Landscape Tips

  1. 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.

     

  2. “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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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    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.

  6. 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.

  7. Ornamental Seed Heads for Winter Garden Interest

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    The seedheads of Rudbeckia fulgida stay looking pretty into winter and will even hold the snow. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Winter is the garden’s quiet time, when its subtler charms hold sway.  It’s the season of the three B’s – eye-catching bark, colorful berries, and architectural branching – and of evergreen foliage.  And it’s also the time to appreciate the marvelous and often beautiful diversity of seed heads.

    Miscanthus sinensis ssp. condensatus 'Cabaret' JaKMPM

    Miscanthus sinensis var. condensatus ‘Cabaret’ (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    No plants better exemplify this beauty than grasses.  Many produce large, elaborate flower heads that reach their full glory in fall and winter as the seeds ripen and scatter.  Doubtless the best known of the bunch (at least in eastern North American gardens) is Chinese maiden grass, Miscanthus sinensis.  This variable East Asian native produces huge, plumy, silvery flower heads in late summer on 5- to 8-foot talks that erupt from fountain-like clumps of arching leaves.  The ripening blooms gleam in the slanting fall and winter light, glowing most brightly when backlit by the sun.  Among the many outstanding varieties of Chinese maiden grass are the longtime favorite ‘Gracillimus’ and its descendants, all of which feature narrow leaves with silvery midribs.  Broad, yellow, widely spaced bands mark the leaves of ‘Zebrinus’, which is floppier in habit than the similar ‘Strictus’.  The broad-bladed, variegated Miscanthus sinensis var. condensatus ‘Cabaret’, has cream-striped leaves and reddish plumes that dry to silvery tan in fall.  Compact cultivars such as the 40-inch-tall ‘Adagio’ make a good choice for tighter spaces.  This (and other) grass species may self-sow, particularly in warmer parts of its USDA Zones 5 to 9 hardiness range.

    Other notable grasses of winter interest (and of similar hardiness range) include:

    The North American native Panicum virgatum (commonly known as switch grass), which produces hazy clouds of dainty pale flowers that darken as they ripen in fall.  Most varieties grow to 4 feet or more.

    Cortaderia selloana 'Silver Comet'

    Cortaderia selloana ‘Silver Comet’

    Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides), instantly recognizable by its large foxtail-like flower heads on 3-to 4-foot stems above finely textured mounds of narrow leaves.  Several dwarf cultivars (including ‘Little Bunny’) are available.

    The upright, tassel-flowered Calamagrostis acutiflorus (feather reed grass), with bronzy blooms that mature to beige tones as they mature in late summer and fall.

    Cortaderia selloana (pampas grass) is an imposing tender grass surviving in USDA hardiness zones 8-10. The tall plumes reach 8-12 feet and appear late in the season. It can seed freely, so be cautious where you plant it.

    Panicum virgatum 'Prairie Sky' JaKMPM

    Panicum virgatum ‘Prairie Sky’ in winter (Image by Jessie Keith)

    These and most other ornamental grasses flourish in relatively fertile, not overly dry soil and full sun.  A good nitrogen-rich soil amendment (such as Fafard Garden Manure Blend) will help bring heavy or sandy soils up to snuff.

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    Purple coneflower seedheads eventually shatter as their seeds are eaten by birds, but they do offer pleasing winter interest. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Like grasses, many broadleaf perennials have attractive seed heads that make a pleasing sight in winter (particularly when displayed against a blanket of snow).  Among the best perennials for winter interest are species in the aster family that bear persistent conical heads of dark seeds.  The near-black central cones of perennial garden favorite Rudbeckia fulgida remain long after the last golden-yellow petals of its summer-to-fall ray-flowers have dropped.  Usually sold under the name ‘Goldsturm’, it’s one of a tribe of similar ‘black-eyed Susans” from the central and eastern United States.  All are easy-care sun-lovers, are hardy from zones 4 to 10, and have a penchant for self-sowing.  Rudbeckia nitida, by contrast, has greenish cones (with yellow petals) on stately, 4- to 6-foot stems, and is a less enthusiastic self-sower.

