abutilon develop into big specimens, but the plants tolerate pruning, allowing indoor gardeners to keep their size in check.


Clockwise: Begonia rex ‘Fireworks’ • Codiaeum variegatumvar. pictum ‘Mammy’ has narrower leaves with reddish colors. • Coleus Gnash Rambler has curled purple-red leaves. It will grow well indoors.


Bohemian Colors
Houseplants with colorful foliage overlaid with grooved leaf texture call to mind Rex begonias (Begonia rex-cultorum group). There are the iron cross and escargot cultivars of long ago, and still around. Rex begonias’ greenish leaves now sport splashed purples so dark the hues turn black and the reds mingle with pinks.

Croton (Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum) has long been a choice of indoor gardeners. However, it is considered fussy with an annoying habit of dropping leaves that never grow back. The newer varieties have revitalized interest in trying this tropical plant, characterized with bohemian looking designs. ‘Piscasso’s Paintbrush’ has purple painted on narrow leaves.

Another purple plant for the house, purple shield plant (Strobilanthes dyerianus) is easy to grow and loved for its silvery-purple leaves and purple undersides. Purple shield still requires bright light and weekly watering. Pinch back this plant to keep it looking full and tidy.

Perilla frutescens ‘Magilla’ has that “bohemian scarf look” with purple. The dark red to pink and purple interior over green foliage is often placed near coleus, and is treated as an annual, too. The plant grows large and needs bright indoor light to thrive. ‘Fantasy’ appears to have more purple than its relative ‘Magilla’.

Indoor gardeners also are turning to perennials that lately have appeared in more colors. The shady perennial Caladium sp. surprised me with its colors when I was looking for something different to grow last year. The tuber-like cousin of the elephant ear (Alocasia sp.) was once just simple green and white leaves – often in shady outdoor borders. Caladium now sports bright reds, pinks, and huge splashes of white, such as cultivars like ‘White Christmas’. These have inspired indoor gardeners to look for a window in which to grow one, two, or three.

Clockwise: A mixed indoor planting of annual geranium and vinca vine is brightened by a young ColorBlaze series Kingswood Torch coleus (right). • Despite its name, Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum ‘Redspot’ shows off more orange and yellow on slimmer leaves. • Coleus Raspberry Tart likes shade and grows to 20 inches tall. A perfect “thriller” idea for a mixed planting in a large container set indoors.

Hawaiian Shirts of the Plant World
The competition is intense among colorful foliage, but the “Hawaiian shirts of the plant world” – the coleus – have kept pace.

Each year, new coleus cultivars cover greenhouse benches. Though most coleus now can grow in sun or shade, indoor gardeners should consider coleus cultivars targeted for shade. The drastic color changes in some (versus in those that hold their color) is hard to predict; a learning curve should be expected. The mature size of a coleus may be another consideration. The ‘Fancy Feather Copper’ has a long layered form, remains under 12 inches tall, and favors shade or part sun.

I tried the ColorBlaze series Apple Brandy this summer. This coleus grows into a large plant, and the lime green lights up the dark red coloring. Whether I bring it indoors and grow it inside for the year remains an open option.

Colorful foliage brightens indoor gardens, especially as the winter solstice season approaches. People who grow plants inside have an increasing array of highlights from which to choose. Your only dilemma will be having enough surface space and light exposure to satisfy the extent of your colorfully potted plant collections.



A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Chuck Eirschele, Chris Eirschele, and Chris Baker.


Posted: 10/31/17   RSS | Print


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30 Shades of Grey
by Tom Hewitt       #Colorful   #Design   #Ornamentals











Countless succulents have greyish foliage.

There’s a reason they call grey “the color of truth.” It’s about as neutral as you can get. Grey plants seem to go with just about everything. From the blue-grey of century plants (Agave americana), to the grey-green of smokebush (Buddleja madagascariensis), to the silver-grey of wormwoods (Artemisia spp.), there’s a shade to fit every mood.

Writer Hugh Johnson, in his book The Principles of Gardening, puts it best. “Grey-leaved plants,” he writes, “are invaluable as intermediaries in any color scheme. Not only are light tones always more amendable and adaptable than strong and dark ones, but of all light tones, silver-grey has the most friends and fewest enemies.”

This is precisely why I painted my house a warm shade of grey. I wanted a neutral backdrop for my foundation plantings, so that my pink crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), firebush (Hamelia patens), and golden dewdrop (Duranta erecta ‘Gold Mound’) could put on a show and still share credit with the rest of the cast.

Artichokes are grown as cool-season ornamentals in the veggie garden at Mounts.

I find grey and silver plants indispensable. They help tone down hot colors, yet harmonize beautifully with blues, pinks, and whites. Silver foliage makes plants “pop” in the shade, and both silver and grey-leaved plants add sophistication and elegance to most any container combo or garden.

Some of my favorite grey and silver-leaved plants are borderline this far south. I love Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), but it really isn’t recommended south of zone 9. I did manage to keep one growing in a pot for 5 years, and it even bloomed occasionally. It never did like it here, so I finally gave up and crossed it off my list.

I’ve come to accept the fact that some of my favorite silver and grey-leaved plants behave as annuals or short-lived perennials. I still find them worth growing, and enjoy them while they last. These include lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), silver spurflower (Plectranthus argentatus), and lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus). In the veggie garden at Mounts Botanical Garden, even cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) and artichokes (C. scolymus) are grown as cool-season annuals, though seed must be sown in August for this to happen.

Tea bush is a rare native that produces pink flowers loved by bees. • Texas sage has pretty, grey-green leaves, and pink flowers to boot! • English lavender is a classic in any flower or herb garden.

There’s no need to bother with finicky plants if you don’t want to. Many Florida natives have greyish foliage, like silver buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus var. sericeus), necklace pod (Sophora tomentosa), sea oxeye daisy (Borrichia frutescens), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), bay geranium (Ambrosia hispida), and gulf croton (Croton punctatus). One of my favorites is teabush (Melochia tomentosa), a large shrub with silver-grey foliage that produces small, pink blooms much of the year. Sea lavender (Argusia gnaphalodes) is an endangered Florida native with grey-green foliage that looks particularly good en masse.

Artemisias are notorious for their lovely grey foliage, though I’ve only had good success with two particular ones this far south: tree wormwood (Artemisia arborescens) and Artemesia ‘Powis Castle’. I grow tree wormwood in pots, as it tends to rot out in the ground. Its foliage smells like ripe olives, and it needs frequent pinching to keep it compact. I grow ‘Powis Castle’ directly in the garden. It has a mounding form, and eventually gets leggy, but I simply cut it back on occasion and let it grow back.

Orange thistle is one of my favorite succulents for containers.

Agaves make striking accents in containers. • Necklace pod is a large native shrub with yellow flowers.

Other herbs have greyish foliage as well, including English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), fern leaf lavender (L. multifida), curry plant (Helichrysum italicum), rue (Ruta graveolens), culinary sage (Salvia officinalis), and white savory (Micromeria fruticosa). In south Florida, however, most of these plants do best in containers or raised beds to facilitate drainage. Low catmint (Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’) is an indispensable groundcover in a butterfly garden. It has sweet-smelling, grey-green foliage and produces spikes of blue flowers loved by bees and butterflies.

Other favorites of mine with grey foliage include Bismark palms (Bismarckia nobilis), Texas sage (Leucophyllum frutescens), and tilllandsias (including Spanish moss). For containers I like using licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) to cascade over the edges, and mix dusty miller (Senecio cineraria) with pink pentas and Dahlberg daisies (Thymophylla tenuiloba).

Succulents and cacti with grey foliage are too numerous to mention, but one of my top favorites for containers is orange thistle (Kleinia fulgens), which has blue-grey foliage and produces bright orange flowers much of the year.

Generally speaking, grey and silver plants should be kept on the dry side. Their coloration is generally the result of white hairs on their leaf surfaces, which reduce evaporation by reflecting the rays of the sun. Most love to bake in the sun, and prefer to dry out between waterings. Not a lot to ask from a group of plants that gives us so much in return.



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


Posted: 10/31/17   RSS | Print


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Between a Rock and a Hardscape
by Bobby Ward       #Design   #Hardscaping   #Misc


Stones not only work as accents in the garden, but they can also provide art in the form of sculpture. Make your own stacks for a creative new focal point. • Boulders serve as great accents in the garden, providing a sense of stability to flowerbeds. • Use rocks of different sizes to create a dry riverbed in your garden, adding a sense of motion to your landscape, and also giving you a new place to plant herbs and flowers that tolerate drier soil, such as black-eyed Susans and lavender.

A few years ago, a friend was installing night lighting in a garden for his client who wanted stone features as accents among the plants and around a backyard patio where he entertained family and friends. My friend invited me to accompany him to a garden center specializing in stone products. I was amazed at the choices of stone available – from small natural stone, to flat cut stone, to relatively large boulders. Displays showed examples of stone for terraces, walls, benches, paths and water features.

The possibilities seemed endless, and I began to see stone and rocks in an entirely different way. I began to notice them in fields and woods, along roadsides and in other natural settings. I began to realize that no garden could be complete without stone.

In my home state, we are fortunate to have an array of naturally occurring stone and rock. Your own area’s geology will likely determine the most affordable choices of stone to purchase from a local dealer for your landscaping projects. And, if you are lucky, you might even have it free for the taking on your own property.

As you shop around you will find sandstone, limestone, granite and slate. The dealer may also show you flagstone, which is really a catchall word for any type of layered flat stone, usually a few inches thick, quarried and cut to shape. Flagstone has many uses, including paving walkways and patios.

Another type you will likely see is fieldstone, a naturally occurring stone collected from the surface of fields or from the soil subsurface when it is plowed up during cultivation of crops. Generally rounded or smooth surfaced, fieldstone can be used in its original shape for building material and a variety of landscaping projects, such as borders and walls.

There is a range of colors in both flagstone and fieldstone, from light buff to gray, tan, brown, rust and black. Depending on the mineral content of the area, there may be veins or sheens of green, pink or blue, and most will take on a different hue when wet. You may also see river rock, which is usually worn smooth and polished. This comes in sizes from pea gravel to pebbles and large rocks.

Found Rocks
If you are lucky, the simplest and cheapest form of landscaping with stone is to look on your property for native stone, perhaps even those covered with lichens. Consider using the stones where you find them, just dig them out a little to make them more prominent. If covered with lichen they may already be in light shade, if not you can move them to a more shady location, where stone complements plants such as hostas, Asarum and shade-tolerant Sedum spp.

