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Simply Beautiful Stewartia

In spring, when everything bursts into flower, the world is full of trees in bloom.  But springtime is also the time to plan and plant ahead for the season, anticipating flowering trees and shrubs with a different time of bloom, like Stewartias. Their large, ivory, Camellia-like flowers would be worthy of a spring show, but they arrive in late summer when gardens are in need of their beauty.

The fact is, stewartias are welcome landscape additions at just about any time, and you can find one to fit just about any size garden. They are also plants that are showy in all seasons, whether in flower or not. Their mottled bark and beautiful statuesque habits are always lovely, and in the fall you can anticipate colorful leaves. Here are some of the best of these well-behaved Asian trees and shrubs.

Japanese Stewartia

Bees pollinate the blooms of Japanese Stewartia and other species.

If you have the room, Japanese stewartia (Stewartia japonica) is an all-around great tree that offers four seasons of interest. Growing between 20 and 40 feet tall, with a pyramidal canopy, its branches have slightly toothed, ovoid leaves that are a cooling dark green during the growing season. In the fall, they flame up in shades of yellow, red, and burgundy, putting on a great show.

Before all of that foliage drama, Japanese stewartia flaunts its family relationship with camellias by pumping out beautiful, white, Camellia-like flowers.  Each bloom is at least 2 inches wide and features five to eight petals surrounding a center of golden-orange stamens. While only minimally fragrant, the flowers are maximally elegant and borne abundantly on trees that are hardy to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5-8. 

Japanese Stewartia develops fantastic mottled bark as it ages.

In the colder months, when both leaves and flowers are things of the past, Japanese stewartia continues to shine with multi-colored, exfoliating bark.  This bark, which peels gradually from the tree, looks a little like camouflage, but a lot more interesting, with patches of gray, sepia, tawny orange-brown, and taupe covering the trunk. It is a feast for the eyes at all times, but especially in seasons when visual interest may be at a premium.

Tall Stewartia

The large-leaved tall stewartia can reach 25 feet at maturity.

Tall stewartia (Stewartia monodelpha) is another native of Japan, hardy to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6-8, with characteristics similar to those of Japanese stewartia.  Young plants have a somewhat shrubby habit, but assume a tree form with age, reaching up to 25 feet tall in height.  Tall stewartia features large, dark-green leaves that turn deep red in the fall.  The bark does not exfoliate as colorfully as that of Japanese stewartia, but as the tree ages, the bark smoothes out and turns a stunning shade of cinnamon brown. The camellia-like flowers are more cupped in shape than those of other stewartias and sport attractive anthers in their centers.

Chinese Stewartia

Chinese stewartia is relatively compact. (Image by Kathering Wagner-Reiss)

Chinese stewartia (Stewartia sinenesis), which is hardy to Zones 5-7, can be grown in tree or shrub form.  Left to its own devices, it will reach 15 to 25 feet tall, but like other stewartias, it can be kept smaller when pruned after flowering.  The white flowers are somewhat smaller than those of Japanese stewartia but are profuse and surrounded by leaves that are reddish when emerging in spring, dark green in summer, and red again in the fall.  The cinnamon-brown bark exfoliates in strips to reveal smooth, tan underbark, sometimes with pinkish overtones. 

Mountain Stewartia

The  Asian stewartias have American cousins, the best known is Stewartia ovata, sometimes known as mountain stewartia or mountain camellia.  Native to the southeastern United States, and hardy to Zones 5-9, it is a little smaller than Japanese stewartia with a height and spread of 10 to 15 feet.  It also excels in versatility because it can be grown as a tree or a multi-stemmed shrub.  Like its Japanese relative and true to its common name, it features Camellia-like flowers and leaves that glow red and orange in the fall.  Its gray-brown bark, while attractively ridged and furrowed, does not exfoliate like that of the Japanese species.  Still, for those hankering for stewartias, but confined to smaller spaces, mountain stewartia is an excellent choice.

Stewartia Relatives

Franklinia blooms are attractive to lots of different pollinators.

Stewartia and camellia are both members of the Theaceae or tea family.  Their equally beautiful relatives include the all-American Franklinia tree (Franklinia alatamaha), which was discovered in Colonial America and now extinct in the wild. Specimens of this beautiful small tree can be found at many botanical gardens and arboreta. They are also available at select garden centers.

All the stewartias make excellent stand-alone specimens, but can also anchor partly shaded garden beds, and situations that resemble their native habitats at the edges of wooded areas. They thrive best in rich, consistently moist soil and locations that are protected from harsh winds.  To get a young specimen off to a good start, mix the soil in the planting hole with a nutritious soil amendment like Fafard Premium Topsoil, which is ideal for boosting the soil of newly planted trees and shrubs.  Water regularly while the plants establish sturdy root systems and mulch generously around, but not touching the plants’ trunks or main stems.

Easy Vegetables to Grow from Seed

Home vegetable gardening is riding a wave of popularity that is probably unprecedented since the Victory Gardens of World War II.  Salad greens are sprouting on rooftops and potatoes in patio containers.  Home-grown tomatoes seem to be popping up in every other suburban yard.  Explosions of summer zucchini are detonating in community gardens and front roadside “hell strips”.

If you want to get in on that kind of action, but find the prospect a little intimidating, it’s best to start relatively small and simple.  Growing vegetables from seed is inexpensive and easy, provided you pick types that are easy to grow. 

The best advice for beginners is to start with something that you like to eat and don’t go too big.  Shepherding a few vegetables successfully from seed to harvest will give you the confidence to venture further into vegetable gardening in successive seasons.

A few other helpful hints…Make sure the seeds you buy are packaged for the current growing season, not saved over from the last one.  Fresh seed always has a higher germination rate.  Amend your garden soil before planting with a nutritious mixture like Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost.   If you are growing your veggies in containers, use a potting mix that will start your seeds off on the right foot. Fafard Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed will do the job nicely.

Bountiful Squash from Seed

Most bush zucchini produce in as little as 45 days from seed!

Summer squashes, like zucchini and crookneck squash, are a boon to the novice grower, with big seeds, vigorous habits, showy flowers, and bountiful production.  While seeds can be started indoors, in many places summer squashes will do just fine if they are directly sown in a sunny spot with rich soil or, if they are bush-types, in a large container. Be sure to determine whether squash is vining or bushy before planting. Bush squash are compact while vining forms can reach enormous lengths. Trellising is an option.

Warm soil is a must, so check your area’s last frost date to find out when it is generally safe to plant. (Click here to identify your last frost date by zip code.)

Plant two to three seeds in small hills of soil. Plant them at a depth equal to about two times the width of the seed.  Squashes crave space, so keep those hills separated by at least several feet, depending on the final size of the squash variety.  When the seedlings appear, thin out the weakest one or seedlings by either pulling them out or snipping them off.  Leave the strongest. Water regularly, especially if rain is sparse, but do not drown the plants.  If the top of the soil is wet, and you’ve experienced good rains, skip the watering.

