Tag Archive: Spring

  1. Border Veggies: Edible Ornamental Bulbs

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    Chives are pretty in the garden and on the plate. Their flowers are edible, too! (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Edible ornamental bulbs (or is it ornamental edible plants?) are wonderful garden playthings. As welcome in a recipe as in a mixed border, they appeal both to our love of beauty and to our utilitarian, subsistence-gardening roots.

    No plants go more to the root of edible gardening than the ones we know as flower bulbs (although most are not roots or bulbs in the strict botanical sense). From the moment humans discovered that many plants grow from nutrient-rich underground storage organs, we’ve been scratching the dirt harvesting and cultivating that subterranean bounty. At the same time, we’ve been captivated and seduced by the colorful things that many bulbs do above-ground. They’re a feast for the eyes and the palate.

    Allium obliquum

    Siberian native Allium obliquum has edible bulbs and yellow, early-summer flowers.

    Several other alliums make handsomer garden subjects. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) has long been treasured for its attractive clumps of hollow, quill-like leaves and its late spring to early summer globes of purple to white flowers. The somewhat similar (but much later-blooming) Allium chinense is a favorite potherb in its native East Asia, where it’s garnered a host of common names, including rakkyo and Jiao Tou. Also from East Asia, Allium tuberosum (commonly known as garlic chives) bears larger, looser heads of white flowers on 18-inch stems in late summer. The leaves and flowers make tasty and eye-catching embellishments for salads and other summery repasts. Whether eaten or not, garlic chive flowers should be deadheaded to prevent the prolific self-sowing for which the species is notorious. All the above thrive in sun and fertile, friable soil (amend heavy or sandy soil with Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend).

    Crous sativus 'Cashmerianus'

    Greek native Crocus cartwrightianus bears exceptional saffron.

    Shadier niches provide ideal habitat for two woodland onions traditionally harvested for their broad, piquant, short-lived leaves. The greens and bulbs of bear’s garlic (Allium ursinum) have played a part in European and North Asian diets for many centuries, and still find their way onto menus (especially in chic restaurants). In eastern North America, the tasty, trendy woodland onion is Allum tricoccum, subject of traditional “ramps” celebrations over much of its native range. Over-collecting has rendered it relatively scarce in the wild, but ramps (as well as bear’s garlic) is usually prolific in the garden, spreading vigorously into large leafy clumps. An ideal way to slow it down in cultivation is to sacrifice a few leaves to a springtime omelet, stir-fry, soup, or other morsel. Its flowers are also edible; they appear on 15-inch scapes in early summer, after the foliage has withered. Bear’s garlic produces similar (but slightly showier) flowers in spring, while still in leaf.

    Natural and OrganicSpringtime greens of a different sort are the stuff of Ornithogalum pyrenaicum. This high-rise star-of-Bethlehem is famous (at least in the neighborhood of Bath, England) for its succulent immature flower stalks that resemble asparagus spears. Formerly gathered from the wild and sold in markets in its namesake town, Bath asparagus is enjoying something of a culinary revival as a cultivated plant in Southwest England and elsewhere. Unharvested stalks mature into 30-inch spires of starry white flowers, which themselves are well worth a place in mixed borders and cottage gardens. Native to Southern Europe, Bath asparagus was likely introduced to England by Roman occupiers (who apparently also had good taste in ornithogalums).

    Southern Europe is also the home of what is almost certainly the most valuable edible bulb: saffron. Several thousand Crocus sativus flowers are required to produce one hand-harvested ounce of this precious seasoning, which is literally worth its weight in gold. Most of the world’s saffron crop comes from Iran, but it’s been cultivated for centuries in many other areas including Pennsylvania’s Amish country. It is not known in the wild.

    Bath asparagus in full bloom. (Photo by Garrytowns)

    Bath asparagus in full bloom. (Photo by Garrytowns)

    Crocus sativus has three sets of chromosomes and is unable to produce seed, suggesting that it probably originated as a hybrid or mutation of another crocus species (Greek native Crocus cartwrightianus is the leading candidate). Several other close relatives (including C. pallasii and C. oreocreticus) of saffron crocus also occur in Southeast Europe, all of them carrying the characteristic fragrant, orange-red stigmas at the centers of their purple to lavender, mid-autumn blooms. Crocus sativus and its relatives prosper in full sun and rich fertile soil in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 to 9. They’re perfect for planting near an entryway, where their tasty stigmas can be readily harvested for that next loaf of saffron bread.

    Edible bulbs offer possibilities for all sorts and sizes of ornamental plantings, from a container of herbs to a permaculture landscape. Dig in!

  2. Native Spring Wildflowers for the Garden

    Hepatica acutiloba

    The vibrant blooms of Hepatica acutiloba peer up from the forest floor.