There are so many ways to incorporate stones of all shapes and sizes into your garden, from pebbles and flagstones that create a path to larger stones stacked up to build a wall.

Dry Rivers
Another simple option is to develop a dry riverbed with pebbles. These often imitate a winding “stream,” with swirls and eddies. It can “flow” through sunny or shady areas of your garden, or both. If in the sun, you may want to line the “bank” with some of the brightly colored forms of ice plant (Delosperma). Stonecrop (Sedum), hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum), and speedwell (Veronica repens) also work well. For shady areas along your “river,” consider small varieties of hosta (Hosta ‘Little Treasure’ and ‘Kinbotan’), spikemosses (Selaginella spp.) and ferns. For wintertime and early spring interest in sunny areas or under deciduous shade, plant dwarf bulbs, such as Narcissus ‘Tête-à-Tête’, various crocus and Iris spp.

In addition to a dry river, you can continue the Japanese theme by building a Zen garden with few stones and few plants simply arranged.

Stone walls are a beautiful addition to any home. Stacked in a regular pattern (top photo) they provide a sense of formality, and with a loose, more random structure (bottom photo) they add a sense of whimsy. Either way, the walls make a great backdrop for trailing plants.

Stone as Accents
Larger stones and small boulders make great accent points in the garden. One option is to place a few stones or small boulders along a path or border. When used in an isolated area on your lawn, boulders can serve as a focal point. An odd number is preferable. A large boulder can also create a quiet, meditative area in a shady spot with a bench nearby.

On a smaller scale, you don’t need huge boulders to make an accent in your garden with stone. I once saw a stone collection that had been gathered by children during a family vacation. It was planted with brightly colored zinnias and salvias, attracting both butterflies and hummingbirds. Another garden was created by a friend who drove from North Carolina to California, gathering small rocks and stone in each state she crossed. Once home, she arranged them in her garden and planted phlox and petunias around the eclectic mixture of rock types. This became a conversation piece for visitors with a story about each rock.

For gardeners with limited space, how about using stone and low-growing plants, such as moss phlox (Phlox subulata) or candytuft (Iberis), to anchor a birdbath? This is a perfect idea for the beginning of a children’s garden.

If you have a sunny spot at your back door, an herb garden planted around flagstone or fieldstone can be both attractive and functional. Also, it’s not uncommon to see flagstone walkways with low plants such as thyme, sedum or moss growing in the spaces, softening the otherwise sharp stone edges. A dry-stack wall of stone, maybe a foot high, can provide a border for a flowerbed and, additionally, holes to tuck in plants that will thrive in a crevice.


      Use boulders in your garden to add levels and create new planting spaces. • If you’re going for a “natural” feel in your landscape, large boulders are a great addition. With careful placement, they will look like they’ve been a part of the garden for eons, while adding an artistic flair.

Creating a Rock Garden
You may want to consider a rock garden that imitates a high-elevation mountain setting. It’s easy to develop a rock garden using thin soil, with sand or pea gravel for good drainage. Start out with native plants, and as you gain more experience, select a wider range of plants, both sun and shade loving, depending on the rock garden’s location in your landscape.

In rock gardens and other places in the garden where you are using stone, don’t overlook the use of woody plants and shrubs, including slow-growing or dwarf conifers (Chamaecyparis and Juniperis spp.) Although most conifers require sun, they will provide year-round garden interest.

Regardless of how you use stone in your garden, the rule of thumb is to consider stone features that look appropriate in your garden setting and are in scale to the plants and other stones around them. Strive for a simple, naturalistic planting that mimics the wild settings of your area.

It has been said that stones were the first tools and weapons used by early humans. But today’s gardener can use stone quite differently to provide a bold focus or a modest complement to plants.


A version of this article appeared in a print version of Carolina Gardener Volume 25 Number 9.
Photography courtesy of Helen Yoest and Bobby Ward.


Posted: 10/30/17   RSS | Print


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Five Secrets for the Best Winter Squash
by Erika Jensen       #Advice   #Fall   #Vegetables

‘Tiptop PMR’ acorn squash yields five to seven squash on a semi-bush plant.



If you’re passionate about squash, you know the difference between great squash and mediocre squash. Great squash is sweet, with well-developed flavor and good texture. Mediocre squash is tasteless, watery and stringy. Sometimes it can be saved with butter and brown sugar, but ours often ends up in the compost pile.

It can be tricky to get good squash, since many varieties need 100 or more days to mature. Here are some secrets I’ve learned after 20 years of growing winter squash and pumpkins.


Here are a few varieties of squash I like to grow, with tips for each one. The letters in parentheses tells which merchants carry the seeds.


‘Metro PMR’ Butternut (105 days)
Metro is a smaller butternut type with good disease resistance. The flavor improves after a few weeks of storage, so save it for later. Harvest when the squash loses its green color around the stem and turns darker tan. (JSS)

1. Plant at the right time
Squash needs a full season to mature, so plant as soon as danger of frost is over. For an extra early start, plant squash in the greenhouse three weeks before the last frost date.

> ‘Metro PMR’ is a smaller butternut with powdery mildew resistance.

‘Delicata’ (95 days)
‘Delicata’ offers very sweet flesh with a tender skin. Eat these early in the fall since they may only keep a couple of months. There are a lot of companies offering this variety, but some of the lines have not been very well maintained. I purchase seed from High Mowing Seeds, which does a lot of very careful work with breeding. Harvest when the white has turned creamy and the green stripes have darkened. (JSS, HMS, FED)

‘Sunshine’ (95 days)
This is a kubocha type squash, which is bright red and exceptionally sweet. It’s not a heavy yielder, but it’s done well for me in most years. Cure the squash for a couple of weeks, then store for another month to fully develop the carbohydrates and flavors. Harvest when the stem becomes corky (with rough brown patches). For the sweetest squash, the stem should be at least 75 percent corky. (JSS, FED)


2. Treat them right
Abundant fertilizer, lots of water and protection from insects help get your plants off to a good start. In my garden, I use spun- poly row covers for the first month to protect against cucumber beetles and squash bugs.

‘Delicata’ can be eaten early in fall with little or no curing. • ‘Sunshine’ is an All-America Selections winner and is good for baking, mashing and pies. • ‘Sweet Dumpling’ is a smaller-sized squash with tender orange flesh.


‘Sweet Dumpling’ (100 days)
This round, striped green-and-cream squash weighs about one pound each and is perfect for small families or individuals. Plants yield eight to 10 squash. Look for the same ripeness indicators as with ‘Delicata’. (JSS, FED)


Here are a few varieties of edible pumpkins I like to grow, with tips for each one as well.

3. Pick When Ripe
This one’s a little tricky, since each variety has very specific signs to look for. Some tips are included in the next section. Watch your squash carefully as it grows, so you can see how each type changes as it matures. Since squash is tender, make sure you pick before the first hard frost.


‘Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato’ (90 days)
This acorn type is an outstanding heirloom variety from Missouri. The texture and sweetness are fantastic. Ripe squash will have a cream to golden skin color. (SH). Not shown here.

‘Tip Top PMR’ Acorn (92 days)
I didn’t like acorn squash until I met ‘Tip Top’. Its excellent sweet flavor and good texture made an acorn believer out of me. It has the added benefit of powdery mildew resistance, which is a must in my garden, where plants need to take care of themselves. For the best-tasting squash, I look for acorns that are a dark green-black with a ground spot that’s orange (not yellow.) (JSS)

‘Baby Pam’ (105 days)
This is my all-around favorite for pie pumpkins. Production averages four to five fruit per plant, and it’s a solid, dependable variety. Each one will make about one pie, or a couple of loaves of pumpkin bread. The sweetest pumpkins are a nice dark orange color. (HMS, FED). Not shown here.

4. ‘Cure’ Your Squash
Curing is a process of final ripening, which is completed after the squash is picked. Cure your squash at temperatures of 60 to 70 F for two to six weeks, depending on the variety. Members of the subgroup Cucurbita pepo (acorn types, ‘Delicata’, and ‘Sweet Dumpling’) often make the best eating early in the fall, while squash such as butternut should rest until the holidays to develop full flavor.

‘Long Island Cheese’ is an heirloom that looks like an old fashioned wheel of cheese. • ‘Kakai’ has hulless seeds that are great for snacking.

‘Long Island Cheese’ (108 days)
This one wins the longevity award from last year. It lasted until June with only a bit of softness on the bottom. It was also hardy enough to produce in one of the worst pumpkin years ever — 2012 — with little irrigation and lots of weed pressure. Ripe ones are a nice dark tan, like butternut squash. (JSS, HMS, FED)

‘Musque de Provence’ (125 days)
You may never go back to growing those brash orange pumpkins after trying this beautiful French heirloom. The deeply ribbed, fruits start out green and mature to a buff color. The large pumpkins are traditionally eaten fresh. (JSS, HMS)


5. Store them Right
Store squash at about 50 to 55 F with plenty of air circulation. A cool basement or porch would work well.

< ‘Musque de Provence’ is a French variety, also known as ‘Fairytale’.

‘Kakai’ (100 days)
These combine an attractive appearance (green and orange striped) with the added benefit of hulless seeds for easy snacking. They produce well and have a semi-bush habit. In September, look for pumpkins with well-developed color and mature seeds. (JSS, HMS)


Seed Source Codes -JSS Johnny’s Selected Seeds,; HMS High Mowing Seeds,; FED Fedco Seeds,; SHPC Sand Hill Preservation Center,


A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2013 Print Edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds/ and Hank Shiffman - Shiffman/.


Posted: 10/27/17   RSS | Print


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Wet Feet
by Mengmeng Gu       #Hardscaping   #Irrigation   #Raised Beds

This flowerbed is often flooded by excess sprinkler water. Mulch does not prevent sedge from growing, which invades neighboring areas. • After growing two years in a flowerbed with a waterspout, this crapemyrtle had roots growing out of the original planting hole. There was too much water!


Cool-season bulbs like Cyclamen and hyacinth (Hyacinthus spp.) definitely do not like wet feet and require good drainage.

Too much water is a fairly common problem in many flowerbeds in this region, where we may get about 4 inches of rain every month between late fall and early spring. Four inches of rain wouldn’t be considered “too much” water during the summer, when plants are actively growing and transpiring. During the cool season, temperatures are low so water loss through evaporation is limited, and plants are not actively growing, which does not take up a lot of water. Without good drainage, you may have a problem with too much water. Flowerbeds could be flooded and waterlogged by rainwater from a waterspout if the waterspout conveniently ends in a flowerbed. And sometimes the flowerbed is in a location that collects water, and the sprinkler system is just a little bit too generous.


