Favorite Herb-Sage

Sage has grown on me. Evoking memories of Thanksgiving meals in grandmother’s kitchen, it is a flavor that I enjoyed but didn’t use much beyond stuffing and sausage.

Carving up a sage stuffed turkey on Thanksgiving

I nearly always used it in a dried poultry seasoning mix and that was the extent of my experience of this flavorful herb. A valuable herb for containers and a deer resistant plant are many of its attributes, but I love this fresh herb for cooking in fall and winter.

Sage biscuits with beef barley soup

Cooking

Sage uses in cooking are many beyond the traditional. Fry up the leaves in butter, add some sea salt, and use them scattered on soups, salads, veggies, and other dishes to add crunch and flavor. Use sage in a brown butter saute, add some pine nuts,  and toss over butternut squash pasta. Yum!!

Saute ham chunks with sage leaves for a soup topping
Fry your sage leaves whole in butter, add fresh ground sea salt, and chop them up for flavoring recipes

Chopped up fresh, sage added to your stuffing for your holiday meal is so much more pungent than the poultry dressing that sits in your herb cabinet and can be several years old. Its flavor is so intense, a little can go a long way.

Sage, Salvia officinalis, is one of the few herbs that, even as its leaves grow larger, the flavor intensifies and the leaves are still delicious after the plant flowers.

A Snap to Grow

Easy to grow either outdoors or inside during the winter, sage is drought tolerant and grows well within a wide range of temperatures and planting zones. Evergreen here in the mid-Atlantic, I still like to have a plant inside as it shrivels outdoors in the cold. The plants also seem to fizzle out within a few years and get woody, and it gives me the opportunity to plant new ones. There are several variations, like a variegated one and purple leaved type that add foliage color to containers.

Growing sage in containers

Preferring a well drained sandy soil, sage is especially suited for container growing as it stays small with regular harvesting. Notice, I say sandy? When you pot up your sage plant indoors, give it grit or sand and it will be happier. I use aquarium gravel from the pet store.

Sage in a container

The one caveat is not to over water this herb as it will rot. And indoors, you need to provide plenty of sun. If you don’t have enough sun in a west or southern facing exposure, at least 6-8 hours of sunlight, provide supplemental lighting with a grow light.

One of the most attractive culinary herbs in foliage and flower, the soft blue blooms fit in perfectly in a perennial garden. Usually gardeners plant it separately in an herb garden, but I use it throughout my perennial beds.

Blue sage spikes, seen at Stratford On Avon

Sage Biscuits

Moist flavorful biscuits great for small sandwiches or for soup

Servings 9

Ingredients

  • 2 C Flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 6 Tbsp cold butter, cut up into pieces
  • 3/4 C buttermilk
  • 1/4 C Fresh sages leaves, cut up

Instructions

  1. Measure dry ingredients in large bowl

  2. Wash and dry your sage leaves. Chop up sage leaves into pieces

  3. Add cut up butter into dry ingredients and mix with pastry blender until pieces are no larger than a pea

  4. Add buttermilk and cut up sage leaves and mix with fork into a ball

  5. Turn out onto cutting board dusted with flour and mash down with the heal of your hand until the dough is about 3/4" thick

  6. Cut with biscuit cutter or juice glass to make 8 or 9 biscuits and place on ungreased cookie sheet

  7. Bake at 450 degrees for about 10 minutes until the tops just start to brown

Recipe Notes

A great addition to these biscuits would be 1 cup of grated cheddar cheese.

For instructions and inspiration on making a fresh herbal wreath that includes sage, go to Fresh Herbal Wreath.
Materials for a kitchen culinary wreath
Completed dried wreath with sage, thyme, globe amaranth, bay leaves, and curry plant

Blooms & Bamboo at Longwood Gardens

Visiting Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA is always a pleasure and one I try to do several times a year. Fortunately for me, it is close by. I made a day trip which included a visit to Terrain, a destination nursery/garden center that is worth a trip on its own. For other posts on Longwood, go to- Longwood’s Summer of Spectacle and Christmas at Longwood.

I had never been to the fall Mum display and last week made the hour and a half journey to take it all in, and was blown away by the artful mums and stunning bamboo constructions. Blooms & Bamboo: Chrysanthemum and Ikebana Sogetsu Artistry is the official title, and features masterworks of Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, and bonsai. For more information on the behind the scenes, go to The Making of Blooms & Bamboo.

Bamboo archway

The bamboo structures were massive

Bamboo

Created by Headmaster of Sogetsu, Iemoto Akane Tehsigahara, the exhibit features two large-scale displays of bamboo and natural elements showcased in the Longwood Gardens Conservatory. Featuring 635 rods of bamboo manipulated into spiraling, twisting, and intertwining natural works of art that were over 15 feet high, these works of art towered almost to the roof of the conservatory.

If the bamboo exhibits weren’t enough, thousands of blooming chrysanthemums trained into imaginative forms and shapes by Longwood’s own horticulture masters were on display.

Mums

My daughter and I posing in front of the massive single chrysanthemum plant that features over 1000 blooms

The first thing you see entering the main conservatory is the massive Chrysanthemum plant that was started in the Longwood’s greenhouse 17 months ago. Beginning more than a year in advance, thousands of chrysanthemums are nurtured and trained meticulously into giant spheres, spirals, columns of cascading flowers, and pagodas. To appreciate the many different types of mums, go to Chrysanthemums: A Class of Their Own. 

