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Winter Garden Tasks for a Happy Garden

January is a good time to remove old Helleborus leaves, just be sure not to accidentally snip flower stems.

December was a month of trying to get my winter garden tasks all done before the end of the year. Here it is January, and I have not completed all my December tasks. Getting everything done is something that I have never been able to do because a garden is constantly changing and evolving. With the unpredictability of weather, it seems as though there is always a new task, and I often get distracted on starting on another before completing what I am working on. So, the tasks get moved deeper into winter.

Winter Garden Tasks

Move Hardy Perennials: I have heard some gardeners say that they can relax in January, but that is not the case with me. I consider January a good month to do some final ‘editing’ in the garden because there are always some very hardy plants that need to be moved or, in some cases, removed. This can be done in January as long as the soil can be worked and I only move very hardy perennials.

Move hardy perennials if the soil can be worked.

Divert Water: During this winter season, and this is just early January, we have had strong winds, some snow, freezing temperatures, and rain, lots and lots of rain. The rain was much needed, and so there are no complaints from me about it. Walking through the garden after a rain, there are some areas that have accumulated pools of water, and there are very few plants in my garden that have roots that will thrive in standing water. This is a perfect opportunity to create some diversion paths for the water and also an ideal time to add Black Gold Soil Conditioner (only available in the West) or Black Gold Natural & Organic Garden Compost Blend to help improve the drainage in low garden areas. By doing this now, I can observe what is working and what is not because we will soon have more rain, and I can see if there is still a collection of water.

Trim Back Helleborus Foliage: I spent several hours one morning cutting off the old leaves of the Hellebores. I was surprised to see new growth and flower stems beginning to break through the soil. A word of caution here, be very careful when cutting off the stems of the old leaves because it is very easy to snip off a new leaf or flower stem. Beware of early slug damage on newly emerging bulbs and on the new growth on Hellebores and treat accordingly.

Check Outdoor Garden Pots: My garden has many pots, and I have looked at every one to make sure that the water drains through and there is no standing water. Several of my pots did have standing water, and I was able to turn the pots on their sides and poke a metal rod into the drainage holes to un-plug them. This helps heavy, ceramic pots resist cracking in the winter.

Check outdoor pots to see if they are still draining.

Treat Moss: Moss in the lawn can be treated now, unless you love the look of natural moss. It is a good idea to check if it is a re-occurring issue. Usually, it can mean there is too much shade, poor drainage, or both. There are lawn moss control products available at garden centers, and this is a good time to apply them. Many of moss control products contain ferrous sulfate monohydrate, (iron), and iron will stain shoes, cement, decks, etc., so use it with caution and follow all of the manufacturer’s warnings. These products will turn the moss black in a couple of days, and then it can be raked out. If there are large areas that have dead moss, re-seeding might be necessary but wait until spring for that.

Enjoy what still looks beautiful and do any early pruning as needed.

Do Early Pruning: Winter garden tasks always seem to involve some pruning and on deciduous shrubs, it is often easier to prune and shape the plant before new leaves appear. While the major pruning on roses is usually mid-February, I like to do some pruning now and cut the hybrid teas and grandifloras to 3-4 feet.

Enjoy What Looks Nice: I find that the garden is enjoyable in the winter, although the expectations are different than they are in the spring and summer. My dogwood Midwinter Fire is a bright spot with its stems of red, orange, and yellow. The twigs are also a nice addition to indoor winter arrangements. My variegated evergreen shrubs also provide winter color to dark areas in the garden and are a welcome addition to what otherwise are bare garden stems.

Even though I enjoy the winter garden, I am eagerly awaiting spring!

Winter Garden Tasks for a Happy Garden – 2021

Winter Garden Tasks for a Happy Garden – 2020

My Midwinter Fire dogwood is adding lovely color to my winter garden.

Pruning The Garden in Winter

 

As for me, I believe that pruning is without doubt the biggest (dreadfulest) but most important job in the winter garden.  Young trees and shrubs need pruning then while the branches are bare.  The rules for pruning flowering shrubs depends on when they bloom.  Spring blooming shrubs (i.e. quince and viburnums that bloom on last year’s wood should never be cut in winter. But only after they bloom.  Summer and fall blooming shrubs such as Hydrangeas will bloom on new wood and can then be cut to the ground in winter.

General Pruning Rules

Be sure to use the right pruning tools for the job. Small pruning saws are best for larger branches.