    Eastern U.S. gardeners in search of spring color can find plenty of inspiration and possibilities right here at home. Many of the wildflowers that brighten our fields and forests in spring also make wonderful and easy garden plants (and quite a few of them are available from reputable plant and seed merchants).

    Among the earliest and most exquisite wildflowers are the hepaticas, two of which occur in woodlands throughout eastern and central North America. Both round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica americana) and sharp-leaved hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) grow into dainty clumps of leathery, semi-evergreen, three-lobed leaves that are often strikingly marbled with contrasting hues. The blue (or sometimes pink or white), starry flowers face up from erect, somewhat furry stems in earliest spring. Hepaticas are lovely Natural and Organicin a partly shaded garden niche protected from the encroachment of larger, more rampant plants. If they’re in a place where passersby can easily admire their early-season display, so much the better. Some botanists place all hepaticas in the genus Anemone, but horticulturists and gardeners will no doubt continue to use the traditional name.

    The delicate white flowers and broad, lobed, bluish green leaves of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) arise soon after the hepaticas come into bloom, with the flowers usually shattering seemingly hours after opening. The spellbinding double blooms of the cultivar ‘Multiplex’, however, keep their exotic beauty for a week or more, looking for all the world like ruffled waterlilies. This is one of those plants that once seen, must be possessed. Native to moist woodlands over much of North America, bloodroot does best in humus-rich soil and partial shade. For this, and many other spring wildflowers, we suggest amending wooded beds with Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost.

    Phlox stolonifera 'Home Fires'

    The pinkish rose Phlox stolonifera ‘Home Fires’.

    For mid-spring display, almost any garden planting could benefit from a few native Phlox. Wild sweet William, Phlox divaricata, is among the most essential. Its sprays of five-petaled, lilac-blue (but occasionally white, purple, or pink) flowers on foot-tall stems spangle woodlands from Quebec to Texas in early or mid-spring. Plants self-sow readily in partly shaded, moist habitats, both in the wild and in the garden. Another eastern U.S. woodlander, Phlox stolonifera, lifts its flower clusters on 8-inch stems about a week after Phlox divaricata commences bloom. Flowers vary in hue, with ‘Bruce’s White’, ‘Blue Ridge’, ‘Sherwood Purple’, and the lilac-pink ‘Home Fires’ representing some of the color range. The species’ common name, creeping phlox, refers to the ground-hugging mats of spoon-shaped, evergreen leaves, which spread rather rapidly in moist acid soil and partial shade.

    Phlox divaricata

    Phlox divaricata spreads across the forest floor to create a sweep of blooms.

    Other phlox, including the Eastern and Midwestern native Phlox subulata, favor harsher, sunnier niches. Moss phlox’s adaptability to arid, sun-parched sites has made it something of a cliché in challenging suburban habitats such as traffic medians and gas station islands. It’s equally well suited, however, for naturalistic “habitat garden” plantings, where its needle-like foliage and colorful early spring blooms combine splendidly with other tough, sun-loving U.S. natives such as bearberry, little bluestem, Missouri primrose, lowbush blueberry, prickly pear, and purple lovegrass. Numerous cultivars of moss phlox are available, flowering in a rainbow of colors from lavender to pink to white. Gardeners looking for a less ubiquitous needle-leaved species might want to consider sand phlox (Phlox bifida), a Plains native whose petals are elegantly cleft into narrow lobes.

    Phlox stolonifera 'Sherwood Purple'

    Phlox stolonifera ‘Sherwood Purple’ is an attractive variety for the garden.

    Among the best companions for woodland phlox is celandine poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, which inhabits fertile woodlands throughout much of the East and Midwest. Its bright yellow, mid-spring “poppies” on 15-inch plants provide a splashy contrast to the blues of Phlox divaricata and Phlox stolonifera, and its bold, deeply lobed leaves complement their relatively dainty foliage. Both celandine poppy and Phlox divaricata self-sow moderately in partial shade, making them a perfect pair for naturalizing together.

    Sanguinaria canadensis 'Multiplex'

    The double flowers if bloodroot ‘Multiplex’ last for nearly a week!

    They also form a perfect trio with Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica, named for its baby-blue flowers (opening from soft pink buds) that indeed resemble tiny hand bells. The flowers are borne in coiled clusters that elongate on 16-inch stems in late April and May. Prolific self-sowing can occur in moist, partly shaded sites. The large, tongue shaped leaves of this New York to Kansas native die back early summer, as does celandine poppy’s foliage.

    All the above, and many more native plants besides, offer both beautiful blooms and a connection to this place we call home, with little or no fuss involved. What more could a North American gardener want?

  3. 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.

  4. 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’.

