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Susan Jasan, MS, PLA is a horticulturist and landscape architect passionate about creating custom outdoor spaces that serve as an oasis for rest, renewal, and play. See: for more about Jasan and her work or email:

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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.


Posted: 08/28/17   RSS | Print


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Living the Good Life Outdoors
by Michelle Byrne Walsh       #Hardscaping   #Misc

Kevin Poorman built an outdoor kitchen that has been featured in magazine articles and TV shows.

You have probably heard the term “outdoor living.” This has been listed as a major landscaping and gardening trend in recent years. But what does it really mean?

According to the 2014 Residential Landscape Architecture Trends Survey conducted by the American Society of Landscape Architects (, outdoor living spaces (defined as kitchens and entertainment spaces), were the second most popular residential landscape feature with 92 percent of landscape architects saying they are in demand. The most popular residential outdoor design element in 2014 was “gardens and landscaped spaces,” which received a 94.2 percent rating as somewhat or very popular. Outdoor recreation came in third at 75.8 percent.

In this survey, landscape architects who specialize in residential design across the country were asked to rate the expected popularity of a variety of outdoor design elements. Across all categories, 98.3 percent of respondents rated lighting as somewhat or very in demand for 2014, followed by seating/dining areas (97.7 percent), fire pits/fireplaces (95.4 percent), grills (94.3 percent) and installed seating (89.6 percent), which includes benches, seatwalls, ledges, steps and boulders.

So “outdoor living” can be considered outdoor relaxing and entertaining.

This night spot features a cozy fire pit, comfortable chairs and subtle but functional night lighting for the perfect evening soiree.

“Anyone can easily create an outdoor room,” according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association in Arlington. Va. ( “In general, the concept encompasses a grilling and eating area, pulled together with a hearth product, such as a fireplace, fire pit or chiminea. Some outdoor rooms are similar to indoor kitchens, with expansive counter space and full food preparation areas complete with sinks and plumbing. It’s even possible to add a dishwasher and a refrigerator … Other outdoor rooms take the concept further with the addition of pizza ovens, cocktail bars, fountains, trellises, patio heaters, spas and pools.”

You can install many of these hardscape items as DIY projects – some items such as fire pits, chimineas, grills, kitchen islands and gas outdoor heaters can be purchased as stand-alone features. Or if you would like a higher-end, built-in outdoor kitchen and fireplace, you can hire a landscape architect and a landscape contractor to design and install them for you.

Setting a colorful, cozy table (complete with hosta leaf napkins) can transform a plain “picnic table” into a fancy outdoor dining experience.

Whatever type of outdoor living space you desire, be sure your decisions are based on the kind of entertainment and living you and your family enjoy. Do not just try to keep up with the Joneses – build an outdoor room you love to be in. If you don’t like to cook outdoors, skip the outdoor kitchen and grill. But if you love to read alone or have a cup of coffee while watching the sunrise, create a cozy, quiet spot in which to sit comfortably. If you frequently have large parties at night, plan for outdoor cooking areas, overflow seating, space for dining tables, music systems and lighting.

The point is this: Be sure to create outdoor living spaces that fit your lifestyle.

Outdoor Living Features
According to the 2014 Residential Landscape Architecture Trends Survey conducted by the American Society of Landscape Architects (, the overall rating of outdoor living features for 2014 is as follows (percent of landscape architects rating them as “popular” or “somewhat popular”):

• Lighting – 98.3 percent
• Seating/dining areas – 97.7 percent
• Fire pits/fireplaces – 95.4 percent
• Grills – 94.3 percent
• Installed seating (benches, seatwalls, ledges, steps, boulders) – 89.6 percent
• Outdoor furniture – 84.1 percent
• Counter space – 75.5 percent
• Utility storage – 65.5 percent
• Stereo systems – 60.7 percent
• Wireless/Internet connectivity – 56.0 percent

• Sinks – 55.0 percent
• Refrigerators – 53.7 percent
• Televisions/projection screens – 49.4 percent
• Outdoor heaters – 48.9 percent
• Showers/baths – 46.8 percent
• Outdoor cooling systems (including fans) – 37.2 percent
• Hammocks – 34.1 percent
• Bedrooms/sleeping spaces – 14.9 percent



A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Ron Capek, Jason Todd, and Patrice Peltier.


Posted: 08/28/17   RSS | Print


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Out of Kipling
by Karinluise Calasant       #Shade   #Themed Gardens   #Unusual








The jungle “stream” in our DIY rainforest garden at Maison Fleurie appears to have been made by nature. The point of origin is camouflaged by a verdant, hodge-podge of ferns, Philodendron, Begonia spp. and gingers. It is hard to imagine the property fence line is just behind the waterfall!


Here are some tips:

• Check the zoning laws to make certain what you plan to do is in compliance.

• The “canopy” should be created first. Tall, slender palms are ideal for small spaces.

• Even the smallest courtyard has room for a waterfall! Pumps need a power source installed by a professional.

• Make a diagram where cables are buried and consult before you dig! Waterfalls discourage stagnant water and deter mosquitoes from laying eggs.

• Locate the septic tank and drain fields (if applicable). Don’t plant species with invading roots (like ficus) over a drain field.

• The plants should be incorporated in various “layers” for the understory. Think lush! Don’t plant single file, and mix in plants valuable to wildlife.

• Winding paths can make small areas appear larger. Use shrubs as “blockers” of visuals. Don’t reveal everything at once. It is far more intriguing to hear falling water before you see it.

• Fish and frogs will eat any mosquito larvae (or you can use “mosquito dunks”) in water features.

• Allow leaf litter to accumulate and don’t be a “neat freak.” Don’t use chemical sprays. Let nature control the garden.

• Always know what it is that you are planting. Some species can be invasive!

Imagine the brilliant red flash of a Heliconia shimmering through a curtain of green foliage. Lush bromeliads, aroids, and ferns crowd the forest floor. The birds and tree frogs sing an unceasing serenade, and there is a musical sound of cascading water everywhere … This could be your garden!

The word “rainforest” brings to mind images of Tarzan swinging on vines and exotic tales by Rudyard Kipling. The fictional rainforest was portrayed as a mysterious green and dense jungle where only the bravest and strongest would dare enter.

A rainforest-style garden, however, can be an inviting place to visit. Such a garden has a wealth of fascinating life and is the perfect retreat from a hectic world.

A tiny patio, narrow courtyard, or a side yard can become an enticing image in the spirit of Rudyard Kipling’s tropical tales. Let your creativity run wild, and turn a lackluster space or corner into an exciting and mysterious jungle-like habitat! Plant a creeper to clamber up a palm trunk. Add some epiphytes such as orchids and bromeliads – or maybe a staghorn fern – introduce some shade-loving plants on the “floor” below – and you have the beginnings of a rainforest-style garden. Even container plants can be used to create the “illusion.” Install a small pool with a waterfall and you have “instant” tropical ambience!

This area was once an uninspired, narrow side-yard. It now supports a wealth of life! The leaning palm is Gaussia maya from Belize, a canopy-scape palm that was pushed over in a hurricane. Bromeliads (Neoregelia) have climbed up seeking more light, mimicking conditions in a genuine rainforest. The plants, all pantropical rainforest species, were legally collected and imported.  •  Orchids, like this Cattleya festoon the palms, reminding visitors to look up, down, and all around! This rainforest-style garden is a miniature feast for all the senses.  •  The “lower” falls of a series of waterfalls spills over a three-foot drop before flowing beneath a footbridge. Streams and waterfalls not only add aesthetic interest, but also raise humidity.

The more space you have, the more elaborate your planting scheme can be. Keep everything to scale and make it look as natural as you can.

Water holds fascination for all of us. The sight of a cascade or fountain is always cooling in warm, subtropical and tropical climes. A tub or bowl of water, a few fish, and some dwarf water plants can add a touch of tranquility, reflection, and magic to an otherwise lifeless garden corner. Surround it with some ferns and other suitable vegetation and you have a “jungle” pool.

Waterfalls provide the greatest delight and are natural choices for a man-made rainforest. Even the tiniest space has room for one. Beware, though, a jumble of rocks that rises out of nowhere with a plastic hose spewing water doesn’t work as a waterfall. As Florida is basically flat, the hardest thing about making such a pool is placing the rocks and waterfall so that they look natural. It’s important to group rocks so that they look like a natural outcrop – not like a necklace of giant rabbit droppings around the pool!

Creating a jungle “hillock”, to lend credence to a fake waterfall, requires making certain that you taper it into the surrounding landscape, or have the falls “spring” from a boundary wall. Camouflage the point of origin with plants such as Philodendron sellum, Pandanus, and fishtail swordfern (Nephrolepis falcata) to “soften” and blend the edges – or “smudge the fudge”, as it were.

A black, rubber pond liner was carefully concealed with native coral rock and boulders. Combined with algae and moss growth, along with overhanging plants, it is enough to convince the visitor that the 15-feet long, serpentine-like stream has always been there.

A number of small palms can be trained to lean over the rocks and waterfall for a tropical jungle look. Don’t use plants that perpetually shed leaves like bamboo, for example. These will forever be clogging intake valves of the pond pump.

A rainforest-style garden can be fairly drought-tolerant, but can benefit from supplemental irrigation during the dry season. Most plants don’t like having wet feet all the time and like to dry out briefly in between watering. Philodendron, and Alocasia, for example, give a tropical look but are surprisingly drought-tolerant. Mulching and composting with organic matter will greatly reduce the amount of irrigation needed – especially during the cool season when plant growth slows down.

The main rainforest path meanders along the southern property line, which is marked by a 6-foot high shadow-box fence. Thick, layered plantings conceal it – thus adding to the illusion of a dense jungle. The residence (just to the right of the photo) is screened from view by tall clumps of Heliconia (H. caribaea) and Red Flowering Ginger (Alpinia purpurata). One can hear falling water, but cannot see the waterfalls – yet. This area is approximately 15-feet wide.

The following explanation of what a genuine rainforest is like will help you “further the illusion” and lend credence to your own effort. Depending upon the elevation, there are different types of tropical rainforests. Florida is best suited for a lowland tropical rainforest where it is hot and steamy.

All rainforests are patterned in the form of structural buildings with one, two, three, or even four levels of growth. Different plants have an assigned “floor” and will seldom be found outside those areas. Growth can either be so thick that it can be claustrophobic, or in dense, old growth rainforests, the ground floor can be quite open.

Plants growing on the ground floor are lush and shade loving. They need mostly constant conditions and find it difficult to adapt to light and temperature changes. It is often so crowded that some plants like bromeliads will seek the low trunks of other plants, stumps and even low-slung vines to secure a perch.

In your garden, use plants that want low light like certain bromeliads, ferns, Aglaonema, Anthurium, and Spathophylum.

The foliage of low-branched trees creates a ceiling over the first floor and becomes the floor of the second story. Plants here are not as dependent on moist, sheltered conditions. They enjoy more light, which causes them to be showier in form and flower.

Use bromeliads such as Billbergia, Vriesea, Aechmea, and Tillandsia. Aroids and orchids do well on this “floor” too. These plants can be attached to palm trunks. Tie them to the palms with natural material that will eventually rot away, giving the plant time to generate its own “hold fast” roots. Do not use nails or staples – these will injure a live palm. Epiphytic plants do not harm the host palm or tree.

The third floor of a rainforest is home to many species of bromeliads and epiphytes. This floor is made up of giant limbs of towering forest trees. Huge bromeliads weighing a hundred pounds or more are found on far-reaching branches. The huge tanks of these plants can hold gallons of water along with a wealth of life. Plants often become so heavy that they will come crashing down, spilling the contents on those below! Plants in the upper stories experience the greatest fluctuating temperatures and have to cope with both sun and wind.

The footbridge and boardwalk are constructed from recycled dock planking. Locally grown and harvested bamboo (from a neighbor’s garden) is used for railings. Verdant plantings of rainforest plants and palms line the pathway, while clumps of Heliconia rostrata provide color and accents.  •  A beautiful, pendent heliconia (H. chartacea cv. ‘Sexy Pink’) grows alongside a waterfall. It likes free-draining organic soil. Clumping heliconia varieties are not invasive and add tropical, visual appeal in a rainforest-style garden. Most heliconias will grow wherever minimum winter temperatures remain above 45 F.

You may not have upper stories in your garden – unless you have a live oak – or two. Then you will need to introduce plants to the branches – something that is often perilous! Remember safety should always come first …

For areas of Florida where winters are too cold for tropical species, one can use “substitutes” that will still give the feeling of a verdant and vibrant rainforest. Don’t forget to mix in a native species wherever you can. Check with your local extension office for a list of plants that grow in your area.

Find a space in your garden and get to work!


Note: Tropical rainforests are fast disappearing at over a million acres each year. Public awareness, support, and understanding are needed to conserve and protect these natural treasures. To learn more or donate, visit


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 22 Number 5.
Photography courtesy of Karinluise Calasant.


Posted: 08/28/17   RSS | Print


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Glorybowers Rock!
by Tom Hewitt       #Invasives   #Ornamentals   #Plant Profile

Starburst clerodendrums are simply spectacular when they bloom each winter in South Florida.

Clerodendrums are such beautiful things. Not only do they have lovely, tubular flowers, but attractive foliage and fruit as well. Of the 400 or so species in the genus, only a dozen are commonly found in nurseries or online. Most do best in South Florida. Some can be grown in zone 7 – though they often freeze to the ground each winter. Known collectively as glorybowers, several Clerodendrum species do have a deserved reputation for being invasive. But “invasive” is a relative term, since none actually appear on the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council’s lists of invasive species. Still, if you’re not willing or able to keep them in check, they may not be the plant for you.

Fast-growing bleeding heart vine blooms in partial shade.

Some clerodendrums, like bleeding heart vine (C. thomsoniae) are classified as lianas. Lianas are long-stemmed, woody vines that climb their host for vertical support in order to reach sunlight. This is one of my favorite flowering vines, although it does become a tangle of stems eventually and needs to be cut back hard. Fortunately, new growth often arches over and covers bare stems. The most common variety you see has flowers with white calyces and red petals. But I find the lavender bracts of purple bleeding heart vine (C. thomsoniae var. ‘Delectum’) much showier, and even use them in dried arrangements.

Flaming glorybower vine (C. splendens) is another pretty climber that produces deep red-orange flowers fall through winter. It looks great trained on a large trellis or rambling over a wall and it can get up to 12 feet long before needing to be cut back each spring.

I think that the rose-colored flowers of cashmere bouquet (C. bungei) look like flattened hydrangeas. Their fragrance is simply intoxicating, but this plant definitely is invasive and should only be planted where it can take over a large area. It is loved by butterflies and grows well in light shade. It can be grown in large containers to control suckering.

Starburst clerodendrum (C. quadriculare) is aptly named and it puts on a spectacular show during the winter here in South Florida. This one is also on the invasive side and breaks up easily in high winds. It’s extremely fast growing and makes a good understory plant in light shade. It can grow to around 15 feet or so when it is not pruned.

Musical notes (C. incisum) has some of the most unusual flowers of any clerodendrum. Unopened buds really do resemble musical notes. They open to reveal white, tubular blooms with red stamens. Unlike most clerodendrums, it is naturally small (4-5 feet) and doesn’t need a lot of pruning. It is not invasive.

The buds of musical notes are suggestive of eighth notes. • Pagoda flower does sucker from the root, but looks great in the mixed border. • Pagoda flower also comes in a rare, off-white variety. • The metallic blue fruit of turk’s turban is quite ornamental.

Pagoda flower (C. paniculatum) has a reputation for spreading, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it invasive. This clerodendrum has large, attractive leaves and orange flowers that appear in pyramidal clusters that resemble a Japanese pagoda. There is also an off-white variety. Pagoda flower loves full sun, but will also bloom in partial shade.

It’s easy to see where starfish clerodendrum gets its common name.

Turk’s turban (C. indicum) is not very pretty on its own, as it has an upright, non-branching habit. But its huge inflorescence, composed of multiple white flowers, is truly lovely. The subsequent metallic blue fruit (drupes, actually) is also quite ornamental. Plant this one amongst lower things in the shrub border, so its weird shape is minimized. It can get to around 8 feet and loves full sun to partial shade.

Tubeflower or starfish clerodendrum (C. minahassae) is another one that makes a small tree (15 feet). Its free-branching habit gives it a better natural shape than turk’s turban, and it has lovely blooms as well. The bright red, starfish-shaped seedpods that form later give it its common name.

Bridal veil (C. wallichii) has white cascading flowers and dark green leaves. This one can also be grown as a standard or large shrub.

Some clerodendrums have recently been moved to the genus Rotheca, including one of my favorites, blue butterfly bush (Rotheca myricoides). The flowers really do look like little butterflies in two shades of blue, though I’ve never actually seen butterflies nectaring on them. It can reach a height of 8 feet and becomes a bit unsightly if it is not pruned. I cut mine back hard annually to keep it full and encourage new growth. Pink butterfly bush (Rotheca mastacanthum) is similar, except that its pink flowers are smaller and in tighter panicles.




Left: Some clerodendrums have absolutely stunning blooms.

Right: Blue butterfly clerodendrum was recently moved to the genus Rotheca.


There are many other species in the Clerodendrum genus, but make sure you check on their invasiveness before planting them. Pretty as they are, you don’t want them showing up in your neighbor’s yard uninvited.


A version of this article appeared in Tennessee Gardener Volume 22 Number 4.
Photography courtesy of Tom Hewitt.


Posted: 08/01/17   RSS | Print


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Better Late than Never
by Patrick Byers       #Fall   #Tools   #Vegetables

Root vegetables such as turnip, beet, carrot and radish are mainstays of the cool-season garden.

Traditionally, the Midwestern vegetable garden was considered a three-season affair, bounded by the last spring frost and the first fall freeze. True, cool-season gardens were popular in the spring and the fall, but the idea of year-round vegetable production definitely raised eyebrows. Recently, however, proponents of season extension, such as Elliot Coleman, have increased awareness of the possibilities, and enthusiastic gardeners across the region are embracing four-season vegetable gardening.

Plan Ahead
The first step is to plan the late-season garden. Basically, vegetables may be divided into three categories: warm-season vegetables that are damaged by even light freezes, cool-season vegetables that tolerate light to moderate freezes, and those hardy vegetables that can tolerate even extreme-cold temperatures with some protection. While gardeners can protect warm-season vegetables such as tomato, pepper and eggplant from the first autumn frosts, at some point, the useful life of these vegetables will end. Thus, the late-season garden will focus on cool and cold-season vegetables that thrive under shorter days and lower temperatures.

Heavyweight row cover can provide protection from winter conditions. Note the wood lathe used to anchor the edges.

Planting Date
The planting date is a critical component of success with the late-season garden. In many cases cool- or cold-season vegetables must have a period of warmer temperatures during which seeds germinate and plants grow to a useable size. Take cole crops, for example. Broccoli and cabbage for the late garden are generally seeded in July, and the seedlings are transplanted into the garden in August. Even cold-season vegetables such as hardy salad greens and root vegetables are usually direct seeded in August and September. Growth of these vegetables slows or even stops when cold weather arrives, but if planted at the proper time, the vegetables are at the optimum stage for delicious harvests, in some cases with a little protection, for the remainder of the fall and winter.

This homemade high tunnel is constructed from a cattle panel fence covered with a single layer of plastic. The ends are closed during cold weather.

Protective Structures
While many cool- and cold-season vegetables will happily survive light frosts and produce in the open garden, a true four-season gardener relies on protective structures for winter-long harvests.

Row covers are sheets of breathable polypropylene fabric that provide temporary protection for plants and are placed over vegetables during cold weather of shorter duration. Choose heavyweight row covers (at least 1.5 ounces per square yard), and anchor the edges to hold the covers in place.

Serious winter gardeners can consider a passive solar greenhouse for winter production. Note the large black barrels of water, which trap solar energy during the day.

A low tunnel is constructed from row cover or plastic sheets, supported over the plants on a series of hoops. Low tunnels allow for plant survival and growth during extended cold periods. Low tunnels can stay in place for the duration of the winter, and crops are harvested from the side of the tunnel.

A cold frame is a bottomless structure put over plants, with a glass or clear plastic cover. The cover can be opened during the day time to allow ventilation. Cold frames are constructed from many materials, such as cinder blocks or dimension lumber. The cover is sloped to shed precipitation and faces south or southwest to capture sunlight during the shorter winter days.

Cold frames are constructed from a range of materials. Raise the cover to provide ventilation on sunny winter days.

The high tunnel or hoop house is a frame covered with one or two layers of clear plastic. Vents on the sides or ends can be rolled up to enable excess heat to escape during the daytime and rolled down at night to trap heat so that the environment around the plants is kept warmer. High tunnel kits are available, or do-it-yourself gardeners can construct high tunnels with a support structure and plastic sheeting.

Passive solar greenhouses are the ultimate in season extension, allowing for vegetable production in even the coldest weather without the use of artificial heating. These greenhouses rely on storage of solar energy during the day, often in a mass such as large barrels of water or a masonry wall, which is then released back into the greenhouse during the night. For best results, construct the greenhouse according to plans; sample plans are at


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Patrick Byers and Anastasia Becker.


Posted: 08/01/17   RSS | Print


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Going Vertical Never Looked So Good
by Melinda Myers       #Containers   #Vines









Morning glory vines (Ipomoea purpurea) climb a pergola to provide a little shade and summer blooms.

Expand your planting space, grow a living screen, or add vertical interest to your garden beds by growing plants on a wall or training them onto an obelisk or trellis.

Pole beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), peas (Pisum sativum), Malabar spinach (Basella alba), cucumbers (Cucumis sativus), melons (Cucumis melo), and squash (Cucurbita spp.) are all edible candidates for growing vertically. Training these vegetables up a support saves space in the garden. Plus, the increase in light and airflow through vertically trained plants reduces the risk of mildew and other diseases.