The first step is to remove all dead wood at its base.  Then look to see if any branches are crossing and rubbing together. If you find crossing branches, cut one off leaving the best branch to grow.  The next step for almost all non-evergreen shrubs is to cut one-third of the oldest branches to the ground every three years.  This will ensure a new crop of younger shoots each year and help to eliminate pests that often attack the old wood first. A perfect example of this is the lilac.  A common mistake I have seen is to cut some shrubs into forms that are unnatural to their basic shape.  The worst offenders try to prune forsythia into shapes such as globes or rectangles.  There again, give forsythias room to spread and follow the three-year cycle.  If you have a small area buy a small shrub to fill it.  There are a few slow-growing shrubs that do not need pruning at all, as far as its shape is concerned.  The most common plant in our area is the Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata).  Except for dead wood and rubbing branches leave it alone.

Pruning Winter Evergreens

Rhododendrons are and azalea

Pruning rhododendrons and azaleas and is a whole different story.  There is a difference between them relating to pruning, other than flower, leaf, and shrub size.   The difference is where the flower buds are located on the branch and when to prune.  Rhododendron flowers are found just above the leaf rosette and pruning consists of removing the old flowers, after spring blooming, while not hurting the leaf rosette just below it. That is where next year’s buds will form. Aside from removing dead wood, never prune them in winter for fear of removing their spring flowers.

Azaleas, on the other hand, form new buds all along the branch, so they will tolerate some light winter pruning.  Just remove any out-of-place branches, but not all the way back. Then you will have new flowers next spring.

Remember both plants require acidic soil.  If your plants start to look weak or yellow you need a soil additive. Copperas (hydrated ferrous sulfate) an inexpensive powder comes in small bags. Follow the instructions and add to a liquid mix for acid-loving plants.

Pruning Roses

Be sure to remove any dead or dying branches before you really start pruning living branches.

Roses are in a group by themselves. The main rule is to get rid of the old wood to discourage pests and encourage new growth (= more roses).  There are two groups of roses, one that blooms on last year’s wood and one that blooms on this year’s new growth. With both groups remove the oldest and weakest canes.  The oldest canes tend to be dark brown and woody. They need to go. The new-growth roses should have one-third of all old branches cut to the ground to keep the plant from pouring energy into maintaining old growth, and it should be done in the very early spring just when the buds begin to swell.  For a fuller-looking plant cut some of the inward-growing branches to open up the center.  For roses that bloom only on one-year-old wood (and I do not think there are many of these left) look at the stems.  They should be brownish-green.  Leave them and cut out anything older, but be sure to let new growth come along for next year. (Article: When is the Best Time to Prune Roses)

I also caution against the dreaded rose rosette virus.  (Article: Best Diseases-Resistant Roses) If you see any misshapen or oddly colored growth dig up the plant and burn it or put it into a large plastic bag to put in the trash. Even if everything looks okay douse your pruners with 70% Isopropyl Alcohol between each rose.  I encourage everyone to go online and see what bad growth looks like.

I also recommend going online to see the gorgeous new varieties of all the plants I have talked about, for example, Hydrangea paniculata images and a world of gorgeous shrubs will appear.

I hope I have given you enough work to keep you out of trouble and I haven’t even gotten to young trees.  So get going and happy gardening.

About Teri Keith


Garden columnist, Teri Keith, has gardened for over 50 years in her home state of Indiana. She served as a longtime IGC nursery manager specializing in annuals and perennials in Bloomington, Indiana and still gardens with passion. Each year she plants and maintains over 50 flower containers, many gardens, and a large collection of lilacs.

What Do I Need To Grow Container Vegetables?

“I am starting a container garden for onions, potatoes, and carrots. I will be using the Black Gold potting mix plus fertilizer. Will I have to add any other product to the potting mix? Thank you.” Dennis of Thaxton, Virginia

Dear Dennis,

Potted vegetables grow best in large containers filled with excellent potting soil,  like our Black Gold mixes, and quality fertilizer formulated for vegetables. Be sure that the containers drain well, and keep them evenly moist. Full sun exposure is a requirement. This is about all that you need. Thin your carrot as they grow, and space your onions and potatoes well. I also recommend that you read these articles about growing edibles in containers. We have many, many more on the site.

Happy gardening,

Jessie

Cold Frame Salad Gardening

Cold frames are like outdoor mini glasshouses for winter vegetable and herb growing.

Garden-fresh eating does not have to end in the fall. The onset of chilly weather means it’s time to enjoy cold-frame salad gardens filled with easy, cool-season greens, root vegetables, and annual herbs. These crops are fast to germinate and grow, and they will tolerate serious cold weather if your frame garden is properly placed, prepared, and maintained.

What is a Cold Frame?

