Container Gardening

  1. Gardeners, Start Your Vegetable Seeds!

    Gardener's hands planting cabbage seedlins in garden. Homegrown food, vvegetable, self-sufficient home, sustainable household concept.

    Cool-season seedlings like cabbage can be planted outdoors in early to mid spring.

    Winter’s end is in sight—with or without favorable predications from the groundhog.  For months you have been eating frozen veggies, imported salad greens, and tomatoes that taste like Styrofoam.  It is time to think about an activity that is fresh, exciting and pro-active; something that will get your hands in contact with soil and ultimately, get your taste buds in contact with something delicious.  It’s time to start veggies from seed!

    Love It, Choose It

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    Seed catalogs carry some of the most interesting and wonderful vegetable varieties. (image by Jessie Keith)

    What’s best to plant from seed?  Almost any type of vegetable will work, but some work better than others.  [Click here to discover our favorite spring vegetable varieties!] Among the best are beans (bush or pole types), beets, carrots, corn, peas, radishes, spinach, and turnips.  Other possibilities might include herbs like basil; various greens and cucurbits, including squashes, zucchini, and cucumbers.  The best advice about plant choices is also the oldest: grow what you like to eat.  There is no point in starting radishes or mustard greens if you and your family will turn up your collective noses at the finished crop.

    Another good piece of advice: if space is limited, choose compact varieties  and/or truly special heirloom varieties that you can’t purchase as seedlings at the garden center. Seed catalogs are the best source for wonderfully diverse vegetables. Seed sources like Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Pinetree Seeds, Burpee, Parks, or Jungs all have great selections.

    Lay In Supplies

    seedlings

    Plastic cell packs are the best choice for seed starting (lettuce seedlings shown).

    Once you have made your choices, lay in supplies.  This need not be expensive. The seeds come first.  After choosing your veggies, look at the package directions, which will give you an idea of the best times to start various species and varieties in different regions of the country.  If you are starting multiple varieties, create a master schedule on paper or a computer spreadsheet.

    Next, select your containers.  Plastic cell packs are good and available at garden centers, nurseries, and big-box stores.  However, you can also use egg cartons or other containers, as long as they are clean and have drainage holes in the bottom.  Disinfect containers with a mixture of one part household bleach to nine parts water and rinse and try them thoroughly before using.

    Starting Strong

    2209Fafard N&O Potting_3D-1cu RESILIENCE front WEB

    OMRI Listed mixes are best for vegetable seedling cultivation.

    Strong plants require a good growing medium.  Fresh, soilless mixes are best, like Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Soil and Black Gold® Seedling Mix.  Both are OMRI Listed® for organic gardening and yield great results.

    Our potting mixes contain an all-natural wetting agent, so there is no need to pre-wet containers before planting.  Fill the containers with the seedling mix, leveling the mix about one quarter inch below the tops of the containers.  Follow the package directions for each seed variety, and be sure to label them as well as marking planting dates on your master calendar or spreadsheet.  Save the seed packets for later in the growing cycle, when you will need them for spacing and other information.

    Generally speaking, seeds should be planted to a depth equal to three or four times the diameter of the seed. Small seeds should be surface sown.  Plant two to three seeds per cell, gently irrigate them (bottom water and then gently mist the tops), and place the containers under grow lights. Many seedling flats have clear plastic planting domes to create a mini greenhouse for the plants. If you lack these, cover your pots with plastic wrap and poke a few ventilation holes in the plastic. (These should be removed once your seedlings have emerged.)

    Gentle Warmth

    Peppers

    Warm-season veggies like peppers grow faster and better with gentle bottom heat.

    Place the plastic-covered containers in a location where they will receive warmth and light.  (At this stage, high sunlight is not necessary, and may even “fry” the emerging seedlings.)  Setting up a table with shop lights fitted with broad-spectrum florescent bulbs for plant growing is best. These bulbs provide gentle heat and light in the right spectrum for plant growing. Flats should be placed no more than 6″ from the bulbs for strong stem growth. Include a seedling heat mat or two for warm-season veggies, such as tomatoes and peppers, and you are in business.

    If you lack grow lights and heat mats, a great place to start seedlings is on top of the refrigerator, where the seed trays will receive bottom heat. For the most part, starting with moist potting mix and a plastic cover will create a self watering system until the seedlings emerge, but check the trays regularly and don’t let them become dry.  If condensation is forming on the plastic, the potting mix is probably moist enough.

    Out of the Incubator

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    Thin seedlings so there is only one plant per cell or pot.

    When your seeds germinate, liberate them from the “greenhouse” by removing the plastic.  Watch and water sparingly, as needed, preferably from the bottom.  Don’t drown your baby plants!  Once they have developed a second set of leaves, thin crowded plants by snipping off weaker ones at soil level.  You should only have one strong seedling per cell. Follow spacing instructions on the seed packet.

    After you thin the seedlings, give your tomatoes or basil or cilantro what they crave the most—more light.  A south-facing windowsill is good, but be careful not to place seedlings too close to cold glass.  The other option is to simply raise the height of your broad-spectrum fluorescent light  as your plants grow.  Aim for about 15 hours per day of light to ensure good growth.

    Out of the House

    tomatoes

    Gradual exposure to higher light and outdoor conditions will ensure your seedlings will be fully acclimated before planting.

    Eventually the weather will warm up, all danger of frost will pass and your plants will be ready for the great outdoors.  Like all major moves, this one should be gradual.  “Harden off” your seedlings by taking a week and placing the containers outside, in a semi-protected spot with partial sun and low wind, for gradually lengthening time periods each day.  Gradually increase the amount of light and exposure they receive until their stems become stouter and their leaves are fully adapted to long days of natural sun.  Keep watering.  At the end of the hardening off period the young plants should be ready for planting in the garden.

    Little Seeds, Big Rewards

    Starting veggies from seed is economical, gratifying and lets you harvest vegetables ahead of your neighbors.  You will end up with greater variety, a more diverse harvest and—best of all for competitive veggie growers—big healthy bragging rights.

     

  2. Best-of-the-Best Spring Vegetable Varieties

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    ‘Alcosa’ savoy cabbage and ‘Sugar Snap’ peas (trellis) are two recommended spring vegetable varieties.

