Tag Archive: Elisabeth Ginsburg

  1. Growing Scented Geraniums

    Citronella-scented geranium deters mosquitoes.

    In the centuries before sewers and daily bathing were common, rank odors were everywhere.  That is probably why Europeans were so excited when scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) first arrived from their native South Africa in the early 17th century. With aromatic leaves exuding the fragrance of roses, citrus, or spice, the plants were immediately pressed into service as weapons in the ongoing battle against undesirable smells.

    Scented Geranium History

    Some of the earliest scented geranium specimens were shipped to Holland by the Dutch East India Company and found their way into the hands of Dutch plant breeders, who propagated and cross bred them.  Rose-scented types, especially the intensely fragrant Pelargonium graveolens ‘Attar of Roses’, were eventually produced in mass quantities for the perfume industry.  By the Victorian era, the number of varieties had exploded, and the fragrant plants had become garden and conservatory staples.  After a dip in popularity in the 20th century, the attractive and intoxicating plants are enjoying a renaissance, with 80 or more varieties available from specialty nurseries, like Mountain Valley Growers.

    Scented Geranium Types

    Apple scented geranium has a delightful scent good for potpourri.

    Scented geraniums are members of the Pelargonium genus, just like the common backyard and window box flowers that gardeners have loved for generations.  In the case of fragrant types, tiny hairs on leaves and stems produce the various characteristic scents.

    The plants are loosely grouped into five fragrance categories, including: rose, citrus, mint, spice and “pungent” (with overtones of camphor, eucalyptus, or other strong, woodsy or medicinal aromas).  The rose, citrus, and mint fragrances seem to be the strongest, with others like apricot and chocolate, registering more subtly.  A fifth category, oak-leaf, comprises varieties bred from the Pelargonium quercifolium species, featuring oak-like leaves that bear distinctive, sometimes citrusy, or pungent scents.  In all cases, the scents are most noticeable when you rub leaves between your fingers, or brush by the plants on a sunny day.

    While common geraniums are grown for their big, showy flowerheads, scented types feature smaller blooms and rely largely on the allure of sweet-smelling leaves.  Those leaves vary from small and deeply dissected, like those of the classic lemon-scented P. crispum , to the scalloped and almost tomato-like foliage of the heavenly-smelling P. graveolens ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’.  Plants can be relatively slender and erect, or short and squat, and some varieties may sport variegated leaves.  A few, like P. x fragrans ‘Logeei’, feature a cascading habit that works well in hanging baskets.  The unscented flowers bloom in shades of cream, pink, red and purple, with bi-colored varieties marked with contrasting blotches.

    Some of the most popular scented varieties include: Pelargonium graveolens ‘Lady Plymouth’, with large, cream-edged leaves and a rose fragrance; P. ‘Citronella’, with a lemon scent that is reputed to repel mosquitoes; P. graveolens ‘Old Fashioned Rose’, with purple flowers and an intense rose fragrance; P. fragrans ‘Old Spice’, reminiscent of the famous men’s cologne, and ‘Apple’, with a distinctive fruity aroma.

    Growing Scented Geraniums

    Pelargonium graveolens comes in rose-scented varieties.

    Scented geraniums are easy to grow and can get along well in a sunny window in cold winter climates.  Most appreciate a summer vacation outdoors—either in containers or garden beds– beginning when night temperatures rise above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

    To grow these fragrant plants, start with a good potting mix, like Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed, lightened with an equal amount of Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost.  Unglazed clay pots work better than plastic ones, allowing the soil to dry out more quickly.  Water only when the top of the soil feels dry.  Fertilize bi-weekly with 1/2 teaspoon of water soluble fertilizer per gallon of water.  In winter, when plant growth slows, discontinue fertilizing.  Prune plants periodically to maintain fuller growth.

    The Victorians found that fresh rose or lemon geranium leaves added distinction to foods.  The flavors are not overwhelming, but lend delicate notes to cakes, custards and other baked goods.  Bury leaves in a closed sugar container for a few days and then use the flavored sugar to enhance the taste of teas or cold beverages.  Elsewhere in the household, dry the leaves until crumbly to hold their scents in sachets and potpourris.

    As landscape plants, scented geraniums work especially well in herb gardens, containers, and raised beds.  For maximum enjoyment, position them close to paths or entry areas, where visitors can brush the leaves and liberate their unique fragrances.

    It is thought that geraniums’ scented leaves evolved as a defense against plant predators.  Many centuries later, they attract plant lovers.

  2. Starting School Gardens

    Children harvest vegetables in a Delaware school garden.

    What do famed chef, Alice Waters, celebrated anthropologist Jane Goodall, and actress Meryl Streep have in common? All support school gardening initiatives that not only teach children how to grow food, but serve as outdoor learning centers and launch pads for lessons in everything from math to creative writing. From the Julien Elementary School Garden in Turlock, California, to Matty’s Garden at the Matthew Whaley Elementary School in Williamsburg, Virginia, the Edible Schoolyard movement is spreading like summer crabgrass. School gardens of every size, shape and composition are springing up in urban, suburban, and rural school districts all over the country.

    Celebrity endorsers and patrons are nice but not necessary to start a successful school gardening program. The critical components are adult vision, student involvement, and the ability to muster enough resources to establish and sustain the garden. If you think you can combine those elements, you are ready to get started.

    It Takes a Village

    School gardens are one of the best teaching tools for kids.

