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  1. Discover Dwarf Aloes

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    Dense and colorful, Aloe juvenna (foreground) makes a great rockery subject or potted specimen.

    While we ogle big fancy aloes blooming in frost-free gardens, their sensitivity to cold winters limits their cultivation elsewhere.  The plants in the same genus as Aloe vera, the popular Arabian species used for skin care, rarely survive the winters of sub-tropical zones.  For everyone who cannot grow succulents outdoors year round, like we do in coastal California, welcome to my little aloe world.

    South African Beauties

    An aloe (center front) will fill a pot quickly for lots of easy offsets to divide and transplant.

    The aloes of southern Africa include some very small species that produce the most exquisite bell-shaped blossoms.  They have always reminded me of a lady’s drop earrings because they droop from very thin wiry stems.  Even the slightest breeze will send their blooms nodding and swaying.  Like the big aloes, they bloom every spring, attracting hummingbirds to porch or patio, and light up a home and sun porch with early spring color.

    Most garden aloes hail from the maritime Cape Floristic Region or the east coast of South Africa on the Indian Ocean.  These are soft, beautiful, and adaptable.  The further inland you go, the larger and stiffer and pricklier the aloe species become, so that big game cannot browse upon them during drought.  In the wide, treeless, grasslands of the African veldt the little grass aloes blend into big patches among the grasses.

    Collecting Aloes

    Most of the tiniest aloes have been collected at the Huntington Desert Garden to view.

    I began to learn about little aloes by collecting all that I could find, whether named or not.  I purchased small ones from succulent racks (without labels), then tested each in my desert garden.  I also started new plants from fallen pieces of rare grass aloes gleaned from working at the botanical garden in Palm Springs.  Still, more offsets (also unidentified) were shared from friends’ mature aloes.  I had a stone slab front entry walk edged with these tiny aloes, potted and in-ground, which provided the jewel box garden I had dreamed of creating.

    Planting Aloes

    Grass aloes, which are native to African grasslands, produce delicate bell-shaped flowers.

    For beginners, aloes are among the easiest succulents to start with because they aren’t finicky. Plant them in Black Gold Cactus Mix to make sure they have supreme drainage. Choose deeper pots for big aloes, because their roots are a lot like a daylily’s, thick and deep. Blend cactus mix with equal amounts of Black Gold All Purpose Potting Soil at a 50-50 ratio to boost fertility and blooming.

    It’s easy to know when your potted aloe needs water during the growing season.  It should be fully turgid, which means its cells are full of water.  Squeeze one, and it should be firm.  When they run short of water the cells loose turgidity, stems soften, lose color, and small wrinkles appear on the skin.

    Hand water your ground aloes sparingly as many become summer dormant after blooming.  Bottom water your little pots by setting them in a pan of water. Allow them to wick up moisture for over an hour’s time, then drain and return them to their place.  This will ensure their soil is fully saturated, while keeping water away from your potted aloes’ crowns, where rot begins.

    Aloe Sources

    Aloe brevifolia offers orange flower stalks that hummers just love.

    A great selection of little aloes is available at the California succulent nursery, Mountain Crest Gardens. Quality photos, accurate labeling, and excellent cultural information is offered for each plant. And, they will send aloes right to your door, if they aren’t available locally.  Everybody can enjoy little aloes no matter where they live!

    Once you have your aloes, know that they will produce offsets or “pups”.  This is how they reproduce in very dry climates.  To keep a single tidy rosette, remove the offsets that will otherwise spread and change the shape of the overall plant as it ages.  When dividing little aloes, it helps to remove them from the pot to surgically sever offsets (maintain stems or roots for better rooting). Root the offsets in a well-drained nursery pot of moistened Black Gold Cactus Mix and keep transplants in the shade until roots form.  Then plant them in small pots, so they can grow through the fall before you protect them from frost.

    While there are some hardier aloes, they are few and far between outside tropical and sub-tropical zones.  If you live in prime time locations, grow them outside.  Where there’s light frost, try pots on the patio.  And in cold, rainy, totally unsuitable climates, create your own indoor collection for just $5 per plant and enjoy them year-round.

  2. A Guide to Edible Flowers

    Bombus on Borage

    A bumblebee pollinates the edible flowers of borage.

    Well-placed culinary blooms are surprisingly delicious and bring unique and elegant beauty to the table. Many edible flowers are common garden plants, which provides even more encouragement for everyday gardeners to add them to everyday recipes. They are not just for chefs and connoisseurs.

    Edible flowers fall under two categories: herbal flowers and edible garden flowers. Most garden herbs have edible flowers—though you always want to double check before chowing down on any bloom. Some garden ornamentals also have edible flowers, but only a handful of these are really tasty.

    There are a few caveats to eating edible flowers. First, never eat flowers from a florist because they have often been sprayed with chemicals. In turn, never spray garden flowers you intend to eat. Even pesticides and herbicides approved for organic gardening are a no no.  Flowers are too delicate to wash, so if you want to eat them, let nature tend to them.

    For the cultivation of all the herbs and flowers highlighted in the tables below, provide full sun, average moisture, and quality garden soil with good drainage. The addition of OMRI Listed Black Gold® Garden Compost Blend will improve performance. A granular fertilizer formulated for flowering is also recommended.

