Articles

Easy-to-Grow Garden Tomatoes

‘Mountain Magic’ is an effortless Campari-style tomato with better flavor than the store-bought Camparis.

Fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum) are a seasonal delicacy every gardener should try to grow at home. Thirty-five years of tomato growing have taught me the effortless tomato varieties versus the more finicky, less productive types. Newer gardeners seeking to grow bountiful harvests of tomatoes should start with the standbys for ease of growth, flavor, and productivity. Of the nearly 60 tomato varieties I have grown, here are some of the most gratifying, flavorful, and easy. Some are modern cultivated varieties, and others are heirlooms.

Easy Beefsteak or Slicing Tomatoes

‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’ tomatoes are golden orange, flavorful, and bountiful.

Those who like traditional red tomatoes the best need to grow ‘Celebrity Plus’ (70-78 days) an updated version of the classic 1984 AAS Winner, ‘Celebrity’ (both are good but plus is more vigorous and disease resistant). The 8-oz fruits are produced on productive determinant (bushy) vines.

‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’ (85 days) is a golden-orange heirloom tomato with dense, meaty flesh and a distinctive tangy sweet taste. The large tomatoes can reach up to a pound each. Give the indeterminate (vining) plants good support. A strong cage is recommended.

‘Celebrity’ is a nearly foolproof red slicing tomato.

‘Mortgage Lifter’ (85 days) never disappoints. The long vines produce huge, red beefsteak tomatoes nonstop during the warm days of summer. Fruits commonly reach over 1 lb. each and regularly win taste tests.

Those seeking an exciting yellow and red bicolor with super sweet flavor need to try the effortless, ‘Virginia Sweets.’  The vining plants produce large slicing tomatoes with the best possible tangy-sweet flavor. The tomatoes are yellow with distinctive red streaks. Each tomato can weigh as much as 1 lb. each!

Easy Cherry Tomatoes

The tiny tomatoes of ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ are numerous and provide a burst us sweet tomato flavor.

The tiny currant tomato,  ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ (60 days), has bright red, sweet, flavorful fruit and produces nonstop with limited care once the vine gets going. The indeterminate (vining) tomato requires a sturdy cage and will branch vigorously, so pruning is sometimes required. (Click here to watch a video about how to prune tomatoes.)

My favorite cherry tomato of all time continues to be ‘Sungold’ (65 days) without fail. The cheerful orange fruits are super sweet and fruity and produced on vines that don’t stop until the first frost of fall. The weighty, long vines are vigorous and will continue to produce into fall. Provide a super strong cage and midseason pruning. After a long rain, ripe fruits may crack on the vine, but otherwise ‘Sungold’ is quite disease-resistant and trouble-free.

The golden fruits of ‘Sungold’ are my favorite.

A tried-and-true classic cherry tomato variety is ‘Super Sweet 100’ (70 days). The award-winning variety produces long trusses laden with bright red, sweet, slightly tart cherry tomatoes with minimal effort. Stake or cage vines.

(Click here to watch a video highlighting my 10 favorite cherry tomatoes for flavor.)

Easy Salad Tomatoes

The tomatoes of ‘Mountain Magic’ are bright red, tasty, and nearly without flaw.

The crack-free, bright red, salad tomato ‘Mountain Magic’ (66 days) rivals popular Campari tomatoes and is wonderfully easy to grow.  The large vine needs a strong cage and will continue to stay productive until frost.

Italian ‘Principe Borghese’ is a classic red salad or sun-drying tomato from Italy. The plants produce long trusses (7-10 per truss) of small, deep red fruits with a balanced tomato flavor. Like most tomatoes on the list, it is a vining type that needs strong support.

How to Grow Tomatoes

The following video provides simple steps to growing champion tomatoes.

 

What Soil Eliminates Fungus Gnats?

“What soil will eliminate gnats on my Meyer lemon tree?” Question from Mokocody of Greenwich, Connecticut

Answer: Fungus gnats and their larvae live in and are attracted to all soils that are high in organic matter and moist. So, the soil and plant need to be maintained in a way that eliminates fungus gnats. I encourage you to watch the following video about how to remove fungus gnats if you have them.

How to Stop Fungus Gnats Organically

Whenever I buy a new plant or purchase a new bag of potting mix, I make sure the bag has no holes and the soil has no gnats. If any bag of soil you buy seems to have gnats, remove the bag from your home and return it immediately.

Happy Gardening!

Jessie Keith

Sunny New Annuals for 2024

The sunlit yellow Supertunia® Saffron Finch (forground) is a bright new offering from Proven Winners. (Image thanks to Proven Winners)

Many fine, new, sun-loving annuals will be available at garden centers or seed catalogs in 2024 (Article: Growing Homegrown Plants from Seed). My top picks have been selected for their bold color, good looks, and easy care. All are sure to bring bright season-long color to your summer garden.

Agastache

The new Agastache Guava Lava produces wands of guava-pink flowers all summer long. (Photo courtesy of Walters Gardens, Inc.)

Agastaches are some of the best flowers for the sun because they bloom nonstop and tolerate heat and moderate drought. The guava-pink spikes of Agastache Guava Lava, newly introduced by Darwin Perennials and Walters Gardens, Inc., will provide continuous color to sunny summer gardens. In some areas of the country, the plant may survive as a short-lived perennial, but in cooler areas, the high-performer will bloom for only one season.