    School gardens often start with a single person: a parent, teacher or administrator with a passion for gardening. But, no one—especially not a successful school garden organizer—gardens alone. Start by engaging others, including school personnel, parents, and students. Work on refining the garden idea.  Listen to everyone. Define the purpose of the garden and what kinds of crops you want to grow. Successful school gardens often combine food and ornamental crops, with the ornamentals providing visual appeal and attracting essential pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. (Click here to learn how to create a butterfly garden.) Use some of the many online school gardening resources to help in the planning process.

    Choosing a Site

    A good school garden site should have quality soil.

    Gardeners and gardening educators know that location is everything. Pick a sunny space on school property and make sure that space is reasonably close to a reliable water supply. If the soil in the designated spot is extremely compacted or contaminated, amend the soil with a quality amendment, like Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. You might also think about using raised beds or containers filled with high-quality planting mix like Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Soil. Large, well-watered containers will also work beautifully if the only available site is covered in asphalt.

    Plan and Permission

    Vegetables thrive in a school garden.

    Before seeking approval from school authorities, your team should develop a clear, logical plan that includes as much of the stakeholders’ feedback as possible, plus practical and logistical considerations.  The plan should also include a mission statement and information about the garden’s purpose, goals, size, and proposed location.  Create estimates of the necessary resources—financial and human—needed for set-up and ongoing operation.  Focus on maintenance, making sure to include provisions for watering and upkeep during periods when school is not in session.  (It may help to recruit a team of volunteers to help with upkeep.) Your goals may be lofty, but keep the overall plan simple and present it in a positive way with as many stakeholders present as possible.  Be responsive to school authorities’ concerns and be prepared to make plan revisions.

    Funding

    You are going to need funding for garden supplies and seeds or starter plants.  Many school gardens start with a contribution from the PTA or other parent organization.  Local businesses may also be willing to donate supplies or at least provide discounts. Dedicated, well-publicized fundraisers are another possible funding avenue.

    You can also seek out grant opportunities, some of the best being offered by Kids Gardening. This exceptional kids’ gardening program also offers additional educational resources to help educators and parents start school gardens.

    With all of these pieces in place, you should be able to start a thriving school gardening program. There’s no better way to help kids learn and get them outdoors.

  3. Eight Hard-to-Kill House Plants

    Cast iron plant is one of the toughest house plants available.

    The best house plants add a lot to life without adding extra hours to the day because they require as little fuss as possible. Their benefits are most notable in winter when the need for green, living things is the greatest. Only plastic plants are completely un-killable, but the following “hard-to-kill eight” need little, give a lot and thrive under normal household conditions.

    Aloe vera

    Aloe vera is tough and grows best in full sun.

    A cut Aloe vera leaf exudes a substance that soothes minor burns, a quality that has made this succulent plant a longtime kitchen staple. Its other virtues include an attractive clump of erect, grey-green leaves with serrated margins that are complemented in summer by tall spikes of tubular yellow flowers. Aloes increase freely by offsets or “pups”, creating new plants that can be separated from the mother plants and given away to friends and family. Best of all, the plants accomplish all that on a minimum of water and care.

    Place your aloe in bright, direct sunlight (at least 6-hours a day) and water only when the soil surface is dry. Plants can withstand partial sun, but they will perform poorly in shade. When moving aloes outdoors in summer, slowly acclimate them to full sun conditions to avoid leaf scald.

    Spider Plant

    Spider plant is reliably beautiful and can take a beating.

    A favorite since Victorian times, spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) works well on tall plant stands or in hanging baskets that allow the perky “spiders” (offshoots of plantlets) to cascade over the sides. The long, slender leaves, which also help purify indoor air, may be all green or striped with white or yellow and arch gracefully outward. Tiny white summer flowers are a nice bonus, as are the stems of young spider-like plantlets that form at the flowering nodes.

    Detach and pot separately when the plantlets reach about 2-inches across, or keep them tethered to the parent plant and place each “spider” atop a small pot filled with soil-free mix.  It will root readily.  Spider plants thrive in bright, indirect light.  Water regularly but do not allow their soil to become too wet.

    Christmas Cactus

    Christmas cactus is tough but requires good care for flowering.

    The familiar Christmas or holiday cactus (Schlumbergera spp.) is sometimes also called “crab cactus” for its spreading growth habit.  An epiphytic (tree-dwelling plant) cactus with arching, segmented leaves, it produces claw-like flowers of vivid red, pink, orange, cream, or purple at the ends of the stems in late fall to midwinter.  These are true cacti, though they lack sharp spines.

    Holiday cactus will flourish as long as they receive bright light and their yearly watering schedule is met. After flowering, plants should be watered very minimally for a period of three months. Then from mid-spring to summer, water them regularly when the soil feels dry down to 2-inches depth; in this time they will put on a new flush of foliage. In early fall, place them in a cool place and reduce watering once more, until you see flower buds develop on the plants. Then keep them regularly irrigated again until flowering ceases.

    Sansevieria

    When snake plants become too root bound, divide them.

    You may call it “snake plant” or even “mother-in-law’s tongue”, but whatever the common name, Sansevieria trifasciata is an indoor standby.  Its bold, lance-shaped foliage stands erect, generally reaching about 2-feet tall in sunny indoor situations.  If your snake plant summers outdoors, place the container in full sun to light shade.  The leaf markings that inspired the “snake” nickname are gray-green against a lighter green background.  Though it rarely happens indoors, sansevieria produces greenish white flowers in spring, followed by orange berries later.  The plants appreciate regular watering from spring to fall, but reduce watering significantly in winter.

    English Ivy

    Variegated forms of English ivy are extra pretty and just as tough.

