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Cleaning your garden tools is one more way you can prepare for the garden season.
A bit of garden housekeeping in February and March can literally help clear the way for the floral exuberance of April and May. With that in mind, here are some spring cleaning projects for late winter, on days when the Polar Vortex isn’t visiting. (more…)
Comments Off on Rustic Harvest Décor from the Garden
Festive red rowan fruits sit among a nest of fallen leaves.
After the leaves have fallen, the well-fortified garden is filled with a wealth of late-season branches, berries, hips, dried grasses and flower heads for rustic fall décor. Early fall is when they are at their brightest and most beautiful for indoor and outdoor decorating.
Spring and fall are the best times to plant ornamentals that remain pretty through winter. Crinkly dried hydrangea flowers, puffy grass seed heads, berried and hipped branches of hollies and roses, and colorful twigs and greens all look seasonal and appealing when arranged for display. Gather them for Thanksgiving or winter holiday table displays, or place them in pots outdoors to keep your home looking festive.
Here are some of our favorites to plant and enjoy for harvest décor.
Simple containers of dried grasses and wildflowers look elegant and earthy indoors.
Broom Corn (Sorghum bicolor): As the name suggests, the canes from this annual ornamental grass are used for broom making, but their glossy, pendulous seed heads of burgundy brown are also very showy. Start broom corn in spring for fall harvest. Outdoor displays of these seed heads will also feed winter birds. Pearl Millet (Pennisetum glaucum): This is the common millet that’s grown for pet store birds, but its bold, upright heads of grain look equally attractive in the garden and arrangements. The warm-season annual grass must be planted in spring, after the threat of frost has passed. The eye-catching purple variety ‘Purple Baron’ looks especially pretty in the garden. If used in outdoor displays, expect birds to pick away at the seeds. Perennial Grasses: There are many perennial grasses with seed heads that are slow to shatter in winter. Airier grass heads include switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and maidengrass (Miscanthus sinensis; this grass is invasive, so choose a non-to-low-seeding variety like ‘Hinjo’ or ‘Silberpfeil’ (aka. ‘Silver Arrow)). The foxtail stems of perennial fountain grass (Pennisetumalopecuroides) are also especially pretty when dry.
Dried flower heads look pretty when arranged with evergreen branches.
Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) and Celosia (Celosia spp.): These closely related plants bear everlasting flowers that hold their color and looks for a long time, especially when harvested in fall and hung to dry. Purple amaranth (Amaranthus hypochondriacus), Cockscomb (Celosia argentea var. cristata), and spike celosia (Celosia spicata) are some of the best types for drying. Hydrangea (Hydrangea spp.): By fall, hydrangea blooms are papery and ready to harvest. Clip the stems for any indoor or outdoor bouquet. Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera): Stems of lotus seedheads are sold for top dollar at craft stores, but if you have a large, water-holding pot, you can grow them at home and collect and seed heads in fall for arranging. Start lotus in late spring; fill the bottom of your pot with a 1:2 mixture of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost and heavy topsoil to a depth of 4-6 inches. Nestle a lotus rhizome in the mix, and then add 12-15 inches of water to the pot. As the weather warms, your lotus will quickly grow and bloom. Add fresh water as needed, and divide the rhizomes at the end of the season, if they outgrow the pot. Dried Wildflowers: Collect common roadside wildflower seed heads along public thoroughfares. Choice options include the heads of teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and milkweed pods (Asclepias spp.). These look wild and wonderful gathered in rustic containers beside ornamental squash and greens.
A simple vase of winterberry is all you need to brighten an indoor table.
Choose any bare-branched, bright berries or hips for fall and winter displays. Those wishing to grow their own should consider growing pretty berried trees, like rowan (Sorbus spp.) and hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’); winter birds will flock to their branches, too. Shrubs with lasting berries include winterberry (Ilex verticillata, read more about growing winterberry here), firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea), and shrub roses with bright hips (Rosa spp.).
Even the most rustic, impromptu arrangements of dried stems look appealing in fall.
Colorful and textural twigs add vertical interest to any bouquet or pot. The most brightest are red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea, click here to read more about growing red twig dogwood), which hold their color of red, orange, or yellow-green. Twisty branches, like curly willow and contorted filbert, are also texturally appealing alone or with berries and blooms. Evergreen branches of all kinds will add substance to your holiday displays.
These outdoor pots filled with greens, broom corn, curly willow, and red twig dogwood are placed according to height, color, and texture. (Image by Jessie Keith; Newfields, Indianapolis, IN)
The key to a good mixed vase or potted arrangement is choosing a suite of plant materials with different colors, textures, and heights. Considering the piece’s overall form before starting (click here for a more detailed DIY outdoor holiday arrangement how-to). Or, your can take a more simplistic, modern approach and fill a container with a single grass, branch, or floral element. Design your containers to fit your personal style, and you will always be pleased with the result.
When flower-filled summer containers die back at the end of the season, don’t put those empty pots away. Convert your vacant outdoor planters into beautiful showpieces for the holidays. Take pruned evergreen and berried branches, dry grass plumes, and dry hydrangea flowers to make festive DIY outdoor holiday containers that will remain attractive well into winter.