Growing vertically can also increase your yields and make harvesting much easier. Pole beans typically produce an extra picking, and it requires less bending to harvest. And if it is easy, you are more likely to pick regularly, increasing productivity and ensuring the best flavor. Try scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) or purple-podded pole beans for added color.

For summer fare in the garden and in a salad, plant Malabar spinach (Basella alba) and enjoy the red stems and white flower buds and violet flowers.

Train Malabar climbing spinach up an obelisk in a container or over a decorative trellis in the garden. Use the leaves the same way you use true spinach. The buttery nutty flavor is great fresh, added to a salad, used as a sandwich wrap, stir-fried, or steamed. The red stems, flowers, and seeds make an attractive display in the vegetable or ornamental garden.

Support the heavy fruits of melons and squash when growing vertically. Create a sling from cloth strips, an old tee shirt or macramé – yes its back! Tie the sling to the trellis to cradle the large fruit. The sling handles the weight to keep heavy fruit from falling off the support and damaging the plant. Elevating the fruit also reduces loss to soil-dwelling insects and disease.

Use decorative supports to add a bit of beauty or help blend edibles into ornamental plantings. Upcycle found items into creative supports. An old iron fence section, chair or farm implement can add a bit of functional whimsy to your garden.

Ornamental vines
Don’t forget about annual and perennial ornamental vines. These can add color to a plain fence or wall. Use a support and leave space between wooden fences and siding to reduce moisture buildup that could damage these structures. Plus it will be easier to manage future repairs and painting when the vines can easily be moved away from the structure.

Double up your plants to increase bloom power. Use annual vines to provide quick cover the first few years while establishing perennial vines on the support. Consider mixing two vines on one support if space allows. Select vines that bloom at the same time to create interesting combinations. Or plant two vines that bloom at different times to extend your bloom cycle.

Clematis and roses make the perfect combo for a fence, trellis, or other support for summer-long beauty.

Many containers now include built-in supports to make it easier to grow edible and ornamental vines in containers. Some are self-watering with built-in reservoirs. Keep the reservoir full of water to provide a constant supply of moisture and you’ll water your containers less often.

Always select structures strong enough to support the plants. Make sure the support provides the structure needed for the vines to climb. Vines with twining stems and petioles need something to take hold of. Those with root-like holdfasts or suction cups need a rough surface for attaching. Others may need you to tie the stems to the support.

Vines that are one to two zones hardier and growing in large containers may make it through the winter with no additional protection. Otherwise, you will need to provide additional winter protection to help these plants survive our cold winters. Move the potted perennial vines into an unheated garage and water whenever the soil is thawed and dry. Or move the pots to a sheltered location and cover the pots with woodchips or bags of mulch or soil to insulate the roots.

Green walls add planting space to walls and fences. They are just containers, some turned on end, mounted to a wall or fence. You can purchase green wall planters or make your own. Succulents, greens, strawberries, and herbs make attractive and in some cases, edible green walls.

Watering is critical
Woolly Pockets are colorful felt planting bags that can be mounted on just about any flat surface. There are some products, such as Water Wall Pocket Pond Planter, that allow you to grow a water garden in a fabric planter mounted to the wall or fence. Some gardeners make their own, converting cloth or plastic shoe caddies into planters. These make cute herb planters, but do because the pockets are small, they will likely require watering several times a day at the height of summer.

Affix a box and hardware cloth to the back of a frame, plant with succulents, tropicals, and other plants for a summer picture.

Unlimited possibilities
Or use some of the commercial systems that have plantable cells or spaces for individual pots. These grow into decorative patterns of green. Or upcycle an old picture frame into a planter. Just add a wooden box to the back of the frame. Fill with potting mix and plant. Start with the planter in the horizontal position for a week or two. This gives the plants time to root and helps hold the soil in place. Or, secure the soil with landscape fabric or mesh. Fill the container with potting mix, cover the surface with the fabric or mesh, cut holes for the plants, set plants in place, and water.

The key to success with commercially produced and DIY green walls is watering. Since many of the planters have very limited growing space for the potting mix you will need to water more often. Built-in irrigation systems make it easier to keep these watered with less effort on your part.

Growing succulents and other drought tolerant plants in green walls also increases your chance of success. These plants are more forgiving when things get a bit dry. You will need to move these plants indoors for winter or add them to the compost pile in fall and buy new plants next year.

As you can see the possibilities are endless. Start gathering decorative supports, looking for spaces in need of a bit of vertical interest and make a list of your favorite climbers.


A version of this article appeared in Wisconsin Gardening Volume 6 Number 4.
Photography courtesy of Melinda Myers.


Posted: 08/01/17   RSS | Print


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Patterns by Design
by Cindy Shapton       #Design   #Landscaping   #Shrubs

Simple paths bordered by a single variety of plant material create a pattern that allows our brain take a break and just follow along. • Ribbons of red in the Berberis are just one pattern in this planting. • These playful ferns lead to a colorful gated garden room that pulls you in. • Vertical plants, such as these ‘Sky Pencil’ hollies (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’), create a pattern that points you in a direction.

Have you ever walked through a garden where even though there was a lot going on, you felt a sense of peace and restfulness? You may have noticed that your eyes easily found a spot to rest or followed a natural flow that was pleasing, even playful, as it directed you to the main event without ever giving it a thought.

More than likely, you were seeing patterns – shapes, forms, outlines, and configurations that copy or repeat in some way, either in plant form or hardscape, to give overall definition. Patterns are all around us in nature – every tree, shrub, leaf, and flower has its own unique shape, texture, and color. Some serve a purpose, such as guiding foraging pollinators to the right destination. Butterflies and other insects have colorful patterns on their wings that act as camouflage, spiders create their own beautifully patterned tapestries to catch their dinner, and snails live in spiral-patterned masterpieces that protect them from predators.

Clockwise: Art on wooden pedestals creates another layer of patterns in this border. • The coleus foliage emphasizes the lines of this monument. • Clipped borders, shrubs, and topiary create a pattern that is inviting and pleasing to the eye. • Repeating symmetrical pattern suits this formal garden. Notice the containers that add seasonal color.

Just as tapestry makers of long ago took their ideas from nature to weave patterns, gardeners can create tapestries in the garden using the rhythm of color or texture with shrubs, grasses, perennials, and annuals.

When you find a shape that you like in your garden, no matter how simple, find a way to repeat it. Use what you have at your disposal in the way of plant or non-plant material. Allow colors and shapes to play off each another.

As in nature, patterns are often interconnected; so remember to use the vistas beyond your garden as well such as buildings, hills, trees, and the like to frame and mimic similar shapes using plant and hardscape materials.

Clockwise: To create patterns in your garden, try your hand at sculpting yews. • Create your own patterns with natural materials. • Patterns within patterns have a calming effect.

Patterns can be used to create interest anywhere, even in the kitchen garden. Use string to create patterns on the soil, and then broadcast with different lettuces or greens to create a beautiful and delicious tapestry. This is a fun project to get children interested in growing food and springboard into a discussion of patterns in nature.

Lastly, get out in nature and visit gardens to get ideas and see how patterns are used to connect us all in big and small ways. It won’t be long before you start seeing patterns everywhere!


A version of this article appeared in Tennessee Gardener Volume 17 Number 6.
Photography courtesy of Cindy Shapton.


Posted: 08/01/17   RSS | Print


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Slow Down and Smell the Flowers
by Erika Jensen       #Flowers   #Misc   #Sustainability and Self-Sufficiency










Carol Larsen of Sunborn Gardens in Wisconsin grows delphinium and other flowers in a hoop house to extend the season.

It’s a fragrant, fresh bunch of sweet peas, harvested at the peak of perfection and purchased at the farmers market early on a Saturday morning. It’s meeting your flower farmer face to face and saying thanks. It’s the pleasure of creating a unique arrangement with flowers from your own back yard, which stimulates your creativity and challenges you to look at your garden with fresh eyes. It’s locally grown flowers.

During the past few years, the Slow Flower movement has been generating a lot of buzz in the media. Following the success of the Slow Food movement, Debra Prinzing, author of The 50 Mile Bouquet, coined the term “Slow Flowers” in an attempt to talk about some of the reasons for supporting local flower growers as well as appreciating in-season blooms.

“Slow Flowers can be defined a couple of different ways,” said Prinzing, former president of Garden Writers Association. “First, it’s a conscious choice of sourcing flowers locally or domestically, which might include purchasing from local farmers, or from a reputable florist who sources locally. Secondly, for home gardeners, it’s about getting into the seasons and appreciating what each season has to offer. You can have your flowers integrated into the whole landscape, and bringing in flowers and arranging them is a part of establishing a relationship with your garden.”


Clockwise: Emily Watson harvests snapdragons in her hoop house. Emily operates Stems Cut Flowers, a farm in East Troy, Wisconsin, as well as Wood Violet, a floral design studio in Milwaukee. Farmers market customer Kat Lundberg enjoys a bouquet designed by Beth Kemp of Elizabella Flower Farm in Ames, Iowa. The arrangement features zinnias, blue vervain (Verbena hastata), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and yarrow (Achillea spp.). Bouquets created by Phyllis Wells of Wells Family Farm in Michigan are sold at the Elk Rapids Farmers Market.

Use What You’ve Got
To that end, Prinzing started the Slow Flower Challenge in 2011 and invites others to take part. The challenge involves creating one flower arrangement each week with flowers from your own garden, or locally sourced materials. Since Prinzing lives in Seattle, admittedly this is a little easier for her than for those in some other parts of the country. But even northern gardeners can take the challenge for part of the year.

There are a number of ways that consumers can source locally grown flowers. A great way to get started is purchasing at the farmers market or from a Community Supported Farm (CSA). There are also a number of resources available on the Internet to connect you with local flower growers. The Slow Flowers website ( has a map with a searchable database of growers.

Although a trade group, the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers has a number of resources on its website (, which might be useful to consumers and gardeners. These include an interactive map, which can connect you with a flower farmer in your area, a list of reasons to buy local flowers, and growing information.

Prinzing is pleased with the development of more of locally grown flowers. “These are baby steps, but it will ultimately shift the thinking from imported flowers available through grocery stores and wire services to a more sustainable solution,” said Prinzing, who has worked with others to develop the recently formed Congressional Cut Flower Caucus to help focus attention on local flowers and growers.


Clockwise: September Dykema of September’s Herbs and Produce in Montague, Michigan, harvests lavender (Lavandula spp.) before a thunderstorm. • Katie and Micah Thorson chose locally grown flowers for their outdoor wedding. The flowers were grown by Renee Arcand of Stillwater, Minnesota. • Renee Arcand, a grower and designer from Stillwater, Minnesota, shows off her zinnias and black-eyed Susans in her cut flower garden.

Flower Farmers at Farmers Markets
Carol Larsen of Sunborn Gardens, based in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, has also seen a lot of changes since she started selling at the Dane County Farmers Market in 1975. There’s been an explosion of interest in farmers markets since the early days, and a corresponding expansion in the number of flower farmers. That translates into a tantalizing array of choices for the consumer, because when it comes to flowers, local farmers can deliver diversity.

Although not long lasting, the writer finds that the lacy blooms of ‘Double Click’ are hard to resist with their double and semi-double flowers. Deadhead through the summer to keep your plants productive.

“You can purchase a lot of unusual things that people have never heard of, such as amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) and grasses that you can’t get as a commercial product,” Larsen said. “Lisianthus, Alstroemeria, snaps (Antirrhinum majus), Ranunculus, Delphinium, stocks (Matthiola incana), peonies (Paeonia spp.) – these are some of the things that local growers can do better.”

People who buy flowers at the farmers’ market seem to me, self-selected for local flowers, Larsen said. “For sustainable flowers, I think that our retail farmers market customers assume that they are sustainable. We have a sign that notes that is our growing practice. I am sure I could count on one hand the number of questions or comments I have had about that. Just the last three to four years, I have had an uptick in brides asking me for sustainable and local flowers.”

Larsen said a lot of people don’t know that most of the flowers flown into the U.S. are dipped or sprayed with fungicides and pesticides, so that no diseases or pests are brought in. “Most of our florists appreciate the fact that they can get flowers without deleterious chemicals on them but, (some) florists don’t want to dwell on that because, unfortunately, the vast majority of the flowers that they handle are sprayed, dipped or grown in chemicals that are quite toxic.”

Finding high quality flowers with a long vase life at a farmers market is a skill that develops over time. The biggest mistake people make is to buy the flowers too open, Larsen said. She advises shoppers to get their flowers in bud or half open. Additionally, it’s useful to build a relationship with a good flower farmer who you can talk to, and who can show you the best flowers. They’re the vendors who will carefully wrap your flowers so you can get them home in one piece, and who have clean buckets and vases.

For Larsen, being a flower grower is tough financially, but the rewards she is able to harvest sustain her.

“You want to support your local flower farmer just like you support your vegetable farmer. This is definitely my passion. I’m not getting rich, but I love what I’m doing. It feeds my soul, every time I put my hands in the dirt.”


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Renee Arcand, Phyllis Wells, Elizabella Flower Farm, Joe Hang Photography, Simon Dykema, National Garden Bureau, and Metcalf’s Market.


Posted: 07/31/17   RSS | Print


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Some Strings Attached
by Rita Randolph       #Containers   #How to   #New Trends








Many of us remember macramé hangers or still use them! It’s easy to tie a few simple knots and make a hanger for any pot size. It all depends on how sturdy your hook or nail is!


String gardens differ from macramé in that the original growing container is removed and the root-ball is wrapped with another product like moss or coconut fiber.

I grew up in the nursery/greenhouse business. When I was in high school, the “houseplant boom” of the 1970s was in full swing. My mother ran the greenhouse part of the family nursery business and she allowed my sister Magda and me to go on a plant hunting expedition to Florida. Two teenagers quickly took off in a 1974 Pinto Station Wagon in search of “stock plants.” We came back a few weeks later with the car packed full, and immediately started propagating them.

We could easily sell small tropical plants for terrariums and macramé hangers. Everyone was hungry for the newest shade-loving vine or flower they could hang in a window, and I made macramé hangers for the local music store! These hangers were made from jute rope, everything from the simplest twine to bead-laden intricate knots. I even had a small teacup planted with a “piggy-back plant” hanging from the rearview mirror of my VW van.


Left: Wrap the root-ball loosely with plastic and poke holes in it. I want to reduce evaporation but also allow it to drain well. Middle: I chose cocoa fiber to wrap this evergreen. Holding it in place, I wrapped twine around the roots several times. When I ended back where I started I simply tied it off. Another string is attached for hanging. Right: One easy way to hang plants is by using ready-made chain for hanging baskets that are available at most garden centers. Simply hook the attaching parts together to make a sling.

After you’re finished, water your new piece by simply dunking it in a bucket of water, or water gently with a hose or watering can in good weather. Mix a little fertilizer in the water every month during the growing season to maintain nutrition.

In the last few years there has been a new method developed called “string gardens.” The nice thing about these hanging plants is that anything goes. They come in a multitude of sizes – tiny little things wrapped in colorful fabric and tied with embroidery thread or very large specimens in burlap, hung with a chain. They can be pottery, glass containers, or as natural as a moss-wrapped root ball. These are plants that have been wrapped in a variety of materials and hung from windows, beams, or ceilings.

String gardens are used to dress up a window, but during good weather they can be hung outside as patio arrangements. It’s up to your imagination of what kind of décor you wish to complement. From the funkiest work of creativity to the formal garden setting, these fun plantings work almost anywhere.

This is also a fun project for families to get children involved. They can pick out a plant, choose moss, coco fiber or some other fabric or wrapping material and construct their own little creation. They make great little inexpensive gifts!


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


Posted: 07/27/17   RSS | Print


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Growing Succulents in Containers
by Jean Starr       #Colorful   #Containers   #Succulents   #Xeriscaping










Mixed succulents “cool down” this beautiful red pot.

They can be hairy, tiny, fuzzy, striped or ghost-like. They can form rosettes of dusty slate blue, green or white edged in red, or blend in with their surroundings. These are just a few of the variations found in plants beneath the umbrella term “succulent.” They’re fairly new on the mainstream gardening scene, especially in the Midwest. Africa has the largest population and variety, with Mexico next, but succulent plants occur in nearly every country in the world. One thing succulents have in common is their ability to store moisture in their stems and leaves, allowing us more latitude in their watering schedule.

According to Allan Smessaert of Acorn Markets in the Chicago area, knowing where a plant grows best is important. “Do your research,” he said. “Will they do what you want them to do versus what it looks like they’ll do? If you’re putting it outside you’ve got to use a big enough pot to support the growth and hold enough moisture.”

Plants to Try

Here are a dozen readily available plants to consider for succulent combinations:

Aeonium spp.
Aloe spp.
Cotyledon spp.
Crassula spp.
Dudleya spp.
Echeveria spp.
Faucaria spp.
Hasteria spp.
Haworthia spp.
Kalanchoe spp.
Pachyphytum spp.
Sedum spp.

Left: Purple Crassula
Right: This jade plant relative, Crassula coccinea ‘Campfire’, has a great reddish color.

Control the Moisture and Sun
Yes, they do need moisture — just not too much. Leaving a newly-planted container out in a heavy downpour isn’t going to be good for it. Smessaert suggests covering it with a plastic bucket if you can’t put it under cover during the rain storm.

Contrary to common belief, succulents really don’t need full sun, even in the Midwest. Acclimating any plant to the outdoors should be a slow process. “Allow about two weeks to fully transition a plant,” said Smessaert. “Give them full shade for the first several days and gradually move it into more sun every couple of days.”

If you’re looking to fill a pot quickly for summer color outdoors, you’ll need to start with some fairly large plants. This is advantageous in two ways — the pot looks good from the beginning, and there is less chance of overwatering. Tiny plants combined in too large a pot can suffer from overwatering because it takes a long time for their roots to fill the pot sufficiently to prevent pockets of moist soil to lead to fungus and bacteria.

In his book, The Timber Press Guide to Succulent Plants of the World, author Fred Dortort recommends waiting from 36 to 72 hours after repotting succulents to water them, allowing time for any damaged root tips to heal.

This bowl of succulents shows the variability of plants in the Crassulaceae family, which includes Echeveria spp.

Succulent Topiary Idea
Ron Elardo instructs a class on planting succulents in a topiary frame for Hidden Lake Gardens in Tipton, Michigan. The frames are created with inexpensive 1-foot tomato cages that he anchors to a plastic pot bottom.

Elardo recommends forming a cone shape by tying the ends of the tomato cage together and either cutting them off or bending them so they are no longer a hazard. To keep the soil inside the cone, cover it with green plastic snow fencing. Before anchoring the cage to a plastic pot bottom, line it with moss and then stuff it with potting soil. Drill holes around the rim of the saucer as well as at the bottom for drainage. Anchor the filled cone to the saucer with zip ties. Use a bamboo stick to poke holes into the soil for small succulents, which are anchored with floral pins.

In a topiary like this one, which will be grown outdoors in summer, Elardo uses regular potting soil and is careful about watering it. “I use a watering can that has a sprinkler end on it,” he said. “The idea is to keep it moist. It doesn’t need to be soaked.”

This mixed pot is a great example of the many forms and colors of succulents now readily available throughout the Midwest.

Some Soil Science
Ask three succulent growers about soil and you’ll get at least three formulas for potting mixes. There are no hard and fast rules for which formula is best — it depends on the plant. For Crassula spp. and Echeveria spp., Smessaert recommends mixing a regular potting soil with pumice at a ratio of about 75 percent to 25 percent. You can use regular potting soil with perlite, but perlite has a tendency to break down, get mushy and float to the top of the surface. Sandbox sand works well but it is heavy.

“Pumice works like perlite but it is heavier so it doesn’t float or break down,” he said. “It’s hard to find but it’s much more effective (than sand or perlite).”

Coir fiber (which is a coconut-based fibrous medium) can be used in place of a more peat-heavy potting mix, and many growers also recommend lava fines or fired clay bits (Turface MVP), gravel and even chicken grit.

Cool Weather Care
Most succulents grow very slowly. If your mixed planter still looks good in the fall, you might want to try overwintering it indoors, but don’t bring it in too early. Smessaert says fall weather can bring out the color in many succulents. “Even non-hardy succulents can withstand a light frost,” he said. Kalanchoe ‘Flapjacks’ has a hint of red on the leaf margins in midsummer. Leave them out in October and even November and they turn a beautiful red.”

Succulents lend themselves well to growing in a clay strawberry pot.

Color Controversy
Speaking of color, there are some European growers that have released a number of succulents in all the shades of a rainbow. It’s incredibly controversial in the world of horticulture, and Dan Bernachi of Ted’s Greenhouse in Tinley Park, Ill., isn’t impressed. “The company doing it claims it is a ‘special’ paint but in my youth I made many a delivery to florists who had a plethora of ‘floral’ paints that they sprayed on open blooms to achieve various effects,” he said. “I would gather that if you can spray the delicate tissue of a rose, you could most certainly paint a succulent as well.”

While the paint seems to adhere well to the plant, Bernachi says that the new growth will be the original plant’s color. He also has noticed the growth tends to be somewhat soft-looking perhaps because the paint limits the plant’s ability to photosynthesize.

As the plant grows and sheds its leaves, it will outgrow its color, kind of like the roots of someone who colors their hair. “Perhaps they will start plant ‘salons’ where you can take your plants regularly to have their color touched up,” Bernachi jokes.


For More Info

The Complete Book of Cacti and Succulents by Terry Hewitt

Echeveria Cultivars by Lorraine Schulz and Attila Kapitany

The Timber Press Guide to Succulent Plants of the World by Fred Dortort



A version of this article appeared in Indiana Gardening Volume 3 Number 4.
Photography courtesy of Debra Lee Baldwin, Proven Winners, Walter’s Gardens, and Jean Starr.


Posted: 07/06/17   RSS | Print


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The Voracious Garden
by Kenny Coogan       #Misc   #Natives   #Unusual

Left: Sarracenia ‘Lovebug’ is a fun compact hybrid for your backyard bog garden. Top Right: Drosera spatulata, the spoon-leaved sundew, naturally occurs throughout Southeast Asia, eastern Australia, and New Zealand. Bottom Right: This Mexican butterwort is great at catching small insects like fruit flies and gnats.

