“Weed” is a Four-Letter Word


Reusing cardboard can add new life to the garden, if properly applied.

Ever notice how many challenges in the garden are four-letter words? Wind, hail, rust, mold, cold, vole, mole, deer, bugs, ouch, and weed conjure up stressful garden situations, which must be immediately addressed, leading to even more work (another four-letter word). How we deal with the cursed weed that pops up here and there in our little corner of Eden usually involves back-breaking hoeing, tugging, digging, or spraying. What if there were easier, more organic ways to eliminate weeds before they even sprout? This is where using effective mulches can help clean up both your garden and your vocabulary.

Continue reading ““Weed” is a Four-Letter Word”

Big, Bold, Beautiful Blooms

The quintessential, evergreen Southern magnolia can have flowers reaching 12” across.

Is there a stronger magnet that draws one into a landscape than huge, super big flowers? I’m talking about blossoms the size of a small child’s head, a Sunday dinner plate, or a brass trumpet. Why would nature produce such enormous blooms when they rob energy from the plant? As pleasing as large flowers are to us, the plant’s primary purpose is to attract the right pollinator.

Continue reading “Big, Bold, Beautiful Blooms”

The African Violet, America’s #1 Houseplant

A myriad of colorful African violets await adoption at your local garden center.
A myriad of colorful African violets await adoption at your local garden center.

African Violets (Saintpaulia hybrids) are America’s favorite houseplants according to the African Violet Society of America (AVSA). The beloved African violet’s immense popularity is most likely due to its irresistibly fuzzy rounded leaves, wide spectrum of cheerful reblooming flowers and ability to thrive in typical household environments. These members of Gesneriaceae, a large plant family with ~150 genera and over 3000 species of tropical to temperate plants, also share stage with other popular indoor gesneriads, such as AchimenesGloxiniaSinningia and Streptocarpus.

Miniature African violets are perfect additions to open, raised terrariums.
Miniature African violets are perfect additions to open, raised terrariums.

African Violets are indigenous to the cloud forests of eastern tropical Africa, so they perform best in warmer temperatures that are also comfortable to us. An indoor range from 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit is best, but with adequate water and air circulation they can tolerate warmer environs. Cold drafts or pockets near windows in wintertime should be avoided; temperatures around 60 degrees can damage African violets and those that dip below 50 degrees may cause them to perish.

African Violets need plenty of sunlight in order to bloom well. An ideal location would be an east-facing window with gentle morning light. Southern and western exposures can also be beneficial,  if sheer drapery is used to filter out harsh direct sunlight. In the absence of sufficient natural light, keeping African violets under artificial grow lights can be very successful. Whatever your light source, be sure to regularly rotate plants in order to keep them symmetrical and get light into their interiors.

High humidity is essential for success, so kitchens and bathrooms are good locations for these plants. Still, providing enough moisture to the air can be a challenge in other rooms in a dry house, especially in winter when the heat is running. A great way to increase humidity around African violets is to place their pots on trays filled with pebbles. Periodically add water to the tray to a level just below the bottom of the pots so that the plants benefit from the evaporation without accidentally taking up additional water at the roots. Another way to keep moisture in the air is to frequently mist your African violets with tepid water, but never to the point where droplets form on the leaves.

A light, aerated potting medium is essential, which is why I use Black Gold African Violet Potting Mix. The superior lightweight mix contains peat moss, compost, perlite/pumice and earthworm castings and is specially blended to help these favorite houseplants thrive.

African violet relative, Streptocarpus, was named "Plant of the Decade" by the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK.
African violet relative, Streptocarpus, was named “Plant of the Decade” by the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK.

Water African violets when the potting soil feels dry to the touch. Before watering, remember that if you drink your household water, it should be safe for your plants. However, avoid using soft, high mineral or chlorinated water, and remember that tepid water is best because cold or hot water can damage plants. African violet leaves can be damaged by leaf droplets, so carefully water them from the top of the soil with a narrow-nosed watering can or bottle with a long spout, avoiding any water contact with the leaves. After a couple of minutes, be sure to drain the pot or saucer of any residual water which has passed through the soil and puddled. (Never allow these plants to sit directly in water!) Specially designed African violet self-watering containers are recommended for novice growers; they allow plants to only take up what water they need through the clay walls of the inner pot liner.