Gathering Holiday Container Materials
Winter branches and dried flowers can be purchased, but it’s more cost effective if you have these materials in your own landscape or garden. Pine, fir, or spruce branches are perfect for that touch of greenery. Holly and winter berry branches will add color and substance as will red twig dogwood or curly willow branches. If you have ornamental grasses with dried seed heads or hydrangeas with dried flower heads, these add substance to outdoor winter containers, especially if given a little glitz with metallic spray paint. Finally, pine cones, magnolia seed heads or sweet gum balls make an excellent addition, so use them if you have them.
Materials needed for holiday containers
Creating these containers is no different than putting together a large winter bouquet, but instead of a vase, you use a planter with potting mix. Long branches make bolder showpieces with bigger impact, so start with branches that are at least 2-3 feet in length, and trim them as needed.
Your container composition will depend on the materials you have on hand, but this is the formula I use for one large container.
A large planter filled with potting mix
6-8 large evergreen branches
One large berried holly or winter berry branch
10 dried hydrangea and grass plumes
5 red twig dogwood branches (curly willow or other spray painted bare branches would work)
Gold or silver spray paint for the hydrangea plumes
Make sure your pot is filled with potting mix to support the branches. Place the pot in its final location before arranging; this will allow you to consider appearance and size as you craft the piece. If your container will be placed against a wall, set the showiest branches along the front.
Start by adding the greenery—placing the tallest branches towards the middle. Trim additional branches to place along the periphery. Next, add the colorful ornamental branches concentrically around the container. Set the berried branch in the center, and follow up by placing the dried hydrangea flowers along the edges. Add the grass plumes around the composition, and center one tall plume behind the berries. Nestle pine cones along the base and in the greenery or bare branches.
1. Start by adding the greenery
2. Add the ornamental branches
3. Add your berried branch in the center
4. Add your holly branches
5. Add the hydrangea around the base
6. Place the grass plumes along the center and sides
6. Nestle in the the pine cones, and you are done!
Create Your Own Container Design
These containers should reflect your personal style and home, so get creative and design your own. There are lots of things you can do to make them bigger, bolder, or more glittery. Adding stark but colorful branches in the center of your container and surrounding them with greenery and pine cones creates a bold, attractive look. For added glitz, spiral some lights around each arrangement, embellish with a few glittery outdoor ornaments, or add a bright, colorful bow. It’s up to you!
These impressive home containers are decorated with evergreens, southern magnolia leaves, broomseed plumes, curly willow, and red twig dogwood. (Image from Newfields, Indianapolis, IN)
Comments Off on Homemade Caramel Apple & Pear Fig Honey Butter Recipes
Tart, spicy, fragrant fruit butters are great winter treats that can be canned and shared as holiday gifts. Apples and winter pears are in season, so there are no better fruits for making dessert-quality spreads perfect for spreading on buttery toast, dipping with salty pretzels, or dolloping onto spice cookies. If you have your own apple and pear trees, even better! [Click here to learn how to grow your own winter pears!}
These butters are simple to make but require some patience. The key to their deliciousness is perfect caramelization and thickness, so be sure they are perfectly cooked before canning! As pre-preparation, be sure to have sterile canning jars on hand. Well-cooked spreads such as these are perfect for those just learning to can at home (canning instructions are below). Place a pretty label on the jar, top it with a bow, and bring a few jars to your next holiday party!
Caramel Apple Butter
Caramel apple butter is a delicious holiday treat!
Tart apples are rounded by the milky sweetness of caramel. Sweet/tart sauce apples like ‘Gravenstein’, ‘Jonathan’, ‘Cortland’ and ‘McIntosh’ make excellent butter. A touch of salt is crucial for flavor. Can this yummy spread for holiday gift giving or personal enjoyment. It’s decadent stuff! Ingredients
3 lbs. apples (about 9 medium apples) – peeled, cored and roughly chopped
½ cup water
¾ cups light brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon allspice
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Add the apples and ½ cup of water to a large, sturdy sauce pan. Cover and simmer until the apples are soft but intact (15–20 minutes).
Allow the apples to cool, and then strain them in a colander to remove any excess liquid.
Transfer the apples into a food processor and puree them until smooth.
Place the apple puree back in the pot and set the stove to medium-low heat. Reduce the heat to low if it starts to bubble.
Add the sugar, caramels, and salt, then simmer, stirring occasionally.
After 3–4 hours the butter should be thick and caramel-colored.
Use the dab test to check if the butter is ready. Dab a bit onto a plate; if no residual liquid oozes from the edge, and the butter remains mounded, it’s ready.
Add the spices and stir. Keep the butter on low heat until you’re ready to can it.
This recipe makes around four 4-oz. jars of butter that can be canned or stored in airtight containers for freezing or refrigeration.
Caramel Apple Butter Ingredients
Start by peeling and roughly chopping the apples
Cook the apples are soft but intact (15–20 minutes).
Puree the softened apples and then return them to the pot.
Add the caramels, brown sugar, and salt, and cook the butter down on low heat for 2-3 hours.
Do the dab test. The butter on the right is fully caramelized and ready. The butter on the left is still watery and underdone.
Can and label your finished butter using the instructions below.