When my parents told me that I had fulfilled my quota of pets, I decided to sneak in one or two carnivorous plants. They seem similar to having pets, but since they are actually plants my parents wouldn’t be able to say anything about bringing home more pets. Carnivorous plants have interested me since grade school. After college, in New York, I started a carnivorous plant club. Members still meet monthly to share stories, tips, and most importantly plants.

In Florida, we have between 25 and 30 native species. Genera such as Drosera, Pinguicula, Sarracenia, Utricularia can be found here. Most are found in wetlands and bogs of North Florida and the panhandle.

With over 630 species found globally, it’s easy to find one that will grow for you. For the past four years, I have cared for around 50-60 individual plants in Central Florida. Although I mention how to keep some on windowsills, I have had success keeping them outdoors year-round.

Top Left: Drosera binata, forked sundew, is a large, perennial sundew native to Australia and New Zealand and looks great in a hanging basket, if kept damp. Bottom Left: After 4-10 days the food is digested and the trap is ready to passively hunt again. After opening and closing around three times, the trap blackens and new growth can be seen from the base. Right: This Sarracenia leucophylla is going to have lunch on the spider that erroneously ventured inside.

If a nursery was going to sell a carnivorous plant, they usually sell Nepenthes, a large pitcher species from Asia. This article is going to focus on the other groups of carnivorous plants. Although they are smaller, they are equally unique and beautiful. Many of my plants have been purchased online or at plant shows around the state.

Carnivorous plants are photosynthesizing plants that flower. The plants lure and capture prey, digest the prey and benefit from the nutrients. They obtain nutrients from the bugs and energy from the sun.

Three simple rules for caring for carnivorous plants are counterintuitive. You’ll want to flood them, not fertilize nor feed them. When you waterlog these mostly bog-based plants you will want to use reverse osmosis, distilled, or rainwater. They do best without any fertilizers or chemicals, which includes the minerals from terracotta pots. And lastly, don’t set off their traps for fun and don’t force them to eat. Despite popular belief, they do eat on their own in the wild. There is no horticulturist out there in the bog with a toothpick and bits of insects feeding them.


Left: Pinguicula primuliflora, known as the southern butterwort or primrose butterwort, is native to the southeastern U.S. Top Right: S.‘Scarlet Belle’ pitchers can grow up to 16 inches and does best in full sun. Bottom Right: With 2-4 tiny trigger hairs on each lobe, Venus Flytraps use electrical signals to catch their prey.

Venus Flytraps are the flagship species of carnivorous plants. They first became popular around 250 years ago, when the governor of North Carolina identified and wrote about them calling them, “Flytrap Sensitive”. With 2-4 tiny trigger hairs on each lobe, these plants use electrical signals to catch their prey. Once the trigger hairs are touched twice (within 20 seconds), the lobes close, catching their prey. After 4-10 days the food is digested and that particular trap is ready to passively hunt again. Today there are over 31 cultivars of flytraps. There are solid green ones and others are solid red. My favorite is the classic, original green on the outside and pink on the inside.

Sundews remind me of tiny octopi. Their trapping method involves flypaper like traps, which slowly curl around the prey after the catch. There are nearly 200 species around the world. They are classified as rosetted, temperate, tuberous, woolly, forked leaf or pygmy. The cape sundew (D. capensis) comes in three cultivars and is from South Africa. It is a great beginner sundew.

Butterworts are carnivorous, but many gardeners grow them for their flowers. They also have sticky leaves, which help catch some insects such as fruit flies, gnats, and houseflies.

In 1576, the first North American pitcher plant (S. minor) was discovered in Florida. In 1887, 311 years later, it was identified as a plant that eats bugs! There are between 8 and 11 species of Sarracenia, with a lot of subspecies and hybrid – some naturally occurring. They are perennial and take five to eight years to reach maturity. Some grow to a few inches, while others can have pitchers that reach three feet tall. They flower in the spring, before their pitchers open up, as it wouldn’t have been advantageous to eat their pollinators. At the end of the fall, when the plants are slowing down and the pitchers are drying up, it is great fun to vertically slice the pitchers open to see the season’s catch.


Top Left: A couple of dozen baby Sarracenia ‘Judith Hindle’, a hybrid that people love for its uniform shape and tall sturdy red leaves as it matures. Bottom Left: S. purpurea subsp. purpurea is so nice, they named it twice! Right: Sarracenia leucophylla frequently grows with other species of Sarracenia and creates naturally occurring hybrids. This variety is ‘Tarnok’. 


(Pinguicula sp.)

Soil: Warm climate butterworts: 1-part sand, 1-part peat; Temperate species: 2-parts peat, 1-part sand, 1-part perlite
Pots: Plastic or glazed ceramic with drainage holes
Water: Place a dish underneath the container to keep soil wet year-round. Leaves benefit from frequent overhead watering.
Light: Full sun to very bright light, but make sure they don’t cook in the heat of the summer
Climate: Species range from temperate, warm temperate, and tropical regions
Windowsills: Some temperate species are unsuitable as houseplants, but some warm–temperate butterworts make good candidates for windowsills
Dormancy: Temperate butterworts require chilly to frosty winters while they hibernate, warm-temperate species usually survive light winter frost
Transplanting: Roots should not be disturbed during active growth. Transplant and divide in late winter
Propagation: Division, seed

Venus Flytrap
(Dionaea muscipula)

Soil: 1-part sand, 1-part peat
Pots: Plastic or glazed ceramic, 4-5 inch diameter for 1 mature plant
Water: Place dish underneath container to keep soil damp or wet year-round, a low water table is preferred.
Light: Full or part sun
Climate: Warm–temperate, can be placed in refrigerator/basement for winter dormancy
Windowsills: Does well on a sunny windowsills, should be kept cooler in winter for a dormancy period
Fertilizer: Does best without it
Transplanting: Does very well when transplanted into a fresh substrate every 1-2 years, best when done in late winter
Propagation: Division, leaf cuttings, seed, tissue culture

(Drosera sp.)

Soil: 1-part sand, 1-part peat or slightly sandier
Pots: Plastic or glazed ceramic
Water: Some are required to be waterlogged, while others are required to be dried out in the summer for dormancy. Most species sold in Florida grow well year-round in wet conditions.
Light: Part sun in Florida, very few species tolerate full shade
Climate: Found worldwide, most commonly sold are tropical
Windowsills: Does well on a sunny, humid windowsill
Fertilizer: Does best without it

North American Pitcher Plants
(Sarracenia sp.)

Soil: Does well in 1-part sand, 1-part peat, or 2-parts peat, 1-part perlite and 1-part sand
Pots: Plastic or glazed ceramic. They can be drained or undrained (I usually keep them on the wetter side), 4-5 inch diameter pots for young plants, 6-8 inch diameter or larger for mature plants
Water: Place a dish underneath container to keep soil damp or wet year round
Light: Full sun to mostly sunny
Climate: All but one are warm temperate, S. purpurea subsp. purpurea requires cold temperate climate and can handle an extended deep freeze.
Windowsills: Does well on a very sunny windowsill, should be kept cooler in winter for a dormancy period
Dormancy: All require 3-4 months of winter dormancy, with reduced temperatures and photoperiods
Transplanting: Can be divided and transplanted every 3-5 years
Propagation: Division, seed, tissue culture



A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 22 Number 4.
Photography courtesy of Ryan McGhee.


Posted: 06/28/17   RSS | Print


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Green on Green
by Nan K. Chase       #Ornamentals   #Themed Gardens

This green-on-green landscape has it all: variations in height, shade and texture.

Sometimes we go overboard with color in the garden: carpets of pastel bulbs in spring, big bold patches of orange and red and purple in summer, and then washes of crimson and gold in fall.

If it’s a crime to plant loads of color, then I plead guilty. Color just feels good. Or does it?

The last few years during my morning walks around my neighborhood, I began to notice that my eyes were continually seeking out green-on-green gardens, landscapes that relied on nothing for their beauty other than year-round evergreens and perhaps a lawn area and some especially bright green summer additions.

These islands of green, especially when well maintained and planted in harmonious combinations of shape, size, texture and tone, are so calming to the eye. Winter, spring, summer, fall: A green-on-green garden looks lush and healthy, elegant on any size property.

During my walks, as season followed season, I noted that all of the most appealing green gardens had several specific components:


Embrace the shade by planting this classic composition: ferns, moss and hydrangeas.

Composition and Definition
The composition – the mix of plants and their placement – in any green-on-green garden usually falls into one of two categories: uniformity of color and texture for a smooth and ultra-calming feel, or a crazy quilt of contrasting shade and texture (all green, mind you) to create visual stimulation.

On a large lot, particularly one with a large house, the uniform look is undeniably regal. Wide plantings of just a few species create a stunning backdrop for a single specimen tree with a splash of color; say, a Japanese maple set amid an expanse of low pines and ferns.

Even a small yard can have a much grander feel if it contains a mix of plants that draws the eye here and there or strong contrasts, such as a closely-cropped boxwood hedge.

In any case, what I call definition is the practice of separating each plant from its neighbor with a ribbon of space, a little gap where pruning leaves just an inch of air. Plant as many different things as you like, but make sure to keep them looking sharp by defining each one.

This long view of the Virginia plantation Gunston Hall includes a sweep of lawn, billowing boxwood and well-spaced evergreen and deciduous trees – a symphony in green.

Form: Shape and Height
Remember that evergreen plants can range from just a few inches tall, in the case of mosses and sedums and ivies, to hundreds of feet high, such as the largest conifers. In between those extremes, you will find endless variety. As you shop for plants to design a green-on-green garden, be sure to note the estimated mature heights of all plants in order to create fullness and privacy without too much overlapping vegetation.

And keep in mind that some plants are naturally slender, some are low and spreading, while others grow into rounded or conical forms or may even trail over a wall or container. Don’t crowd too many of the same form together, but fit different shapes around each other for maximum depth and finesse.

A shady all-green landscape plan brings the temperature way down, no matter how hot the setting, and the slightly shaggy look makes it easy to relax underneath the boughs.

Color: Tone and Shading
So many greens! Boxwood … consider those shapely branches a standard “medium green.” But green includes so many other shades – from almost white to nearly black, yellow green, blue green, pale creamy green, light clear green, dark green that blends into purple, and on and on.

With so many greens, it’s easy to end up with a muddled look when designing a green garden. Plant only what you really like – preferably in just a few shades – until you decide how plants look together through the seasons. I like sharp contrast, like a bright mid-green hosta next to the dark leaves of rhododendron, or a blue-green hosta next to fresh green ferns.

Think of greens as a fashion statement. The medium green of boxwood is like denim: It goes with everything, from hot chartreuse green to the shadowy underside of Bosnian pine (Pinus leucodermis).

The formal garden at North Carolina’s Tryon Palace is rich with textures and shades of green – from the lightest green hydrangea blossoms, through the green of boxwood, to the darkest green undersides of bay laurel (foreground).

Texture: Mix or Match
Consider a magnolia, a holly tree or a rhododendron; the leaves are glossy and actually reflect a lot of light. Conifers may have a rough, shaggy texture that absorbs light. Ferns are airy and move in the slightest breeze, whereas cacti and yuccas are generally rigid and have fine tendrils or clumps of spines that throw their own delicate shadows and hold winter’s snow in sculptural patterns.

Use texture as a way to extend the green garden, since the same shade of green may actually appear in many different “looks” depending on surface texture.

This streetscape offers shades of green even in late winter, before most trees have leafed out. Various shades of evergreens are punctuated by the bright spots of color of a white pine.

Green Groupings
What to plant? Here are plant groupings that may give you some new ideas. A green-on-green landscape needs strong evergreen structure: height, width, shape, and density or openness of branch structure.

Bowwood can provide much-needed structure in a green-on-green garden. Boxwood can live hundreds of years and survive low winter temperatures.

Boxwood (Buxus spp.) or holly (Ilex spp.): What’s the difference? There are many boxwood cultivars, the same with holly. In some cases they look nearly identical and can function the same way: an evergreen backbone that can be massed and shaped any way you like, or left to grow naturally. An easy way to tell them apart is by leaf arrangement: Boxwood have opposite leaves, while holly have alternate leaves. Boxwood growth is softer; holly more stiff.

Hosta: Made for shade, hostas come in every green imaginable, with a huge variations in leaf size, shape and colors. It can be fun to bring something new into the garden and then watch it take hold.

Ferns: A large planting of ferns can brighten up a dark corner of a green-on-green garden. There is an amazing range of size, shapes and textures. Once established, they fill in quickly.

Conifers: This is a group of plants with endless interest. Look to dwarf conifers that won’t grow out of bounds; some are even small enough to grow in containers.

Cacti and friends: Are deer a problem where you live? They might leave cacti alone, and you can enjoy their phenomenal shapes unfolding all year. As wildflowers, many cactus varieties can withstand freezing temperatures as well as hot beach sand. The same goes for handsome Yucca filamentosa, which is available in both green and variegated forms.

Spineless succulent plants are also available in many shapes and colors, so mix them into the green garden here and there.

Green flowers: Many summer favorites come in green or near-green shades, including roses, gladioli (Gladiolus spp.), Chrysanthemum, daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), hellebores (Helleborus spp.), bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis) and Hydrangea.


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 26 Number 6.
Photography courtesy of Rita Randolph, Emily Jenkins Followill, Nan K. Chase, and Phillip Oliver.


Posted: 06/28/17   RSS | Print


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Tropical Plants
by Jean Starr       #Colorful   #Unusual











The plants in this garden all serve a purpose: food and medicine for man and beast (and insects).

“Go big or stay at home.” It’s become one of my springtime battle cries. Like me, my garden is becoming mature, (perhaps overgrown?), with plants becoming more relaxed, settled in and, some may even say, sloppy. It cries out for some eye-catching eye candy, something with a stately presence.

Luckily, Midwest garden centers finally are embracing the beauty of the tropics, so big plants are not hard to find. And I’m not talking about hardy shrubbery. Elephant ears, papyrus and tiger-striped cannas beckon and find rides in my cart along with the premium annuals and promising perennials.

‘Midori Sour’ Colocasia warrants its own container, as it has so much going for it, from its mottled chartreuse/blue-green leaves to its rose-colored spot where the stem joins the leaf.

What makes a plant “tropical?” Its origin is in the tropics, consistently hot and humid places throughout the world that serve up warm nights and steamy days, much like a Midwest summer.

Two plants that give you the best tropical bang for the buck are Colocasia and Alocasia, both of which have fallen into the collective category commonly called elephant ears. Both are in the Aroid family along with callas (Zantedeschia aethiopica) and caladiums.

Give them space
Mindy Walter, lead gardener at Como Park Zoo & Conservatory uses lots of large tropicals in the summer landscape. Mindy is responsible for all of the outside spaces, including the greater Como Park area and the zoo exhibits.

“We use a lot of palms and Alocasia, which is a steady winner for us because it makes a bold statement and takes the heat,” Walter said. “We can get them started early so they’re sizeable by the time we put them outside.” Staff at the gardens also plant bird of paradise, bananas (Musa spp., Ensete spp.), gingers (Zingiber spp.), cannas and Colocasia.

Some of the easiest to grow outdoors are birds of paradise, or Strelitzia. “You don’t have to fuss with them a whole lot,” she explained. “They only need grooming every couple of weeks.” Walter uses white bird of paradise in the zoo’s screened Butterfly Exhibit.

All of the overwintered tropical plants used in the outdoor exhibits are given a head start in the greenhouse so that they’re 3-4 feet high by late March. Walter says the conservatory soil is a custom mix containing peat, rock wool, and black dirt. “It works well in the pots for drainage,” she said. “We also use Osmocote, a slow-release fertilizer.”

Left: A gloriosa lily brings the look of the tropics to any garden. Middle: One of the best indoor-outdoor plants, ‘Amethyst Stars’ Pseuderanthemum laxiflorum is a tender shrub that is easy to start from cuttings and is a constant bloomer. Right: Vigna caracalla is an unusual and gorgeously fragrant flower that blooms on a fast-growing vine and likes full sun.

Tropicals in every garden
Barbara Weirich, designer/founder of Lake Cliff Gardens uses tropical plants in a big way. Each spring, she goes through the painstaking process of populating her private, 5-acre garden with tropical plants, most of which are kept in a greenhouse off-site.

“I have a lot of tropicals in every garden; even in the Asian collection where I have more shade,” Weirich said. “I find that those that tolerate more shade do better inside.”

She also starts around 800 seedlings each year for use in the gardens. Two of her started-from-seed standards are castor beans (Ricinus communis) and Hibiscus.

Barbara Weirich’s Lake Cliff Garden features loads of tropicals, such as castor bean, Dracaena and Eucomis. A few zinnias add spot color.

Although poisonous, castor bean provides one of the fastest-growing tropical-looking plants you can grow. Will Giles calls castor bean “a fantastic instant foliage plant for the exotic garden,” in his Encyclopedia of Exotic Plants for Temperate Climates.

If asked to name just one plant she couldn’t live without, one of the first on Weirich’s long list would be ‘Mahogany Splendor’ Hibiscus (H. acetosella ‘Mahogany Splendor’). “They can be cut as short as you want to keep them,” she said. “You almost never see a bloom, but you don’t need it.”

Brazilian fireworks is the common name for Porphyrocoma pholiana, which can do double-duty as a houseplant and still put on a show.

Easy to find
Two other favorites that are easy to find at garden centers are Acalypha and coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides). Weirich likes to plant coleus beneath the banana plants. “They’re easy from seed and from cuttings. Now that there are so many types that take more sun, you can use them just about anywhere.”

With common names like copperleaf and jungle cloak, Acalypha species range from rangy to delicate. Acalypha hispida, often referred to as chenille plant, is known for its pink, cattail-like flowers that dangle from its pale green leaves. Acalypha wilkesiana ‘Tricolor’ is a colorful upright grower that can reach up to 5 feet in a summer, but can be pruned to size.

As for fueling the growth, Weirich uses various fertilizers at different intervals on the soil surface.

If you have a spot in the shade and a hankering for something besides Hosta, give Piper auratum a try.

Although using tropical plants in a temperate climate might seem like a new trend, it was really big in England during the Victorian Era (1837-1901). This period coincided with a time when the British empire was expanding into Africa, Asia, and India, where plant explorers were engaged in the discovery and collection of thousands of living treasures. It was the gentrified class that drove the discoveries. Business owners saw opportunities to cash in on the booming demand for plants fueled by the rising middle class and their newly-constructed communities.

In 1845, Britain repealed the glass tax, a method of taxing residents based on the number of windows built into their houses. Glass became cheaper to be manufactured and the Wardian case (devised to carry plants by ship from British colonies) was taken to the next level when glasshouses were built onto houses.

Even without a glass tax, most of us don’t have “glasshouses.” But with continuing discoveries and expanded hybridization, we can certainly acquire and grow as many tropical plants as we’d like.


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Jean Starr.


Posted: 06/28/17   RSS | Print


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Bare Root Basics
by Helen Newling Lawson    

Studies have shown that hosta establish quicker when planted from bare-root than from containers.

You’ve finally tracked down that plant your local nurseries don’t carry, and at a great price to boot! But the description says, “Ships bare root.” Not sure what that means? Or are you afraid of getting a bunch of dead-looking roots that won’t grow? 

Well, there’s some good news. Since bare-root plants are already in a dormant state (the best time to plant trees, shrubs, and perennials), by using the right techniques you’ll have plants that require less recovery time, they’ll be less stressed, and will grow faster. Another bonus: bare-root plants are typically cheaper than container-grown plants. 

Here’s how it works

Dig your planting hole wide, not deep, and build up a “cone” of soil in the center.

1. Don’t delay! The roots will be packed to stay moist in transit, but they need to be covered with soil as soon as possible.

• Most mail-order nurseries will time your shipment for the correct planting window. In the South, the best time is late winter through early spring so the roots can establish before the plant breaks dormancy.
• Have the planting bed ready. Break up any clods and remove rocks. Have the soil analyzed and amend as needed. UGA Extension warns that amending only the backfill soil into individual planting holes can keep roots too wet. If the soil does need amendments, amend the entire bed rather than individual planting holes.

2. Prep

• Wet the roots thoroughly but don’t let them soak in water much longer than an hour or so – they can suffocate. If the roots are very dry or have black tips, don’t buy it or call to ask for a replacement. 
• Gently untangle the roots and dig your planting hole deep and wide enough to accommodate the roots. 


Left: Get a handle on planting depth: Use your shovel as a guide to make sure the crown is above ground. Middle: You can hold your plant in place at the correct height as you fill in the planting hole. Right: The entire top portion of the plant (crown) should be visible after planting.

3. Plant at the right height

• On plants with a woody stem, like trees, look for a color change in the bark to show where the soil covered it. Don’t plant it any deeper than that line. 
• Research from Cornell University has found planting “high” to be critical for success when planting woody plants such as Rhododendron, dogwood (Cornus spp.), as well as perennials such as Hosta, Geranium, and Astilbe. Remember to allow for soil settling.
• Place the plant on a cone of dirt in the center of your hole and fan the roots around it. Rest a shovel handle across the hole to make sure the crown is at or above the soil line. If in doubt, plant on the high side!

Fill the planting hole with water right before backfilling the soil.

4. Care

• Water deeply and apply mulch, making sure to keep it several inches out from the trunk or crown.
• Do any needed pruning or training before new growth occurs.
• Mark where you planted bare-root perennials. With no top growth until the plant breaks dormancy, you may forget they are there!


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of and Helen Newling Lawson.



Posted: 06/28/17   RSS | Print


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Midsummer Checkup
by Charlotte Kidd       #Advice   #Pests   #Summer

A sustainable, healthy rose garden has perennials such as Acanthus sp. that attract pollinators and beneficial insects.

