Succulent Care and Design

Indoor Succulents

Plants are an easy way to add a little life and beauty to your home or office. But without the proper care, you may find yourself cycling through different varieties more frequently than you’d like. Thankfully, succulents are very easy to take care of and require very little to thrive.

An array of succulents

We’ve rounded up seven types of indoor succulents perfect for any skill level, including crown of thorns, aloe, jade, and Christmas cactus. Not sure where to start once you bring your succulents home? We’re here to help with simple tips—like how much and how often you should water—to keep your plants happy and healthy indoors. Check out the infographic below to learn more.

Succulents in hanging basket

Designing with Succulents Outside

Love this pink frilled Echeveria

Imagine this…..You love overflowing containers and window boxes, but hate to water and/or forget to water! Then, succulents are for you. The colors, textures, and shapes of the succulent world are so varied and colorful that you won’t ever miss your petunia containers. Window boxes in full sun are a snap to put together, especially if you go on vacation for a couple of weeks and don’t want to be tied to a watering regimen or install drip irrigation.

A window box full of succulents; seen at Ladew Gardens
Another window box planted in the spring: by summer, this will be overflowing with succulents

Don’t get me wrong. Succulents do require watering and will thrive if you supply it regularly while growing. But if you forget……they are very forgiving and will bounce right back.

This container with only one special succulent is perfect for the spot
Perfect little succulent container

Container Selection

When putting together a succulent creation, rethink everything you know about regular potted containers. The depth of the container can be very shallow as the root run of most succulents is small. They store all their water in their stems and leaves and don’t require a large root system. So, think of a shallow container like an old enameled wash tub with drainage holes or a table with a 2 inch deep cavity for plants. Don’t forget generous sized drainage holes.

Table with a 2 inch deep cavity for succulents

Even a tall succulent of three to four feet will have shallow roots of two to three inches below grade. So, for succulent containers, I look for heavy ceramic containers with a shallow draft, only about 6 inches or less deep.

My succulents in my greenhouse that I over-winter and plant out in containers in the spring

Succulents do flower, but are usually very different looking ones; this is a Stapelia or Starfish Flower
Lots of colors in succulents in this greenhouse

Thriller, Filler, & Spiller

This succulent container has a thriller, filler, and spiller

We’ve all heard the mantra of Thriller, Filler, & Spiller, and it applies to regular containers as well as succulent ones. I usually build the container around the thriller, the big upright that makes the container, and then choose the filler and spiller to complement it.

A fall succulent container with tiny pumpkins and lights

Soil Medium

The biggest mistake you can make with succulents is a heavy potting mix that hold too much water. Forget those succulent/cactus mixes that you see for sale at the nursery. They are too expensive and you can easily come up with your own for a fraction of the cost. Porous, well draining potting mix is so important to the success of your succulents, that I can’t over emphasize this. It is really easy for a succulent to rot in the home of an over zealous waterer!

  1.  3 parts good potting soil
  2.  2 parts coarse sand or turface or stone dust (turface is a calcine clay product used to improve drainage and reduce compactation and is available on Amazon); if you keep chickens, you can add poultry grit instead
  3.  1 part perlite
  4.  For top dressing, you can use gravel, pumice, or colored glass
Succulent container seen at Philadelphia Flower Show

Keep Them Happy

  • Let the soil medium dry between waterings (this depends on the heat and sun that the containers are receiving)
  • Keep them in full sun
  • Most succulents are frost tender, so only keep them out after frost is over for the spring and bring them in when cold (in the thirties) threatens
  • Plant succulents with other plants that require little water, like grasses or silver leaved perennials, such as Lambs Ears or Angel Wings
  • Elevate your containers with pot feet so that the water can drain quickly
  • To over winter your succulents, bring them in when frost threatens and keep them in your sunniest window and stop watering! I water them about once a month while inside during the winter when growth slows down to a crawl; slowly increase your watering as spring approaches

A great variety of texture in a container

Elevate your containers for good drainage

Swarm Season

Keeping honeybee hives means swarms. A natural reproduction process, it can happen to any beekeeper, experienced and inexperienced, so you should be prepared when it occurs, as well as excited. It is a sight to behold when the swarm is in full flight. The season of swarms is nearly always in April and May here in the Mid-Atlantic,  when bees are building up quickly from all the  available nectar.  Check out my post on Honey Bee Nectar Flow. 