    Also hailing from prairies and meadows of central and eastern North America are several species of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea and others).  The large brown “cones” protrude pleasingly from the snow on 2- to 4-foot stems, and also look nice in summer when fringed with purple-pink ray-flowers.  Hybrids and selections of purple coneflower come in a host of flower colors, from white to red to yellow.

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    Tall sedums continue to look attractive in the garden well into winter. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    The North American prairies are home to several other perennials that make great winter garden ornaments.  The silver-white, spherical flower heads of rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) ripen into spiky globes that resemble some sort of miniature medieval weaponry.  They cluster atop 3-foot stems that arise from rosettes of fleshy, spiny, yucca-like leaves.  False indigo (Baptisia australis) and its kin are big bushy legumes that produce blue, white, or yellow pea-flowers in late spring and early summer, followed by peapods that become leathery and brown-black as the seeds mature in fall.  All make wonderful low-maintenance perennials with spring-to-winter interest.

    Attractive seedpods are also a feature of the many butterfly weeds (Asclepias spp.) that dot the prairies and fields of eastern and central North America.  The pods split in fall to release seeds that float away on tufts of white down.  Orange-flowered Asclepias tuberosa is one of the best, as is Asclepias purpurascens, which has rose to purple blooms. Tall Sedums (Sedum spp.) of all types also grace the winter with seedheads that can remain attractive through winter.

    Garden Manure BlendSweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) is one of numerous Clematis species (including many shrubby and vining perennials native to central and eastern North America) that bear seeds with plumy, silver-white appendages that continue to draw onlookers long after their flowers have fallen.   Heavy-blooming plants appear to be enveloped with a feathery froth as the seeds (and their plumes) mature.  As with all of the above (as well as the scores of other perennials, shrubs, vines, and trees with ornamental seeds), they’re essential elements of the winter garden, and splendid accents for fall and winter flower arrangements.

  8. Evergreen Herbs: Lavender, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme

     

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    A fall herb garden containing rosemary and lavender (foreground).

    Some herbs don’t disappear when winter comes. A suite of favorites from the Mediterranean stay green, keeping our gardens looking pretty and our food tasting good. Designing and cooking with them is easy, but keeping them happy during the winter months requires an understanding of what they need to grow well.

    Rather than being herbaceous perennials, meaning they die to the ground in winter and stem from the earth in spring, these herbs are actually shrubs and subshrubs. This means they have woody growth. They require pruning to maintain their good looks and vigorous growth, and if the cold and winter sun become too harsh and they are not protected, their stems will die.

    Lavender

    Lavandula JaKMPM

    Lavandula angustifolia is highly attractive to bees.

    Valued as a garden and landscape beauty, as well as an aromatic and culinary herb, lavender has both lovely foliage and pretty summer flowers. There are several species that are commonly grown. The most cultivated forms are English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, 2-3 feet) and French lavender (Lavandula stoechas, 1-3 feet), which are both shrubby perennials with pretty flowers that are highly attractive to bees. The leaves are commonly used are a component of Herbs de Provence, a popular French herb mix used to flavor meats, sauces, and stews.

    The common name “English lavender” is actually a misnomer. This evergreen plant originates from the mountain ranges of Spain, France, and Italy where it exists in open, rocky, alkaline soils. When grown in the garden, plants need sharply drained soils and full sun. The whole plant is fragrant. Its summer flowers, may be lavender blue, purple or white, exist in elongated clusters atop long, thin stems. Small, linear, silver-gray leaves densely line the stems. This lavender can survive in zones 5-8, but in the colder end of its hardiness, the stems often experience winter desiccation and damage. Old or unsightly stems should be pruned off in spring after temperatures have begun to warm and new growth appears.

    Lavandula stoechas 'Anouk' PP16685 JaKMPM

    Lavandula stoechas is tender but offers very pretty plumed flower spikes.

    French lavender is a bit more tender than English. It survives in USDA hardiness zones 8-9. It naturally exists on the Mediterranean coasts where conditions are hot and dry. The mounded evergreen subshrub can become quite large with age. It is fully evergreen with fine, toothed leaves of silvery gray-green. In drier weather the leaves become more linear and silvery. Its slender stems are topped with oval spikes of densely clustered dark purple flowers topped with showy plumes of brighter purple bracts. These appear from late spring through summer.

