Garden Articles

  1. Cool House Plants for Hanging

    Are you a house plant fanatic who wants new and different ways to show even more green specimens? Do you live in a small space with limited room for indoor greenery? Are you looking for new and different living accents to perk up your decorating scheme? If the answer to any or all of the …

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  2. Late-Winter Garden Cleanup in Six Steps

    A bit of garden housekeeping in February and March can literally help clear the way for the floral exuberance of April and May. With that in mind, here are some spring cleaning projects for late winter, on days when the Polar Vortex isn’t visiting. 1. Get rid of the deadwood. Winter offers a lot in …

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  3. Hardy Terrestrial Orchids for the Garden

    If you love orchids and outdoor gardening, then it’s time to welcome some beautiful hardy orchids into your garden this season! There are a surprising number of garden-grown orchids available at garden centers and specialty nurseries these days and many are surprisingly easy to grow. Once they put forth their first delicate blooms of the season, you’ll be hooked.
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  4. Bananas for Indoor Growing

    Banana plants (Musa spp.) are tropical, tree-like perennials that produce some of the world’s best-loved fruits.  In their native regions, they often soar high into the sky, crowned by giant paddle-shaped leaves, which can be 6- to 10-feet long, and pendulous bunches of fruit.  A mature plant bearing a bumper banana crop is an inspiring sight.

    But, bananas don’t have to reach the stratosphere or live in the tropics.  Dwarf and compact favorites can also do star turns as dramatic house plants, even in limited indoor spaces.  All you need to do is choose the right banana, the right spot, and provide a modest amount of care and feeding.  You may or may not harvest fruit, but you will have a fast-growing specimen that will bring a touch of the exotic to your indoor environment.

    Choose Your Indoor Banana

    The 4-6-foot pink velvet banana (Musa velutina ‘Pink Velvet’) grows well in large, indoor or outdoor pots.

    Some of the best bananas for indoor culture are varieties or hybrids of the Cavendish banana (Musa acuminata).  These are also the most likely to produce edible fruit if provided with optimal growing conditions.  In the wild, the species can reach 20 feet tall, but popular varieties like ‘Super Dwarf Cavendish’ and ‘Dwarf Lady Finger’ top out at 3 to 6 feet, respectively.

    If you are buying your banana for beautiful foliage, the range of choices is larger.  Japanese fiber banana (Musa basjoo), can survive outside in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5  to 10, but it is also happy grown as an indoor plant.  The large green leaves have the characteristic elongated profile, sprouting from thick stalks that can grow up to 8 feet tall indoors.  If your indoor space has high ceilings, Musa basjoo might be just right.

    Scarlet banana (Musa coccinea) has brilliant red ornamental spikes.

    The hybrid banana known as Musa ‘Dwarf Red’, ‘Dwarf Jamaican’ or ‘Macaboo’ bears green leaves with pink to red midribs.  The plant’s “trunk”, which is actually a thickened stem, is a dramatic dark red.  Confined to an indoor container, ‘Dwarf Red’ may reach up to 6 feet in height.

    On the smaller end of the banana spectrum is another hybrid, Musa ‘Truly Tiny’, which tops out at just 2 to 4 feet tall.  The plant makes up for its small size with big green leaves, occasionally splashed with red.  It is perfect for a corner, pedestal, or even a table accent.

    Scarlet banana (Musa coccinea) is another low grower that reaches about 4.5 feet tall, with large green leaves.  The “scarlet” in its name comes from the brilliant petal-like bracts that enclose the small, true flowers and provide maximum visual interest. Another compact beauty with red color is the 4- to 6-foot pink velvet banana (Musa velutina ‘Pink Velvet’), which quickly bears pinkish-red bananas. The fruits are very sweet but contain large, tough seeds.

    Growing Indoor Bananas

    Bananas need bright light to grow their best indoors.

    Like most other plants, bananas do best in conditions that match their native habitats.  Indoors a greenhouse is probably the best situation.  In the absence of a greenhouse, you can still grow banana plants in comfortable living situations with bright light.

