Garden Problem Solvers

  1. Creative Upcycled Planting Containers

    A pair of old boots make campy and unusual strawberry planters.

    If gardening is the great equalizer, enabling people of all ages and conditions to grow food, flowers, herbs and other plants; then container gardening is a super equalizer.  Making a “portable garden” means that you don’t need to own land, large tools or even significant space.  And, you don’t have to buy fancy containers to make your plants happy; just “upcycle” something you already have.  The only limits are your imagination and foraging abilities.

    An old shoe makes a fun, unexpected container for New Guinea Impatiens.

    Upcycled planting containers make gardening more fun, and they cost nothing. All you need, in fact, is something that holds soil, good potting mix, seeds or plants, sunshine, water, and you have an instant container.  Plant some zinnias in an old dishpan or grow a mess of tomatoes in a repurposed bathtub.  One restaurant reuses commercial-size olive oil cans to house billowing basil plants whose leaves are ultimately harvested and used in various dishes.  Irish gardener/garden writer Helen Dillon uses dustbins—trash cans—to hold plants in her Dublin garden.  Spackle buckets work well, and more than one gardener has pressed an old pair of boots into service as a sturdy container.  The list of recycling opportunities is endless.  In fact, almost anything that will hold soil can be converted to a planter.  People have been recycling old tires and wine barrels to make planters/raised beds for decades.

    Upcycled Container Rules

    An old sink gets painted and planted into a fun container garden.

    There are only a few rules when it comes to recycled containers.  The first is fitting the container to the plant.  A large hibiscus might need the ample space provided by an old wicker laundry basket, while a small herb plant or a succulent can grow well in a cut-off plastic detergent bottle.  When choosing a container to recycle, think about the amount of space the chosen plant might take up if it were in a garden bed.  Make sure the container is deep enough to accommodate the plant’s root system and as wide as the plant’s mature diameter.  Plant tags should provide you with this information.

    The recycled container should be clean, since residue from its original contents might be harmful to plants.  A thorough cleaning with a 10% (1:10) solution of household bleach and water, plus a good rinse should be fine for most would-be planters.

    Container Care

    A weathered trough gets a face lift when filled with beautiful mixed bedding plants.

    Container-grown plants also have some specialized nutritional, water, and drainage needs.  Make sure your repurposed containers have drainage holes at the bottom.  If making holes is impossible, fill the bottom quarter of the container with coarse pebbles topped by a layer of charcoal (available in garden centers).  Provide good nutrition from the beginning by investing in high-quality potting media, like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed or Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed.

    Pay attention to your chosen plants’ light requirements and position the containers accordingly.  Remember that “full sun” means six or more hours per day of direct sunlight, and even plants labeled as “good for shade” need a continuous supply of indirect or filtered light.

    Mixed petunias and bright lavender paint add charm to an old claw foot tub. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Overwatering is the number one cause of container-grown plant death.  Check plant tags or internet resources for water requirements.  Many plants only need water when the soil is dry an inch or two below the surface, but some, like primroses or hydrangeas, prefer evenly moist soil at all times, especially when weather is hot and dry.  Plants that are outdoors during drought periods may need water every day and should be checked frequently.

    Check Recycling Day

    Clever gardener/recyclers are always on the lookout for potential planters.  If your town has a “bulk pick-up day”, when larger discarded items are picked up for disposal, the perfect plant container may be waiting on a curb in your neighborhood.  Check your garage and attic.  A forgotten corner may harbor a perfect plant container.  The supermarket is also full of future plant pots, especially if you buy items like oil, condiments or canned goods in large sizes.  Look for promising shapes and sizes first, as many recyclable containers can be painted or embellished to suit your indoor or outdoor décor.

    Most of all, have fun.  The perfect recycled planter is probably closer than you think!

    An out-of-service toilet can make a humorous but effective planting “pot”. (image by Jessie Keith)

  2. “Cannatainers” or Cannas for Container Gardening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  3. The Best Vegetables to Grow with Your Kids

    My daughter after picking her first carrot from the garden!

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

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

     

    Fun, Yummy Vegetables to Eat and Pick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Growing Your Vegetables

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

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

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

     

  6. Miniature Water Lily Pots for the Patio

    Lotus leaves-5

    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

    stone pot with leaves of water lilies

    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.

    white lotus flower in pots

    ‘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.

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

    Lythrum salicaria JaKMPM

    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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. Garden Healthy: Grow More Greens in 2017!

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    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

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    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

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    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)