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Tips for Planning a New Garden

February firmly settles us into the new year and is the ideal month for garden planning. The weather is too crummy in most parts of the country to work outside, and garden planning is a fun, hopeful indoor activity.

When referring to garden planning, I mean accomplishing more than listing a few flowers or vegetables to plant in the ground. A good garden plan takes a lot of thought about the layout of a garden, its soil, plants, care, and overall look. Hopefully, the end result will be a garden that gives lasting beauty and enjoyment.

Since this will be a beginner’s exercise, I’ll keep the steps straightforward. The only preliminary tip I will add is to remind gardeners to be realistic. Make sure you have enough money to complete the task and enough time to tend your new garden.

Steps to Planning a New Garden

A beautifully designed garden will provide lasting enjoyment for years!

Step 1- Choose your Garden

Decide what kind of garden you want. Are you interested in growing vegetables, cut flowers, a beautiful blooming perennial border, or a mixed bed with everything? Will your garden be in sun or shade? Will it contain containers paths or other elements? Choose what you like best. I generally like flower gardens filled with mixed annuals, perennials, and some flowering shrubs for broad interest.

Step 2 – Pick a Location

Simple, neatly edged garden beds around the home improve the landscape are are easy to design.

Determine where your garden will be located, and take note of all variables, such as soil type, light value, wind exposure, and water availability. Additionally, decide which direction you want the garden to face for maximum visual enjoyment. Knowledge of your yard will help you hone in on the right plants for the site.

When determining soil information, such as soil type or pH, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture maintains Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) regional or county offices. They can provide a wealth of local soil and agricultural information for the asking. You can also run some simple soil tests on your own. To test soil for soil acidity take ½ cup garden soil; add ½ cup of tap water followed by ½ cup baking soda. If the mixture fizzes, the soil is acidic (pH 6.0 or less). To test soil for alkalinity take a new 1/2 cup of soil, add ½ cup tap water followed by ½ cup vinegar. If the mixture fizzes, it is alkaline (pH 8 or more)

Step 3 -Select Plant Types

If you are not sure what to plant in a flower border in the first year, try adding lots of colorful, ever-blooming annuals.

Choose the types of plants you want for the garden style and their general location. Think of the color palette you want and the growing needs of the plants, such as light, soil, and water. Plant height must be determined for each choice. Typically the tallest plants (i.e., flowering shrubs and bold perennials) should be planted in the back of the bed, mid-size perennials will go in the center, and short annuals and bedding plants will be planted along the garden edges.

Assemble a list of plant species you are considering for your garden. If you don’t have many books on the subject, rely on quality online nurseries. Assure yourself that each species is in the correct USDA Hardiness Zone for your area (Click here to view the USDA Hardiness Zone Map). Also note individual plant requirements for soil moisture, pH, and sunlight. Final plant numbers can be calculated when you start drafting your garden.

Step 4 – Draft Your Garden

Draw up a draft plan for your garden. The draft is certainly the most complicated step and may be simple or elaborate, depending on your skill level. Make sure you have draft paper, tracing paper, a good mechanical pencil, a good eraser, and lots of patience.  Here are some ideas for making your layout easier to draw.

  • Gain an image of your yard and home plan from your city or county. Many municipalities offer them for download online.
  • Using the image of your home and yard as a basis, measure and lay out your home plan on graph paper at a scale where you can show bed locations. Add any existing walkways, large trees, shrubs, and beds on the plan. Be sure to note water spigots and areas of full sun, partial sun, and shade on your plan. Please use a pencil, or you will drive yourself nuts correcting mistakes.

Step 5 – Garden preparation is the next step. Start implementing your plan by marking out your garden on the ground. Some gardeners like to use a hose to lay out the garden lines. Inverted water-based marking spray paint is another option for drawing bed lines on the grass or soil.

With the plan in hand, lay out your garden. Mark the outer corners and boundaries of your garden with stakes. Mark the interior beds the same way. Now you can visually check the actual layout for problems.  Is there anything present that might present a problem?  Is any other yard use potentially compromised? Is any access or right-of-way blocked?  Any problems with setbacks or zoning restrictions?  Make any plan changes now while it is fresh in your mind.

Step 6 – Desod the ground and prepare the soil. The best time to prepare a new bed is in spring. Choose a day when it is dry and the soil is not wet. (Pick a ball of soil and squeeze. Poke the resulting ball with your finger. If it crumbles, the soil is dry enough to work. If it holds together, it is too wet to work.)

Remove obstacles from the area, and remove your sod. The grass is easier to remove when cut short. If your bed is relatively small, remove sod from bed areas by hand. I prefer cutting sod along the soil line using a sharp, flat, nursery spade, such as the all-steel model from King of Spades (The cost is high, but the spade lasts a lifetime.) If the bed is large, sod cutters can be rented from home improvement centers.

Till your soil, working in any amendments such as all-organic Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss or Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, and smooth the soil with a hard rake. Work amendments into the soil. (Click here to read our full garden amendment guide and amendment application formula.)

Step 7 Plant, Mulch, and Tend

Make sure to note what you are going to plant in each bed and how many and the year they were planted. When planting a new garden, I suggest ensuring a beautiful bed by buying large, healthy plants for installation. Fuller, more robust plants have more stored energy and become better established faster. Plant according to the instructions for each planting and follow the plant care instructions conservatively. Ask your local garden center representative about the best fertilizers for your plants, and plan to water and weed your new beds regularly.

I advise you to save your garden plan and any notes you have for future reference. It will be handy as your garden grows and changes with the years. Then, once your garden has begun to flourish, enjoy!

Indoor Orchids Help Beat The Winter BLAHS!

 

Orchids will add a touch of glamour to those winter blue periods when you start counting the days until spring just for something to do. Most people have had only a passing acquaintance with an orchid, possibly as part of a corsage worn by you or your date to the high school prom or maybe a wedding party.

Their exotic coloration and growth habits add a whole new level of cool to the household. And orchids are cosmopolitan. They can be found in most terrestrial habitats of the world except glaciers. But the tropics harbor most of the known species (28,000+). Most tropical orchid species are epiphytes. That is they grow on tall plants like trees and vines to gain access to sunlight, a scarce commodity in a dense rainforest. But they do not get water or nutrients from them. Orchids from higher latitudes are rooted in soil. And all orchids are often incredibly picky in their habitat preferences. On top of that, European and American horticulturists have produced some 1,000,000 hybrids and cultivars since the 19th Century.

I suggest that you buy one or more orchids from a reputable dealer and raise them indoors. It will be good for the merchants, good for the orchids, and good for you as you embark on a brand new hobby. Everybody wins!

Popular Orchids to Buy

Phalaenopsis (foreground) are the most available orchid at stores in addition to Oncidium (background).

At this point, we have to dive into the practical aspects of orchids and orchid care. Unless you live in or near a big population center abounding with specialty stores, you should order online from a reputable dealer. I recommend going for a big show and buying tropical epiphytes. They are more glamorous and rewarding to grow. Temperate zone natives tend to do better outdoors where they get picked by the neighbor’s kids or chomped by chipmunks or mice.

