Tag Archive: Russell Stafford

  1. Luscious Lilies of Late Summer

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    Tiger lilies (Lilium lancifolium) are spectacular tall bloomers that appear in late summer. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Most gardens can use a visual lift in the dog days of late summer.  This is where late-blooming lilies come in.  When their voluptuous, often deliciously scented blooms make their grand entrance in July and August, it’s like a royal fanfare in the landscape.  Goodbye, garden doldrums.

    About Late-Summer Lilies

    The raspberry-pink-flowered Lilium speciosum is a lovely species lily for the garden. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Thanks to the efforts of breeders, late-blooming lilies flower in a wide spectrum of luscious colors, from white to yellow to pink to red, with all manner of hues in between.  They also come in many sizes, with the smallest measuring only a foot tall and the grandest towering to 6 feet or more.  While the former are useful for containers and bedding schemes, it’s the giant late-blooming hybrids that are the true glory of the dog-day garden.  Their enormous clusters of large, sumptuous blooms on eye-high stems are almost beyond belief (as is the fact that they grow from relatively modest-sized, scaly bulbs).Natural and Organic

    Better yet, they’re easily cultivated, with most lilies thriving in full sun and fertile, humus-rich, well-aerated soil in USDA Hardiness zones 5 through 8 (excessively sandy or clay-heavy soil should be amended with a good compost, such as Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost).  All bets are off, however, in areas that host the dreaded red lily beetle.  Where this insect abounds (mostly in the Northeast), lilies can be more of a chore than they’re worth, requiring hours of hand-picking of the glossy scarlet adults and their repulsive, excrement-coated larvae.  In other parts of their hardiness range, lilies have few enemies, although viruses and large herbivores (particularly deer) can sometimes cause problems.

    Trumpet Hybrids

    Oriental Hybrids come into prominence in early August. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    The summer lily season opens in spectacular style with the stately Trumpet Hybrids, renowned for their gigantic, fragrant, funnel-shaped blooms that take after the Chinese native Lilium regale.  The popular Golden Splendor Strain produces 6-foot spires of rich lemon-yellow trumpets with burgundy-stained exteriors, while the equally popular (and showy) Pink Perfection Strain sports rose-pink funnels with gold throats.  Many other splendid Trumpet Hybrids are offered by bulb merchants (including several that specialize in lilies).  Lilium regale itself is well worth growing for its immense white flowers with maroon reverses (pure white forms are also sold).

    Some hybrids in the Trumpet tribe have nodding, mildly scented, “Turks-cap” flowers that evoke the group’s other important ancestor, Lilium henryi.  Among the best and most widely offered of these is ‘Lady Alice’, with white, purple-flecked, gold-starred flowers on 4- to 6-foot stems. There are also several common species worth seeking out.  The classic “tiger lily” (Lilium lancifolium), with its black-spotted blooms of clear orange, is tall, clumping, and looks its best in August.

    Oriental Hybrids

    Pink Oriental lilies in a late-summer border at Longwood Gardens. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    The Oriental Hybrids come into prominence in early August, as the Trumpets fade from the scene.  Their freckled, seductively scented flowers with back-curved petals show the influence of their two primary parents: raspberry-pink-flowered Lilium speciosum and white, yellow-banded Lilium auratum var. platyphyllum. Most Oriental Lilies have nodding or out-facing flowers, but exceptions occur, as evidenced by arguably the most famous lily hybrid, ‘Stargazer’.  The glowing crimson-rose, white-edged blooms of this 1974 introduction look up from 3- to 4-foot stems in early August.  Other outstanding and renowned Orientals include white ‘Casa Blanca’; lilac-pink, lemon-striped ‘Tom Pouce’; white, rose-veined ‘Muscadet’; and white, gold-striped ‘Aubade’.  All are of similar stature to ‘Stargazer’.

    Orienpet Hybrids

    Orienpets tend to be large-flowered and voluptuous. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Hybrids between Oriental and Trumpet lilies (known as “Orienpets”) combine the best features of both groups, bearing swarms of large, fragrant flowers on lofty stems.  A winner of the North American Lily Society’s popularity poll, the Orienpet ‘Anastasia’ flaunts white, rose-brushed, heavy-textured flowers on 6-foot stems in early August, giving the effect of a high-rise Lilium speciosum.  The cultivar ‘Scheherazade’ sports a similar look, but with raspberry-red, lemon-edged blooms.  ‘Silk Road’ (also known as ‘Friso’) is more suggestive of a Trumpet Lily, producing white, rose-throated, funnel-shaped flowers with burgundy-flushed exteriors in mid-July.  It’s a four-time popularity poll winner.

    Now is the season not only to savor the beauty of late-blooming lilies, but also to order some of their bulbs to plant this fall.  The payoff next summer will be well worth the investment!

  2. Garden Plants that Feed Soil Naturally

    Colorful lupines are some of the prettiest garden flowers that add nitrogen to soil.

    Nitrogen is one of the most essential plant nutrients, and one of the best ways to boost nitrogen in your soil is to grow nitrogen “fixing” plants. This amazing group of plants naturally add nitrogen into the soil by taking nitrogen from the air and converting it into a usable form in the soil. And many are common garden plants that you may already grow, like peas, beans, bayberry, or clover.

    Why Grow Nitrogen Fixers?

    Beans and peas are vegetable garden standbys that fix nitrogen. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Legumes, like beans or peas, are the classic example. Experienced veggie growers know that legumes are the ideal crops to combine or alternate with nitrogen-guzzling gluttons such as tomatoes, corn, or melons. What the cantaloupes take away, the scarlet runner beans restore (at least partially).

    Of course, the legumes work their magic only if their remains remain in the veggie garden.  If you rip out their roots and discard their stems after harvesting your crop, you’ll lose the atmospheric nitrogen that they captured.  The trick is to leave the roots in the ground, and to compost or till in the top growth.  Your garden will reap a significant nitrogen dividend as a result.  Moreover, it’s an ecologically friendly dividend, released gradually as the organically bound nitrogen works its way slowly through the soil’s natural food web.

    How Plants Fix Nitrogen

    Rhizobium root nodules on bean roots. (Image by Dave Whitinger)

    Only a relative few plant species have developed the capacity to split atmospheric nitrogen molecules into individual atoms and to “fix” the freed nitrogen atoms into soilborne compounds that are available to plants. But, these plants don’t do it alone. Nitrogen-fixing plants partner with a narrow range of specially adapted microbes that do the actual splitting and synthesizing of nitrogen.

    When present in the soil, these microbes enter a host plant’s feeder roots, which triggers the formation of round nodules.  The nodules provide a cozy, nutrient-rich environment for the microbes as they set about converting atmospheric nitrogen into a soilborne form that’s available to plant roots.  It’s to this partnership (technically referred to as a symbiotic relationship) that we owe much of our soil fertility, and our food.  Not to mention our flowers.

    Long before biologists teased out the relationship between plants and microbes and nitrogen cycles, farmers already used nitrogen-fixing plants to boost the productivity of their fields.  Although they knew nothing about soil microbes and atmospheric nitrogen, they were well aware that certain plants replenished the soil and enhanced the performance of others crops.

    Astute gardeners still use this principle to bring the best out of their soil.  Got a garden niche that could use a nitrogenous pick-me-up?  Plant a nitrogen-fixer!

    Garden Plants that Fix Nitrogen

    Cover Crops

    Red clover is a great cover crop with colorful flowers that bees love.