It is important to collar newly sprouted seedlings to keep birds and cutworms from cutting the seedlings from the base and killing them. Seedling collars are easy to make from paper cups, toilet paper rolls, and other materials. (Click here to learn more.)

Check leaves for evidence of pests and disease. Large pests can be picked off by hand.  Squash vine borers are a common problem that every squash grower must learn about (click here for management details). If powdery mildew, a fungal disease, appears, remove the affected leaves and spray the remaining foliage with either Neem oil or a solution of one tablespoon of baking soda per gallon of water mixed with a few drops of liquid dish soap.

Check seed packages for time from germination to harvest, but expect fruit in 45 to 60 days. Bushy varieties produce the earliest.

Tons of Tomatoes from Seed

Train your tomatoes for easy care and harvest. Compact bush varieties are recommended for beginners.

Growing tomatoes from seed offers you a chance to choose from the scores of available varieties—large, small, modern, heirloom, red, green, yellow, or orange.  None are really hard to grow, but many sources suggest determinate (bush) salad or cherry tomato varieties for beginners. Indeterminate (vining) tomatoes are the most productive but reach huge heights and require quite a bit of management, and large-fruited varieties are often more demanding. Cherry tomatoes feature bite-size fruit and bush types are great for container growing because they stop growing once they have reached a certain size and produce only a set number of flowers and fruit thereafter.  Much of the fruit develops at the same time, but harvests can be still quite large. Good disease resistance makes growing even easier. (Click here for a great list of determinate tomatoes from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and click here for our top 10 list of the best-tasting cherry tomatoes.)

Those harvests will come sooner if you start tomatoes indoors in cell packs or other small containers at least six to eight weeks before the last frost date for your area.  Make sure those containers have drainage holes.  Fill the small pots with moistened potting mix and plant two or three seeds per cell or container, following directions on the seed pack.  Place on trays that can hold water and position in a warm location a bright grow light or South-facing window.  To avoid seedling rot disease, water from the bottom, letting the plants absorb water through their drainage holes. (Click here for more tomato seed-starting tips.)

When outdoor conditions are right, with night temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, take the trays outside and place them in a sheltered spot to acclimate the seedlings.  After a few days of this, plant the seedlings in a location that receives at least six hours of sun per day–eight hours or more is better.  Keep the soil consistently moist, stake or your plants or support with tomato cages, and watch for pests. (Click here to learn more about tomato pest and disease management.)

Great Greens from Seed

Spinach is a true cool-season green that grows succulent leaves in a flash.

Greens, including the various varieties of lettuce, spinach, and Swiss chard, are among the easiest veggies to grow from seed, and many varieties are as beautiful as they are nutritious.  Lettuce and spinach love the cooler temperatures of spring and fall, while chard thrives in summer. 

Sow lettuce seeds when outdoor temperatures reach about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and space about 2 inches apart in rows that are separated by about 12 inches. Cover with the thinnest possible amount of soil, because lettuce seeds need light to germinate.  Keep soil uniformly moist and harvest lettuce either as baby greens or mature leaves.  For a continuous harvest, sow smaller amounts of lettuce seed at weekly intervals in spring and very late summer. (Click here to discover ten great lettuce varieties for gardens.)

Larger and leafier, spinach and chard are delicious either raw or cooked.  Plant spinach first, as soon as possible after the last frost date.  Both types of greens should be planted shallowly—about one-quarter inch deep in rows at least 18 inches apart.  Both also need thinning.  Thin spinach seedlings to a maximum of 6 inches apart and the larger chard plants to a minimum of 6 inches apart.  Spinach can also be sown in late summer for a fall harvest.

Growing vegetables can be so satisfying that many gardeners catch the “veggie bug” after the first successful growing season and branch out into multiple varieties in successive years.  Be prepared!

Celebrate the Wintery Beauty of Florist’s Cyclamen

Even when not in bloom, cyclamen leaves continue to look lovely.

Florists’ cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum hybrids) is a great imposter.  Despite the Latin name persicum, they are not from Persia (modern-day Iran) but hailed from nearby countries, including Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Algeria, and Tunisia. Though the graceful flowers might make you think of orchids, cyclamens actually reside in the primrose family, Primulaceae.  The leaves are also cleverly disguised, with patterning that might be mistaken for marble or damask fabric.

Subterfuge aside, florists’ cyclamens beguile holiday plant buyers with their ravishing good looks, and every winter multitudes of them find their way into homes, offices, houses of worship, and other public and private spaces.

Cyclamen with Dancing Flowers and Swirling Leaves

Rising 6 to 10 inches tall and equally wide, cyclamen plants dazzle with basal mounds of heart-shaped leaves marbled in silvery shades.  They almost swirl before your eyes. Slender stems support nodding buds that resemble tightly furled umbrellas. Once open, each bloom features five backswept petals that may be pink, red, violet, lavender, white, or in combinations of two or more of these colors.  The petal edges are either smooth or exuberantly ruffled.  The combination of swaying stems and vibrant colors has led more than one observer to liken a pot of cyclamen in full bloom to a flock of butterflies. 

Cyclamen’s Wild Ancestors

Cyclamen persicum is the primary wildflower descendent to most cultivated Cyclamen.

In the beginning, Cyclamen persicum was a pretty wildflower that barely hinted at the charms of its modern domestic descendants.  The species made it to Europe around 1700, but breeders first took an interest in them in the early nineteenth century and have been working on them ever since. Most breeding occurs in England, continental Europe, and Japan.  All of that breeding and propagating work set the stage for cyclamens to burst onto the mass-merchandising scene nearly 50 years ago.

New Cyclamens Get Bigger and Better

Bigger flowers in more diverse color combinations are sought by plant breeders.

Consumers have always loved big flowers, so breeders have made that trait a priority.  Once they bulked the flowers up, plantsmen produced larger plants with a wider range of flower colors.  Double flowers and those with contrasting picotee petal edges also emerged from the selective breeding process. Each year it seems that the flowers get bigger, bolder, and more numerous.

Fragrant Cyclamen

One trait that was all but lost in the breeding process was fragrance. But that began to change around 2000, when hybridizers started crossing Cyclamen persicum with a fragrant Mediterranean species, Cyclamen purpurascens.  The resulting plants were somewhat smaller than standard florists’ cyclamen, but boasted pronounced fragrance, sometimes reminiscent of roses. Now scented varieties are available in many places—to find them just follow your nose in the greenhouse section of a well-stocked nursery or garden center.  One beautiful and fragrant variety to look for is the exceptional, hard-to-find, Cyclamen purpurascens ‘Green Ice’.

Holiday Cyclamen Care

With the right care, cyclamen make reliable, lovely house plants.

Fragrant or not, all florists’ cyclamens need care once they arrive home from the store. “Care” means removing the decorative foil around the pot and positioning it in a cool place with bright, indirect light. A surplus of direct sun will caused scorched leaves.