For another post on swarms, go to It’s That Time of Year Again.

I am inspecting the excess honey after a nectar flow

You can hear the humming bees from at least 100 feet away and they come out in a wave that bursts from the hive.

Extra Equipment On Hand

As a  beekeeper, I have at least two hives, sometimes, three, but an experienced beekeeper will always have additional hive boxes on hand when a swarm appears. This is your opportunity to increase your bee population free of charge! The problem is catching the swarm as it can be quite tricky. Over my twenty years of beekeeping, I have caught about one half of the swarms that appeared out of my hives, and several that people have called me about on their property- maybe a dozen in total.

Cost

Honey bee start-up colonies are expensive to buy – in the neighborhood of $150 a pop- and when a swarm emerges from a newly installed hive, like it did to mine recently, you see your honey harvest evaporate into thin air. Literally the hive will decamp, taking at least 1/3 of the population along with the queen and move to greener pastures.

This swarm was so high up I used a pole pruner with a bucket on the end

Close is Better

Those greener pastures might be close enough for me to capture, but more likely than not, they fly far away to land in a tree 60 feet high with no chance of hiving them up for a new colony. The remaining bees are a much smaller population and have little chance of producing excess honey for me to harvest.

This teardrop shaped swarm lit on a nearby tree about 8 feet up-a perfect spot to capture

Capture the Queen

Last week I had a swarm land on a nearby tree and I simply climbed a ladder and lopped the branch off and brought it down the ladder with all the bees attached and knocked them into the hive box. The key is to get the queen into the hive box and all the workers will automatically follow. For once, the whole procedure of moving the swarm into the hive went like clock work!

Sometimes secondary smaller swarms can emerge after the primary one accompanied by virgin queens. The virgin queens must then mate with drones to start producing eggs for her new colony. If you have afterswarms, you are left with a ghost-like remainder who probably will die off.

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Queen Cups

Before the swarm leaves the original hive, the queen lays eggs into “queen cups” or larger cells that can accommodate the larger growing queen larvae. After the swarm leaves with the old queen, the new queens will emerge from the queen cups and if there are several that emerge, they will fight to the death, until the stronger one and usually the first one to emerge, is victorious.

A beekeeper removes any swarms cells or cells containing queens to avoid the hive swarming. Here I removed the cells to reveal the queens underneath. On the left you can see the opened swarm cell.
A vacant swarm cell where a new queen emerged

Way Station Cluster

Queens are too heavy to fly long distances so the swarm usually will form on a nearby structure or tree branch which scout bees have already scoped out beforehand. They cluster in the chosen spot for a few hours or a few days, until the scout bees determine where the final nest site will be.

Then the entire swarm will fly off never to be seen again by the beekeeper unless you have set up swarm traps or you are able to capture them before they leave. Their final chosen site could be an old tree cavity or between the walls of a house.

A swarm trap set into a nearby tree, baited with old frames and lemon grass oil

Swarm Traps to the Rescue

Tired of losing all my bees to swarms that disappeared, I had two swarm traps made last winter, which are simple plywood boxes with an entrance and lid, that has been baited with five frames and lemon grass oil, a natural attractant of bees. Painted a green that camouflaged the box, I hoped that these traps would attract some scout bees looking for a new home. And this spring, it worked! I noticed the other day that bees were coming in and out like they were there to stay. I don’t know where the swarm came from. I am surrounded by properties that have bee hives, so I am crossing my fingers that I captured a good hive population to start a new colony or combine with one of my weaker ones.