There won’t be too much water at a high spot like this where these grasses are.

Generally it is much easier to avoid potential problems through careful planning. There are mainly three ways to deal with too much water.

1. Do not plant at the lowest spot. Don’t fight nature. Use river rocks to create a dry creek bed or other decorative element.

2. Create a rain garden. Rain gardens have grown in popularity in recent years. They capture water and increase percolation to recharge groundwater. Rain gardens require careful planning, not just throwing some water-tolerant plants together.

3. Or you can just install flowerbeds at a higher spot in the landscape. Then you don’t ever have to worry about too much water, which tend to run away from the spot. Drip irrigation may be needed to water plants in these beds during dry seasons.

     River rocks can be integrated in the landscape. • Raised beds are a simple solution to deal with too much water. It does not need to be too high, as long as excess water has a place to settle outside of the bed. Aesthetics should be considered to protect the integrity of the landscape.


A version of this article appeared in a print version of Carolina Gardener Volume 27 Number 9.
Photography courtesy of Mengmeng Gu.


Posted: 10/27/17   RSS | Print


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Alchemy In the Aromatic Jar
by Ruth Mason McElvain       #Edibles   #Recipes   #Vegetables

Pickles ready for a pickle tasting with my sisters. Three colorful ones are more Lee Brothers’ fresh pickles: watermelon and basil, radish and onion, and grapes with rosemary. The processed pickles are okra, green tomato, kosher dills, and crisp Squeaky Sweets.

Pickling is an ancient art, practiced around the globe for thousands of years to keep surplus harvests from spoilage, but flourishes now because of sheer adoration of pickles’ zip and zing. We Southerners slip into poetry over our mouthwatering pickles, as Thomas Jefferson did more than 200 years ago: “On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar.”

Perhaps your earliest memories are also of Southern tables whose pickled treasures travelled from hand to hand at nearly every meal: chowchow, bread and butter pickles, pickled plums and peaches studded with cloves, sweet watermelon rind, piccalilli, pepper sauce and other piquant concoctions that enliven our Southern cuisine. And who can forget the shadowy recesses of old stores on country highways. At the counter where you paid for your strawberry Nehi and Stage Plank cookies were giant jars of pickles – pig feet in murky liquid, huge pungent dills and perfectly smooth boiled eggs – like porcelain spheres floating in brine. Pickles are serious business to Southerners.

Don’t let the involved process of canning scare you away from the benefits of putting up your own condiments. Like any new skill, you soon find your rhythm and it becomes second nature. Here you see all you need for the final step of jarring and capping sweet pickles.

Gather Your Supplies
When I moved back to the South after 40 California years, I also planned to pickle the fruit of my Southern victory garden. As I was raising four sons in the ‘70s, I canned the wealth of San Jose’s fruit trees, disappearing remnants in our neighborhoods of once-vast orchards: pears, apricots, peaches, cherries, plums and apples, also making jams and pickles and sauces. I was raring to go.

While the new garden was growing, I dug up sweet pickle and kosher dill recipes my mother in law taught me in my twenties, trolled the Internet, library, cookbooks, and canvassed everyone, for pickling recipes. I unboxed my canner pot with its rack inside and the tongs for handling hot jars. I found canning jars in my mother’s basement, at thrift stores, and big box stores, also adding a new canning funnel, lids and bands, a magnet on a wand to retrieve lids from hot water, alum, spices, white and cider vinegar, pickling salt, and sugar. People I knew saved bottles for pepper sauce and I scouted for pouring spouts. No old crocks handy, I got a 3½-gallon glass jar at TJ Maxx for brining pickles, all on a mission to renew an old love.

A canner is convenient for water bath processing. It’s deep enough to allow boiling water action at the proper 1-inch depth over quart jars and comes with a rack for holding jars, necessary to prevent direct contact with pot bottom, thus avoiding breakage. I have another rack to fit a smaller pot just deep enough for half pints and smaller.

Practice Safe Handling
Canning demands safe kitchen practices or else you dump out a whole spoiled harvest. Jar manufacturers include pamphlets for correct canning procedures, and information is handy at myriad sources. My information and many recipes came from the website of the National Center for Home Food Preparation:

Canning steps are logical and easy to follow once you get your rhythm and organization down, with rewarding efforts. It’s gratifying to visit what our forebears considered routine in the past: the fragrant industry of a busy kitchen, jars gleaming from hot soapy water and boiling canner, spicy brews simmering in pots, sweet and pungent foods ladled into jars, and lids popping with a thrilling ping as filled jars cool.

These are what a local farmer called “Indian” peaches, which turned red in the pot as I pickled them and fell apart in the jar, not a success. You win some, you lose some is how I see it.

You Win Some, You Lose Some
My pantry shelves soon sported various sized jars and bottles of condiments, including chowchow, pepper sauce, kosher dills, sweet pickles, pickled peaches and pickled okra. The sweet and zippy chowchow only had a fan or two. I pickled what a local farmer calls Indian peaches that turned a deep red and fell apart in the jars, disappointingly nothing like the tangy golden orbs my grandma made. Others were major successes, though. My sister pops the sweet pickles like candy, relishing the crisp crunch straight from our childhood. The dills make great potato salad and hamburger accents. Some recipients of my pepper sauce use it at nearly every meal, including the best cook you ever met. Most popular of all, surprising in a family who nearly all shun okra unless it’s fried, the pickled okra was the most acclaimed and clamored for. Pickling eliminates the viscous okra texture and highlights its satisfying flavor. A pod or two is perfect with pimiento cheese or chicken salad sandwiches. It’s one I’ll do again this season.

All you need to make kosher dills: cucumbers, pickling salt, spices, garlic, grape leaf, brine. • 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! • Pickled grapes with rosemary are the surprisingly delicious inspiration of The Lee brothers. These fresh pickles are quick and simple, the crisp, sweet grape amazingly complemented by salty brine and hints of garlic and rosemary. Google the recipe, or buy their book Simple Fresh Southern, chock-full of other fresh takes on Southern cuisine.

Fresh Pickles
Southerners also enjoy fresh pickled dishes like sliced cucumber onions that marinate in equal parts water and cider vinegar, a little sugar, and generous salt and pepper; tastier made an hour or so before dinner is served, or better yet, a day ahead. The onions get sweet and tangy. My father always insisted on finely diced onions doused in cider vinegar near him at the table to eat with greens or peas.

The big guns of brining pickles or the ambitious process of home canning is not for everyone, but you can enjoy much simpler refrigerator pickles, easy recipes to make a dish or two at a time with any leftovers good in the refrigerator for a week. These pickles are like the bowl of cucumbers and onions, made fresh when needed.

Classic Pepper Sauce
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!)
• Cider vinegar

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


The Brave New World of Pickles
A must-try are the fresh pickles that Charleston’s Lee brothers introduce in their book Simple Fresh Southern. Their inspired inventions mix carrot sticks and dill, watermelon cubes with basil; grapes and rosemary; zucchini and onion; radishes and garlic; beets with ginger; lemon and cucumber. The most surprising and delicious are the grapes pickled with rosemary, garlic and chili flakes. Google the recipe and taste grapes crisp and sweet when freshly made, deliciously complemented by salt and sour with hints of garlic, heat and rosemary – great as impromptu party food with cheeses and crusty bread or for Thanksgiving’s relish tray. Chef Hugh Acheson’s A New Turn in the South has a chapter “Pickles, Put-ups, and Pantry Items” that is equally fun to read and try. His spicy pickled tomatoes using tiny cherry 100s are great with roast chicken, and his green tomato relish hankers for crispy fish or hot dogs.

That famous quip, that God is in the details, relegates pickles to a sacred culinary category, giving new dimensions of detail to dishes they grace. If your life brings generous garden delights to your kitchen, you too can venture into the old art and alchemy of vinegar, salt and spices, either in the long haul of canning, or just one dish made fresh. Whatever you do, when you’re setting your table, don’t forget the pickles.


A version of this article appeared in a print version of Carolina Gardener Volume 26 Number 9.
Photography courtesy of Ruth Mason McElvain.


Posted: 10/27/17   RSS | Print


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The Prettiest Salvias You’ve Never Seen
by Tom Hewitt       #Flowers   #Plant Profile   #Unusual

Salvias like S. splendens ‘Van Houttei’ (L) and ‘Mystic Spires Blue’ (R) are indispensable in a butterfly garden.

Years ago, while visiting family in Denver, Colorado, I discovered a lone salvia in a nursery that took my breath away. It wasn’t labeled, but that didn’t matter. I just knew I had to have it, so I gave it a haircut and somehow managed to fit it into my suitcase. You know you have issues when you forgo socks and underwear to make room for a “must have” plant.

It would be several months before I identified my special find as Salvia x guaranitica ‘Purple Majesty’. By then, I had taken dozens of cuttings and today it’s one of the best-selling plants in the Mounts nursery. It’s also one of a dozen or so tropical salvias in my butterfly garden that I just can’t do without.

‘Purple Majesty’ will always be one of my favorites, along with bog sage (S. uliginosa), forsythia sage (S. madrensis), S. mexicana ‘Compton’s Form’ and ‘Limelight’, and several others that are becoming easier to find. But there are so many other lesser-known species that are worth searching out.

Of some 900 known species of salvia, over half hail from Central and South America. Though many come from higher altitudes, we’ve only scratched the surface of those adaptable to Florida.

Here are a few unusual varieties that most Floridians might not be familiar with:

Belize sage is a great hummingbird attractor in light shade. • Fuzzy Bolivian sage likes more water than most. • Sinaloa sage may be small, but it’s perfect for containers or the front of a border.

Belize sage (S. miniata) is a hummingbird favorite of mine for areas in partial shade. It has pretty, glossy leaves, and fuzzy, orange-red flowers. Belize sage blooms nearly year-round in my garden, and can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11.

Fuzzy Bolivian sage (S. oxyphora) is a new one for us at Mounts, but has performed beautifully so far. It produces dense spikes of fuzzy, magenta blooms spring through fall. It does like its water, however, so be sure to put it where it’s hit by sprinklers at least twice a week. It can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10.

Sinaloa sage (S. sinaloensis) is a small salvia with tiny, intense blue flowers. Topping out at one foot or less, it’s perfect for containers or the front of the border. This one also blooms for me most of the year, and can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10.

