Garden Problem Solvers

  1. 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.

  2. Growing Cherry Trees

    Sour cherry trees laden with fruit.

    Nothing tastes better than firm, succulent cherries right off the tree – especially if they come from your own back yard!  Thanks to a new generation of hybrid and dwarf cherry trees, home-grown cherries are literally within the reach of more gardeners – in more climatic zones – than ever before.

    As with everything gardening, choosing the right varieties and giving them the right conditions and care are the keys to getting your backyard cherry orchard off to a good start.

    Consider planting your cherries on foot-tall mounds.

    What Cherries Want

    All cherries thrive in full sun and fertile, well-drained, slightly acid soil.  They also favor mild, relatively dry summers and chilly winters (most cherries won’t bear fruit unless they receive several hundred hours of sub-45-degree temperatures).  If you can offer these conditions, as well as a planting site that’s not overly prone to late, bud-damaging frosts, you’re likely to have good luck with all kinds of cherries.

    Start With the Soil

    Nutrient-rich loam is ideal.  If you garden in sand, apply 2 or 3 inches of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost, and till it in before planting.  If heavy clay soil predominates, consider planting your cherries on foot-tall mounds or berms of topsoil amended with compost.  Higher berms (at least 3 feet tall) will also help protect flower buds from spring frost damage.

    Avoid siting cherries in warm microsites (such as the south side of a building) that encourage premature, frost-susceptible bud development.  In areas where heat and humidity are a challenge, maximize air circulation through proper pruning (see below) and generous spacing.

    Pick the Right Cherry

    Sweet ‘Rainier’ cherries require very specific growing conditions.

    As fate would have it, the most popular cherries are also the most persnickety (of course!).  Sweet cherries (Prunus avium) such as the supermarket standbys ‘Bing’ and ‘Rainier’ are good bets only where temperatures stay mainly between 90 and minus 20 degrees  F (sorry, Southern gardeners!).  Because of their chilling requirements, they also do poorly in regions with mild year-round climates.  The few sweet cherry varieties (including ‘Minnie Royal’ and ‘Royal Lee’) with relatively low chilling needs are worth a try in marginal mild-winter areas.  Wherever they’re grown, most sweet cherry varieties require another compatible variety nearby to set fruit (only ‘Stella’ and a few others are self-fruitful).  For a list of varieties that “pollenize” each other, click here.

    ‘Montmorency’ is a classic sour cherry variety.

    Sour cherries (Prunus cerasus) tolerate somewhat more heat, humidity, and cold, making them a safer bet than sweet cherries for regions such as the southern Plains, lower Mid-Atlantic, and upper Midwest and Northeast.  Their self-fruitfulness and relatively compact size also make them a better fit for smaller gardens.  The tart fruits are excellent in pies and preserves, or for eating out of hand.  By far the most popular variety is ‘Montmorency’, but many others are available.

    Even icebox climates such as northern Maine and the upper Great Plains now offer the possibility of fresh-off-the-tree cherries.  Recently introduced hybrids between Prunus cerasus and its shrubby cousin Prunus fruticosa produce flavorful cherries on 6- to 10-foot plants that are hardy to minus 50 degrees F.  Cultivars include ‘Crimson Passion’, ‘Carmine Jewel’, ‘Romeo’, and ‘Juliet’.  All are self-fruitful.

    Choose the Right Sized Tree

    Stark® Gold™ sweet cherry can be purchased on various sized root stock.

    At 20 to 40 feet tall, full-sized sweet- and sour-cherry trees are too large for many home gardens.  They are considerably shorter, however, when grafted on dwarfing “Giselsa” rootstocks recently developed in Germany.  For example, sweet cherry cultivars grown on Gisela 6 understock mature at 60 to 90 percent of the height of full-size trees, and begin fruiting within 3 years of planting.   Gisela-grafted trees also show good hardiness and disease resistance.  Most mail-order suppliers of cherry trees offer a smorgasbord of cultivar/rootstock combinations.

    Caring For Your Cherries

    Whatever the best cherry trees for your place and purposes, they’ll need constant care to thrive.  Apply organic fertilizer and a layer of compost in spring, followed by 1 or 2 inches of bark mulch to keep the soil moist and cool and to inhibit weeds.  Prune out spindly twigs, unproductive branches, water sprouts, and other superfluous growth in midsummer (avoid pruning during rainy or humid spells).  Harvest ripe cherries and collect and discard dropped fruits several times a week, to keep spotted wing fruit flies and other pests at bay.  Rake and remove fallen cherry leaves, which may host disease-causing spores.  Make your yard a haven for beneficial insects by planting species that host them (such as members of the parsley and daisy families).  These and other measures can help keep your cherry trees happy, and your table brimming with fresh cherries.

     

  3. Miniature Water Lily Pots for the Patio

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    The white pygmy water lily is tiny and perfect for container culture.

    Nothing is more cooling in summer than a water garden filled with water lilies. Lack of space and resources for a garden pond keep most gardeners from growing these beautiful aquatic flowers, but what if a pond isn’t needed? Spacious troughs or large pots without drainage holes can be converted into small water gardens for miniature water lily varieties. If you have a partially sunny patio, deck, or flat garden space that can take the weight of a water-filled pot, you are set!

    Choosing a Container

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    Any deep, spacious, water-tight pot will hold miniature water lilies.

