Garden Articles

  1. Managing the Six Worst Garden Animal Pests

    Hungry deer will eat practically any garden plant, especially in scarce winters.

    Gardeners beware, the enemy is among us.  Operating by stealth, they wait for opportunities to transform our gardens from points of pride to scenes of devastation.  They eat our cabbages and sweet corn, destroy our hostas, and root up our tulips.  They are ravenously hungry and untroubled by human scruples.

    Raccoons are cute, but they can quickly damage fruit and vegetable crops.

    Who are these enemies of horticulture?  They are the worst animal pests that plague our gardens, and even if they don’t frequent your place yet, they are most likely hard at work in your neighborhood.

    The list of “Six Most Unwanted” may vary a bit, depending on geography, but most gardeners agree that deer are at or near the top.  Rabbits are right up there, followed by groundhogs, and in some locales pocket gophers, squirrels, chipmunks, voles, or raccoons. Here are those that we deem the worst:

    1. Deer: These four-legged eating machines will mow down everything from your hostas to tulips, winter trees and shrubs, and most anything in the vegetable garden. Their size can make management most pricey, often calling for high fencing to keep them from the plants they like to eat.
    2. Groundhogs: Roly poly groundhogs can quickly devastate vegetable gardens, fruit patches,  and their large burrows are a yard and garden nuisance.
    3. Rabbits: Just like Peter in Mr. McGregor’s vegetable patch, these hopping herbivores will nibble on garden flowers as well as vegetables undoing plantings in a blink of an eye.
    4. Voles: Voles are root and tuber eaters that will consumer tulip bulbs in winter and chew on root crops, such as carrots, beets, and radishes in warmer season. They are known to use mole tunnels to consumer roots from below.
    5. Raccoons: Raccoons often raid vegetable gardens and fruit patches, making away with ears of corn, berries, and fruits of all kinds.
    6. Squirrels: Fruits and seed heads may be attacked by squirrels. The tend to do their most garden damage during dry periods, and in fall when they are saving food for winter.

    Managing the Worst Garden Animal Pests

    To keep our gardens beautiful and productive, we gardeners must pit our large brains and opposable thumbs against animal pests driven by constant hunger and a biological imperative.  The battle is sometimes hard fought, but we can at least hold our own by using intelligent management strategies.

    Fence ‘Em Out

    The best way to stop all kinds of critters is with appropriate barriers.  For deer, the barrier must be tall—at least 8 feet—so that the animals can’t jump over it.  Some of the most durable and expensive types are made of metal.  They are quite effective, but may not blend into the landscape.  In suburban areas, local ordinances may prohibit tall fences and the price tag may make them impractical for large gardens. Tall, polypropylene mesh fencing is less obtrusive and expensive, but it is also less durable than metal options.

    Rabbits are most destructive early in the season when plants are small.

    Electrified deer fencing does not have to be as tall, but it can be a problem in high traffic areas, especially where children and pets are likely to be present.  “Invisible” fencing, similar in concept to the type used to contain dogs, works via special electrified posts that can also be baited with favorite deer foods.  Deer that approach the invisible fences get a mild shock that acts as a deterrent.

    If rabbits are the problem, a low, electrified fence, with wires positioned at 2 and 4 inches above the ground may offer a solution.  A non-electrified fence made of chicken wire can also deter Peter Rabbit’s relatives, but it should be 4 1/2 feet tall, with 3 feet above the ground and another 18 inches of fence buried underground to prevent the bunnies from burrowing below.  Before burying the underground portion, bend the bottom 6 inches so the bent strip of fencing forms a 90-degree angle with the upright part of the fence.  The bent strip should project outward from the upright section.

    Groundhogs are destructive and their large burrows are a hazard!

    Groundhog barriers are similar to those for rabbits, but require a 30-inch underground section to deter the burrowing animals.  As with rabbit fencing, bending the bottom and top 6 inches of chicken wire at a 90- degree angle projecting outward from the vertical portion of the fence will likely convince voracious groundhogs to look elsewhere for dinner.

    Barriers will also stop gophers, and should be sunk into the ground to the same depth as groundhog fences, but need only be about 12 inches high.

    Squirrels make distinctive messes in gardens, digging indiscriminately, uprooting plants, and stealing ripe vegetables.  If the garden area is relatively small, enclose it in a secure cage made of chicken wire, hardware cloth and/or bird netting.  This may also stop raccoons, but the furry bandits are both smarter and more dexterous than squirrels.  Any cage arrangement designed to keep hungry raccoons away from your tomatoes and zucchinis should be well secured and sturdy.

    Repellents

    Voles will damage roots, bulbs, and tubers.

    If barriers are impractical, too expensive, or too obtrusive, spray vulnerable plants or areas near them with one of the many repellent formulas on the market.  Most are made with ingredients like egg solids, capsaicin and/or predator urine scent and will often deter many different types of varmints.  Always read the label directions carefully, wear gloves and protective clothing, and stand upwind of the area to which you apply the compound.

    The downside to deterrent sprays is that most must be reapplied after every rainstorm.  Some animals also accustom themselves to the compounds after a time, so it’s a good idea to switch up products on a regular basis.  Noxious smelling mixtures should not be used on parts of edible crops that you intend to eat, such as fruits, but they may help save ornamentals.

    Barriers will not keep squirrels away. Repellents work best. (Image by Tduk)

    Some gardeners use homemade scent deterrents, and recipes for those concoctions are easy to find.  Others swear by the deer repellent properties of scented soap hung from trees or fence posts in affected garden areas.  Bags of human hair can be employed in the same way.

    The presence of a dog or even sometimes a cat may deter pests when the marauders are faced with your pets or the smell of your domestic animals’ distinctive scent signatures.

    Plant Resistant Plants

    Deer resistant plants, like hollies, are good landscape choices where deer are a problem. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    If pest animals are a fact of life in your garden, you probably use a combination of strategies to combat them.  One good one is to grow vulnerable edible or ornamental plants in a single area and cordon it off with barriers.  Use the rest of your garden to grow plants like foxgloves, daffodils, lavenders, and other plants most garden pests don’t like. Many plants that repel deer and other four-footed pests are strong smelling and/or somewhat toxic. Many deer-proof plant lists exist, and they include plants that other animal pests don’t generally include on their menus. One of the best lists is the Deer Resistant Landscape Plants List offered by Rutgers University.