Tall, multicolored ‘Granny’s Bouquet’ zinnias flourish in the sunny border. We’ve been clipping them regularly for the table, which encourages new flowering. Heritage garden roses are into their second or third flush. Landscape roses continue strong and brighter than ever. Grape, patio and large luscious tomatoes are at peak production. Yellow and green summer squash are so prolific that neighbors walk the other way when they see you carrying yet another vegetable.

July and August also can bring out the worst in marginally healthy plants. Plants are a collection of living cells, just like us. We’re more susceptible to going downhill fast when stressed, underfed, dehydrated, injured, too hot or too cold.

Same with plants. Diseases and pests will take advantage of distressed, crowded, water-deprived, underfed or overfed, overheated, damaged or weak plants. Powdery mildew spews onto phlox and rose leaves. Aphids reproduce by the hundreds to suck juices from plump new buds and leaves.

Even healthy plants can be pest fodder. Japanese beetles devour many plants, including hibiscus, beans, zinnias and crapemyrtle.

Below is a list of tasks to keep the garden healthy and looking good through midsummer.


Topping off or refreshing shredded bark mulch stifles weeds and nicely defines shady beds.

• Water generously at the roots (not in the air). Roots (not leaves) absorb water that carries nutrients.
• Give plants a pickup with compost and kelp (liquid or meal).
• Remove garden debris.
• Improve air circulation and rain penetration.
• Plant flowers and herbs with pollen and nectar that attracts beneficial insects—daisies, coreopsis, cosmos, goldenrod, dill, tansy, yarrow, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace and thyme.

Garden Tidying
• Keep paths open and weed-free. Tidy paths welcome you and visitors into the garden for leisure and enjoyment as well as work. Refresh with straw or wood chips where the soil is visible.
• Weed!
• Remove dead leaves and flowers.
• Refresh or “fluff” organic mulches. Pull mulch away from the base of perennials, shrubs and trees. Mulch pushed up against stems, branches or bark is an invitation for fungi to rot the plant and insects to invade.
• In the veggie garden, pick ripe veggies and fruits. Pull out spent beans, borer-infested summer squash, bolting lettuce and spinach and split radishes. Plant cold-weather veggies for autumn harvest.

Get Your Rogue On
“Roguing” is removing and destroying infested, badly diseased or damaged plant material. Prune and rake out diseased leaves, stems or branches. Dig out diseased roots. Bag this plant debris for disposal — put it out for trash pickup or as yard waste for community composting at high temperatures.

Powdery mildew thrives in high humidity. Cornell University researchers have found 1 tablespoon of baking soda plus 2.5 tablespoons of Sun Spray Ultra-Fine Year Round Pesticidal Oil in 1 gallon of water to be an effective, nontoxic control of this fungal disease on roses.

The first step to removing aphids is clipping off infested plant parts, then using a strong spray of water to wash off the rest. Beneficial insects—parasitic wasps, lady bird beetles, green lace wings and syrphid flies—are top biological controls. Insecticidal soap, neem oil and supreme horticultural oil are the least toxic chemical controls.

A swarm of aphids attacks a bud.

For home gardens, handpicking Japanese beetles as soon as you see them is recommended over chemical controls. Shake and pick them off early in the morning when they’re sluggish. Dropping them into soapy water will kill them. Start removal when you see the first beetle. Japanese beetles produce pheromones that attract more Japanese beetles.

For black spot on roses, first, choose a rose cultivar that’s resistant to black spot. Second, provide roses with eight to 10 hours of sun and excellent air circulation. Cultural practices to control this fungus start with keeping rose foliage dry. Why? To germinate, spores must be wet for at least seven hours. Black spot fungus lives in fallen leaves and infected canes. So remove infested leaves. Rake up and discard all fallen leaves. Prune and discard infected canes. Disinfect pruner blades between cuts when clipping infected plant material. When using a fungicide spray, add a sticker spreader for better coverage.

Pace and Reward Yourself
If the garden looks too unmanageable or you feel overwhelmed, step back and breathe deeply. Once. Twice. Thrice. Okay, now which corner is most bothersome? Tackle that one space for now. Focus on it; tidy it. Then give yourself a pat on the back, a soothing foot massage and a refreshing beverage. Choose another spot the next time.


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of and


Posted: 06/28/17   RSS | Print


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You Can’t Have Too Much of a Good Thing
by Karen Atkins       #Edibles   #Recipes   #Vegetables

Pick zucchini when it is still small for the best taste.

This is the time of year when we go from just harvesting to harvesting in earnest. You actually have to have a plan. What you can’t eat, freeze or can now, you need to give away and give away fast. Here are some great ways to make the most of your bounty.

Pan-Toasted Eggplant and Fresh Mozzarella
I found Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking in a used bookstore in Fayetteville, Ark. Years later, I learned that it was one of Martha Stewart’s favorite cookbooks. It’s the best $2 I ever spent, and this recipe is a keeper.

I adapted it to have more “gloppins,” as my husband calls the crunchy, garlicky topping. The trick is making sure you buy the best mozzarella possible. Most large grocery stores carry the good kind now. Look for mozzarella kept soft in liquid, either in a tub or in the self-serve olive bar. You won’t get any complaints though, if you can only find the ordinary mozzarella that comes packaged like a little softball.

8 small (but not baby) eggplants
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
½ cup Italian-flavored bread crumbs
½ cup olive oil
¾ pound fresh buffalo-milk mozzarella, sliced ¼-inch thick.

1. Take each eggplant and slice in half, lengthwise. Use a short, sharp knife to cut the flesh in a crosshatch (diagonally in both directions.) Cut the flesh deeply but be very careful not to slice through the skin.

2. Lay the eggplant halves skin-side down in a large, deep skillet or sauté pan. They take up some room, so you may need to use two pans.

3. Mix garlic, breadcrumbs and 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a bowl.

4. Lightly toast the mixture in a skillet, or on a cookie sheet until just browned.

5. Spoon mixture over the eggplant. Let the mixture cool, then use the back of a spoon to push it into the crevices you created by scoring it.

6. Pour the remaining oil evenly over the eggplant and into the pan.

7. Cook covered, over medium-low heat, until the eggplant is very tender when tested with a fork.

8. Top each eggplant half with a layer of sliced mozzarella and then turn the heat up to medium.

9. Cover the pan again and cook just until the cheese has melted.

Homemade tomato sauce contains six times more lycopene, a powerful antioxidant, than fresh tomatoes.

Easy, Quick Tomato Sauce
The only thing I learned to make from my Irish grandmothers was reservations. I had to figure out how to make a good, basic tomato sauce for myself. This is good on pasta, on top of grilled chicken breasts, or roasted or grilled vegetables. Serves four generously.

1 cup butter
1 large onion, thinly sliced crosswise
2 tablespoons chopped, fresh garlic
¼ cup water
2 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled, sliced lengthwise and seeded. (We like to use ‘Roma’ tomatoes, since they are meatier and have fewer seeds, but use what you have. If you are using ‘Roma’, it will take about a dozen.)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1½ cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped

Midsummer Gardening Tips:

• Water, water, water. Vegetables need at least 2 inches of water a week. Use soaker hoses, rather than watering from overhead. This ensures water gets to the roots of plants, where it is needed most, and it reduces opportunistic fungus disease.

• Weed. Weeds steal moisture, nutrients and space from desirable plants.

• Reapply mulch, if regular weeding has resulted in loss of good cover.

• Pick zucchini and eggplant when small for a better-tasting, tender vegetable.

• Pick tomatoes frequently to encourage more production. To prevent bruising and cracking, pick tomatoes when they are mostly dark green and just beginning to turn red. Allow them to ripen off of the vine.

• Give away your harvest. Billions of pounds of food, enough to completely eliminate hunger, is thrown away each year. Visit or contact Garden Writers Association’s Plant-a-Row for the Hungry (877-492-2727) to find a local food pantry or soup kitchen.

1. In a large pot over medium heat, melt the butter with the onion, garlic and water. Cover.

2. Cook gently for about 10 minutes, until the onions are translucent.

3. Add the tomatoes and cover partially, cooking for another 20 minutes.

4. Remove the sauce from the heat, stirring in the salt and the sugar.

5. Just before serving, toss in the fresh basil.

Zucchini Ribbon Salad
This is a refreshing, light and pretty salad. Serves four.

4 small zucchini
1 6-ounce piece of Parmigiano Reggiano
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 teaspoons lemon juice
Sea salt to taste

1. Use a potato peeler to slice the zucchini into ribbons.

2. Mix the olive oil, lemon juice and salt together.

3. Pour it over the zucchini and toss.

4. Divide it evenly among four plates.

5. Shave the cheese with the vegetable peeler, to taste, over each plate.

6. Serve after the dressing has softened the zucchini, about 15 minutes.

(Have too much zucchini? My friend, Dan, shreds it and freezes it in plastic bags, then makes it into bread throughout the year.)


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of and


Posted: 06/27/17   RSS | Print


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Bridges in the Garden
by Taimi Anderson       #Design   #Hardscaping   #Misc

Bridges come in many shapes and forms, and many have a story behind them. This zig-zag arrangement of wooden planks placed at right angles supposedly discourages evil spirits from following you as you travel across the pond.

The most admired image of a garden bridge is the one at Giverny in France, immortalized in paintings by Claude Monet and photographed by scores of visitors intent on capturing Monet’s vision. Gently arching over a narrow part of the lily pond, this Japanese-style bridge has green railings and an arbor that rises above it, entwined with trailing wisteria vines. Looking across the glistening pond filled with waterlilies, the bridge creates a romantic and dreamy background in harmony with the graceful weeping willows and the green lushness of the garden.

Garden bridges can be both purposeful and enchanting. They not only provide access across a pond, a small stream, a ravine or a swale, but can also create a dramatic focal point. Bridges are a symbol of transition and passage, and are often considered a metaphor for life. Crossing a bridge and looking down into a swiftly flowing stream or still pond opens up vistas into and across the water. It also gives you a new perspective as you view the garden from such a vantage point.

Paths across water can be simple and still elegant. A few strategically placed stepping stones are all that’s needed to get people across this still stream.

Adding a bridge to your garden isn’t easy if you’re dealing with a wide expanse. A bridge crossing over a stream or ravine has to be of sturdy construction, with concrete footings or abutments at either end and steel or wood beams to support the bridge and its decking. For longer spans, support posts or piers are placed in the center or at intervals along the bridge. Railings provide a safety feature and can be designed in attractive patterns. But garden foot bridges can be an easier solution, and are often constructed from readily available prefabricated bridge kits. These are suitable for spanning a small water feature, a swale or a trickling rivulet.

A sturdy wooden bridge with just one railing helps visitors to the Wildlife Garden of the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants feel like a part of the garden.

Designing with a Bridge
There are many ways a bridge can be an integral part of your garden design. A picturesque wooden bridge arches gracefully over a dry stream bed in the Hoffman garden in Chapel Hill. Reminiscent of Japanese-style bridges, it is located adjacent to a small pond surrounded by irises and oakleaf hydrangeas. The white flowers of the iris and hydrangeas are reflected in the dark water of the pond, and together with the arched footbridge make a lovely focal point in the garden.

Crossing the bridge you leave the formal garden spaces near the house and enter a shady woodland of native trees and wildflowers. The bridge is a charming transition from one world into another.

Chippendale-patterned railings add a touch of elegance to a functional element. This bridge helps visitors discover all parts of the Prather garden, while adding its own design statement.

Bridges can also lead out of the garden into the surrounding landscape. An arched bridge with elegant Chippendale-patterned railings crosses a small stream as it leads from the Prathers’ woodland garden in across a small stream to the adjoining open space. With its well-crafted design, the bridge is not only a necessary means of getting across water, but it is also an eye-catching feature of the garden.

To see various styles of bridges, from small footbridges to handsome wooden bridges and sturdy stone bridges, you can visit the Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Duke University campus in Durham, N.C. This beautiful garden is situated along the slopes of a valley with a stream flowing at its base, so there was ample opportunity to construct bridges that lead over the stream and pond and across rivulets, gullies and ravines. With over a dozen bridge structures to explore and cross, it is a treasure trove of bridge designs, each tailor-made for its location and purpose.

A brightly colored Japanese-style bridge provides the perfect spot to view the beauty of the Teien-oike pond at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham, N.C.

One of them is the bright vermillion Japanese-style bridge at the Teien-oike pond. In a gentle arch it leads across the north end of the pond. On calm days a reflection of the bridge is cast on the still water, nearly completing a full circle. In the spring irises bloom along the shore nearby and weeping cherry trees are draped in delicate white and pink blossoms. From the top of the bridge the view leads across the length of the pond, as two elegant, black-necked swans glide across the water.

The small stream that flows through the gardens moves gently between boulders and grassy slopes. The graceful Iris Bridge crosses the stream in a high arch. An artistic railing of iris blossoms and leaves, designed by sculptor Jim Gallucci, echoes the irises flourishing along the rocks in the stream bed. Strips of wood across the decking boards steady your steps, and underpinnings of tubular steel members are supported by concrete footings. The bridge, surrounded by softly billowing grasses, is a charming sight as it nestles into the terrain.

Bridges are sometimes necessary to get people and vehicles across bodies of water, but they can still be beautiful. Duke stone helps this bridge blend into the architectural design of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens.

Farther on, the stream is crossed by a sturdy stone bridge, handsome in its design of coping and Duke stone construction. It is designed to carry not only visitors on foot but also light vehicular traffic.

In the Wildlife Garden of the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, a torrent of a mountain stream cascades over well-placed boulders. Two wooden bridges cross the stream in low arches. Sturdy laminated wood beams hold the decking boards, and a rustic rail of a red cedar logs gives a natural feel. These bridges are a fitting touch in this garden of native plants that offer sustenance to wildlife. The bridges lift you up above the rushing water and bring you close to the flourishing native shrubs and wildflowers and their blossoms and berries.

This small yet intricate stone bridge was based on a keystone design by master stonemason Brooks Burleson.

Beyond the Doris Duke Center Gardens, a path leads to a handsome wooden bridge that spans across a deep ravine in the Spring Woodland Garden. The bridge presents a passage from the more formal garden areas into a natural and serene woodland setting. From the heights of the bridge, you get a view into the fern valley, shaded by mature oaks, maples and pines, with drifts of wildflowers and spring-blooming trees and shrubs along the slopes.

Farther down, as the path and steps wind through the woodland, you cross another bridge of beautiful stone construction based on a keystone design by master stonemason Brooks Burleson.

In this garden and others, each bridge is an artistic expression, crafted to complement its setting both in materials and construction. Think of your bridges as giving visitors a heightened awareness as they traverse from one garden setting to another, enjoying views into spaces otherwise not accessible.

Even a concrete bridge can be a wonderful design element. The slight curve this bridge takes over the stream helps make it more than just a simple path across water.

Placing a footbridge into your garden, to cross a water feature or a simulated dry creek bed, creates a delightful focal point. It’s not just one to look at but to experience, and gives that special sensation of being lifted up above the mundane, as the bridge carries you from one garden realm into another.




Posted: 06/20/17   RSS | Print


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The Thrill of a Threshold
by Helen Yoest       #Design   #Hardscaping   #Misc

The garden of legendary Coach Vince Dooley in Georgia has a threshold that not only changes your perspective once you have passed under his natural arbor of a trained weeping katsura, but it also makes you want to stop within to simply enjoy being there.

New beginnings are easily born on thresholds. Whether it’s in the garden or in life, this point of transition symbolizes a new beginning. For brides, being carried across the threshold of a new home marks the start of a new phase of life. For my own wedding in 1988, my husband and I were married on the banks of the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth, Va., on a dock that served as the threshold of our new life together.

A threshold is where one moves from one space to the next – an arbor, a bridge, a gate, a break in the hedge, a set of dramatic steps leading to a level change or even a pair of columns – made of either shrubs or trees, or hardscape materials. They punctuate a space, alerting visitors they are about to experience a change in scenery.

In the garden, thresholds serve the role of guiding friends and visitors towards a gathering place. Whether it’s one or two people moving from one area to another, or a group strolling through a garden, thresholds are a cue that something different lies ahead. It is not uncommon to reach a threshold and intuitively know to stop and observe.

Asian garden design often incorporates thresholds. Slowing the walk by adding this portal makes it almost impossible to rush through the garden. This portal slows visitors, encouraging them to fully take in their surroundings.

I have one particular spot in my garden, Helen’s Haven, where I can count on hearing a visitor’s gasp upon seeing that particular garden for the first time. I’ve often wondered if the gardens they see are really that dramatic, or if it’s because I placed the threshold just right, creating the perfect view for maximum impact. In either case, it demonstrates the power of a threshold.

Thresholds can make a small garden feel bigger by subtly separating areas that serve different functions. They can also frame a view. Take a look around your property to see where you can take advantage of transitional spaces, and then decide what type of threshold would work best for that area.

Any garden, large or small, has room for at least one arbor. Take a stroll around your property and look for areas you can divide and make more of the space. This is an idea known as multiplication by division — expanding the space by dividing the area into smaller sections. Magically, the garden appears larger by breaking it up into smaller, distinct areas.

Your arbor can serve as the “doorway” to a garden room by adding a low fence or hedge to create walls. Arbors also direct traffic through the garden, enticing visitors to come in. Adding paths and walls creates transitional points for different rooms.


Left: A simple arbor, softened by Clematis armandii, leads to a secret garden beyond. Middle: A garden gate serves as a portal from one garden area to the next. When passing through a garden gate, we naturally want to stop and pause to take in the view. Right: A wide, bold arbor, painted to match the home’s trim, visually connects the house to the garden. It also serves as a threshold to the garden beyond.

Garden gates make a major statement about who you are as a gardener. Whether created from man-made materials, plants or just an opening in a hedgerow, they are much more than utilitarian entryways. Passing through a garden gate surrounded by plants can make you feel like you’re entering a different world.

In a way, garden gates complete a garden. They serve different functions depending on whether or not they are open or closed. When open, they’re a warm welcome and invitation to the garden beyond. When closed, gates can create a feeling of privacy for those within the garden.

A level change can serve as the threshold for the garden above.

Steps and Stairs
Creating changes in elevation in an otherwise flat garden offers the eyes different spots to pause and enjoy, rather than taking in the whole flat area at a glance. If you are adding a sunken garden or any other design element that results in elevation change, you can use the excavated soil to build raised beds surrounding the newly created garden or elsewhere in the landscape.

In any case, level changes should be part of the journey, not just a way to facilitate movement from one part of the garden to another. Evaluate your needs and the contour of your land to ensure you are gardening your level best.

Once you’ve created your threshold, it’s time to make it part of the garden. Plant a trailing clematis or climbing rose on your arbor to bring it to life in the summer months. Entice people to walk through your garden gate by installing a pathway to it with stepping-stones interplanted with soft green moss. Make the few stairs leading to your sunken garden even more inviting by planting sweet-smelling herbs to satisfy the sense of smell as you enter this new part of the landscape.


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 25 Number 6.
Photography courtesy of Helen Yoest.


Posted: 06/20/17   RSS | Print


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The Art and Science of Concrete
by Susan Jasan       #Design   #Hardscaping   #Misc







Remember when creating your design, that plants can also stain concrete. Holly berries make an interesting contrast here, though many times even the colored blooms of plants can create unwanted stains in concrete.

The hardscape of a landscape provides the “bones” of an overall design. Typical hardscape features are patios, pathways, stairways and various garden structures.

Concrete is often used for paved areas, and the number of options available to homeowners is only limited by one’s imagination. The bright white of new concrete is highly reflective and sometimes isn’t the first choice of a finish. Given a little bit of time, any concrete will begin to age and the bright-white tones will mute to a tan, earthen color simply through normal weathering.

It sure looks simple when the concrete truck pulls up and the mixture is poured into forms. Expert laborers work the concrete, and before you know it, there’s a new walkway or patio. Seems simple, but it requires both art and science to do it correctly and do it well.

Just as with planting your favorite new nursery plant, ground preparation is the key. This is true for the installation of any concrete material. Depending on the soil type, compaction of a sub-base may be required, as well as installation of material for subsurface drainage. The goal is to keep even soil-moisture content under your concrete. In some cases, a moisture barrier should be placed between the base material and the concrete itself to prevent moisture wicking up through the concrete to the surface.

Contrasting concrete borders can tie a site together. Here the color of the coping is repeated on the stairs. The contrast is a visual reminder for guests that there are stairs transitioning between the two levels of the backyard.

Equally important is temperature. The ideal temperature range for pouring concrete, and it to cure, is 50 to 85 F. Pouring concrete in higher temperatures is often necessary, but special steps must be taken to guarantee a quality finished product. The pros know!

Consider incorporating natural stone in large concrete patio areas to add definition. Here, a flagstone border is inset within the concrete of the patio. Note the joints are set on a 45-degree angle for the interior pattern of this sitting area. Simple details add the finishing touch to a project.

Concrete poured on grade should have steel reinforcing to reduce cracking as much as possible. Rebar, a steel reinforcing bar, is often used. Sometimes a welded wire mesh of 6-inch-square grids can be used. Typically the reinforcement should be at least 2 inches below the surface, but it should also be pulled up into the body of the slab during the concrete installation, not left at the ground level beneath the concrete. Your specific project will determine the amount of steel and the size required.

Forms provide the framework for the concrete pour. Usually coarse sand or limestone “screenings” will be put in place before pouring the concrete. This helps keep the concrete at a uniform depth. This base and the forms should be sprayed with water shortly before pouring the concrete. Proper moisture in the surroundings, as well as in the concrete itself, is critical for proper curing.

As the concrete is worked into place, it is important that there are no air pockets or voids in the concrete. Working the pour with a shovel, hand tamping or a mechanical vibrator is the first step. Then a screed (long board) is drawn back and forth across the forms, leveling the concrete in the form. After screeding, the surface is typically tamped using a mechanical trowel or a float to give it a smooth finish.