    Geranium_X_catabrigense_Biokova1

    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’).

    Penst_barb_Coral_Baby_Panayoti_Kelaidis__2

    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.

  5. Small Space Gardening

    Profusio

    Compact Profusion Zinnias and Swiss chard are great choices for smaller gardens with less space.

    Small space gardening is the triumph of inspiration over limitation. Space is the limitation. Inspiration, which is free and universally available, trumps space limitation every time.

    fafard Ultra Container with Extended Feed RESILIENCE front

    Fafard Ultra Container with Extended Feed is a great choice for small space container gardening.

    You can plant a garden in an old washtub, grow it up a trellis or cultivate intensively in a two by two-foot raised bed. Small-scale landscapes can be housed in boxes perched on porch railings, bags or planters hanging from walls, or grow bags on asphalt driveways. They are perfect for the miniscule ribbons of earth surrounding a townhouse. Combine any small site with appropriately scaled plants, a little effort and quality soil like Fafard ® Ultra Container Mix With Resilience™ and a garden is born.

    Choices, Choices

    Getting down to the business of small space gardening requires a few choices. What do you most want to grow? If you have sunny space—six hours of direct sunlight per day—you can raise an array of edible crops, not to mention ornamentals and herbs. You can even mix those categories as long as you group plants with similar cultural needs. Light shade limits choices a bit, but does not preclude any kind of small-scale gardening. Bear in mind the small-space gardening mantra—“no ground—no problem.” Find a container that will hold enough soil to grow your choice of plants and your garden is on its way.

    Space limitation also means choosing plants that give “bang for the buck”—high-yielding fruits and vegetables, and/or flowering varieties that rebloom regularly during the growing season. Colorful or variegated foliage helps maintain visual interest between flushes of flowers.

    Pick the Right Edibles

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    Cherry tomatoes—either standard size or dwarf–are a flavorful option for tomato lovers on a space budget.

    Many popular vegetable and fruit varieties are available in compact or even dwarf sizes. Cherry tomatoes—either standard size or dwarf–are a flavorful option for tomato lovers on a space budget. Stake or trellis them for space-saving vertical culture. Many zucchini and other squashes come in tidy, compact bush forms. Bush beans, sometimes known as “string beans”, also work well in small gardens.

    Fruit lovers with large containers or small plots can grow dwarf blueberry varieties like ‘Top Hat’, which rises to only 24 inches tall and produces several pounds of blueberries per season at maturity. Strawberries will thrive in raised beds or pocketed strawberry jars. Dwarf apple, pear and plum trees are well suited to large pots or can be trained (espaliered) to grow against walls or other supports.

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    Coreopsis Li’l Bang™ ‘Daybreak’ is a wonderful summer perennial for small spaces. (image care of Skagit Gardens)

    Vest Pocket Blooms

    Getting lots of flowers from a small space used to mean buying annuals every year. You can still go the annual route with free-flowering compact forms such as the many-colored zinnias in the Profusion series. An array of modern, smaller perennials will do the same job, and save labor by returning from year to year. Try a reblooming daylily (Hemerocallis), like little ‘Black-Eyed Stella’, which is yellow with a contrasting central “eye” and a maximum height of 12 inches. Another good perennial choice is one of the small-scale tickseeds (Coreopsis), like those in the bright-colored Li’l Bang series. Vertical growers like annual morning glory and perennial clematis use little ground or container space as they clamber up trellises or tuteurs.

    Roses

    Miniature roses, at 12 to 24 inches tall, feature all the traits of their larger relatives, minus the gangly stature. Fragrant, apricot-pink ‘Barbara Mandrell’ for example, boasts the high-centered flowers typical of hybrid teas. Miniatures are also available in climbing form, which is handy for those with more vertical than horizontal space.

    Made in the Partial Shade

    Container gardening is a great option for gardeners with little space or time.

    Container gardening is a great option for gardeners with little space or time.

    Partial shade does not have to mean dashed hopes for space-conscious gardeners. Lovers of baby greens can grow mesclun in spaces with dappled shade and only about two hours of sun per day. Pots of parsley or oregano will be fine with only a few hours of sunshine. Try annual wishbone flower (Torenia fournieri) for purple or cream flowers in small borders, window boxes or containers. It thrives in shade and grows only six to 12 inches tall and wide. For foliage color, look for variegated-leaf perennials, like blue and cream Hosta ‘Frosted Mouse Ears’, which catches the eye and grows only six inches tall and 12 inches wide.

    Succeed With Succession Planting

    Natural and Organic

    Top dress small plots with Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost.

    Get maximum growth out of small spaces by using succession planting. When spring bulb-grown plants, like tulips and daffodils fade, seed annuals such as nasturtium or baby lettuce in the same spaces. If hot weather puts an end to the greens, grow small-scale annuals until fall and then make another sowing of lettuce or mesclun.

