Archive: Mar 2018

  1. Favorite Heirloom Garden Flowers from Seed

    Heirloom garden flowers are perfect for informal cottage gardens.

    Imagine a sweeping cottage garden of China pinks, petunias, and marigolds interspersed with a tangle of colorful sweet peas and lacy love-in-a-mist. Old fashioned flowers such as these remain in vogue for the same reason our grandmothers grew them. They are lovely, easily grown from seed, and their seeds can be collected from year to year—making them perfect for gardeners on a budget.

    Choice heirloom flowers are brightly colored, long-blooming, and easy to manage. Quite a few have the added bonus of being highly fragrant, because fragrance was considered an important floral trait from Victorian times to the mid-nineteenth century.

    The majority of these flowers are best started indoors from seed at the beginning of the growing season, but several can be started outdoors. Our favorites will be sure to add value to your flower garden and containers this season.

    Top 10 Heirloom Flowers from Seed

    China pinks (Dianthus chinensis)

    These highly fragrant, short-lived perennials thrive where summers are cool and have frilly blooms in shades of red, white, and pink. Most reach a foot in height and are perfect for sunny border edges. Try the lovely Single Flowered Mix from Select seeds with single flowers in mixed colors. Start seeds indoors in February or March. 

    Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens)

    These bushy, sun-loving bedding plants reach 2 to 3 feet and develop broad clusters of small, sweetly fragrant purple, lavender, or white flowers that attract butterflies. Remove old flower heads for repeat bloom all season. The very old variety ‘Amaretto‘ has pale violet flowers that smell of almonds. Start these from seed indoors in February.

     

    Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus)

    Sweet peas are some of the most fragrant cool-season flowers. The delicate, tendriled vines require light trellising. Long-stemmed clusters of sweet-smelling flowers appear by late spring and are perfect for cutting. The antique ‘Perfume Delight’ is especially fragrant and more heat tolerant than most. Start sweet peas indoors from seed in February or March.

     

    Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima)

    The ever-blooming nature of this small, fragrant garden annual has made it one of the best for border and container edges. It blooms well in both hot and cool weather with clusters of tiny white, pink, or purple flowers. Try the honey-scented Gulf Winds mix from Renee’s Garden Seeds, which has flowers of light pink, rose, lilac, and white. The seeds are very fine, so be sure not to accidentally plant too many when starting them indoors. Start these no later than March.

    Marigolds (Tagetes hybrids)

    Loads of warm-hued heirloom marigolds are still available to brighten contemporary flower beds. These tough sun lovers shine through the most difficult summers, keeping gardens looking good through the swelter. For garden edges, choose the 1903 heirloom French Marigold ‘Legion of Honor’. Its fragrant flowers are dark orange with gold edges. Small-flowered signet marigolds are also uncommonly showy with their ferny foliage and bushy habits. Plant seeds in March for late-May planting.

    Jasmine-Scented Tobacco (Nicotiana alata)

    The white blooms of jasmine-scented tobacco are most fragrant at night and pollinated by moths. The tubular flowers appear on plants reaching 3 to 4 feet high. This heat tolerant annual will tolerate some shade and will bloom well into fall. High Mowing Organic Seeds sells seeds for this old-fashioned beauty. Cut back the old flower stalks to encourage flowering. Start the seeds indoors no later than March. (Image by Carl E. Lewis)

    Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena)

    Unusual lacy flowers make love-in-a-mist especially charming in the garden. The flowers may be violet-blue, purple, white, or pink. Once they have finished flowering, their dry seed pods are also visually interesting and useful in dried arrangements. They do tend to self-sow, so expect lots of seedlings to appear the following season. They flower best in cool weather and are short-lived, so they can be started both in early spring and late summer for two seasons of bloom.

    Old-Fashioned Petunia (Petunia hybrid)

    Heirloom petunias tend have looser habits that require regular pruning, but they are also charming and free-flowering. One of the most unique of the seed-grown heirlooms is ‘Old-Fashioned Climbing‘. This pretty rambler has highly fragrant flowers in shades of purple, lavender, and white that bloom above the foliage. Start the seeds no later than March for summer enjoyment.

    Scarlet Sage (Salvia spendens)

    Older varieties of scarlet sage are taller and bushier but no less free flowering. The tall and elegant ‘Van Houttei’ is one of the earliest cultivated forms. The bushy 3- to 4-foot variety thrives in heat and becomes covered with spikes of deep red blooms that attract the hummingbirds. Pinch back spent flowering stems to encourage more flowers! Start the seeds in February or March.

