Garden Articles

  1. Growing Scented Geraniums

    Citronella-scented geranium deters mosquitoes.

    In the centuries before sewers and daily bathing were common, rank odors were everywhere.  That is probably why Europeans were so excited when scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) first arrived from their native South Africa in the early 17th century. With aromatic leaves exuding the fragrance of roses, citrus, or spice, the plants were immediately pressed into service as weapons in the ongoing battle against undesirable smells.

    Scented Geranium History

    Some of the earliest scented geranium specimens were shipped to Holland by the Dutch East India Company and found their way into the hands of Dutch plant breeders, who propagated and cross bred them.  Rose-scented types, especially the intensely fragrant Pelargonium graveolens ‘Attar of Roses’, were eventually produced in mass quantities for the perfume industry.  By the Victorian era, the number of varieties had exploded, and the fragrant plants had become garden and conservatory staples.  After a dip in popularity in the 20th century, the attractive and intoxicating plants are enjoying a renaissance, with 80 or more varieties available from specialty nurseries, like Mountain Valley Growers.

    Scented Geranium Types

    Apple scented geranium has a delightful scent good for potpourri.

    Scented geraniums are members of the Pelargonium genus, just like the common backyard and window box flowers that gardeners have loved for generations.  In the case of fragrant types, tiny hairs on leaves and stems produce the various characteristic scents.

    The plants are loosely grouped into five fragrance categories, including: rose, citrus, mint, spice and “pungent” (with overtones of camphor, eucalyptus, or other strong, woodsy or medicinal aromas).  The rose, citrus, and mint fragrances seem to be the strongest, with others like apricot and chocolate, registering more subtly.  A fifth category, oak-leaf, comprises varieties bred from the Pelargonium quercifolium species, featuring oak-like leaves that bear distinctive, sometimes citrusy, or pungent scents.  In all cases, the scents are most noticeable when you rub leaves between your fingers, or brush by the plants on a sunny day.

    While common geraniums are grown for their big, showy flowerheads, scented types feature smaller blooms and rely largely on the allure of sweet-smelling leaves.  Those leaves vary from small and deeply dissected, like those of the classic lemon-scented P. crispum , to the scalloped and almost tomato-like foliage of the heavenly-smelling P. graveolens ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’.  Plants can be relatively slender and erect, or short and squat, and some varieties may sport variegated leaves.  A few, like P. x fragrans ‘Logeei’, feature a cascading habit that works well in hanging baskets.  The unscented flowers bloom in shades of cream, pink, red and purple, with bi-colored varieties marked with contrasting blotches.

    Some of the most popular scented varieties include: Pelargonium graveolens ‘Lady Plymouth’, with large, cream-edged leaves and a rose fragrance; P. ‘Citronella’, with a lemon scent that is reputed to repel mosquitoes; P. graveolens ‘Old Fashioned Rose’, with purple flowers and an intense rose fragrance; P. fragrans ‘Old Spice’, reminiscent of the famous men’s cologne, and ‘Apple’, with a distinctive fruity aroma.

    Growing Scented Geraniums

    Pelargonium graveolens comes in rose-scented varieties.

    Scented geraniums are easy to grow and can get along well in a sunny window in cold winter climates.  Most appreciate a summer vacation outdoors—either in containers or garden beds– beginning when night temperatures rise above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

    To grow these fragrant plants, start with a good potting mix, like Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed, lightened with an equal amount of Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost.  Unglazed clay pots work better than plastic ones, allowing the soil to dry out more quickly.  Water only when the top of the soil feels dry.  Fertilize bi-weekly with 1/2 teaspoon of water soluble fertilizer per gallon of water.  In winter, when plant growth slows, discontinue fertilizing.  Prune plants periodically to maintain fuller growth.

    The Victorians found that fresh rose or lemon geranium leaves added distinction to foods.  The flavors are not overwhelming, but lend delicate notes to cakes, custards and other baked goods.  Bury leaves in a closed sugar container for a few days and then use the flavored sugar to enhance the taste of teas or cold beverages.  Elsewhere in the household, dry the leaves until crumbly to hold their scents in sachets and potpourris.