Calibrachoa and Petunias

Superbells® Double Redstone™ has dark orange-red blooms edged in gold. (Image thanks to Proven Winners)

Proven Winners is offering some outstanding new petunias and calibrachoas sure to provide a cascade of summer color to containers and border edges. The intense yellow flowers of Supertunia® Saffron Finch bloom nonstop on compact, rounded plants and will fit almost anywhere in the garden. The petunia is a charming companion to the equally warm-colored Superbells® Double Redstone with its dark orange-red blooms edged in gold. The mounding calibrachoa appreciates slightly moist soil, while the petunia demands more water, so plant them in complementary side-by-side containers if you choose to pair them in pots.

For electric garden color, try the impressive Crazytunia Mayan Sunset. The hot pink and golden orange flowers are prolific and will sizzle in the summer garden. For a big burst of color, plant them along the edge of a large container on your porch or patio. (Article: Keep Petunias and Calibrachoa Shining All Season)

All of the above petunias are offered as plants. For those interested in growing gorgeous petunias from seed, try the frilly Superbissima Wine Red, offered by Park Seed at the cost of $5.95 for 10 seeds. The wine-red flowers have centers veined with dark purple, and the plants are praised as being robust and ever-blooming. To make planting easier, Park’s has pelleted the small seeds! (Article: Seed Starting on a Budget).

Coleus

The award-winning ‘Coral Candy’ coleus is both seed-grown and bred to thrive in full sun. (Image thanks to AAS Winners)

Most coleus are shade annuals, but more and more varieties, such as ‘Coral Candy’ premium Sun Coleus, have been bred to grow beautifully in the full sun. The 2023 All-America Selections winner has mottled coral-orange leaves with hints of purple and green edges–beautiful! And, because the variety is seed-grown you get more for your money. Fifteen seeds cost $7.95.

Annual Blanket Flower

The pure yellow blooms of Gaillardia ‘Golden Beauty’ are fully round and produced profusely on long, airy stems ideal for cutting. Pollinators cannot get enough of the long-blooming, drought-tolerant annuals. Burpee Seeds offers these drought-tolerant beauties for just $5.95 for 50 seeds! Plant them in a cutting, pollinator, or showy flower garden.

Sunflowers

The 2-2.5′ ‘Desire Red’ Sunflower from Burpee’s has a dark center and truly red petals. (Image thanks to Burpee Seeds)

I adore sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), and several new varieties are available. Johnny’s Selected Seeds offers the 6-7′ foot tall ‘Desert Sun’ a luminous bloomer with 5-7” dark red, gold-edged flowers. The pollenless blooms don’t shed when cut and have long, strong stems. Not to be outdone, Burpee’s dwarf ‘Desire Red’ is a fully red, dark-centered sunflower, with plants reaching only 2-2.5 feet tall.

Sunflowers are a desirable choice for large flower borders, cutting gardens, and the margins of vegetable patches. They thrive in the full, hot sun, attract most pollinators (Article: Sunflowers for Bees), and are easy annuals to grow from seed. Blooming starts ~50-75 days after planting from seed, depending on the variety. After spring frosts, sow seeds outdoors in well-drained soil amended with Black Gold Garden Soil to a depth of 1-2″ or indoors on a sunny windowsill in pots of Black Gold Seedling Mix. Their blooms are long-lasting in a vase, and the seeds feed goldfinches, if you allow the heads to ripen in the warm summer sun.

Growing Sunny Annuals

All of these annuals need full sun and appreciate warm weather and average to fertile soil with good drainage. Amending the soil with Black Gold Garden Soil or Black Gold Garden Compost Blend will help facilitate deep root growth and vigor of most garden-grown annuals. Those planted in containers will thrive in bountiful pots filled with Black Gold All Purpose Planting Mix. Follow all planting and care instructions for the best results.

Outstanding Cannas

Every summer I plant my favorite Canna standby, ‘Striata’. It is the perfect floral backdrop for other bright garden flowers. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Cannas are summer-garden workhorses. They grow lushly in the hottest months, only requiring regular water, partial sun, and maybe a hit of slow-release fertilizer at the beginning of the season. Their leaves are bold and lovely, their tropical flowers come in lots of warm pretty colors, and hummingbirds are prized pollinators. The plants also spread and are easily divided and shared. My garden will never be without one.

Canna Origins

Hummingbirds love visiting all canna blooms!

Cannas (Canna hybrids, Zones 8-11) are subtropical to tropical and American. There are 12-21 accepted species, depending on who you reference. These are found in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and tropical South America. The common garden type is Canna × generalis, a hybrid of several species. They were cultivated by native Americans, presumably for both their attractive flowers and fleshy, edible roots. In the late 1900s, cannas were popularized in European and then North American gardens. Since this time, many attractive hybrids have been developed, with new varieties appearing now and then.

Ten Favorite Cannas

Red-flowered cannas, like ‘Kreta’, are sure to attract hummingbirds.