    Water lily pots have to be large and spacious, so start with choosing a container that’s at least 15-18 inches deep and 24-40 inches wide. This will give you enough water-holding space for your lilies and their roots.

    Pots must be water tight. Specialty “no hole” pots designed for aquascaping are sold, but you can also fill line large pots with pond liner, which is often the cheaper option. Simply cut the liner to a round that will fit in your pot and fit it snugly along the inner lip of the pot. Its helps to apply a strong, non-toxic adhesive along the edge to keep it in place.

    Choosing Miniature Waterlilies

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    The yellow water lily ‘Helvola’ is a classic compact variety that grows beautifully in containers.

    True miniature water lilies are so tiny that some even have flowers the size of a quarter. Many are pygmy waterlily (Nymphaea tetragona) variants, which are very hardy—surviving winters as cold as USDA Hardiness Zones 4-11, with good protection. They come in a suite of colors that include ivory, pale yellow, pink, and red. The best for home gardens are easy to find online or in specialty stores.

    One of the tiniest miniatures is the white pygmy water lily (Nymphaea tetragona ‘Alba’). The hardy plants reach 18 to 24 inches across and sport tiny white flowers that float alongside teensie white flowers. Another beautiful white-flowered variety with much bigger, tulip-shaped flowers but a small growth habit is ‘Hermine’.

    The peach-pink-flowered ‘Berit Strawn’ (Nymphaea ‘Berit Strawn’) has larger flowers (3 to 4 inches) and pads of deep green with some reddish mottling. The tiny plant is perfect for container growing, is very hardy, and will bloom nonstop from early summer to fall. Plants will spread between 24 and 30 inches.

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    ‘Hermine’ is a stunning, white-flowered miniature water lily.

    One of the smallest red-flowered miniatures is ‘Perry Baby Red’ (Nymphaea ‘Perry Baby Red’). Its rosy red flowers compliment dark green pads. Plants spread 12 to 36 inches.

    An old classic mini water lily is the hardy ‘Indiana’ (Nymphaea ‘Indiana’). Its tricolored, 2- to 3-inch flowers are in shades of rose-red, yellow, and orange. The diminutive plants have a spread of 12 to 28 inches and small green pads with reddish spots.

    One of the best yellow-flowered water lilies is the cheerful ‘Yellow Pygmy’ (Nymphaea ‘Helvola’). Flowers are only a couple of inches across, but they are bright and pretty. Plants reach 18 to 36 inches across.

    There are lots of great sources for miniature water lilies. Lilypons and Texas Water Lilies are good sources that offer quality selections.

    Planting Waterlilies

    Nymphaea 'Pygmaea Helvola' JaKMPM

    Water lily ‘Helvola’ in full bloom. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Water lilies grow from fleshy tubers that must be grounded in smaller pots sunk below the surface of your water container. Choose a wide, shallow plastic pot that will fit in the bottom of your container while providing plenty of head space. Planting depth can be 5 to 24 inches from the water surface. Pots should be placed where they can get 6 hours of sun per day or more.

    Line the pots with porous but tight-knit plastic burlap. The base soil should consist of a 3:1 mixture of heavy loam and Black Gold Garden Compost Blend. The compost and soil must be well combined before planting. Finally, add a small amount of a slow-release, all-purpose fertilizer to the mix. Over fertilization can cause algal bloom.

    Sink the tuber into the soil, so the top of the plant meets the soil line. Once it is planted, line the top 2 inches of the pot with pea gravel to help keep the soil and plant in place. Place the pot on the bottom on the container and stabilize a flat, 1 to 2 inch thick rock along one side of the pot, so it sits at an angle; this helps with gas exchange for healthy root growth. Gently fill the pot with clean tap water to a depth a couple of inches below the lip of the pot.

    Maintaining Potted Waterlilies

    Lotus and lotus leaf background.

    Clean, fresh water is important to the health of potted water lilies.

    Keeping the water clean in your water lily pot is important. Remove any debris that falls in the water, and cut old leaves from your water lilies. Refresh the water regularly as it recedes. Small- to medium-sized water pots don’t need aeration filters.

    Water-filled containers cannot be allowed to freeze in winter, even if your water lily is hardy. Freezing and thawing can also cause containers to crack. The best course of action is to drain the container before the first freeze of the season, remove the lily pot (being sure to cut back the leaves), and store it in a water-filled bucket in a cool place. Water lily tubers should be divided every two to three years.

    Water lily pots are colorful, impressive, and will brighten any summer garden spot. If you want the tranquil beauty of a pond without all the work and hassle, plant one this season.

  4. “Bad” (Invasive) Garden Perennials and Safe Substitutes

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    Purple lythrum looks pretty in the garden but beware this dangerous invasive flower. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Some perennials have major territorial issues.  Give them an inch, and they’ll take a yard – or at least a good chunk of it.  Allow them a toehold, and their rampant root systems or prolific seedlings will likely haunt your garden for years to come.

    Of course, such perennials don’t limit their thuggery to the garden; they also can spread (usually by seed) into nearby natural areas, out-muscling native vegetation.  For the scoop on the worst offenders in your region, check your state’s list of banned invasive species.  But keep in mind that many species with serious boundary issues don’t appear on most state banned lists.  Even if it’s not listed by your state (as is probably true of the species described below), the perennial that’s captured your heart might have designs on taking over your garden.

