Garden Articles

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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)

  5. 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)

  6. 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.

  7. 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)

  8. “Cannatainers” or Cannas for Container Gardening

    Canna ‘Striata’ graces the center of an impressive patio pot. (Image by Mike Darcy)

    Cannas emerge from dormancy and hit the horticultural market in late winter and spring, so now is the time to get the show started. Numerous varieties are available from on line and local nurseries, either as potted plants or as bare-root rhizomes (the technical name for the thickened underground stems that give rise to all that splendiferous summer growth).

    Newly purchased plants should be grown indoors in a suitable potting mix until danger of frost has passed, such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix.  Ten- to twelve-inch plastic pots and a two-inch planting depth work well for this initial, indoor growth phase.  For their outdoor, summer home, cannas need containers of a grander and more massive order planted in a water-holding mix, such as Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix.  An 18-inch-plus clay or ceramic pot (or something in the way of a cast iron urn) is ideal.  Large wooden or terra cotta planters also work well.  Simply knock the plants out of their temporary, indoor containers and place them at the same depth in their outdoor quarters.  Then stand back and watch the fireworks happen (making sure to water liberally and fertilize regularly through summer).

    Although spectacular on their own, containerized cannas make an even more extravagant statement if combined with other heat-loving plants.  For example, the flowers and foliage of gold- and red-hued Coleus provide a striking foil for the sunset foliar tones of Canna ‘Phaison’ (right).  The possibilities are practically limitless, given cannas’ wide range of floral and foliage colors.

    When choosing cannas for container gardening, the sky’s the limit. For a lavish summer display on a less colossal scale, use a “dwarf” canna cultivar such as ‘Pink Sunset’, which offers dazzlingly variegated leaves and soft pink flowers on 3-foot (rather than the usual 5- to 10-foot) plants.  Or you can go the other direction and opt for something outrageously gargantuan such as the banana canna, ‘Musaefolia’, a Victorian-age behemoth that towers to 14 feet.  A bathtub of a container (and lots of water) is recommended.

    Cannas slow their pace in fall, requiring reduced water as they gradually die back to their rhizomes.  Dormant plants can be moved indoors, pot and all, for the winter, or the rhizomes can be lifted and stored in paper bags in a well-ventilated location.  Either way, cool temperatures (below 60 degrees F) are best for storage.

    In early spring, move containerized cannas to a warmer niche and water sparingly until growth resumes.  Split overwintered bare-root rhizomes into divisions of 3 or more “eyes” (the red, swollen growth points spaced along the rhizomes), and plant them in containers (as described above).   And start planning this year’s summer spectacular.

    An orange-flowered ‘Wyoming’ Canna looks in the back of a pot of tall red cannas and elephant ear. (Image by Pam Beck)

  9. The Best Vegetables to Grow with Your Kids

    My daughter after picking her first carrot from the garden!

    I remember the first time I pulled a carrot from the ground as a child. It was like magic. A simple carrot became a hidden golden-orange gem in the Earth that I could pull and eat! I’d wander the garden, plucking a cherry tomato here, a lettuce leaf there, or snapping off a bean to nibble. It was enjoyable, and I learned to love vegetables in the process. This is why I grow delicious, interesting vegetables with my own children. I’m spreading the garden fun and veggie appreciation.

    There were two things I cared about with vegetables as a child: 1. Is it fun to eat? 2. Is it fun to harvest? These are the criteria used for this list. As an added bonus for parents, these vegetables are also easy to grow.

     

    Fun, Yummy Vegetables to Eat and Pick

    Cherry Tomatoes:  There are so many cool cherry tomatoes to try now, and the smaller, sweeter, and more colorful, the better. I recommend ‘Minibel’, which produces sweet red tomatoes on tiny plants, ‘Sun Gold’, which produces loads of super sweet, golden-orange cherry tomatoes, the unusual ‘Blue Cream Berries’ with its pale yellow and blue fruits, and the classic ‘Sweet Million’ which literally produces hundreds of sweet red cherry tomatoes on large vines. Kids also love super tiny ‘Sweet Pea‘ currant tomatoes and ‘Gold Rush’ currant tomatoes, which literally pop with flavor in the mouth. Caging your plants makes harvesting easier—especially for little ones

    French Bush Beans: My children love French haricot vert bush beans because they are super thin, stringless, and sweet. The best varieties for kids are produced on small, bushy plants. Try the classic green ‘Rolande’ or the golden yellow ‘Pauldor’.

    Asian Long Beans: These beans look like spaghetti noodles! They are vining, so trellising is required, but they love hot summer weather, and kids love to pick and eat them. ‘Thai Red-Seeded’ is a great Asian long bean for kids because it grows so well, and the super long beans double as green hair or green bean rope.

    Beit Alpha Cucumbers: These crisp, sweet cucumbers are skinless, practically seedless, and taste great right from the vine. Bring a little water for rinsing, and a little ranch dressing for dipping, and they have an instant garden snack. The new AAS-Winning variety ‘Diva’ is my favorite because it is disease resistant and produces lots of cucumbers.

    Miniature Carrots: Mini carrots are easier for kids to pull from the ground, so they get all the fun with no root breakage. Tiny round ‘Romeo’ carrots and the small conical ‘Short Stuff’ are great selections for a kid’s vegetable garden. Both also grow well in containers.

    Yum Yum Mini Bell Peppers: The name says it all! These yummy, sweet, mini bell peppers look like Christmas lights and come in shades of red, yellow, and orange! The peppers are high in vitamin C and fun to pick. Just be sure to plant your Yum Yum mini bell peppers away from any hot peppers you may be growing!

