“What time of day should I water my plants?” question from Courtney of Roebling, New Jersey
Answer: It really depends on where you live and what your soil and climate are like. In a very dry region, I’d suggest watering in the evening and possibly again in the morning, depending on the time of year and the severity of drought. But, where you live in the Mid-Atlantic, rainfall is ample, so watering plants in the evening can encourage fungal and bacterial diseases.
My horticultural colleague, Russell Stafford, says, “Water in the morning before the heat of the day, or at daytime hours on cloudy days. Use a hose with a watering wand or watering can to directly irrigate recently installed plants. Soaker hoses, drip systems, and other irrigation methods that directly contact the soil are ideal for established plantings. (Sprinklers waste water.)” I have to agree, and might also add that I like to water the base of plants, at the root zone, rather than spraying foliage unnecessarily. Of course, if you miss watering in the morning, it does not hurt to water midday or even in the mid-afternoon. It’s just nice for plants to dry out a bit before the evening. Click here for more excellent watering tips from Russell.
“Is there a recommended size of a flower bed, specifically the depth, and how much Black Gold soil should be used for a solid grow?” Question from Rob of Colorado Springs Colorado
Answer: The size of your flower bed depends entirely on the space you have, the flowers that you want to plant, and the time you have to care for them.
Space: If you have a front porch that you want to decorate with a front floral border, then it needs to enhance the porch while being wide enough to enable a good mix of flowers of various sizes to be grown. If you have a very small yard, start with a small bed placed in a showy spot, maybe surrounding a mailbox or along a short walkway.
Flowers: Often, gardeners plant flowers at least three rows deep for high impact. If you want roses, you will need to provide enough space for them. If purple coneflowers, flowering sage, and ornamental grasses interest you, then you need to measure and plan for the beds to determine how many plants you will need.
Time: Don’t over-commit. Flower beds need to be weeded, watered, fertilized, and the plants themselves need to be trimmed and deadheaded through the season. Start small if you have never grown flowers before and be sure to research plants before you grow them to make sure you know and can supply their needs.
Planting Bed Height and Depth: When creating flower beds, many gardeners berm the beds a few inches high with added soil and garden amendments, such as Black Gold Garden Soil, and cover with a layer of mulch. (To determine how much amendment or soil to add, please click on our Black Gold Amendment Guide. There is a formula to calculate how much to add to a given bed size.) Berming provides flower beds with a little height and adds distinction. A nicely shaped and planned bed is like creating a beautiful stage for your flowers. It also looks good to edge your beds for a clean look (see the video below).
There are also some excellent free garden-design tools out there for new flower-bed designers. Proven Winners Perfect Pairings is a great one that allows you to choose suites of garden flowers sure to bloom at the same time and look great together. Their Premium Continuous-Release Fertilizer is also specially designed for flowering plants.
There are many perennial flowers that come up in early spring, to let us know the beauty of our spring gardens has arrived. After a long year of COVID-19, and the recent terrible weather across much of the US, I want to boost my spirits with as much garden color as I can. Other gardeners that I know plan to do the same. Here are some of the best spring perennials that I grow and enjoy each year in my Indiana garden. These are sure bloomers with lots of color!
Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis and hybrids, USDA Hardiness Zones 6 to 9) are among the first flowers to bloom, from February to April depending on where you live. The large leathery leaves are evergreen. Each plant produces several stems of flowers. The blooms can reach up to 3.5 inches across. These range from single blooms, to rose-shaped doubles. Some are single-colored, while others have the most spectacular spots, such as ‘Confetti Cake’. The yellow and maroon bicolored Honeymoon®Spanish Flare is a favorite this year, in addition to ‘Fire and Ice‘, which is a white picotee with dark-rose edges.
In spite of the common name, Helleborus are not real roses. Instead, they are closely related to buttercups. They like shade, and moist, well-drained, soil. Plant them in spring, being sure to add Black Gold Garden Soil into the planting hole for added organic matter and fertility. Keep the crown of the plant just under the soil, for better blooming. For nicer leaves, cut back the old ratty ones, at the end of winter. Water more from spring to fall since it is the primary growing period. Lenten roses are generally 2-feet tall and wide. All plant parts are toxic, so be careful if you have pets and small children. (Click here to learn more about Lenten rose toxicity.)