Enkianthus-A Shrub to Know and Grow

If you are looking for an easy care shrub, with little to no pruning, deer resistant, and fabulous fall color, look no further than the Red-Veined Enkianthus.

Award of Garden Merit Plant

Enkianthus campanulatus ‘Showy Lanterns’, the red vein enkianthus has always captured my interest with its striking hanging bell-like flowers. In the springtime, this shrub is covered with a profusion of pink-red flowers that cluster thickly along the branches. The  Royal Horticultural Society awarded its Award of Garden Merit to the Red-Veined Enkianthus. The cultivar ‘Showy Lanterns’ with its  bright red flower  and its wonderful fall coloring is my favorite.

‘Showy Lanterns’ Enkianthus

‘Showy Lanterns’ is a compact, slow-growing selection created some years ago by Ed Mezitt of Weston Nursery in MA. Growing to 5′ tall and 3′ wide, this shrub bears heavy clusters of dark pink bell-shaped flowers which give off a soft fragrance in mid-May. Sized for a smaller garden, this shrub rarely has any disease or pest problems and should be more widely planted.

Fall color is shades of orange and gold which can set your garden aglow for weeks.  Enkianthus are deer resistant and prefers a slightly acidic soil, but has proven tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions. This plant rewards the patient gardener with all season interest with beautiful spring flowers and fall interest. Native to Japan, Enkianthus is hardy in zones 5 to 7 and prefers full sun or partial shade, doing best in partial shade. Requiring acid soil, this would be a good companion in your borders with Rhododendrons and Azaleas.

This is the species version (non-hybrid) of Enkianthus campanulatus which is still beautiful
Enkianthus campanulatus

I call it the ‘ugly duckling’ shrub as it can be pretty homely when you first plant it out, but within a couple of years transforms into a beautiful shrub. Because it can be gangly looking at the nursery, people don’t pick them up. But a deer resistant, shade tolerant small shrub that displays clusters of beautiful flowers deserves a place in everyone’s garden.

 

 

Lemon Verbena-Growing & Using

Lemon Verbena has always been at the top of my list of herbs to grow for its intense lemony fragrance. More pungent that lemon balm or lemon thyme, I ended up with a bumper crop last year and found many uses for it. Be sure to buy a transplant this spring and place it where it will get full sun and good drainage. Planting near your outdoor living space will ensure that you will enjoy brushing by it to release the lemony fragrance.

Lemon Verbena

Strongly scented and known for its refreshing lemony fragrance, Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citrodora) is the most strongly scented lemon scent of all the herbs. Used in making perfumes, and toilet water, as well as a flavoring in baking, jellies and preserving, lemon verbena also makes a great herbal tea, either fresh or dried.

Steeping dried lemon verbena leaves for tea

Dried branches and leaves can be used to scent your drawers and linen closets with a light fragrance. I fill gauze bags with dried leaves to tuck in my lingerie. Introduced to England in the 1700’s, lemon verbena can grow to 15′ in height in the UK! Here in the U.S., the plant is treated as a tender perennial but can overwinter in US zone 8 or higher and reaches in the mid-Atlantic region about 4′ in height.

Growing my lemon verbena in a container keeps it happy because I can control the water it receives. Over watering a lemon verbena plant is certain death to this very fragrant herb, so only water when the soil is completely dry. Plus I can bring the container into my greenhouse to winter over as it is hardy to zone 8-9. Leaves release their refreshing fragrance each time they are brushed against or touched, making  it a pleasure to work with and near. A heavy feeder, unlike many herbs, I regularly fertilize my plant and pinch it back often to get a nice bushy shape. Full sun is best as the herb will get very spindly looking and the leaves will lack the essential oil fragrance. Tiny white flowers top the branches when the plant matures later in the summer.

I store the dried leaves in tupperware and use it for tea all winter

Lemon verbena is a heavy feeder and, benefits from frequent fertilization. Spider mites and whiteflies adore the citrusy leaves, so be prepared to fight these pests off with an organic pesticide.