    Strategies to Avoid

    Some frustrated gardeners also use traps (live or lethal), poison, or other physical or chemical means to dispatch animal pests.  Before taking that route, be aware that lethal trapping may be illegal in your area, and poisons can be toxic to pets and desirable wildlife in addition to the intended targets. Children can also be harmed by poison baits, and they may even pose potential harm to the person administering them. So, err on the side of safe and smart when it comes to animal pest management. A yard and garden can be protected without becoming unduly harmful to the environment.

    Read the Fafard disclaimer here.

  2. Perennial Flowers for Wet Places

    Japanese primrose is a pretty late-spring bloomer for moist ground. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Many perennial flowers sulk in damp soil.  Plant a lavender near a downspout, or a tulip in a boggy hollow, and bad things are sure to follow. On the other hand, some perennials relish soggy sites.  It all comes down to “right plant, right place.”  You can either sentence a dry-land plant to death in that damp garden corner – or you can literally “go with the flow” and plant glorious flowering perennials that revel in a little wetness.

    Swamp rose mallow

    Here’s our choice of some of the best of the latter.  These hardy perennials would be more than happy to settle into that wet garden niche, especially if the soil is not too heavy and standing water is relatively rare.  To lighten heavy clay soil, mix in a few inches of an organic amendment such as Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost, preferably when conditions are relatively dry.  Be sure to consult with conservation authorities if natural wetland areas are nearby.

     

    Spring Flowers for Wet Places

    Marsh marigold is a very early bloomer that attracts bees.

    Even standing water is no problem for the earliest bloomer on our list: marsh marigold (Caltha palustris).  Its cheerful yellow buttercups on foot-tall stems brighten wetlands over much of the temperate Northern Hemisphere as winter turns to spring.  It will happily do the same in your garden in partial shade and any decent, constantly moist soil (no inundation required!).  The bold, serrated, heart-shaped leaves are also rather nice.

    Another spring-blooming beauty from damp woodlands of eastern North America, Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) owes its common name to its tubular, narrow-waisted blooms that open pink and deepen to sky-blue.  They cluster on 18-inch stems above broad, waxy, blue-frosted leaves that die back as flowering ceases in late spring.  Plants that aren’t deadheaded produce numerous seedlings.  Virginia bluebells grows from plump rootstocks that are sometimes dug from the woods by disreputable dealers, so beware of cheap, bare-root plants.

    Virginia bluebells spread, even in moist soil. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Hybrid globe flowers (Trollius × cultorum) open their bright buttercup blooms a few weeks after those of marsh marigold.  The large, deeply cupped, creamy-white to dark orange flowers appear from late spring to early summer on 18- to 32-inch stems, depending on the variety.  They arise from rosettes of deeply lobed leaves that go semi-dormant in July but flush with new growth later in the season.  Trollius hybrids make delicious companions to blue-flowered perennials such as Siberian iris (Iris sibirica) and Texas blue-star (Amsonia tabernaemontana).

    Late spring to early summer is also prime time for the candelabra flower clusters of Japanese primrose (Primula japonica).  Borne on two-foot stems above rosettes of large, tongue-shaped leaves, the flowers come in numerous shades of red and pink, as well as white.  This wet-garden classic thrives in partial shade, but will manage in full sun in constantly damp soil.  It’s especially spectacular when allowed to self-sow into large colonies – but keep in mind that “mongrel” seedlings will produce mixed and diluted flower colors.

    Primula japonica is a natural garden mate for another East Asian native known for its love of moisture and its showy pink to red flowers – Astilbe.  Although their frothy blooms and ferny leaves are a common sight in shady gardens, astilbes are arguably at their lushest in ample sun and damp soil.  Conveniently, their flowering season hits its height in early summer, as the blooms of Japanese primrose are leaving the scene.

     

    Summer Flowers for Wet Places

    Cardinal flower (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Early (and mid) summer is also the height of the flowering season of our native American Rudbeckia, most of which are quite happy with damp feet.  The most ubiquitous and familiar is Rudbeckia fulgida, which usually goes as ‘Goldsturm’ (even though it usually isn’t).  By whatever name, all forms of this butterfly magnet produce a summer-long abundance of golden-yellow, black-eyed daisy-flowers over rapidly expanding clumps of toothed leaves. (It’s also a prolific self-sower).  Height at flowering is 15 to 40 inches, depending on the variety.  Full sun is best.

    Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is another colorful beauty that grows in moist ground and has the added benefit of feeding Monarch butterfly larvae and adults. The hardy perennial reaches 3-5 feet and blooms in midsummer. It will truly thrive in very damp garden spaces, even those that have standing water for periods of time.

    Swamp milkweed (Image by Jessie Keith)

    There are other numerous perennials for summer that are worth including on the list of plants for soggy places, including marsh spurge (Euphorbia palustris), queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), ragwort (Ligularia spp.), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).  All of these will brighten up any damp summer garden.

     

    Late-Season Flowers for Wet Places

    For late-summer and fall color in damp semi-shade, there’s another splendid North American plant: pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonii).  The common name refers to the plump, oblong, lipped flowers that cluster atop the 2- to 4-foot stems of this Southeast native.  Pairs of glossy, dark green leaves clothe the stems below the flowers.  The cultivar ‘Hot Lips’ has rich rose-pink blooms on 30-inch plants that emerge bronze-green in spring.  Red turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) and white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) also make good perennials for moist semi-shade.

    Autumn sun coneflower and Joe-Pye weed are great garden companions.

    Also ideal for the late-summer, damp, sunny garden is the coneflower that goes by the name Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Autumn Sun’ (or ‘Herbstsonne’, for you German-speaking rudbeckias).  Greater in height and less aggressive in root than Rudbeckia fulgida, it hoists green-coned, lemon-yellow daisy-flowers on 5- to 6-foot-tall stems from mid to late summer.  Another tall, golden bloomer for late in the season is the 3-6 foot swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius). It produces copious stems of bright sunflowers against linear leaves. Both the coneflower and swamp sunflower combine well with purple Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) to make a stately garden statement.

    Don’t let low, moist ground get your gardening spirits down. Damp garden niches offer loads of exciting possibilities when it comes to perennials.

    Pink turtlehead

    Read the Fafard disclaimer here.

  3. 12 Poisonous Garden Plants to Avoid for Kids and Pets

    Some of the most common ornamental plants are the most deadly!

    When I was seven, I found a beautiful plant covered with pretty purple flowers. I picked a bouquet for my mother, and when I gave it to her, she screamed. They were poisonous nightshade blooms! She rushed me to the bathroom to wash my hands, and repeatedly asked whether I’d put my hands in my mouth. It was so frightening, but my mother’s basic knowledge of toxic plants kept me safe.