Next comes the finishing with a steel trowel, wood float or a broom. The broom finish is the most common. It provides a good footing when wet, has a slight textural quality and is still relatively easy to clean.

As important as the overall design of the concrete feature and its proper installation, there is one additional step that must not be overlooked: the joints. Three types of joints are used to control cracking.

First, expansion joints are placed between separate pours of concrete and at regular intervals. They are also used to join differently shaped areas of concrete: curved sections to straight sections, or between slabs – such as buildings, retaining walls, steps and posts. It’s also the simple things that are often overlooked, such as using an expansion joint between an air-conditioning pad and a structure in order to reduce any vibration transfer from the AC unit to the house.

Wood or bituminous impregnated fiberboard is often used for expansion joints, which allows the natural expansion and contraction of concrete. In areas with expansive soils, such as clay, very often the joints should also be doweled together with steel to address the vertical changes that can occur between various sections of concrete.


Left: Stamped concrete can mimic natural stone, but at a much lower cost than stone veneered on a concrete base. Here the concrete walkway ties together multiple areas. Remember that the rise (height of a step) outdoors should be 6 inches, with a tread of 14-15 inches. Middle: This concrete pattern mimics a cut flagstone in color, texture and form. The sealer and grout color add to the look. Right: This concrete patio ties together a cooking and serving area (foreground), a dining area (middle ground) and a fire pit in the background. The countertops, as well as the seat walls, are all poured concrete. The color works well with the stone used in the bar area as well as the tones of the patio.

The second type is actually a series of control joints. Control joints do just that: They are meant to control where cracks occur in the concrete. The reality is that concrete will crack. It’s just a matter of where and when, so using control joints helps direct the crack along the joint without adversely affecting either the soundness of the concrete or its aesthetic value. Typically, a control joint is sawn or tooled to a depth of at least one-fourth or one-third the thickness of the concrete and is completed within 12-24 hours after finishing. Construction joints are located where the casting of the concrete can be stopped and separate large areas or structures.

Left: A single step is never desirable, unless a contrasting border on the upper portion of the landing announces the transition, as shown here. Shadows between surfaces are also good visual clues before transitions.

Right: Concrete can be used to edge flowerbeds.

If you’re thinking about pouring your own concrete patio, think about the joints as you lay out the design. Locating the joints in advance will help create a visual rhythm that can add to the overall aesthetics of your finished project. If the joint pattern isn’t well thought out, it becomes haphazard and you’ll end up with poor results despite your best efforts.

Remember to periodically install “sleeves” below your concrete. These are usually schedule-40 PVC pipes or similar, that allow for installation of future lighting, irrigation or utilities under your concrete walkway, patio or driveway, without having to disturb the concrete itself.

The timing of your concrete is also important. Ideally, ready-mixed concrete should be delivered and placed within 90 minutes after cement has been added to the mixture.

Stamped concrete has become very popular in recent years and can almost be considered an art form. The combination of patterns, colors and finishes is almost endless. It also takes a trained craftsman for the best results. In some cases, resealing stamped or colored concrete is important, but be sure to use the proper sealant. Some sealers can be very slippery when wet, so be sure to ask before selecting a sealer.

No matter your choice of concrete or any of the various staining, coloring or finishes, maintenance is still important. Sealing joints can prolong the life of the joint material. There are also a variety of joint fillers: from fiber, to plastics, to cork, and more that can add a special look to your finished project.

When planning any home improvement, consider not only the installation costs, but also the long-term benefits. Always consider the long-term maintenance, or the ease of maintenance, when choosing your materials.

Reputable concrete contractors can work magic in the landscape. Hardscape features are a significant investment and can add to your property value. They are also long-lasting features and add tremendous enjoyment to outdoor living areas.


NOTE: Thank you to Brian Cook, owner of Ozark Patterned Concrete, for sharing his expertise, as well as his designs and patterns, for this article.


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Susan Jasan.


Posted: 06/20/17   RSS | Print


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The Allure of a Gazebo
by Anne Wood Humpheries       #Misc

Evergreen clematis covers the gazebo of Gail Norwood in Chapel Hill, N.C., an exact replica of the gazebo at the Benjamin Waller house in Colonial Williamsburg.

Whether for entertaining guests, enjoying the view or finding solitude, a garden gazebo adds a focal point to the landscape that draws the eye and invites a visit. The placement of the gazebo, materials used and the selection of surrounding plants are all elements that determine the style and personality of the gazebo and help tie it in with the existing home and landscape.

Four Gazebos, Each Designed for a Specific Purpose

A Williamsburg-Inspired Garden

Taking advantage of a steep incline, this hillside gazebo offers views of a pool built into the terrace, as well as the patio below.

At Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Md., a golden-toned pagoda-style gazebo echoes the tones of the surrounding garden.

A rustic wood gazebo fits perfectly into the naturalistic setting, and offers a relaxing perch for viewing the tranquil beauty of the adjacent pond.

A ball-and-chain gate, grit paths, picket fences and outbuildings all combine to create a Colonial atmosphere in the garden of Gail Norwood. Paths through the woodland garden lead to the gazebo, an exact replica of the one at the Benjamin Waller House in Colonial Williamsburg. The gazebo is adorned with vines of evergreen clematis (Clematis armandii), which bloom abundantly in early March. The shade garden surrounding the gazebo is filled with hellebores (Helleborus spp.), Heuchera, Hydrangea, columbine (Aquilegia spp.), ferns, azaleas and Trillium. A moss garden shimmers in various shades of green around the gazebo, adding soft texture and inviting a visit.

A View From Above
A gazebo perched on a terraced cliff offers multi-directional views. Up top is a swimming pool set into the terraced hillside, planted with peonies (Paeonia spp.), azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) and Phlox. Below is an expansive brick patio lined with crapemyrtles (Lagerstroemia indica). The gazebo is surrounded by a juniper (Juniperus spp.) ground cover and Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) twines around the base. At its foot, a waterfall planted with Sedum and grasses cascades below a rocky outcrop. Equipped with lighting and an overhead fan, the gazebo offers a shady refuge on hot summer days.

Gazebo in a Color Garden
A unique pagoda-style gazebo is an integral part of this colorful garden. Surrounded by a variety of yellow green plants such as various sedge (Carex spp.), Hosta, grasses and elephant’s ears (Colocasia and Alocasia spp.), the plantings are all tied together by hedges of golden privet (Ligustrum x vicaryi) and foster holly (Ilex x attenuata ‘Fosteri’). The golden color of the gazebo is designed to integrate with the chosen palette and offers a welcome resting spot for garden visitors.

Rustic Gazebo by a Pond
In keeping with its naturalistic setting, this gazebo is made with rustic materials and built on a raised base to add extra height and offer a broader view of the garden. A welcoming staircase is edged by a soft cascade of evergreen poet’s laurel (Danae racemosa). The rock-edged pond is planted with hellebores, ferns and trillium.

Designing Your Own Gazebo
You may have a vision of where you’d like to place your gazebo and how it should complement your home and landscape. Whether you decide to purchase a kit and build it yourself, or hire an architect for a custom design, you’ll need to consider some important questions.

How will you use your gazebo? Is it meant to look pretty in the landscape, to use for entertaining or to provide a place of solitude? All these factors will help determine the size and layout of the gazebo. If you plan to have guests for dining, then the gazebo must be large enough to accommodate tables and chairs with enough room to circulate around the perimeter.

What time of day will you use the gazebo? If you’d like to have evening parties or just like the idea of having the gazebo lit up at night, then running electricity to the structure will be necessary. Removable screens may also be advantageous to keep out intruding insects.

This Asian-inspired design sits serenely by a water feature – the perfect spot for quiet contemplation.

Any new structure on your property will need to adhere to local regulations such as permits and property lines. With homes near water or wetlands, there may also be restrictions due to environmental protection areas, such as the minimum setback from the water’s edge. Most building codes also require railings on structures that are a certain height above grade.

The orientation of the gazebo is also an important factor, particularly if it has a southern exposure, both to maximize the view and to ensure comfort in all seasons. Distance from the house may also determine whether a connecting path is desirable, or whether walking across the grass is sufficient.

This rustic gazebo is the perfect design for this country setting.

The degree of time you wish to spend on maintenance will affect your choice of materials. If using wood, rot- and bug-resistant materials are most desirable, such as teak, ipe or cypress. Composite synthetic materials are a low-maintenance option that will not require regular painting or staining. Having a water source nearby, either from a hose or an installed spigot, may be useful for regular cleaning and upkeep.

Whatever the style of your home or the function your gazebo will serve, there are a number of options both for the structure and for the types of plants that will enhance its beauty. A gazebo is a part of the garden landscape that can be designed to truly reflect your own style and personality.


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 26 Number 5.
Photography courtesy of Anne Wood Humpheries, Norman Winter, and Patrice Peltier.


Posted: 06/19/17   RSS | Print


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Make Your Garden Paths Practical, Safe, and Exciting
by Monica Brandies       #Design   #Hardscaping

Paved paths are neater and more permanent. Plants on the side should be low and far enough back so they don’t need constant pruning or make the path feel crowded.

Not so long ago a gentleman wandered through my garden and then came back to tell me that the paths were his favorite part of the garden. Paths are important because they lead the visitor to see all the best places and give the gardener open access to get to and care for the plants.

But there are mistakes to avoid so you won’t find yourself constantly pruning lest they close up. They are important for access. You may even want to keep a wide enough path for a truck to get through to bring in mulch or soil.

If you have a fence, it will save many steps if there are gates on each side of the house so people won’t have to backtrack and can access or retreat from either side.

Grass serves as a nice walkway as long as it is a practical size and attached to the rest of the lawn. Note the low plants are well spaced to avoid crowding.

Paths lead people around your yard with comfort and safety so they should be solid and definite. The best ones are those that flow with the natural route of traffic, curving by special plantings or leading to hidden nooks.

One gardener said he has a secret garden because as you follow his path, you can look back and won’t be able to see far, and looking forward you wonder what more you will see around the next curve. Each section you approach is a joy. This type of path is quite delightful.

You may want to take a few months to a year to see just where want a path before you pave or put down stepping stones. If you have children, they will take the most direct way from the door to the school bus no matter what other path you have. Also do not plant anything fragile behind their home plate or first base or other play areas.

Plants along the path should be low. Otherwise you have to cut away blooms along with the foliage, but at least they can be used for bouquets or cuttings.

And even as an adult, have you gone to some place where you had to make extra steps for no good reason? It might not matter if you only go around an area like that a few times, but it you have to go around it daily or weekly, you tend to despise it.

If possible, in your own garden, connect the paths so that you can go around the garden entirely without stepping over the same path to get the next one.

Paths should be at least three feet wide, broad enough to take a wheelbarrow through, and wider at curves and ends. Plants and structures at their sides should be low and planted far enough from the edge of the walk that you won’t have to prune constantly to keep the path open and not have it feel crowded. Even so, it is a good idea to always have garden scissors or shears in your pocket so you can snip off anything that gets in the way.

Sometimes you need to prune limbs or leaves from above. Remember that some of your visitors may be taller than you are.

In many gardens the lawn can be considered as a pathway. In that case, be sure that the area is just the right width for easy mowing and connected to the next part of the lawn. Paths can be covered with mulch, even leaves, pine needles, or grass clippings. You don’t need to buy mulch, but if you do, we discourage the use of cypress mulch because most of it is not a by-product of tree farming or the timber industries. Cypress mulch most often comes from healthy native trees being cut. You will have to add additional mulch as it disintegrates. In the meantime, it cools the soil and encourages the earthworms.

So now I use my wheelbarrow regularly and whatever it runs over gets taken out. I find the flat clippers are best for taking off the pointed leaves of the pineapples and bromeliads that extend into the path.

You also need to prune above the paths so branches or large leaves won’t touch taller visitors. The best time to do that is when you go out after a rain and the leaves are hanging the lowest.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 22 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Monica Brandies.


Posted: 06/19/17   RSS | Print


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Privacy in the Garden
by Judy Nauseef       #Design   #Hardscaping   #Misc

A woven wooden fence screens the house next door in this Michigan garden. The fence, made from saplings (sometimes called wattle), has a rustic appearance. Instructions for constructing this type of fence can be found on the Internet, where it is also possible to find craftspeople who build them. Columnar maples (Acer ssp.) are planted in front of the fence and hostas, pachysandra (P. terminalis) and other shade perennials fill the ground layer.

When we are in our gardens, there are times when we may want to separate ourselves from the world outside. Sometimes an enclosed space feels right. Whether we are in a contemplative mood or just under the weather, sitting in the garden serves as a remedy. Other more practical needs, such as sunbathing, having breakfast in a bathrobe, or simply not wanting to engage in conversation with a neighbor, call for screening.

Often we really like our neighbors, but require just enough of a barrier that implies that we enjoy having them next door, but that our yard is not perpetually open for foot traffic. Fence panels and groups of shrubs work well in this situation, rather than continuous fence or hedging. Frequently, being seen in our yards is not a problem – we just do not want to engage in conversation with the neighbor.

This elegant garden includes a quiet, serene spot under a tall white pergola. The small pool adds to the sense of serenity.

In the Midwest, I have lived in and designed gardens in neighborhoods where fences keep dogs in and children safe, but are not used for privacy. Often yards run into each other and children scamper between them. Homeowners most likely use screening for areas close to the house.

Screening from Above
Sometimes we need to screen views of our garden from above. Two story homes built close together, or taller buildings behind your home, create this situation. Options are fewer. New trees and shrubs need time to grow.

Sometimes, there is not enough space to create the living screen needed. A solid roof on an outdoor living space may be an option. Or, use the partial screening of a pergola that prevents a clear view of your space. Try an unusual accessory, such as stenciled metal work.

Fence materials include wood, composites, metal and wire. In small yards, where space is at a premium and neighboring lots are very close, a structure built for privacy may be a good choice, because trees and hedging will take up more area. Grow a vine on a trellis or pergola to soften the look. Shade structures that incorporate fabric offer a colorful alternative. Retractable shades can be hung under the top of a pergola or on the sides to partially enclose the space.

The Iowa homeowner lives on the downhill slope from the rear-facing neighbor, who could look down upon her when she sat on her patio. By city code, the height of the existing fence could not be raised. The solution was to build raised-fence panels within her garden. She plans to attach outdoor artwork to the screens to match the existing artwork in her garden. The plantings include Hosta and ferns, along with tropical plants, such as coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides) and elephant ears (Alocasia or Colocasia) in pots.

Pergolas and Fences
Built structures, such as fences and pergolas, offer wonderful opportunities for showcasing plants, particularly vines and climbing roses. In addition, it is possible to create microclimates for plants that otherwise you cannot grow due to excessive wind or sun or need some other type of buffer.

Shrubs, such as rhododendron and azalea (Rhododendron spp.), oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and holly (Ilex spp.) will benefit from a siting like that. In other circumstances, a privacy screen creates a heat-catching location for plants that need that environment. Add a well-draining soil and you have created an area for an herb garden.

This shallow backyard with nearby neighbors includes a private patio with comfortable seating. A short willow hedge (Salix spp.), an ‘Ivory Silk’ Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata), narrow leaf blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii) and a Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) provide screening.

Proper Placement
It is important to remember that hedges and fences on the north and west sides of the yard will slow the movement of the snow in a storm, since the winter winds are usually from those directions. The wind deposits snow that makes it over or through the fence or hedge creating large drifts in the yard.

If this is on a patio not used in the winter, it may not be a problem. But as the snow and ice melt in the late winter and early spring, a water problem may develop. If the snow is deposited on a driveway, you will have to shovel frequently.

A generously sized, Anamosa, Iowa,-limestone patio supports a limestone wall and pergola. The L-shaped wall creates a cozy corner for comfortable outdoor furniture. The pergola is treated wood, wrapped in cedar and not stained. The stunning stenciled-cut metalwork in the screen was designed and fabricated by Parasoleil, a company in Colorado. The plants in this Iowa garden include ‘Bruns’ Serbian spruce (Picea omorika) and ‘Medora’ juniper (Juniperous scopulorum).

Design Elements
Screening serves another purpose. Fencing, hedging, pergolas, and trellises used as garden elements give structure to a landscape design and help the homeowner design garden rooms within the landscape. A pergola may serve as a focal point in the yard, creating a view and a destination. Fences and shrubbery that provide privacy may also be used to create a sense of mystery of what is behind them, to draw visitors further into the garden. Thinking of screening as an exciting addition to the landscape helps us to develop more possibilities. Our yards have both public and private spaces. Each area should be planned so that the landscape becomes a cohesive whole.

More than one area in a landscape may call for screening. An outdoor living area directly beyond the back door offers a large space for family activities, while a smaller, more intimate space in a far corner of the yard attracts smaller groups of people. I have visited many gardens with more than one seating area, each separated from the other by structures or plantings.

The gardener with this lovely secluded patio has incorporated many unique and beautiful elements. The whimsical umbrella, and the stone art pieces draw the visitor in, if you are brave enough to step on the exquisite surface. A thick planting of shrubs and trees screen the neighbors and a garden shed.

When planning structures for privacy, consider how you will be using the space. Include a large enough area for your outdoor furniture to seat your family. What activities will take place there? Will children be playing in the space? If you plan to have an outdoor grill or fire pit there, think about fire hazards and check local codes for safety regulations. If you are enclosing an area of lawn, consider installing a patio surface first. Once the fence or pergola have been constructed, adding concrete or pavers is more difficult. Check that the connection and access to the house are architecturally sound and practical. Think of privacy solutions as part of the total landscape.


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Judy Nauseef and Country Landscapes, Inc.


Posted: 06/19/17   RSS | Print


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The Southern Romance of Swings
by Ruth Mason McElvain       #Misc

A swing and picket fence, both painted white, contrast well with the brick home; chevron-striped cushions make it pretty and cozy.

Tap the Southern mind and I promise you, a swirl of porch-swing memories will pour out. For me, the gentle wind of a summer rain transports me back to Grandma’s veranda swing as she sat with her Burpee Seed catalog in hand and a cold Coke nearby on the porch rail … the two-note song of the back and forth swing harmonizing with rain hitting the tin roof and the far-off sound of rolling thunder. In To Kill a Mockingbird, iconic Atticus, immaculate in his linen suit, sways with Scout on the front-porch swing, teaching her about compromise on that stressful first day of school. Eli Wallach in Baby Doll preys on sultry Carrol Baker in her front-yard swing. In Deliverance, the deep-country banjo player settles on the porch swing as he duels with the city guitarist, his effortless fingers a blur on the strings, making the city guy sweat.

We can sway on the porch as fireflies flicker at dusk and enjoy the garden perfume of peonies and roses, tea olive, magnolia, gardenia, phlox and on and on. Mosquitoes are kept at bay by our personal breeze and we enjoy being outside even as the great heat rises from the earth to engulf us. We inhale the aroma of supper cooking inside, laugh with our cousins, cry alone and sleep easy on the screened-in porch swing with our pillow, quilt and favorite little mutt.

Swinging in the Carolinas

I don’t remember seeing a single porch swing during my 40 years in California, but my camera catches them everywhere in South Carolina. All around my town there are swings and gliders on porches, facing out to the yard or down the length of the porch; swings or tires hanging from trees; and swings in their own frame – in back, front and side yards. 

Several bed and breakfasts I’ve visited have porch swings – from Asheville to Savannah, Charleston, Highlands and Saluda. There’s a park near Greer City Hall that has an island with a white gazebo in a small lake, a fountain spraying arcs of water, and no fewer than seven swings for communal swinging, munching on a picnic lunch or just solitary contemplative motion … all delightfully Southern.

This craftsman-style home sports a pretty front-porch swing, which even instructs what you should do, “Relax.”

You can’t get more Southern than this white clapboard house with green shutters and a swing on the front porch.

Swing Inspiration

I love to tour my town for landscaping inspiration, and swings are no exception; as a matter of fact, noting all the swings I saw as I shopped along my own city streets inspired this article. Cruise around your favorite locale to see how fellow citizens have hung swings on their porches and incorporated swings into their landscapes. Beyond that, Internet searches of pictures of porch swings on websites such as Pinterest may give you some elegant ideas. I found a photo of a low, wide swing appointed with blue and white bedding and piled with pillows, and it has me eyeing my screened-in porch for such a possibility. Spring afternoon naps there, or reading with lunch on a tray would be delicious for both my guests and me.

The far corner of my backyard is just begging for a pergola with a table and chairs, strung lights, potted flowers and a generous swing. On my front stoop, too small for a full swing, but with an ample overhang, I’m considering installing a single chair swing. They come in the forms of cupped wicker baskets, scrolled metal or “French shabby chic” chairs with the legs removed, and more. Let your imagination, your personal taste and the style of your house guide you. When you include seating in your gardens, you warm the spaces, inviting friends and family to lounge and enjoy. It’s amazing how much more you and others will use and enjoy your garden if there are spots that encourage dining and conversation. Swings add another dimension to seating with their soothing motion, especially when there’s a cushion beckoning.

This house has the perfect porch for swinging.

This swing is the perfect spot to sit, visit and watch passersby.

Swings in your Landscape

Look around your yard, eye your porches and patio (or envision them if they’re not there) and find spots where you can add a swing or two. Leave your swing’s natural wood unfinished, or brighten it by painting it your favorite color. I want a swing painted aqua blue with buttery yellow and rosy pink pillows, but white always cheers me. But, no matter the color, I’m piling on the bolsters, cushions and throws.

For a swing in the yard, “floor” an area with pavers set in sand or leave a grassy footing and provide a canopy of gauzy cloth that won’t obscure the view, but will lessen the glare. Build a pretty pergola and set a swing in the dappled shade. And remember, shade cloth is magical. Have a barbeque station nearby so people can swing and visit the cook as the meat sizzles. Set out candles or tiki torches at varying heights or string fairy lights, add side tables for drinks and books, soften the edges with shrubs, vines and planted pots spilling with colorful, fragrant blooms. Hang wind chimes, feeders and birdbaths so you can watch the winged and furred traffic while you curl up to read. A weatherproof chest nearby is convenient for storing cushions and a throw to use during inclement weather or to just protect them while still being handy when the swing mood strikes.

