Garden Articles

  1. Eight Hard-to-Kill House Plants

    Cast iron plant is one of the toughest house plants available.

    The best house plants add a lot to life without adding extra hours to the day because they require as little fuss as possible. Their benefits are most notable in winter when the need for green, living things is the greatest. Only plastic plants are completely un-killable, but the following “hard-to-kill eight” need little, give a lot and thrive under normal household conditions.

    Aloe vera

    Aloe vera is tough and grows best in full sun.

    A cut Aloe vera leaf exudes a substance that soothes minor burns, a quality that has made this succulent plant a longtime kitchen staple. Its other virtues include an attractive clump of erect, grey-green leaves with serrated margins that are complemented in summer by tall spikes of tubular yellow flowers. Aloes increase freely by offsets or “pups”, creating new plants that can be separated from the mother plants and given away to friends and family. Best of all, the plants accomplish all that on a minimum of water and care.

    Place your aloe in bright, direct sunlight (at least 6-hours a day) and water only when the soil surface is dry. Plants can withstand partial sun, but they will perform poorly in shade. When moving aloes outdoors in summer, slowly acclimate them to full sun conditions to avoid leaf scald.

    Spider Plant

    Spider plant is reliably beautiful and can take a beating.

    A favorite since Victorian times, spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) works well on tall plant stands or in hanging baskets that allow the perky “spiders” (offshoots of plantlets) to cascade over the sides. The long, slender leaves, which also help purify indoor air, may be all green or striped with white or yellow and arch gracefully outward. Tiny white summer flowers are a nice bonus, as are the stems of young spider-like plantlets that form at the flowering nodes.

    Detach and pot separately when the plantlets reach about 2-inches across, or keep them tethered to the parent plant and place each “spider” atop a small pot filled with soil-free mix.  It will root readily.  Spider plants thrive in bright, indirect light.  Water regularly but do not allow their soil to become too wet.

    Christmas Cactus

    Christmas cactus is tough but requires good care for flowering.

    The familiar Christmas or holiday cactus (Schlumbergera spp.) is sometimes also called “crab cactus” for its spreading growth habit.  An epiphytic (tree-dwelling plant) cactus with arching, segmented leaves, it produces claw-like flowers of vivid red, pink, orange, cream, or purple at the ends of the stems in late fall to midwinter.  These are true cacti, though they lack sharp spines.

    Holiday cactus will flourish as long as they receive bright light and their yearly watering schedule is met. After flowering, plants should be watered very minimally for a period of three months. Then from mid-spring to summer, water them regularly when the soil feels dry down to 2-inches depth; in this time they will put on a new flush of foliage. In early fall, place them in a cool place and reduce watering once more, until you see flower buds develop on the plants. Then keep them regularly irrigated again until flowering ceases.

    Sansevieria

    When snake plants become too root bound, divide them.

    You may call it “snake plant” or even “mother-in-law’s tongue”, but whatever the common name, Sansevieria trifasciata is an indoor standby.  Its bold, lance-shaped foliage stands erect, generally reaching about 2-feet tall in sunny indoor situations.  If your snake plant summers outdoors, place the container in full sun to light shade.  The leaf markings that inspired the “snake” nickname are gray-green against a lighter green background.  Though it rarely happens indoors, sansevieria produces greenish white flowers in spring, followed by orange berries later.  The plants appreciate regular watering from spring to fall, but reduce watering significantly in winter.

    English Ivy

    Variegated forms of English ivy are extra pretty and just as tough.

    Outdoors, English ivy (Hedera helix) can be lovely, but virtually uncontrollable. Grown indoors in containers, it has better manners. Numerous cultivars, including many with interesting variegation and smaller leaves, are available from garden centers. Because of its expansive nature, ivy works well as filler for large containers or in hanging baskets.  As with many other houseplants, it prefers bright indirect light.  Watering should be regular and the potting mixture should not be allowed to dry out.  When the ivy becomes too unruly, simply trim it to shape. Vines need to grow to a great height to flower and fruit, so indoor specimens never flower.

    Jade Plant

    Jade plants perform best in full to partial sun.

    The jade plant (Crassula ovata), sometimes called “jade tree” because of its gray trunk-like stems, is actually a branching, succulent shrub from southern Africa. The plump, glossy, oval-shaped leaves are its chief glory, and sometimes have a slight reddish tinge. Indoor jades will occasionally produce small, starry, pinkish-white flowers as well. Container grown specimens may reach up to 30 inches tall and prefer bright light indoors and partial shade outside. Water when the soil feels dry down to a finger-length depth.

    Golden Pothos

    Vining golden pothos is very hard to kill.

    Golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) is a striking foliage plant with big, heart-shaped leaves, marbled in golden-green.  In the wild, it is a vigorous climbing vine, but as a civilized houseplant, it grows no more than 6- to 8-feet tall.  If you want it even smaller, it can also be kept in check by periodic trimming.  Because of its good looks and vining nature, the big-leafed plant is useful for hanging baskets, plant stands, and large containers.  Bright indirect light, evenly moist soil, and occasional stem pinching will keep it full and healthy.

    Cast Iron Plant

    True to its tough nickname, cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) can survive shade, neglect, and climate conditions that would send many other plants into fatal swoons. Like spider plant, it was beloved by Victorians and is still a hit today. With green or variegated lance-shaped leaves that sprout on long petioles or leaf stems, mature aspidistra may grow to 2 t0 3 feet tall and wide. The plants grow slowly and flower infrequently indoors.  If flowers appear, they are purple and lurk near the plant’s base.  Aspidistras grow best with regular watering but will survive with little moisture.

    Care and Feeding

    Hard-to-kill houseplants need little help to look great, if you start with good care.  Average house plants require a  high-quality mix like, Fafard® Professional Potting Mix or Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed, to ensure good growth and success.  Established plants should be fed intermittantly with a diluted all-purpose fertilizer.  More succulent house plants, like aloe, snake plant, jade, and Christmas cactus require mix with excellent drainage, so lighten consider lightening the potting mix with equal amounts of perlite or bark.  Succulents are accustomed to lean rations and need little additional fertilizer.