    Start with cozy temperatures.  Bananas thrive at temperatures that are equally congenial to humans, 60 degrees Fahrenheit and above, but the warmer, the better, especially in the daytime.  High humidity is also helpful.  Place the plants in saucers filled with pebbles and water, or position shallow pans of water near the plant.  Mist regularly.

    Choose the right pot for your banana.  Online vendors often sell young plants in four-inch containers.  Transplant to a six or eight-inch container and watch for signs that the plant is becoming root-bound (roots emerging from drainage hole).  Installing your new banana in a very large container immediately is not a good idea, because the large amount of potting soil will retain water and potentially cause root rot.  Instead, increase the container width by two inches each time you repot.  Eventually your banana will need a roomy container—at least five gallon capacity and possibly larger for taller specimens–in order to thrive.

    Fill containers with a quality potting mix, like Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed or Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Soil combined with perlite in a ratio of four parts soil to one part perlite.  If you use a potting mix without built-in fertilizer, feed your banana every month with a balanced fertilizer following package directions.  Stop fertilizing in the winter months when the shorter days and somewhat cooler temperatures slow growth.

    Indoors, bananas need as much light as possible, and will do best in a south, east or west-facing window.  Position the plant away from drafts and rotate the container on a regular basis for even growth.  Water thoroughly whenever the top of the soil is dry to the touch.

    Bananas appreciate a summer vacation outside, provided the container is not too heavy or awkward to move.  Be sure to return the plant to its indoor home when night temperatures fall below 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Getting Indoor Bananas to Fruit

    This ‘Super Dwarf Cavendish’ banana has produced a nice bunch of bananas indoors.

    Bananas grow fast, but fruiting is slow.  If you choose one of the varieties that produce edible fruit, you may have to wait two or three years for the pendulous flower stalk to appear.  When flowering happens, don’t worry about pollination.  Bananas don’t require pollination to set fruit.  The fruit bunches will not be as large or plentiful as those that hang from outdoor banana trees, but they will be a source of much greater satisfaction.

    And if you never get any fruit from your banana, take pleasure in its elegant leaves and the fact that with the addition of only one plant, you have established a little corner of the tropics in the temperate confines of your home.

  5. Organic Plant Protection with Improved Horticultural Oils

    Oil-based insecticides have come a long way in the last few decades.  Lighter and more versatile than the “dormant oils” of yesteryear, today’s horticultural oils can be used at most times of the year and are effective against a wide variety of insects.  They’re also among the most benign pesticides, decomposing within a few days …

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  6. Growing Succulents and Cacti from Cuttings

    Got succulents and cacti? Then share them with your friends! These fleshy plants are some of the easiest to propagate from cuttings. So, if you have a special succulent house plant or garden succulent you want to propagate to swap or share, it’s easy to do.

    Plants from deserts and other arid lands rarely experience reproduction from seed because water is not plentiful. One common arid plant adaptation is quick rooting of stems and leaves as a means of spreading and reproducing without the need for seeds. For this reason, many dryland plants root quickly from leaf, stem, or tip cuttings. Here are some easy methods for propagating different succulent and cactus types at home.

    Leaf Cuttings

    These jade plant leaf cuttings show the progression of rooting and plantlet development.

    Common succulents with large leaves, such as aonium (Aeonium arboreum), jade plants (Crassula spp.), and kalanchoe (Kalanchoe  spp.), are all easily propagated from single leaves. The process is simple, and the needed materials are few. Here is what you will need and what to do:

    Materials

    1. Succulent leaf cuttings
    2. Sharp knife
    3. Shallow pots with bottom saucers/tray
    4. Perlite or porous growing mix
    5. Grow lights or a bright window
    6. Rooting hormone with an anti-fungal additive (optional)

    Method

    Succulents with large, fleshy leaves are perfect for leaf-cutting propagation.

    Use a sharp knife to gently cut healthy leaves from the stem. Dip the bases of the leaves into rooting hormone; rooting hormone hastens the rooting process and reduces rot but is not necessary. gently moisten the perlite or potting mix and nestle the bases of the leaves into the mix, making sure the bases are partially covered. Place the pots in a spot with bright, filtered light and keep the perlite or mix lightly moist to almost dry. Over a matter of weeks, the bases will root and small plantlets will appear. You can pot them up once they have several leaflets.