    Many vegetable gardeners think big when it comes to nitrogen fixers. They maximize the dividend by using legumes as cover or rotation crops to be mowed and composted rather than harvested.  As a result, the hefty portion (as much as 80 percent) of fixed nitrogen that would have gone to your table will return to the soil instead.  Crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum), small-seeded fava beans (Vicia faba), and garden peas (Pisum sativum) are among the legumes that make first-rate seasonal cover crops.  Sow them in early spring or late summer, before or after most other crops are in the ground.  Till or compost them at least 4 weeks after the shoots emerge, and at least 3 weeks before sowing another crop onto any tilled areas.  For optimum nitrogen fixation, use seed that’s been inoculated with a compatible nitrogen-fixing bacterium from the genus Rhizobium (available from seed merchants and agricultural suppliers).  These microbes might not be present in your soil, especially if the cover crop is new to your garden.

    Lawn Fixers

    White clover feeds lawns and bees! (Image by Ivar Leidus)

    Lawns also benefit from nitrogen-fixing plants.  Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens) is an excellent case in point.  Time was when most lawn seed mixes contained a quotient of this low-growing, nitrogen-packing legume.  A superior alternative to the humus-depleting fertilizers that are used on all too many lawns, it provides hungry turf grasses with a steady, sustainable, organic source of nitrogen that won’t contaminate neighboring ecosystems with runoff and leaching.  An over-seeding of Trifolium repens in spring or late summer, followed by a light top-dressing of Fafard Premium Topsoil, may be just what your lawn needs if you’re looking to get it off chemical life support.  Dutch white clover’s symbiotic Rhizobium bacterium is present in many areas of the United States, but inoculants are available from lawn and garden suppliers if needed.

    Landscape Fixers

    False indigo is an attractive, nitrogen-fixing perennial. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Perennial, shrub, and tree plantings can also benefit handsomely from the inclusion of nitrogen-fixers, particularly if your soil is too lean to support prima donna plants.  Outstanding legumes for perennial borders include false indigo (Baptisia spp.), wild senna (Senna spp.), yellow lupine (Thermopsis spp.), lupine (Lupinus spp.), and leadplant (Amorpha spp.).  The roster of leguminous shrubs and trees is also lengthy, boasting such standouts as bush clover (Lespedeza spp.), yellowwood (Cladrastis kentuckea), Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioicus), pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum), and Amur maackia (Maackia amurensis).  In addition to adding beauty to the garden, these legumes will improve the performance of neighboring plants by adding nitrogen to the soil.  As with other legumes, inoculation of their seed or the soil with a compatible Rhizobium bacterium may be required for optimum nitrogen fixation.

    Bayberry is a tough shrub that naturally adds nitrogen to soils. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Equally meritorious are a number of non-leguminous ornamental shrubs and trees that host symbiotic bacteria from the genus Frankia.  These plants, which include bayberry (Morella pensylvanica), New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina), and alders (Alnus spp.), rank among the best plants for improving the soil and beautifying the garden. Many do not require an inoculant, partnering happily with one or more of the Frankia species that naturally occur in soils throughout most of the temperate and tropical latitudes.

  3. Swallowtail Butterfly Gardening

    Lilacs are one of the many plants on the menu for eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies.

    Gardeners tend to have a thing for swallowtail butterflies.  Likewise, swallowtails tend to have a thing for certain plants – and certain gardens. The more you incorporate their favorites into your garden, the more they will favor you with their flighty visits.

    Adult swallowtails of all species (including the half-dozen or so species native to eastern North America) share similar tastes in nectar.  A border brimming with coneflowers and sages and butterfly weeds and their relatives will have them all aflutter, as will a planting of shrubby favorites such as rhododendrons and buddleias.  Swallowtail caterpillars, on the other hand, are much fussier eaters, with each species following a specialized diet restricted to a narrow menu of plants.  As a result, swallowtails are particularly keen on gardens that include their favorite larval foods.

    Most swallowtail caterpillars confine their munching to species from one or two plant families.  Some swallowtail species thrive on both introduced and indigenous plants, whereas others require natives-only fare to thrive.  Know their preferred larval food sources, and you’ll know what to plant in your yard to transform it into a swallowtail haven.   You’ll also know which plants to examine for the large colorful caterpillars, which in their early stages resemble animated bird droppings.  Some leaf damage may also be noticeable, but it’s a modest price to pay to become the neighborhood’s most desirable swallowtail destination.

    Swallowtail Caterpillar Host Plants

    Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

    Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly feeding on pentas. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Many native and exotic trees and shrubs from the olive, rose, laurel, birch, and magnolia families host the large green caterpillars of tiger swallowtail, which sport two prominent eye-spots.  Before pupating, the caterpillars turn from green to brown. Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), lilacs (Syringa spp.), river birch (Betula nigra), and sassafras (Sassafras albidum) are among the outstanding ornamental plants on the menu, as are:

    Eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillar before pupation. (Image by Scott Robinson)

    Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana).  Native to eastern North America, this small, elegant, gray-barked tree has glossy-green, deciduous or evergreen leaves with silvery undersides.  Scatterings of cupped, sweet-scented white flowers sporadically appear from late spring through summer.

    Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus).  Clouds of fragrant, fleecy white flowers veil the spreading branches of this large shrub or small tree in late spring.  Conspicuous blue fruits ripen in late summer on some plants (particularly if a pollenizing companion fringetree is nearby).

    Eastern Black Swallowtail

    Female eastern black swallowtail lays her eggs on plants in the parsley family. (Image

    Showy, yellow-and-black-banded caterpillars feed almost exclusively on plants from the parsley family, including dill (Anethum graveolens), parsley (Petroselinum crispum), carrot (Daucus carota ssp. sativus), and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) .   Bronze-leaved forms of fennel  are especially effective

    An eastern black swallowtail feeding on fennel. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    ornamentals, their dark, filigreed leaves making a smoky contrast to bright-flowered annuals and perennials.  Also outstanding for foliage effect are the various species of Peucedanum such as giant milk parsley (Peucedanum verticillare).  This short-lived perennial forms large lush hummocks of deeply divided foliage, which give rise to towering, purple-stemmed sprays of lacy white flower clusters.  Most Peucedanum expire soon after flowering, but they usually self-sow (so be sure to leave some seed heads!).

    Spicebush Swallowtail

    Spicebush swallowtail larvae feed just on spicebush. (Image by Magnus Manske)

    A dark-hued butterfly that somewhat resembles black swallowtail, spicebush swallowtail is one of several reasons to grow the shrub after which it’s named.  So, too, are the boldly eye-spotted, green to orange-yellow larvae that browse spicebush’s fruity-scented foliage in summer.   One of the earliest-blooming native plants, spicebush (Lindera benzoin) decks its branches with tufts of acid-yellow flowers

    Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar (Image by Greg Schechter)

    in late winter and early spring, before the leaves emerge.   Bright red fruits and brilliant yellow fall foliage bring the growing season to a colorful close.  Spicebush swallowtail’s other favorite host is sassafras – the only eastern North American representative of the laurel family (Lauraceae) other than Lindera benzoin.

    Pipevine Swallowtail

    The pipevine swallowtail has showy blue lower wings.

    If outlandish black caterpillars with orange spikes and centipede-like “legs” appear on your Dutchman’s pipe vine (Aristolochia spp.), you have the honor of a visit from this singular swallowtail species.  With luck you’ll also witness the adults, whose blue, iridescent wings are among the showiest in the butterfly tribe.  The larvae thrive only on North American species of Aristolochia, dwindling away if raised on exotic Dutchman’s pipes such as Aristolochia elegans.  Two twining North American natives – Aristolochia macrophylla and A. tomentosa –make excellent climbers for locations where their

    A pipevine swallowtail caterpillar feeding on pipevine. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    wide-ranging roots have room to spread (both are hardy from USDA zones 5 to 9).  Their rapidly ascending stems with heart-shaped leaves emerge from the ground in spring and lengthen to 20 or 30 feet within a few weeks.  Curious, contorted, tubular flowers with flared tips appear in the leaf axils in early summer.  Most other North American Aristolochia species are lower growing perennials that spread underground to form large clumps.  Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria) functions nicely as a deciduous groundcover for informal garden areas in sun to light shade.