Each bloom is supported and tied in
Cross section of the sphere showing how one mum plant is trained
Masses of unusual mums were placed out in the conservatory
Spider mums
Labeled types of mums
Mum pagoda
Mum fan
Smaller mum sphere from one plant
Football mums line the conservatory passages
Mum growing up a wall
Cascading mums draped the conservatory columns
I loved the lavender colored corner of the conservatory
A free form mum

Salvia leucantha, Mexican Bush Sage, complemented the mums
Cuphea ‘Candy Corn’
Cuphea ‘Candy Corn’ set off the yellow orange corner of the Conservatory
Sabra Spike Sage was a great autumnal color

Ikebana 

The Japanese art of flower arrangement, Ikebana, was showcased in the Sogetsu school which is one of the styles of Ikebana. The Sogetsu School focuses more on free expression and is based on the belief that Ikebana can be enjoyed anytime, anywhere, by anyone. From the number of people who were exclaiming over them, there were plenty of admirers. For more information of Longwood’s Ikebana, go to Art For Anyone: Sogetsu Ikebana.

Bonsai

Numerous examples of Bonsai featuring miniaturized mums were my favorite. Bonsai is the Japanese art form of cultivating small trees or plants that mimic the shape of scale of full size trees. Through different techniques, such as wiring, shaping, and root pruning, these are amazingly like their full size plants. For more information on these, go to Character Development of a Bonsai.

Pomegranate tree
Different mum bonsai

This mum was growing over a small boulder

You can still see the exhibit now until November 17 and you can buy your tickets at Longwood Gardens.

Container Bulbs For Spring Color

The days are getting shorter and the temperatures are moderating with some chilly nights. What does that mean?? Bulb time!!!

Bulbs peeking through in early spring
Tulips growing in a spring border

Planting bulbs around my house is a process. I add to my collection in the ground every year and also pot up containers with bulbs to strategically place around my yard for pops of color. This year, I am holding off on planting in the ground as we are in a drought here in the mid-Atlantic and the ground is hard as cement.  Containers are the way to go right now and I am getting everything lined up.

You can stuff a lot of bulbs into a large container

Bulbs in Containers

So much better to plop your bulbs in nice loose potting medium rather than slaving with a heavy shovel to get your bulbs down to the proper depth in a heavy dry clay soil.  Frustrating? You bet! But in containers, think of the advantages:

  • You can enjoy your bulbs up close and personal
  • Change the look and appearance of your garden instantly
  • Grow bulbs that require specialized TLC
  • Pop them into containers with other spring flowers
  • Experiment with new varieties. Plus, you can have beautiful pots of spring flowers welcoming friends to your front door or brightening your patio for weeks in the spring when you become starved for color and fragrance
  • You can have tulips without the deer eating them! Place your pots close to the house, like on your porch where the deer won’t venture.
Texas Gold Tulips growing close to the house where I can enjoy them
Mini daffodils growing on my patio in April

Outdoors For Spring Bloom Vs Forcing
Fall-planted bulbs in containers have different needs than bulbs planted directly in the ground. I am not talking about “forcing” bulbs which means to accelerate your bloom period. In that scenario, your bulbs bloom in late winter, earlier than scheduled for their normal bloom period. That method requires pre-chilling to get the required days of cold that each bulb needs. I didn’t want to fool with forcing this year. So, I decided to enjoy my bulbs in containers by my back door without fiddling with burying the pots and/or chilling bulbs that forcing requires. Go to Bringing Spring In-Forcing Bulbs for more information on pre-chilling and forcing if you want winter color indoors.

 

For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to
For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to Longfield Gardens blog 

 

Miniature Iris in a pot
Iris reticulata in a pot is one of my favorites; this blue variety is a stunner-‘Katharine Hodgkin’

Potting Bulbs Made Easy

  • Potting Medium-Use a high quality potting medium with lots of perlite or vermiculite for porous well draining soil (not garden soil)
  • Pots-Use flexible plastic pots that give with the changes of temperature (terra-cotta can break if not insulated with bubble wrap); You can slip these into decorative pots when they bloom
  • Spacing-Plant bulbs so they’re close but not touching, with their tips just below the soil surface. Here is your chance to stuff them in for a huge color show
  • Depth-Pot bulbs are typically planted a little less shallowly than ground bulbs. But try to stick closely to recommended planting depths for best results. The goal is to leave as much room as possible under them for root growth
  • Layers-For a more abundant lavish look, you can layer your bulbs or stack them on top of each other but it is simpler to stick with one variety per pot for beginners
  • Temperature-In winter, bulbs in above-ground containers will get MUCH colder than those planted in the ground where the surrounding soil insulates. This means you’ll need to store your potted bulbs through the winter in a place that stays colder than 48° F most of the time but that doesn’t get as severely cold as the outside. This last winter, my pots stayed outside in a sheltered spot and they bloomed beautifully.
  • Water-Check your soil all winter to make sure soil is moist but not soggy. Water infrequently when just started, but later when roots have filled in and top growth has started, ramp it up
  • Presentation-Place grit, gravel, or Spanish moss on top to finish it off or plant something shallow rooted on top, like moss
There is nothing more fragrant than a pot of Hyacinths by the back door, from Longfield Gardens
There is nothing more fragrant than a pot of Hyacinths by the back door, from Longfield Gardens
Tulips are also easy in pots
Tulips are also easy in pots; set them where deer can’t go

Storing
I keep my planted pots outside until the weather consistently gets below freezing. For me in the mid-Atlantic region, that could be as late as mid December, depending on the weather. Keeping my pots on my patio where I can easily throw some water on them, is the simplest way to monitor them. Once freezing temps are here to stay, I start bringing the pots in to a more sheltered position. This would be in a unheated garage or shed or cold frame.