    Pups

    This Orostachys has developed stems of pups that can be cut from the mother plant and rooted.

    Many succulents with rosettes, like Agave, aloes (Aloe spp.), Dudleya, tender stonecrop (Echeveria spp.), Gasteria spp., Orostachys, and hens & chicks (Sempervivum spp.), reproduce by sending out stems of new rosettes, called “pups”. These are very easy to snip from the stem and root in fresh, porous mix. In this case, no rooting hormone is needed. Just a small pot of mix will do. Nestle the base of each pup in the mix, and keep the mix lightly moist to dry, and the pup will root in no time.  [Click here to read an article about starting agave pups.]

    Stem and Tip Cuttings

    The cut paddle stems of prickly pear will quickly root into whole new plants.

    Succulents with smaller leaves, like sedums, or no leaves, like cacti, are best propagated by tip or stem cuttings. Tip and stem cuttings require most of the same materials as leaf cuttings. With tip cuttings, you remove the very tip of a growing point. Simply cut or snip off the tip, remove several of the bottom leaves, dip in rooting hormone and nestle it in perlite or potting mix. Stem cuttings are comparable but you cut a larger stem for a larger, more robust start.

    When taking cuttings from cacti, always wear thick gloves. Cut a candle, side stem, or pad from the cactus, dip the cut base in rooting hormone and nestle it in a pot of perlite, which is faster draining and better for cactus starts. In a matter of weeks it should root.

    Potting Cacti and Succulent Starts

    Once your cuttings have rooted, you can transplant them into their own pots of mix.

    When your cuttings have set root and begun to grow, it’s time to plant them. Choose small pots that are the right size for each plant, and fill them with Black Gold Cactus Mix, or Fafard Professional Potting Mix amended with a 2:1 ratio of perlite. Both mixes are perfect for growing cactus and succulents. Cover the roots of your new starts, water them in, and keep them just moist to dry. During the winter months, water them very little to none to avoid root rot.

    Once you learn how to propagate succulents, swap them with other succulent lovers to add new, exciting plants to your collection. These easy-to-grow house plants are always welcome to any plant lover.

  7. The Best Hardy Camellias for the Landscape

    Camellias have been known to trigger acute plant envy in Northern U.S. gardeners.  If only those voluptuous blooms came on hardier shrubs that could withstand sub-zero temperatures.

    As a matter of fact, in some cases they do.  Although most camellias trace their origins to mild subtropical and maritime areas of East Asia, a few hail from chillier regions.  These cold-hardy camellias have contributed their genes to the development of new varieties that are as happy in Newport, Rhode Island as they are in Newport News, Virginia.

    Hardy Camellia Origins

    The hardiest spring-blooming camellias can even take snow flurries.

    Many of these winter-ready camellias owe their toughness to arguably the hardiest species in the genus, Camellia oleifera.  Widely cultivated in China for its seed oil, it occurs in the wild as far north as Shaanxi Province, where winter temperatures resemble those in south-coastal New England and the upper Mid-Atlantic.  In American gardens, it’s grown chiefly for its fragrant, white, 2- to 3-inch-flowers, borne in fall on large, shrubby plants furnished with oval, evergreen leaves that taper at the tips.  The handsome gray-brown bark makes an eye-catching winter feature.

    Camellia oleifera proved its hardiness in a series of bitterly cold winters that clobbered the eastern U.S. in the late 1970s.  Of hundreds of decades-old camellias at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., only a dozen or so survived – including several selections and hybrids of this rugged species. Subsequently, horticulturists have used Camellia oleifera to produce a number of comely cultivars that flourish into USDA Zone 6 (0 to minus 10 degrees F minimum temperatures).  Most of them produce pink or white, 3-inch-wide, single to double flowers in early to mid-fall (the earlier the better, so as to escape damage from Arctic spells).