In 2012 I co-wrote an article with John Everard about how to build your own cold frame. This is the cold frame that he designed! (See building details in the linked article below.) (Image by Jessie Keith)

A cold frame is a cross between a raised bed and a small, sunken, covered greenhouse. It is lowered into the ground to reduce winter freezing of cold-tolerant greens, herbs, and root vegetables. Most cold frames are designed with sturdy sides of either wood, stone, or brick, and they are topped with framed glass or plexiglass lids that can be lifted on unseasonably warm fall and winter days.

Cold frames were first popularized in Europe, where winter growing conditions are generally mild, but they are also useful for American gardeners. You can build your own cold frame or purchase a premade one. Building your own has its advantages because you can create something more for less, if you know what you are doing. For a great step-by-step building guide, please click here to read this article that I co-wrote with biologist and builder John Everard for Wilder Quarterly in 2012. John created a very useful design that can be sunk into the ground in our USDA Hardiness Zone 7 area.

Cold Frame Siting

Cold frames further south can be shallower because it’s warmer.

All cold frames should be placed in a somewhat elevated location with full sun and soil that drains well–standing water and vegetable cultivation do not go hand in hand. Some steps regarding cold-frame gardening depend on one’s location and climate. In the north, a cold frame should be placed in a sunny, south-facing spot close to the home. If you can, sink the frame a few inches below the soil level. The reflective heat from the home will provide a little extra winter protection, the south-facing sun will help heat the cold frame all winter long, and the added depth will reduce the chances of freezing on cold nights. Further south, you can choose a spot away from the home, and sinking the frame is not necessary. No matter where you live, be sure to be watchful of your cold frame on uncommonly warm winter days. Prop the tops open during the day to keep the internal temperature from getting too hot and stressing your greens.

Cold Frame Soil

Rich, dark soil is best for cold frame gardens.

Dark, lofty, highly amended soil that holds water well will yield the best vegetables. Start by amending the ground soil in the frame with good compost, like Black Gold Natural & Organic Garden Compost Blend. A 1:2 ratio of soil to compost is recommended, especially if the soil is high in clay or sand. Another option is to fill the bed with Black Gold Natural & Organic Raised Bed and Planting Mix. Adding a layer of compost as a protective mulch is also important and can serve as further insulation. (Click here to learn more about creating the best soil for raised beds.)

Cold Frame Salad Crops

Rather than harvesting whole lettuce heads, I recommend snipping away leaves for cut-and-come-again salads.

It is essential to grow cool-season, frost-resistant crops. These are largely cool-season greens, herbs, and root crops. There are lots of greens for the job such as mâche, kale, lettuce, mizuna, spinach, and Swiss chard. Any lettuce will do, but small, fast varieties are most favorable. Salanova baby lettuces (55 days from seed) produce sweet and crunchy heads of green and purple very quickly, and the looseleaf lettuce Baby Leaf Mix is a reliable cut-and-come-again mix. Spinach thrives in cool weather and may have smooth or savoyed (puckered) leaves. I recommend both the 1925 heirloom ‘Bloomsdale’, which has large, savoyed leaves and is slower to bolt than most, and the smooth-leaved ‘Corvair’, which is resistant to the fungal disease, downy mildew. Arugula cultivars vary in leaf shape, color and heat. The popular ‘Wasabi’ is an easy-to-grow selection with leaves that truly taste like hot wasabi, and the newer ‘Dragon’s Tongue’ is a visually pretty, finely cut variant with purple-red venation.

In the deep winter, cool-season root vegetables bulb up more slowly.

The best root crops include winter carrots and radishes. Radishes are by far the fastest, and my favorite variety for crisp, sweet flavor is the French breakfast radish D’Avignon. Click the following link to learn more about growing winter root crops and click this link to learn more about growing cool-season greens.

For delicate cool-season herbs, try cilantro, dill, and parsley. Cilantro likes it cool and may produce leaves throughout winter. When the weather heats up, it will produce starts stems of white flowers and bulbous seed heads that can be dried and crushed to make the spice coriander. Dill will bear ferny leaves that taste great in salads, spreads, and fish dishes. Lush clumps of curly or flatleaf parsley will also flourish in cold frames all winter long.

All of these plants can be directly sown into the frame from seed. They sprout fastest in the fall when germination temperatures are more moderate–between 70 and 40 degrees F. Some need to be sown on the soil surface, particularly the small seeds of lettuce, which need light to germinate. At sowing time, start by wetting the soil, and then gently sow and pat the seeds down. Follow up with a little more water to wet the seeds. Be sure to label all seed rows with labels showing the plant names and sowing dates.