    Small Pumpkins: Kids love to harvest and decorate their very own pumpkins in fall! The little guys, like ‘Baby Bear‘ and ‘Baby Pam‘ are just the right size for kids. Extras can be processed to make Thanksgiving pumpkin pies. Be sure to give the vines plenty of sun and space and you will be rewarded with lots of fall pumpkins.

    Strawberry Popcorn: Kids can believe these cute, deep red ears actually pop up to make tasty popcorn! Strawberry popcorn is produced on smaller 4-foot plants and the ears are small too. They are decorative when dry and can be popped up in winter as a happy reminder of warmer summer days.

    Growing Your Vegetables

    Organic gardening is a must, especially when growing vegetables for children. Successful vegetables start with good bed prep and summer-long care. Choose a sunny spot, work up your garden soil, and add a healthy amount of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost and Fafard Garden Manure Blend before planting. Keep your vegetable watered and watch them do their summer magic!

    When children grow their own vegetables, they eat their vegetables. They look forward to the harvest, and enjoy preparing what they have picked. Let them help snap the beans for a salad or clean the carrots before trimming and peeling them for snacking. There’s no better way to enjoy time with your kids while instilling good lifelong habits in the process.

    Picking and eating sweet ‘Sun Gold’ cherry tomatoes is always fun for kids!

  10. 5 Fast-Growing Spring Vegetables for Instant Gratification

    Spinach is a very fast-growing spring green, especially when harvested in baby-leaf form.

    “Patience is a virtue,” says the old adage, but sometimes even the most virtuous gardeners long for a little instant gratification.  Succulent tomatoes and winter squash are a great reward for a season of waiting, but not all edible plants require a long growing period.  In the “cool” growing season of early to mid spring, you can have your salad and eat it too—sometimes in as little as 30 days—as long as you choose the right varieties and provide them with a bit of sunny space.  Always check the seed packets of various varieties for specific directions and the approximate number of “days to harvest”.  Quick-growing veggies can generally be harvested in less than 55 days from sowing.  The following is a list of five of the tastiest and most popular “instant gratification” crops.

    Mesclun Mix

    Mesclun mix is very fast growing, especially if harvested as microgreens.

    This widely-marketed greens seed mix usually contains an assortment of early lettuces and other fast greens.  Depending on the seed producer, mesclun is sometimes also labeled “early spring mix” or “mixed baby greens.’  Some vendors offer a variety of mesclun mixes to suit different tastes.  No matter what the mix, the tiny seeds produce a crop of tasty small leaves in about 30 days, which is lightening fast by garden standards.

    Mesclun is easy to grow in containers, raised beds or conventional garden beds.  Sprinkle the seeds over moist soil and do not cover because lettuce seeds need light to germinate.  Water deeply using a gentle spray.  Sprouting should occur relatively quickly.  The young greens can be harvested when the leaves are four to six inches long.  Succession planting every two weeks in spring and fall ensures a continuous crop.

    Relish the Radish

    Radishes are ready to harvest in no time!

    Radishes add a peppery bite to salads, sandwiches or all by themselves with a little sweet butter and salt.  Radish lovers can rejoice in the fact that they are also quick to grow.  For fast growth, select early spring varieties, like ‘Champion’.  Sprinkle seeds over the soil and cover thinly.  When the sprouts reach about two inches tall, thin to three inches apart.  The young radishes should be ready in about 30 days.  The best way to detect readiness is to pull one, wash it and taste it.  As with mesclun, succession sowing will provide you with a consistent radish supply.

    Baby Carrots

    Kids love to harvest baby carrots.

    Veggie lovers know that the “baby carrots” you buy in bags at the supermarket were actually sculpted from regular-size carrots at a processing plant.  In-a-hurry gardeners can have the genuine article—real diminutive carrots—in about 55 days from sowing.  Little carrots are excellent choices for container growing as well.  Pick a small-size carrot variety, like ‘Caracas Hybrid’, and sow thinly in loose soil to which compost has been added.  A product like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost is perfect for this, providing the carrots with the lightened growing medium they need to produce straight roots. When seedlings emerge, thin to one inch apart.  Water consistently whenever the top of the soil feels dry.  At the 55-day point, or even a little earlier, pull one of the carrots.  If it seems big enough, you are ready for harvest.

    Spinach

    Spring spinach

    Popeye may have eaten his spinach straight from the can, but he knew that the leafy greens are tasty and exceptionally good for you.  Spinach is also a boon for impatient gardeners.  Like other fast-growing veggies, it is also perfect for container growing, which should be music to the ears of those afflicted with deer, rabbits or other garden varmints.  For container success, pick a smaller spinach variety, like ‘Melody’ or ‘Red Kitten’.  Sow seeds about one inch apart in a planting medium that is pH neutral and enriched with plenty of compost.  When the seedlings emerge, thin to two to three inches apart.  The spinach harvest should be ready in about 40 days, depending on the variety.

    Bok Choy

    Mature bok choy

    Sometimes also known as pak choi, this Asian member of the cabbage family has become increasingly popular for home gardeners, who use the mild-flavored leaves in everything from stir fries to salads.  For speedy results and/or container growing, choose dwarf varieties that can be harvested after about 40 days, when they are less than 10 inches tall.  As with other fast growers, sow seeds about two inches apart, cover with a thin layer of soil and keep uniformly moist.  Dwarf varieties can be thinned to three inches apart.  Harvest the entire head, as you would a cabbage.

    Fast-growing vegetables are a great way to hit the ground running in spring, but most have a tendency to “bolt” as weather warms, flowering and sprouting bitter leaves when summer’s heat sets in.  Save leftover seed for the second cool season in the fall, when you can rejoice in baby greens and radishes all over again.