    Sweet crunchy carrots, crisp snap peas, and tender lettuce—vegetables like these just shout out, “it’s spring!” This is the stuff gardeners clamor for as they peruse new seed catalogs for the first vegetables of the season. But, with hundreds of varieties to choose from, it’s hard to know which are best for taste, yield, and good performance in the vegetable garden. This is where experience helps.

    My top ten “favorites” list includes some of the best spring vegetable varieties. For over 25 years I’ve grown hundreds of vegetables—choosing new favorites, losing duds, and keeping superior standbys along the way. My findings are corroborated with university seed trials, seed catalog customer reviews, and award programs, like All-America Selections. If you aren’t sure what varieties to choose from, let this be your go to source great spring vegetables!

    Beets

    Chioggia

    Candycane ‘Chioggia’ beets

    When choosing beets (Beta vulgaris), I go for tasty, early, productive and pretty varieties. Of the reds, ‘Merlin’ (48 days) and ‘Red Ace’ (50 days) are the most reliable and sweet and have performed well for me. Both also received some of the highest ratings for taste, uniformity and performance at a recent University of Kentucky Beet Trial Evaluation. Of the golden beets, ‘Touchstone Gold’ (55 days) is an outstanding performer that produces the sweetest golden beets. For looks and taste, the red and white candycane striped ‘Chioggia’ (55 days) is the heirloom of choice.

    Broccoli

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    Broccoli ‘Artwork’ (image care of AAS Winners)

    Good broccoli (Brassica oleracea) varieties for the garden must be heat tolerant and reliably produce large heads fast. My favorite spring broccoli is ‘Gypsy’ (58 days), which has reliably large heads with small beads and good heat and disease resistance. It produces well and develops lots of sideshoots after the first harvest. Gardeners interested in broccoli with extra-large heads should try the commercial standard ‘Imperial’ (71 days). It take a little longer to develop, but plants are super heat tolerant and high performing. Those seeking thin-stemmed broccoli should choose the 2015 AAS winning, ‘Artwork‘ (55 days). It produces many thin, flavorful, cut-and-come-again broccoli stems over a long season.

    Cabbage

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    Space-saving ‘Caraflex’ cabbage

    Small, crisp, sweet heads are what I look for in a spring cabbage (Brassica oleracea). Smaller heads are easier for me to store and finish, and they develop faster, which results in less damaged from cabbage loopers and slugs. The small savoy cabbage ‘Alcosa’ (60 days) is a reliable variety with sweet, deeply savoyed, blue-green leaves. Another small-head cabbage with good performance and taste is the conical ‘Caraflex’ (68 days). It’s heads look like perfect little cones and are perfect for small-space gardens. Gardeners interested in a slightly larger cabbage should choose the mid-sized ‘Tendersweet‘ (71 days). It’s flatted heads are comprised of tightly bunched, thin, sweet leaves.

    Early Carrots

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    Sweet, crisp ‘Adelaide’ carrots

    There are many carrot (Daucus carota) varieties and some are much better suited for spring sowing than others. The perfect spring carrot is fast-growing, crisp, and very sweet. The best I have grown for flavor and texture is the baby carrot ‘Adelaide‘ (50 days). Its small carrots develop quickly and should be plucked from the ground before weather warms. Of the many new varieties available, ‘Yaya‘ (55-60 days) is a mid-sized “sugar carrot” that’s getting top marks for performance and super sweet flavor. The equally sweet ‘Napoli‘ (58 days) is another mid-sized super sweet carrot that always yields perfect roots.

    Lettuce

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    Crisphead ‘Reine des Glaces’ lettuce

    There are many lettuce (Lactuca sativa) types, but my favorites are small, sweet, fast, and crisp. My very favorite is the little gem romaine ‘Tintin‘ (55 days). The little heads are all crisp, sweet, heart and they consistently perform well. Of the crisphead type lettuces, the French heirloom ‘Reine des Glaces‘ (62 days) is flavorful, slow to bolt in the heat, and has loose heads of coarsely serrated edges that look pretty in salads. Salanova® has a high-performing line of designer mini lettuces that are really nice. Of these, try the fast, frilly red Salanova®Red Sweet Crisp (55 days). Its tiny cut-and-come-again heads are wonderful in containers or small gardens.

    Radishes

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    Classic French ‘D’Avignon’ radishes

    Most think that radishes (Raphanus sativus) are spicy and make you burp, but good spring radish varieties are mild and sweet if you grow and pick them at the right time. When it comes to classic French breakfast radishes, nothing beats ‘D’Avignon‘ (21-30 days). The early, sweet, red and white radishes should be harvested as soon as they reach 3-4 inches in length for best crisp texture. The new purple radish ‘Bravo‘ (49 days) is reliably sweet, very colorful and slower to bolt, making it good for late-spring culture. Of the white radishes, ‘Icicle‘ (27-35 days) produces long, crisp roots that remain sweet with little bite, even when subjected to heat.

    Snap Peas

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    Reliable ‘Sugar Ann’ snap peas (image care of AAS Winners)

    Snap peas (Pisum sativum) are a must in my spring garden, and those that remain stringless, crunchy, and sweet are my favorites. The classic top-notch variety is ‘Super Sugar Snap‘ (60 days). Look no further if you seek a prolific, high-quality snap pea produced on 5-foot vines. Those interested in short-vine peas that bear early should pick ‘Sugar Ann‘ (52 days), which bears lots of sweet snaps on 2-foot vines. The 1984 AAS winner is a classic coveted by gardeners with limited space.

    Ensure your spring vegetables have a great start by enriching your garden beds with the best amendments. Mix a liberal amount of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost into your garden soil. Turn it in deeply to better support root crops and encourage vigorous root growth all around.

  3. Garden Healthy: Grow More Greens in 2017!

    Brassica juncea 'Osaka Purple'

    Purple mustard greens (Brassica juncea ‘Osaka Purple’) are packed with nutrients and very easy to grow in spring and fall! (Image by Jessie Keith)

     

    No garden vegetables offer more bang for the buck than those leafy wonders known collectively as greens.  Nutritional champs of the vegetable tribe, they produce a season-long bonanza of vitamin- and mineral-packed foliage while requiring relatively little care. For home growers looking to eat healthier by upping their vegetable gardening game in 2017, greens are a great way to get there. They are the garden vegetables for your health.