Pear Fig Honey Butter
This decadent fruit butter tastes great on morning toast or dolloped between crisp butter cookies.
Honey, Fig, Pear Butter ingredients
9 soft Bosc or Comice pears – peeled, cored and chopped
1/2 cup raw, wildflower honey
1 cup chopped dried figs
the juice of one lemon
Pinch of salt to taste
Puree pears and figs in a food processor until smooth.
Place the puree in a sturdy, large pot and set the stove to medium-low heat. (Reduce to low if it starts to bubble).
Add the honey and salt, and mix until blended.
Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the butter becomes reduced by half. This should take around 2-3 hours (sometimes more).
The finished butter should be fully caramelized, thickened and ready to can.
This recipe makes around four 4-oz. jars of butter. Enjoy!
Canning Pot with Jar Rack
Four 4-oz or two 8-oz jars for canning
Canning Jar Lifter
Canning Lids and Screw Bands (new)
Labels and Permanent Marker
Wide-mouthed Jar Funnel Steps:
Wash your hands and work space before starting.
Sterilize jars by filling a large pot with water to a depth that will cover them. Submerge the jars, screw bands, and lids into the hot water. Bring the water to a rolling boil, and boil for 10 minutes. Remove the hot jars with clean tongs while gently pouring the hot water out before removal. Place the jars upside down on a clean towel. Only touch the jar exteriors (Keep the canning pot with hot lids simmering.)
Using a clean ladle and wide-mouthed funnel, fill the jars with hot, prepared fruit butter. Fill until there is an inch of head space at the top of the jar. Wipe messy jar rims with a clean cloth.
Remove the sterilized lids and screw bands from the hot water and place them on the jars–being sure not to touch the inner lids. Make sure the lids are firmly down and screw bands lightly tightened. Manufacturer’s instructions may vary so follow those on the box.
Place the jars on the jar rack and lower them into the pot of hot canning water, if you have no rack lower the jars in with a canning jar lifter being sure to keep jars from touching. Cover the canning pot and keep at a low boil for 10 minutes.
Remove the jars from the pot and place them on towels to cool. Fully tighten the screw bands. Once cool, dry the outsides thoroughly and apply labels. Include the butter type and date.
After jars have set for 12 hours, check for success. If the lids are tight, air free and cannot be pressed down, they’re fine. If they pop down, they are improperly sealed, but don’t throw them away. You can either put them in the refrigerator for immediate use or try to re-cap them using steps 4 through 6. As a general rule, canned food is best used in the first year. Store your butters in a cool dry place.
If your houseplants could talk, they would tell you that they like natural daylight—the kind you get outdoors—better than artificial light of any kind. They might also say that the winter-time humidity level in your house is too low. They hope that the compensatory misting you give them does something good for you, because it doesn’t help them very much. Neither does the overwatering that they get from time to time. In the midst of saying those things, some of them might yawn, as winter is a time when many houseplants’ growth cycle slows.
What do your plants want in the winter? The following will help keep them in good shape until spring sets in and growth cycles start anew.
Wipe down the leaves of large-leaved plants, such as this Anthurium, if they become dingy or dusty. (Jessie Keith)
Your plants, especially those that have summered outside, probably could use a little TLC. Prune out weak stems, and cut back those that are too gangly. If the plant has glossy leaves, like a gardenia, gently wipe the foliage with a damp cloth to eliminate pore-clogging dust. Check stems, leaves, root ball for pests. Many can be dislodged with a stream of water or application of insecticidal soap. If the plant is pot bound, repot with fresh media, like Fafard® Professional Potting Mix, in a clean container that is about one third larger than its predecessor. Winter will not bring much growth, but it won’t bring strangulation either.
Clivia are midwinter bloomers that need bright indirect light for good flowering. (Jessie Keith)
If you are blessed with a lighted greenhouse, all you have to do is find appropriate spaces for houseplants that prefer a bit of shade. But if you, like many gardeners, have to rely on windowsills, try to put most of your plants in south-facing ones. This may be too much for some popular indoor varieties, like African violets or fancy-leaf begonias. Save areas with bright indirect light, like north-facing windows for them. Be sure to rotate your houseplants regularly to even out light exposure and avoid lopsided growth.
In general, fertilize plants when they are in active growth. For most plants this means little or no feeding in late fall and winter. The caveat is that you should know your plant. If it is a winter bloomer, it may need fertilizer during the colder months. A little research on individual species will ensure that you fertilize properly for winter blooms.
Low humidity caused the leaf edges of this Calathea to turn brown and dry. (Jessie Keith)
Houseplants like more humidity—generally 40-50 percent— than the average indoor environment provides in winter. If all your plants are in a single room, think about investing in a humidifier. The added moisture in the air will be good for you, the plants and any wooden furniture in the immediate area. If a humidifier is not an option, fill deep plant saucers with pebbles and water and stand the plants on them, making sure that the bottoms of the pots are not standing in water. Replenish the water around the pebbles every few days or as needed. If plants are grouped together and each stands on a bed of pebbles and water, the humidity level around them will be comfortably high.