Alaska‘ (3-4 feet): Large cream-colored blooms are the great beauty of this compact canna, and its blue-green foliage is also respectably pretty. It gets all-around rave reviews.

Australia‘(4-5 feet): Large red flowers and big bronzy-purple leaves make this impressive canna a standout. If you are looking to fill a large space with lots of reliable color, this is your canna. It contrasts well with orange- and yellow-flowered plants.

‘Alaska’ is a compact, cream-colored canna.

Cleopatra‘ (4-5 feet): Expect explosive fireworks of color with ‘Cleopatra’. Its impressive green leaves have irregular blocks of dark purple. These are in stark contrast to its flowers, which are half red and half yellow with red spots. Expect it to receive many compliments.

Kreta‘ (3-4 feet): Here is a great canna for nonstop flowers. Its numerous red blooms are prolific and attract lots of hummingbirds and rise above large green leaves.

Musifolia‘ (6-8 feet): This old canna variety is grown for its tall stature and impressive large leaves with hints of red and purple. In the height of summer, it will also offer spikes of small red flowers.

Phasion‘ (syn. ‘Durban’ and ‘Tropicanna’, 3-4 feet): Most regard this as the most electrifying of all cannas. Few garden plants can challenge its impressive tropical palette of colors. Its striped leaves alone are a masterpiece, and its brilliant tangerine-orange flowers add the winning touch.

Striata‘ (syn. ‘Praetoria’, ‘Bengal Tiger’, and ‘Aureostriata’, 5-6 feet): My garden is never without a ‘Striata’ for summer color. Its pale-yellow striped leaves provide a more neutral backdrop for the light orange flowers it produces from midsummer to frost in my area.

Toucan® Coral is a beautiful compact canna from Proven Winners®. (Image thanks to Proven Winners®)

Tenerife‘ (3-4 feet ): Big golden flowers speckled with deep orange-red make this an extra lovely compact canna. Its leaves are medium green.

Wyoming‘ (3-4 feet): I always confuse ‘Wyoming’ and ‘Australia’ because they are comparable in every way except flower color. This one has beautiful orange flowers to offset its purplish-bronze foliage.

Toucan® Series (Scarlet, Yellow, Dark Orange, Coral, 2.5-4 feet): Toucan cannas are big bloomers on short-statured plants. They come highly recommended for containers. Expect them to perform beautifully all summer long.

Canna Care

Canna rhizomes are easy to plant, dig, and divide.

Cannas are lush, tropical to subtropical perennials that grow best in the full to partial sun. They thrive in rich moist to average soils–the addition of organic matter at planting time is recommended. Black Gold Garden Soil is a great choice. Provide a boost of continuous-release fertilizer formulated to encourage good growth and flowering. They originate in warm, humid, rainy areas and appreciate regular water. Many even grow well along pond margins or boggy spots. When conditions are warm, they will flower. If they are not hardy where you live, dig their dense, fleshy rhizomes in the fall and store them in a cool, dark place through winter. Plant them again outdoors when the soil has warmed and frosts are gone.

Canna Yellow Streak Virus

Several viral diseases will put a damper on canna growth and flowering. The two most common are the canna yellow streak virus (CaYSV) and the canna yellow mottle virus (CaYMV). Infected plants show abnormal leaves with browning or yellowing streaks or mottled patterns. If your canna leaves exhibit these, dig and dispose of them immediately. When replacing them, buy only certified virus-free stock (specialty growers are usually the most reliable source). Be sure not to reuse the potting soil, if your diseased plants were in containers.

Native Spring Flowering Trees For Bees

When flowering trees bloom, they are a boon for pollinators, particularly bees of all sorts. They bloom en masse for a week or more, offering a lot of essential food with little forage. There are no better plants to boost these essential pollinators in the garden, and the native trees here feed for both our honeybee friends as well as native bees.

Spring Flowering Trees For Bees

The trees in this collection vary in size from small to large. All are beautiful in their own right, and most grow and flower best when grown in the full sun. Soil and moisture requirements vary. If any of these trees interest you, I recommend reading this article about how to site and plant a new tree, by Russell Stafford.

Red maple flowers give the trees a reddish caste in the spring. (Image by Famartin)

Most do not realize that the early spring flowers of red maple (Acer rubra, Zones 3-9, 40-70 feet) are essential early food for honeybees and native bees (Red Maple (Acer rubrum L.), an Important Early Spring Food Resource for Honey Bees and Other Insects, 1985). Their small masses of red flowers appear before the leaves emerge in late winter or early spring and provide winter-weary bees needed pollen and nectar. The lovely eastern-native shade trees cool and beautify large landscapes all summer long, and their leaves turn shades of red, orange, and yellow in the fall. They grow well in open, sunny areas in dry uplands as well as moist lowlands.

The new leaves of downy serviceberry are covered with down and emerge after the white flowers that attract bees. (Image by Dcrjsr)

The delicate white flower clusters of the eastern North American downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea, Zones 4-9, 15-30 feet) also provide early-spring food for lots of bees, especially small native bees (mostly mining bees and sweat bees). Its new leaves emerge after the flowers and have downy hairs on them, which explains the common name. In summer, the edible summer fruits are a favorite of many fruit-eating birds, and the fall leaves turn brilliant shades of orange, red, and yellow. Some gardeners like to collect the ripe serviceberries for fresh eating, jam making, or pies. Though the multi-stemmed tree grows well in forests, it develops its finest habit, fruits, and flowers when grown in the full sun.