African Violets need extremely good air circulation in order to avoid developing mildew on their fuzzy leaves and blooms. The trick is to provide plenty of space between plants for air to move.

The growing fad of containerized indoor fairy gardens has spawned a resurgence of interest in filling terrariums with tiny houseplants. This environment can be perfect for miniature African violets as long as they are sitting atop a mound and the glass container is left open at the top.

As popular as African Violets are in the U.S.A., their longer-leaved showy cousins, Streptocarpus, were just recognized as the Royal Horticultural Society’s  “Plant of the Decade”. During an English garden tour last month, I had the pleasure of seeing a spectacular display of lacy violet purple and white flowered Streptocarpus ‘Harlequin Lace’  in a garden center. I wish I could have brought one home. Soon I hope to locate some Streptocarpus in my local garden center to join the African violets in my kitchen window box.

Colorful Streptocarpus grow well under the same conditions as African violets.
Colorful Streptocarpus grow well under the same conditions as African violets.

Growing Fall Greens

Rows of the pretty kale Brassica oleracea 'Lacinato' are lined up for fall.
Rows of the pretty kale Brassica oleracea ‘Lacinato’ are lined up for fall growing.

“Eat your Greens!” is a familiar directive to consume some form of the Mustard Family, formally referred to as Brassicaceae or Cruciferae. And, what a large family of leafy vegetables it is! Its members, called brassicas or cole crops, include many adored (or abhorred) leafy edibles such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, kale, mustard greens as well as collards, bok choy, pak choi and arugula, among others. Continue reading “Growing Fall Greens”

Craig LeHoullier’s (aka NC Tomato Man’s) Top Six Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes are always popular at the North Carolina State Farmer's Market in Raleigh.
Heirloom tomatoes are always popular at the North Carolina State Farmer’s Market in Raleigh.

I hated tomatoes as a child. You couldn’t get me to eat one, even with sugar sprinkled on it. The only tomato-based products that passed my lips were ketchup on a hamburger or watery spaghetti sauce. Then I married a wise man who insisted that our first home wouldn’t be complete unless there was a vegetable garden in the back yard with tomatoes. I had to agree with him that a homegrown beefsteak tomato was pretty good on a BLT and that tiny cherry tomatoes fresh from the garden did add a special je ne sais quoi to a salad. But still, I was confused. Why was this plain vegetable/fruit so prized by so many?

There's nothing like a BLT with homegrown heirloom tomatoes.
There’s nothing like a BLT with homegrown heirloom tomatoes.

Then, in the mid-1990’s, I met Craig LeHoullier, a man who speaks about tomatoes the same way a connoisseur describes vintage wines, fine antiques or classical music. His tomatoes are heirlooms. They have names, family histories, and, most importantly, incredible flavor.

LeHoullier is a retired chemist living in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he sells old varieties of tomatoes, hybridizes his own, writes about tomatoes (see The American Gardener Magazine, March/April 2013, A Spectrum of Heirloom Tomatoes), and frequently lectures about them. He is considered one of the country’s heirloom tomato experts, writing under the name NCTomatoman.

Years ago, I asked LeHoullier why he invests so much of his free time growing heirloom tomatoes. He passionately explained, “These tomatoes cannot be commercialized. Their skins are thin, and they are too juicy to be shipped. They must be grown in home gardens. We can’t let these genes disappear.”

