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Tag Archive: Elisabeth Ginsburg

  1. Growing Palms Indoors and Palms for Indoor Growing

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    Parlor palm is one of the most popular palms for indoor growing.

    Palms are trending in indoor gardening circles because they are the ultimate multi-taskers, functioning simultaneously as architectural elements, air cleaners, and silent promoters of peace and calm. With their pleasing green fronds and compatible natures, palms are among the best plants for enhancing living spaces of all sizes.

    Palms Defined

    Technically speaking, palms are plants in the palm (Arecaceae) family and are native to tropical or subtropical environments throughout the world.  True palms are generally characterized by fronds of long evergreen leaves that sprout from unbranched stems. Some popular plants that are billed as “palms” and bear characteristic green fronds are only masqueraders that belong to other plant families. Some of these palm wannabes are ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) and sago palm (Cycas revoluta)–both excellent houseplants.

    Palm Basics

    Most indoor palms have similar needs, including bright direct or indirect sunlight; well-drained soil; and temperatures that never fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Good soil with good fertility and excellent drainage, such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix, is essential. “Wet feet”, which result from overwatering and poor drainage, will kill palms quickly. Generally speaking, water only when top few inches of potting soil feel dry. The early effects of consistent overwatering will show up in the form of yellowing leaves. Conversely, if your palm is thirsty and needs more water, the ends of the leaves will start to turn brown.

    Starting Your Palm on the Right Foot

    When you buy a palm, you will probably want to replace the container it came in with something that fits your indoor décor and suits the palm’s growing needs. Choose a container that has drainage holes in the bottom and is a few inches larger than the palm’s root ball. Add your potting soil to the bottom of the pot so that the root ball sits 1 to 2 inches below the container’s rim. (The extra top space will provide room for water.) Fill in around the sides with more of the potting soil, gently pressing it down as you go. To provide the humidity that many palms crave, set the new container on a tray or saucer filled with pebbles and water.  Mist periodically.

    Palm Maintenance

    The leaves of these parlor palms show tip drying due to too little water and humidity.

    If the palm is relatively compact and can be moved, it will happily vacation outside through the warmer growing months.  Be sure to position the plant in indirect light and bring indoors when night temperatures start to dip below 60 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Prune dead leaves off your palm as they appear, but do not prune the top where new growth appears, as it will not re-grow. Though palms flower in their native habitats, indoor container specimens will almost never flower.  They are prized on the strength of their stunning foliage.

    Palms available in nurseries and garden centers are sometimes only identified as “palm”.  Though most palms have similar needs, it pays to ask the nursery or store manager for specifics–starting with the plant’s real name. 

    The following are some great palms for indoor cultivation.

    Good Indoor Palms

    Parlor Palm

    Beautiful potted palm in modern living room

    Native to Central America, parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans) lives up to its “elegant” Latin species name.  Individual specimens are slender so parlor palms are generally sold with several plants in a single container to create a bushier appearance. They are relatively compact, growing 2 to 6 feet tall, and 2 to 3 feet wide. They are happiest in bright, indirect light. The fronds are long-lasting and decorative, which also makes them useful for indoor flower arrangements.

    Kentia Palm

    Light modern living room with brown leather couch and numerous green houseplants creating an urban jungle

    Beloved by England’s Queen Victoria, the kentia palm (Howea forsteriana and Howea belmoreana) is another that is generally sold with more than one plant per container.  Its statuesque nature—up to 10 feet tall—and arching fronds make it perfect for entryways or corners of rooms with high ceilings. This trait has contributed to one of its other common names, sentry palm.  Of the two popular species, the belmoreana type is somewhat shorter with fronds that are more erect. Though a little more tolerant of less-than-tropical temperatures, kentia palms still prefer temperatures above 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Bottle Palm

    The somewhat compact bottle palm (Hyophorbe lagenicaulis), which can reach between 5 to 7 feet tall, has a slow growth rate that adds to its attraction as a house plant.  The gray, bottle-shaped trunk, which gives rise to the common name, supports a vivid green main stem bearing large, arching fronds. Bottle palm is native to Mauritius and Madagascar and is distinguished by its graceful habit. 

    Pygmy Date Palm

    A full-grown pygmy date or miniature date palm (Phoenix roebelenii) reaches 6 to 10 feet but grows slowly within the confines of a large container. The Southeast Asian native features a nubbly brown trunk that produces arching branches laden with slim, feathery fronds, giving the plant a delicate almost fern-like look. While the name promises fruit, the roebelenii species’ fruits—when they are produced on an indoor specimen–are rather seedy with little flesh.

    Chinese Fan Palm

    Chinese Fan Palm

    Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis), also known as Chinese fountain palm, is distinguished by its exuberant rounded “fans” of slender leaves that bend, fountain-like towards the floor. The Asian native is a slow grower and reaches impressive heights in the wild. Indoors, it may eventually reach 10 feet tall, but will take years to do so.