    They offer the added bonus of being trendy and made cool with diverse new offerings.  What once was a bland garden province is now a colorful universe of hundreds of leafy vegetables representing a wealth of culinary traditions.  Yesterday’s dutiful row of green looseleaf lettuce has given way to today’s exuberant waves of purple mustard, vibrant Swiss chard, ‘Red Russian’ kale, purple shiso, and other delectable foliar delights.  It’s a cornucopia of leafy edibles out there.

    From this world of possibilities, we’ve chosen seven outstanding leafy vegetables that will help make 2017 your healthiest vegetable gardening year ever.

    Kale

     and Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce MPMJAK

    Kale ‘Lacinato’ mixed among lettuce ‘Black Seeded Simpson’. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    What better place to start than with arguably the nutritional champion of vegetables, kale (Brassica oleracea)? Its dark green leaves brim with vitamins A, C, and K, and also offer significant amounts of calcium, magnesium, and iron.  Elaborately ruffled varieties such as ‘Starbor’ get the most market play, but flat-leaved selections such as the aforementioned ‘Red Russian’ tend to be more flavorful, tender, and garden-worthy.  The popular ‘Lacinato’ kale, commonly called dinosaur kale, is another perennial favorite.

    Harvest begins about 1.5 to 2 months after sowing, and continues indefinitely,  if leaves are taken a few at a time (“cut and come again”).  As with many leafy vegetables, kale tastes stronger in heat and sweeter in flavor after frost. Like other brassicas, it is very hardy and works well as a “winter green” grown in a cold frame or hoop house.  Although highly adaptable, it particularly thrives in sun and rich organic soil, benefitting from the addition of a good soil amendment, such as nitrogen-rich Fafard Garden Manure Blend.   Sow seed in spring and fall for a perpetual summer-to-winter crop. Where winters are mild, plants will overwinter and bloom in spring, bearing golden yellow flowers that bees cannot resist.

    Collards

    Collard ‘Flash’ (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Rivalling kale in adaptability and nutritional value, collards (Brassica oleracea) are a traditional Southern U.S. staple now found in markets and restaurants throughout North America (and beyond). Robust in both flavor and texture, the pungent, leathery, wavy-edged leaves begin to mature about 2 months after sowing, with cut-and-come-again harvests continuing well after frost. Though they will withstand summer heat, these hardy greens truly taste best when kissed with fall frost, so most gardeners opt to grow them as late-season greens.  Like kale, collards germinate best  indoors in slightly warm soil.

    Mustard Greens

    Kale and collards are both closely related to another nutrient-rich group of leaf vegetables, mustard greens (Brassica juncea) . Their fast-growing, peppery, tongue-shaped or lobed leaves make zingy garnishes for salads when young and tender, and even zingier additions to stir-fries as they mature and intensify in flavor.  They’re at their best (in both flavor and vigor) in spring and fall, grown from an early spring or late summer sowing.  When subjected to summer heat, they quickly bolt with golden yellow flowers that are also spicy and edible. Seed catalogs offer many excellent varieties deriving from East Asia (such as ‘Osaka Purple’) and the Southeastern U.S. (including ‘Southern Giant’), two regions where mustard greens have long been a hot commodity.

    Swiss Chard

    Beta vulgaris ssp. cicla 'Ruby Red'

    Swiss chard ‘Ruby Red’ (Image by Jessie Keith)

    A leafy variant of garden beets, Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla) lacks the pungent kick of the mustardy greens described above. It is a peer, however, in nutritional value and ease of culture.  Produced continually from summer until hard frost, the stalked, crinkled leaves are excellent in salads when young, or for sautéing and stir-fries when mature (about 60 days after sowing).   Several varieties of Swiss chard (such as ‘Bright Yellow’, ‘Ruby Red’, and ‘Bright Lights’) have colorfully stemmed and veined foliage that makes a decorative addition to annual beds and other ornamental plantings.  Plants grow (and germinate) best in warm, fertile conditions. Their leaves taste sweeter and more flavorful in cool weather.

    Spinach

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    Malabar spinach ‘Rubra’ (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is notorious for flowering quickly in the heat and dying. Malabar spinach (Basella alba), in contrast, thrives in areas with hot summers.  It’s also ornamental, nutritious, and just plain fun.  Unrelated to true spinach, this rapidly climbing tender perennial twines exuberantly up garden teepees and trellises.  Edible when young, the stems are lined with heart-shaped leaves that have a mild chard-like flavor and that go well in salads or cooked dishes.  The purple-stemmed variety ‘Rubra’ is as eye-catching as it is tasty.

    Orach

    Hot summers also don’t phase orach (Atriplex hortensis), another trendy green often suggested as a spinach substitute. Pairs of tender, tongue-shaped leaves are produced on low plants that flourish in most soils and climates.  Ready for harvest a month or so after sowing, orach’s mild-flavored leaves are perfect for sprinkling in salads and sautéed dishes.  Varieties with colorful foliage such as ‘Red, ‘Magenta Magic’, and multicolored ‘Aurora’ make arresting accents for kitchen and garden.

    Shiso

    Flavorful shiso withstands summer heat! (image care of Gardenology.org)

    Also doubling nicely as an ornamental is shiso (Perilla frutescens), long a staple of East Asian cuisines. Its upright, 1- to 3-foot stems are densely set with pairs of wrinkled, heart-shaped leaves that resemble those of coleus (to which it’s closely related).  The resemblance is particularly striking in burgundy-leaved forms such as ‘Aka Shiso’, which integrate nicely into annual borders, containers, and other ornamental plantings.

    The spicy leaves (whose flavor is likened to anise or cinnamon) are good for salads, stir-fries, stews, pickling, drying and powdering, and garnishes.  Tail-like clusters of small flowers extend from the plants in late summer, ripening to seed that falls to the ground and usually germinates the following spring.  Plant perilla once, and you may never have to plant it again!

     

    Fashionable and nutritious, these (and other) leafy veggies are just the thing for adding productivity and panache to gardens of all sorts and sizes.  Whether you tend several acres or several containers, you’ll find there’s lots to love about greens.