    Troubleshooting

    Intensive cultivation of small spaces can lead to nutrient depletion. Top dress small plots with amendments like Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost, which can also be mixed into container medium. Small spaces—especially containers and window boxes—tend to dry out quickly, so check for dryness and make sure to water every day in hot weather.

  6. Vegetable Garden Soil Preparation

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    These tidy beds have a compost mulch layer protecting vegetables and a walkway protected with thick grass clippings.

     

    Rain and snow melt make spring garden soil preparation a challenge every year, but once you can get into the garden, get into your soil! Feeding your garden soil in spring is an investment that pays off every time. Amending, turning, tilling, fertilizing, and mulching are the five practices needed to make your garden great all season! The addition of drip hoses for easy irrigation can make garden care even more effortless.

    Natural and OrganicAmending

    Rich soil yields better crops, so it pays to feed your soil. Adding the best amendments will ensure your soil is ready to work. Adding lots of compost will increase good yields, but be sure that your compost is good quality. Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost is a high-performing compost sure to give your garden what it needs. For areas where you intend to plant greens, go with nitrogen-rich amendments, such as Fafard Garden Manure Blend.

    Turning

    “No till” areas in the vegetable garden need different care.  These include beds with perennial and winter crops, like areas with asparagus, garlic, strawberries, or hardy herbs, as well as well-amended spots that are already in good shape below ground. Still, adding extra organic matter to no-till spots will ensure better growth while allowing for the addition of needed amendments. Adding a layer of compost and lightly turning it into the surface will increase organic matter while not disrupting your plants or soil structure.

    Tilling

    Compost acts as both an amendment and protective mulch.

    Compost acts as both an amendment and protective mulch.

    Many gardeners have bed areas that are tilled yearly. This has its pluses and minuses. Tilling brings the bank of weed seeds to the surface and disrupts soil structure and organisms, but it also increases tilth and allows organic matter to be worked deeply in the soil. If you plan to till, plan to double your amendment by adding a till-in layer and a mulch layer. First, put down a thick layer of compost or manure and till it deeply into the soil, then rake and berm bed spaces as needed. Finally add a second layer of compost to further enrich the soil and protect against weeds. The second step is extra important because tilling brings lots of weed seeds to the soil’s surface.

    Fertilizing

    Many vegetables require lots of food to produce good yields through the season. It’s essential to feed the garden well from the beginning with a good tomato & vegetable fertilizer. OMRI Listed fertilizers approved for organic gardening are best. Simply broadcast the fertilizer and gently work it into the top layers of soil where it’s needed most.  Heavy feeders, such as tomatoes, peppers, and melons, should be fed again at planting time.

    Mulching

    In addition to adding a compost mulch layer, I protect and define walkways with leaf mulch, straw or hay, and grass clippings. These natural mulches stop weeds and make it easier to traverse the garden in wet, muddy weather. They also hold water and keep root zones cool on hot summer days. By fall’s end, they have usually broken down into accessible organic matter.

    Living mulches are another option. Planting a dense summer cover crop in walkways, like white clover, will keep them tidy, cool, and mud-free while also feeding the soil. Just be sure to keep the edges trimmed and turn plants under in fall.

    Amendment Application Formula

    When adding amendments, determine how many inches you want to add over your garden area. Here is the simple formula needed to determine this:

    ([area to cover] ft2 x [depth in inches desired] x 0.0031 = ___ yd3).

    Example: If you wanted to cover a 20 square foot area with 2 inches of compost, the result would be: 20 ft2 x 2 inches of compost x 0.0031 = 2.48 yd3.

    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 hold moisture while also keeping walkways clean and weed free.

    Irrigation

    For added benefit, consider snaking a drip hose beneath mulch layers to make summer watering easier and more efficient. Below-the-surface watering keeps water at root zones while virtually stopping surface evaporation on hot days. The key is marking your drip lines from above (to keep from accidentally cutting the line with gardening tools) and securing nozzles for easy access. At watering time, just hook up your lines and let them drip for an hour or so to ensure deep watering.

    Once the vegetable season takes off, your garden will be in good shape with these five steps. Sure, weeds, drought, and hot days will come, but their impacts will be minimized  and your time and garden’s productivity will be maximized.

  7. Native Wildflowers for the Garden

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    Spring Virginia bluebells blanket a woodland garden floor.

     

    America’s native plants are a national treasure.  They also offer a wealth of material for American gardens.  This is perhaps most evident in spring, when many of the most beautiful native wildflowers strut their stuff in our fields, forests, and perennial borders.

    Celandine poppies add a golden glow to the spring wildflower garden.