Place your fresh leaves on paper towels before placing in the microwave

To dry your lemon verbena, gather a bunch of leaves and lay on paper towels and microwave for one to two minutes at high. The leaves should still be green, but be crispy to the touch. I leave the leaves alone for a day or two to fully dry and then strip the leaves off the stems and crush them with my fingers. Toss then into a plastic container to store until you are ready to steep them for a zingy tea.

The lemon verbena is dried and crispy
Lemon verbena is dried and crispy

To make tea with the fresh leaves, boil water and pour over freshly harvested lemon verbena leaves in a mug. Let steep for 3-5 minutes and then pull the leaves out and enjoy!

Lemon verbena tea with fresh leaves

Excellent for your stomach, relieving indigestion and heartburn, and for toning the digestive tract. Also, good for soothing anxiety and a good sedative for insomnia. Start those plants this spring for a fresh harvest later in the summer!

 

Epimedium-Fairy Wings Ground Cover

Epimedium also known as barrenwort, bishop’s hat, fairy wings, and horny goat weed, needs a makeover. An excellent plant for dry shade and deer proof, it deserves a better place in the pantheon of ground covers.  Under used, overlooked, and ignored, this little ground cover is so important when I work on landscape designs, because there is a limited palette of plants that deer leave alone, especially ground covers. Native to Asia and occurring in moist humousy soils, Epimedium also flourishes in dry shade, the nemesis of gardeners everywhere.

Epimedium ‘Lilafee’

I prefer the name “fairy wings” as the delicate flowers resemble fairy wings which are held on slim stems in early spring before the foliage appears. I have a large stand under a Saucer Magnolia which has the double whammy of full shade and very dry soil.

Flowers emerge first and then the foliage in early April under my Magnolia tree; you can see fallen pink petals from the blooms from the tree

It performs beautifully and the only maintenance involved is whacking it back in early spring, because in my area of the mid-Atlantic, it is deciduous. In more southern climes, this ground cover would be evergreen. But don’t think that being deciduous is a drawback for me. Epimedium looks good until December and then once you trim in early March, the beautiful flowers emerge to flutter in the lightest breeze.

Flowers spill over onto a pathway
Flowers spill over onto a pathway and do look like “fairy wings”
As the leaves mature, the foliage of some varieties has a bronze-red tinge on the edges

This is not a specimen plant. You would plant this by the dozen to form an impenetrable mass of plants that weeds can never pierce. And I really mean that! I never weed this once the plants knit together to form a mass. spreading via rhizomes, Epimedium is a tight clumper.

Coming in all kinds of colors – yellow, pink, red, white, and orange – I just planted one hybrid called ‘Orange Queen’. A medium to fast spreader, this little charmer has larger flowers and performs well under the deep shade of an evergreen spruce – a very tough spot!

Delicate flower stems make a cute arrangement

Plantsman are working on introducing new varieties and there has been an explosion of new Epimediums to suit any garden. In the Plant Delights catalog, there are over 50 varieties to pick from.

“Orange Queen” is beautifully marked

But nine times out of ten, if you talk to a gardener, they have never heard of this plant. Usually listed in nursery catalogs as ‘Barrenwort’, I am not surprised! Not a plant with large showy flowers, but a ground cover workhorse for me. And I will repeat, that deer don’t touch it!

Sharing space with spotted Pulmonaria and ‘Purple Dragon’ Lamium, the heart-shaped leaves of Epimedium are delicate

For more ideas on ground covers, other than Vinca, Pachysandra, or Ivy, check out From the Ground Up-Picking a Great Ground Cover.

Container Design Simplified

Whenever I see a fantastic container combo that stops me in my tracks, I study it and visually take it apart to figure out how a designer came up with the recipe. Each designer has their own way of putting together colors, textures, and styles, to come up with a winning formula, so I thought I would reveal my techniques. Some combos are serendipity but more than likely, I obsess and fiddle with a container until I come up with something that satisfies me. Go to Containers With Pizzazz to see some examples of Wow containers.