    Windmill Palm

    A horticultural relic of the Victorian era, when it was extremely popular, windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) is another “fan” –type specimen with a relatively luxurious crown of green, leafy “fans” atop a slender trunk.  Native to China, a windmill palm will top out at 5 to 6 feet tall, fitting comfortably in a large container. 

  2. How To Grow Star Fruit Indoors

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    Dwarf star fruit trees can start producing when they are only 18 inches high. (Image by Wiki Nursery)

    Looking for an easy-to-grow fruit that will bring light and sparkle to your gardening life during the darkest months of the year? Tasty, tropical star fruits (Averrhoa carambola) may be the answer, even if you live in a cold-winter climate. Dwarf trees have made indoor growing possible.

    Angular star fruits are succulent and taste much like tangy grapes. At home in the tropics of Southeast Asia, hanging from 20- to 30-foot tall trees, star fruits don’t look very celestial. Yellow-orange in color and 3 to 4 inches long, each sports a waxy skin with five prominent greenish ridges. When the fruits are cut crosswise, those ridges morph into the five points of a star, giving rise to the common name.

    A Century in North America

    Though exotic in appearance, star fruits, also sometimes known as carambola, are not newcomers to the North American scene. The trees first arrived in Florida about 100 years ago and have been grown commercially and in Florida, California, and Hawaii ever since. Early star fruit varieties were smaller and very tart, but breeding improvements have led to the larger, sweeter fruits, that are available in supermarkets today.

    Versatile Star Fruit

    Crisp, sweet star fruit shows off its starry looks when cut.

    All parts of the fruit, including the rind, flesh, and seeds, are edible and provide vitamins A and C, plus minerals. Eaten out of hand or used in salads or desserts, star fruit is both tasty and decorative. Most people can enjoy them regularly, but they are high in oxalic acid, which can cause kidney problems for those with related illnesses, so consult health care providers before eating lots of them.

    Growing Star Fruit Indoors

    Some star fruit varieties have orange mature fruits while others are more yellow or yellowish-green.

    If you live in a cold-winter climate, you can enjoy homegrown star fruit if you pick a dwarf variety, like ‘Maher Dwarf’, which has sweet, crunchy fruit, or ‘Dwarf Hawaiian’, which has super sweet fruit, in large containers—at least during the cold weather months. Both varieties bear fruit when trees are just a few feet high, and they are self-fertile, so their clusters of pink flowers don’t require pollination.

    To flourish indoors, potted star fruits need well-drained, loamy soil (Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Mix) with a slightly acid pH (5.5-6.5) and regular fertilizer for acid-loving fruit trees. Provide them with lots of sunshine and enough water to keep the pots just moist. The trees perform best when temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit and the air is moderately humid.

    Dwarf plants are best for pot culture because they are bred to stay compact. Depending on your finances and level of patience, you can begin your star fruit journey with a starter specimen in a 6-inch pot or choose a mature 3- to 4-foot tree. Buying a larger specimen is a faster route to fruit, while smaller plants take a while to produce but are the least expensive.

    Either way, give your new potted star fruit a good start by trading its nursery pot for a slightly larger one and filling it with our high-quality, natural and organic potting mix. If the plant will travel between outdoor and indoor locations, opt for a relatively lightweight pot or use a pot platform with casters that can be wheeled back and forth as the seasons change.

    Growing Star Fruit Outdoors

    Pick star fruits when they are fully colored. If you are not sure, pick one and test it for sweetness.

    As tropical denizens, star fruit trees love warmth. If possible, let them spend the late spring, summer, and early fall soaking up sunshine outside. A protected location shielded from wind will help keep trees healthy and happy. If you choose a starter specimen in a 6-inch pot, expect to see pink flowers and resulting fruit by the time it reaches about 18 inches tall. Strong growth spurts will bring more flowers and fruit.

    When outdoor night temperatures fall below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, bring the star fruit indoors. Position it in a situation with as much bright light as possible and make sure that room temperatures do not fall below 60 degrees. If the plant drops a few leaves in the days after the transition, don’t worry. Indoors or out, water when the top few inches of soil feel dry. Higher humidity will improve the growth of these tropical trees.

    Feeding Star Fruit

    Star fruit trees grow most actively in spring and summer, so this is the time to fertilize with balanced, granular fertilizer, added at intervals according to manufacturers’ directions. Growth slows down during the winter months, so feeding can stop at that time. At winter’s end, just as you are about to start fertilizing again, prune back branches that seem weak or unshapely. Dwarf trees generally need relatively little pruning.

    If you like the tropical taste of star fruit and relish a horticultural challenge, try adding a dwarf star fruit tree to your house plant menagerie. It may be the start of a tropical fruit tree collection.

    (Click here to learn more about growing other tropical fruit trees indoors.)

  3. Repotting Pot-Bound House Plants

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    Pot-bound root systems can no longer access adequate water and fertilizer.