    Celandine poppies add a golden glow to the spring wildflower garden.

    Among the first of these to bloom is one of the queens of the Eastern forest, bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).  Its broad, scalloped, kidney-shaped leaves unfurl in early spring, sending forth dainty, white, short-stemmed flowers that shatter within a few days of opening .  Far longer lasting, however, are the breathtaking double blooms of the cultivar ‘Multiplex’, whose sublime form would do the finest waterlily proud.  In whatever form, bloodroot makes a wonderful subject for massing and naturalizing in dappled shade.  A moist, relatively coarse soil suits it best (amend heavy or sandy soils with a good compost such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost).

    Another first-rate naturalizer for moist shade, Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) sends up clusters of nodding, long-necked bell-flowers that morph from pale pink to summer-sky-blue upon opening in early- to mid-spring.  The 15- to 18-inch-tall plants are well furnished with broad, blue-dusted leaves that tone prettily with the flowers.  As bloom fades, so does the rest of the plant, yellowing and dwindling to a thick fleshy rootstock in late spring.  Colonies of seedlings often follow.  Wild-collected roots and plants of Virginia bluebell are sometimes sold by disreputable dealers, so buyer beware.

    April 2007 067

    Virginia bluebells have great color and naturalize effortlessly.

    With its sunny yellow mid-spring flowers and penchant for self-sowing, celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) makes an excellent shade-garden companion for Virginia bluebells.  The 2-inch-wide, crepe-textured, four-petaled poppies are borne atop 18-inch clumps of bold foliage with oakleaf-shaped lobes.  Bristly seedpods resembling miniature gourds ripen in late spring, with dormancy (and enthusiastic self-sowing) ensuing.  Both celandine poppy and Virginia bluebells work well with other, more persistent woodlanders (such as ferns and Solomon’s seal) that fill the gaps left by their early exit.

    Although many native woodland perennials die back after blooming in spring, some stay around for the long haul.  These include two species of Phlox that make excellent subjects for borders or naturalistic plantings.  Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricarta) produces drifts of fragrant, five-petaled blooms on wiry, foot-tall stems with paired, pointed leaves. The flowers are typically periwinkle-blue, but white, violet, and other colors occur in the wild and in cultivation.  Their form and hue combine effectively with Virginia bluebells, celandine poppy, white trilliums, wild geraniums, and other wildflowers that bloom in mid-spring.  After flowering, plants persist through the growing season and beyond as low semi-evergreen hummocks.

    Phlox divaricata andrews 51008d

    Pretty starry flowers decorate Phlox divaricata ‘in spring.

    Named for its low spreading mats of rounded evergreen leaves, creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) produces compact clusters of blue, purple, or white flowers about a week after woodland phlox commences bloom.   Although best in partial shade, it does well in full sun in cool moist sites, and makes a great “knitter” for interplanting with taller perennials.

    Also excelling as a mat-forming spreader is barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides).  Its low, weed-smothering carpets of three-lobed, semi-evergreen leaves do indeed suggest strawberry foliage, but of a more refined nature.  Yellow, five-lobed buttercups nestle in the leafage in mid-spring, maturing to dry, inedible fruit capsules.  An outstanding but little-known ground cover for partial shade, it tolerates considerable drought once established.

    The delicate wood geranium (Geranium maculatum) blooms towards late spring.

    The delicate wood geranium (Geranium maculatum) blooms towards late spring.

    Yet another splendid spreader for partial shade, crested iris (Iris cristata) grows from knobbly rhizomes that walk along the soil surface, like a bearded iris in miniature.  Fanned tufts of arching, 6-inch, blade-shaped leaves give rise to proportionately large blooms that slightly over top the foliage in mid-spring.  Flower color ranges from violet-blue to white, with contrasting yellow and white markings.   Several cultivars are available.  A lightly shaded site with moist, fertile, relatively porous soil is ideal.

    All of these – and many more besides (including Geranium maculatum, Hepatica acutiloba, Trillium grandiflorum, Delphinium tricorne, Tiarella cordifolia, Polemonium reptans, and Uvularia grandiflora) – are essential plants for any eastern North American garden that seeks to embody a sense of place.

  8. All About Tulips

    Tulipa red striped lily

    Lily-flowered tulips have pointed petals that open wide from vase-shaped buds. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    What would spring be without tulips? Their large, brilliant, jewel-toned flowers, often with playful markings at their centers, are just what we crave after the gloom and cold of winter. Those big bright bowls of color speak directly to our inner child (as well as to children themselves). And with the wide range of varieties available today, tulips can provide a continuous succession of garden brightness from early to late spring.

    Tulipa 'Girlfriend'

    ‘Girlfriend’ is a beautiful recently introduced hybrid of Tulipa vvdenskyi.