Succulents, such as this variegated Agave, need very little water in the winter months. (Jessie Keith)
Overwatering is the most frequent cause of houseplant death. Fortunately, it is also the most preventable. Before you water, take a look at the plant. Is the top inch of the soil dry to the touch? If you pick up the container, does it feel relatively heavy or light? If the specimen in question is a succulent, it is best to water them very sparingly in winter. If your plant appears to be too dry, gently feel a leaf or two. Thirsty succulents tend to have slightly flaccid leaves.
If the plant is dry, water thoroughly until water flows out of the holes in the bottom. Deep watering once or twice a week in the winter is much better for overall health than adding a little water every day. Some houseplants, such as African violets and Streptocarpus, need to be watered from the bottom to keep their leaves from getting wet; moisture on the leaves causes spotting and damage.
Tropical plants like this Pilea need warm temperatures to grow well indoors. (Jessie Keith)
The majority of popular houseplants like the same indoor temperatures as the majority of humans. Like us, they also prefer to avoid extremes. Ambient temperature around 70 degrees F is generally good. If you house your plants on windowsills, don’t let leaves touch the cold glass panes. Avoid positioning them over radiators too. Intermittent cold drafts from doors, windows or vents can also be harmful.
Flowering potted plants may languish when you first bring them indoors for winter. Give them good care and they should revive. (Jessie Keith)
In late fall or early winter, houseplants that have spent the summer and early fall outdoors often languish while adjusting to lower light, less humidity and fewer daylight hours. If the plant is in the right light situation and receiving adequate water, it will adapt and recover after a few weeks. That does not mean that your plumbago or oleander or prize geranium will behave like the blooming fool that it was in the summer. It means that it will live to dazzle you again when warm weather returns.
The same may hold true with houseplants that you purchase from a nursery, garden center or other retailers. Many have been raised under near-ideal conditions and will need adjustment time as they get used to your particular indoor environment. Houseplant care follows the same rules as care of any other kind of plant. If you are observant, the plant will generally tell you what it needs. Watch for signals and respond accordingly. If the soil is too wet, cut back on watering. If leaves appear burned around the edges, move the plant to a place with less light. About the time you are feeling droopy due to winter blues, your plants may be similarly afflicted. If you have given them good care, both you and the plants will recover as the hours of daylight increase.
Streptocarpus are houseplants that should be watered from the bottom and kept just moist in winter, never wet.
Comments Off on Ornamental Seed Heads for Winter Garden Interest
The seedheads of Rudbeckia fulgida stay looking pretty into winter and will even hold the snow. (Photo by Jessie Keith)
Winter is the garden’s quiet time when its subtler charms hold sway. It’s the season of the three B’s – eye-catching bark, colorful berries, and architectural branching – and of evergreen foliage. And it’s also the time to appreciate the marvelous and often beautiful diversity of seed heads.
Miscanthus sinensis var. condensatus ‘Cabaret’ (Photo by Jessie Keith)
No plants better exemplify this beauty than grasses. Many produce large, elaborate flower heads that reach their full glory in fall and winter as the seeds ripen and scatter. Doubtless, the best known of the bunch (at least in eastern North American gardens) is Chinese maiden grass, Miscanthus sinensis. This variable East Asian native produces huge, plumy, silvery flower heads in late summer on 5- to 8-foot talks that erupt from fountain-like clumps of arching leaves. The ripening blooms gleam in the slanting fall and winter light, glowing most brightly when backlit by the sun.
Among the many outstanding varieties of Chinese maiden grass are the longtime favorite ‘Gracillimus’ and its descendants, all of which feature narrow leaves with silvery midribs. Broad, yellow, widely spaced bands mark the leaves of ‘Zebrinus’, which is floppier in habit than the similar ‘Strictus’. The broad-bladed, variegated Miscanthus sinensis var. condensatus ‘Cabaret’, has cream-striped leaves and reddish plumes that dry to silvery tan in fall. Compact cultivars such as the 40-inch-tall ‘Adagio’ make a good choice for tighter spaces. This (and other) grass species may self-sow, particularly in warmer parts of its USDA Zones 5 to 9 hardiness range.
Other notable grasses of winter interest (and of similar hardiness range) include:
The North American native Panicum virgatum (commonly known as switch grass), which produces hazy clouds of dainty pale flowers that darken as they ripen in fall. Most varieties grow to 4 feet or more.
Cortaderia selloana ‘Silver Comet’
Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides), instantly recognizable by its large foxtail-like flower heads on 3-to 4-foot stems above finely textured mounds of narrow leaves. Several dwarf cultivars (including ‘Little Bunny’) are available.
The upright, tassel-flowered Calamagrostis acutiflorus (feather reed grass), with bronzy blooms that mature to beige tones as they mature in late summer and fall.
Cortaderia selloana (pampas grass) is an imposing tender grass surviving in USDA hardiness zones 8-10. The tall plumes reach 8-12 feet and appear late in the season. It can seed freely, so be cautious where you plant it.
Panicum virgatum ‘Prairie Sky’ in winter (Image by Jessie Keith)
These and most other ornamental grasses flourish in relatively fertile, not overly dry soil and full sun. A good nitrogen-rich soil amendment (such as Fafard Garden Manure Blend) will help bring heavy or sandy soils up to snuff.