I overwintered my bulb containers in a cold frame last winter

Since temperature is critical for success, it is important to choose an area that  is buffered from the killing freeze/thaw cycle, but still able to get the needed chilling for successful flowering. Keeping the pots in a cool shaded spot, like an unheated garage or cold frame, until early spring growth appears is essential.

I wrap my containers in bubble wrap and place them in an unheated mud room next to my house
One winter I wrapped my containers in bubble wrap and place them in an unheated mud room next to my house

Wrapping my pots in insulating bubble wrap and placing them next to the wall of the house in the mud room for any ambient warmth is my solution for minimal protection. A cold frame would work also. I have heard of gardeners even storing the pots in old-fashioned galvanized trash cans with some burlap or other filler stuffed around them. Storing them in cans will avoid the great destructor of bulbs-squirrels, mice, voles and other assorted varmints.

Squirrels will clean out your flower beds of tasty bulbs
Use masking tape to hold the layers of bubble wrap around the pot

Check on your pot while it is being stored. Water when the soil feels dry to the touch. This will only happen every couple of weeks. Towards February, the tips of the bulbs will be pushing through the plants that you have planted on top.

Bulb foliage starts to show in late winter

If storing in a garage, be careful of ethylene gas emitted from exhaust fumes from warming-up cars. Ethylene gas can cause flower buds to abort and you end up with wonderful pots of foliage only. If you store in an old refrigerator, be aware of ripening nearby fruit for this reason as the ethylene gas of fruit can cause the same problem. Store the pots in impermeable plastic bags to avoid contamination.

This pot was planted in the fall and stored all winter.  I brought it out on the patio when the weather started to warm up; you can see the bulb foliage peeking through

Once top growth starts in the spring – pointy tips pushing through the soil-  gradually move the pots out into the partial sun acclimating them to brighter sunlight necessary for good flower development. Enjoy! I include a step by step guide on how to plant bulbs in containers at the end of this post.

After Care-3 Ways

Compost the bulbs, leave in the pot/plant in the ground in the fall, or replant in the garden right after flowering and still green are the three ways to handle the spent bulbs. If you replant, be sure to fertilize them with a bulb fertilizer as the bulbs have used all those nutrients up at their first burst of flowering. Most times, the flowers aren’t as spectacular as the first bloom using up all their energy, so I tend to compost them.

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Don’t hesitate to compost your used bulbs-There is no shame in that!

Step By Step for ‘Lasagna’ Pots

All of these bulbs fit into one layered pot

‘Lasagna’ pots just means layering your bulbs so that you have a 6-7 week display from one pot of different types of bulbs.

My Garden Club had a workshop making ‘lasagna’ plantings of bulbs
img_0415
First layer covered with potting medium
  • Fill your deep container  (at least 16″ deep)with a high-quality potting mix about 6-7 inches deep
  • Plant your bulbs almost as deeply as you would in the ground; for instance, 6 or 7 inches deep for tulips and daffodils, and 3 or 4 inches deep for little bulbs such as Crocus and Miniature Iris
  • Press the bulbs firmly into the soil, growing tips up. If layering, make sure that you cover one layer completely before placing more bulbs
  • For my layers, I planted the following from deepest to the most shallowly planted;  1st layer- 10 Daffodils, 2nd layer- 10 Hyacinths, 3rd layer-16 Tulips, 4th and last layer- 50 assorted small bulbs (I used 20 Grape Hyacinth, 20 Crocus, and 10 Mini Iris)

 

The first layer of Daffodil bulbs is planted the deepest
  •  Water your bulbs well after planting
  • Plant either pansies, moss,  or fall cabbages to the top for more insulating helpLayer your bulbs according to the suggested planting depth
  • Layer your bulbs according to the suggested planting depth; Here I used a container 18″ in diameter and 16″ deep for a good root run
Place all your bulbs closed together
Place all your bulbs close together; This is the top layer using minor bulbs like Crocus, Mini Iris, and Grape Hyacinth
Plant pansies or fall cabbages on top for extra insulation
Plant pansies or fall cabbages on top for extra insulation
This pot I finished off with Irish Moss, and creeping Sedum
The ‘lasagna’ pot in bloom
Lasagna pot ready to come into full bloom
Full bloom
Tulip bulbs planted very close together
Tulip bulbs planted very close together
Tulips popping up in the spring

The sources of bulbs for this post is Longfield Gardens, my go-to source for bulbs.

 

 

 

Critter Proof Bulbs

You love spring bulbs but have a huge deer and squirrel problem? Yes, this fall you can plant a number of bulbs that they will pass up! Most people know that daffodils are always ignored by deer and rodents, but don’t limit yourself to daffodils. There are many other deer/rodent resistant bulb varieties.