    As landscape plants, scented geraniums work especially well in herb gardens, containers, and raised beds.  For maximum enjoyment, position them close to paths or entry areas, where visitors can brush the leaves and liberate their unique fragrances.

    It is thought that geraniums’ scented leaves evolved as a defense against plant predators.  Many centuries later, they attract plant lovers.

  2. The Best Reblooming Shrubs for Summer

    Panicle hydrangea blooms through much of the summer.

    Flowering shrubs do lots of good things in the garden, but their length of bloom often disappoints.  Exceptions do occur, with hybrid roses being the most obvious and ubiquitous example.  They’re not the only shrubs that bloom long and well, though.  Here are seven of the best of the rest.  Their individual flowers may not be as voluptuous as those of a hybrid tea rose, but in other respects – including habit, foliage, and disease-resistance – they more than hold their own.

     

    Littleleaf Lilac and Hybrids

    Littleleaf lilac has smaller blooms that rebloom in midsummer.

    Almost all lilacs are one-and-done bloomers.  Not so with littleleaf lilac ‘Superba’ (Syringa pubescens ssp. microphylla ‘Superba’).  Abundant clusters of sweet-scented, pale lilac-pink flowers open from reddish buds in mid-spring, a few days after those of common lilac.  Then, in midsummer, a miracle occurs, with a second flush of blooms developing on the current season’s growth.  Littleleaf lilac is also attractive out of bloom, forming a dense, rounded, 8-foot specimen clad in dainty, privet-like leaves.  Plant breeders have crossed ‘Superba’ with other lilacs to produce several repeat-blooming cultivars, including those in the Bloomerang® Series.   For maximum rebloom, plant ‘Superba’ and its offspring in full sun and fertile, loamy, near-neutral soil.  A spring top-dressing of Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost is all to the good.  These lilacs do best in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 8.

     

    Summer Snowflake Doublefile Viburnum

    Summer snowflake is a reblooming doublefile viburnum. (Image by Russell Stafford)

    Viburnums, like lilacs, typically flower for only a couple of weeks per year.  One of the few exceptions is the remarkable ‘Summer Snowflake’ (Viburnum plicatum ‘Summer Snowflake’), whose terraced branches are frosted with flat clusters of white flowers from mid-spring to early fall.  It also differs from other doublefile viburnums in its relatively compact, narrow habit (5 to 7 feet tall and wide).  Although lacking the wide-sweeping drama of full-sized doublefile cultivars, such as ‘Mariesii’ and ‘Shasta’, ‘Summer Snowflake’ literally makes a better fit for foundation plantings and other niches where space is limited.  The leaves take on smoky maroon tones in fall.  All doublefile viburnums perform best in sun to light shade and humus-rich soil, in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9.

     

    Weigela Sonic Bloom® Series

    Weigela Sonic Bloom® Pink offers bright color through summer. (Image by Proven Winners)

    Many weigelas throw a few flowers now and then in the months following their main late-spring display.  This has inspired plant breeders to develop new Weigela (Weigela hybrids) cultivars that rebloom not demurely, but with abandon.  Those in the Sonic Bloom® Series are reputed to produce several good flushes of showy, trumpet-shaped blooms not just in late spring, but throughout summer and early fall.  Sonic Bloom® weigelas flower in pink, purple, or white, depending on the variety.  These relatively recent introductions have yet to prove their mettle in many parts of the U.S. – but they’re well worth a try in a sunny spot in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.  At 4 to 5 feet high and wide, they won’t take much space while you’re putting them through their paces.

     

    Caucasian Daphne

    A parent of the variegated, briefly blooming Daphne × burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, Caucasian daphne (Daphne × transatlantica) is in most ways superior to its popular offspring.  Where it particularly outdistances ‘Carol’ is in its repeat, spring-to-fall display of tubular, white, sweet-scented blooms.  The dainty, oval, semi-evergreen leaves are also attractive and are strikingly variegated in forms such as ‘Summer Ice’.  Most varieties of this outstanding daphne top out at about 3 feet tall, with their branches splaying with age (or with heavy snow).  It does well in sun to light shade in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.