    Pretty chive flowers and a sweet onion flavor to fresh cucumber salad.

    Pretty chive flowers add a sweet onion flavor to fresh cucumber salad.

    A favorite springtime edible flower recipe is chive flower cucumber salad. It’s very easy to make and will compliment lots of spring meal plans. To make the salad, thinly slice 2 cucumbers (peel them if they are thick-skinned), then make a dressing that combines 2  tablespoons white wine vinegar, 1  teaspoon sugar, 1/3 cup heavy cream, 1 shallot finely minced,  1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill. and salt and pepper to taste. Mix the dressing and cucumbers then toss with 2 to 3 chive flowers that have been trimmed and gently broken apart. The chive flowers lend a delicate oniony flavor to the salad that makes it extra delicious!


    Popular Edible Herb Flowers

    Herb Look & Flavor  
    Basil  (Ocimum spp.) If your basil plants flower in summer, eat the zesty purplish or white basil blooms and green buds. They taste lovely on salads and veggies.  Ocimum-basilicum-Cinnamon-JaKMPM-300x200
    Borage (Borago officinalis) Pure violet blue and flavored like cucumber, these early summer flowers look and taste lovely on any fresh savory dish.  Borago-officinalis-1024x682
    Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) Beautiful tufts of mauve blooms with pure chive flavor bedeck these plants in spring. Break them apart and use in place of chives.  100
    Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) Umbels of lacy white flowers are the precursor to coriander seeds. Use the fresh tasting spring or fall blooms in place of fresh cilantro.  Coriandrum sativum2
    Dill (Anethum graveolens) Yellow or chartreuse green dill flowers appear in spring or fall and taste as dilly as the leaves but add good looks to dishes.  Dill
    Lavender (Lavandula spp.) Lavender is a common culinary herb in the South of France. The flavorful summer flowers add charm and flavor to grilled lamb or herbed goat cheese spread.  Lavender
    Mints (Mentha spp.) All mints have wonderfully minty summer flowers that may be white or purplish. Add them to any dish calling for fresh mint, from tabouli to desserts.  Mentha
    Oregano (Origanum officinalis) The purple or white summer flowers of oregano lend potent oregano flavor to savory dishes.  050
    Thyme (Thymus spp.) The early summer flowers of thyme may be pink, white or purple and taste delicately of thyme. Sprinkle them on spring cream soups or salads.  Thyms.ashx
    Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) Blooming intermittently in fall, winter or spring, rosemary flowers are white or purplish and pair well with grilled meats and savory salads.  Rosemary


    Popular Edible Garden Flowers

    Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis) These cheerful cool weather annuals have flowers in warm colors. Their petals have a spicy flavor and lend interest to salads.  Calendula
    Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.) Daylily buds and petals taste almost like lettuce. The summer blooming plants have colorful flowers in almost every shade but true blue.  Hemerocallis 'Red Razzle Dazzle' JaKMPM
    Marigold (Tagetes spp.) True marigold flowers have a sharp, somewhat citrusy flavor that lend good flavor to heirloom tomato salads.  tagetes
    Monarda (Monarda spp.) The zesty, somewhat minty flavor of summer blooming Monarda flowers can be used to decorate salads or desserts.  045
    Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) Summer blooming nasturtiums have flowers that are peppery tasting, like watercress. They are beautiful and add appeal to fresh savory dishes.  Nasturtium
    Pansy (Viola hybrids) Violas are cool season flowers with a mild, sweet flavor and bright color. They can be candied and used to decorate desserts.  Viola Sorbet Lemon Chiffon JaKMPM
    Rose (Rosa spp.) Rose petals can be used alone in fresh confections or used to make rose water. Be sure to only use garden flowers that have not been sprayed or treated in any way. Candied rose petals taste lovely with almond desserts.  Blushing Knock Out
    Violet (Viola spp.) Spring blooming wild violets have a stronger sweet violet flavor than hybrid pansies, but they can be used in the same way.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  3. Tough Garden Yuccas      

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    Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa) is an adaptable, bold landscape plant!

    “This flower was made for the moon, as the Heliotrope is for the sun…and refuses to display her beauty in any other light.”  This lovely Victorian quote, taken from the 1878 edition of Vicks Monthly Magazine, set off a fad for yucca plants.  Though they flower in the sun, their blossoms become fragrant at dusk, releasing a seductive scent to draw their pollinators, yucca moths (Tegeticula and Parategeticula moth species).  Yucca species depend on a specific yucca moths for pollination, and yucca moths lay their eggs in yucca flowers where the young feed on some (but not all) of the developing seeds. Both moths and plants need one another for survival.

    Growing yucca is a snap, if you choose the right one.  With so many species and new varieties available at garden centers, it can be mind boggling.  The best choices for those in yucca country are locally native species available in outdoor garden centers.  These will be the best adapted to your region and most likely to bloom well.

    Central and Eastern Yucca for Landscapes

    Moundlily yucca growing in a sandy plain in the American Southeast.