An old spring favorite is a native plant, Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica, Zones 3 to 8). In spring, it sends up 2-foot stems, with numerous, nodding purplish-pink buds, that turn into bright, trumpet-shaped bluebells. They naturalize and like shade and moist, rich soil. The whole plant goes dormant as summer approaches, so it is best to plant them in the fall among other perennials that will cover the holes that they leave behind.
Lungwort (Pulmonaria species and hybrids, Zones 3 to 7) derives its name from the long-ago days when it was thought that a plant, with similar leaves to a body part (like the lung), would be beneficial in treating that body part. Lungwort has spotted leaves, like the spots on the lung, thus its common name. At one time they tried to use it to treat lung ailments, even though it is Lungwort is toxic. (Click here to learn more.) I am happy that the days of Medieval medicine are gone forever…
Pulmonarias have become very popular over the last 25 years, so there a lot of varieties available. They are grown both for their leaves as well their beautiful flowers. The flowers range from deep blue, to sky blue, deep rose, and light pink. The lovely plants are about 16-inches tall when in bloom, give or take, and like full shade and moist, rich garden soil. Cut back any bad-looking leaves through the season and watered them well through summer to keep the leaves looking beautiful. Here are some of my favorite varieties: ‘Silver Bouquet’ has flowers that change from coral to pink to violet, and the long, pointed leaves are pure silver. ‘Raspberry Splash’, from Proven Winners, has deep rose flowers and leaves with large silver spots. Also from Proven Winners comes ‘Spot On’ with its speckly silver leaves and deep pink buds that change into a dark, intense blue.
Columbines (Aquilegia hybrids, Zones 3 to 8) are some of my favorite late spring flowers, with clumps of scalloped leaves that send up narrow stems topped with shooting-star-shaped flowers with long nectaries at the base of the petals. The slender stems get 12 to 20 inches tall, depending on the variety, and support numerous flowers. Each flower has spiked petals of red, yellow, rose, purple, blue, or pink, and inner petals that are usually a lighter version of the same color. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees love them.
Columbines are popular, so there are many different varieties available. Most do best in full to partial sun, though some species prefer partial shade, such as the native red eastern columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). The McKana Giants comprise an excellent columbine mix that is easy for new gardeners to try. The tall stems bear huge flowers in many colors, and they are easily grown from seed. The western native golden spur columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) is an uncommonly good garden species with its large, long-spurred golden flowers.
Another reason that I like columbines so well is that they randomly cross and reseed easily, with new hybrid plants blooming each year. So, you never know what you are going to see in the garden at flowering time.
Barrenwort, or Bishop’s Hat, (Epimedium species and hybrids, Zones 3 to 9) is a low-growing plant, with delicate flowers, on narrow 12-to-18 inch stalks, held above heart-shaped leaves. In spring they may produce flowers of lilac, pink, yellow, orange, white, or rose, depending on the plant. With some varieties, the leaves are deep red with green veins or are edged in purple. I consider it to be a slow-growing ground cover, excellent as a front-of-the-border plant in a shade garden. Barrenwort will tolerate dryer soil than most other shade perennials. Some excellent varieties are the orange-flowered ‘Orangekönigin’, my first barrenwort, as well as the white-and-purple-flowered ‘Cherry Blossom’, double-flowered ‘Rose Queen’, and airy, yellow-flowered ‘Old Yeller’. To keep the leaves looking good, cut back the old ones in late winter, or early spring.
“What is the best soil to use when planting a container herb garden?” Question from Joanne of Ocala, Florida
Answer: You are in luck! Herbs are some of the easiest plants you can grow, if given the right growing conditions–soil included. Almost all herbs require full sun, fertile soil with good drainage, and average water. Some are perennials (meaning they will survive the winter and grow each year) and others are annuals (meaning they will survive just one growing season and die). All are very easy to harvest. Just clip the leaves as you need them, while being sure to leave enough to keep the plant full and healthy.