  2. Non-Invasive, Native Evergreen Groundcovers

    Many native evergreen groundcovers, such as moss phlox (white flowers), are non-invasive natives. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    It’s time for American gardeners to move beyond Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis), English ivy (Hedera helix), and periwinkle (Vinca minor).  It’s true that these ubiquitous landscape plants make excellent evergreen groundcovers, rapidly forming dense swaths of handsome foliage.  But, in addition to being tiresomely common in American gardens, they’re a nuisance outside of cultivation, invading natural areas and out-muscling native plants with their aggressive growth. (English ivy and periwinkle appear on invasive plant lists over much of the southeastern and far-western U.S.).

    Many U.S natives possess the same virtues as the ubiquitous three, with none of the liabilities.  Here are several lovely native, evergreen options to replace tiresome invasive spreaders.

    Allegheny Spurge

    Bottlebrush spikes of white flowers appear just before new spring leaves unfurl. (Photo by Zen Sutherland)

    Japanese spurge’s more alluring, better-behaved relative from Appalachia is Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens).  Its broad, coarsely toothed leaves are similar in shape to those of its Japanese cousin, but they do much more in the way of color.  Fresh grassy-green when emerging in early spring, the foliage becomes gray-suffused and darker over the growing season, developing silvery flecking as fall approaches. Low, bottlebrush spikes of white flowers put on a charming display just before the new leaves expand.  This clump-former thrives in rich, well-drained soil and partial shade, gradually spreading into dense 2- to 3-foot-wide hummocks.  It’s hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9, and reliably evergreen in USDA Zones 6b and warmer.

    Fetterbush

    Fetterbush (Leucothoe axillaris spp.) is a handsome evergreen groundcover for partial shade.

    Another Southeast U.S. native that makes a handsome evergreen groundcover for partial shade, fetterbush (Leucothoe axillaris spp.) bears glossy, oval, dark green leaves on arching, 2- to 4-foot-tall stems that sucker into thickets.  For a traditional ground-hugging groundcover, choose the compact Leucothoe fontanesiana Scarletta, which forms billowing 2-foot-tall mounds with bright red new leaves, clusters of ivory flowers in spring, and maroon-red winter color.  Or you can go full fetterbush and use a regular-sized Leucothoe axillaris as a tall groundcover.  All forms produce white, bell-shaped flowers in spring.  Fetterbush does well in moist humus-rich soil in USDA Zones 5 to 9, but is prone to leaf spot in poorly aerated sites.

    Canby’s Mountain Lover

    Canby’s mountain lover (Paxistima canbyi) becomes a bold, textural evergreen groundcover. (Image by Daniel)

    No evergreen groundcover for partial shade is finer – literally and figuratively – than Canby’s mountain lover (Paxistima canbyi).  In the wild, it’s a rare, often gaunt inhabitant of rocky uplands from southern Pennsylvania to North Carolina.  In favorable garden sites, however, it’s anything but shy and scraggly, spreading into low, thick, 3- to 5-foot-wide thatches of narrow, petite, deep green leaves.  They provide a splendid textural contrast with bold-leaved evergreens such as rhododendrons and Pieris.  Well-drained, humus-rich soil and partial to full sun seem to bring out the best in this beautiful Appalachian native, which is hardy from USDA Zones 4 to 8. Bronzing sometimes occurs in harsh winters.

    Creeping Phlox

    Creeping phlox ‘Sherwood Purple’ becomes blanketed in spring flowers. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Quite a few native species offer eye-catching flowers in addition to ground-covering evergreen foliage.  Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) earns its name via its ever-expanding carpets of spoon-shaped leaves that give rise in mid-spring to 8-inch spikes of proportionately large, showy flowers.  Several cultivars are available, varying in their flower color and vigor.  Perhaps the best colonizer (and the best as a groundcover) is ‘Sherwood Purple’, with violet-blue blooms.  Although creeping phlox is happiest in partial shade and woodsy soil, it will also flourish in rich moist soil in full sun.

    Moss Phlox

    Moss phlox creates a mat of fine green foliage that becomes covered with flowers in spring. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Full-on sun is the preferred habitat of moss phlox (Phlox subulata).  Sometimes scorned because of its association with median strips, whiskey barrels, and other lowbrow landscape features, it’s near the top of the list of tough, attractive groundcovers for hot sandy slopes and other difficult sites.  The dense, ever-spreading, needle-like foliage is handsome and weed-suppressing, and the early spring flowers come in many colors besides the bubble-gum-purple shades disdained by plant snobs.  Additionally, this Midwestern to eastern U.S. native is rock-hardy and adaptable, flourishing in well-drained soil in USDA Zones 3 to 9.

    Other Native Evergreen Groundcovers

    Christmas fern brightens shady gardens in summer and winter. (Image by Wasp32)

    Blooming at the same time as creeping phlox (and making a knockout companion for blue-flowered cultivars such as ‘Sherwood Purple’), gold-star (Chrysogonum virginianum) mats the ground with fuzzy, toothed leaves that recall those of other members of the aster family such as Rudbeckia.  The fully evergreen Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is another woodland groundcover for shade. Golden-yellow, five-parted star-flowers with fringed rays open in May and repeat sporadically until fall if conditions are not too hot and dry.  Gold-star shares much the same cultural preferences and hardiness range (USDA Zones 4 to 9) as creeping phlox.

    Toughness and adaptability are among the virtues of another often-scorned eastern and central U.S. native, robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus).  Two selections of this fuzzy-leaved meadow-dweller are excellent choices for challenging niches such as dry shade or sunny slopes.  The cultivar ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’ has beefy rosettes of large, flat, tongue-shaped leaves that smother everything in their vigorously expanding path.  In contrast, ‘Meadow Muffin’ produces congested, relatively slowly proliferating rosettes of smaller, crinkled leaves.  Both cultivars send up pale lavender daisy-flowers on 10- to 15-inch stems in mid to late spring.  Plants are evergreen through much of their USDA Zone 5 to 9 hardiness range, but may go leafless in relatively harsh winters.