Roseleaf sage (S. involucrata) produces magenta blooms from rounded buds, and has beautiful heart-shaped leaves. It tends to ramble in my garden, but new cultivars like ‘Mulberry Jam’ are smaller and more upright. It grows in USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10.

Tall big leaf sage (S. macrophylla ‘Upright Form’) has a mounding habit, and sends up spikes of cobalt blue flowers well above its fuzzy foliage. This one hates the cold, and is only reliably hearty in USDA Hardiness Zones 9-10.

Roseleaf sage has magenta blooms and beautiful, heart-shaped foliage. • Tall big leaf sage has a naturally pretty form and gorgeous blooms. • Peruvian sage is often grown more for its pretty, aromatic foliage than its flowers.

Mountain sage (S. microphylla) is often mistaken for autumn sage (S. greggii) both of which tend to have a limited lifespan in my garden, but I just can’t resist growing a variety of mountain sage called ‘Wild Watermelon’. It has pink blooms and leaves with a delightfully fruity scent. It can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10.

Peruvian sage (S. discolor) is mainly grown for its pretty leaves, which are apple-green on top and white underneath. This one is scandent in nature, so it tends to trail a bit. I put it in a large pot near the front of the border and let it cascade over the edges. Its purple blooms are almost black, and it grows in USDA Hardiness Zones 9-10.

‘Wild Watermelon’ sage has pink blooms and extremely aromatic leaves. • Galeana red sage resembles tropical sage on steroids.

Galeana red sage (S. darcyi) resembles tropical sage (S. coccinea), except that its orange-red blooms are twice as big. It has pretty, soft green foliage and can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10.

Not all salvias I experiment with are long-lived in my zone 10 garden. With some species, finding just the right location makes all the difference. In general, salvias are ridiculously easy to care for. Though most are sun-lovers, many appreciate shade during the hottest part of the day, especially during our summers. Remember to deadhead to keep them blooming and cut them back once flowering is over. Most are not picky about soils, but must be given good drainage. Bog sage is the only one in my garden that likes wet feet.

Many tropical salvias can be hard to find, since most must be started from cuttings. The Mounts Botanical Garden nursery in West Palm Beach has one of the widest selections of tropical salvias in the state. Flowers by the Sea (, based in Elk, California, has an incredible inventory online. For further information on salvias, read A Book of Salvias by Betsy Clebsch, or check out the University of Florida EDIS website at www.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 22 Number 5.
Photography courtesy of Tom Hewitt.


Posted: 09/29/17   RSS | Print


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Plants Need Their Rest Too
by Garry V. McDonald       #Colorful   #Fall   #Orange   #Trees

October colors start to appear on the leaves of the trees.

This is about the time of year I start getting inquiries from local media about why leaves turn colors in the fall. What they really want to know is the exact week of peak color to inform the leaf-peepers. I usually respond that the plants are preparing to enter dormancy and peak color depends on prevailing weather conditions and is often unpredictable.

But what exactly is dormancy and why is it crucial to plants? Like explaining why leaves change color, the answer is not straightforward and “depends,” which is not the answer most people want to hear. I’ll attempt to explain in layman’s terms an interesting facet of a plant’s life.

It is often assumed that deciduous plants, or many grasses, are “dead” during the winter or when flowering bulbs disappear altogether. Far from it – the plants are really just “resting” and very much alive. This state of inactive growth or rest is called dormancy.

The rusty red orange colors of the maple pop against the neutral colors in the background.

Plants undergo different types of dormancy, but all are adaptations for survival during adverse growing conditions – either cold winters or hot, dry summers. Fossil records suggest that the earliest land plants arose in areas with warm, wet tropical conditions. As eons passed, continents drifted, climates changed, and plants migrated; many plants had to adapt to cooler and eventually freezing weather. On the other hand, as ancient ancestors of cacti and Euphorbia experienced hotter and drier conditions in what is now Central America and sub-Saharan Africa, these plants adapted mechanisms to survive conditions unfavorable for growth. In the case of cold temperatures, plants that shed their leaves and increased sap sugar content (which acts as antifreeze in both deciduous and conifers) were able to survive, whereas their tropical cousins died out. Likewise, those plants that were able to adapt to hot and dry conditions through various morphological or physiological modifications were able to survive months if not years with little or no water. While all this seems simple enough, the mechanisms and biochemistry that control dormancy are intricate and closely in tune with nature and the natural environment, with dormancy a requirement for most plants to complete their life cycle, even if evergreen.

Plants experience two types of dormancy, which can best be summed up as either internally or externally imposed. Internal dormancy, or what is called in the trade physiological dormancy, is caused by chemical changes that occur within the plant as a response to several factors – mainly environmental. External dormancy, known as quiescence, is usually exclusively controlled by environmental factors such as rainfall or temperature. Seeds have other types of dormancy, but essentially controlled by the same factors. All types of dormancy are controlled by substances made by the plant, called plant growth regulators. These are also referred to as plant hormones. Plant growth regulators are grouped as either growth promoters or growth inhibitors. Both are crucial in controlling dormancy.

The orange leaves of the maple are glorious.

The golden yellow leaves on this ginko shine brightly like the sun against this beautiful blue sky.

The best way to understand internal dormancy in trees is to follow the season of a plant such as sugar maple (Acer saccharum) since they display brilliant fall color most years. During the growing season, sugar maples are actively photosynthesizing – producing sugars and other substances for growth. When the days begin to shorten and the nights cool down in early autumn, this is a signal for the sugar maple tree to start “hunkering down” to survive freezing winter temperatures. The tree can “sense” changes in day length by a process called photoperiodism. This change in day length causes those internally produced plant growth regulators mentioned earlier to trigger changes in the tree. Chlorophyll, the green pigment in leaves, ceases to be produced and sugars and other nutrients in the leaves are broken down and transferred to stems and the root system to act as food reserves and, in the case of sugars and resins, a type of antifreeze. As chlorophyll breaks down, other plant pigments such as carotenoids, yellow and orange, contained in the leaf are unmasked to display their colors. Anthocyanin, the red and purple pigment, production actually increases as days shorten and cooler temperatures prevail and are also unmasked as the green pigment chlorophyll breaks down. It is the elusive combination of bright sunny days and cool nights along with not too much or too little rainfall that determines fall color. But what does all this have to do with dormancy? One theory about why plants exert energy when they should be conserving it to produce the red and purple pigments, as well as the yellow and orange, is that insects and other predators are “blind” to red and will not feed on red foliage, allowing for maximum food storage. As fall deepens, nutrients and minerals migrate out of the leaves and are re-distributed into the stems and roots; the leaves fall off, as they are now a liability to the tree. At this point, the tree has entered dormancy, all snuggled in for the winter.

So what happens when it is time for the plant to wake up? As days lengthen and days, and especially nights, warm up, this signals the plant to rise and shine. Those plant growth regulators that induced dormancy decrease and those that promote growth increase. The food that was stored during the fall is mobilized and moved toward the growing tips. Most folks would call this the “sap rising” and it is the time to tap sugar maples for syrup making. The food supplies energy to the plant for the leaves to develop and the process of photosynthesis begins again.

A grouping of trees with leaves that are displaying color change in October, indicating the start of the dormancy period.

Most plants have a chilling hour requirement, meaning that they must receive a certain number of hours of temperatures ranging from 32 to 45 F to break dormancy. This chilling requirement is crucial for fruit growers. If fruit, and many flowering, trees do not receive enough chilling hours they fail to flower properly or are delayed leafing out for weeks if not months. The number of chilling hours in Arkansas ranges from 800 hours in the southern part of the state to 1300 hours in the northern part – quite a range and the reason why it is important to select the right tree for the right place.

Prolonged heat or drought will also cause plants to enter into a type of dormancy. As a survival mechanism, adapted plants will drop their leaves or otherwise go dormant. This is why many trees, such as sycamore (Platanus spp.) and river birch (Betula nigra), are almost bare by the end of August during hot and dry summers. Unless those conditions are too prolonged, they will survive until the next growing season. Bermudagrass does the same thing when drought hits, but recovers with cooler and wetter weather.


A version of this article appeared in an October 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Garry McDonald.


Posted: 09/29/17   RSS | Print


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Hold On to Summer
by Cindy Shapton       #Crafts   #Flowers   #How to

Poppy seedheads can be hung upside down to finish air-drying and are beautiful in arrangements.

Hate saying goodbye every year to your beautiful flowers? Dry those blossoms and you can keep them for years to come. I’ve always been intrigued with flower drying; in fact I used strawflowers (Xerochrysum bracteatum), statice (Limonium spp.) and baby’s breath (Gypsophila spp.) in my bridal bouquet so I could keep them along with my memories of that eventful day. I even had strawflowers placed on the wedding cake instead of flowers made of icing. I still have those flowers, though they are fading a bit. And they still make me chuckle when I think how my mom bartered manure for them from a neighbor.

Flowers are easy to preserve and they don’t have to be any particular type of flower – you can dry almost any bloom, though it might take a couple of tries to get it right.

I like air-drying and using silica gel the best. Both are easy to use with usually good results. White cornmeal, sand and even kitty litter can be used, but after trying them all, I prefer the results I get with silica gel.

Remember to have fun with the process and take notes so you can recreate your successes.

Hang bunches in dark, dry, well-ventilated area. Winged everlasting, ‘Strawberry Fields’ globe amaranth and ‘Caradonna’ salvia hang from the rafters.

Air-drying with stems up
Air-drying is an age-old technique that our grandmothers used. They simply cut flowers, tied them in bundles, and hung them up (by the stems) to dry in a warm, dark place with plenty of air circulation. Attics and barn haylofts were popular spots back in the day.

I don’t use the barn loft (too hot and humid for me), but I have used the attic, the garage, the family room, closets and even doorknobs in the kitchen. A fan helps move the air, promotes quicker drying and it’s portable.

In summer, I’ll often use folding clothes-drying racks; they fold up and can be put out of the way when they are not in use. I have a few wooden pegs near the ceiling in a couple of rooms and not solely for drying: I think drying flowers and herbs are beautiful and I like to see them year round.

Hydrangeas and Mexican sage drying in the garage.

Air-drying with stems down
Some flowers do best if you pick them and stand them up in a vase or bucket with or without a little water in the bottom. This gives the blooms the opportunity to dry slowly. Hydrangeas and peonies are good examples of flowers that do well using this method.

A screen is also helpful when drying flowers such as black-eyed Susans or coneflowers – by pushing the stem through the screen, the flower head lies flat against the screen, preventing it from curling.