If you want to repot it after the holidays, use a quality medium like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed, and make sure the top of the root ball is level with the top of the soil in the new container. (Click here for an overview about how to repot house plants.) High humidity is a plus, so mist regularly or place the pot atop a saucer filled with pebbles. Add water to the saucer, but make sure the base of the pot is not submerged. Cyclamen appreciate moisture but detest wet feet. Water when the top of the soil is dry and aim the spout of your watering can around the edges of the pot. 

Post-Holiday Cyclamen Care

Even when not in bloom, cyclamen have decorative leaves.

With proper care, a cyclamen with some open flowers and a few buds should bloom for three or more weeks. Once the bloom period is over, gradually cut down on watering. It is not uncommon for plants to go into a natural dormancy in summer, which corresponds to a summer dry period to which they are acclimated. This is the point when most people throw a cyclamen out, thinking that it has died. Instead of doing that, you may want to try for a second cyclamen act. 

Move the pot to a cool, moderately dry location for a few weeks and then, attempt a resurrection by soaking the soil thoroughly and bringing the pot back to a spot with bright, indirect light. Wait until you see signs of sprouting before watering again, and resume a regular watering schedule. Feed with commercial houseplant fertilizer according to package directions. With a bit of luck, the cyclamen will begin its growth cycle anew.

If for some reason the cyclamen has actually died, skip the guilt and purchase another one.  The death was probably not your fault.  When thousands of plants are raised in a carefully controlled environment, and forced into bloom at a specific time, they may not have a second season’s worth of energy. Ironically, in the Victorian language of flowers, cyclamens, which seem so bright and cheerful during the winter, are symbolic of goodbyes. 

Cyclamen buds look like closed umbrellas.

Festive Garden Fruits and Berries of Fall

Beautyberries offer one of the most brilliant and memorable shows of fall and there are many species from which to choose.

Depending on where you live, October can be a time when the last of the late summer and early fall color is fading from the garden.  The asters are almost finished, the goldenrod is going, and most of the color comes from potted mums and Halloween pumpkins.

But your landscape does not have to succumb to drabness. There is an answer to the color dilemma—shrubs and trees with eye-catching fruits or berries.  Taking center stage with gem-like red, black, purple, or yellow fruit, these plants multi-task by beautifying the garden while providing food for birds and small animals.   The following species and varieties are among the best investments for the four-season landscape.

Passionate Purple Beautyberry

Beautyberries will remain on the shrubs after the leaves fall until they get snapped up by birds.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa ssp.) more than lives up to its name, with clusters of vivid purple berries hugging the stems, which also bear ovoid, slightly toothed green leaves.   A member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, deciduous beautyberry boasts bronze spring foliage, small pink summer flowers, and fall berries–all on graceful, arching stems.   There are several species of beautyberry available commercially.  Among the most popular is ‘Profusion’; a variety of Bodinier’s beautyberry (Callicarpa bodinieri), which is celebrated for its heavy crops of fall berries.  Hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 through 8,  ‘Profusions’ grows 4 to 6 feet tall and wide, perfect for use as a specimen plant, an anchor in a large garden bed, or en masse to form a noteworthy hedge. Other available species include native American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana),  which is slightly more heat-tolerant than other species and hardy in zones 6 through 10; the slightly smaller purple beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma), hardy in zones 5 through 8; and  Japanese beautyberry (Callicarpa japonica), hardy in the same USDA Hardiness Zones.  All will thrive in full sun to light shade and can withstand clay soil.  They should be pruned back in late winter for health and appearance’s sake.

A Non-Traditional American Cranberry

American cranberries simply glow against their red and purple changing foliage.

The universe of beautiful viburnums is large, but highbush cranberry, also known as cranberry viburnum or American cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum), is one of the loveliest in autumn.  It is not a true cranberry but bears edible fall fruit in a brilliant shade of red.  As the name suggests, highbush cranberry is native to North America and grows large—8 to 12 feet tall and wide—but delivers a lot in return for that significant investment of garden space.  In spring the shrubs sport flat-topped flower clusters reminiscent of Queen Anne’s lace, followed by dark green leaves, with three lobes apiece and an appearance akin to maple foliage.  The leaves sometimes color up in fall before disappearing, but the crimson berries tend to outshine them. 

Highbush cranberry is hardy in zones 2 through 7,  performs well in full sun to light shade, and can survive cold winters.  The flowers are beloved by butterflies and the fruits are attractive to birds.  Humans can use them in much the same way as true cranberries—in jams, jellies, and confections.

Golden Crabapples

Golden Harvest crabapples literally glow on the branches after the leaves fall and birds love them.

All flowering crabapple trees (Malus spp.) are beautiful, and, at anywhere from 6 to 20 feet tall, depending on variety, compact enough for many home landscapes.  They flower in spring in a frothy burst of pink buds that open to pink or white blossoms, with single or double rows of petals.  Some never fruit, but many crown the fall season with small round apples in shades of pink to rosy red.  The much-loved Sargeant crabapple (Malus sargentii),  is a dwarf variety that can be grown as a large shrub or standardized as a small tree, is one of the red-fruited varieties. It is hardy in zones 4 through 7. 

Red is heartening, but yellow or gold-fruited crabapples are especially dramatic.  Cultivars like the rosy gold fruits of ‘Golden Harvest’, clear golden yellow fruits of ‘Golden Raindrops‘, and the larger, edible, golden crabapples of ‘Golden Hornet’, which is also a Royal Horticultural Society award winner. All are hardy to zones 4 through 8  and produce abundant, showy fruits that are beloved of birds and humans.

Crabapple fruits are not as persistent as some fall berries but are beautiful while they last.  Many varieties also feature leaves that color up in the fall, prolonging the brilliant show.

Flowering crabs are tolerant trees, able to flourish in clay soil and withstand drought, once established in sunny locations.  Prune to shape in late winter.

Brilliant Chokeberry

Brillant chokeberry has colorful fruits and its leaves turn from green to red in fall. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Chokeberry is an unattractive name for a very attractive, deciduous flowering and fruiting shrub.  Aronia melanocarpa, known as black chokeberry, is the most common chokeberry in commerce.  A member of the rose or Rosaceae family, black chokeberry is native to the eastern half of North America and is hardy in zones 3 through 8. 

In the spring, the shrub starts with small clusters of five-petaled white flowers, which lure bees and other pollinators.  These give way to glossy black fruits in the fall.  If the birds do not get them all, the fruits may persist after frost.  Though edible, they are sour but can be cooked and sweetened to make jellies, relishes, and other dishes.  Chokeberry fruits share the spotlight with the leaves, which turn red-purple in fall before dropping from the plants.  Black chokeberry is the smallest of the Aronia species at three to six feet tall and wide. 

Black chokeberry has edible fruits and brilliant orange-red fall leaf color.

Chokeberry lovers who crave red fruits can invest in Aronia arbutifolia or red chokeberry, which grows 6 to 10 feet tall and 3 to 6 feet wide and is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 through 9.  A slightly more cold-hardy black chokeberry/red chokeberry hybrid, Aronia x prunifolia produces dark purple fruits on shrubs that grow 8 to twelve feet tall and 6 to 9 feet wide. It is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 7.