    Eastern Giant Swallowtail

    Citrus are the favorite host plant of eastern giant swallowtail.

    Native or exotic species from the citrus and rue family (Rutaceae) entice this enormous, black, yellow-banded butterfly, whose wingspan can reach 6 inches.  Gardens that are too cold for the likes of lemons (Citrus limon) and oranges (Citrus aurantiaca) can opt instead for one of the several cold-hardy Rutaceae species that host the blotchy, black and white larvae.  These include hop tree (Ptelea trifoliata), a medium to large shrub from central and eastern North America with handsome, three-parted leaves and small, fragrant, late-spring flowers.  Rounded, wafer-like fruits develop in late

    The eastern giant swallowtail caterpillar.

    summer.  Its cultivar ‘Aurea’ – with glossy, chartreuse-yellow leaves – is one of the most striking foliage plants for temperate gardens.   Swallowtail hosts for the perennial border include gas plant (Dictamnus albus), which bears showy spires of white or purple flowers in late spring on bushy, 3-foot-tall mounds of leathery, rich-green foliage.  Native to Eurasia, it lives to 50 years or more in gardens.  Warning: contact with plants in the rue family can trigger severe dermatitis in susceptible individuals, although such cases are rare.

    [Click here to get great butterfly garden designs!]

     

  4. Four Hardy Fruiting Vines for Edible Landscaping

    Concord grapes are an old-standard hardy grape.

    Hardy fruiting vines bring together two of the hottest trends in horticulture: edible landscaping and vertical gardening.  They are the perfect choice for grow-it-yourself gardeners with limited square footage and a tasty way to clothe a pergola or trellis or provide rapid aerial cover.

    Although many hardy fruiting vines will ramble for 30 feet or more if left untamed, with proper training they will fit (and fruit) quite nicely on a 10-by-10-foot trellis.  A few even make excellent subjects for large containers.  If you’re looking to add something vertical and edible to your garden, consider one of the following winter-hardy vines, all of which thrive in full sun and humus-rich soil.  They also benefit from a spring top-dressing of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost and Garden Manure Blend.

    Maypop

    Maypop fruits turn yellowish orange as they ripen.

    Native to the Southeast United States, this hardy passionflower brings a tropical look to the edible garden.  A suckering, herbaceous vine, it returns from the ground in spring and rapidly climbs to 20 feet or more via coiling, clasping tendrils.  Large, showy, lavender-blue flowers appear in summer. Each bloom is fringed with frilly, thread-like segments that surround a central array of large, club-shaped pistils and anthers.   Pale-green, egg-shaped fruits with gloppy, tart-flavored flesh ripen in late summer and early fall. They are best used to make tasty jam or jelly.

    Maypop needs a long growing season to fully ripen its fruits.  It thus requires a warm microclimate or other coddling to bring it to harvest in the northern fringes of its hardiness range (USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 10).  Where the growing season is impossibly short, grow it in a large container (as described below for Actinidia kolomikta).  Move the container from winter protection to a warm sunny frost-free location in April, and place it outside in full sun after the final frost date.

    Hardy Grapes

    A variety of red grape varieties are uncommonly hardy. (Image by Patrick Tregenza)

    Time was when tasty table grapes (Vitis spp.) were a near-impossibility in regions such as the Northeast and Midwest United States.  No longer.  Beyond old-fashioned ‘Concord’ grapes (USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9), numerous outstanding hardy varieties have entered horticulture in the past few decades, including ‘Swenson Red’, whose seeded fruits are large and sweet with hints of strawberry; and ‘Somerset Seedless’, which bears small, juicy, flavorful grapes that ripen orange-red in late summer.  Both are reliably hardy to USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8.

    For optimum production (and compact growth), allow your grape vine to develop only one or two main stems, pruning out any other shoots that develop from the base.  Remove all weak, congested, or out-of-bounds side-growth that develops from these main stems, leaving only a well-spaced framework of branches.  This maximizes the space, light, and energy available for flowers and fruits, which are borne on the previous year’s growth on short spurs known as “canes”.

    Hardy Kiwis

    The fruits of hardy kiwi are smooth, green, and delicious.

    Believe it or not, several close relatives of the familiar, but frost tender, supermarket kiwi (Actinidia deliciosa) produce delicious fruits of their own on twining vines that are hardy up to USDA Hardiness Zone 4.  The most widely cultivated of these is hardy kiwi (Actinidia arguta), a rambunctious climber that rapidly ascends to 30 feet or more.  The vines are dioecious, meaning vines may be male or female. Female vines produce eye-catching clusters of dime-sized, saucer-shaped white flowers open in spring, followed by inch-long fruits that resemble miniature, smooth-skinned tropical kiwis that are good for fresh eating.  A pollenizing male companion is required for fruit set, except in the case of self-fruitful cultivars such as ‘Issai’.  Hardy kiwi requires either ample room in which to romp, or frequent pruning to keep it in bounds.  Its architecture and pruning regimen is similar to that of grapes, with flowers and fruits occurring on the previous year’s growth.

    ‘Arctic Beauty’ is the most common variegated hardy kiwi vines. (Image by Russell Stafford)

    A better behaved but equally hardy cousin of hardy kiwi is variegated-leaf hardy kiwi (Actinidia kolomikta), which is usually represented in gardens by ornamental male cultivars such as ‘Arctic Beauty’, whose leaves are showily daubed with splashes of pink and silver variegation.  Female selections are drabber in leaf, but compensate by producing a late-summer crop of tasty, spherical, pale-orange fruits (provided a male pollenizer is nearby).  All Actinidia kolomikta cultivars can be grown in large containers, creating all sorts of portable garden possibilities.  A coarse potting mix such as Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix works best.  In USDA Hardiness Zones 5 and below, move containerized actinidias to a cold frame or other protected location for the winter.

    Actinidia polygama fruits have inner orange flesh. (Image by Russell Stafford)

    Showy, edible, pale-orange fruits and silver-variegated leaves (on male plants) are also among the horticulturally significant features of a third hardy kiwi vine, silver kiwi vine (Actinidia polygama).  It ranks somewhere between the above two species in vigor. The exterior of the fruit resembles that of standard kiwi, but the inner flesh is orange.

     

    Chocolate Vine

    Chocolate vine flowers are attractive, but the vines are aggressive. (Image by Jeff Delonge)

    Impossibly invasive (and widely banned) in milder sectors of its hardiness range (USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9), this vigorous , semi-evergreen vine is well worth growing in colder regions such as the American Northeast and Midwest.  Chocolate vine (Akebia quinata) will rapidly ascend to 20 feet or more if left unpruned, the twining stems with elegant, hand-shaped leaves are laced with clusters of small, delightfully fragrant, maroon-purple flowers in spring.  White-flowered cultivars (e.g., ‘Shiro Bana’) are also available.  Large, sausage-shaped fruits expand in summer, deepening to purple as they mature.  Fully ripened fruits split open to reveal the seedy, gelatinous flesh, which has a melon- or guava-like flavor when ripe.  Plant two or more cultivars for a good crop.

  5. The Best Reblooming Shrubs for Summer

    Panicle hydrangea blooms through much of the summer.

