State-by-State Gardening Web Articles
Sharon Johnson is a gardener and nature enthusiast.

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Make Your Own Worm Bin
by Sharon Johnson    

As fertilizer costs rise, we find ourselves seeking ways to cut our gardening investments, while continuing to produce healthy food for our families. One way to accomplish this is with earthworm composting, or vermicomposting. 

A worm can eat its weight in waste every day, producing one of nature’s best fertilizers in the process. The secretions from the intestinal tract of earthworms actually increase the nutrients of compost by chemically altering the material to be more available to the plants. Everyone, even apartment dwellers, can tap into this magical process by building their own worm bin.

First, let’s talk about worms. Many people prefer night crawlers because these larger worms also make great fishing bait. But the red wiggler worms (Lumbricus rubellus) and red branding worms (Eisenia fetida) make better composters because they can survive the warmer temperatures of the compost bin. Night crawlers prefer cooler temperatures and will not venture into a compost pile, where temperatures heat up quickly as the heap decomposes. You can find red wigglers for your bins by checking your local paper or by searching the Internet.


Building the Bin

• 2 or 3 10-gallon storage containers (opaque)
• Drill and 1⁄8-inch drill bit
• ¾-inch PVC pipe (optional)
• Two bricks or some sort of non-crushable, water-safe material (gravel, crushed cans, Styrofoam peanuts or hydroton work well)
• 3 scrap 2 x 4s to use as a base
• Marine-grade epoxy or waterproof silicone

Getting Started: First, clean your containers with soap and water and let them dry in the sun. You will only need one lid for your bin. You might save the extra lids though, I use mine for holding potting-soil spills when I repot my houseplants or for moving seedlings from sun to shade when transitioning them from greenhouse to garden in the spring.

Drill holes in the sides of all your containers. Holes should be approximately 2 inches from the top, spaced 2 to 4 inches apart, around the entire circumference of the container. 

Choose one container to be the bottom one, and then drill holes in the bottoms of the others. Rubbermaid containers have grooves in the bottom, so if you’re using that brand, drill holes in the lowest section of the grooves and space them 2 to 4 inches apart.

If you want to add a tap, to drain out any compost “tea,” you will need a butterfly bit to drill the hole. Test your tap first for fit. Put the tap as close to the bottom of the container as possible. Mark the spot and drill the hole. Push the tap through the container and screw it in place. Use epoxy or silicone to seal around the tap or use rubber gaskets. 

Cut your 2 x 4s the width of the short side of your container. Place at least one board under the tap-end of your bottom container. Stack at least two boards on top of each other and place these boards on the end opposite the tap on your bottom container. You can epoxy these to the bottom container and to each other, or just stack them and sit the container on top. 

Assembly: Now you are ready to assemble your worm bin. First, figure out where you would like to put it. Here in the South, we can leave the bins outside year round in a protected area. Find a shady spot that will be protected from snow, ice and direct sunlight. The closer the bin is to your kitchen, the more likely you are to feed your worms frequently.

To assemble your bins, add your filler materials to the bottom first. Fill the bins about halfway. This allows the excess moisture to drain away. I used Hydroton for my bin, which is a common hydroponic medium, because I happened to have some handy. You can also use two or three bricks set on their sides in the bottom of the base container to lift the second container off the bottom. 

Then you add some worm bedding to the top container. Sawdust, peat moss or other locally available organic materials work great. Aged manure works well too. Avoid excessively acidic materials like coffee grounds. Add your worms and put the lid on the top container.

Caring for Worms
Now it’s time to feed the worms. Just like a compost pile, alternate green and brown layers, green being any fruit and vegetable trimmings from diner preparations and brown being shredded paper or leaves. If you want to be completely organic, you may want to avoid plastics and colored inks in any shredded paper going in your worm bin. Other things to avoid: fresh grass clippings (they create high heat when they decompose), fats, vegetable oils, meats, fish or butter. These materials will cause odors and attract vermin. 

Keep the bin moist by adding a little water if it gets dry. All excess water should trickle down into the bottom bin, where you can drain the compost tea and use it on seedlings or any plant that might need a quick nutrient boost.

Feed your worms regularly. The more you feed them, the faster they will grow and multiply and the quicker you can start harvesting those miraculous earthworm castings. As one bin fills up, remove the lid and add another container with holes drilled in the bottom and sides. Add more bedding and start feeding in the top container. Your worms will migrate up to the food through the holes you drilled in the bottom of the container. Once you rotate the bins, you are ready to harvest from the lower container. 

To harvest your castings, remove the lid and the top container (the one you are actively feeding), exposing the lower container to light. This will drive the worms down further into the container, and you may scrape off the top 3 to 4 inches of castings for use in your garden. If you are quick enough when you remove the lid, you may grab a few worms and harvest them as well. Nesting birds, pond fish and children all delight in a nice wiggly red worm from time to time.



This article appeared in a previous State-by-State Gardening publication.


Posted: 07/05/19   RSS | Print


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Reinvent Your Side Yard
by Taimi T. Anderson    

Side yards — those dank and dark narrow spaces of our property — are often forgotten about or pointedly ignored. This shady, pinched area between the house and the neighbor’s property is often merely the access that leads from the public space of the front yard to your private and more secluded garden in back of the house. But nevertheless, these narrow spaces are part of the landscape. 

With some creative design ideas, the side yard can become a pleasant passageway. The side yard can also include a space for a small and secluded sitting area or provide a pleasing vista of an intimate garden space to be viewed through a window from inside the home.


Creating a Path
To make this narrow walkway attractive, start by selecting durable paving materials of brick, stone, pavers or stepping-stones set in gravel. Avoid making a straight path from front to back, instead give the walkway a gentle curve, an angular configuration or even a zig-zag pattern to add interest and to give depth to the planting pockets on either side. 

Place an arbor covered with vines at the beginning of the path to entice visitors to proceed through the side yard. Once you are on the path, provide a focus by placing a handsome container, a small sculpture or a well-shaped shrub or small tree into your field of vision to lead you along to your destination.


Color and Fragrance
In a shady side yard only the toughest of evergreens will give you lush greenery. Aucuba (Aucuba japonica), with dark-green, elongated leaves, can tolerate the lack of bright light and thrive. Consider the variety ‘Aureo-maculata’, with a yellow-centered leaf edged in dark green to bring sunlight into somber spaces, or use A. japonica ‘Variegata’, known as gold dust aucuba, dappled with yellow on dark green leaves.

Cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior), which is as tough as nails as its common name indicates, is an attractive shade plant with over 2-foot tall lanceolate leaves that give a strong vertical accent among lower creeping plants or finely textured ferns. Try holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) with shiny, holly-like leaflets along the fronds. It remains evergreen through winter, but remove spent leaves before new growth emerges in spring.

Add brightness and light by planting groups of white caladiums at intervals, or let creeping Jenny ( Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) spread a glimmer of sunlight with its chartreuse-yellow foliage as it rambles between the stepping stones. 

Plant some bright, cream-colored tufts of the popular sedge Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’ to lighten the staid evergreens with it lighthearted mounds of grass-like foliage. If you can keep deer out of your side yard, a wealth of variegated hostas can brighten the scene with leaves edged or centered with yellow or white, and leaf colors ranging from deep green to chartreuse to blue green.

In a sunny side yard where bright light is reflected from the house wall, select flowering shrubs and durable perennials that can tolerate hot and dry conditions to enhance your narrow pathway. Try placing a trellis against the wall of the house to let flowering vines clamber up and provide color. In this narrow space you could also build a tiered herb garden, or lay out a formal patterned garden, where herbs are planted in containers set within boxwood squares, with a central feature of a topiary of rosemary or bay laurel.

The side yard’s contained space makes a great place for fragrant plants. Let subtle scents entice you through this narrow space by planting fragrant flowers or shrubs at the far end of the passageway, or grace an arbor at the entryway with evergreen vines. Armand clematis, with its handsome, dark-green foliage, has sweetly scented white blossoms in March. Carolina jessamine unfurls yellow trumpets with a pleasing scent in the early spring, and star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) can enhance the side yard with starry white blossoms that have a delightful fragrance through the summer.

Make it a Room
Within an 8 to 10 foot side yard you can create a small space for quiet contemplation. Take advantage of this often-neglected area to create a pleasant and intimate place to spend a few quiet hours. Place a comfortable bench or garden chairs and a small table surrounded by evergreens to give a sense of enclosure.

Enliven the space with a handsome container, a small bubbling water feature or even a bowl of still water to reflect bits of sky and bring in light. A dynamic piece of sculpture adds a strong focus, and pots with colorful annuals or leafy plants with attractive foliage colors yield bright accents and textures. 

To integrate a stark, tall brick or stucco wall into your side-yard garden, consider covering part of the wall with a diagonal or horizontal trellis to let vines clamber up and soften the background, hang pots with trailing plants to give color and softness or let suitable plants such as Boston ivy or climbing hydrangea (Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’) cover the wall with greenery.

If your side yard runs alongside your neighbor’s driveway, you can achieve some privacy and tranquility by erecting a fence. A solid-board fence would be suitable to dampen noise and give privacy. Above eye level, a diagonal lattice fence on top of the board fence can add decorative detail and help to lighten the stark enclosure of the solid-wood panels and provide air movement.

For evening enjoyment add subtle lighting. Path lighting allows you to see the way and uplighting highlights the structure of taller shrubs and small trees to gently illuminate your outdoor sitting area.



This article appeared in a previous State-by-State Gardening publication.


Posted: 07/05/19   RSS | Print


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7 Seeds for a Prolific Garden
by Nan K. Chase    

Not all seeds are created equal. I’ve been vegetable gardening for a few decades now, and I have discovered that some vegetable seeds produce big results for a small investment, year after year. No longer do I want to experiment with lots of new crops. What I like instead is to plant seeds that give me the least hassle and the biggest rewards, at pennies per serving.

My favorite “value seeds” can all take a beating from the weather, be it hot, cold, wet or dry. They can sometimes thrive in soil that looks too thin to support life. And when grown in a sensible rotation, they can produce over much of the year, not just in mid-summer.


Here are a baker’s half-dozen of my favorite value seeds:

1. Kale. This has got to be absolutely the best value for your seed dollar. A packet of kale seeds grows into a crop that provides nutritious eating for a whole year. Red kale, blue kale, black kale – it doesn’t matter, although I have found Russian red kale to be the most reliable of all.
      Plant the seeds in early spring. Rather than planting mine in rows, I like to broadcast seeds quite densely in an oval area about the size of two bushel baskets side by side. I stagger plantings by a week or two, over a month, so the harvest runs longer.
      Start harvesting the smallest thinnings when they are 1 inch tall and use them to top soups or salads. Continue thinning the plants as they grow, using the young shoots in vegetable dishes. The remaining plants then have room to grow and will keep pumping out fresh leaves all season. 

2. Scallions. I hate reading stories about food poisoning outbreaks involving “factory farmed” scallions because it gives this vegetable a bad reputation and scallions add so much zest to cooking. When I grow my own scallions, otherwise known as spring onions, I know that they have never touched the kinds of contaminants that can sicken or kill.
     Whenever I see onion sets -- dry bulblets -- available at my local farm store I buy a pound or two and plant them one to two dozen at a time, about every two weeks during the spring and into the early summer. You can also plant them again starting in mid-autumn and keep planting until the ground freezes hard. This planting schedule gives me easy-to-find clusters of spring onions for much of the year. 

3. Leeks. Considering how much leeks cost at the store or farmers’ market, and considering how cheap and reliable the seed is, it’s a wonder more people don’t try growing this gourmet member of the onion family.
      I have tried growing leeks from seed both in the ground and individually in peat pots, and I recommend the peat-pot method. You can start one seed in each pot around March. They sprout quickly and can be transplanted when the seedlings are as slender as a pencil lead. They “hang out” in the garden all summer and can look stressed, but when cold, wet weather returns, watch out. Leeks love the cold, and they grow tender and plump for winter harvest.
      To plant by seed, sow them thickly, and when a clump emerges dig it up and separate the seedlings for transplant.

4. Green beans. While you can find these staples of the vegetable garden in colors including purple and yellow, let’s just call them green beans for ease of identification. They are steady performers in any condition, and the beans supply months of harvest if you make sure to plant lots of different kinds -- climbing, half-runner, bush -- in small batches every two weeks from early June through mid-July.
      One major difference between bush beans and the runner or climbing types is that bush beans tend to flower at once and then produce the bulk of their crop at pretty much the same time. The other kinds will produce fewer beans at once, but over a longer period of time.
      Whatever you do, pick the beans before they get too large and tough. Remember: slender and tender!

5. Sunflowers. A single seed of the giant ‘Mammoth Russian’ can produce pounds of edible sunflower seeds at the end of summer. As an added bonus, the fibrous stalk can be recycled in the compost pile and the big root ball will have conditioned your worst soil. Talk about value!
      Annual sunflowers really do love the sun and the hot, dry conditions in the summer garden. Be sure not to plant the seeds too closely together, as the stalks need good air circulation to develop the strength to hold up that big head.
      Perennial sunflowers, called the Jerusalem artichoke or sunchoke, have an edible tuberous root. The flowers grow up to 10 feet tall in the early autumn and attract goldfinches to the small, high-protein seeds.

6. Edamame. Yes, this healthy snack food is easy to grow directly from seed in your own garden. The plants germinate quickly and grow to about 2 feet, and they stay an attractive bushy green while the hairy little seed pods develop. You can buy frozen edamame in the supermarket, but why not just grow them yourself?
      It’s time to harvest the pods when they are plump and still green. All you do then is steam or boil them for five minutes to break down an enzyme that otherwise makes them indigestible, and then drain and serve with soy sauce or some wasabi paste for firepower.
      Edamame are legumes, immature soybeans. Whatever you don’t eat is great to till back into the garden for green manure, or you can feed the stalks and leaves to the chickens.

7. Potatoes. Sure, potatoes can be wiped out by disease or stunted from marginal growing conditions, but they can also do tremendously well in the garden and produce many pounds of food for each pound of seed potatoes you buy. And homegrown potatoes boast a rich, earthy flavor that is mostly missing from store-bought potatoes.
      Potatoes favor deeply worked, slightly acid soil; cool temperatures for spring or fall sowing; and moderate rainfall. Buy certified seed potatoes that can best resist pests and diseases. Plant the sprouting eyes about 5 inches deep and 1 foot apart, and harvest when the leaves wilt. Don’t wash the potatoes for storing, just dry them and knock off the dirt, then store them in a cool, dark place.




This article appeared in an previous State-by-State Gardening publication.


Posted: 07/05/19   RSS | Print


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Creating a Re-purposed Garden
by Kelly Bledsoe    

Raised-bed gardens are wonderful for many different reasons. Raised garden beds keep pathway weeds out of your garden, provide good drainage, prevent soil compaction and serve as a barrier to pests such as slugs and snails. The sides of the beds keep your valuable garden soil from eroding or being washed away during heavy rains. In many regions, gardeners are able to plant earlier and harvest later in the season because the soil is warmer when it is above ground level. 

There are also great advantages for you, the gardener, as well. Raised beds allow you to tend your garden from the comfort of the garden path or a stool – no more bending over to pull weeds or trim plants. They tend to bring more order and a pleasing geometry to your garden.  

There are numerous “ready-to-go” raised-bed gardens that can be purchased, but as my father is so fond of saying, “Why not use something indigenous to the area?” In other words, recycle what you already have in your yard. 

Building a recycled raised bed is pretty basic, and you can use almost anything. Just get your creative juices flowing, and keep your eyes open for treasures that come your way.

Last summer I was looking down at the shoreline of the lake behind my house, and there in the cove, covered in slime and halfway submerged, was a pier floater that had seen better days. It took some time and muscle to wrestle the plastic floater to the right spot in my yard, but the pleasure was worth all the pain. I leveled the ground under the floater and drilled holes for drainage in the bottom. I enclosed the structure with pressure-treated lumber and filled it with a perfect mixture of soil, compost and fertilizers. To my great satisfaction I harvested some of the biggest tomatoes and some of the best basil of my gardening career. 

Raised beds also allow garden enthusiasts to grow plants in limited spaces, converting your balcony or porch into a real harvesting ground. As long as you have adequate sunlight and water you can grow flowers, vegetables, herbs or just about anything else you’d like. 

Larger spaces allow you to build more customized containers to the desired height and shape of your choice. You can get really creative given the right space and the right motivation. 

Thankfully, raised-bed gardens require very little maintenance. In the spring or fall, it’s a good idea to top-dress with fresh compost and manure, or if your bed only holds plants for part of the year, go ahead and dig the compost or manure into the top several inches of soil. As with any garden, mulching will help retain moisture and keep weeds down. Moisture retention is important because raised beds tend to drain faster than conventional beds.

Raised-bed gardens are the saviors of gardeners with poor soil and limited space everywhere. And the recycled raised bed gives new purpose to discarded materials, making your garden that much more useful.



This article appeared in a previous State-by-State Gardening pulication.


Posted: 07/03/19   RSS | Print


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Frugal Gardening
by Cinthia Milner    

I started this year out with a financial planner, a first for me, and while he raised an eyebrow at a few of my expenditures, he was shocked to find my gardening expenses as low as they were. Knowing my passion for gardening, he was surprised. But after three decades in the garden and more impulse buys than I’d like to admit, I finally have my garden dollars under control.

These days, many of us are watching our budgets a little bit more, but that doesn’t mean your garden has to suffer. With a little careful planning and some garden-budget secrets, you can have the beauty you want without spending money you don’t have. It turns out it is a lot more fun than it sounds. 

Advantages of Annuals
Let’s start with the basics: annuals. If you’re a beginner, hold off on purchasing too many perennials, trees or shrubs, and go for annuals. You will save a lot of money, and here is why: It takes time to understand your landscape. Before you start sinking some serious dollars into it, educate yourself about your spot and learn some basics of gardening. It is cheaper to make mistakes with annuals than with trees and shrubs.

Annuals are a good way to get your hands dirty while teaching you about planting, fertilizing, deadheading and color combinations. And, they can be cheap, depending on what you buy. For the cost of my daily cup of Starbucks, I can enjoy beautiful color and variety all summer with the right annuals. 

Some annuals are pricey, but a 6-inch pot of coleus is generally $5 or less, and by summer’s end it is the glory of the garden. Coleus is easily rooted – you can break off a tip, stick it in a pot and have a lush container by fall. 

For more seasoned gardeners, annuals are a great way to fill the empty spaces in perennial borders. When nothing else is blooming, annuals pop in nicely, adding color between perennial blooms.

Smart Perennial Choices
A lush perennial border is great, but the reality is that lushness doesn’t happen overnight, and it isn’t cheap. Perennials cause you to start digging into the wallet a bit more. Ideally, you get a better return on your investment when they come back every year, but reality reminds us that they do not always return. Maybe you didn’t plant them in the optimal spot, there was an unexpectedly cold winter, the voles showed up or you purchased poor plant material. Whatever the reason, the spring losses can add up. This is discouraging, but for every lost perennial, three generally survive. Focus on the survivors; and when buying more, find similar plants to add to your garden since those did well.

Also, perennials take patience. Have you ever heard the saying, “Sleep, creep then leap”? That catchy little phrase reminds us that our plants, whether perennials, trees or shrubs, need time to establish themselves. So if your heuchera are hiding in the borders while you pine for a showy display, the answer is not to throw more money at your garden. Perennials take some time to establish and spread, and if you spend costly dollars over-planting, you’ll have crowding in the borders sooner than you’d like. For now, fill in the space with mulch, which gives a finished look, is good for the soil and cuts down on weeding. Or, add a few annuals for quick bling until your perennials are leaping. 

The good news about perennials is that you can bargain shop. A lot of people like to buy perennials when they’re blooming. Then after they have bloomed, garden centers mark them down. If you wait, you will be rewarded with sales, daily specials and great plants, even if you have to wait for blooms until next year. 

Gardening teaches patience and finance teaches discipline. Put them together, and you can grow your garden without sacrificing the groceries – although please do add edibles to the perennial border, and knock back that grocery budget as well. A bright sunny spot is all most vegetables need, and tomatoes look great growing up trellises alongside the August blooming Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ or fall-colored annual zinnias.

Building Structure
Lastly, look to the structure of your garden – trees and shrubs. Take your time with these purchases. Sure, those unique $400 conifers are tempting, but are they right for your landscape? When making a big purchase, remind yourself that you need to be committed to this plant because it isn’t going anywhere. 

For big purchases, do your research and seek professional assistance if needed. The dollars you plunk down for large, costly plant material need to be spent wisely. I usually move perennials no less than three times each before I am finally satisfied with their spot, but trees and shrubs do not transplant so easily. 

However, this is also not the place to skimp. Get the best plant material available, and find out the return policy. Nurseries sometimes have a 50 percent refund on trees and shrubs if you have your receipt and if you didn’t neglect the plant. 

Trees and shrubs should never be an impulse buy. Know your plants and know the quality of what you’re buying. In the long run, both you and your woodies will be happier.

The word “budget” is such an unfriendly, although necessary, word, but perhaps like the companionship of carrots and tomatoes, if we give it a try, we will discover that budgets and gardens make better company than we expect.   



This article appeared in a previous State-by-State Gardening publication.


Posted: 07/03/19   RSS | Print


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Don’t Fret About Fertilizers
by Jared Barnes    

Fertilizers are one of the cornerstones of a successful, beautiful and productive garden. However, most gardeners will admit that at some point in time they have found themselves absolutely perplexed by these nutritive concoctions. Confusion arises with questions about what type or how much to apply. If you find yourself currently in this camp, there’s no need to fear. A refreshing primer on fertilizing is just what you need. 

‘Human Food’ vs. ‘Plant Food’
One of the first and most important things gardeners should understand about fertilizers is that plant food is not the same as human food. For humans, food is a source of nutrients for growth and energy, all derived from the sugars, fats and proteins we intake. But for plants, nutrients only serve as the building blocks for growth, and instead of nutrition coming in complex molecules they come in the form of basic elements such as calcium and iron. 

The energy that plants need to live comes from the sun. They use carbon dioxide and water to capture and store this energy in sugars, and they use the nutrients they absorb through their roots to build more complex compounds. 

Overlooking this difference is where many gardeners go wrong. Some people assume that if a plant isn’t growing, it needs “food.” Food makes perfect sense when we think of nourishment in human terms. When we are famished, eating will often help us to feel rejuvenated. However, you could have a “well fed” plant in a poorly lit location and it would not survive, grow or reproduce. Adequate light is needed to keep energy levels up. 

It’s easy for gardeners to have this misconception. Heaven knows we have a hard enough time managing our own diets, let alone the diet of another entire biologically dissimilar group of organisms. But knowing the difference helps when fertilizing your plants. 

Fertilizer 101
Let’s talk fertilizer basics. Fertilizers contain several essential plant nutrients. The three that we focus on the most are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Of the nutrients taken up by plants from the soil, these can comprise upward of 80 percent of the mineral nutrients in plants, hence the need to ensure an adequate supply. 

Because of the importance of these nutrients, fertilizer manufacturers have helped consumers by implementing a three digit system that tells how much of these nutrients are in the bag. We often refer to these fertilizers by their three-digit ratio, such as 17-3-19 or 20-20-20. Just like a dietary label, these three numbers give us an idea of how much of these three nutrients we are applying. For example, a 100 pound bag of 17(N)-3(P2O5)-19(K2O) fertilizer has 17 pounds of nitrogen. To calculate phosphorus we multiply the 3 pounds of phosphorus oxide by a conversion factor of 0.44 to get 1.32 pounds phosphorus (P), and for potassium multiply the 19 pounds of potassium oxide by a conversion factor of 0.88 to get 16.7 pounds potassium (K).

While much of the focus is on these three, there are other nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium, sulfur, iron, boron and others, that are also important. But, unless you are in a unique situation, soils are not typically deficient in these nutrients, and most fertilizers provide trace amounts of them. Therefore, unless you have a severe deficiency, these shouldn’t be a problem. 

I would love to give you a magic number and tell you exactly how much fertilizer you should use in certain areas of your garden, but that’s harder than it seems. With humans, it’s quite easy to tell when we are hungry. However, with plants it’s much harder. We can’t use our senses to tell when the soil surrounding the root zone are running low on nutrients. Fortunately, a lot of research has been done to determine nutrient levels in the soil, and the most accurate means of getting this info is to do a soil test. Don’t be intimidated by a soil test. I did my first soil test before I was of voting age, and if a whippersnapper like me could do it, then so can you. Just contact your local extension office for a soil test kit. 

Setting a Schedule
It helps to get on a regime of fertilizing, whether it’s once a year or once every couple of months. For example, container gardens have heavy requirements for fertilizer because they are constantly leaching mobile nutrients. Therefore, I apply an all-purpose organic fertilizer to my containers once a month at a rate of 1 teaspoon for every 3 inches of container diameter. I also fertilize with fish emulsion once every two weeks. 

Another reason timing is important is because fertilizing encourages growth. I fertilize my annuals frequently, up until frost. However, I stop fertilizing woody plants about six to eight weeks out from the first freeze. Ceasing application early helps prevent any excess tender growth from occurring late in the season that might be damaged by winter’s cold. 

Once you’ve got your soil test requirements and choose a type of fertilizer to use, you’re ready to get going. You’ll see that applying fertilizers is as easy as ABC… and NPK!



This article appeared in a previous State-by-State Gardening issue.


Posted: 07/03/19   RSS | Print


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“Man Eating” Plants
by Timothy J. Malinich    

You don’t need to watch a sci-fi horror flick to hear tales of vicious monsters or man-eating plants. These already exist in the forest and landscape … and can give you a taste of just how nasty nature can be. 

As the name implies, carnivorous plants eat flesh. They feed for the same reason that we do: nutrients. Plants need nutrients and carnivorous plants typically grow in nutrient-poor areas. In order to survive, they have developed intriguing means of luring, trapping, and digesting prey. They have filled a niche that allows them to grow and reproduce in areas where other plants find it difficult to survive. These plants survive in bogs, fens, and waterways. They prefer full sun and do not compete well with surrounding vegetation. All of the U.S. species and most of the non-domestic species prefer acidic soils or substrates and all require moist conditions. 