Best bets for purchase include corsage orchids (Cattelya spp.), boat orchid (Cymbidium spp.), moth orchid (Phalaenopsis spp.), tropical slipper orchids, (Paphiopedilum spp.) and dancing ladies (Oncidium spp.). Epiphytes such as these may be potted in wood chips or secured to a piece of tree branch or piece of bark that mimics their forest habitat. Epiphytic aerial roots collect water and nutrients from air, rainwater, and organic debris that collects around the plant.  Despite the multiplicity of exotic forms, patterns, and colors, most orchids have no discernible scent.

You should buy mature plants that have blooms and/or live buds. They should be shipped in 4 or 5-inch pots on a wood chip substrate. Barring a shipping disaster they should provide you with instant orchids.

Cymbidium orchids come in shades of ivory, green, orange, pink, purple, and yellow.

Requirements for Home Orchid Care:

  • Position your plants on a bright windowsill facing east or west.
  • Most orchids require water once a week. When the orchid arrives, water thoroughly, then routinely as indicated above thereafter. Do not disturb the planting medium the plant comes in the first year or those first buds/flowers will not bloom!
  • Unless stated otherwise, Indoor air temperature should be no less than 60 degrees F. at night and no more than 90 degrees F. during the day.
  • Unless stated otherwise, Indoor relative humidity should range from 40% to 70%’
  • Feed weekly with a liquid fertilizer designed for orchids. We recommend a 10-10-10 formulation
  • Repotting with fresh orchid mix when your orchid stops blooming for the year. We recommend Black Gold® Natural Organic Orchid Potting Mix.
  • All of this verbiage notwithstanding, You will receive (or should receive) a set of care and maintenance instructions from the nursery. Follow those
Moth orchids are the most common type available at stores.

Happy New Year and please stay safe!

Autumn in the Garden

Autumn leaves drifting by your window are telling you that fall is here and it is time to put the garden to bed for the winter. For us, it is a very busy time, almost as busy as spring if one sees it as a not particularly enjoyable task and has not done their necessary work the previous fall.  I plead guilty to this almost every year so I will list what needs to be done, starting with the most laborious:

Cleanup This requires cutting back and cleaning up the flowerbeds. I do not realize how many flowers I have until I have to take them out.  Old plant material must be cut off and removed leaving minimal dead material on the ground surface.  This is important for iris as the borers which plague them will winter over in old vegetation left behind.  Roses need the same treatment to discourage black spot the following spring.  I often do my removal in stages: first cut the peonies back to 3 inches then the coneflowers to the base. The Helianthus (perennial sunflowers), both single and double are cut back as well. Next will be the hostas whose leaves are changing color even without frost.  All annuals should be removed as well (although some are still so pretty I am waiting for frost).  This old material should be bagged and disposed of.  We do not compost this material for fear of aiding and abetting garden pests.

Plant new perennials Many nurseries encourage planting new perennials in the fall. I am always leery of doing so as plants from some mail order companies are so small I would prefer to give them a whole season to grow.  The exceptions are peonies, hostas and daylilies. To maximize your planting success, amend the soil with Black Gold® Natural & Organic Potting Mix, Natural & Organic Cocoblend Potting Mix or Natural & Organic Just Coir.

Plant Bulbs. This is the time of year to plant bulbs for next spring.  There are a couple of new things I learned about bulbs that I did not know before.  Wait to plant your bulbs until the weather is cool and after the first frost has the soil around 55 degrees F., but before it has frozen.  Be sure to plant at the recommended depth. If you want to make this job much easier go to GardenersEdge.com and look for the “Bulb Bopper”. Do not add fertilize to the hole as that can encourage root rot.  Fertilize on the top of the ground (1) when you plant, (2) when you see the first foliage poking its leaves up and (3) when the plant starts to die back.  Use a food that is just for bulbs.  Mulch over the bulbs lightly and remove the mulch in the spring when the plants start to come up.  Another surprising piece of information is that some of the gorgeous tulips you see in stores everywhere this time of year should be considered annuals.  The first year after planting they will send up beautiful blooms.  The next year only a few spindly ones and the year after that only leaves.  However, some tulips will not only bloom every year but also naturalize over time.  These include the species, Kaufmanniana and Gregii, and giant Darwin tulips.  Give them at least 6 hours of sun a day and with all bulbs let the leaves die back on their own as they are building up the plants for next spring.

Planting trees and shrubs They do not have the stress of summer heat and will expand their roots over the winter. It is very important to be aware of the minimum distance from the house that shrubs and trees should be planted.  It is so common to see plants smashed against the house.  Small shrubs ought to be 3 to 4 feet away from the house, big shrubs such as lilacs 6 ft. and small trees such as Japanese maples 10 feet. Anything larger goes out in the yard.  Be SURE you know the amount of sun required for each plant.  Shade for rhododendrons and sun for Beauty Bush.

Mulch. Fall is the time to mulch, not so much to protect from the cold of winter, but because it is just too much to do in spring with everything else to do.  I previously mulched in the spring but now I can see the advantage of getting it over in the fall. We use bark mulch from local sources. The mulch should be 3 to 4 inches deep.  The most important thing to remember while mulching is to keep the mulch 3 inches away from the base of each perennial and 5 inches from shrubs and trees.  Mulching right up to plants will cause them to rot.

After the weather clears I will go outside and practice what I preach. Happy Gardening.

Fragrant Garden Plants

 

Tall garden phlox are reliably fragrant summer perennials.

For the past couple of years, cold stormy springs blitzed our lilacs, of which we have many.  That heady fragrance was sorely missed around the Keith household. We were spoiled for fragrance.  But we were able to hang on until our other flowers and shrubs bloomed and took up the slack. We did lose some lilacs during that period, but we have had other, more catastrophic losses (dairy cows in the Jerusalem artichokes, for instance or the family dogs making off with the guest of honor on Thanksgiving morning, but leaving the turnips).

When the first spring flowers appear in March, the soil is often too wet and cold to be planted, so like all good things we have to wait. But we can stock up on the wonderful new varieties offered by local and national nurseries.

Bearing the title of this piece in mind, what to buy for a fragrance garden?  See some suggestions below.

Fragrant Shrubs

‘Beauty of Moscow’ is a double-flowered lilac with pale pink and white flowers.
  • In general, lilacs (Syringa species and hybrids, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8) can reach heights of 10-12 feet. Three especially fragrant varieties are ‘Beauty of Moscow’, ‘Bloomerang Purple’, and ‘Josee’. They are easy to grow so long as there is plenty of sun and the soil is alkaline and well-drained. The double-flowered ‘Beauty of Moscow’ has white blooms rising from pale pink buds. ‘Bloomerang’ lilacs (Zones 3-7) offer a richly fragrant purple lilac that blooms in spring and again in late summer or fall. The compact ‘Josee’ is a pink-flowered lilac that only reaches 4-6 feet.
  • Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii) is a compact shrub up to 6 feet in height. Flowers have an incredibly spicy aroma plus showy pink clusters of flower buds that develop into whiter flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. The fruits are black berries and in fall, the leaves turn scarlet. Some sources consider them invasive, but most do not. Prune one time to remove dead branches or restrict growth, then leave it alone.
The flowers of Korean spice viburnum are some of the most sweetly scented of spring.
  • Roses (Rosa hybrids) epitomize garden fragrance, but there are so many varieties put out by so many growers, a list of the available cultivars would fill a small book. We have been purchasing roses from the David C. Austin Co. since we discovered them. Austin (now deceased) was a British rose breeder and writer. The company offers trademark English roses, and shrub and climbing roses for the garden. ’Rosa Boscobel’ is an English shrub rose of medium height with a heady, complex scent. It produces large, salmon-pink flowers throughout the growing season (Zones 5-9). ‘Rosa Munstead Wood’ is a crimson shrub rose with a rich, fruity aroma. It blooms for most of the growing season (Zones 5-9). They come in light purple, deep purple, and pink.  They are also disease-resistant. Prune this group right after they finish blooming.  Check local nurseries, or go to Proven Winners online.
David Austin roses are bred to flower beautifully and resist diseases.