    Recent introductions of Camellia japonica (shown) from Korea and northern Japan are very hardy. (Image by PumpkinSky)

    Camellia oleifera and its progeny are not the only hardy camellias on the block, however.  Recent introductions of Camellia japonica from Korea and northern Japan are also blessed with USDA Zone 6 hardiness.  Handsome year-round, they typically form dense 6- to 12-foot shrubs with lustrous, leathery, evergreen leaves and early-spring flushes of rich-red, 2- to 3-inch-wide flowers accented with yellow stamens.

    Thanks to these two species, gardeners in Zone 6 can now do the formerly unthinkable: enjoy a fall and spring garden display of showy camellias.

    Fall-Blooming Hardy Camellias

    The flowers of Camellia ‘Snow Flurry’ appear in mid to late autumn.

    Camellia ‘Autumn Spirit’

    Combining the showy flowers of the cold-tender Camellia sasanqua with the Zone 6 hardiness of Camellia oleifera, this highly prized hybrid bears zingy, double rose-pink flowers in early to mid-autumn, well before freezing weather threatens.  They’re lovely planted in combination with Colchicum ‘Waterlily’.  The dense, 8-foot plants have relatively small, dark green leaves.

    Camellia ‘Snow Flurry’

    Two of the hardiest white-flowered camellias (‘Plain Jane’ and ‘Frost Princess’) teamed up to produce this beautiful, tough-as-nails cultivar.  Frilly white pompons appear in early to mid-autumn on a fast-growing shrub that takes well to early spring pruning and winters reliably through Zone 6.  Combine it with Anemone japonica ‘Whirlwind’ and Ilex glabra ‘Ivory Queen’ for a fall symphony in white.

    Camellia ‘Survivor’

    Single white flowers open in mid-fall on vigorous 10- to 20-foot plants.  A hybrid of Camellia oleifera, it lives up to its name by consistently showing superior hardiness in cold-winter climates (to USDA Zone 6).

    Camellia ‘Winter’s Star’

    Named for the shape of its single, lavender-pink flowers, ‘Winter’s Star’ actually commences bloom in October, well before the onset of winter weather in Zone 6 (where it’s perfectly hardy).  It forms an open, conical, 10- to 12-foot shrub.

    Spring-Blooming Hardy Camellias

    The flowers of Camellia japonica ‘Bloomfield’ appear in late winter to early spring.

    Camellia japonica ‘April Remembered’

    No cold-climate camellia produces anything more luscious than the 5-inch-wide, semi-double, creamy-pink flowers of this remarkably hardy 1996 introduction from Camellia Forest Nursery.  It rapidly forms a vigorous, 6- to 10-foot shrub with large rich-green leaves.  If you garden in USDA Zone 6 but want bodacious Southern belle camellias, ‘April Remembered’ is the place to start.  And yes – it does bloom during the first warm days of April, or sometimes March.

    Camellia japonica ‘Bloomfield’

    Brilliant red flowers, lush foliage, and a large, dense, rounded habit make for one of best all-around camellias for Zone 6 gardens.  The single, 3-inch-wide blooms occur in flushes during mild spells in late winter and early spring.  The original plant – grown from Korean seed at Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia – is more than 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide.

    Camellia japonica ‘Korean Fire’

    Smoldering-red, six-petaled, 2-inch-wide flowers repeat from late winter through early spring, weather permitting.  Perhaps the hardiest camellia variety introduced to date, ‘Korean Fire’ is well worth trying in favorable microclimates into USDA Zone 5.  Plants grow to 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide.

    Growing Camellias

    All camellias grow best in acid, friable, humus-rich soil, with protection from north winds and strong sunlight. If you garden in sandy or heavy soil, give your camellia an extra-wide planting hole (at least 3 times wider than the root ball), and amend the backfill with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost.  Spring planting and a yearly application of an inch or two of compost are also advisable, whatever the soil.

  8. Clivia for Glorious Winter Flowers

    From the last week of November through the first of the New Year, many of us are surrounded by colorful seasonal decorations.  But then January arrives and all that glitters is gone.  To stave off Seasonal Affective Disorder, or at least help tide you over until the first crocuses push up through the cold earth, invest in house plants that bloom naturally during the winter months.  Clivia miniata, occasionally called “Natal lily” or “fire lily”, but most often known as just plain “clivia”, is one of the best.

