Tag Archive: Jessie Keith

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

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

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

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

    Beets

    Chioggia

    Candycane ‘Chioggia’ beets

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

    Broccoli

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    Broccoli ‘Artwork’ (image care of AAS Winners)

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

    Cabbage

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    Space-saving ‘Caraflex’ cabbage

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

    Early Carrots

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    Sweet, crisp ‘Adelaide’ carrots

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

    Lettuce

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    Crisphead ‘Reine des Glaces’ lettuce

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

    Radishes

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    Classic French ‘D’Avignon’ radishes

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

    Snap Peas

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

    Lavender

    Lavandula JaKMPM

    Lavandula angustifolia is highly attractive to bees.

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

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

    Lavandula stoechas 'Anouk' PP16685 JaKMPM

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

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

    Sage

    Salvia officinalis 'Berrgarden' JaKMPM

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

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

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

    Rosemary

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

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

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

    Thyme

    Thymus

    Thymus pseudolanuginosus is wooly and very low growing.

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

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

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

  3. Fall Garden Cleanup

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    By October, garden beds need to be cleaned and last season’s annuals cut back.

    Putting your garden to bed properly will result in a prettier, healthier garden this season and next. It’s essential to know what areas to clean, what to prune, what to leave undisturbed, and what to protect over winter. Simply taking a leaf blower to your beds and landscape is a start, but there’s more to the process, if you want to do it right.

    Cleaning, Cutting, and Edging

    When cleaning your garden beds, consider bed appearance, but also consider plant appearance and health. This means determining what should be cut back and cleaned and what should be left alone until spring.

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    Hardy chrysanthemums are perennials that don’t need to be cut back until the following spring.

    Begin by cleaning out loose leaf material by hand or blower with a focus on the most visually conspicuous areas. Smart gardeners are wise to leave some leaf litter in beds to provide added winter protection for more tender plants and help support overwintering pollinators. (Some species of overwintering native bees, and butterflies use undisturbed leaf litter as essential winter habitat. Click here to learn more.) After clearing away unwanted leaves, give your fading garden plants needed attention.

    Dead or dying annuals are the first thing to cut back or pull. If some have mature seed heads, consider scattering their seeds in hopes of getting a few self-starters in spring. Once annuals are removed and beds smoothed, start work on your perennials and shrubs.

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    Evergreens, such as lavender (back), should not be cut back.

    Many perennials look great over winter and their crowns are protected by leaving the top growth intact through winter. Most ornamental grasses, lavenders, hardy salvias, hardy chrysanthemums, and rosemary are perennials that should not be cut back until spring. Exceptionally hardy perennials that die to the ground, such as daylilies, coneflowers, hardy geraniums, hostas, Shasta daisies, and asters, can all be fully cut back without worry. Some perennials produce seed heads that naturally feed overwintering songbirds, such coneflowers, asters, and hardy sunflowers, so it is nice to leave a few up. All healthy evergreen perennials and shrubs should be left alone.

    Keep it Covered!

    After cleaning and cutting back beds, cut fresh bed edges, and apply cosmetic mulch. [Click here to read more about garden edging.] Lots of mulches will work, but dark, earthy leaf mulch is like landscape gold. Not only does it look good, but it breaks down quickly to naturally feed soil, and it is easy to create from recycled leaves. [Click here to learn Natural and Organichow to turn your fall leaves into leaf mulch.] Screened, partially composted bark mulch is another good option for broadcast mulching. For small garden spaces, Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost should be applied as a high-quality, fortifying mulch.

    When mulching, work around perennials and shrubs. Many plants will die or perform poorly if their crowns and trunks are thickly layered with mulch. Succulents, alpine or rock garden plants, and Heuchera should never have heavy mulch applied on or around their crowns.

    Fall Pruning

    In fall, start by cutting back any dead, unhealthy, or crossing branches from trees and small shrubs. When pruning out dead, diseased, or infested wood, prune just below the point where growth is still fresh and healthy. If you think that a plant you are pruning is diseased, be sure to clean your pruning shears in a 10% bleach solution before pruning another plant. If additional pruning on flowering trees and shrubs is needed to shape the plants, first determine whether your shrubs bloom on old or new wood. It is okay to prune new-wood bloomers in fall but not old-wood bloomers.