    Lysimachia punctata JaKMPM

    Yellow loosestrife is pretty but a garden thug. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Baptisia sphaerocarpa 'Screamin' Yellow'

    Yellow wild indigo has characteristics similar to yellow loosestrife, but it is tame. (Image by Russell Stafford)

    Just about any list (state or otherwise) of takeover perennials is likely to include a few that go by the common name “loosestrife.”  Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) – the perennial that ate the Northeast (as well as several other regions) – is the textbook example.  Close behind, however, are several species in the genus Lysimachia.  Many a gardener has regretted falling under the spell of the arching white spires of gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides).  Lovely in bouquets, this East-Asian native is a rambunctious bully in the garden, spreading rapidly via fleshy white underground shoots (known as rhizomes).  A far wiser (and better behaved) choice for perennial borders is milky loosestrife (Lysimachia ephemerum), which forms 3-foot-tall, gray-leaved clumps surmounted in summer by candles of frothy white flowers.

    Also too vigorous for most gardens are yellow loosestrife, Lysimachia punctata, and fringed loosestrife, Lysimachia ciliata (usually grown in its purple-leaved form, ‘Firecracker’).  Both make good candidates for damp, isolated niches where they have room to romp.  Yellow wild indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) and its hybrids (including ‘Carolina Moonlight’) would be a better choice for situations where good manners and 3-foot-spires of bright yellow, early-summer flowers are desired.

    Rudbeckia laciniata JaKMPM

    Rudbeckia laciniata is pretty but aggressive. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Quite a few other yellow-flowered aggressors are commonly grown (and virtually ineradicable) in gardens.  Almost all perennial sunflowers (Helianthus), for example, are rapid colonizers with tenacious questing rhizomes.  If the mellow yellow blooms of Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ beguile you, you might want to opt instead for Silphium mohrii, which produces summer daisy-flowers of an even softer pastel-yellow, but on 4-foot-tall plants that stay in place.  Another popular splashy yellow summer-bloomer to avoid is the double-flowered Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Golden Globe’ (also known as ‘Hortensia’).  Take a pass on this common pass-along plant (there’s always plenty of it to share thanks to its romping rhizomes), and seek out its mannerly look-alike, ‘Goldquelle’.  Also often passed along are some of the more assertive yellow-flowered members of the evening primrose tribe (including Oenothera fruticosa and Oenothera tetragona).  These might best be passed by in favor of arguably the largest-flowered and loveliest hardy Oenothera, Missouri primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa).

    Missouri Evening Primrose is not fast spreading.In contrast, goldenrods (Solidago) often get tagged with the “invasive” label, even though many of them are model citizens with arresting late-summer flowers.  Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) holds dense, flat heads of lemon-yellow flowers above handsome clumps of gray-green foliage, while the equally fetching showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) carries steeples of bright yellow blooms on burgundy-red stems.  As for the canard that goldenrods cause hay fever: they don’t.

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    Physostegia virginiana ‘Miss Manners’ is tidy and clump forming unlike the spreading species. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    The common name of Physostegia virginiana – obedient plant – also gives the appearance of a canard, given the relentless rhizomes of this Central U.S. native.  The moniker, however, refers to the mauve-purple, turtlehead-shaped flowers that line its 3-foot-tall spikes in late summer.  Push an individual flower into a new position, and it compliantly stays put.  The white-flowered cultivar ‘Miss Manners’ departs from other physostegias in possessing obedient flowers AND rhizomes.  Its flower color is also more compatible.

    The domed flower heads of garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) share the adaptable, milk-white coloration of ‘Miss Manners’.  This prolific ornamental onion isn’t so good at sharing space, however.  Neglect to deadhead its late-summer blooms, and it will populate much of your garden with seedlings.  The somewhat earlier blooming Allium ramosum also bears showy (and sweet-scented) heads of white flowers atop 18-inch stems, but without the resulting seedling swarm.

    Three more invasive perennials to steer clear of (and suggested substitutes) include:

    1. Plants sold under the botanical name Adenophora, which almost always are the fiendish, tuberous-rooted Campanula rapunculoides.  Use peach-leaf bellflower (Campanula persicifolia) or great bellflower (Campanula latifolia) instead.
    2. Yellow archangel, Lamium galeobdelon.  Rather than unleashing the garden-variety species on your yard, substitute its cultivar ‘Herman’s Pride’, which offers even handsomer silver-splashed foliage, sans the infinite spread.
    3. Butterbur (Petasites).  Yes, the romping colonies of immense, heart-shaped leaves are captivating, but the thick rhizomes will not stop until they’ve occupied every square millimeter of available soil.  A Ligularia or Rodgersia will give the same foliage effect without commandeering the whole neighborhood.
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    Butterbur will take over a shade garden in no time. (Image by Russell Stafford)

    Whenever you plant a mannerly perennial in your yard, be sure you know its soil needs. Fortifying soil with needed amendments will result in better overall performance. We suggest Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost, for starters. Although these and quite a few other perennials are too rampant for most garden areas, they might work in an isolated niche (such as a driveway island) where nothing else will grow, or in an informal planting (such as a cottage garden) that features plants that can fend for themselves.  “Right plant, right place” is a garden maxim that never goes out of style.