    There is no shame in harboring a pot-bound plant. It can happen to anyone because pot- or root-bound specimens come in all sizes, shapes, ages, and situations. The geranium or aloe that spent a luxurious summer vacation on the back porch may be bursting out of their containers. The bargain spider plant, purchased from the garden center at the end of the growing season, may be yearning to break free of its nursery pot. Established house plants, apparently thriving in large or small containers are longing for a little elbow room, even if they can’t say so.

    Identifying Pot-Bound Plants

    If a plant is growing poorly, and its soil dries out quickly despite regular watering, chances it’s root-bound.

    How can you tell that a seemingly healthy plant needs a bit of TLC in the form of a larger pot and some root pruning? Tip the container on its side. If you see white roots emerging from the bottom drainage holes, your plant is pot-bound. If the plant’s soil dries out quickly, despite regular watering, chances are the roots need discipline. Does water pool on the soil surface and stay there? Tightly wound roots are probably preventing moisture absorption.

    When plants are pot-bound, roots that should be growing outward from the bottom and sides of the plant are forced to grow in a circular fashion, following the shape of the container. Those roots will eventually form a tight mass that will overwhelm the pot, potting medium, and eventually strangle the plant. As the situation gradually worsens, the signs of ill health—leaf drop, minimal new growth, and a general failure to thrive—begin to show.

    What to Do

    The roots of a pot-bound plant have no place to go and begin growing in a circular fashion.

    There are several steps to removing a pot-bound plant from the pot. Some plants may be tough to remove and others easier.

    1. Check the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot, and cut clear any roots that may be growing through. You may even try to push up through the holes to help loosen the plant from the pot.
    2. Get a grip on the plant—literally. Tip the pot on its side, firmly grip the very base of the plant, and pull it out of the container. The tightly constricted soil-root ball should come out in one piece, but not always.
    3. If clinging roots keep the plant in place. Run the blade of a garden or butter knife around the edge of the pot to loosen the plant. If the pot if plastic, you can also firmly wack the pot on all sides to loosen roots. Plastic nursery pots can also be cut off, if the roots are wedged into pot crevices and refuse to budge.

    Once you have liberated the root ball, take a look. Pot-bound plants will have a dense network of white or brownish roots encircling the outside, which retain the shape of the pot. If you see any black or foul-smelling roots, trim them away immediately.

    Freeing Pot Bound Plants

    Don’t worry about tearing apart the roots of a pot-bound plant. The plant will be happier in the end.

    The next step is to free the roots, so they can begin the process of healthy growth. This is when fear sets in for many plant lovers who worry that meddling with roots is the kiss of death for a beloved plant. In truth, freeing up roots is essential for plant health in this situation. Some roots will be lost in the process but new will quickly grow.

    The remedy for a pot-bound situation depends on the degree of root entanglement. With some plants, especially smaller ones, gently teasing the roots apart with your fingers may be all that is needed. In more severe cases, where the root ball appears to have more roots than soil, more serious measures will be necessary.

    For serious cases, use a garden knife or other sharp implement to make three or four vertical cuts on the outside of the remaining root ball, and then tease the roots apart with your fingers. If the root ball is deep, you may also cut away the bottom quarter of the root ball. Both options disrupt circular root growth and enable fresh, healthy roots to emerge.

    Container Selection and Preparation

    These aloe plants have been cured of their root-bound condition, divided, and upgraded.

    Once you have relieved a plant’s root-bound situation, it is time to repot. This is much easier and less stressful than teasing the roots and/or doing root pruning.

    Choose a container with a diameter that is at least 2 inches wider than the old pot. Make sure it is clean and has sufficient drainage holes in the bottom. Keep soil from falling through the holes by lining the bottom of the new container with a coffee filter or piece of window screen cut to fit. For years, garden pundits suggested adding a layer of gravel to the bottoms of plant containers, but this is not necessary.

    For indoor or outdoor containers

    To give the newly liberated plant a good start, choose a potting medium like Fafard Professional Potting Mix for indoor plants or Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed for indoor/outdoor potted plants. Pour enough potting mix in the bottom of the container so that the top of the plant’s root ball is about 1 to 2 inches below the container’s rim. Center the plant in the pot and fill around the sides with additional potting mix, tamping down the mix as you go. Water thoroughly until water runs through the drainage holes.

    As long as you provide new, larger living quarters for the plant, root loosening efforts will stimulate new, strong root growth. In the case of some house plants, like spider plant, you may be able to divide your specimen when you treat its pot-bound condition. In this situation, follow the directions above, but split the plant into two or more pieces (each section should have roots). Repot in separate containers and keep or give away the new plant divisions.

    Aftercare

    Once the plant’s roots have been freed, repot them into larger containers.

    Sometimes a newly repotted plant will show some signs of transplant shock, losing some leaves or looking a bit droopy. Don’t worry, and above all, don’t kill the plant with kindness by overwatering. Position the plant in the appropriate light situation (check plant tags or ask our garden experts if you are not sure), and water when the top inch or two of the potting medium feels dry. New root growth will start in a short time and the plant should rebound nicely.