“What are your favorite tomatoes?” I followed, not knowing that he had grown over a thousand varieties. LeHoullier quickly began listing the attributes of this oxheart or that potato-leafed variety, including where he first got the seeds and the details of his own growing experiences. I marveled that he could remember all his tomatoes like they were his children. LeHoullier modestly confessed to having a photographic memory.
Since most of us don’t have this gift, here is a short list of six of his all-time favorites:

  1. ‘Anna Russian’: A large-fruited, pink, heart-shaped tomato that’s early to bear, this variety has excellent flavor, lots of seeds and dates back to around the turn of the twentieth century. LeHoullier initially received his seeds from Brenda Hilenius of Oregon, who received hers as a family hand-me-down. According to family legend, these seeds were shared by a Russian immigrant.
  2. ‘Cherokee Purple’: Characterized by a most unusual color, this purple-skinned, red-fleshed, green gel-filled beauty is sweet tasting, like a tomato fruit should be. The pass-along plant came to LeHoullier in 1990 by way of J.D. Green of Sevierville, Tennessee, who told LeHoullier that a local Cherokee tribe shared it with his neighbors a century ago. LeHoullier named it, promoted it, and now ‘Cherokee Purple’ is a familiar favorite at local farmer’s markets.
  3. ‘Mortgage Lifter’: LeHoullier describes this variety as “fantastic.” It is a large, flattish, pink tomato weighing up to three pounds. The story goes that it was the result of hybridizing by “Radiator Charlie” Byles of West Virginia around 1920. By selling his disease-resistant creation, Byles was able to pay off the mortgage to his property, hence the name’s origin.
  4. ‘Hugh’s’: A late-season, 2-3 pound, lemon yellow tomato from Archie Hook of Indiana, ‘Hugh’s’ is another sweet variety that disproves the myth that yellow tomatoes are bland. Delicious and prolific, it is a favorite among gardeners who save seed.
  5. ‘Ruby Gold’: A large bicolored beefsteak with yellow fruit marbled in red, ‘Ruby Gold’ is LeHoullier’s favorite sweet slicer for cheeseburgers.
  6. ‘Brandywine’: LeHoullier explained that he had to grow three batches of tomatoes that were called ‘Brandywine’ before he found the real thing. The correct variant was worth the search. It has large red fruit and usually matures mid-season. The true ‘Brandywine’ is the tomato that others are often judged against for both flavor and hardiness.


The gorgeous 'Pink Berkeley Tie Dye' lives up to its name.
The gorgeous ‘Pink Berkeley Tie Dye’ lives up to its name.

To Craig LeHoullier’s list I must add a remarkable tomato recently passed along to me by Gerald Adams, Grounds Supervisor of the North Carolina Executive Mansion, and another tomato fancier extraordinaire. Gerald’s pick is ‘Pink Berkeley Tie Dye’ (from California, of course), an unusual pinkish purplish fruit covered with almost chartreuse-colored stripes, and though it sometimes gets cat-faced, it definitely challenges ‘Cherokee Purple’ for sweetness. The one that Adams gave to me created one of the best BLT sandwiches I have enjoyed in a long time.
Gardeners often ask whether heirloom tomatoes are easier to grow, more prolific, hardier, or more disease-resistant than newly introduced varieties. The honest answer is, “not necessarily.” It really depends on the tomato, but all will grow better in well-amended garden soil and are ‘heavy eaters’ requiring applications of a quality fertilizer like a quality Tomato & Vegetable fertilizer, which is OMRI Listed for organic gardening. Provide full sun, adequate and even watering, and a cooling mulch at the base, such as Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, and plants should thrive. Plenty of elbow room between plants will also promote good air circulation for good health. Follow these simple tomato growing guidelines and your garden will be bursting with fabulous heirloom tomatoes.

Bold Summer Bulbs for the Garden

DSC_0143 (2)
Colorful late summer drama provided by bananas, cannas and elephant ears in a private Indiana garden.

Late spring is the perfect tome to add summer bulbs to landscape and container plantings. Why do we wait so late to plant the bulbs, tubers, and corms of various elephant ears, all sorts of lilies, gladiolus, oxalis, dahlias, and everything else deliciously summery from bananas to cannas? It is because  in most parts of the United States (especially here in the Southeast) soil temperatures are finally warm enough for tender tropicals, indigenous to Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, Mexico, and Polynesia, to survive and thrive.