Scilla, a deer resistant bulb, naturalized in the lawn at Chanticleer, in Wayne, Pa
Closeup of Blue Scilla Siberica
Deer are invading our neighborhoods and gobbling up our landscaping, picture by Valerie Ryan

Deer and Rodents

Deer are a huge problem here in the mid-Atlantic and as a designer, I recommend planting bulbs that deer won’t devour-leucojum, hyacinths, alliums, snowdrops, crocus, daffodils, scilla, iris reticulata, chiondoxa, fritillaria, winter aconites, and grape hyacinths. So, don’t think your deer problem is going to stop you from planting bulbs and enjoying spring color. For deer resistant perennials, go to Fuzzy, Fragrant, and Ferny; Deer Proof Plants for the Garden.

Sprinkle cayenne pepper on plants that deer browse on

Be careful about tulips even in protected areas. Deer love them and will jump fences to get at them!!

Tulips are loved by so many but are devoured by deer

Crocus are deer resistant but the bulbs are cold weather delicacies to rodents. You could protect the bulbs by laying a piece of hardware cloth on top of the newly planted  bulbs and fastening it down with soil staples. I do that for my lily bulbs which deer love but I grow anyway.

Hardware cloth is a metal mesh, much like  chicken wire, except that it uses a smaller grid pattern, usually about 1/2 inch square. Alternatively you can cage the bulbs in hardware cloth before planting, but I find that laying cut pieces of it on top of the bulbs is much easier. Fasten down with soil staples or rocks. Just remove it in the early spring.

Lay pieces of hardware cloth on top of the ground

Be sure to avoid using smelly fertilizers while planting bulbs, like bone meal, blood meal, or fish emulsion. Attracting every animal in the neighborhood, your bulbs will definitely be dug up. I once placed a sealed bag of blood meal in my open car port and neighbor dogs came and devoured it!

Alliums-The King of Deer Resistance (And Rodents)

Alliums are one of the best bulbs for deer avoidance. They actually repel deer as they are in the onion family, and have an onion odor. Chase away garden nibblers with these bulbs! The combination of sulfides that make a great tomato sauce also repels deer and rodents. If you time it right, you can have alliums blooming all season long. Go to Longfield Gardens to see the large variety available.

Easy to grow and multiplying in number, I am sure to include alliums in my garden in ever greater numbers. Here is a brief listing of some varieties:

  • Allium christophii  Christophii has a round flower head composed of 50 or so star-shaped lavender flowers with a silvery sheen. The leaves die back as the flowers fade; the remaining brown stems and seed heads can be snipped, but that dried look is becoming very chic in gardening circles and can be spray painted any color you choose.
  • Allium karataviense This is a low-growing plant, good for a rock garden or beside steps. Pleated foliage makes this a to-die-for plant and the flower is as large as a tennis ball.
  • Allium moly Probably the easiest of the small alliums, this one has a spray of bright yellow flowers and does well in the shade.
  • Allium sphaerocephalon Also known as “Drumstick” allium, this plant’s long name just means it has a round head. A tight little purple knob that never quite opens, this is one of my favorites.
  • Allium schubertii The Tumbleweed Onion.  An heirloom that looks like spidery fireworks that has incredibly huge, airy, 12″-wide umbels of up to 100 purple florets extended on stems atop a straight, thick and sturdy stalk. When the bud first emerges from its papery sheath, A. schubertii looks like an upright, thick green paint brush.  This one is my favorite alliums and the large dried seed heads come loose and roll around my garden-Fun!
Allium emerging from the sheath
Allium ‘Globemaster’ at Chelsea Flower Show
Leaving the dried stalks in the garden long after the bloom fades adds interesting textures and shapes
Allium schubertii blooms pop up through perennials
Bees love Allium flowers
Wide variety of alliums seen at Chelsea Flower Show
Drumstick Allium, from Longfield Gardens
Allium karataviense

Other Critter Resistant Bulbs

Deer leave grape hyacinths alone

Winter Aconites are one of the first bulbs that appear for me. Go to Winter Aconite-The Bulb That Keeps on Giving for more information about this incredible harbinger of spring.

Winter Aconites

For an unusual choice of spring color, try Fritillarias which make an incredible statement in the garden. For a great article on Pineapple Lilies, Fritillarias, go to Time to Plant Pineapple Lilies.  

Fritillarias, photo from Longfield Gardens
Crocus-Deer avoid them but rodents gobble them up!
There are all kinds of daffodils and deer and rodents won’t touch them; seen at Brent and Becky’s

Daffodils, like alliums, are distasteful to rodents and deer. Containing alkaloids, the family of compounds that includes nicotine and morphine, daffodils are the king of bulbs!!

Daffodils along with chiondoxa, Glory of the Snow, another critter resistant bulb
Leucojum forms a large colony quickly. My dog is my deer repellent!

 

Leucojum aestivum or Summer Snowflake is deer proof
Leucojum is an old fashioned bulb that reminds me of giant snowdrops
Snowdrops
Hyacinths in containers, another deer resistant bulb, photo from Longfield Gardens
Hyacinths come in a wide variety of colors, seen at Chelsea Flower Show

 

Longfield Gardens is my go-to source for quality bulbs.  They have a huge selection and are a great information source. They have a deer resistant collection that would be perfect for your deer ravaged yard!

 

 

 

Pumpkin On a Stick

Use pumpkin on a stick in fall displays

Halloween is around the corner and people are starting to decorate with the many types of pumpkins available at the farmer’s market. The past 10 years have seen an explosion of all kinds of colors, sizes, and shapes of pumpkins, but I am in love with a diminutive one, which actually isn’t a real pumpkin, but an eggplant., specifically Ornamental Eggplant, (Solanum Integrifolium). For different types of real pumpkins, go to my Pumpkin Eye Candy post.