Chokeberries are suckering shrubs that can form thickets if left untended.  They crave consistent moisture and are happy in moist or even swampy spots, including pond or stream edges.

Giving Fruiting Trees and Shrubs a Good Start

Beautyberry, highbush cranberry, crabapple, and chokeberry are relatively unfussy plants but benefit from a good start.  Site in sunny locations and amend the soil at planting time with nutritious Fafard Garden Manure Blend.  Water regularly to establish root systems, and keep chokeberries irrigated during dry spells. (Click here for a full guide to properly siting and planting shrubs and trees.)

Garden-Path Fillers: Plants for Cracks and Crevices

Sedums (Sedum spurium shown), thyme, and even a little blue rug juniper act to fill and cover the crevices in this appealing rocky garden path.

Nature abhors bare ground and will happily (and quickly) cover even the smallest bare spaces with weeds.  Keeping those weeds at bay in the cracks and crevices between pavers, stepping stones, or along rock walls can be a perpetual battle. 

It doesn’t have to be that way.

There are plenty of tough, beautiful, neat spreading plants that are small enough to fit into cracks and crevices.  Some have appealing flowers and more than a few sport fragrant foliage. Leaf textures vary from fern-like to fleshy and succulent. 

Depending on the situation, the following plants will beautify those hard-to-fill spaces and end the battle of the crevice weeds.

Soft Greens: Alluring Faux Mosses

Sagina subulata remains pretty and green between these pavers and tolerates foot traffic.

Irish and Scottish mosses (varieties of Sagina subulata and Arenaria verna) are not true mosses at all, but diminutive members of the carnation or Caryophyllaceae family. Thriving in full sun to partial shade, the two moss-like species form mats of thin, creeping stems covered with soft, tiny leaves in green (most often in Irish moss) or golden-green (most often in Scotch moss). In spring, Sagina varieties are adorned with single white flowers, while Arenaria bear their blooms in clusters. Rising to a height of only about one inch tall, the plants tolerate light foot traffic and are generally hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4-8.

Thyme for Fragrance

Thyme is a very effective evergreen stone crevice filler that bears spring flowers and season-long fragrance.

Some avid gardeners make entire lawns of fragrant thyme species and varieties, but the plants are also great crevice fillers. Many will do the job, but all like excellent drainage and full sunshine. Among the most popular are elfin thyme (Thymus serpyllum) and mother-of-thyme (Thymus praecox), which share other nicknames that include creeping thyme, wild thyme, and others. The European natives belong to the mint, or Lamiaceae family and are related to common culinary thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and are equally edible. Growing only about 1/4 inch tall and spreading up to one foot, each plant features scores of tiny, ovoid leaves, with the characteristic thyme fragrance. 

The flowers, appearing in June or July, are deep pink in Thymus serpylluum and somewhat lighter in Thymus praecox. Thriving in USDA Zones 4 or 5-8, the perennial plants will attract butterflies and pollinators, but not deer, and will withstand foot traffic. In mild climates, thymes are evergreen.

Creeping Speedwells

Turkish speedwell (Veronica liwanensis) becomes covered with violet-blue flowers in spring.

Though not real thyme, thyme-leaf speedwell (Veronica oltensis) shares thyme’s ground-covering nature. The tiny leaves of these snapdragon relatives are evergreen on plants that rise to only 1 inch in height.  Thyme-leaf speedwell’s crowning glory is the tiny blue flowers that cover the plants in spring. Blooming and spreading best in full sun and flourishing in zones 4-9, the plants can withstand low water conditions once they are established. Equally drought-tolerant Turkish speedwell (Veronica liwanensis) is another great solution for cracks between bricks or pavers. The characteristically tiny leaves are glossy green and the plants are quick to establish because the stems root as they travel.  Periwinkle-blue flowers appear in late spring on plants that grow 1 to 2 inches tall and are hardy in zones 3-9.

For something different and cheerful, little Veronica repens, or creeping veronica, is perfect. The foliage is dense and golden on plants that grow 1 to 2 inches tall. Creeping veronica is evergreen in southern gardens and thrives in zones 4-8.

Steppable Sedums

Creeping sedums of all types grow beautifully in crevices. Evergreen forms are most desirable for their year-long coverage.

Always in vogue, some succulent sedums also make excellent crevice-fillers. One terrific choice for larger cracks or spaces is Caucasian stonecrop (Sedum spurium), also known as two-row stonecrop, which grows to about 3 inches tall, with a spread of up to 18 inches. Its leaves are deciduous, but dense roots hold soil between cracks through winter. The fleshy leaves of the popular and somewhat less vigorous ‘Tricolor’ variety are green-tinged with pink, turning red later in the season. Tiny pink flowers add interest in late spring to early summer. The evergreen gray sedum (Sedum pachyclados) is similar in size and spread to Caucasian stonecrop, with miniature blue-green “hen and chick” type leaf rosettes that support pink flowers in mid to late summer. These sedums like relatively dry, well-drained soil as well as lots of sunshine and grow best in zones 4-9.

Other Great Creepers

New Zealand brass buttons looks ferny and spreads nicely between pavers or in gardens.

Creeping mazus (Mazus reptans) is another great perennial creeper, native to the Himalayas and hardy in USDA zones 5-8.  The narrow green leaves stay vibrant into the fall, but the tubular, blue-purple, and white flowers are what set the two-inch-tall grower apart. With its love of damp soil, creeping mazus is perfect for low or wet cracks or crevices 

The fancifully named New Zealand brass buttons (Leptinella squalida) is a creeper that features leaves that look like tiny ferns.  The “brass buttons” of the common name refer to the small yellow flowers that bloom in June or July, but the foliage plays the real starring role for this sun-loving species. ‘Platt’s Black’ is a striking variety with near-black leaves. Flourishing in USDA zones 4-10, New Zealand brass buttons spreads readily by underground rhizomes.

Low Maintenance for Low Growers

There are lots more creepers to consider for the garden, so ask your local garden center specialist for the best creepers for your area.

Once creepers and crevice fillers are established, they generally do not take much maintenance. If soil is lacking in the planting spaces, fill in with a quality product like Fafard Premium Topsoil. Water regularly until the plants are established. The best time to sheer back crack and crevice fillers is right after they bloom. At other times, trim to maintain size and shape. parameters.

Homegrown Mints for Cooling Libations: Mojitos and Juleps

Mojitos have become a favorite tart, herbal summer drink!

Parched summer palates demand refreshments that are icy cold, wet, and flavorful.  For sophisticated adult palates, the mojito, a classic Cuban cocktail, and the julep, beloved in the American South, check all the right summer boxes. Mint, muddled or crushed with sugar prior to the addition of liquid ingredients, adds distinctive flavor notes to these drinks.

But, which mint is best for an authentic mojito or traditional julep?  The Mentha genus is large and full of popular varieties and hybrids.  That kind of abundance is a blessing for cooks and cocktail makers, but it can also be daunting.  The mints below are the best choices for these fabled libations.

The Mojito: A Taste of Havana

Fresh spearmint makes fabulous mojitos.