Purple coneflower seedheads eventually shatter as their seeds are eaten by birds, but they do offer pleasing winter interest. (Image by Jessie Keith)
Like grasses, many broadleaf perennials have attractive seed heads that make a pleasing sight in winter (particularly when displayed against a blanket of snow). Among the best perennials for winter interest are species in the aster family that bear persistent conical heads of dark seeds. The near-black central cones of perennial garden favorite Rudbeckia fulgida remain long after the last golden-yellow petals of its summer-to-fall ray-flowers have dropped. Usually sold under the name ‘Goldsturm’, it’s one of a tribe of similar ‘black-eyed Susans” from the central and eastern United States. All are easy-care sun-lovers, are hardy from zones 4 to 10, and have a penchant for self-sowing. Rudbeckia nitida, by contrast, has greenish cones (with yellow petals) on stately, 4- to 6-foot stems, and is a less enthusiastic self-sower.
Also hailing from prairies and meadows of central and eastern North America are several species of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea and others). The large brown “cones” protrude pleasingly from the snow on 2- to 4-foot stems and also look nice in summer when fringed with purple-pink ray-flowers. Hybrids and selections of purple coneflower come in a host of flower colors, from white to red to yellow.
Tall sedums continue to look attractive in the garden well into winter. (Image by Jessie Keith)
The North American prairies are home to several other perennials that make great winter garden ornaments. The silver-white, spherical flower heads of rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) ripen into spiky globes that resemble some sort of miniature medieval weaponry. They cluster atop 3-foot stems that arise from rosettes of fleshy, spiny, yucca-like leaves. False indigo (Baptisia australis) and its kin are big bushy legumes that produce blue, white, or yellow pea-flowers in late spring and early summer, followed by peapods that become leathery and brown-black as the seeds mature in fall. All make wonderful low-maintenance perennials with spring-to-winter interest.
Attractive seedpods are also a feature of the many butterfly weeds (Asclepias spp.) that dot the prairies and fields of eastern and central North America. The pods split in fall to release seeds that float away on tufts of white down. Orange-flowered Asclepias tuberosa is one of the best, as is Asclepias purpurascens, which has rose to purple blooms. Tall Sedums (Sedum spp.) of all types also grace the winter with seedheads that can remain attractive through winter. Sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) is one of the numerous Clematis species (including many shrubby and vining perennials native to central and eastern North America) that bear seeds with plumy, silver-white appendages that continue to draw onlookers long after their flowers have fallen. Heavy-blooming plants appear to be enveloped with a feathery froth as the seeds (and their plumes) mature. As with all of the above (as well as the scores of other perennials, shrubs, vines, and trees with ornamental seeds), they’re essential elements of the winter garden and splendid accents for fall and winter flower arrangements.
A double Helleborus niger hybrid lights up a late-winter garden.
Garden writers in cold winter climates often warm themselves in January and February by rhapsodizing about topics like good garden “bones”, shrubs with bright berries, and the enduring appeal of evergreens. That is all well and good, but many of us are just dying to see a flower—any flower—in the garden. And that is precisely why hellebores are so wonderful.
About Christmas and Lenten Rose
Helleborus orientalis has rosy blooms and fully evergreen leaves.
What could be better in the gray weeks after the Winter Solstice than to wade into the garden and see the large, buttercup-like flowers of the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) shining out like spring beacons? Just as the white blooms of Christmas rose begin their transition to buff pink, Lenten rose (Helleborusorientalis) unfolds its petals.
If hellebores have been on your radar in the last few years, you know that those substantial Lenten rose petals may appear in an array of colors from palest green through a range of yellows, pinks, and reds to near-black. Not only that, but they may be single or double, with rounded or pointed edges. Bi-colored varieties are common, as are those marked with alluring freckles. Hellebore leaves are usually evergreen, deeply dissected, and medium to dark green in color, depending on species. Sometimes, the foliage is even enhanced with attractive marbling or contrasting venation.
Helleborus niger has white to pale pink flowers and evergreen leaves.
Native to various parts of Europe, western Asia, and China, hellebore species, especially Christmas rose, have been on the horticultural and medicinal radar screen since ancient times.
Large-scale garden use of hellebores has taken off in the last two decades, with the plants’ popularity increasing exponentially. Part of this has to do with modern propagation methods. Traditionally hellebores were grown from seed—a slow process—or increased by dividing established clumps. Modern tissue culture (cloning) has made it much easier to produce large numbers of identical plants.
Breeding efforts in the United States, Europe, and Asia have also resulted in many new, seed-grown varieties. These have been painstakingly bred for specific traits, especially unusual coloration and double flowers.
Some Helleborus hybrids have alluring freckled flowers.
Hellebores have become catnip to gardeners who love their easy-going nature, long season of bloom and resistance to hungry deer and other garden browsers. Planted in lightly shaded spots with good drainage, most thrive with little care. Though they are reasonably drought tolerant, the plants appreciate supplemental water during dry periods. When planting, enrich the soil with organic material like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost, to give young plants a good start. Happy Lenten roses will often mature into large evergreen or partially evergreen clumps that can be used very effectively as ground covers. Their leaves can also provide good cover for the fading foliage of spring bloomers like daffodils and tulips.
Some species, like the unfortunately nicknamed “stinking hellebore” (Helleborus foetidus) also self-sow with enthusiasm.