    Flowering shrubs do lots of good things in the garden, but their length of bloom often disappoints.  Exceptions do occur, with hybrid roses being the most obvious and ubiquitous example.  They’re not the only shrubs that bloom long and well, though.  Here are seven of the best of the rest.  Their individual flowers may not be as voluptuous as those of a hybrid tea rose, but in other respects – including habit, foliage, and disease-resistance – they more than hold their own.

     

    Littleleaf Lilac and Hybrids

    Littleleaf lilac has smaller blooms that rebloom in midsummer.

    Almost all lilacs are one-and-done bloomers.  Not so with littleleaf lilac ‘Superba’ (Syringa pubescens ssp. microphylla ‘Superba’).  Abundant clusters of sweet-scented, pale lilac-pink flowers open from reddish buds in mid-spring, a few days after those of common lilac.  Then, in midsummer, a miracle occurs, with a second flush of blooms developing on the current season’s growth.  Littleleaf lilac is also attractive out of bloom, forming a dense, rounded, 8-foot specimen clad in dainty, privet-like leaves.  Plant breeders have crossed ‘Superba’ with other lilacs to produce several repeat-blooming cultivars, including those in the Bloomerang® Series.   For maximum rebloom, plant ‘Superba’ and its offspring in full sun and fertile, loamy, near-neutral soil.  A spring top-dressing of Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost is all to the good.  These lilacs do best in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 8.

     

    Summer Snowflake Doublefile Viburnum

    Summer snowflake is a reblooming doublefile viburnum. (Image by Russell Stafford)

    Viburnums, like lilacs, typically flower for only a couple of weeks per year.  One of the few exceptions is the remarkable ‘Summer Snowflake’ (Viburnum plicatum ‘Summer Snowflake’), whose terraced branches are frosted with flat clusters of white flowers from mid-spring to early fall.  It also differs from other doublefile viburnums in its relatively compact, narrow habit (5 to 7 feet tall and wide).  Although lacking the wide-sweeping drama of full-sized doublefile cultivars, such as ‘Mariesii’ and ‘Shasta’, ‘Summer Snowflake’ literally makes a better fit for foundation plantings and other niches where space is limited.  The leaves take on smoky maroon tones in fall.  All doublefile viburnums perform best in sun to light shade and humus-rich soil, in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9.

     

    Weigela Sonic Bloom® Series

    Weigela Sonic Bloom® Pink offers bright color through summer. (Image by Proven Winners)

    Many weigelas throw a few flowers now and then in the months following their main late-spring display.  This has inspired plant breeders to develop new Weigela (Weigela hybrids) cultivars that rebloom not demurely, but with abandon.  Those in the Sonic Bloom® Series are reputed to produce several good flushes of showy, trumpet-shaped blooms not just in late spring, but throughout summer and early fall.  Sonic Bloom® weigelas flower in pink, purple, or white, depending on the variety.  These relatively recent introductions have yet to prove their mettle in many parts of the U.S. – but they’re well worth a try in a sunny spot in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.  At 4 to 5 feet high and wide, they won’t take much space while you’re putting them through their paces.

     

    Caucasian Daphne

    A parent of the variegated, briefly blooming Daphne × burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, Caucasian daphne (Daphne × transatlantica) is in most ways superior to its popular offspring.  Where it particularly outdistances ‘Carol’ is in its repeat, spring-to-fall display of tubular, white, sweet-scented blooms.  The dainty, oval, semi-evergreen leaves are also attractive and are strikingly variegated in forms such as ‘Summer Ice’.  Most varieties of this outstanding daphne top out at about 3 feet tall, with their branches splaying with age (or with heavy snow).  It does well in sun to light shade in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.

     

    Panicle Hydrangea

    The flowers of ‘Pinky Winky’ panicle hydrangea darken in color as they age. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Not many years ago, panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) was represented in gardens almost exclusively by the mop-headed cultivar ‘Grandiflora’ (more commonly known as peegee hydrangea).  Today, numerous outstanding varieties of this exceptionally hardy species (USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 9) have found their way into horticulture, including many with lacy, conical flower clusters rather than weighty mops.  Most Hydrangea paniculata cultivars bear white-flowered panicles from mid to late summer, but other flowering times and colors also occur.  Look for ‘Limelight’, with full flower-heads that age to chartreuse-green; ‘Pinky Winky’, an early- to late-summer bloomer that evolves from white to rose-pink; and the late-blooming (and magnificent) ‘Tardiva’, with large lacy spires of white flowers from late summer to frost.  These large shrubs can be cut back severely in early spring to keep them in bounds.  Dwarf varieties such as ‘Little Lamb’ require no size control.

     

    Butterfly Bush

    Sterile, seed-free butterfly bushes are just as pretty but don’t self sow.

    How can we not mention the ever-popular, somewhat cold-tender butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) and its many hybrids, which draw in butterflies over much of summer with their steeples of fragrant blooms in a variety of colors?  Recent developments in the butterfly bush universe include the introduction of several compact, sterile cultivars with especially prolonged bloom and no pesky seedlings.  These include ‘Ice Chip’, ‘Lavender Chip’, and ‘Purple Haze’.  Buddleia davidii and its hybrids do best in full sun in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9, and usually benefit from a hard early-spring pruning, even in areas where they don’t die back.

     

    Flowering Abelia

    Flowering abelia is a long bloomer that will flower up until frost.

    Popular in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S., flowering abelia (Abelia × grandiflora and kin) are small to medium shrubs that could be used much more in the northern fringes of their USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9 hardiness range.  Their dainty, fragrant bells – in various shades of pink or white – cluster on arching stems from midsummer into fall.  Small, oval leaves add to the delicate, fine-textured feel of these quietly attractive plants.  Most flowering abelias are evergreen to semi-evergreen into USDA Hardiness Zone 6.   In zones 5 and 6, flowering abelias often work well as winter die-back shrubs, resprouting in spring and flowering in late summer and fall.  In all hardiness zones they benefit from early-spring pruning of snarled or winter-killed stems.

  6. The Best Maples for Maple Sugaring

    The best time to tap sugar maples is in late winter.

    It’s sugaring season across much of southern Canada and the northern United States.  The sun is climbing higher, temperatures are moderating, and maple sap is starting to flow.

    You don’t need sugar maples to make good maple sugar, however.  Purists may blanch at the thought, but several other maple species have sweet-flavored sap that flows on mild winter days and that boils down into delicious maple syrup (and other byproducts).  For example, some of the best Vermont syrup is produced by farms that depend on red maple (Acer rubrum) for much of their sap.  This is a good thing, given that Acer saccharum is in decline throughout most of its eastern Canada to Southeast U.S. range.

    Sugar Maple

    Sugar maple

    As its very name proclaims, sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is the traditional source of this arboreal nectar.  It’s also a Currier and Ives icon of the Northland, holding sap buckets in late winter and producing five-pointed leaves in spring that turn fiery hues in fall.  Mature, scaly-barked sugar maples line the streets of many old New England towns, as much a fixture as the clapboard colonial houses.

    Red Maple

    Red maple

    Red maple has a lot going for it as a sap source – especially for do-it-yourselfers who want to grow and tap their own trees.  Its sap is only slightly less sweet than sugar maple’s, with about 50 gallons (rather than 40) required to produce a gallon of syrup.  Moreover, red maple thrives in a much wider range of conditions, and attains tappable size (10 inches diameter at breast height) more rapidly.  Plant a sugar maple in a fertile, humus rich soil in sun or light shade, and its trunk will broaden perhaps a third of an inch per year.  A red maple under the same conditions will likely grow at twice that rate.