There are many origin stories associated with the mojito (click here for the traditional Havana-style recipe), but one thing is clear–it was popularized by novelist Ernest Hemingway, who first enjoyed it in the 1950s at a favorite Havana bar.  The cocktail’s fame spread, and by 2002, even super-spy James Bond tossed one back in the film Die Another Day.

A classic mojito embodies the flavor of the Caribbean in a fizzy mix of white rum, lime juice, mint, sugar, and club soda or sparkling water.  Ice cubes keep the drink cold. Nonalcoholic versions omit the rum.

Spearmint was the preferred mint for drinks in the early 20th century.

Until early in the 21st century, mixologists looking for mint to flavor mojitos often used spearmint (Mentha spicata), which has a familiar, piquant mint flavor.  Some drink makers also used peppermint (Mentha x piperita), but the mint flavor in peppermint leaves is much stronger and spicier than that of spearmint.

Around 2006, Cuban mint (Mentha x villosa), native to the island, began making appearances in the United States, and bartenders started using this “original” mojito mint in the rum drinks.  Since that time, Cuban mint has become more readily available, especially for those who are willing to grow their own.

Mint connoisseurs say that Cuban mint has a somewhat milder flavor than spearmint, along with citrus notes that marry well with the lime juice in the cocktail.

Jubilant Mint Juleps

Frosty mint juleps were originally served in silver cups but glass is also used these days.

The mint julep (click here for the traditional recipe from the Kentucky Derby) comes with its own collection of romantic and/or evocative stories, featuring a cast of larger-than-life characters ranging from Andrew Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway (a prodigious cocktail consumer).  The drink, traditionally served in a frosty silver or pewter cup, is a popular hot-weather tipple all over the South (and elsewhere) but is most often associated with the Kentucky Derby.  It has been the official cocktail of the Derby since 1983, and hundreds of thousands of them have been served to racegoers ever since.

Juleps were originally served in silver cups, like this antique one.

Juleps are traditionally made with bourbon, mint, sugar, and lots of shaved or crushed ice.  Julep aficionados might argue that quality bourbon is the most important component, but the mint also plays a defining role.  In many recipes, the instructions simply refer to “mint leaves”, without reference to specific types. Overall, the most common mint for juleps is spearmint, which harmonizes nicely with both the sugar and the bourbon. 

In a bow to tradition and the Derby, one variety of spearmint, with especially large leaves, was named ‘Kentucky Colonel’, however, any spearmint will work well in the drink.

Other Mint Options

Variegated pineapple mint is tasty and pretty.

Cocktail purists might frown, but you can enhance the flavors of mojitos and juleps with other mints, according to personal taste. Mojitos, with their lime flavor components, might include lime-scented peppermint (Mentha x piperata f. citrata ‘Lime’).  While a challenge to hallowed tradition might just be enough to scare the horses at Churchill Downs, julep lovers who like the combination of mint and chocolate can flavor their drinks with chocolate mint (Mentha x piperata ‘Chocolate’).  It is pretty and tastes sensational. The chocolate flavor is mild but discernible. The pretty variegated pineapple mint (Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’) is another sweet variety to try for a fruity twist.

Grow Your Own Cocktail Mixers

Chocolate mint is my favorite for drinks!

Whether you are making mojitos or juleps, mint is extremely easy to grow.  Start from seed, young nursery plants, or cuttings from an established plant.  Cuttings from mint family members, including spearmint and Cuban mint, will root quickly in a glass of water and can then be transplanted to soil-filled containers. 

Mint’s vigor may also be its greatest liability in garden situations.  In rich, moist soil mint spreads rapidly and may take over increasingly large areas in beds and borders.  To keep the plants within bounds, grow them in containers filled with a good potting medium, like Fafard Natural and Organic Potting Mix.  You can sink the containers in the ground, or simply keep them near the kitchen door for those times when you want to make mojitos, juleps, or other minty specialties.

Always pot mint plants to keep them from taking over.

Harvest mint leaves regularly, as this keeps mints compact and full.  Aim to harvest before the plants flower, as flowering tends to make the mature leaves somewhat bitter.  If you can’t use those leaves right away, preserve them by air drying or freezing. Homegrown, preserved mint almost always tastes better than the dried product available on store shelves.

Mints die back to the ground in cold climates but return in spring and also self-seed readily.  You can also bring potted specimens indoors, and overwinter them on sunny windowsills.  Take cuttings from those plants in spring and root them, ensuring that you will have a supply of healthy young specimens for the growing season.

The Ten Most Beautiful Edibles

Ornamental vegetables look pretty when planted in tidy, geometric arrangements.

The traditional French potager, or kitchen garden, combined both edible and ornamental elements to create beds that were both beautiful and productive. Given the array of fruit, vegetable, and herb varieties available now, just about anyone can do the same thing. 

Grow The Edibles That You Love

Where should you start?  As always, grow what you love, starting with edible varieties that you most want to eat.  There is no point in raising a beautiful zucchini if you hate that vegetable.  Once you know what you want to grow, search through garden centers, online, and catalog vendors to find the most beautiful varieties.  Remember that some plants have lovely leaves, others sprout gorgeous flowers, and still, others boast flashy stems.  A few combine all of those things.

Next, decide whether you want to grow from seed or buy as small starter plants. Starter plants get larger sooner, but the selection of varieties may be smaller. Growing from seed requires more patience, but the choices are larger.  Your potager can be beautiful either way.

The Ten Most Beautiful Edible Crops

Bushy Blueberries

Jelly Bean® is beautiful and produces lots of delicious berries. (Image by Bushel and Berry®)

Blueberries are three-season stunners, sporting bell-shaped pinkish-white flowers in spring, glaucous blue fruits in early summer, and bright red fall leaves.  The most widely grown and hybridized type is the highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), including the popular large-fruited ‘Chandler’, but these tend to be leggier and less bushy. For tidy, attractive landscape shrubs with loads of berries, the better option is lowbush (Vaccinium angustifolium) types, like ‘Top Hat’, which is compact, bushy, and has nice, dense, foliage.  Container and small-space gardeners may prefer designer varieties, like the boxwood-like Jelly Bean®, which grows only 12 to 24 inches tall and wide, bears lots of small berries, and has flame-red fall color.  All crave fast-draining, acid soil, and full sun.

Personnel at your local garden center can help you choose species and varieties suitable to your region and space situation.

Feathery Fennel

Bulb fennel is delicious and its feathery foliage and white bulbs look striking in a garden or container.

Anise-flavored fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), a member of the carrot family, is a beautiful garden plant in either its green or purple-leafed (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’) forms.  Leaf fennel is grown for its decorative, feathery, sweet-tasting leaves. Bulb fennel, like the ‘Orazio’ variety, is grown for its swollen bulbs.  In both types, all parts of the plant are edible.  The flowers will remind you of fennel’s carrot-family relative, Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrot, and will eventually provide fennel seeds for culinary use.  Swallowtail butterflies also use the fennel as a host plant, making the kitchen garden even more beautiful.