Pumpkin on a Stick seed packet at Botanical Interests

Ornamental or Food?

Falling in the eggplant family, the little pumpkins, Solanum integrifolium, are not really pumpkins, but an ornamental used in stir-fried Asian dishes. I grow this cute ornamental jack-o-lantern for jazzing up my Thanksgiving table and fall flower arrangements as it dries nicely and lasts a long time.

Native to Southeast Asia, it grows 3 to 4 feet tall with very large fuzzy leaves that grow from a purple thorny stem. It towers over other eggplants in my garden and the plant looks remarkably like Bed of Nails or Solanum quitoense, profiled in Plant Geek Alert.

Bed of Nails

Culture

Around for over 125 years which makes it an official heirloom vegetable, it has also been called Pumpkin Tree and Pumpkin Bush. Planted directly in full sun in your garden, the plant needs steady moisture and benefits from regular fertilizing as it grows large fast. Pretty soon, the insignificant blooms appear, followed by pale green nubby fruit that turn into their final pumpkin ribbed shape a few weeks later. Insects like to gnaw on the leaves as you can see but deer and rabbits leave it alone because of the wicked thorns.

Started from seed in my greenhouse, by early spring, the plants (with stakes) grow quickly and are ready to plant in the garden as soon as we are frost free
Pumpkin on a Stick growing in my veggie garden has thorns and can get tall (3-4 ft tall)

Harvesting

In late summer, the fruit changes to a scarlet color and when frosts start to hit, the eggplants turn their final rich orange color. You can harvest up to a dozen pumpkins on one plant. When you pick a stem of pumpkins for fresh use, cut the stems and use as is. If you want to dry the pumpkins, hang the entire stalk upside down in a cool dry location, removing leaves. This treatment prevents the fruits from sagging. Fruits will shrivel and the orange color will intensify. For eating, pick the fruits when orange and use in stir-fries.

Cutting my pumpkin on a stick plants
Remove all the leaves and hang to dry
Available in the fall at trader Joe’s

Pumpkin on a stick at the wholesale florist
Pumpkin on a Stick used in a seasonal arrangement

Autumn Crocus-Fall Super Star

A bulb that blooms in the fall? I get a lot of puzzled looks when I try to explain Autumn Crocus or Meadow saffron. Not really a crocus, but actually in the lily family, it resembles the spring flowering crocus but the flowers are larger and chalice-shaped instead of stiffly upright.

Purple Autumn Crocus  Colchicum atropurpureum

The similarity to a crocus leads to many confused people who see it and think it is a crocus out of sync, and blooming in the wrong season. An under-used bulb, Autumn Crocus deserves more recognition.

My Autumn Crocus is blooming with my heucheras

Many of my photos in this post were taken in September in Scotland, as you rarely see them grown here. But they can be grown quite successfully here, just as well as the UK, and I have grown them here in the mid-Atlantic for years.

Naturalized in the lawn in Scotland

Originating in Europe, its life cycle is quite unusual. Appearing in Autumn popping out of the ground like magic almost overnight, you forget that you have planted it, and then when it appears, you are quite excited. Appearing without any foliage, it is all flower with no obscuring leaves and is quite beautiful in garden beds or naturalized in the lawn.

Popping up in the lawn

Blooms lasting for 2 to 3 weeks and then lying dormant until the following spring, foot-long strappy leaves appear and remain until early summer. They can get tattered and ugly looking and I just snap them off and forget about them. After summer hibernation, the Autumn Crocus bloom emerges in a profusion of multi-petalled flowers for a show of color, when not much is happening in the garden, and you are hungry for some color. Fitting in quite well with the asters and chrysanthemums of the fall garden, they also come up the same time as fall cyclamens, another adorable fall blooming corm.

Autumn Crocus blooming with Fall Cyclamen at Falkland Palace in Scotland
Plant them where they can peek out under shrubs
Sometimes the corm pops out of the ground and I just push it back in while flowering

Easy as Pie to Grow

Developing from a corm (small bulb), you plant them in late summer or early fall about 2-3 inches deep in full sun to partial shade. The delicate flowers should be protected from wind, so I grow them among shrubs and perennials. Maintenance free, there are several varieties of Autumn Crocus in white, dark purple, and lavender pink. ‘Waterlily’ is a lovely mauve lilac with double petals.

Waterlily Colchicum

Downside

The only downside to this bulb is price. They can set you back from $4 to $8 a bulb depending on supplier and variety. The doubles like ‘Waterlily’ are always more expensive. But I have invested in buying half a dozen a season now, and have a nice little stand of them as they multiply quite readily. And did I mention that deer and bunnies rarely bother them? Another reason to order some for planting this fall.

Varieties

Violet flowering ‘Autumn Queen’ ‘Giant’ with white and mauve blooms

‘Waterlily’ with unique lilac double petals

“Lilac Wonder’ with lilac pink blooms Purplish mauve

‘Violet Queen’ with a white center

‘Albus’ a pure white

Colchicum Albus

Saffron Crocus

The stigmas (orange filaments)are dried for saffron

Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus), another fall Crocus, creates jewel-toned flowers in the fall garden in only 6-10 weeks (sometimes as little as 4-6 weeks) after being planted.  Planted in zones 6-10, you can plant them in your garden beds, in containers, or even indoors. Harvesting the orange fuzzy stigmas of the saffron crocus is easy and you just snip them off and dry them on paper towels and use in your favorite dishes.