    Red maple also more than holds its own as an ornamental plant, typically forming an oval-crowned, 40- to 50-foot tree with attractive smooth gray bark that becomes furrowed and scaly with age.  The three-lobed leaves flush red in spring, deepen to lustrous dark-green in summer, and turn brilliant shades of red and orange in early fall.  Conspicuous clusters of maroon-red flowers festoon the naked branches in late winter, providing pollen for early-emerging bees.

    Numerous red maple cultivars are available from nurseries and garden centers, differing in characteristics such as size, habit, seed production, fall color, and cold-hardiness – so it’s likely there’s one that’s a good fit for your yard.  In nature, it’s found over much of central and eastern North America.

    Silver Maple

    Silver maple (image by Famartin)

    Red maple’s close relative silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is its equal as a maple syrup source, yielding sap of similar sweetness.  Its massive mature size, invasive roots, and susceptibility to storm damage disqualify it as a yard tree, unless a yard is of park-like dimensions.  On the other hand, if silver maple is available for the tapping, its sap is well worth the effort.

    Box Elder

    Box elder

    The same goes for another rather weedy, weak-wooded maple, box elder (Acer negundo).  Its common name and poison-ivy-like leaves notwithstanding, it is indeed a maple, and it does indeed yield sap that boils down into delicious syrup.  Although the sap is only half as sweet as sugar maple’s, it’s produced at more than twice the rate, resulting in higher syrup yield per tree.  Additionally, box elders are ready for tapping at a much younger age (within 5 years or so of planting) and smaller size (6 inches in diameter).  Box elder is also hardier and tougher than sugar maple, as evidenced by its coast-to-coast geographic range.

    Box elder has minimal ornamental value.  Nonetheless, it has given rise to several spectacular variegated and gold-leaved cultivars, which are well worth planting.  Look for ‘Flamingo’, with white-streaked leaves that emerge shrimp-pink in spring.  If you’re considering growing ‘Flamingo’ for its sap as well as for its flamboyant foliage, keep in mind that it grows more slowly than the wild type.

    Bigleaf Maple

    Bigleaf maple

    The sugaring season continues sporadically from late fall to spring in the relatively mild climes of upland California and the Pacific Northwest.  Here, the native species to tap is bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum).  Its sap has slightly lower sugar content than that of sugar maple, and flows most freely after relatively chilly nights.

    Norway Maple

    Norway maple

    Just about any residential district in the U.S. is likely to host Norway maple (Acer platanoides).  Formerly widely planted for its rapid growth and tolerance of city conditions, this Eurasian native has become a noxious weed in many areas of the U.S., invading native woodlands with its seedlings.  It’s easily distinguished from sugar maple by its furrowed bark, plump egg-shaped terminal buds, and erect flower clusters, as well as by the thick milky sap that oozes from severed leaf stems. Its winter sap, on the other hand, runs clear, and boils down into surprisingly palatable syrup.

    Black Maple

    Black maple (image by Daderot)

    Of course, if you’re fortunate enough to have some healthy sugar maples to tap, Acer saccharum remains the maple sugar tree par excellence – with the possible exception of its near-twin, black maple (Acer nigrum).  Black maple differs from sugar maple in its yellower fall color; hairier leaf stems with droopy leaf blades; and more furrowed bark.  Its sap, though, is equally sweet and delectable.  In areas of the North-Central U.S. where it outnumbers sugar maple, black maple reigns as the most important sugaring tree.

    Processing Maple Sap

    Fresh maple syrup

    You need a number of maples to tap for syrup. Each mature tree can produce between 10 to 20 gallons of sap per tree. It takes 40 gallons of sap to boil down to one gallon of syrup, so you need at least three trees to produce one gallon of maple syrup. Maple sugar houses require large sugaring pans to produce syrup. To learn more about how to process sap into maple syrup, read this article from Penn State Extension about Maple Syrup Production for the Beginner.

    The best time to plant your own maple is in spring or early fall.  Make sure the planting hole is the same depth as the root ball (or shallower in heavy clay soil), and at least three times as wide.  Backfill with unamended soil, and mulch the area around the newly planted tree with an inch of Fafard Natural Premium & Organic Compost, topped with 2 to 3 inches of bark mulch.  Water thoroughly, repeating when necessary (one or two times a week).

  7. Non-Invasive, Native Evergreen Groundcovers

    Many native evergreen groundcovers, such as moss phlox (white flowers), are non-invasive natives. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    It’s time for American gardeners to move beyond Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis), English ivy (Hedera helix), and periwinkle (Vinca minor).  It’s true that these ubiquitous landscape plants make excellent evergreen groundcovers, rapidly forming dense swaths of handsome foliage.  But, in addition to being tiresomely common in American gardens, they’re a nuisance outside of cultivation, invading natural areas and out-muscling native plants with their aggressive growth. (English ivy and periwinkle appear on invasive plant lists over much of the southeastern and far-western U.S.).

    Many U.S natives possess the same virtues as the ubiquitous three, with none of the liabilities.  Here are several lovely native, evergreen options to replace tiresome invasive spreaders.

    Allegheny Spurge

    Bottlebrush spikes of white flowers appear just before new spring leaves unfurl. (Photo by Zen Sutherland)

    Japanese spurge’s more alluring, better-behaved relative from Appalachia is Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens).  Its broad, coarsely toothed leaves are similar in shape to those of its Japanese cousin, but they do much more in the way of color.  Fresh grassy-green when emerging in early spring, the foliage becomes gray-suffused and darker over the growing season, developing silvery flecking as fall approaches. Low, bottlebrush spikes of white flowers put on a charming display just before the new leaves expand.  This clump-former thrives in rich, well-drained soil and partial shade, gradually spreading into dense 2- to 3-foot-wide hummocks.  It’s hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9, and reliably evergreen in USDA Zones 6b and warmer.

    Fetterbush

    Fetterbush (Leucothoe axillaris spp.) is a handsome evergreen groundcover for partial shade.

    Another Southeast U.S. native that makes a handsome evergreen groundcover for partial shade, fetterbush (Leucothoe axillaris spp.) bears glossy, oval, dark green leaves on arching, 2- to 4-foot-tall stems that sucker into thickets.  For a traditional ground-hugging groundcover, choose the compact Leucothoe fontanesiana Scarletta, which forms billowing 2-foot-tall mounds with bright red new leaves, clusters of ivory flowers in spring, and maroon-red winter color.  Or you can go full fetterbush and use a regular-sized Leucothoe axillaris as a tall groundcover.  All forms produce white, bell-shaped flowers in spring.  Fetterbush does well in moist humus-rich soil in USDA Zones 5 to 9, but is prone to leaf spot in poorly aerated sites.

    Canby’s Mountain Lover

    Canby’s mountain lover (Paxistima canbyi) becomes a bold, textural evergreen groundcover. (Image by Daniel)

    No evergreen groundcover for partial shade is finer – literally and figuratively – than Canby’s mountain lover (Paxistima canbyi).  In the wild, it’s a rare, often gaunt inhabitant of rocky uplands from southern Pennsylvania to North Carolina.  In favorable garden sites, however, it’s anything but shy and scraggly, spreading into low, thick, 3- to 5-foot-wide thatches of narrow, petite, deep green leaves.  They provide a splendid textural contrast with bold-leaved evergreens such as rhododendrons and Pieris.  Well-drained, humus-rich soil and partial to full sun seem to bring out the best in this beautiful Appalachian native, which is hardy from USDA Zones 4 to 8. Bronzing sometimes occurs in harsh winters.