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    Butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii ‘Dart’s Papillon Blue’) blooms on new wood and can be cut to the ground each fall. (Photo by Ptelea)

    French lilacs (Syringa vulgaris), azaleas and rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.), forsythia, most viburnum, service berries (Amelanchier spp.), and some hydrangeas, such as oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) all bloom on old wood—meaning they set their flower buds for the next year shortly after they bloom. These plants should never be pruned in fall, unless you want to cut off all of next year’s flowers. Old- or second-year wood bloomers are best pruned right after they flower. Hybrid roses (Rosa spp.), buddleja, crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), and some hydrangeas, such as wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), bloom on new wood, so fall pruning is an option.

    Pruning techniques vary from plant to plant. As a general rule, shrubs that bloom on new wood are forgiving and can be hard pruned, or cut back nearly to the ground. In fact, hard pruning is often recommended for sprawling, aggressive bloomers like Buddleja. Rose pruning is another beast entirely and most recommended for late winter. [Click here to learn more about rose pruning.]

    Toss it or Compost It?

    Bed cleaning creates lots of waste. Some of the waste is perfect for composting and some is best discarded. Loose leaf matter makes great compost. Fall grass clippings and leftover edging pieces can also be thrown into the compost heap. Old perennial and annual waste can also be composted, if it appears to be clean and disease free. Healthy woody branches can also be chipped and added to the bin. Any material thought to have pests or disease should be thrown away. This is especially the case for vegetable waste, such as last-season’s tomatoes, which commonly develop early and late blights. Rose clippings should also be kept far away from the bin because of the many diseases these plants can harbor. [Click here to learn more about rose diseases and pests.]

    Clean, coiffed beds, with crisp edges look great and will make spring prep a breeze. They will also make it easier to plan and implement fall bulb plantings and decorate for the winter holidays.

    Saccharum ravennae JaKMPM

    Grasses, such as this Ravennagrass (Saccharum ravennae) can be left up into winter.

  4. Protect Plants from Summer Heat in Four Steps

    A thick layer of straw helps hold moisture around these okra plants while also keeping walkways clean and weed free.

    A thick layer of straw helps keep roots cool while also holding moisture and keeping walkways clean and weed free.

    It’s baking hot and your garden plants are wilting, waning, and altogether looking crummy. What do you do? High heat can take a toll on our vegetable and flower gardens, causing fruit and flowers to drop, buds to shrivel, leaves to wilt, and plants show general stress. It’s bad news, but there are a few protective measures gardeners can take to save their green investments through the worst of the high heat periods. Just four tips can help you turn your over-heated plants around: 1. Plant Smart, 2. Add Water-Holding Amendments, 3. Water Smart, and 4. Provide Mulch and Shade.

    Plant Smart

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    Heat-tolerant Profusion Zinnias buffer the hot edge of a driveway garden.

    This basically means choosing heat-tolerant plants and picking the right locations for your plant choices. Vegetables (read more about heat-tolerant vegetables here and read more about heat-tolerant greens here) and flowers (read more about heat- and drought-tolerant bedding flowers here) that can take the heat generally originate from warmer parts of the world. Choosing a Mexican-native Marigold (Tagetes erecta) over a European Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis) means a world of difference when temperatures heat up. The Mexican Marigold will thrive and the European species will fry.

    Marigold Double

    Choose heat-tolerant plants, such as Mexican marigolds, that will shine all season long.

    More heat-tender plants should be placed in spots where they are protected by midday shade. Those planted alongside pavement need to be tougher because of the reflective heat generated by the concrete or asphalt. Buffering walkway or driveway edges with super tough creeping plants, such as rocky stonecrop (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’), trailing rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’) or Profusion zinnias, will reduce some of the glare and generated heat. Another tip is to place plants so that they are just touching, but not overcrowded. Keeping the sunlight from hitting the ground surrounding plants is cooling. It is also smart to plant from high to low with taller plants shading shorter plants (Wild Senna is an outstanding tall, heat-tolerant perennial you can read about here).

    Add Water-Holding Amendments

    Amend zinnia beds with a fertile amendment like Fafard Natural & Organic Compost Blend.Water keeps soil cooler, so adding water-holding amendments helps reduce heat stress as well as drought stress. Organic matter always holds more water, so it is wise to add fresh compost to beds before planting. Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost is a great choice, but there are other amendments designed specifically to hold water. A sustainable selection is Black Gold Just Coir, which is comprised of 100% all-natural coconut coir and holds water like a dream. Coir comes from processed coconut husks, a byproduct of the coconut industry.