Pit traps are a passive and very successful means of collecting food. Pitcher plants (Sarraceniaspp.) are long-lived rhizomatous perennials and some form clumps of traps. Some are short (under 1 foot), such as purple pitcher plant (S. purpurea). S. flava, on the other hand, are tall (1-2 feet), graceful, and can be found in shades of greens, purples, and white. Both flower annually on tall flower stalks well above the pitchers (no sense eating the pollinators they depend on).

The trap consists of several precise constructs. A leaf-like lid, or umbrella, is suspended over the trap opening. Those of S. purpureaare upright and open to rainfall; on S. flavaand others, the lid is more umbrella-like, protecting but not restricting the opening. The lid and lip of the trap are brightly colored to attract prey. The lip (or perhaps tongue?) is a small outward roll of leaf at the top edge of the pit that provides a comfortable landing area. Below the landing pad is a smooth waxy tube that few insects could climb and rows of downward-pointing hairs. All along that slippery tube and just out of reach of the prey is an area full of nectaries promising sweet droplets of food to any insect that makes it that far.

As the insect reaches for the nectar, it is unable to reverse direction due to the hairs and cannot gain a foothold on the waxy tube. It falls down the tube into a pool of digestive fluid where it is broken down and absorbed by the plant. You can feed these open-topped plants – it’s quite satisfying to pick a Japanese beetle from your favorite rose and drop it into aSarraceniatrap! At the end of the season, you can even dissect a pitcher plant and see the skeletal remains of its victims.

A variation of the pit trap is seen on cobra plants (Darlingtonia californica). This trap is almost totally enclosed with a hood, the “head” of the “cobra.” The landing pad is a tongue extending from the bottom of the hood. The insect lands on the attractive tongue and walks into the hood where translucent areas around the top confuse the insect, which tries to fly toward the sun though it cannot escape that way. Eventually the trapped insect falls into the digestive liquid in the bottom.

Sticky traps actively capture their prey. Sundews (Droseraspp.) are tiny plants, many no larger than a quarter. Their leaves are covered with tentacles, each sporting a drop of sticky mucilage at the tip. Attracted by the glistening liquid or bright red color, tiny insects are easily caught by the tentacles. Then the horror begins. The long tentacle holding the prey bends inward; nearby tentacles join in, trapping and suffocating the hapless quarry. The sticky mess is pulled to the center of the leaf where digestive fluid is added to the mix. The prey is digested, and the nutrients absorbed by the leaf.

This slow mechanism is powered by growth of the tentacles. The insect stimulates release of a growth hormone, causing the directional growth of the tentacle stalk; the process can take 20 minutes or longer. If you have ever used a weed killer on your lawn, you have seen something similar as the weeds curl within hours of the application.

Smaller Droseraspecies form mats of many tiny plants. The tall threadleaf sundew (D. filiformis) will grow linear glistening leaves over 6 inches tall. A sundew relative, dewey pine (Drosophyllum lusitanicum), is a Mediterranean plant and actually prefers drier conditions than the typical carnivorous plant.

Butterworts (Pinguiculaspp.) rely on flypaper-like leaves to capture and hold their meals. The leaves of these small flat plants (2-3 inches) emit an earthy odor to attract small gnats and flies. After landing on the leaves, the insects are stuck to mucilage secreted from glands on the leaf. As with Drosera, the insect is then digested and its vital nutrients absorbed.

The poster child of the carnivorous plant world is the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula). Its leg-hold style trap is fast enough to catch most flies or ants that venture inside and the trap is large enough for everyone to enjoy the show. Two lobes joined at their base by a ridge of cells capable of reacting to a small electrical impulse make this trap deadly. And if you really think of it, the mechanism found in this plant is amazing.

Each half trap has three trigger hairs. Two hairs must be tripped in less than one minute, or one hair touched two times within the same time limit. This trigger sends a small electrical impulse to the hinge of the trap. This hinge holds the trap open by regulating the water and chemical balance in the hinge – an effort that costs the plant energy. When it receives the electrical impulse, the hinge releases and the trap quickly close, but not all the way. The teeth at the edge of the trap hold the prey until a much slower growth response fully closes and seals the trap. If you examine a closed trap you will often see a leg or antenna reaching through the teeth, in vain, for freedom.

You may not find carnivorous plants in your garden, but you can see them in conservatories, private collections, and garden centers. Many states have native populations of carnivorous plants … there just might be some in your local park. The world is full of wild, wonderful, and terrifying lifeforms. 




This article appeared in a previous State-by-State Gardening publication.


Posted: 06/24/19   RSS | Print


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Make Small Big
by Susan Jasan    

Just as we are mesmerized by the tiny fingers and the tiny toes of newborns, or fascinated by tiny works of art, it seems that anything small in scale draws us in with interest and curiosity. I think that is true of small garden spaces as well. Maybe it’s because every feature has to have a valuable impact on the whole. There’s no room for excess. There’s necessity, purpose, and yes, detail.

Typically when designing a small garden space, no matter how you define “small,” there are some special requirements:

• Keep things simple. Clutter happens quickly in a small space.

• Even as you keep your design simple, think in terms of detail. Each plant should have a clear purpose and contribute to the overall experience in the garden.

• A focal point is imperative, but use only one focal point. Keep it in proportion to the space. Even try a cut out of your proposed feature to see if it is the proper scale before you make an investment and make the effort to haul it home.

• Just as you have a focal point, it’s important to have an area to sit and enjoy the garden. Instead of using a typical outdoor table and chair arrangement, consider a small bistro table to one side, or maybe a cozy bench or swing to relax and enjoy your garden space. Or possibly your view is from an interior window. Consider all views!

• Create a backdrop with taller plants or vines to help envelop the space. Remember to keep the height and breadth of the plants in proportion to the space. Also you’ll have a root system that will be smaller and less likely to compromise nearby footings or pavement.

• If using any trees, consider using ornamental trees rather than large shade trees. The lower canopy of ornamental trees will provide a feeling of safety and comfort while not overpowering the space.

• Consider developing a Japanese-style garden. Utilize the ideas of feng shui, where each plant, boulder, color, and placement is purposeful with deep meaning, contributing to balance, harmony and comfort.

• Repetition is always key to creating harmony in any garden. In a small garden that is no exception. Whether it’s repetition in hardscape materials, repetition in plant species, or repetition in plant form or colors. Repetition helps create a sense of familiarity and thus contributes to creating an inviting space.

• Look for dwarf forms of your favorite plants. Today there are so many varieties and cultivars of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, grasses, and tropical plants, that you can often find a dwarf form of that favorite plant that may just fit your space. Check with your local nurseries for plants that grow well in your region. Remember too that dwarf can mean many things – anywhere from 1-foot- to 10-feet-tall “dwarves,” so be sure to consult your nursery specialists or read plant labels thoroughly.

• When planning a garden space, even a small garden, try to give yourself a planting bed that is at least 3 feet deep; 5 feet is even better. This allows you to tier plants from tallest to shortest which adds visual depth to any landscape.

Even if you have a limited space for gardening, you can still have maximum impact.


This article appeared in a previous State-by-State Gardening issue.


Posted: 06/24/19   RSS | Print


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Bringing Back Monarchs
by Dana Dobias    

In case you have not been following the news the last few years, the population of monarch butterflies has been declining. When experts study to find out why, they come up with different reasons. Sometimes the problem lies in Mexico where they overwinter, sometimes it lies in the U.S. where large swaths of prairie that supports the plants needed by the monarchs is being re-appropriated by humans for farming and development (buildings and parking lots). And where the monarch population was able to get by on the few weed patches farmers had at the edges of their fields, those weeds are now gone due to the genetically modified crops that can be sprayed with herbicides that allow the crops to grow, but kill the weeds that the monarchs need. 

When gardeners heard that monarch butterflies were in peril, they flew into action looking high and low for plants that monarchs would need to complete their trip. Specifically, monarchs need milkweed (Asclepiasspp.) plants and their close relatives, as these are the only plants the baby monarch butterflies can eat. Ideally, perennials that return year after year are a gardener’s first choice. But those plants are demanding in that they require cold to germinate and they are not overly fond of growing in containers waiting for someone to plant them. They are also not “pretty” in a container, meaning shoppers will pass them by to purchase the showy annuals like Impatiens and marigolds (Tagetesspp.). However, Asclepiasplants can be found and planted and gardeners can feel good about accomplishing something to help monarch butterflies. 

When a gardener starts helping monarchs, other butterflies become noticeable in the landscape. Swallowtails are large and slow moving, making them easy to watch. But swallowtails don’t need Asclepias; they need fennel, parsley, rue, or Golden Alexander plants. Spring azure butterflies are pretty little blue butterflies that are fast and don’t allow gardeners a long time to see them before they flit off to another flower. But they need coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) plants for their larvae. 

Spicebush swallowtail butterflies are mostly black with brilliant blue when they open their wings. They also don’t like Asclepias, they like spicebush (Lindera benzoin) among others. 

If you have grown sunflower (Helianthusspp.) plants either on purpose or by accident under a bird feeder, chances are you were shocked one day to walk out and see the leaves covered in large numbers of fuzzy black caterpillars. A little investigation will reveal these are silvery checkerspot butterfly larvae. 

There’s a good chance trees in your area already support many types of butterflies. Elm (Ulmusspp.), oak (Quercusspp.), and hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) trees are often maligned as being “buggy” and not always attractive for landscapes. But tawny emperor, hackberry emperor, American snout, question mark, and mourning cloak butterflies all rely on hackberry trees.

Butterflies are not going to be able to rely on farmers and developers for their survival. They will have to rely on people that love plants and all they bring to our environment. And who better to help restore butterfly populations than gardeners. When a gardener chooses plants for more than the visual impact, there is a reward of a deeper understanding of the landscape as an ecosystem.


This article appeared in a previous State-by-State Gardening publication.


Posted: 06/24/19   RSS | Print


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An Uphill Battle
by Susan Jasan    

If you’re gardening on a hillside, you’re probably facing some unique challenges. Maybe there area some challenges that you did not totally anticipate when you purchased your beautiful sloping property. 

Or possibly you thought your land was flat or had “just a little bit of slope across it.” Upon development, you came the realization that the property has a pretty significant drop across its entire distance. Now you’re facing the reality of retaining walls in order to fully utilize the land you cherish.

But don’t be discouraged, for as with any new challenge, there are also some great opportunities too, that may ultimately present you with some wonderful benefits.

Sloping, hilly property usually presents the following challenges relative to gardening:
• Little existing topsoil
• High erosion potential
• Hiking the hillside to garden
• Stormwater runoff: Where does it go?

However, it also presents these wonderful opportunities:
• Creating a great soil mix for optimal plant growth.
• Terracing some areas can create added visual interest and facilitates a functioning garden that you desire.
• Being pro-active about managing the stormwater around your property from heavy rainfalls will ultimately save you great expense, and sometimes can be an added feature to your landscape.
• Creating planting areas with great drainage.

Places to Plant
One of the keys to creating a good garden environment on a hillside is building retaining walls to hold your soil. The most common materials used for retaining walls include landscape timbers, stacked wood timbers, dry-stacked stone, pre-fabricated segmented concrete stacking blocks, railroad ties (not recommended) or even a mortared block and brick planter. 

No matter your style or budget, building a good, sound structure is critical on any hillside. Make sure you follow manufacturers’ guidelines whenever using a manufactured product and provide adequate drainage for water to weep out of the walls. Remember too that local codes, as well as the materials you use, may impact the height and width of your planters.

The depth of your planting site will also vary – 9 inches is probably a good minimum to consider, with 18 inches typically the maximum depth of soil mix required for good plant growth. This holds true whether you’re creating a vegetable garden, an herb or flower garden, or even a raised bed for woody ornamental plantings. Consider the condition of the subsoil as well. Compacted soil will prevent proper drainage.

Your planting area should be no wider than 4 feet if you plan to work from both sides of the structure. A 4-foot-wide bed gives you enough room for good root development, but also allows you to reach both sides easily.

If your site is for ornamental plantings, such as shrubbery or trees, the 4-foot width does not necessarily always apply. In fact, on a hillside, you will often vary the depth to complement a structure, or to accommodate the topography of the land. The height too will vary more with ornamental plantings. Be sure to check local codes for any restrictions on maximum wall heights.


The Soil Mix
The soil mix will vary by your area, but a general rule of thumb is to create a mix of one-third topsoil, one-third coarse sand and one-third well-composted organic material. It’s easiest if you mix this well before installing the material into the planter. You’ll find that if you use your planter for flower or vegetable gardening that each year you’ll benefit from adding a little more composted material to the planter, and mixing the new compost really well into the existing soil mix.

The Drainage
NEVER underestimate the power of water! Also NEVER underestimate how much rain can fall in a short period. Very often a “heavy” rainfall that gets our attention with flooding, is just a minor event compared to what a truly severe storm can become. If you’re unsure, consult your local authorities or a design professional such as a civil engineer to review your specific drainage circumstances.

With the above caution, there are some general considerations you’ll want to keep in mind.

When you locate your plantings be sure to consider whether they change any of the drainage on or around your property in an adverse manner. You also cannot change the flow of stormwater as it leaves your property on to adjacent neighbors, thus potentially causing them “drainage issues”.

Here are some drainage basics:
• Drainage is always measured as a percentage, usually referred to as the “percent of slope.” Knowing these guidelines should help you determine what strategy to use for your sloping property and any terracing.
• Percent of Slope is calculated as: Rise/Run = Percent of Slope The Rise is the change in vertical height over a specified distance.
• The Run is the horizontal distance being measured.
• 1/8” Vertical Change in Height over 1 Horizontal Foot of Distance = 1% Slope.
• Ground Surfaces: Minimum 1% slope, Maximum 10% slope is ideal.
• Planting Beds: Minimum 2% slope, Maximum 10% slope (for your raised garden bed, you’ll want some slope for good drainage).
• Above 8% slope on a hillside: Mulch will wash downhill. If you have more than 8% slope on your property, you’ll definitely want to consider creating terracing or raised beds to facilitate gardening and prevent washouts.
• Above 10% slope: Erosion will start, particularly without established vegetation. Thus at 10% slope you really must address erosion on your slope if you install anything other than turf. Above 15%, even mowing a turf area will become dangerous.
• No long walking sloped area should exceed 5% slope. Consider this guideline whenever you plan any walkway across your property, including any walkways that give you access to your garden areas. Hauling materials over any distance that has above 5% slope will become cumbersome at best.

With the above guidelines, begin planning that new raised garden or terraced hillside. Recognize too, that budgeting for raised beds and the soil mix to fill those planters will add up quickly. Consult your local professional landscape contractors to get estimates, or if you like to do it yourself, be sure to be very thorough in your planning and budgeting to prevent any surprises and added costs midstream. 



This article appeared in a previous publication of State-by-State Gardening magazines.


Posted: 06/13/19   RSS | Print


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In Focus
by Loretta Gillespie    

There are several reasons why people use focal points. By creatively using statues, specimen plants, artwork, large planters or even birdhouses, gardeners can draw the eye where they want it to go; often diverting attention from a design flaw, out-of-season flowerbeds or fallow vegetable gardens.

Focal points can be as dramatic, whimsical, artsy, natural or glamorous as you can imagine them, depending on your style and to some extent the limitations of your landscape. You can also “borrow” adjacent landscapes to extend a backdrop. 

Focal points can be utilized to draw visitors in the direction you wish them to take. For example, if you want your guests to use a side entrance or to choose a certain fork on a pathway, place a welcome sign or a birdbath at that point and surround it with cheerful blooming plants to engage the eye and watch as they follow this visual subliminal suggestion. 

Focal points can be destinations at the end of a pathway, like a wonderful weathered bench placed beneath a blooming rose bush or a shade tree with overhanging branches. 

Swings, arbors, gazebos and trellises can add a visual punch that piques the interest, luring guests along a lane to the garden gate or a secluded seating area. In that respect, focal points do double duty – they draw visitors down a wonderful woodland path, and then offer a view of where they’ve been. 

One of the easiest, quickest ways to create a focal point is with a statue that you love, one that will enhance the view, not detract or call attention away from it. Placing it on a pedestal often gives it more visual weight. 

Imagine living on a bluff above the ocean. You don’t want to take away from the natural beauty of the view, but you can enhance it by adding a large stone or boulder, maybe one that allows viewers to sit and admire the sunset. By situating this type of focal point off-center, then covering one-third of its base with soil, you have created the illusion that it has been there since the dawn of time. 

More formal focal points can be created and moved to suit the view if it happens to change from one season to another. Find a substantial sized container, one that can be moved easily, such as fiberglass or resin, fill it one-fourth to one-half full of packing peanuts or other lightweight filler. Add a good potting mix and plant a twisted Japanese maple, a columnar arborvitae or an impressive Italian cypress. Underplant your specimen tree with a delicate moss. Use this focal point wherever interest in needed. By installing up-lights for nighttime viewing you can set the mood and give your garden an instant romantic ambiance. This sort of focal point works well in the city, where space is at a premium, on a balcony, or a deck where otherwise you might not be able to garden. Several of these identical plantings set side by side would form a wonderfully dramatic focal point on an apartment rooftop garden. 

However, all focal points need not be quite so impressive. You might use a rustic birdhouse to draw visitors to a seating area, or to draw the eye higher and further out into the landscape. 

Color can also be used as a focal point. Create a hanging garden by forming an arch for an outdoor wedding, or a bank of roses with candles set in groups of three for an intimate al fresco dinner for two. 

Mirrors in the garden can create magical spots where viewers become part of the focal point. Hang one over a garden table set for tea, or use one in a vintage window frame to fool the eye into thinking that there is a garden room just through the looking glass. 

Visit public gardens for inspiration. Note how they use water as a focal point, along with structures, groupings of topiaries and works of art that help to bring the landscape alive with color. 

The possibilities are limitless. Use your imagination – try repurposing old window frames, doors, or even mechanical objects to create a unique focal point. People have been using colored bottles to focus attention to an area for decades. These “bottle trees” are said to ward off evil spirits as the wind whistles through the openings, so even sound can sometimes be used as way of making people turn and look for its origin. 

Remember, your focal point should be interesting, fun and reflect your personality. Go for it!



This article appeared in an previous publication of State-by-State Gardening.


Posted: 06/13/19   RSS | Print


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Growing Rhubarb
by Cinthia Milner    

Common garden rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum, is a member of the Polygonaceae family. It is an herbaceous perennial vegetable that sprouts from short, thick rhizomes with pinkish-red stalks that resemble celery and has leaves that are labeled poisonous. This somewhat old-fashioned plant is making a comeback. In the language of social media, rhubarb is trending. My mamaw would be so proud, as her rhubarb patch was one of her early spring delights, and her rhubarb pie was one of her most-praised desserts. 

This cool-season vegetable is an ancient plant. Its first recorded use dates back to 2700 B.C. in China. In the U.S. it is first noted as being grown in Maine, around 1790, by an unnamed gardener who introduced it to growers in Massachusetts. By 1822 it had become quite popular, and was sold in produce markets. 

In 1947, a New York court ruled that rhubarb, a vegetable, would be considered a fruit for the purposes of “regulations and duties,” since in the U.S. it was used primarily as a fruit. I have no idea what the botanists of the world think when governments change, in name, what nature has pre-determined genetically, but it is true to say that rhubarb is used primarily as a fruit by most gardeners. It is even referred to by many as “pie rhubarb.” Its tart petioles (the celery-like stalks that are the edible part of the plant) are perfect for pies, breads, cakes, cookies, jams, puddings and, of course, tarts.

Rhubarb is grown primarily in cooler states. Places like Wisconsin, Maine and Washington are famous for rhubarb festivals and are fortunate to be able to harvest it from May until September. In the South, gardeners must take a different approach, as rhubarb does not fare well in dry, hot climates, and temperatures over 75 F suppress top growth, making the plant appear to be dormant. In very hot temperatures, the plant generally dies. Typically a Zone 5 plant, there are some varieties that perform up to Zone 10 (‘Victoria’ and ‘Valentine’), but even these need some shade and mulch to keep them moist.

In the mountains of western North and South Carolina, where USDA Zones range from 5a to 7a, rhubarb performs well, but harvesting stops in in June rather than September, as it does in the North. It can be grown as a perennial in this climate, but as you travel down the mountains toward Charleston and the coast of South Carolina, a different growing method is needed. Many Southern gardeners have been successfully growing it as an annual from seed (the ‘Victoria’ cultivar is best), letting it die when the summer temperatures rise.

Another option is to grow rhubarb in containers. You can do this as an annual, letting it die in the heat of the summer, or move the container to cooler spots, such as the garage or a porch, when the temperatures rise. 

Besides its popularity for use in pies and other sugary delights, this vegetable is high in anti-inflammatory properties and has long been used in natural medicine. It is low in calories, yet loaded with vitamins and is high in potassium and calcium, with almost a third of the recommended daily amount. 

Before one becomes too enthusiastic about this harbinger of spring, it is important to note that the leaves contain high levels of the toxin oxalate, which does not break down enough when cooked to reduce the risk of poisoning. You don’t want to eat the leaves, but feel free to compost them, as the oxalic acid will neutralize during the compost process and no toxicity has been noted. Tested compost piles have shown that the level of acid does not inhibit the microbial action of composting. When you harvest the stalks, strip away the leaves and toss them in the compost pile. If you can’t eat or cook the stalks immediately, they can be easily frozen for later use. 

Don’t be afraid to put this plant in your garden. Many a rhubarb patch has been relegated to a place far away from the garden for fear that it would inhibit growth of other vegetables; it does not. Rhubarb is listed as a good companion plant for the Brassica family, and it does just fine planted in the garden. It does require some room though. A two- to three-year-old plant of the ‘Victoria’ variety can be 4 feet in diameter and 3 feet tall. 

Good drainage is also essential for rhubarb. Plant crowns in raised beds if you can to prevent the crowns from rotting. Plan on harvesting two to three years after the plant is established. Harvest by pulling the stalks, not cutting. Then cook and enjoy!



This article appeared in a previous State-by-State Gardening publication.
Top photo courtesy of Cinthia Milner. Bottom photo courtesy of Samantha Faust.


Posted: 04/30/19   RSS | Print


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Attracting the Birds and the Bees
by Helen Yoest    


Most of us have a color preference – some prefer hot colors while others pine for pastels. While we may be drawn to a particular color, we typically enjoy other colors along the spectrum as well. The same goes for wildlife. There are certain colors that attract certain wildlife, but once in the garden, they will often visit plants of different colors, as long as other attributes suit their needs. Nature, in all her glory, has created order in a chaotic world by “assigning” colors this way. So, whether for camouflage or food, color is an important element in the design of a wildlife garden.  

There are many aspects of creating a wildlife habitat, but none as fun as adding color to attract our winged friends. Color plays a very important role in the pollination puzzle.  

To attract hummingbirds, red rules the roost. In nature, red flowers provide the energy necessary to sustain hummingbirds over their journey. Adding red to your garden will lure the hummers to your landscape. Once there, they will happily sip from feeders and other nectar-loving plants.    

If you want to attract more hummingbirds, add more red. To bring them in from afar, add a lot of red – red flowers, red furniture or red bird feeders. Just be sure that when they enter your garden, there are plenty of nectar-rich flowers for them to feed on.  

Nearly all flowers that depend on hummingbirds for pollination are red or red-orange. Their nectar is held deep inside the throat of the flower, inaccessible to most other pollinators.  

To the bee’s eyes, vivid red hummingbird flowers simply blend into the background. Since they don’t see red, they have a hard time distinguishing those from surrounding greenery. You will find bees on red flowers, but they were typically found by bumping into them, not by sight.  

Some of the red (and reddish) plants that attract and feed hummingbirds include honeysuckle (Lonicera x heckrottii), bee balm (Monarda spp.), columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Canna, Gladiolus, Salvia, crossvine (Bignonia capreolata ‘Tangerine Beauty’), azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) and cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

As nature would have it, nocturnal critters are the ones that depend most on white blooms. Night-flying moths and bats will fill my Raleigh garden, attracted to the bright flowers, and their scent as well.

I like white flowers for a variety of reasons. They show up from a distance, work in color-filled beds to fill empty spaces, and of course, they are bright at night. That’s the real reason I like them. The reds, blues, purples, and even yellows, fade away as the sun sets, but white flowers bring brilliance to the darkness.  

Moths feed on nectar, which they drink using their long tongues. White and pale-colored flowers have evolved to provide nectar for moths, and in return, moths pollinate the flowers. But like butterflies, hummingbirds and bees, moths will sip the nectar from any plant that meets their needs, no matter the color. So plant the bright whites to attract them, and once there, they’ll feed on any plant that suits their needs.  

Moth-attracting flowers include angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia spp.), moon flower (Ipomoea alba), pinks (Dianthus sp.), soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), evening primroses (Oenothera biennis, O. glazoviana, O. stricta), Buddleia, coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), plus others such as Cleome and flowering tobacco plant (Nicotiana spp.).  

Butterflies will flutter in, lured by the color purple. Although purple isn’t as strong an enticement as red is to hummingbirds, purple has been shown to be a preferred color. And you can never have too much purple! Butterflies will sip the nectar of any plant that suits their needs, but to bring them to the garden, you can count on purple.  

Bees have a preference for the color blue, and can’t see red, so they stay away from red plants, the hummingbirds’ favorite. Bumblebees, honeybees, mason bees, and many other bees see in the ultraviolet spectrum, blue-green, blue and violet.  

Some of the purple plants I’ve added to my garden to attract and sustain various bees and butterflies, include Agapanthus, hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), Crocus, Cosmos, coneflowers, pinks, Phlox, lavender (Lavandula spp.), asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) and Salvia, as well as germander (Teucrium spp.), bog sage (Salvia uliginosa), Verbena and obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana).

To avoid contact with wasps, never work in the yard or garden wearing yellow or white, since these colors attract insects. Many insects cannot see red, making it a good choice to wear when working in the yard. You should also avoid perfumes, colognes, hair sprays and other fragrances, and by all means, be careful walking barefoot.  

Bees find it hard to differentiate red from green, so good flower colors to attract bees are blue, purple, violet, white and yellow.  A few favorite yellow flowers include daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), Mahonia, Rudbeckia, sunflower (Helianthus spp.) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium).    

When designing a wildlife garden, choose flowers with diverse colors, and help the wildlife find your garden by planting large swaths of five or seven plants per grouping. Make your garden a beacon to wildlife.