    Brassicas, like kale, bear golden spring flowers that attract bees. These are also edible and look great in salads! (Image by Jessie Keith)

  4. Houseplant Reboot

    Begonia 'Irene Nuss' (Superba Group)

    Some houseplants, such as this Begonia ‘Irene Nuss’, will continue to bloom through winter with good care.

    Images by Jessie Keith

    If your houseplants could talk, they would tell you that they like natural daylight—the kind you get outdoors—better than artificial light of any kind.  They might also say that the winter-time humidity level in your house is too low.  They hope that the compensatory misting you give them does something good for you, because it doesn’t help them very much.  Neither does the overwatering that they get from time to time.  In the midst of saying those things, some of them might yawn, as winter is a time when many houseplants’ growth cycle slows.

    What do your plants want in the winter?  The following will help keep them in good shape until spring sets in and growth cycles start anew.

    Tidying Up

    Anthurium 'A4' (PACORA™) PP11728

    Wipe down the leaves of large-leaved plants, such as this Anthurium, if they become dingy or dusty.

    Your plants, especially those that have summered outside, probably could use a little TLC.  Prune out weak stems, and cut back those that are too gangly.  If the plant has glossy leaves, like a gardenia, gently wipe the foliage with a damp cloth to eliminate pore-clogging dust.  Check stems, leaves, root ball for pests.  Many can be dislodged with a stream of water or application of insecticidal soap. If the plant is pot bound, repot with fresh media, like Fafard® Professional Potting Mix, in a clean container that is about one third larger than its predecessor.  Winter will not bring much growth, but it won’t bring strangulation either.

    Light

    Clivia

    Clivia are midwinter bloomers that need bright indirect light for good flowering.

    If you are blessed with a lighted greenhouse, all you have to do is find appropriate spaces for houseplants that prefer a bit of shade.  But if you, like many gardeners, have to rely on windowsills, try to put most of your plants in south-facing ones.  This may be too much for some popular indoor varieties, like African violets or fancy-leaf begonias.  Save areas with bright indirect light, like north-facing windows for them. Be sure to rotate your houseplants regularly to even out light exposure and avoid lopsided growth.

    Fertilizer

    In general, fertilize plants when they are in active growth.  For most plants this means little or no feeding in late fall and winter.  The caveat is that you should know your plant.  If it is a winter bloomer, it may need fertilizer during the colder months.  A little research on individual species will ensure that you fertilize properly for winter blooms.

    Humidity

    Calathea lancifolia

    Low humidity caused the leaf edges of this Calathea lancifolia to turn brown and dry.

    Houseplants like higher humidity—generally 40-50 percent— than the average indoor environment provides in winter.  If all your plants are in a single room, think about investing in a humidifier.  The added moisture in the air will be good for you, the plants and any wooden furniture in the immediate area.  If a humidifier is not an option, fill deep plant saucers with pebbles and water and stand the plants on them, making sure that the bottoms of the pots are not standing in water.  Replenish the water around the pebbles every few days or as needed.  If plants are grouped together and each stands on a bed of pebbles and water, the humidity level around them will be comfortably high.

    Watering

    Agave victoriae-reginae 'Variegata'

    Succulents, such as this variegated Agave, need very little water in the winter months.

    Overwatering is the most frequent cause of houseplant death.  Fortunately, it is also the most preventable.  Before you water, take a look at the plant.  Is the top inch of the soil dry to the touch?  If you pick up the container, does it feel relatively heavy or light?  If the specimen in question is a succulent, it is best to water them very sparingly in winter. If your plant appears to be too dry, gently feel a leaf or two.  Thirsty succulents tend to have slightly flaccid leaves.

    If the plant is dry, water thoroughly, until water flows out of the holes in the bottom.  Deep watering once or twice a week in the winter is much better for overall health than adding a little water every day. Some houseplants, such as African violets and Streptocarpus, need to be watered from the bottom to keep their leaves from getting wet; moisture on the leaves causes spotting and damage.

    Temperature

    Pilea cadierei JaKMPM

    Tropical plants like this Pilea need warm temperatures to grow well indoors.

    The majority of popular houseplants like the same indoor temperatures as the majority of humans. Like us, they also prefer to avoid extremes.  An ambient temperature around 70 degrees F are generally good. If you house your plants on windowsills, don’t let leaves touch the cold glass panes.  Avoid positioning them over radiators too.  Intermittent cold drafts from doors, windows or vents can also be harmful.

    Languishing

    Kalanchoe blossfeldiana JaKMPM

    Flowering potted plants may languish when you first bring them indoors for winter. Give them good care and they should revive.

    In late fall or early winter, houseplants that have spent the summer and early fall outdoors often languish while adjusting to lower light, less humidity and fewer daylight hours.  If the plant is in the right light situation and receiving adequate water, it will adapt and recover after a few weeks.  That does not mean that your plumbago or oleander or prize geranium will behave like the blooming fool that it was in the summer.  It means that it will live to dazzle you again when warm weather returns.  The same may hold true with houseplants that you purchase from a nursery, garden center or other retailer.  Many have been raised under near-ideal conditions and will need adjustment time as they get used to your particular indoor environment.

    1760FF Pro Potting Mix 2cu RESILIENCE FrontHouseplant care follows the same rules as care of any other kind of plant.  If you are observant, the plant will generally tell you what it needs.  Watch for signals and respond accordingly.  If the soil is too wet, cut back on watering.  If leaves appear burned around the edges, move the plant to a place with less light.  About the time you are feeling droopy due to winter blues, your plants may be similarly afflicted.  If you have given them good care, both you and the plants will recover as the hours of daylight increase.

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    Streptocarpus are houseplants that should be watered from the bottom and kept just moist in winter, never wet.

  5. Season Your Garden with Designer Herbs

    Golden oregano (top) and variegated pineapple mint (left) are two perennial ornamental herbs that should be planted alone.

     

    Knowing designer herbs is to love them. Like all herbs, they are easy in pots, window boxes and containers, but they are also as beautiful as they are fragrant and delicious, making them perfect for creative planting designs. Some have variegated or colorful leaves and others columnar or compact forms giving them a visual edge. A bold lemon grass in a patio container, trimmed mini basil contained in an urban kitchen garden,  or glorious variegated lemon thyme spilling out of a windowbox all look as splendid as they taste.