    Once I had children, I armed myself with the same knowledge and quickly learned that my garden was full of poisonous plants. Lots of garden favorites pose a true threat to humans, pets, and livestock. The worst contain neurotoxins, able to kill if ingested or even handled. Some have even caused intrigue of historical significance.

    Castor beans (Ricinus communis) contain ricin, a poison famously used in the 1978 assassination of Bulgarian dissident novelist Georgi Markov by Bulgarian secret police using a ricin-injected umbrella. Wolf’s bane (Aconitum spp.) contains aconitine, a common deadly poison of the ancient world that appears repeatedly in Greek and eastern mythology and custom. In fact, and Greeks used aconitum-juice-tipped arrows to kill wolves, hence the common name, while the Japanese used tipped arrows to hunt bear. The deadly Indian rosary pea (Abrus precatorius) has pretty scarlet and black seeds grown for jewelry beads, but they are so lethal, jewelry makers have died handling them with pricked fingers.

    Knowledge is power, which is why I created this list of poisonous garden flowers, shrubs, vines, and trees. If you have pets and/or children, protect them from the plants on this list!

     

    Monkshood (Aconitum spp.)

    Monkshood

    Beautiful hooded purple flowers make this a popular garden perennial, but beware the toxic underside of monkshood. Its deadly poison, aconitine, can enter the body from the skin as well as the mouth, so take caution when cutting it back. Never grow monkshood if you have children or pets. The grape purple flowers are too attractive. Gardeners should also be warned before growing it.

     

    Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)

    Horse chestnuts

    Robust horse chestnut trees have beautiful white flower clusters in spring that develop into hulled, smooth brown seeds that look like edible chestnuts. Children love the pretty seeds, which were used by UK children to play a game called conkers, but horse chestnuts are toxic if ingested. They contain aesculin, a poison known to cause unconsciousness, paralysis, and even death in humans, livestock, and pets. If you have a horse chestnut, teach older children about their dangers, and keep the nuts away from young children and pets.

     

    Morning Glory (Ipomoea spp.)

    Morning Glory

    Vining morning glories have beautiful flowers that attract bees, hummingbirds, and moths, but their profuse seeds are poisonous. They contain toxic alkaloids that cause disorientation, nausea, and diarrhea, if consumed. The papery seed capsules rattle and release the angled black seeds when crushed, so they attract kids, and occasionally pets. Morning glory seed packets are also a danger, so keep them out of reach of children if you choose to grow these annual vines.

     

    Angel’s Trumpets (Brugmansia and Datura spp.)

    Angel’s Trumpet

    Never grow angel’s trumpets if you have children or pets. Their impressive, trumpet-shaped flowers have garden appeal, but they are fatally poisonous—with many human deaths attributed to them. The plants and seeds contain toxic alkaloids that can kill if ingested. Wear gloves at pruning time, to avoid their toxic sap, and never put pruned stems on the burn pile as their smoke is poisonous to inhale.

    Gardeners should also look out for the common field weed called jimsonweed (Datura stramonium). It is just as toxic as cultivated forms and can appear in the garden unannounced.

     

    Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis)

    Lily of the Valley

    Who hasn’t picked delicate stems of fragrant, nodding lily-of-the-valley? They are some of the sweetest garden flowers around, but if ingested, the blooms, orange-red fruits, and leaves can cause blurred vision, slowed heartbeat, collapse, and even death. The toxins convallatoxin and convalloside are to blame. This rampant groundcover should be removed with pets or small children around. Older children and adults should also be warned about its dangers.

    Foxglove

     

    Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea)

    Foxgloves are beautiful, old-fashioned garden flowers, but their dangerous toxins can stop the heart. Foxgloves have been reported to kill livestock, pets, and humans. Children have even been poisoned by drinking the vase water from flower arrangements containing foxgloves. The tall spikes of colorful, tubular blooms are very attractive, so don’t grow them with young ones around. Only well-advised adults should handle the plants or pick their flowers.

     

    English Ivy

    English Ivy (Hedera helix)

    This is one of the most common evergreen groundcovers for landscapes and gardens, but the leaves and fruit are toxic. Touching the leaves can cause severe dermatitis in some people, and ingestion of the leaves and berries can cause severe sickness, and even coma. Warn children about the dangers of this vine, and try to make sure pets don’t eat the leaves. Indoor specimens are especially attractive to cats that attack houseplants.

     

     

    Lantana (Lantana camara)

    Lantana

    The bright tropical colors of lantana flowers brighten many a flower border and container, but sadly all plant parts are toxic, especially the berries. There are many reported cases of human and animal poisonings, so take care when planting these in your garden.

     

    Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)

    Black Cherry Flowers

    The pits, foliage, and branches of black cherry contain the deadly poison, cyanide. Foraging livestock are sometimes killed by eating the leaves of this common Native American tree. The profuse, small, black cherry fruits are also attractive to children. If you have a black cherry that you don’t want to cut down, be sure to keep children and pets far from it at fruiting time.

     

    Oleander (Nerium oleander)

    Oleander

    Commonly planted in Southern gardens, oleander is one of the most poisonous plants you can grow due to the poison, oleandrin. Avoid touching the sap when pruning its branches, and refrain from burning cut stems as the smoke will also emit toxins. The colorful flowers and their nectar are also poisonous.

     

    Castor Bean (Ricinis communis)

    Castor Bean

    Bold castor bean is a popular annual garden plant, but both the plants and their seeds contain the deadly toxin, ricin. The bean-like seeds are so toxic, it is a serious liability to grow castor bean. Children are especially at risk. There are other bolder, prettier garden flowers that can be grown in its place, such as red maple leaf hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella).

     

    Yew (Taxus spp.)

    Yew

    This popular landscape evergreen bears juicy, red berries with green centers that look appetizing to kids, but the green centers are poisonous along with all other plant parts. There are reports of animals dying from eating the foliage, so be cautious if you have yews. Keep your children from the berries and pets from the foliage.

    For more information about poisonous plants visit these websites:

    ASPCA Toxic Plants List for Pets

    Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System

    Texas A&M Poisonous Plants List

    The US government’s toll-free Poison Help line, 1-800-222-1222, connects you to your local poison center, in case of plant ingestion.

    Read the Fafard disclaimer here.

  4. 10 City Trees for Urban Landscapes and Street Sides

    Littleleaf lindens (Tilia cordata)  are common street trees for urban areas.