    Hardy evergreen sedums, such as Oregon stonecrop (Sedum oreganum), create fully evergreen cover for raised sunny beds or rock gardens. This species creates a spreading 2 to 3-inch mat of bead-like foliage that turns from green to reddish bronze in winter. Small, starry, yellow flowers grace the plants in summer.

    Most newly planted groundcovers appreciate the addition of soil amendment, such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend, at planting time. This organic-rich mix encourages root growth and holds needed moisture to help plants thrive. Water new plantings every few days for at least two weeks. In no time, your native groundcovers should be rambling effortlessly through your garden.

    Dozens of other native species work wonderfully as evergreen groundcovers, but those offered in this article are reliable and attractive through all seasons.

    Leucothoe Scarletta is a low-growing shrub evergreen that makes a great groundcover for shade. (Image by Russell Stafford)

  3. Windowsill Herbs and Vegetables for Kitchen Gardeners

    A sunny windowsill is all you need to grow a variety of vegetables and herbs.

    Homegrown fresh herbs and vegetables are not just a product of the warm growing months. Several can be easily cultivated along a sunny, south-facing windowsill during winter. Then when temperatures grow warmer, you can plant them outdoors to extend your summer gardening efforts.

    Herbs for Indoor Growing

    Pots of sweet basil and other herbs grow in a sunny window.

    Basil– Fresh sweet basil pesto can just be an arms-length away, if you have a sunny kitchen window.  Some grocery stores or retail greenhouses sell plants in colder months, but you can also quickly grow your own plants from seed. Many varieties take only 40-50 days to grow to a harvestable size.

    Small bush varieties, such as ‘Piccolino’ and ‘Pluto’, are the fastest growing sweet basil types to grow from seed. The large-leaved ‘Pesto Party’ is also fast growing and tasty. Sow seed on the surface of a small pot filled with Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil, which is approved for organic gardening. Keep the soil moist and place your pot in a sunny window. In just one week, the seeds should sprout. Give them even moisture, full sun, and they should thrive.

    The small bush basil ‘Piccolino’. (Photo by Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

    Rosemary– Pruned rosemary plants are often sold in winter for home growing. New growth can be trimmed off to flavor meats and or pasta sauces. Just be sure to give them lots of sun—turning window-grown plants every few days for even growth. Refrain from overwatering them because their roots are sensitive to rot.

    Thyme– Pots of low-growing French thyme (Thymus vulgaris) or lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus) look pretty and taste great on vegetables, meats, or added to fresh salad dressings. If you have an outdoor plant, you can easily root cuttings for indoor growing. Simply take 6” cuttings, remove the leaves from the bottom 2-inches of the stem, and place them in a clean glass of water. Refresh the water if it starts to look mucky. In just a couple of weeks they will root and can be potted in mix. Like rosemary, they require light water and lots of sunlight.

    Cilantro is very easy to grow indoors. (Image by Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

    Cilantro-This cool-season herb is one of the easiest to grow indoors. Like basil, it is best grown from seed—with seedlings ready for harvest in just 50 days. Try the tidy ‘Calypso’, which also resists flowering and produces lots of edible leaves for salsa making. Start them as you would basil seeds.

    Parsley-Pot-grown parsley thrives in sunny windowsills and quickly regrows new leaves as you trim fresh foliage for cooking. On occasion, plants are sold at grocery stores or in retail greenhouses, but seed-grown plants are probably your best bet. Plants take two months to reach harvestable size, so they are best seeded in late fall for winter growing. Start them as you would basil seeds.

    Vegetables for Indoor Growing

    Salinova® Green Sweet Crisp lettuce is a cut-and-come-again variety great for indoor growing.

    Greens—Lettuce, spinach, and arugula are all fast-growing salad greens that grow quickly in indoor pots. In fact, some compact varieties are specially bred for indoor growing. Lettuces in the Salinova® series are compact, cut-and-come-again varieties that grow fast and produce well in pots. Try the curly Salinova® Green Sweet Crisp and red-leaved Salinova® Red Butter. Surface sow the seeds in a rectangular pot, place them along a sunny window, give them light moisture, and they will sprout quickly. In just 45-55 days they will be ready to harvest. The fast-growing ‘Corvair’ spinach (21 days) and ‘Esmee’ arugula (21-40 days) can be grown the same way.

    The Brazilian beak pepper, ‘Biquinho’. (Image by Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

    Peppers-Tiny pepper plants with fruits of all colors and heat levels can be grown in super sunny windows. The Brazilian beak pepper ‘Biquinho’ is a new red hot pepper that reaches only 1 to 2 feet high and yields fruits in just 60 days. Lunchbox mixed sweet pepper plants reach 2 to 3 feet, and bear small green peppers in just 55 days (75 days to turn red and orange).

    Start seeds in small pots of Black Gold Seedling Mix, keep them just moist and place them in a sunny window. In one to two weeks they should sprout. When they reach 6-inches high, move them into a 1-gallon pot filled with Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil, and add a stake to support growing plants. Feed them regularly with a water-soluble tomato and vegetable fertilizer.

    Tomatoes– If you have very sunny south-facing window or sun room, you can grow tomatoes indoors. Bush-type (determinate) tomatoes bred for northern growing will grow and fruit the best.

    Start them indoors from seed in mid to late fall for winter fruiting. Maintaining room temperatures above 65° F will encourage fruit production. In just 60 days, ‘Gold Nugget’ cherry tomatoes bear small, golden tomatoes on short plants reaching 2-feet. For classic red tomatoes, try the high-yielding, disease-resistant ‘Polbig’, which reaches 2-3 feet. Start the seeds and pot and feed plants as you would with peppers. Support plants with stakes to manage growth, and prune back any leggy stems.

    Planting fresh herbs and vegetables indoors this winter will keep fresh food on your table until spring. These attractive edibles also provide welcome indoor greenery to brighten cold, snowy days.

  4. Indoor Bromeliads for Big, Bold Color

    Aechmea ‘Blue Rain’ has brilliant, long-lasting flowers. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    If you love tropical plants with bold, colorful foliage and vibrant flowers, you will adore bromeliads.  If you are fascinated by air plants that grow and flourish with no soil and almost no care, you will also be drawn to bromeliads.  In fact, the group is so large and diverse that it offers plants to suit just about every taste and situation.