    In the end, liberating pot-bound plants is a beneficial exercise for both gardeners and plants. As with all things, practice makes perfect, but remember that it is hard to go completely wrong, and plants are generally quite forgiving. Giving your favorite specimens a little elbow room will ensure more years of vibrant leaves, blooms, and growth.

    (Click here to watch a step-by-step video showing how to free pot-bound plants.)

  4. Beautiful Culinary Sage

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    In late spring to early summer, sage produces purplish or violet flowers (far right).

    For better or worse, we live in the age of multitasking, when the ability to do at least two things at once has become a common goal. As we multitask through our days, we gardeners can’t help but ask our plants to do the same. Fortunately, the enormous salvia clan has been multitasking for millennia. Ornamental forms of culinary sage, mostly Salvia officinalis, are champion multitaskers, contributing flavor to our food and beauty to our landscapes. Gardening and life don’t get much better than that.

    Culinary sage is a pungent herb. For many families, it does a star turn at Thanksgiving in turkey dressing. It also has affinities to pork, poultry, eggs, sausage, and savory ravioli. When food is rich, a little sage can save the day by cutting tastefully through heavy flavors.

    Sage also remains beautiful in the garden from fall and through winter. Its evergreen leaves may droop on the coldest winter days, but they maintain substance and can still be harvested.

    Growing Sage

    Standard sage is evergreen and pretty in its own right.

    The plants are shrubby perennials that generally grow 12- to 18-inches tall and wide but can be kept shorter by timely light pruning in late spring or after flowering. Standard varieties have elongated oval leaves that are velvety and a little wrinkled on the surface. Lavender-blue or purple flowers appear in May or June. These are also edible.

    In the garden, sage favors sunny, well-drained spaces, and benefits from quality soil amendments like Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost and Garden Manure Blend. Once established, sages require little care and offer a steady supply of evergreen leaves for fresh or dry use. (Dry by hanging tied stems in a cool, dry place until crisp.) Hardiness depends on the variety but sage can generally withstand quite cold winters. It is wise to check plant tags at purchase time for hardiness specifics.

    Culinary Sage Varieties

    ‘Tricolor’ sage is ivory edged with purplish new growth.

    One of the most beautiful varieties is ‘Tricolor’ (USDA Hardiness Zones 6-9).  The plants feature elongated gray-green leaves edged and marked with cream. New growth is both purple and ivory edged.  Equally suitable for pots, herb gardens, or front- to mid-border positions, ‘Tricolor’ is also a useful, aromatic filler for bouquets.

    Purple sage has very attractive purple new growth.

    Another eye-catching variety is ‘Purpurescens’ or purple sage (Zones 6-9). The young leaves are purple, while older ones age to gray-green. Its flavor is as intense as any culinary sage, and the colors bring real life to beds and borders.

    Golden sage has the brightest color of the ornamental culinary sage varieties.

    For something a little more luxurious, try ‘Aurea’.  Featuring brighter green leaves, it attracts attention with its golden edging.  ‘Icterina’ is similar to ‘Aurea’, but the foliage is more subdued and edged in pale green.  Like ‘Ictarina’, the less common ‘Woodcote’ also boasts pale-green leaf edges, contrasting with darker green centers.

    The silver-grey leaves of ‘Berggarten’ sage are broad and ornamental.

    ‘Berggarten’ features more silvery leaves that are fatter. Its habit is also neater and mounded, making it especially useful for flower gardens and container culture.  For dramatic edging in a large bed, alternate ‘Berggarten’ with its bi-colored sport, ‘Variegated Berggarten’, which features leaves with creamy-yellow leaf edges.

    ‘Ictarina’ is a more subdued variegated sage.

    In addition to pretty leaves, culinary salvia produces spikes of lavender-blue or purple blooms that attract bees while discouraging deer and other marauding creatures. For flower contrast and culinary prowess, choose pink-flowered ‘Rosea’. The leaves are solid green and aromatic, growing on plants that may be a little larger (36 inches tall and wide) than some other salvias.

    Decorative culinary sages can also work well in smaller spaces. The petite ‘Compacta’ tops out at about eight inches. Its flowers are vivid purple and aromatic leaves contribute the same flavor punch. 

    Pineapple Sage

    The red fall flowers of pineapple sage feed migrating hummingbirds. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Other species are also edible and ornamental. Bushy pineapple sage (Salvia elegans, Zones 8-10) reaches a great height of 3-4 feet. The tender perennial grows quickly and should be treated as an annual in cold-winter climates. It features intensely aromatic leaves that exude the fruity scent of fresh pineapple.  Minced in fruit salad or muddled in hot or cold drinks, the leaves are a great addition to the home cook’s herbal arsenal. It is a fall bloomer that sports vivid scarlet blooms that lure migrating hummingbirds.