The ultimate saffron dish-paella!

When To Plant Saffron Crocus Bulbs

Make sure to plant Saffron Crocus bulbs at least 6 weeks before chance of frost. The bulbs (corms) don’t store well and should be planted soon after you receive them. I just planted mine in the garden and expect to harvest the saffron threads in a couple of weeks.

Buying bulbs of Saffron Crocus

If mulched well, Saffron Crocus can be winter hardy to USDA zone 6.

The Saffron Crocus does well in dappled shade
Saffron Crocus is a lovely lavender shade

 

 

Indian Pink: Under-Used Native Perennial

Flying under the radar for many people, Indian Pink, or Spigelia marilandica is coming into its own. A long-lived perennial that brings stunning colors to the summer garden, hummingbirds flock to these red and yellow tubular flowers arranged in clusters. Similar to firecrackers exploding in the garden, this unique flower stops people in their tracks when they see it in my garden.

Spigelia looks a little like firecrackers
Well grown clump of Indian Pink

Flowering in early summer, and then sporadically through the remainder of the growing season, Indian Pinks are highly sought after at perennial nurseries and they have trouble keeping them in stock. In fact many of the nurseries I talked to ship them to British clients instead of US, because they are mad for them! A southeastern US native hardy to zone 5b, it has been planted as a novelty, but is now reaching mainstream status.

A great companion to ferns

Emerging in the spring, the plant can grow quickly to hold more than 75 of those colorful tubular (perfect for hummers) flowers that catch your eye as soon as you look at the garden.

The combination of yellow and red is striking
The common name of Indian Pink refers to its medicinal properties. The dried roots are used as a hallucinogen and a de-wormer, nothing to fool around with! Use it horticulturally and not medicinally.
I grow my spigelia in mostly full sun, though all the culture information I see on line is that it liked partial shade to shade. I have grown it for about 5 years in full sun and have been very successful with it. The ones that I planted in partial shade haven’t been as floriferous.
Planted in shade, the flowers don’t make a great show
Highly sought after by wildflower enthusiasts, I think that everyone should include this great native in their garden to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. A new cultivar called ‘Little Redhead’ is now available which is reported to be much more compact and packed with flowers. I need to seek it out!

Turf Alternatives

As a landscape designer, a frequent request from clients is getting rid of their lawn and replacing with more natural alternatives. Water hogging and pesticide laden lawns are being replaced nowadays with different varieties of grasses, meadows, and other perennials that form a low growing mat, like thyme or mazus.

Mazus underplanted with a  bench

Ubiquitous American Lawns 

Today lawns cover more than 63,000 square miles- almost the size of Texas! And Americans are still in love with their lawns, but this is gradually changing. Turfgrass is mostly made up of non-native grass species and requires a huge amount of water, pesticides, fertilizer, labor, and fuel. There are definitely areas where lawns are useful, like in playing fields, but lawns are way over-planted. The bio-diversity of a lawn is extremely low compared to meadows and other garden plantings, and cost billions of dollars each year to maintain, as well as contribute to water pollution. More and more botanic gardens such as Longwood Gardens and the new Delaware Botanic Gardens are establishing flourishing beautiful expanses of meadow to showcase the beauty of natives in a natural setting.

New meadow plantings at Delaware Botanic Gardens, photo by Amy Sparwasser
Yellow Sulphur on cardinal flower in meadow at Delaware Botanic Garden, photo by Amy Sparwasser

The decline of our native pollinators has been traced to more lawn installation, roundup spraying, big agriculture, and less wild plantings with “weeds”.

To many people, Milkweed is considered a “weed”

Thyme Lawn

For one client, I removed an area of 500 square feet of turf by tilling and raking out, then planting with 1100 thyme plugs (tiny plants). Irrigated with a drip hose until the plants take root, thyme can form a thick mat of creeping foliage that blooms a sea of pink flowers in the spring. Thyme is not native to North America, but works quite well here in the right conditions. There are hundreds of varieties of thyme, but I stick with the low creeping ones.

A lawn area before turning it into a thyme lawn and native plants
Thyme lawn is irrigated with a soaker hose until established. The other part of the lawn is being planted with pollinator friendly plants
Creeping thyme is very steppable

Mazus reptans is another creeping plant that does well in partial shade to shade that spreads quickly to form a mass of creeping foliage with white or purple flowers in the spring.

Variety of ground covers cover a lot of ground here; the yellow is Chrysogonum
Mazus reptans

Change in Attitudes

More and more, I am seeing lawns disappearing and being replaced with perennial grass alternatives like Carex or Sedges and even more radical with meadow plants, like goldenrods and other native wildflowers.

Carex rarely needs to be cut
Carex Pennsylvanica under the chair and Hakonechloa on the edges in Toronto, Canada
Beautiful mix of wildflowers in England

The UK is way ahead of us and establishes meadows everywhere they can, like graveyards.I have seen graveyards in England being replaced with meadow grasses instead of the buzz cuts around gravestones that you would normally see.

Meadow in graveyard in England

But how to get rid of lawns? I suggest gradually turn your property into alternative plantings. Don’t expect it to be done overnight and be cognizant of your neighbors and Home Owners Associations (HOA). Get permission and if that is not forthcoming, then try to educate others about the alternatives. I am a beekeeper and wanted to make a meadow around my beehives to increase bee foraging opportunities, and created a meadow around my beehives.