    Yuccas may form single clumps, multiple clumps, or be tree-like.  Clump-forming species are more prevalent in the East and Southeast coastal regions.  Common garden-worthy forms include Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa), an eastern native that inhabits fields and open woodlands, the southeastern moundlily yucca (Y. gloriosa and Y. gloriosa var. recurvifolia) that inhabits coastal landscapes, and the Central US soapweed yucca (Y. glauca) of the dry plains. Spanish bayonet (Y. aloifolia) is a trunked species that inhabits southeastern coasts. These are more tolerant of regular rainwater and soils with clay, but all require well-drained soil and will withstand drought.

    Western Yucca for Landscapes

    The beautiful flowers of banana yucca rising from a tough cluster of leaves.

    In the arid west, Yucca species are adapted to perpetual wind and nonexistent humidity.  Species such as the clump-forming banana yucca (Y. baccata) and tree-like beaked yucca (Y. thompsoniana) have thicker leaves plus a hard outer skin that make them super desert hardy, but painfully slow growing.  That means these are best purchased as mature specimens because young plants take so long to reach a visible landscape size. Arid yucca prefer south-facing, sloping ground with rapid drainage or naturally porous soils.  That’s why it’s essential to know the origin of any yucca you’re considering, to make sure you get a proper fit with your microclimate.

    Landscape yucca of all kinds have been getting a makeover; ordinary green-leaf species are now offered as variegated cultivars that you can buy at garden centers.  These feature brightly striped or blue leaves and compact versions that are ideal for container gardens.  Variegated forms may bring shades of bright gold, ivory, and mint green into the garden for year-round color.

    Growing Yucca in Gardens

    ‘Color Guard’ is a popular variegated Adam’s needle for containers and gardens.

    In the landscape, some yucca species develop a trunk-like growth with age, so they get taller with time.  Others spread laterally, producing large clumps around the mother plant.  Since there are so many species in cultivation, the list below identifies the most widely grown and available species for gardens.  Different cultivated varieties may be available at the garden center, and though they may look different, grow them as you would the parent species.

    Provide your yuccas with soils that drain well. Sandy or gravelly soil is often preferred, though Adam’s needle can withstand loamy soils. Be sure you know the hardiness of these sun lovers before planting them in the garden. Most landscape species are remarkably cold hardy, but the lack of winter light may be  problematic for overall vigor.  Southwestern species cannot withstand winter moisture.

    Growing Yucca in Pots

    Mature Y. gloriosa var. recurvifolia become tree-like with age.

    When growing yucca in a large pot, it’s best to make sure there is optimal flow for drainage.  If you create a small gap between the drain hole and the underlying surface or saucer, the pot will drain more freely.  Take at least 2 pieces of old tile, and slide them under the pot where you can’t see them.  It is important to “gap” the pot with any arid plant grown in containers.

    Juvenile yuccas do beautifully in pots.  Plant them in porous Black Gold Cactus Mix instead of ordinary potting soil, so there’s less chance of overwatering them.  Buy a youngster for a cute matching pot to enjoy up close. As it grows, pot it up into larger containers until it becomes a stunning mature patio specimen.

    Unlike agaves that bloom once at the end of life, yuccas bloom each year with stalked iridescent sprays of snow white blossoms.  They shine in the moonlight reflecting light to lure their moth pollinators, so be sure to plant them where you can’t miss the show for full-moon viewing.

    List of Common Yucca Species for Gardening

    Latin Name Common Name Form US Region Zone
    Y. aloifolia Spanish Bayonet Tree-like SE 7-11
    Y. baccata Banana Yucca Clumping SW 7-11
    Y. filamentosa Adam’s Needle Clumping SE 4-9
    Y. gloriosa    Spanish Dagger Tree-like SE 6-11
    Y. glauca Soapweed Yucca Clumping C 4-10
    Y. thompsoniana
    Beaked Yucca Tree-like SW 6-11

    Glowing yucca flowers develop a sweet scent at night.

  4. Top 10 Water-Wise Container Garden Plants

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    Proven Winner’s Good Morning Sunshine is a cool-colored, textural container garden recipe custom made for hot, dry weather.

    No matter where you live, you can always count on bouts of hot, dry summer weather. That’s why it’s smart to fill your outdoor containers with drought-tolerant flowers and foliage plants. Sure, you can always water heavily and fill your pots with water-holding potting soil, but water-wise plants provide real container garden insurance. They will perform beautifully in the dog days of summer, saving you time, money, and worry.


    Top 10 Water-Wise Container Garden Plants

    These ornamentals create a great pallet for water-wise container gardens. Once established, they will tolerate drought and shine in summer heat.

    Agastache Alcapulco® Salmon Pink

    Hummingbird Hyssop (Agastache hybrids)

    These fragrant garden flowers add upright color to containers and attract hummingbirds. There are lots of varieties that vary in height, some reaching 2-3′ and others staying quite compact. The colorful members of the Alcapulco® Series are vigorous and come in pastel shades of rose, orange, and pink. Pinch the old flower stems back to encourage new flowers all summer long.


    Angelonia Angelface® Blue

    Summer Snapdragon (Angelonia Angelface® Series)

    These bedding flowers produce nonstop blooms all summer long in shades of pink, purple, rose, and white. The annuals are offered by Proven Winners® and their flowers attract bees and butterflies. Even though they look delicate, they can take high heat as well as drought.