     

    Panicle Hydrangea

    The flowers of ‘Pinky Winky’ panicle hydrangea darken in color as they age. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Not many years ago, panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) was represented in gardens almost exclusively by the mop-headed cultivar ‘Grandiflora’ (more commonly known as peegee hydrangea).  Today, numerous outstanding varieties of this exceptionally hardy species (USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 9) have found their way into horticulture, including many with lacy, conical flower clusters rather than weighty mops.  Most Hydrangea paniculata cultivars bear white-flowered panicles from mid to late summer, but other flowering times and colors also occur.  Look for ‘Limelight’, with full flower-heads that age to chartreuse-green; ‘Pinky Winky’, an early- to late-summer bloomer that evolves from white to rose-pink; and the late-blooming (and magnificent) ‘Tardiva’, with large lacy spires of white flowers from late summer to frost.  These large shrubs can be cut back severely in early spring to keep them in bounds.  Dwarf varieties such as ‘Little Lamb’ require no size control.

     

    Butterfly Bush

    Sterile, seed-free butterfly bushes are just as pretty but don’t self sow.

    How can we not mention the ever-popular, somewhat cold-tender butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) and its many hybrids, which draw in butterflies over much of summer with their steeples of fragrant blooms in a variety of colors?  Recent developments in the butterfly bush universe include the introduction of several compact, sterile cultivars with especially prolonged bloom and no pesky seedlings.  These include ‘Ice Chip’, ‘Lavender Chip’, and ‘Purple Haze’.  Buddleia davidii and its hybrids do best in full sun in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9, and usually benefit from a hard early-spring pruning, even in areas where they don’t die back.

     

    Flowering Abelia

    Flowering abelia is a long bloomer that will flower up until frost.

    Popular in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S., flowering abelia (Abelia × grandiflora and kin) are small to medium shrubs that could be used much more in the northern fringes of their USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9 hardiness range.  Their dainty, fragrant bells – in various shades of pink or white – cluster on arching stems from midsummer into fall.  Small, oval leaves add to the delicate, fine-textured feel of these quietly attractive plants.  Most flowering abelias are evergreen to semi-evergreen into USDA Hardiness Zone 6.   In zones 5 and 6, flowering abelias often work well as winter die-back shrubs, resprouting in spring and flowering in late summer and fall.  In all hardiness zones they benefit from early-spring pruning of snarled or winter-killed stems.

  3. Two Butterfly Garden Designs

    A monarch butterfly feeds on swamp milkweed.

    Everyone loves butterflies, and the threat to monarch populations has spurred increased interest in butterfly gardening. When planning a smart butterfly garden, you want to include plants that feed both adult butterflies and their caterpillars. This is essential because butterfly caterpillars are species specific, meaning they only feed on specific plants.

    Color, design, and site conditions are important when creating butterfly gardens. To make the job easy for new pollinator gardeners, we created two designs that are colorful and appeal to black swallowtail and monarch butterflies. Most butterfly plants are sun-loving, so these gardens are all adapted to sunny garden spaces.

    Black Swallowtail Garden Plants

    A black swallowtail caterpillar feeds on bronze fennel. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    The caterpillars of black swallowtail butterflies feed on many plants in the carrot family, Apiaceae. These eastern North American butterflies have many native host plants, but none are attractive enough for ornamental gardening. Thankfully, quite a few cultivated flowers also feed them. These include bronze fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, lace flower, and dill. When mixed with colorful, compact Magellan zinnias and Sonata coreopsis, which feed adult butterflies, a wild, lacy flower garden is created.

    Black Swallowtail Garden Design: This simple design shows a traditional rectangular flower border, but it can be adapted to fit any garden shape. Just be sure to keep the taller plants towards the center or back of the border. Most of these flowers are annuals, meaning they need to be planted year after year.

    Monarch Garden Plants

    Monarch caterpillars only feed on milkweed plants.

    All milkweed species (Asclepias spp.) feed monarchs. These colorful perennials contain protective chemicals that the caterpillars feed on, which render both the caterpillars and adult butterflies unpalatable to birds. The prettiest of all milkweeds include the orange-flowered butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa (USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9)), pink-flowered swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata (USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9), and orange-red flowered Mexican milkweed (Asclepias curassavica (USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10)), which self sows yearly. Monarch adults feed on all manner of butterfly flowers. The best are fall-flowering species that support the butterflies as they head to Mexico late in the season, like goldenrod and asters. [Click here to read more about growing milkweeds for monarchs.]