Meadow around my beehives

To see how I created a meadow and other strategies in creating bee habitat, go to Plant These For the Bees.

Carex and Sedges

One alternative to consider are Carex’s or Sedges to replace turfgrass. Carex pennsylvanica, commonly called Pensylvania Sedge, is a shade-loving perennial sedge that is native to dry woodland in Eastern North America. Semi-evergreen in cold winter areas, this makes a great lawn substitute for dry shady areas, where you might have had trouble growing regular turfgrass. Never needing to be mown, it grows about a foot high, spreading by rhizomes to cover large areas.

Carex Pennsylvanica

Thyme Lawn for Sunny Areas

Creeping or spreading thymes are an alternative in a sunny location with good drainage. Remove your grass by either spraying with an herbicide, tilling it under, or killing with black plastic.

Killing weeds with black plastic is an effective way to kill perennial and annual weeds

Meadows

What makes a meadow? An open habitat or field covered by vegetation, usually grasses and other non-woody plants providing areas for nesting, food gathering, pollinating insects, and shelter for small animals. Many people wish to replace their lawn with a meadow but think by sprinkling seeds out of a can they can get that look.

Garden writer, Stephanie Cohen, has planted large deer resistant meadow areas at her house in Pennsylvania
Sign at Longwood Gardens meadow
Walking in the meadow at Longwood
Native Monarda in Longwood Meadow

It is important to first remove the existing turfgrass by tilling or killing it with black plastic, cardboard, or newspaper covered with mulch or soil. You can then plant with selected native and non-native plants that do well in your location to form a dense covering of perennials that will crowd out weeds.

Kill turf with black plastic or newspaper covered with soil or mulch

Try using at least 80-85% native plants in your mix. Alternatively, you can use a good wildflower mix and spread the seeds after preparing your ground by raking it out, sprinkling, and raking the seeds into the soil. Firm the soil with a tool to make sure you have good contact and keep moist until the seeds sprout and get established. Don’t think you can sprinkle seeds from a can directly onto the ground and expect the meadow to appear that is pictured on the wildflower canister! There is work involved in establishing a meadow that looks picture perfect.

Meadow at Delaware Botanic Garden has lots of grasses, photo by Ruth Clausen

Maintenance is still required to weed out undesirables that pop up which will happen less frequently as the plants knit together to form a weed killing mat. And your meadow will need to be mown down in early spring.  Here is a great list from Longwood Gardens of meadow wildflowers that they recommend.

For more information on lawn alternatives, The MD Extension Service has a great article on Ways to Reduce Your Lawn.

Fragrant Sweet Annie

Sweet Annie, Artemisia annua, is an herb I remember from the seventies and eighties. Intensely fragrant smelling green herb wreaths were made up in the fall from the branches and I would see them everywhere for sale at craft fairs and outdoor festivals.

Wreath of Sweet Annie

I kind of forgot about Sweet Annie for a long time until a volunteer plant emerged from my asparagus patch this summer and shot up all summer long, until by September it towered over 6 foot high with many sweet smelling branches ready to be harvested. Deciding to let it remain in my asparagus patch, I watched it all season long until I accidentally brushed against it to release the intense sweet fragrance. Once you smell it, you will never forget it! Lingering on my hands and clothing long after brushing into it, the fragrance is hard to describe with an almost fruity fragrance.

Sweet Annie growing in my asparagus patch is about 6 feet high

Classified as an annual weed, Sweet Annie has escaped cultivation and is a favorite of crafters for its versatility and sweet fragrance and to floral arrangers as an aromatic filler. Slow to germinate, and late to bloom (mine just started to bloom in early to mid-September here in zone 6b), it readily self-seeds, so I know I will have more next year and will probably have to pull some out. Not a beautiful plant, more weed-like than ornamental, it was fine relegated to my vegetable patch.

Harvesting

Yellow green beads form on the end of the branches as flower buds

Growing like a well-branched Christmas tree, I waited until yellow beads appeared on the branches arranged in panicles, which are the buds of the flowers. This is the perfect time to harvest it and I cut the woody trunk down with loppers and then cut off each individual branch for drying. If you harvest it earlier, the branches will kind of shrivel up. Some I bunched up with a rubber band and hung up in my basement for 1-2 weeks, for straight trusses. Other branches, I curled up in a trug for drying. That way, the branches will dry in a rounded form, perfect for making into sweet smelling wreaths.

Drying branches of Sweet Annie in round trugs

A sun lover, my Sweet Annie plant required no care and it loved our drier weather this season.

Sweet Annie’s Uses

Sweet Annie, known in China as qing-hao, has been used in treating malaria and fever for hundreds of years. Fruity, astringent, aromatic, Sweet Annie has been used as an air freshener and pest deterrent. You can crumble some into your carpet before vacuuming for a long lasting fragrance to linger long after you have finished cleaning.

Freshly cut Sweet Annie ready to be bundled up

Commonly used in crafts as a base for wreaths and swags, and a filler for arrangements, the dried plumes can be used in a variety of ways. Break up the large branches into smaller pieces for different projects. More pronounced in humid weather, the fragrance can waft on the breeze into my house. If you hang a branch in a bathroom, the damp air will release the fragrance. Unfortunately, some people are allergic to Sweet Annie, with bouts of sneezing and sometimes skin irritation. I find that the sneezing happens if I work with it too much, so limit my time with it. I enjoy Sweet Annie from a distance!