Redbuds are extra lovely trees for bees.

Eastern redbuds (Cercis canadensis, Zones 4-8, 20-30 feet) bloom for one to two weeks in the mid-spring with bare branches laden with lots of tiny, purplish-pink, pea-like blooms that glisten in the sun. Bees can’t get enough of them. Once the flowers of these eastern North American natives cease, the large, heart-shaped leaves unfurl. Sometimes they are reddish or purple as they emerge. Lots of small, thin pods follow the flowers, which turn from green to papery brown before they split open and release their seeds. The fall leaves turn humdrum shades of yellow. The fast-growing trees tolerate partial shade but perform best in the full sun and fertile to average soil. There are lots of great specialty redbud varieties from which to choose with variously colored leaves and flowers.

The fragrant, white flowers of fringetree draw many bees.

A native of the southeastern United States, white fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus, Zones 3-9, 12-20 feet) has fine, fringed, white flowers that are fragrant and almost exclusively bee-pollinated. They bloom for several weeks in May and June. Fleshy fruits that turn from green to blue-black follow, which feed many bird species. The small trees develop a pleasing rounded canopy and have green lance-shaped leaves. Expect the leaves to turn yellow in the fall.

Newer green hawthorn varieties lack the thorns of the wild trees. (Image by David Stang)

Green hawthorn (Crataegus viridis, Zones 4-8, 20-35 feet) is a handsome small tree from the eastern United States whose copious clusters of white mid-spring flowers attract lots of bees. In the fall, the glossy green, toothed leaves turn attractive red and purple hues, which look striking against the bright red fruits that cover the branches and are retained into winter for birds to eat. The branches of wild specimens have thorns, but some varieties, such as the popular ‘Winter King‘ have few thorns, while also offering more flowers and brilliant-red fall fruits. The newer variety Crusader® is equally beautiful and totally thorn-free.

The attractive nectar guides of catalpa flowers are like beacons to bees.

The large, lush, copious flower clusters of the northern catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides, Zones 4-8, 40-60 feet) bloom in the late spring. The fragrant flowers have maroon and yellow nectar guides designed just for bee pollination, so the insects know where to land and gather nectar and pollen. Large, elongated pods follow the flowers. Its large, elongated/oval leaves turn yellow shades in the fall. The only downside of these easy-to-cultivated trees is that their fruits are messy, and the trees live for only around 60 years. Still, they have high wildlife value and beauty. If you have a spacious yard, plant them where they can be enjoyed but won’t be a bother. These trees naturally exist across the southeastern United States and tolerate average to moist soils.

The large, flattened flower clusters of nannyberry attract many insect pollinators. (Image thanks to USDA-NRCS)

It’s always nice to add a real pollinator generalist and Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago, Zones 2-8, 18-25 feet) is a very good one. It is a small tree, unlike most other viburnum species, which are shrubs.  Its flattened clusters of ivory flowers appear in mid to late spring, and they are pollinated by bees as well as other insects. The caterpillars of the spring azure butterfly feed on the summer leaves. Edible black fruits and bright red or orange leaves comprise its fall show. Birds eat the nannyberries and disperse the seeds, but the sweet fruits are also edible to humans as well as other wildlife. Nannyberry tolerates moist soils or those with average drainage.

Why Aren’t My Black Mulberries Blooming?

“I purchased two mulberry bushes from Baker Creek [Heirloom Seeds] several years ago (Morus nigra). Neither of these has bloomed yet, and I would like to know how long it takes for them to fruit.  There were 2 plants to the offer.  They have grown well and are healthy.” Question from Carla of Birchwood, Tennessee

Dear Carla,

Age is most likely the problem. On average, a non-grafted black mulberry can take up to 15 years before flowering and producing a big crop of fruit, but don’t let this worry you. I understand that the Dwarf Black Mulberries sold from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds are on dwarfing rootstock that encourages earlier flowering and fruiting. You will likely see some of its small, inconspicuous flowers in as little as three years, possibly four. They bloom in May or June and the summer fruits quickly follow, so this may be the year! Just be sure to feed and water the trees well and provide them with plenty of sunshine. The addition of quality compost to the soil can also encourage good growth. Our premium Natural & Organic Garden Compost Blend is OMRI Listed for organic gardening and works wonders. Ace sells it online. Give it a try.

Have a great gardening season!

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

Native Violets For The Garden

Halberd-leaf yellow violet (top right), Canadian violet (bottom right), Labrador violet (bottom left), and bird’s foot violet (top left)

Last spring I visited the Smokey Mountain National Park during high wildflower season, and I was struck by all of the unusual, beautiful native violets there.  All had a delicate beauty suited to woodland and shade gardens. I started looking for garden center availability and was struck by the many North American violets available to native gardeners. Most are perennial, but a few survive as spring annuals.