    Monarch Garden Design: This border design includes three showy milkweed species and dwarf late-season asters (such as Symphyotrichum novi-belgii ‘Lady-in-Blue’ (12-inches tall) or ‘Nesthäkchen’ (18-inches tall) and dwarf goldenrod (such as Solidago ‘Golden Baby’ (18-inches tall) or ‘Little Lemon’ (18-inches tall)) to feed migrating monarchs.

    Planting your Butterfly Garden

    These gardens are all designed for full-sun exposures. When planting them, feed the soil with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost to ensure the plants get a good start. You might also consider feeding them with a good flower fertilizer approved for organic gardening. Another important note is to avoid using insecticides, which will damage or kill visiting butterflies.

    These simple gardens are pretty and sure to lure lots of beautiful butterflies to your yard. To learn more about pollinator conservation and gardening, visit the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation page.

  4. Favorite Heirloom Garden Flowers from Seed

    Heirloom garden flowers are perfect for informal cottage gardens.

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

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

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

    Top 10 Heirloom Flowers from Seed

    China pinks (Dianthus chinensis)

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

    Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens)

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

     

    Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus)

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

     

    Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima)

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

    Marigolds (Tagetes hybrids)

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

    Jasmine-Scented Tobacco (Nicotiana alata)

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

    Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena)

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

    Old-Fashioned Petunia (Petunia hybrid)

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

    Scarlet Sage (Salvia spendens)

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

     

    Growing Heirlooms from Seed

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

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

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

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

  5. Pruning Apple Trees in Spring

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

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

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

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

    Pruning Apple Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Renewal Pruning Older Apple Trees

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

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

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

  6. The Best Spring Anemones

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

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

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

    Greek Delight

    Grecian windflower is short, early flowering, and naturalizes.

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

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

    A Different Kind of Snowdrop

    Snowdrop anemone is a European native with delicate white flowers.

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

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

    Wind in the Woods

    Wood anemone is a woodland native from Europe.

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

    Showy in the Spring

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

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

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

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

    Windflower Culture

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

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

  7. Starting School Gardens

    Children harvest vegetables in a Delaware school garden.

    What do famed chef, Alice Waters, celebrated anthropologist Jane Goodall, and actress Meryl Streep have in common? All support school gardening initiatives that not only teach children how to grow food, but serve as outdoor learning centers and launch pads for lessons in everything from math to creative writing. From the Julien Elementary School Garden in Turlock, California, to Matty’s Garden at the Matthew Whaley Elementary School in Williamsburg, Virginia, the Edible Schoolyard movement is spreading like summer crabgrass. School gardens of every size, shape and composition are springing up in urban, suburban, and rural school districts all over the country.

    Celebrity endorsers and patrons are nice but not necessary to start a successful school gardening program. The critical components are adult vision, student involvement, and the ability to muster enough resources to establish and sustain the garden. If you think you can combine those elements, you are ready to get started.

    It Takes a Village

    School gardens are one of the best teaching tools for kids.

    School gardens often start with a single person: a parent, teacher or administrator with a passion for gardening. But, no one—especially not a successful school garden organizer—gardens alone. Start by engaging others, including school personnel, parents, and students. Work on refining the garden idea.  Listen to everyone. Define the purpose of the garden and what kinds of crops you want to grow. Successful school gardens often combine food and ornamental crops, with the ornamentals providing visual appeal and attracting essential pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. (Click here to learn how to create a butterfly garden.) Use some of the many online school gardening resources to help in the planning process.

    Choosing a Site

    A good school garden site should have quality soil.

    Gardeners and gardening educators know that location is everything. Pick a sunny space on school property and make sure that space is reasonably close to a reliable water supply. If the soil in the designated spot is extremely compacted or contaminated, amend the soil with a quality amendment, like Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. You might also think about using raised beds or containers filled with high-quality planting mix like Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Soil. Large, well-watered containers will also work beautifully if the only available site is covered in asphalt.

    Plan and Permission

    Vegetables thrive in a school garden.