This article appeared in a previous edition of a State-by-State Gardening publication.


Posted: 04/19/19   RSS | Print


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Normal is Boring
by Richelle Stafne    

Uniqueness is something special that makes the ordinary extraordinary. Flowerbeds, as we know them, have been an ordinary part of gardening since, well, forever. So if your goal is to create a unique flowerbed, consider these three ideas: place interesting objects among the flowers; use unique containers or vessels to enhance the flowerbed; or create a unique style, pattern, or arrangement of common plants within the designated planting area. 
I look at hundreds of flowerbeds a year. Most of them are the same old thing – the uncreative spewing of annuals, perennials, and mulch with the occasional gazing ball or garden flag. I am always pleased to find a unique or unexpected addition that makes me smile and nod in silent applause.
Gardening is often a reflection of our personalities. I know there are some who would pass by my flowerbeds and wonder, “What is she doing? Is that permanent?” If your flowerbeds can make people stop, smile, laugh, nod, or shake their heads (hey, you can’t please everyone), then you just might be doing something right. Indeed, my creative brain is often a flurry of ideas, some impossible, some implausible, and some impassable. 
Consider growing common plants in unusual forms, such as training them as a standard (grown with a dominant vertical stem). Your local garden center may already carry some flowers, herbs, or shrubs already trained, ready for you to plant. These make fun focal points and add height to a flowerbed. Topiary is a fun way to create shapes, characters, or the illusion of form by pruning. If your topiary is young or you are not confident in your skill, add a fake topiary to your flowerbed. I do not usually promote fake flowers in the landscape, but in a quirky, fun flowerbed you can bend the conventional rules. 
Use landscape rock, stones, shells, sand, recycled glass, marbles, etc. to create shapes representing favorite team logos, your family name, Chinese characters, or other patterns. Incorporate low-growing flowers into the design to emphasize or highlight the pattern or color. Flowering and/or foliage plants can be used to match the colors of the home’s exterior, local sports team, or regional symbols (pelicans, paw prints, fleur de lis, or clam shells). 
Give your flowerbed a theme. One of my favorites is the “Old West” theme. Wagon wheels, wooden wagons, worn-out cowboy boots, old cattle yokes, horse harnesses, rusted rakes pick axes, combined with Agave and prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) can change a boring flowerbed from ho hum to yee haw! 
Love the beach? A visit to nearly any local flea market, antique store, or rummage sale can yield old boat and marina paraphernalia, seashore décor, outdoor lighthouse sculptures, coastal bird and fish statues, bags of old oyster shells, etc. Look for items that are made for the outdoors, can be painted or sealed to resist moisture, or that share the same weather-beaten characteristics (old and rusted). Hardy palms and sea oats (try Northern sea oats, Chasmanthium latifolium) are at home in this setting and help to set the backdrop for your colorful, coastal-themed flowerbed.
Often thought of as kitschy, repurposed items (used as flowerbed sculptures) are perhaps more hip and cool than expensive garden art. Some of my favorite items are broken antiques that have lost their value, rusted farm implements and kitchen tools, and household items such as metal bed frames, bathtubs, and kitchen sinks. 
Curbside flowerbeds that invite passersby to stop and sit a spell can be inviting and unexpected. Bring the garden out front by combining ornamental and edible flowers with vegetables and herbs in a flowerbed. Wildlife and pollinator gardens are popular flowerbed themes and can be made intriguing with the addition of bird and bat houses, bird feeders, birdbaths, and creative signs that state their intended purpose or specialty certification. 
Add irony and humor by using unexpected objects as containers – such as old pots, repurposed tires (not for edibles), rusted out canoes or boats, wagons or carts, livestock tanks, the rear end of an old, rusty car, and perhaps the best idea: an antique iron bed frame. So, as you can see, when it comes to flowerbeds, don’t put the yawn in your lawn. Be unique!
This article appeared in a previous edition of a State-by-State Gardening publication.


Posted: 04/19/19   RSS | Print


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Lemony Herbs
by Carol Michel    

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



This article appeared in a previous issue of a State-by-State Gardening publication.
Photos courtesy of Carol Michel.


Posted: 04/15/19   RSS | Print


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Finding Your Path
by Kathy Fitzgerald    

A path is just a way to get people and materials around the garden without damaging the plants, right? Well, yes and no.

As garden-organizing features, paths set the tone of the spaces they cross. Angular paths that lead directly to destinations imply formality and purpose. Think of the geometric layout of Versailles or the practical symmetries of kitchen gardens. Meandering paths take a more playful tone, hinting at surprises waiting around the next bend. Broad paths, 4 or more feet wide, impart an expansive, social feel, while narrow paths feel more intimate, inviting solitude. Paths can ease changes in elevation, help visitors negotiate boggy or rocky spots and announce different garden rooms. 

The material chosen makes as much difference to a path as its trajectory and width. Formed concrete and tightly spaced pavers provide a smooth surface, allowing brisk movement. With these paths, the idea is to get to a point in the garden as efficiently as possible, or to be able to trundle a wheelbarrow or cart along with ease. On the other hand, the purpose of uneven flagstones is to slow you down, providing an opportunity to appreciate the surrounding garden. 


Building Your Own Path
Making a path can be as simple as mowing a swath through the high grass of a meadow. Most of our gardens, however, have more definition and less space than that, calling for more structured ways to pass through them. 

 To build a path, first mark out where you want your path using a hose, masons’ twine and stakes or spray paint. Artfully curving lines can emphasize special vignettes and make small gardens seem larger. Measure the distance from beginning to end to get the number of linear feet, and then multiply that number by the desired width in feet. The result is how many square feet of pathway. 

Deciding on the type of surface comes next. In addition to aesthetics, factor in how much labor you’re willing to put into the project, and keep in mind your budget. Stepping-stone paths require the least amount of prep work, but the stones themselves may be pricey, while more affordable, gravel and mulch paths need more preparation. Dry-laying pavers require even more preparation to ensure a smooth surface.

For flagstone paths, arrange the stones where you think they ought to go, and then walk along them to see how they flow underfoot. Make adjustments until you’re satisfied. If the path travels through the lawn, let them sit in place overnight. The grass underneath will yellow, telling you exactly how much sod to dig out. Make each excavation deep enough to avoid interference with mower blades. Settle the stone in its bed, tapping it in firmly with a rubber mallet, then water it in. Correct any wobbles and gaps with sand.

For gravel and mulch paths, plan on some sort of edging along the sides and at either end. If your yard is sandy, put down an underlayment, such as weed-barrier fabric, to keep the gravel or mulch from disappearing into the soil over time. Dig down a few inches the length and width of the path and use sod staples to pin the underlayment to the ground. Then set your edging and add the gravel or mulch.


Laying Pavers
Dry-laid pavers (a path without mortar) take the most effort, time and expense, but they can’t be beat for enhancing a formal space. Here’s the process:

• Assemble your materials and tools.
• Stake out the site.
• Dig out the site. Excavate to the depth of your paver plus at least 3 inches to put the finished project at ground level. If you live in an area where the ground freezes, you must dig deeper for a thicker base to prevent frost heaving.
• Level the excavation. This is called “screeding.” A section of 2-by-4 or 4-by-4 lumber works well, ideally the width of the dug-out area. The success of the project depends on getting the area as level as possible at this point.
• Tamp the dirt, ensuring it remains level.
• Add paver base, tamp and level. Repeat until you have a firm and level base with just enough vertical space left so the top of the pavers rest at grade. Don’t scrimp on the paver base, it’s what keeps the finished surface from buckling or sinking.
• Now you’re ready to lay the bricks. Choose a pattern, and stick with it. Working across the width of the path, pound the pavers tight against the outside edges and one another using a rubber mallet. Fill cracks with fine sand after finishing each three- to four-row section. Work the sand in with a scrub brush or gloved hands.

Remember to continually check that the project is level, brick to brick and row to row. If you’re building on a slope, keep the angle of rise or descent constant. Lay your screeding board over the pavers and whack them securely into the base with the sledgehammer, then pour more sand into the joints. 

When the path is finished, spread polymeric sand over the entire project and water it in, following the directions on the package. When dry, the polymers act like bonding agents, but it’s easier to work with than mortar should replacement or realignment of individual pavers become necessary.

Now you’re ready to enjoy your path. Not only do paths protect plants and soils from traffic and provide access for additions and maintenance, they also define and beautify garden spaces. They needn’t be difficult or expensive to install, and the cool weather of fall is the perfect time to spiff up the paths traversing your garden or add some new ones.



This article appeared in a previous issue of a State-by-State Gardening publication.
Photos by Kathy Fitzgerald.


Posted: 04/15/19   RSS | Print


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Wonderful Window Boxes
by PJ Gartin    


When someone says “window box,” what images first pop into your mind? Old World, pretentious, charming, expensive? Perhaps you think of these gussied-up containers as high maintenance, or maybe you simply write them off as another wacky sport in the world of competitive gardening. Yet, could it be that you would really like to try them, but have no idea where to begin?

Properly installed window boxes increase the gardening space in minuscule landscapes and places with less than perfect soil. They are also a relatively inexpensive way to add visual interest to an otherwise plain structure. Consider the side of a garage with a single pedestrian window: Add a box of flowers, and it is now a focal point. Window boxes also break the monotony of nearly identical buildings, such as town or row houses, and lend visual harmony and rhythm. What makes window boxes truly special is that many are eye-level gardens, and nothing beats a nose-to-petal tête-à-tête.


The secret to a structurally and horticulturally successful window box is good drainage. Not only must water move out of the container to prevent root rot, but it is imperative that moisture does not get trapped between the box and the building. Frank Lauro, Jr., a contractor in Charleston, S.C., knows firsthand what a small amount of extra moisture can do to structures. Having spent the past 20 years restoring and preserving historic buildings in Charleston, he has centered much of his work on water-damage remediation. 

He has also designed and installed window boxes for clients. If window boxes were automobiles, Lauro’s would be Bentleys. Starting with treated lumber, he lines the interior and exposed upper edges with copper sheeting and plumbs them with irrigation tubes and water discharge pipes. One of his most elegant and durable creations has graced a downtown brick-and-stucco establishment in Charleston since 1995.

If such custom-made luxury isn’t for you, containers crafted from wood, cast stone, ceramic, terra-cotta, plastic, metal or fiberglass are readily available. Some manufacturers also offer brackets, braces and mounting hardware to use with their products. Keep in mind that the box must be placed away from the main structure to avoid water damage and to accommodate airflow. Boxes that are placed up against a building hold moisture, which not only attracts insects, but also acts as a giant petri dish for mold and mildew.

Ensure that the window box itself provides good drainage. Like some of Lauro’s window boxes, many are equipped with vents for drainpipes. Many merely have holes drilled in the bottom. Look for abundant and evenly spaced holes, not just a couple in the middle. If you intend to install a window box that includes fittings for an irrigation system, make sure the water trickles into the soil and not down your siding.


Before selecting your flora, consider the environmental conditions such as heat and sun intensity. Any window box plant that faces the hot afternoon sun or receives relentless blasts of heat from an air-conditioner exchange unit rarely survives. The reflective light from window glass also increases thermal intensity. Even June transplants such as melampodium, pentas, portulaca and vinca don’t have a prayer in hot weather exacerbated by the thermal punch received by window boxes.

On the other hand, if you are faced with scant sunlight, combine houseplants such as ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia), pothos or aspidistra. Crowd them together with shade-loving ferns for a jungle effect.

What makes some window boxes stand out more than others? Great designs have a creative blend of color, height variation and contrasting textures collectively spilling and spreading away from the container. An exceptional one is also full of surprises, such as a vine that has been coaxed to twine upward instead of flowing toward the ground, or combining unexpected plants such as orchids with conventional flora.

It also pays to explore beyond the annual and perennial sections of a garden center. Consider the potential of ornamental grasses, herbs, tropical plants and dwarf shrubs. Hothouse mophead hydrangeas have become popular choices for window boxes, and dwarf cedar and boxwood offer playful alternatives, if positioned off center. In other words, the real trick to coming up with an eye-catching display is to “think outside the box.”




This article appeared in a previous issue of a State-by-State Gardening publication.
Photos by PJ Gartin.


Posted: 04/15/19   RSS | Print


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It’s All in the Mold
by Carolyn Tomlin    

Making concrete molds for stepping-stones or miniature gardens is a fun, simple project. And they make great additions to your landscape!


Stepping-stone concrete mix or a lightweight premixed concrete
Plastic bucket (which will be thrown away afterwards)
Hand-tool spade  
Plastic or foil pie pan mold
Rubber gloves, safety glasses, dust mask
Small decorative stones, marbles, or seashells
Old knife
Old measuring cup
Vegetable oil spray
Concrete sealant

If you assemble your materials in one place, this garden project can be completed in less than an hour. However, it takes at least 12 hours or more for the concrete to dry. 


Step-by-Step Instructions
1. Follow the package direction for mixing the water and concrete.

2. Spray the mold with vegetable oil for easy removal later.

3. Wearing rubber gloves, safety glasses, and a dust mask, use an old trowel or something similar to mix the concrete to the right consistency – about the consistency of pancake batter. Mix until all lumps are removed. 

4. Place the mold on a flat, level surface where it will remain until dry. Scoop the mixture into the mold. Lightly tap the mold to settle the mixture into all crevices. Insert a wooden pencil to remove any air bubbles. Smooth the top using an old kitchen knife or board.

5. Allow the concrete to set for about an hour before adding decorations. (The time it takes the concrete to firm will vary depending on humidity, temperature, etc.) Marbles, seashells, buttons, or small colorful stones add a personal touch. You can also add child’s handprint, a name, or date. To write, use a wooden dowel or even the handle of a wooden spoon. Concrete is very forgiving – if necessary, just smooth over the top with a flat-blade knife (before it hardens) and start over. 

6. When completely dry, loosen the concrete from the mold by slipping a knife around the edge. Allow to cure for about a month.

7. Spray with a concrete sealant to prevent cracking and chipping.


Tips for Using Concrete Mix
Always work outdoors when using concrete. Do not inhale the concrete dust. Wear safety glasses, dust mask, and rubber gloves. Avoid letting the concrete mix touch your skin. If this happens, wash immediately. If a rash develops, contact a poison control center in your area or state. Adult supervision is required for children.


Types of Molds for Concrete Projects
Molds can be nearly anything – from the preformed molds sold at big-box stores and online to cake pans, pizza boxes or old buckets. Check out garage and yard sales for inexpensive molds. These can be re-used or discarded. The only limit is your imagination!















This article was in a previous edition of a State-by-State Gardening publication.


Posted: 04/04/19   RSS | Print


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Stumpery Style
by Helen Yoest    

Picture in your mind a fern growing out of a stump, deep in the woods where an old tree fell. This is a relatively common occurrence in nature, and I imagine it is where Victorian gardeners found the inspiration for “stumpery.” A stumpery is a garden feature made from logs and stumps, and they were the height of garden fashion in England during the reign of Queen Victoria. Romantic, naturalistic and calming compared to the excess of Victorian times, stumperies quickly became a popular garden style. 

In many ways we have come full circle, with nature once again governing our tastes and garden design. Adding a stumpery to your woodland garden, particularly if there are already stumps in the area, can satisfy your desire for a more naturalistic look. 


Artist and gardener Edward Cooke created the first recorded stumpery at Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire, England in 1856. He added piles of trees – creating 10-feet high walls – on either side of a garden path. The trees were designed to provide a place for ferns to grow, since the Victorians were quite enamored of ferns. 

Ferns were all the rage during these romantic times – hundreds of new species were brought into Britain from around the world. The era is actually referred to as “The Victorian Fern Craze.” Most often, stumperies were created in deeply shaded woods, an ideal habitat for these shade-loving plants. This “Fern Craze” is more than likely what led to the popularity of stumperies. 


While shade gardens were the birthplace of stumperies, they can be created wherever a stump is found, even if it’s in the hot afternoon sun. Stumperies can be as simple as a single stump to an arrangement of dozens of downed trees. As the trend progressed, logs, driftwood and large pieces of bark, in addition to upside-down stumps were also used.

Traditionally, a stumpery is crafted with tree stumps arranged upside down or on their side to better show the root structure. Ferns, mosses and lichens are encouraged to grow around and on the sinuous roots and in the hollows formed by root branching, creating a natural appearance. I can only imagine the sight of patrician women in Victorian attire, trekking through the woods to view their stumpery, with no worries about their dress hems wet with mud. 

This Victorian gardening trend is once again becoming popular, and stumperies definitely deserve a place in today’s gardens. In the 1980s, Prince Charles created a secret stumpery at his Highgrove Estate; by doing so, he resurrected an interest in the centuries-old practice of pairing stumps and ferns with other shade-loving perennials.

Today, stumperies can be found in a wide variety of looks and arrangements. Devotees of the original Victorian design create theirs by placing hollowed-out stumps with their roots in the air. You will also find creative plantings in stumps, or piles of logs with ferns and lichen in and on them. 

If creating a stumpery based on Victorian style, take your cues from nature. A walk through the woods will show you how nature designs a stumpery and provide much inspiration. Note where trees have fallen and how plants grow around, through and on the wood. Making fallen wood look as natural as possible is the ultimate goal.

If replicating original Victorian stumpery design isn’t your primary goal, just use a hollowed-out stump as a container filled with your favorite shade-loving plants. Begonia, ferns and grasses all work well. An added benefit is that stumperies also provide homes for wildlife, hosting toads, small mammals and other creatures. 

Whether you are mimicking nature or plopping a pot of petunias on an old, unsightly nub, including stumps into your overall garden design can be great fun. Work with what you have, and that unsightly stump just might be the perfect addition to your garden.




This article appeared in a previous edition of a State-by-State Gardening publicaiton.


Posted: 04/04/19   RSS | Print


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Easy-to-Grow Plants
by Diana Stoll    

 I have been gardening so long I can’t even remember my first trip to a garden center. In spring, when I walk down the rows of plants, it’s like a reunion of old friends – a lot of old friends. The astonishing number of choices must be daunting to new gardeners, and sometimes the plants with the prettiest posies or fanciest foliage aren’t the best choices. 

Over the years, I have found the following plants are almost guaranteed to grow beautifully as long as they are planted properly and given minimal care. This list is by no means all inclusive, but these plants perform without special attention and ensure new gardeners success as they begin their journey down the garden path.


Part Shade to Full Shade Plants
Alchemilla mollis (Common name: lady’s mantle) –  Tiny chartreuse flowers bloom in June; raindrops glisten like diamonds on fuzzy light green foliage; height 12 inches; grows best in part shade but tolerates full sun to deep shade; deer and rabbit resistant.

Aster divaricatus (Common name: white wood aster) – Airy clouds of small white flowers cover glossy dark green foliage in fall; height 24 inches; thrives in part to full shade and tolerates dry soils.

Brunnera macrophylla (Common names: Siberian bugloss, false forget-me-nots) – Sprays of bright blue forget-me-not-like flowers rise above heart-shaped, dark green leaves over a long period in spring; height 12-18 inches; prefers moist soil in part shade; deer and rabbit resistant.

Epimedium x rubrum (Common names: red barrenwort, bishop’s hat) – Dainty cherry red and soft yellow flowers dangle over semi-evergreen heart-shaped leaves in spring; height 8-12 inches; slowly spreading ground cover; best in part to full shade; deer and rabbit resistant.

Helleborus orientalis (Common names: hellebore, Lenten rose) – Large, long-lasting, cup-shaped flowers nod above leathery, glossy, dark evergreen foliage in very early spring; color of flowers may be white, light green, pink, rose or purple; height 12-18 inches; plant in part to full shade; deer and rabbit resistant.

Hosta, many varieties (Common name: plantain lily) – Lush foliage in shades of green, chartreuse, yellow, blue, white and combinations of those colors; grown more for foliage than flowers; range in size from a few inches to a few feet; grow best in light to full shade.


Full Sun to Part Shade Plants
Amsonia (Common name: blue star) – Baby blue, star-shaped flowers bloom late spring to early summer; height 2-3 feet; A. hubrichtii has thread-like foliage, A. tabernaemontana sports willow-shaped leaves; best bloom in full sun but plants tolerate part shade; deer and rabbit resistant.

Coreopsis verticillata ‘Zagreb’ (Common names: threadleaf coreopsis, whorled coreopsis) – Small, bright yellow, daisy-like flowers blanket fine-textured, needle-like foliage; bloom all summer; flowering in fall is possible with shearing in mid-summer; 18 inches; full sun to light shade; deer and rabbit resistant.

Echinacea spp. and cultivars (Common name: coneflower) – Large, daisy-like flowers with dark-cones in their centers bloom mid-summer to fall; flowers may be lavender, pink, yellow, orange, red, green or white; height 18 inches to 4 feet, depending on variety; prefers full sun but tolerates part shade; deer and rabbit resistant.

Geranium, both ground cover and garden perennials (cranesbill geranium, perennial geranium) – Many species and cultivars with a broad range of foliage shapes and sizes; small flowers range in colorful shades of white, pink, rose, purple and blue; height 3 inches to 2 feet depending on variety; best in full sun but satisfactory in part shade; deer and rabbit resistant.

Nepeta x faassenii ‘Purrsian Blue’ (Common name: Purrsian Blue catmint) – Tiny, sky blue flowers bloom all summer into fall over fragrant gray-green foliage; height 12-18 inches; grows best in full sun; drought tolerant; deer and rabbit resistant.

Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Blovi’ Viette’s Little Suzy   (Common name: black-eyed Susan) – Golden yellow daisy-like flowers bloom mid-summer into fall; height 12-18 inches; best flowering in full sun but plant tolerates part shade; deer and rabbit resistant.

Sedum, both ground covers and garden perennials (Common name: stonecrop) – Many species and cultivars with succulent foliage in shades of green, blue, red, purple and yellow and clusters of star-shaped flowers; height a few inches to 3 feet; most varieties prefer full sun, but ground cover types tolerate part shade.


Cornus alba ‘Bailhalo’ Ivory Halo  (Common name: Ivory Halo tatarian dogwood) – Green leaves with wide white margins held on bright red stems in winter; fall foliage color is purplish-red; mature size 4-6 feet tall and wide; grows in full sun to part shade; deer resistant.

Cotoneaster apiculatus (Common name: cranberry cotoneaster) – Glossy green leaves on spreading branches; fall foliage turns shades of yellow, orange, red, wine and purple; mature size 3 feet tall and 6 feet wide; small pink flowers turn to red berries in late summer; grows best in full sun but tolerates part shade; deer resistant.

Euonymus fortunei ‘Canadale Gold’ (Common name: Canadale Gold wintercreeper) – Brilliantly colored, light green leaves edged in yellow on mounding shrub; evergreen foliage; mature size 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide; sun to part shade.

Hydrangea paniculata, many cultivars (Common name: panicle hydrangea) – Large, white maturing to shades of pink, cone-shaped blooms on the tips of sturdy stems bloom mid-summer into fall; height 2-20 feet depending on type; sun to part shade.

Hydrangea quercifolia, many cultivars (Common name: oakleaf hydrangea) – Large, white pyramidal panicles of flowers in mid-summer age to rosy pink on sturdy branches with exfoliating bark; fall foliage impressive mix of wine red, purple, orange and bronze; height 2-8 feet depending on variety; part shade.

Syringa pubescens subsp. patula ‘Miss Kim’ (Common name: Manchurian lilac) – Cone-shaped clusters of fragrant, lavender flowers bloom in May; fall foliage is reddish-burgundy; height 5-6 feet; best bloom in full sun but tolerates light shade; deer resistant.

Thuja occidentalis ‘Bobozam’ Mr. Bowling Ball (Common name: Mr. Bowling Ball American arborvitae) – Very dense, lacy, blue-green, needled foliage forms rounded mound; evergreen foliage; size 2-3 feet tall and wide; full sun to light shade.

Weigela florida ‘Verweig’ My Monet (Common name: My Monet dwarf weigela) – Rosy-pink, tubular flowers in spring; dramatic pink, green and white variegated foliage all season; height 12-18 inches; full sun to part shade.


Acer x pseudosieboldianum ‘IslNW’ North Wind  (Common name: North Wind Korean maple) – Foliage emerges red in spring, turns green in summer, orange and scarlet fall color; mature size 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide; outstanding alternative to Japanese maple; full sun to part shade.

Acer griseum (Common name: paperbark maple) – Ideal tree for small yards; fall foliage orange and red; spectacular exfoliating bark for winter interest; mature size 20-30 feet tall and wide; full sun to part shade.

Amelanchier grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’ (Common name: Autumn Brilliance serviceberry) – White flowers in spring turn to dark blue berries in June; fall foliage is brilliant orange-red; mature size 15-25 feet tall and wide; full sun to part shade.

Betula nigra ‘Cully’ Heritage (Common name: Heritage river birch) – Very adaptable, fast growing, medium-sized tree; fall foliage is yellow; appealing exfoliating white bark for winter interest; mature size 40-60 feet tall and wide; full sun to part shade.

Carpinus caroliniana (Common names: American hornbeam, musclewood, blue beech) – beautiful understory tree; fall foliage is yellow to orange-red; blue-gray, ridged bark for winter interest; mature size 20-35 feet; part shade to full shade.

Malus ‘Prairiefire’ (Common name: Prairiefire flowering crabapple) – Deep pink flowers in spring turn to persistent, small, dark reddish-purple berries late in June, remaining for winter interest; foliage emerges red-tinted and turns dark green; mature size 15-20 feet tall and wide; full sun.







This article appeared in a previous edition of a State-by-State Gardening publication.


Posted: 04/04/19   RSS | Print


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Lasting Impressions
by Helen Yoest    

Hypertufa troughs are earthy and natural containers that look great in gardens of every style. Today’s hypertufa troughs are modeled after ancient stone vessels that were used by farmers in England and the Orient to hold water and feed for livestock. As farmers replaced stone with more modern materials, the old stone feeders became popular as planters. As they became scarce, and pricey, people began to make their own. But a hypertufa trough is a worthy container in its own right, and should not be considered a poor substitute for the real thing. 

Beth Jimenez and Amelia Lane of Lasting Impressions in Raleigh, N.C., share their recipe for making a trough – and once you learn how easy they are to make, you’ll want to make groupings of containers. These will last many years and will always look good.