    Creeping Phlox

    Creeping phlox ‘Sherwood Purple’ becomes blanketed in spring flowers. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Quite a few native species offer eye-catching flowers in addition to ground-covering evergreen foliage.  Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) earns its name via its ever-expanding carpets of spoon-shaped leaves that give rise in mid-spring to 8-inch spikes of proportionately large, showy flowers.  Several cultivars are available, varying in their flower color and vigor.  Perhaps the best colonizer (and the best as a groundcover) is ‘Sherwood Purple’, with violet-blue blooms.  Although creeping phlox is happiest in partial shade and woodsy soil, it will also flourish in rich moist soil in full sun.

    Moss Phlox

    Moss phlox creates a mat of fine green foliage that becomes covered with flowers in spring. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Full-on sun is the preferred habitat of moss phlox (Phlox subulata).  Sometimes scorned because of its association with median strips, whiskey barrels, and other lowbrow landscape features, it’s near the top of the list of tough, attractive groundcovers for hot sandy slopes and other difficult sites.  The dense, ever-spreading, needle-like foliage is handsome and weed-suppressing, and the early spring flowers come in many colors besides the bubble-gum-purple shades disdained by plant snobs.  Additionally, this Midwestern to eastern U.S. native is rock-hardy and adaptable, flourishing in well-drained soil in USDA Zones 3 to 9.

    Other Native Evergreen Groundcovers

    Christmas fern brightens shady gardens in summer and winter. (Image by Wasp32)

    Blooming at the same time as creeping phlox (and making a knockout companion for blue-flowered cultivars such as ‘Sherwood Purple’), gold-star (Chrysogonum virginianum) mats the ground with fuzzy, toothed leaves that recall those of other members of the aster family such as Rudbeckia.  The fully evergreen Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is another woodland groundcover for shade. Golden-yellow, five-parted star-flowers with fringed rays open in May and repeat sporadically until fall if conditions are not too hot and dry.  Gold-star shares much the same cultural preferences and hardiness range (USDA Zones 4 to 9) as creeping phlox.

    Toughness and adaptability are among the virtues of another often-scorned eastern and central U.S. native, robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus).  Two selections of this fuzzy-leaved meadow-dweller are excellent choices for challenging niches such as dry shade or sunny slopes.  The cultivar ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’ has beefy rosettes of large, flat, tongue-shaped leaves that smother everything in their vigorously expanding path.  In contrast, ‘Meadow Muffin’ produces congested, relatively slowly proliferating rosettes of smaller, crinkled leaves.  Both cultivars send up pale lavender daisy-flowers on 10- to 15-inch stems in mid to late spring.  Plants are evergreen through much of their USDA Zone 5 to 9 hardiness range, but may go leafless in relatively harsh winters.

    Hardy evergreen sedums, such as Oregon stonecrop (Sedum oreganum), create fully evergreen cover for raised sunny beds or rock gardens. This species creates a spreading 2 to 3-inch mat of bead-like foliage that turns from green to reddish bronze in winter. Small, starry, yellow flowers grace the plants in summer.

    Most newly planted groundcovers appreciate the addition of soil amendment, such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend, at planting time. This organic-rich mix encourages root growth and holds needed moisture to help plants thrive. Water new plantings every few days for at least two weeks. In no time, your native groundcovers should be rambling effortlessly through your garden.

    Dozens of other native species work wonderfully as evergreen groundcovers, but those offered in this article are reliable and attractive through all seasons.

    Leucothoe Scarletta is a low-growing shrub evergreen that makes a great groundcover for shade. (Image by Russell Stafford)

  8. Growing Tropical Fruits Indoors

    Dwarf calamondins are super tropical fruits for indoor growing.

    Growing tropical fruits in Toledo (or Toronto or Trenton) may seem like the stuff of fantasy. It’s perfectly doable, though, thanks to the numerous dwarf tropical fruit trees that take well to containers and flower and fruit at a young age. A warm sunny outdoor location in summer, an equally sunny indoor niche in winter, a suitable watering and fertilizing regime, and a well-drained growing medium (such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix) will keep them happy and fruitful.

    Indoor Citrus

    The genus Citrus is particularly well endowed with container-friendly plants. Kumquats (Citrus japonica, aka Fortunella) are a stellar example. Visit your local supermarket during the winter holiday season, and you’re likely to find the orange-yellow, tart, bite-sized fruits of the popular kumquat variety ‘Nagami’. A number of other, lesser-known kumquats are well worth eating (and growing). The cultivar ‘Meiwa’ bears round, orange, 1¼ -inch fruits that are comparatively sweet and seed-free. Large, thin-skinned, orange kumquats deck the branches of another relatively sweet-flavored variety, ‘Fukushu’. In contrast, ‘Hong Kong’ produces numerous showy, scarlet, ¾-inch fruits with large seeds and scanty pulp. They’re great for ornament but not as good for eating.

    Kumquat ‘Nagami’

    Ripening in early winter, kumquat fruits typically remain on the branches until spring, providing decoration and snack possibilities well beyond the holidays. Small, starry white flowers perfume the air in late spring and early summer, and the lustrous, verdant, evergreen leaves are handsome year-round.

    Calamondin (Citrus mitis) is what happened when a kumquat hybridized with a mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata). The result is a compact, repeat-blooming evergreen shrub that carries fragrant white flowers and small, chubby, tasty “oranges” throughout much of the year, with production peaking in winter. The fruits can be eaten fresh and make excellent preserves. Splashy cream-yellow markings adorn the leaves and immature fruit of the calamondin ‘Variegata’.

    Meyer lemon (Citrus limon ‘Meyer’) is yet another citrus with admirable qualities. A small evergreen tree that can be easily maintained at 3 feet tall in a container, it produces several flushes of flowers and fruits throughout the year, peaking in winter and early spring. The 2- to 3-inch lemons have thin, golden-yellow rinds and relatively sweet, juicy, flavorful flesh that goes well in salads, stews, and preserves.  They also make a zingy snack.

    Among the other edible citrus for containers are Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia), myrtle leaf orange (Citrus myrtifolia), and Rangpur lime (Citrus limon ‘Otaheite’). The takeaway (particularly if you have lots of container-gardening space) is that you don’t have to live in the tropics to enjoy a year-long harvest of lemons, oranges, and kumquats.

    Growing Citrus

    Citrus prefer ample sunlight, medium to high humidity, 40° to 60° F minimum temperatures, and moderate watering and feeding from spring to fall (with lower amounts in winter).

    Prune off unwanted growth immediately after the fruiting season, in early spring.  Common indoor pests can be a problem. Watch for mealybugs, scale, whiteflies, and other common Citrus pests, particularly on stressed or over-fertilized plants. Cleaning plants up with a insecticidal soap before bringing them back indoors in fall can help ward off these pests.

    Indoor Guava

    Pineapple guava flowers (Image by C T Johansson)

    Guavas are another group of tropical New World evergreens renowned for their aromatic flowers and fruits, and several can be grown beautifully indoors.

    Native to uplands of central South America, pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana, aka Acca sellowiana) works wonderfully as a container plant. Lustrous, leathery, silver-backed leaves clothe the upright, gray-barked stems of this handsome small tree. Sweet-scented, pale purple flowers with starbursts of maroon stamens open in late spring and early summer, followed by waxy, blue-green, egg-shaped fruits that cast an intoxicating fragrance as they mature in fall. Their pineapple-flavored fruits (with undertones of mint and apple) are at their best for only a few days after they fully ripen.