    It’s not easy being a tree.  This goes doubly for trees in urban landscapes.  Air pollution, compacted soil, and road salt are just a few of the extra challenges that come with an in-town lifestyle.  Worse still, much of that tainted soil and air is occupied by buildings, streets, sidewalks, power lines, and other structures that leave little space for branches and roots.

    Amazingly, quite a few tree species are tough and compact enough to cope with these special challenges.  Perhaps as remarkably, many of the best of these trees are still relatively rare in urban landscapes.  If you’re looking to grow a tree in Brooklyn (or any other city), the choices range far beyond the ubiquitous littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata) and Norway maple (Acer plantanoides).

    Outstanding Trees for Urban Landscapes

    Chinese fringe-tree (Chionanthus retusus)

    In place of Tilia cordata, you could try its smaller, more refined cousin, Kyushu linden (Tilia kiusiana).  Rather new to American horticulture, this slow-growing 20-footer boasts a dense, teardrop-shaped habit; dainty, heart-shape leaves; and handsome, flaking bark.  Kyushu linden prospers in sun to light shade in USDA Hardiness zones 5b to 8.

    Shantung maple (Acer truncatum) is a well-behaved relative of Norway maple with lobed leaves that become flushed purple in spring, mature to rich green in summer, and turn sunset tints in fall.  Its attractive gray bark provides winter interest.  Height and width is 25 feet; favored conditions are full to part sun in zones 5 to 9.

    American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)

    American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) has another common name – musclewood – which references its rippled blue-gray bark.  Under whatever name, it’s one of the most picturesque eastern North American trees, with its muscled trunk, sinuously branched crown (to 30 feet tall and wide), and finely serrated leaves that go yellow in fall.

    European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) is a long-time (and larger) urban stalwart, usually seen as the upright-growing ‘Fastigiata’.  It’s less hardy than American hornbeam’s USDA zones 3 to 9.  Full to part sun; salt intolerant.

    Chinese fringe-tree (Chionanthus retusus) is much underused.  How can something this beautiful be this tough?  Spectacular in late spring when covered with fleecy white flowers, Chinese fringe-tree carries its ornamental weight at other seasons with its shredding, cherry-like bark, bold oval leaves, and blue olive-shaped fall fruits. The yellow to rust-red fall color isn’t bad either.  20 to 30 feet tall.  Full sun to light shade; USDA zones 5 to 8.

    Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) fruit

    Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is actually a dogwood, despite its common name.  A must for the urban edible garden, this multi-stemmed small tree is also essential for winter display, thanks to its clusters of acid-yellow flowers that precede those of forsythia.  The cranberry-like fruits ripen in summer, and make for excellent preserves (they’re also good right off the tree).

    Look also for the closely related but rarely offered Japanese Cornel dogwood (Cornus officinalis), which tends to bloom slightly earlier and often has pleasingly mottled bark.  Both species are native to East Asia.  15 to 20 feet tall.  Full sun to light shade; USDA zones 5 to 8; somewhat salt-tolerant.

    American smoke tree, (Cotinus obovatus) has hazy, summer-borne seedheads that are not as showy as those of the much more common European smoke tree. But, the Southeast US native amply compensates with its smoldering fall color and scaly, silvery bark.  Typically multi-stemmed and round-headed, it’s sometimes sold as a single-trunked specimen.  The widely available cultivar ‘Grace’ – a hybrid with European smoke tree – offers equally spectacular fall color but a rather unruly habit.  25 feet tall.  Full sun to light shade; USDA zones 5 to 9.

    Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) fruits do not exist on new all-male varieties.

    Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) is literally as tough as nails (just try hammering a nail into its rock-hard, close-grained wood), but it has never found a place in cultivated landscapes because of its spiny branches and large, messy, knobbly fruits.   Thankfully, that’s all changing with the recent introduction of several lightly armed male cultivars (including ‘White Shield’ and ‘Wichita’).  Now you can have Osage orange’s gleaming dark-green foliage and ironclad constitution without subjecting passersby to concussive fruits and clothes-rending spines.  These cultivars grow quite rapidly to 30 feet or so.  Sun to light shade; USDA zones 5 to 9; relatively salt-tolerant.

    Peking lilac (Syringa pekinensis) is a close relative of the much more widely planted Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata). Peking lilac surpasses it in its exceptional cold hardiness and its bronze, silver-flecked, often shaggy bark.  Feathery clusters of white flowers deck its oval crown in late spring, and amber-yellow fall color occurs on some forms of this fine multi-stemmed or single-trunked tree lilac.  Sun; USDA zones 3 to 7; relatively salt-tolerant.

    Urban Tree Care

    City trees appreciate a bit of extra coddling.  Where soil is compacted or otherwise compromised, work several inches of topsoil (such as Fafard Premium Topsoil) into as much of the tree’s future root zone as possible.   Although it’s tempting to plant a large balled-and-burlapped specimen with a several-inch-caliper trunk, smaller container-grown plants will establish more readily, and likely attain similar (or greater) stature in 4 or 5 years.  Dig the planting hole to the same depth as the root ball (or shallower in heavy clay soil), and three (or more) times as wide.  Spread a layer of compost in a wide circle around the newly planted tree, top with 2 to 3 inches of bark mulch, and water well, repeating when necessary (one or two times a week).

    With good care, your new tree will repay your efforts by settling in quickly to its new urban home. Any one of these beautiful options will benefit your city landscape or street side, adding diversity and charm as well as welcome greening.

  5. Summer Tree Care

    Summer tree care helps landscape trees look great all season.

    Trees are the ultimate givers, offering summer shade, protection from wind, and cleaner air.  They also beautify our landscapes, often providing food and serving as habitats for wildlife.  But, even in the face of all that generosity, we often ignore them.  Our trees deserve better, and summer is a good time to turn over a new leaf and focus on tree care.

    Summer weather stresses trees.  Drought is hardest on very young or old specimens but ultimately affects them all.  Storms threaten stability and bring weak or diseased limbs crashing to the ground.  Lawn and garden equipment damages tree bark, while untreated pests and diseases can decimate entire communities of once-healthy trees.  Fortunately, it takes only a little observation and a bit of care to help trees withstand those stresses, enabling them to continue giving for decades to come.

    Inspect Your Summer Trees

    Healthy trees will have vibrant foliage, growth, flowers, and fruit.

    Start by taking a good look at all the trees on your property, using binoculars, if necessary, for large trees.  Check for limbs that are dead, cracked or otherwise compromised.  If damaged trees are large or need anything more than minor pruning, call a tree expert to perform the work.  This may seem expensive, but corrective pruning helps trees withstand summer windstorms and prevents potential property damage and personal injury caused by falling limbs.