    Sage

    Salvia officinalis 'Berrgarden' JaKMPM

    Salvia officinalis ‘Berrgarten’ has broad, silvery leaves that always look pretty.

    Prized for flavoring Thanksgiving stuffing, sausages, and winter pasta dishes, sage (Salvia officinalis, 2-2.5 feet) is also an attractive, evergreen landscape plant that continues to look nice through winter. It’s broad, dusty gray leaves smell pungent when crushed, and in early summer, stems of pretty violet-blue flowers appear.

    Also from the Mediterranean, this sun-loving subshrub also requires well-drained soils. It is quite hardy, surviving in USDA hardiness zones 4-8. In colder zones, stems and leaves have a tendency to die back, so spring removal of dead or damaged stems is a must. There are many beautiful cultivars including the broad-leaved ‘Berggarten’ sage and ‘Tricolor’ sage with its purple, cream, and gray-green leaves. All sages have a place both in herb and perennial borders.

    Rosemary

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    Rosmarinus officinalis flowers are pale lavender blue and much loved by bees.

    The piney smell of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, 2-6 feet) permeates this sprawling evergreen shrub. Native to the Mediterranean and Caucasus, it grows in rocky sandy soils and can withstand the salt spray of the seashore. It will grow in USDA hardiness zones 7-10, but in colder zones winter stem dieback is common. Some cultivated varieties are hardier than others with the upright cultivar ‘Arp’ surviving to zone 6. Well-drained soils and sites protected from harsh winter weather will help plants make survive the cold. They can also be protected with a winter cover of straw.

    Rosemary shrubs can become quite wide and bushy, though low-growing, creeping cultivars also exist. The mat-forming ‘Prostratus’, which sprawls to several feet but only reaches 6-12 inches, is one of these. Pale violet-blue flowers appear along the stems in spring and early summer. Plant rosemary in sharply drained soil and full sun where it will have plenty of room to grow. Where winters are mild, these shrubs can be sheared as topiaries to create an architectural, fragrant border. Harvest leaves and stems to season meats, sauces, and roasted vegetables.

    Thyme

    Thymus

    Thymus pseudolanuginosus is wooly and very low growing.

    Creating low mats of minute evergreen foliage, thyme is a garden favorite for herb and rock gardens. It also looks great planted among stepping stones or as a ground cover for sun. Many species are cultivated and all are culinary, though some taste better than others. French thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is the culinary favorite, with lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) following in flavor. The highly prostrate, fuzzy-leaved wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) is very pretty planted along a stone walkway or along a rock wall. The low-growing pink-flowered creeping time is also extra pretty producing masses of pink flowers in spring. Mother-of-thyme (Thymus serpyllum) is a northern European species that also produces masses of pink flowers in spring and makes groundcover. Planting them among sunny, protective rock walls and beds will help protect them through winter and ensure they will continue to look nice.

    All of these herbs are mints producing pretty, fragrant flowers that are highly attractive to bees. Their planting needs are similar. All require well-drained soils, and though they can withstand poorer quality soils, they will thrive if their soils are amended with Black Gold® Garden Compost Blend. Plant them in spring, so they will have plenty of time to become established for the cold winter months.

    Leaves can be harvested any time of year, which is why sage, rosemary, and thyme are used to flavor winter dishes. Their aromatic flavors offer year-round pleasure and the plants themselves full-season garden interest.

  9. “Knitting” Perennials for Textural Flower Gardens

    Geranium sanguineum ‘John Elsley’ “knitting” into a silvery lungwort. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Flopping is often frowned upon in the perennial garden (and quickly corrected with bamboo stakes, peasticks, or other mechanisms, if it occurs).  Some perennials, however, make a virtue out of laxity, their trailing growth providing the perfect foil to the upright stems of delphiniums, New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), and garden phlox (Phlox paniculata).  In flower gardens, as in containers, nothing complements a towering thriller better than a contrasting spiller.