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Some Wow containers

Winning Combos

Have you ever taken a swatch of fabric to a wallpaper or paint store to match the colors? Or been inspired by colors found in nature? I love tropical bird colors, like parrots and peacocks and when I see something l like, I take a photo and hope to duplicate it to come up with a winning combination.

This parrot inspired me to come up with containers reflecting these colors

Signature Plants & Containers

My starting point is to find that signature plant. This means a plant that I love and want to build on the colors and textures of the special plant I have chosen. The combo below started with the Flap Jack Succulent, also known as paddle plant (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora) which has a ruby-red coloration. Picking up that red color from the flapjack plant with the ‘Red Head” Coleus was my next step and then I picked a lime Coleus to add contrast. Follow that with the rest of the plants, choosing something that contrasts well with the color combination.

Mix and matching colors at the nursery
Mix and matching colors at the nursery; here I was going for shades of pink with a limey yellow accent

 

Here I started with this fabulous gold and green bromeliad and starting to add purple tones
Here I started with this fabulous gold and green bromeliad and starting to add purple tones; this is a partial shade container
I started with the Coleus plant and worked from there with Rita’s Gold Fern and a trailing begonia

Likewise, if you have a special container and want to work off of that, then choose your plants to match and/or contrast. My favorite color containers are orange and blue. Both colors seem to set off plants with a big boost. But if your plants are really striking, you might want to go with a container that is an earth tone color and doesn’t dominate.

Drilling holes in an old bundt pan made this a perfect container to use orange hued plants
A great container is set off by the trailer
A great container is set off by the Vinca trailer; very few flowers but good foliage choices makes this shade container stand out
Signature container makes these succulents shine
Signature container makes these succulents shine
The signature plant used here is Croton and that is all you need
The signature plant used here is Croton and that is all you need
Signature plant used here is begonia vine

Light Requirements

Choosing each plant was also predicated on similar light requirements. Below, I was designing a container for partial shade so made sure that I used plants that needed about 5 hours of sunlight or less. I spread the plants out in a carrying crate that I transported them in and picked the ones that worked.

Mix and matching colors
Mix and matching colors; Lime – Rita’s Gold Fern – is one of my favorites
Spring container with glass ball, frizzle sizzle pansy, alyssum, trailing orange snapdragon, and orange pansy
Early spring container

Another technique I use is to pair bold gigantic leaves with fine foliage. It always works!

What makes this combo works, is the large Elephant Ear foliage
The bold leaves of the Colocasia and the begonia are contrasted with the fine frilly Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’
When you have a bold plant such as this Honeybush, Melianthus, you just need one other contrasting plant

Mix & Match

Usually when I arrange a container, I pick out more than enough plants that meld well with the signature plant. Once I am at the job site I like to pick and choose from my selections to fit the container size. Extras are used for different containers to make other combinations.

For early spring, I laid out my plants that I collected and picked some for a container
I rejected about 10 other plants before coming up with this

Accessories

We all love our flowers, but think about other things that you can add that make a container special- glass balls, sticks, drift wood, and statues. Accessories can calm down a container with a lot of flowers, and give the eyes a place to rest.

Adding accessories like this silver ball makes a container pop, plus the blue container adds high contrast
The addition of yellow twig dogwood sticks makes this container stand out
The addition of yellow twig dogwood sticks makes this container stand out

 

Peacock colors are my next goal for creating a colorful container-beigey brown, lime green, dark green, black and peacock-blue

Old Hose-New Life

Hoses last a few years and then wear out, leaving you with pinhole leaks, wasted water, and wet feet.  When it is time to retire my hose, I think of ways to up cycle it. I never throw them away! The more varied the colors you have the better. Here are some ideas to use those old hoses that won’t be filling up the landfill.