Clockwise: Place a rubber band around bunches of yarrow and hang up to dry.  •  Feverfew blooms dry well left in a vase without water.  •  Larkspur comes in many colors and is easy to dry by air-drying or in silica gel.  •  Pick hydrangea blooms as they mature and start to change colors for the best results.

Some of the flowers I have dried using both methods
Lavender (Lavandula spp.), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), Santolina, Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha), tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), Mexican marigold (Tagetes lucida), Victoria blue salvia (S. farinacea ‘Victoria’), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), chives (Allium schoenoprasum), bee balm (Monarda spp.), strawflowers, globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa), statice, baby’s breath, roses (Rosa spp.), cockscomb (Celosia spp.), peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum), Hydrangea, Verbena, cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), larkspur (Consolida ajacis), teasel (Dipsacus spp.), heather (Calluna vulgaris), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.), coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), gayfeather (Liatris spp.), grape hyacinth (Muscari spp.), Nigella (flowers and seedheads), Chinese lanterns (Physalis alkekengi), peony (Paeonia spp.), Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota ssp. carota), poppy (Papaver spp.) seedpods, rose hips, Scabiosa flower heads, Baptisia seedheads, etc.

The best time to pick flowers for drying is in the morning after the dew has dried off, but before the sun gets hot.

Dried flowers should have good color.

Silica gel in the microwave
Silica gel can be purchased at flower or craft stores and can be used over and over.** Silica is a white sand-like substance with blue flecks that pulls moisture out of flowers quickly without fading the colors. Use caution when pouring silica gel. Pour very slowly: You don’t want to breathe it in.

• In a shallow glass dish, pour enough silica gel to cover the bottom.

• Snip the stems ½-1 inch from the flower head.

• Lay the flower heads on top of the silica gel (stems up or down) so the petals don’t touch each other.

• Cover with silica gel.

• Place dish in the microwave with a small glass of water.

• Cook at one-minute intervals at half-power until dry. It doesn’t take long, usually only two or three minutes total. Adjust time as needed after first batch.

• I use a popsicle stick to gently push back the gel and get under and lift out flowers.

• Use a small, fine brush (such as a small paintbrush) to gently brush away any leftover silica gel on blooms.

**When the blue crystals turn pink, put the silica gel in a glass baking dish in the oven at 250 F for about five hours – until the crystals are blue again. Then it is ready to dry more flowers.

Several different flower heads dried in silica gel: Zinnia, Queen Anne’s lace, cornflower, nigella, roses and black-eyed Susan.

Silica gel traditional method
Any container with a tight-fitting lid is fair game for drying flowers in silica gel. I save large tins and disposable plastic containers with tight lids. Plastic shoeboxes also work well.

• Pour enough silica gel to cover bottom of container – about 1 inch is good.

• Place flower heads as previously described in the gel, or whole spiky bloom stems, such as those of larkspur, can be laid lengthwise.

• Cover blooms so no plant material is showing.

• Put the lid on.

• Put it away in a closet.

• Depending on the thickness of the petals, they are usually dry in two to seven days. Check periodically. It’s better to leave them a little longer than not long enough.

Fill pretty pedestal dishes or cake plates with dried blooms for a colorful centerpiece.

Putting the flowers back together to use in an arrangement
Once the flower heads are dry, use small pliers to bend over one end of green floral wire to form a small hook. Starting with the straight end of wire, push through the center of the flower head (at the top) all the way through so that the hook is pressed into the flower head.

To hide the wires, either place the flowers close together or use dried filler material such as Artemisia. To keep dried flower arrangements from shattering, spray flowers with a light coating of hairspray.

Other uses for dried flowers

• Fill a pretty pedestal dish or cake plate with flower heads.

• Hot-glue dried blooms onto a wreath.

• Lay a river of colorful dried blooms on the dinner table to get a lot of oohs and aahs at your next dinner party.

• Glue dried flower heads onto a canvas to create a 3-D work of art.

Dried flowers can be used in so many projects, such as this wreath.

Once you start down the path of drying flowers, you won’t be able to look at blooms, seedheads, plumes, leaves or any other plant part without wondering what it would look like dried.


A version of this article appeared in a September 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Cindy Shapton and Jeanne Hilinske-Christensen.


Posted: 09/29/17   RSS | Print


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Building a Scarier Scarecrow
by Cindy Shapton       #Decorating   #Fall   #Pests









Be creative – broken tools, pots and whatnots make fun scarecrows …how about those ladybug shoes?

If you have a garden, it’s more than likely that you also have a pest or three. It should be no surprise that pests and critters like our yards and gardens as much, or more, than we do. We are encouraged to invite wildlife into our yards and gardens because we love seeing them, and, in theory, they help balance our desire for our garden and nature to coexist. But what happens when they go rogue and start eating, digging and destroying all of our hard work?

Scaring them away, or we could say gently discouraging, wild and sometimes not-so-wild critters to “Step away from the garden,” is always a first and sometimes successful option.

When we think about “scare” and “garden,” our minds naturally jump to scarecrows, an ancient and very popular form of scaring away crows and sparrows from crops. These birds could devastate a farmer’s crop in short order, which could mean food shortages, a very serious matter. The idea is that birds would see a scarecrow and think it was a person and be frightened away. Scarecrows work somewhat … at least for a while, until the birds figure out it doesn’t move, and then they’re back to raiding crops.

A traditional scarecrow watches over sunflowers, discouraging birds and looking good in the garden.  •  Some yard-sale finds turn this PVC pipe frame into a cute little hip-hop cowgirl ready to scare. The base is a 2-foot piece of larger PVC pipe concreted into a bucket so it can be moved easily about.

Scarecrows have such a rich history in our agrarian past that a garden without one seems naked or not quite finished. Besides, they add a touch of color and art to the garden, whether they are scary or not.

Easy to make and a fun family project, scarecrow frames can be repurposed from materials you probably can gather from around your garage or barn. It’s just a matter of dressing something that can be used as a frame that is currently being used in a different manner, such as pieces of wrought iron, gazing-ball holders, easels or tripods. You can easily use scrap lumber or PVC pipe to construct a frame – a basic “T” or cross shape for you to “dress.”

I’ve always thought that scarecrows could be “new and improved” with a little tweaking … here are some ideas to consider:

• Make your scarecrow moveable – this will hopefully create an element of surprise and some fright. I made a “scare baby” on a metal form I used to display gazing balls. It has a central spike that pushes easily into the ground so I can move it often. You could also anchor the frame to a bucket with concrete, making them more mobile.

• Stuff the scarecrow clothes with strong-smelling herbs like tansy, wormwood and lavender. Many critters, as well as some insects, will be repelled or confused and just move on.

Scarebaby might seem innocently sweet with her hot pink skirt and gourd head, but she spreads a little doubt when I move her easily and often around the garden on her gazing-ball frame.  •  Repurpose CDs to scare away birds in the garden as they spin and glimmer.  •  Ribbons, especially reflective ones – blow in the wind, creating movement to startle critters.

• Use the scarecrow’s arms to hang reflective tape or metallic objects that will move in a breeze, like old Christmas decorations and garland, or even old CDs that will spin and shine in the sun.

• My mom sprays cheap perfume on rags she hangs on fences or posts around her garden to ward off deer with great results. If you have hungry deer, perfume your scarecrows or add a smelly scarf.

• Accessorize your scarecrow with leftover soap scraps, human hair and mashed garlic that can be placed in recycled mesh bags and hung on the scarecrow as another deterrent for deer.

• Hide a portable radio (protected from rain) in the scarecrow, connected to a timer on a 24/7 talk radio station that comes on randomly to catch critters off guard. This works for deer, raccoons, birds and other garden marauders.

• Twinkle lights are always a nice touch in the garden – why not wrap them around scarecrows and connect to a timer that goes on and off during the night to put a little scare into those nocturnal pests?

• Use scarecrows as a hanger for plastic owl or hawk decoys or better yet, rubber snakes. Rabbits, birds and other critters are leery of these birds and reptiles of prey. These, too, work best if moved often to maintain the element of surprise.

• Attach mirrors to do one of three things: Keep some birds busy admiring or fighting with themselves; cast reflective light spots, especially when they are hanging so they can spin around to startle and scare; critters – groundhogs, who are afraid of their own refection – will skedaddle when they see themselves in a stationary mirror placed near the ground by the scarecrow base.


   I had a problem with birds getting to my elderberries before they even ripened … not now – with a snake hanging about!  •  Predatory birds are sure to scare away critters and birds in the garden, just be sure to keep moving them around.  •  Pinwheels and whirligigs have long been used to scare off critters in the garden. Some claim that moles don’t like the vibrations created by these spinners … it’s worth a try!

• Pinwheels and spinning whirligigs are not only fun in the garden, but they also add sudden movement to intimidate or surprise, and will send groundhogs running. Old-timers say that these spinners also create vibrations, which will make moles nervous and wary. They’ll leave your garden alone and look for calmer areas.

• Don’t know what to do with all the shells you get from your beach vacations? String them together and let them hang off the scarecrow as another unusual noisemaker.

• Chimes make noise with the slightest breeze, and let’s face it, some of those high-pitched notes are painful; so put them in the garden, where they can be used to make critters hold their ears and skitter, scatter.

• Old-fashioned pie plates hanging around the garden in pairs clang loudly to shoo away birds, or hung singly, they’ll spin and glimmer.

Hanging pie pans so they spin is an old-fashioned way to keep some varmints out of the garden.

• Change outfits now and then to fool critters – especially the winged ones. So if you thought those folks with the garden ornaments that wear different clothing throughout the year based on the season were a little strange … think again, they may be onto something!

• And finally, have fun coming up with ideas to scare, befuddle, confuse and disperse trouble makers from your garden, then share what works with your garden friends.


A version of this article appeared in a October 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Cindy Shapton.


Posted: 09/29/17   RSS | Print


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Transplant Those Plants Now
by Gene E. Bush       #Advice   #Bulbs   #Fall   #Shrubs











Lilium canadense, is one of the best native lilies. Transplant it near a path to admire the details inside the blooms.


Nurseries and garden centers overflow with color on opening day in the spring. They woke the plants up early and grew them on to full foliage and bloom placing temptation before all the gardeners with cabin fever.

My wife and I are as susceptible to gardening siren calls as any other gardener, but over the years we have learned that there are plants best transplanted in the fall. September, October, and early November are prime months for bringing perennials, bulbs, trees, and shrubs into the garden.