Striking Swiss Chard

The highly ornamental Swiss chard comes in shades of yellow, orange, red, pink, and white.

Spinach-like Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla) leaves can be harvested when young or mature and eaten raw or cooked.  In the garden, the showy stems of ‘Ruby Red’ or ‘Bright Yellow’ or Bright Lights Mix light up the landscape.  These relatives of common beets grow best in sunny spots where the soil is somewhat alkaline. Swiss chard tastes sweeter as fall temperatures drop and will continue to ornament your garden and provide culinary ingredients well into late fall. Plants may even overwinter in mild- to warm-winter climates.

Colorful Winter Squash

Striped ‘Delicata’ squash are beautiful as are the deepest orange kabocha squash (far left).

The cucurbit family of plants includes all kinds of squashes, melons, and cucumbers. Most are edible, though a few, like ornamental gourds, are grown mostly for decorative value. All start with large, funnel-shaped blooms, and some yield fruits pretty enough to ornament even the most lavish potager. Among the showier cucurbits is delicata squash (Cucurbito pepo ‘Delicata’), a winter squash that features cylindrical fruits striped in cream, yellow, and green. The skin is thin and the flesh is sweet and especially good baked. Another winter squash for bright color in the garden and on a harvest table are Japanese kabocha squashes. The deepest red ‘Red Kuri’ (C. maxima ‘Red Kuri’) has very sweet flesh and is an excellent winter keeper.

Plant squash in hills—8- to 10-inch tall soil mounds—provide plenty of water, and make sure the plants have enough sunny space, as they tend to sprawl.  The vines can also be trained to grow up sturdy supporting structures like trellises or fences.

Flashy Cabbage

Purple cabbages can be very striking in fall gardens! This is also when they taste best.

Some gardeners grow ornamental cabbages and kales purely for fall decorations.  But edible cabbage varieties (Brassica oleracea Capitata Group) can be just as lovely.  One beauty is ‘Deadon’, a Savoy-type cabbage with brilliant magenta-purple leaves.  Another is ‘Red Express’, an early-yielding variety with purple and grey-green leaves.  In both varieties, the color deepens as fall weather cools off.

Cabbages like rich soil, full sun, and regular moisture, and benefit from soil amended with a product like Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost.

Colorful Okra

If you don’t grow okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) for its tasty pods, you might be tempted to grow it for the flowers alone or the attractive dried winter pods. The blooms and leaves betray okra’s membership in the mallow family (Malvaceae), which is also home to hibiscus and hollyhocks.  The main stalks grow somewhat slowly, but the flowers–pale yellow trumpets accented by maroon centers—are worth the wait.  Eventually, the edible pods appear. The red pods of ‘Bowling Red‘ are especially pretty. The bold plants reach a whopping 7-8 feet tall.

Okra loves warmth, so plant it when day and nighttime temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  While not as thirsty as some other edible plants, they appreciate at least one inch of water per week, along with enriched soil.

Scarlet Runner Beans

Scarlet runner beans are delicious, pretty, and great for kids’ gardens.

Hummingbirds, butterflies, and humans are all drawn to the brilliant red flowers of scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus).  The flowers are edible, but leaving them on the fast-growing vines yields tender beans after about 45 days. Picking the beans triggers more blooms and fruits, so harvest often. Trained up teepees, trellises, or other supports located in sunny spots, scarlet runner beans make great focal points for the vegetable garden.

Purple Cauliflower

Purple cauliflower can be so bright it does not even look real.

Cauliflower (Brassica oleracea Botrytis Group) is showing up everywhere these days, from pizza crusts to cauliflower “rice”.  Those who really prize the cruciferous vegetable, like it best straight from the garden.  That garden can be much more beautiful when adorned with a purple cauliflower variety, like ‘Grafitti’ or ‘Purple of Sicily‘.

Cauliflower is a cool-season species that should be planted in early spring or early fall and receive consistent moisture.  Harvest when the heads are 6 to 8 inches wide.

Pink-Flowered Strawberries

Berried Treasure Pink has double-pink flowers and delicious red berries. (Image by Proven Winners)

Strawberry flowers are normally white and winsome, but for a little more color in containers or at the edges of beds, try one of the pink-flowered varieties, like ‘Toscana’, with its deepest magenta flowers, or the double-pale-pink flowered Berred Treasure Pink. Both plants produce pink flowers followed by juicy, red berries.  For best results, plant in a sunny spot with well-drained soil and water regularly. Strawberries are also right at home in pots filled with Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Mix. Like many strawberries, the plants reproduce by means of runners.

Variegated Lemon Thyme

Variegated lemon thyme is absolutely beautiful and has explosive lemon and thyme flavor!

Delectable and beautiful, variegated lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus ‘Variegata Aurea’) is another plant that works equally well as an edger, or a rock garden or container subject. The tiny fragrant leaves are green edged in creamy yellow and lemon-scented. Clusters of purple tubular flowers appear in July and beckon pollinators.  Harvest sprigs of leaves regularly to keep stems from becoming woody.  Like other thymes, the variegated variety prefers full sun and well-drained soil.

The Busy Gardener’s Survival Kit

Busy Gardener's Survival Kit Featured Image

With the arrival of good weather, most of us who dig in the dirt want to spend as much time as possible doing it.  Life sometimes has other ideas.  Jobs, families, housekeeping, and annoying little chores like filing tax returns tend to interfere.  The only way to confront those realities and make your garden grow is to create a “survival kit” of tools, strategies, and time-saving tricks that maximize the pleasure of gardening, even when time is at a premium.

Plan Your Garden

Notebook with gardening tools

We all know the thrill of going to the garden center and grabbing gorgeous plants on the spur of the moment, but busy gardeners know that an ounce of planning saves a pound of precious time.  Use bad weather days to plan and include everything related to your vision for the year’s garden, including necessary purchases.  Plans don’t have to be terribly formal.  Save time by making bulleted lists with check-off items.  Order whatever you can from trusted online vendors.  (Dave’s Garden Mail Order Garden Watchdog is a good tool for checking garden centers out before making purchases.) If you do go to the garden center, make a list so that you can get everything you need in one trip.

Reality Check Your Garden Goals

Garden with vegetables and flowers
You can dream big but don’t bite off more than you can chew.

It’s OK to dream big, as long as you don’t overwhelm yourself with unattainable goals.  You can maximize your garden time with good strategies, but you can’t invent time that you do not have.  If other responsibilities mean that you will only have a few hours a week in the garden this coming season, figure out what that means. The garden can still be beautiful, but you should probably avoid fussy plants and major projects.

Use Existing Garden Resources

Flowers growing from an old jug

Save time by making your garden beautiful and productive with elements that you have on hand.  Use planters you already own, or repurpose sturdy containers instead of buying new ones.  If you grow perennials—especially easy-to-propagate specimens like daylilies or hostas—divide them and replant, creating repetition in your planting scheme while saving time and money. 

Have the Right Garden Tools and Supplies

Gardening tools, rakes, water jug, and wheelbarrow
Having the right tools clean and on hand saves a lot of time.