    Outdoors, English ivy (Hedera helix) can be lovely, but virtually uncontrollable. Grown indoors in containers, it has better manners. Numerous cultivars, including many with interesting variegation and smaller leaves, are available from garden centers. Because of its expansive nature, ivy works well as filler for large containers or in hanging baskets.  As with many other houseplants, it prefers bright indirect light.  Watering should be regular and the potting mixture should not be allowed to dry out.  When the ivy becomes too unruly, simply trim it to shape. Vines need to grow to a great height to flower and fruit, so indoor specimens never flower.

    Jade Plant

    Jade plants perform best in full to partial sun.

    The jade plant (Crassula ovata), sometimes called “jade tree” because of its gray trunk-like stems, is actually a branching, succulent shrub from southern Africa. The plump, glossy, oval-shaped leaves are its chief glory, and sometimes have a slight reddish tinge. Indoor jades will occasionally produce small, starry, pinkish-white flowers as well. Container grown specimens may reach up to 30 inches tall and prefer bright light indoors and partial shade outside. Water when the soil feels dry down to a finger-length depth.

    Golden Pothos

    Vining golden pothos is very hard to kill.

    Golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) is a striking foliage plant with big, heart-shaped leaves, marbled in golden-green.  In the wild, it is a vigorous climbing vine, but as a civilized houseplant, it grows no more than 6- to 8-feet tall.  If you want it even smaller, it can also be kept in check by periodic trimming.  Because of its good looks and vining nature, the big-leafed plant is useful for hanging baskets, plant stands, and large containers.  Bright indirect light, evenly moist soil, and occasional stem pinching will keep it full and healthy.

    Cast Iron Plant

    True to its tough nickname, cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) can survive shade, neglect, and climate conditions that would send many other plants into fatal swoons. Like spider plant, it was beloved by Victorians and is still a hit today. With green or variegated lance-shaped leaves that sprout on long petioles or leaf stems, mature aspidistra may grow to 2 t0 3 feet tall and wide. The plants grow slowly and flower infrequently indoors.  If flowers appear, they are purple and lurk near the plant’s base.  Aspidistras grow best with regular watering but will survive with little moisture.

    Care and Feeding

    Hard-to-kill houseplants need little help to look great, if you start with good care.  Average house plants require a  high-quality mix like, Fafard® Professional Potting Mix or Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed, to ensure good growth and success.  Established plants should be fed intermittantly with a diluted all-purpose fertilizer.  More succulent house plants, like aloe, snake plant, jade, and Christmas cactus require mix with excellent drainage, so lighten consider lightening the potting mix with equal amounts of perlite or bark.  Succulents are accustomed to lean rations and need little additional fertilizer.

  4. Bountiful Garden Plants for Birds

    A goldfinch inspects a purple cosmos plant for seeds.

     

    From wrens to cedar waxwings, birds inspire us with their flight and fascinate us with their songs.  We can return those favors by creating bird-friendly environments in our own backyards, even if those “backyards” are terraces or balconies.  All it takes is bountiful garden plants for birds and a small amount of garden care.

    Basic gardening for birds comes down to a few necessities: food, water, shelter and an absence of poisons.  Invest in birds and they will repay you handsomely.

    Fine Dining for Birds

    The scarlet flowers of Monarda didyma are a sure lure for hummingbirds.

    Bird feeders filled with sunflower and thistle seed are an excellent but pricey food source for winged visitors.  Birds also appreciate the more cost-effective approach of planting species that bear nutritious fruits, nectar, and seeds.  A planting scheme that includes at least a few flowering and fruiting species native to your area ensures that the birds will have their choice of familiar foods.

    Flowers for Birds–The current vogue for coneflowers (Echinacea spp. and Rudbeckia spp.) is great for seed lovers like American goldfinches and house finches that feast on the seed heads at the end of the growing season. Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) and purple cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) do the same thing.  (Click here to learn all about growing annual sunflowers!) Tubular red blooms, such as those of scarlet monarda (Monarda didyma) is a sure lure for passing hummingbirds. If you grow in containers, choose compact flowers for birds in Fafard premium potting mix.

    Vines for Birds–Almost every gardener has vertical space that might be perfect for plants like non-invasive, native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), which bears nectar-rich pink flowers that attract hummingbirds.  Later in the growing season, the honeysuckle’s red berries are likely to catch the fancy of songbirds.  If you have the space, easy-to-grow Virginia creeper (Parthenosissus quinquefolia) can cover almost any structure or support while providing brilliant autumn leaves for humans and blue-black berries for avian friends.

    Crabapples make great winter meals for fruit-eating birds.

    Trees and Shrubs for Birds–Many shrubs and trees produce end-of-season berries, hips, and other fruits some of which persist into the winter, to sustain non-migrating birds like cardinals and waxwings.  Forego deadheading your roses and they will provide you and the local birds with hips that are both attractive and nutritious.  Dogwood trees (Cornus florida) beautify the spring garden with flowers and bear red berries in the fall as do flowering crabapples (Malus spp.).  Deservedly popular and available in many shapes and sizes, Viburnums provide fruits for the likes of robins, cardinals, finches and a host of other common birds.  Shrubs like deciduous winterberry holly (Ilex verticellata), light up the winter garden and help keep birds alive in cold weather as do the copious bright red fruits of ‘Winter King’ hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’) .

    Be a little untidy and let some leaf litter accumulate in at least a part of the yard or garden.  This “litter” is good for the soil and harbors food for ground feeders like juncos and sparrows.

    Plant Shelter Belts for Birds

    A goldfinch collects thistledown for nest making.

    Planting a mix of densely-branched shrubs and trees of varying heights helps birds of all sizes and habits find shelter and nesting sites.  Evergreens like holly (Ilex spp.) and arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) provide protection from the elements as well as food.  Deciduous trees, including North American service berries (Amelanchier spp.) and crabapples (Malus spp.), feature dense branching, crooks, and hollows that make inviting nest sites.