Better Weather
Our soils in later winter into spring are often soggy. Over the winter we normally receive our rains to build up reserves for summer heat and mini-droughts. Between the rain and temperatures running up and down like a yo-yo, I find that spring is not my favorite time to work in the garden. I do, but I prefer fall planting when the soils are dry, and the temperatures are cool.

Easier Maintenance
I see little common sense in making life difficult. If there is an easier way to go about a task, I appreciate knowing. When purchasing a plant in full foliage and bloom in the spring it will need care until the roots can get established. The new plant needs attention all spring and well into the summer. When transplanting in the fall, you can water it once, mulch it, and walk away.

The large toad shade (Trillium cuneatum) is good for the woodland or shade garden. It gently self-seeds over time.

Stronger Roots
Come September, October, and November, plants are either dormant or going to sleep, so there is less concern for root disturbance. Plants perform better when planted after the tops have stopped active growth or died back. With proper soil preparation and mulching the plants hardly know they have been transplanted; they simply awaken in their new home next spring. Roots have had a chance to settle in during the winter months. When first foliage and then bloom is produced in a fall-planted transplant, the roots are fully operative. New feeder roots are able to take up the nutrients needed reducing or eliminating stress.

Plant Bulbs, Tubers, and Corms Now
Catalogs selling spring-blooming bulbs begin filling our mailboxes in late spring with early order discounts, and the deliveries continue almost until planting time. In most cases, the bulbs will also arrive in your mailbox too early for immediate transplanting.

When your bulbs arrive, inspect them for damage in shipment, dried-out material, or rot. I leave the packets in the shipping box, remove all packing material, and place the box in the refrigerator until the proper planting time.

Wait for the soil to cool down before planting the bulbs. Often bulbs planted into warm soil will break dormancy, coming into active growth at the beginning of winter. This causes unsightly damage to the foliage and may kill the bud containing the bloom.

Work the soil where you intend to plant your bulbs in early or mid-fall. The actual planting of the bulbs should take place until around Thanksgiving. Since the weather can quickly turn to cold and wet around this time, do not put off preparing the planting site in advance.


Campanula ‘Silver Bells’ is a bit of a wanderer in good soil, but the large bell-shaped blooms and foliage form a nice background to hybrid lilies.

Ephemerals Love Fall Planting
“Ephemeral” means fleeting or of short duration. The term when applied to plants refers to early spring bloomers that, in general, are dormant by the middle of July. Trillium spp. would be a good example. The tiny dwarf snow trillium (Trillium nivale) blooms first until the middle of March, sets seed, and then its foliage disappears by the Fourth of July.

Because ephemerals awaken so early in the season, fall planting is the only practical time to transplant them. Few gardeners are able to work the soil during February or March. The most important reason, however, is their growth habit. During late summer and early fall many of these plants (mostly woodland) form buds that will become stems, roots, or blooms. If they are fall planted, then they have the best chance of settling in and putting new roots into the surrounding soil.

Plant Perennials, Too
Late spring and early summer bloomers, often placed in the garden the last of April through the end of May, will have a difficult time surviving and thriving when spring planted. First of all, the roots are disturbed when you remove them from their pots, and then again when you spread the roots into the surrounding soil when transplanting.

Feeder roots are broken and bruised, which disrupts the flow of nutrients and moisture. The plants have little time to repair and establish new roots before July arrives. July, August, and September bring heat, high humidity, and low precipitation. Surviving all this disruption and stress is a lot to ask of a plant in full foliage and bloom.

Perennials that bloom from August through November are the plants I prefer placing in the garden during spring while they are either dormant or just awakening. That gives them around five to six months of growth before they are expected to bloom.

So, try planting spring- and summer-blooming perennials in the fall.

Rhododendron ‘Lemon Lights’ is a hybrid deciduous azalea forming a tidy open shrub.

Fall is for Trees and Shrubs
September and October are my favored months for planting deciduous shrubs and trees. Much of the literature on planting trees and shrubs says “any time you can work the ground,” especially for balled and burlapped or containerized plants. While I certainly could plant in the spring, my preference is for fall.

After trees and shrubs drop their foliage, no energy goes into foliage production or maintenance, which draws moisture from the roots. While the part above ground is asleep, the roots remain awake, and are in active growth any time the soil is 45 F or above. You can gain eight or nine months simply by fall planting a shrub or tree.

Over the winter, the shrubs can settle into the soil and have new feeder roots out when spring arrives. This causes much less stress.

After planting I water well and mulch around the root system, but not against the trunk or stems. When mulch is placed against bark it can cause rot from excess moisture and no air circulation, and can create a hiding place for insects and rodents to overwinter and feed. Normally you don’t have to water again until the next summer unless there is a prolonged dry spell. Never fertilize when planting; wait until just before spring growth begins.

Fall Planting is Simply Easier
Whenever possible, my preference is to let Mother Nature do most of the work. She usually does a better job. Be it wildflowers, perennials, bulbs, or shrubs, after planting I water well, mulch to prevent winter heaving and to maintain moisture, and then pretty much forget the plants or bulbs until spring.


A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Gene E. Bush.


Posted: 09/28/17   RSS | Print


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Warming Herbs for Winter
by Jim Long       #Herbs   #Recipes   #Winter

Ever wonder why some herbs are popular in summer while others gain prominence in fall and winter? There are some very good reasons why we use mint, parsley, lavender and lemongrass in summer, and why sage, rosemary, thyme, hyssop and others are considered winter herbs.

It’s well known that cultures closest to the equator use more hot seasonings than people who live in colder regions. Mexican oregano with its hot, biting flavor, hot chilies, cumin and other similar hot herbs cause the body to sweat and are used to help the body cool down in hot climates. You won’t find those seasonings used in countries like Norway and Sweden, where summer heat isn’t as intense as in equatorial locations.

Easy Ways to Dry Herbs
To dry your own herbs, use a food dehydrator. Gather summer-growing herbs in midmorning, after the dew has evaporated but before the more intense heat of the day, for best flavor. Gather sprigs, 4 to 6 inches long, of each herb and lay them in a single layer in the dehydrator. Let the dehydrator run until the herbs are crisp and crumble easily — usually about 24 to 48 hours. When dried, run your thumb and finger down the length of each herb stem, catching the leaves in a bowl. Store those in an airtight container or zippered-plastic bag until ready to use.

Don’t have a food dehydrator? A really simple method is to put a good handful of herb sprigs in a brown paper grocery bag. Fold the bag closed and secure it with a clothespin or large paperclip. Put the bag in the trunk or back seat of your car and leave it. Every 2 or 3 days, give the bag a shake and return it to the car. The paper bag will wick away the moisture and the heat of the car will help the drying process. In about a week, or as soon as the herbs are dry, remove the stems and store in an airtight container.

Herbs that are considered “warming,” and therefore good for the cooler months, include hyssop, sage, fennel seed, horseradish, rosemary, thyme, cinnamon, ginger, fenugreek and many more. Our appetites in summer don’t give us cravings for heavier foods like chicken soup, baked turkey or a pot of chili, but when the temperatures turn cool, those foods suddenly sound good to us.People of European descent become hungry in the fall for foods seasoned with the winter herbs such as sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, cinnamon, allspice and cloves, which are all warming herbs. Baked goose, beef stew, pumpkin pie, spice cake — those herb combinations warm our bodies as well as our palates.

When I visited India a few years back, I learned Indian cooks pays more attention to seasonal herbs and spices than we do here in the United States. My hosts showed me various seasoning mixes, some created specifically for summer, their properties causing the body to cool, while the winter mixtures were meant to warm the body and retain heat. My friends explained that if you used a summer garam masala (a traditional Indian seasoning blend) in winter, for example, you would be chilly and uncomfortable.

If you ask most people what comes to mind when they hear the word “sage,” most will say the stuffing at Thanksgiving or possibly the seasoning in sausage. But sage is widely adaptable to foods like squash, beans, breads, muffins and game meats. It makes a soothing sore throat gargle and a warming, pleasant hot tea in winter.

Homemade Poultry Seasoning
Recipe from Great Herb Mixes. All the herbs are dried.

2 Tablespoons each: sage, parsley, celery leaf and marjoram
1 Tablespoon summer savory
1 Tablespoon thyme
2 teaspoons rosemary

Mix together and grind to a powder in a food processor or blender. Store the mix in an airtight container. Use 2 to 3 teaspoons for cooking a whole chicken, added in the last half hour of cooking time.

Fatty foods, which are more popular during the cooler months, combine well with the warming herbs. Roast goose, seldom cooked today, in the past was always seasoned with herbs that broke up and moderated the fat. Those include hyssop, garlic, sage, rosemary and thyme. Today we use those same herbs for roast or boiled chicken or turkey, pork dishes, soups and stews.

Thyme is generally used in combination with other warming flavors. It’s an important ingredient in poultry and sausage seasonings. Thyme is a winter sore throat gargle and works well in warming bath blends. Thyme is often blended with rosemary and sage in simmering stews.


A version of this article appeared in Missouri Gardener Volume 1 Number 5.
Photography courtesy of Jim Long.


Posted: 09/28/17   RSS | Print


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Sweet Native Fruit Trees That Won’t Leave You Bitter
by Scott Beuerlein       #Fruit   #Natives   #Trees

Pawpaws found in the woods are usually tall and skinny and rarely produce fruit. They spread mostly by forming colonies. But in the garden, the trees display a great form and can be very productive.

With surprising regularity, some poor schlep of a volunteer from a community garden – abuzz with visions of plump, perfect sweet cherries, heirloom apples, and sugar plums dancing in his or her head – will email me with a simple question that they expect will have a simple answer. The question is always some variation on this: “What apples, pears, and peaches would you recommend for a community orchard?” I wish I could see the looks on their faces when they get a big old heaping serving of attitude.

Persimmons can be easily identified by the iconic alligator-hide bark. The wood is light but strong, and was once used as the heads on golf club “woods.”

Growing standard orchard crops isn’t gardening. It’s a way of life. And a hard one at that. Sleepless nights worrying about plum curculio, shelling out big bucks on potions and tinctures, calling in sick to stay home to nurse sick trees. Really, not the stuff of the average community garden volunteer. And it would be irresponsible to not tell them so. Right? That it had to come with a load of world-weary whining from a bitter schmuck who has been mocked and defeated by scabbed apples and dead apricot trees is their just dumb luck.