    The ‘Golden Delicious’ variety adds an extra dimension to the landscape with the brightest golden-green, aromatic leaves. This one also reaches great heights, so it needs ample space, but don’t let this deter you from growing it. Judicious pruning can reduce its overall dimensions and stimulate branching and more flowers.

    You can use culinary sages to adorn herb gardens, but don’t stop there.  Beds, borders, containers (mixed or single variety) and window boxes all become more interesting when decorative culinary sage is added to the mix.

  5. Gorgeous Garden Grasses of Fall

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    Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, pioneering garden designers like Wolfgang Oehme, James van Sweden and Piet Oudolf sparked an interest in garden grasses. That spark turned into a wildfire of bold, ornamental garden grasses, and now they can be found in public and private gardens all over the world. 

    These stars of the informal gardens shine because they are low maintenance, high impact plants that create drama in the landscape throughout the seasons. Home gardeners are spoiled for choice when it comes to grasses. The following are some of the best for hardiness, ease of care, and beauty. 

    Great Fall Grasses

    The dried spires of Karl Foerster feather reed grass add structured to this late-season garden. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) is an upright grass so tough that it will even succeed in an area with air pollution, clay soil, and nearby black walnut trees. The popular variety ‘Karl Foerster’ is of medium height (3-5 feet tall and about half as wide) with vertical green spikes that terminate into “feathers” that give the grass its common name. These feathers give rise to pinkish-purple flowers followed by golden seedheads.  Feather reed grass stalks also make excellent dried flowers and the plants turn a pleasing brown in fall.

    Though feather reed grass tolerates adverse conditions, it prefers soil with average moisture and full to partial sun.  Happy plants will form dense clumps, so position them accordingly in the garden. Expect them to be hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9.

    A naturalistic meadow border shows upright clumps of little bluestem.

    Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is an aptly named smaller grass that tops out at 2-4 feet tall and 2 feet wide.  The common name “bluestem” comes from the fact that each grass stem is bluish at the base. A North American native, little bluestem is especially valuable in the garden because it provides three seasons of interest.  In spring and early summer, the blue-green blades shine.  When August arrives, the branched stems produce 3-inch purple flowerheads that eventually give way to white seedheads that persist into winter.  Fall turns its blades purplish and orange hues. Hardy to zones 3-9, little bluestem likes sunshine and is also somewhat drought tolerant once established.

    Northern sea oats look best when green and start to shatter as they dry.

    Shade gardeners need not be left in the dark when it comes to native grasses. Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) thrive in light to medium shade and grow 2-5 feet tall and about half as wide. Also known as Indian woodoats, the plants are native to North America and hardy in zones 3-8.

    Northern sea oats are best known for the delicate, pendulous seed heads that appear in summer and flutter in even the lightest breezes.  Looking a little like flat feathers or the oats which they resemble, the seed heads eventually turn a lovely shade of bronze-purple and then brown.  The long, green leaf blades are wide by ornamental grass standards, which enables them to put on a dramatic show when they turn copper hues after the first frosts of fall. By early winter, the seedheads shatter and the plants become flattened by rain and snow.

    Perhaps the only downside to northern sea oats is a tendency to spread by self-seeding.  To contain these tendencies, watch for unwanted seedlings and remove them while they are small. Another option is to plant them where they can naturalize.

    Few grasses can match the impressive rosy clouds of pink muhlygrass.

    Another American native is pink muhlygrass or pink hair grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), which is famed for its large (up to 12-inches) fall-blooming flowerheads, which envelope the plant in a reddish-pink cloud. After the flowers depart, the seedheads fade to tan and often persist into winter. Best grown in free-draining soil, pink muhlygrass is drought tolerant and dislikes wet feet.  Full to partial sun suit it well, and in good conditions, clumps may reach up to 3 feet tall and wide with narrow green stems that add textural appeal to the garden.  Grow pink muhlygrass in zones 5-9.

    Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) remains beautiful into fall and winter.

    Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) gets its evocative common name from the fountain-like shape of its clumps and flower stems.  In summer they are enhanced by fluffy, silvery or pinkish cylindrical flowerheads, which may persist beyond the growing season.  It grows in a graceful mound that is 2-5 feet tall and wide and boasts narrow green leaves that turn golden brown in the fall.  Like other grasses, fountain grass is tolerant of a variety of soil types but thrives with average moisture and full sunlight.  Gardeners in zones 6-9 can grow these “fountains” whose flowering stalks also make lovely dried arrangements.

    Grasses are generally undemanding but can always use a little help in the soil department.  When planting, lighten and feed the soil with Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost.  If your soil is thin or you are installing your new grasses in raised beds, create a congenial home for them by filling in with Fafard® Premium Topsoil.  Once planted, most perennial grasses only need a once-yearly haircut in late winter.  Cut back to several inches above ground level in late winter or early spring before new growth appears.