Violets and Wildlife

‘Freckles’ is an uncommonly beautiful common violet. (Image thanks to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

Overall, our native violets are easy, pretty, and have a place in the garden. In fact, they support wildlife more than most might think. Even the native common blue violet (Viola sororia, Zones 3-9), which gardeners often weed from their beds and lawns, are beautiful and feed the larvae of many species of fritillary butterflies, which are close relatives of monarchs. According to the Xerces Society, a whopping 14 species of greater fritillaries (Speyeria spp.) and 16 species of lesser fritillaries (Bolloria spp.) lay eggs on common violet leaves for their caterpillars to feed upon, develop, and grow.  The fragrant flowers, which have bee nectar guides and are largely pollinated by native bees, are also visited by butterflies. Some native bees are even specialized for Viola flower pollination, such as the violet miner bee (Andrena violae).

Most fritillaries are orange and black. Different species have different pattern markings and ranges.

For these reasons, they are worth leaving alone in lawn areas or other places in the yard. Let them sow and spread freely where they do not compete with other garden plants. If you don’t have common violets in your yard, a good garden variety to try is the beautifully speckled ‘Freckles‘. My mother started it from seed over 25 years ago, and they are still beautiful in the garden! The flowers look very pretty clustered in small bud vases.

Six Beautiful Native Violets for the Garden

Most native violets grow best in fertile, moist soil and partial sun to shade. They also tend to spread, some slowly and others more quickly. They make fine garden perennials, especially for more naturalistic beds. Any exceptions to these rules are noted.

My favorite native violet is the bird’s foot violet, which has large 1.5-inch flowers and fine foliage.

When researching these native violets, I quickly found that all native American violets feed numerous native bees and play larval host to many fritillary species–too many to be mentioned by name. Lots of American fritillaries are threatened or endangered, so maintaining a few native violets in your yard is important! It is also important to source nursery-grown stock or seeds rather than plants collected from the wild. (Click here to learn more about avoiding poached, rare plants.) All seed and plant sources provided here are legitimate.

Labrador violet is often evergreen to semi-evergreen and has purplish-bronze foliage.

Canadian violet (Viola canadensis, Zones 2-8): These hardy perennial violets can reach up to 12 inches and produce lots of white or pale-violet spring flowers that stand tall above the large, heart-shaped leaves. It makes a pleasing native groundcover for moist woodland or shade gardens and is native across much of central and northern North America, extending far into Canada. Expect Canadian violet to self-sow and spread naturally to create a seasonal native groundcover for the shade.

Halberd-leaf yellow violet (Viola hastata, Zones 5-8): Though rarely sold in commerce, at all but the most select native plants sales hosted by native plant societies, Halberd-leaf yellow violet is one of the prettiest of all native woodland violets. Its attractive leaves have silvery markings and sunny yellow flowers are produced in the spring. The woodland native is found in old woods across the eastern coastal United States. If you can find it, grow the 4-8-inch plants in a moist, shaded garden spot.

American dog violet (Viola labradorica, Zones 2-8): Just look at that hardiness zone! This little 3-6-inch violet has native populations that extend into the farthest north reaches of eastern Canada, and it is so lovely. Its low-growing bunches have purplish-bronze, heart-shaped leaves as well as royal-violet-purple flowers in the spring and summer. It is evergreen to semi-evergreen, making it an excellent small-scale groundcover violet for the full sun to partial shade.

Smooth yellow violet is a sweet little yellow-flowered species for shaded gardens.

Bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata, Zones 4-8): I love this unique violet for its fine foliage, which resembles little green bird’s feet, and wide, violet-blue flowers punctuated by orange eyes. They are found in old, established sandy woodlands across eastern North America. Expect the 1.5-inch flowers to appear from spring to midsummer. They will tolerate full to partial sun. Well-drained soil and regular moisture are required. The 3-10-inch plants do not tend to spread.

Prairie violet (Viola pedatifida, Zones 3-7): The sun-loving little prairie violet is native across the prairie lands of Central North America and spreads less aggressively than average violets. Its bright violet-purple flowers look pretty against the delicate, cut-leaf foliage. Unlike most violets, prairie violet will tolerate drier soils. Flowering occurs from mid-spring to early summer. Sometimes it will rebloom later in the season. Plant the 6-inch violets along garden edges where they can slowly self-sow.

Smooth yellow violet (Viola pubescens var. eriocarpa, Zones 3-7): Here is a pretty yellow-flowered violet that grows best in shaded, moist, eastern North American woodlands and gently spreads. Expect it to produce little yellow blooms from mid-spring to summer. Standard Viola pubescens has downy rather than smooth leaves.

Starting Native Violets From Seed

Violet seeds are easily collected or available for sale.

These perennial violets are most often sold from seed, so they are not expensive to grow. Most take a year before flowering from seed. We recommend sowing the seeds in flats of quality potting mix, such as Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix, outdoors in the fall. This method, called moist outdoor seed stratification (click here for stratification guidelines), lets them experience the winter moisture and cold, which many violet seeds need to germinate. When grown by this method, they often sprout in the late winter or spring.