Many summer bulbs acclimate well where summers are hot. And where winters are mild they may return even bigger and better the next year, if they are correctly sited in the right spot. But, most are best treated like summertime annuals – enjoy them, then replant more next year. Or dig and store them through winter, if you have the inclination.

So, how do you choose which summer bulbs to plant? It depends on the style of your landscape. A cottage garden would not look the same without drifts of elegant lilies, whereas a tiki hut begs to be surrounded by enormous elephant ears. The colorful leaves and hot flowers of cannas easily crossover from traditional Victorian to modern eclectic gardens. A butterfly garden must have Liatris. And, crinum, spider lilies, four o’clocks, and tuberose belong outside any traditional Southern home.

DSC_0287 (2)
The chartreuse leaves of Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’ brighten a shady corner at Chanticleer Botanical Gardens.

Ornamental Banana

Nothing adds a tropical feel to a poolside like enormous banana leaves swaying back and forth in the gentlest wind. Some bananas are better suited to being containerized, so that they can be protected in wintertime. The cold-hardiest perennial banana for Zone 5-11 landscapes is the hardy banana (Musa basjoo), and one of the most compact is Musa ‘Dwarf Cavendish.’

Plant banana rhizomes in late spring, so that they can get well-established while the soil is warm. Though the entire clump will die back in winter, it will re-emerge even larger in circumference in early May and quickly shoot upwards to top out around 8-10-feet tall. Bananas need as much sun as possible and love humidity. Though you may see a flower on your plant, you probably won’t get fruit unless you reside in the Deep South. A consolation is that you can use banana leaves to wrap and grill meat for your own backyard luau.

Elephant Ears

A dramatic summertime focal point is the tropical elephant ear. This common name has been associated with several species to include Alocasia, Colocasia, and Caladium, as well as many similarly-shaped houseplants, including the chartreuse-leafed Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger.’ The thick, bulbiferous stems or bulbs vary some in appearance as does the showy foliage of these plants. Generally, the leaf tips of Alocasia point upwards like they have been lifted by the wind. Those of Colocasia, also known as Taro, appear more heart-shaped, presenting a flatter face with the basal tips pointing towards the ground, with the exception of a few smaller varieties and the enormous, gravity-defying Colocasia gigantea ‘Thailand Giant’. Caladium are much smaller, with very colorful foliage in various patterns in red, white, and/or green.

DSC_0105 (2)
Large elephant ears and cannas happily reside in water-filled pots at Longwood Gardens.

Both Alocasia and Colocasia grow best sited in part shade to full sun and planted in compost-rich, moisture-retaining soil. They also perform especially well in pots. A perfect potting medium for growing elephant ears in containers is Black Gold® Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Soil, which naturally retains water through the power of coir (coconut pith) and sphagnum peat moss. This potting soil is further enriched with beneficial earthworm castings and porous perlite and pumice for optimal growth and aeration.

A tip for success growing Caladium is to plant the bare tubers anywhere you like, from a traditional shady spot in the landscape to sunlit container, allowing them to adapt to their summer location as their leaves develop. They can tolerate being a bit drier in deep shade, but Caladium planted in full sun need constant moisture. They have to be lifted and stored in the fall, if you garden above Zones 10-11. Also, do not plant your Caladium too early in the cool spring soil, or they may rot.


Cannas must be applauded, while we are covering big-leaved plants. These bold perennials grow in blazing heat with theatrical upright leaves ranging from two to ten feet tall and ever-blooming flowers from pastel pink, white, and bright yellow, to rich apricot, hot orange, and blood-red. Again, rich soil, consistent moisture, and sunlight are preferred by Cannas, with the exception of  the white variegated-leaved ‘Stuttgart’, which grows best in part shade.