     Check Trees for Pests and Diseases

    Tent caterpillars on the upper branches of a black cherry tree.

    If you seek expert advice or help with pruning, ask an arborist or tree surgeon to check for pests and diseases.  Pernicious pests like the emerald ash borer and the Asian long horned beetle can wreak wide-scale havoc, killing scores of trees in a single area, if infestations aren’t promptly controlled.  Bag worms, fall webworms, and early season tent caterpillars can cause significant damage to foliage, which stresses trees. Wasting diseases, like verticillium wilt in maples, can sometimes be arrested, if affected trees are treated in time.

    If you don’t have expert help, check with your local cooperative extension agent to find out which pests and diseases are most prevalent in your area. Some municipalities employ professional arborists who can also provide this information. Take a good look at tree bark and foliage for telltale problem signs.  Follow the expert’s advice on treatment or prevention of pest or disease outbreaks.

    Water Summer Trees Wisely

    Summer tree irrigation is especially important for newly planted trees.

    All trees need regular water, though mature specimens, with broad, healthy root systems are best able to tolerate extended droughts.  Young trees are a different story and need water every few days, if rainfall is sparse or nonexistent.  The best way to water tree roots is low and slow irrigation, positioning the water source close to the ground.  This means soaker hoses circling trees’ bases.  For newly planted and very young trees, property owners can also buy “tree bags”, water-holding, heavy-duty plastic bags constructed to wrap around the trunk.  Small holes in the bottoms of the bags allow water to seep slowly to the roots, a process that takes several hours, depending on the size of the bag.  Refilled every day or two during drought spells, the bags can be life savers for immature trees.

    Protect Trees from Mechanical Injury

    Tree rings protect trunks from mechanical injury, but beware “mulch volcanos”!

    Power string trimmers are great garden time savers, allowing landscapers and homeowners to keep bed edges neat and tidy.  But repeated blows to trees from trimmers can penetrate tree bark to the point where young trees may die.  Trimmer injuries may not kill older specimens outright, but create entry points for damaging pests and diseases.

    The best way to separate trimmers and tree trunks is to mulch tree rings around trees, a technique that also conserves soil moisture and keeps weeds under control.  Spread high quality mulch in a circle with a radius of at least 2 feet around the base of the tree.  Keep the depth at about two to three inches and do not let the mulch touch the trunk.  So-called “mulch volcanos”, where large amounts of mulch are hilled up around tree trunks, contributes to the spread of bacterial and fungal diseases.  Always aim to create a moderately deep “mulch doughnut”, rather than a mountainous mulch “volcano”.

    Tree Planting and Fertilization

    Tree planting is also best done in spring or fall, when weather conditions are less likely to stress young saplings.  However, if you must plant in summer’s heat, “water in” the tree by filling the planting hole part way with water before installation.  If the surrounding soil is poor, thin or compacted, fill in around the tree’s root ball with a mix of the removed soil and an equal amount of high-quality, fertile planting material, like Fafard® Premium Topsoil.  Once the tree is planted, remember to water well, especially in hot, dry weather.

    It is best to fertilize trees in the spring, just before the first flush of growth.  This growth slows down in summer, so the season is not optimal for fertilization.

    Sitting under a tall shade tree with friends, family or just a good book, is one of the best ways to spend a summer afternoon.  Timely summer tree care is the best way to ensure that you will continue to enjoy that experience for many years.

    Plant new trees in spring or fall. Spring planted trees need extra care through summer.

  6. Growing Eggplant in the Garden

    Eggplant come in many shapes, sizes, and colors.

    Eggplant is a staple in African, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Asian cuisines, where growing temperatures are hot. Think beyond the standard purple varieties you find at the grocery store. Green, ivory, rose, and magenta types of various shapes and lengths exist, and the best are mild and have few seeds. Some are even ornamental. The biggest challenge to growing them is battling a few common pests. Once these are tackled, plants will reward you with lots of fruits for Szechuan eggplant, eggplant Parmesan, ratatouille, and baba ganoush.

    African Eggplant

    The Indian ‘Petch Siam’ is a round, green eggplant favored for curries.

    There are many unique types of eggplant grown in Africa, most being variants of the African eggplant (Solanum aethiopicum). The ‘Striped Togo’ is an ornamental variety of African eggplant sold in the US, which has small, egg-shaped fruits of electric orange with green stripes. They are edible but have a very strong flavor, so most opt to add stems of the pretty fruits to late summer and fall arrangements. ‘Turkish Orange’ (Solanum aethiopicum ‘Turkish Orange’) is another African variety with fruits that age to brilliant orange red. These are larger and edible when green.

    Several African eggplant varieties are popular in Brazilian cooking and classified as Gilo (or Jiló) eggplant. They are small, bitter, harvested green, and include the small, pear-shaped ‘Comprido Verde Claro’, and round, more bitter ‘Morro Redondo’. Due to limited demand, these unusual eggplant have yet to be adopted by American seed companies, so they are hard to find in the US.

    Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Eggplant

    ‘Black Beauty’ is the most common eggplant variety grown in the US.

    The common eggplant or aubergine (Solanum melongena), is the most familiar eggplant to western palates and gardens. It has been grown and selected for hundreds of years in southerly regions of Europe and throughout the Middle East. One of the best from the Mediterranean is the classic Italian heirloom ‘Rosa Bianca’, with its broad, short, mild fruits covered with thin, lavender and cream skin. The French heirloom ‘Ronde de Valence’ is another unique but delicious eggplant that is deep purple, grapefruit-sized, and almost perfectly round. For a large-fruited, heat-tolerant eggplant, choose the Iraqi variety ‘Aswad’ (meaning “black” in Arabic), a new offering from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed. Its dark, pleated fruits can reach a massive 3 lbs.

    Eggplant ‘Gretel’ (Image by AAS Winners)

    One American eggplant with a classic pear shape and purple-black skin is ‘Black Beauty’. The 1902 heirloom from Burpee has large fruits with good flavor. Two more American varieties include the AAS winners ‘Gretel‘ (2009 winner), which is petite and has white fruits, and the compact ‘Fairy Tale’ (2005 winner) with its small stature and white-striped purple fruits. Both are very productive and good for small-space gardening.