    Visually appealing herbal delights cover most culinary favorites. Sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano, and marjoram come in lots of pretty variations. Others, like lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), make a big impact in their natural form. Here is a sampling of some of the most interesting and lovely herbs to add to ornamental containers and beds.

    This trough planting of oregano (left) and tricolored sage (far right) shows the rhizomatous oregano engulfing the clump-forming sage, which is why oregano should be planted alone.

    Basils (Ocimum spp.) are some of the easiest summertime annual herbs for pots and many are colorful and attractive. Two for beauty and good performance are the purple-hued Thai basil ‘Siam Queen’, variegated non-flowering ‘Pesto Perpetuo’. Both add unique interest to containers and continue to produce flavorful leaves from planting time to frost. Purple sweet basils, like ‘Amethyst Improved’, are also beautiful but only remain flavorful and full if their flower buds are continuously removed. If allowed to bloom and set seed, they have fewer leaves and develop a sharp, strong flavor.

    Oregano is a classic perennial herb for containers and Origanum vulgare ‘Gold Tip’ and ‘Aureum’ are real show offs with gold-enhanced leaves and somewhat cascading forms. Two marjorams for color are the golden-leaved Origanum majorana ‘Aureum’ and beautifully variegated Origanum majorana ‘Variegata’, which has green leaves with irregular ivory edges.

    Some of the most diverse and interesting herbs for foliar color are sages (Salvia officinalis). These semi-evergreen herbs all have soft, velvety leaves. Three are real ornamental standouts. The rounded, silvery leaves of ‘Berggarten’ sage are unusually ornamental as are the purple, ivory, and green leaves of ‘Tricolor’ sage and the golden variegated leaves of the classic ‘Icterina.’ Purple sage (S. officinalis ‘Purpurea’) is another charmer.

    The bold, silvery leaves of ‘Berggarten’ sage (background) will add pleasing cool color to any container.

    Trailing and weeping plants consistently add flair to containers, which is why the trailing rosemary plants Rosmarinus offinalis ‘Lockwood de Forest’ and ‘Huntington Carpet’ add extra flair at the base of containers. Thymes are also choice trailers for spilling over the edge of a potted herb garden. Of these, the lemony gold- and green-leaved ‘Doone Valley’ is a perennial favorite, as is the silver-edged Thymus x citriodorus ‘Silver Queen’ and fine, compact Thymus serpyllum ‘Elfin.’ All add lush looks and strong fragrance to containers.

    When creating designs with ornamental herbs it pays to think of habits and heights as well as textures and colors. Life cycle and root spread are also important considerations. Small, annual, non-spreaders, such as compact basils, should be planted together. Aggressive, spreading perennials, such as ornamental oreganos, should be planted in pots on their own or given plenty of space in an herbal border.

    When designing plantings, remember that groupings look best in threes. One complimentary combo of three for a container would be the variegated and columnar ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ basil, a bushy purple sage, and clambering ‘Silver Queen’ thyme. Choose a spacious attractive container, water it regularly during the heat of summer,  and it will look lovely all season long. And when the annual basil dies through winter it can be replaced the following season.

    Aggressive spreaders should be planted alone. All mints spread quickly via rhizomes, and the colorful and deliciously fragrant variegated pineapple mint (Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’) is no exception. Oreganos spread almost as quickly and will overcrowd other herbs. Lemongrass is another that will create a huge clump by summer’s end, if provided a large pot and consistently moist soil.

    All herbs mentioned are sun-loving garden plants that grow best in fertile, well-drained medium like Black Gold All-Purpose Potting Soil. A light application of slow-release fertilizer early in the season will also help them remain vigorous and happy. Give them good care, and they will reward you with contained culinary splendor all season long.

    The finely variegated leaves of Thymus x citriodorus ‘Silver Queen’ will add interest to any potted planting.

  6. Merry Summer Marigolds

    Marigold Mix

    Mixed marigolds will shine through the warmest days of summer and fall. (image by Jessie Keith)

    Imagine a flowering plant so beautiful and sturdy that it lends equal brightness to elegant flowerbeds, gas station plantings and public parks all over the United States. Leaping nimbly over national borders, it also serves as an important decorative element for festivities associated with the Mexican Day of the Dead and plays a prominent role in all kinds of celebrations on the Indian subcontinent. It repels deer and other varmints, but attracts humans, who use it as a summer garden stalwart, harvest it for indoor arrangements and sometimes even strew it over salads.

    Marigold Doubloon

    The African marigold ‘Doubloon’ is a tall variety that produces loads of lemon-yellow flowers. (photo by Jessie Keith)

    The plant in question is an annual with an interesting Latin name—Tagetes—and a familiar English one—marigold. Blooming in shades of cream, yellow, gold, orange/red, red or maroon, its cheerful disposition and easy-going nature match its sunshiny colors. Some of the most sophisticated gardeners in history, like early twentieth century designer/author Gertrude Jekyll, have taken marigolds to their hearts and into their landscapes. Yet, it has also edged humble vegetable plots, anchored cutting gardens and been used as a natural pest controller. Fragrant and sturdy, the annual marigold is a classic summer bloomer.

    The two most popular species are the African marigold and the French marigold (Tagetes erecta). In keeping with the Latin name, the African erecta varieties are tall, growing between one and four feet. French varieties are shorter, maxing out at 18 inches. I am especially fond of the flashy French variety, ‘Harlequin’, an antique that features petals with alternating gold and mahogany strips. Both erecta marigolds sport pinnate or feathery leaves. Many popular marigold varieties are actually crosses between these two variants, combining the somewhat more compact habit of the French types, with the large flowers of the African marigolds. Though not as widely known, little Tagetes tenuifolia, commonly known as signet marigold, features petite, elegant, single blossoms and works well in containers and edging situations. The single-flowered varieties ‘Tangerine Gem’, ‘Lemon Gem’, and ‘Paprika’ are perfect examples.