    Bidens Goldilocks Rocks® (image by Proven Winners®)

    Tickseed (Bidens ferulifolia)

    Bright gold flowers make tickseed a sunny choice for containers. The low, mounding annuals add substance to plantings and bloom all summer long, attracting bees and butterflies. The variety Goldilocks Rocks® is especially tough and will thrive in even the worst summer weather. Tickseed is self-cleaning, so there is no need to deadhead.



    Catharanthus Cora® Violet

    Madagascar Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus)

    Bushy Madagascar periwinkle blooms effortlessly until frost, making it a mainstay for sunny, drought-tolerant containers. It comes in lots of bright colors that can be purchased at practically any garden center. Its flowers are favored by butterflies, and many great varieties exist, such as those in the compact Cora® Series.



    Cuphea Vermillionaire® (Proven Winners®)

    Cigar Flower (Cuphea ignea)

    Talk about a resilient garden flower! Cigar flower is a big, bushy ornamental that becomes covered with orange-red, elongated flowers throughout summer. The tubular blooms attract hummingbirds and don’t stop until frost. The Proven Winners® hybrid Vermillionaire® is especially large and colorful.



    Euphorbia Diamond® Delight (Proven Winners®)

    Euphorbia (Euphorbia Diamond® Series)

    The delicate, white blooms of these tough garden flowers look like snowflakes and will complement almost any container planting. Euphorbia in the Diamond® Series are offered by Proven Winners® and their popularity is a testament to their ease of growth and beauty. The mounded, slightly cascading plants are self-cleaning, look great all summer, and will bloom until frost.



    Lantana Bandana™ Rose

    Lantana (Lantana camera)

    All lantana are as tough as nails, and the bushy plants give container gardens a colorful, robust look. The glowing flowers are produced in warm, bright, multi-colored clusters that attract butterflies. Some varieties are more compact than others, like those in the Bandana™ Series.



    Artemisia Quicksilver (Proven Winners®)

    Wormwood (Artemesia Quicksilver™)

    Grown for its icy, silvery leaves and appealing mounded habit, Quicksilver™ is a tough wormwood that looks good with both warm- and cool-colored plantings. It’s toothed leaves are fragrant and resistant to deer and rabbits.



    Pennesetum Fireworks (Proven Winners)

    Annual Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum)

    This elegant grass brings soft, airy height to containers and comes in lots of shades–from the multi-colored ‘Fireworks‘ to the russet red Red Riding Hood. By midsummer, it will produce ornamental foxtail plumes that persist into fall, even after they have turned brown.



    Dichondra Silver Falls (Proven Winners)

    Dichondra (Dichondra Silver Falls™)

    This is the ultimate drought-tolerant spiller for impressive pots! The foliage effortlessly cascades down like a waterfall of silver and can be gently pruned back if it becomes too long. Its neutral color combines well with many other plantings.



    Container Design

    Diamonds and Emeralds is a more neutral container recipe from Proven Winners. (Image by Proven Winners)

    Container gardens must have plants with the same sun and water requirements. For professional looking pots, go for plants with contrasting textures, heights, and habits, and devise a clear color scheme.

    The standard container design formula includes a vertical, mounding or bushy, and cascading plant married in a complimentary arrangement where plant heights blend into a fluid design. Contrasting leaf textures (fine, bold, airy, or spiky) will lend even more dramatic looks to your container. Choosing a smart color scheme is the final design factor.

    Harmonious color choices make beautiful gardens. Colors may be contrasting but complementary (on the opposite end of the color wheel, such as purple and yellow, orange and blue, and red and green), warm or cool (reds, oranges, and yellows are warm and blues, greens, and purples are cool), or in similar hues (pink with pink, purple with purple, and so on).  Neutral plants and flowers, such as tan-, white-, silver-, and black-hued plants, fit with practically any color group. Click here to view some great container designs by Proven Winners®.


    Container Preparation & Care

    Larger containers hold more water and give roots more space, so opt for big pots able to sustain your contained gardens—especially when growing multiple plants in one pot. Containers must always drain well, so make sure they have drainage holes in the bottom and a base able to hold residual water.

    The proper mix also makes a difference. For best performance in hot, dry weather choose Black Gold® Moisture Supreme Container Mix or OMRI Listed® Black Gold® Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Mix. Both contain natural ingredients that hold water well. Adding a slow-release fertilizer at planting time will also boost performance.

    Water-wise plantings require less water, but they still need timely irrigation. Your watering plan will depend on the size of your pot and the plants chosen. Those planted in large containers with water-wise plants often require water every three days or so. If your plants look lush and healthy, you know you are giving them what they need.

    Summer Breeze is a warm-hued, water-wise container recipe from Proven Winners.

  5. Growing Perfect Garden Peonies

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    'Coral Charm' has beautiful peachy coral flowers. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    ‘Coral Charm’ has beautiful peachy coral flowers. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    It’s time to plant peonies! Nothing says spring like a garden full of bright, beautiful peonies (Paeonia spp.). Their big, fragrant flowers are great for cutting and come in shades of red, pink, white and yellow and may be single, semi-double, or double. The plants themselves are resilient and can live as long as 100 years or more. This is why established clumps of these old-fashioned garden flowers often exist around old homes.