    Natural and OrganicTrailing perennials are especially valuable for their ability to knit together other garden elements, upright or otherwise.  Mass them at the fringe of a perennial border, and they unify what lies behind them.  Position them near a path or patio, and their tumbling stems interrupt and soften the line between hardscape and softscape.  And they’re literally made for walls, producing cascades of texture and color that bring the landscape alive.

    Margins and walls are not the only places where trailing perennials do their knitting.  They excel at covering the voids left by large perennials that go dormant in early summer, such as oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) and bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis).  Many will thread their stems through upright neighboring perennials, intermingling their contrasting foliage and blooms.  Some ground-hugging sprawlers (including creeping thyme, Thymus serpyllum) can even be planted into lawns to form textured, flowering patchworks.

    Here’s a sampling of some of the best of these perennial “knitters”.

    Callirhoe-involucrata

    Winecups (Callirhoe involucrata)

    A native of dry prairies throughout the Central U.S., winecups (Callirhoe involucrata) has just about everything a North American gardener could want, including cold-hardiness (USDA Zones 4-9), drought-tolerance, and a long season of showy blooms. Its lax stems typically form low mats, but will also clamber up neighboring plants or cascade down banks or walls. The bowl-shaped, bright purplish-pink, white-eyed blooms continue for many weeks in summer along new portions of the continually lengthening growth. Several other species of Callirhoe – of various habit – are also well worth growing. All of them prosper in dry habitats.

    Moss phlox (Phlox subulata) is so common as to be dismissed by gardeners who should know better. But, just because a plant species is sold at hardware stores and supermarkets (as well as about every other establishment that deals in plants) doesn’t mean that it’s unfit for sophisticated gardens. Hailing from dry slopes and ledges in the East and Central U.S., this needle-leaved evergreen can’t be beat for draping down a wall, or covering a dry slope, or fronting a xeric perennial planting. Its filigreed foliage would be reason enough to grow it, even if it weren’t also a prolific early-spring bloomer. Gardeners who are put off by brassy-flowered forms of this species have any number of subtler cultivars from which to choose. It’s worth considering for any sunny garden within USDA Zones 3 to 9.

    Phlox subulata 'Fort Hill' (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Phlox subulata ‘Fort Hill’ (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Several trailing bellflowers (Campanula spp.) occur on ledges and embankments in European mountains and take well to similar habitats in gardens.  Among the most vigorous of the lot is Serbian bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana), which in late spring bears starry blue flowers on low, 3- to 4-foot-wide hummocks. The typically sprawling stems will also clamber or drape, given the opportunity. Plants tolerate a wide range of conditions and may become overly rambunctious in moist, fertile soil.  Other bellflowers for edging or walls include Campanula cochlearifolia, C. carpaticaC. garganica, and C. portenschlagiana.

    Also from Europe is another trailing perennial that excels on sunny dry slopes: bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum).  A variable plant, it typically matures into a sprawling, 6- to 10-inch-tall mound of deeply lobed foliage, decked in late spring and summer with magenta, pink, or white, dark-veined flowers.  This hardy (USDA Zones 5 to 9), durable perennial is perhaps at its best in naturalistic plantings, where it can be allowed to seed around into informal colonies.

    Clematis × durandii (Image by Leonora Enking )

    Clematis × durandii (Image by Leonora Enking)

    An excellent geranium for threading through perennials and shrubs is the Geranium ‘Rozanne’, prized for its early-summer-to-frost bounty of purplish-blue flowers.   This lanky, 2- to 3-footer will also sprawl obligingly across gaps left by early-dormant perennials.

    The legendary garden designer Gertrude Jekyll liked to cover such gaps with the lax, non-climbing growth of , a hybrid between the shrubby Clematis integrifolia and the vining Clematis lanuginosa.  Its toppling, 7-foot stems bear a summer-long succession of large starry violet-blue flowers that resemble those of its vining parent.  Other clematis for this purpose include Clematis recta, a 5-foot, splaying perennial that envelops itself in summer with small fragrant white flowers; and ‘Mrs. Robert Brydon’, another shrub/vine hybrid whose flopping 8-foot stems carry billowing clusters of pale-blue blooms in August and September.