Hellebores also perform well in spacious containers. Remember to allow enough room for plants that will reach 2-feet in diameter at maturity, and give the roots a good container medium like Fafard® Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix. Water containers regularly during summer dry spells. If space is tight, grow hellebores in plastic liner pots that can be dropped into slightly larger containers during the bloom season and removed later to make way for other flowering plants.
Other Hellebore Species
The Corsican hellebore has unusual green blooms. (Image by Jessie Keith)
Christmas and Lenten roses are the most frequently planted hellebores, but they are not the only ones available. If you are blessed with a spot that is too sunny for Lenten or Christmas roses, try Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius), which grows about 2-feet tall and wide and features large, pale green flowers and lightly marbled, leathery leaves. Mature plants can produce 20 to 30 flowers apiece.
Cloned varieties of the hybrid Eric Smith’s hellebores (Helleborus x ericsmithii) are worth growing for their foliage alone, which is adorned with silvery veining. Many of these hybrids have reddish flower stems that support outward-facing white flowers that age to pink, a testament to their Christmas rose parentage.
For maximum early-season floral impact and sequence of bloom, plant several species of Helleborus in shady garden areas. Christmas rose and its hybrids, bloom first, often followed by bear’s foot or stinking hellebore and the silvery green-leafed Corsican hellebore. The Lenten rose hybrids make a splash afterward. To get the best floral show, especially with low-growing stemless types like Christmas and Lenten rose, clip off old, ragged-looking leaves to allow blossoms and new growth to shine forth.
Berries and interesting tree bark of the winter landscape are lovely, but hellebores make a mid-winter garden party.
Ginger root offers one of the most classic holiday flavors. (image by Anna Frodesiak)
Chilly winter holidays call for warm spices, especially spice rack all-stars like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. Over the centuries these kitchen staples have inspired their share of drama–sparking wars, financial speculation and great journeys of exploration. That’s a lot to contemplate as you stir up a batch of holiday gingerbread.
Mostly though, holiday spices conjure memories of delicious tastes and aromas. A few of us get our holiday spices from specialty vendors, but the majority of us buy them in jars from the grocery store. Those spice jars may be small, but when you open them, the aromas and tastes will transport you to kitchens in every era and all parts of the world.
Most don’t know that cinnamon stick is the inner bark of a tree. (image by Bertrand Thiry)
Sweet, richly flavored cinnamon comes from the inner bark of several trees in the Cinnamomum genus. Arguably, the best cinnamon is Cinnamomum verum, native to Sri Lanka, and sometimes labeled as “Ceylon” cinnamon. Supermarket cinnamon is derived from the more assertively flavored bark of the related cassia cinnamon tree.
Prized from ancient times, cinnamon is sold either in sticks (called “quills”) or ground form. It is an integral part of the spice mixtures sold as “apple pie spice” and “pumpkin pie spice”. Cinnamon loves company, especially fruits of many kinds, not to mention chocolate and coffee. It has been used in just about every kind of pastry, sweet bread, and dessert—from comforting cinnamon rolls to rice pudding—as well as in savory dishes like tagines and biryanis.
Gingerbread tastes like the holidays. (image by Jessie Keith)
Ginger or ginger root, with its sweet/sharp flavor, comes from the rhizome of a tropical plant, Zingiber officinale, native to Southeast Asia. It can be used in many forms—fresh, dried, candied and crystallized. Everyone is familiar with its holiday star turn in gingersnaps and gingerbread, but it is also integral to German pfeffernüsse cookies. Crystalized ginger makes a great after-dinner sweet after heavy holiday meals. With its heat and sparkle, ginger works well with apples, pears, plums, and pumpkin.
If you live in a frost-free climate or have warm indoor space, you might want to try growing ginger at home. Start with a plump, fresh grocery store ginger root. If you grow your ginger in a container, fill it with a rich, high-quality potting mix like Fafard® Professional Potting Mix with Resilience™. Soak the rhizome for a few hours, then plant, barely covering it with potting mix.
Place in a sunny spot indoors or light shade outdoors, water regularly, and the ginger will eventually develop long, strap-like leaves. In about eight months you can harvest bits of the root, but it will take a year or two for the plant to sprout tall spikes of colorful flowers. In cold weather climates, bring ginger plants indoors before the first frosts and mist regularly to compensate for dry winter air.
Eggnog, gingerbread, and other holiday treats get their great flavor from holiday spices.
The word “nutmeg” inspires visions of eggnog, custards and fruit pies, but its range is actually much wider. Familiar in whole and ground form, aromatic nutmeg is the seed of a tree, Myristica fragrans, native to the Banda Islands of present-day Indonesia. Nutmeg is inextricably linked to another spice, mace, which is made from the lacy red covering of the nutmeg seed.
Dairy products get along famously with nutmeg in sweet or savory dishes. Cooking guru, Julia Child used it liberally in her classic recipe for spinach quiche and also added a grating of fresh nutmeg to traditional béchamel sauce. On the sweet side, nutmeg is lovely in fruitcakes, bread pudding, quick bread and just about anything made with pumpkin, squash or sweet potatoes.