    About Bromeliads

    Bromeliad leaves form a central cup that holds water.

    Pineapple (Ananas comosus) is the best-known plant in the bromeliad family.  Other popular members of this clan include vase plants (Guzmania spp.), urn plants, (Aechmea spp.), neoregelia (Neoregelia spp.), and air plants (Tillandsia spp.). What do they have in common?  These members of the bromeliad family are native to tropical rain forests, and many are epiphytes (plants that live in trees and absorb water and nutrients through their leaves).  The best-known of these can be successfully grown indoors in containers or terrariums.

    The single-most defining feature of bromeliads is their prominent rosette of leaves.  These leaves can be thick, like those of neoregelia, or slender and airy, like air plant foliage.  In many species the overlapping leaves of the rosette form a cup or “tank” that collects and holds water to keep plants hydrated.

    Bromeliad flowers often have clusters of showy bracts that surround the small true flowers. The blooms appear on stalks that rise from the central rosette.  Most bromeliads mature slowly and flower only once, though the flowers may be long-lasting.  Afterwards the plants eventually die, but not before producing “pups” or offshoots that can be detached from the mother plant and replanted.

    Bromeliads For Pots

    The following bromeliads are container grown, and pack a punch when grown in warm indoor and outdoor conditions:

    Indoor pineapples produce small fruits.

    Pineapples

    Pineapple plants are shallow-rooted terrestrial bromeliads.  If you live in USDA plant hardiness zones 10-11, grow them in your garden.  Elsewhere, they make excellent indoor specimens.  Though house-bound pineapple fruits are likely to be smaller and less tasty than those grown commercially, the arching foliage and reddish flowers make the plants worth growing.  At maturity (which can take two or three years), pineapples may reach 3-feet tall and wide, with long, stiff, gray-green foliage. Edible fruits appears after the flowers fade, and can be harvested when the skin is uniformly golden yellow. If you are looking for a showier plant, try the variegated ornamental pineapple (Ananas comosus ‘Variegatus’), which has brilliant pink blooms and striped green, pink, and ivory leaves.

    Pineapples produce “pups”, like other bromeliads, which can be cut and rooted. Gardeners can also grow their own pineapples by successfully by rooting the crown from a ripe fruit purchased at the grocery store. This is a fun project for the kids. Start by cutting off the leafy top of a fresh pineapple, leaving 1/2 inch of flesh below the leaves. Remove any lower leaves at the base of the crown. Nestle it in a pot of Fafard Professional Potting Mix, making sure the base is covered. Place it near a sunny window, and keep it lightly moist. In a few weeks, roots will develop and your plant will start growing!

    Neoregelia Hybrids

    The “cup” of mature neoregelia product small, three-petaled flowers.

    Beautiful neoregelia are available in many hybrid forms. Most feature long, upwardly curved leaves that may sport stripes, bands, spots, freckles or blotches in an array of colors from near-black to shades of yellow, red, pink, purple, maroon, and white.  Sizes vary, but a medium-sized variety may be about 1/2-feet tall and up to 2-feet across.

    In the wild, most neoregelia species are epiphytic, but in home cultivation the plants are perfectly happy potted in light potting mix, such as Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil mixed with small orchid bark. Make sure the pot is shallow and wide. Keep the soil lightly moist, and make sure that their inner cup always contains a little water. Distilled water is best. Three-petaled flowers of violet will bloom from the cup when plants are mature.

    Scarlet Star

    Scarlet star has smooth green leaves and showy red blooms.

    The popular scarlet star (Guzmania lingulata) hails from Central and South America, but is widely grown.  Like neoregelia, it is an adaptable epiphyte suited to container culture.  It pays to consider guzmania’s space requirements, because mature plants rise between 1 to 2 feet, with an equal spread.  Individual leaves can be 1 1/2-feet long and may feature darker green bands, depending on variety.

    Though the leaves are impressive, it’s the showy flower spikes of large red or pink bracts that have made the plant a horticultural celebrity.  A closer look reveals that the long-lasting bracts harbor a central array of small white flowers.  Since scarlet star thrives in relatively low light, indoor gardeners can save the brightest spots for other plants.

     Silver Vase Plant

    Silver vase plant has bold foliage and brilliant blooms. (Image by Paul & Aline Burland)

    Depending on species or variety, aechmea’s stiff, broad leaves may be erect, rising in a vase-shape, or arching.  Either way, the foliage can be blushed, banded or variegated in contrasting colors.  Species with erect foliage include Aechmea fasciata or silver vase plant.  There are also lots of stellar hybrids, including the popular Aechmea ‘Blue Rain’, which produces spectacular purple and red blooms.

    As with other bromeliads, the small true flowers are completely upstaged by the bright-colored bracts that rise above the basal rosette.  Those numerous bracts may be yellow, pink, pink-purple, red or bi-colored.

    Growing Potted Bromeliads

    Ootted neoregelia shine in a winter conservatory.

    Growing bromeliads indoors is simple.  Container-grown plants need a free-draining mixture of equal parts quality potting soil, like Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Soil, and commercial orchid bark (small chunks).  Most bromeliads like bright, filtered light, so place them close to a sunny window but away from direct rays.  Water both the soil lightly and by filling the central rosette with water. Distilled water or collected rainwater is best for irrigating bromeliads because tap water can cause mineral build up on the leaves. Provide extra humidity by misting periodically or setting the containers on trays of pebbles and water. Feed plants twice monthly with a water-soluble fertilizer for bromeliads (17-8-22).

    Once flowers have bloomed and the stalks are no longer attractive, cut them off. When pups appear, wait until they are about half the size of the mother plant before detaching and repotting them.

    Air Plants

    Air plants that come in all shapes and sizes.

    Tillandsias are sometimes sold under the name, “air plants”, an acknowledgement of their epiphytic nature.  There are approximately 650 Tillandsia species and many more varieties available for air-plant lovers. These come in all shapes and sizes. Most are grown for their impressive foliage, but many like the pink quill plant (Tillandsia cyanea), also sport spectacular blooms.