Annual and Perennial Garden Flowers

Lavender is one of the best garden flowers for fragrance.
  • Lavender (Zones 5-10) These Old World natives are a natural addition to any fragrance garden. A summer bloomer (pink, blue, purple and white) that likes full sun and they are not too fussy about soil. Pollinators love them. (1-3 feet high)
  • Carnations (Dianthus hybrids, Zones 5-9) these well-known perennial flowers will add a welcome spice fragrance to your garden. They bloom in late spring, so you may want to plant another, summer-blooming species as well.  Flowers come in shades of red, pink, and white. They prefer full sun but can tolerate partial shade.  They like alkaline soil, so amend your garden with Black Gold® Natural & Organic Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix. Carnations are said to be toxic to humans, dogs, and cats. (18 inches high).
  • Woodland tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris) is a re-seeding annual. Its moth-attracting flowers are white, long, tubular flowers, and most fragrant in the evening. The summer bloomer will self-seed if the flowers are allowed to go to seed. They like part to full sun and rich, well-drained soil. Bear in mind that this species is very toxic to humans and pets (3-5 feet high).
  • Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata, Zones 4-8) is a tall (2-4 feet), summer-blooming perennial that grows in neat clumps. The flowers come in shades of red, white, pink, and purple. The North American native grows in full to partial sunlight and needs good drainage and average moisture to thrive.
Woodland tobacco is a dramatic annual whose flowers emit enchanting night fragrance.

This is just a sample of the fragrant plants you might choose for your garden. You might also want to plant fragrant herbs as the border. Container plantings could also work well. Some tender species like lavender could be planted in containers and moved indoors when it gets cold.

Black Gold® offers the best in soil amendments and potting mixes for your garden, keep it in mind wherever and whenever you are planning all of your gardening projects.

Vegetable Container Gardens for Beginners

 

Potted vegetables are easy if provided summer-long care.

There was a time when almost every household in our town had its own garden plot that stretched between the back door and the alley. There were many reasons for this. First was that my hometown is primarily a farming community, with all that the term implies. Second was the double-barreled effect of (a) The Great Depression (1929 ~1940) and (b) World War II (1941-1945) when what was ripe in your garden was probably what was for supper. Third was a prevalence of first- or second-generation city folks who had been forced off the farmland by financial hardship or by primogeniture (e.g., all the land goes to the eldest son when dad dies). Fourth, many retirees under the (then) new Social Security Act did not trust the federal government to keep its word to continue Social Security benefits after retirement.

Now we live in a time of relative plenty despite the stress and strain on our social fabric and supply lines thanks to the pandemic. Yet many people will plant corn, green beans, potatoes, peppers and tomatoes wherever they can; not out of need, but for the simple pleasure of doing it.  In addition, for the knowledge that if Old Man Trouble happens to stop by you will still have food to fall back on.

Five Vegetable Container Garden Rules and Advice

So let us get to the subject of veggie container gardening, made possible in part by the development of new compact vegetable varieties.

  1. Grow compact vegetables! You may notice the absence of some LARGE vegetable favorites from this article, such as potatoes, corn, and melons. These plants need more space than most containers provide and are not suitable.
  2. Choose your location. The best location should get enough sunlight (6-8 hours full sun) and protection from wind.
  3. Choose large containers. Most vegetables grow best in larger containers. 2- and 5-gallon pots are the most common sizes. 5-gallon window boxes are also good picks, as are 5-gallon paint buckets purchased at hardware or paint stores. Container gardens need lots of sun, but most plant roots cannot stand heat, so white plastic containers are a good choice. Drain holes are mandatory. You also want to provide about a foot of potting mix in the container for root vegetables
  4. Choose the right pot. Most gardeners prefer light-colored plastic pots with good drainage for vegetables because they stay cool and plastic retains water better than most pottery. Pottery is more porous and loses water.  Glazed or unglazed pots are also more prone to breaking. A pretty Terracotta or glazed pot looks more attractive, though. If you choose ceramic containers, just be sure to make sure plants stay irrigated.
  5. Use Quality Potting Soil. Do not use your garden soil as a planting medium (really!). It does not drain well enough and may harbor pests and diseases.  Black Gold® All Purpose Potting Mix and Black Gold® Natural & Organic Potting Mix will meet the demands of your container crops from start to finish. Some experts also advocate filling container bottoms with dead (not green) lawn sweepings or compost and then following that with a foot of potting mix.

Vegetables for Containers

Bush Beans (e.g., Bush Blue Lake, Bush Green, Bush Yellow, TopCrop or similar)

  • 3 plants per 2-gallon container (8-12 inch soil depth
  • Plant seeds directly in containers (does not transplant well)
  • Harvest in 50-60 days

Cucumbers (‘Spacemaster’ or other compact vine variety)

  • One plant per 5-gallon pot
  • Sow seeds directly into pot
  • Harvest time – refer to seed packet

Lettuce (Ruby, Salad Bowl, Buttercrunch, Webb’s Wonderful)

  • 5-gallon window box
  • Sow directly or transplant
  • Harvest time – 40-70 days

Onions (White Sweet Spanish, Yellow Sweet Spanish, and NOTE: Forget Vidalia Onions; the high-sulfur soils around Vidalia, Georgia are the chief reason for their sweetness.

  • 5-gallon window box
  • Plant sets 3-5 inches apart
  • Harvest 100-125 days after planting, or when 50-75% of the tops have fallen over and the skin has dried

Peppers (Cayenne, Long Red, Sweet Banana)

  • One plant per 2-gallon pot
  • Transplant starts or sow seeds directly
  • Harvest time – refer to seed packet

Root Veggies (carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, onions, etc.)

  • 5-gallon pot or window box at least 12-inch soil depth
  • Sow seeds directly in soil
  • Harvest time – refer to seed packet

Tomatoes (determinate varieties e.g., Rutgers, Tiny Tim, Roma)

  • One plant per 2-gallon pot (may require support)
  • Transplants well
  • Harvest in 50-100 days (depending upon variety)

There you have it: quite enough to do, but not enough to get into real trouble.

Bold Aroids for Big Summer Color

The colorful, pink, red, and green leaves of ‘Caroline Whorton’ will brighten up any shade bed.

Summer is almost upon us, so it is time to start thinking about what beautiful plants we want to fill our gardens and containers with this year. Usually, I think of flowers, but I am also going to get some beautiful aroids for foliage as well.  All are tropical members of the Arum family (Araceae), which is the same family as the eastern native wildflower Jack-in-the-Pulpit, but their show is in their impressive leaves rather than their unusual flowers.