STEP 1 – Gather Materials

Sheet of 2-inch-thick foam insulation board cut into four pieces: two 16-by-6-inch pieces and two 18-by-6-inch pieces
Serrated knife
Eight 3¼-inch nails
Concrete reinforcing fibers
Duct tape  
Tape measure or ruler
QUIKRETE portland cement (No. 1124)
Peat moss
1/2-inch dowel, approximately  6 inches long
3⁄8-inch-thick plywood board (2 feet by 2 feet)
Gallon container
Spray bottle
Rubber or latex gloves  


STEP 2 – Construct the Mold
Assemble the four sections of insulation board into a square or rectangle, depending on how you join the ends. For a rectangle, assemble with the 16-inch section outside the 18-inch section. For a square, assemble with the 16-inch section inside the 18-inch section. Insert two nails through the insulation material -- one near the top and one near the bottom -- of each intersection.

Wrap the duct tape around the mold to cover the nails, once near the top and once near the bottom, for added reinforcement.  

Mark a line 2 inches from the bottom as a guide to the depth of the hypertufa; this will mark the thickness of the bottom of your trough.  


STEP 3 – Mix the Formula
Wearing your mask and gloves, measure 2 gallons of cement, 2 gallons of perlite and 4 gallons of peat moss. This amount will leave enough material to make trough feet. Mix the dry ingredients in your wheelbarrow with the hoe.

Add 1⁄3 cup of reinforced fiber for stronger, long-lasting concrete. This fiber can be found at a building supply store or through Lasting Impressions ( Slowly add water to the wheelbarrow. Start with about 3 gallons and mix it well with the dry materials. You should end up with a consistency like cookie dough or a graham cracker crust. It should be wet enough to adhere so it doesn’t crumble, but not wet enough to ooze water.


STEP 4 – Form the Hypertufa Trough
Set the mold on the plywood board. Begin packing the bottom with the hypertufa mixture, using your previously marked line as a stopping point. Working a small area at a time, use your hands to firmly press the mixture into the bottom corners and up the sides, making sure to mash one section into another for seamless adhesion and a stronger trough. Continue up the sides until they are covered by a 2-inch-thick layer. Spray water as needed to keep the mixture moist while you are working.


STEP 5 – Adding Drainage Holes
To ensure proper drainage, use the dowel to poke holes in the bottom of the trough. Insert the dowel through the hypertufa until it meets the plywood base. Repeat to make six evenly spaced holes. Leave the trough to dry in a protected area.


STEP 6 – Remove the Mold
Your trough should dry in about 24 hours. When it’s dry and firm, carefully remove the tape and nails and pull the sides of the mold away from the trough.     

The trough can be used as is, or – if you prefer a textured, aged look – gently rough up the exterior with a wire brush or screwdriver taking care to not poke holes in the sides as you work.


STEP 7 – Curing
Store the trough in a shady area to cure for 28 days. Your container can be left out in freezing temperatures as long as it is off the ground.


STEP 8 – Make Pot Feet
Use the remaining mixture to create “feet.” These feet will keep your trough off the ground. 


Place your hypertufa trough on your porch steps, in a garden bed or border, or on the patio and fill with potting mix. Plant your favorite conifers or sedums and enjoy for years to come.


This article appeared in a previous issue of State-by-State Gardening.
Photos courtesy of Helen Yoest.


Posted: 03/22/19   RSS | Print


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Top 10 Plants for Birds
by Sharon Sorenson    

Attracting birds to your garden calls for more than feeders and feed. Of the 167 birds on my “spotted in my yard” list, only 29 came to feeders. Native habitat attracted the rest.

In short, birds are irrevocably tied to the vegetation around them. They rely on plants for food – including seeds, buds, berries, nectar, sap, and fruit. They rely on plants for shelter against the elements – such as rain, snow, sleet, hail, sun, wind, and dark of night. They rely on plants for shelter against predation while nesting and roosting. And they rely on plants for nest sites and nest-building materials – utilizing twigs, grasses, rootlets, mosses, and lichens.

Plants determine which birds live where.

So, plant it and they will come, right? Not exactly.

Some plants, especially introduced species, offer birds nothing but perches. Having co-evolved with native plants, birds may starve while introduced plant species go unnoticed and unrecognized.

More important, only native plants host native bugs. Those 29 birds that came to my feeders were seed eaters. Many birds, however, eat few or even no seeds. Instead, they eat bugs. In the winter, when bugs go dormant, the bug-eating birds either migrate south or switch to berries. Even more significantly, 96 percent of songbirds feed their babies insects.

In short, to feed the birds, we must first feed the insects. And native plants host the bugs.

So plants on this “Top 10 List” meet birds’ food, shelter, and nesting needs. They include vegetation from high canopies to low hiding areas – trees (deciduous and coniferous), shrubs, vines, perennials, and grasses. Together, they meet birds’ varying foraging and nesting habits, from high canopy to ground level. 

This “Top 10 List” also provides the botanical diversity necessary to promote bird diversity.

From the gardener’s point of view, perhaps the most important feature about this list is that these native plants fit suitably into landscaping.


Here’s why these 10 plants are best for birds:

For food, native oaks (Quercus spp.) host the highest number of insects of any other native tree. Native black cherry (Prunus spp.) or willow (Salix spp.) species tie for the number-two spot. Spring migrants like gnatcatchers and phoebes survive on early insects, while chickadees, wrens, and titmice feed their babies bugs.

Plants affording both winter shelter and winter food rank high. Native hollies (Ilex spp.), evergreen or deciduous, fill that bill, sheltering and feeding throngs of robins, mockingbirds, bluebirds, waxwings, and woodpeckers. You’ll need male and female hollies to produce berries, and the rock-hard berries must go through multiple freeze-thaw cycles before they become soft enough for winter feeding.

Bright white early spring native dogwood blossoms attract insects for spring migrants like parulas and yellow-throated warblers. Autumn’s nutritious berries, however, feed fall migrants like grosbeaks, catbirds, and migrant thrushes as well as year-round residents like flickers, woodpeckers, and robins.

Because birds need shelter year-round, native evergreens offer birds special winter benefits. Add nutritious berries and cones for dining, and birds find exquisite habitat in native Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Summer shelter and nesting sites boost the dense red cedar’s ranking.

Native Viburnum spp. serve birds well, too. Semi-evergreen varieties offer shelter; blossoms attract summer insects for birds feeding their young, and berries on some provide fall and winter food. Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) berries are gone at my house by August.

Wildflowers such as Rudbeckia spp., Echinacea spp., and Ratibida spp. species, all of which are coneflowers prized for seed production, attract droves of goldfinches and sparrows. Watch out for cultivars, however, as they are often sterile. Sterile plants hold zero nutrition for birds.

The best native vine for birds is trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). Early blossoms feed hummingbirds while its dense vine invites nesters – in my yard, brown thrashers. Native crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) works well, too.

Most gardeners enjoy tall-grass accents. Native switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), with abundant seeds, feeds fall and winter visitors like dark-eyed juncos and white-throated and white-crowned sparrows.

Late fall goldenrod (Solidago spp.) blossoms attract insects for fall migrants; seeds feed winter birds. Choose well-behaved varieties for small gardens. In my little patch of goldenrod, 17 bird species foraged in one afternoon.

Add native red mulberry (Morus rubra) to feed spring migrants, but avoid Asian invasive white mulberry (Morus alba).

Before planting your bird-friendly landscape, check your plants’ native status online at USDA Plant Database ( Birds will reward you by cleaning up the bugs.


This article appeared in a previous issue of State-by-State Gardening.
Photo courtesy of Sharon and Charles Sorenson.


Posted: 03/22/19   RSS | Print


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Build Your Own Clematis Posts
by John Vicellio    

Clematis stands high on my list of favorite plants. I have designed and built a number of supporting posts just so I can add this beautiful plant to the garden in areas where other supports don’t exist. I don’t just build them for myself, I’ve also built posts for my friends. In total, I’ve created about a dozen posts, and while each one is different, the basics of building them are the same. 

Building a clematis post is an easy project. You will need an 8-10-foot-long, treated 2-by-4 or 4-by-4. When selecting lumber, it is essential that the pieces are straight. This can easily be checked before purchase: Lay each piece on the floor; it should lay flat its entire length; if it does, turn it on its side to ensure it’s straight that way as well. The other elements for your clematis post include a post cap, finial and a cylinder of wire. 

You can use various combinations of post caps and finials, porch railings and balusters, fence pickets and 1-by-2s, all pre-milled, treated and available at most home-improvement stores. The addition of different pre-milled features to a simple post adds interest and aesthetic appeal, so each one is unique. 

The foliage on most cultivars of clematis drops naturally in the fall, and vines will be pruned in anticipation of the next year’s growth. Consequently, there will be a number of months in our Carolina gardens when the post itself will assume an important visual role in the landscape, making decorative touches or even a bold paint color even more desirable.

Once you have the materials, you’re ready to build.

Step 1. Use galvanized deck screws of appropriate lengths to assemble the selected wood parts. For my most recent post, I attached two porch railings to the sides of an 8-foot-long 2-by-4, then placed an hourglass baluster on the front and a 1-by-2 on the back. I then stacked two different post caps on top and finished it off with a favorite finial. 

Step 2. Painting is optional, but it adds a finished appearance. Before painting, caulk the seams and spackle the screw heads and any knots. Then sand any rough spots or splinters and paint with exterior primer. 

Step 3. Attach a wire cylinder to the 1-by-2 with galvanized staples. Galvanized wire can be purchased plain or coated in 50-foot rolls at heights of 2, 3 or 4 feet. I prefer using 16-gauge, galvanized, green vinyl-coated lawn fencing. To get an approximate 12-inch wire cylinder I use wire cutters to cut about 39 inches of wire. Remember your high school math – circumference equals diameter times π (3.14). 

The height of the wire will vary according to the height of the post aboveground. I have learned to leave the bottom of the wire about 6 inches aboveground. This minimizes leaf collection over the winter at the base of the post.

Step 4. Paint your post. After attaching the wire, use approximately a can and a half of spray paint, painting both the post and the wire.

Step 5. Using a post-hole digger, dig a hole about one-quarter the height of the post. Be sure to pick a location that receives at least six hours of sunlight.

If you live in a region with heavy clay, tamp the clay around the base with a spare 2-by-4 to get a secure hold. This has the added benefit of making it easy to lift the post and move it to a new spot; I brought two of the posts to our new garden when we moved. The other option is to use pre-mixed concrete. Build up a shallow slant away from the base, allowing water to drain away from the post and ensuring the post is plumb.

Now you’re ready to plant your clematis. Prepare a deep and wide hole, working in copious amounts of soil conditioner and composted manure to the existing soil. Plant the crown several inches below the soil line, encouraging the plant to put out multiple stems and helping the plant recover from clematis wilt, a common problem in the Carolinas. 

Protect the plant from drying out, particularly in its first year, but do not overwater. I have planted coreopsis and scabiosa at the base of my clematis to shade its roots and help the plant to retain moisture. I also apply a small amount of 5-10-10 fertilizer around each plant as the buds start to swell in spring.

There are basically three pruning regimens for clematis: spring tip pruning, cutting down to short stems just above the first big swelling buds in the spring or no pruning at all. There are hundreds of cultivars available, so ask an expert at your garden center which pruning method you should use for the type of clematis you have. 

Some experts recommend keeping a newly planted clematis pruned to about 18 inches the first year, allowing most of the energy to go into a strong root and stem system. When I planted a new ‘General Sikorski’, it grew so well that I didn’t have the heart to cut it back that first year. After it bloomed in the spring, I did prune it. You can image how pleased I was when it put out vigorous new growth and rebloomed in late July. I’ve followed the same regimen each year with similar results. Last year it responded to a second pruning with a small, but very welcome, third set of blossoms until the first hard frost in December. 

For posts seen from only one side, you can plant a single clematis. For those that can be seen from both sides, I select two clematis with complementary colors, similar growing height, overlapping bloom periods and most importantly, similar pruning requirements. Two successful combinations in my garden are ‘Henryi’ with ‘Pink Champagne’ and ‘Ramona’ with ‘Jackmanii’. 

I use my posts exclusively for clematis, but they can easily be adapted for other vines or as supports for birdhouses or feeders.


This article appeared in a previous issue of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography by John Vicellio.


Posted: 03/22/19   RSS | Print


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Mole Control
by Karen Neill    

I know you won’t believe this, especially if you have moles tunneling through your landscape, but moles are actually somewhat beneficial in the landscape. They are probably tearing up your lawn in order to achieve this, but they do help with soil management and the control of undesirable grubs and insects.  

You may never see a mole, as they live in a series of underground burrows, only rarely coming to the surface. They actually live in seclusion, so while it might seem like you have dozens of moles tearing through your lawn, it is more likely only one or two.    

Moles have paddle-like forefeet that are very large and broad with pronounced claws for digging. They have a hairless pointed snout that extends nearly ½ inch in front of the mouth and they are approximately 5-7 inches long covered in a velvety fur.  

Moles are insectivores, which is important to know as they eat mainly grubs, beetles, and worms they find in the soil. Moles eat 70 to 100 percent of their weight each day. They are often wrongly blamed for the disappearance of tulips and other prized plants in the landscape – voles are more than like the perpetrator of that crime. So proper identification is very important when discussing control options.  

One reason home lawns are so frequently targeted by moles is that they prefer to hunt in loose, moist soil that is rich with grubs and earthworms. The shallow tunnels they form in a lawn as they search for food is what homeowners find most objectionable. Walking across a lawn where moles have been hunting will leave you feeling like you could break an ankle with every step. The tunnels also make mowing more difficult and can lead to browning of the grass when roots are damaged.  

All my life I have heard folks talk about putting a piece of Juicy Fruit gum down the tunnel as a way to control moles. But in all my years I have never seen a mole chewing gum. Unfortunately, there are no short cuts when it comes to mole control. I have heard of people planting marigolds (Tagetes spp.), castor bean (Ricinus spp.), or mole plant (Euphorbia lathyris) to repel moles and other pests, but none of these have been scientifically proven to be effective.  

University research results have also not found any of the numerous types of electronic, magnetic, and vibration devices promoted for repelling indicate to be effective.  

A serious mole problem may be an indicator of a soil insect problem. An abundant food supply is certainly a draw for these critters, so if eliminated or reduced, the moles will be forced to leave the area. There are several insecticides available that will kill white grubs, the larvae stage of the Japanese beetle and green June beetle as well as other insects. Unfortunately, they also kill earthworms, non-target insects, and possibly even songbirds and pets.  

Trapping is the most effective method for controlling moles. There are several mole traps on the market and, when used properly, provide good results. At least two traps work best on an average size lawn and they should be placed on active runways. If you have tunnels in the yard, you’ll need to determine if they are active. One way to do this is to step on all the runs, mark or flag them, and then check them after 24 hours. Those that have been repaired are active runs. We refer to these as the “freeways” and that is where you want to set the trap. To place a trap, step on the tunnel where you plan to set it to hide it from the mole’s point of view. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t succeed on your first try. You have to be persistent when dealing with moles. If traps remain un-sprung after a week or so, start the process over.  

Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy solution to rid a yard of moles. Effective mole control relies on patience, persistence, and knowing their habits and behaviors.                                            

Note: Many states have laws regarding the trapping and/or poisoning of nuisance animals. Check with your state wildlife and fishery agency before taking any action. 


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


Posted: 03/15/19   RSS | Print


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A Bowl of Beauty
by Barbara Peake Wise    

Ah, the mixture of foliage and flora as a harbinger of spring. Bring color and textual contrast to a sunny spot with this combination of perennials and annuals. Save a little money with this combination by planting in early spring from 4-inch pots and allow them to fill in. Million bells (Calibrachoa) thrives in the moderate temperatures of March and April but can’t handle a freeze, so you will want to bring this planter indoors if the temperature is threatening to dip to 32 F or below.  

This recipe provides three seasons of interest, starting with the rich contrast of obsidian and chartreuse in the Heuchera leaves mixed with the Calibrachoa, whose colors echo the obsidian and chartreuse in its flower. As summer approaches, the Heuchera begins to send up its airy flower tendrils while the Agastache prepares to bloom. As summer deepens the Sedum begins its slow blossoming while the Calibrachoa and Agastache are rich with color.  

When planting in early spring, add a slow-release fertilizer and repeat in midsummer to keep them in strong bloom. This recipe prefers to be on the dry side, but use the Calibrachoa as your indicator plant. When it begins to slightly wilt, it’s time to water.  

A. Heuchera ‘Key Lime Pie’
B. Heuchera ‘Black Pearl’
C. Superbells Evening Star (Calibrachoa hybrid ‘USCAL42202’)
D. Sedum hybrid
E. Agastache ‘Arizona Sunset’ 



A version of this article appeared in a previous print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photo courtesy of Barbara Wise.


Posted: 03/15/19   RSS | Print


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What Mr. MacGregor Didn’t Know
by Stacey Libbert    


There’s nothing more satisfying than digging in fresh soil, planting a vegetable and watching it flourish. It’s not only what keeps gardeners coming back year after year, but it also has the same effect on garden pests, such as rabbits.  

Many of us have experienced that roller coaster of emotions that comes from dealing with garden pests. Going to bed, we are elated knowing our lovely, healthy plants are tucked safely in the garden. Yet by morning, we often awake to a nightmare of neatly trimmed stems without a leaf or vegetable in sight. The guilty culprits are easy to determine by the evidence left behind. Deer usually leave a jagged edge on the pilfered plant, while rabbits leave a clean cut.  

Unfortunately, rabbits are notoriously difficult to remove from an area – just ask Mr. McGregor. The story of Peter Rabbit has long delighted young children and elicited sympathetic sighs from gardeners. What can a poor gardener do to rid himself of this cotton-tailed pestilence?  


One simple, though not foolproof, method to deter the long-eared interlopers is to arrange plantings in a way that is less appealing to them. Rabbits eat a variety of plants, but they especially love grasses, clover, carrots, lettuce, peas, beans, strawberries and beets. However, there are a wide variety of other plants they find less palatable. Corn, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and gourds are often left untouched by rabbits. One tactic is to plant less tempting vegetables at the edge of the garden, while containing their favorite meals closer to the center. However, building this natural fence around the perimeter is only a slight deterrent.  

If you have a serious rabbit problem, set an 18-24-inch high fence made of 1-inch mesh wire. Stake and bury the bottom edge of the fence at least 6 inches deep to prevent the rabbits from burrowing underneath. Another option is an electric fence with strands placed at 4, 8 and 12 inches above ground.  


Unfortunately, vegetables are not the only things that rabbits enjoy. They often gnaw the bark on the trunks, stems and lower branches of ornamental trees, fruit trees and bushes, but they are particularly fond of apples, raspberries, blackberries, cherries and plums. Their appetite even extends to ornamental plants, such as sumac, roses, tulips, basswood, dogwood, red maples, sugar maples, honey locusts and willows. Though they cannot eat the entire tree, the damage they inflict over time is more than enough to kill it.  

The thick, rough bark of older trees may discourage rabbits, but younger trees are particularly susceptible to damage. Surround the trunk with a cylinder of 4-inch mesh hardware cloth set firmly in the ground. The cylinders should be at least 18-24 inches high. Commercial tree wraps and plastic guards may also be used to prevent gnawing.


The obvious disadvantage of visible fencing and tree guards is aesthetic. Depending on the area and purpose of your garden, you may not want to add wire mesh, even if it deters rabbits. Fortunately, there are other options. Chemical repellents such as those containing thiram, an ectoparasiticide used to prevent fungus and other pests, have proven effective in deterring rabbits. Read and follow label safety directions for use of any chemicals on edible crops.  

Another option is to protect flowers with blood meal. It is less effective when food is scarce, of course. Havahart DeFence is a fast-acting formula containing a high concentration of putrescent egg, an effective scent deterrent. Since the eastern cottontail rabbit feeds near dusk and dawn, the best time to apply repellents is in the evening. If it rains, however, their effectiveness is lost, and retreatment of the area is necessary.  


If deterrents are not working, consider habitat reduction. Most rabbits prefer living in fencerows, by hedges or at the edges of fields, but rarely in dense forests and heavily wooded areas. One way to keep the rabbit population at bay is to remove brush, weed patches and stone piles from the edge of your property and control overgrown vegetation along ditches, banks and fence lines. Although family pets such as cats and dogs can keep rabbits from inhabiting your yard, they might also keep birds from the area as well.  

Trapping during the colder winter months is a final solution if all other attempts have failed, or if the population is relatively small. Bait a wire or wooden box trap with apple slices and set it in areas of dense brush. Transport the captured rabbit at least 5 miles away from the property to discourage a return. The drawback of this method is that it is time consuming and problematic because rabbits are easily injured when trying to remove them from the trap.  

It seems that all of us – two- and four-legged creatures alike – are drawn to the beauty and bounty of the garden. We continue to live out the age-old tale: The vigilant gardener, rake in hand, guarding his potential harvest versus the inquisitive, insatiable bunny devouring tender green shoots. If only Mr. McGregor had buried his fence just little deeper or kept his hedgerow a little neater, perhaps poor Peter Rabbit wouldn’t have lost his father, or his pants. 


A version of this article appeared in a previous print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photo by Alan Mitchell, ©istockphoto/mitcha


Posted: 03/15/19   RSS | Print


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Must Be Something in the Air
by Jane Jordan    

Air plants (Tillandsia spp.), as the name suggests, do not require soil to grow. These curious epiphytes are part of the bromeliad family, they are perennial and have a natural tendency to cling to tree branches, rocks or whatever they can get a grip on.  

Even though they grow on other plants for support, they are not parasitic, it is a misconception that they affect or damage the host plant. They merely rely on the host plant to gain an advantageous position for the most favorable sun exposure. Tillandsias root systems are designed to anchor to plants or surfaces on which the plant can live, in this way they obtain moisture and nutrients from the air and rain.  

Tillandsias are often divided into two groups, mesic and xeric. Mesic tillandsias grow in rainforests or in shade, where the air is always moderately humid. Xeric tillandsias grow in deserts and can live in hot dry climates or dry tropical forests.  

Tillandsias are found in the south Eastern United States, also in parts of Mexico and the Caribbean, but thrive in Florida’s humid atmosphere. When growing non-native species check that your plant is suited to you USDA hardiness zone. Generally, non-native tillandsias should not be outside if temperatures drop below 40 F.  

One of the most iconic native tillandsias we see in Florida is Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides). Ball moss (Tillandsia recurvate) is also a commonly found. Other Florida species are broad needleleaf (T. simulata), southern needleleaf (T. setacea), and Bartram’s air plant (T. bartramii).  

Native species of tillandsias evoke a feel of old Florida and the Deep South. Even more so when observing an avenue of live oak hung with long gray beards of Spanish moss. They are so much a part of our natural environment that we take them for granted, and barely notice their presence. But there are tillandsias that can make you sit up and take notice. These species with their geometric forms or cushion-like structures have individual sculptural qualities, and when combined with colorful vibrant blooms they are fascinating plants to grow. Adding to the allure, some tillandsia flowers are delicately fragrant.  

If that is not enough incentive to seek out and grow tillandsias, then consider that they are extremely low maintenance, needing only light, air circulation, plus an occasional mist of water and fertilizer.  

Tillandsias are readily available online, and often found at specialized nurseries. It is well worth seeking out these nurseries with a visit in mind, as numerous plants and many different species are often available and often in flower. Specialized nurseries not only make an interesting day out, they give you a chance to talk with the growers of these amazing plants, who often impart knowledge and answer questions that you did not even think to ask.  

All tillandsias bloom, some have small insignificant flowers while others are large and spectacular. The length of blooming depends on the species, but colorful bracts can linger for many weeks after the flower has died. Blooms are dependent on the maturity of the plant, in their natural habitat they bloom at the beginning of the dry season.  

Tillandsias require bright, indirect sunlight; they can even take some direct sunlight for short periods of time. By contrast, they will not thrive in dimly lit locations, and when grown indoors, lack of light is the most common reason tillandsias decline.  

When introducing a new tillandsia to you home, it is advisable to dunk the entire plant in water or pass it through a stream of water rotating all the time for the water to reach the center of the plant. This process is especially important with mail ordered plants. After the plant has been saturated, hold it upside down to remove any excess water from the crevices.  

Curled leaves indicate that your tillandsia is dehydrated. If kept indoors, mist them once or twice a week dependent on how much you use your air conditioning or heating. Avoid shocking the plant with cold water, use lukewarm water instead.  

Do not display your tillandsia in a container that will collect water, after misting it is important your tillandsias dry completely, especially if placing back in a terrarium.  

Tillandsias need nutrients to survive, when grown in a native habitat they get everything they need from the air, but indoors or when kept in covered spaces such as on a lanai, they will need to be fertilized. There are many specialized fertilizers formulated just for air plants. I have had success with a tillandsia fertilizer 16-9-25. I use it once a week and my tillandsias are thriving.  

Once a tillandsia begins to produce offspring (pups) the parent plant begins to decline. The pups produced often cover the shrinking parent plant until it eventually disappears. Pups can be gently pulled apart to start new plants, or left to clump. Tillandsias are slow growing, but over time, clumps become large and impressively beautiful, especially when flowering.  

Decaying foliage is a natural part of the growing process; any unsightly leaves can be easily trimmed away. Even the parent plant, once shriveled, can be carefully removed if the pups have not grown over it.  

Tillandsias are relatively pest and disease free, provided they are kept healthy. Mealybugs have been known to occasionally attack tillandsias. If that happens, submerge the whole plant in water to dislodge them or remove insects with a damp cotton ball. Complete infestations may require treatment with a pesticide. They can develop fungus and rot, but this normally happens when they have been left in standing water.  

Tillandsias can grow on or in a variety of interesting and creative surfaces. Bark, rock, or hanging glass globes make interesting displays. I like the hanging baskets specifically designed for these plants, but there are numerous artistic ways to display them.  

Be warned: Tillandsias are addictive. I guarantee that once you own one, soon you will want to collect them all. 


Photos courtesy of Jane Jordan.


Posted: 03/05/19   RSS | Print


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Seeing Red
by Tom Hewitt    

Designer Bill Blass was right when he called red “the ultimate cure for sadness.” It certainly grabs our attention and excites in a way no other color can. But it’s also one of hardest colors to use in a garden. It’s easy to go overboard or miss the mark entirely by picking the wrong shade.  