    The most widely sold air plant species is the sky plant (Tillandsia ionantha), a breeders’ favorite available in numerous varieties.  This relative of Spanish moss needs no soil and can be mounted on just about any kind of support.  Sometimes several plants are bundled together into a ball and hung like an ornament.

    At only a few inches in diameter, with delicate foliage, the sky plant works well as a decorative accent in small spaces.  Young specimens bear slender green leaves, but as the plants mature, their color begins changing.  By bloom time, the foliage will have changed to a vivid red/pink.  The flower shoots have blue-purple bracts surrounding white or yellow blossoms.

    Growing Air Plants

    Pink quill plant is one of the best-flowering air plants.

    Most tillandsias have aerial roots or root structures designed to cling to trees. These roots absorb some moisture and nutrients, but they will not grow into soil and will rot if planted in potting mix. They are best mounted onto a wooden structure and placed in a humid spot with filtered sunlight. Planting them in pebble-lined terrariums will help increase humidity if you add a 1/2-inch layer of water to the pebbles weekly.

    Since most of the moisture is absorbed through the leaves, a thorough misting with distilled water two or three times a week is recommended. Add water-soluble bromeliad fertilizer to the mist once or twice a month for best growth. Once monthly give them a more intensive watering. Soak the whole air plant in room-temperature distilled or rain water for 20-30 minutes. Gently shake them off after soaking.

    Like other bromeliads, air plants will produce “pups” after the blooms fade. Simply cut these away from the dying parent plant and re-mount.

    A good online source for bromeliads is Sunshine Bromeliads. These wonderful tropical plants can be raised indoors and successfully summered outdoors.  If you decide to give your tropical plants a summer vacation, position them in light shade to prevent leaf burn and be sure to return them to the house when night temperatures begin to hover in the fifties.

  5. Growing Tropical Fruits Indoors

    Growing tropical fruits in Toledo (or Toronto or Trenton) may seem like the stuff of fantasy. It’s perfectly doable, though, thanks to the numerous dwarf tropical fruit trees that take well to containers and flower and fruit at a young age. A warm sunny outdoor location in summer, an equally sunny indoor niche in winter, …

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  6. DIY Outdoor Holiday Containers

    When flower-filled summer containers die back at the end of the season, don’t put those empty pots away. Convert your vacant outdoor planters into beautiful showpieces for the holidays. Take pruned evergreen and berried branches, dry grass plumes, and dry hydrangea flowers to make festive DIY outdoor holiday containers that will remain attractive well into …

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  7. Best Bold House Plants: Aroids

    Monstera is a bold tropical aroid that will shine indoors in low light.

    The aroid family (Araceae) contains some of the most beautiful and outlandish plant species in the plant kingdom.  Many make the best bold house plants for all-season color.  When things turn chill and gloomy outside, a bold-leaved, evergreen aroid is a very nice thing to have inside. They clean the air and bring tropical beauty to homes.

    Growing Aroids

    The titan arum is the boldest aroid, but it is best suited to public greenhouses. (Magnus Manske)

    Aroids may be large or small. Few houses (or greenhouses) can accommodate something on the scale of the outrageously gargantuan (and foul-scented) titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), which has flowers that can reach 8 feet high! But, many other Araceae are good fits for warm, humid, indoor locations out of direct sunlight.  Give them freely draining, humus-rich potting soil (such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix), regular watering, a monthly feeding, and periodic misting, and their evergreen foliage will give you a taste of the tropics even in the dead of winter.  A few of them do double ornamental duty by producing colorful, showy jack-in-the-pulpit-like blossoms for much of the year.

    Its these flowers that define aroids. Each aroid blossom actually comprises numerous tiny flowers that cluster on a club-like “spadix”, nestled within a curved, leaf-like “spathe”. The spathe is often white but may also be green, yellow, or various shades of red or pink.

    Bold Leaves

    Alocasias are stunning foliage plants perfect for home growing.

    The swollen, starchy tubers of elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta) have long played a central role in tropical-region cuisines.  Here in the frozen north, we grow colocasias for their broad, long-stalked, heart-shaped leaves, which come in a staggering variety of colors including chartreuse, silver, maroon, purple, and all shades of green.  Some species and cultivars carry splashy contrasting colors on their stalks or leaf blades, further boosting their visual amperage.

    Elephant ears also vary greatly in stature, ranging from petite (1 foot tall, in the case of Colocasia affinis) to truly elephantine (as in the 7-foot-tall ‘Jack’s Giant’).  Average size is around 3 or 4 feet, with 18- to 24-inch-long leaf blades.  Tubers of the more common elephant ear varieties turn up in bulb catalogs and garden center bins in spring for summer gardening. (Learn how to grow outdoor elephant ears here.)  Rarer colocasias are offered year-round by a number of specialty nurseries and greenhouses.

    Two other genera – Alocasia and Xanthosma – share much in common with Colocasia, including its common name.  Alocasian elephant ears typically have long, pointed, arrowhead lobes, and are often etched with a mosaic of bold white veins.  Species include the jewel-like Alocasia cuprea with its glossy, textured leaves and A. x amazonica, which has dark arrowhead-like leaves with pale venation. Popular varieties include the chartreuse ‘Golden Delicious’, black-purple ‘Mark Campbell’, miniature ‘Tiny Dancers’, and statuesque 6-foot-tall ‘Portodora’.

    Xanthosma species and cultivars do much the same thing as alocasias, and are sometimes confused with them (for example,  Alocasia ‘Golden Delicious’ is also known as Xanthosma ‘Lime Zinger’).  Some xanthosmas, though – such as the imposing, purple-stemmed X. violacea –are a thing unto themselves.  Almost all need warm winter conditions (minimum 65 degrees F) to thrive.

    Beautiful Leaves and Flowers

    Peace lilies have subdued white flowers and glossy green leaves.