But, because I’m not a total jerk, I eventually get around to a perfectly reasonable solution – a pair of fruit trees that can be grown with near impunity: pawpaws and persimmons. Once I’ve made my pitch, the volunteer is 100 percent in – and why not? What could be cooler for a community garden than to grow native plants that connect us to our history and natural heritage, produce nutritious food, and do so without inputs? Besides, good, cheap apples and peaches can be bought in any market. Where can you buy a decent pawpaw or a persimmon to eat?

Both pawpaw and persimmon trees can be found in big swaths of eastern North America. They are common, colonizing trees. You’ll usually find pawpaws in moist woods, persimmons too, but persimmons can also occur on drier, higher ground. Both are perfect for yards and gardens, and both are attractive enough to grow even if you have no interest in the fruit.

Pawpaw flowers are dark and smell of carrion, but are not unattractive. Pawpaws are self-infertile, and pollination is achieved mostly by carrion beetles, which don’t travel especially well, so plant two varieties close to each other.

Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) are the current darling of the hort world. Literally, there are festivals devoted to their honor, and a fair amount of craft beer is made with them as an ingredient. Despite this, they are not especially easy to procure. Take the effort to track them down, especially named cultivars if you can find them. A little shade is best, but full-sun is fine with just a bit of care. In sun, they form into a wonderful pyramidal form, replete in their large, lush, tropical-looking leaves. They have a good, clear yellow fall color, and are hardy to USDA Zone 5. The fruits ripen in early fall and are sweet and rich, looking and tasting superficially like bananas. They can be fairly productive, but what you don’t use the local wildlife will not allow to go to waste.

Persimmon fruit should not be eaten until fully ripe. They frequently remain on the tree into early winter, and are quite ornamental.

You’ll need more space for a persimmon than either pawpaws or serviceberries. They top out at about 60 feet. They are hardy to USDA Zone 4.

Although pawpaws are trending, the persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) are by no means chopped liver. With attractive bark, a nice upright form, good fall color, and abundant umber fruits that hang like ornaments into winter, they deserve more attention than they get. They are hardy to USDA Zone 4, and the fruits are delicious – there’s nothing else quite like them. About the size and color of an apricot, persimmon fruits are rich and pulpy and a fabulous treat in the late fall. Late fall, by the way, is an important point. Bite into one before it is fully ready, and they are the most astringent substance on the planet. One time at work, we gave an unripe persimmon to an unsuspecting intern, and he quickly puckered into a bleached pile of bones. It was unfortunate, and we all kind of felt bad.

Seedling persimmons trees are dioecious, meaning you’ll need a male lurking around if you want any fruit, but most of the named cultivars are self-pollinating. Pawpaws are self-infertile, so you’ll need more than one seedling or multiple named selections for fruit. I planted about a dozen pawpaws in a 15-by-15-foot area, some in the same hole, and they have looked and performed great, producing far more than we can eat.

Never dig wild persimmons or pawpaws. As colonizing plants, anything you find small enough to dig will still be dependent on mom’s roots, and will not survive. Growing plants from seeds of either species is easy and rewarding, but for consistent quality of fruit seek out named selections. You might have to go online or through mail-order.

A third native fruit tree option also deserves a mention. Serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.) are another native plant that can be depended upon for attractiveness in gardens, a minimum of difficulty, and tasty fruit. A couple of caveats: Some serviceberries have been bred for ornamental purposes over fruit production, so if fruit is your primary goal, look for varieties found in orchard tree catalogs. Also, serviceberries are rose family plants, akin to crabapples, so you might expect some pests and foliar issues that can detract from their appearance later in the year. This doesn’t affect fruit quality and production, just the aesthetics of the plant. The fruit ripens in June, tastes somewhat like blueberries, is abundantly produced, and is good for fresh eating and baking. Birds will get their share, trust me, but that’s fine.

Serviceberries are stunning in bloom, extremely productive, and many offer outstanding fall color.

So any of these trees make fine additions to your yard or community gardens. They are attractive, adaptable, fruitful, and almost guaranteed to not turn you into a bitter curmudgeon.


A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Scott Beuerlein, and Marilyn Stewart.


Posted: 08/28/17   RSS | Print


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The Lowdown on Mulch
by Barbara Fair       #Landscaping   #Misc   #Soil

Mulching your landscape not only helps retain moisture and provide insulation for your plants, it also helps define areas of the garden.

You may be wondering, why write an article about mulching? Everyone knows how to mulch, right? You buy mulch and place it around your plants. True, it’s not rocket science, but I have seen enough bad mulching jobs that it does merit more attention.

For years horticulturalists and arborists have provided information on how, when and why to mulch, and yet I still see “volcano” piles around trees. By no means is mulching a requirement for good gardening, nor is it used worldwide. Very few places in Europe actually mulch, and I have seen some spectacular gardens there. However, in this country it is a staple in almost every landscape.

Many commercial plantings use the red-dyed wood chips. These are tested just like other bagged mulches. Producers must have an MSDS (Material Safety and Data Sheet) to accompany the dye to ensure it is safe for animals and plants. This really makes the landscape pop, but it’s a little too much for me.

Getting the Right Materials
Everyone always asks me what type of mulch to use. Personally, I prefer quality triple-shredded hardwood bark. You may prefer something different. Many commercial sites prefer red-dyed wood chips. I do not care for this look, but landscapers tell me it is economical, long lasting and easy to get.

You can buy mulch just about anywhere, but certainly look for a reputable source. The Mulch and Soil Council (MSC) is a trade organization that has the largest volunteer certification program of its kind in the United States. Home Depot and Lowes require that their bagged products are certified. The Department of Horticultural Science at NCSU is home of the Horticultural Substrates Laboratory, where testing is done. Dr. Bill Fonteno and his staff have been testing mulches for over five years in cooperation with the MSC. They verify that labels are accurate, ensure weight and volume is correct and test for heavy metals. With over 2 million bags certified, it is easy to find something good for your yard.

Even though pine straw is light and airy, this mulch is piled too high on the trunk, forming the mulch “volcano.” • Currently the MSC can only certify bagged products, but is working towards the certification of bulk mixes. • Here in the Vatican Garden in Rome, like much of Europe, you do not see any mulch around the trees or in planting beds. It does not seem to keep plants from growing!

Anytime is fine to apply mulch, but most landscapers apply it in the spring or fall every year. Make sure if you apply new mulch every year that the depth never exceeds 3 to 4 inches on woody plants and 1 to 2 inches on perennials or annuals. You can often just fluff up last year’s mulch to make it look good, or even apply a thin layer to the old mulch to “spruce” it up.

You need enough mulch to help prevent weeds, moderate soil temperatures, hold in moisture, prevent erosion and of course, to look good. A proper application of mulch in the fall can help minimize heaving of newly planted perennials.

Remember mulch is a tool, and if used properly can be a part of developing a sustainable, water-wise landscape.


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 23 Number 7.
Photography courtesy of Shannon Pable, Barbara Fair, and Gerald Klingaman.


Posted: 08/28/17   RSS | Print


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Move the Plants, Not the Pests
by Douglas Spilker, Ph.D.       #Containers   #Insects   #Pests

A potted hibiscus is an ideal flowering container plant, but be on the lookout for harbored aphids.

Container gardening is one of the fastest growing sectors of the gardening world – and why not? Containers can be grown where traditional gardens cannot, such as apartment balconies, courtyards, decks and patios. Since most containers are portable, there is a strong temptation to bring this instant landscape and color into the home once autumn transitions into the cold of winter. However, in addition to the preparation of the plants’ horticultural needs, extra precautions need to be taken to ensure that no unwanted visitors hitchhike into your home on these container plants and jeopardize the health of your current houseplants or cause a nuisance in the home.

If you see spider mite webbing, consider composting the plant instead of inviting trouble into your home.

Check Your Plants at the Door
Several days before bringing the plants indoors, remove any dead or yellowing leaves, and prune if needed. Remove all dead and rotting plant material from the surface of the soil since it may harbor moisture-loving pests, such as slugs and snails or insect eggs. As you do this, carefully inspect the leaves, stems and soil surface for plant pests such as mealybugs, scale, mites, aphids and caterpillars. Do not be surprised to find other hitchhikers such as spiders, ants or wasps.

For the easily removed pests such as aphids, caterpillars and spiders, pick them off by hand or knock them off with a stream of water from a hose. Showering the plant is a good idea anyway to remove dust and pollen from the leaves, but be sure to get underneath the leaves too. If you see pests, or evidence of a pest, like chewed leaves, stippling (yellow dots), insect droppings, sticky leaves or mite webbing, a pesticide treatment may be warranted. Spray the plants while they are still outside with low-impact pesticides such as horticultural oil, insecticidal soap or pyrethrum.

Before bringing plants indoors, remove yellowing leaves and any rotting material on the soil surface. Slugs and snails conceal themselves in these moist areas.

How Do You Decide Which Plants to Keep?

You may want to keep them all, but be realistic about your space with reasonably adequate light, and away from winter drafts and heating vents.

Do not bring in plants with signs of pests or diseases. If you must keep it, be sure to treat before bringing them indoors.

Keep only healthy plants. If it has been struggling outside, it is not going to do better indoors under low humidity and low light.

Give priority to uniqueness – a stunning color, a Mother’s Day gift or a sentimental favorite. You can always throw it out later.

Try something new. I never thought gerbera daisies would make it indoors, but they can provide bursts of color during those bleak wintery days.

What is Horticultural Oil?

Oils are an important tool in managing certain pests, including aphids, mites and scales, but some oils can also control plant diseases, such as powdery mildew. Horticultural oils are highly refined petroleum oils with an emulsifying agent that allows them to be mixed with water for spraying. Oils commonly affect the insect pest by blocking their air holes (spiracles), causing them to suffocate. Oils pose few risks to people or desirable species, including many beneficial natural enemies of insect pests. Horticultural oils usually dissipate quickly, thus leaving little residue. Avoid spraying stressed plants or when conditions do not favor rapid evaporation (such as high humidity), which may result in leaf burn. Always read and follow label instructions.

Don’t Let Them Go to Pot
Next, look for growth on the pots and for unwanted inhabitants in the potting mix such as earthworms, snails or ants. To get rid of mold, lichens and mosses, scrub the outside of dirty pots with a solution of 10 percent household bleach and then hose them off. A good way to inspect for soil inhabitants in small or modestly sized pots is to soak the pot in a tub of lukewarm water for about 15 minutes. Any soil intruders can be removed as they float to the surface. For larger pots, consider a soil drench of a systemic insecticide. Consult your local extension office or garden center for available products

Depending on what comes out of the pot, you might want to consider repotting the plant, especially if you find an ant colony (look for white eggs.) Ants are now the number-one indoor pest, and are difficult to eradicate once in the home. If you do repot the plant, remove the potting medium from the root mass with a spray from a hose, and then scrub the interior of the pot with the bleach solution. If the roots have filled the pot, repot in a slightly larger pot with fresh potting soil.