Colorful hose mats make great rugs for a patio
Colorful hose mats make great rugs for a patio; they are even used for the table topper-seen at the Philadelphia Flower Show

 

Closeup of the mats which are simply coiled up old hoses; these are glued on top of a rubber mat base
Upcycled table made with an old tire
Up cycled table made with an old tire
Just bend and glue the old hose length onto the mat
Just bend and glue the old hose length onto the mat

Mat How-To 

Starting with an old door mat- again don’t throw them away!- I cut the hose into lengths and used E6000, an industrial strength adhesive to glue them on top of the mat. Available on Amazon or Wal Mart this adhesive is totally waterproof and my mat has lasted since 2013 in the outdoors with none of the hoses breaking free. Tough and durable, this look gives a retro feel to the outdoors.

Simple hose mat lasts forever

For another take on hose mats- this time using zip ties- go to Flea Market Gardening. 

And for more picture ideas, go to Old Hose-New Life on Pinterest.

Door Wreath

For a fresh look to a door wreath, try using hoses as a base instead of a grapevine wreath. Simply wind the hose around and fasten it together with bind wire the size that you want and you are ready to decorate. Wiring the tools onto the wreath with bind wire (paper covered wire) securely fastens everything together.

Start with a length of hose and wire it together and you are ready to decorate
Using colorful tools everything is wired firmly onto the base
Another spring gardening wreath

 

Creating a Bumblebee Habitat

Bumblebee on Astrantia flower
Bumblebee on Astrantia flower

Bumblebees Are Important Pollinators

Bumblebees are extremely important pollinators for agriculture both in the field and in greenhouses. Unlike honey bees, they are able to forage under cold, rainy, and cloudy conditions, so it is possible to see them in all kinds of weather. Even on an early chilly morning, you can see a bumblebee sleeping inside a flower blossom, waiting for some warmth to arrive.

The crops that bumblebees can pollinate include tomatoes,peppers, raspberries, blueberries, chives, cucumbers,apples, strawberries, alfalfa, blackberries, soybeans,sunflowers, beans, cherries, apricots, plums, almonds,nectarines, peaches, rosehips, eggplants, and cranberries.

Bumblebee on flower

Bumblebees are also extremely important pollinators of many flowering plants and are generalists, which means they pollinate by visiting hundreds of flowering plants.

Bumblebee Declines
There is evidence that in North America some of our bumblebee species are declining and a few are threatened with extinction. Species that seem most  vulnerable are those with smaller climate tolerances, those at the edge of their climatic niches, and later emerging species. Many species in North America and around the world, are declining at a rapid rate.

Threats

Most bumblebees nest in underground nest, or old logs or crevices. You can help the bumblebees come to your property and nest by providing a ready to move in nest, just as you would to mason bees.

I have mason home plans at Home Sweet Home for Mason Bees.

A ready to move in mason bee house
A ready to move in mason bee house

Ground Nesting

Since most bumbles nest in the ground or a dry, dark cavity, you can provide a simple ground nest with a clay pot, a saucer, some straw, piece of chicken wire, and a short piece of garden hose for an entrance. The low-flying zig zag flight of a nest-site searching queen can be seen in the spring and is very distinctive.

A mature nest of a bumblebee can contain up to 400 residents, as compared to 50,000 to 80,000 honeybees, so the nest is quite small. It should be located in the shade in a dry location. The straw used preferably should be obtained from a mouse’s nest, as a queen will be attracted to the smell. For complete instructions and diagrams, go to Hartley Botanic.

Overturn a pot and on the drainage hole on top, place a small saucer propped up so a bee can exit, but weather is kept out
Overturn a pot and on the drainage hole on top, place a small saucer propped up so a bee can exit, but weather is kept out

Top 10 Annuals That Can Take the Cold

Snapdragons, Dianthus, Violas, Primrose, Alyssum, and tall perennial Foxglove make this an early spring container arrangement

Planting Containers Early

After a long cold winter, gardeners are itching to get some color outside, even as early as St Patrick’s Day, here in the mid-Atlantic region. Most hardy annuals tolerate light frosts, but not freezing.  April 1st marks the start of my container season, but I have to be careful what I plant. Hard frosts are still on the horizon and I don’t want to lose my plants or have them frost burnt.  Including edibles such as kale, lettuce, and spinach gives my containers double duty. And the leafy greens are attractive too.