Growing Preferences for Garden Aroids

These aroids grow best in full to part shade, and they like warmth and humidity. This is because many originate from tropical rain forests from around the world, particularly in the Americas. Those mentioned in this article have impressive leaves and rarely flower in temperate regions. The blooms, if they do appear, consist of a single, large petal-like spathe that surrounds a column of flowers called a spadix. (Click here to see a spathe and spadix bloom.)

The plants require constant moisture, without saturation, and loose, well-drained soil. If your soil has low fertility, adding an amendment is recommended. Working ample amounts of Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss into your garden soil will increase its organic matter, helping it drain more quickly but stay moist. Peat also slightly reduces soil pH, which the aroids mentioned here prefer (6.0-7 pH). For container-grown aroids, Black Gold All Purpose Potting Mix is the perfect option.

Caladiums

Bottlerocket is a brilliant Sun or Shade Caladium from Proven Winners. (Image thanks to Proven Winners)

About Caladiums

For me, the top aroids on the list are caladiums (Caladium hybrids, Zones 9-11), also called angel’s wings. They love full to part shade (more shade is needed in hotter climates) and provide a lot of color to low-light gardens. They range in size from 1 foot to 2.5 feet tall and have 6- to 12-inch leaves. The gorgeous plants have big, heart-shaped, or strap-shaped leaves that come in shades of white, pink, red, and green, most often in a dazzling mix of bright colors on each leaf. Thousands of varieties have been developed since the late 1700s when they were first introduced from South America to Asia, Europe, and the Americas. They are popular garden plants worldwide.

Growing Caladiums

Caladiums are often grown as annuals in the north. This is because they are a challenge to dig and overwinter indoors. They have tuberous roots, somewhat like potatoes, only much smaller. In winter storage, the fleshy roots often die from fungal rot, both tuber rot (Fusarium solani) and root rot (Pythium myriotylum). Despite these challenges, I have read that with special treatment and care the tubers can be overwintered. The key is keeping them warm and lightly moist. An application of copper sulfate fungicide before they go into storage can also help. With this information in hand, I am going to treat mine with fungicide and store them properly this winter to see if I cannot get them to survive until early spring when they can be planted again. In tropical to subtropical areas, Caladiums winter over in the ground and have a short dormant period.

‘Red Flash’ Caladium and the strap-leaved ‘Pink Symphony’ are just two of hundreds of lovely Caladium to buy.

When planting Caladium tubers in the spring, start them indoors in a fresh potting mix. Plant them no more than 2-3 inches deep and 6 inches apart.  To encourage more large leaves, remove the large central bud from the tuber while leaving the smaller outside buds to send up leaves. This gives the smaller buds more food from the start, which helps them get bigger faster. After planting them, fertilize with Proven Winners Continuous-Release Plant Food because they are heavy feeders. The 6-month formulation feeds plants throughout the growing season with only one application.

They require warm temperatures of 65-75 degrees F and good humidity. Before planting them outdoors, the days and nights should be warm. This may mean waiting until early June to plant them in northern zones.  Tubers that are directly planted in the cold, spring ground will often rot and die.

Caladium Varieties

There are so many wonderful Caladiums to grow! Some excellent varieties include the white ‘Fiesta’ with red veins, dark green ‘Red Flash’ with red veins, and green-faced white ‘June Bride’. The especially colorful ‘Carolyn Whorton’ has light green leaves with splotches of pink and red veins. Some newer varieties have been bred to grow well in the full sun or shade. The best of these are Sun or Shade Caladiums by Proven Winners. The celebratory Sun or Shade Bottle Rocket, with its brilliant red, pink, white, and green leaves, is especially pretty.

Good sources for every Caladium you might want are Caladium World, Caladiums Florida, and Fancy Plants Farm. They are all based in Florida where Caladiums are cultivated, so you know that you will be getting the freshest tubers available. No rot here.

Elephant Ears

The leaves of true taro (Colocasia esculenta) are beautiful in their own right.

About Elephant Ears

There are two other genera of common garden plants related to Caladium that have big, beautiful leaves. They are the elephant ears, Alocasia and Colocasia. One layman’s way to tell them apart is that many common garden Alocasia have leaves that point up and Colocasia have leaves that point down, though this is not always the case. Both have fleshy root structures that are either bulbs, rhizomes, or tubers, depending on the species. The plants naturally spread as they grow and can be separated and replanted each season. They are also nice to share with friends.

Growing Elephant Ears

Unlike Caladiums, elephant ears will generally tolerate more sun, and many like moist or even wet soil. When you plant them outdoors in the warmth of the late spring, mix Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss or Natural & Organic Garden Compost Blend into the soil to increase fertility. Water plants in the ground 2 to 3 times a week and containers daily in the absence of rain. An application of continuous-release plant food will help them take off quickly and feed them through summer.

Like Caladium, before planting elephant ears outdoors, the soil needs to be at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit.  To get them going earlier, start them in pots indoors in a warm spot with bright, indirect light. Plan for garden space because elephant ears can get very large. Be sure to use the spacing guidelines provided. Potted elephant ears need large containers; half whisky barrels work well.

Water them well. Do not let the soil dry out, and water when it becomes dry about 1 inch down. Plant the large bulbs 4 to 6 inches deep. In the fall, the bulbs can be dug and overwintered in a cool, dry place. In warmer zones, cut back the leaves, cover the crowns with mulch, and leave the tubers in the ground to overwinter. They should come back next spring.

Elephant Ear Varieties

Giant taro is commonly sold as huge bulbs in the spring. Plant them outdoors once the soil warms and give them space.

Giant taro (Alocasia macrorrhizos, Zones 9-11) is cultivated across tropical Asia and has huge green leaves that point upwards. The plants can reach 6-15 feet, depending on the size of the bulb and whether it is being grown in a temperate or tropical climate. Give it a lot of space, water, and care, and you will be rewarded with an impressive garden specimen. Dig and overwinter the bulbs in cold-winter climates.

Portora giant elephant ear (Alocasia ‘Portora’, Zones 7-10) is a hardier and slightly shorter plant that reaches 4-8 feet. It has striking, large, upright green leaves with wavy edges. Grow it like giant taro. Consider protecting it with a layer of mulch in the fall to help it overwinter where hardy.

Polly African mask (Alocasia ‘Polly’, Zones 10-12) is a more compact plant with narrow dark green leaves that have striking white veins and scalloped edges. It looks especially beautiful in containers and also grows well as a house plant.

Black Velvet elephant ear (Alocasia reginula ‘Black Velvet’) is a compact form that reaches just 20 inches tall. It has large, dark leaves with prominent white veins. Each feels like velvet. Grow these in outdoor containers and pot them up as houseplants in the fall. They pair well with colorful begonias. (Click here to read my article about cascading begonias.)

Polly African mask is one of many smaller elephant ears that grow well indoors and outdoors.

True taro or elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta, Zones 8-10) is the most common of all the elephant ears. It likes full sun to shade and all moist soils, even clay. During dry times, don’t forget to give it 3 to 4 inches of water every week. Mulching also helps to keep in the moisture. Where not hardy, dig them before frost. Lift the bulbs and store them in dry peat moss, in a cool, dark area indoor area. There are lots of very pretty varieties including the purple dappled ‘Mojito‘, bold, upright ‘Coffee Cups’ with its cup-shaped leaves with dark purple veins, and the classic ‘Illustris‘, which has elegant leaves of darkest purple and green veins. ‘Jack’s Giant‘ has all of the looks of the standard taro but it’s really big!