    First cultivated in China, where an estimated 41% or the world’s species reside, peonies have been the object of adoration for nearly 4000 years. There are hundreds of variable woody and herbaceous varieties for the garden. All are long-lived and wonderfully beautiful in their own right.

    Herbaceous Peonies

    Paeonia lactiflora 'Sarah Bernhardt' JaKMPM

    Double-flowered varieties like ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ should be staked to keep their flowers from flopping. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Common garden peonies (Paeonia lactiflora) are the classic herbaceous peonies found in American gardens. The large, bushy plants produce loads of big, late-spring flowers that are hardy to USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8. Caging or staking is recommended for double-flowered varieties because weak stems often cause the flowers to flop to the ground in heavy rains. Through summer, these perennials are not very attractive, so it’s best to plant other pretty garden flowers around them for continued seasonal interest. In winter, herbaceous peonies die all the way to the ground and old stems should be cut back.

    Paeonia lactiflora 'Gold Rush' JaKMPM

    ‘Gold Rush’ is a classic Japanese-type peony. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Herbaceous peonies have many flower forms other than standard single, semi-double, and double types. Bomb peony flowers have a big round puff or “bomb” of petals, and Japanese- and anemone-peony flowers have golden puffs of color at the center of the blooms.

    Exceptional varieties include the single, clear-pink-flowered ‘Pink Dawn’, the classic pale double pink ‘Sarah Bernhardt’, the semi-double, peachy coral ‘Coral Charm’, and the white and pale yellow, Japanese-flowered ‘Gold Rush’.

    Tree Peonies


    Double, red-flowered tree peonies in full bloom. (Image by Jesse)

    The spare, shrubby habits of tree peonies don’t impress, but the spectacular flowers they produce are some of the biggest and best around. Blooms can reach up to 10” across and come in shades of white, pink, and purplish red as well as burnished yellows and corals. Flowers burst forth from late spring to early summer for a period of around two weeks. Grow them in full sun to partial shade.

    Plants are slower growing than herbaceous peonies, and their branches can be brittle, so it is important to protect them from wind. Even though most are hardy to USDA Hardiness Zone 4, their buds can be damaged by frost—another reason to plant them in a protected spot.

    Great varieties include the American Peony Society Gold Medal Winner ‘Age of Gold’, which has huge golden blooms—often with more than one flower per stem—and reaches 5 feet in height. The semi-double, pink-flowered ‘Hana Kisoi’ is another garden classic that blooms in May and originates from Japan. The brilliant white-flowered ‘Phoenix White’ bears enormous single flowers, grows relatively quickly, and will add sparkle to partially shaded gardens.

    Intersectional Hybrid Peonies

    Paeonia 'America' JaKMPM

    ‘America’ is a wonderful magenta-red intersectional peony. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Intersectional (Itoh) peonies are crosses between tree and herbaceous peonies, and they offer the best characteristics of both. Their big flowers tend to be more like those of tree peonies, but they have herbaceous habits. They bloom in late spring, and have stronger stems than standard herbaceous peonies, so staking is not needed.

    Itoh peonies were first bred in Japan in the 1960s. Since then lots of stellar varieties have come to the market. Choice varieties include the single, magenta-red ‘America’, the semi-double lemonade colored ‘Bartzella’, and the award-winning ‘Garden Treasure’, which has semi-double flowers of palest tangerine.

    Growing Peonies

    All peonies flower best in full, bright sunlight, though tree peonies can take partial shade. Tree peonies should be protected from strong winds and harsh winter exposure, and double-flowered herbaceous peonies must be staked or caged, if you want to keep their flowers off of the ground.

    Plant new peonies in early spring or fall. Rich garden soil with a neutral pH is best. Soil that is too acid or too alkaline can cause nutrient deficiencies and result in leaf chorosis (yellowing between the leaf veins). Before planting new peonies, amend the garden soil with fortifying Black Gold Garden Soil. Established peonies can be mulched in spring with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend. Plant the roots just below the soil surface. If you plant them too deeply, this can inhibit flowering. Small peony starts may take a year or two before reaching full bloom. Feeding peonies in early spring will support flowering and foliage health.

    Large herbaceous peony clumps can be divided in fall. Just be sure to dig the large, fleshy roots deeply, and gently cut new divisions from the parent plant. Mulch new plantings lightly and water them well.

    Globe-shaped peony buds attract ants, but the insects won’t damage the flowers. They simply feed on the sweet juices surrounding the unopened petals. Before cutting the flowers for indoor arrangements, just be sure to brush off any lingering ants.

    When peonies are in full bloom, they look so impressive! And, you can be sure that they will remain in your garden for years to come, offering lots of sweet-smelling blooms for cutting and enjoyment.

    The pink peony 'Monsieur Jules Elie' has bomb-type flowers. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    The pink herbaceous peony ‘Monsieur Jules Elie’ has bomb-type flowers. (Image by Jessie Keith)

  6. Mike Darcy’s Favorite Fall Trees and Flowers

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    Stewartia, fall color, J. Eves 2014

    Stewartia pseudocamellia fall color

    The fall season is upon us and what a glorious time of year it is. As I walk around my neighborhood, and drive around Portland, the many deciduous trees are turning brilliant shades of color. The more brilliant they are, the better.