    Hardy perennials for knitting can be planted in fall. Good soil preparation and light mulch will help them become established and protect them through the winter months. Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost should be worked into the soil at planting time and added as a light mulch around newly installed perennials.

  10. Reap the Fall Garden Harvest and Make the Beds for Winter

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    Now is the time to reap the end-of-season harvest. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Bringing in the sheaves,” goes the old hymn, “bringing in the sheaves.  We will come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

    Mid to late fall is when gardeners “bring in the sheaves”, not to mention the tomatoes, pumpkins, cool season greens or whatever crops might still be growing in beds, borders and containers.  As night temperatures dip, it is time to harvest your produce or risk losing it, except in a few cases, like carrots, kale, and collards, where flavor actually improves with a little frost.

    Dahlia 'Deerwood Erika'

    Once the tops of the dahlias have died back, it is time to dig their tuberous roots and store them indoors through winter. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Edible crops are not the only harvest items.  It is also time to collect seeds from heirloom annuals—flowers and vegetables—that you want to save for next year.  (Click here to learn more about saving heirloom seeds.) Sort and store your seeds in labeled paper packets and keep them in a cool dry place through winter.  If you live in a cold-winter climate, that same cool dry place can provide an out-of-season home for tender dahlia tuberous roots and gladiolus corms. When digging dahlias, be sure to clean them gently while keeping the roots and lower stems in tact. Be sure not to disturb any of the growing points, or “eyes”, located just below their stems.

    Once they have been dug, allow the corms and roots to dry off for a few days, then nestle them into labeled boxes, tubs, or bags full of dry vermiculite, perlite or peat moss. The stored roots should be kept moderately dry, but not bone dry. In winter, check and mist the contents periodically to keep them from completely drying out.

    The late-season garden just on the cusp of frost time. (image by Jessie Keith)It is not exactly harvesting, but fall is also the season to bring tender container specimens, like tropical foliage plants and citrus, into the house. Before bringing them indoors, clean off and inspect both pots and plants carefully for hitchhiking pests. Clean plants from top to bottom with insecticidal soap, if you are concerned that they may harbor unwanted pests. You may also consider repotting incoming houseplants in Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil. (Click here to learn more about cleaning and repotting house plants.)

    But even as you bring crops, plant materials, and potted specimens into the house, a good many chores await outside.  Brisk, or at least moderate, fall weather and the beautiful change of leaves make these outdoor tasks a bit easier.

    Dill Seed

    Seed collecting is an important part of the fall harvest process. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    First, decide what you want to do with your ornamental beds and borders. (Click here to learn the best ways to clean your fall landscape!) Some gardeners, especially habitat-conscious ones, leave lots of seedhead-bearing plants standing to provide late fall and early winter rations for birds and wildlife.  If you are one of them, remember to keep pulling up the weeds that sprout around those plants as long as the ground is workable.  This will make life much easier come spring.

    If neatness is a priority, pull out spent annuals and cut down stalks of perennial plants.  Compost the remains.  If your spring planting scheme features some unfilled spaces, now is the time to plant bulbs like daffodils, tulips and hyacinths.  Once the ground has frozen, mulch with several inches of pine straw, clean hay or chopped leaves to protect plants from the effects of winter frost heaves.  Use extra mulch around shallow-rooted ornamentals, like the popular Heuchera and Scabiosa, not to mention anything that is only marginally hardy in your climate zone.  Delicate shrubs, like some roses, can be surrounded with stake-supported “cages” covered with hardware cloth or burlap.  These can be filled with chopped leaves to insulate the plant from cold winter winds.

    2209Fafard N&O Potting_3D-1cu RESILIENCE front WEBAnother option for enriching the soil of a productive plot is to sow a fall cover crop of vetch or crimson clover.  This kind of “green manure crop” fixes nitrogen in the soil and can be tilled in or turned under in spring, which allows it to do one final good garden deed as a soil amendment. Cover crops also protect the soil by reducing erosion.

    As you do these chores, remember that these are the last acts in the seasonal play that is gardening.  Applying a little extra effort in fall is an investment in next year’s flowers, vegetables, and fruits.