Pomanders make great natural gifts. (image by Wendy Piersall)
Like nutmeg, cloves are produced by a tree native to the Indonesian island group once known as the “Spice Islands”. The cloves that we make into pomanders or insert in the rind of baked ham are actually dried, unopened flower buds harvested from an evergreen tree, Syzygium aromaticum. Cloves share membership in the myrtle family with allspice, a frequent traveling companion in holiday recipes.
Like ginger, cloves have a sharpness and piquancy that is a particularly good complement to rich, unctuous flavors, like beef or pork. They are also a stock ingredient in spice blends for mulling cider or wine. Pear and plum dishes benefit from a hint of clove, while spice and fruit cakes would lack depth without them. Use cloves—whole or ground–carefully, the little buds pack a flavor wallop.
Fresh spices taste best when ground or grated just before use. Store them in sealed containers away from direct sunlight. Ground spices lose flavor fairly rapidly, so use them up, lest they remain to haunt the cupboard like the ghosts of holidays past.
A number of hardy tree species possess bark that is eye-catchingly handsome, particularly in winter, when most everything else in the garden is dressed in frostbitten drab. Such trees are essential for bringing defining structure and color and texture to the winter landscape.
East Asian maple
The maples have given us a number of trees that possess arresting bark, including the iconic paperbark maple (Acer griseum). In its best forms, this highly variable Chinese native slowly matures into a 25- to 35-foot, round-headed specimen with polished, flaking, cinnamon-brown bark that is especially striking when frosted with snow. The three-parted leaves assume sunset tones rather late in fall.
Paperbark maple interbreeds with another trifoliate East Asian maple, Acer nikoense, to produce hybrids with finely shredded bark of a somewhat paler cinnamon-brown. A third species in the three-leaved maple tribe, Acer triflorum, has shaggily flaking, silvery- to creamy-gray bark. It, too, is a small to medium tree, perfectly sized for most residential gardens in USDA Cold Hardiness Zones 5b to 8. Sunny or lightly shaded sites work best.
Snake-bark maples constitute another group well worth growing for their colorful stems. Arguably the most beautiful is red-vein maple, Acer rufinerve. Some selections of this fast-growing, medium-sized tree have luminous lime-green bark marked with paler longitudinal fissures. Abundant, colorfully winged fruits dangle from the branches late summer and early fall. This Japanese native is closely related to our native moosewood (Acer pensylvanicum), which is sometimes represented in gardens by the red-stemmed cultivar ‘Erythrocladum’. Both do well in sun or partial shade.
Like the maples, the genus Stewartia is centered in temperate East Asia and eastern North America and contains several species with beautiful bark. The best known, Stewartia pseudocamellia, bears white, camellia-like flowers in early summer, and oval leaves that go fiery in fall. Its most notable feature, however, is its multicolored bark, which exfoliates into mottled patches of gray and bronze and pinkish-tan. Other, far lesser known stewartias (including Stewartia rostrata and S. sinensis) are also beautifully mottled. Also noteworthy is Stewartia monadelpha, a relatively slight species whose bark resembles that of paperbark maple. All these stewartias are small, rather spreading trees that make good choices for sunny to partly shaded niches in modest-sized gardens. Most are hardy to USDA Zone 5b.
A diverse species that occurs over a wide range of Asia in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, lacebark elm (Ulmus parvifolia) has given rise to numerous cultivars, including some dwarf selections that make ideal bonsai subjects. For the garden, forms with exfoliating bark are undoubtedly the most desirable, their trunks maturing into a stewartia-like patchwork. All forms flourish in full sun, and most will weather USDA Zone 5b conditions.
Also notable for its showy patchwork bark (and also hardy into USDA Zone 5b) is a medium-sized tree from the witch-hazel family, Parrotia persica. Typically multi-stemmed and wide-spreading, it bears leaves that resemble common witch-hazel and produces curious little early spring flowers composed of clusters of purple stamens. Fall color is often a spectacular blaze of orange, red, and smoky purple, with the brightest coloration occurring in full sun.
One of the best ornamental trees for sunny niches in especially chilly regions (USDA zones 3 to 6), Amur chokecherry (Prunus maackii) grows rapidly into a medium-sized tree with lustrous, shredding, tawny-orange bark that fairly glows in the winter landscape. Rounded clusters of white flowers open in spring and are followed by small black fruits. Although relatively short-lived and prone to damage from heavy wet snow and ice, it is still unsurpassed as a four-season tree for cold-climate gardens.
A. nikoense x A. griseum
Peking Tree Lilac
The Peking tree lilac (Syringa pekinensis) resembles Amur chokecherry both in its exceptional cold-hardiness (USDA zones 3 to 7) and in the exfoliating, coppery bark of its finest forms (such as ‘Copper Curls’). But this variable Manchurian native offers greater longevity and clay-soil tolerance, as well as a bevy of fleecy, fragrant early-summer flowers. Typically multi-stemmed, it grows at a moderate rate to 20 to 30 feet tall, prospering in most soils in full sun.