Harvest salad leaves, herbs, and roots as needed through winter–I tend to use shears to trim off what I need on a given day. By early spring, the cold frame garden will begin to look tired. Feel free to clean it out and begin planting new vegetables for spring.

Does Excess Car Exhaust Damage Gardens?

“How would a parking lot with 16 stalls [and the car exhaust] next to my garden interfere with plant photosynthesis?” Sylvia of Belle Plaine, Minnesota

Answer: It is a very interesting question. Car exhaust contains gasses that are helpful to plants and photosynthesis and some that are harmful. Car exhaust is also everywhere, especially if you live in an urban area, though the increase in hybrid and electric cars is reducing car fumes. Still, nearby fumes may have some impact. Here is a breakdown of exhaust components from a standard car that runs on gasoline followed by the potential impacts of those gasses on plants and photosynthesis.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates of average passenger car emissions in the United States for April 2000
Component Emission Rate Annual pollution emitted
Hydrocarbons 2.80 grams/mile (1.75 g/km) 77.1 pounds (35.0 kg)
Carbon monoxide 20.9 grams/mile (13.06 g/km) 575 pounds (261 kg)
NOx 1.39 grams/mile (0.87 g/km) 38.2 pounds (17.3 kg)
Carbon dioxide – greenhouse gas 415 grams/mile (258 g/km) 11,450 pounds (5,190 kg)

(Click here for more exhaust gas details from Wikipedia.)

Carbon Dioxide and Plants

Here is the equation for photosynthesis as defined in Brittanica: 6CO2 + 6H2O → C6H12O6 + 6O2. Carbon dioxide is essential for photosynthesis, which is why it’s good to plant as many trees and garden plants as you can to help reduce this most abundant greenhouse gas. Plants take CO2 out of the atmosphere! Trees and large plants are highly effective photosynthesizers due to their sheer size, and grasses are super photosynthesizers, so consider planting a row of ornamental grasses (click here for some great ornamental grass options) or some trees and shrubs nearby to combat local CO2.

Carbon Monoxide and Plants

I found a technical overview of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere, which stated: “Carbon monoxide does not poison plants since it rapidly oxidizes to form carbon dioxide which is used for photosynthesis.” So, it is not harmful to plants either.

Nitrogen Oxides and Plants

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) contribute to smog, which blocks the sun’s rays, and acid rain, which is harmful to plants, so in excess, NOx is harmful to plants. Still, there is so much NOx in urban areas, the amount produced by the cars in the parking lot next to you would be negligible. On the plus side, you can plant nitrogen-fixing plants, such as plants in the pea and bean family as well as bayberry shrubs, to help with local NOx. These plants actively remove atmospheric NOx and convert it into a soil-borne form of nitrogen that benefits plants.

Hydrocarbons and Plants

In general, petroleum hydrocarbons are toxic to plants in high quantities, especially if they make their way into the soil (oil- or gasoline-contaminated soils). The cars nearby do emit hydrocarbons but in much lower quantities, so they should not be a problem for your garden.

As stated earlier, I recommend planting a tree, shrub, or ornamental grass buffer between your garden and the parking lot. Tough nitrogen-fixing options would be ideal! In addition to bayberry, try the following options suggested by my colleague Russell Stafford: “Outstanding legumes for perennial borders include false indigo (Baptisia spp.), wild senna (Senna spp.), yellow lupine (Thermopsis spp.), lupine (Lupinus spp.), and leadplant (Amorpha spp.).  The roster of leguminous shrubs is also lengthy, boasting such standouts as bush clover (Lespedeza spp.)…” (Click here to read the full article.)

For general greenhouse gas information, I also recommend that you read this informative piece from the EPA about greenhouse gasses and their management (click here to read it).

I hope that this information is helpful!

Happy gardening,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

What Are the Best Container-Garden Plants for Shade?

Impatiens are classic potted flowers for shade!

“I’m in a complex where we can only plant in containers outside…and there’s a lot of shade to complicate matters…any idea for some plants that would do well contained without a lot of sun?  Thank you…also someone told me the ivy I did plant in a pot can be brought inside for a houseplant when it gets too cold outside true or not?” Question from Kim of Orangeburg, New York

Answer: There are lots and lots of wonderful annuals that thrive in shady locations. The perennial vine, English Ivy (Hedera helix), can grow in pots inside or out, and it will take shade, but there are many better options for shade containers. Here are some of my favorite shade-loving annual garden flowers for summer potted gardens.

Annuals for Shady Container Gardens

Begonias: You can’t go wrong with begonias, as long as you provide them with good moisture, especially through the hottest summer days. Two showy high performers are Bossa Nova® Red  Begonia and Illumination® Golden Picotee tuberous begonia. Classic wax begonias that you can purchase in flats at every garden center are also inexpensive and excellent.