Soil for Herbs
At planting time, be sure to give them good soil that holds water well, is porous and fertile and drains well. If planting them in pots, they grow best in Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix, which is approved for organic gardening. Sometimes it helps to add extra Black Gold Perlite for added drainage. If eventually want to grow them in the ground, plant them in a prepared, weed-free garden, and work some Black Gold Garden Compost Blend into the soil to ensure that they perform really well. After your herbs have been initially planted, water them every other day to help them become established. After a couple of weeks, you can water garden-grown plants less unless the ground becomes very dry. Potted herbs will need to be watered every other day or even daily if the weather is very hot and windy. Add a slow-release fertilizer at the beginning of the season to ensure that they grow their best. (Click here for more information about essential culinary herbs.)
Succulents have had a place in my home since I was in college. In fact, as life became busier and busier, I began to replace more tender, needy house plants with resilient succulents. By the time I had children, I only had succulent indoor plants. Then I realized that hanging succulents were even more convenient because they were out of reach from the kids and cats. They are beautiful and convenient if you have lots of windows that stream sunlight into your home. Some can even take the partial sun.
Another perk is that succulents lack the woes of average, needier hanging plants. They don’t need to be constantly watered and tended to due to higher exposure to the elements. Succulents are much slower to dry out and far more forgiving if the soil runs a little dry. The foliage will continue to look lush as long as you keep giving them a little care each week.
It is good for the health of any house plant to be taken outdoors during the frost-free growing months. Hang them along a bright porch or patio where they will get some protection from the high midday sun and strong winds. Regardless of their drought-tolerant status, they will still require weekly to twice-weekly water when outdoors. Light, slow-release fertilizer, and intermittent water-soluble fertilizer will encourage robust growth. They must be well-rooted and established in their baskets before they are fully tolerant of dry heat and winds, so keep a more watchful eye on new plantings.
When you take them indoors in fall as house plants, give them direct sunlight or bright filtered light. Water much less during the cold months–excess water can induce crown or root rot. Thorough water two to three times a month should be sufficient, depending on the plant, pot, temperature, and humidity. (Click here to learn more about winter succulent care.)
Securing Hanging House Plants
If you have a mantle and little inclination to secure hooks to your ceiling, place hanging plants along the edge. Tall, sturdy plant stands also work. Otherwise, hanging plants should be hung from hooks or brackets. Strong hangers and hooks hung over wooden rafters or securely mounted to a wooden ceiling beam are your safest options. Proper installation is key.
Choose a large, solid metal hook to mount in a ceiling joist (supporting beam) to hang a plant. Start with the basic materials: a step ladder, stud finder, pencil, and cordless drill set with the right bit (it should be a little smaller than the hook’s threaded shaft). Stud finders make it easy to find joists. Once you find the right spot, mark it with your pencil, and then drill a straight hole in the spot that is a little deeper than the length of the hook’s threaded shaft. Twist the hook’s base in until flush, and you’re done.
Hanging Succulents for Foliage
Burros, Dolphins, Donkeys, Pearls, and Pickles: There are several senecios that are uniquely attractive. Each grows to great lengths–up to 3 feet or more–and has whimsical succulent strands. Blue Pickle Vine (Senecio radicans ‘Glauca’) has strands of fun, blue-green, pickle-like leaves. String of Dolphins (Senecio peregrinus) is somewhat similar, but its curved fleshy leaves look almost dolphin-like. Burro’s Tail (Sedum morganianum ‘Burrito’) has dense strands of rounded, succulent leaves that look a bit like tails. Donkey’s tails are nearly identical, but the succulent leaves have sharper tips, and the stems tend to grow longer. Finally, Variegated String-of-Pearls (Senecio rowelianus ‘Variegatus’) is one of the easiest and prettiest succulent hanging plants to grow. Its grey-green stems are lined with round baubles of foliage with streaks of ivory and pink highlights. This one’s a little harder to come by, but Mountain Crest Gardens carries it often. Unusual white or lavender-pink flowers rarely appear on each of these plants.
Dancing Bones (Hatiora salicornioides) is a unique spineless cactus. Though delicate, yellow flowers often grace its stems, its glorious, mop-head of foliage is the main show. Grow it in a strong, sturdy hanging basket or tall container. Happy plants mature quickly and become large, so be sure you hang it from a strong hook secured to a beam.
String-of-Turtles (Peperomia prostrata) has flattened, translucent leaves that look much like tiny turtle shells. In time, the plant will form a dense mat of dangling stems. This one can take a little less light. On rare occasions, it may produce spikes of reddish-brown flowers that rise from the foliage.