Thai Giant elephant ear (Colocasia gigantea ‘Thai Giant’, Zones 8-10) can get really large, so leave plenty of room outside if you want one. (I plan to grow one this year in a damp spot of the garden.) Mature specimens can reach 9 feet tall with leaf blades that are 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide. It can have scented white flowers as well, but these are less common in temperate climates.

Any of these beautiful aroids will add impressive beauty to the garden. I hope this article has given some gardeners the desire to plant one of these bold, unusual plants.  I am buying ‘Thai Giant’ today!

Special Note: There are toxic irritants in the leaves of most aroids, so wear gloves when cutting them. Refrain from planting them if you have pets or small children that might ingest them. Visit the ASPCA to learn more about their toxicity to animals. If someone ingests some, be sure to contact Poison Control.

Favorite Flowering Ground Covers

‘Shell’Pink’ and ‘Orchid Frost’ lamiums look lovely side-by-side.

If you have a garden area that needs filling in, whether along a slope, between plants, or beside stone steps or rocky retaining walls, there are many beautiful perennial groundcovers for the job. They range from ones that do well in hot, dry areas to others that like moist shade.  I have chosen groundcovers that have beautiful leaves as well as flowers, which do not overwhelm surrounding plants and are easy to grow.

Flowering Groundcovers for Full to Partial Shade

‘Orchid Frost’ is one of many pretty deadnettles for shady gardens.

Spotted Deadnettle (Lamium maculatum, Zones 3-8): One of my favorites for shade is named spotted deadnettle, or simply deadnettle, even though it has no prickly nettles.  I have had several varieties in my shade garden for years. The early summer flower stalks are about 7 inches tall, rising over 4-inch-tall plants that spread several feet across. There are lots of varieties with variously spotted leaves and blooms of purple, pink, or white that are visited by bees. My favorite varieties include ‘Orchid Frost’ with lavender flowers and beautiful silver leaves, ‘Aureum‘ with bright pink flowers and white-striped gold leaves, Shell Pink‘ with palest pink blooms, and ‘White Nancy’, which has white flowers and silvery leaves. Lamium is deer-resistant, spreads gently, and is easily divided and transplanted. Plant it along shaded bed edges or allow it to cascade from the side of a shaded container garden. Lamium likes full to partial shade, and moist, well-drained soil.

Fragrant sweet woodruff flowers and plants look attractive in shaded gardens.

Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum, Zones 4-8): Another partial- to full-shade groundcover is European sweet woodruff, which also has the benefit of being an herbal plant used to flavor May wine in Europe. It has clusters of starry white flowers in the spring and whorled, star-shaped leaves; both are fragrant, but it’s the flowers that are used to flavor the wine. (Click here for a May wine recipe.) Sweet woodruff is about 8 inches tall and gently spreads around trees and shrubs.  It likes moist, well-drained soil and is deer resistant!

Wild ginger creates mats of attractive foliage through the growing season.

Wild Gingers (Asarum spp., Zones vary): There are many wild gingers with lovely ground-covering foliage and interesting beetle-pollinated spring flowers. The popular native species is Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadensis, Zones 2-8). Its medium-green, heart-shaped leaves look very pretty on bed edges or to hold shaded garden banks. Chinese wild ginger (Asarum splendens, Zones 6-8) is more ornamental with its pointed, green leaves that have spectacular silver markings.  ‘Quick Silver‘ is the best variety. Small, three-petaled, purple flowers appear around the base of the plants in spring. It also does well in full to part shade.  Most Asarum reach 6 to 8 inches, like average well-drained soil, and are deer resistant.

‘Cutting Edge’ Tiarella has attractive spring flowers and lovely leaves. (Image thanks to Proven Winners)

Foamflower (Tiarella spp.): These pretty native perennials have attractive, lobed foliage and spires of foamy flowers that appear in late spring. The flowers may be ivory or pink and attract both bees and butterflies. The pretty clumps of ornate leaves spread over time. Try the new Proven Winners variety ‘Cutting Edge’, which has spectacular green, maple-shaped leaves with red venation. Provide foamflower with full to part shade, and moist, well-drained soil amended with fertile organic matter, such as Black Gold Natural & Organic Garden Compost Blend. In fact, this amendment will create a good soil foundation for all of the shade-loving groundcovers mentioned.

Flowering Groundcovers for Full to Partial Sun

Creeping thyme doubles as an herb and groundcover.

Creeping Speedwell (Veronica prostata, Zones 4-8): Grow this creeping groundcover along a border edge or in a rock garden. The stunning variety, ‘Aztec Gold’, has gold leaves with violet-blue flowers in the early summer.  It reaches 6 inches tall, is heat tolerant, and needs moderate moisture. Deer don’t like it but bees and butterflies do.

Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum, Zones 4-8): This easy garden herb is one of my favorites. It does well between paving stones or cascading down rock walls. The fragrant leaves are tiny plants reach 2-inches-high. The spreading mats have little summer flowers of purple, bright pink, or lavender, depending on the variety you buy. Bees love the blooms! Check out ‘Elfin’ with purple flowers, ‘Annie Hall’ with pink flowers, and ‘Silver Posie’, which has white-edged leaves and lavender flowers. The fragrant leaves can be used in cooking. Thyme needs full sun, very well-drained soil, and is drought-tolerant once established. Like most plants in the mint family, it is also deer resistant.

Creeping phlox is perfect for garden edges and slopes (‘Emerald Blue’ is at the far left, and ‘Candy Stripe’ is at the far right)

Stonecrop (Sedum spp., Zones vary): For hot, dry, sunny, areas nothing can beat, low-spreading stonecrops.  Many have beautiful, succulent leaves, as well as starry flowers that attract bees and butterflies. It is very easy to pull up a piece and replant it to help fill in an area quickly. Some good varieties are the 2-3 inches tall ‘John Creech’ (Sedum spurium ‘John Creech, Zones 3-9) with pink, summer flowers, SunSparkler® Wildfire (Zones 4-9) that has red leaves edged in rose as well as pink flowers in the late-summer, and ‘White Diamond’ (Sedum pachyclados ‘White Diamond’, Zones 5-9) with blue-green rose-shaped leaves and white summer flowers.  The broad-spreading ‘Angelina’ (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’, Zones 5-9) is a popular variety with gold spiky foliage and yellow summer blooms.  Sedums are drought-tolerant once established.

Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata, Zones 3-9): This has some of the most beautiful flowers of all the groundcovers and blooms for up to 4 weeks in the spring.  It averages 5 inches tall and spreads quickly. Plant creeping phlox in open, sunny areas along slopes or retaining walls, in front of shrubs, or in rock gardens where they will get full sun and well-drained soil.  Look for the colorful varieties ‘Scarlet Flame’ with red-eyed rose-pink flowers, ‘Emerald Blue’ with pale lilac-blue flowers, and ‘Candy Stripe’, which has pink flowers edged in white.  Creeping phlox is deer resistant.

Snow-in-Summer can take heat and drought!

Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tomentosum, Zones 3-7): gardeners with hot, dry, sunny spots that need a flowering groundcover should grow snow-in-summer. It creates a broad, spreading mat of silver leaves that erupt with cascades of white flowers in the summer. Try the more compact variety, ‘Yo Yo‘. It is beautiful! Site it as you would creeping phlox. Bees and butterflies love the flowers!

These easy groundcovers will help to provide needed in sweeps across your garden. Buy a few to fill in bare areas, and you will be glad you did.

Groundcovers to Avoid

It is important to note that there are some popular groundcovers to avoid because they are invasive and have become an ecological problem in wild areas. These include groundcover periwinkle (Vinca minor and Vinca major), wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), Japanese spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), and worst of all, English Ivy (Hedera helix). English ivy is a tree-killer in zone 7 or warmer (click here to learn more). The evergreen types are truly the worst because they smother native spring ephemerals and other natives along the forest floor. Avoid planting them, if you can.

Growing Perennials From Seed

Coneflowers, catmint, rudbeckia, and butterfly weed (top left, clockwise) are all easy to start from seed.

Spring will be here before you know it, and this means it is time to buy this year’s perennials, whether old favorites or new ones you haven’t tried before.  The problem is how much they cost. To plant a modest new bed of perennials, you can expect to pay over $100 for just eight to ten plants. Growing them from seed is much more cost-effective if you know what to grow and how to grow them.

As a lifelong gardener and former perennial nursery manager, I am sensitive to the cost of these garden staples. Perennial plants seem to get more expensive year after year. For example, I planned to buy several butterfly weeds (Asclepias tuberosa) this season to help the struggling Monarch butterflies. But, even small pots are $8 to $10 per plant or more. Most designers recommend planting garden flowers in groups of three or more, so that is a minimum of $30.00 for just three plants, and more is always better. That is a lot of money! In turn, butterfly weed seeds are usually no more than $3.50 for a packet of 50 seeds. Wouldn’t it be nicer if you could grow them from seed and save a fortune?  Here’s how to do it.

Perennial Seed-Starting Materials

Full-spectrum grow lights encourage denser shoot growth in indoor-grown seedlings.

There are a few essentials that home growers need if they are not fortunate enough to own their own greenhouse, conservatory, or sunroom. The items are low-cost and most can be used year after year. I do not recommend windowsill seed starting if you intend to grow seedlings to planting-sized plants because even south-facing windows don’t provide enough uniform light to keep seedlings from stretching and becoming spindly. Fancy seed starting racks or systems can be purchased, but I have always found the following materials to work just fine for all of my seed starting needs, and I’ve been doing this for nearly 50 years.

Grow Lights and Fixtures

First of all, you need to buy grow lights.  Plants require most wavelengths of light to feed themselves and grow, so the more full-spectrum the bulb the better. Four-foot-long shop light fixtures fitted with fluorescent grow bulbs is the most economical option, though other bulb and fixture options exist. (Click here to learn more about different grow bulbs, and Click here to learn the difference between shop light bulbs and grow light bulbs.)  The best prices I have found online are for the AntLux 4ft Full Spectrum LED Shop Lights and Fixture, and the Durolux 4Ft Full Spectrum Fluorescent Lights and Fixture.

 Seed Starting Trays and Labels

Then you will need special seed starter trays. It is a small investment, but quality starter trays can be washed and reused for many years.  I recommend Delxo Seed Starting Kits with trays that have 48 individual planting cells for lots of seedlings and a watertight base tray. The kits also come with plastic covers with air vents at the top to control temperature and humidity, plus small tools, to help plant the seeds, and remove the seedlings. The kit even comes with its own labels, though I always like to have extra wooden planting labels because they are always handy.

If you reuse your trays or labels from year to year, be sure to scrub them out with hot water, dish soap, and a little bleach before using them again. Remember to rinse them well to remove any bleach residue.

Seed Starting Mix, Fertilizer, and Waterer

And lastly, you need a special seed starting mix, such as Black Gold Seedling Mix, which is extra fine for small or large seeds and lacks added fertilizer or salts, which can inhibit sprouting in some seeds. Our OMRI Listed Black Gold Seedling Mix also has an added organic wetting agent, to keep it from repelling water when dry, and it contains RESiLIENCE, a special silicon additive that is believed to promote better root growth, denser branching, and faster recovery should you forget to water.

Once seedlings start to put out their true leaves, you can start fertilizing them. I always choose quality, all-purpose, water-soluble fertilizer, such as Proven Winners Water Soluble Plant Food. Seedlings need gently water from the top in addition to bottom watering. Misters or small watering cans are very useful for seed starting.

Perennial Seeds

You can buy seeds or try collecting perennial seeds from the garden for growing, such as these Milkweed, Pulsatilla, Baptisia, and Allium (upper left, clockwise).

Before addressing what to grow, there are two sources for perennial seeds that I always use and highly recommend.  The first is Park Seed (visit their website to request a catalog). They have a huge collection of seeds, and I have been buying from them since the early 1970s. Their seeds are always fresh, well packaged, and germinate well. The other perennial source I adore is Select Seeds.  They are the only company I know of that has heirloom flower seeds, some going back to the 1600s. Their packets are filled with many seeds, and they always do well for me. Swallowtail Seeds has lots of varieties and comes highly recommended. Finally, my oldest daughter grows lots of native perennials and has recommended Prairie Moon Nursery to me on many occasions for their quality seeds. You might also try your hand at seed collecting from year to year, if you feel adventurous.

Perennial Seed-Starting Steps

Start by reading your seed packets from cover to cover.

Read Your Seed Packets

Start by reading your seed packets from cover to cover. Some perennial seeds can be planted with no preparation, but some need to be nicked or chilled in the refrigerator for several weeks to properly germinate. Those that I highlight below are not challenging to start, but It is good to know that some seeds need a little more attention.

Gather Your Materials and Prepare Seedling Area

Next, gather all of your materials. Make sure to hang your lights and prepare your growing area. I like to put down a plastic table cloth to protect any tables from leakage and for easy cleaning. Fill up your watering cans and misters, and get going.

Prepare Your Planting Trays

Wash your hands before starting, to avoid any contamination. Put the seedling mix into a bowl, and wet it until uniformly moist. Fill the cells in the trays with the moistened seed starting mix, and be sure to leave a little space at the top for large-seeded perennials.  (After reading the back of your seed packets, you will know if the seeds need to be covered or not.) I like to determine how big seeds are before I start planting. Some seeds are dust-like (Begonia seeds), while others are very large (perennial sunflower seeds), so some are simply sprinkled on the soil surface while others must be covered.

Sow Your Seeds

There should be just one seedling per cell. Extras can be moved or pinched out.

I like to sow two seeds per cell to make sure I get at least one seeding per cell. When working with small to medium seeds, I sprinkle two into the cell, making sure that they are separated, and then gently press the seeds down into the mix. (If both seedlings pop up, I either remove the weakest seedling after the seedlings have grown a bit, or I gently move one of the seedlings to an empty cell.)

Label, Water, Cover

Label the cells, either as groups or individually, marking each different flower you are growing and the date planted. Mist the seeds, but make sure that the soil is moist, not saturated. Saturated soil will cause seeds and seedlings to rot before they get a chance to grow. Put the cover on the tray, and lower the lights as close to the tray as possible. The plastic cover keeps the mix from getting dry, but aeration is also important. Sometimes I lift the cover for several hours in the day to let things dry out a little.