    And some of those nesting birds, like goldfinches, need the silky down from seeds like milkweed (Asclepias spp.) and thistle (Cirsium spp.) to line their nests.  Gardeners have no need to plant thistles, but milkweeds are great garden flowers that attract butterflies and other insect pollinators.

    Hydration Stations for Birds

    Avian populations appreciate simple birdbaths, ground-level water dishes, or just about any water-filled vessel.  Be sure to refill these backyard oases before they get dry and clean them regularly.  Plants that hold drops of water on their leaf surfaces or in leaf or flower folds, like large-leaved hostas and calla lilies (Zantedeschia spp.), also offer drinks to birds.

    Create Bird Safe Havens

    Limit or completely curtail the use of pesticides and herbicides in your yard and garden to prevent chemical residue from disrupting the food chain and/or injuring birds.  When expanding existing beds or planting new perennials, trees or shrubs, incorporate natural garden products like Fafard® Premium Topsoil, to enhance soil and plant health without posing a threat to wildlife.  And, while it is impossible to stop all predators, you can improve the odds of avian survival by keeping domestic cats indoors.  If feral cats are a problem, deter them with appropriate barriers.

    A chickadee feeds on winterberries.

  5. Native American Roses for Wildscaping

    The pasture rose is one of several native roses suitable for wildscaping.

    What is a Native American rose?  Is it the beach rose (Rosa rugosa) that grows vigorously on the sand dunes of northeastern America,

    Wild roses have pretty fall hips (R. woodsii)

    or the wreath rose (Rosa multiflora) that rampages all over the eastern half of the United States?  Could it be the Cherokee rose (Rosa laevigata), which grows freely in Georgia? The answer is none of the above.  All are prolific, tough species roses, but none are native to North America.

    True native roses, which are both beautiful and useful for wild and not-so-wild landscapes, are a bit harder to find at local nurseries, but they are worth seeking out. They look great in wild landscapes, offering delicate fragrant flowers and colorful hips. Bees and wildlife love them!

    Native American Roses

    Over 20 rose species are native to various parts of North America, but some are rarer than others.  Most bloom only once a year and bear single, pollinator-friendly single flowers in white, pink, or rose.  When the petals fade, native roses develop nutritious scarlet hips that are a treat for birds and animals, not to mention the humans who sometimes forage for them.  Some natives are armed to the teeth with lots of sharp prickles, making them perfect for boundary or privacy hedges.  Species like Rosa blanda, which feature relatively smooth stems, can hold their own in more “civilized” situations.

    The following native roses have the widest North American geographic distribution, making them good candidates for wild gardens.

    Rosa carolina

    Pasture or Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina): Sometimes called the “pasture rose”, fragrant Rosa carolina roams much farther than the boundaries of its namesake state, surviving in dry open meadows and along forest edges.  It is native to the eastern half of North America and succeeds especially well in the southeastern United States.  The prickly plants grow 3-feet tall and wide with pink flowers that bloom in May to June , depending on the location.  As with many species roses, petal color fades to near-white as the blooms age.  The crisp green foliage turns beautiful shades of orange-red in the fall. Though quite shade tolerant, this disease-susceptible rose flowers and performs best in full sun.

    Rosa virginiana

    Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana): Rosa virginiana is a taller shrub rose (5- to 7-feet tall and 3-feet wide) that is less geographically widespread than Rosa carolina. It sports single, fragrant blooms that may be pink, yellow, or rose-purple and flower from June to August.  It requires full to partial sun and is tolerant to a wide range of soil types, from moist soils to dry. Leaves turn fire orange-red in fall alongside deep red hips.

    Rosa blanda (by Cillas)

    Prairie Rose (Rosa blanda): This sweet thornless rose bears several evocative nicknames, including “prairie rose”, “Hudson’s Bay rose” or “Labrador rose”, for its favored locales.  Cold-hardy and tough, it is native across northeastern North America where it survives in open, dry, sunny prairies and open woods.  Its nearly thornless stems and mounded habit make it a good candidate for use in “wild” planting schemes.  Flower color varies from dark pink to white and blooming may occur from June to August.  It only reaches 4-feet tall and wide, but it tends to spread, so it needs elbow room.  Native plant lovers can rejoice in the fact that the relatively smooth stems make necessary pruning easier.

    Rosa woodsii (Image by Doug Waylett)

    Wood’s Rose (Rosa woodsii): This is one of the better natives for colorful flowers and hips. Pink-flowered Wood’s rose is a westerner by inclination, found in growing wild in the western half of the United States and much of Canada.  It also goes by the name “mountain rose” because it succeeds in challenging high-altitude conditions.  Small, medium-pink flowers appear annually from May to July on upright shrubs adorned with blue-green foliage and a bumper crop of prickles.  Growing up to 5-feet tall, Wood’s rose is extremely cold tolerant.  In addition to the flowers, the shrubs produce loads of bright, teardrop-shaped hips and have fiery fall leaf color.

    Rosa palustris

    Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris): If your wild garden is damp, Rosa palustris may be right for you.  Native to the eastern half of North America, swamp rose is a large shrub (8-12-feet tall) that likes to be sited at the water’s edge, where it can commune with moisture-loving sedges, iris and other, similarly inclined plants.  It will tolerate some shade but it blooms and performs best in full sun. The late spring blooms are lightly scented and may be deep rose pink or pale pink.  The prickles are hooked, which makes pruning a challenge.