Copper-tinged bark and USDA Zone 3 hardiness are also among the virtues of another small tree from the harsh climes of Manchuria, Maackia amurensis. Amur maackia’s bark is remarkable not only for its rust-brown coloration but also for the diamond-shaped exfoliations that decorate its surface, inviting closer inspection. Upright candelabras of dull white flowers deck its branches in early summer. The pinnately compound foliage of this single-stemmed, round-crowned, leguminous tree is an attractive dark green in summer but offers little in the way of fall color. Growth is slow, even in ideal conditions (full sun and fertile, well-drained soil).
Plant one of these trees with beautiful winter bark next spring, and it will bring much-needed color and presence to the garden next winter (and for years to come). To get it off to a good start, give it a planting hole that’s about the same depth as the root ball, and three times as wide. Amend the backfilled soil with a bit of balanced fertilizer, as well as a humus-rich amendment such as Fafard Natural & Organic Compost Blend if the soil is excessively sandy or heavy.
‘Bosc’ is a very old variety with French/Belgian origins.
Many of the finest pears (Pyrus communis) for growing and eating are harvested to perfection in the winter months. The fruits of the best become juicy, even buttery when fully ripe. Soon they will be showing up at orchard stands and farmers markets for fresh eating and cooking, but the trees are just as easily grown at home if you have the time and space to commit. In just a few years, a good sized tree will begin producing fruits.
Like most popular tree fruits, such as cherries, apples, peaches and plums, pears are members of the rose family (Rosaceae). They originate from to Eurasia where their fruits have been gathered and cultivated since pre-history times. In fact, they are one of the oldest grown fruits with an estimated 3000-year-old cultivation history. Currently, 3000 cultivated varieties exist—offering fruits of different colors, sizes, flavors and textures, but only a handful are common in cultivation.
Popular pear varieties are prized for good growth and quality fruit production suited for commercial distribution. And, many are winter pears, producing their best crops from late fall through to midwinter, depending on where they are grown. These popular pears have familiar names, such as ‘Bosc’, ‘Seckle’ and ‘Comice’ (aka. ‘Doyenné du Comice’), to name a few; these and other top winter varieties are easily purchased from quality nursery vendors. The characteristics that make them special are embodied by their fruit.
A mix of winter pears
Bosc is a very old pear variety with French/Belgian origins that was first grown in the US in the early nineteenth century. Also called ‘Buerré Bosc’, its teardrop-shaped russet-brown fruit develops a very buttery texture along with juicy sweetness and heady pear fragrance when ripe. The fruits are popularly grown in the Pacific Northwest were they are harvested from mid fall through to early spring. The trees are known to be very productive.
The firm-fleshed ‘Concorde’ is shaped like a ‘Bosc’ but has green skin and distinctly sweet flesh that resists browning. Its firmer flesh makes it perfect for baking and poaching. A popular pear produced from fall to mid-winter, it is a newer hybrid cross of two classic pear varieties, ‘Conference’ and ‘Comice’. The disease-resistant trees are recommended for growers wishing to grow organically.
The classic ‘Comice’ pear is an old French variety known for its sweet, melting flavor and texture when ripe. This stout, fleshy pear has green skin flushed with red and its white flesh is very soft and juicy when ripe. It is best reserved for fresh eating and first becomes available in early fall, though it is also considered a favorite holiday pear. The fireblight resistant trees are productive and bear fruit very late in the season.
Winter pears are the latest to produce fruit. (photo care of the USDA, ARS)
A very old variety that originates from Germany, ‘Forelle’ has very sweet fruit with soft, juicy flesh and green fruit with distinctive red speckling (“Forelle” means “trout” and refers to the speckling). The fruits are produced in quantity by the vigorous trees and are great for fresh eating.
A juicy eating pear with soft flesh and beautiful reddish skin, ‘Magness’ is an American variety developed in the 1960s. The trees are very disease resistant and productive.
Pear trees may be grafted on dwarf root stock to keep trees smaller in stature, but typically pears trees are moderately sized, upright, pyramidal, deciduous trees that are hardy and native to temperate regions. Unlike some other fruit trees, they are often very long lived. The trees produce white blossoms in spring. Varieties may bloom in early-, late- or mid-season. It is essential to know when yours will bloom because most pears require a pollinizer (another tree for fruit pollination) to produce fruit. The fragrant, white, five-petaled are attractive to bees. Fruits are ready to eat 90 to 200 days after pollination, depending on the type. Fruit may be produced from midsummer to early winter, depending on the variety.
Before planting a pear tree, amend with compost and add a little extra for top dressing.
Pears grow fruit best in full sun and require good to average soil with ample drainage. Newly planted trees benefit from soil amendment at planting and the application of mulch around their base. We recommend amending and top dressing with Fafard Compost Blend. When choosing a variety, be sure to choose a disease and pest resistant variety, as many are sensitive to ailments, particularly fireblight.
The holidays are the best time to enjoy winter pears, whether fresh or cooked. USA Pears has the best collection of pear recipes to be found. For the holiday season, I recommend checking out their Bread Stuffing with Pears, Bacon and Caramelized Onions, Almond Pear Tart (gluten free), Pear and Arugula Pesto Stuffed Chicken, or Mache, Pear, and Wild Mushroom Salad.
Fall or spring are the best time to plant pear trees. Choosing winter varieties will ensure that you will have something sweet to look forward to in the later months of the season when the harvest is waning and holidays are just around the corner.
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