     

    Growing Heirlooms from Seed

    Some heirlooms, such as love-in-a-mist, can be directly sown in the ground outdoors, but most are best started indoors. Start your seeds in seed trays fitted with six-pack flats, which give growing flowers enough space for root and shoot growth. Fill the flats with premium OMRI Listed Black Gold Seedling Mix, which holds moisture and drains well.  Moisten the mix before planting for easier watering after planting. If planting your new seedlings in containers, choose Fafard Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed, which feeds flowers for up to 6 months.

    Follow seed packet instructions for planting guidelines and expected germination times. Smaller seeds usually need to be lightly covered with mix while larger seeds require deeper planting. Plant each cell with two to three seeds to make sure you get at least one seedling per cell. You only want one seedling per cell, so pinch out the weakest seedlings that germinate and leave the largest. Seeds often sprout best in temperatures between 68-73º F. Warm-season annuals germinate faster if flats are placed on heat mats.

    Good light is important for strong growth. You can either start your seeds in a sunny, south-facing window of beneath strip shop lights fitted with broad-spectrum bulbs. One shop light will supply light to two trays. Keep trays 4 inches from the grow lights to keep seedlings from getting leggy. Raise the lights as your plants grow. Once seedlings develop new leaves, feed them with half-strength Proven Winners Premium Water Soluble Plant Food.

    Before planting your tender heirloom flower starts outdoors, acclimate them to the natural sunlight and wind by placing them in a protected spot with partial sun for one week. This process of “hardening off” allows indoor-grown starts to toughen up before outdoor planting. After this step, they will be ready to plant in your garden or containers.

  2. Pruning Apple Trees in Spring

    Well-pruned apple trees look better and produce fruit more reliably in fall.

    An unpruned apple tree is a snarly-branched, puny-fruited thing.  One of the best ways to keep that from happening to your apple trees is to give them an annual late-winter pruning.

    Fortunately, backyard apple trees don’t need the complicated pruning regimens followed by commercial orchards.  A couple hours of pruning per year can keep your trees looking good and producing reliably – even if some of their fruits are not as big or blemish-free as the ones at the supermarket.

    Your task will be especially easy if your apple tree has received some pruning in the past, and has a balanced “framework” of several main, spreading branches.

    Pruning Apple Trees

    Selective pruning of older or crowded side-branches in late winter will keep trees productive.

    Apple trees bear their fruits on stubby shoots (called spurs).  These are produced most heavily on relatively young, vigorous, unshaded side-branches.  Selective pruning of older or crowded side-branches in late winter will leave your trees with a relatively large proportion of fruit-bearing wood, which is a good thing if you want a bumper crop of apples.  Late-winter pruning also exposes your apple trees to relatively few pests and diseases, compared to pruning done in summer.

    Start your tree’s winter pruning tune-up by removing dead, diseased, and broken branches.  Cut well below any wood that is cankered, oozing, or otherwise showing signs of disease.  Remove all cuttings from the area to prevent disease transmission.

    Prune vertical water sprouts – the vigorous shoots that often originate near old pruning cuts.

    In most cases, prune the entire side-branch, cutting just above the collar that surrounds its base.

    Next, prune out water sprouts – the vigorous, vertical shoots that often originate near old pruning cuts or at the base of the trunk.  Unlike “normal” growth, these can be pruned flush with their parent branch, as close as possible without damaging the bark.  (If possible, check again in late spring for new water sprouts, and pluck them out by hand while they’re still young, small, and supple.)

    Prune large branches just above the collar that surround the base.

    Continue by pruning out crowded growth.  Choose between competing branches by comparing their positioning and potential fruitfulness.  For example, branches that grow horizontally (rather than at an angle), that balance well with their neighboring branches, or that have numerous fruiting spurs should remain, if possible.  Wayward growth – such as branches that impinge on paths – is also fair game for removal.

    Finally, look for any remaining side-branches that have little or no spur growth, indicating low productivity.  These can go, as long as their removal does not mar the look or balance of the tree.

    Renewal Pruning Older Apple Trees

    Well-pruned apple trees look tidy and are better able to set good fruit.

    Apple trees that have returned to their natural, snarly state require more extensive pruning, which may include the main framework as well as side branches.  Start as above, by removing dead, diseased, and broken side-branches, congested growth, and water sprouts.  Then prune larger branches as necessary to balance the tree’s framework and reduce its size (if desired).  This extensive pruning will trigger a major outbreak of water sprouts, which should be removed in late spring (by the hand-pulling method) or summer.  Whatever the amount of renovation required, try not to remove more than a third of the tree’s growth at a time.  Especially snarly trees may require a multi-year restoration effort.