Pure red is actually quite rare in nature. Most of my favorite red flowers – such as tropical sage (Salvia coccinea), red Lantana, geraniums (Pelargonium spp.), and Cosmos ‘Cosmic Red’ – contain orange undertones.  

I’m not nearly as timid about using red as I used to be. I used to consider red too “garish” for my English garden, but not anymore. When I visited Monet’s garden in Giverny, I was surprised to find so many red flowers growing there. I expected oranges, purples, and pinks, but not strong reds. When I asked a caretaker about this, he told me that the red flowers were some of Monet’s favorites.  

Still, red is the most dominant of colors, so I use it sparingly. It can easily overpower the eye and steal the show and I’ve found that the smaller the garden, the less red it can handle, since it can cause a garden to look even smaller.  

This principal doesn’t seem to apply to larger gardens, however. I noticed this on a visit to a public botanical garden, where scarlet sage (Salvia splendens) was paired with blue mealycup sage (S. farinacea) and white Angelonia. With an open view of wetlands in the distance, it was a sight I’ll never forget.  

Strong reds can be toned down with green, which is directly opposite of red on the color wheel. Though not a color you’d normally associate with restfulness, I sometimes nestle pots of tropical sage among the ferns in my backyard. To quote famed garden designer Penelope Hobhouse, “Red makes its strongest impact when it comes as a surprise.”  

I wouldn’t advise using plants with large red flowers in an intimate, restful setting. There’s a difference between shock and surprise. If your eye goes directly to a pot of vermilion geraniums, for example, you may have gone too far … unless, of course, that was your intention.  

I love using hanging baskets planted with red flowers, but I add white Alyssum, Lobelia, or some other filler to tone them down. Some of my red-flowering favorites for baskets include Verbena, million bells (Calibrachoa hybrids), purslane (Portulaca oleracea), and trailing Madagascar periwinkles (Catharanthus roseus cvs.).    

Red flowers play well against gray foliage, such as that of Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), and dusty miller (Senecio cineraria). I also like the rich look of red and purple together, like red geraniums paired with purple Lobelia. Other favorites of mine for containers include ‘Rocket Red’ snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus ‘Rocket Red’), red Begonia, ‘Cherry Rose’ nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus ‘Cherry Rose’), Zinnia (especially ‘Profusion Cherry’, ‘Double Strawberry’, and ‘Red Spider’), red Pentas, and red tropical hollyhocks (Alcea hybrids). I sometimes use red Gaillardia in my butterfly garden, though they never last long.  

For gardens in light shade, consider growing Brazilian red cloak (Megaskepasma erythrochlamys), red firespike (Odontonema strictum), ti plants (Cordyline spp.), red gingers, azaleas (Rhododendron ‘Red Ruffles’ and ‘Red Formosa’ perform well for me), or sleepy hibiscus (Malvaviscus penduliflorus).  

In full sun to partial shade, grow bromeliads (especially Neoregelia ‘Fireball’), sun coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides cvs.), copperleaf (Acalypha wilkesiana), Hibiscus, ‘Louis Philippe’ roses (Rosa ‘Louis Philippe’), red Crossandra, and red ruellia (Ruellia elegans). Canna is also available in a wide range of reds, and some even have reddish foliage.  

On the patio, grow red desert rose (Adenium obesum) in a pot, and grow red Mandevilla on trellises. If you have the room, don’t overlook red Bougainvillea.  

Ground cover choices include bloodleaf (Iresine herbstii), Joseph’s coat (Alternanthera ficoidea ‘Red Threads’), dwarf chenille plant (Acalypha pendula) and baby sunrose (Aptenia cordifolia).

If you want to draw attention to a particular area of your garden, use red as a focal point. Red patio furniture, pieces of art, or even a red bench can be stunning. Painting a door or garden gate red is another clever idea, especially if you have an abundance of greenery to play against. 


Photography by Tom Hewitt.


Posted: 03/05/19   RSS | Print


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New Seed Varieties for 2019
by Erika Jensen    

Winter is prime time for seed catalogs. While others are watching the Super Bowl, I’m usually knee deep in catalogs, obsessively planning for spring. When choosing varieties, I definitely look for organic seed, and here’s why.  

First, the basics: Certified organic seed is harvested from plants raised without the use of synthetic chemicals. Further, the seed cannot be treated with fungicides or insecticides. It turns out that the seed business is very chemically intensive, and that’s just plain bad for the environment. This alone should be reason enough to purchase organic, but there are some other reasons.  

Put simply, plants bred in an organic system are better suited to thrive in organic gardens, which might include more weeds and pests. Plus, plant breeders selecting organic varieties often put flavor at the top of the list of characteristics they breed for.

A few programs are developing new varieties for organic growers, including Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If you are looking for a good local seed company, the Seed Alliance ( is a great place to start.

I spoke with representatives from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (, High Mowing Seeds (, and Seed Savers Exchange ( to compile this list of some new and very promising varieties for the upcoming year.  

‘Benefine’ endive  
A frisée variety with improved performance and less tip burn. The variety was sourced through Enza/Vitalis, a Dutch seed company that is a leader in the organic industry. 

‘Cool Customer’ pickling cucumber  
Early, uniform, vigorous and tasty – and makes great pickles. Developed by Dr. John Novazio, it’s an improvement over the former offering, ‘Northern Pickling’. 

‘Magic Lime Green’ feverfew  
Developed by Oregon plant breeder Frank Morton, this is one of the few varieties of organic feverfew available.  

‘Galaxy’ tomato  
These cherry tomatoes were bred for flavor, but they also resist cracking and store well at room temperature. ‘Supernova’, a mini red Roma with yellow striping, is the brightest star in the constellation, while ‘Midnight’ a pear tomato, ‘Comet’ a red grape tomato, ‘Sungrazer’ an orange grape tomato, and ‘Starlight’ a yellow grape tomato, are also stellar.  

‘PLS 595’ shell pea  
This is the first organic selection of a tried-and-true shell pea used for processing. It has great flavor and productivity, with an average of 11 peas per pod. 2-3 feet tall, it doesn’t need staking, since the tendrils cling to each other, providing support.  

‘Pinwheel’ marigold
An attractive combination of maroon and yellow, ‘Pinwheel’ reaches 2½-3 feet tall. It attracts pollinators and works well as a cut flower. An heirloom variety from the 17th century, this selection is well adapted to cold climates, since it was grown and stewarded in the northeastern U.S.  

‘Wisconsin 55’ tomato  
Rescued from the USDA seed bank, this heirloom was rigorously selected from the original genetic stock for this variety. An old favorite first developed by the University of Wisconsin and released in 1946.  

‘Waldoboro Green Neck’ rutabaga  
This heirloom rutabaga was reportedly salvaged off a shipwreck that occurred off the coast of Maine. But the story is just the beginning of a great variety with decorative purple leaves and an especially sweet flavor.  

Organic seed can be expensive to purchase. But if you store your seed correctly, you can use it for several years. Seed stores best under cool, dry conditions. I store mine in either the refrigerator or freezer. Left is a chart showing how long seeds can be expected to remain viable. If you purchase pelletized seed, it generally only lasts a year.


Posted: 03/04/19   RSS | Print


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LAZY DAISIES AND TIRED TULIPS: Dead Heading and Dividing Perennials to Increase Vigor
by Andrea Dee    

Have you noticed your obedient plant rebelling into a doughnut shape with an empty hole in the middle? Has ‘Rozanne’ lost her vigor, with less and less flare each year? Are your spring tulips a carpet of green instead of red? Or maybe your friends are dying for a piece of your lungwort? While most flower gardens start out lush and colorful early in the season, late summer and fall often yield a less desirable look. Don’t be afraid to chop on your plants, you won’t hurt them. A little deadheading and dividing can go a long way in the perennial garden.  

Pruning Perennials
On average, perennials bloom three to four weeks, however when deadheaded some can bloom for several months. A plant’s physiological purpose for flowering is to make seed in an effort to reproduce immediately after blooming. As gardeners our interest is not always in seed production, but more in a bounty of blooms. Perennials can be manipulated to bloom most abundantly when deadheaded through the season and fertilized midsummer if necessary.  

Some flowers like daylily (Hemerocallis spp.), Iris, toad lily (Tricyrtis spp.) and others that flower atop a long stalk, have stems that can be removed all the way back to the crown after flowering. This practice will encourage new buds to flourish later and keep the foliage clean and orderly. Keep height in mind when planting these types of perennials in the garden. Often the foliar crown is much shorter than the flower stalk so you may want to plan your garden design so that another plant can fill the voided space after pruning. Tall perennial grasses like switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and ‘Karl Foerster’ grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster') make nice backdrops to long flower stalk perennials with low-growing foliage.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.), Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum), Salvia, bee balm (Monarda spp.), bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis), Scabiosa, Geranium and a whole lot of popular perennials are naturally long blooming but with some extra deadheading can keep their show of flowers even longer. Simply pinch back dead blossoms to the first good set of healthy leaves and new buds will generate quickly.  

Some plants like Coreopsis have so many blooms to dead head it may be difficult with a pair of pruners, midseason hedging a few inches into the canopy is recommended to force out a second show of color. Wait until these perennials are almost done blooming and there are more seed heads than flower buds gracing the foliage canopy before hedging back.

Clematis can be one of the trickiest perennials in the garden to prune. For the most part seasonal pruning rules apply to clematis as well. Prune spring-blooming clematis immediately after the blooms decline all the way to the ground if necessary, this will allow plants the entire season to put on new growth and set buds for the following year. Prune summer- and fall-blooming clematis just after dormancy since they bloom on current year’s growth. If you desire long vines to drape an arbor for instance, prune back to a healthy leaf bud, or to 1 foot tall if rejuvenating completely. Prune clematis regularly and avoid pruning into very mature wood since it does not always respond well to pruning.

Tools for pruning perennials range from a simple hand to a sharper blade. Deadheading blooms can easily be done by pinching back blooms by hand, or pruning with a pair of scissors, “sheep” shear pruners, or needle-nosed pruners. Pruning of stems and foliage will likely require a pair of heavy-duty pair of bypass garden pruners.  

Dividing Perennials
When plants are three to five years old they often need rejuvenation and benefit from division. This is also a great time to expand your garden with all the new starts you will dig up!  

When choosing plants to divide remember, perennials that flower between early spring and mid-June are best divided in the fall, and perennials that flower after mid-June are best divided in the spring. However peonies, oriental poppies, and true lilies should infrequently be divided in the fall.

It is time to divide bee balm, Astilbe, blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora), Chrysanthemum, garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) and Salvia when clumps start to die out in the middle. If your lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), bleeding heart, daylily, yarrow (Achillea spp.) or iris become too woody, or start to show yellow leaves, it may be time to divide and replant them as well. Perennials like coneflower (Echinacea spp.), speedwell (Veronica spp.), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) can overrun a small garden, and should be divided also. Ornamental grasses can be divided in fall, but have so much aesthetic value even while dormant in the winter that most gardeners prefer to leave then until spring for pruning.

Once a plant shows an inch or two of green shoots, use a sharp spade to dig up a large clump for division. You can use an old kitchen knife, a perennial knife, or my favorite a Japanese soil knife called a Hori-Hori to separate vigorous shoots and root. Tough, woody roots from the middle are hard to establish and should be discarded to the compost pile. Replant offsets at the same depth they were originally growing. Water plants to be divided well a few days before digging and again at planting time, and continue to water regularly throughout the next few weeks to re-establish roots.  

Deadheading and Dividing Bulbs
Flowering bulbs too can benefit from division every three to five years, especially tulips. Daffodil (Narcissus spp.), Crocus, bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), grape hyacinth (Muscari spp.) and snow drop (Galanthus spp.) all have a naturalizing habit and do not necessarily need to be divided to thrive. Tulip, Dahlia and iris can be rejuvenated to increase bloom size and bounty every few years.  

Whether you plan to divide bulbs or not, deadhead blooms as they die back and leave waning foliage until completely brown. This is a true test of patience for any gardener, but it is important that the foliage continues to photosynthesize and store energy in the bulb for the subsequent season. Some gardeners ease their eyes and tidy their tulip and daffodil beds for summer during this several weeklong natural process by bending and tying browning foliage into bundles with string or a rubber band. If you do plan to divide bulbs dig bulbs after foliage declines and energy is stored. Always dig bulbs instead of pulling to minimize damage of both the bulb and root hairs. Harvest bulblets, which are usually attached to the mother bulb and re-plant. The original mother bulb can also be re-planted and will often be rejuvenated itself.  

Host a Garden Party
Spring and fall division mark an excellent time to host your family, neighbors and friends for a garden party. You will surely have plenty of young plants to share! 


A version of this article appeared in a previous print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photo credits: Daylily and rose photos courtesy of; hosta photo courtesy of


Posted: 02/06/19   RSS | Print


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LESS REALLY IS MORE: Pruning Fruits and Vegetables to Increase Harvest
by Andrea Dee    

A little green thumb and a pair of pruners can go a long way in yielding a high quality harvest both in the veggie patch and fruit orchard. Pruning fruits and vegetables can be very beneficial in directing energy away from other plant parts towards the fruiting buds, leading to a more bountiful garden.

In their native setting the habit of most fruit and vegetable plants is to concentrate energy on growing foliage more so than flower production. Foliage serves an important purpose preforming like solar panels, collecting energy that supports the growth of all plant parts. Fruit’s main purpose is to provide a seed for reproduction, and most plants require a lot less fruit to serve that purpose than what satisfies a gardener's appetite. However an ambitious gardener can employ a little pruning skill and increase their yield.

Plant breeders have selected specific cultivators for many reasons, one being heavy production of quality fruit. Therefore variety selection is the first step in guaranteeing a full picking basket. Next would be healthy soils and healthy plants. When those details are in order, consider pruning fruits and vegetables in an effort to remove excess foliage and non-fruiting branches to blossom a bigger harvest, quite literally.

Pruning Vegetables
Vegetables like tomato, squash, pepper and cucurbits can benefit from pruning both excess foliage and flower buds. As plants mature and foliage becomes overly lush, select about one-third of the branches to remove throughout the growing season to re-direct plant energy towards flower buds. Removing some flower buds is okay; it will simply result in larger individual fruits from the remaining buds. Removing excess foliage will also allow sunlight to penetrate deeper into the plant's canopy ripening fruit quicker and more evenly.

When it comes to tomatoes, removing “sucker” growth in addition to thinning can result in better fruit yield. A sucker is a side shoot off of the main stem developing between the main stem and a leaf. Simply pinch back this growth as it appears, re-directing energy once supplied to the sucker growth towards the blossoms, which later produce tomato fruits. Additionally, some gardeners remove leaves from the base of the tomato plant to prevent the spread of fungal spores commonly splashed up from the soil. These spores show up as dark spots on the lower leaves and eventually spread upwards through splashing water from one leaf to the next.

Pruning Fruits
Pruning fruits annually will drastically increase berry and orchard fruit production. Since fruits are commonly perennial plants their natural growth habit can easily become dense. As they grow older, removing excess foliage can go a long way in maximizing yield.

Berries that benefit from pruning include blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and even strawberries. 

Blackberry plants are biennial, meaning their upright stems called canes live just two years. In the first year, a cane grows vigorously and stores energy. In the second year that stem produces fruit. After fruiting, that cane declines and should be cut back to the ground post harvest. The remaining canes will fruit the following season. Sometimes late in the growing season blackberry plants will need to be tipped back to their trellis height so their dense top foliage doesn't shade out the lower part of the cane prohibiting fruit set and ripening.

Most gardeners prefer fall-bearing raspberries because of their ease of pruning. Fall-bearing raspberries will fruit on one-year-old wood. When pruned to the ground in late winter they will start fruiting that same year in late summer through the fall. 

Blueberries require little pruning once established but do benefit from thinning cuts to allow sunlight to penetrate fully. Pruned blueberry plants should be narrow at the base, open in the center, and free of dead and diseased wood. 

Strawberries benefit from removal of their first year's blooms. Removing these blossoms sends energy back to the crown and increases root vigor, which helps young plants to establish better. As difficult as this is, pinch those initial pretty little white flowers off, aborting the potential for even a sampling of sweet homegrown berries that first year. However when this is done, the following year promises a much more bountiful berry patch.

Orchard fruits like peach, pear, cherry, apple, plum, apricot and pawpaw all can benefit from annual pruning. While each orchard fruit has its own specific recommendations, there are a few general tips that can help the most novice of gardeners become a better orchardman. Some of the basics include first removing all dead, diseased and damaged branches. Also prune out suckers sprouting from the tree's crown and water sprouts that grow vertically from horizontal branches. Both suckers and water sprouts produce unnecessary foliage and rob energy from more important plant parts. For your next pruning cuts think about the ability for sunlight to shine through the canopy and ripen fruit. Also, consider the ease of air to circulate through the canopy, which helps to dry foliage quickly reducing the spread of disease. The goals in pruning orchard fruit varies from ornamentals in that the production of high quality fruit takes precedence over aesthetics, leading to a somewhat sparse and open shape.

Branches smaller than your thumb can usually be pruned with a pair of pruners, while larger branches will require a loppers or pruning saw. By-pass type pruners and loppers, with one blade passing the other, are preferred since they make the cleanest cuts. Typically 20-30 percent of newly emerged branches in the canopy are removed during annual orchard pruning. Not only does this keep the canopy from becoming cluttered, but also reduces the potential fruit load. Consequently this makes the remaining fruit larger and higher quality due to the re-distribution of plant energy. Deciduous trees like orchard fruits should be pruned during dormancy, late winter preferably.

While plants thick with lush green foliage look very pretty and often appear most healthy in the garden, they do not guarantee the biggest basket full of homegrown food. A little pruning can go a long way in growing food over foliage. Less really can equal more when it comes to pruning fruit and vegetable plants.



A version of this article appeared in a previous print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Tomato sucker photo courtesy of Alan Pulley. All others by Andrea Dee.


Posted: 02/06/19   RSS | Print


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PRUNE PERFECT: Pruning Landscape Shrubs with Perfection
by Andrea Dee    

Gardeners often forget the magic of how quickly shrubs can fill an empty space in the landscape. While controlling size is the most common need for pruning, other reasons include encouraging bounties of bloom, artistic shaping such as when designing topiaries, and removal of dead and diseased wood. 

Ultimately, choosing the “right plant for the right place” is your best option for controlling shrub size and supporting plant health. The days of seeing only boxwood with predictable growth habits are gone. Now there are hundreds of cultivars available of some species. It is important to learn specific cultivars and to read the plant information highlighted on the tag. A commonly favored boxwood is ‘Green Velvet’. Its mature size is 2 feet high by 2½ feet wide. This makes it a perfect choice for most foundation plantings and alleviates the need for annual pruning to manipulate size. If you are looking for something with a more pyramidal form, you may prefer ‘Green Mountain’, which matures into a 4-foot-high by 3-foot-wide, pyramidal-shaped evergreen that requires minimal pruning to keep shape. These are examples of how to pick the right plant for the right place, but sometimes there is no variety to match your desires and you must rely on pruning. 

Pruning Flowering Shrubs
Shrubs that flower before June should be pruned during or immediately after flowering. These shrubs bloom on “old wood,” which was formed the previous summer. When pruned just after blooming you are allowing ample time before winter to develop wood for next spring’s bloom. If you are less concerned with a spring show of flowers and more concerned with controlling the size of an unruly shrub, you can forfeit the blossoming buds and prune in late winter instead. Examples of these shrub varieties include: barberry (Berberis spp.), quince (Chaenomeles speciosa), smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria), Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), DeutziaForsythia, holly (Ilex spp.), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), Magnolia, mock orange (Philadelphus coronarius), PierisPyracanthaRhododendronSpiraea, lilac (Syringa spp.) and Viburnum.

Shrubs that flower after June or have insignificant blooms should be pruned in the winter or early spring before new growth appears. These shrubs bloom on new wood formed during the current spring or summer. Examples of these shrubs include Abelia, butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.), beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis), Clematis, Clutha, rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), Hydrangea, crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) and rose.

Some shrubs may benefit from light pruning before and after flowering. Double pruning can increase flowering and may result in a second bloom during the growing season for certain shrubs. Examples of these varieties include: Abelia, butterfly bush, red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), Cotoneaster, Oregon grapeholly (Mahonia aquifolium), Spiraea and Wiegela.

Pruning Evergreen and Conifer Shrubs
Evergreen shrubs can be pruned in the spring when new growth pushes out. Simply pinch or prune new growth with hand pruners to control size. Avoid hedging evergreens with electric shears, which leads to tattered branch tips and a top-heavy shape shading the lower canopy contributing to dieback. Instead select an appropriately sized cultivar for the landscape and thin the canopy through hand pruning to allow maximum light infiltration and airflow. 

Prune outer “green wood” and avoid pruning brown “dead wood” within the inner shrub canopy. You can check to see if wood is green and actively budding new growth by simply scratching the bark with your fingernail or a dull knife. Active tissues will show green cambium beneath the outer bark, and when pruned will rejuvenate by pushing new growth. If a shrub is pruned into the brown “dead wood” the shrub will not likely push new growth and that branch will remain bare. Yew (Taxus spp.) is the exception to this rule; yew shrubs will regenerate new growth even when pruned deeply into the brown cambium wood. 

Conifers fall into two categories of growth, whorled-branching and random-branching. Spruce (Picea spp.), fir (Abies spp.) and most pines (Pinus spp.) are considered whorled-branching types and should be pruned back to another branch or bud. Additionally, special care should be taken to not remove their central leader. Their central leader stem is the most upright pointing middle branch in the center of the specimen. If this stem is damaged or accidentally broken, train a new central leader to take its place through bracing a side branch upward. Juniper (Juniperus spp.), hemlock (Tsuga spp.), yew and arborvitae (Thuja spp.) are considered random-branching. Their undesirable branches can be removed altogether. Branches can also be shortened by pruning back to a bud, making sure to not prune beyond the last green growth unless removing a branch entirely.

Rejuvenation Through Pruning
If you have missed a few years of annual pruning it may be time to reclaim the garden and get aggressive with a pair of loppers. The good news is that some shrubs can be severely cut to the ground and will regenerate a healthy new canopy. Rose-of-Sharon, forsythia, hydrangea, butterfly bush, lilac, and spirea all benefit from this type of rejuvenation. Many gardeners consistently control the size of their Knock Out shrub roses by pruning stems to a height of 8-10 inches from the ground in late winter before new leaves emerge.

For some species, pruning the entire canopy to the base is too drastic. You can implement a three-year pruning sequence if that is of concern. Typically, plants can survive losing up to one-third of their canopy in one growing season. You can re-shape and reinvigorate a waning shrub, like an overly mature viburnum, through a three-year process of removing one-third of the canopy each year. It is recommended this pruning be done in late winter before leaves emerge. This method is most useful when a shrub has matured to be top heavy and lacks internal foliage. After the third year of rejuvenation, and removal of all old branches, you will have created a much more compact and vibrant shrub. 

Tools to Get the Job Done
There is a wide range of pruning tools available. Using bypass pruners and loppers is recommended to encourage proper healing of cut wounds. Bypass pruners and loppers work similarly, with a blade passing through a branch like scissors while the hook blade holds onto the branch. Pruners work best when the branch is smaller than 1 inch in diameter, and loppers are recommended when the branch is larger. If loppers won’t make the cut, you may consider using a pruning saw. Pruning saws are very effective on larger branches; but keep in mind they are designed to cut on the pull stroke, since pulling is the most natural motion for cutting overhead branches.



A version of this article appeared in a previous print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Andrea Dee.


Posted: 02/06/19   RSS | Print


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MAKING THE CUT: Pruning Landscape Trees
by Andrea Dee    

Pruning is one of the best ways to give waning trees more vigor. Alternatively, it is one of the easiest ways to send a healthy tree into decline. Knowing how to make the right pruning cuts is a skill that takes practice and involves a lot of science too!  

When to Prune  
Flowering trees – Ornamental flowering trees that flower before June 1 should be pruned immediately after flowering to avoid shearing off next year’s flower buds. This includes redbud (Cercis spp.), Magnolia, dogwood (Cornus spp.), crabapple (Malus spp.), cherry and plum (Prunus spp.), peach (Prunus persica), pear (Pyrus spp.) and hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), which all set their buds for the following year shortly after flowering. Trees that flower after June 1 should be pruned similarly to shade trees, before new growth begins.

Shade trees – It is both easiest and most beneficial to prune shade trees while they are bare, before leafing out in early spring. Not only is their branch framework most apparent at this time of year, but the tree recovers better from pruning cuts made early in the season. Soon after the tree will start actively photosynthesizing providing necessary energy to seal pruning cuts naturally.

Evergreen trees – Evergreens are pruned in mid to late spring when the candles at the branch tips have formed. Simply pinch back branch-tip growth, called candles, to control size.  

Tools for the Job
Hand pruners with a bypass blade are recommended for branches ¼-½ inch in diameter. An easy rule of “thumb” is these branches will literally be no larger than your thumb! Loppers with a bypass blade are used for branches larger than ½ inch. And when that doesn’t make the cut, a hand-pruning saw or motorized chain saw is useful.  

Making the Cut
You have probably heard the old saying, “measure twice, cut once.” This same idea applies to pruning trees! It is always a good idea to step back and examine the tree canopy as a whole before making the first cut. While assessing the canopy think about the end result in shape, form, and texture. Concentrate on ways to remove whole branches back to the trunk to achieve the desired look and avoid stubbing branches.  

Start by pruning the tree from the top downward. This makes it easier to shape a tree. Most importantly remember to make each cut at the bark ridge of the branch. The bark ridge is where the branch meets the main stem or trunk. This ridge, also referred to as branch collar, houses special tissue that provokes the tree to compartmentalize the wounded wood. Compartmentalization is a tree’s way of “healing” the cut. If a flush cut is made removing the branch collar, the tree will not be able to set boundaries for resisting infection and decay. Alternatively, if a stub is left beyond the branch collar, the compartmentalizing callus tissue will not be signaled and the left behind stub will slowly rot. Most branches can be easily removed with pruners, however some may be larger and require a pruning saw or chainsaw. To ensure the safest cuts on larger branches an initial “stubbing” three-cut method is recommended.  