Seedling Care

Seedlings for fast-growing perennials may need to be upgraded into 4-inch pots. Consider this at planting time with respect to space.

Once the seedlings have all popped up, remove the lid entirely. Too much moisture will cause damping off, or seedling rot. When you have removed the lid, keep the grow lights just inches above the small plants. This will encourage the densest growth and keep plants from becoming leggy. This is also the time to start feeding the seedlings weekly with a 1/2 strength solution of fertilizer. Fast-growing perennials may need to be upgraded into larger, 4-inch pots, some won’t. They will also require a little more water, so make sure you don’t let them get dry. Lightly moist soil is recommended. When your seedling is large enough to plant, usually 5-8 inches, and the spring weather allows, it is time to harden them off and get them planted.

Harden Seedlings Off

When the threat of frost has passed, it’s time to move the seedlings outdoors for hardening off, which reduces shock and helps perennials acclimate them to a sunny, outdoor environment. Start by bringing the trays outside, starting with a couple of hours, and increasing it until they are well adapted to the light, wind, and temperatures of the outdoors.  After a week or so of hardening off, you can plant your perennials in the garden!

Planting

New plants always grow best in a prepared bed (OMRI Listed® Black Gold® Garden Compost Blend will increase organic matter and drainage) or container filled with quality potting soil. Be sure to plant your seedlings in locations with the right sun and soil for their needs.

At planting time, be careful with your little perennials. When removing one from a cell never pull it out from the top. Instead, tip the tray partway over and push up from the bottom to release the roots. A butter knife can also be used to lift small plants from cells or loosen perennials from a 4-inch pot.  fertilize time-released fertilizer for easy summer feeding.

What Perennials to Grow from Seed

Coneflowers are the easiest and most satisfying perennials to grow.

There are lots of easy perennials that will bloom in the first year from seed. I have grown and enjoyed ‘Gay Butterflies’ butterfly weed, black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.), phlox, catmint (Nepeta spp.), asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), perennial geraniums, salvias, blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora), and many other wonderful, easy perennials from seed. Over the years, they have brought me much joy and saved me lots of money! Here are growing details for a few of these.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Purple Coneflower
Image by Jessie Keith

First, I recommend growing varieties of coneflower (Echinacea spp), which is one of the easiest perennials to grow from seed. I especially recommend the AAS award-winners, ‘Pow Wow Wildberry‘, which has large, bright pink flowers, and ‘Cheyenne Spirit‘ with its mixed coneflowers in lovely sunset colors. Both will sprout in no time and bloom in the first summer. Bees and butterflies will cover the blooms. (Click here to see more varieties.)

Seed Starting: Cover seeds lightly with seed starter, and keep them lightly moist. average room temperatures between 65º and 70º F encourage good germination. Seeds should sprout within three weeks.

Blanket Flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora)

IMG_3284
Image by Jessie Keith

This tough, North American native blooms through summer with deadheading and can take the heat. Perennial blanket flower is also very easy to start from seed. There are lots of pretty varieties available, just be sure that the ones you choose are G. x grandiflora cultivars because most others are annuals. The sunny peach-flowered ‘Mesa Peach‘ is a very pretty one to try as is the red and gold ‘Arizona Sun‘.

Seed Starting: Cover seeds with a little seed starter, keep lightly moist, and maintain a fairly warm room temperature. Germination often takes one to two weeks.

Salvia (Salvia nemorosa)

IMG_3268
Image by Jessie Keith

Purplish salvia flowers line the upright stems of this salvia through summer with deadheading deadheaded.  If plants are started in February or March, they should bloom in the first year. (Click here to see lots of seed options!)

Seed Starting: Lightly cover the seeds with seed starting mix and keep slightly moist. Place seed pots 4 inches from grow lights for best results. A heat mat can also be useful. Germination should take three weeks or more.

 

Click here for an article about how to grow Lavender from seed.

Click here for an article about growing milkweed from seed.

Click here for an article about growing award-winning annuals from seed.

African Violet Care 101

It is that time of year when I start feeling desperate for flowers. Christmas, with all the decorations and lights, is past, and there are three whole months until April, with its early daffodils and crocus. So what is a perfect, ever-blooming houseplant, to brighten things up at this time of year?  The answer is African violets, and they are easier to grow than most think.

Basic Overview of African Violets

A happy African violet will bloom off and on throughout the year.

African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha) were discovered in 1892, in tropical rain forests in Tanganyika, a small country in eastern Africa. Baron von Saint Paul, the imperial, district governor of the colonized country, found them on the forest floor. He then sent plants and seeds back to his father in Europe, and after passing through several hands they made their way to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, where the first breeding to develop them into houseplants began. They came to the United States in 1894 and by 1946 were so popular that police had to be called in to help with traffic, at the first US National African Violet Show in Atlanta, Georgia. The African Violet Society of America was founded shortly afterward in the same year.

As with any new plant, developing fancy varieties took off quickly, and now with modern breeding, there are fabulous African violets available. Plants range in size from 3 to 16 inches and can have single or double flowers in shades of pink, purple, violet, rose, or white. Some have frilled edges and others are bi-colored, with contrasting edges and centers. Violets that are splashed or speckled with two or more colors are called fantasy types.  Some have variegated leaves with edges, centers, stripes, or spots of white or yellow. Other have leaves with ruffled edges, quilted puffs, or an oak-like shape that add to the beauty of the plants.

Buying African Violets

Fantasy African violets are some of the most spectacular now available.

All garden centers that carry house plants should have a nice African violet selection, but specialty plants must typically be purchased online unless you have a specialty grower nearby. The Violet Barn is an outstanding online nursery for African violets, and, of course, looking at all of their wonderful varieties means that I plan to order some new African violets right away. They have an outstanding selection of unusual trailing varieties, and the fully-double, trailing-pink ‘Cirelda‘ caught my eye. The award-winning, heavy flowering, speckled-violet ‘Rob’s Boolaroo‘ looks unbelievable, as does the pretty pink-flowered ‘Ma’s Debutante‘ with its wonderfully white speckled variegated leaves. I was also attracted to some of the Saintpaulia species, such as Saintpaulia grandifolia, which is elegant and promises prolific violet-blue, butterfly-shaped blooms on long stems. Pretty African violet pots and a bag of Natural & Organic Black Gold African Violet Potting Mix are also on my to-buy list.

Growing Basics for African Violets

African violets require pots with drainage and bottom saucers.

Now, it is true that African violets have a bit of a reputation for being tricky to grow, but with a few instructions, you will easily have beautiful plants that bloom heavily and repeatedly throughout the year.