    Tulips have been seducing gardeners for centuries. Turkish sultans featured them in their palace gardens in the 15th and 16th centuries, growing numerous hybrids characterized by dazzling colors and claw-shaped petals. From there, tulips made their way to Europe, evolving into the blunt-petaled forms that we associate with the genus (know botanically as Tulipa). By the early seventeenth century, tulips were all the rage in sophisticated European circles, triggering waves of “tulipomania” that built and destroyed fortunes. Today, we’re fortunate to have thousands of tulip hybrids in numerous shapes and color. Further enriching our gardens are the many Tulipa species that have been introduced to horticulture in the relatively recent past. Horticulturists group cultivated tulips into sixteen “classes” depending on their flowering times, characteristics, and lineage.

    This vast horticultural treasure trove began with a handful of wild ancestors from Central and West Asia, regions where summers are hot and dry and winters cold and snowy. And even today, most garden tulips flourish in conditions that recall their lands of origin. They need sun and winter chill to bloom, and a relatively dry summer rest to perennialize. If you garden in the northern United States, and can offer sunny, not-too-damp conditions, tulips of all types will likely thrive – provided the pests don’t get them (more on this later).

    Tulipa 'Elegans Rubra'

    The heirloom cultivar ‘Elegans Rubra’ is an early lily-flowered tulip.

    Fittingly, tulip season begins just as spring officially arrives, in March and early April. Earliest of all are a number of elfin Tulipa species that are comparable in stature to the Dutch hybrid crocuses that bloom alongside them. Many of these pixies (e.g., Tulipa biflora) open wide in sun to reveal white interiors with central yolks of yellow. Perhaps the queen of the early-risers is Tulipa humilis, which blooms in a variety of eye-catching hues including purple, pink, and white, with contrasting eyes.

    A number of larger-flowered hybrids follow closely upon these earliest tulips. Kaufmanniana Hybrids (named after the species that sired them) typically have pointed, white or yellow, red-flamed blooms, with broad basal leaves that often bear showy bronze mottling. Single Early Tulips (such as ‘Apricot Giant’ and ‘Coleur Cardinal’) open their large, goblet-shaped blooms on short sturdy stems just as the Kaufmannianas are peaking, in early to mid-April. Then in the next few weeks comes a succession of other tulip classes, most notably:

    Fosteriana Hybrids (including the famed ‘Emperor’ cultivars), prized for their huge, brightly colored flowers on relatively compact stems.

    Greigii Hybrids, short in stature, with large cupped flowers and gray-green, maroon-splotched leaves.

    Triumph Tulips, marked by their elegant, sturdy flowers and strong tall stems that stand up to inclement weather. Most bloom in the pastel range and many have contrasting petal margins.

    Darwin Hybrids, combining the height of the Single Late Tulips with the immense brilliant blooms of the Fosteriana Hybrids, and flowering between these two parent classes.

    Single Late Tulips, blooming well into May in a wide range of rich colors, on stems that typically exceed 26 inches.

    Lily-flowered Tulips, named for their pointed petals that open wide from vase-shaped buds.

    Double Late Tulips (such as ‘Angelique’), among the last to bloom, with peony-shaped flowers in mid- to late May.

    tulicluslge

    Tulipa clusiana is well adapted to Southern and California gardens.

    Altogether, tulip hybrids and species provide more than 2 months of bloom and endless ornamental possibilities. Many species and smaller-flowered hybrids mingle beautifully with other late winter and early spring perennials, both in formal borders and in less formal settings such as cottage gardens. For bold splashes of spring color, nothing beats the large-flowered hybrids, whether in massed bedding schemes or grouped in mixed borders. Some species even naturalize well, persisting and sometimes increasing in garden conditions that are to their liking.

    Many tulips also “force” easily in pots, brightening the winter months (see “Forcing Bulbs for Winter Cheer”). Single Early and Fosteriana cultivars are among the best for this purpose.

    Outdoors, plant tulips in late summer or early fall in a sunny exposure (after first frost is often a good time). Fertile, not too heavy Natural and Organicsoil is best (amend sandy or clay soils with an organic compost such as Fafard Permium Natural & Organic Compost). Although often treated as annuals, tulips of all classes will usually return for several years of bloom if planted deep (6 inches or more below the soil surface). Deep planting also helps protect the bulbs from their chief bane – squirrels and other furry pests. Inter-plant tulips with rodent- and deer-resistant bulbs such as daffodils to further deter these herbivores.

    A few tulips will even bloom and persist where winters are “too warm” for them. Tulipa clusiana – often dubbed “lipstick tulip” for the red central bands that mark its outer petals – grows and flowers reliably in areas such as California, the Desert Southwest, and the Deep South. Others to try in these regions include Tulipa saxatilis and the previously mentioned Tulipa sylvestris. Tulips offer spring-long possibilities wherever and whatever the garden.