    Water Smart

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    Early morning is a great time to water plants, if the day is going to be a hot one.

    There are several watering techniques that will help you protect your plants from heat a little better (read all about smart watering tips here). First, watering early in the morning or later in the evening will allow plants take in moisture at cooler times of the day to help them withstand the high heat of midday. I like to water in the morning best. Drip hoses also help keep roots cool and water directly at the root zone.

    Provide Mulch & Shade

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    Mulching cools rootzones, which helps keep plants happy during the hottest times of the day.

    Mulches help keep plant roots cool. In the garden, lighter mulches, such as straw, hay, or leaf mulch, make a real difference in keeping plants happy during high-heat windows. Leaf mulch or pine straw are good choices for ornamental gardens. When days are really scorching, vegetables may benefit from floating shade cloth to reduce the sun’s glare. The cloth can either be supported by stakes surrounding beds or floated over rows during the day’s hottest window, from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm. Most studies show that the time between 2:00 and 3:00 pm is the hottest time of the day.

    The most scorching days of summer usually don’t last long, but they can do lasting damage, dulling your garden’s looks and reducing yields. Protect them during these times to make the most of your garden for the rest of the season.

  5. Colorful Tropical Hibiscus

    Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Chiffon Breeze' (TRADEWINDS™ CHIFFON BREEZE, TRADEWINDS™ BREEZE SERIES) PP17606 JaKMPM

    Hibiscus rosa-sinensis ‘Chiffon Breeze’

    Giant blooms bursting with color—these make Chinese or Hawaiian hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) a floral favorite in sizzling summer gardens. Huge variety is another perk of these tried-and-true tropical shrubs. There are literally hundreds of types that come in many floral color variations and sizes. And, their familiar good looks bring to mind Hawaiian shirts, leis, and landscapes. What’s not to love?

    Native throughout tropical Asia, these hibiscus have been bred for centuries for their big, beautiful flowers. Through woody, they are fast growing and ever blooming, making them ideal for large patio containers and bed plantings. Their lush, deep green foliage creates a perfect foil for the big beautiful flowers. Some leaves are even glossy. These plants are only hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11, which means they will only survive winters in the most southerly regions of the United States. But, they will overwinter well in a sunny, warm indoor location where winters are cold. A bright south-facing window, sun room, or conservatory is perfect.

    Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Baja Breeze' (TRADEWINDS™ BAJA BREEZE, TRADEWINDS™ BREEZE SERIES) PP17607 JaKMPM

    Hibiscus rosa-sinensis TRADEWINDS™ BAJA BREEZE

    The flowers are between 4 and 8″ wide and comprised of five large, open petals. The largest varieties are the size of dessert plates. They come in loads of bright, tropical colors to include all shades of pink, red, orange, yellow, and white. Unusual colors, such as near black, gray, and purplish hues are also common. Many blooms are bicolored and tricolored, with radiating rings of bright color. At the center of each bloom is a protruding pistil lined with colorful stamens, which is attractive and interesting in its own right.

    There are literally hundreds of varieties of Hawaiian hibiscus. The International Hibiscus Society has a full register of every type under the sun. Anyone interested in learning more about these beautiful flowers should have a look. The wide ranging varieties give a complete picture of all this plant has to offer. To get a good look at exciting newer, interesting selections, check out the offerings of specialty growers, such as Charles Black’s Hidden Valley Hibiscus. His amazing hibiscus may be just enough to hook you!

    Garden center varieties are often bred for compact habits and high flower production. The Tradewinds varieties are particularly nice, being developed to produce lots of flowers on tidy plants ideal for container growing. Though the plants are small, they always grow and flower best in large containers that allow their roots to spread and easily access water and nutrients. Large containers also need to be watered less often.

    Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Erin Rachel' JaKMPM

    Hibiscus rosa-sinensis ‘Erin Rachel’

    Grow these beautiful flowers anywhere there is sun. They prefer fertile soil that drains well and perform best with some supplementary fertilizer for flowers. Starting with a fortified potting mix, such as Black Gold’s All-Purpose Potting Soil with RESiLIENCE, is a good idea. Potted plants appreciate large containers and will fill them in quickly, if plants are happy and well-tended. In warmer zones, these shrubs are best planted in garden and shrub borders mixed with other lush, tropical plants loaded with bright color.