  1. Light: Providing the right amount and kind of light is important to keep plants blooming. African violets like bright, indirect light, which means putting them in a west- or east-facing window (large north-facing windows also work) and turning them every week for uniform growth. Artificial grow lights can also be used, if they provide consistent, uniform light. Keep the plants no farther than 12 inches away from the light, and provide 12 hours of light a day. If they start having fewer flowers, change the amount of light to 14 hours a day for a few weeks, and then go back to 12 hours. (Note: Grow lights really help in winter when you lack windows. This year, I brought three huge fancy geraniums in for the winter, but I lacked window space for them. I bought grow lights to keep them going until spring, and they are doing very well.)
  2. Water: Proper watering is essential for African violets. They require highly drained soil that is just moist. Room temperature water that is low in minerals is also preferred. When watering, avoid getting water on the leaves, which can cause leaf spots and damage. Instead, either bottom water or water from the top with a narrow-spouted watering can, while being careful to avoid the foliage. Allow water to stand in the bottom saucer for about 1 hour, and then pour it out. Allow the soil to dry out a little before watering again.
  3. Temperature & Humidity: The perfect humidity is 50-60% and temperatures close to 70 degrees F are just right.
  4. Fertilization: Fertilize with a specialty African violet fertilizer, which you can find online. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s application instructions, because they may vary. I tend to feed them lightly each time I water.
  5. Soil & Drainage: Choose a specialty growing mix, such as Natural & Organic Black Gold African Violet Potting Mix, and always plant African violets in pots with drainage holes and a bottom saucer to catch water. When the plant becomes root bound, upgrade to a pot 1-2 inches larger to encourage new growth.

If your African violet stops blooming, check the number of rows of leaves. If there are 5 or more rows, cut the outside rows of leaves off at the base, back to 2 rows. Each row produces its own flowers, and the crown of leaves can take over the plant.  The most common cause of lack of flowers, however, is not enough light, so move it closer to your light source if plants stop blooming.

With new African violets on the way, I am thinking of places to put mine. My new trailing ‘Cirelda’ will look beautiful in a hanging basket. I cannot wait to see its pretty pink flowers and cascading stems. It should give me gorgeous blooms to brighten the winter and times beyond. For more information, please watch the helpful video below.

Spruce Up Your Holidays With Festive Branches

Hollies and evergreens of all types brighten winter decorating!

The gardening season is over by November for most in the country. Instead of looking out of my kitchen window and seeing roses, daylilies, and other perennials, I now look upon colorful, textural trees and shrubs with winter interest. Their festive berries, seedheads, and evergreen foliage add needed beauty to the garden in the drab winter months. Even better, their branches can be cut and brought indoors to spruce up decor for the holidays.

My winter-interest plants have been in the ground for some years, so I can now freely harvest branches from them. I recommend every gardener plant a few if they have the space. Not only are they lovely plants, but they are money-saving because fresh holiday branches are expensive when purchased at garden centers and tree yards. Here are a few of my favorites for the winter garden and winter-branch decorating.

Hydrangeas

Dried Hydrangea arrangements continue to look pretty past the holidays.

Hydrangea flowers of all kinds can be easily dried and will stay beautiful for months. My favorites are the panicle hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata, Zones 3-8) with their huge, cone-shaped flowers in hues of white, green, and even rose-red. The cultivar Firelight®, from Proven Winners, reaches 6 feet tall and has flowers that start out white, age to bright pink, and finally turn soft red. It is hardy and needs full to partial sunlight and well-drained soil. When dried, the flowers maintain a rosy-tan hue. Bigleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla, Zones 5-9), with their intense blue or pink flowers, can also be dried and saved in the same way.

To dry hydrangea blooms, cut the stems to the length you want when the bracted blossoms begin to feel papery. Strip the leaves off from the stems and then put them in a container with 2 inches of water. Place them away from direct sunlight to help maintain their color. Allow them to dry for one to two weeks. Spraying them with aerosol hair spray at the beginning of the process will give the dry blooms added durability.

Hollies

 

Harvest your own holly branches, greens, and pine cones for DIY wreath making (tutorial below).

Of course, one of my favorite classic Christmas plants is evergreen holly. I could not always find holly branches for sale, so years ago I planted two blue hollies (Ilex x meserveae, Zones 5-7) in my backyard. Now I have all I want at Christmastime. In order to get berries, I planted both a male and female plant. Only females produce berries and a male plant is needed to fertilize the lady. The blue holly varieties that I chose were China Girl and China Boy, which have shiny green leaves and the females provide profuse red berries. The shrubs get 6 to 8 feet wide and 8 to 10 feet tall, unless pruned. Planting them close to one another encourages cross-pollination and heavy berry production. Cut branches off as needed for indoor color.

Blue hollies like average, well-drained soil, and full to partial sun. They are also great landscape shrubs because they are deer resistant, and the birds like to eat the berries and make nests in them for protection from predators. If you must prune, the best time is just after flowering because these blue hollies only bloom on second-year wood.

Winterberries

Winterberry branches are expensive, so why not grow your own?

These deciduous hollies lose their leaves in the fall, leaving bare branches packed with berries. There are lots of bushy, colorful winterberries from which to choose. Like other hollies, one male shrub is needed to pollinate the berry-producing females. Proven Winners’ Berry Heavy and Berry Heavy Gold bear copious branches laden with bright red and gold berries. Plant Mr. Poppins® winterberry as the pollenizing male shrub. If you are looking for a shorter, more compact winterberry that bears large, abundant, bright, red berries, you might consider Little Goblin® Red (4 x 4 ft.). Plant at least one Little Goblin® Guy as a pollenizer–one male shrub can supply pollen to up to five females. Winterberries tolerate moist soil and produce the most berries if planted in the full sun, though they can tolerate partial sun. Cut off their festive branches for long-lasting indoor color.

Evergreens

Evergreen branches of all types look beautiful in indoor and outdoor arrangements. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Evergreens from my garden are essential for my Christmas decorations because every year I accent my manger scene on top of my old upright piano with evergreen branches and pine cones. I choose branches from many wonderful conifers in my garden, including Nootka cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis, Zones 3-8, 60-90 ft.), which has soft, evergreen branches, much like arborvitae, prickly silvery-blue spruce (Picea pungens, Zones 2-7, 30-60 ft.) boughs, and the soft branches of white pine (Pinus strobus, Zones 3-8, 50-150 ft.). All of these trees need space and make beautiful specimens if you have a sizable yard. One potential concern with growing blue spruce is the fungal needle disease called Rhizosphaera, which has slowly been killing them off, so disease management may be required (click here to learn more). Another comparable tree with no disease problems is the white fir (Abies concolor, Zones 3-7, 40-70 ft.). I also like white fir because its waxy blue-green needles are not prickly.

When decorating my manger scene with evergreens, I first put down artificial snow blankets, then the manger scene in the middle, a miniature church at one end, and an old piece of driftwood on the other. Evergreen branches and pine cones of all types and sizes are placed behind the whole scene with a chain of tiny rice lights twined through them. Finally, I sprinkle artificial, glittery snow over it all. In addition to greens from my yard, I also like to snip off some of the lower branches from my balsam fir Christmas tree to add fragrance to the display. My manger scene is one of the last things I take down after the holidays.

I also like to add evergreen branches around candles, in holiday flower arrangements, and to decorate outdoor pots (see the video above). Another perfect use is to make your own wreaths from them. Metal wreath forms are available to buy and make DIY wreath making a snap.  I also recommend sticking in a few winterberries or holly branches for color (see the video below).

Consider spending some time this season making your own decorations and displays from the garden. Or, you can plan to plant your garden up with hollies and evergreens next year if it lacks them. Happy holidays!