  5. Easier Gardening with Ergonomic Tools

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    Something as simple as cushioned nitrile gloves can protect gardeners from blisters and ward off hand pain. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Gardening is a great equalizer. Anyone—from the tiniest child planting sunflower seeds, to the retiree happily nurturing enough tomato plants to feed the neighborhood—can enjoy it.  But young or old, each of us has physical strengths and weaknesses.  Listen to a committed gardener for more than a few minutes and you will probably hear something about aches and pains.  These common complaints eventually led to a happy collision of engineering and horticulture.  Ergonomic gardening tools were born.

    Coined back in 1949, “ergonomics” is the science or study of ways by which tools, utensils and systems can be made safer and easier to use.  An “ergonomically designed” garden hoe, for example, may feature any or all of the following: a padded handle, an easy-to-use shape, or an attachment that gives the user a longer reach.  Once a rarity, ergonomically designed tools are now fixtures in every lawn and garden product category, lining shelves at garden centers and big box stores.  Each gardener has to find the combination of ergonomic options that works just right.  Recommendations can help, but for most of us, trial and error still yields the best results.

    Cushioning and Padding

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    Cushioned seat and kneeler. (Image by Gardener’s Supply Company)

    A little extra padding attached to tools, equipment, or clothing can yield big rewards in comfort. For those of us who like getting close to our plants by getting down on our knees, the range of ergonomic options is large. Cushioned kneelers or garden pants with pockets for padded knee inserts ease the toll on vulnerable joints. Some padded kneelers have long handles that help gardeners rise to their feet. When the kneeler is turned over, those same handles act as supports for the padded portion, transforming the kneeler into a seat.

    Many standard garden tools, including hoes, rakes, spades, trowels and hand forks, are available with padded, easy-grip handles that provide shock absorption, and a secure grip for repetitive tasks and blister prevention.  They are especially helpful to people with arthritis or other joint or muscle problems.

    Easy-grip gloves, especially those with sturdy nitrile on the palms and fingers, make for a tighter hold on just about anything.

    Shapely Options

    Ergonomic hand tools by Radius. (Image by Radius)

    Ergonomic hand tools by Radius. (Image by Radius)

    Ergonomics specialists have redesigned familiar tools into new shapes that allow gardeners to dig, rake, or hoe more effectively with less effort.  Some trowels and hand weeders, for example, feature curved handles that conform to the shape of the user’s hand, providing greater comfort and ease of use.  Ergonomic rakes and cultivators may appear to have curvature of the spine, but the curves are actually designed to minimizing the effort involved in moving soil or leaves from one place to another.  Spades may have enlarged stepping edges to prevent slipping while digging holes.

    High-Rise Bedding

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    Elevated beds by Gronomics make gardening easier for those unable to bend or squat. (Image by Gronomics)

    One of the greatest ergonomic advances of the past few decades has been the updating of an old idea—raising raised beds.  Whether the challenge is poor soil quality or physical limitations, elevated growing beds offer a great alternative to traditional in-ground garden spaces.  Depending on the situation, raised beds can be anywhere from a few feet tall to waist high.  Filled with a quality growing medium, including a high-grade amendment like Fafard Premium Topsoil, a raised bed can give anyone great results and maximum accessibility.  The beds placed at the correct height and width have been a boon to wheelchair-bound gardeners, the elderly, or anyone with trouble bending and stooping.

    Right behind raised beds on the accessibility spectrum are lightweight containers that can mimic the look of heavier terra cotta or concrete pots.  Easier to lift and move around, these containers allow people with physical limitations and/or no green space at all the opportunity to grow flowers or edibles.  Some containers have ergonomically designed handles or wheels on the bottom to add even more convenience and safety.

    Reach Extenders

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    Long-handled pole pruners make it easier to reach branches for pruning. (Image by Corona)

    Gardeners who work from seated positions or those with limited ability to stretch and bend can get great results with extended-reach tools, including forks, spades, hoes cultivators and pruning saws, many of which also have easy-grip handles.  In the case of pruning saws, the extended reach capability may eliminate the need to climb ladders—a boon to those with balance issues. Just be sure to keep them away from electrical lines.

    Seating

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    (Image by Pure Garden)

    Older gardeners sometimes find it easier to sit than to kneel or bend.  Folding garden seats or stools are inexpensive, lightweight and come even have pockets for garden tools. Wheeled garden scooters can roll along paths, carrying the gardener from bed to bed and providing secure seating for weeding or harvesting.  Some scooters can also accommodate small garden trugs or equipment trays.

    Watering

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    2-Liter Dramm long-spout watering cans are easy to handle. (Image by Dramm)

    Traditional hoses tend to be bulky to lug around and cumbersome to coil and store.  Newer hoses, either coiled or straight, are made of lighter materials, making them easier to carry, more flexible and less likely to kink.  Sprayer nozzles are available with padded, easy-grip handles as well.

    There are also many ergonomic watering cans. Most have a streamline design with a long pour spout to take the strain off of hands and backs. More lightweight models that hold more water are best for gardeners that suffer from arthritis.

    The advice for gardeners with any kind of physical challenge is to pay attention to their bodies.  Aches and pains are a signal to rest the affected muscles and engage the greatest muscle of all—the brain—to figure out better ways to familiar chores.  With a little help from ergonomic tools, anyone can make and maintain a garden.

    Tools

    The right tools make gardening a whole lot easier!

  6. Permaculture Gardening

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    The goal of permaculture is to create a landscape that sustains itself, its natural surroundings, and the people who steward it.

