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Winter winds leave an untidy legacy in the early spring garden. Cleaning up those broken branches and dead leaves is a chore, but the job is a lot more pleasant if you have another kind of “wind” tickling the toes of your garden clogs—windflowers or spring anemones. Planted in borders or containers, they emerge just as the garden gets going.
All anemones are members of the buttercup or Ranunculaceae family. Several species sprout from fall-planted rhizomes and spread politely when they are happy. The blooms can be demure or relatively showy, with foliage that is most often attractively dissected. Deer tend to leave anemones alone, but early spring pollinators, who use the flowers as a much-needed food source, love them all.
Little Grecian windflower (Anemone blanda) is often the earliest riser among the windflowers, generally appearing in late March or early April. Growing only 6 to 9 inches tall, blanda anemones are so tough that they can even be planted beneath black walnut trees. The flowers look more like daisies than buttercups, with nine to twelve petal-like sepals in shades of violet-blue, pink, or white. The leaves are almost fern-like in appearance and add a flourish to the flowers.
Grecian windflowers rhizomes are most often available in mixed assortments, but with a little hunting, you can also buy single colors. An old favorite variety, ‘White Splendor’, bears clean white sepals that harmonize well with other spring flowers, and the classic Blue Shades mix comes in pretty shades of violet blue. Grecian windflowers are very effective planted in drifts or naturalized in wooded areas and coexist well with other plants. This is a bonus, given their ephemeral nature. Once the plant has bloomed and set seed, it fades away completely until the following spring.
A Different Kind of Snowdrop
Snowdrop windflower (Anemone sylvestris) is another April bloomer. The flowers sit atop stems that may reach up to 18 inches tall. Each delicate flower has slightly ruffled white sepals that surround prominent yellow stamens. The petals are followed up by distinctive, fuzzy white seed heads later on. Sometimes snowdrop windflowers give an encore performance in the fall.
With their longer stems and sweet fragrance, these anemones also make good cut flowers.
Wind in the Woods
In April and May, wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) emerges. The plants are a little taller than Grecian windflowers, with darker green, dissected foliage and erect stems that rise between 6 and 18 inches. Those dainty petal-like sepals are generally white, at least on the wild form. Sometimes they are tinged pink or palest blue. Specialty nurseries carry more unusual forms of wood anemone, including some with blue, pink or even yellow-green flowers. Double-petaled forms, like ‘Alba Plena’ are only an Internet search away.
Showy in the Spring
Poppy anemones (Anemone coronaria) are the showiest of the spring bloomers and tend to appear a little later in spring. Deep blue, red, pink, or white petal-like sepals surround dramatic black or blue-black centers on flowers that bloom atop stalks up to 18 inches tall. Because of their bold good looks, poppy anemones have long been favorites of flower arranging.
Among the most popular poppy anemone varieties are the de Caen types, which bear single flowers and are usually sold in mixed-color assortments. Other old favorites include the deep blue-purple ‘Mr. Fokker’ and pristine white ‘Mount Everest’, which has semi-double flowers.
Unlike other spring-blooming anemones, coronaria varieties are only reliably hardy within USDA plant hardiness zones 7-10 (though some cultivars like ‘Mr. Fokker’ are reportedly hardier), so the tubers cannot be planted outside in cold-winter climates. If you have an unheated sun porch or cold frame, plant them in pots in the fall, place in the frost free spaces, and bring them outside in the spring. Otherwise, plant in very early spring for late spring or early summer bloom.
All spring-blooming anemones like rich, well-drained soil. Wood and snowdrop varieties prefer partially shady situations, while Grecian and poppy anemones relish more sunshine. If your soil is poor or poorly drained, amend it with a high-quality product like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost. Soak the tuberous rhizomes of Grecian, snowdrop, and wood anemones overnight before planting. If you are planting Grecian windflowers naturalizing, place the rhizomes close together, and they will eventually spread on their own.
You can find windflowers alongside the tulip and daffodil bulbs on retailers’ shelves starting in early fall. Poppy anemones are generally available for spring shipment.
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.
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.
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 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!
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 (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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
Springtime 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.)
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 lettuce 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.
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.
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.
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’.
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’).
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’).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
When adding amendments, determine how many inches you want to add over your garden area. Here is the simple formula needed to determine this:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 soil 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.