Calla Lilies

A favorite flower of summer brides, the calla lily (Zantedeschia spp.) is not a true lily but a member of the Araceae. Grow solid green-leaved callas in moist sites in the garden, in containers filled with water-retaining potting mix, or sunk directly into a water garden. Variegated-leaved varieties prefer somewhat drier locations.

Rain Lilies

Rain lilies (Zephyranthes) are late-summer delights. Native to the arid Southwest, from Texas to Colombia, these low starry flowers burst into bloom almost overnight after a good soaking rain. Rain lilies will easily colonize an area when planted in full sun and well-drained soils.

IMG_0505 (2)
Calla lilies remain lovely for an extended period in both the garden and floral arrangements.

Spider Lily

A similar event occurs with the red spider lily (Lycoris radiata), aka the surprise lily or more aptly named hurricane lily. A globe-shaped cluster of shiny red blooms emerges on a bare stalk after a hard rain around the first of September, which coincides with the peak of hurricane season. After flowering, its broad, deep green leaves emerge to grace your garden through the entire winter. This bulb wants well-drained soil and lots of sunlight.


Depicted in ancient art, stylized in woven tapestries, and still gracing our homes and altars, lilies (Lilium spp.) are beloved for their recognizable, open, six-petaled flowers and intensely sweet fragrance. True cultivated lilies are grouped by type, Asiatics, orientals, martagons and trumpets among others, which can be extremely confusing to distinguish. (A good reference can be found at The North American Lily Society website.) Lilies are long-lived perennials that prefer to grow in full sun to part shade, again in extremely well-drained soils with adequate moisture.

A lily planting secret that was shared with me by Becky Heath of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, is to plant lily bulbs on their sides. Due to their open, layered bulbs (reminiscent of a blooming onion at your favorite steak house), lilies may trap water in-between their layers in the wintertime, which can cause rot. This unusual side-planting method does not harm the way lilies grow and works well in both garden beds and containers.

This article offers just a quick sampling of the many marvelous summer bulbs available. To learn more about the wide variety of summer bulbs that may be perfect for your garden, check out the Brent and Becky’s Bulbs website. Tony Avent’s Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina is another good source. Or just go local, and visit your favorite local garden center.



How to Grow Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are one of the most heat-loving of all garden vegetables! (Photo by Llez)

Since North Carolina leads the nation in sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) production, and I have lived in the Old North State for 33 years, you would think that I would know a thing or two about growing edible sweet potatoes – this essential staple of Southern cuisine.

Honestly, the only edible sweet potatoes I have planted have been in our window box – partly as a science experiment for my children, and to a certain extent for my own amusement. The rusty-orange tapered tubers were impaled midway round with three wooden toothpicks. This arrangement was perfect for suspending the sweet potatoes so that they were only partially submerged in a glass of water. In a short time, tiny roots would begin emerging underwater, followed later by curvaceous stems sprouting from the top and sides above the toothpicks. Within a month, these soggy-bottomed sweet potatoes would rival any Pothos, but we usually composted them when they began climbing the curtains.

Sweet potatoes are related to morning glories, which can be seen by their similar flowers and vining habit. (Photo from The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission)

So, to learn how to plant edible sweet potatoes in my home garden, I went to the experts at The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission. (Check their website for a complete list of this culinary treasure’s nutritional benefits and a bevy of mouth-watering recipes.) The NCSPC suggests that to fully understand sweet potato culture, it helps to first learn what a sweet ‘tater is, and is not.

Ipomoea batatas is a tropical plant indigenous to Polynesia as well as Central and South America, so it needs about 150 frost-free days to develop, then a couple more weeks of exposure to temperatures above 85 degrees Fahrenheit paired with high humidity to cure (we will get to that process later). This is exactly why they grow so well in the South.

The sweet tapered tuber we so enjoy baked, fried, grated, and mashed comes in various shades of orange, white, and purple. And, even though it is related to poisonous Morning Glories, the young shoots and leaves of sweet potatoes are edible.

It is not a Yam. Though sweet potatoes are often traditionally labeled “yams”, a true yam is a white-fleshed and fibrous tuber from Africa. Check the next can of yams you see in your grocery store for the words “Sweet Potatoes” on the ingredients list.