    The first and perhaps most important choice in creating a garden is this: will it work WITH its surroundings, or against them?  We can try to grow what we want to grow, heedless of the garden’s natural and domestic conditions, or we can choose plants and strategies that fit the situation on (and under and above) the ground.  We can pour on the labor and chemicals to try to force the garden to bow to our will, or we can go with its currents, letting its characteristics be our guide.  One choice leads to landscapes that are at odds with their setting, such as lawns in Phoenix.  The other leads, in some cases, to permaculture.

    Permaculture means different things to different people.  Perhaps its ideal goal, though, is to create a landscape that sustains itself, its natural surroundings, and the people who steward it.  Such a landscape rides with the rhythms of nature, with plants and microbes and soil and air working together as a cohesive, self-nurturing unit that requires minimal inputs of nutrients and labor.  Here are some ways to do this.

    Plant for the Site

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    If you know the right plants for the right site, you are on the right track.

    Know your site. What are your soil and sun factors? What plants best fit your yard and wants? Then you can make smart choices for your yard and garden. (Much as you love raspberries, they’ll languish in too much shade.  How about elderberries instead?) The garden’s domestic setting is also a factor.  For instance, plantings should generally become less formal and more naturalistic with distance from buildings and paths.

    Manage Natural Processes

    Garden Manure BlendWork with natural cycles and processes. Start a compost pile for spent vegetation and uneaten produce, to return their nutrients and organic matter to the soil.  Mulch with beneficial amendments (such as Fafard Garden Manure Blend) and fertilize with organic materials that support beneficial soil microbes and boost organic matter. Disturb the soil as little as possible, to maintain its structure and to avoid bringing buried weed seeds to the surface to germinate.

    Sustain “good” insects by minimizing pesticide use and by utilizing plants that attract them (such as members of the parsley and aster families). Cut back native perennials in early spring rather than fall, to provide food for birds, protection from erosion, and refuge for beneficial insects.

    Choose Diversity

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    Plant using a wide diversity of beautiful plants suited for wildlife and the site. (image by Jessie Keith)

    Use a wide diversity of plants – including natives – that complement and balance each other horticulturally and ornamentally. Try for a harmonious patchwork of species with different forms, colors, pollinators, pests, associated beneficial insects, and other characteristics.  Include a variety of trees, shrubs, and perennials to provide structure, and interplant with numerous edibles and ornamental annuals to increase diversity and yield.  Intermingle heavy-feeding plants (such as tomatoes) with nitrogen-accumulating plants (such as legumes) to balance and replenish soil fertility.  Introduce some non-invasive, self-sowing ornamentals and edibles (such as celandine poppies and perilla and forget-me-nots), which make excellent subjects for a dynamic, self-sustaining landscape.

    Choose Multi-Function Plants

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    American persimmons are perfect “dual-purpose” trees that are beautiful and produce edible fruit.

    Create plantings that have multiple uses and functions. Why not plant a couple pawpaw trees, whose handsome, rounded, bold-leaved crowns will produce fruit for the table and provide food for zebra swallowtail caterpillars?  Or a highbush cranberry, for its platters of white, late-spring flowers; its fall harvest of red berries that make excellent preserves; and its attractive maple-like foliage that turns burgundy tones in fall?  Or  the stately American persimmon tree (Diospyros virginiana) with its edible fall fruits prized for baking? Or one of the many colorful leaf vegetables (such as ‘Rainbow’ chard and red orach) that are both ornamental and tasty?

    Make the Natural Connection

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    Milkweeds make a natural connection with the monarch butterflies they feed. (image by Jessie Keith)

    Connect the garden to surrounding natural areas by using plants that attract, shelter, and feed native insects and animals. A clump of columbine will draw local hummers to their nectar-rich flowers; a planting of winterberries (female and male) will feed yellow-rumped warblers and cedar waxwings and mockingbirds with their brilliant red berries; and a Dutchman’s pipe vine will host pipevine swallowtail larvae, which make excellent food for nestlings. Then there’s the ever-popular milkweeds, which are essential to monarch butterflies.

    Consider integrating “volunteer” seedlings of native plants into the garden, rather than indiscriminately weeding them out.  Conversely, avoid introducing plant species (such as winged euonymus and Japanese barberry) that are likely to invade and disrupt nearby natural areas.

    At its best and most satisfying, a garden that follows these principles develops into a dynamic little ecosystem of its own, where plants and wildlife and humans all have a place.  Permaculture does not aspire to “permanent” landscape features such as a perpetually green, weed-free lawn.   Rather, it’s a collaborative effort between plants and gardener to create a cultivated landscape that is shaped and steered by nature’s ever-changing forces.  A permaculture garden never stops evolving – just as a permaculture gardener never stops learning and marveling.

  7. 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)

  8. Smart Vegetable Garden Resolutions—6 Steps to Success

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    A well-planned, well-tended vegetable garden will give the best yields and most satisfaction.

    Vegetable gardening woes can be rectified with good planning and smart garden resolutions. Last year the weeds took over, you didn’t feed or water enough, you didn’t mulch that bed, or start that new raised bed you’ve been dreaming of for years. Never fear! It’s a New Year! Time to troubleshoot and plan to make this year’s veggie patch better than ever.