A few hundred dollars, some design ingenuity, strong eyebolts anchored in sound timber, and you too can have a swing. Enjoy your Southern swinging heritage.

This pergola and swing are just right for the backyard of a large Southern home. Mint juleps and Southern belles in floating gowns are all that’s missing.

A freestanding swing with chairs nearby is the perfect spot to sit and visit.


This article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume XXVI Number IV.
Photography courtesy of Ruth McElvain.


Posted: 06/19/17   RSS | Print


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Growing Success
by Daniel Keeley       #Containers   #Design   #Environment








A series of staghorn ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum) creates a dramatic and unexpected statement in the office foyer and echoes the soothing green foliage outside the window. A weathered teak garden chair blends perfectly with the rustic mood of the ferns and provides seating for clients and colleagues.

I have to admit: It was only after signing up to write this article that I realized I had never really thought much about office plants before… that is, at least not the kinds of plants that live inside an office. As an exterior designer, I deal almost exclusively with outdoor spaces and, therefore, with plants that do not really fall into the category of what we commonly refer to as house or office plants. Consequently, as I began to prepare for my writing assignment, I experienced what can only be described as the beginnings of a slight panic attack. As I continued, however, I realized that good design applies just as much to indoor office plantings as it does to outdoor plantings, and many of the same principles that guide garden design are just as applicable inside an office. Whew, panic attack averted!

A trio of flapjack kalanchoe (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora) adds life to a rack of organizing bins. Their placement mimics that of the bins, yet their unique form and common terra-cotta containers stand in stark contrast to the rigid plastic tubs and stainless-steel shelves.

For me, a garden is decidedly manmade, a deliberately arranged space. After all, no matter how natural or realistic a garden is designed to be, it is, by its very nature, contrived. Furthermore, a garden (along with its plantings) is meant to activate one or more of the five senses. In other words, it sets a specific mood and engages the visitor; and so it is with indoor spaces and plantings as well. So, why should designing for the attractive and effective use of office plants be so different from doing the same thing outside in the garden? With this in mind, I decided to use my own office as a testing ground for learning more about this living form of decoration. I hope the results will stimulate and inspire you to grow your own success story by adding a little stylish green to your workspace.

As I began my design experiment, I first asked the question: “Why?” What are the reasons for having office plants in the first place? The primary answer for me is pure aesthetics… just as it is with a garden. Sure, many modern-day garden spaces have functional and aesthetic value (to provide a venue for education, outdoor dining or playing children), but their main purpose is simply to be beautiful. The same is true for the plants in our offices, and it seems perfectly logical to create an atmosphere that is visually appealing to clients and workers alike. I mean, who would not rather go to work in a space that incorporates beautiful, living plants than one that is devoid of such life? I don’t think many of us need much convincing on this point, or I hope not.

In addition to making our working environment more attractive, it turns out there are also some rather convincing scientific arguments for bringing plants into our workspaces. For starters, many indoor plants contribute to cleaner, healthier air by removing contaminants such as carbon monoxide, ammonia and even cigarette smoke. This has been shown to reduce headaches, fatigue, cold-related illness and even to lower blood pressure. Similarly, plants are known to lower stress levels and to improve our overall mood, so it is perhaps not surprising then that plants lead to increased efficiency and productivity in the workplace. Aesthetics aside, as an employer and business owner, I can tell you this was just about all the reason I needed to turn my office into a veritable jungle! It is no wonder that the indoor plant-care business is thriving, and large corporations across the world are filling their headquarters with live plants.

Left: The dark leaves and funky inflorescences of this Peperomia sp. look great in silhouette against a frosted window in the kitchen’s coffee station and enjoy the filtered light the window provides. The bright orange container provides an eye-catching pop of color amid the otherwise monochromatic countertop and walls. Top Right: Air plants and orchids are right at home in the office washroom, where they can be easily watered and thrive in the extra humidity. The yellow container and gnarly piece of sandblasted grapevine add color and texture to the arrangement and stand out beautifully against the sleek counter and glass sink. Bottom Right: Offering long bloom cycles with relatively low light and water demands, orchids are hard to beat for color and beauty when it comes to choosing a plant for your office or workspace.

So, how does one begin selecting particular plants for the office? Just like in the garden, there are a few technical issues to consider. These primarily include the sunlight, water and temperature requirements of the plant, as well as any fertilization or additional care it will need. Not to worry, though — these things are the easy part, as they should be clearly identified on the plant’s identification tag, and most common indoor plants are relatively low maintenance anyway. For additional advice, you can also always consult your friendly local nursery.

A towering fiddleleaf fig (Ficus lyrata) brings the outdoors to a workstation with an otherwise limited view. The simple container keeps the focus on the intriguing form of the tree’s huge, glossy leaves.

It is in the design decisions regarding your office plantings, rather than the technical requirements, where the potential for growing success truly lies, and there are several things to consider. The first, uniqueness, is the criterion I focused on the most when devising my planting scheme. I wanted office plants that would not feel or look like “office” plants and offer an unexpected, atypical beauty. I achieved this primarily by choosing plants that feature strong form and structure. In most cases, their shape alone is intriguing enough to stand out and provide interest. Color is also an important factor when choosing your plants, and while we think of most plants simply as green, the many subtle differences in shades can be used to great effect. Blooming plants, and those with white, purple or maroon leaves, are also great opportunities for creative design expressions. Finally, give careful thought to the placement of your office plants. Rather than just plopping something green down in the corner, consider how all of the aforementioned physical qualities of your plant relate to its immediate surroundings and the office as a whole. Choose plants that extend the intended mood and ambience of your work environment, either through uniformity or through contrast. Indoor plants can even relate to what is outside the office and, in fact, are a great way to blur the lines between indoors and out.

Closely related to the attributes of the specific plants you choose are the characteristics of the decorative containers that will house them. Choosing the proper container can effectively make or break your office plantings in terms of both appearance and health. For the most part, indoor plants are sold in appropriately sized growing containers, but over the long term, plants should periodically be repotted in slightly larger containers to promote healthy root growth and foliar rejuvenation. From an aesthetic standpoint, think again about those factors that drove your plant choices (uniqueness, color, texture and overall form), and let these same criteria guide your container selection. Choose containers that match the mood and statement of the plants themselves and, of course, that complement your office décor as a whole.


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Stephen Ironside.


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Microclimates in the Landscape
by Gary Bachman Ph.D.       #Environment   #Hardscaping   #Weather

Hosta, impatiens and polka-dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya) are good choices for the full-shade garden.

One of the most common topics of conversation between gardeners is the weather. Rain, heat, cold and drought all present challenges to maintaining a good-looking garden and landscape. Together, these environmental factors are referred to as the “climate” for a particular area or region. Since these areas can be rather large, we can call these environmental factors the macroclimate for a given area. The USDA Hardiness Zone map is a resource we use to determine growing conditions over wide areas and regions.

Within the larger macroclimates are smaller areas that have different or modified conditions. These pockets may be warmer or cooler, or wetter or drier than surrounding areas. These areas are termed “microclimates” and can be influenced by buildings, trees, bodies of water or elevation changes.

Most, if not all, residential gardens and landscapes have various microclimates. Trees, shrubs and structures influence how water, light, temperature and wind around a home affects gardens and landscapes. It is important to realize that these microclimates can, and will, change over the course of the year. The observant home gardener recognizes these microclimates and takes advantage of the conditions to successfully grow plants. Let’s take a look at some of the common microclimates found in the home garden and landscape.

These hydrangeas enjoy the morning sun in this microclimate between the homeowner’s house and garage.

Most home gardeners realize that the sun shines its light at different angles throughout the year. Knowing this helps gardeners determine the location of sunny and shady gardens, as well as where to plant shade trees to cool the house.

Your home, garage and other structures also influence landscape microclimates. These structures, especially southern and western walls, absorb heat from the sun throughout the day. When the sun sets, this heat energy radiates back out into the environment. It is common during the winter months to move container plants against the house when frosts and freezes are in the forecast because that radiated heat provides some protection. This is a good place to plant shrubs, fruit trees and flowering perennials that are considered marginally hardy. During the warmer summer months, these areas can be considerably warmer because the excess heat radiating from these walls can bake plants. Beds next to the house can also be drier because eaves and gutters redirect rainwater elsewhere.

This south-facing wall creates a microclimate with warmer temperatures, allowing the homeowner to grow these bananas (Musa spp.).

Shade is another common microclimate created by trees or structures. The amount of light a landscape bed receives can change throughout the year. When planted under deciduous trees, spring bulbs will flourish in the full sun. Once these trees leaf out, the bed can be used for plants that prefer shade, such as hostas and impatiens.

Garden art and overflowing containers add interest in this partially shaded microclimate.

The degree of shade is also important. Partial shade can be described as an area receiving between four to six hours of direct sun each day. Full-shade areas receive less than four hours of full sun, generally early in the morning or late in afternoon, based on the sun’s angle. When the tree canopy is so dense that little rainwater reaches inside the drip-line, this is called dry shade. One last thought about shade: As young trees are planted, the area of shade will expand as the tree grows. Landscape areas that have been in full sun will need to transition to full shade after several growing seasons, and the gardener needs to be aware of these long-term changes and ready to change the plantings accordingly.


Left: Ponds influence microclimates in the landscape and create opportunities for more native plants, such as these bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). Middle: Hardscape, such as this brick walkway, can create hot, dry conditions along the edges. Right: The plants selected for this area can tolerate the warmer and drier conditions created by the hardscape materials.

Microclimates also affect temperatures. Water features, depending on their size, can moderate temperatures, creating microclimates. Landscapes surrounding ponds can be slightly warmer in the winter and slightly cooler in the summer. Hardscaping materials and topography can influence temperature in the garden and landscape as well. Spots that are cooler than the surrounding areas are called cold traps. Cold air tends to settle in low areas of the landscape. Fences can also block the winter sun, so areas behind them will be more susceptible to frosts in the spring and fall. Not only the walls of a home, but virtually any hardscape can affect landscape temperatures. Stone, patio pavers and concrete absorb sun’s energy, heating up and therefore tending to be drier. This particularly affects planting beds alongside paths and sidewalks.


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2013 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Gary Bachman Ph.D.


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Livin’ Large on a Small Plot
by Tom Hewitt       #Advice   #Design   #Landscaping

Small lots can pay big dividends when they’re carefully planned.

Few of us have the perfect gardens we see in magazines. This is especially true if we live on very small lots. The smaller the garden, the easier it is to clutter things up. But there are so many things you can do to keep things organized and make a small lot seem bigger.

Every project is different, but when I design or redo a small garden, I always keep in mind what I consider the “top 10” rules for freeing up and expanding space.

Think vertically:
Always be on the lookout for unused vertical space. Use walls, fences, trees, or any other vertical support for epiphytes, hanging baskets, artwork, etc. No room for herbs or flowers? Grow your favorites in a window box. Wide windowsills are often overlooked as display areas for small clay pots. This is a way that they can be viewed from inside the house as well as outside.

Keep things in scale:
If you have a fence or wall around a small garden, don’t waste valuable real estate with a hedge. It is a much better choice to attach a trellis and cover it with Confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) or creeping fig (Ficus pumila). Hedges can take up 2-4 feet of space, while many evergreen vines can be trimmed to a width of a foot or less. When it comes to planting material, use petite bloomers, slow-growers, and dwarf cultivars whenever possible. Be sure to choose plants with multi-season interest.

Left: Always think vertically in a small garden. Top Right: Lawns on small lots should be kept as uncluttered as possible. Bottom Right: Choose small, petite bloomers for a small garden.

Keep things simple and uncluttered:
In a small garden, anything out of place becomes a distraction. It is better to have one large urn as a focal point than a dozen or so smaller objects vying for attention. Make sure smaller pieces are half-hidden by foliage so they can be “discovered” by the viewer. When using pots, stick to one material for a cohesive and uncluttered look (terra cotta is my favorite).

Window boxes provide a great way to grow things where space is limited.

Borrow distant vistas:
The only reason to screen something from view is if it’s unsightly. Don’t be afraid to “borrow” a neighbor’s tree or pleasing view of their house. Always carry the eye as far as possible. Selectively prune to allow a “glimpse” of something attractive in a neighboring yard. This can sometimes take the place of layering, which is difficult to do on a small lot.

Alter perspective:
One trick of mine is to place large plants in front and small ones in the distance. This is known as “exaggerating perspective.” Putting coarser-leaved plants in front and fine-textured plants farther back will accomplish the same thing and placing cool colors in the distance and hot colors in the foreground also helps. Narrowing a pathway into the distance and putting a focal point at the end is quite effective. Trompe l’oeil wall panels and mirrors can help fool the eye.

Use curves:
Curves create a sense of mystery by making the visitor wonder what lies around the next bend. But remember that curves should always have a purpose, and too many can become a distraction. It’s always nice to offer a reward of some kind at the end, like a bit of statuary or a small bench.

Left: An oval lawn draws the eye outward. Top Right: Furniture in a small garden should be light and airy. Bottom Right: Windowsills are perfect for showcasing small clay pots.

Keep an open lawn:
An oval patch of grass is especially effective, since it pushes the eye out in every direction. Resist the temptation to clutter up a small lawn with trees and other objects. A good rule of thumb is to keep all trees within shrub bays. It also makes a garden easier to maintain.

Keep furniture light:
It’s best to use café tables and chairs for small gardens. At least use chairs with open backs and tables with glass tops. The more they blend in with the setting, the better. Small patio benches that double as storage units are great, provided they’re kept in scale with their surroundings.

Use different elevations:
Even a subtle difference of a foot or so can make a small garden seem larger. Consider lowering one section of your garden or raising another. Small decks and raised planters also help direct attention upward and distract from the smallness of a garden.

Potted plants are a great way to reconfigure a patio.

Organize areas:
Create various “rooms” that flow into one another, by using large pots or other portable planters. This way you can change the configuration anytime you wish. Just a small table and a couple of chairs will create an instant intimate setting.

Guidelines are great, but don’t be afraid to think outside the box. One area that people often overlook is narrow side yards. By choosing the right plants and having a walkway provide a straight shot to the end, they can make attractive gardens in their own right.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 22 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Tom Hewitt.


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Companion Plantings in the Kitchen Garden
by Carol Chernega       #Beneficials   #Misc

Bulbs like Allium spp. may help keep moles out of your kitchen garden.

Gardeners consider a wide variety of factors when designing a landscape. We consider flower color, bloom time, plant height, and plants we just couldn’t resist when we visited the nursery. Over the years, we’ve also observed that certain plants do well under particular conditions. Some like shade, others sun. Most evergreens like acidic soil, whereas most vegetables and flowers like a neutral soil pH. So, we tend to group plants according to the conditions they like.

But we can also group plants in a different way. We can group them according to those that help each other in one way or another. This is called companion planting, and it can make your garden not only beautiful but also healthier.

Companion plants can be divided into three loose categories: Plants that repel pests, plants that attract pollinators, and those that provide shade.

Artemisia can help deter animals from your garden. Planted in pots, they can easily be moved to different areas.

Repelling Pests
Have you ever wondered why your grandmother grew mint near the kitchen door? It wasn’t just a convenient spot to pick mint for iced tea. Mint also keeps ants away. So planting it near the house is a smart idea.

Here are some other time-honored ways to keep pests out of your garden.

If deer are a problem in your kitchen garden, surround it with smelly plants that deer don’t like such as boxwood (Buxus spp.), herbs, and Artemisia absinthium.

Marigolds are a classic companion in the vegetable garden.

Deer will not eat poisonous plants such as daffodils (Narcissus spp.), foxglove (Digitalis spp.), Euphorbia lathyris, and hellebores (Helleborous spp.). Mix these in among your plantings, and the deer may avoid the whole area.

Have moles in your garden? Onion relatives (Allium spp.), such as garlic, chives. and onions, should help to keep them away.

Plant nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) in a circle under fruit trees to repel aphids and borers. Nasturtiums can also repel aphids from broccoli and squash.

Marigolds (Tagetes spp.) repel the bean beetle when grown among your bean crop. Their strong scent may repel other pests. French marigolds (Tagetes patula) also help control nematodes in the soil. This takes a full season to be effective, so planting them in different areas of the garden each year will help enrich the soil over a long period.

Basil (Occimum basicicum) repels flies and mosquitoes. So growing it around your patio or water feature will be beneficial. You can also grow it next to your tomato plants. This makes it easy to pick during harvest time, as basil and tomatoes are classic companions for cooking.

Most herbs repel caterpillars.

Tomatoes protect asparagus plants from the asparagus beetle, so interplanting these two crops is extremely beneficial.

Beans help to protect potatoes against the potato beetle.

Flowers That Attract Pollinators
Most fruits and vegetables need to be pollinated to produce crops. Attracting a variety of bees, insects, and butterflies helps in this process. The crucial aspect of this is that it is important to attract pollinators throughout the spring, summer, and autumn so that pollinating will take place at the correct time. Using plants that flower throughout the seasons will help with this process.

Planting flowers that have a long bloom time will also help. Verbena bonariensis attracts lots of insects and butterflies. It is an annual in our area, but it does re-seed, and will therefore come back each year.

Fruit trees don’t have to be confined to the orchard. Here, they provide shade for vegetables during the hot, dry summer months.

Plants That Provide Shade
Most vegetables and herbs like full sun, but hot afternoon sun can be intense. So, planting a low hedge such as boxwood (Buxus spp.) on the sunniest side of your garden can help protect your plants from heat.

Likewise, fruit trees in the kitchen garden provide shade for plants like lettuce and other plants that wilt in the heat. It is generally best to use dwarf varieties when you want to use fruit trees in this way, so that they don’t overwhelm the garden as they grow taller.

You can also plant short vegetables among taller ones so that the tall ones will help shade the shorter ones. For example, plant carrots among the tomatoes.

Finally, you can put taller, long-blooming perennials around the perimeter of the kitchen garden. They’ll help provide shade as well.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Carol Chernega.


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Natural Repellant
by Sue Hughes       #Beneficials   #Insects   #Pests

Lavender will also bring that wonderful aroma to any garden. The oils that are found in the leaves of lavender are great for both relaxation and protection against mosquitoes.

It’s summer, and that means war … on mosquitos! In 2014 Bill Gates called the mosquito “The Deadliest Animal in the World.” They carry a host of debilitating and often fatal diseases. Yes, we can douse ourselves with chemicals, light some incense, or plug in the bug zapper … but rumor has it that plants can also keep mosquitos at bay. [Editor’s Note: Mosquitos are vectors of several potentially life-threatening diseases, and protecting yourself is perhaps more important now than ever before. For more information, visit]The essential oils in some plants and flowers have been said to repel mosquitos, while you should not rely on plants alone to protect you from mosquito bites, you may want to include a few in your landscape or garden.

Lemongrass adds nice texture to the garden while doubling as an insect repelling plant.

Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus)
Citronella oil, the active ingredient in many mosquito repellents, is extracted from various species of this perennial clumping grass.

Surely a plant that contains citronella repels mosquitos, right? Yes and no: It’s the oil that does the repelling, not the plant, so rubbing the crushed leaves directly on your skin is the most effective way to use the plant as a repellent.

Lemongrass is nice addition to any landscape, and its aromatic oil is released whenever something brushes against it. It grows 2-4 feet tall, prefers full sun, and is a fast grower.

Despite its name, studies have shown that the mosquito plant) does little to stave off its namesake pest. But get one anyway, they smell delightful!

Mosquito planta.k.a. Citronella geranium (Pelargonium ‘Van Leenii’)
One would think that any plant with mosquito in its name would work as a repellent—but alas, no. Despite that marketers sell this citronella-scented geranium as a mosquito-repellent, one published study reported, “There was no significant difference between citrosa-treated and nontreated subjects.” (1)

So, it may not repel mosquitoes, but it does make a great container plant. It grows large and bushy with thick foliage of lacy, medium-green leaves and produces a few pink-purple blossoms during the season.

It can reach 1-2 feet tall and wide. In midsummer, prune back its woody branches to keep it nicely shaped and cut back the main central stem to promote fullness and encourage flowering.

Lavender (Lavendula spp.)
Most of us love the scent of lavender. Its oil, extracted from the plant’s tiny blue-violet flowers, works as an effective and natural mosquito repellent when applied directly on your skin. Contrary to synthetic chemical repellants, lavender oil nourishes your skin with no unpleasant side effects and studies have shown that lavender oil does repel some insects.


Rosemary has a wonderful scent to it that mosquito’s just hate! Add this plant to your herb garden and you also have a fantastic seasoning that you can add to many cooking dishes.

Catnip has a reputation for being invasive and, of course, attracting cats. To avoid both problems, keep a couple of catnip plants in hanging containers on your patio.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus spp.)
Rosemary does triple duty as an herb, aromatic landscape filler, and pest repellant. Herb gardeners love to use snippets of rosemary in meat, soup, and egg dishes, while its silvery green foliage and blue, pink, or white blooms make an attractive addition to a container or flowerbed.

But while we find the oil of this shrub heavenly, mosquitos find it disgusting – so do flies and cabbage moths. The oil of R. officinalis has been proven to not only repel mosquitoes, but it also kills mosquito eggs. (3)

This evergreen perennial shrub thrives in full sun and in well-drained soil, and tolerates poor, sandy, or gravelly soils.

Catnip (Nepeta spp.)
Generally associated with cat toys and snacks, a 2001 American Chemical Society study found the essential oil in catnip to be about 10 times more effective than DEET at repelling mosquitoes when applied directly on your skin. Results showed that this compound exhibits both irritant and repellent actions. While generally safe, some experience minor skin irritation when they come in direct contact with catnip oil.

But another study concluded “that catnip oil and nepetalactone isomers are significantly less effective than deet or SS220 in deterring the biting of Ae. aegypti.” (4)

Catnip thrives in full sun to partial shade in well-drained soil. To promote bushier growth, cut back the tops of catnip plants when they reach about 12 inches long.