First, score the branch halfway with an upstroke approximately 12 inches from the main trunk. Second, make a full downward stroke an inch or so outside of the initial upward stroke. The length of the branch outside the cut should drop to the ground. Now that the branch is “stubbed” back, make a final downward stroke at the branch collar to encourage compartmentalization. This method of removing excess wood weight first prevents the tendency to peel the branch collar off, like when only one cut is made.  

Wound Dressing
Painting or packing tree wounds is not recommended. Microorganisms that promote wood decay populate easily behind paint and other wound dressings. Trees respond to pruning cuts through compartmentalization and are self-sealing in a way. Natural airflow and leaving the tree to its own defenses is the best remedy for preventing wood decay.  

Designing Perfectly Branched Trees
Special care is often taken in the way of careful planting and ample watering of young trees. Yet, sometimes encouraging a strong canopy with a pair of pruners is also necessary. When establishing a tree, corrective pruning can go a long way.  

Step back and examine the tree for a central leader. In trees like tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and pin oak (Quercus palustris) this will be a single, dominant leader branch coming to a point at the top of the canopy. In trees like maple (Acer spp.), ash (Fraxinus spp.), honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos) and dogwood (Cornus spp.) this will be a modified leader rounding the canopy at the top. If the tree is codominant, remove one branch to encourage a central leader to take effect. When a central leader is not established early enough, the bark becomes “included” at the bottom of the “V” crotch where the codominant branches meet. This area of the tree develops weak wood and the tree may split during storms.  

Remove whole branches rather than tipping back branches. Aim for a scaffold branch system, which encourages sunlight penetration and good air circulation. Establish well-spaced branches when the tree is about two years old. Prune young trees so that major branches are scaffold and 18-24 inches apart. Remove any water sprouts through the canopy or suckers at the base of the trunk. Water sprouts clutter the canopy restricting airflow and suckers steal water and sugar energy from the tree.  

Remove crossing branches since they damage the bark, opening sites for potential infection. Similarly, rough, broken branches should be removed with a clean cut to encourage compartmentalization.  

Say NO to Tree Topping!
Some homeowners are talked into believing that topping or dehorning a tree by “hedging” back all large and small branches to one even cut across the canopy is a healthy rejuvenating process for trees. This is false! Topped trees are unsightly and prone to quick decline. The shape of the tree is forever ruined and the immediate response of the tree is to force out heavy twig-like growth from the blunt stubbed branch ends. This is in an effort to replace lost canopy so the tree can continue to photosynthesize to provide for its established root system. These twig-like branches grow rapidly into weak wood that poses a hazard and easily breaks in storms. Instead of topping, take special care in selecting the right tree size for the right place!  

Pruning Safety and When to Use a Certified Arborist
Always use extreme care when pruning large branches. Green wood of most species weighs 30-60 pounds per cubic foot. Before you make a cut on a large branch, evaluate the fall and make sure you position yourself in a safe place. Wear protective gear such as gloves, helmet and eye protection. Never turn your back on a falling branch. If you are uneasy about pruning a tree yourself, consider contracting a certified arborist to do the job. The International Society of Aboriculture (ISA) certifies arborists to manage trees for optimal health safely. For a list of certified arborists in your area, visit,



A version of this article appeared in a previous print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Andrea Dee.


Posted: 02/06/19   RSS | Print


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Take a Load Off
by Susan Jasan    

After a long day working in your garden, there should be a special spot where you can stop and enjoy your labors. Whether it’s a small whimsical bench tucked in along a little garden path or a swing for two, seating in your garden can extend your enjoyment of your garden tremendously.  

Taking time to sit and enjoy not only the views, but also the sounds in your garden, is guaranteed to quiet the spirit of even those with the most hectic lifestyles. Research has shown that just five minutes in nature can significantly reduce your stress level and can increase your concentration level.  

Selecting your seating feature can be almost as much fun as enjoying the view. From garden centers, to the Internet, to arts and crafts shows, there are many different places to find that perfect piece for your garden. Consider a do-it-yourself project to create your own garden seating. It may even become a family heirloom.   Plan your seating to take advantage of special views. Think ahead as you design your garden. When you think about where you want to place that special garden feature, making it a key focal point in your garden, remember to also consider the best placement for seating to enjoy that feature.    

Think about where to sit to enjoy the feel of the sun warming your back on a cool day, or shady areas for a hot summer’s afternoon when perennials are in full bloom. Think whether you want a conversation space or a private, contemplative space. Are there certain views you’d like to be able to sit and enjoy? Or do want to create a cozy enclosed area?  

Just as we furnish the interior of our homes, more and more we’re furnishing our outdoor rooms. Many of the same rules apply. Keeping conversation areas away from heavy traffic areas such as near doorways and sidewalks should be considered as you lay out your outdoor seating.  

And just as you use accent colors in your home, think in terms of color for your garden seating too. Do you prefer muted tones? Or do you like to use strong bold colors?  The same paint cards that give you ideas for color combinations in your home also work well as you select garden combinations and outdoor furniture combinations.  

Remember too that dark colors will typically be hot to the touch on a hot summer’s day. White furniture makes a strong statement in a garden. Just as a few white blooms in the garden go a long way, a white bench makes a strong statement in your landscape.  

Cushions add comfort and pillows are fun accents. The materials for the seating can vary widely – from wood to concrete, metal frames to large boulders, from swings to brick seat-walls. Remember maintenance as well as comfort when you select materials. Each has its pros and cons. But whatever you choose, make it your style, make time to sit in your garden, and take time to smell the roses. 





A version of this article appeared in a February 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography by Susan Jasan.


Posted: 01/08/19   RSS | Print


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Designing with Boulders
by Kelly Bledsoe    

Umbriago … that’s what we called them. On those special Saturday mornings when my dad took my sisters and I for an outdoor adventure to a place we called “Rock City.” While exploring, he would ask us, “Do you know what my grandfather called large rocks like that? Umbriago!” I am not sure why he chose this word to describe such rocks, and I guess I never asked. All I remember is that it sounded right and felt great rolling off our lips. We yelled “UMBRIAGO” as we climbed up and down the enormous rocks.  

Funny how some things never leave us. Twenty odd years later, when looking for a place to build my home, I happened upon a lot at High Rock Lake. And yes, the lot was loaded with rocks. As I jumped from one to the other shouting “UMBRIAGO!” I knew I had found my future home. Friends and family looked at the rock-laden lot and offered expressions of concern and caution. I looked at the lot and saw treasure! I could envision a fish pond with cascading waterfall in that rock grouping, a flower bed in that grouping, a patio built amongst the large boulders over there.  

Since building my home 24 years ago, I have dug, hauled, heaved, chipped away at and incorporated these large rocks into my landscape. Walkways, fire pits and a brick oven have all been constructed using the marvelous rocks gleaned from my own yard.  

I am not unique in my passion for boulders. For years, people have been using boulders to accent their landscapes. Boulders can add a tremendous sense of power. An interesting grouping of rocks makes your home unique. Boulders offer permanence to the landscape not afforded by plants and trees. Rocks are ageless – symbolizing stability and endurance.  

Designing with boulders is becoming one of the most popular landscaping trends, but experts agree on some basic tips to consider when placing boulders in your landscape.  

First, have a clear understanding of where you want a boulder placed and why. Careful planning including considering the kind of rock, the size and shape, as well as the color, will ensure that you don’t end up with a sore thumb sticking out of the ground, but a natural, aesthetically pleasing addition to your landscape. Unlike shrubs and plants, once it is in place you’re not likely to move it.  

Boulders should be set down into the dirt. In a natural setting, boulders don’t hover atop the earth; just a portion is revealed. Always dig approximately one-third the size of your rock below grade to set your boulder. Situate the rock so it blends naturally with the surroundings. Most rocks have distinctive features that create interest. Take advantage of these characteristics when placing them in your garden.  

Don’t be afraid to be BOLD! Boulders should make a statement and will be softened by the addition of plants and flowers. Often a boulder seems big at a rock yard only to be dwarfed when placed in your landscape. Boulders should be arranged in a variety of ways – creating interest. Varying the shape, angle and placement will help rocks look natural and not boring.    

Boulders work well in groupings. A lone stone might look out of place. Experts suggest groupings of three. Make sure to use rocks native to your area. Purchase or scavenge local rocks, those that will authentically represent your region. The general idea when landscaping with boulders is to make it look like they have always been there.  

Boulders can also be placed in the landscape to serve as focal points. Rocks with a vertical shape can be placed in the garden as sculpture. They add a geometric element and create a pleasant contrast to green foliage. Lighting a boulder at night increases its powerful effect. A warm glow or a backlit silhouette adds intrigue and mystery to the landscape.    

Other uses for boulders include hollowing them out and using them to build a fire-pit or a planter. Boulders can be used for benches or as the backdrop for an address plate at the end of a driveway. Drilling a few holes, along with a little simple plumbing, transforms a boulder into a natural fountain. Boulders are used around pool edges and incorporated as fun climbing additions in playgrounds. They can be used to create “boulder walls,” terrace a sloped landscape, define garden bed edges or serve as steps. The possibilities are endless.  

The greatest challenge in placing boulders in your landscape is moving them. The average “home-scale” boulder weighs anywhere from 100-1,000 pounds and will require careful planning, as well as proper equipment. However, the addition of these “UMBRIAGOS” for their sheer rugged beauty is well worth the pain! 




A version of this article appeared in a September 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography by Kelly Bledsoe.


Posted: 01/08/19   RSS | Print


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Building a Garden Pond
by John Tullock    

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 01/07/19   RSS | Print


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Rule the Roost
by Cindy Shapton    

What has wings, a manual transmission and runs on weeds and bugs? If you answered chicken tractor, you might be a gardener who owns chickens or one familiar with permaculture methods.  

When I first learned of chicken tractors, I thought, now there is an idea I can get behind … literally. I couldn’t wait to give it a go. My son got me my first tractor equipped with two bantam chickens we named Taco and Cornbread. I couldn’t wait to start it up and watch it work.  

A chicken tractor is basically a bottomless, portable coop or cage (sometimes with wheels) that can be easily moved around the yard or garden on a regular basis. This allows the chickens to work the ground – digging up weeds, eating bugs and fertilizing as they go.  

Permaculture is based on the idea that everything is connected and all works best when we get out of the way and let things work together naturally. It is how our grandparents and great-grandparents farmed.  As the chickens scratch the ground, they remove weeds and aerate the soil; their waste becomes fertilizer which keeps the grass green; all the while eating bugs before they get to our gardens; and the chickens make nutritious eggs, which we then eat.  

In a perfect world, with plenty of land and no predators or neighbors, free ranging is wonderful. Our first foray into chickens was a 4H project my children were involved in. We raised 50 hens. My husband built a coop and fenced yard for them. During the day, we would open the door and let them freely roam our 2-acre urban orchard. It went well until we got a frantic call from our neighbor who wasn’t happy that our hens had pecked holes in her heirloom tomatoes.  Free-ranging allows chickens to roam and eat bugs, but it seems they like to scratch in all the wrong places, uprooting favorite plants and decimating sections of the landscape if you don’t shoo them out. Who has time for that?  That is where the chicken tractor comes in handy. You decide where the work needs to be done and the chickens do the job as nature intended.  

That will depend on how many chickens you have. Each chicken will need a minimum of 2 square feet of space. And remember, bigger is not always better when it comes time to move the tractor.   Check your local ordinances. If you live somewhere backyard chickens are regulated by ordinance, the number of chickens allowed may already be determined, usually three or four hens and no roosters.   A good rule of thumb to determine how many chickens you need is one hen per family member.  

Good news: All chickens like to till, compost and eat green plants and bugs. The breed of chicken is up to you and depends on what you want from your birds.  Bantams are small birds available in a variety of colors. They are fun, self-sufficient little rascals and good tillers, but lay small eggs.  Docile brown-egg layers include: buff orpington, Plymouth Rock, Dorking, cochin, Delaware, red sex-link, Rhode Island red, silver-laced wyandotte, black sex-link and white wyandotte.  A docile brown-egg layer is the leghorn, a smaller bird known for its early and prolific egg production.  If you are looking for “pretty” eggs, try the Araucana or Ameraucana hens. They lay pale bluish green eggs. I love finding a mix of brown and pastel eggs in the nesting boxes, and they are perfect for craft projects (after the yolk and whites are removed).  Any chicken can become a meat chicken, especially those who don’t behave, but experts suggest not mixing egg layers with meat chickens. Meat or broiler chicken breeds such as Cornish rocks have been bred for meat production and are ready to slaughter in about seven weeks (not genetically modified). They are consumed with eating and are not always friendly to the more docile egg-laying hens.  Other broiler-type heritage breeds grow slower and may take up to four months to reach slaughter weight. Although the meat may be more flavorful then the faster-growing Cornish rocks, it might be a bit tougher.  Both types of broiler breeds are perfect in chicken tractors if you have a short-term plan for tilling your garden area or pasture and want the best-tasting chicken you’ve ever had without worrying about extra additives.  

That is the beauty of a portable tractor: You move it when you want to move it. Usually every day or every two days so the chickens remove weeds and eat bugs, but don’t root up the grass or plants – unless you want an area totally cleared. This keeps the grass green and the chicken waste spread out so it won’t become offensive and call in all the flies in the neighborhood.  

Working chickens are great but the best part of keeping a few hens is the eggs! The number of eggs depends on the breed and age of the hen. The first year you could get about 240 eggs, or 20 dozen per hen, when you average all the egg-laying breeds together; the second year around 200 and the number goes down somewhat in the years to follow. Hens can produce 10 to 12 years if they live that long.  

Yes. Chickens in a tractor will need less food than cooped-up birds, but they will need a well-balanced feed to supplement their green diet. There are many to choose from at the feed store or you can do a bit of research and mix your own. The age and size of your chickens will help determine your choice. Chickens have no teeth and if the breed is small, or you have small and large breeds together, then you may want your feed in crumbles. If your chickens are all large, then pellets will work. Both crumbles and pellets have the same content, they’re just different sizes. A grower mix is for young chicks from six weeks until they start laying eggs. Once they begin producing eggs, you will switch to a layer feed.  Chickens only eat what they need, so you can just fill up the feeder as it empties. I also add scratch (usually two cracked grains) in the winter for extra energy. They may also occasionally need grit and calcium (if shells become thin).  

Most people start with chicks. Raising baby chicks is a fun family project; they grow fast and are ready for the tractor in a few weeks (as long as the weather is warm). Chicks can be purchased at farm stores and co-ops, even online. Look for sexed chicks so you know what you are buying.    

I have found that everyone loves chicken and/or eggs for dinner. Foxes, bobcats, raccoons, snakes, birds of prey, coyotes, dogs, cats, possums and even crows will kill little peeps. The best advice is to build a strong tractor, get a good watchdog, and if you can, keep a rooster to alert you when the hens are in danger. Roosters will protect the flock even if it means getting eaten in the process, but they usually raise such a ruckus that someone will take notice.  Many city or urban dwellers think their chickens will be safe, only to find out that predators know no boundaries when it comes to getting a good meal. In fact, we had more issues with marauding foxes and bobcats in town than out in the country.  

There are many types of chicken tractors for sale at farm stores and online if you want to purchase one; or you can find free plans to build a tractor, or you can design your own. Whether you buy a tractor or build one yourself, just make sure to consider the following:

• 2 square feet, per bird, minimum
• A large door to access food and water
• One nesting box for every two chickens
• A wooden perch with rounded edges
• Strong enough to keep predators out
• A handle or two to make moving easier
• Wheels will help with moving without tearing up the lawn
• A roof to keep out rain and snow
• Good ventilation  
• Feed and water containers that hang or attach to the side  

Just remember that a fancy tractor won’t produce better work or more eggs; and repurposed materials make fine tractors for less money.  

Having a tractor that tills, weeds, composts and debugs your property using chicken power to operate and manual labor to move about, is a win-win for bird, people and the earth beneath our feet.



A version of this article appeared in a March 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photo Credits: Sidebar photo of silkie ©; all other photos for this article by Cindy Shapton.



Posted: 01/04/19   RSS | Print


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

Containers are always at their peak during the cooler months.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 11/29/18   RSS | Print


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the containers went outside at the beginning of January.

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

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

Parsley was a winner and had a great germination rate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The backdoor bench became the staging area.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 11/29/18   RSS | Print


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

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

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

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

Leyland cypress hedge

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

Magnolia ‘Little Gem’

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

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

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

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

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



Photos courtesy of Bob Westerfield unless otherwise noted.


Posted: 11/29/18   RSS | Print


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How Toxic is This Insecticide?
by Blake Layton    

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


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

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

Handle Pesticides Safely

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Acute Oral LD50 values of selected products and insecticides


Vitamin A
Sodium chloride
Ethyl alcohol


Identifying Information

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

An essential vitamin
Table salt
In alcoholic drinks

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

LD50in mg/kg*



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

Signal Words on Pesticide Containers and What They Tell You*

Signal Word

None required
(may say Caution)





Highly Toxic
Moderately Toxic
Low Toxicity
Very Low Toxicity


Acute Oral
LD50 range

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


Acute Dermal  
LD50 range 

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


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


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


Posted: 11/29/18   RSS | Print


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Posted: 11/29/18   RSS | Print


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

Cut luffas ready for use

Luffa gourd seeds

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 11/29/18   RSS | Print


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Southern Jewels
by Bob Byers       #Flowers   #Pink   #Shrubs

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

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

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

‘Mary Christian’

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

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

Single ‘Ashiya’

Semi-double ‘Magnoliiflora’

Anemone ‘Chandler’s Elegance’

Peony ‘Kramer’s Supreme’

Rose-form double ‘Coquettii’

Formal Double ‘Alba Plena’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 11/14/18   RSS | Print


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Herbal Teas
by Kate Jerome       #Edibles   #Herbs   #Recipes


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

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


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


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

Specialty Tea Recipes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 11/14/18   RSS | Print


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This cedar is visited by woodpeckers frequently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 11/14/18   RSS | Print


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

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


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

Basic sheet pan dinner
Serves two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salmon with Green Beans
Serves two

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

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

Fall Root Vegetable Medley

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

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

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

Asian Treat

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

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


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

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

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


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


Posted: 11/14/18   RSS | Print


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






Try this cool idea this winter for long-lasting color











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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 11/13/18   RSS | Print


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Bringing the Outdoors In
by Kenny Coogan       #Containers

Aloe vera

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

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

Aglaonema ‘Two Tone Moonstone’

(Aloe vera)

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

Bamboo Palm
(Chamaedorea seifrizii)

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

Chinese Evergreen
(Aglaonema commutatum)

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


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

(Codiaeum variegatum)

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

Crown of Thorns
(Euphorbia milii hybrids)

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


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


Crypanthus spp. • Elkhorn Fern • Fiddle leaf fig

Earth Star
(Cryptanthus spp.)

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

Elkhorn Fern
(Polypodium grandiceps)

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

Fiddle Leaf Fig
(Ficus lyrata)

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


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

Flowering Maple
(Abutilon hybridum)

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

Cape jasmine
(Gardenia jasminoides)

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


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

Sansevieria trifasciata hahnii

(Hibiscus rosa-sinensis hybrids)

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

Moth Orchid
(Phalaenopsis spp. & hybrids)

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

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

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


Oxalis • ‘Golden’ pothos

(Oxalis sp.)

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

Peace Lily
(Spathiphyllum wallisii)

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

(Epipremnum aureum)

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

Variegated Schefflera arboricola

(Schefflera arboricola)

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

Swedish Ivy
(Plectranthus australis)

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




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


Posted: 11/01/18   RSS | Print


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 11/01/18   RSS | Print


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

Top: Garlic chives make great vinegar.

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

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

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

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

Four Thieves Vinegar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 11/01/18   RSS | Print


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 10/31/18   RSS | Print


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 10/31/18   RSS | Print


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 10/31/18   RSS | Print


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Bats Are the Good Guys
by Denise Schreiber    

A Little brown bat

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

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

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

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

Giant brown bats

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

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

Eastern small footed bat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indiana bat

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

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

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

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

Silver haired bat

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

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

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


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


Posted: 10/05/18   RSS | Print


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Passalong Plants
by Bill Pitts    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 10/05/18   RSS | Print


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Do you Deadhead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 10/05/18   RSS | Print


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No Judgement
by PJ Gartin    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 10/05/18   RSS | Print


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Super-Sized Sculptures
by Kelly Bledsoe    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 10/04/18   RSS | Print


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Focal-Point Plants
by Shannon Pable    

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Pointers

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

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

Interesting Focal-Point Plant Picks from Local Designers

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

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

Daryl Pulis, Owner of Mrs. Green Thumb 

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

My Favorite Focal-Point Plants 


  • Weeping blue Atlas cedar

    Weeping Alaskan cedar

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

Other evergreens:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deciduous (woody plants):

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specialty Nurseries to Visit: 

Maple Ridge Nursery 
Superb selection of Japanese maples and conifers.

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

Specialty Ornamentals 
Great variety of conifers and other woody ornamentals.


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

Daryl Pulis, Owner of Mrs. Green Thumb

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


Posted: 10/04/18   RSS | Print


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 09/18/18   RSS | Print


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

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

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

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

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


To Mulch or Not to Mulch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 09/18/18   RSS | Print


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


The Journaling Life

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Step 3: A Few Journaling Exercises

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

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


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


Posted: 09/17/18   RSS | Print


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Harvesting and Storing Veggies and Fruits
by Charlotte Kidd    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also visit the Purdue University website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



Posted: 09/17/18   RSS | Print


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Organize a Plant Swap
by Martha Walsworth    

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

Here are some suggested guidelines for organizing a plant swap.

Choose a location.

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

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

Pick a date and time.

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

Resources needed

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

Decide on how many and who to invite.

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

Form committees

•  To receive plants and number them.

•  To set up tables.

•  To be responsible for name tags for participants.

•  To clean up.

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

Establish rules in advance. Make them known to everyone.

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

•  Have lists of available plants to give out.

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

•  Bring only healthy plants.

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

•  Pass along any specific care information.

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

•  Do not bring nuisance plants to trade.

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

Decide on the actual method of the swap.

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


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


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

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

•  Have a door prize plant.

•  Have a plant ID book on hand.

•  Use a donation jar to help with expenses.

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

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

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


From State-by-State Gardening September 2007


Posted: 09/17/18   RSS | Print


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 09/05/18   RSS | Print


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Get Your Green Fix
by Lisa Eldred Steinkopf    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 09/05/18   RSS | Print


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High Tunnels and Low Tunnels
by Patrick Byers    

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


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

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

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

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


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

Protective Coverings

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

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

Two Designs: High and Low

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

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

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


Low Tunnel Construction

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


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


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


And a covering secured with sand bags.



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



Posted: 09/05/18   RSS | Print


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

Trident Maple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paperbark Maple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Black Tupelo

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frontier Elm


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


Posted: 09/05/18   RSS | Print


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

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

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

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

• Smokebush (Cotinus coggygria)

• Panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata)

• Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

• Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)

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

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

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

A few cultivars I recommend are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few female cultivars I recommend are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few cultivars I highly recommend include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some to consider include:

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

• Arrowwood viburnum (V. dentatum)

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

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

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

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

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

• Siebold viburnum (V. sieboldii)

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

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

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

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

A few of my favorites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 08/02/18   RSS | Print


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 08/02/18   RSS | Print


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by Derek Fell       #Edibles   #Plant Profile   #Vegetables

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Facts

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

Okra ‘Burgundy’ pods turn green when cooked.

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 08/02/18   RSS | Print


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Posted: 08/01/18   RSS | Print


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


Posted: 08/01/18   RSS | Print


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

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

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


Selecting Produce

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


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

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

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

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


Choosing the Right Container

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


Gathering the Necessary Tools

•  Washed, cleaned and dried freezable containers

•  Freezer-compatible labeling markers and label tape

•  Freezer paper (used in some circumstances)

•  Clean and sanitized work space

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

•  Colander

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

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


Preparation of the Fruit or Vegetable

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

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


Why Blanch Vegetables?

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

•  Stops enzymatic reactions within produce

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

•  Destroys bacteria and insects

•  Removes dirt


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



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


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

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

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


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



Posted: 08/01/18   RSS | Print


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




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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Make sure the glass is sparkling clean before you begin.

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



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

I use E-6000 glue to affix small nails to the bottom of figurines. This makes sure they don’t fall over in the terrarium.

If you choose a container that is tall and has a small opening, making terrarium tools is a must. I tied bamboo stakes to ordinary kitchen utensils and a cork to make long planting tools.


Add soil to your container, making the depth at the rear of the container deeper than the front. This allows all the plants to be seen and adds interest to the planting. I do not add drainage material. I would rather have more soil room for the plants. If you need to shorten the root ball of your plant, cut it half way up the middle and spread the root ball out. This will not hurt your plant, and keeps more roots on the plant.

All the plants have been added along with some decorative items. At this point, carefully add water to settle the soil and hydrate the plants. Clean the sides if water or soil splashes on the glass.

After planting and decorating the terrarium, add a soil cover. In this case, I used orchid bark. Moss or pebbles could also be used.



A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Lisa Eldred Steinkopf.


Posted: 07/16/18   RSS | Print


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Crazy Crawlers
by Blake Layton       #Insects   #Pests

Tersa sphinx caterpillars occasionally devour pentas growing in butterfly gardens.

Where there are plants there are caterpillars. As an avid gardener, you are probably familiar with several species of caterpillars, particularly those that damage some of your favorite plants, such as tobacco hornworms, cabbage loopers, and tomato fruitworms. But our gardens and landscapes are host to hundreds of other caterpillar species. Many of these are so small and inconspicuous they are rarely seen. Others are large and even colorful, but because they occur sporadically or do not usually damage prized plants, they are less familiar. We see them occasionally, but we don’t really know much about them. Let’s become more familiar with a few of these caterpillars. The species discussed here are all moths as adults and most are rarely serious pests, though there are some exceptions. You probably won’t see all of these caterpillars during any given growing season, but you are likely to encounter most of these during your gardening career.