    When it comes to smart garden planning and success, experience is everything. Being a part of a large, bountiful community garden for the past 12 years has given me the opportunity to watch new and seasoned gardeners in motion. Not surprisingly, the seasoned gardeners always have well-planning, productive, weed-free plots, while new gardeners haphazardly start their plots in spring and end up with weed patches by midsummer.  In time, novices committed to success learn to turn their beds around through guidance from the old timers and pros. Here are a few of pro tricks to add to the resolution list. Commit to these, and you can’t go wrong!

    1) Plan

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    Good planning, spacing, and crop succession are essential for vegetable garden success.

    Truly productive beds are planned in advance with the seasons in mind. A good planning strategy starts with knowing when plants bloom and produce, and timing your garden to sequentially bloom and remain productive and pretty through the year, if possible.

    IMG_5948 (1)For vegetable growing, you must learn your cool season and warm season vegetables to correctly plan your beds. Knowing the window of productivity and days to harvest (number of days it takes for plants to be harvestable from seed) for a given plant is essential. Here are basic tables showing some of the most common cool season vegetables, warm season vegetables, and their average days to harvest. Use these when plotting spring, summer, and fall vegetable patches. Warm-season vegetable must be planted after the threat of spring frost has past. The Old Farmers Almanac frost dates are standard. (Keep in mind that many crops can be grown all season where summer temperatures are cooler. Fast-producing crops with few harvest days can be grown repeatedly throughout the growing season, if temperatures allow.)

    Click for table of Cool Season Crops for Spring and Fall and Warm Season Crops for Summer

    2) Design & Plot

    Freeman Garden raised beds for Darcy

    Raised beds make planning and care easy.

    The best vegetable gardens are designed and planned each year to consider space, light, succession cropping, and rotation. Choose a full-sun location, decide what you want to grow, and plot your beds to allow enough space to meet your gardening goals. Investing in raised beds can make the process easier, otherwise, establish your bed lines and pathways and maintain these yearly.

    Next, determine where crops will be planted incrementally in spring, summer, and fall. Designing and planning your garden for the full growing season will help you stay in budget, time seeding and planting (Click here to view Johnny’s Seeds handy seed-starting date calculator.), and plan for harvest, preservation, and storage. When designing your beds, consider the space needed for crops, their overall heights, and include space to add cages and trellises, as needed.

    Crop succession is another essential practice. Some crops must be rotated yearly, so consider what crops will succeed the next. For example, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes are heavy feeders that commonly harbor soil-borne pests and diseases, so they must be succeeded by fortifying crops, such as peas or beans, the following year. Legumes, like peas and beans, replenish essential soil nitrogen.

    3) Feed Your Soil

    Garden Manure BlendHappy plants must have good soil. Organic matter is the number one addition sure to increase crop yields. Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost and nitrogen-rich Garden Manure Blend are two top-quality amendments to increase soil health and improve plant production. The addition of an OMRI Listed all-purpose fertilizer approved for organic gardening will also increase plant vigor, yields, and keep common nutrient deficiencies, such as leaf chlorosis or blossom end rot in peppers and tomatoes, from appearing.

    For raised beds, we recommend the addition of OMRI Listed Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil, which contains RESiLIENCE, an all-natural, water-soluble silicon additive for plants that encourages better root growth, earlier flowering, increased stem diameter, and longer time before wilting. Mix this soilless medium in with quality topsoil at a 1:2 ratio for reliable vegetable performance.

    4) Manage Weeds

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    Grass clippings are free and make excellent natural mulch for vegetables.

    Save yourself major weeding time by applying thick organic mulch for weed control. Compost is a great choice for vegetable garden mulch in addition to seed-free hay, grass clippings, and leaf mulch. Compost should be applied directly around plants while coarser organic mulches are better for walkways and melon and squash beds.

    Organic pre-emergents are also recommended to stop weed seeds from sprouting in the first place. Just be sure not to sprinkle them where you plan to direct sow seed. Corn gluten, the most common of the natural pre-emergents, works by inhibiting root growth in newly sprouted seeds.

    When calculating amendment needed for a particular area, use the following formula:

    Amendment Application Formula

    ([area to cover] ft2 x [depth in inches desired] x 0.0031 = ___ yd3).

    Example: If you wanted to cover a 20 square foot area with 2 inches of compost, the result would be: 20 ft2 x 2 inches of compost x 0.0031 = 2.48 yd3.

    Of course, nothing beats regular hoeing and hand weeding for effective weed control. Monitoring and scratching and digging weeds weekly is the best way to keep them in check, and good tools make the job easy.

    5) Invest in Good Tools

    Good tools are a must for all garden tasks, whether you are weeding, digging, or pruning. Quality tools may cost a bit more up front, but they will last much longer and perform better.

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    Garden knives are great all-around gardening tools. (image from Gardeners Supply Company)

    For hand weeding, nothing beats the classic ho-mi (hoe-mee), also called the Korean hand plow or cultivator. This sharp, downward-facing tool can get to the base of a dandelion root in seconds with a quick chop, chop, chop. It also pays to invest in a trusty garden knife (also called a soil knife or Japanese hori-hori). These can cut into the soil to deep roots below and saw through the bases of tough plants. They are even useful for harvesting greens and digging root crops. One side of the knife is sharp for slicing and the other is serrated for sawing. The classic Cobrahead hand weeder and cultivator it also a nice, effective, well-made weeding tool. It has a sharp, curved head for fast digging and hand hoeing.