    The large-flowered, compact 'Disco Orange' is a French marigold grown for its masses of tangerine-orange flowers. (photo by Jessie Keith)

    The large-flowered, compact ‘Disco Orange’ is a French marigold grown for its masses of tangerine-orange flowers. (photo by Jessie Keith)

    In addition to their many other virtues, marigolds are good travelers. Early Spanish colonists took the plants from their native Mexico, where they were sacred to the Aztec goddess Xochiquetzal, back to the Old World, where they flourished. Their popularity spread quickly to all kinds of places, including France and North Africa. This migration gave rise to the idea that the plants were native to those areas, hence the common names of some species.

    Daisies are the show-horse flowers of summer and marigolds are in the daisy family, Asteraceae. As with other daisies, each flowerhead is actually a mass of tiny flowers. The “eye” features a disk of tiny flowers surrounded by the showy, petal-like ray flowers. The red and gold ‘Scarlet Starlet’, with its golden eye and deep scarlet petals, is a perfect example. “Double-flowered” marigolds, like those of the tall, white-flowered ‘Snowdrift’, are not truly double but instead have only ray flowers. Given their origins in Mexico, it is not surprising that the plants still prefer sunny, open situations and grow best when it is very warm.

    2209Fafard N&O Potting_3D-1cu RESILIENCE front WEBMarigolds are among the easiest plants to grow—perfect for children and beginning gardeners. Most garden centers feature cell packs of starter plants in the spring and summer, but marigolds can easily be started from seed. Sow directly into pots or garden beds and cover with a thin layer of soil or Fafard® Seed Starter Potting Mix with RESiLIENCE®. Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix With Extended Feed and RESILIENCE® is a perfect medium for container-grown specimens.

    Water daily and seedlings should appear within a week or so. Thin the young plants to prevent crowding and once they have leafed out, pinch back the stems to promote bushy growth and abundant flowers. Established marigolds are somewhat drought tolerant, though container-grown specimens may need extra water during dry spells.

    Marigold Double

    (photo by Maureen Gilmer)

    Gardeners tend to either love or hate the strong smell of marigolds’ flowers and foliage, which have earned the plant the old-fashioned nickname, “Stinking Roger”. However, even those who hate the aroma can love the fact that marigolds have the ability to beat back the destructive power of root-knot nematodes, organisms that can damage or destroy the roots of tomatoes and other food crops. Marigolds’ roots secrete a substance called alpha-terthienyl that inhibits the growth of these parasitic nematodes. To use marigolds in this way, it is best to sow them as a cover crop between planting seasons. This inhibiting power, traditionally harnessed in countries like India, may account for the fact that farmers in many places have traditionally planted marigolds around vegetable beds. If nothing else, they brighten up kitchen garden planting schemes.

    Marigolds are a study in contrasts. Their simple flowers have enchanted sophisticated gardeners all over the world, while their down-home demeanor successfully masks a deadly arsenal of anti-nematode weapons. They are at once the stealthiest and most alluring denizens of the summer garden.

  7. Colorful Tropical Hibiscus

    Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Chiffon Breeze' (TRADEWINDS™ CHIFFON BREEZE, TRADEWINDS™ BREEZE SERIES) PP17606 JaKMPM

    Hibiscus rosa-sinensis ‘Chiffon Breeze’

    Giant blooms bursting with color—these make Chinese or Hawaiian hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) a floral favorite in sizzling summer gardens. Huge variety is another perk of these tried-and-true tropical shrubs. There are literally hundreds of types that come in many floral color variations and sizes. And, their familiar good looks bring to mind Hawaiian shirts, leis, and landscapes. What’s not to love?

    Native throughout tropical Asia, these hibiscus have been bred for centuries for their big, beautiful flowers. Through woody, they are fast growing and ever blooming, making them ideal for large patio containers and bed plantings. Their lush, deep green foliage creates a perfect foil for the big beautiful flowers. Some leaves are even glossy. These plants are only hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11, which means they will only survive winters in the most southerly regions of the United States. But, they will overwinter well in a sunny, warm indoor location where winters are cold. A bright south-facing window, sun room, or conservatory is perfect.

    Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Baja Breeze' (TRADEWINDS™ BAJA BREEZE, TRADEWINDS™ BREEZE SERIES) PP17607 JaKMPM

    Hibiscus rosa-sinensis TRADEWINDS™ BAJA BREEZE

    The flowers are between 4 and 8″ wide and comprised of five large, open petals. The largest varieties are the size of dessert plates. They come in loads of bright, tropical colors to include all shades of pink, red, orange, yellow, and white. Unusual colors, such as near black, gray, and purplish hues are also common. Many blooms are bicolored and tricolored, with radiating rings of bright color. At the center of each bloom is a protruding pistil lined with colorful stamens, which is attractive and interesting in its own right.

    There are literally hundreds of varieties of Hawaiian hibiscus. The International Hibiscus Society has a full register of every type under the sun. Anyone interested in learning more about these beautiful flowers should have a look. The wide ranging varieties give a complete picture of all this plant has to offer. To get a good look at exciting newer, interesting selections, check out the offerings of specialty growers, such as Charles Black’s Hidden Valley Hibiscus. His amazing hibiscus may be just enough to hook you!

    Garden center varieties are often bred for compact habits and high flower production. The Tradewinds varieties are particularly nice, being developed to produce lots of flowers on tidy plants ideal for container growing. Though the plants are small, they always grow and flower best in large containers that allow their roots to spread and easily access water and nutrients. Large containers also need to be watered less often.

    Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Erin Rachel' JaKMPM

    Hibiscus rosa-sinensis ‘Erin Rachel’

    Grow these beautiful flowers anywhere there is sun. They prefer fertile soil that drains well and perform best with some supplementary fertilizer for flowers. Starting with a fortified potting mix, such as Black Gold’s All-Purpose Potting Soil with RESiLIENCE, is a good idea. Potted plants appreciate large containers and will fill them in quickly, if plants are happy and well-tended. In warmer zones, these shrubs are best planted in garden and shrub borders mixed with other lush, tropical plants loaded with bright color.

  8. A Bucket of Blueberries

    800px-PattsBlueberries

    Beautiful blueberries ripening on the shrub. (photo by PhreddieH3)

    Whoever claimed that life is just a bowl of cherries was seriously misinformed. Life, at least a good life, should be more like a bucket of blueberries—sweet, plentiful and full of good things.