    Asian Eggplant

    ‘Pingtung Long’ eggplant

    Eggplant varieties from Asia are noted for their elongated shape, low seed count, and mild flavor. Many were bred in Southeast Asia and have an unusually high tolerance to heat and drought. The brilliant purple ‘Machiaw‘ is a tender, mild, thin-skinned variety that always produces well. For exceptional heat tolerance, choose ‘Pingtung Long‘ an heirloom from Taiwan that produces loads 16″-18″ long magenta fruits through the hottest days of summer. The dark purple ‘Orient Express‘ is an early, tender variety popular in many gardens. Finally, for something more unusual, try the Indian ‘Petch Siam‘, a small, green, striped eggplant favored for curries.

    Growing and Harvesting Eggplant

    Flea beetle damage on an eggplant leaf.

    Growing eggplant is not too complicated. Provide them with full sun, warm summer days, good soil with adequate drainage, a little vegetable fertilizer, and water, and they will grow well. (Amend their soil with Fafard Garden Manure Blend before planting, and they will grow even better!) The biggest challenge to their success are two common pests: flea beetles and Colorado potato beetles.

    These two pests will destroy plants if given the chance. Flea beetles are tiny, shiny black, and invade in large numbers, hopping from leaf to leaf sucking the juices from the foliage, leaving behind a mass of pock marks. (Read more about these pests here.) To reduce populations, clean old plant debris in fall (where these pests overwinter), till beds in spring, and plant eggplant in late spring to early summer to avoid spring hatches of this pest. Spraying with insecticidal soap or pyrethrin sprays will kill adult beetles and protect plants from summer damage.

    Striped Colorado potato beetles lay masses of yellow eggs on the undersides of eggplant leaves in spring. Brownish orange larvae emerge that aggressively feed on leaves. As they grow larger, they cause more damage and can completely defoliate young eggplants. The best protection is to inspect plants for egg masses and remove them on sight. The beetles and larvae are also easy to remove by hand. (Learn more about these pests here.)

    Most fruits are ready to harvest when they are fully colored and firm to the touch, while giving slightly when pressed with a finger. Fruits that are too old begin to turn yellow. At this point, they are too seedy and strong to eat.

    Eggplant are delicious, easy to grow, and make a great addition to any summer garden. Add them to pasta sauces or your favorite eggplant dishes! They also freeze well for winter storage.

    Orange ‘Striped Togo’ African eggplants in a harvest bowl with tomatoes.

  7. 3 Steps to Growing Great Roses (With No Fuss)

    Strike it Rich® is a glorious Grandiflora with exceptional disease resistance. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Got rose problems? Over 20 common pests and diseases plague roses, threatening the beauty of many a rose-filled yard and garden. But, rose growers can take heart. You can have the beauty of roses without the burden of doing constant battle with pests and diseases.  It all comes down to choosing resistant varieties and giving them the right care. Here are the three key steps to growing great roses without the fuss.

    1) Pick a winner.

    This is the most important step! Old roses are often the most fragrant and beautiful, but they are more often maintenance nightmares. Classic Hybrid Tea and Grandiflora (and other) rose varieties were bred for their voluptuous, iconic flowers, with little consideration for the plants’ overall vigor and disease resistance.  Consequently, they’re susceptible to a slew of diseases including blackspot, powdery mildew, and stem cankers.  They’re also easy marks for rose chafers, Japanese beetles, rose slugs, and a host of other insects that prey on roses.

    ‘Carefree Beauty’ is a wonderful shrub rose that will resist many common rose diseases. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    In recent years, breeders have developed and introduced new hybrids that resist diseases and pests.   Most familiar of these are a number of “landscape” roses (such as the Knockout series) noted for their tough shrubby growth and abundant, relatively small, typically scentless flowers.  Rose fanciers who are looking for something with taller stems and larger, more fragrant blooms will also find plenty of low-maintenance roses to choose from, however – including several Hybrid Tea and Grandiflora cultivars that rival anything in their class.  Notable sources – and cultivars – include:

    The German firm Kordes:  Their Grandiflora rose ‘Eliza’ produces a succession of lightly fragrant, double pink blooms on tall stems.  The repeat-blooming climber ‘Moonlight’ carries nicely scented peachy-yellow flowers.  ‘Yankee Doodle’ is a tall, vigorously growing Hybrid Tea with intensely fragrant, double, apricot-pink roses.

    Rosa PINK KNOCK OUT® is a classic, disease-free Knock Out rose planted for its strong disease resistance. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    The Explorers Hybrids from Canada:  This collection of rock-hardy roses includes the Rosa rugosa hybrid ‘Jens Munk’, which bears 2.5-inch, double, medium-pink flowers on shrubby plants.  It also includes several outstanding, repeat-blooming climbers.  ‘William Baffin’ produces several flushes of dark pink flowers beginning in late June, and ‘John Cabot’ covers itself with double, fuchsia-red flowers from early summer to fall.  Both can grow to 10 feet or more.

    The Iowa breeder Griffith Buck:  Among his many outstanding introductions are the pink-flowered Hybrid Tea ‘Earth Song’, and the shrub rose ‘Carefree Beauty’, with large pink flowers.

    Weeks Roses: Many Weeks introductions are graced with fine fragrance, good looks, and remarkable disease resistance. The introduction Strike it Rich®, bred by Tom Carruth, is a testament to their rose-breeding prowess.

    Rosa rugosa ‘Hansa’ is a tough rugosa rose that grows well in coastal gardens. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Anything of Rosa rugosa parentage: These rough and tough roses include the bright pink ‘Hansa’, dark red ‘Linda Campbell’, bright yellow ‘Topaz Jewel’, and the intensely fragrant, white-flowered ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’.

    The French rose breeder Meilland:   ‘Francis Meilland’ is a Hybrid Tea with double, silvery pink roses on tall stems.  The similarly hued double flowers of the Grandiflora ‘Mother of Pearl’ have a light, sprightly scent.  Dark red, heavy-scented, fully double flowers crown the 4- to 5-foot stems of the Hybrid Tea rose‘Traviata’.

    2) Choose the right soil and the site.

    Roses thrive in full sun and rich, healthy, humus-rich soil.  Before you plant your rose, amend the soil with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. It adds rich organic matter for increased water-holding capacity and porosity. Follow up by adding fertilizer formulated for roses. This will encourage strong growth and flowering.

    Ample air circulation helps too.  Plant your prize rose in a hole that’s at least twice as wide as its root ball, and amend the backfill and surrounding soil with compost and organic fertilizer.  Then apply a 1- to 2-inch layer of mulch to keep the roots moist and cool (and keep the soil microorganisms happy!).  Plants should be well spaced to allow air flow.