    A heavy duty hoe is a necessity for larger weeding jobs. The Prohoes by Rogue are great tools that are so well made, they will last for years. And, for digging and planting, a good spade is a must. Of these, the sharp, all-steel King of Spades pro nursery spades is so tough it will last a lifetime.

    Most established gardens will tell you that Felco makes the best pruners and loppers on the market. Pruning and harvesting is fast and easy with these sharp, Swiss-made bypass pruners.

    Keep your tools clean and sharp for best performance. A 5-gallon shop bucket filled with moistened sand is recommended for dipping tools in for easy cleaning. Handy garden tool sharpeners are also on the market. At the end of the season, apply mineral oil to clean tools to prevent corrosion.

    6) Commit to a Time Schedule

    Gardens need committed care. Regular scheduling of tasks is required for gardening success. Plan to harvest, weed, and water at least twice weekly. (Click here for good watering tips!) During hot and dry periods and high-growth windows, plan to add more time to assess water and plant needs. In no time, your schedule will become habit, your garden will become your passion, and you find yourself there whenever time allows.

    One trick to making any garden a pleasurable oasis is to create a spot where you can sit, sip a drink between weeding. Pick up a cheap patio table and chairs, add a sun umbrella, and make space for them in your garden.

    Renewed hopes and fresh ideas for the New Year offer new chances to make your garden amazing. In most parts of the country, gardeners have a plenty of time to reshape their garden plans and set their resolutions in motion before the weather warms up. So grab your seed catalogs, and get planning.

    (Click here to get more garden planning tips!)

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    Place a table and chairs in your vegetable garden for a place to sit and rest between tasks.

  9. Gardening with English Holly

    holly branh with green leaves and red berries

    Ilex aquifolium ‘Argenteo Marginata’

    The holly and the ivy,
    Now both are full well grown.
    Of all the trees that are in the wood,
    The holly bears the crown.

     

    The words of the traditional carol, which originated in England in the early 19th century, neatly sum up the enduring appeal of English holly (Ilex aquifolium). While some people may only think of holly as a source of  holiday decorations, it is also an excellent, evergreen garden plant.

    Illustration_Ilex_aquifolium0You can’t beat English holly for its substantial, lustrous leaves and bright berries, both of which stand out, especially in the winter months when color in the garden is hard to come by.  Left to their own devices, hollies can grow to be substantial landscape specimens, topping out at 30 to 50-feet tall and half as wide.  Pruned to smaller sizes, the plants can fit a variety of situations. Holly hedges, for example, work well  in formal garden settings, as well as for boundary plantings.  As single specimens, the plants can be left to grow naturally, limbed up into tree form or carefully pruned into formal geometric shapes.

    Though best known for its decorative qualities, English holly is also useful for habitat gardens.  The tiny white flowers that appear in mid spring are excellent nectar sources for bees, while the berries are favorites of birds and other small animals. Dense branching and leaf configuration means that full-grown hollies can be veritable “bird condos”, providing nesting sites and cover.  Best of all, holly is relatively unattractive to the deer that bedevil many gardeners

    There are over 400 holly species in the world, and cultivated varieties of English holly are among the best known.  The genus name “Ilex” was bestowed upon the plant by Carl Linneaus, and the Ilex aquifolium was described by Linnaeus in 1753. The species name, “aquifolium”, means “with pointed leaves.”

    And those pointed, spiny leaves make some people wary of the English varieties.  New growth tends to have sharper edges than older leaves, so stout garden gloves are a good idea when pruning or handling holly.

    Holly with bright red berries covered in snow and ice

    Frost-covered Ilex aquifolium leaves and berries

    The  happiest English hollies grow in USDA Plant Hardiness zones 6b or 7 through 9. Some varieties, like ‘Twenty Below’ are more cold hardy and can be grown successfully in the colder parts of Zone 6, or possibly some parts of Zone 5. At the colder end of the hardiness range, site hollies where they will have some protection from cold winter winds. The plants prefer sun to light shade and grow best in soil that is on the acid end of the pH spectrum.  Usually young hollies are available in containers or as larger, balled-and-burlapped specimens. Plant in spring, if  possible, in well-drained soil, amended with a high-quality amendment like Fafard® Garden Manure Blend or Black Gold® Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss.  Water thoroughly when installing the holly and continue to water plants in the first few weeks while they establish new roots.

    Garden Manure BlendHollies are dioecious, meaning that shrubs have either female (berry producing) or male flowers. If you want a holly with abundant berries for holiday decorations or landscape color, you will have to act as a horticultural matchmaker.  In order for female plants to produce crops of  berries, compatible male plants must be planted nearby as pollenizers, preferably within 30 to 40 feet of female plants.  Insects, especially bees, do the actual pollination and one male holly can pollinate several females.  When you buy female plants, check with your nursery or garden center for compatible male varieties.  A few English hollies, like ‘Post Office’, are self-fertile and do not need a companion male plant. The best time to prune holly is in late spring to early summer, but remember that pruning female plants will reduce the number of fall berries. Only prune when it is absolutely necessary for the health and appearance of the plant.

    English holly 1

    The non-fruiting ‘Silver Queen’ is a great selection for areas where English holly is invasive.

    To spice up your evergreen array, use variegated English hollies, like the cream-edged Ilex aquifolium ‘Argenteo Marginata’  and yellow-edged ‘Lily Gold’.  These are often somewhat smaller than the species, but they can used in the same ways in the garden.  The edges of ‘Lily Gold’ also turn slightly pink in cold weather. Another attractive form is green-leafed ‘Teufel’s Zero’, a female variety with slender, weeping branches and excellent cold tolerance.