    Pineapple guava plants require cool winter conditions (40° to 50° F minimum) and at least one cross-pollenizing companion plant for maximum flowering and fruiting. As with all the guavas described here, they appreciate a monthly application of organic fertilizer in spring and summer. Plants can be kept at 4 to 6 feet by removing overgrown stems in late summer.

    Dwarf guava (Image by Logee’s)

    Common guava (Psidium guajava) also takes readily to container culture, fruiting reliably and repeatedly in warm, humid, sunny conditions (60 degrees Fahrenheit minimum). For home growing, choose the true dwarf guava (Psidium guajava var. nana). The fragrant white flowers with bottlebrush stamens recur throughout the year, giving way to pale green-skinned fruits that have delicious, musky-scented, deep pink flesh when ripe.

    A vicious weed in many tropical regions outside its native Brazil, strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum) is an exemplary container plant for colder latitudes, provided it’s spared from temperatures below 50° F. Small, spherical, red-skinned fruits with tangy, pale flesh appear in late summer and continue through winter in favorable locations. The fruits are preceded by fuzzy, white, sweet-scented flowers.  The variety lucidum (commonly known as lemon guava) has yellow-skinned, relatively tart flavored fruits. A small tree in the wild, Psidium cattleianum grows much more compactly in containers, typically topping out at 4 or 5 feet.

    Other Indoor Tropical Fruits

    Avocado ‘Day’ (Image by Logee’s)

    There’s a lot to explore in container-friendly tropical fruit trees beyond citrus and guavas, including loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), dwarf mango ( Mangifera ‘Pickering’), star fruit (Averrhoa carambola), and the ‘Tainung’ papaya (Carica papaya ‘Tainung’ ), which will begin fruiting on 2-foot plants. Many dwarf common-fig cultivars (Ficus carica), such as the super tiny ‘Petite Negra’ that starts fruiting on 12-inch plants, also grow well in a warm winter sun room or conservatory. There are even mangoes, such as the golden mango ‘Nam Doc Mai’, that will grow well in large indoor pots.

    Another favorite that’s easy to grow is the dwarf banana ‘Extra Dwarf Cavendesh’ (Musa ‘Extra Dwarf Cavendesh’). Once they reach 3-feet high, they will produce small trusses of delicious bananas year round, if given high light, regular water, and warmth.

    Banana ‘Extra Dwarf Cavendesh’

    Then there are avocados (Persea americana). Many home growers will opt to start their own trees from pits, but this will result in large trees unfit for indoor growing. Instead, choose a dwarf tree such as the avocado ‘Day’. This compact selection and will produce small avocados from July to September. Bring them indoors in a brightly lit location through winter.

    These fruits are best purchased as plants, but most are not readily available at your neighborhood nursery. To find them search for a specialty online plant source, such as Logee’s Plants for Home and Garden. Good online nurseries such as this offer a wide selection of compact tropical plants ideal for indoor container culture.

    Potting Indoor Tropical Fruits

    Most of these small trees sold in 4- to 6-inch pots, so plants are small at purchase time. Plant them in a slightly larger pot using Fafard Professional Potting Mix, and provide them with good light. Pots should have drainage holes and bottom saucers. Try to maintain even moisture and high humidity, and feed them with a tropical fruit tree fertilizer, as directed.

    When the plants begin to outgrow their pots, upgrade them as needed for ample root growth. Those that are fruiting size, usually 4 to 5 feet, require relatively large pots.

    Pot your tropical fruits now, and in a year or two, you will be harvesting your own home-grown tastes of the tropics.

    Even mangoes come in dwarf forms!

     

  9. Best Bold House Plants: Aroids

    Monstera is a bold tropical aroid that will shine indoors in low light.

    The aroid family (Araceae) contains some of the most beautiful and outlandish plant species in the plant kingdom.  Many make the best bold house plants for all-season color.  When things turn chill and gloomy outside, a bold-leaved, evergreen aroid is a very nice thing to have inside. They clean the air and bring tropical beauty to homes.

    Growing Aroids

    The titan arum is the boldest aroid, but it is best suited to public greenhouses. (Magnus Manske)

    Aroids may be large or small. Few houses (or greenhouses) can accommodate something on the scale of the outrageously gargantuan (and foul-scented) titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), which has flowers that can reach 8 feet high! But, many other Araceae are good fits for warm, humid, indoor locations out of direct sunlight.  Give them freely draining, humus-rich potting soil (such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix), regular watering, a monthly feeding, and periodic misting, and their evergreen foliage will give you a taste of the tropics even in the dead of winter.  A few of them do double ornamental duty by producing colorful, showy jack-in-the-pulpit-like blossoms for much of the year.

    Its these flowers that define aroids. Each aroid blossom actually comprises numerous tiny flowers that cluster on a club-like “spadix”, nestled within a curved, leaf-like “spathe”. The spathe is often white but may also be green, yellow, or various shades of red or pink.

    Bold Leaves

    Alocasias are stunning foliage plants perfect for home growing.

    The swollen, starchy tubers of elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta) have long played a central role in tropical-region cuisines.  Here in the frozen north, we grow colocasias for their broad, long-stalked, heart-shaped leaves, which come in a staggering variety of colors including chartreuse, silver, maroon, purple, and all shades of green.  Some species and cultivars carry splashy contrasting colors on their stalks or leaf blades, further boosting their visual amperage.

    Elephant ears also vary greatly in stature, ranging from petite (1 foot tall, in the case of Colocasia affinis) to truly elephantine (as in the 7-foot-tall ‘Jack’s Giant’).  Average size is around 3 or 4 feet, with 18- to 24-inch-long leaf blades.  Tubers of the more common elephant ear varieties turn up in bulb catalogs and garden center bins in spring for summer gardening. (Learn how to grow outdoor elephant ears here.)  Rarer colocasias are offered year-round by a number of specialty nurseries and greenhouses.

    Two other genera – Alocasia and Xanthosma – share much in common with Colocasia, including its common name.  Alocasian elephant ears typically have long, pointed, arrowhead lobes, and are often etched with a mosaic of bold white veins.  Species include the jewel-like Alocasia cuprea with its glossy, textured leaves and A. x amazonica, which has dark arrowhead-like leaves with pale venation. Popular varieties include the chartreuse ‘Golden Delicious’, black-purple ‘Mark Campbell’, miniature ‘Tiny Dancers’, and statuesque 6-foot-tall ‘Portodora’.

    Xanthosma species and cultivars do much the same thing as alocasias, and are sometimes confused with them (for example,  Alocasia ‘Golden Delicious’ is also known as Xanthosma ‘Lime Zinger’).  Some xanthosmas, though – such as the imposing, purple-stemmed X. violacea –are a thing unto themselves.  Almost all need warm winter conditions (minimum 65 degrees F) to thrive.

    Beautiful Leaves and Flowers

    Peace lilies have subdued white flowers and glossy green leaves.

    Peace lily (Spathiphyllum spp.) perform beautifully indoors in low-light conditions.  Plant snobs may sniff at these commoners, but it’s hard to find fault with their ease of care, verdant lance-shaped leaves, and white spring-to-fall blossoms.  Furthermore, peace lilies come in quite a few relatively uncommon forms, including boldly variegated ‘Domino’, dwarf ‘Viscount’, and the giant 5-foot-tall ‘Sensation’.  Most spathiphyllums grow to about 2 feet, with a greater spread if their rhizomes are allowed to roam.  Less water-demanding than elephant ears, they sulk in overly damp soil.

    The brilliant blooms of flamingo flower will brighten any winter home.