Let’s get growing!

Purple and blue sweet potatoes are delicious to eat and fun to grow. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission’s step-by-step guide for home gardeners, “Sweet Potatoes 101”, explained that the beginning of the grow-your-own process is exactly what I had already been doing in my window box!

I could have simply harvested those sprouts with leaves by cutting or twisting them off the tuberous root when the shoots were only about 8-10 inches long, then planted them directly into my garden.

The directions state that transplanted sweet potato sprouts need “well-drained, sandy, loamy soil”, but I have red clay. So, it would be to my advantage to either plant the shoots into large black plastic pots filled with Black Gold Natural and Organic Potting Soil, or directly in the garden in rows amended with Black Gold Earthworm Castings after the last chance of frost. The organic fertilizer amendments already present in the Black Gold potting medium and soil conditioner would certainly help feed developing underground tuberous roots.

Add BG Earthworm Castings Blend to Sweet Potato beds to increase fertility.

“Plant sprouts 9 to 10 inches apart in the center of the ridge row and at a depth of 3 inches with at least 2 plant nodes underground and 2 or more leaves above ground,” continues the NCSP’s recommendations. Then, “Water well immediately after transplanting.” Since they are hardier than many vegetables, only regular watering, and simple weed and pest maintenance is required.

Then comes the reward. “Sweet potato roots are harvested 90-120 days after transplanting or immediately after a frost has blackened the tops of the plants,” advises the NCSPC.

“With gloves and a shovel, carefully remove sweet potatoes from the soil. Handle them carefully as their skin is thin and will bruise easily. Do not leave the sweet potatoes exposed to direct sunlight for more than 30 minutes or they will sunscald and be more susceptible to rotting during storage.”

Now, to make it even sweeter…

Sweet potato flowers are pretty, though summer vines don’t often get a chance to flower.

One Saturday morning while shopping at our local farmer’s market, I overheard a young lady peddling her sweet potatoes to a potential customer. She was singing the praises of her crop, adding that her sweet potatoes had been properly cured. Her alarmed customer asked anxiously, “Cured of what?”

“Curing” is an old farming term for the final step in processing. A sweet potato’s skin heals through curing while its natural starches convert to sugars, greatly improving its final taste. Even George Washington cured his sweet potatoes.

The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission instructs that after harvesting, “Away from direct sunlight, spread the sweet potatoes out to dry for several hours. Once dry, put them in a newspaper-lined box and leave them in a dry, ventilated area for 2 weeks.”

“Once cured, store in a cool, dry place until ready to cook. Sweet potatoes can be stored for up to 10 months with little reduction in quality.”

My children are now grown and have moved away, but the window box will soon host a variety of edible sweet potatoes poised in glasses of water. And, if I grow a successful crop in my garden this summer, I will proudly serve my own homemade and homegrown sweet potato casserole when the kids come to visit at Thanksgiving.

Japanese Maples for Southeastern Gardens


Maple Leaf Types - Pam Beck
Maple Leaf Varieties – Japanese Maples

You’ve seen them exquisitely depicted in the finest gardening books, admired them in arboretum collections, and envied them in private landscapes. However, because of their delicate appearance and high price you may just wistfully sigh and pass by the Japanese maples dotting your local garden centers.

Stop. Go back and take a long look at the luxuriant Acer palmatum. Misunderstood, and much maligned, Japanese maples for southeastern gardens prove themselves to be hardier in the southern Atlantic states than you may suspect. A perfect small specimen tree for the cooler end of Zone 8 and colder, Japanese maples will offer interest in the landscape throughout the entire year.

In spring, the brilliant color of uncurling foliage coupled with dainty twin-seedpods dangling underneath yields to the fullness of their summertime canopy dancing in the rising heat. Then, as autumn days cool, the leaves once again take on new hues of gold or crimson, burning like fire against a crisp blue fall sky. When the trembling leaves finally turn loose and float down to dot the ground in winter, your attention is subsequently drawn to the arching of elegant branches, with their own sculptural quality not fully admired until laid bare.

