Natural & Organic Gardening

  1. 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!

  2. Yes, Peas! Growing Edible Pod & Tendril Peas

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    ‘Golden Sweet’ snow pea is one of many delicious edible pod peas. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    The tendriled vines of peas produce delicious pods in cool spring weather, and their roots naturally fortify soil with nitrogen. Once warm weather comes on, they can be pulled and replanted again in late summer for a second crop in fall. Peas are easily stored—by freezing or canning—making them a great choice for gardeners that preserve the harvest.

    There are many edible pod and tendril types to try.  Some create long vines, while others are bush-forming and better suited to small spaces. Fortify their soil, choose a sunny spot, and plant at the right time of year, and they’re a cinch to grow. At least 8-10 weeks are required to raise plants from seed to harvest. Harvest can last for several weeks. Once summer heat comes on, vines stop producing, and slowly turn brown and die.

    Edible Pod Peas

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    Classic ‘Sugar Snap’ peas are the snap pea standard. (Image by AAS Winners)

    Snow and snap peas are the two edible pod peas of choice. Snaps are crisp and plump and snow peas are more delicate and slender. Both are very sweet and can be eaten fresh or cooked.  Snaps are favored by most growers, but snow peas are gaining more garden ground.

    Two snow peas stand out when it comes to flavor and performance, ‘Oregon Sugar Pod II’ and ‘Golden Sweet’. The productive and vigorous ‘Oregon Sugar Pod II’ consistently gets high reviews by gardeners. It produces super sweet, 4- to 5-inch-long flattened pods on bushy, disease-resistant plants that only reach 2 ½ feet. The pale yellow pods get top marks for flavor and are produced on vigorous 6-foot vines that require trellising. First discovered in India, this variety is also more heat tolerant than most, which extends its window of harvest.

    Snap pea culture is dominated by the ever-popular ‘Sugar Snap’ (1979 AAS Winner) and ‘Super Sugar Snap’ varieties. This is because both are crisp, sweet, and prolific. The “super” in ‘Super Sugar Snap’ comes from the fact that these peas are more compact, earlier to produce (60 days), and bear more heavily over a shorter window of time. Reportedly, the mildew-resistant, 5’ vines yield pods that are not quite as sweet as the classic ‘Sugar Snap’.

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    ‘Patio Pride’ is a new, super compact snap pea perfect for containers. (Image by AAS Winners)

    Original ‘Sugar Snap’ peas became a household name for a reason. Nothing has come close to their quality since they were first introduced over 35 years ago. Young pods are relatively stringless, super sweet, reach up to 3 ½ inches in length, and are produced after 62 days. The 6-foot vines are heat tolerant (but not mildew resistant) and produce peas over a long period.

    The 1984 AAS Winner, ‘Sugar Ann’, is a super early producer bearing sweet peas in only 52 days. Another compact, early gem is the 2017 AAS Winner ‘Patio Pride’. It only takes 40 days for the ultra-compact, 6- to 12-inch vines to produce plump, edible pods. These can be harvested early or allowed to mature a bit at which point they can be enjoyed as shelling peas.

    Tendrils

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    ‘Sugar Magnolia’ peas produce loads of edible tendrils. (Image by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

    Pea tendrils can be eaten fresh in salads or cooked in stir fries. Heavily tendriled peas are semi-leafless and referred to as “afila” peas. Their sweet flavor and novel looks have made them popular in restaurants. Only recently have they become available to gardeners.

    The new tendriled variety ‘Sugar Magnolia’ produces a wild mess of green tendrils on 8-foot vines in addition to bearing good-tasting purple snap peas after 70 days. ‘Feisty is another vigorous tendril pea that has monstrous vines that can reach 30-feet in length. Harvestable tendrils are produced in 50 days and sweet pea pods are produced after 60 days.

    Cultivating Peas

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    A bountiful harvest of sugar snap peas.

    Cool weather, full sun, and fertile soil are required for great pea production. For best results, amend garden soil with a 1:3 ratio of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost to garden soil and lightly feed with an all-purpose organic fertilizer for vegetable gardening. Turn the soil gently to make sure it is light and friable.

    Most peas need trellising. The lightweight vines will grow well on a moderately sturdy trellis consisting of bamboo posts fixed with tightly fitted trellis netting. Even bush varieties can benefit from a low bamboo and twine support system.

    Once your spring pea crop is spent, remember that you can plant a new crop again in fall. These sweet summer treats are healthy, delicious, and well worth the effort.

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    A sturdy bamboo trellis fitted with taut trellis netting is perfect for peas. (Image by Jessie Keith)

     

  3. Gardeners, Start Your Vegetable Seeds!

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

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

    Love It, Choose It

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

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

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

    Lay In Supplies

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

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

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

    Starting Strong

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    OMRI Listed mixes are best for vegetable seedling cultivation.