    Vaccinium_corymbosum0

    Blueberry flowers look like small bells and bloom in spring. (photo by Kurt Stüber)

    The list of blueberry virtues goes on and on. Given acid soil, reasonable moisture, and sunshine, blueberries can grow about anywhere, as long as you chose a variety congenial to your climate. The pale pinkish spring flowers are extremely pretty in the garden and the fine foliage turns bright red before leaving the scene in the fall. If you—or the birds—don’t eat them all, the glaucous berries are highly decorative. In one public garden, a double row of highbush blueberries frames a wide grass allée, an old world design idea worked out with a native New World shrub.

    Blueberries have never really gone out of fashion, but they are even more modish now because of their nutritional benefits—lots of antioxidants, plus helpful fiber and useful amounts of vitamins A and C. They also taste a lot better than vitamin pills.

    blueberriesTo know blueberry types is to love them even more. Lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) are the wild blueberries native to eastern Canada and New England. Small and intensely flavorful, lowbush varieties are borne on low, spreading shrubs. They are sometimes harvested commercially and frequently harvested by eager berry pickers. Highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) are the titans of commercial production, but can also grow well in home gardens. The shrubs can be large, topping out at six to twelve feet tall and nearly as wide. These are hardy from USDA Zone 3 through Zone 7, depending on variety, and produce big, blue fruits from July through August. Their relatives, southern highbush blueberries, have been bred for warmer climates and include varieties like ‘Avonblue’ and ‘Southland’.

    Another good blueberry species for southern climates is the whimsically named rabbiteye blueberry (Vaccinium ashei). While their namesake animals may be relatively small, rabbiteye bushes can grow up to eight or ten feet tall. Home growers can choose from many available cultivars.

    695px-Blueberries-In-PackAnd those home growers can harvest buckets of blueberries no matter whether the available space is a standard garden bed, raised growing area or even a large container. In recent years, with more consumers crying for small-space and container varieties, breeders have come up with dwarf blueberries, like the bushy Blueberry Glaze™, which grows only two to three feet tall, with a neat, mounding habit. Container growing is also useful for blueberry lovers with alkaline soil.

    To get growing, read plant tags carefully to ensure that you have sufficient space for mature height and width of the variety you choose. If you live south of USDA Zone 7, make sure that your blueberry will receive enough “chill hours” to fruit successfully in your garden. Your local cooperative extension agent should be able to help with that, but chances are, if the blueberry variety is on sale in a nursery near you, it will probably survive in your area. If you are ordering from a catalog or online vendor, call and ask about climate-suitable blueberry choices.

    If you are planning to plant your blueberry bush in a container or raised bed, fill with a quality medium like Fafard® Ultra Container Mix. The sphagnum peat moss content in the mix provides the acidity that blueberries crave.

    1722fafard Ultra Container with Extended Feed RESILIENCE front WEBBefore you plant anywhere, make sure that your chosen site receives five or six hours of daily sunlight. Sink the root ball so that its top is level with the top of the planting hole. Water in the young blueberry, and once it is planted, mulch with two inches of organic material, arranged doughnut-style, so it does not touch the blueberry canes. Water regularly while the plant establishes itself.

    Experts advise pruning off the flowers of your blueberry in the first year, so the plant puts all its energy into growth. This may not be as necessary with dwarf varieties. Water during dry spells, especially with container-grown bushes. Since birds and sometimes small mammals love blueberries as much as humans, cover the shrub with netting as soon as the green berries start to take on a blue cast. Harvest your berries when they are deep blue and come off easily, checking the plant every couple of days for additional ripe berries. If you can resist eating the blueberries out of hand, use them within a few days or freeze for later.

    Blueberries-USDA-ARSIn the fall, fertilize the shrubs according to manufacturer’s directions with a product designed for acid-loving plants like azaleas and rhododendrons. Highbush types should be pruned in late winter to eliminate dead branches and thin out old wood. Cutting back one old cane (stem) for every new one keeps the blueberry healthy and helps ensure a good harvest each year.

    Author Jacquelyn Mitchard said, “You’ll never regret eating blueberries or working up a sweat.” You can argue about the sweating part, but just about everyone can agree on the berries.

  9. Waterwise Container Gardening

    Pentas JaKMPM

    Pretty pink pentas and purple-leaved pennisetum are both drought resistant and look great in containers.

    Container plantings are notorious for drying out quickly and needing extra water through the worst summer months, lest they dry and shrivel in a day’s time. Miss one morning watering and the most beautiful contained petunias or impatiens can go from great to a ghastly full wilt by evening. Thankfully, there are ways to reduce the need for daily container watering while also ensuring lots of pretty potted plants for porch and patio.

    The four factors to consider when designing water-wise container gardening are 1. pot size and type, 2. soil and soil additives, 3. plant drought tolerance, and 4. pot placement. Get these factors right and your containers may require half the water normally supplied to summer pots.

    Container Size and Type

    Glazed and plastic pots hold water better than terracotta. (image care of the National Garden Bureau)

    Glazed and plastic pots hold water better than terracotta. (image care of the National Garden Bureau)

    Container size and type are things that most gardeners don’t consider as water-saving, but the larger and more water impermeable the pot, the more it will conserve water. Think about how plants move water. They take it up through the roots, the water travels through the plant, and then it’s released from tiny pores in the plant’s leaves and stems. Basically, the plant pulls water from the soil. A larger pot holds more water and provides more root space—offering a bigger well of needed moisture. And, an impermeable pot surface simply means that less water will be lost due to evaporation. Terra cotta pots are the worst when it comes to evaporation while glazed ceramics and plastic or resin pots keep water at the root zone.

     Soil and Additives

    1722fafard Ultra Container with Extended Feed RESILIENCE front WEBSome soils and amendments like peat moss hold water well and others like perlite encourage drainage. Our best water-holding potting soils contain lots of rich organic matter in addition to water-reserving additives, such as the Moisture Pro™ water-holding crystals Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with extended feed and RESiLIENCE®. The RESiLIENCE® additive, which is OMRI-listed for organic gardening, helps plants further by helping plants reduce water stress during hot, dry times. The addition of coco coir (we recommend Black Gold Just Coir) or Fafard Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss further enhanced water-holding to reduce the need to water every day.