    Favorite Fall Trees

    Stewartia pseudocamellia seed pods, L Foltz 2014

    Stewartia pseudocamellia seed pods

    Many maples are turning red, some are orange, and others are shades of yellow.  The Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) trees are turning golden yellow, and our summer annuals are telling us that their time is almost over.  Sometimes we can have a tree that gives us scarlet fall foliage as well as beautiful seed pods.  Stewartia pseudocamellia is just such a tree. Mine is planted in my front yard where it takes center stage.



    Salvia splendens Saucy™ Red

    Salvia splendens Saucy™ Red

    Yet, there is still much color in the garden, not only from foliage but from flowers as well.  In my own garden, I am quite a Salvia fan and always willing to try new varieties.  This past spring I purchased Salvia splendens Saucy™ Red, and I was rather disappointed with it in summer.  It did not flower well compared to my Salvia guaranitica ‘Black & Blue’.  Well, I had a very pleasant surprise this September. Evidently, Saucy™ Red likes cooler weather, shorter day-length, or maybe both, because it burst into full bloom and has continued ever since.  It is mid October, and the 7-foot-tall plant has burnished scarlet flowers on almost every stem. Sadly, the tender plants are only hardy to USDA Zones 9-10, so I will have to replant if I want to enjoy this Salvia again.

    Impatiens tinctoria

    Impatiens tinctoria

    Impatiens tinctoria

    Another new garden flower this year is the 8-foot-tall, large-flowered, Impatiens tinctoria, which comes from the rain forests of East Africa.  I had first seen it growing in a friend’s garden three years ago and was surprised to learn that it is a winter hardy perennial, surviving USDA Zones 7-11.  This is my second year to grow it, and I learned that it likes grows best in shade with protection from the hot afternoon sun. In the spring, I worked lots of humus into the soil around it and mixed in Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil. Today my plants are over 6 feet tall and blooming with a flower that does not look anything like a garden impatiens.  These flowers are fragrant at night and attract much attention from garden visitors.

    Cover Crops

    Now is the time of year to put the summer vegetable garden to bed.  The tomatoes are finished, as well as the beans, squash, peppers, etc.  Once these plants are removed, it is an ideal time to prepare the soil for next season.  Mix Black Gold® Garden Soil 0.05 – 0.02 -0.05 into the beds and plant a cover crop. Cover crops are broadcast legumes, or grasses such as buckwheat, that are planted to cover the garden in winter and are tilled under in spring.

    BG_GRDNSOIL_1CF-FRONTLegumes are plants in the Pea Family (Fabaceae) and include clovers and vetches. With the help of symbiotic bacteria called Rhizobium, they “fix” nitrogen from the air back into the soil, making it available to other plants.  Thus, by planting a cover crop, you increase the nitrogen level of your soil while also protecting your beds from erosion and aggressive winter weeds. The added organic matter from the spring-tilled cover crop with also benefit your garden soil.

    We always get some “sunny windows” during this season.  These windows give us a wonderful opportunity to get out in the garden and do fall chores.  Fall is also a great time to “edit” your garden.  We all have plants that have gotten too big, are in the wrong place, or maybe we are tired of them.  Walk around your garden with a note pad and make notes on garden editing that you can do throughout winter.  But, most importantly, enjoy the season and its many colors.

  7. Late-Summer Gardening in the Pacific Northwest

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    Fuchsia ‘Dying Embers’ has lovely deep purple flowers that draw hummingbirds.

    It seems as though the gardening season has flown by, and here it is August already.  I think August is a good month to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labor; summer is not quite over and autumn has not yet begun.  The summer vegetable gardens are peaking with tomatoes, squash, melons, beans, cucumbers, and all the other seasonal crops.  The flower garden is bursting with the color of all the late-season bloomers, like dahlias, crape myrtle, hardy hibiscus, salvias, and the list goes on.

    Lycopersicon esculentum 'Early Girl' JaKMPM

    2016 has been a great year for tomatoes in the Pacific Northwest.

    Late-Summer Food Crops

    This has been a good season for tomatoes, and I am hearing from other gardeners that the crop is abundant.  We had both a mild winter and spring, and tomatoes that usually do not ripen until September are turning red.

    I am hearing from commercial fruit and berry growers that the season is about two weeks ahead of normal.  Last week I visited with the Market Manager of the Beaverton (OR) Farmers Market, and she said that apples that are usually brought to the Market in September are will be arriving in mid August.  Fall apples are now ripening in late summer!

    Hardy Hibiscus

    Since there is not much we can do about the weather, we should look to the garden and enjoy it and all the color it has to offer.  A favorite pastime of mine is walking through the garden in the early morning before the sun has gotten hot.  I like looking at all the color that the August garden provides.  In the past few weeks, I have been adding hardy hibiscus, (Hibiscus moscheutos), to my garden, and I am enjoying this late-blooming hardy perennial.

    Hibiscus 'Tie Dye'

    Hibiscus ‘Tie Dye’ is a late-summer gem producing 10″ pink and white flowers with cherry-red eyes.