    Before seeking approval from school authorities, your team should develop a clear, logical plan that includes as much of the stakeholders’ feedback as possible, plus practical and logistical considerations.  The plan should also include a mission statement and information about the garden’s purpose, goals, size, and proposed location.  Create estimates of the necessary resources—financial and human—needed for set-up and ongoing operation.  Focus on maintenance, making sure to include provisions for watering and upkeep during periods when school is not in session.  (It may help to recruit a team of volunteers to help with upkeep.) Your goals may be lofty, but keep the overall plan simple and present it in a positive way with as many stakeholders present as possible.  Be responsive to school authorities’ concerns and be prepared to make plan revisions.

    Funding

    You are going to need funding for garden supplies and seeds or starter plants.  Many school gardens start with a contribution from the PTA or other parent organization.  Local businesses may also be willing to donate supplies or at least provide discounts. Dedicated, well-publicized fundraisers are another possible funding avenue.

    You can also seek out grant opportunities, some of the best being offered by Kids Gardening. This exceptional kids’ gardening program also offers additional educational resources to help educators and parents start school gardens.

    With all of these pieces in place, you should be able to start a thriving school gardening program. There’s no better way to help kids learn and get them outdoors.

  8. Traditional Asian Vegetables for the Garden

    Asparagus bean

    Many prized vegetables originate from or were bred in Asian countries, from India to Japan to Malaysia. Great emphasis is placed on the beans, cucurbits, greens, and root vegetables, and many are very old, select varieties collected and grown for generations. The best are flavorful and great for any home garden.

    Local climate often dictates growth preference. For example, vegetables bred in Thailand, Vietnam, or Malaysia are heat and drought tolerant, while the vegetables of northern China prefer cooler climates. Many of these crops are unknown to American gardeners, but consider trying a few this season, if you like Asian cuisine or simply delicious garden-fresh food.

    Beans

    Yardlong bean

    The asparagus or winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus) is both attractive and delicious—sporting red flowers and beautiful winged beans.  It is a warm season crop that produces long twining vines that produce edible beans just 75 days after planting. It is grown in tropical regions due to its marked tolerance to high heat. The unusual looking pods taste like a cross between peas and asparagus. Asparagus bean has added value because the leaves are eaten like spinach, and the edible roots have a nutty flavor.

    Also well-adapted to high heat and summer growing is the yardlong bean (Vigna unguiculata ssp. sesquipedalis). Its vigorous vines bear loads of very long beans that reach 12- to 16-inches and taste delicious. They have been grown for centuries in China and are best sautéed or stir fried.

    Cucurbits

    Angled luffa

    Japanese cucumbers are unique in that they are very long, thin skinned, and crisp. They grow on rambling vines that are best trellised to accommodate the cucumbers that can reach between 8 to 12 inches. Try the open-pollinated variety ‘Sooyow Nishiki’, which has thin, warty skin and crisp, sweet flesh.

    Many Asian melons exist, which are bred and selected to be remarkable sweet. The open-pollinated Japanese variety, ‘New Melon’ is golden, smooth skinned, and was developed in the 1950s for Japanese growers. Each vigorous vine produces between four to eight melons. Be sure to plant them as early as possible, because vines take between 110 to 120 days to produce fruit.

    Asian melons

    Most westerners know luffa as a natural sponge for bathing, but in China the young gourds are a popular vegetable. The angled luffa (Luffa acutangula) is commonly referred to as Chinese okra and has a sweet taste (much like zucchini) when harvested young. Give the vines plenty of space, or trellis them for easier growing and harvest.

    Greens & Cabbages

    Chinese cabbage

    Bok choy (pak choi) is a mild, cool-season green that produces rosettes of green leaves with fleshy white bases. These are fast-growing and typically eaten stir fried. Some varieties are very small and others large. The super small variety ‘Extra Dwarf Pak Choi’ is very fast growing , reaching full size in just 30 days, and is just right for edible container gardening.

    Valued as a spring vegetable across Asia, Korean minari is a leafy green that tastes much like watercress. It is closely related to celery and is a vital ingredient in Korean bibimbap bowls or can be prepared as a spicy vegetable side dish. It grows best in cool weather and slows growth in temperatures above 70 degrees F.

    Chinese cabbage is a well-known, cool-season crop that produces large heads that may be barrel-shaped or loose headed. Try the old Japanese variety, ‘Aichi’, which is a large, barrel-shaped variety that produces dense heads with a sweet cabbagy flavor. These grow and taste best in the mild temperatures of spring or fall.