    Rosa setigera (Image by Cillas)

    Climbing Prairie Rose (Rosa setigera): This spring-blooming climbing rose offers blooms that range from deep magenta to white. Sometimes known as the “bramble-leafed”, it sends out long, flexible shoots that enable it to scramble up to 15 feet, making it useful as a substitute for non-native climbing roses.  If trained on an arch or trellis and provided full sun and good draining soil, climbing prairie rose can be a show-stopper.  The fragrant pink blooms appear in clusters that develop into showy red hips in fall. Wise gardeners remove the root suckers that inevitable sprout at the base, enabling the plant to shoot skyward without producing a thicket underneath.

    Landscaping with Wild Roses

    Remember that wild landscapes and gardens can be “wild” without looking completely unruly. They are created using native species and emphasize biodiversity, habitat creation, sustainability, and beauty. Plant placement can be naturalistic while also be civilized and pleasing to the eye.

    To use native roses most effectively, provide enough space.  Many, but not all varieties grow tall and relatively wide, with a tendency to form dense thickets if left to their own devices.  They look great planted alongside bold native Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa), breezy native bunch grasses like Shenandoah switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’), and native purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea).

    Species roses have gotten by on their own for millennia, but they will respond with more flowers and hips if given a good start with a quality soil amendment like Fafard® Premium Topsoil, alfalfa meal natural fertilizer, and regular of water. All bloom and perform better if given open air and full sun. Prune seasonally to keep plants tidy and to promote good airflow, which will dissuade fungal diseases.

    Native roses are not available in big-box stores or even most garden centers.  The best way to locate specific species is to seek out mail order nurseries that specialize in species roses. High Country Roses is one such source.

    Rosa rugosa is a common garden rose found on North American beaches, but they are not native! (Image by Jessie Keith)

     

     

     

  6. Managing the Six Worst Garden Animal Pests

    Hungry deer will eat practically any garden plant, especially in scarce winters.

    Gardeners beware, the enemy is among us.  Operating by stealth, they wait for opportunities to transform our gardens from points of pride to scenes of devastation.  They eat our cabbages and sweet corn, destroy our hostas, and root up our tulips.  They are ravenously hungry and untroubled by human scruples.

    Raccoons are cute, but they can quickly damage fruit and vegetable crops.

    Who are these enemies of horticulture?  They are the worst animal pests that plague our gardens, and even if they don’t frequent your place yet, they are most likely hard at work in your neighborhood.

    The list of “Six Most Unwanted” may vary a bit, depending on geography, but most gardeners agree that deer are at or near the top.  Rabbits are right up there, followed by groundhogs, and in some locales pocket gophers, squirrels, chipmunks, voles, or raccoons. Here are those that we deem the worst:

    1. Deer: These four-legged eating machines will mow down everything from your hostas to tulips, winter trees and shrubs, and most anything in the vegetable garden. Their size can make management most pricey, often calling for high fencing to keep them from the plants they like to eat.
    2. Groundhogs: Roly poly groundhogs can quickly devastate vegetable gardens, fruit patches,  and their large burrows are a yard and garden nuisance.
    3. Rabbits: Just like Peter in Mr. McGregor’s vegetable patch, these hopping herbivores will nibble on garden flowers as well as vegetables undoing plantings in a blink of an eye.
    4. Voles: Voles are root and tuber eaters that will consumer tulip bulbs in winter and chew on root crops, such as carrots, beets, and radishes in warmer season. They are known to use mole tunnels to consumer roots from below.
    5. Raccoons: Raccoons often raid vegetable gardens and fruit patches, making away with ears of corn, berries, and fruits of all kinds.
    6. Squirrels: Fruits and seed heads may be attacked by squirrels. The tend to do their most garden damage during dry periods, and in fall when they are saving food for winter.

    Managing the Worst Garden Animal Pests

    To keep our gardens beautiful and productive, we gardeners must pit our large brains and opposable thumbs against animal pests driven by constant hunger and a biological imperative.  The battle is sometimes hard fought, but we can at least hold our own by using intelligent management strategies.

    Fence ‘Em Out

    The best way to stop all kinds of critters is with appropriate barriers.  For deer, the barrier must be tall—at least 8 feet—so that the animals can’t jump over it.  Some of the most durable and expensive types are made of metal.  They are quite effective, but may not blend into the landscape.  In suburban areas, local ordinances may prohibit tall fences and the price tag may make them impractical for large gardens. Tall, polypropylene mesh fencing is less obtrusive and expensive, but it is also less durable than metal options.

    Rabbits are most destructive early in the season when plants are small.

    Electrified deer fencing does not have to be as tall, but it can be a problem in high traffic areas, especially where children and pets are likely to be present.  “Invisible” fencing, similar in concept to the type used to contain dogs, works via special electrified posts that can also be baited with favorite deer foods.  Deer that approach the invisible fences get a mild shock that acts as a deterrent.

    If rabbits are the problem, a low, electrified fence, with wires positioned at 2 and 4 inches above the ground may offer a solution.  A non-electrified fence made of chicken wire can also deter Peter Rabbit’s relatives, but it should be 4 1/2 feet tall, with 3 feet above the ground and another 18 inches of fence buried underground to prevent the bunnies from burrowing below.  Before burying the underground portion, bend the bottom 6 inches so the bent strip of fencing forms a 90-degree angle with the upright part of the fence.  The bent strip should project outward from the upright section.

    Groundhogs are destructive and their large burrows are a hazard!

    Groundhog barriers are similar to those for rabbits, but require a 30-inch underground section to deter the burrowing animals.  As with rabbit fencing, bending the bottom and top 6 inches of chicken wire at a 90- degree angle projecting outward from the vertical portion of the fence will likely convince voracious groundhogs to look elsewhere for dinner.