    Often when people hear the word “Hibiscus”, they think of the tropical Chinese hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) from East Asia.  Instead, this hibiscus is native to the eastern United States, and I remind garden enthusiasts that if it can survive a winter in Michigan or Ohio, it will certainly survive a Portland winter.  One of its attributes is that it blooms later in the season, July-September, when many other herbaceous perennials are long gone. Check out your local garden center as they should have plants in bloom now.  In addition to flower color, (white, pink, red, and all shades in between), this hibiscus has a variety of foliage colors from solid green to dark red and almost black.

    Hardy hibiscus like to be planted in full sun and need summer watering.  In fact, it is a wetland plant that grows well in continuously moist ground. That’s why I mix Black Gold Garden Compost into the soil before I plant to help hold moisture.


    Our Pacific Northwest climate is ideal for growing fuchsias and most are nonstop bloomers. All summer they attract hummingbirds, which is an added benefit.  A fuchsia that I saw in a garden late last summer was called ‘Dying Embers‘.  This prolific bloomer was a must-have in my garden this year, and it is not a disappointment with its small, very dark purple blooms.  I have my plant in a large pot filled with Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil. As the August sun has been hot and bright, I am very glad that I did because it holds moisture while also providing good drainage and boost of organic fertilizer.


    Mid-to late-summer is the time to start seeds for fall planting.

    Seed Starting

    August is also the time to be thinking about the fall garden.  Most of our winters are mild enough to allow vegetable cultivation through the coldest months.  Sow seeds now for cool-season crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts.  Start seeds now in seed trays with Black Gold Seedling Mix and plant them outdoors by late summer.  (Click here to learn more about starting plants from seed.) For gardeners with limited space, or those wishing to grow vegetables on a deck or patio, try starting leafy vegetables from seed in a pot using Black Gold All Purpose Potting Mix. Leaf lettuce is quick to germinate and can provide several cuttings before frost.

    This is an ideal time of year to visit other gardens and see what is blooming.  I like to encourage gardeners to visit new gardens, talk with other gardeners, and learn what plants have done well, or not so well.  We often tend to visit other gardens in the spring and early summer, but many plant surprises can be also discovered in late-summer gardens.

  8. Smart Summer Pruning and Deadheading

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    Removing the old, spent flowers from perennials, like this coneflower, will keep the plants flowering and looking great for longer. (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Summer is not the time of year when most gardeners prune, but there are some definite advantages to summer pruning. It is easier to identify damaged or ill branches when a tree is in full leaf. When a tree is in full leaf it is also easier to identify branches that can be removed to provide better air circulation. A reminder: if you are going to do summer pruning on fruit trees, do it after the fruit has set.

    Summer Pruning

    For those gardeners that have espaliered fruit trees, constant summer pruning is a necessity. With the tree sending out new branches, it is important not to let these grow too long but to keep them trimmed so the tree is kept properly trained and maintained. For gardeners that would like to be able to grow their own fruit trees, but have limited space, growing espaliered trees is an excellent option to consider.

    There is confusion among gardeners as to when and how to prune hydrangeas. Some hydrangeas bloom on 2nd year wood, so if a plant is severely pruned one season, it make take full year for it to come into bloom again. There are other Hydrangeas, ‘Limelight’ is a good example, that bloom on new growth. This means it can be pruned at almost any time and still produce flowers. Check with your local garden center to learn the best time to prune your hydrangeas and still get flowers.

    Check with gardening neighbors and garden experts to get additional tips on pruning. Find a neighbor that likes to garden and soak up some information. One of the best things about gardening is that most gardeners are very friendly, helpful, and like to share information.


    When removing the summer seed heads from Rhododendron, be sure not to remove the new growth buds that reside on either side of it.


    “Deadheading” means is removing the old flower stems to make way for new. The word is used frequently with regard to rhododendrons and azaleas and refers to snapping or cutting off the area where the old flower was attached to the stem. With most rhododendrons and azaleas, this area is usually very visible which makes removal easy. Often, this is done for visual purposes because dried up flowers are not very attractive. Removing the flowers is also a way to prevent the plant from forming seed. When a plant forms seeds, it takes away nourishment that could be used for new growth. Be careful when removing the seed head because new growth buds reside on either side of it and should not be removed. These new buds will produce the new growth for the summer and this growth will then develop flower buds for next years’ bloom.DRoses are another plant that responds well to having the flower stems removed after the flowers are gone. This will encourage the plant to produce new stems and new flowers. Stem removal can also be seen as a way to perform some selective summer pruning and will help ‘open’ the bush up to allow for good air circulation. Just be sure to sanitize your pruners between plants to protect against any potential spread of disease.


    Deadheading modern rose varieties will encourage new roses to appear. (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Winter is not pruning season for all plants, even through most gardeners traditionally prune in the cold season. Sometimes what is traditional, is simple that, ‘traditional’ and may have no actual factual basis.


    For espaliered fruit trees, constant summer pruning is a necessity.

  9. Preparing the Garden for a Hot Summer

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    Lantana, colors

    An excellent summer bloomer for heat is Lantana camera.

    Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have had record high temperatures already this spring. When the temperature is 100° F in spring, it is HOT!  Not that our weather pattern is ever predictable, but this year it seems to be even less consistent. With our mild winter temperatures, record rain, and a summer forecast as being hot and dry, our plants may suffer without some additional help.

    In my own garden, I have become more aware of the need to get the right plant for the right place. What that means is that for full sun I make certain that I have a plant that appreciates this exposure. When we have temperatures in the triple digits, our soil can dry out very quickly and plants may suffer. While I realize that most gardeners have probably planted most of their containers and the bulk of their annual flowers and vegetables, we can still amend the top layer of soil to benefit the plants.

    Amend Shrubs

    I have learned that some Hydrangeas are especially prone to suffering in hot weather. One of my favorites is Hydrangea aspera, which is a tall shrub. My plant is over 8 feet tall. It has such beautiful flowers that it is a showpiece in the summer garden. However on hot days, the leaves will wilt as though it has not been watered for days when the soil is in fact moist. I recently added Black Gold Just Coir to the soil surface and worked it into the upper 1-2 inches of soil and this has helped. On the other hand, my Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’ (oakleaf hydrangea) stands up better in the heat.

    Hydrangea Snow Queen

    Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’ (oakleaf hydrangea) stands up better in the heat.

    Amend Vegetables and Flowers

    In the vegetable garden, this is an ideal time to add Black Gold Just Coir or Garden Compost as either of these will help to hold soil moisture. June is the month many gardeners plant basil, and it is often planted in containers. In our garden, we always have a container of basil near the kitchen, and I use Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil with RESiLIENCE®.

    While many annuals may wither in the heat, an excellent summer bloomer is Lantana camera. While technically a tropical shrub, it is usually treated as an annual here. It thrives in the heat, blooms constantly, and the flowers attract butterflies. Lantana makes a wonderful container plant on a deck or patio because of the continuous bloom.

    For the past few years a signature plant in our garden is the red leaf banana, Ensete ventricosum. It has gorgeous large, red leaves and while a tropical plant, I have mine in large pots in a full sun location, and they do fine. My choice of soil is Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil, and it seems to hold adequate moisture for these plants. A special treat that the red leaf banana provides is that by watering overhead, where the leaf meets the trunk, a small pocket of water will accumulate. This has become a very popular home for frogs to the delight of grand kids.


    My red leaf banana provides a home to frogs.

    Water Regularly

    When we have very hot days, and I see wilted plants that I know have adequate soil moisture, I will often spray them with a hose. This additional water seems to perk them up and within a period of less than an hour, they are looking fine.

    Be aware of your plants and their environment and try to imagine where a favorite garden plant might naturally grow best in your yard. Don’t get too stressed if your plants wilt, take precautions, and then enjoy them, your garden, and the summer.

  10. Mulching With Black Gold Amendments

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    Rhododendron luteum2 JaKMPM

    Rhododendron luteum amended with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend.

    When the drought is long, soils are poor, and money is short, one way to revitalize struggling garden plants is to protect their roots with mulch. Good mulches help to retain moisture, cool the root zone, and discourage weeds. The conventional wisdom is to mulch with wood chips or ground up bark, but both are very slow to decompose and can bind needed soil nutrients. The better option is to protect small beds and containers with organic-rich amendments that give back.

    Rich compost, peat, or Black Gold Earthworm Castings are all amendments that double as mulches in small ornamental gardens or vegetable gardens.  All offer fast organic matter, which helps soils better retain water and maintain porosity. They also offer biological benefits.  For example, Black Gold Garden Compost Blend contains peat moss for water retention and compost to help plants become better established.

    Disney Epcot

    Mulching vegetable and ornamental gardens with compost reduces weeds while adding needed organic matter.

    Amendment mulching is often most effective in shaded areas because it helps to simulate conditions on the forest floor.  If you take a cross section of this “duff” layer, you’ll see that it’s mostly leaves or needles with a fine, dark layer that sits right on top of the earth.  It’s rich in decomposing organic matter, which is why shade plants are often surface rooted.

    This is also true of acid-loving plants, such as azaleas or camellias, which  develop a wide, shallow root system where the majority of the soil nutrition lies. In fact, without a yearly application of organic matter, these plants can suffer. All too often you see the surface roots of azaleas exposed after years without the addition of a mulch layer.  The organic matter is essential to keep their roots moist and cool, especially when drought descends.
    Assess your favorite plants, planters, individual trees and shrubs to determine if they will benefit from this special treatment.   Apply a 1-2″ layer of amendment around the base of the plant.  Always keep it few inches clear of the trunk to prevent bark-to- mulch contact, which can induce stress and rot.  Extend the mulch layer out to the edge of the drip line.

    Don’t work the amendment in. Just smooth and pat it with your palm to flatten it out for better soil contact.   Moisten often with just a light spray or collected household water to keep these amazing shrubs and trees happy on minimal rainfall.  For areas with brief drought, mulch provides great short-term protection from an abnormally dry or hot summer.

    As landscapes everywhere are being altered to be more efficient, don’t forget that amendment mulch can mean so much more to your plants.  If you already have bark mulch in place, the next best thing is to sprinkle amendments over the bark, so they can filter down and provide support the next deep water day or after a welcome summer cloudburst.