     

  6. Artful Gardens: Blending Art and Plantings

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    Artful garden blending is combining a diverse collection of plants, hardscaping, and art into a larger, living, inspiring work of art. The greatest gardeners are master blenders that work magic to bring a garden design idea to life.

    The Gertrude Jekylls and Christopher Lloyds (two famed and accomplished garden designers) of this world are rare but given a few guidelines, most of us can create visually and emotionally satisfying beds, borders, and container gardens. Incorporate some artful elements and you can have perfect synchrony of color, texture, and structural elements.

    Blending Style

    This garden patio has formal statuary but informal plantings and lines.

    Your approach to artfulness will depend on your individual style.  Do you like formality, with crisp edges and well-defined spaces, or do you prefer something a little less restrained, with drifts of plants blending together in a naturalistic style?  Your first steps may also depend on whether you are taking on a new bed or container array, or modifying one that is already established.  If a planting scheme is already established and you don’t want to start over from scratch, look at it with a critical eye.  Sometimes taking photos will help with this.  Figure out what you like and don’t like.  Does the big picture look like a mishmash of plants or an interesting composition?  If it looks like a mishmash, it’s time to find ways to introduce some unifying themes or elements.

    If your garden lacks cohesion, you can often solve the problem by introducing repetition.  This can be as easy as going to the big box store and buying flats or large pots of annuals in a single neutral color, like white impatiens (for shady spots) or white cosmos (for sunny areas), and interspersing those plants throughout the bed or border.  You can do the same thing with silver-leaved foliage plants like silver sage (Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’) or lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina).  Foliage plants have the added benefit of providing continuity that goes beyond flower color.

    Repetition of textures is another technique that can bring about unity.  The quilted leaves of some hostas sprinkled throughout a shade garden or drifts of catmint (Nepeta species and hybrids) in sunnier areas can knit plant collections together.

    Displaying Plants with Art

    Fencing and unifying colors evoke a strong sense of structure and continuity.

    Think about displaying plants to best advantage.  For beds that back up to something solid—a fence, wall or tall hedge–place the tallest plants at the center back.  Medium height plants go in the middle of the bed and short or ground-covering plants go in front.  For circular beds or beds that will be seen from all sides, position the tallest, most striking specimens in the middle to create focal points.  You can also use a distinctive shrub, small tree or a piece of garden art to do the same job.

    Think about displaying plants to best advantage.  For beds that back up to something solid—a fence, wall or tall hedge–place the tallest plants at the center back.  Medium height plants go in the middle of the bed and short or ground-covering plants go in front.  For circular beds or beds that will be seen from all sides, position the tallest, most striking specimens in the middle to create focal points.  You can also use a distinctive shrub, small tree or a piece of garden art to do the same job.

    Whenever you rearrange plants or add new ones to the garden, give them a good start by amending the soil with quality organic matter like Fafard® Garden Manure Blend.  Healthy plants always make a more beautiful landscape.

    Spring plantings in contrasting colors, textural walls, and walkways, and a simple artful pot blend together in a clean garden composition.

    Some artful gardeners unify planting schemes by emphasizing a single color.  English gardener Vita Sackville West did this with her famous “White Garden” at Sissinghurst.  Using many shades or tones of one color, combined with plant choices that allow for long seasons of interest, can create beautiful effects.  Sometimes introducing a few specimens in a contrasting color adds sparkle.

    Artists understand the color wheel and so should gardeners.  To create excitement and unify beds or large containers, combine primary or secondary colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel—blue and orange, for example—and choose plants with leaves and/or flowers in shades of those colors.  Mix brighter and lighter shades and use green as a neutral buffer, so that you garden doesn’t suffer from too much of a good thing.

    You can also combine colors that are side by side on the color wheel, like shades of green, blue, and purple.  Plants with purple or purple/black leaves, like Heuchera ‘Chocolate Ruffles’ or Ajuga ‘Black Scallop’, make especially useful accents.  Some artful gardeners choose “hot” color schemes (red, yellow, orange) or “cool’ colors (blue, pink, and purple) to unify plantings.

    Plants and art can provide pleasing vertical and rounded elements in the garden.

    If you have chosen sculptures, benches or other objects as focal points, use plants to highlight them.  Flank a garden arch with a columnar shrub, like Sky Pencil holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’).  Position pots of red cannas on either end of a garden bench and you will have created an eye-catching focal point for a summer garden.  To avoid creating a sensory distraction, make sure that the surrounding plants are a little less dramatic. 

    If you are just starting out, remember to keep it simple.  Think about seasons of interest.  Depending on the size of the bed, border, or container, choose varieties that will bloom at different times during the growing season. Remember that leaves, stems, bark, seed pods and fruit all contribute to a plant’s overall aesthetic value.  Nursery plant tags, catalog copy and internet references will help you figure this out.

    Simple sculpture can add so much to special garden spaces.

    And above all, don’t be afraid to take risks. Gardening is a forgiving art and planting “mistakes” can almost always be fixed by moving things around, introducing visual buffers or even giving away plants or decorative elements that don’t work.  The definition of “artful blending” depends on the taste of the individual doing it.