    Tulipa Ballerina JaKMPM

    ‘Ballerina’ is an award-winning, late-flowering tulip with lily-like blooms of orange and red. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

  9. Small Trees Fit for Yard & Garden

    chionanthus virginicus 52809 au

    The American fringetree is a small, shrubby tree that offers a cloud of soft, ivory flowers in spring.

    Small trees are useful things. Although lacking the lofty majesty of tulip poplar or silver maple or European beech, they compensate by being a good fit for yard and garden. Majesty is all well and good in a large city park or country estate. More modest properties, however, call for something that can coexist peaceably with nearby landscape elements such as perennials, dwellings, power lines, and neighbors. Happily, many tree species– including some of the best ornamental plants for American gardens – are of just such a size (20 to 30 feet or so).

    Euonymus carnosus fruit is colorful in fall.

    The fruit of Euonymus carnosus is bright crimson.

    As is true for all ornamental plants, the best small trees offer something at every season. Case in point: glossy euonymus (Euonymus carnosus). This East Asian native starts off spring by bringing forth handsome pale-yellow-tinged leaves. They deepen to lustrous dark green in summer and turn gleaming maroon-red in fall. Flat lacy clusters of creamy white flowers veil the tree in June, followed by plump fleshy seed capsules that ripen to rosy-pink. In late summer, the capsules split wide to reveal bright orange seeds that stand out against the smoky fall foliage. Greenish-gray, silver-grooved bark provides a pleasing winter feature. Unlike some others of its tribe, glossy euonymus appears to produce few volunteer seedlings and is thus not considered an invasive threat. It is well suited to sunny or partly shaded sites in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 9.

    Chionanthus retusus fruit aah 101908

    Chionanthus retusus bears clusters of berry-like fruits of concord blue later in the season.

    Flowering at about the same time (and hailing from the same region) as Euonymus carnosus, Chinese fringetree (Chionanthus retusus) envelops itself in late spring with fleecy white flowers that cast a light sweet fragrance. The best forms of this rather variable species possess a single-trunked, vase-shaped habit and beautiful cherry-like bark that flakes and furrows with age. The dark glossy green leaves turn yellow in fall. Individual trees produce only male or female flowers, with female trees ripening a profusion of deep-blue fruits in fall (if a pollinating male is available). Chinese fringetree’s shrubby American cousin, Chionanthus virginicus, is similarly lovely in flower and fruit. Both make excellent specimens for sunny or lightly shaded gardens from zone 5 (or 4 in the case of Chionanthus virginicus) to 9.

    Like the best forms of Chinese fringetree, those of Peking lilac (Syringa reticulata ssp. pekinensis) are worth growing for their striking bark alone. The peeling, deep-coppery-tan, silver-dotted trunk and branches are eye-catching year round, but are particularly arresting in winter. Fragrant, frothy white flower clusters in late spring, amber fall color, and a round-crowned, single- or multi-stemmed habit add to Peking lilac’s all-season value, as does its exceptional cold hardiness (zones 3 to 7). It flourishes in full sun and fertile, medium-textured soil.

    Magnolia salicifolia has ivory spring flowers that appear before the foliage.

    Magnolia salicifolia has ivory spring flowers that appear before the foliage.

    Numerous magnolias make excellent subjects for small gardens. Among the best of these is sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), an evergreen to deciduous, often multi-trunked beauty occurring from the Deep South to coastal Massachusetts. Charming in every season thanks to its fresh green leaves and smooth gray bark, it is particularly alluring from late spring through summer, opening a succession of cupped, creamy-white blooms that fill the garden with a heady perfume that hints at lemons and roses. Southern, evergreen forms of the species (known botanically as variety australis) do best in hardiness zones 7 to 9, but a few (including ‘Henry Hicks’) are hardy and evergreen into zone 5. Cultivars (such as ‘Milton’) of sweetbay magnolia’s deciduous northern race are usually hardy through zone 5. All types do well in well-drained, humus-rich soil (I recommend amending soil with Fafard Premium Topsoil and Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss before planting) and full to partial sun. Other worthy small magnolias include umbrella magnolia (M. tripetala), anise magnolia (M. salicifolia), Yulan magnolia (M. denudata), star magnolia (M. kobus var. stellata and its hybrids), and the yellow-flowered ‘Elizabeth’. This list is far from exhaustive.

    The above are but a fraction of the small hardy trees that offer multi-season interest. Many more are to be found among the stewartias, dogwoods, maples, buckeyes, mountain ashes, and hornbeams, to name a few. Gardeners with limited space have a nearly limitless variety of suitably sized trees at their disposal.