In ten minutes, you can get a fair amount of gardening done, but only if the right tools are close at hand. Make sure that you have the best tools for making gardening easy. Keep all the tools you use regularly—trowels, clippers, garden knife, loppers, animal repellant (if necessary), gloves—in a basket, bucket or other suitable waterproof container, preferably with a handle.  (One serious gardener I know repurposed a large spackle bucket to house his tools.)  Garden clogs or boots should live by the door nearest to the garden. Larger implements, like rakes, hoes, and spades, should also be nearby and easily accessible. The ability to find tools quickly and move them to your garden job site all at once gives you more time to actually do the job at hand.

Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix pack

Lucky gardeners have sheds or garage areas big enough to store a lot of garden paraphernalia. If you have such a dedicated storage area, organize it at the start of the gardening season and keep it orderly to save time and aggravation. If space is a problem, find a corner, preferably with a shelf or two, to store your tool bucket and garden implements.  Screen it off, if necessary, for appearance’s sake.

If you are a container gardener, your storage area should also hold the containers you need, bags of potting mix, like (Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix), plant food, seed packets, and a watering can.

Stop Weeds and Critters Early

Bag of weeds
Regular weeding is a huge time saver! Keep those weeds in check.

Some people love the repetitive nature of weeding and find it soothing, but busy people need ways to limit weeds.  Mulching is among the best.  Buy, make or gather organic mulch at the beginning of the garden season and apply it to beds and borders. 

Damage caused by deer and other animals is the bane of many gardeners’ existence, stealing time and enjoyment. Repellents work well but need frequent re-application. Fences work even better but tend to be expensive for large spaces. Investing in deer-resistant plants (which are usually also resistant to other animals), can save time, plant replacement costs, and frustration. Check the internet for lists of deer-resistant ornamentals, especially perennials that will return every year. If you grow edibles, consider buying crop cages or critter fencing to deter animals. (Click here for one of the best lists of deer-resistant plants!)

Break Up Tasks

Watering plants
Manage the garden bit by bit to keep from becoming overwhelmed.

To maximize garden time and keep yourself from being overwhelmed, divide larger tasks into manageable “bites” that you can take on in the available minutes or hours. Focus on a single area or job. The tangible rewards will make up for the fact that other tasks have yet to be tackled.

Picture Your Garden in Photos

Woman taking photos of pink tulips
Save your garden successes from year to year!

Save planning time and avoid memory lapses by taking pictures of various parts of your garden or container display as the seasons progress. This is especially helpful in fall when you are adding to your spring bulb collection and have forgotten the exact location of existing bulbs.  It helps at other times too and makes for better succession planting.

Time may be a luxury, but for many of us, gardening is a necessity.  Busy people make the most of that luxury to ensure the necessity.

Hot New Vegetable Varieties for 2021

Hot New Vegetable Varieties for 2021 Featured Image
Chinese-cabbage lovers wishing for a little more excitement will relish the purple-leafed ‘Merlot’.

With the holidays in the rearview mirror and the New Year launched, it is time to check out the new vegetable varieties from seed vendors.  Most 2021 catalogs are up now online, and many companies still send paper editions as well.  Whether you aim to grow a simple pot of cherry tomatoes on the balcony or an acre of diverse vegetables, the New Year brings an array of hot new choices.

The trends are easy to spot.  Tomatoes of all shapes, sizes, and colors are still champion sellers.  Color, in the garden and on the plate, is in fashion, with vendors offering old standard vegetables in new, often brilliant hues.  Heirloom varieties remain popular, as are compact plants suitable for small spaces and containers.  Micro-greens abound.  Ease of preparation (think stringless green beans and thin-skinned squash) are also frequent features of this year’s new varieties. 

New Tomatoes

‘Bosque Blue Bumblebee' cherry tomatoes (Image thanks to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
Bosque Blue Bumblebee’, is a standard-size cherry variety that starts out blue and ripens to yellow with a blue blush. (Image thanks to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

New tomato varieties are popping up everywhere, promising great taste and adaptability to small spaces–from the prolific ‘Ella Bella’ cherry variety, with sweet, firm red fruits, to ‘Thorburn’s Lemon Blush’, a large, beefsteak type with pink-blushed yellow skin, the catalogs are packed with new tomatoes.  Other notable newcomers are the sweet ‘Bosque Blue Bumblebee’, a standard-size cherry variety that starts out blue and ripens to yellow with a blue blush close to the stem, and the heavy-fruiting, sweet, compact Funnyplums varieties that grow beautifully in containers or hanging baskets and come in red, orange, or yellow-fruited forms.

'Ella Bella' cherry tomatoes
Prolific ‘Ella Bella’ cherry tomatoes are sweet, firm, and bright red.

There is nothing like a tomato sandwich at the height of the growing season, and that is only one of the many uses for large slicing tomatoes.  New varieties like ‘Marnouar’ and ‘Cubalibre’ bear large (10 to 16 ounce) fruits on vigorous, disease-resistant plants.  The tomatoes have an heirloom look, with near-black streaks on dark red skin.

If you aim to make sauce and need a plum tomato variety, try the new ‘Plum Regal’, with broad fleshy fruits and good disease resistance.

New Ornamental Edibles

'Charbell' Swiss chard
Vigorous ‘Charbell’ Swiss chard is delicious and beautiful.

Modern vegetable gardeners want horticultural daily doubles—plants that look good enough to be grown as ornamentals and taste good enough to win over even the pickiest eaters.  It doesn’t hurt that those colorful vegetables also look Instagram-ready on the plate. 

Many of the hottest new varieties come in unusual colors.  ‘Celine’ bush beans are traditional wax beans with a twist– purple pods and yellow interiors.  The ‘Snowball’ bell pepper tastes like a traditional green bell pepper but with white skin that matures to ivory.  ‘Charbell‘ Swiss chard is a potential garden brightener, with bright magenta stems, good disease resistance, and high performance. 

'Mashed Potatoes' acorn squash
‘Mashed Potatoes’ acorn squash has pale flesh that can be mashed and eaten like potatoes.

Acorn squash is normally dark green with orange flesh. Squash lovers can change things up with ‘Mashed Potatoes’ acorn squash, which boasts white rind and flesh.  Sellers suggest using the squash as a lower-calorie mashed potato alternative.

The color purple continues in fashion, sported this year by a number of new vegetables.  ‘Purple Peacock’ broccoli features tasty, small florets atop frilled leaves.  ‘Ultra Violet’ mustard bears purple stems with purplish-green leaves.  Chinese cabbage lovers wishing for a little more excitement will relish the purple-leafed ‘Merlot’.

Everything Old is New—The Heirloom Craze Continues

'Pippin's Golden Honey Pepper' (Image thanks to Hudson Valley Seed Co.)
‘Pippin’s Golden Honey Pepper’ (Image thanks to Hudson Valley Seed Co.)