Tersa sphinx
These striking caterpillars vary from brown to green, but the spots and other markings are fairly consistent. The “horn” on the rear identifies this as one of the sphinx moth caterpillars, the same family as the tobacco hornworms that plague backyard tomato growers. Because they have a fairly narrow host range, tersa sphinx caterpillars are not especially common, but they are fond of Pentas, and can severely defoliate those planted in landscape beds. This can present a minor moral dilemma for butterfly gardeners. Do you control these caterpillars in order to have more pentas blooms for visiting butterflies, or do you let the caterpillars have the pentas so they can develop into moths? Tersa sphinx moths are quite sporty looking, with a streamlined appearance and approximately 3-inch wingspan, but like most moths, they only fly at night, which makes them harder to observe. An insecticide that contains the active ingredient spinosad, applied according to label directions, is a good option if you choose to protect the pentas.

Walnut caterpillars often leave large hairy clumps of shed skins stuck to the trunks of pecan or walnut trees.

Walnut caterpillar
Walnut caterpillars undergo a significant change in appearance as they grow. Young caterpillars are red with longitudinal yellow stripes, while older caterpillars that are nearing time to pupate are black with long, fine white hairs. These caterpillars specialize in feeding on walnut (Juglans spp.) and pecan (Carya illinoinensis) trees where they cause a rather unusual defoliation pattern. Often they will strip all the leaves from a particular limb without affecting the rest of the tree. This is because the eggs are laid in masses and walnut caterpillars like to remain near their siblings when feeding. All caterpillars molt, or shed their skin, several times as they grow. When it is time for walnut caterpillars to molt, the entire family group crawls to the trunk or a large limb, clusters together, sheds their skins, and then moves away, leaving a hairy mass of shed caterpillar skins behind. Gardeners are sometimes perplexed to discover what appears from a distance to be the skin of a dead possum or some other small mammal stuck to the trunk of their tree.

Saltmarsh caterpillars are quite hairy, but they are not “stinging caterpillars.”

Saltmarsh caterpillar
These hairy caterpillars do not sting, but they occasionally occur in outbreak numbers and can damage field crops, vegetables, and tender ornamental plants. They are an exception to the rule that caterpillars do not normally feed when in the wandering phase. Larger saltmarsh caterpillars actively move around on low-growing vegetation in search of food. Outbreaks usually begin in crop fields or weedy areas, but wandering caterpillars will occasionally appear in managed landscapes. Saltmarsh caterpillars vary in color, from light tan to black, and fully mature caterpillars are about 2 inches long. Adults are medium-sized, heavy-bodied moths with white forewings speckled with black.

Giant leopard moth caterpillars overwinter as large caterpillars and complete their development the following spring.

Giant leopard moth
Most gardeners encounter this insect in fall or winter when they move an item that has been lying about for a while and discover a big, hairy caterpillar curled underneath. These caterpillars seek out protected sites to overwinter but remain as larvae until the following spring. Despite those stiff black hairs, this is not a “stinging caterpillar.” Look past the hairs and you will notice narrow red bands on the skin. Mature caterpillars are about 3 inches long; young caterpillars are black with orange bands and the hairs are not as thick. Giant leopard moth caterpillars have a fairly wide host range, including some ornamental and vegetable plants, but they are rarely numerous enough to cause serious damage. The heavy-bodied moths have white wings covered with large black spots. Often there are a few blue spots on the thorax and the upper surface of the abdomen is covered with iridescent blue and orange markings.

Forest tent caterpillars occasionally occur in huge outbreaks that can totally defoliate thousands of acres of hardwood forest, as well as urban shade trees.

Forest tent caterpillar
Despite their name, forest tent caterpillars do not build tents; they spin inconspicuous silk mats on the bark of their host tree where they molt and rest when not feeding. At feeding time, all the caterpillars move out together, following trails of silk to the leaves and returning, again all together, along the same trails. Populations of forest tent caterpillars vary greatly from year to year. During heavy outbreak years, these caterpillars can be so numerous that they totally defoliate oaks (Quercus spp.) and other hardwood trees. This can include individual trees in home landscapes, as well as thousands of acres in large forests. Fortunately, trees defoliated this early in the year will produce new leaves and suffer little long-term adverse effect. Most trees can survive several successive years of such defoliation, though there may be a reduction in trunk growth rate. During heavy outbreaks the large numbers of wandering caterpillars, combined with their fecal droppings and severe defoliation of shade trees, can be quite disconcerting to homeowners and landscape managers. Fortunately this is a short-lived phenomenon, so control measures are generally not recommended. There is only one generation per year and this occurs in early spring, with eggs hatching shortly after trees leaf out. The caterpillars pupate in late spring and emerge as moths 10 to 14 days later to mate and lay eggs. Eggs are deposited in a mass that encircles twigs of host trees and these eggs hatch the following spring.

Cecropia moth caterpillars grow up to become one of the largest moths in North America, with wingspans up to 6 inches.

Cecropia moth caterpillar
Cecropia moths belong to a group known as the “giant silkworm moths,” which also includes polyphemus and luna moths, along with several other species. As large and colorful as cecropia caterpillars are, you might wonder why you don’t see them more often. It’s because they spend their lives feeding overhead on the leaves of trees such as maples (Acer spp.), birch (Betula spp.), and wild cherry (Prunus spp.). Mature caterpillars are over 4 inches long and form their cocoons on twigs and leaves in the tree canopy. Big caterpillars grow up to be big moths, and cecropia moths are some of the largest moths in the country, with wingspans up to 6 inches. You might not think a moth that’s primarily marked with various shades of brown could be described as colorful – until you see one!

Greenstriped mapleworm: Their name describes them and indicates their favorite host. The adults are called rosy maple moths and this name is equally descriptive.

Greenstriped mapleworm
This descriptively named caterpillar feeds primarily on maple trees. Most years they go largely unnoticed, but in years when populations are unusually high, they can cause heavy or complete defoliation. Fortunately, trees usually recover with little long-term effect. In Southern states there are two or three generations each year. Mature caterpillars pupate in the soil underneath their host tree. The surprisingly beautiful adults are called rosy maple moths.

Banded woolly bear caterpillars can’t really predict severe winters, but they are very good at surviving them.

Banded woolly bear
You have probably seen banded woolly bears crawling across a road or driveway, and you are probably familiar with the folk tale that the width of the rust-colored middle band foretells the severity of the coming winter. Banded woolly bears are not really good at predicting severe winters, but they are very good at surviving them. They have special compounds in their blood that help them survive being frozen, even when ice crystals form inside their bodies, and even when exposed to repeated cycles of freezing and thawing. Like the giant leopard moth, banded woolly bears overwinter as nearly grown caterpillars and pupate the following spring. Mature caterpillars are about 2 inches long and the width of the rust-colored band is quite variable. Although these insects complete two or three generations each year, they are most commonly seen in late fall when they are in search of a place to overwinter. Banded woolly bears have a wide host range, feeding mostly on herbaceous plants and weeds, but rarely damage ornamental plants. This is another hairy caterpillar that is not a stinging caterpillar.


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Blake Layton.


Posted: 07/16/18   RSS | Print


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Press On
by Cindy Shapton       #Crafts   #Decorating   #Flowers

Pick your favorite herbs and flowers to press after the dew is dried.

Spray adhesive on the back side of pressed fern foliage then apply to thick card stock or textured paper to make a fern botanical picture in a jiffy.


Pressing botanicals is just one more way for plant lovers to get their fix while feeding the artist within. Just pick a basketful of your favorite flowers, herbs, leaves, seedpods, or whatnot to place between papers in a press and forget about it until the process is finished.

This is such a fun project …  and educational as well. Once a plant or parts of a plant are pressed, it is easy to see the details that might otherwise be missed. The shape and texture of leaves, the way the flower(s) are attached to the stem, unique variations and leaf proportions, seed formations, and lots of other intricate elements suddenly come to life.

People have been pressing plant material for hundreds of years. The oldest examples were found in an Egyptian tomb dating back to about 300 B.C. Before cameras, botanicals were pressed for collections and herbariums around the world as a way for botanists to record their finds. Although pressed botanicals were used in art long ago, it was the Victorians who really brought botanical pressed designs into fashion.

Isn’t there something so romantic about opening an old book in an antique store and pressed flowers fall out? Or going through a box of your grandmother’s books where you find a posy flattened on the page of her favorite poem. Those botanicals tell a story.

Flower pressing is a great way to get children (of all ages) outside – away from electronics – opening up their senses and imaginations. Not to mention this activity gives you “two to one,” the pressing and then later, the creative process that turns it into a work of art.

The good news is you don’t need expensive equipment to become a plant presser. Let’s break it down and get started:

An overview of plant materials.


Create an herb-themed picture; use a pencil to write the plant names.

The Press
There are many items that can be used for a press, such as old telephone books, and how about those encyclopedia sets? Check out thrift stores for large heavy books without glossy pages.

I sometimes use scraps of plywood cut into squares about 15 by 15 inches. This size can vary depending on the size of the paper you use to separate plants that will go between the plywood squares. Newspaper is what I use (8½ x 11 inches) as blotting paper between the plywood along with various cardboard pieces added to the stack to make the press more substantial. The order of the stack is plywood on the bottom, newsprint, plant material, newsprint, and cardboard, repeating until the stack is the height you want then add the top square of plywood.

Don’t scrimp on the blotting newsprint paper – use 10-20 each time. I usually build my stacks 12-18 inches tall.

Add a cement block or a couple of heavy bricks to sit on top of your makeshift press or books to do the actual pressing and you are in business. Store your press in a warm or cool, humidity-free spot for a month to complete the process.

Of course you can buy an actual flower press or make a flower press using any of the many ideas online. They are prettier and handy if you want a portable press; these are nice for children as well.

Plant Material
Harvest only the best blooms at the peak of their perfection; some discolored or bug-eaten leaves are okay if real is what you are going for, but blooms need to be at their best. Pick mid-morning after the dew has dried or early evening before dew sets in. Of course you can prune away a bad leaf on a plant before pressing if it is not essential or discard later.

If a complete botanical, including the roots, is your objective, carefully remove as much soil as possible from roots, gently run water over roots until clean, blot with paper towels, and then proceed with pressing the whole plant.

Experiment with plants to press – thinner material dries easier, but thicker plants, such as sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) or Zinnias can be done with extra sheets of blotting paper. Sometimes you will want to cut the stem away from the flower or leaves so they will lay flat. They can be put back together on paper.

You probably already have most supplies for making pressed botanical pictures.

Using a toothpick, place drops of clear-drying glue to the backs of pressed leaves and flowers to hold in place on a background.

Start with the long stemmed pressed plants along with a few leaves.

Making a Picture

1. Use card stock, watercolor paper, handmade paper, or whatever you wish as long as its acid free and sturdy. Cut to the size needed for the frame you use.

2. Arrange your picture with the pressed plant materials.

3. Carefully add drops of glue (Elmer’s white or clear, rubber cement, and tacky glue are some I have used) to the backside of each leaf, stem, and flower with a toothpick. Just make sure the glue you use dries clear. I have found that the spray adhesive glue works great for large fern leaves.

4. Using a number two pencil, label botanicals and sign your name and date if you wish.

5. Place your finished picture in the frame and voilà – you have a beautiful art piece to help bring a little nature indoors.

Supply list:
• Telephone or other large book with non-glossy pages
• Newsprint newspaper for blotting-drying
• Scape plywood
• Flat cardboard pieces
• Cement block or heavy bricks
• Tweezers
• Glue – white, rubber cement, tacky, or spray adhesive
• Toothpicks and a small paper plate to put glue on for dipping
• Acid-free card stock, watercolor paper, handmade paper, etc.
• Number two pencil
• Scissors
• Various sized frames with glass – check thrift store or yard sales

Add leaves with different shapes and textures and a few more stems to create a layered, multidimensional look. • Place in glass frame and you have a botanical masterpiece.

Add pressed cosmos, top with matting, place into frame and viola.

A few of my favorite botanicals
Annual and perennials: sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), Aster, bachelor’s button (Centaurea montana), pansy (Viola x wittrockiana), Vinca, ‘Victoria Blue’ salvia (S. farinacea ‘Victoria Blue’), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), ferns, Hydrangea (separate flowers), Dianthus, Cosmos, roses (Rosa spp.), Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), ornamental grasses, dusty miller (Senecio cineraria), Geranium, Celosia

Herbs: Cilantro, dill, sage (Salvia officinalis), lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), thyme (Thymus spp.), tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), fleabane (Erigeron spp.), lavender (Lavandula spp.), mints (Mentha spp.), chicory (Cichorium intybus), comfrey (Symphytum officinale), borage (Borago officinalis), parsley (Petroselinum crispum), milk thistle (Silybum), bee balm (Monarda spp.), pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), Mexican sage (S. leucantha), papalo (Porophyllum ruderale), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum).

Once the pressing is finished, very carefully lift the plant material from the blotting paper or book pages. A pair of tweezers is helpful. Unused materials need to be kept in a covered container (I use a small plastic tub with a tight cover) out of humidity.


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Cindy Shapton.


Posted: 07/16/18   RSS | Print


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Botanical Names
by Louise Roesser    

Do botanical names cause you confusion, get you tongue-tied or seem unnecessary? There actually are reasons for the scientific mumble jumble. In addition to gaining an understanding of the scientific names of plants, knowing just a little “Latinese” will place you a step higher in the gardening world.

Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707 to 1778) revolutionized the plant classification system during the 18th century when Latin was the most widely used international language of science and scholarship. Known as the “father of modern plant and animal classification,” he based his system on structural (morphological) similarities and differences, particularly regarding the reproductive organs, which are least likely to change over time. Linnaeus began his classification system by separating the plant kingdom into major divisions, based on evolution.

The example below shows how the pink flowering dogwood is classified.

Kingdom: Plantae (the plant kingdom)

Division: Trachaeophyta (vascular plants)

Class: Angiospermae (angiosperm – a flowering plant or one that produces seed in ovaries)

Subclass: Dicotyledonae (dicot – a plant having two cotyledons: the first leaflike structures that form at the first node on a stem)

Order: Cornales

Family: Cornaceae

Genus: Cornus

Specific epithet or species: Cornus florida (flowering dogwood)

Variety: Cornus florida var. rubra (pink flowering dogwood)      

If we look beyond the intimidating Latin names (often incorporating Greek), we begin to see a very simple classification system. The naming of plants is based on a latin two-word “binomial” system – bi meaning two, nomen meaning name. The genus (plural – genera) is listed first, always capitalized and consisting of a group of one or more plants that share one or more characteristics. For example, all plants in the genus Acer are types of maples and are found in the Aceraceae family. A generic name is either a noun or a word treated as such with a masculine (ends in -us, -er, -is or -r), feminine (ends in -a, -ra, -is or -ris) or neutral (ends in -um, -rum, -is or -re) gender. Exceptions are plants with endings that are the same for all three genders (-ans, -ens, -x and -or).

‘Audray Bicolor Rose’ globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa ‘Audray Bicolor Rose’)

‘Luxuriant’ bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia ‘Luxuriant’)

Epithet, Species

The specific epithet, also known as the species, is a group of plants within the genus that possess certain differences but are capable of possible interbreeding. Written as the second part of a scientific name and always lowercase, the species can often convey to us more specific information about a particular plant, such as size (usually relative to other species of the genus), growth habit, color or habitat. Acer rubrum is a red maple (rubrum meaning red), and Acer saccharum is a sugar maple (saccharum refers to sugar). Species that contain proper names usually indicate the collector or someone who has studied a particular plant. In the case of chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), the species name honors Gotthilf Henry Ernest Muhlenberg (1753-1815), a Lutheran minister and botanist from Pennsylvania. The species name can also indicate the origin of a plant, as with Camellia japonica (of Japan) and Cercis canadensis (the redbud), indicating it is from Canada.


The variety is a subgroup name for a plant that differs only slightly from the species. It further delineates a specific plant and follows the genus and species. Varieties are indicated by “var.,” as in Rosa gallica var. officinalis. A botanical variety will sexually breed true to form in nature.


Dragon Wing begonia (Begonia x hybrida ‘Bepared’)

Cultivars (a combination of the words cultivated and variety) are plants that are bred for their desirable characteristics and must be maintained by humans through controlled sexual (seeds) or asexual propagation. Cultivar names are either English or Latinized and are indicated by an enclosure in single quotes as in Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’. Like the species, the cultivar may offer descriptive information that may help gardeners when choosing a particular plant.

A cross between two or more species is a hybrid and is denoted with an “x” as in Abelia x grandiflora. (Hint: This Abelia species has larger flowers than others.) Did you guess that? If so, you are catching on.

The naming of plants is based on a set of rules by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN), which was first published in 1930. Botanists make plant name changes only when necessary to conform to the code.

What Do Those Words Mean?

Descriptive Prefixes          

albi-, leuco- – white
alterni- – alternate
angusti- – narrow
brevi- – short
grandi- – large
hetero- – differing
lati- – broad
longi- – long
micro- – small
macro- – large, long
rotundi- – round
semper- – always

Designating Plant Habitat             

aquaticus – water
arvensis – in fields
maritimus – by the sea
palustris – in swamps
pratensis – in meadows
sativus – cultivated

Designating Plant Appearance

gracilis – graceful, slender
humilus – low
procumbens – trailing
pubescens – downy hair surface
pumilus, nanus – dwarf
repans, reptans – creeping
tuberosus – forming tubers

Designating Plant Parts

caulis – stem
carpus – fruit
florus, anthos – flower
folium, phyllon – leaf

Designating Plant Geography

americanus – Americas
australis – southern
borealis – northern
canadensis – Canada
carolinianus – Carolinas
chinensis, sinensis – China
occidentalis – western
orientalis – eastern
virginianus – Virginias

Designating Color

albus – white
atropurpureus – dark purple
aureus – golden
bicolor – of two colors
coccineus – scarlet
concolor – same color both sides
discolor – different color each side
flavus, luteus – yellow
glaucus – whitish with a bloom
niger – black
ruber – red
sanguineus – blood red
variegatus – variegated
viridis – green

Designating Plant Attributes

annuus – annual
communis, vulgaris – common
officinalis – medicinal
perennis – perennial
pulchellus – beautiful
rugosus – wrinkled
setaceus – bristle-like
spectabilis – showy, handsome
vernus – spring flowering

Why Not Keep It Simple?

So why not just use common or vernacular names? They are usually much easier to remember and pronounce, but there are problems associated with them. A plant may have several common names, depending on the country it is grown in, section of the country or even among different garden clubs. Without botanical names, it would be impossible to keep plants in order, to tell one from the other or even to order your favorite from a catalog. Also, if you are inquiring about a plant in another country, the botanical name is the same all over the world.

When it comes to selecting and purchasing plants for your home and landscape, how can botanical names be useful? Begin by becoming familiar with genera of common landscape plants such as Ilex (hollies), Quercus (oaks) and Juniperus (junipers) to name a few. Next, familiarize yourself with descriptive species names.

Gold-edged winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’)

One of my favorite winter-blooming shrubs is Daphne odora (winter daphne). With its fragrant purple-pink flowers, winter daphne clearly lives up to its specific epithet. The cultivar Daphne odora ‘Alba’ bears white to creamy white flowers. Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ bears leaves with narrow, irregular yellow margins and pink flower buds that open to pale pink or white.

If you are looking for an accent tree or shrub for your landscape, you might want to try Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa’ (origin – China; torulosa meaning twisted). Looking for a colorful evergreen dwarf shrub? Nandina domestica ‘Nana Purpurea’ (dwarf purple) might be just the right cultivar for you.

Although gardeners still use common names every day, occasionally there is a real need to use a little “Latinese.”


Dictionary of Plant Names - Allen J. Coombes

Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners - William T. Stearn

The American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants - Christopher Brickell and Judith D. Zuk

Making Sense of Botanical Names - R.P. Madsen and A. McDaniel


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2005 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Louise Roesser.


Posted: 07/16/18   RSS | Print


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Cut and Come Again
by Kristi Cook       #Edibles   #Pruning   #Vegetables

Loose leafed lettuces like this black seeded lettuce and any variety of spinach perform very well as cut and come again choices.

One of the many joys of growing your own food is the nearly constant supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. Freshly picked tomatoes, cucumbers, berries, and squash are some of the most delightful summer treasures. Yet many crops, such as lettuce, onions, and Swiss chard, tend to be thought of as single-harvest vegetables, making it necessary to provide enough space for large plantings as well as a keen attention to succession planting in order to receive several weeks worth of these single harvest crops. Many of these vegetables, however, are capable of producing multiple harvests if you provide just a little extra attention to the harvesting methods and give them a bit of time to recover from each picking.

Swiss chard is another good cut and come again performer with fast regrowth.

Be Picky
Leafy vegetables are among the easiest to coax into producing more than one picking and take advantage of two different approaches to continuous harvests. For instance, if you enjoy salads loaded with tender baby leaves select a cut and come again lettuce mix. These mixes are often labeled as mild, spicy, or a blend of both to suit a variety of taste preferences. Simply prepare the seedbed and broadcast seeds across several feet rather than making neat and tidy rows. Spacing between seeds is not critical as these blends will be harvested while still in the smaller stages of growth. After seedlings sprout and leaves reach a few inches in height, you can start harvesting leaves as you need them.

Perhaps the easiest method for gathering these small leaves is to grab a handful of plants by the tops and snip about an inch or two above the crown. Cut as many handfuls from your growing patch as your family needs for a day or two and leave the rest for the next cutting. Depending on your climate and the varieties chosen, these freshly cut lettuces will produce new leaves from the crown and will be ready for cutting again within a couple of weeks.

This Swiss chard already has edible baby leaves within a week of the initial cutting. However, resist the temptation to cut all of the baby leaves in a single cutting as the plants do need the leaves temporarily to help regenerate it’s energy stores.

Alternatively, if you prefer the larger, crunchier leaves of more mature lettuces, opt for the loose leaf varieties and larger leafed spinaches. Plant the seeds or transplants at the recommended distance and allow the outer leaves to mature to the stage that you prefer. Once the preferred size is reached, break or cut the outer two to three layers of leaves close to the bottom of the plant and leave the central portion intact. Over the next couple of weeks the central leaves will become the outer leaves and will continue to lengthen in size. Repeat this cutting and regrowing cycle until the plant’s regrowth slows. Once it has slowed significantly or shows signs of bolting (or going to seed), pull the entire plant and enjoy as a final meal.

Succession planting every one to two weeks for four to six weeks total works very well with these larger lettuces as well as the baby lettuces to allow for harvesting of some of the plants while the freshly cut ones rest and produce new leaves.

When cutting Swiss chard, try to avoid cutting into the new growth hidden within the center of the stalks to allow the new leaves time to grow and replenish the plant’s energy stores.

Cut ‘em Down
Other cut and come again choices include Swiss chard, green onions, chives, and garlic. These tasty treats add variety to salads and other meals and shouldn’t be overlooked. All of these vegetables continuously produce their growing leaves from a central point. Once the leaves of each of these plants reach a usable size, simply cut them above their growing point. Swiss chard and chives should be left with 2”-3” of growth across the entire plant while green onions and garlic should be cut just above the beginning of the white portion of the stalks to allow for regrowth. The one thing to remember with these cut and come again choices are that each cycle typically produces somewhat smaller new growth. I have found it best to limit the number of cuttings to no more than three times with two cuttings generally producing the best results.

One added advantage to the cut and come again talent of most lettuces, onions, scallions, and garlic is the ability to grow these vegetables in containers in late summer and early fall that can later be brought indoors to continue their regrowth cycle for a while longer. However, because these particular vegetables are dependent on the amount of daylight they receive to continue growing, you will need to provide supplemental lighting during the shorter days of winter to delay the drive to go dormant.

Cut and come again vegetables are an easy way to harvest extra tasty veggies time and time again from crops that are typically harvested only a single time. With just a little attention to growing habits and provided enough time to recover, a single planting can provide several weeks of fresh produce.


A version of this article appeared in a July 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Kristi Cook.


Posted: 07/03/18   RSS | Print


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Refresh Summer Perennials
by Gloria Day       #Advice   #Pruning   #Summer

Drumstick allium is one of the most reliably perennial ornamental onions for central United States. It blends well with other flowers in the garden and in vases. • Phlox is one perennial that truly benefits from deadheading all season long, re-blooming until the frost nips. • Helleborus needs winter leaves removed just in time to reveal the showy blooms, often peeking through a late winter snow.

Keeping a garden at its best requires planning and a little effort. Spring through fall, here are a few tips for refreshing your perennials.

Echinacea can be deadheaded early in the season and the flowers can be left later in the season to provide seed for overwintering birds.

Start deadheading daffodils (Narcissus spp.) and tulips (Tulipa spp.) in early May, taking care to pinch off the flower heads and cut the stems, never the nourishing leaves.

Allium seed heads can be left on the plant to provide interest or cut, whichever you prefer. They can be quite interesting spray-painted for dried arrangements.

After Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum) bloom and fade, the labor-intensive task of deadheading begins. Although time consuming to cut each stalk back to the next bud, it is worth the effort when it produces a second or third bloom.

The method of deadheading Rudbeckia is similar to that for Shasta daisy, cutting the stem back to the next new bud. In fall, leave the seeds for wildlife.

Buddleia, whether dwarf or 10 feet tall, should be deadheaded frequently. Some varieties can be considered invasive due to self-seeding. The number of seedlings can be controlled by deadheading, both an environmental friendly task to prevent unwanted seedlings and to encourage continuous blooms. Cut the stem back to the next “V” junction on the branch. You will have larger flowers throughout the season, which translates into more butterflies visiting the garden.

Aster and Chrysanthemum flowers can be snipped off after the bloom fades and will give the plant a face-lift.

Sedum can be deadheaded after it flowers and dries, particularly the ground cover types. The dried flowers of taller sedum, such as ‘Autumn Fire’ or ‘Autumn Joy’, may be left on to provide winter interest if the stems are strong and the plant remains upright.


Salvia is another mainstay perennial that needs to be consistently deadheaded. It becomes unsightly after it blooms and dries. A quick snip at the tips will extend the life of the plant until frost.

The spent flowers of Dianthus should be trimmed above the mounding foliage.

Perennial Geranium needs a midseason haircut in order to rebloom. Cut back the top one-third of the plant.

Coreopsis can be treated the same way, using sharp hedge shears to expedite the task.

As the season progresses, keep up with deadheading and you will see a tremendous increase of both vigor and blooms.





A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Caleb Melchior and Gloria Day.