    To help your freshly pruned apple tree’s growing season get off to a good start, mulch around its base with an inch of Fafard@ Premium Topsoil in spring, after the surface of the soil has warmed.  Fertilizer is not necessary, particularly for heavily pruned trees, which will respond to their feeding by producing an even greater abundance of water sprouts.

  3. The Best Spring Anemones

    Poppy anemone is a late-spring bloomer with spectacular flowers. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Winter winds leave an untidy legacy in the early spring garden. Cleaning up those broken branches and dead leaves is a chore, but the job is a lot more pleasant if you have another kind of “wind” tickling the toes of your garden clogs—windflowers or spring anemones. Planted in borders or containers, they emerge just as the garden gets going.

    All anemones are members of the buttercup or Ranunculaceae family.  Several species sprout from fall-planted rhizomes and spread politely when they are happy. The blooms can be demure or relatively showy, with foliage that is most often attractively dissected. Deer tend to leave anemones alone, but early spring pollinators, who use the flowers as a much-needed food source, love them all.

    Greek Delight

    Grecian windflower is short, early flowering, and naturalizes.

    Little Grecian windflower (Anemone blanda) is often the earliest riser among the windflowers, generally appearing in late March or early April. Growing only 6 to 9 inches tall, blanda anemones are so tough that they can even be planted beneath black walnut trees. The flowers look more like daisies than buttercups, with nine to twelve petal-like sepals in shades of violet-blue, pink, or white.  The leaves are almost fern-like in appearance and add a flourish to the flowers.

    Grecian windflowers rhizomes are most often available in mixed assortments, but with a little hunting, you can also buy single colors.  An old favorite variety, ‘White Splendor’, bears clean white sepals that harmonize well with other spring flowers, and the classic Blue Shades mix comes in pretty shades of violet blue. Grecian windflowers are very effective planted in drifts or naturalized in wooded areas and coexist well with other plants.  This is a bonus, given their ephemeral nature.  Once the plant has bloomed and set seed, it fades away completely until the following spring.

    A Different Kind of Snowdrop

    Snowdrop anemone is a European native with delicate white flowers.

    Snowdrop windflower (Anemone sylvestris) is another April bloomer.  The flowers sit atop stems that may reach up to 18 inches tall. Each delicate flower has slightly ruffled white sepals that surround prominent yellow stamens.  The petals are followed up by distinctive, fuzzy white seed heads later on.  Sometimes snowdrop windflowers give an encore performance in the fall.

    With their longer stems and sweet fragrance, these anemones also make good cut flowers.

    Wind in the Woods

    Wood anemone is a woodland native from Europe.

    In April and May, wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) emerges.  The plants are a little taller than Grecian windflowers, with darker green, dissected foliage and erect stems that rise between 6 and 18 inches.  Those dainty petal-like sepals are generally white, at least on the wild form.  Sometimes they are tinged pink or palest blue.  Specialty nurseries carry more unusual forms of wood anemone, including some with blue, pink or even yellow-green flowers.  Double-petaled forms, like ‘Alba Plena’ are only an Internet search away.

    Showy in the Spring

    Poppy anemone is the showiest of all spring-flowering anemones.

    Poppy anemones (Anemone coronaria) are the showiest of the spring bloomers and tend to appear a little later in spring.  Deep blue, red, pink, or white petal-like sepals  surround dramatic black or blue-black centers on flowers that bloom atop stalks up to 18 inches tall.  Because of their bold good looks, poppy anemones have long been favorites of flower arranging.

    Among the most popular poppy anemone varieties are the de Caen types, which bear single flowers and are usually sold in mixed-color assortments.  Other old favorites include the deep blue-purple ‘Mr. Fokker’ and pristine white ‘Mount Everest’, which has semi-double flowers.

    Unlike other spring-blooming anemones, coronaria varieties are only reliably hardy within USDA plant hardiness zones 7-10 (though some cultivars like ‘Mr. Fokker’ are reportedly hardier), so the tubers cannot be planted outside in cold-winter climates.  If you have an unheated sun porch or cold frame, plant them in pots in the fall, place in the frost free spaces, and bring them outside in the spring.  Otherwise, plant in very early spring for late spring or early summer bloom.

    Windflower Culture

    All spring-blooming anemones like rich, well-drained soil.  Wood and snowdrop varieties prefer partially shady situations, while Grecian and poppy anemones relish more sunshine.  If your soil is poor or poorly drained, amend it with a high-quality product like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost.  Soak the tuberous rhizomes of Grecian, snowdrop, and wood anemones overnight before planting.  If you are planting Grecian windflowers naturalizing, place the rhizomes close together, and they will eventually spread on their own.

    You can find windflowers alongside the tulip and daffodil bulbs on retailers’ shelves starting in early fall.  Poppy anemones are generally available for spring shipment.