Bush Violets (Browallia hybrids.): These annuals are nonstop summer flowers. Try the true-blue Endless Illumination Bush Violet.

Coleus (Solenostemon hybrids): There are hundreds of different types of coleus available with the most colorful, beautiful foliage imaginable. Click here for a wonderful coleus online nursery! (Click here to learn how to take coleus cuttings to generate new plants for free!)

Classic Impatiens (Impatiens walleriana): Pick up a flat of colorful impatiens at your favorite garden center, and plant them in shady pots for summer-long color. (Impatiens are also easy to start from seed! Click here to learn more.)

New Guinea Impatiens (Impatiens hybrids): These impatiens are generally taller and tolerant of a little more sun than classic impatiens. the tangerine-orange Infinity® Orange is especially pretty as is the crimson-pink and pale pink Infinity® Blushing Crimson.

Torenia (Torenia hybrids): You cannot go wrong with any of the spreading torenia in the Summer Wave Series. They spread and bloom all summer long. Summer Wave® Large Blue is really lovely.

For more ideas, try the Proven Winners Container Garden Recipe search. It is a great resource for gardeners just learning how to create spectacular potted gardens. Just be sure to choose “Full Shade or Part Shade” for the sun-exposure dropdown. I also recommend clicking here to learn more about growing perennials in containers.

Happy gardening!

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

How Can I Keep Plants Cool During Scorching Heatwaves?

Move potted plants to cooler locations during the most dangerous periods of a heatwave.

“It has been hotter than it’s ever been on record. How can I protect my plants from the severe heat?” Angie of Walla Walla, Washington

Answer: It’s scary when you live in an area that typically has mild summer temperatures, and you unexpectedly experience super high heat. Your tender plants are as used to it as you are, which means they’re going to struggle. From what I have read, your average June temperatures have highs around 80 degrees F. Being faced with temperatures well over 100 and even 110 degrees F must be really awful. Here are some ways to help protect your plants, especially those that are less heat tolerant. Specimens planted in full sunlight during the hottest times of the day (around 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm) need the most protection.

Four Ways to Cool Plants in High Heat

  1. Irrigate plants very well in the early morning. If temperatures exceed 100 degrees F, water again in the evening after the sun has fallen.
  2. Protect plants that are in full sunlight with floating row covers fitted with white shade cloth. These covers are easily placed over plants and removed. You can also simply purchase shade cloth and drape it over highly exposed plants. Both methods help. Gardeners in your area have also informed me that they have been moving patio umbrellas around their yards to shade their most prized plants. (One even said that her neighbor did not, and it resulted in some substantially fried rhododendrons and hostas.)
  3. Move containers into shaded areas or indoors during the most dangerous heat and water twice daily.
  4. Opt for lightweight, light-colored mulches. A cooling layer of straw around vegetable roots will really protect plants from heat, and long-fibered sphagnum peat moss makes a good, cooling cover for shade beds and containers. (Click here to learn about more mulch options.)

I also want to note that pets and wildlife also feel the stress. Leave water out for the animals and keep your pets from going outdoors for extended periods of time and walking on hot surfaces (grass only!). I also recommend that you read the following two garden articles for more helpful tips.

Cool Gardens: Designing for Summer Temperature Control

Nine Water-Saving Garden Tips to Fight Drought

Stay cool and happy gardening,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

Growing and Using Fresh Stevia Leaf

You’ve probably heard rumblings of stevia before. Found in many soft drinks and juices, many people find the taste strange and not at all like sugar. I agree completely with you! When tasting stevia in its white powder or liquid form, I found it to be bitter yet super sweet at the same time, but fresh stevia is different.

Green stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is what I grow in the garden and it is completely different than what you will find in the store. Native to South America, it is a tender perennial herb with serrated leaves that is 200 times sweeter than sugar. The fast-growing plant is easily grown in northern climates as an annual.

How to Grow Stevia

Stevia tastes best when the leaves are young and plants are not allowed to flower.

Stevia can be purchased as plants or can be grown directly from seed in OMRI Listed Black Gold Seedling Mix. Nearly every year I plant stevia seeds, and they always grow into happy, bushy herbs. Keep in mind, they like full sun and require lots of warmth to get growing. Plants can be grown in well-drained pots filled with Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix.

You can plant your seeds in containers or in loose soil that drains well. Start your stevia indoors 8-10 weeks before planting outside or directly sow in the ground during late spring. They need warm soil to get growing.