Regardless of whether you grow these plants to keep the bugs away or just because they look good, there is promising research out there proving that plant-based repellents do work. A study published in Malaria Journal, “Plant-based insect repellents: a review of their efficacy, development and testing,” concluded: “The field of plant-based repellents is moving forward as consumers demand means of protection from arthropod bites that are safe, pleasant to use and environmentally sustainable.” (5)

One published study concluded “The various phytochemicals like Citronellal, Azadirachtin, linalool and p-Menthane- 3,8-diol obtained from citronella plant, neem, lavender and mentha plant respectively are found to responsible for the mosquito repellant activity. So this review can certainly bring awareness to public to keep away from mosquitoes in a natural way.” (2)


(1) Arthur, O., and J. Maciarello. “Essential oil analysis and field evaluation of the citrosa plant “Pelargonium citrosum” as a repellent against populations of Aedes mosquitoes.” Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association12.1 (1996): 69-74.

(2) Geetha, R. V., and ANITHA ROY. “Essential Oil Repellents-A short Review.” International Journal of Drug Development and Research (2014).

(3) Prajapati, Veena, A. K. Tripathi, K. K. Aggarwal, and S. P. S. Khanuja. “Insecticidal, repellent and oviposition-deterrent activity of selected essential oils against Anopheles stephensi, Aedes aegypti and Culex quinquefasciatus.” Bioresource technology 96, no. 16 (2005): 1749-1757.

(4) Chauhan, Kamlesh R., Jerome A. Klun, Mustapha Debboun, and Matthew Kramer. “Feeding deterrent effects of catnip oil components compared with two synthetic amides against Aedes aegypti.” Journal of medical entomology 42, no. 4 (2005): 643-646.

(5) Maia, Marta Ferreira, and Sarah J. Moore. “Plant-based insect repellents: a review of their efficacy, development and testing.” Malaria Journal 10, no. 1 (2011): S11.


A version of this article appeared in a June 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Sue Hughes and Kristin Neill.


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Kids’ Gardening: Memories and Dirty Hands
by Patti Marie Travioli       #Kids

It doesn’t matter how old kids are when it comes to the garden. Starting tomato seedlings indoor prompts all kinds of questions from the writer’s 4-year-old granddaughter, Lilah.

The most vivid memories of my childhood are those that I spent outside, especially in the summer. Besides the usual outdoor playing that kids do, going to the beach and camping, one of my favorite things to do was to harvest the vegetable garden.

My mom would ask me if I wanted to check to see if anything was ripe, and before she could finish her sentence, I was out the door, hoping to find the perfect slicing tomato or snap bean to be included in our next meal.

Our small vegetable garden was in our backyard, nestled between a half-acre of finely groomed turf and the woods. With a quick sprint across the lawn, I would soon enter this amazing world. I felt the warmth of the sun on my face and the cool dirt under my feet as I walked up and down the neatly organized rows, searching for the perfect fruit. The whole time, I was distracted by the questions in my head about the beauty and power that I felt the plants held over me. How do they do that? I couldn’t rely only on my sight or touch. I needed to smell and taste to determine if something was ready to pick. I don’t know how long I would be in the garden because I would lose track of time. I would hear my mom’s faint voice in the distance calling me to come inside.

Make Childhood Memories

When my oldest daughter was just a few months old, my parents and I took her along with us to go pick strawberries at a local U-pick farm. She sat in her baby carrier napping while we picked, moving her along the row just as we did with our small crates of berries. We crawled on our hands and knees, up and down between the strawberry rows, or sometimes straddling and bending over the row in search of the perfect strawberry. We ate our fair share of fresh, sweet, bright red strawberries, which was encouraged by the farmer. Recently, my daughter called me to see if I could help her find a U-pick farm in her state, where she could take her family. I look forward to the experience of strawberry picking and making jam with my granddaughters.

You are never too old or too young, too abled or disabled to do something in the garden. You don’t even need to know how to garden. There is something for everyone to enjoy. Getting out in the garden is the first step. You don’t even have to have a garden; there are many public and community gardens where you can participate. Gardening can be educational, therapeutic, exhilarating, exhausting, exploratory and fun.

Whether you garden indoors or out, when deciding what plants to grow, choose plants with sturdy stems or soft leaves which are easiest for kids to handle.

Approve of Dirty Hands

When you enter a garden with small children, you may want to start out showing them where they should walk. A simple walk through the garden will appeal to all of a child’s senses, followed by questions of what and why. Allow them to touch the dirt, the plants, even hold and observe an insect. Gloves can be saved for another time. Instead, teach children about hand washing after playing outside and before eating. It’s good to get your hands dirty and fingertips stained green from plants. Bees are good and aphids are not. Exploring and understanding the differences between good and bad bugs can have a permanent effect on how children react to the natural world as adults. For the majority of the time, it’s not necessary to reach for a pesticide, especially when children are in the garden.

It’s important to find a task that is age appropriate. As soon as a child can hold a watering can, give him or her the fun job of watering. When it comes to weeding, I make sure that I weed alongside of the kids. I have found that it’s best to show them how to recognize what plant you want to keep, and how the others in that area need to go. It’s not about completing each task thoroughly. It’s more about introducing the activity and enjoying the interaction.

Harvest the Fun

Harvesting is the favorite part of any food garden. Growing food not only teaches kids about gardening, it can also teach them about community. Inviting friends over for a garden snack is a really good way to encourage helpers to the garden.

Just being outdoors in the garden with you may not solicit a lot of help from teenage kids, but the experience of the surrounding natural world will engage them without any effort.

When deciding what plants to grow with children, start with those that appeal to the senses, followed by the types that grow rather quickly, such as beans, peas or lettuce. Plants that take longer to grow, but are good to eat in the garden, include cherry tomatoes, carrots and peas.

I love to grow sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) with kids. You can make a sunflower house out of the taller heirloom ‘Mammoth’. The sunflower heads can be collected in the fall, just as the birds start to eat them, and then harvested and saved until the following growing season. Release the seeds by rubbing two heads together. Wear gloves for this since the sunflower stem will have many dried hair-like structures that can poke little hands.

Make sure to mention houseplants or seeds that can be started indoors, when talking to kids about gardening. A tabletop grow light will prove to be a good investment and provides the light needed to grow plants during the shorter days of winter. Other tools may include magnifying glasses, and small garden tools to fit little hands. A small wagon will allow even the smallest gardener to deliver tools to the garden or a bountiful harvest to the kitchen.

School Gardens Teach Nature

School gardens have become increasingly popular, connecting children with where their food comes from, along with the educational aspect that can be incorporated in the classroom. Research is also showing the connections between nature experiences and improved behavioral health in children.

You don’t have to be a teacher to educate children about gardening. You just need be the person to get them outside and let nature do the teaching. It can be done in any type of garden or outdoor setting. Plant the seed, watch it grow, harvest the fruit and carry on the tradition. Who knows, with little effort, maybe you will prompt a child’s fondest memories.

Spending the day at a public greenhouse or garden can appeal to all of your senses as well as introduce children to the world of plants, especially those they may not be as familiar with as the ones they find in their own backyard.


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



Posted: 06/08/17   RSS | Print


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Shaken or Stirred?
by Richelle Stafne and Eric Stafne       #Edibles   #Recipes   #Themed Gardens

Themed gardens remain a popular way of motivating or inspiring gardeners to design a garden with specific intent. Several years ago, I wrote an article about growing a salsa garden; a cocktail garden is similar. With the end product in mind – in this case, a cocktail – you have a plan for what you can do with your harvest. This can be a fun way to put a “spring” in your step, especially for new gardeners, those looking for creative ways to be inspired, or those who admittedly have no green thumb.

Most often, one thinks of vegetables, fruits and herbs as food products, but they can also be used in drinks. Therefore, planning your own cocktail garden will give you access to the best, freshest ingredients. In recent years, the art of making handcrafted cocktails has made a comeback. For mixologists, handcrafted cocktails use the freshest and finest ingredients possible, and where better to get fresh ingredients than from your own garden or local market? Using locally sourced food and other products is gaining in popularity. With more farmers’ markets, CSAs (community-supported agriculture), cooperatives and community gardens popping up every year, it is easier than ever to have fresh, local ingredients at your fingertips.

Gulf Coast Margarita

4-5 pepper slices (serrano, jalapeno, habanero, etc.), seeded – optional for desired heat
Small handful fresh cilantro
1 ounce lime juice, freshly squeezed
Juice from 2 satsuma oranges, freshly squeezed
2-3 tablespoons agave nectar
2 ounces tequila
Soda water (or margarita mix)
Salt or sugar
Jalapeno and satsuma slices

Add pepper, cilantro, lime, orange juice, agave nectar and tequila to cocktail shaker. Muddle together. Add ice and shake mixture thoroughly. Strain into salt or sugar-rimmed margarita or highball glass. Top with soda water or margarita mix. Garnish with pepper and/or orange slice.

Is there anything better after a long day of weeding, watering, pruning, mulching and harvesting than to relax in your hammock or patio chair with a fresh, homemade cocktail? Shaken or stirred, the products of this themed garden can be served with or without alcohol.

The main components of a cocktail garden will depend on your beverage preferences, but herbs, vegetables and various fruits will surely be included. One must consider the limitations of one’s growing environment and be realistic about what is and what is not possible. Some things, such as tomatoes, can be grown in most areas; however, others, such as citrus, are limited to Zone 8 and farther south.


Left: Blueberries are a healthy way to add color to cocktails. The different species of blueberries are grown in acidic soils in Zones 3-11. Middle: Kumquat (Fortunella margarita), one of the most cold-hardy members of the citrus family (Rutaceae), is restricted to Zone 8 and above. However, they can be grown in containers to extend their range. Right: Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) has a distinctive flavor reminiscent of childhood candies and adds a licorice or anise-like taste to cocktails.

Growing one’s own cocktail garden satisfies the mixologist in all of us – the freshest possible products result in the best flavors. A good way to begin is to peruse your favorite recipe book, website or bartender’s guide to gather ideas for your ingredients. Take notes on what will grow in your area or can be purchased locally. Choosing perennials or hardy trees or shrubs will ensure a continuous supply year after year. Experiment and have fun!

While you may not have a choice about where to locate your cocktail garden, planting near a deck or patio where beverages are enjoyed can create an inviting ambience for you and your guests. This will also make it easier to harvest leaves and fruits for a quick beverage. Likewise, if your garden is far removed from your home, consider creating a relaxing area to lounge with cocktails within the garden.

Once you have mixed a few of your own cocktails, why not invite a few friends over, and better yet, ask friends to bring a few fresh ingredients from their own gardens? You could even swap plant-starts and seeds so everyone can grow their own cocktail garden.

Red, White and Blue Mojito

8-12 fresh mint leaves
1 ounce simple syrup
3-4 blueberries
3-4 strawberries
3-4 raspberries
1 ounce lime juice, freshly squeezed
Ice, crushed
2 ounces light white rum
Soda water
Mint sprigs and/or sugarcane to garnish

Muddle mint, syrup, berries and juice in cocktail shaker. Add ice and rum. Shake well until ice reduces by one-third in size. Add more ice, stirring until shaker begins to frost. Pour into pint glass. Add splash of soda water and stir once more. Add mint and/or sugarcane garnish. Sugarcane makes a great stirrer.

For kumquat mojito, substitute berries with 3-5 halved kumquats

Simple Syrup

1 cup sugar (some prefer demerara sugar)
1 cup water

Bring sugar and water just to boil, reduce heat and stir until sugar is dissolved. Remove, bottle, cool and refrigerate. Demerara sugar may alter the color of your cocktail. Some prefer sweeter syrup, using  2 cups sugar to 1 cup water.


Fun and interesting glassware will enhance your home cocktail presentation. Some cocktails are traditionally served in specific types of glassware.

• When using whole ice cubes for cocktails, freeze appropriate herb leaves or fruit pieces in ice cube trays filled with water or juice ahead of time. Added to a cocktail, they will add flavor and visual pizazz.

• Garnish with edible flowers such as nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), cape jasmine (Gardenia jasminoides), strawberry flowers (Fragaria x ananassa or F. virginiana) and okra flowers (Abelmoschus esculentus).

• Flavor your own liquors by adding ingredients from your garden; examples include spicy vodka or tequila, mint-infused rum, and kumquat and ginger-infused vodka.

• If you are lucky enough to have chickens in your garden or farm, make haste to collect some farm-fresh eggs. Homegrown egg whites in a properly shaken Ramos gin fizz can make this classic cocktail smooth and frothy.

• Learn to muddle! Commonly made of wood, a muddler looks similar to a pestle used to mix spices or herbs in a mortar. Techniques vary, but muddling usually consists of pushing and twisting ingredients into the bottom of a cocktail glass, usually before the liquor is added, to extract fragrant and tasty oils from the leaves or skins of fruits and herbs.

• Make use of local honey for cocktails by heating 1 cup of honey and 1 cup of distilled water to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat, thicken, remove from heat, bottle, cool, cap with tight-fitting lid and refrigerate.

The Gardener’s Reward Bloody Mary



Blend vegetables and sugar in a blender, juicer or food processer until smooth. Strain the mixture through a colander to remove solids. Transfer to pitcher. Add horseradish, juices, sauces and peppers. Stir. Add salt or salt substitute to taste. Prepare each drink separately. Fill cocktail shaker with mixture. Add vodka, tequila or gin. Shake. Pour into tall glass filled with ice. Garnish with dried oregano, pickled okra, pickles, hot peppers, celery, pickled green beans or olives to taste. A meal in itself, chock full of wholesome garden goodness!


Garden-harvested veggies (be creative):
4-5 pounds ripe tomatoes to make 1 quart of juice
1 large Vidalia onion
2 cloves garlic
1 bell pepper
2-3 carrots
3 stalks celery
4 fresh hot peppers (seeded optional, depending on heat desired)
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons horseradish
⅓ cup lemon juice
⅓ cup lime juice
1½ teaspoons hot pepper sauce (or to heat preference)
Worcestershire sauce to taste
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
1½ teaspoons dried cayenne pepper or habanero (to heat preference)
1 tablespoon salt or salt substitute
1½ -2 ounces vodka, gin or tequila (optional)
1 tablespoon dried oregano (optional)
Celery stalks, cucumbers, pickled green beans and okra, etc. for garnish (optional)


A version of this article appeared in a May 2013 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Richelle Stafne and ©


Posted: 06/02/17   RSS | Print


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Chainlink Challenge
by Steven Royer       #Design   #Misc

Bamboo attached to chainlink fencing softens the background and allows a small planted area to look fuller and more lush.

It has been said that, ‘good fences make good neighbors.’ Fences keep things from entering our spaces uninvited, but also keep many things (our pets or children) in a contained space. One of the most common types of special separators is a chainlink fence; they are sturdy, durable and long lasting. The challenge for the gardener is to make them an aesthetic part of the landscape.

A common solution has been to mask them with a hedge. Hedges can be space consuming and a great deal of work to maintain. I have seen a clever gardener use the Confederate Jasmine Vine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) by allowing it to cover a fence then pruning it to mimic a hedge using only a few inches of depth rather than two to three feet.

Even with more narrow margins, choosing the right plants can hide or soften the look along a fence by holding the attention to the colors and textures of the plants.

Of course, one can use a variety of plantings by giving a few feet of planting space in front of the fence to soften the harsh metal framework. Any plants that tickle the fancy of the gardener can be used; I do recommend plants of various heights and textures to give a gentler appearance; as opposed to the harsher hedge appearance. Copperleaf (Acalypha spp.) can add a wide variety of texture and color and can be relatively easily managed. Small palms like Christmas Palms (Adonidia spp.) can give some added height interest even in small stretches of fence.

Some vines can completely inundate a fence for a stunning effect. These may require regular pruning to keep them under a bit of control.

For some areas, where there is not sufficient space for deep plantings, there are some intriguing and imaginative things that can help soften or disguise the fencing. To help hide an unattractive fence there is a wonderful solution on the market, bamboo fencing. The fencing consists of 6-foot rods of bamboo wired together in 8- to 10-foot segments.

Bamboo is resilient and with minimal care can last for years. Hard wiring the bamboo to a chainlink fence is an easy task (secure the bamboo to be an inch or two above the soil to prevent moisture from prematurely rotting the fencing. This way simple plantings can look even more full with the ‘natural’ looking background.

Another ingenious way to mask a fence is with something natural that can be found commonly in Florida. When one cannot plant on the backside of a fence, Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) can be draped along the support structures and links in the fence. Over time the moss grows readily and covers the fence. In the cases of a bare spot just move a bit of the moss to the area and it will fill in.

To soften a fence and keep the openness of the links there are some plants like Wax Plants (Hoya spp.) that will cover a fence, but they will not become dense.

The goal here is to make a stark structure and make it look like it belongs to a landscape. The challenge can be approached with imagination and flair to meet any gardeners goal. The effect desired is achieved through the plants and other materials that are appreciated and available. See your fence in a new way and make it a part of your garden and not just a barrier.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 22 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Steven Royer.


Posted: 06/01/17   RSS | Print


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A Checklist for Summer Entertaining
by Susan Martin       #Decorating   #Misc   #Summer

Lightweight fiberglass urns overflowing with white petunias and romantic candlelight line a strolling path to the back patio, where an evening bridal shower is held. After the party, the plants will be moved back out to a sunnier spot in the landscape.

Your lovely, flower-filled landscape is the perfect setting for entertaining friends and family, but if you don’t have much experience in throwing a party it can be a bit daunting. Whether you’re hosting a graduation party, birthday bash or Fourth of July celebration, completing this simple checklist of tasks will help you organize and pull off the big event in style. Let’s get started!

A Few Months Before:

• Brainstorm ideas for the event, including where it will be held in case of blazing hot weather or rain, who you’ll invite and what you’ll serve.

• If you plan a big event, start recruiting volunteers now to reserve the date. Follow up again a few weeks before the party.

• Place a hold on any necessary tents, chairs and other items you plan to rent.

• Take a stroll around your garden, taking note of what will be in bloom at the time of the party. If a fragrant rose hedge will be in bloom, for instance, consider seating guests nearby.

• Develop a color scheme for your patio containers, window boxes, hanging baskets and borders. If you’re planning a graduation party, use the school colors. Pot up your containers soon after the last frost date so plants will be well established by party time. Reseed any bare patches in the lawn and apply a round of spring lawn fertilizer, so it will be ready for foot traffic in summertime.

• Repair or replace any hardscaping that is in disrepair, including pathways and retaining walls where guests will be walking or sitting.

Independence Day is one of the most popular holidays for outdoor entertaining. Make sure you have plenty of seating available for guests young and old.

A Few Weeks Before:

• Develop your guest list and send out invitations. Anything from fancy printed cards to a simple “save the date” email will do.

• Whether you plan to hire a caterer or provide your own refreshments, make a firm plan now. Using foods that are in season will ensure their availability, ease your pocketbook and be a tastier option.

• Purchase, borrow or otherwise gather tableware, serving pieces, linens, coolers, lanterns and other accessories you’ll need.

• If mosquitoes are bothersome in your garden, consider making an appointment with a mosquito control service to spray your yard a few days before the event. Citronella oil torches and candles will help, too.

• Power wash your patio or deck to have it looking like new for the party. If you have a pool, make sure it is clean and ready for guests, as well.

• Deadhead annuals and perennials now so new flowers will be blooming when guests arrive. Take one last look around the garden to see if any last minute tasks need to be done.

Cool nights call for fire pits, where guests can gather to warm their hands, sip refreshments and tell old stories.

A Few Days Before:

• Confirm your guest count with your caterer or shop now for the food and refreshments. Make ahead as many dishes as possible to lighten your load on event day.

• Set up any necessary tents, in case of rain. Chairs, tables and table linens can be set out the night before, if dry weather is in the forecast. Trash bins, coolers and extra seating can be set out now, as well.

• Take a walk around the yard and clean up any fallen debris, sharp stones or other trip hazards. This would also be a good time to pick up after the family dog. Do this the day of the event, too.

• Sweep the patio and clean off any furniture that guests may use.

• Consider temporarily moving some of your nicest potted plants into the space where you’ll be entertaining. Deadhead any spent blooms while you’re at it.

• Set out backyard games, such as bocce ball, badminton and corn hole, for entertainment.

• Prepare your fire pit and grill by refilling them with wood, charcoal or propane.

• Clean your house, in case the party needs to be moved inside, especially the kitchen and bathrooms, which are sure to see some use.

The finishing touches have been set and the hostess is looking forward to sharing an afternoon treat with a few close friends. It’s blueberry season!

On Event Day:

• Finish up any last minute food and refreshment preparation. Use the serving pieces you’ve gathered to create a gorgeous spread of sumptuous foods and icy drinks.

• Set up a self-serve refreshment station where guests can help themselves as they arrive.

Torches filled with citronella fuel help keep mosquitoes away.

• Set the table, including personal touches, such as beautiful cut flowers from your garden, handmade place cards, candles and other party decorations.

• Remember to take a few deep breaths, put on a big smile and something festive to wear. And have some fun!

Post-Party Tasks:

• Take down and return any rented tents, tables and chairs. While you’re at it, return any borrowed items to their generous owners.

• Send thank you notes to your helpful volunteers and for any gifts that were received.

• Do a thorough cleanup of your yard, patio and house. You really don’t want to find three-day old, half-empty soda cans filled with ants under the patio table.

• Return any potted containers you had repositioned temporarily for the party back to their usual place, so they’ll continue to thrive.

• Aerate and fertilize your lawn in the fall to help it recover if you had heavy foot traffic on it during the party.

Cool season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass and fescues are best aerated in the fall months. Allow at least four weeks of growing time for your lawn to fill back in before winter arrives.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Proven Winners, Susan Martin, and SRNicholl/


Posted: 06/01/17   RSS | Print


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Bulbs Like it Hot
by Jean Starr       #Bulbs   #Flowers

Garden as though you will live forever.