    Root Vegetables

    Watermelon radish

    Radishes play an important role in the cuisine of many Asian cultures. These include watermelon, daikon, and hot radishes as well as those used for microgreens. All radishes are fast growing and best suited to growing in cool weather. When temperatures are hot, they don’t develop substantial roots and taste very hot. Watermelon radish types are some of the most beautiful with their red interiors and greenish-white exteriors. They are also fun for kids to grow. Try the Chinese radish ‘Red Meat’, which is thin skinned, sweet, and ready to harvest 60 days after planting.

    Turnips are a common root vegetable, but most western gardeners are not familiar with red turnips. These fast-growing, sweet root vegetables are popular in Asia and eaten fresh or cooked. They are typically red on the outside and white or pinkish on the inside. Try the traditional Japanese turnip ‘Hidabeni‘, which has flattened roots with scarlet exteriors and white interiors.

    Eggplant

    Green Japanese eggplant

    Eggplant is essential to Asian cuisine, from India to Japan. Most are elongated, mild, thin-skinned, and have few seeds. This warm-season crop bears many fruits over the season. One of the easiest and best varieties to try is the Taiwanese eggplant ‘Ping Tung Long‘, which is very heat tolerant and has bright purple fruits that reach over a foot long. The equally large green fruits of the Japanese ‘Choryoku‘ are also firm, sweet, and delicious.

    Favorite Thai eggplants are a bit different in that many are smaller and oval or round. They may be green striped or deep purple. The small, round variety ‘Petch Siam’ is grown from India to Vietnam. Its small green striped fruits are numerous, and the plants like high heat.

    Squash

    Kabocha squash

    There are many squash grown and favored across Asian countries, but some of the sweetest and best tasting are kabocha winter squash. These somewhat flattened, globe-shaped squash typically have dark green skin and gold to orange flesh that is smooth and very sweet. The open-pollinated kabocha from Japan, ‘Kuri Winter’, has very sweet, thick, golden flesh and dark blue-green skin. Plant it early as vines take 95 to 110 days to produce good fruit.

    Vegetable Care

    For high vegetable yields be sure to feed your crops with a granular organic vegetable fertilizer early in the season. Amendments such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost and Fafard Garden Manure Blend also ensure high soil moisture and aeration to encourage vigorous root growth. Double–digging is another great way to optimize deep root growth to help plants withstand moderate drought and high heat.

  9. The Best Maples for Maple Sugaring

    The best time to tap sugar maples is in late winter.

    It’s sugaring season across much of southern Canada and the northern United States.  The sun is climbing higher, temperatures are moderating, and maple sap is starting to flow.

    You don’t need sugar maples to make good maple sugar, however.  Purists may blanch at the thought, but several other maple species have sweet-flavored sap that flows on mild winter days and that boils down into delicious maple syrup (and other byproducts).  For example, some of the best Vermont syrup is produced by farms that depend on red maple (Acer rubrum) for much of their sap.  This is a good thing, given that Acer saccharum is in decline throughout most of its eastern Canada to Southeast U.S. range.

    Sugar Maple

    Sugar maple

    As its very name proclaims, sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is the traditional source of this arboreal nectar.  It’s also a Currier and Ives icon of the Northland, holding sap buckets in late winter and producing five-pointed leaves in spring that turn fiery hues in fall.  Mature, scaly-barked sugar maples line the streets of many old New England towns, as much a fixture as the clapboard colonial houses.

    Red Maple

    Red maple

    Red maple has a lot going for it as a sap source – especially for do-it-yourselfers who want to grow and tap their own trees.  Its sap is only slightly less sweet than sugar maple’s, with about 50 gallons (rather than 40) required to produce a gallon of syrup.  Moreover, red maple thrives in a much wider range of conditions, and attains tappable size (10 inches diameter at breast height) more rapidly.  Plant a sugar maple in a fertile, humus rich soil in sun or light shade, and its trunk will broaden perhaps a third of an inch per year.  A red maple under the same conditions will likely grow at twice that rate.