  6. Waterwise Container Gardening

    Pentas JaKMPM

    Pretty pink pentas and purple-leaved pennisetum are both drought resistant and look great in containers.

    Container plantings are notorious for drying out quickly and needing extra water through the worst summer months, lest they dry and shrivel in a day’s time. Miss one morning watering and the most beautiful contained petunias or impatiens can go from great to a ghastly full wilt by evening. Thankfully, there are ways to reduce the need for daily container watering while also ensuring lots of pretty potted plants for porch and patio.

    The four factors to consider when designing water-wise container gardening are 1. pot size and type, 2. soil and soil additives, 3. plant drought tolerance, and 4. pot placement. Get these factors right and your containers may require half the water normally supplied to summer pots.

    Container Size and Type

    Glazed and plastic pots hold water better than terracotta. (image care of the National Garden Bureau)

    Glazed and plastic pots hold water better than terracotta. (image care of the National Garden Bureau)

    Container size and type are things that most gardeners don’t consider as water-saving, but the larger and more water impermeable the pot, the more it will conserve water. Think about how plants move water. They take it up through the roots, the water travels through the plant, and then it’s released from tiny pores in the plant’s leaves and stems. Basically, the plant pulls water from the soil. A larger pot holds more water and provides more root space—offering a bigger well of needed moisture. And, an impermeable pot surface simply means that less water will be lost due to evaporation. Terra cotta pots are the worst when it comes to evaporation while glazed ceramics and plastic or resin pots keep water at the root zone.

     Soil and Additives

    1722fafard Ultra Container with Extended Feed RESILIENCE front WEBSome soils and amendments like peat moss hold water well and others like perlite encourage drainage. Our best water-holding potting soils contain lots of rich organic matter in addition to water-reserving additives, such as the Moisture Pro™ water-holding crystals Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with extended feed and RESiLIENCE®. The RESiLIENCE® additive, which is OMRI-listed for organic gardening, helps plants further by helping plants reduce water stress during hot, dry times. The addition of coco coir (we recommend Black Gold Just Coir) or Fafard Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss further enhanced water-holding to reduce the need to water every day.

    Drought-Tolerant Plants

    Lantana camara 'Bante Rossa' (BANDANA™ ROSE, BANDANA™ SERIES) PP18148 JaKMPM

    Lantana camara BANDANA™ ROSE

    There are so many beautiful container-friendly garden flowers that stand up to heat. For containers, it’s great to choose heavy-flowering annuals that look nice until frost—either with their foliage, flowers, or both. It’s also nice to try new garden center offerings, in addition to solid standbys, that will wow and impress.

    Pennisetum glaucum 'Jade Princess' JaKMPM

    Pennisetum glaucum ‘Jade Princess’

    For warm container color, try the new Bidens Campfire® Fireburst with its tiny hot daisies of orange-red and gold. Annual Bidens bloom continuously and look great alongside the red and orange flower of Lantana Rose Bandana, and gold-, -orange, and magenta-flowered Zinnia Pinwheel Mix, which are also compact. All stand up to hot, dry weather once established. The outstanding Cuphea Vermillionaire® is another super tough, super pretty bloomer producing lots of orange-red, tubular flowers through summer that attract hummingbirds. These glow container plantings when placed alongside tall, Angelonia Angelface® Superwhite and soft, airy Mexican hairgrass (Nasella tenuissima). Another great hummingbird flower for heat and containers is the new Salvia Ablazin’™ Tabasco with its taller stature and scarlet flowers that shine alongside the chartreuse leaves and purple plumes of Pennesetum glaucum ‘Jade Princess’.

    Containers of bold succulents are also welcome for those wishing to water as little as possible. Pots of colorful Agave, Aloe, cacti or sedums look great through summer and can be brought into a sunny indoor spot through winter. The only caveat is that these plants tend to want a better-drained soil, such as Black Gold Cactus Mix.

    Container Placement

    IMG_9028Where you place your plants can make a big difference in how quickly they lose water. Exposed areas with hot sun and wind will always dry plants out more than protected areas shielded from the wind and sheltered from the sun during the hottest time of day. Morning and afternoon sun is always less beating, so place planters in spots where this level of sun dominates and light shade it provided around noon.

    Planning ahead with these four steps for water-wise containers will save water, time, and headaches through summer. Your containers will still need regular care and water for best health and looks, but you will be able to enjoy them more and worry less about summer container insta-wilt.