Posted: 07/03/18   RSS | Print


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Friends or Foes?
by Bill Pitts       #Advice   #Sustainability and Self-Sufficiency   #Vegetables

While I consider French marigolds (Tagetes patula) an essential potager plant, some gardeners believe it is a bad companion for vegetables because it can attract pests, such as spider mites.

The “Three Sisters” is one of the most famous examples of companion planting. Pole beans, corn, and pumpkins are grown together on hills, and each of the plants helps the others. The corn gives the beans something to climb, while the pumpkins serve as a living mulch, keeping the roots cool and moist.

I find the three sisters get along best when I stick to varieties closest to those the Native Americans would have used. An heirloom field corn provides a sturdy support for beans, but when I tried a finicky modern sweet corn, the whole planting came tumbling down in a tangled mess, and these famously good companions became bad ones.

I have found that vegetables and herbs of different families make great companions, but bad ones if you are practicing crop rotation over a period of years.

Some plants will always make bad companions. I once saw roses (Rosa spp.) interplanted with Agave. These plants had completely different cultural requirements. The gardener could not keep the roses happy without making the agaves miserable, and vice versa. In the end, both suffered.

But usually I find the question of whether plants will make good companions more complicated. In the spring, a row of trellised tomatoes can provide shade for an underplanting of lettuce, preventing them from bolting as quickly, therefore extending the harvest. They make good companions. But the same relationship turns bad in late fall and winter, when the days are short. The lettuce needs all the sun they can get. That problem can be fixed easily enough: Plant lettuce south of the tomatoes in the fall.

If you practice crop rotation, mixing lettuce and tomatoes can create complications. Basically, crop rotation is planting to avoid growing vegetables and herbs of the same family in the same spot season after season. It’s a great way to reduce problems with pests, diseases, and nutrient deficiencies. But to practice crop rotation any length of time in a small home garden usually involves arranging plants according to family. If you pair lettuces with tomatoes, you have devoted that spot to both the nightshade family and the aster family. If you add carrots to the mix on the grounds that “carrots love tomatoes,” you’ve got a third family. It is easy to imagine how any crop rotation scheme could become muddled in just a year or two. Plants of the same family would wind up in the same spot one season after the next. Problems would ensue, and the lettuces and tomatoes would no longer seem such good companions after all.


Clockwise: Artichokes take up a lot of space, attract all sorts of pests, and don’t produce much, making them an all-round bad companion in the vegetable garden, but in my mind, they are still 100 percent worth it. • Artichokes take up a lot of space, attract all sorts of pests, and don’t produce much, making them an all-round bad companion in the vegetable garden, but in my mind, they are still 100 percent worth it. • I am still uncertain whether this foxtail millet made a good companion to my tomatoes, or for that matter anything else in the garden, but the birds enjoyed eating the seeds.

Perhaps try planting lettuce with sunflowers (Helianthus annuus). They belong to the same family, so the rotation scheme stays neat. The sunflowers will provide some shade in late spring. The following season the bed could be planted with vegetables of any other family, though gardeners who are serious about crop rotation believe that certain sequences are better than others.

Huauzontle, a delicious Mexican vegetable, introduced me to the technique of trap cropping and, through it, the discovery of many bad companions in the garden.

I once planted a bed of spinach, Swiss chard, and huauzontle, a delicious Mexican vegetable, because all belong to the family Amaranthaceae. I expected the chard to be devoured by worms, as it usually is in my garden. I expected the huauzontle to thrive because it is a vigorous half-wild plant, very similar to lamb’s quarters. But I was wrong. The worms all went to the huauzontle. They preferred it to the spinach and even the chard. I did not know it at the time, but I had stumbled upon a companion planting technique called “trap cropping.” Basically you protect one vegetable (the chard) by pairing it with something the bugs like even better (the huauzontle).

This experience led me to try other trap crops, and I soon learned that good companions can become bad ones in this area too.

For several years, stinkbugs were worse than usual. They would suck the juice from tomatoes, making hard discolored spots, which would eventually rot, ruining the fruit. Remembering the huauzontle, I turned to trap cropping as a solution. My plan was to lure the stinkbugs away from the tomatoes with things they like even more.

I read all I could on the subject and learned that stinkbugs love okra, sunflowers, and certain grains, such as sorghum. If I planted enough of these, the stinkbugs would leave the tomatoes alone. That was the theory. I told a gardening friend what I was up to and she gave me a stern warning: “You’re only going to attract even more bugs, and your tomatoes will be worse off than ever.”

Whether okra makes good companions for tomatoes may depend on the planting arrangement.

She was right. That spring the garden swarmed with stinkbugs. They feasted on everything indiscriminately, including the tomatoes. Wondering where I had gone wrong, I turned to a university specialist in trap cropping. He told me I should have planted a ring of sunflowers, sorghum, and other trap crops around my entire yard, with the tomatoes in the middle. I have not tried this yet.

Recently, I have been growing vegetables in containers, and one of the things I love about this way of gardening is that it gives me the freedom to mix things up. There is little need for crop rotation because some or all of the potting medium is replaced from season to season. I have found that when I plant all sorts of vegetables together, mixing up species and families, they find a harmony I could have never planned. The kale shades the lettuce, and both protect the even more delicate corn salad, and for whatever reason the kale is happier, too, suffering from fewer aphids than in the past.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 23 Number 4.
Photography courtesy of Bill Pitts.


Posted: 07/03/18   RSS | Print


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Gardening Questions You Never Really Thought to Ask
by Douglas A. Spilker, Ph.D.       #Misc   #Pests   #Uncategorized   #Vines

Oaks typically alternate years of heavy acorn production, just like fruit trees.

Often when pulling weeds or mowing the grass, my mind drifts to some of the challenges in the world. I don’t mean solving world hunger or anything, but just considering some of those gardening questions not discussed on radio shows. This happens in a “stream of consciousness” where one thought or question runs into another and another and so on.

As I mow, I often wish that I could quit mowing my grass and let the seedheads develop. Would this fill in the bare spots? I know my neighbors wouldn’t like it, but I also know there are cultural reasons that this doesn’t work. Most perennial grasses, like Kentucky bluegrass and fescues, are hybrids; they commonly do not produce viable seeds. Better keep mowing and avoid nasty letters from the homeowners’ association.

Nutsedge tubers (nutlets) can persist for years in the soil waiting to appear in lawn bare spots.

Mowing has its own hazards. Last year my oak tree was raining acorns, and mowing was like skating on marbles. It was driving me nuts — why were there so many this year? Oaks typically alternate heavy acorn production years. It takes a lot of energy to produce the fruit (nuts), and therefore less goes into making the flower buds for the next season. I think “off” years can also occur when a late spring frost blights the flowers, reducing nut development.

Although they don’t produce real nuts, I don’t recall having any nutsedge (also known as nutgrass) in my yard last year, but there it is. Where did it come from? It may have been hiding there for a while. It is not uncommon for their persistent tubers (nutlets) to be trucked in with the top soil used during yard grading. Watch also for infested soil with nursery stock that might introduce nutsedge into landscape beds.

Although nutsedge is a challenge in lawns, the common yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta), known by many names including sour clover (taste it and see why), is nearly impossible to eradicate in flowerbeds. Does it spread by spontaneous generation? It is important to remove plants before seedpods develop, because when ripe, they explode at the slightest touch, launching seeds as far as 10 feet. I am convinced this is how it spreads.

Speaking of explosions, why do earthworm masses try to commit suicide after a heavy rain? There are several theories as to why earthworms surface when it rains. I always assumed it was to keep from drowning in waterlogged soils, but earthworms thrive in moist environments. Some say it is easier for them to migrate to another location or to find mates. However, I like the theory that they scatter because raindrops cause soil vibrations that scare them into thinking a mole is coming. (Sounds more exciting to me.)

Murphy’s Law?

I’m convinced that Murphy was a gardener. Take for instance my iris bed. I started with a nice assortment of bearded irises. Over the years, I lost a few for various reasons, but some always came back. Finally one year, one color took over — guess which one? The ugly purple-brown ones. And don’t even mention my favorite yellow pear tomatoes. I searched all over town looking for transplants, and found the very last one in a local nursery. I was so happy to get it planted in time for the next rain. Not more than a week later a big storm came through. The only damage in the whole garden was the broken stem of my sole pear tomato. Murphy did it again!

Earthworms aren’t the only soil-borne critters we seldom see. Why don’t we see cicadas more often? Cicadas live most of their lives underground, within 2 feet of the surface, feeding on tree roots. After 13 to 17 years, cicada nymphs emerge synchronously and in tremendous numbers. Within two months of their emergence, eggs have been laid and the cicadas have returned underground chewing on roots for another 13 to 17 years.

Squirrels don’t chew on roots, but they can chew through anything that is not metal, but that doesn’t mean they don’t chew on metal. But why do they have to gnaw on our new patio furniture? The front teeth of squirrels, just like beavers, continue growing throughout their lives. To keep them trimmed, they chew on “stuff.” If they run out of nuts, they chew on your house, your property or anything else to keep their teeth trimmed.


Squirrels might not eat the metal, but they can do plenty of damage to patio furniture. • Vines (like this Mandevilla sp.) twine according to their genetics, not due to the hemisphere they live in. • Rabbits are not my friends.

If you don’t trim vines, they undoubtedly will twine around any support. What causes vines to wrap one way or the other? Most vines twine counter-clockwise, though about 10 percent go clockwise. Some do it both ways. Unlike swirling water down the sink, the twining direction of vines is not dependent on whether the plant grows north or south of the equator. Simply, twining direction is genetic; some species go one way, while others go the other way.

There are many mysteries in the gardening universe, some which will never be solved like: “Why do rabbits go for vegetable seedlings when they must cross yards of lush green grass to get there,” and, “Do cutworms have a mean streak by felling a seedling with one bite then moving on to the next?” I’m sure you have many of your own gardening mysteries that also keep your mind flowing like a stream (of consciousness).


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Douglas A. Spilker, Ph.D.


Posted: 07/03/18   RSS | Print


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How to Make Potpourri
by Denise Schreiber       #Fragrant   #How to   #Misc

The original French term for potpourri meant “rotten pot,” referring to the moist method of pickling flowers and leaves. More common now is the dry method using flowers and leaves that are picked just as they reach maturity full of fragrance and color. It also incorporates seeds, spices, dried leaves and flowers, berries, dried fruit slices, barks, seedheads and cones to add a variety of textures to the mixture. The best potpourris have a subtle, natural scent that comes from the combination of all natural ingredients. Different ingredients contribute aroma, texture, color and bulk. Many herbs contribute fragrance as well as color and texture.

Start collecting your flowers and herbs for drying early in the day, after the dew has dried and before the sun becomes too hot. This way they retain their fragrance and color. They can be hung upside down in a dark area or where there is a breeze. They can also be placed on a cookie sheet lined with foil or parchment paper in the same area. When they are completely dried, you can store them in a glass mason jar with a tight-fitting lid to keep out moisture. (Plastic allows some moisture to get into the flowers.) Store away from light until you are ready to make your mixture.

Flowers from top left: roses, dried lavender, bee balm (red petals) and mixed dried flower petals.

What to Use
Some plants you can use for potpourri include roses and rose buds, lavender, any member of the mint family, calendula, pansies, violets, lemon verbena, strawflowers, larkspur, scented geranium flowers and leaves, rosemary flowers and leaves, thyme flowers and leaves, angelica, gomphrena and statice — just to name a few. You can also use balsam needles, cones from evergreens, juniper berries, citrus peels (without the white pith), cloves, cinnamon sticks, star anise, allspice, cardamom and vanilla pods.

This large dish contains chopped orris root, and the small dish has powdered orris root and vanilla oil fragrance.

Birch bark

Combine the flowers and other ingredients together and mix by gently tossing. Make sure the fragrances complement each other.

Consider the effects of each ingredient. A citrusy scent including orange peel and lemon verbena or a mint to stimulate and refresh, or florals such as lavender and rose are soothing. Camphors like eucalyptus and balsam will cool, while spices like cloves, cinnamon and vanilla add warmth. Woods and barks (like cedar and birch) complement other scents while adding bulk, and fruits such as dried apple slices, rosehips and juniper berries add visual appeal.

I also like to add a few drops of an essential oil and a fixative, which can be purchased from a craft store or herb shop. A fixative keeps the scent from fading. Fixatives include orris root, gum benzoin, oak moss and vanilla beans. It’s fine to put more than one fixative to work in a potpourri; use at least 20 percent total fixative by weight. I like to use about 1 tablespoon of orris root to 1 cup of flowers and leaves. Gum benzoin has a sweet vanilla scent, but I use only ½ ounce to 4-6 cups of flowers.

After mixing up the potpourri, store in a jar for about six weeks in a warm, dark dry place to allow it to cure. You can add a drop of essential oil once a week and stir it in until you obtain the desired fragrance.

When the potpourri is finished, place it in an open decorative bowl and enjoy. You will probably have to refresh it with essential oil from time to time, but it should last several months for your enjoyment.

You can play around with the ingredients to suit your own personal taste. You can also make sachets of potpourri to give as gifts or to scent closets or drawers. Small organza bags are ideal for this and are available at craft stores.



A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Denise Schreiber.


Posted: 07/03/18   RSS | Print


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Planting for the Future
by Dawn Seymour    

This pine has been reprimanded over the years to conform to the elements where it lives. Branching short and stiff, trunk curved and needles clinging as if refusing to fall to the floor below littered with evidence of life gone on before.

An intimate part of the human race is connected to the existence of trees. We track our lineage with a “Family Tree.” We reference our health and well-being with the “Tree of Life” and the very first man and woman on earth ate the forbidden fruit from the “Tree of Knowledge” in the Garden of Eden.

Trees are a mark of history. We look at the number of rings to determine the age of a tree. We look at the characteristics of the rings, such as how thick or thin they are, their color and other attributes to determine the types of years that have affected the growth of the trees and other living organisms. We can see drought, earthquakes, forest fires, fast or slow growth, pressure points from another tree, damage from construction and so forth reflected in the historical replication of the rings. They even clean the air and water for us without as much as a rustle. There are songs written about them, people and treasure buried near them and a cherry tree has even led the juvenile tirades of a President.

The installation of trees in the landscape gives height, color, food, shelter, sometimes fragrance, structure, shade, a cooling effect for our homes, a place to hang a swing and a sense of permanence. Some people plant trees to mark an anniversary, or a holiday, or even the birth of a child and it is done as a ritual as well as an act of hope that generations to come will know the “specialness” of that particular tree. When we are looking to plant a tree we should look at it as a permanent structure and make the best choice for that particular variety.

What gives us the right to take for granted the growth and future of one of these magnificent creations? I am always dismayed when someone refuses to acknowledge the proper way to add a tree to their landscape and instead gives an indifferent shrug and says, “It won’t be my problem! Let the next guy worry about it.” So, let’s look at some key points for choosing the right tree for the right location.


How much room is there for a tree? Know the height and width.

Does anything interfere with the installation of a tree? Look for potential issues with power lines, septic systems, foundations, sidewalks, driveways and other trees.

Ask yourself “What do I want a tree for?” Is it for food, a wind break, shade, decoration, flowers or structure?

Ask yourself “What type of growing area do I have for a tree?” For example, is the area boggy, dry, rocky, clay, loam, sheltered, exposed, sunny, shady, windy?

This oak is beautiful in any season, but without the leaves there is clear evidence that it has been maintained intelligently through the years. This tree was lovingly developed around without interrupting its existence.


Do some research. Go and look at the tree you think you want to install in a proper application so you have a good grasp on what this tree will grow up to be. It is difficult to look at a 10 gallon tree at a garden center and picture it 25 feet tall and 20 feet wide. A great place to look at trees as they mature would be an arboretum. They place trees in locations that are nurturing and that allow that tree to grow into what it is supposed to be. Often they have planted them several years previously and it will give you a great idea what that tree will look like in 25 or 30 years. The research will also help you decide exactly what variety of tree you want so you won’t deviate from your choice unless the alternative is comparable.

Set a budget. How much do you want to spend on a tree? The larger the tree you start with, often the more it will cost. However, ornamental trees can be very small in comparison to a woodland type tree and be three times the price. That has lots to do with how long it takes for a variety to reach the size it currently is and how much maintenance goes into growing it.

Get professional assistance. Ask a garden designer or garden center employee to help you select the best tree. Each variety has different characteristics of growth that will ensure a strong end result. Maples should have upright, rounded branching and a straight trunk, for example, whereas a Japanese maple may have slight curvature in the trunk and more lateral, open branching. Make sure the tree is not loose in the container or that the root ball is broken apart.

These pears were placed with good forethought. There is plenty of space for them to grow to maturity and they grace the entrance of this home without overwhelming it.


Notice how the unscrupulous stripping of the branches on this tree have caused uneven growth as the weight of the tree falls heavily to one side.

Dig the hole 2 ½ times larger than the root ball or container and mix in 1 part compost, 1 part peat moss, and 2 parts original soil. This creates a healthy space for your tree to grow in with loose soil and nutrients.

Water the tree in well. There are Treegator® watering bags that you can purchase that hold 15 to 25 gallons of water and have little weep holes which the water slowly escapes through. This waters the tree deeply without you having to stand there with a hose for an hour or carry buckets back and forth.

Mulch well. Mulching does not mean having a perfect circle around the tree but rather covering the virgin dirt with grass clippings, wood chips, sod or other materials (depending on the location of the tree installation, of course. We don’t want sod in the flower beds after all.)

Only stake if necessary. If your new tree is in a location that gets prevailing winds, stake the tree loosely so that it won’t blow down but it has a little room to move to establish “standing on its own two feet.” Do not leave any stakes attached to the tree that may have come with it as those are usually only there for shipping purposes.

A well placed tree will dress up even the simplest abode or make secret a favorite spot. Responsible tree ownership is part of taking care of the space we’ve been given. Select your trees carefully, install them responsibly and enjoy them enthusiastically.

A version of this article appeared in a July 2012 State-by-State Gardening eNewsletter
Photography courtesy of Dawn Seymour.


Posted: 07/03/18   RSS | Print


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5 Must Have Herbs for Summer
by Patti Travioli       #Annuals   #Herbs   #Summer

Tulsi, or holy basil, should be harvested before the flowers develop. You can dry the leaves for tea or make a tincture. You can also incorporate the leaves into stir-fries, soups, or sauces. A sacred plant of the Hindus and used in Ayurveda medicine.

I can recall being a new gardener going to my local greenhouse to find some annuals for the front yard. My mother was a gardener, always planting several flats of double Impatiens, Begonia, and marigolds (Tagetes spp.). On my way to the colorful flowers, I stopped to look at the herbs. They smelled so fresh, some even reminiscent of lemons. How adorable those with tiny variegated gold and green leaves were. Some were fuzzy and gray. I decided to plant some herbs along with my annuals. That was the summer I broke free from my mother’s way of gardening and went out on my own. The fragrance and flavors of the herbs were more powerful to me than the colors brought by the annuals. In the years that followed, I learned how to grow, harvest, and preserve herbs.

Anise hyssop is a hardy perennial to Zone 4. It grows straight and tall with several branches, creating a very full plant. The lavender flowers and leaves can be harvested and dried to be used as a tea, which has a slight black licorice flavor. Anise hyssop also makes a good cut flower in a mixed bouquet. Look for the native species or newer cultivars.

Following are my five must haves for any garden:

1. Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Number one, hands down, my favorite – visually and as an edible. The secret of growing basil is that it likes the HEAT. Don’t plant this until two weeks after your last frost date. You can start it indoors, buy a transplant at the garden center, or sow seeds. I pinch off the tips of the stems and leaves all summer long, and at the end of the season I harvest the whole plant to make pesto. You can grow green or purple varieties. If you already grow basil, think about adding Tulsi, also called holy basil (O. tenuiflorum). Harvest and dry the leaves before flowering for a heavenly, good-for-you tea. Allow a few plants to flower. The bees love this plant.

Basic Summer Pesto

6 cups freshly harvested basil leaves, washed and dried
¼-½ cup olive oil
½ cup Parmesan cheese
¼ cup pine nuts or walnuts
2 or more garlic cloves
Pinch of salt

Place basil in a food processor and pulse just enough to chop up. Add olive oil and pulse a few more times to mix. Add remaining ingredients. Pulse until texture is chopped small, but not so small that it turns into a paste. Adjust ingredients to your preference. Serve over pasta, with bread, or on chicken. Freezes well.

2. Mint (Mentha spp.)
There are many types of mints, not just spearmint (M. spicata) and peppermint (M. xpiperita); I include anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), sometimes called licorice mint. Not only do the lavender flowers look great in the perennial garden, those with leaves can be dried and steeped into a black licorice flavored tea. A perennial in Zones 4-9, it can grow up to 3 feet tall. It will not spread as rampant as other mints, but it can re-seed. The bees love this North American native.

3. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
Parsley is a biennial, which means that it will grow leaves only the first year, and flower the second year. You can start from seed, but with sporadic germination you may want to purchase a plant to transplant. Harvest in bunches by cutting the stems to the ground. Parsley prefers full sun and can grow up to 1 foot tall.

4. Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Dill is a wonderful addition to the garden that also supports beneficial insects when in flower. Don’t bother wasting your money with a transplant; dill prefers to be directly sown into the garden. A must-have summer flavor for any fermented vegetables, not just cucumbers. Grilled salmon with a squeeze of fresh lemon and sprinkling of freshly harvested dill is a real summer treat. When selecting dill to grow, pay attention to the variety. Do you want the leaves or the seed head?  The variety ‘Fernleaf’ is an AAS winner that is very slow to bolt (flower) and produces a lot of leaves. It stays pretty short and makes a great container plant.

5. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Not only does it smell great, bees love it and the flower buds can be added to make delightful lavender shortbread cookies. A perennial for Zones 5-8, this plant loves the full sun and needs well-drained soil. It doesn’t like soggy roots or leaves! At my farm, it grows in sand and I rarely water it. Harvest the buds then allow to dry and save for making salves, soaps, or just put in a bag to enjoy the fragrance year round.

The flowers of this lavender plant have opened too much to harvest for culinary purposes, but this is perfect timing for this honeybee. Once the flowers are spent, remove them, which will allow the plant to bloom again later in the summer.

Summers spent in the garden should be experienced by all of our senses. Who said herbs don’t offer a visual appeal? How many shades of green are there? Gray and purple foliage are gorgeous! Not only will you enjoy them over the summer, but if you preserve them, you can enjoy them all winter. Nothing reminds me of the summer garden as much as opening a container of pesto, mixing it with some olive oil, and soaking it up with some bread or adding it to pasta. If you don’t have an herb garden, tuck some additional textures and smells into your annual beds, you may be converted, just as I was.


A version of this article appeared in Michigan Gardening Magazine Volume 6 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Patti Travioli.


Posted: 06/20/18   RSS | Print


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The Way of the Weave
by Kristi Cook       #Advice   #Edibles   #Vegetables

I grow my tomatoes in double rows, which provides plenty of shade for the roots and soil once the plants fill out. • Secure twine tightly at each end post and in-line post to ensure twine doesn’t slip as plants grow heavier and taller. • The Florida weave method keeps plants upright and off the ground as they grow.

Here’s a single plant up close. As the plant grows it will fill out the spaces, making the twine less visible.

When looking down on top of the plants, you should see a row of twine running down each side.

I don’t know about you, but I there’s one thing about growing tomatoes that I don’t care for – caging them. No matter what type of caging system I’ve tried, be it the classic flimsy tomato cage, the sturdier cattle-panel version, or the whole tying the plant to a stake (kind of like a witch-burning), no caging method has worked. Before summer is halfway over, both tomatoes and plants are on the ground with the first heavy rainstorm or windy day. And forget about trying to get those giant plants back into their homes! However, all these troubles disappeared the summer I discovered the Florida weave trellising system. Also known as the basketweave system, weaving tomato plants between stakes and twine is economical, simple, and a major time saver – something all of us gardeners can use!

To get started, all you need are a few sturdy stakes and twine. For stakes, nearly anything sturdy and rot-resistant will work, provided it is tall enough to set at least 8 inches into the ground and reach the top of the tomato plants. Some use thick wooden stakes, others use rebar, and still others use T-posts, each with benefits and drawbacks. Wooden stakes, for instance, are inexpensive. However, because it’s best to use untreated lumber around food crops, the wood will usually rot enough during the first season that it won’t be usable the following year. Another drawback is that it can snap under heavy loads and windy conditions more readily than the other options. Rebar and T-posts are quite durable under heavy loads, won’t rot, and are easily set into the ground without breakage. The downside is the higher initial cost. Yet, because rebar and T-posts won’t rot and don’t break easily, you’ll get many years’ use out of them making them much less expensive in the long run.

You can use any strong, non-stretching twine. Many gardeners use jute or sisal, but I have found these can stretch too much after a heavy rain when my plants are full and pushing against it, causing the entire system to fail. Over time, I’ve switched to synthetic baling twine that I recycle from my horses’ hay bales and have had no failures so far. As with all things, though, it’s best to use what you have on hand and experiment with your particular setup to see which materials you prefer.

Now for the easy part. First determine where you want your tomato plants to go and set a post at each end of the row. Plant tomato plants as you normally would, every 2-3 feet. If the rows are on the shorter side, space posts every 2-3 plants. If rows are on the longer side, place a post between every plant to provide extra support.

Once the plants reach 8 inches, start weaving. Tie twine to an end post at 6-8 inches off the ground and secure tightly. I like to wrap it a couple of times and hook it under the teeth of the T-post, which I find helps keep slippage to a minimum. Bring twine to the next post, placing twine against each plant. Make sure to keep the twine snug, otherwise growing plants will push the twine out and the system won’t work as well. Securely wrap twine at the next post, and continue down the length of the row. Once you reach the row end, wrap again, and repeat down the other side.

When finished, the plants will be sandwiched between the two rows of twine. Check at least once a week, adding a new row of twine for every 6-8 inches of new growth.

The Florida weave trellising system is an economical, timesaving, and highly effective method for keeping tomatoes off the ground. And while many claim this system is best for determinate varieties, I’ve found it works just as well for my indeterminate ones, despite the fact that I don’t prune. So grab a few stakes, a bit of twine, your tomato plants, and give weaving a try.


A version of this article appeared in a June 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Kristi Cook.


Posted: 06/20/18   RSS | Print


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Warming Up With a Fire Feature
by Debbie Clark       #Decorating   #Hardscaping   #Misc