    Barriers will also stop gophers, and should be sunk into the ground to the same depth as groundhog fences, but need only be about 12 inches high.

    Squirrels make distinctive messes in gardens, digging indiscriminately, uprooting plants, and stealing ripe vegetables.  If the garden area is relatively small, enclose it in a secure cage made of chicken wire, hardware cloth and/or bird netting.  This may also stop raccoons, but the furry bandits are both smarter and more dexterous than squirrels.  Any cage arrangement designed to keep hungry raccoons away from your tomatoes and zucchinis should be well secured and sturdy.

    Repellents

    Voles will damage roots, bulbs, and tubers.

    If barriers are impractical, too expensive, or too obtrusive, spray vulnerable plants or areas near them with one of the many repellent formulas on the market.  Most are made with ingredients like egg solids, capsaicin and/or predator urine scent and will often deter many different types of varmints.  Always read the label directions carefully, wear gloves and protective clothing, and stand upwind of the area to which you apply the compound.

    The downside to deterrent sprays is that most must be reapplied after every rainstorm.  Some animals also accustom themselves to the compounds after a time, so it’s a good idea to switch up products on a regular basis.  Noxious smelling mixtures should not be used on parts of edible crops that you intend to eat, such as fruits, but they may help save ornamentals.

    Barriers will not keep squirrels away. Repellents work best. (Image by Tduk)

    Some gardeners use homemade scent deterrents, and recipes for those concoctions are easy to find.  Others swear by the deer repellent properties of scented soap hung from trees or fence posts in affected garden areas.  Bags of human hair can be employed in the same way.

    The presence of a dog or even sometimes a cat may deter pests when the marauders are faced with your pets or the smell of your domestic animals’ distinctive scent signatures.

    Plant Resistant Plants

    Deer resistant plants, like hollies, are good landscape choices where deer are a problem. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    If pest animals are a fact of life in your garden, you probably use a combination of strategies to combat them.  One good one is to grow vulnerable edible or ornamental plants in a single area and cordon it off with barriers.  Use the rest of your garden to grow plants like foxgloves, daffodils, lavenders, and other plants most garden pests don’t like. Many plants that repel deer and other four-footed pests are strong smelling and/or somewhat toxic. Many deer-proof plant lists exist, and they include plants that other animal pests don’t generally include on their menus. One of the best lists is the Deer Resistant Landscape Plants List offered by Rutgers University.

    Strategies to Avoid

    Some frustrated gardeners also use traps (live or lethal), poison, or other physical or chemical means to dispatch animal pests.  Before taking that route, be aware that lethal trapping may be illegal in your area, and poisons can be toxic to pets and desirable wildlife in addition to the intended targets. Children can also be harmed by poison baits, and they may even pose potential harm to the person administering them. So, err on the side of safe and smart when it comes to animal pest management. A yard and garden can be protected without becoming unduly harmful to the environment.

    Read the Fafard disclaimer here.

  7. Summer Tree Care

    Summer tree care helps landscape trees look great all season.

    Trees are the ultimate givers, offering summer shade, protection from wind, and cleaner air.  They also beautify our landscapes, often providing food and serving as habitats for wildlife.  But, even in the face of all that generosity, we often ignore them.  Our trees deserve better, and summer is a good time to turn over a new leaf and focus on tree care.

    Summer weather stresses trees.  Drought is hardest on very young or old specimens but ultimately affects them all.  Storms threaten stability and bring weak or diseased limbs crashing to the ground.  Lawn and garden equipment damages tree bark, while untreated pests and diseases can decimate entire communities of once-healthy trees.  Fortunately, it takes only a little observation and a bit of care to help trees withstand those stresses, enabling them to continue giving for decades to come.

    Inspect Your Summer Trees

    Healthy trees will have vibrant foliage, growth, flowers, and fruit.

    Start by taking a good look at all the trees on your property, using binoculars, if necessary, for large trees.  Check for limbs that are dead, cracked or otherwise compromised.  If damaged trees are large or need anything more than minor pruning, call a tree expert to perform the work.  This may seem expensive, but corrective pruning helps trees withstand summer windstorms and prevents potential property damage and personal injury caused by falling limbs.

     Check Trees for Pests and Diseases

    Tent caterpillars on the upper branches of a black cherry tree.

    If you seek expert advice or help with pruning, ask an arborist or tree surgeon to check for pests and diseases.  Pernicious pests like the emerald ash borer and the Asian long horned beetle can wreak wide-scale havoc, killing scores of trees in a single area, if infestations aren’t promptly controlled.  Bag worms, fall webworms, and early season tent caterpillars can cause significant damage to foliage, which stresses trees. Wasting diseases, like verticillium wilt in maples, can sometimes be arrested, if affected trees are treated in time.

    If you don’t have expert help, check with your local cooperative extension agent to find out which pests and diseases are most prevalent in your area. Some municipalities employ professional arborists who can also provide this information. Take a good look at tree bark and foliage for telltale problem signs.  Follow the expert’s advice on treatment or prevention of pest or disease outbreaks.

    Water Summer Trees Wisely

    Summer tree irrigation is especially important for newly planted trees.

    All trees need regular water, though mature specimens, with broad, healthy root systems are best able to tolerate extended droughts.  Young trees are a different story and need water every few days, if rainfall is sparse or nonexistent.  The best way to water tree roots is low and slow irrigation, positioning the water source close to the ground.  This means soaker hoses circling trees’ bases.  For newly planted and very young trees, property owners can also buy “tree bags”, water-holding, heavy-duty plastic bags constructed to wrap around the trunk.  Small holes in the bottoms of the bags allow water to seep slowly to the roots, a process that takes several hours, depending on the size of the bag.  Refilled every day or two during drought spells, the bags can be life savers for immature trees.