Japanese Maple Types

There are three major Japanese maple leaf types to remember: palmate, dissectum, and linearilobum. Some sources list sub-groups of variegated, dwarf, or unusual types; but, you can find the name of most cultivars armed with an understanding of the three major leaf types.

Bloodgood Red - Pam Beck
Bloodgood Red – Japanese Maple

Palmate leaves are simple, 2-5” in width and length, shaped like an open human hand, from which they get their scientific name. Slightly confusing is the fact that each leaf can have between 5-9 lobes, and some trees have leaves with various numbers of lobes residing side-by-side. Palmate foliage comes in various shades of green, red, and even variegated with pink and cream, like ‘Butterfly’. Most popular among this group of Japanese maples are ‘Bloodgood’, ‘Osakazuki’, and ‘Moonfire’. A unique cultivar to seek if you like unusual shapes is the rough curly-leafed ‘Shishigashira’, or “Lion’s mane’ Japanese maple.

Dissectum types have lacy, deeply cut, and divided leaves that can host up to 11 lobes. This group includes familiar varieties such as ‘Crimson Queen’, ‘Red Filigree Lace’, ‘Viridis’, and Acer palmatum var. atropurpureum dissectum (called APAD for short). Many gardeners wrongly associate the entire group of Japanese maples with these small dissected-leafed trees that are elegantly broader in width than height.

Linearilobum leaves are extremely narrow and pointed, appearing stretched out. Because of their elongated nature, they often droop, and this factor gives their trees a more rounded form. Sometimes called the “bamboo” maple, this group includes the elegant ‘Red Pygmy’ and ‘Shime no uchi’.

An interesting trait of linearilobum trees is that sometimes their immature leaves may appear palmate. Gardeners often mistake these misshapen leaves for sports and accidentally prune them off.

Growing Japanese Maple

The ideal planting area for a Japanese maple would be in well-drained soil, high in organic matter. A difficult spot to find in many Southeastern gardens. In sandy soil, plant your maple root ball level with the surrounding topography; however, in clay-based soils plant ‘em high. You should also amend your soil before planting. Black Gold Garden Soil is an ideal organic-rich soil amendment for tree planting. Taper the fill dirt around the root ball and create a shallow saucer of soil to retain water, then mulch with 2-3 inches of good organic mulch.

BG_GRDNSOIL_1CF-FRONTThe ideal pH for a Japanese maple would be closer to neutral, but they will tolerate acidic conditions, if you add lime the first few years to get your maple established, then allow the natural acidity level to drop back down.

You must water your newly planted Japanese maple through the entire first year. Allow the tree to dry slightly between watering, however, in the absence of rain, give the tree at least 1 inch of water per week. Once your tree is well-established, you may never have to worry about watering, unless you are in an area experiencing drought.

An important reminder is that Japanese maples cannot tolerate wet feet. Do not allow your plant to sit in a wet hole, or it will slowly die. So, never site your maple in a swale or boggy location.

Eastern exposure where the tree will receive morning sun or filtered light is ideal. If you have had success with azaleas, this is the perfect spot to grow Japanese maples. Try to protect your maple from late afternoon sun, as this is the highest heat and light stress time of day. In summer, too much sunlight can severely damage the bark of a Japanese maple and desiccate its leaves.

When you catch Japanese maple fever, like I have, the perfect guidebook for your new passion is the updated version of JAPANESE MAPLES, by J.D. Vertrees, copyright Timber Press, 1978.

JC Tree - Pam Beck

Here is a short list of popular and extremely hardy Japanese Maples

Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ – This very tall deep purple-red tree is the most popular of the dark palmatum-leafed Japanese maples for good reasons. It is extremely cold hardy, resists turning bronze when planted in full sun, can reach 33’ in height, and has stunning crimson fall color (see image above).