Other Violet Uses

Violets serve other useful purposes in the garden. The flowers are edible, and their fragrant blooms have been used to make perfume over the ages. One common old-fashioned use for the flowers was to candy them. The sugar-crusted violets hold their color, are tasty, and look beautiful for decorating cakes and cookies. (Click here for a good candied-violet recipe.) The flowers can also be used to make a delectable, violet-blue simple syrup that can be added to mixed drinks and lemonade. (Click here for a good violet simple syrup recipe.)

If you have lots of common violets in the yard, try making candied violets.

How Do You Save Heirloom Pepper Seeds?

“I would love advice on saving seeds off of heirloom bell peppers.” Question from Shelby of Greenleaf, Idaho

Dear Shelby,

You are in luck! Peppers are some of the easiest seeds to save because they are dry, rather than fleshy, fruits with open interiors. What is important is waiting until the fruits are ripe to harvest the seeds. Green peppers have immature seeds that will not germinate. Once the fruits are fully colored and ripe, the seeds will be ripe.

Collect the seeds, place them in a labeled packet, and store them in a cool dry place through winter. I generally start my peppers in late winter or spring, at least eight weeks before the last frost date.

Please watch the video below for tips about how to grow peppers organically!

Happy gardening,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

Best New Herbs and Vegetables for 2022

Each year, I look forward to writing this article because it’s fun to research and write. Vegetable gardening is popular, and with popularity comes variety and loads of new enticing introductions each year. 2022 is no exception. New prettier, tastier, more disease-resistant vegetable pickings are many, and with inflation on the rise, I hope more people will give home growing a try. Inexpensive fresh food is a huge draw! Successful home growers quickly learn the value of less costly, better-tasting food harvested from their own gardens.

New 2022 Vegetable Introductions

Lots of the plants on this list, I plan to grow myself. Each new introduction was chosen for its advertised flavor, vigor, production, and appeal. Disease resistance is another plus.

Beans and Peas

‘Sweet Gem’ is an exceptional new snap pea from High Mowing Organic Seeds. (Image thanks to High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Starting with cool-season crops, there are a couple of select peas to try. High Mowing Organic Seeds is offering the crisp, new snow pea ‘Blizzard‘ (58 days to harvest). It performed very well in their trials, bearing lots of slender, crisp, sweet snow peas on 30-36 inch vines. Snap peas are my favorite, so I will be trying another new pea they are offering, ‘Sweet Gem’ (63 days) snap pea. Its copious, juicy, crisp, sweet peas are produced on strong 45-52 inch vines, which are disease resistant.

Warm-season bush beans can be grown in 4-week intervals throughout the summer, and I like the space-saving plants. Slender, crisp filet beans are so delicious when freshly harvested, and bright yellow ‘Bamako‘ filet bean (54 days) from Johnny’s Select Seeds is stringless, crisp, and plants become loaded with golden beans in the summer months. The upright bush bean is also very disease-resistant. Green bean lovers should consider the new Red Tail snap bush bean, which bears straight, crisp, glossy, 5-6 inch green beans with excellent flavor.  Add it to your list.

Sweet Corn

The new ‘Wild Violet’ sweet corn looks more like an ornamental. Wow! (Image thanks to Burpee)

Two new corn varieties stood out to me on the page. The early corn ‘Solstice’ (68 days), offer by Johnnys, is a tasty bicolor with yellow and gold kernels that mature in just a little over two months after sprouting. Blight resistance and reliable productivity are two more reasons to grow it. The unusually beautiful ‘Wild Violet‘ sweet corn is a Burpee offering with blue-grey and white kernels that darken after cooking. Even though it looks like decorative corn, it is sweet, juicy, and flavorful–a must-grow variety for adventurous gardeners.

Greens, Cabbages, and Roots

‘Expect’ cabbage is dense and perfectly formed. (Image thanks to High Mowing Organic Seeds)
The large, sweet Chinese cabbage ‘Miss Hong‘ (55 days) from Johnny’s Select Seeds has dark-red, crinkled leaves that are noted for their crunchy, yet tender, texture. Those who love traditional cabbage should grow the perfectly round and dense ‘Expect‘ (100 days). It is disease-resistant, heat-tolerant, and flavorful. Another cool new brassica is ‘Rainbow Candy Crush‘ kale from Jung Seed Company. It looks like the prettiest frilliest purple-pink ornamental kale but it is wonderfully flavorful. Plant it in the fall, and harvest it after frost to boost its sweetness.
Salad lovers have many new greens to grow. Butter lettuce is a personal favorite, and the disease-resistant ‘Milagro’ butterhead lettuce produces large, beautiful heads in just 54 days. Plant this with the two reliable, curly, cut-and-come-again lettuces purple EZFLOR and green EZPARK, and you will have fresh salad all spring. The EZ lettuces are long-bearing, bolt-resistant, and disease-resistant.

Unique carrots are always fun to grow, and ‘Yellow Moon‘ is an all-season Nantes x Imperator type carrot that’s crisp, long, and pale yellow. I am sold.

Squash, Melons, and Cucumbers

 

The sweet, red, seedless watermelon ‘Century Star’ has speckled fruits and leaves. It’s a 2022 regional AAS Winner (Michigan). (Image thanks to AAS Winners)

Parks Seed is selling, Butterbaby butternut squash (100-105 days), which has 4-6 inch, sweet squashes that are as cute as pie. The short-vined plants allow home gardeners with less space to grow them. Those with more space need to try Burpee’s ‘Butterkin’ squash (105 days), which is a pumpkin and butternut squash hybrid with a pumpkin-like look and butternut skin. Its bright orange flesh is noted as being delectably sweet and smooth.