A spring container with edibles, like spinach, kale, and lettuce

My Top 10:

Pansies/Violas-technically not an annual, but I treat it like one

English Daisy-comes in pink, white, and red, singles and doubles

Lobelia-a small flowered blue or white trailer that is a non-stop bloomer. It creates masses of flowers that cascade or trail out of a container

Alyssum-honey-scented white or purple trailer

Dusty Miller-good foliage foil with felted grey leaves

Nemesia-comes in a variety of colors and the scent is fabulous

Ranunculus-multi-petaled flower which loves the cold; looks like a rose

Snapdragons-upright flower used for height, seen in cottage type gardens

Ornamental Cabbage-Yes, this looks like a full grown cabbage!; Great foliage in pinks, greens, and whites

Dianthus-The quintessential cottage flower, pinks are treasured for their blue-green foliage and abundant starry flowers, which are often spicily fragrant. They come in pinks, whites, and reds and are sweetly scented

Dianthus can take lot of cold temps
Different colors of Lobelia and Violas in a broken pot

Some flowers can take ice and snow, like Ornamental Cabbages and Pansies; others can take a light frost and temperatures in the thirties, like Nemesia, English Daisy, and Primroses.

English Daisies, Bellis, is actually a perennial but I treat it as an annual
Flowering cabbage will take a snowfall and come back fine

 

A hanging orb of violas, bleeding heart, parsley, red mustard, and kale- seen at Chanticleer
I love this brown-hued Viola

Temporary Color

Yes, it is temporary color, but for a few dollars, you can extend your container season. I compare it to buying fresh cut flowers, but these last a lot longer. Lasting for 6 to 8 weeks, the containers will have run their course by mid-May, and it will be time to plant for the summer using heat tolerant plants. Most people wait to plant their containers until May in the mid-Atlantic region when the danger of frost is past. But why wait?  You are missing out on all the wonderful cold hardy varieties that will be done in by the coming heat, like Ranunculus and Violas.

An adorable Viola growing with Dinosaur Kale
Ranunculus comes in many colors
An array of Violas at a local nursery

Ranunculus is actually a corm, a small type of bulb, and the flowers look too perfect to be real. Exquisite, rose-like blossoms, they are often seen in wedding bouquets. Silky petals are layered like a rose in bright, paint box colors.

Yellow fresh cut Ranunculus are at the base of this sunflower topiary; You can cut your plants in the container and bring them in
Primrose, Alyssum, Snapdragons, Violas, Scabiosa, and Oriental Lilies

Acclimate!

Buying my plants from a variety of sources- big box, wholesale nurseries, and independent nurseries with a good selection – I hold my plants in my cold frame during March. Staying about 10-20 degrees warmer than the surrounding air, it is convenient to stash the plants somewhere and to look at all my color combos before planting. Sometimes, when I place them in my cold frame without any thought for color, a new pairing of texture or color will leap out at me. If you don’t have a cold frame, storing in an unheated garage or shed will work too.

My cold frame full of annuals and Swiss Chard

It is really important to acclimate your annuals to the cold by gradually exposing them to colder temperatures than the warm temps in a greenhouse. Unless you are buying your plants that are already sitting outside in a holding area, the plants will be coming out of a greenhouse.

Simple container of Nemesia, African Daisy, Carex, and Phygelius, seen at Chanticleer

Accessories

Using accessory elements like statues, balls, and twigs, will make the container pop.