‘Butterfly’ – A favorite variegated-leafed specimen, this tree’s palmate leaves begin green with pink margins in the spring, change to grey-blue-green with creamy variegation in summer, then morph to rosy magenta in autumn. No two leaves will be alike on this slow-growing upright 15’h x 8’w treasure. Provide it with dappled to full afternoon shade.

‘Crimson Queen’ – This popular weeping, deep-red dissected-leaf maple is a garden standard. In the hottest regions of the Southeast, its summer color can be affected by extreme heat and sun, but you will forgive the slight bronzing when you see its brilliant scarlet show in the fall. Reserve plenty of room as it can mature into a 10-feet tall by 13-feet wide mound.

‘Sango Kaku’ – The coral bark Japanese maple is just as remarkable in wintertime as the rest of the year. Also sold as ‘Senkaki’, its name means “coral tower”. This is a green-leafed palmatum that starts spring slightly reddish, and then the foliage turns from mid-green in summer to yellow-gold in fall. Remember that the bark color is most prominent on young growth, so if the tree reaches its 26-foot potential height, the color will eventually be up in its wide spreading branches. ‘Sango Kaku’ performs best in cooler regions above Zone 8.

‘Seiryu’ – Is a green laceleaf that defies all the rules. It is an upright, vase-shaped tree that grows 16-23-feet high and can spread 10-13 feet wide. The springtime canopy is apple green with reddish tips, summertime transforms it to light green, and then the astonishing fall color is golden with touches of crimson. Its name means “blue-green dragon”.

‘Shishigashira’ – Also called the “Lion’s mane” maple, is a very desirable collector’s plant. The palmate green leaves twist, curl, and crinkle into masses that remind you of the head of a mythic lion from traditional Japanese theater, especially when the leaves turn golden in fall. This slow-growing tree can reach 20-feet in height, but even when it is small it is exceptional.

Tamuke Yama - Pam Beck
Tamuke Yama – Japanese maple

‘Tamuke yama’ – A purple-red dissected-leafed cascading tree with the potential of reaching 13-feet in height that has been popular since the early 1700s. Its bright crimson spring color changes to purple-red in summer and then to glowing scarlet in the fall. Considered the best red cutleaf for full sun locations in the Southeast, this maple is named for Mount Tamuke.

‘Waterfall’ – An especially hardy bright-green Japanese maple with large dissected leaves spanning from 3-5 inches across. It tolerates heat well, turns golden red in fall, and will reach 10-feet tall by 14-feet wide. Overlapping leaves give it the natural cascading shape that inspired its name. This small tree is worth seeking.

‘Viridis’ – A mounding green dissectum that is easily confused with other similar weeping cultivars. This one is vigorous, can take a lot of heat and sun, will reach 13 feet in both directions, and turns honey golden in the fall. Not surprisingly, the cultivar name simply means “green”.

‘Aconitifolium’ – My final selection isn’t another Acer palmatum. This is a Fern-leaf maple, a real Acer japonicum. With large, deeply cut and lobed leaves that resemble Monkshood, its namesake Aconitum, this rounded 16-foot tall tree is stunning. The summer foliage is deep green, but in the fall the leaves become shades of reds that range from chili pepper to royal purple, inspiring its Japanese name, ‘Maiku jaku’ which means “dancing Peacock”.

Photos by Pam Beck

The Scoop on Good Dirt: OMRI

You buy certified organic seed. You search for organically-grown vegetable seedlings to transplant into your containers. But, have you read the fine print on the bag of your potting medium to see if it is free of manufactured chemicals? If you are uncertain whether you need to protect yourself by wearing gloves when handling a certain potting medium, or should even consider growing edibles in a particular soil mix, check the bag first for an OMRI Certification. What is an OMRI Certification? This explanation is courtesy of their website, “Founded in 1997, the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) provides organic certifiers, growers, manufacturers, and suppliers an independent review of products intended for use in certified organic production, handling, and processing.” Continue reading “The Scoop on Good Dirt: OMRI”