    3) Maintain!

    If you see rose rosette “witches brooms” remove your roses. There is no cure for this contagious disease. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Prune out all diseased growth in spring and throughout the growing season (dip pruners in a 10% bleach solution to reduce the chance of accidentally spreading disease from rose to rose). Be on particular lookout for the red “witches brooms” that signal the presence of rose rosette disease, a destructive disease for which there is no cure. Roses that have contracted rose rosette disease should be quickly removed from the garden.

    Thin stems in spring and summer to encourage air circulation and discourage diseases.   Tolerate modest insect damage, but treat plants with the appropriate OMRI Listed® insecticide if insects reach high levels.  Rake and remove fallen vegetation, which may harbor disease-causing fungal spores.  Apply rose fertilizer and a layer of compost each spring.  Plant “companion” perennials (such as members of the parsley and daisy families) that harbor beneficial insects.  And remember to water during dry spells!

    The right rose in the right place (with the right maintenance) will provide years of beauty with a minimum of grief.  It will also astonish your acquaintances who think that beautiful roses require lots of care for great looks.

    Rosa ‘Red Cascade’ is a rare old-fashioned miniature climbing rose that is disease resistant and prolific! (Photo by Jessie Keith)

  8. Delicious Gardening with Edible and Ornamental Plants

    Variegated pineapple sage and golden marjoram will brighten up any landscape while also adding valuable flavor to dishes. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Gardening with edible and ornamental plants makes gardening a little tastier and more valuable. Not many of us have the time and space for immense ornamental landscapes any more, but lots of us take great pride in our shrubs, perennials, and annuals.  At the same time, we want to eat better, fresher food, and that urge has led us back to the garden.  Limited space means that we have to grow ornamentals and edibles side-by-side.  Fortunately, it is easy to do, and the results can be just as beautiful as an ornamental-only landscape.

    For most of horticultural history, average people grew food from necessity, with little thought to purely ornamental plants.  Inevitably, though, some gardeners noticed that certain edible plants and herbs sported lovely flowers or foliage that added a dimension to the vegetable garden.  Others even transplanted flowering specimens from the wild into corners of their home vegetable plots.  Eventually, as great civilizations (Egyptians, Ancient Persians and Greeks) grew wealthy, ornamental gardening came into its own, with immense ornamental landscapes designed, constructed, and documented in detail by artists and writers. Gardeners today are able to take the best from both worlds, mixing the edible and ornamental for increased garden value.

     

    Feathery fennel is beautiful and tasty. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Add Ornamental Vegetables

    The vegetable gardener’s mantra—“Grow what you like to eat”—is a good place to start if you have decided to take the plunge and mix some edibles among your ornamental plants.  The feathery fronds of bronze or green fennel make a lovely addition to any garden and also attract swallowtail butterflies, but if you don’t like fennel, growing it may waste space that is better used for other plants.

    Just about everyone loves fresh tomatoes and peppers, which are easy to grow and come in many varieties.  They also thrive under the same conditions as horticultural divas like roses—at least 8 hours of sunlight per day, rich soil and fairly consistent moisture.  The problem is that most tomato plants—especially indeterminate types that keep growing and producing all season–need some kind of support.  Typical wire tomato cages are not the loveliest addition to an ornamental garden.  Solve the tomato problem by training the plants up a simple bamboo stake or decorative tuteur or trellis that can hold its own among the flowering plants.

    This technique not only makes a virtue out of a necessity, but it works for other vining plants like beans, cucumbers, and even squash.  For a lovely garden backdrop, try scarlet runner beans trained up a trellis.  The flowers are a brilliant red and the beans are delicious either raw or cooked.

    Pots of tomatoes and peppers show off the beauty of these valuable garden vegetables.

    For a successful edible/ornamental combination, don’t neglect adequate plant nutrition.  Give both types of plants a good start by enriching your garden soil with a rich soil amendment like Fafard® Garden Manure Blend. Not only will it add needed organic matter for better water-holding capacity, it will also enrich the soil for better overall performance.

    Add Beautiful Fruits

    If fruit is your idea of the perfect edible crop, and you want a beautiful ornamental plant, try growing blueberries (Vaccinium spp. and cultivars).  These shrubs feature lovely pinkish-white, bell-shaped flowers in the spring, followed by neat, green oval-shaped leaves.  The tasty blue fruits appear in early summer and scarlet leaves announce the arrival of fall.  Blueberries like the same acid soil as rhododendrons and azaleas and would complement them well in a mixed shrub or shrub/perennial border.  Smaller varieties can even be grown in containers and can hold their own among the pots of geraniums and snapdragons on a porch or terrace.  The same holds true of strawberries, with their white flowers and brilliant red fruits, grown in the pockets of decorative ceramic or terra cotta strawberry pots.

    Blueberries are attractive, fruitful garden shrubs. Their fall foliage turns scarlet for a late-season show!

     

    Add Ornamental Herbs

    Herbs have long been used as ornamentals.  Purple basil makes a dramatic edging plant at the front of a border and would provide a perfect complement to red/orange marigolds or late summer dahlias.  The strong aroma of the basil also helps deter garden varmints like rabbits and deer.  Pineapple sage, with its variegated leaves makes a lovely filler for a pot of flowering annuals.  The leaves are also the perfect enhancement for a glass of lemonade.

    Purple-flowered cinnamon basil is a dramatic beauty that looks pretty in edible and ornamental borders. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    If your ornamental landscape is mature and already filled with plants, look for “holes” where you can install a few ‘Bright Lights’ chard plants or fill in with low-growing herbs like thyme.  Start small, with a few edibles and then, when the “grow your own” bug bites, increase the number of edibles.  You will be amazed at how well it all fits together.

    Bright Lights chard mingles with Profusion zinnias in this edible and floral border. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

  9. Hugelkultur Layered Vegetable Gardens

    Garlic, herbs and squash have been planted in this newly planted garden hugel. (Garden by Annalisa Vapaa)

    Looking to create truly sustainable vegetable gardens? Try a layered hugelkultur garden! These raised gardens layer in organic material to create deep reserves of truly rich soil for vegetables. They also allow gardeners to use yard waste, such as leaves, grass clippings, logs, and branches, for no-waste vegetable growing.

    Hugelkultur

    Over time, hugel gardens naturally develop deep layers of organic-rich soil.