    Peace lily (Spathiphyllum spp.) perform beautifully indoors in low-light conditions.  Plant snobs may sniff at these commoners, but it’s hard to find fault with their ease of care, verdant lance-shaped leaves, and white spring-to-fall blossoms.  Furthermore, peace lilies come in quite a few relatively uncommon forms, including boldly variegated ‘Domino’, dwarf ‘Viscount’, and the giant 5-foot-tall ‘Sensation’.  Most spathiphyllums grow to about 2 feet, with a greater spread if their rhizomes are allowed to roam.  Less water-demanding than elephant ears, they sulk in overly damp soil.

    The brilliant blooms of flamingo flower will brighten any winter home.

    Flamingo flower (Anthurium spp.) comprises a diverse genus of clumpers and climbers that possess many charms beyond the fiery red blooms of the common flamingo flower (Anthurium scherzerianum).  A. crystallinum and A. claverinum, for example, are prized for their handsome, white-veined leaves, rather than for their unexceptional floral display.  Even those grown for their showy blossoms sometimes depart from the stereotypical flamboyance of common flamingo flower.  For example, the spathes of  A. andreanum ‘Album’ are large and white with a long, pale yellow spadix, while those of ‘Black Love’ are dark maroon.  Almost all anthuriums appreciate an extra-coarse potting mix, amended with composted bark. Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil has added bark, making it a great mix choice for these plants.

    Calla Lilies

    Calla lilies are great indoor bloomers.

    Calla lily (Zantedeschia spp.) are the best bloomers in the aroid tribe. Among the many alluring species and hybrids of this South African genus, only one – Zantedeschia aethiopica – takes easily to household culture.  Its large, evergreen, arrow-shaped leaves grow from thick rhizomes that prosper in a moist, fertile, well-drained growing medium.

    In contrast to most other aroidal houseplants, Z. aethiopica prefers partial to full sun and cool winter conditions (a large east-facing windowsill is perfect).  Where happy, it produces iconic, cupped, ivory-white spathes on 2- to 4-foot stalks in spring or early summer.  Cultivars include ‘Green Goddess’, with green-stained spathes; dwarf ‘Childsiana’; and the aptly named ‘White Giant’.  Zantedeschia aethiopica cultivars are available from bulb sellers as bareroot rhizomes in spring, and from specialty growers as containerized plants year-round.

    More Aroid House Plants

    Philodendron of all kinds grow in the toughest indoor conditions.

    Quite a few other evergreen aroids make familiar, handsome house plants, including long-time favorites such as Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema spp.), Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa), and the many species and varieties of Philodendron.

    Many a home has been beautified by the tough and trailing heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron scandens), which looks best grown from a hanging basket or trained along a north-facing window. These hard-to-kill house plants are easily found in almost any greenhouse specializing in house plants.

    Make your winter home a tropical jungle with one or more of these outstanding aroid house plants for year-round indoor color. In late spring, bring them outdoors to light up a sheltered patio and to encourage summer growth.

  8. Bountiful Garden Plants for Birds

    A goldfinch inspects a purple cosmos plant for seeds.

     

    From wrens to cedar waxwings, birds inspire us with their flight and fascinate us with their songs.  We can return those favors by creating bird-friendly environments in our own backyards, even if those “backyards” are terraces or balconies.  All it takes is bountiful garden plants for birds and a small amount of garden care.

    Basic gardening for birds comes down to a few necessities: food, water, shelter and an absence of poisons.  Invest in birds and they will repay you handsomely.

    Fine Dining for Birds

    The scarlet flowers of Monarda didyma are a sure lure for hummingbirds.

    Bird feeders filled with sunflower and thistle seed are an excellent but pricey food source for winged visitors.  Birds also appreciate the more cost-effective approach of planting species that bear nutritious fruits, nectar, and seeds.  A planting scheme that includes at least a few flowering and fruiting species native to your area ensures that the birds will have their choice of familiar foods.

    Flowers for Birds–The current vogue for coneflowers (Echinacea spp. and Rudbeckia spp.) is great for seed lovers like American goldfinches and house finches that feast on the seed heads at the end of the growing season. Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) and purple cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) do the same thing.  (Click here to learn all about growing annual sunflowers!) Tubular red blooms, such as those of scarlet monarda (Monarda didyma) is a sure lure for passing hummingbirds. If you grow in containers, choose compact flowers for birds in Fafard premium potting mix.

    Vines for Birds–Almost every gardener has vertical space that might be perfect for plants like non-invasive, native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), which bears nectar-rich pink flowers that attract hummingbirds.  Later in the growing season, the honeysuckle’s red berries are likely to catch the fancy of songbirds.  If you have the space, easy-to-grow Virginia creeper (Parthenosissus quinquefolia) can cover almost any structure or support while providing brilliant autumn leaves for humans and blue-black berries for avian friends.

    Crabapples make great winter meals for fruit-eating birds.

    Trees and Shrubs for Birds–Many shrubs and trees produce end-of-season berries, hips, and other fruits some of which persist into the winter, to sustain non-migrating birds like cardinals and waxwings.  Forego deadheading your roses and they will provide you and the local birds with hips that are both attractive and nutritious.  Dogwood trees (Cornus florida) beautify the spring garden with flowers and bear red berries in the fall as do flowering crabapples (Malus spp.).  Deservedly popular and available in many shapes and sizes, Viburnums provide fruits for the likes of robins, cardinals, finches and a host of other common birds.  Shrubs like deciduous winterberry holly (Ilex verticellata), light up the winter garden and help keep birds alive in cold weather as do the copious bright red fruits of ‘Winter King’ hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’) .

    Be a little untidy and let some leaf litter accumulate in at least a part of the yard or garden.  This “litter” is good for the soil and harbors food for ground feeders like juncos and sparrows.

    Plant Shelter Belts for Birds

    A goldfinch collects thistledown for nest making.

    Planting a mix of densely-branched shrubs and trees of varying heights helps birds of all sizes and habits find shelter and nesting sites.  Evergreens like holly (Ilex spp.) and arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) provide protection from the elements as well as food.  Deciduous trees, including North American service berries (Amelanchier spp.) and crabapples (Malus spp.), feature dense branching, crooks, and hollows that make inviting nest sites.