    As with many species that originated elsewhere and made good in the New World, English holly comes with some caveats.  It has been reported to be invasive in parts of eastern and western Canada, the Pacific Northwest, and northwestern California.  In these areas, it may be wiser to choose non-berried male selections with exemplary foliage, such as the confusingly named ‘Silver Queen’. This male form has wonderfully dark green leaves edged in ivory.

  10. Elegant, Evergreen Magnolias

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    Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is graced with outstanding evergreen foliage and glorious bowl-shaped spring flowers. (image by Pam Beck)

    Gardening in eastern North America has many challenges.  But it also has many glories. Among the latter are the two evergreen magnolia species that call the region home.  Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) and evergreen forms of sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana var. australis) have it all: handsome gray bark; large, sweet-scented, creamy-white flowers in late spring (and sporadically until fall); and evergreen leaves that take center stage in winter.

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    Southern magnolias add evergreen beauty to dull winter landscapes. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    These native beauties are also more cold-tolerant than most gardeners know.  Although they hail from the Southeast United States, they succeed in cultivation into USDA Zone 5b.  Centerpieces of many a Mid-Atlantic and Southeast garden, they’re also capable of making a statement in parts of New England, New York,  and the Midwest.

    Southern magnolia is one of those big, bold, primordial plants that looks like it just dropped in from the Cretaceous.  Indeed, its ancestors dominated much of Earth’s vegetation some 70- to 90-million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the planet.  But this magnificent magnolia also works just fine as a visually dominant specimen tree for twenty-first century landscapes.

    In its boldest forms, Magnolia grandiflora takes the primordial look to awe-inspiring lengths (and breadths).  The aptly named ‘Goliath’ (and the somewhat similar ‘Gloriosa’) produces enormous cupped flowers of ivory that open to a foot or more across, displayed against large, polished, relatively broad leaves.  The flowers of ‘Samuel Sommer’ are even larger (to 14 inches across), and its leaves have striking rust-brown felting on their undersides.  Selected for its abundance of bloom, ‘Majestic Beauty’ also features immense deep green leaves and a symmetrical, broadly conical growth habit.  Cultivars ‘Angustifolia’ and ‘Lanceolata’ have narrower leaves, felted brown underneath.

    Magnolia grandiflora 'Edith Bogue'

    The more delicate ‘Edith Bogue’ is best espaliered against a sturdy, protective wall.

    Although typically forming a slow-growing, 40- to 60-foot tree, Southern magnolia sometimes assumes more compact forms, as in the narrowly conical, 30-foot-tall ‘Little Gem’.  Its 4-inch-wide flowers are relatively precocious (most Southern magnolias varieties take several years to a decade to come to bloom), and as with most varieties they recur sparingly after the main flush in late spring.

    Two other compact Magnolia grandiflora cultivars are of particular interest to Northern gardeners.  Both ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ and ‘Edith Bogue’ have a good chance of succeeding into USDA Zone 5b in sites protected from winter sun and harsh northwest winds.  For sheer hardiness and sturdiness, ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ can’t be beat, although even this toughest of Southern magnolias will go brownish-tan in cold, Zone-6 winters.  The slightly more delicate ‘Edith Bogue’ is notorious for losing limbs to heavy winter snow, and functions best in North gardens as an espalier, with her branches fixed to a stout frame (a shaded east-facing wall is ideal).

    Whatever the climatic zone, Southern magnolia does best in relatively fertile soil that’s not too sandy or heavy.  A good compost (such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost) can help bring marginal soils into line.

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    The highly fragrant blooms of sweetbay appear in spring and are almost primrose yellow. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Native from Texas to North-Coastal Massachusetts, Magnolia virginiana makes a natural choice for gardens from USDA Zones 5 to 9.  Evergreen forms of this elegant small tree – known botanically as variety australis – are confined to the Southeast, and tend to either expire or defoliate in Zone 5 and 6 winters.  Exceptions do occur, however, including the cultivars ‘Henry Hicks’ and ‘Moonglow’, both of which are hardy and often evergreen (or semi-evergreen) into Zone 5b.

    In all its forms, sweetbay magnolia is one of the finest small trees for American gardens.  Typically single-trunked in warmer climes and multi-stemmed in chillier regions, it bears oval, rich green leaves with silvery undersides that shimmer in the breeze.  The cupped, creamy (almost primrose yellow) flowers debut in late spring and continue sporadically throughout summer, casting a piquant, questing fragrance reminiscent of roses or lemons.  Attractive clusters of red-fleshed fruits follow the blooms.  Often found in wetlands in nature, Magnolia virginiana is well suited for moister areas of the landscape (and loathes dry, sandy soil).

    Natural and Organic

    Before planting evergreen magnolias, fortify your soil with Fafard Natural & Organic Compost Blend.

    Also well worth growing is the hybrid between sweetbay magnolia and umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala), which combines the fragrant, summer-long blooms of the former with the bold, primordial, deciduous foliage of the latter.  Its cultivar ‘Cairn Croft’ is sometimes available from specialty nurseries.  Crosses between sweetbay and Southern magnolia have been developed and introduced by hybridizers, but offer no notable advantages over the parents.  For year-round leafage and beauty, these two exceptional natives can’t be beat.