William Kent, English architect, interior designer, landscape gardener, and painter, and a late-18th century pioneer in the creation of the “informal” English garden.

Rain lilies are available in pink, white, and yellow, with Zephyranthes primulina offering up a soft shade of sunshine.


Go ahead. Indulge your immediate gratification streak.

It’s easy, with fully grown, already blooming, scientifically combined pots jamming the aisles of your favorite garden centers. If you have the time, a full tank of gas, and a pocket full of plant funds, there is nothing you can’t find.

But, let’s say you like surprises, and don’t mind waiting a bit for the big floral payoff. If you take William Kent’s advice and garden as though you’ll live forever, you will give bulbs a shot.

In addition to Gladiolus and Dahlia, hundreds of plants fall into the category called geophytes, a catchall term for plants that grow from bulbs, rhizomes, corms, and tubers. Many are not as well-known as tulips (Tulipa spp.) or daffodils (Narcissus spp.), so you’ll have to be on the lookout when visiting your local nursery. For even more variety, order them in their dormant state from online specialists for an adventurous walk on the gardening wild side.

Here are just three of the most easily grown:

An unlabeled lily of the Nile (Agapanthus spp.) was just crowded enough in its pot to provide a wealth of blooms for several weeks.

Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus spp.)
This plant’s common name has nothing to do with its origin. Agapanthus comes from South Africa, a place on the continent that the Nile doesn’t reach. The first batch of this amaryllis relative was found near Cape Town, a settlement formed as a pit stop on a trade route by the Dutch in 1652. European tradesmen passing through, to and from Asia, took them back to their home countries, making agapanthus just one of the many treasures introduced to western gardeners around that time.

It’s worth it to look for an agapanthus that’s already potted this time of year. Find one that’s practically escaping from the pot, its thick roots ready to climb out like a toddler from its playpen. The price you pay for one in bloom takes into account the years it takes to get to arrive at blooming size. I found just such a specimen at the end of June last year and jumped for joy. It sported two blossoms when I brought it home. After a short break in late July, and with regular food and water, it kept sending up flowers well into September.

If you purchase an agapanthus bulb, start in a small pot. It could take up to three years to bloom.

Tuberoses (Polianthes spp.) now come in colors besides traditional white. ‘Pink Sapphire’ is a compact variety that is said to be just as fragrant as the original.

Tuberose (Polianthes spp.)
Agapanthus isn’t the only plant that likes a very cozy home. Scott Kunst, founder of Old House Gardens in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has grown tuberose for the past 15 years. He recommends growing the tubers in pots here in the Midwest. “A pot is warmer on a sunny day than in the ground would be.” he said.

Like any plant from a hot climate, tuberoses prefer a long, hot summer. And although they come from a hot and dry corner of Mexico, they also need a fair amount of water, especially when the bulbs are tightly planted.

Tuberoses have become one of Old House Gardens best sellers. Kunst recommends planting them in pots close together with their tips barely covered with soil. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. And here is where the patience comes in. It can take up to a month for the leaves to emerge.

“A tuberose bulb has to be a certain size before it blooms,” Kunst said. It’s especially true in the Upper Midwest, as our summers are shorter than they are in Polianthes’ native habitat. “The bulbs should be as large as a man’s thumb.”

Still, depending on our weather, the amount of sunlight, and added nutrients, it’s possible a pot of Polianthes will be engaged in a race with the first frost. It’s another good reason, Kunst said, for growing them in pots. If they haven’t bloomed and it’s getting cold, you can bring them in and enjoy their fragrant blooms on a sunny windowsill.

If you’d like to save the tubers for the following year, Kunst suggests putting pots in a basement where temperatures are in the 60s F to let them dry out. Each Polianthes tuber blooms just once and then forms offsets for the following year’s blooms.

“You probably will see one more bloom the following season from the same potting, but after that, they will get too crowded and will have to be divided and repotted,” he said. “Get a head start by placing the pot on a heat mat a few weeks before your last spring frost.”

The old-fashioned tuberoses are white and come in single or double-flowering options. Kunst said the advantage of the singles is that they don’t get as waterlogged as the doubles, an advantage when in bloom on tall stems that could benefit from staking. Look for newer varieties with pink, and even yellow flowers.

Rain lilies are available in pink, white, and yellow, with Zephyranthes primulina offering up a soft shade of sunshine.

Rain lilies (Zephyranthes spp.)
Tropical rain lilies are adorable in Azalea pots, or any pots that are wider than they are tall. Commonly called fairy lilies or zephyr lilies, they grow from small bulbs that like to be planted close together. The first year, they might bloom a bit sparsely, but in succeeding seasons, the bulbs will multiply, creating spots of pink or yellow when you really need it, usually around the end of July.

Because they are small, it’s easy to find room for them indoors in a cool, dark place, which is where Kunst keeps them during the winter, alongside the tuberoses.

Zephyranthesare commonly called rain lilies because they often come into bloom after it rains. They can’t seem to help themselves, even when they live the lush life in a pot on the patio and receive all the moisture they need. I was so pleasantly surprised by their sudden appearance after a summer rain. I grew both Zephyranthes primulina and Z. robusta in pots last summer. They bloomed quickly with flowers sprouting in early May, late June and again in late July. I’m expecting more this year from these members of the amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.) family.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Jean Starr.


Posted: 06/01/17   RSS | Print


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The Language of Plants: Yellow Leaves
by Susan Jasan       #Disease   #Irrigation   #Yellow








This tropical Pittosporum is showing signs of iron deficiency, with the yellowing leaves and the green veining.

Just as we communicate through facial expressions and the spoken and written word, plants communicate as well. When we learn a foreign language, it is to understand our neighbors, just as it is important for gardeners to understand the language of their plants. When leaves start turning yellow, that is a plant’s way of telling you that it needs your attention. This is true for treasured indoor houseplants and plants in the landscape.

The top 10 reasons for yellow leaves: Underwatering and overwatering top the list, others include temperature, lighting, soil condition, nutrients or lack thereof, pests, disease, transplant shock, and age.

Whatever the cause, remember that it may take weeks or even months for your plant to recover and return to normal growth. The reality is that if you can’t provide the proper environmental conditions for your particular plant’s needs (water, light, nutrients, and temperature) then it can’t thrive.

A Philodendron x evansii with signs of what appears to be potassium deficiency. Some of the leaves are showing a bit of tip burn on the edges and other portions of the leaves show more yellowing (necrosis) in the spaces between the main veins of the leaf. This typically presents on older leaves.



I’ve learned that using rainwater, distilled water, or filtered water is best for watering houseplants. Tap water often includes chemicals (fluoride or chlorine) that can be detrimental to plants. Some plants, such as Dracaena, which generally is thought of as a pretty tough drought-tolerant plant, are actually particularly sensitive to the chemicals in tap water. And room-temperature water is best. None of us likes a cold shower or extremely hot water.

Understanding The Message
Both over- and underwatering cause yellowing leaves. Overly moist soil is often the result of well intended, but overzealous, watering. Overwatering leaves the plant’s roots saturated and unable to “breathe” because of the excessive soil moisture. In essence, you’re drowning your plants. If your plant is in a container, make sure it has drainage holes and water less frequently. If there’s a green crusty appearance to the soil surface, this is algae and it too is an additional symptom of overwatering. If the plant isn’t too far gone, you’ll probably want to repot it into new soil. Check the roots: white roots are an indicator of healthy plants; black roots that appear to be decomposing are a death knell. When repotting an overwatered plant with rotting roots, trim back those roots that are in decline leaving the healthy roots to recover.

If you feel that the cause is not enough water, the remedy is obvious. Make sure you’re watering your plants properly: wait until soil begins to dry, then drench it fully, and wait until the soil begins to dry out before watering again.

Temperature and light of course play a significant role in plant health. If your leaves appear more faded than truly yellow, this could be a sign of lack of sunlight. Plants need proper light for photosynthesis to occur – the lifeblood of any plant. For plants in containers, be sure to rotate the pots periodically so that all the foliage is exposed to sunlight.

Identifying causes of leaf damage involves a bit of detective work. Think about the environment, particularly changes in the environment: temperature, chemicals, watering, humidity, etc. This leaf on this arrowhead plant (Syngonium podophyllum) seems perfectly normal on one half, while demonstrating obvious, significant damage on the other half. It might seem odd to see only one-half of a leaf affected, but a change in the plant’s environment makes the cause obvious: The browning is a result of cold shock. The plant was only partially protected overnight from the cold temperatures. The side that was exposed to the chilling temperatures was “burned,” much like freezer burn. The protected side was unaffected.

Research the light needs of your specific plant and make sure you’re providing the right type of light. Some plants like bright, but indirect, light. Others prefer full sun, yet others thrive in low light. If your plant is getting too much or too little light it will let you know. Plants with too little light also tend to become “leggy” as they’re reaching for more light with stems becoming atypically long with the leaves growing undersized. Sometimes the leaves may even fall off.

Though seen more often in landscape plants than houseplants, a significant temperature change can leave leaf tips looking “burned.” This typically occurs in spring, when there is a late freeze after tender new growth has emerged. If this is the case, trim off the “burned” foliage and allow new growth to re-emerge.

Houseplants have preferred temperature ranges: Some like it cool, around 50-60 F, others prefer 70s and 80s. Some prefer high humidity, others not so much. Some plants will drop all their leaves as a stress response to change when moved from one location to another, only to subsequently rebound with new growth. Ficus are particularly known for this.

These yews (Taxus x media ‘Densiformis’) are showing signs of “burn” on tender new growth caused by freezing temperatures that followed a period of extreme warmth. The plant will survive and the damaged tender tips should be trimmed after the possibility of any additional freezes.

If yellow spots on your leaves appear along with tiny critters (be sure to check the undersides of the leaves) then you have an insect population that’s enjoying your plants a little too much. First identify the pest and then treat for that particular insect. Remember that often pests are so little they cannot be seen with the naked eye, but their damage is obvious. Typical insect infestations on houseplants are caused by one of the following: mites, aphids, mealybugs, thrips, scale, or whiteflies. Repeatedly washing the plants or applying an insecticidal or horticultural soap is one treatment is often effective as well as environmentally safe.

This dracaena was overwatered for some time and eventually was repotted in new soil in an effort to revive the plant. The yellowing leaves here are a natural response to transplant shock. The plant is dropping older leaves in order to conserve energy as it develops new, strong roots to support new foliage.

Nutrient deficiencies are often indicated by yellowing foliage.

Iron deficiency is very common. This causes yellowing, stunted growth and interveinal chlorosis. Have your soil tested and maintain a pH below 7.

Potassium deficiency can cause yellow leaves, sometimes the edges and tips of the leaves, sometimes it will be yellow between veins. Composted fruit and vegetables added to the soil can help provide the needed nutrients.

Nitrogen deficiency can be indicated by stunted growth, yellow edges on tips of leaves, the veins of the leaves may be yellow, and sometimes the entire leaf will be pale or yellow. Adding compost will help and adding coffee grounds to the soil is a great alternative.

Magnesium deficiency shows as interveinal chlorosis – between the veins. Treat the soil with Epsom salts or compost.

Calcium deficiency causes crinkled, mottled, or distorted leaves. Adjusting soil pH can help, though be aware that adjusting soil pH occurs slowly over time and the pH may eventually creep back up to its “natural” level.

In some cases, leaves simply just age-out, slowly yellowing over time – the plant’s natural life cycle. Probably the most dramatic example is the seasonal cycle of white pine (Pinus strobus): its older interior needles all turn brown in the fall and seemingly drop at once, usually in the spring. Many species of pines will retain their older needles for about three years, and then eventually the older interior needles of the tree will drop.

Remember our plants really do “talk” to us. We simply must understand their “leaf” language.


Confessions of a neglectful gardener:

After seeing a spectacular bird’s nest fern (Asplenium nidus) at a botanical garden in Milwaukee, and noting that I owned one at home, I told my sister that bird’s nest fern was a great plant and almost impossible to kill. I still stand on that statement, but a confession follows.

Note the light brown leaves at the base of this plant (left), and the light green shriveled leaves below: all signs of severe underwatering. Well, I resolved I would take “better” care of this beautiful plant and water more regularly. Well, a little too regularly and with too much water each time was the case, and the result, double damage … overwatered! The core of the plant began to turn blackish brown as it succumbed to rot (right).

Lessons Learned:

1. Remember that each plant has its own unique growing requirements that need to be met.
2. Listen to your plants early, when they first show signs of stress. Respond with moderation. This is where I failed miserably!
3. Overwatering will kill a plant faster than almost any other pest or disease – including underwatering.
4. Learn from your experience and try again.


A version of this article appeared in a June 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Susan Jasan.


Posted: 06/01/17   RSS | Print


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Why Use Pots When You Have a Garden?
by Sue Speichert    

So here I am. It’s spring again and the garden centers are overwhelming with selections of the newest, the best, the brightest and the tried and the true. I have plenty of room to plant perennials, shrubs, trees even, all of them things that will (hopefully) return year after year, requiring little care other than the occasional weeding and monthly fertilizer.

No matter how I try to tell myself that I should concentrate on the plants that I can grow in the ground, it’s no use; I never seem to be able to follow my own advice. I always find myself daydreaming about the plants that I can put in pots. Whenever I’m in the garden section of a store, I find myself wandering over to admire the container gardens. I stroll the aisles with all the new pots and hanging baskets. I make mental notes of the plant combinations, wondering which pots at home I can use to recreate the same look of the ones in the store. This is madness, I think. Why do I grow things in pots even though I have plenty of room to garden in the ground?

A baby buggy makes a colorful conversation piece.

You Can Grow Anything

A bold ornamental banana plant (Musa spp.) dominates this planting.


The first reason is probably the most obvious. I’m a garden junkie. I want one (no, make that several) of every wonderful thing I see in the garden center. That includes all the containers. Tall bananas (Musa spp.) underplanted with Supertunias™, big Brugmansia spp., lush hanging baskets of Fuschia spp. or Begonia spp., combo planters dripping with four different kinds of annuals and a few grasses that I can plant in the ground and overwinter for next year.

The second reason is sentimental. I started with pots when I was a younger novice gardener. I could grow anything I wanted, as long as it was in a container. I grew Nasturtium, Zinnia, marigolds (Tagetes spp.), all in their own pots, and then arranged the containers on the patio to make a colorful display. It was a wonderful way to learn how to garden, how to grow things and how to mix color and texture without having to dig things up and move them around in the garden.

And I suppose that brings me to the last reason why I like pots: I can change my mind. I can mix things up and rearrange them without getting stressed out that I’m going to kill something by moving it for the second (or third or fourth) time. This means, of course, that there are certain plants that go in their own pot so that I can move them around, and other plants that have to be able to withstand a certain amount of transplanting regardless of the time of year.

Tips and Tricks

This container features the “thriller, filler and spiller” arrangement.

Be sure to include various textures and colors in a mixed container.

Over the years of container gardening there are a few tips and tricks that I like to remember, ideas that help make potted plantings all the more enjoyable. These are my own personal rules to live by, giving my container world a sense of order and reason.

My first rule is to decide which is more important, the pot or the plant. I don’t like to make things overly complicated by having a really ornate planter combined with a really complicated-looking planting. I don’t want the planting and the pot to compete for attention. If the container is the center of attention, then I plant a single plant in the pot and let the container tell its story. If the plant (or plants) should be center stage, then I choose a simple pot (often terra-cotta) so that the plants can really shine.

My second personal rule is to group colors together and have different color groups in different places around the house. All the red geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) are placed at the front door. This is formal, simple and uncomplicated. Any plants in other pots near the red geraniums will be colors that coordinate with them. If I plant petunias, they’ll probably be white and dark blue-purple, to recreate a Fourth-of-July-type theme. The bolder, orange-and-blue or hot-red-and-orange combinations are reserved for other areas around the house, especially in the backyard or on the back patio.

My third personal rule is to allow myself to take out plants when they are no longer suitable for the season. Spring pansies go on the compost pile by Father’s Day, replaced by more hot-season annuals. Often I will interplant shorter-lived annuals with stalwarts that will last all year long. This allows the pot to always look full even though I have changed out some of the plants. I don’t have to suffer for three weeks while the containers make the transition from spring to summer or from summer into fall.

And I will admit that I do this so that I can keep shopping at the garden center throughout the summer. When I find something I can’t live without but don’t know where to put it, I can still bring it home. I simply tuck it into a planter, pot and all, until I find the spot that’s just right. And that, after all, is the beauty of gardening in containers.


A version of this article appeared in a June 2013 edition of the State-by-State Gardening eNewsletter.
Photos courtesy of Sue Speichert



Grow Plants in Pots
by DK Publishing

Whether you want to bring impact and beauty indoors or dress up your patio with flowers or productive plants, Grow Plants in Pots is packed with inspirational ideas that explore the full range of plants that can be grown in containers. With gorgeous photography, information on growing fruits and vegetables in containers, and plants organized by growing conditions and key qualities for ease of reference, Grow Plants in Pots features exciting combinations and design ideas, showing plants in situ in the home and on patios and roof terraces.


Posted: 06/01/17   RSS | Print


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The History of Lawns
by Cinthia Milner    

The tradition of neatly mown green front yard isn’t as old as you would think. The concept began 1868
in the first American suburb in Illinois, and its roots come from the Tudor era in England.

For most American homeowners (gardeners or not), the upcoming summer months signal a time of mowing and watering lawns, followed by the perennial chore of raking. It’s as American as apple pie, right? Actually, the American obsession with velvety lawns isn’t much older than the happy days of the 1950s. The story of how Americans became the land of freshly cut lawns, reaching from shore to shore, could fill books, complete with twisted and complicated plots that always end with the “green, green grass of home,” but here is it in a shortened version.

Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape designer who co-designed Central Park with his partner Calvert Vaux, is said to have defined the American lawn, but he doesn’t get credit for inventing them. Gardeners in England had incorporated lawns into their estates since the time of the Tudors, but in the English tradition, lawns were a part of the landscape — not the landscape. Used for bowling greens and long vistas, the swaths of green in Europe belonged primarily to the wealthy and were unattainable by the poor.

General Plan of Riverside · Olmsted, Vaux & Co. Landscape Architects · 1869.

Olmsted created the unified lawn, or a more democratic approach to lawns — one that provided every homeowner a quarter-acre patch of green. Commissioned to design one of the first planned suburbs in 1868, Riverside in Illinois, he stipulated that each house be set back 30 feet from the road. Also, fences or “walls” were prohibited, giving the whole development a park-like setting. Lawns continued over property lines and mowing your grass became a matter of pride, the homeowner’s contribution to keeping the neighborhood spiffy, a sentiment that’s still prevalent today.

Prior to the expansion of the suburbs, lawns were minimal in most places and practically nonexistent in the South. The typical Southern front yard was hard dirt that was swept daily. Grass was thought to harbor mosquitos, insects, rodents and snakes and was also considered a fire hazard.

But then, the suburban explosion and the 40-hour workweek changed the daily routine of homeowners and allowed more time for ornamental gardening. Three organizations are directly responsible for instilling the desire and creating the necessary resources to ensure a summer of freshly cut lawns.

There are plenty of ways to incorporate flowerbeds and a nice lawn into your landscape, including planting a barrier of trees and shrubs between the road and your house.

Some opt for no grass at all, using mulch and plantings instead. In some cases, it is much easier to plant shade-loving hostas under a tree canopy than to struggle with grass.

Lawn Facts

The amount of pollution emitted by a lawnmower operating for one hour is equivalent to the amount of pollution emitted by a car driven for approximately 20 miles.

Up to 60 percent of urban fresh water is used for watering lawns.

Americans spend more than $5 billion on fossil fuel-derived fertilizers for their lawns and $700 billion on pesticides, totaling 67 billion pounds of synthetic pesticides.

20 million acres of American land is planted with residential lawns.

In 1915, almost a half century after Olmsted designed Riverside, the US Department of Agriculture collaborated with the US Golf Association to find the right grass — or rather, combination of grasses — that would produce a lawn suitable for the American climate and fit the definition of “good grass.” Bermudagrass from Africa, bluegrass from Europe and a mix of fescues and bentgrass were included in the research, all of which are non-native to the United States. Within 15 years, the USDA had produced several grass combinations that would work in American climates, but not without a host of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, irrigation and, of course, the right lawnmower.

The American Garden Club was the most effective in getting the American public on board. Through contests and other forms of publicity, they convinced homeowners that it was their civic duty to maintain beautiful and healthy lawns. They defined a good lawn as “mown to a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, neatly edged and without weeds.” By the 1950s, the American public was convinced, and the quest for the perfect lawn became a weekend pastime. Weed-free, freshly mown lawns were as much a labor of love as a civic duty.

Today, Americans are still writing the history of lawns. As we have become more aware of the environmental hazards of lawn care, the enthusiasm for the lawn is dwindling. Modern homeowners are incorporating ground covers, flowerbeds, mulch and shrubbery in place of grass. Swaths of green are getting smaller, and some traditional front yards of grass are removed completely in favor of other plants.

Grass is still the largest part of the American garden, but whether or not it keeps its favored focal point… Only time will tell.


A version of this article appeared in a June 2013 edition of the State-by-State Gardening eNewsletter.
Photography courtesy of Cinthia Milner.


Posted: 06/01/17   RSS | Print


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The Buzz About Backyard Bees
by Peggy Hill    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bees are delighted with their new home.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Posted: 05/22/17   RSS | Print


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Welcoming Butterflies
by Ilene Sternberg       #Beneficials   #Insects

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

A fritillary butterfly in hand.2

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

The Life Cycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Host Plants for Caterpillars

Zebra swallowtail caterpillar in its green form.1

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

Skipper Family (Hesperidae)
Blazing star skipper: grasses 

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

Brush-footed Family (Nymphalidae)
Great spangled and Idalia fritillary: violet (Viola spp.)
Buckeye: plantains (Plantago spp.), toadflax (Linaria spp.), snapdra