  7. “Spur” on Pollinators with Columbine Flowers

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    Eastern columbine flowers in late spring.

    The elegant spurs of columbine (Aquilegia spp.) trail behind the spring blooms like the tail of a comet. Each projected spur is in fact an elongated, tubular nectary filled with nectar for a variety of visiting pollinators, from hummingbirds to bees to hawkmoths.

    Columbine are unique in that many of the 60+ species are just as pretty as the many hybrids offered at garden centers. Aquilegia comes from the Latin name, Aquila, which translates to “eagle” and refers directly to the flower’s talon-like spurs. All species in the genus hail from the North Temperate regions of the world and most bloom in late spring or early summer. All attract pollinators of one variety or another, but many of the species are specially adapted to certain groups of pollinators—making them very desirable for pollinator gardens.

    Their delicate, spurred flowers come in several colors that tend to dictate the primary pollinators they attract, though spur length, nectar sweetness and levels, among other factors, also influence pollinator attraction.

    Hummingbirds: Red- and Orange-flowered Columbine

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    Eastern red columbine

    As a rule, red flowers attract hummingbirds; research as shown that this is also the case with columbine flowers. Beautiful wildflowers, such as the eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis, 2’), with its tall stems of nodding red flowers, or the western red columbine (A. elegantula, 1-3’), with its more linear nodding, shooting-star flowers of fire orange-red, are sure to draw hummingbirds in spring and early summer. Hummingbirds flying through western desert regions will likely visit the blooms of the Arizona columbine (A. desertorum, 1-2’) with its many small, red flowers with shorter spurs. All of these flowers have spurs that hold lots of extra sweet nectar to fulfill the needs of visiting hummingbirds.

    Hawkmoths & Bees-Violet-blue-flowered Columbine

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    Colorado blue columbine (image by Zenhaus)

    Many columbine species have flowers that come in combinations of violet-blue and white. These flowers tend to be most attractive to both hawkmoths and native bees. (Hawkmoths are a group of moths easily distinguished by their hummingbird-like hovering flight patterns and long tongues adapted for nectar gathering.) Columbine with long spurs, such as the Colorado blue columbine (A. coerulea, 1-3’), are most attractive to long-tongued hawkmoths. Smaller-flowered species, such as the alpine Utah columbine (A. scopulorum, 6-8”) and small-flowered columbine (A. brevistyla, 1-3’) with their blue and white blooms, are better adapted to bee pollinators.

    Hawkmoths- Yellow-flowered Columbine

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    Long-spurred columbine (image by Cstubben)

    Some of the most impressively long spurs are found on columbine with ethereal yellow flowers that glow in the evening light. Most are adapted to hawkmoth pollination. One of the prettiest for the garden is the southwestern golden columbine (A. chrysantha, 3’) with its big starry flowers and long, long spurs of gold. When in full bloom, from spring to summer, the plants literally glow with beautiful blossoms. Another big-spurred beauty from the southwest is the long-spurred columbine (A. longissima, 1-3’) with its 4-6” long spurs. The upward-facing blooms are paler yellow than A chrysantha and bloom from mid to late summer. Both species look delicate but are surprisingly well-adapted to arid weather conditions.

    As a rule, columbine grow best in full to partial sun and soil with good to moderate fertility and sharp drainage. Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost is a great soil addition for these garden flowers. They don’t require heavy fertilization and should be protected from sun during the hottest times of the day. After flowers, plants often die back or develop a ragged look, so be sure to surround them by other full perennials with attractive foliage and flowers that will fill the visual gaps left by these plants. Good compliments are tall phlox, coneflowers, bluestar, and milkweeds.

    Columbine are great choices for pollinator gardens, so it’s no wonder that sourcing species is surprisingly easy. High Country Garden sells a western species collection, in addition to the dwarf eastern columbine, and many others. Moreover, columbine self-sow and naturally hybridize-making them truly enjoyable garden flowers for gardeners we well as our favorite pollinators.

  8. Growing Salad Greens in Spring

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    A suite of spinach and romaine lettuces growing in late March.

    This is the time of year to start your seeds for salad greens, such as spinach, lettuce, and arugula. Getting a head start indoors will ensure that you will have fresh greens by late March to early April when daytime temperatures are warm enough for growing and nights are still cool and crisp. Once transplanted in the garden in early March, your seedling starts should take off, if your beds have been well prepared.

    Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is the most variable green—coming in lots of shapes, lead densities and colors. Some of the most common and popular types include the upright romaine or cos lettuce (popular in Caesar’s salads), crisphead or iceberg lettuce, and looseleaf types, which include butterhead and oakleaf varieties, among others. Colors vary from bright chartreuse green to deep green, purple and bronze. Speckled varieties also exist, such as the Austrian ‘Forellenschluss’, which essentially translates to “trout-like”. Reliable starter varieties, such as the classic heirloom looseleaf variety ‘Black Seeded Simpson’, super tight-headed romaine ‘Spretnak’, and unusually beautiful French crisphead, ‘Reine Des Glaces’, are all quite easy and delicious.

    Lactuca sativa 'Reine Des Glaces' JaKMPM

    The French crisphead lettuce ‘Reine Des Glaces’ looks beautiful and has more flavor than your average iceberg lettuce.

    Spinach and arugula grow under the same conditions as lettuce—requiring cool weather for best growth and flavor. Both are less variable in appearance, but there are quite a few cultivated varieties with special characteristics that set them apart. Spinach may have smooth or savoyed leaves and some varieties are slower to bolt (set flower) in spring than others. The 1925 heirloom ‘Bloomsdale’ has large, savoyed leaves and is slower to bolt than most. I contrast, ‘Corvair’ has large, smooth leaves and is resistant to downy mildew. Some cultivars, such as ‘Baby’s Leaf‘, are recommended for growing “baby spinach”. Arugula cultivars vary somewhat in leaf shape, color and heat. The popular ‘Wasabi’ is an easy-to-grow selection with leaves that truly taste of hot wasabi. The new ‘Dragon’s Tongue’ is a visually pretty, finely cut variant with purple-red venation.

    Lactuca sativa (SALANOVA® RED INCISED-LEAF, SALANOVA® SERIES) JaKMPM

    Looseleaf lettuce varieties can come with variable leaf shapes and colors.

    There are a few things to know when growing these greens. To begin with, they must have cool germination temperatures. Lettuce seed, for example, germinates best at temperatures between 70 and 40 degrees F, with those at the higher end sprouting faster. Most other greens do, too. The small, almond-shaped seeds of lettuce also require light to germinate, so be sure not to cover the seed—just gently pat it down and wet its soil completely. Arugula seed is also small and should be surface sown, but spinach seed is larger and can be planted just below the soil’s surface. For planting all these seeds, it is vital to select a quality seed-starting mix with a fine texture, such as Fafard Seed Starting Mix with Resilience. (For more seed-starting tips, click here.)

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    Tidy, open beds and good spacing are needed for healthy, vigorous greens.

    Before planting, be sure to harden seedlings off, slowly exposing them to outdoor temperatures and sunlight until they are acclimated. Soil should be fortified with a quality organic amendment.  I recommend Fafard Garden Manure Blend for greens. Work it in evenly before planting your seedlings. Once seedlings are planted around six to eight inches apart, water them well and apply a light solution of water-soluble, all-purpose fertilizer.

    In no time, you should have harvestable greens. In is not uncommon for most greens to take between 45 to 50 days to produce after planting. Harvest depends on the green. Spinach, arugula, and looseleaf Garden Manure Blendlettuce can be harvested leaf by leaf while romaine and crisphead lettuce are harvested whole by the head. The easiest way is to cut the head with a harvest knife from the point where it meets the ground.

    It is not uncommon for a few stray greens to begin bolting before they are harvested. If this happens, let them bloom and set seed. After plants have bolted, wait for the seed to mature and dry. Then collect the seeds for planting later in the season when growing conditions are cool once again.

  9. New Vegetables for 2016

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    The new slicing tomato ‘Black Beauty’ is darker than any other black tomato and has incredible flavor. (photo care of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

    Each year I boost my passion for vegetable gardening by adding some of the latest new varieties to the garden repertoire. Those that pass the flavor and productivity tests may have a permanent place in my yearly garden while those that don’t shine will make space for new plants to trial next year. Last year’s winner was the flavorful, uniform, and high producing, AAS-winning ‘Chef’s Choice Orange’ slicing tomato. (Its deepest orange fruits were so sweet!) Just glancing at my growing pile of vegetable garden catalogs makes me excited about the fresh suite of new vegetables for 2016.