    Red maple also more than holds its own as an ornamental plant, typically forming an oval-crowned, 40- to 50-foot tree with attractive smooth gray bark that becomes furrowed and scaly with age.  The three-lobed leaves flush red in spring, deepen to lustrous dark-green in summer, and turn brilliant shades of red and orange in early fall.  Conspicuous clusters of maroon-red flowers festoon the naked branches in late winter, providing pollen for early-emerging bees.

    Numerous red maple cultivars are available from nurseries and garden centers, differing in characteristics such as size, habit, seed production, fall color, and cold-hardiness – so it’s likely there’s one that’s a good fit for your yard.  In nature, it’s found over much of central and eastern North America.

    Silver Maple

    Silver maple (image by Famartin)

    Red maple’s close relative silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is its equal as a maple syrup source, yielding sap of similar sweetness.  Its massive mature size, invasive roots, and susceptibility to storm damage disqualify it as a yard tree, unless a yard is of park-like dimensions.  On the other hand, if silver maple is available for the tapping, its sap is well worth the effort.

    Box Elder

    Box elder

    The same goes for another rather weedy, weak-wooded maple, box elder (Acer negundo).  Its common name and poison-ivy-like leaves notwithstanding, it is indeed a maple, and it does indeed yield sap that boils down into delicious syrup.  Although the sap is only half as sweet as sugar maple’s, it’s produced at more than twice the rate, resulting in higher syrup yield per tree.  Additionally, box elders are ready for tapping at a much younger age (within 5 years or so of planting) and smaller size (6 inches in diameter).  Box elder is also hardier and tougher than sugar maple, as evidenced by its coast-to-coast geographic range.

    Box elder has minimal ornamental value.  Nonetheless, it has given rise to several spectacular variegated and gold-leaved cultivars, which are well worth planting.  Look for ‘Flamingo’, with white-streaked leaves that emerge shrimp-pink in spring.  If you’re considering growing ‘Flamingo’ for its sap as well as for its flamboyant foliage, keep in mind that it grows more slowly than the wild type.

    Bigleaf Maple

    Bigleaf maple

    The sugaring season continues sporadically from late fall to spring in the relatively mild climes of upland California and the Pacific Northwest.  Here, the native species to tap is bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum).  Its sap has slightly lower sugar content than that of sugar maple, and flows most freely after relatively chilly nights.

    Norway Maple

    Norway maple

    Just about any residential district in the U.S. is likely to host Norway maple (Acer platanoides).  Formerly widely planted for its rapid growth and tolerance of city conditions, this Eurasian native has become a noxious weed in many areas of the U.S., invading native woodlands with its seedlings.  It’s easily distinguished from sugar maple by its furrowed bark, plump egg-shaped terminal buds, and erect flower clusters, as well as by the thick milky sap that oozes from severed leaf stems. Its winter sap, on the other hand, runs clear, and boils down into surprisingly palatable syrup.

    Black Maple

    Black maple (image by Daderot)

    Of course, if you’re fortunate enough to have some healthy sugar maples to tap, Acer saccharum remains the maple sugar tree par excellence – with the possible exception of its near-twin, black maple (Acer nigrum).  Black maple differs from sugar maple in its yellower fall color; hairier leaf stems with droopy leaf blades; and more furrowed bark.  Its sap, though, is equally sweet and delectable.  In areas of the North-Central U.S. where it outnumbers sugar maple, black maple reigns as the most important sugaring tree.

    Processing Maple Sap

    Fresh maple syrup

    You need a number of maples to tap for syrup. Each mature tree can produce between 10 to 20 gallons of sap per tree. It takes 40 gallons of sap to boil down to one gallon of syrup, so you need at least three trees to produce one gallon of maple syrup. Maple sugar houses require large sugaring pans to produce syrup. To learn more about how to process sap into maple syrup, read this article from Penn State Extension about Maple Syrup Production for the Beginner.

    The best time to plant your own maple is in spring or early fall.  Make sure the planting hole is the same depth as the root ball (or shallower in heavy clay soil), and at least three times as wide.  Backfill with unamended soil, and mulch the area around the newly planted tree with an inch of Fafard Natural Premium & Organic Compost, topped with 2 to 3 inches of bark mulch.  Water thoroughly, repeating when necessary (one or two times a week).

  10. 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.