  7. Best Shade Perennials for East Coast Gardens

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    Coral bells come in a wide array of colors.

    Shady spaces are a frequent source of frustration for flower-loving gardeners. Annuals, like impatiens (regular and New Guinea) and wishbone flowers (Click here to read more about wishbone flower), can help, but for a truly vibrant landscape, dependable flowering perennials are a must. Put your frustration aside, because the options are plentiful, even for the dreaded dry shade.

    The following are some of the best flowering perennials for shade ranked roughly by bloom time.  Some come with added bonuses, like interesting leaves, ground-covering ability, and deer resistance.

    Classic bleeding heart has some of the prettiest rose-pink flowers.

    Bleeding Heart:  The name is a bit misleading because the old-fashioned bleeding heart (formerly Dicentra spectabilis and now Lamprocapnos spectabilis) will make your heart sing in mid-spring. It features graceful, arching stems that rise to 2 to 3 feet. Pink, pendulous, heart-shaped blooms are the norm, but the variety ‘Alba’ has clear white flowers. Unlike some other shade perennials, bleeding heart dies back by summer, so you need to consider planting other ornamentals to fill in the gaps it creates. By early to midsummer, the leaves and stems will turn brown and fade away.  But never fear, they will return without fail next spring.

    The later-blooming fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) is a shorter species from the eastern United States with pink or reddish flowers. They have more delicately dissected foliage, but the pendulous “hearts”, or individual flowers, are similar. Unlike the old-fashioned bleeding heart, the leaves of this species remain through to fall.

    Silvery or variegated leaves are a feature of many Siberian bugloss varieties.

    Siberian bugloss:  Low growing Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla) is also known as false forget-me-not because of its delicate, blue, late-spring flowers.  These appear on 6- to 12-inch stalks in spring, creating dots of true blue in the shade garden. Brunnera is especially valuable because the heart-shaped leaves add interest after the flowers fade. The best garden varieties are also variegated to brighten shaded spots. ‘Jack Frost’ is one of these with its silvery veined foliage that looks great through summer. Siberian bugloss forms neat mounds. Easy to love and easy to divide as clumps increase, it also thrives best in evenly moist soil conditions. It is a good edging plant and also works well in containers.

    Bugleweed is a fast-spreading perennial groundcover.

    Bugleweed or Viper’s Bugloss:  Botanically called Ajuga reptans, this very low-growing perennial groundcover happily creeps in sites with light to relatively heavy shade. The plants will also persevere against deer, rabbits and the toxins emitted by black walnut trees. Depending on the variety, the crisp leaves may be green, variegated with cream and pink, or dark bronze-purple. The late-spring flower stalks, that are between 6 to 8 inches, have many blue, lipped flowers that are beloved by bees.

    Coral Bells: The world of hybrid Heuchera, or coral bells, has exploded over the last two decades to encompass an incredible range of leaf colors, including bronze, shades of green, orange, peach, purple-black, and russet-red. Some varieties feature variegated leaves, with two or more colors vying for attention. Those colorful leaves may also be wavy or even ruffled on the edges. Many hybrids are mostly grown for their leaves while the lovely Heuchera sanguinea is also grown for its wand-like spires of tiny crimson bells that wave high above the rosette of leaves in late spring. The bells aren’t always coral but may also be white or pink. While very tolerant of shade, the plants insist on even moisture for best growth and looks.

    The delicate blooms of barrenwort are subtle but pretty.

    Barrenwort or Bishop’s Hat: The popular garden plants in the genus Epimedium are vigorous and tolerant of a wide variety of shade situations, including dry shade. In spring, they are bedecked with spurred, four-petaled flowers of yellow, pink, red, or white, depending on the variety. They dangle from the wiry stems, providing delicate, woodland elegance. The low-growing, spreading plants feature elongated, heart-shaped leaves that redden at the edges, especially in cooler weather. For good spring appearance, cut back the dried foliage in late winter.

    Pretty pink astilbe make a big presentation in the garden.

    Astilbe: With feathery late-spring conical plumes of white, pink, peach, red or purple, Astilbe is a shade stunner, even in places where shade is deep.  With few requirements other than consistent average moisture, these late spring bloomers are bright spots in borders and large containers. The average astilbe rises 18 to 24 inches, with a plume-like profile. Shear back the old flower heads to enjoy the plant’s ferny foliage from midsummer to fall. Great varieties include pink-flowered ‘Rheinland’ and pale peach ‘Peach Blossom’.

    The dark flowers of this geranium are unique and striking.

    Mourning Widow: Hardy geraniums are among the workhorses of the perennial garden and mourning widow (Geranium phaeum) is an understated star for light to medium shade. Tagged with its somber common name, this geranium features dissected leaves and mauve to dark purple flowers that rise on 12- to 24-inch stalks any time from late spring through midsummer.  The lovely variety Alba’ features white flowers, which provide a nice contrast in shady corners. For even more interest, try ‘Samobor’, with its purple flowers and foliage splashed with maroon. Throughout the rest of the season, its mound of broad, notched leaves continues to look attractive.