    With bold orange or yellow clusters of trumpet flowers blooming atop tall (18-24”) stalks and strappy green leaves, clivia is reminiscent of other well-loved Amaryllis family members, like Nerine and Crinum.  It is a perennial, but is only winter hardy in USDA Zones 9-11.  The upward-facing clivia trumpets are somewhat smaller than those of another relative, the showy amaryllis (Hippeastrum app.), but each cluster contains more flowers.  Clivia colors are dramatic—bright orange is the most common—but it is not hard to find pale or bright yellow varieties.

    Clivia History

    Clivia is winter hardy in USDA Zones 9-11, but it is also a popular house plant.

    The genus was named in honor of an Englishwoman, Lady Charlotte Florentia Clive, wife of an early nineteenth century Duke of Northumberland.  Clivia is native to coastal areas in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa, where the orange-flowered form was discovered by English plant hunters in the early 1820’s.  The first plants to bloom in England did so in 1827 in a greenhouse at Syon House, one of the Northumberlands’ residences.  Much later, in 1888, a rarer, yellow-flowered clivia was discovered, also in the Natal.

    The colorful flowers were a hit and clivia became a “must have” for wealthy Victorian plant collectors.  As the nineteenth century progressed, the cheerful orange blooms made frequent appearances in conservatories and greenhouses.  Fast forward nearly 100 years, to the second half of the twentieth century, and breeders in the United States, Australia and elsewhere were hard at work enlarging the number of forms and colors, especially in the yellow range.  Hybridization has also resulted in peach, pink and red-flowered forms, though they are quite expensive.  While clivia hybridizing is not difficult, it takes many plant generations to produce strong, reliable new strains that come true from seed.

    Clivia Sources

    These days, orange and yellow clivia are available at reasonable prices from many traditional and online outlets.  For instant color, buy blooming specimens, which are the most expensive.  However, if you are willing to be patient and play the long game, you can get a smaller plant for relatively little and nurture it to blooming size.  Remember that the pictures you see online or in catalogs are probably photos of mature plants.  Your clivia may not have as many blooms, especially in its first year or two of flowering.

    Clivia Care

    This deepest orange-red clivia is a real show stopper.

    Whether your clivia is mature or somewhat smaller, pot it up using a high-quality potting mixture, like Fafard® Professional Potting Mix.  The size of the decorative pot should only be a little larger than the nursery pot.  Clivia is fond of close quarters.

    The care regimen is reasonably easy.  If yours is already in bloom, position the pot where you can see the flowers best, water when the top of the soil feels dry, and enjoy the show for up to a month.  Afterwards, place in a sunny window and continue to water and feed once a month with a balanced fertilizer diluted according to package directions.  If you can do so, let your clivia have a summer vacation outside in a lightly shaded location that is protected from wind and other weather-related disturbances.

    If you live in a cold-winter area, bring the plant indoors before the first frost.  To stimulate winter bloom, stop watering around October 1, and put the clivia in a cool place, ideally with a temperature between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit, for at least five weeks and preferably a bit longer.  When the dormancy period is over, bring the plant back into the warmth and light and begin watering again.  Flower stalks should appear after a few weeks.  Keep up this routine for a few years, and you will most likely see more flowers every year.  When repotting, which should only happen after several years, do not increase the pot size dramatically or flowering may be affected.

    Unlike some other decorative plants, clivia is an excellent long-term investment.  It is well worth it to see some floral light at the end of the mid-winter tunnel.

  9. Holiday Decorating with Evergreens

    Evergreens of all kinds are a sign of the season, whether used to decorate our landscapes, containers, holiday vases, or festive winter scenes. Needled branches and pine cones also fill the air with resinous fragrance associated with snowy days and glad tidings. Here are several jolly ways to use evergreens and evergreen branches to decorate …

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  10. 10 Best Trees for Year-Round Interest

    Everyday trees provide beauty, shade, air purification and windbreaks, not to mention food and shelter for birds and animals. In spite of all that, we gardeners sometimes ask for even more—four seasons of interest. The following 10 trees are great landscape performers, adding something special to the landscape in every season, including varying combinations of …

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