Cucumber and pickle picklers must try ‘Mini-Me’ (45 days), a seedless snack cucumber that’s prolific, just 2-3 inches, and very crisp and sweet. Grow these little Beit-alpha-type seedless cucumbers through summer. The larger beit-alpha cucumber, Merlin (50-55 days), from Burpee Seeds, is equally seedless, sweet, and bears well.

‘Hara Madhu’ is a super sweet melon for hot, dry areas. (Image thanks to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

Century Star (80 days) seedless watermelon is a 2022 AAS Regional Winner for a reason. It yielded lots of sweet, seedless, 10 lb melons in Michigan where summers are cool. The fruits and leaves are beautifully dotted with yellow spots as well. Another unique melon I could not resist is the Indian ‘Hara Madhu’ (90 days), which is noted for its exceptional tolerance to hot, dry conditions as well as its honeyed taste. It’s a great choice for those living where summers are hot.

One productive new zucchini from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds that stood out is ‘Long White of Palermo‘ (45-55 days). The heirloom Mediterranean variety bears buttery zucchinis with a pleasing nutty flavor on bushy plants just right for smaller gardens. The totally unique avocado squash ‘Zapallito Del Tronco‘ (50 days) from Baker Creek also piqued my interest. It is an Argentinian heirloom that looks like a winter squash but eats like summer squash and has buttery soft flesh.

Tomatoes and Peppers

For fantastic peppers try ‘Mocha Swirl’. (Image thanks to Burpee)

Burpee is selling the colorful ‘Mocha Swirl‘ (50-70 days) snacking pepper exclusively, and it is one of the prettiest peppers I’ve ever seen. Its tasty elongated fruits are swirled with shades of red, orange, purple, yellow, and green when mature. Plant it alongside the compact (18″) ‘Purple Beauty‘ bell pepper (75 days), from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, which has sweet, thick-walled, blocky fruits that mature to almost black. Both will look beautiful on a crudité tray alongside Johnny’s reliable, bright orange ‘Flavorburst’ pepper (67-87 days), which is noted for its high sugar content.

The colorful slicing tomato ‘Alice’s Dream’ has tropical, sweet fruits. (Image thanks to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

2022 has so many tomato introductions! My final picks were chosen for beauty, trial ratings, disease resistance, and taste (most of all). The bicolored green and red Captain Lucky (75 days, indeterminate) slicing tomato is a new one from Johnny’s with excellent flavor that challenges the best heirloom tomatoes. The yellow, green, pink, and red interior is described as psychedelic. Two more big on beauty and flavor from Baker Creek are ‘Alice’s Dream‘ (80 days, indeterminate) beefsteak and ‘Black Strawberry’ cherry tomato (60 days, indeterminate). ‘Alice’s Dream’ has an orange-yellow exterior striped with purple and a deep orange-yellow interior described as tasting sweet and tropical. The super sweet ‘Black Strawberry’ tomatoes are orange-red caste with a mottled overlay of purple-black and produced in easy-to-harvest trusses. Finally, Burpee’s Bodacious big slicing tomato (80-85 days, indeterminate) deserves attention. The large, red, tasty tomatoes are aromatic and produced on vines that really resist blight. Each can produce 40-50 fruits in a season.

Cool New Herbs

‘Purple Ball’ basil is delicious, beautiful, and compact. (Image thanks to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

Baker Creek takes the cake when it comes to amazing new herbs for the garden. ‘Orangelo’ thyme (Thymus fragrantissimus ‘Orangelo’, Zones 5-8) looks extra inviting with its promise of true citrus flavor. I have to make space for a couple in my rock garden. There is no want for new and interesting basils. Small-space gardeners will love the deepest-purple, ball-shaped ‘Purple Ball, which reaches just under 12 inches. Its sweet, fragrant, darkest purple leaves will look great in salads and pasta. Baker Creek’s ‘Evivi Ntor’ African basil, originally grown and obtained from the Ewe tribe in Ghana, is described as having a sharp, peppery, citrusy flavor. It is also remarkably heat-tolerant. Another basil for flavor and summer heat is Everleaf Thai Towers. The upright plants are slow to bolt, reach 2-3 feet, and have true Thai basil flavor.

Now’s the time to purchase seeds for these vegetables, if you are inclined to grow your own from seed (click here to learn how). Vegetable gardening is hot, so hot that seeds are selling out at record speed, so now is the time to buy them. You may also want to pick up a bag of OMRI Listed Black Gold Seedling Mix while you are at it. (Click here for my top ten vegetable gardening tips.)

Holiday Cactus From Fall to Spring

Spring holiday cactus varieties come in many colorful shades including orange.

Every year, holiday-house-plant lovers enjoy the sensational fall and winter blooms of crab or Thanksgiving (Schlumbergera truncata) cactus and winter or holiday cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi), but it does not have to end there. There are other Schlumbergera that bloom at different times of the year, particularly in the mid to late spring, making them outstanding house plants to color homes through many months of the year.