    Blue spiderwort will self-sow and spread, but it is so pretty in early summer.

    Spiderwort: Modern garden spiderworts are descended from the native woodside species, Tradescantia virginiana.  Standing up to 1.5- to 2-feet tall, the plants feature long, strap-like leaves, reminiscent of iris. Round buds cluster and dangle like beads at the top of each sturdy stem. Opening a few at a time and lasting for only one day, the blooms may be purple (the most common color), violet-blue, lilac, white, or nearly pink. Bright yellow stamens punctuate the center of each flower. The first flush of bloom comes in mid to late May. Once the last petal drops, cut back the stems almost to the ground.  New growth will appear, and a second flush of bloom may occur. Happy tradescantia will multiply into significant clumps, but these are easily divided and shared. The golden-leaved ‘Sweet Kate’ is an extra pretty variety that simply glows in shade.

    The flowers of Ligularia dentata are daisy-like.

    Leopard Plant: Botanically referred to as Ligularia, these perennials are tall, wide, and handsome, rising from a basal rosette of large green leaves that can reach from 2- to 5-feet tall, depending on the type. These garden “leopards” prefer consistently moist soil and thrive in partial to deep shade. The bright flowers range from yellow to yellow-orange. ‘The Rocket’ is a popular tall variety, with gigantic, triangular, toothed leaves and towering yellow flower spikes made up of tiny daisies.  Ligularia dentata ‘Desdemona’, is a little shorter at about 2- to 3-feet tall, with glossy, rounded leaves that are green on top and dark purple on the bottom. Instead of spikes, its blooms are clusters of larger, golden-orange, 2-inch daisies.

    Hosta are some of the best foliage plants for shade.

    Plantain Lilies: Everyone knows and loves Hosta, which are grown primarily for their foliage. With leaf sizes ranging from small (‘Blue Mouse Ears’) to giant (‘Blue Mammoth’), hostas can suit any size of shade garden or container. Foliage colors include a range of greens, from the palest chartreuse to the darkest dark green. Powdery blue-greys and blue-greens are also common as are variegated hostas, with leaves striped, splashed, or edged in contrasting creams, yellows, and bright greens. At bloom time, tall stems of flowers bear lily-like blossoms that are often fragrant. One hosta with extra lovely flowers is the August lily (Hosta plantaginea), which is renowned for its fragrance. Hosta lovers do have to contend with deer and/or slug damage, but remedies for these pests abound. (Click here to learn more about warding off animal pests in the garden.)

    Japanese toad lily (Tricyrtis hirta) is one of the many species to try.

    Toad Lily: Toad lily is a whimsical name for a lovely fall-blooming shade lover.  Known botanically as Tricyrtis, toad lily, like the amphibian for which it is named, prefers consistently lightly moist soil conditions and partial to medium shade. Arching stems rise 2 to 3 feet and feature oval or oblong leaves that appear to clasp the stems. The flowers, which look a bit like small, spotted lilies, bloom on stalks that sprout from between the stems and leaves. Blooming in late summer or early fall, toad lily varieties may have flowers that are white with spots and splashes of medium to dark purple, pink, or mauve.  If given a chance, the plants will also naturalize.

    Planting Shade Perennials

    When planting your shade perennials, give them a good start by adding a quality soil amendment, like Fafard® Garden Manure Blend, and prepare yourself for colorful, exciting shaded spaces.

    If you plan to plant your perennials in dry shade, be sure to raise the amended soil several inches above the soil line and mulch them well with a fine mulch. This should give them a little more space to grow without smothering surface tree roots.

  8. Purple Vegetables for Color and Nutrition

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    At various times and places, purple has been the color of royalty, rock stars, and rebellion. It has represented bravery, as well as overwrought prose. A shade of purple—mauve—was even used to describe the 1890’s, a time when the invention and widespread use of aniline dyes made purple fabrics and clothes widely available.
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  9. Wishbone Flowers for Shade Garden Color

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    The flowers of Torenia Summer Wave® Large Blue look spectacular close up.

    Gardeners the world over have long suffered from a common ailment—we covet plants, climate conditions, and time that we don’t have. This is especially true of gardeners with shady landscapes. Our gardens may support all kinds of ferns, but we want roses. Hostas the size of small houses sprout without any help at all while we pine for sunflowers. The list of “wants” versus realities goes on and on.
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  10. The Sweetest Spring Carrots

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    Poet John Keats said, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” And a spring carrot is truly a thing of beauty, if even if it is covered with dirt when pulled from the ground. Wash off the dirt and take a bite of that carrot. You will discover its inner beauty. Time spent in cool spring soil gives home-grown carrots a fresh sweetness that store-bought varieties will never have.
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