    And some of those nesting birds, like goldfinches, need the silky down from seeds like milkweed (Asclepias spp.) and thistle (Cirsium spp.) to line their nests.  Gardeners have no need to plant thistles, but milkweeds are great garden flowers that attract butterflies and other insect pollinators.

    Hydration Stations for Birds

    Avian populations appreciate simple birdbaths, ground-level water dishes, or just about any water-filled vessel.  Be sure to refill these backyard oases before they get dry and clean them regularly.  Plants that hold drops of water on their leaf surfaces or in leaf or flower folds, like large-leaved hostas and calla lilies (Zantedeschia spp.), also offer drinks to birds.

    Create Bird Safe Havens

    Limit or completely curtail the use of pesticides and herbicides in your yard and garden to prevent chemical residue from disrupting the food chain and/or injuring birds.  When expanding existing beds or planting new perennials, trees or shrubs, incorporate natural garden products like Fafard® Premium Topsoil, to enhance soil and plant health without posing a threat to wildlife.  And, while it is impossible to stop all predators, you can improve the odds of avian survival by keeping domestic cats indoors.  If feral cats are a problem, deter them with appropriate barriers.

    A chickadee feeds on winterberries.

  9. Hazelnuts for Edible Landscaping

    A bowl of freshly harvested hazelnuts.

    Clusters of autumn hazelnuts look like brown caps surrounded by green, lacy husks. The sweet nuts are a pleasure to pick for drying, roasting, and winter eating, and the attractive trees and shrubs look beautiful in the landscape.

    Hazelnut Basics

    Golden hazelnut catkins appear in early spring.

    Hazelnuts (Corylus spp.) are trees and shrubs that originate from temperate regions across the globe. There are approximately 16 species, but only a few are commonly cultivated. Some varieties are largely ornamental while others are bred exclusively for nut production.

    Female hazelnut flowers are small and reddish.

    Hazelnuts bloom in early spring and their nuts mature by fall. They must be planted in groups of two or more for cross pollination. All are monoecious, meaning a single plant produces separate male and female flowers that are pollinated by wind. The drooping golden male catkins release copious pollen that is caught by the wind to pollinate clusters of small, reddish female flowers. More plantings ensure better cross pollination and fruit production. (Click here for a list of good hazelnuts for pollinizing.)

    Hazelnut Pests and Diseases

    Eastern Filbert Blight—This is the main disease that American hazelnut growers must battle. This deadly systemic fungal disease attacks European hazelnuts and will kill an otherwise healthy tree or shrub in just one or two years.

    Eastern Filbert Blight cankers on a corkscrew hazel.

    It is very easy to identify. Twigs become evenly lined with raised cankers, which look as if a woodpecker pecked along the branches. Diseased branches quickly die, and eventually whole plants will succumb. The best way to beat this blight is to plant resistant hazelnut varieties and species.

    Thankfully, Oregon State University has a hazelnut breeding program geared towards developing Eastern Filbert Blight resistant hazelnuts. American growers interested in growing hazelnuts for fruit should rely on their blight-resistant list when choosing good varieties to grow.

    Kernel Mold—These include several molds that cause rot in the developing nuts of European hazelnuts. The best course of action is to harvest nuts quickly, keep them dry, and choose resistant varieties.

    Filbert Bud Mite—This pest attacks hazelnut flowers in spring—destroying developing nuts. Spraying with an OMRI Listed miticide during flowering time will stop their damage. Some hazelnut varieties are also resistant to this pest.

    More hazelnut pests and diseases exist. Click here for an Oregon State University Hazelnut IPM Guide.

    Types of Hazelnuts

    Common hazelnut trees remain small and manageable.

    Most cultivated hazelnuts for edible landscaping originate from Europe and North America. Common hazelnuts (Corylus avellana) are European shrubs or small trees (10-24 feet) that boast lots of exceptional cultivated varieties for home gardeners. Some are ornamental, but most are bred for nut culture. The best-known is the shrubby corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana  var. contorta), which has striking curly branches that look lovely in landscapes and cut flower arrangements. Sadly, this exceptional landscape shrub is blight sensitive. Resistant varieties for nuts include the high-yielding ‘Wepster’ and the vigorous ‘Dorris’, which also bears high yields of very flavorful nuts. Common hazelnut hybrids for nuts, such as ‘Eta’ and ‘Delta’, are also recommended.

    Purple-leaf filberts have attractive deep purple foliage.

    The European filbert (Corylus maxima) bears very large nuts. The shrubs or trees (12-33 feet) look great in home landscapes, and there are lots of varieties for ornamental and edible landscaping. The shrubby, purple-leaved ‘Purpurea’ (15 feet) is one of the prettiest. Homeowners interested in more substantial hazelnut trees should grow Turkish hazelnuts (Corylus colurna). The beautiful, large pyramidal trees (40-80 feet) are perfect for home landscapes and produce smaller, sweet nuts in early fall. These blight-sensitive species should be grown in more temperate regions of the American Southwest where Eastern Filbert Blight is not a problem.

    The beaked hazelnut has long, beaked husks.

    The two common North American hazelnut species are both immune to Eastern Filbert Blight. The beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) is a large mounding shrub to small tree (8-10 feet) naturally existing in forest margins and thickets across the northern US and Canada. It develops brilliant yellow and deep red fall leaf color and tasty fall nuts that are obscured by a beaked papery husk. Over time, beaked hazelnuts may sucker to form thickets, so pruning and thinning is required to keep plants looking tidy. California is home to the western beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), which has broader leaves and increased drought tolerance.

    American hazelnuts have small, sweet nuts.

    The American hazelnut (Corylus americana) is an eastern shrub (8-12 feet), which forms mounded thickets that become covered with clusters of small, sweet nuts. These wilder shrubs naturally inhabit upland forests and meadows but require more extensive pruning and maintenance, but they develop equally beautiful gold and red fall color.

    Burnt Ridge Nursery and Stark Brothers are good sources for purchasing hazelnuts.