    Protect Trees from Mechanical Injury

    Tree rings protect trunks from mechanical injury, but beware “mulch volcanos”!

    Power string trimmers are great garden time savers, allowing landscapers and homeowners to keep bed edges neat and tidy.  But repeated blows to trees from trimmers can penetrate tree bark to the point where young trees may die.  Trimmer injuries may not kill older specimens outright, but create entry points for damaging pests and diseases.

    The best way to separate trimmers and tree trunks is to mulch tree rings around trees, a technique that also conserves soil moisture and keeps weeds under control.  Spread high quality mulch in a circle with a radius of at least 2 feet around the base of the tree.  Keep the depth at about two to three inches and do not let the mulch touch the trunk.  So-called “mulch volcanos”, where large amounts of mulch are hilled up around tree trunks, contributes to the spread of bacterial and fungal diseases.  Always aim to create a moderately deep “mulch doughnut”, rather than a mountainous mulch “volcano”.

    Tree Planting and Fertilization

    Tree planting is also best done in spring or fall, when weather conditions are less likely to stress young saplings.  However, if you must plant in summer’s heat, “water in” the tree by filling the planting hole part way with water before installation.  If the surrounding soil is poor, thin or compacted, fill in around the tree’s root ball with a mix of the removed soil and an equal amount of high-quality, fertile planting material, like Fafard® Premium Topsoil.  Once the tree is planted, remember to water well, especially in hot, dry weather.

    It is best to fertilize trees in the spring, just before the first flush of growth.  This growth slows down in summer, so the season is not optimal for fertilization.

    Sitting under a tall shade tree with friends, family or just a good book, is one of the best ways to spend a summer afternoon.  Timely summer tree care is the best way to ensure that you will continue to enjoy that experience for many years.

    Plant new trees in spring or fall. Spring planted trees need extra care through summer.

  8. Delicious Gardening with Edible and Ornamental Plants

    Variegated pineapple sage and golden marjoram will brighten up any landscape while also adding valuable flavor to dishes. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Gardening with edible and ornamental plants makes gardening a little tastier and more valuable. Not many of us have the time and space for immense ornamental landscapes any more, but lots of us take great pride in our shrubs, perennials, and annuals.  At the same time, we want to eat better, fresher food, and that urge has led us back to the garden.  Limited space means that we have to grow ornamentals and edibles side-by-side.  Fortunately, it is easy to do, and the results can be just as beautiful as an ornamental-only landscape.

    For most of horticultural history, average people grew food from necessity, with little thought to purely ornamental plants.  Inevitably, though, some gardeners noticed that certain edible plants and herbs sported lovely flowers or foliage that added a dimension to the vegetable garden.  Others even transplanted flowering specimens from the wild into corners of their home vegetable plots.  Eventually, as great civilizations (Egyptians, Ancient Persians and Greeks) grew wealthy, ornamental gardening came into its own, with immense ornamental landscapes designed, constructed, and documented in detail by artists and writers. Gardeners today are able to take the best from both worlds, mixing the edible and ornamental for increased garden value.

     

    Feathery fennel is beautiful and tasty. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Add Ornamental Vegetables

    The vegetable gardener’s mantra—“Grow what you like to eat”—is a good place to start if you have decided to take the plunge and mix some edibles among your ornamental plants.  The feathery fronds of bronze or green fennel make a lovely addition to any garden and also attract swallowtail butterflies, but if you don’t like fennel, growing it may waste space that is better used for other plants.

    Just about everyone loves fresh tomatoes and peppers, which are easy to grow and come in many varieties.  They also thrive under the same conditions as horticultural divas like roses—at least 8 hours of sunlight per day, rich soil and fairly consistent moisture.  The problem is that most tomato plants—especially indeterminate types that keep growing and producing all season–need some kind of support.  Typical wire tomato cages are not the loveliest addition to an ornamental garden.  Solve the tomato problem by training the plants up a simple bamboo stake or decorative tuteur or trellis that can hold its own among the flowering plants.

    This technique not only makes a virtue out of a necessity, but it works for other vining plants like beans, cucumbers, and even squash.  For a lovely garden backdrop, try scarlet runner beans trained up a trellis.  The flowers are a brilliant red and the beans are delicious either raw or cooked.

    Pots of tomatoes and peppers show off the beauty of these valuable garden vegetables.

    For a successful edible/ornamental combination, don’t neglect adequate plant nutrition.  Give both types of plants a good start by enriching your garden soil with a rich soil amendment like Fafard® Garden Manure Blend. Not only will it add needed organic matter for better water-holding capacity, it will also enrich the soil for better overall performance.

    Add Beautiful Fruits

    If fruit is your idea of the perfect edible crop, and you want a beautiful ornamental plant, try growing blueberries (Vaccinium spp. and cultivars).  These shrubs feature lovely pinkish-white, bell-shaped flowers in the spring, followed by neat, green oval-shaped leaves.  The tasty blue fruits appear in early summer and scarlet leaves announce the arrival of fall.  Blueberries like the same acid soil as rhododendrons and azaleas and would complement them well in a mixed shrub or shrub/perennial border.  Smaller varieties can even be grown in containers and can hold their own among the pots of geraniums and snapdragons on a porch or terrace.  The same holds true of strawberries, with their white flowers and brilliant red fruits, grown in the pockets of decorative ceramic or terra cotta strawberry pots.