Alyssum, pink Scabiosus, Primrose, Dianthus, Heather, Violas, Yellow Twig Dogwood
Violas, Dianthus, Hens and Chicks, and Columbine

Attracting Pollinators

Having flowering plants out in March and April is extremely important for the pollinators that are flying in chilly weather and have trouble finding nectar sources. You are providing a vital source of nectar and pollen for these important native bees by planting out early, as well as giving yourself a boost of color therapy after our cold winter. See my post on Winter Aconites for another early season pollinator nectar source.

Honeybee on Winter Aconites blooming in February
Honeybee on Winter Aconites blooming in February
Parsley is one of my favorite fillers

Trailing white Alyssum makes this container look lush

A new Pansy called Frizzle Sizzle has ruffled edges
Violas, Pansies, and pink and orange Nemesia

Perennials

Perennials like Coral Bells, Carex, Bergenia, Hellebores, Scabiosus, Lamium, and Evergreen Ferns, can be used in the early spring container as accents and fillers.  Later, worn out annuals can be pulled out leaving the still performing perennials and newer heat tolerant annuals inserted in their place.

I will keep the pink Coral Bells and the strappy Alliums in this container and rip out the violas when they are done
I will keep the pink Coral Bells, the strappy Alliums, and the Lamium in the rear and replace the Violas later in the Spring when they are done

Table planted with early spring annuals and perennials

An early planting of a table with Lamium, Violas, Ferns, Pulmonaria, Polka Dot Plant, and Moss

Loving Basil

Amazel Basil

Basil, one of my top herb favorites, is getting some bad knocks lately. Normally a cinch to grow, Basil has been plagued by fatal downy mildew, which makes it unusable.

Downy mildew disfigures the entire plant
Downy mildew disfigures the entire plant

The latest malady to hit ornamental and food plants is Basil Downy Mildew, which has appeared in the last couple of years and is sweeping through the country like wildfire. It starts with leaf yellowing, which looks like a nutritional deficiency and then spots appear and can make the entire plant inedible. Under the right weather conditions (wet, warm weather), Basil downy mildew can spread rapidly and result in complete loss of all your Basil plants. Although Peronospora belbahrii, the pathogen that causes Basil downy mildew, cannot survive our mid-Atlantic winters, it can be reintroduced on infected seed or transplants or by windblown spores. So, it is here to stay.

Mildew disfigures the entire basil plant
Mildew disfigures the entire Basil plant

Disfiguring my Basil plants by late spring/early summer, I despaired of growing this stalwart of my kitchen again. See my post African Blue and Downy Mildew for more information on this scourge.

Using Basil in many of my dishes, I always like to have some growing Basil plants on hand, but it can be hard to keep alive indoors.  I had almost given up growing it in any form and was buying the hydroponic plants at the grocery store as needed. Dried Basil is not the same flavor and addition to my cooking that I wanted.

A healthy hydroponic basil plant
A healthy hydroponic basil plant

Basil is an excellent source of vitamin K and manganese, copper, vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids such as beta-carotene), and vitamin C; and a good source of calcium, iron, folate, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids. I had no idea this tasty herb was so good for you!

I was delighted to find a new cultivar of Basil called Amazel, a game changing plant, which is resistant to Downy Mildew. Growing in my greenhouse now, it will be planted outside as soon as the frosts subside so I can enjoy it fresh from the garden. Amazel is a hunky vigorous plant that I already have cut back twice in my greenhouse since January for pesto. Once I cut it back, fresh shoots sprout up and are ready in about 10 days to use again. I am back in the green with Amazel Basil from Proven Winners!

Amazel has excellent resistance to Downy Mildew, which will keep plants growing and producing for home gardeners throughout the entire season. Unlike typical basil, Amazel is seed sterile and therefore continues to produce leaves and shoots even after starting to flower unlike other basil varieties that focus most or all of their energy into seed production.

Amazel Basil
Amazel Basil from Proven Winners

For other basil varieties that are resistant to Downy Mildew, go to my African Blue Basil post. I am back to pesto making again!

African Blue Basil
African Blue Basil