    Growing Hazelnuts

    Full sun is required for best nut production. Well-drained soils with average fertility and a neutral to slightly alkaline pH are preferred. Plant new trees in spring. Make the hole twice as large as the root ball, and amend the fill dirt with Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost before planting. Keep newly planted trees well irrigated for the first month of growth. Water again in the first season during dry spells. It may take two to five years before hazelnuts begin to produce nuts, depending on size at planting time and type.

    Apply a mulch tree ring around the base of trees to protect them from mower damage, but refrain from mounding mulch around the trunk. Fertilize established trees in spring with food formulated for fruit and nut trees. (Learn more about fertilizing hazelnuts here.)

    Once your plants are productive, you will have lots of fall hazelnuts for baking and eating. You might even want to leave a few for foraging  wildlife.

  10. Spring Bulb Design: Beautiful Pairings

    Tulips, daffodils and smaller bulbs pair well as long as their heights and bloom times are complementary. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Spring-blooming bulbs are one of gardening’s cheapest and easiest thrills.  Not only do they provide loads of flowers at a minimum of cost, they also make splendid partners for other spring-blooming perennials and bulbs.  Here are some beautiful partnerships to consider as you plan (and plant) for spring.

    The Earliest Spring Bulbs

    Snowdrops and winter aconite make great early spring partners in the garden. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Snowdrops (Galanthus spp.) and winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) are clump-forming woodlanders that burst into bloom during the first mild days of the year, often before the last patches of snow have melted.  The strappy leaves and white, green-blotched flowers of snowdrops grow from small, daffodil-like bulbs that repel rodents.  The nobbly underground tubers of winter aconites are also pest-resistant, while their sunny-yellow buttercup blooms attract bees.  Purchased Eranthis tubers are often hopelessly desiccated, so it pays to shop around for a reliable source.  A more sure-fire way of establishing winter aconites is to scatter freshly collected seed in early summer.

    February Gold daffodils are surrounded by small blue Siberian squill and glory-od-the-snow. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa spp.), and early daffodils (Narcissus spp.).  Lavish drifts of small blue flowers carpet the ground under spreading branches laden with purple-pink, waterlily blooms.  Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?  Although individually small, Siberian squill and glory of the snow self-sow into large, carefree colonies that flower in tandem with Magnolia × soulangiana and early daffodils such as ‘February Gold’, forming a classic early-spring garden scene.  These little bulbs also partner splendidly with the white flowers of star magnolia (Magnolia kobus var. stellata) and the yellow blooms of early daffodils (including ‘Little Gem’).  They’re at their best in full to partial sun and humus-rich soil.

    Tommy crocus naturalize to create blankets of color that complements early blooming shrubs.

    Tommy crocuses (Crocus tommasinianus), Arnold Promise witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’), and hellebores (Helleborus spp.).  Most crocuses are squirrel fodder.  One notable exception is the Tommy crocus, which not only persists in the garden, but naturally spreads via self-sowing.  It’s also one of the earliest crocuses, opening its silver-blue flowers in late winter, at the same time that the spidery yellow petals of Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ unfurl.  These early-blooming crocus flourish in light shade and humus-rich soil, and glow most brightly when backlit by sun.  ‘Arnold’ grows to 10 to 15 feet tall and wide, so give it room!

    Early to Late Spring Bulbs

    Narcissus ‘Stratosphere’ looks great planted alongside Camassia and grape hyacinth. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Grape hyacinths (Muscari spp.), daffodils (Narcissus spp.), and camass (Camassia spp.).  The chubby, sky-blue, steepled flowers of grape hyacinths are the perfect foil for the cheerful, dancing blooms of daffodils.  This pest-free, sun-loving combo hits its stride in April with the midseason daffodils (such as ‘Minnow’ and ‘Fortissimo’), and continues into May as the Jonquilla hybrids and other late daffs make their entrance.  To keep the blue-and-yellow theme going through mid-May, add some camassias (such as Camassia cusickii or Camassia leichtlinii).

    Tulips and daffodils are one of the best bulb combinations if you choose varieties that bloom together.

    Tulips (Tulipa spp.) and daffodils (Narcissus spp.) are perfect for pairing, as long as the cultivars chosen bloom at the same time (good bulb catalogs will indicate bloom times).  Tulips are anything but pest-free, attracting bulb-eating rodents and bud-munching deer.  One of the best ways of limiting the carnage is to densely interplant them with daffodils, which most pests actively dislike.  Of course, the primary reason for combining the two is that they make such beautiful music together.  Starting in very early spring with the early daffodils and “species tulips”, and continuing until the late double-flowered tulips and Jonquilla hybrids bow out in May, they offer any number of enchanting combinations for sunny sites.

    Spring Bulb Containers

    Pansies are a great compliment to tulip containers. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Another way to protect and combine tulips is to grow them in pots, which can be mixed and matched with containers of other spring-bloomers, such as pansies and small daffodils.  Plant the bulbs an inch or two below the surface in Fafard Ultra Outdoor Potting Mix in late fall or early winter.  When sub-30 temperatures arrive, move the pots to a protected location (such as an attached garage) where temperatures stay mostly between 30 and 50 degrees.  Water lightly whenever the soil appears dry.  For added protection from rodents, place the pots in a critter-proof crate or cover them with hardware cloth (or something equally chew-proof).  Move them to an unprotected location in late winter when low temperatures are no longer dipping into the low 20s.  Once they’ve re-adapted to the outdoors, combine them with other spring-bloomers in a larger container for a custom-designed display.

    Bulb Care and Planting

    Extra-deep planting sometimes works as a tulip-protection strategy.  Rather than the usual 4- or 5-inches deep, plant the bulbs with their tops 8 or more inches below the surface.  Better yet, dig a 10-inch-deep trench, place the bulbs, bury them under a couple inches of soil, and install a barrier of hardware cloth before backfilling.  Mulch the area with leaves or pine needles to mask the freshly disturbed soil from inquisitive squirrels.  It’s a lot of work, but if it allows you to grow and combine tulips such as ‘Queen of the Night’ and ‘Blue Heron’ with impunity, it may be worth it.

    A bit of dreaming and bulb-planting in fall can result in glorious garden displays for many springs to come!

    Tulipa tarda and Muscari latifolium bloom together in beautiful harmony. (Image by Jessie Keith)