Stevia plants can grow very large in a season, so space your plants 18 inches apart. Expect them to reach anywhere from 2-3 feet tall. Give them light to moderate water. Too much water will reduce leaf sweetness and can cause root rot. You should also pinch the plant back throughout the year to encourage bushier and stronger growth.

Harvesting Stevia

Fresh leaves can be easily dried in the sun or stems can be hung to dry.

Stevia can overwinter in Zone 8 or above, but I prefer to grow fresh stevia each year as the young plant’s leaves taste the best. During the summer, keep stevia cut back to stop flowering. Once the plant flowers, the leaf flavor is no longer tasty. The good news is, every time you prune it, you get to enjoy some fresh stevia!

You can also choose to dry the stevia by bundling stems together and hanging them to dry in a cool, dark place. At the end of the growing season, you will want to harvest the entire plant to dry. It is also best to harvest the stevia in the morning as that is when it is sweetest.

Using Stevia as a Sugar Replacement

I prefer using stevia to sweeten drinks and tea.

Speaking from experience, going sugar-free is not easy. Stevia is a natural way to get your sweet satisfaction without spiking insulin or causing inflammation. When grown organically in my garden, it feels so much healthier to me than synthetic sugar replacements. With that said, I don’t tend to use it as a complete sugar replacement.

Though many people do use stevia in place of sugar, it has its own unique herby taste that I find similar to sweet green tea, and since it is so much sweeter than sugar, a little goes a long way. I personally favor it for sweetening drinks, but it can also be used to sweeten other things.

How to Use Stevia

Stevia powder is easily used for cooking.

Sweetening up homemade baking, cooking, or drinks naturally is easy with stevia. And, the stevia does not need to be processed. Dried stevia leaf works just fine. Store stevia leaves in Mason jars until you’re ready to use them.

A single leaf in a hot cup of tea will bring a sweet, earthy flavor. You can also grind stevia leaves into a fine powder for baking or cooking. This can be done with a coffee grinder or a blender. I don’t recommend using the powder in drinks unless you want it floating at the top of your coffee–not nice.

The last way to enjoy stevia is by infusing it and using it as a liquid extract. To create the extract, stuff your dried herbs into high-proof drinking alcohol, such as vodka, and let sit for 24-36 hours. Any longer and it will get too bitter. Next strain out the leaves with a cheesecloth.  You can enjoy it like this or heat the liquid to evaporate the alcohol. Be careful, however, as boiling the mixture will affect the flavor. Keep the heat low and evaporate slow. The final infusion can be added to drinks or used for cooking.

Five Ways to Maximize Small-Space Vegetable Gardens

Large pots and vertical gardens allow one to grow more in a small space.

Vegetable gardening is on the rise. Gardeners of all experience levels and backgrounds are growing their own food, whether they live in urban environments or spacious suburbs and countrysides. Those living where space is limited have extra challenges, which means that they must garden differently to produce enough food to enjoy all season. Here are some of the ways that we have used to grow fresh food where space and sunshine are at a premium.

Plant in Spacious Pots

Spacious, deep containers let gardeners grow more in small spaces, like this balcony garden.

If you have a sunny balcony or patio with just enough space for a couple of pots, choose the largest, deepest pots that will fill the space. Large containers (22 to 24 inches minimum) Let gardeners grow more produce, and they have deeper reservoirs for soil and water to encourage more root growth and reduce the need to water as often. The pots must have good drainage and be filled with a quality mix, such as Black Gold® Natural and Organic Raised Bed & Potting Mix. A couple of large pots, or one long, deep raised pot, will be vastly more productive than several smaller ones, so go big! (Click here for more tips on growing potted vegetables.)

Garden Vertically

Some vertical gardening systems, like the Gronomics Cedar Vertical Planter, are very sturdy and made to last.

Gardeners with a little more space, like a small, sunny rear patio or yard, should consider growing one or more vertical gardens. Clever vertical planters are being designed to allow lots of vegetables to be grown in a small space. There are also plenty of DIY vertical garden designs to consider if you are the creative type. Whether you choose a premade product or go for a less expensive make-your-own vertical garden, make sure that the design allows for easy irrigation, holds enough soil for plants to grow well, and will last for a long time.

Most upright planting systems are best suited to smaller vegetable crops, like greens, bush peas and beans, baby carrots, beets, bush tomatoes, bush beans, compact peppers, and bush cucumbers and squash. Fruits, such as strawberries and low-bush blueberries, are also good options. (Click here to learn more about growing blueberriesClick here to learn more about growing strawberries.)  (Click here to learn more about vertical vegetable gardening.)