A Short History of Common Holiday Cacti

Holiday cacti are Brazilian natives, and several common cultivated species and hybrid groups exist. The popular Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) tends to bloom in November and early December. It has joined stem parts (technically called cladodes) that have pointed edges, and its brilliantly colored, long, multipetaled flowers have bilateral symmetry. When viewed head-on, the blooms look almost crab-like, which explains one of its common names, crab cactus. It is the most commonly sold species and new colors are always being bred in shades of pink, magenta, red, orange, salmon, apricot, and white. The true holiday or Christmas cactus is Schlumbergera × buckleyi, and it tends to bloom in December or early January. It has flowers in shades of red and pink that are more radial, and its cladodes have rounded edges. Oddly, it is harder to find, despite its wide appeal and beauty. Easter or spring holiday cacti are mostly comprised of two species with radial, multipetaled blooms in shades of orange, pink, red, and white, Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri (syn. Schumbergera gaertneri) and Rhipsalidopsis × graeseri (syn. Schlumbergera × graeseri). These plants have smooth cladodes, and their hybrids are less often sold but very beautiful with cheerful blooms that appear from March to June, depending on the variety.

Schlumbergera truncata was one of the first species brought into cultivation in the nineteenth century. (Botanical Image Plate by Hooker, William Jackson (1823–1827))

These cacti naturally grow in the mountainous rainforests of Brazil. Most are epiphytic, which means that they grow in the branches of trees. Their seasonal blooms are pollinated by hummingbirds, which explains why they are tubular and come in bright colors, particularly shades of red.

Schlumbergera truncata was the first species brought into cultivation in Europe and America in the early 1800s (~1817 to 1839). Their regularity of bloom, ease of growth, and great beauty made them popular house plants and conservatory specimens in no time. Schlumbergera x buckleyi started to appear around the 1850s in Victorian England and was popularized in the US and Europe a bit later. It fast became the official Christmas cactus due to its consistent December bloom time. The spring holiday or Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) was the last to hit the scene. It was brought into cultivation in the late 1800s, and is surprisingly less popular than its winter-blooming cousins.

One great trait of all Schlumbergera is that they are wonderfully long-lived. This explains why many are passed down from generation to generation. Lots of home gardeners proudly grow the same holiday cactus raised by their grandparents or even great grandparents. It’s a nice thing to consider when purchasing one for the first time. It’s a long-term investment. If you grow one for each season, you can then enjoy their showy blooms through much of the year.

Fall, Thanksgiving, or Crab Cactus

Schlumbergera truncata has bilateral, tubular flowers, pointed teeth along the stem, and blooms around November. (‘Dark Marie’ shown)

Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata and hybrids) is the number one selling holiday cactus, so most growers likely already have one. Some exceptional varieties are available.

One of the prettiest pinks is the profuse, reliable bloomer, ‘Cristen’. The large flowers of this truncata hybrid have pale-pink petals edged in darker pink. The effortless November bloomer ‘Dark Marie‘ is similar but its flowers are edged in scarlet. Some varieties have a more weeping habit and are better suited for pedestal planters or hanging baskets. The November-blooming, golden-apricot-flowered ‘Christmas Flame‘ has a beautiful weeping habit and reliably blooms annually. The unusual ‘Aspen‘ is another to seek out. Its extra-large, frilly, white flowers are spectacular.

Winter, Christmas, or Holiday Cactus

Schlumbergera in the buckleyi hybrid group have radial, tubular flowers, rounded stems (cladodes), and bloom around December.

True holiday or Christmas cactus bloom about a couple of weeks to a month later than the Thanksgiving type. The plants can become quite large with age and tend to weep, making them extra appealing when placed on a sturdy pedestal. There are few cultivars of this true December bloomer and even the standard form is a challenge to find. Look to Etsy and other specialty sellers to find the real deal.

Spring, Spring Holiday, or Easter Cactus

Easter cacti have totally smooth-edged stems and totally radial multipetaled blooms.

Spring cacti (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri and hybrids) have many colorful petals in shades of pink, magenta, red, orange, white, and other related color variants. There are several pretty varieties that are readily available including the pure-white ‘Sirius‘, which has golden centers and is a reliable bloomer from May to June. The brilliant-red-flowered ‘Scorpious‘ generally flowers a bit earlier in the spring, from March to April, and will bloom for weeks. If you like bright orange flowers, try ‘Colomba‘, which blooms along with ‘Scorpious’.

Growing Holiday Cactus

There are several general growing requirements for holiday cacti. Provide the following for good growth.

  1. Place them in bright, indirect light. Full sun stresses them out and turns their stems shades of purple and red.
  2. Plant them in well-drained soil and pots with good drainage. Black Gold All Purpose Potting Mix and Natural & Organic Potting Mix both work beautifully.
  3. Water regularly during the growing months. Apply less water before they start to set bud and average water while they are budded and flowering. Too little or too much watering can kill a holiday cactus.
  4. Provide light fertilization during the growing months, from spring to fall.
  5. Take them outdoors in the summer to soak up the heat and indirect light.

To learn more about winter-blooming holiday cacti, watch this useful video.