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

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

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

    Gentle Warmth

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

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

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

    Out of the Incubator

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

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

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

    Out of the House

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

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

    Little Seeds, Big Rewards

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

     

  4. 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.

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

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

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

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

    Beets

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    Candycane ‘Chioggia’ beets

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

    Broccoli

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    Broccoli ‘Artwork’ (image care of AAS Winners)

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

    Cabbage

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    Space-saving ‘Caraflex’ cabbage

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

    Early Carrots

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    Sweet, crisp ‘Adelaide’ carrots

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

    Lettuce

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    Crisphead ‘Reine des Glaces’ lettuce

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

    Radishes

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    Classic French ‘D’Avignon’ radishes

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

    Snap Peas

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

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

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

  6. New Garden Flowers for 2017

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    Cosmos ‘Cupcakes’ is a hot new introductions for 2016. (Image care of Fleuroselect)

    People who believe there is nothing new under the sun have never looked at spring garden catalogs.  Every year plant retailers bombard gardeners with pages of the new and different—or at least the slightly new and the somewhat improved.  2017 is no exception.

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    Cosmos ‘Xanthos’ (image care of Fleuroselect)

    Familiar themes abound—color is king, with variegated or uniquely colored foliage augmenting floral displays.  Rebloom leads the roster of “most desirable traits” for both perennials and annuals.  Old standbys have shrunk into compact sizes that are perfect for containers and smaller garden spaces. Stalwarts, like cosmos and sunflowers, appear in new blossom shapes and colors, allowing plant lovers to set off a few garden fireworks without burning down the establishment.

    New Flower Forms

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    Echinacea PUFF™ Vanilla (Image care of Terra Nova Nurseries)

    Fleuroselect, the international organization for the ornamental plants industry, dubbed 2016-2017  “The Year of the Cosmos”.  Several of these come in brazen new forms. Of these, the double white Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Mini Click White’ won the coveted Fleuroselect Novelty award for 2017. Even more striking is Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Cupcakes’, which has cupped petals that resemble cupcake papers of white and pale pink.  The seed-grown ‘Cupcakes’ have variable flowers that sometimes have an extra row of smaller inner petals. Another unique Cosmos for the market is the Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner ‘Xanthos’, which not only has uniquely colored pale-yellow flowers but a compact habit and good performance.

    The familiar perennial coneflower takes on a new floral appearance with the domed, fully double Echinacea PUFF™ Vanilla, a ivory-flowered hybrid new for 2017 that blooms throughout summer with double anemone-type blooms. The Terra Nova Nurseries introduction also boasts a compact habit.

    New Compact Flowers

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    Agastache Acapulco Deluxe® Rose (Image care of GreenFuse Botanicals)

    Agastache, or hummingbird mint, has proved to be a favorite perennial for attracting hummingbirds to its colorful, reblooming flowers.  Many good varieties have appeared on the market, but diminutive cultivars in the Acapulco Deluxe® series stand out, with the brightest being Acapulco Deluxe® Rose. It offers vibrant flowers of deepest rose (orange in bud) on fragrant, compact, container-friendly plants reaching 12 inches tall and wide. The plants are also heat and drought tolerant!

    Another tough perennial now available in a more manageable size is Blue Jean Baby Russian sage (Perovskia atricplicifolia ‘Blue Jean Baby’) features gray-green, aromatic, deer-resistant foliage and relatively short stature (2 feet), which can be further controlled by cutting plants back after they bloom.

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    Dianthus Supra Pink F1 (Image care of AAS Winners)

    This year introduces a true reblooming fragrant Dianthus for 2017, Dianthus Interspecific Supra Pink F1! The compact bloomer reaches 10-12 inches and blooms nonstop from spring to fall, no deadheading required. Its outstanding performance awarded it a coveted AAS award for 2017!

    If you decide to grow any of the new, compact annual or perennial varieties in containers, start them off right by filling those pots, window boxes and troughs with quality potting mixes, like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed or moisture retentive Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed.

    New Flower Colors

    Plant breeders continue to love bi-colored flowers and peach shades.  A perfect example is Tagetes ‘Strawberry Blonde’, a marigold with the familiar pompom shape and petals blushed salmon pink, with golden overtones.  Like all marigolds, it reblooms throughout the growing season and works equally well in containers and garden spaces of all sizes.  Another peachy bloomer is Viola ‘Mariposa Peach Shades’, an annual pansy adorned with ruffled flowers in the yellow/orange range.  It provides early and late season color that is welcome in climates with cool springs and falls.