    Candyland Red Tomato (Currant) Color Code: PAS Kieft 2017 Fruit, Seed 08.15 Elburn, Mark Widhalm Candyland01_02.JPG TOM15-19648.JPG

    The new AAS Winner ‘Candyland Red’ is a sweet new currant tomato for the garden. (Photo care of All America Selections)

    Let’s start with tomatoes and close relatives, like tomatillos, eggplants, and peppers. By far, the most exciting tomato being offered is the succulent, pure black slicing tomato ‘Black Beauty’. The Wild Boar Farms introduction has meaty flavorful flesh that is dark red to black. A classic red tomato on the table is the hybrid ‘Madame Marmande’ from Burpee that boasts beautifully lobed fruits packed with rich tomato flavor. Cherry tomato lovers should consider ‘Candyland Red’—a high-producing red currant tomato that’s super sweet. Pair it with the golden currant tomato ‘Gold Rush‘ for fun, colorful snacking.

    There’s a great pick of peppers for 2016, hot and sweet. Promising hots include the Brazilian ‘Biquinho’ hot pepper, which looks like a bright red teardrop when ripe and is said to have a fruity, smoky flavor, and the fire-red ‘Flaming Flare’ pepper with its sweet, slightly hot flavor. Sweet pepper lovers should check out the golden sweet ‘Escamillo’ pepper. This prolific early bearer is an AAS winner for 2016. All of these peppers will pair well with the new, heavy-bearing ‘Gulliver’ tomatillo for salsa making.

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    The golden yellow pepper ‘Escamillo’ is another AAS winner with great taste and performance. (Photo care of All America Selections)

    Though eggplant can have challenges due to susceptibility to flea beetles and Colorado potato beetles, I am excited about the new ‘Meatball’ hybrid eggplant from Burpee. The large, meaty fruits are supposed to be extra tasty.

    Gardeners seeking something unusual may consider the Mexican sour gherkin, also offered by Burpee.  The tiny fruits are crisp and sweet but also slightly sour. Add these to a salad along with slices of the remarkable ‘Sakurajima’, the world’s largest radish. Offered by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, these massive daikon radishes can reach 15 pounds and just beg to be grown by adventurous vegetable gardeners with lots of mouths to feed.

    Spring greens are some of the first veggies to go into the ground and new varieties, such as the super spinach ‘Gangbusters’ and/or beautiful heirloom lettuce ‘Yugoslavian Red’, are sure to make easy work of the salad garden. Throw in some vigorous Fidelio flatlead parsley or unusual saltwort Japanese greens for added interest and flavor.

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    The bright, uniform ‘Yellowbunch’ Carrot is a sweet new offering for 2016. (Photo care of Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

    Unusually colored carrots are becoming more and more popular and Johnny’s ‘Yellowbunch’ Carrot looks like a real winner with its straight, crisp, sweet roots of bright yellow. Other new root crops of interest include the pure white ‘Avalanche’ beet, an AAS Winner with mild, sweet flavor and uniform roots.

    This list would not be complete without something sweet. Said to have the highest Brix score (15!) of any other canteloupe, Park’s Select ‘Infinite Gold’ hybrid is bursting with flavor and highly disease resistant. Vines are high-yielding and fruits have very deep orange flesh.

    Whether growing greens, tomatoes, or melons—your vegetable garden will only be as good as the soil and nutrients you provide. Give this year’s new offerings and old favorites the best chance possible for success. Feed your soil with quality garden compost, such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost, or quality manure, such as Fafard Garden Mature Blend. Both will enrich garden soil to the maximum for large fruits and big roots. Feed with a fertilizer formulated for vegetables—we like Black Gold Tomato and Vegetable Fertilizer—and your new garden vegetables will perform to their fullest.

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    Adventurous gardeners should consider growing the giant ‘Sakurajima’ radish. (Photo care of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

  10. Plant Awards and 2016 Award-Winning Plants

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    Salvia Summer Jewel™ Lavender is a truly beautiful 2016 award winner. (image thanks to the AAS)

    When choosing new plants for 2016, it always pays to know the bestowers of plant awards, so you can easily identify the best-of-the-best edibles and ornamentals for the season.  Plant award programs are numerous and many are distinct in their selection criteria. What they have in common are great garden plants.