Plant Quarantine and Care
If you have the space, keep the plants you are bringing indoors away from your other houseplants. Two to three weeks should be enough time for signs of pests to show up that you might have missed in your previous inspections (or were in the egg or larval stages in the soil). If any pests emerge, the plants should be treated, but do so in the garage or another out-of-the-way place.

Watering practices and household humidity affect pests in a couple of different ways once the plants are in the home. Some hitchhiker pests, such as fungus gnats and spider mites, may show up much later as the environment changes. Excessively moist soil favors the development of fungus gnat larvae, which may have come in with the soil. Fungus gnat populations can be reduced to levels that are not a serious nuisance by allowing the soil surface to dry between waterings. Since spider mite problems are worse when plants are placed in a very hot, dry environment, increasing the humidity around the plants may deter spider mite explosions. However, it is best that a plant with signs of spider mites be discarded rather than saved, since spider mites easily spread from one plant to another. If you must keep an infested plant, be sure to treat it before bringing indoors.

If all goes well, in just a few short months, the temperatures will again rise and these plants can be moved back outside. However, in the meantime, you should be able to bring the beauty of nature indoors – hopefully pest free!


A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2013 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Douglas Spilker, Ph.D.


Posted: 08/28/17   RSS | Print


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Gardening is for the Birds
by Kristi Cook       #Birds   #Pests   #Wildlife

Birds require a variety of perches placed throughout their territory. Perches can range from simple wires – such as this muscadine trellis – to planter poles, T-posts, trees, bushes, even wire tomato cages.

A reliable water source is mandatory for keeping birds nearby. Provide cool, fresh water as needed, and clean water sources every few days to avoid sickening the birds.

Patience is a virtue, especially in the gardening world. I learned this lesson in a profound way one season while on a morning walk through the garden. As I scouted for disease and pests and checked the ripeness of various fruits and vegetables, I discovered my lush and heavily laden tomato plants nearly covered in aphids. Or so it seemed. Never in all my years had I been the victim of such a harsh attack by these horrid creatures. I’m sad to say that my initial response, despite being an organic grower, was to think I needed some chemical to treat the infestation. Fortunately for my garden, my more rational side suggested I wait patiently to see which of my garden helpers would come to the rescue. And as always, I was not disappointed.

By midday I discovered several hungry ladybugs busily attempting to correct the situation. However, the sheer number of aphids warranted a much hungrier attack than what my ladybug friends could offer. Apparently my garden allies knew this, too. The next morning, as I peered out my kitchen window through the just breaking light, I was greeted by four golden orbs flitting in and out of the tomatoes. The energy with which these goldfinches moved suggested that they, like the ladybugs, were on a mission, so I decided to forego my morning walk among the plants so as not to disturb them while they worked. They did not disappoint. By the afternoon, the aphid population was noticeably smaller, though still heavy. And so, I began to have a greater sense of hope that all things right would return to my garden.

Feeders offering a variety of seeds and nuts are a must for attracting a variety of birds. Goldfinches, for example, while certainly attracted to thistle feeders, also readily consume black oil sunflower seeds, as do cardinals and titmice.

The following day, however, the goldfinches left the tomato plants, returning instead to their favored thistle feeders. This time the indigo buntings took over. Tiny blue tufts of feathers perched on the wire cages, heads bobbing up and down as they meticulously plucked multitudes of aphids from the branches before flying off for a few brief moments, only to return to their tomato-laden perches once again. Throughout much of the day the buntings labored, undoubtedly feeding their young these tasty treats. By evening, close inspection of each tomato plant revealed a remarkable discovery – virtually no aphids remained on any of the nearly 30 tomato plants gracing my garden.

Patience indeed proved vital to saving my tomatoes and is a lesson I have never forgotten. While insecticides, both conventional and organic, could have easily remedied the problem, allowing a healthy ecosystem to come to the rescue – while a bit slower – proved to be just as effective. Now, anytime I am tempted to grab an insecticide, I am reminded of the impressive work of my feathered friends and instead allow Nature to run its course.

One element that is often overlooked when attempting to attract birds is sufficient cover. Don’t place too close, however, or predators will take advantage of the cover as a hiding place from which to attack your birds.


Send Out Invites!

Attracting helpful birds such as indigo buntings, goldfinches, cardinals, titmice, and chickadees is both a fun and economical way to bring organic pest control to your garden. All you need is to provide a few necessities and these hungry beneficials will happily hang around.

Year-round food – While many birds love insects, many prefer seeds, berries, and nuts at least part of the year. Feeders, native flowers, sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), nut-bearing trees – especially oaks (Quercus spp.) – and native seed-bearing grasses offer good supplemental food sources for many species.

Clean water source – Birdbaths and moving water invite birds to take a dip while refreshing themselves. Reliable water sources also help prevent thirsty birds from pecking fruits and veggies in search of moisture during dry spells.

Cover – Birds don’t like to be far from protective shelter. Provide shrubs, trees, and even tall plantings within several feet of any feeder or water source for birds to fly to when threatened. However, don’t place food and water sources too close to cover that may also hide predators.

Nesting boxes – Many species of birds readily use nesting boxes. Place several throughout your garden to attract a variety of birds. Research the types of boxes your preferred feathered friends enjoy and place at the recommended height.

Avoid the use of insecticides – Because insects make up a large portion of many bird species’ diets, insecticides not only make birds sick when ingesting contaminated insects but also reduce the insect populations that birds need to survive.

A version of this article appeared in a September 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Kristi Cook.


Posted: 08/28/17   RSS | Print


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Plant a Delicious Fall Garden
by Barbara Pleasant       #Edibles   #Fall   #Vegetables










The small size of baby bok choy varieties helps them mature quickly in only five to six weeks.

I lucked into elderly neighbors who had gardened all their lives and thought everyone should at least grow a few peppers. In New Orleans, old Mr. Faulk shared with me the heat-resistant virtues of eggplant. A few years later near Tuscaloosa, Mr. Englebert told me to “wait for the September gales” to plant fall greens. I later realized that the September gales were the drenching rains from hurricanes, and there’s nothing like them to keep a fall veggie garden growing fast.

Back then fall gardens in the South were mostly collards, mustard and turnips, but these days old-time cooking greens have plenty of company during our luxuriously long autumns. Salad makings from arugula to radishes grow beautifully in the fall, as do fast-growing varieties of beets, carrots, radicchio and rutabaga. Asian vegetables such as bok choy, Chinese cabbage and tatsoi also fit well with Southern autumns, and they become bigger and better for as long as good fall weather lasts, often beyond Thanksgiving.

Indeed, some veggies behave so differently when grown in fall compared to spring that they are almost like different vegetables. Arugula, bok choy and tatsoi, for example, promptly bolt when grown in spring, but grow to full size when given a second chance in the fall. And even though radishes are regarded as no-brainer veggies in many areas, the only time they are easy in the South is in September.


Clockwise: You can get your fall garden off to a sure start by sowing lettuce, radicchio and other cool-natured salad greens indoors. Set them out during a period of rainy weather. • The Asian green called tatsoi features beautiful spoon-shaped leaves with a strong mustard bite. Some gardeners grow tatsoi for its handsome looks alone. • Use up lettuce seeds left over from spring, because their storage life is short. As the weather becomes cooler, spinach leaves tend to become more crisp and sweet.

Helping Seeds to Sprout
Unless you get lucky with well-timed spells of rainy weather, the biggest challenge in growing a fall garden is getting the seeds to sprout. Soil temperatures will stay high until nights cool down in October, so you may need to start lettuce, spinach and other salad greens indoors, and set them out when they have their first true leaf. In hot, dry years I have even transplanted rutabaga seedlings, with excellent results.

Transplanting comes at a cost because it always sets plants back by a few days. This is the main reason to direct-seed whenever you can. When sowing carrots, beets and other veggies that tend to be slow sprouters, I cover the seeded bed with a double thickness of burlap to help retain moisture. Shade covers made from lightweight cloth pinned or tied to stakes, cardboard boxes held in place with bricks, or boards laid over seeded rows can help protect germinating seeds from too much sun.

Plan to water your fall crops regularly, because leafy greens won’t make exuberant growth unless they have plenty of water, and hurricanes are anything but dependable. Also prepare to be amazed at how willingly your garden greens up once it’s filled with fall goodies. My garden often looks more lush at the end of September than at the end of June.

Clockwise: Fall-grown arugula keeps its mild flavor after the plants grow big and leafy. Established plants easily survive winter in most parts of the South. • Turnip greens are always at their best when young and tender. Thinning crowded plants will help those left behind grow bigger roots. • Resembling a dense, sweet turnip, rutabagas planted in early fall will size up just as the weather turns cold.


18 Easy Crops for Fall
Bok choy
Chinese cabbage

Best Varieties for Fall
As summer turns to fall, days will get shorter and the sun won’t rise as high in the sky. This decreasing light supply causes fall veggies to grow slowly, so it’s generally best to choose fast-maturing varieties. Many of these fall into the “baby” category, for example ‘Green Fortune’ and ‘Red Choi’ baby bok choy (also spelled pac choi), and ‘Baby Babette’ baby carrots.

A fall garden can look gorgeous, because it’s easy to color up your beds with chard, red-leaf mustards, frilly ‘Redbor’ kale or technicolor beet greens. Many gardeners plant much more fall parsley that they need in order to gild their fall gardens with green lace. In my garden, naturalized Johnny-jump-ups (Viola tricolor) pop up like magic in the fall, but if I didn’t have them, I’d be slipping in pansies to add splashes of color to my fall beds.

It’s a good idea to locate spinach, collards, kale and other crops that love Southern winters in spots where you can keep an eye on them, especially in areas where deer become more threatening in the fall. If you have a fertile raised bed that’s easy to weed, use it as a nursery to grow your own seedlings of short-day onions through the winter. Started from seed in September, little onion plants will grow through winter and plump up into sweet, juicy bulbs late next spring.


What About Broccoli?
Extension service guidelines throughout the South show August as the best month to plant fall crops of broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi. The season for transplanting seedlings stretches into September only in the mildest coastal areas, because once days get short and dim, cabbage family crops tend to grow too slowly to make a good crop.




A version of this article appeared in September 2011 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Barbara Pleasant.