    Drought-Tolerant Plants

    Lantana camara 'Bante Rossa' (BANDANA™ ROSE, BANDANA™ SERIES) PP18148 JaKMPM

    Lantana camara BANDANA™ ROSE

    There are so many beautiful container-friendly garden flowers that stand up to heat. For containers, it’s great to choose heavy-flowering annuals that look nice until frost—either with their foliage, flowers, or both. It’s also nice to try new garden center offerings, in addition to solid standbys, that will wow and impress.

    Pennisetum glaucum 'Jade Princess' JaKMPM

    Pennisetum glaucum ‘Jade Princess’

    For warm container color, try the new Bidens Campfire® Fireburst with its tiny hot daisies of orange-red and gold. Annual Bidens bloom continuously and look great alongside the red and orange flower of Lantana Rose Bandana, and gold-, -orange, and magenta-flowered Zinnia Pinwheel Mix, which are also compact. All stand up to hot, dry weather once established. The outstanding Cuphea Vermillionaire® is another super tough, super pretty bloomer producing lots of orange-red, tubular flowers through summer that attract hummingbirds. These glow container plantings when placed alongside tall, Angelonia Angelface® Superwhite and soft, airy Mexican hairgrass (Nasella tenuissima). Another great hummingbird flower for heat and containers is the new Salvia Ablazin’™ Tabasco with its taller stature and scarlet flowers that shine alongside the chartreuse leaves and purple plumes of Pennesetum glaucum ‘Jade Princess’.

    Containers of bold succulents are also welcome for those wishing to water as little as possible. Pots of colorful Agave, Aloe, cacti or sedums look great through summer and can be brought into a sunny indoor spot through winter. The only caveat is that these plants tend to want a better-drained soil, such as Black Gold Cactus Mix.

    Container Placement

    IMG_9028Where you place your plants can make a big difference in how quickly they lose water. Exposed areas with hot sun and wind will always dry plants out more than protected areas shielded from the wind and sheltered from the sun during the hottest time of day. Morning and afternoon sun is always less beating, so place planters in spots where this level of sun dominates and light shade it provided around noon.

    Planning ahead with these four steps for water-wise containers will save water, time, and headaches through summer. Your containers will still need regular care and water for best health and looks, but you will be able to enjoy them more and worry less about summer container insta-wilt.

  10. “Spur” on Pollinators with Columbine Flowers

    Aquilegia canadensis 4

    Eastern columbine flowers in late spring.

    The elegant spurs of columbine (Aquilegia spp.) trail behind the spring blooms like the tail of a comet. Each projected spur is in fact an elongated, tubular nectary filled with nectar for a variety of visiting pollinators, from hummingbirds to bees to hawkmoths.

    Columbine are unique in that many of the 60+ species are just as pretty as the many hybrids offered at garden centers. Aquilegia comes from the Latin name, Aquila, which translates to “eagle” and refers directly to the flower’s talon-like spurs. All species in the genus hail from the North Temperate regions of the world and most bloom in late spring or early summer. All attract pollinators of one variety or another, but many of the species are specially adapted to certain groups of pollinators—making them very desirable for pollinator gardens.

    Their delicate, spurred flowers come in several colors that tend to dictate the primary pollinators they attract, though spur length, nectar sweetness and levels, among other factors, also influence pollinator attraction.

    Hummingbirds: Red- and Orange-flowered Columbine

    Aquilegia canadensis 3

    Eastern red columbine

    As a rule, red flowers attract hummingbirds; research as shown that this is also the case with columbine flowers. Beautiful wildflowers, such as the eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis, 2’), with its tall stems of nodding red flowers, or the western red columbine (A. elegantula, 1-3’), with its more linear nodding, shooting-star flowers of fire orange-red, are sure to draw hummingbirds in spring and early summer. Hummingbirds flying through western desert regions will likely visit the blooms of the Arizona columbine (A. desertorum, 1-2’) with its many small, red flowers with shorter spurs. All of these flowers have spurs that hold lots of extra sweet nectar to fulfill the needs of visiting hummingbirds.

    Hawkmoths & Bees-Violet-blue-flowered Columbine

    zenhaus567px-Colorado_Blue_Columbine

    Colorado blue columbine (image by Zenhaus)

    Many columbine species have flowers that come in combinations of violet-blue and white. These flowers tend to be most attractive to both hawkmoths and native bees. (Hawkmoths are a group of moths easily distinguished by their hummingbird-like hovering flight patterns and long tongues adapted for nectar gathering.) Columbine with long spurs, such as the Colorado blue columbine (A. coerulea, 1-3’), are most attractive to long-tongued hawkmoths. Smaller-flowered species, such as the alpine Utah columbine (A. scopulorum, 6-8”) and small-flowered columbine (A. brevistyla, 1-3’) with their blue and white blooms, are better adapted to bee pollinators.

    Hawkmoths- Yellow-flowered Columbine

    Aquilegia_longissima_BBNP_1

    Long-spurred columbine (image by Cstubben)

    Some of the most impressively long spurs are found on columbine with ethereal yellow flowers that glow in the evening light. Most are adapted to hawkmoth pollination. One of the prettiest for the garden is the southwestern golden columbine (A. chrysantha, 3’) with its big starry flowers and long, long spurs of gold. When in full bloom, from spring to summer, the plants literally glow with beautiful blossoms. Another big-spurred beauty from the southwest is the long-spurred columbine (A. longissima, 1-3’) with its 4-6” long spurs. The upward-facing blooms are paler yellow than A chrysantha and bloom from mid to late summer. Both species look delicate but are surprisingly well-adapted to arid weather conditions.

    As a rule, columbine grow best in full to partial sun and soil with good to moderate fertility and sharp drainage. Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost is a great soil addition for these garden flowers. They don’t require heavy fertilization and should be protected from sun during the hottest times of the day. After flowers, plants often die back or develop a ragged look, so be sure to surround them by other full perennials with attractive foliage and flowers that will fill the visual gaps left by these plants. Good compliments are tall phlox, coneflowers, bluestar, and milkweeds.

    Columbine are great choices for pollinator gardens, so it’s no wonder that sourcing species is surprisingly easy. High Country Garden sells a western species collection, in addition to the dwarf eastern columbine, and many others. Moreover, columbine self-sow and naturally hybridize-making them truly enjoyable garden flowers for gardeners we well as our favorite pollinators.