Grow Small Edibles

Tempting Tomatoes® Patio Sunshine is a true dwarf cherry tomato that’s perfect for pots and hanging baskets. (Image by Proven Winners®)

Smaller vegetables and fruits are made for container growing, so choose varieties better suited to pot culture. This includes non-vining bush tomatoes, such as  ‘Mountain Merit‘ and ‘Celebrity‘, both AAS winners. The tiny, cute cherry tomato Tempting Tomatoes® Patio Sunshine is another excellent choice. These are just a few of the many quality little tomatoes available. Tiny bush basils are fun to grow at the base of potted tomatoes. Windowbox Mini from Renee’s Garden Seeds is a superior little basil that’s very easy to start from seed.

There are plenty of other compact bush vegetables,  such as ‘Bush Pickle‘ cucumber, the little butternut ‘Butterbush‘, and compact zucchini ‘Fordhook‘. If you like melons, the compact ‘Minnesota Midget‘ cantaloupe and short-vined watermelon ‘Bush Sugar Baby‘ both grow well sprawling from a large pot. Strawberries of all types are great for pots. The beautiful Berried Treasure® strawberries, with their double pink, red, or white blossoms, also yield delicious sweet berries through summer.

Root vegetables of all kinds grow well in containers. Carrots, turnips, beets, and radishes are among them. Just make sure that the pots are deep enough for good root development. Upright vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, should be staked or caged to supply added support. (Click here to learn more about my favorite miniature vegetables.) (Click here to learn about the best fruits for container growing.)

Hang Edibles

Strawberries grow beautifully in hanging baskets and are easy to harvest from them.

Some vegetables and fruits grow beautifully in large hanging baskets. As with the pots, go big to minimize watering and maximize performance. The best vegetables for hanging are cascaders, such as compact tomatoes, strawberries, dwarf cucumbers, and peppers. The new, compact Pot-a-Peño jalapeño pepper is ideal for hanging baskets. This variety is also a 2021 AAS award winner, so it is sure to perform well.

Rotate Potted Vegetables

Potted greens and spring herbs are great cool-season potted edibles to start the season with.

Vegetable gardening is a dynamic process. Gardeners have to shift from cool-season spring vegetables to warm-season summer vegetables back to cool-weather crops. In between, smart gardeners rotate their crops to continue the harvest and encourage garden health. Plan to harvest and plant, harvest and plant until fall to boost your garden’s yields and diversity of crops. Seasonal planting and rotation keep soil diseases and pests from taking hold.  (Click here to learn more about rotating vegetables.)

Maintain to Maximize Production

Place containers and gardens where they get maximum sunlight. Eight hours a day or more is recommended. Start with great soil that holds water well, has ample air space, and drains well. Black Gold®Natural & Organic Potting Mix is ideal for growing all types of vegetables in containers and it is OMRI Listed® for organic gardening. It’s wise to add a little Black Gold Earthworm Castings Blend 0.8-0.0-0.0, which is rich in nitrogen, to pots with greens and herbs. Change a pot’s soil every two to three years because peat-based potting mixes break down, lose structure, and acidify over time.

Fertilize regularly to encourage the best growth and production. Lots of vegetables are “heavy feeders”, which means they deplete nutrients from the soil fast. Apply a slow-release fertilizer formulated for vegetable gardening at the start of the season. For heavy feeders, like tomatoes, follow up with applications of a water-soluble fertilizer formulated for vegetables. This is especially important to do just before the fruits develop.

Lack of water is the main cause of container vegetable failure. During the hottest days of summer, daily water will likely be needed, especially if your pots are in the full, hot sun. At watering time,  water until its starts to run out of the pot drain holes. This indicates that the container is saturated. Thorough watering encourages deeper root development and stronger, more stable plants. 

If your time is limited, consider investing in drip irrigation for pots. It also helps to add an extra layer of porous organic mulch to keep surface water from evaporating. Leaf mulch, straw, or grass clippings are all great options for pots that break down quickly while providing a little extra protection. (Click here to read about the 8 best watering strategies for plants.)

Spring Salad Pots For Quick, Easy, Fresh Eating

Last year I experimented with salad pots with great results. This shows some of the pots just after planting. They contain mixed lettuce, bok choi, and beets. Another pot contained six large Romaine lettuce plants.

My first spring salad pots were grown in large, inexpensive plastic containers that I bought from the garden center. I filled them with some Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix and added a little fertilizer. They performed so well that I couldn’t believe it. Just a few pots provided delicious salads through spring, so this year I decided to redo this year’s salad containers with a little more flair.