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    Echinacea Butterfly™ Rainbow Marcella (Image thanks to Plants Nouveau)

    The past ten years have seen a stampede of new perennial coneflower introductions.  This year, with peach tones in the ascendant, one of the best is the Plants Nouveau introduction, Echinacea Butterfly™ Rainbow Marcella. Its colorful single flowers have brown cones surrounded by pinkish-peach petals.

    Zinnias have exploded in both popularity and petal count.  One of the most unusual of the new zinnias are those on the Queen Lime Series. The Johnny’s Selected Seeds exclusive Zinnia ‘Queen Lime with Blush’, sports pale pink and lime green petals and a central blotch of maroon.  Like all tall zinnias, it is easy to grow, and reaches 30 to 40 inches tall.

    Lisianthus ‘Roseanne II’ (image care of Sakata Seed)

    Lisianthus ‘Roseanne II’ (image care of Sakata Seed)

    The Rose-like lisianthus usually comes in shades of violet-purple  and white but the unusual Eustoma grandiflorum ‘Roseanne Deep Brown’ is a remarkable rich purple-brown.  The complex color complements the sun-loving plants that reach 32 inches in height and have great stems for cutting.

    Breeders have had a field day with perennial coreopsis or tickseed in recent years, creating versions of this low-growing perennial that boast larger flowers, more repeat blooms and a wider color range.  The traditional yellow has been augmented by eye-catching pinks, reds and bi-colors.  The new Uptick™ Series by Darwin Perennials, features three varieties.  ‘Cream’, ‘Yellow and Red’, and ‘Gold and Bronze’.  The last two bear yellow or gold petals with darker red or bronze eye zones.  Shearing after bloom speeds the rebloom cycle for all varieties.

    Annual sunflowers play their own parts in the joyful bi-colored act.  Among them, Helianthus annuus ‘Florenza’ stands out, with pale to medium yellow petal tips giving way to rings or eye zones of dark red that surround the black flower centers.  The stems are short, topping out at about 32 inches tall and the flowers refuse to droop.

    Celosia Asian Garden (image care of AAS Winners)

    Celosia Asian Garden (image care of AAS Winners)

    The unusually bushy  feather Celosia ‘Asian Garden’ is another fabulous performer with impressive color that is listed as a 2017 AAS winner. Bred by the Japanese breeding company Murakami Seed, it produces endless plumes of purple-red above purple-leaved plants all summer long, even in the worst heat. Perfect for cutting gardens, it is also drought tolerant.

    New Shade Flowers

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    Dicentra ‘Amore Pink’ (Image care of Terra Nova Nurseries)

    Shade gardeners sometimes feel slighted because so many flowering plants love sun. This year there is reason to rejoice, as revitalized versions of reliable shade plants strut their stuff in new colors, shapes and sizes.  Ajuga or bugleweed, a perennial favorite groundcover, loves shade, doesn’t mind being stepped on and spreads effectively to cover hard-to-cultivate areas.  Breeders have taken ajuga and turned its traditional blue flowers into Ajuga ‘Pink Lightening’, a Sunny Border Nurseries introduction.  Variegated leaves steal the show even after flowers have faded.

    Bleeding heart, or Dicentra, is another spring shade lover, with pendulous heart-shaped flowers and deeply dissected leaves.  Newcomer Dicentra ‘Amore Pink’ has blue-green foliage and large pink “hearts”.  It is also compact–nine inches in height and only 12 inches tall.

    And in the new flower celebration, gardeners should never forget hellebores, which have been all the rage for at least a decade. ‘Dark and Handsome’, a Helleborus orientalis hybrid from the Wedding Party™ Series, offers both unusual color—near black—and numerous large, semi-double flowers.  With consistent moisture and a shady site, these dark-cloaked newcomers will establish themselves as stars of the spring garden party.

  7. Garden Healthy: Grow More Greens in 2017!

    Brassica juncea 'Osaka Purple'

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

     

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

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

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

    Kale

     and Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce MPMJAK

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

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

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

    Collards

    Collard ‘Flash’ (Image by Jessie Keith)

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

    Mustard Greens

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

    Swiss Chard

    Beta vulgaris ssp. cicla 'Ruby Red'

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

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

    Spinach

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    Malabar spinach ‘Rubra’ (Image by Jessie Keith)

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

    Orach

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

    Shiso

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

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

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

     

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

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

  8. Smart Vegetable Garden Resolutions—6 Steps to Success

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

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

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

    1) Plan

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

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

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

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

    2) Design & Plot

    Freeman Garden raised beds for Darcy

    Raised beds make planning and care easy.

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

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

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

    3) Feed Your Soil

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

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

    4) Manage Weeds

    September 06 Cloisters Longwood 024

    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.

    Hori+hori

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

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

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

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

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

    6) Commit to a Time Schedule

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

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

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

    (Click here to get more garden planning tips!)

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

  9. 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.

  10. 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.