    Hugelkultur (meaning “hill culture” in German) is a European planting style that uses permaculture methods to create fertile planting beds rich in organic matter and microorganisms. Designed for food production, the raised “hugel” gardens rely on a base of hardwood logs, branches, compost, and topsoil which, as they slowly decompose, increase fertility and water retention.

    Hugels can be as small or large as desired and should be sited in sunny spot that’s flat and spacious. They can be built from reclaimed materials from your own property or a friend’s yard. This will help you save money and increase the garden’s sustainability. Here are the materials and directions for making one.

    Materials:

    1. Hardwood Logs (Decomposing logs hold more water and break down faster.)
    2. Trimmed Branches
    3. Grass Clippings, Leaves, or Leaf Mulch
    4. Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend
    5. Fafard Premium Topsoil
    6. Straw
    7. Vegetable and Herb starts

    Directions:

    Outline the Bed: Create the hugel base by lining up your hardwood logs. Place larger logs along the outside and smaller logs along the inside. (You can also dig out a furrow to deeply set your logs, but this is not necessary. Large logs can create substantial outer supports for hugel beds. Some hugels are even outlined with rocks, logs, or even woven willow wattle for extra support.)

    Layer in Branches and Smaller Logs: Line up smaller branches within the log frame—trim large or unwieldy branches for a tight fit. A 2-foot layer is recommended.

    Compress Branches: Press and stomp down branches to reduce air pockets.

    Layer in Leaves and/or Grass Clippings: Layer in your leaves, leaf mulch, and/or grass clippings, being sure to pack everything between the branch layers.

    Add Compost: Add in a thick layer of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. Poke the compost down into any remaining pockets. Good soil-to-wood contact will help your branch layer break down faster.

    Add Topsoil: Add a final layer of Fafard Premium Topsoil and rake and shape your hugel to form an attractive mound. (Some hugelkulture guides recommend pyramidal hugel beds, but these are prone to erosion and difficult to plant. A rounded mound with a flatter top is better.)

    Water: Gently water in your hugel for at least an hour to allow moisture to seep deep down. This also encourages settling and will reveal any areas that might need extra topsoil. Let the hugel settle for a day or two before planting.

    Add Straw Layer and Plant: Cover the hugel with a 2- to 3-inch layer of straw, leaves or grass clippings to hold down the soil and reduce weeds. Simply move areas of straw aside to plant in your vegetables and herbs.

    Hugel beds will slowly break down over several years as the wood layers decompose, and as they break down, they will lose loft. Each year it helps to add a new layer of compost and straw to further enrich the beds and keep them weed free. In time, they will take on the appearance of more traditional bermed garden beds with the added benefit of very deep organic matter.

    Extra wood and rocks can be placed outside the hugel for added side support.

     

    Over time, hugels break down and take on the appearance of standard bermed beds.

  10. Creative Upcycled Planting Containers

    A pair of old boots make campy and unusual strawberry planters.

    If gardening is the great equalizer, enabling people of all ages and conditions to grow food, flowers, herbs and other plants; then container gardening is a super equalizer.  Making a “portable garden” means that you don’t need to own land, large tools or even significant space.  And, you don’t have to buy fancy containers to make your plants happy; just “upcycle” something you already have.  The only limits are your imagination and foraging abilities.

    An old shoe makes a fun, unexpected container for New Guinea Impatiens.

    Upcycled planting containers make gardening more fun, and they cost nothing. All you need, in fact, is something that holds soil, good potting mix, seeds or plants, sunshine, water, and you have an instant container.  Plant some zinnias in an old dishpan or grow a mess of tomatoes in a repurposed bathtub.  One restaurant reuses commercial-size olive oil cans to house billowing basil plants whose leaves are ultimately harvested and used in various dishes.  Irish gardener/garden writer Helen Dillon uses dustbins—trash cans—to hold plants in her Dublin garden.  Spackle buckets work well, and more than one gardener has pressed an old pair of boots into service as a sturdy container.  The list of recycling opportunities is endless.  In fact, almost anything that will hold soil can be converted to a planter.  People have been recycling old tires and wine barrels to make planters/raised beds for decades.

    Upcycled Container Rules

    An old sink gets painted and planted into a fun container garden.

    There are only a few rules when it comes to recycled containers.  The first is fitting the container to the plant.  A large hibiscus might need the ample space provided by an old wicker laundry basket, while a small herb plant or a succulent can grow well in a cut-off plastic detergent bottle.  When choosing a container to recycle, think about the amount of space the chosen plant might take up if it were in a garden bed.  Make sure the container is deep enough to accommodate the plant’s root system and as wide as the plant’s mature diameter.  Plant tags should provide you with this information.

    The recycled container should be clean, since residue from its original contents might be harmful to plants.  A thorough cleaning with a 10% (1:10) solution of household bleach and water, plus a good rinse should be fine for most would-be planters.

    Container Care

    A weathered trough gets a face lift when filled with beautiful mixed bedding plants.

    Container-grown plants also have some specialized nutritional, water, and drainage needs.  Make sure your repurposed containers have drainage holes at the bottom.  If making holes is impossible, fill the bottom quarter of the container with coarse pebbles topped by a layer of charcoal (available in garden centers).  Provide good nutrition from the beginning by investing in high-quality potting media, like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed or Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed.

    Pay attention to your chosen plants’ light requirements and position the containers accordingly.  Remember that “full sun” means six or more hours per day of direct sunlight, and even plants labeled as “good for shade” need a continuous supply of indirect or filtered light.

    Mixed petunias and bright lavender paint add charm to an old claw foot tub. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Overwatering is the number one cause of container-grown plant death.  Check plant tags or internet resources for water requirements.  Many plants only need water when the soil is dry an inch or two below the surface, but some, like primroses or hydrangeas, prefer evenly moist soil at all times, especially when weather is hot and dry.  Plants that are outdoors during drought periods may need water every day and should be checked frequently.

    Check Recycling Day

    Clever gardener/recyclers are always on the lookout for potential planters.  If your town has a “bulk pick-up day”, when larger discarded items are picked up for disposal, the perfect plant container may be waiting on a curb in your neighborhood.  Check your garage and attic.  A forgotten corner may harbor a perfect plant container.  The supermarket is also full of future plant pots, especially if you buy items like oil, condiments or canned goods in large sizes.  Look for promising shapes and sizes first, as many recyclable containers can be painted or embellished to suit your indoor or outdoor décor.

    Most of all, have fun.  The perfect recycled planter is probably closer than you think!

    An out-of-service toilet can make a humorous but effective planting “pot”. (image by Jessie Keith)