By definition, heirloom varieties are not new, but some have been rediscovered or reintroduced for 2021.  The ‘Iroquois Skunk‘ pole bean looks and tastes much better than the name suggests, with mottled, blue-black pods encasing white beans.  ‘Pippin’s Golden Honey’ bell pepper is an heirloom that was long grown and used in Philadelphia’s Black community.  The lovely purple flowers develop into fruit that morphs from dark purple to yellow and finally to orange as the peppers ripen. The ‘Tall Telephone’ garden pea from the nineteenth century is a traditional variety characterized by heavy production. For something really dramatic—inside and out—try the ‘Silver Edge’ pumpkin, a Mexican heirloom that is streaked green and white on the outside, with tasty peach-colored flesh and large, edible seeds that are white with silver edges.

More Hot New Vegetables

Fruity ‘Aji Chombo’ from Panama (Image by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
The fruity ‘Aji Chombo’ from Panama are also fire-hot. (Image by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

Gardeners who want to turn up the culinary heat have a plethora of choices this year.  Hot peppers abound, including ‘Aji Chombo’ from Panama, which features heat comparable to Scotch Bonnet peppers with a fruity flavor to balance that heat.  ‘Black Magic’ jalapeno peppers are dark green-black with traditional jalapeno flavor and intensity.

Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend pack

Growing from seed is one of the best ways to try out new and different vegetable varieties.  If you are starting seeds indoors, use a quality potting mix, like Black Gold Seedling Mix. For direct-sown varieties, clean and prepare planting beds by amending the soil with organic matter. Enriching your garden soil with Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost will get your hot new vegetables (as well as old favorites), off to a great start.

Growing Fragrant Eucalyptus Indoors

Growing Fragrant Eucalyptus Indoors Featured Image

What do American gardeners have in common with the cute and cuddly Australian koala?  Both animals and humans appreciate the aromatic leaves of the eucalyptus or gum tree (Eucalyptus spp.).  Eucalyptus trees are primarily Australian natives, so Koalas have no trouble finding their tasty leaves that comprise their entire diet. But, Americans, especially those in cold winter climates, have to look farther afield to find eucalyptus leaves and branches for winter decorating, crafts, and herbal remedies. 

Some indoor gardeners shorten the trip by growing eucalyptus trees at home in containers. Since the trees are normally fast growers, pruning is a must, but that just means more aromatic material with no need for a trip to the craft store.

About Eucalyptus

Eucalyptus branches
Eucalyptus branches can be used fresh or dried.

A member of the myrtle family (Myrtaceae), most eucalyptus species are from Australia, with a few others native to Malaysia and the Philippines.  Many lose their leaves during the cold or dry season, but some are evergreen. Depending on which source you consult, there are between 500 and 700 eucalyptus shrub and tree species.  The characteristic menthol- or camphor-like fragrance comes from many essential oils present in all parts of the plant. While koalas can digest the leaves, they are toxic to humans and other animals. Eucalyptus has long been used for decoration, woodworking, and medicines.

If you live in a warmer US zone it is nice to know that some eucalyptus trees sport silvery gray bark that peels or exfoliates.  The green, gray-green, or blue-green rounded leaves, most commonly used by crafters, are generally the juvenile shoots of the plants. Older leaves are elongated or sickle-shaped but retain the characteristic eucalyptus fragrance. While eucalyptus generally bears small, fragrant white flowers when grown in the ground, it is unusual for container-grown plants to bloom.

Eucalyptus for Indoor Growing

Child watering a potted eucalyptus plant

Nurseries, garden centers, and mail-order vendors carry a number of species that are suitable for container culture.  Among them are:

  • Lemon Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus citriodora (syn. Corymbia citriodora)): As the name suggests, this eucalyptus features leaves with an overlay of lemony or citrusy fragrance. Left to its own devices, lemon eucalyptus may reach 6 to 10 feet tall and 2 to 4 feet wide, but a containerized specimen can be kept much smaller.  The bark is smooth and gray, and the evergreen leaves are elongated. It is easily grown from seed and grows very quickly.
  • White-Leaved Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus albida, Zones 8-10): The young shoots of this shrubby, white-leaved eucalyptus are actually bright grayish blue, eventually growing longer and turning green. It is relatively slow-growing and easy to prune to shape. Outdoor specimens can reach 4 to 9 feet tall if left unpruned.
  • Cider Gum (Eucalyptus gunnii, Zones 9-11): Native to Tasmania cider gum has several compact varieties good for indoor growing. ‘Silver Drop’ is a compact variety (2 to 3 feet high and 1 to 1.5 feet wide) perfect for pots, with small, silvery leaves. It is also easily grown from seed. Steel Tower is another vigorous gunnii variety of similar dimensions.

Caring for Eucalyptus

Silvery Eucalyptus
Silvery Eucalyptus pots look just at home indoors in winter.

Some garden centers and big box stores carry young eucalyptus trees and shrubs, especially during the growing season. Alternately, you can start eucalyptus from cuttings, which will root readily in water, or from seed.  Start seeds, cuttings or young specimens in large pots, because the plants dislike being repotted. 

Sun: A full-sun exposure (at least six to eight hours per day) is necessary to keep eucalypts growing to their fullest. It helps to take containers outdoors in summer when the weather is warm. During the cold months, position eucalyptus in the sunniest available space, preferably near a south-facing window. Turn plants to keep them growing evenly if light is one-sided.

Fafard Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed and RESiLIENCE pack

Soil and Fertilizer: Plant in large, fast-draining pots filled with well-drained soil, and fertilize regularly with all-purpose plant food. It helps to give them a leg up with an enriched potting mix, like Fafard Ultra Container Mix With Extended Feed

Water: Water regularly when the top few inches of soil feel dry.  Reduce watering significantly when you bring pots indoors during winter.

Pruning: To keep growth in check, promote fullness, and ensure an ongoing supply of young branches, the most important thing you can do is pinch off older growth and prune and shape the plant regularly. 

Drying Eucalyptus

Dried Eucalyptus wreath
Dried Eucalyptus makes long-lasting dried wreaths.

The most common way to preserve eucalyptus is by drying—hanging branches upside down in bunches, or spreading them on a screen placed in a cool, dry location. 

For applications like wreaths, where a more natural look is desirable, it is best to treat stems with glycerin to keep them more pliable and long-lasting. Cut fresh, 12-inch stems, and crush 2 inches at the base of the cuts. Place the branches in jars filled with two parts water to one part glycerin (heat water to 180°F, add glycerin, stir well, and let cool). Allow the branches to cure in the solution for two to six weeks. Refresh the solution as needed within this time.

Using Eucalyptus

Eucalyptus in a bedroom
A little dried Eucalyptus will add soothing fragrance to any room.

Eucalyptus oil should never be taken internally or rubbed directly on the skin, but many books and online resources supply directions for making infusions, ointments, and other aromatic remedies.  Insect pests don’t care for the scent of eucalyptus, especially lemon eucalyptus, so it makes a good repellent when tucked into sachets or included in potpourri.

Most of us will only experience koalas via nature shows or zoos, but we can channel their sunny Australian homeland by growing beautiful and fragrant eucalyptus indoors.