I took it up a notch by creating suites of well-paired greens and herbs for custom-made salad containers–one with an Asian theme, another French, and the last for the Italian palate. Large (18″ or 24″) pots are ideal for these plantings. This will ensure that you can plant enough vegetables in each pot to make several spring salad bowls. As I said, I planted mine in Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix, but this year I plan to try Black Gold Raised Bed & Planting Mix. Both mixes are OMRI Listed for organic gardening. My plant food of choice is a slow-release fertilizer for vegetable growing, though I often hit my plants with some water-soluble fertilizer a week after planting to help them take off.

Asian Salad Pot

There are many varieties of Chinese cabbage, mizuna, scallions, and romaine to try.

Asian Salad Pot: Spring Crisp Chinese Cabbage (63-65 days), Central Red Mizuna (40-55 days), Ishikura Improved Bunching Scallions (40-50 days), and Red Romaine Lettuce (56-60 days).

About the blend – This is a two-pot salad mix because Chinese cabbages are bulky. I am confident that the outcome will be worthy of a very tasty sesame salad dressing. The crisp, flavorful Chinese cabbage will combine nicely with the mustardy kick of the mizuna, the mild green-onion flavor of the bunching scallions along with the crunchy, sweet taste and bright color of the red romaine.

Planting tips – I recommend filling one pot with three Chinese cabbage heads with a sprinkling of mizuna around the exterior. Another pot can contain the romaine with scallions planted along the side. Be sure to space the scallions 2-3 inches apart. I always start cabbage, scallions, and lettuce plants indoors several weeks before planting outdoors. I start the seeds in 4-inch pots under grow lights. (Click here for growing tips.) Then I acclimate my seedlings to cool spring temperatures in my enclosed back porch. Scallions are often tender and slender at planting time, so be gentle with them and don’t plant their bulbs too deeply. One-half inch is perfect. The mizuna is a mustard green that can directly be sown in the pots at the time when you plant your seedlings–generally in late March or early April in my USDA Hardiness Zone 7 garden.

This spacing is approximate, depending on the varieties you choose. Just be certain to thin your scallions properly.

French Salad Pot

Chervil, butterhead lettuce, French radishes, and crunchy snap peas are a taste of France in a bowl.

French Salad Pot: Classic Garden Chervil (60 days), Divina Butterhead Lettuce (60 to 70 days), Flamboyant French Breakfast Radish (25-30 days), and Sugar Ann Snap Peas (52-62 days).

About the blend -The sweetness of the snap peas and butter lettuce blend well with the slight heat of the fresh French breakfast radishes. Chervil is added to provide a fresh, slightly anise flavor–much like the flavor of fennel. Together they taste very excellent with a classic French dijon vinegarette. If you are not partial to uncooked snap peas, try blanching them for a minute and then immersing them in an ice-water bath.

Planting tips – I recommend three large pots for this salad blend–one for the peas (a tomato cage makes an easy pea trellis), one for the radishes, and one for the butter lettuce with two chervil plants on the side. It is best to start the chervil and lettuce indoors under grow lights, as recommended for the greens above. The radishes and peas can be directly sown in the pots. Surface-sow the radish seeds and cover them with 1/8 inch of potting mix. Plant them in circular rows 6 inches apart and then thin them to 3 inches apart after they have sprouted. The peas should be planted in a circle at a distance of 3 inches apart and 1 inch below the soil surface. Time everything well, keeping in mind that the peas and greens need more time than the fast-growing radishes.

This spacing is approximate, depending on the varieties you choose. Just be certain to thin your radishes properly.

Italian Salad Pot

A salad of fresh chicory, romaine, and roasted Chioggia baby beets taste great with a fresh balsamic dressing and a touch of Parmesan cheese.

Italian Salad Pot: Chicory Bionda (35-45 days), Romaine Bionda Lettuce (55-60 days), Baby Chioggia Beets (40-55 days).

About the blend – The bitter bite of the chicory tastes nice with the sweet crunch of the romaine lettuce and sweetness of the baby beets. Chioggia beets are candy-striped with red and white bands inside, so they are as beautiful as they are delicious. The three taste very good with honey balsamic vinegarette and shaving of Parmesan cheese.

Planting tips – Two large pots are sufficient for this salad blend–one for the chicory and romaine lettuce, and one for the beets. The lettuce and chicory can be started as seedlings indoors, using the same recommendations for the two previous gardens. The beets should be directly sown in the pots. Keep in mind that the beets may germinate more slowly in cool weather, so you may want to plant them a week earlier than recommended on the packet.

This spacing is approximate, depending on the varieties you choose. Just be certain to thin your beets properly.

To learn more about great lettuce varieties, please watch this helpful video!