  10. Corydalis: A Charming Spring Shade Perennial

    Corydalis malkensis

    Large swan-white blooms grace the cheerful Corydalis malkensis.

    Endearing little sprites that carry flocks of dainty, spurred blooms above clumps of ferny divided leaves, tuberous Corydalis (crested larks) are among the most valuable early-spring “bulbs” for shade. These low-growing perennials have long been known to horticulture: the most familiar of the tribe, Corydalis solida, has been kicking around gardens since at least the sixteenth century. But in the last few decades, a multi-hued array of new species and cultivars has entered cultivation, taking the genus into exciting new territory.

    Corydalis rainbow (3)

    Corydalis come in a veritable rainbow of colors.

    The genus Corydalis also has a non-tuberous side, comprising several dozen perennials or annuals that grow from fibrous roots (rather than from swollen underground stems) and that remain in leaf all season (rather than disappearing shortly after bloom). These fibrous-rooted corydali include several species that are well worth a place in the ornamental garden – among them Corydalis lutea (now Pseudofumaria lutea), known for its profusion of yellow blooms and self-sown seedlings; and Corydalis flexuosa, whose luminous blue flowers and notorious heat intolerance have caused much lusting and despair among eastern North American plant enthusiasts. None of them, however, blooms in in early spring in hues ranging from blue to purple to bright red to pale yellow to white. For that, you’ll need Corydalis with tubers – especially Corydalis solida.

    Corydalis ornata

    Delicate blue flowers grace Corydalis ornata in spring.

    Native to woodlands from southern Scandinavia to northern Spain to the Ural Mountains to northern Greece, Corydalis solida assumes a dizzying variety of colors and forms across its vast natural range. Until relatively recently, gardeners had to settle for the most common, rather nondescript purple-flowered forms. No longer. A wealth of cultivars in a broad and tantalizing range of hues now populate the pages of bulb catalogs. Among the oldest and most renowned of these new-wave corydali is the brick-red ‘George Baker’, one of a pack of red- and pink-flowered selections hailing from the mountains of Transylvania. (Caveat emptor – bargain-priced tubers sold under Mr. Baker’s name are often imposter seedlings bearing dingy-red blooms.) Other outstanding cultivars from the sunset side of the Corydalis solida color range include deep rose-red ‘Cantata’, rich lilac-pink ‘Sixtus’, and soft creamy-pink ‘Blushing Girl’. At the violet end of the spectrum are pale-lilac ‘Ballade’, denim-blue ‘Compact’, icy bluish-white ‘Evening Dream’, and the aptly named ‘Purple Beauty’. Milky-flowered ‘Snowstorm’ and the floriferous, late-blooming ‘White Knight’ are among the best white-flowered selections.

    Corydalis solida 'George Baker'

    The bright red flowers of Corydalis solida ‘George Baker’ are a real standout.

    Most Corydalis solida cultivars readily self-sow (with the assistance of seed-dispersing ants), their seedlings often reverting to the muddy purple floral tones of the wild species. Remove such seedlings to keep them from crowding out their more colorful parents.

    The world awaits a yellow-flowered Corydalis solida (reputedly such forms exist in the wild). Crosses with the sulfur-bloomed Siberian native Corydalis bracteata sometimes occur, however, their offspring (known horticulturally as Corydalis × allenii) producing pale creamy-yellow, lilac-brushed blooms and fetching, deeply cleft leaves. Corydalis bracteata and its fellow Siberian Corydalis gracilis also make excellent yellow-flowered garden subjects for areas that have long, cold, snow-locked winters.

    Woodland Corydalis are habit-forming. Once you’ve discovered Corydalis solida and its hybrids, you’ll want to have a go at the many other garden-worthy species – perhaps Corydalis malkensis, with its voluptuous, gaping, swan-white blooms; or Corydalis kusnetzovii, which flowers in a beguiling shades of pale pink; or one of the brilliant-blue-flowered East Asian species (such as Corydalis ornata and Corydalis turtschaninovii). All thrive in partial shade and humus-rich soil; amend sandy or heavy soils with a good compost such as Fafard Premium Organic Compost or Fafard Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss.

    Real corydalis addicts will also want to explore some of the Central Asian species, which are typified by pink or white, chocolate-nosed flowers, blue-green foliage, and a preference for sunny, gritty-soiled niches that stay relatively dry in summer (such as a rock garden or trough). As with the woodland Corydalis, they present a wealth of delightful possibilities for the early spring garden.

    The pretty Corydalis x allenii 'Enno' is a subdued but attractive variety for the spring garden.

    The pretty Corydalis x allenii ‘Enno’ is a subdued but attractive variety for the spring garden.