    Flamingo flower (Anthurium spp.) comprises a diverse genus of clumpers and climbers that possess many charms beyond the fiery red blooms of the common flamingo flower (Anthurium scherzerianum).  A. crystallinum and A. claverinum, for example, are prized for their handsome, white-veined leaves, rather than for their unexceptional floral display.  Even those grown for their showy blossoms sometimes depart from the stereotypical flamboyance of common flamingo flower.  For example, the spathes of  A. andreanum ‘Album’ are large and white with a long, pale yellow spadix, while those of ‘Black Love’ are dark maroon.  Almost all anthuriums appreciate an extra-coarse potting mix, amended with composted bark. Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil has added bark, making it a great mix choice for these plants.

    Calla Lilies

    Calla lilies are great indoor bloomers.

    Calla lily (Zantedeschia spp.) are the best bloomers in the aroid tribe. Among the many alluring species and hybrids of this South African genus, only one – Zantedeschia aethiopica – takes easily to household culture.  Its large, evergreen, arrow-shaped leaves grow from thick rhizomes that prosper in a moist, fertile, well-drained growing medium.

    In contrast to most other aroidal houseplants, Z. aethiopica prefers partial to full sun and cool winter conditions (a large east-facing windowsill is perfect).  Where happy, it produces iconic, cupped, ivory-white spathes on 2- to 4-foot stalks in spring or early summer.  Cultivars include ‘Green Goddess’, with green-stained spathes; dwarf ‘Childsiana’; and the aptly named ‘White Giant’.  Zantedeschia aethiopica cultivars are available from bulb sellers as bareroot rhizomes in spring, and from specialty growers as containerized plants year-round.

    More Aroid House Plants

    Philodendron of all kinds grow in the toughest indoor conditions.

    Quite a few other evergreen aroids make familiar, handsome house plants, including long-time favorites such as Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema spp.), Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa), and the many species and varieties of Philodendron.

    Many a home has been beautified by the tough and trailing heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron scandens), which looks best grown from a hanging basket or trained along a north-facing window. These hard-to-kill house plants are easily found in almost any greenhouse specializing in house plants.

    Make your winter home a tropical jungle with one or more of these outstanding aroid house plants for year-round indoor color. In late spring, bring them outdoors to light up a sheltered patio and to encourage summer growth.

  10. Spring Bulb Design: Beautiful Pairings

    Tulips, daffodils and smaller bulbs pair well as long as their heights and bloom times are complementary. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Spring-blooming bulbs are one of gardening’s cheapest and easiest thrills.  Not only do they provide loads of flowers at a minimum of cost, they also make splendid partners for other spring-blooming perennials and bulbs.  Here are some beautiful partnerships to consider as you plan (and plant) for spring.

    The Earliest Spring Bulbs

    Snowdrops and winter aconite make great early spring partners in the garden. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Snowdrops (Galanthus spp.) and winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) are clump-forming woodlanders that burst into bloom during the first mild days of the year, often before the last patches of snow have melted.  The strappy leaves and white, green-blotched flowers of snowdrops grow from small, daffodil-like bulbs that repel rodents.  The nobbly underground tubers of winter aconites are also pest-resistant, while their sunny-yellow buttercup blooms attract bees.  Purchased Eranthis tubers are often hopelessly desiccated, so it pays to shop around for a reliable source.  A more sure-fire way of establishing winter aconites is to scatter freshly collected seed in early summer.

    February Gold daffodils are surrounded by small blue Siberian squill and glory-od-the-snow. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa spp.), and early daffodils (Narcissus spp.).  Lavish drifts of small blue flowers carpet the ground under spreading branches laden with purple-pink, waterlily blooms.  Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?  Although individually small, Siberian squill and glory of the snow self-sow into large, carefree colonies that flower in tandem with Magnolia × soulangiana and early daffodils such as ‘February Gold’, forming a classic early-spring garden scene.  These little bulbs also partner splendidly with the white flowers of star magnolia (Magnolia kobus var. stellata) and the yellow blooms of early daffodils (including ‘Little Gem’).  They’re at their best in full to partial sun and humus-rich soil.

    Tommy crocus naturalize to create blankets of color that complements early blooming shrubs.

    Tommy crocuses (Crocus tommasinianus), Arnold Promise witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’), and hellebores (Helleborus spp.).  Most crocuses are squirrel fodder.  One notable exception is the Tommy crocus, which not only persists in the garden, but naturally spreads via self-sowing.  It’s also one of the earliest crocuses, opening its silver-blue flowers in late winter, at the same time that the spidery yellow petals of Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ unfurl.  These early-blooming crocus flourish in light shade and humus-rich soil, and glow most brightly when backlit by sun.  ‘Arnold’ grows to 10 to 15 feet tall and wide, so give it room!

    Early to Late Spring Bulbs

    Narcissus ‘Stratosphere’ looks great planted alongside Camassia and grape hyacinth. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Grape hyacinths (Muscari spp.), daffodils (Narcissus spp.), and camass (Camassia spp.).  The chubby, sky-blue, steepled flowers of grape hyacinths are the perfect foil for the cheerful, dancing blooms of daffodils.  This pest-free, sun-loving combo hits its stride in April with the midseason daffodils (such as ‘Minnow’ and ‘Fortissimo’), and continues into May as the Jonquilla hybrids and other late daffs make their entrance.  To keep the blue-and-yellow theme going through mid-May, add some camassias (such as Camassia cusickii or Camassia leichtlinii).

    Tulips and daffodils are one of the best bulb combinations if you choose varieties that bloom together.

    Tulips (Tulipa spp.) and daffodils (Narcissus spp.) are perfect for pairing, as long as the cultivars chosen bloom at the same time (good bulb catalogs will indicate bloom times).  Tulips are anything but pest-free, attracting bulb-eating rodents and bud-munching deer.  One of the best ways of limiting the carnage is to densely interplant them with daffodils, which most pests actively dislike.  Of course, the primary reason for combining the two is that they make such beautiful music together.  Starting in very early spring with the early daffodils and “species tulips”, and continuing until the late double-flowered tulips and Jonquilla hybrids bow out in May, they offer any number of enchanting combinations for sunny sites.

    Spring Bulb Containers

    Pansies are a great compliment to tulip containers. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Another way to protect and combine tulips is to grow them in pots, which can be mixed and matched with containers of other spring-bloomers, such as pansies and small daffodils.  Plant the bulbs an inch or two below the surface in Fafard Ultra Outdoor Potting Mix in late fall or early winter.  When sub-30 temperatures arrive, move the pots to a protected location (such as an attached garage) where temperatures stay mostly between 30 and 50 degrees.  Water lightly whenever the soil appears dry.  For added protection from rodents, place the pots in a critter-proof crate or cover them with hardware cloth (or something equally chew-proof).  Move them to an unprotected location in late winter when low temperatures are no longer dipping into the low 20s.  Once they’ve re-adapted to the outdoors, combine them with other spring-bloomers in a larger container for a custom-designed display.

    Bulb Care and Planting

    Extra-deep planting sometimes works as a tulip-protection strategy.  Rather than the usual 4- or 5-inches deep, plant the bulbs with their tops 8 or more inches below the surface.  Better yet, dig a 10-inch-deep trench, place the bulbs, bury them under a couple inches of soil, and install a barrier of hardware cloth before backfilling.  Mulch the area with leaves or pine needles to mask the freshly disturbed soil from inquisitive squirrels.  It’s a lot of work, but if it allows you to grow and combine tulips such as ‘Queen of the Night’ and ‘Blue Heron’ with impunity, it may be worth it.

    A bit of dreaming and bulb-planting in fall can result in glorious garden displays for many springs to come!

    Tulipa tarda and Muscari latifolium bloom together in beautiful harmony. (Image by Jessie Keith)