    Blueberries are attractive, fruitful garden shrubs. Their fall foliage turns scarlet for a late-season show!

     

    Add Ornamental Herbs

    Herbs have long been used as ornamentals.  Purple basil makes a dramatic edging plant at the front of a border and would provide a perfect complement to red/orange marigolds or late summer dahlias.  The strong aroma of the basil also helps deter garden varmints like rabbits and deer.  Pineapple sage, with its variegated leaves makes a lovely filler for a pot of flowering annuals.  The leaves are also the perfect enhancement for a glass of lemonade.

    Purple-flowered cinnamon basil is a dramatic beauty that looks pretty in edible and ornamental borders. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    If your ornamental landscape is mature and already filled with plants, look for “holes” where you can install a few ‘Bright Lights’ chard plants or fill in with low-growing herbs like thyme.  Start small, with a few edibles and then, when the “grow your own” bug bites, increase the number of edibles.  You will be amazed at how well it all fits together.

    Bright Lights chard mingles with Profusion zinnias in this edible and floral border. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

  9. Creative Upcycled Planting Containers

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

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

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

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

    Upcycled Container Rules

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

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

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

    Container Care

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

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

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

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

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

    Check Recycling Day

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

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

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

  10. 5 Fast Cool Season Vegetables for Instant Gratification

    Spinach is a very fast-growing spring green, especially when harvested in baby-leaf form.

    “Patience is a virtue,” says the old adage, but sometimes even the most virtuous gardeners long for a little instant gratification.  Succulent tomatoes and winter squash are a great reward for a season of waiting, but not all edible plants require a long growing period.  In the “cool” growing season of early to mid spring and fall, you can have your salad and eat it too—sometimes in as little as 30 days—as long as you choose the right varieties and provide them with a bit of sunny space.  Always check the seed packets of various varieties for specific directions and the approximate number of “days to harvest”.  Quick-growing veggies can generally be harvested in less than 55 days from sowing.  The following is a list of five of the tastiest and most popular “instant gratification” crops.

    Mesclun Mix

    Mesclun mix is very fast growing, especially if harvested as microgreens.

    This widely-marketed greens seed mix usually contains an assortment of early lettuces and other fast greens.  Depending on the seed producer, mesclun is sometimes also labeled “early spring mix” or “mixed baby greens.’  Some vendors offer a variety of mesclun mixes to suit different tastes.  No matter what the mix, the tiny seeds produce a crop of tasty small leaves in about 30 days, which is lightening fast by garden standards.

    Mesclun is easy to grow in containers, raised beds or conventional garden beds.  Sprinkle the seeds over moist soil and do not cover because lettuce seeds need light to germinate.  Water deeply using a gentle spray.  Sprouting should occur relatively quickly.  The young greens can be harvested when the leaves are four to six inches long.  Succession planting every two weeks in spring and fall ensures a continuous crop.

    Relish the Radish

    Radishes are ready to harvest in no time!

    Radishes add a peppery bite to salads, sandwiches or all by themselves with a little sweet butter and salt.  Radish lovers can rejoice in the fact that they are also quick to grow.  For fast growth, select early spring varieties, like ‘Champion’.  Sprinkle seeds over the soil and cover thinly.  When the sprouts reach about two inches tall, thin to three inches apart.  The young radishes should be ready in about 30 days.  The best way to detect readiness is to pull one, wash it and taste it.  As with mesclun, succession sowing will provide you with a consistent radish supply.

    Baby Carrots

    Kids love to harvest baby carrots.

    Veggie lovers know that the “baby carrots” you buy in bags at the supermarket were actually sculpted from regular-size carrots at a processing plant.  In-a-hurry gardeners can have the genuine article—real diminutive carrots—in about 55 days from sowing.  Little carrots are excellent choices for container growing as well.  Pick a small-size carrot variety, like ‘Caracas Hybrid’, and sow thinly in loose soil to which compost has been added.  A product like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost is perfect for this, providing the carrots with the lightened growing medium they need to produce straight roots. When seedlings emerge, thin to one inch apart.  Water consistently whenever the top of the soil feels dry.  At the 55-day point, or even a little earlier, pull one of the carrots.  If it seems big enough, you are ready for harvest.

    Spinach

    Spinach

    Popeye may have eaten his spinach straight from the can, but he knew that the leafy greens are tasty and exceptionally good for you.  Spinach is also a boon for impatient gardeners.  Like other fast-growing veggies, it is also perfect for container growing, which should be music to the ears of those afflicted with deer, rabbits or other garden varmints.  For container success, pick a smaller spinach variety, like ‘Melody’ or ‘Red Kitten’.  Sow seeds about one inch apart in a planting medium that is pH neutral and enriched with plenty of compost.  When the seedlings emerge, thin to two to three inches apart.  The spinach harvest should be ready in about 40 days, depending on the variety.

    Bok Choy

    Mature bok choy

    Sometimes also known as pak choi, this Asian member of the cabbage family has become increasingly popular for home gardeners, who use the mild-flavored leaves in everything from stir fries to salads.  For speedy results and/or container growing, choose dwarf varieties that can be harvested after about 40 days, when they are less than 10 inches tall.  As with other fast growers, sow seeds about two inches apart, cover with a thin layer of soil and keep uniformly moist.  Dwarf varieties can be thinned to three inches apart.  Harvest the entire head, as you would a cabbage.

    Fast-growing vegetables are a great way to hit the ground running in spring, but most have a tendency to “bolt” as weather warms, flowering and sprouting bitter leaves when summer’s heat sets in.  Save leftover seed for the second cool season in the fall, when you can rejoice in baby greens and radishes all over again.

    Read the Fafard disclaimer here.