Sweet Annie makes a great filler in arrangements; here I arranged with marigolds, cosmos, dahlias, and goldenrod

For other herbal wreath ideas, go to my post Fresh Herbal Wreath.

Fresh Herbal Wreath

Customize Your Garden With Heirlooms

As a landscape designer, I am always looking for beauty in my surroundings- beautiful fabrics, furnishings, spaces, and colors are really important to me. Extend that to my vegetable garden and I also want beautiful vegetables and fruit decorating my garden bed to eat. Heirlooms deliver on that in spades! Instead of the usual mealy Florida grown tomatoes available in the grocery store, I grow a rainbow array of veggies to decorate my plate.

Array of heirloom tomatoes
I grew this heirloom “Mushroom” tomato this year
Heirloom harvest

Yes, it takes a lot of effort and sweaty hard work during some hot summer days. But when I pick those basketfuls of colorful vegetables and bring them in the kitchen, it is worth it. Heirlooms have been saved for decades and sometimes centuries because they are the best performers in home gardens. They haven’t been grown so that they ship more efficiently and last longer on the grocery shelf, but because they look good and taste good.

Variety of heirloom peppers
Beautiful heirloom tomato
I grew this “speckled trout lettuce”, an Heirloom from Austria, in containers because it was so pretty

Seed Choices

Shopping for vegetable seeds nowadays means either picking from modern hybrids created by crossing two selected varieties, or heirloom veggies which are open pollinated, saved and handed down through family generations. Usually costing less than hybrids, heirlooms have been shown through recent research to be more nutritious if not as prolific as hybrids. I will take the downside of less prolific with my heirloom varieties if they are tastier.

Heirloom tomatoes are $2.99 a pound at a farmers market

Heirloom Advantages

Selecting and saving seeds from the most successful heirlooms in your garden over the years, the more the seeds will adapt to your local conditions. Plus you save money. Many hybrid seed packets range in price from $4 to $10 and sometimes you get very few seeds, with packets containing just 10 seeds in some cases.  Connecting with history is another great reason to grow heirlooms.

Chiogga beets hail from northern Italy in the 19th century

Boston Marrow

Many heirlooms go back for hundreds of years and can be traced back to original growers. For example, the Boston Marrow winter squash has quite a history attached to it. Foodtank a food think tank publication  says this about Boston Marrow: “Precisely when and how the Boston Marrow became domesticated in America is unclear. However, Fearing Burr, the author of Field & Garden Vegetables of America, was the first person to document the Boston Marrow squash in 1831. In his book, Burr mentions that Mr. J.M Ives of North Salem, Massachusetts, received the seeds of the Boston Marrow from a friend who lived in Northampton, Massachusetts. As the story goes, Mr. Ives then distributed the seeds to members of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society who, he claims, had never seen the specimen previously. Mr. Ives also mentions that his friend whom he received the seeds from, had in fact, been given the seeds from Buffalo gardeners who got them from a tribe of Native Americans that visited the area; and this is apparently how it all begun.”

Boston marrow in amongst an award winning veggie assortment at a farm fair

Read my post Move Over Butternut-Try Boston Marrow for the custardy pie recipe and more information on this heirloom.

I haven’t grown Boston Marrow yet as I only have room for several vining varieties of squash but it is on my list. For now I buy it at Farmer’s Markets.

Boston Marrow is sold by Burpee
Boston Marrow pie
Heirloom Boston Marrow makes a delicious pie

Farmer’s Markets

Farmers Markets are a great source of heirlooms
Seen at a farmer’s market, this peanut pumpkin fascinated me

Talking to growers at farmers markets is a great way to discover heirlooms and listen to their stories about their beautiful produce.

Trolling farmers markets is a great way to pick up heirlooms

Growers that I have talked to are only too eager to share information about the heirlooms that they grow and you can pick up some vegetables and save the seeds after consuming it! I did that with a Marina Di Chiogga winter squash that I admired at a farmers market and saved the seed to plant in the spring. Now I am overrun with this delicious winter squash!

Dozens of these Marina Di Chioggas are growing in my vegetable garden this summer
I am growing Porcelain Doll Pumpkin this year also which is a hybrid. Unfortunately I can’t save this seed as it won’t grow true to type like an heirloom would

Saving Seeds

An advantage of heirlooms is that you can save the seed from year to year instead of shelling out money each spring for new seeds. For a great book on saving seeds as well as starting, check out Julie Thompson-Adolph’s excellent book Starting & Saving Seeds

Saving seeds can be as easy as removing pumpkin seeds from the flesh, washing and drying them, to fermenting tomato seeds in water for several days to remove the gelatinous gel coating the seeds. Julie will walk you through the process of saving all kinds of seed from your garden and even how to hand pollinate corn for the best seed set. Flowers and herbs are also covered and I was interested to see she had a tutorial on making seed tape from toilet paper!

Seed Exchanges

Another great source of heirlooms are local seed exchanges. Everyone brings their cleaned seeds and lays them out for people to pick from and hopefully you will get some varieties that you want and things that you have never seen before.

Seed Exchange

In the early spring, seed exchanges pop up and I found this one at my local library and came home with lots of good stuff.

At my local library

Vegetables aren’t the only heirlooms that I grow. Heirloom annuals are also high on my list to plant in the spring. Go to my post on Heirloom Annuals.

Corn Cockle or Agrostemma is an heirloom that I will be starting this spring

For seeds of this, go to Renee’s Gardens.