Variegated String-of-Hearts(Ceropegia woodii ‘Variegata’) has delicate, heart-shaped succulent leaves of silvery-white, pink, and dark green that dangle from the dark stems for an impressive show. It is one of the easier house plants that you can grow, and it does not disappoint when it comes to good looks.
Hanging Succulents for Flowers and Foliage
Chandelier Plant (Kalanchoe manginii) becomes massive with age, so choose a substantial container from the start. Its dense stems have rounded succulent leaves. From late winter to early spring, copious orange to salmon-pink bells bloom for weeks. During the rest of the year, the lush foliage of this Madagascar native looks attractive. Thin out excessive older growth to encourage new.
Flower Dust Plant (Kalanchoe pumila) has very bright silvery-white, almost dusty leaves that spill from any container or hanging basket. When this Madagascar native becomes laden with pretty pink flowers, it looks even prettier. Like chandelier plant, it flowers in late winter and spring.
Rattail Cactus (Disocactusflagelliformis) develops long strands of finely-spined stems that cascade down to form a hair-like mop. Spectacular, large cactus flowers of pink, reddish-pink, or purplish-red appear from spring to summer. Prune off any excessive stems or those that become damaged or tangled.
Easy to Propagate and Share
Most succulents and cacti can be propagated from leaf or stem cuttings. The rarer your plant, the more you will want to propagate it for gifting and friends. Here is what you will need to take stem or leaf cuttings from your hanging succulents.
Rooting hormone with an anti-fungal additive (optional)
Use a sharp knife to gently cut healthy leaves from the stem. Dip the bases of the leaves, or a stem tip, into rooting hormone; rooting hormone hastens the rooting process and reduces rot but is not necessary. Gently moisten the perlite or potting mix in your shallow pots, and nestle the bases of the leaves into the mix. Place the pots in a spot with bright, filtered light and keep the perlite or mix lightly moist to almost dry. Over a matter of weeks, the bases will root and small plantlets will appear. You can pot them up once they have several leaflets.
“I have full sun for the majority of the day at my home. I’m wanting to put up a window box on the front of my house, but I’m not sure what plants would succeed. Help is appreciated! Thank you!” Question from Melissa of Ludington, Michigan
Answer: There are lots of great plants for sunny window boxes. Good options do not get too tall or wide and grow and flower well in small spaces. For design purposes, plant them in contrasting combinations with bushy and trailing or spilling plants in complementary colors. Annuals are most often favored for window boxes. Here are some that will grow beautifully in Michigan.
Favorite Sunny Window Box Bushy Bloomers
Summer Snapdragon (Angelonia angustifolia hybrids). Choose these heat-lovers for sunny window boxes. They will even take some drought. Some of the newer summer snapdragons, like those in the Angelface® Cascade Series, are a bit more compact, making them better suited for window boxes.
Bidens (Bidens hybrids): These heat-loving annuals generally have yellow or orangish-red daisy-like flowers. Most varieties keep on flowering until fall.
Bedding Geraniums (Pelargonium hybrids): Old-fashioned geraniums need to be deadheaded, but they are classic window box plants that keep looking great until frost. I love cherry-red varieties, but you can also find them with white, pink, salmon, orange, or orange-red blooms.
Petunias and Calibrachoa (Petunia and Calibrachoa hybrids): Go to any garden center, and you will find loads of petunias and calibrachoa. Vista Petunias and Superbells Calibrachoa are my favorites. They bloom beautifully from summer to fall and trail nicely in containers.
Dichondra Silver Falls™ (Dichondra argenteaProven Accents®Silver Falls™): Here is one of the easiest, prettiest, most drought-tolerant spillers that you can grow. Its trailing stems of pure silver cannot be beaten.
Mexican Hair Grass (Nasella tenuissima): Plant this fine, fountain-shaped, airy grass to add height and spill to containers.
Ornamental Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas ornamental hybrids): There are loads of compact, trailing ornamental sweet potatoes that really light up containers. Two great, compact options are the bright green Sweet Caroline Medusa™ Green and variegated green, white, and pink Tricolor.
Bacopa (Sutera cordata hybrids): These small-leaved, trailing annuals have small, pretty flowers of white or lavender-pink. Of the white-flowered varieties, Snowstorm®Giant Snowflake® has the largest flowers and a great spilling habit.