    And these programs are reliable. Not only are most based on extensive field trials but they are also driven by third-party entities with the simple goal of promoting outstanding plants for home and garden. So, you can count on award-winners to perform well, if they are recommended for your region. Many are tested and approved for national audiences but others are specifically selected for regions, or by plant societies dedicated to specific plant groups. Here is just a sampling of recommended awards programs and their great plants.

    Candyland Red Tomato (Currant) Color Code: PAS Kieft 2017 Fruit, Seed 08.15 Elburn, Mark Widhalm Candyland01_02.JPG TOM15-19648.JPG

    Candyland Red is a superior currant tomato with big flavor. (image thanks to the AAS)

    The All-America Selections (AAS) is a respected, independent, non-profit organization that promotes terrific plants for North America. Their mission is “To promote new garden varieties with superior garden performance judged in impartial trials in North America.” Their trials are conducted across the US and Canada and focus on high-performing vegetables and annual garden flowers. Each year a handful of award winners are chosen and promoted. The program began in 1933, and lots of “old” award winners, now technically heirlooms, are still grown today. To learn more about the AAS and their selection criteria, click here.

    There are 12 AAS-winning plants for 2016 to include Salvia Summer Jewel™ Lavender, tomato ‘Candyland Red’, and the giant white pumpkin ‘Super Moon F1’.

    The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) program, which highlights plants of great merit for UK growers. Thankfully, many of the selected plants also perform well in North America. Unlike the AAS, this program seeks out all forms of high-performing ornamental include trees, shrubs and perennials. Species and cultivated plants are all fair game.

    Recent additions to the AGM program include Begonia ‘Glowing Embers’, sweet pea ‘Mary Mac’ and carrot ‘Artemis’.

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    Geranium Biokovo was the 2015 Perennial Plant of the Year. (image care of The Perennial Plant Association)

    The Garden Club of America (GCA) promotes an outstanding North American native plant of the year and bestows upon it the Montine McDaniel Freeman Horticulture Award in honor of longtime member of a New Orleans GCA chapter, Montine McDaniel Freeman. The award-winning native for 2015 is the lofty and beautiful bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), which is long-lived, tough and statuesque.

    A “Perennial Plant of the Year”, bestowed by the Perennial Plant Association, has been selected since the program began in 1990. Chosen plants must be “suitable for a wide range of growing climates, require low maintenance, have multiple-season interest, and are relatively pest/disease-free.” Novice gardeners seeking to beautify their landscapes with perennials would be wise to start by choosing plants from this list—to include the 2015 selection, Biokovo geranium (Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’).

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    The steely blue Windwalker® big bluestem is a Plant Select® winner. (image care of Plant Select)

    Plant Select® is a popular regional awards program dedicated to ornamental plants—woody and herbaceous—of the North American high plains and intermountain region, but many are good general performers in other parts of the country. One unique feature is that “Plant Select® leverages a uniquely collaborative model and highly-selective cultivation process to find, test and distribute plants that thrive on less water.” So, Plant Select® are water-wise in addition to being high performing and beautiful. Disease resistance and non-invasiveness are two more important selection criteria.

    Notable Plant Select® winners for 2015 are the evergreen Wallowa Mountain desert moss (Arenaria ‘Wallowa Mountain’), perfect for fairy and succulent gardens, Windwalker® Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii ‘PWIN01S’), Coral Baby penstemon (Penstemon ‘Coral Baby’), and the stately Woodward Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum ‘Woodward’).

    Out East, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has been promoting its PHS Gold Medal Plants annually since 1978. The winners represent superior woody plants for the landscape that thrive in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-7. Recent winners include the Rising Sun redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Rising Sun’) and Darts Duke viburnum (Viburnum x rhytidophylloides ‘Darts Duke’).

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    Penstemon ‘Baby Coral’ is a water-wise and long-blooming Plant Select® winner. (image care of Plant Select®)

    There are lots of plant societies offering award-winning selections for home and garden each year. The All-America Roses Selections (AARS) has represented the best from their national rose trials since 1930, but due to a flagging economy this important trial ended in 2014. Fortunately, some have been willing to keep it alive, bringing us several great winners for 2015, which includes the thornless, cerise pink, antique rose ‘Thomas Affleck’ and the fragrant hybrid tea, Deelish®.

    Choose to garden smart this season with a few award winners. Pick a few for the New Year and reap the rewards. Fortify them with top-quality potting soils and amendments from Fafard, and you cannot go wrong.