Plant Oddity – 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

From the Ground Up – Choosing the Right Ground Cover for Shade

At the Boedel Reserve near Seattle
Combine two or more varieties of ground cover to form interesting patterns; Hosta and Begonia grandis were used here

This spring I toured a gorgeous private garden that is stunning for it’s beauty and classic garden design.  I enjoyed strolling through the woodland gardens that were peaking with spring color and was struck by the innovative use of ground covers. No overly used big three – pachysandra, vinca, or ivy to be seen! There is a time and place for the big three, but consider the options before settling on the mundane.

Good use of Vinca on a hillside

Why use a ground cover? Simply, it reduces the empty space around plants that will require weeding. Ground covers crowd out weed seeds that can migrate into the soil spaces between plants, germinate, and start the process of invading garden space. Plus it adds a finishing touch to the landscape. It is similar to putting on your jewelry once you are dressed.

Interesting colors and textures make a good ground cover

In practical terms,  ground covers usually refers to any one of a group of low-lying plants with a creeping, spreading habit that are used to cover sections of ground  which require minimal maintenance. Ornamentals such as hydrangeas could be used as a ground cover but more commonly low maintenance perennials like ferns are used to cover large expanses or slopes.

Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium nipponicum, used under a tree
Newly planted Japanese Painted Ferns will fill in completely in 3 -4 years

Usually chosen for practical purposes, such as an area where it is too shady for turf to grow or too steep to mow, the selections are many. My favorite selections are for shady spots with some even performing well in dry shade.

Moss makes a great ground cover for deep shade

There are so many more interesting and attractive options, you just need to arm yourself with these choices and visit a good plant nursery. In addition, if you are a fan of the color blue, you will love these. So read on, and pick the best for your situation.

Spanish bluebells

Bluebell Wood

Who ever thought about using Bluebells as a ground cover? It blooms beautifully and then disappears for another late comer like lamium or hostas to cover up.

Spanish Bluebells, Hyacinthoides hispanica, is a great mid spring bloomer that spans the gap between the early arrivals of spring bulbs such as snowdrops, to the later arrival of mid summer perennials. Their best feature, other than the beautiful blue color, is that they bloom in deep shade as well as in full sunlight. You can naturalize them in a shady woodland underneath evergreen or deciduous trees and they will steadily increase over the years to carpet the ground in an azure swath.

Spanish Bluebells

Bluebells are a bulb and come in pink and white as well, but the blue is my favorite by far. They are easy to grow in any woodland condition but will thrive where it is well-drained and with ample moisture. I grow them in my perennial borders with no special care and the foliage will disappear by midsummer.  Because of this feature, you can underplant it with another creeping ground cover such as ajuga or sweet woodruff that can will take over once the foliage has died down.

Virginia Bluebells –  A Native

Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica, is the native version of Spanish Bluebells.  Instead of the strap like foliage of Spanish Bluebells, the leaves are very broad and tissue like in texture. The flower color is an intense cornflower blue.

Virginia Bluebells are a spring ephemeral like so many early woodland bloomers, dying back to the ground. So be sure to have something else like the native woodland phlox to take its place. Later flowering annuals could be plugged into the spot that is empty when they die back or a perennial like late appearing hostas can do the job.

Bluebells bloom in May and then disappear
Native Virginia Bluebells in full bloom

Lamium

Lamium or Dead Nettle has been mentioned several times already as it is a perfect little ground cover for bulbs to sprout though in the spring. A ground hugging creeper with silvered variegated foliage and some really pretty colored flowers,  Dead Nettles are an ideal choice for gardeners who want a tough plant with a variety of foliage colors and textures.

In the same family, Lamiastrum galeodolon is a tough, more upright ground cover with yellow flowers

Tolerating a variety of light conditions, Lamium makes a good transition plant between shady and sunnier areas. The cultural adaptability of this great plant makes it a valuable tool in the gardeners planting palette.

Lamium with Bluebells
Lamium ground cover likes partial shade to full shade
Lamium underplanted in a tree ring

Woodland Phlox

Woodland Phlox, Phlox divartica, is a native about 9 inches tall that comes in pastel blue, pink, and white.  I love it, but find that it is a very short-lived plant, only three or four seasons. Who knew that there were so many kinds of phlox?  Available in creeping, woodland, tall garden, and miniature alpine varieties, and some variations in between, most people are not familiar with the range of varieties available. The Woodland Phlox is a very beautiful member of the family that blooms in April with a punch of color.

Woodland Phlox
Woodland Phlox

 

 

Woodland Phlox

Crested Wood Iris

Crested Wood Iris ground cover

Another underused ground cover is the Crested Wood Iris, or Iris cristata. This diminutive little Iris is only about 6 inches tall and blooms with a miniature azure colored Iris bloom and will spread steadily but not aggressively.  It is perfectly adorable! The deer ignore it also. Wood Iris will bloom in very deep shade.

 

Flower of Crested Iris

 Solomans Seal

Solomans Seal, Polygonatum variegatum, is a workhorse perennial for me.  Plant a small colony of a dozen, and after splitting it up regularly for several years, you will end up with a large swath of nodding white bells! Be warned – Deer do like to browse on them.  This perennial will not thrive amongst others as it covers the ground  with underground tubers and lasts all season long. Nothing else will grow where Solomans Seal takes over but a large drift is a sight to behold.  Yellow fall foliage is a bonus, something that surprises me every year!

Solomans Seal-Polygonatum variegatum
There are several different kinds of Solomans Seal; this is Polygonatum biflorum
Polygonatum multiflorum

Hostas

Just about everyone knows and grows hostas.  A tough plant that is hard to kill, it is a deer magnet for browsing.  But if bambi doesn’t roam nearby, try planting large colonies of the same variety for a great looking ground cover. Or vary your planting scheme for interesting textures and hues. I find that hostas play well with other shade perennials and like to add clumps of them along with other ground covers.

Drifts of hostas
Edging a pathway with different hostas is an effective use of color
Blue Cadet Hosta makes a uniform ground cover
Kabitan Hosta to lighten up shade with gold color
Kabitan Hosta closeup

Green and Gold

Another golden ground cover that will brighten a shady area is Green and Gold, Chrysogonum virginianum, or Golden Star.  A native also, it is known for its star like flowers and creeping hairy leaves.  Green and Gold loves moisture and will thrive in a boggy area.  I grow it in ordinary garden conditions and it does just fine.  It does need some shade or will burn in full sun. Deer leave this one alone!

Chrysogonum is behind the bench; the pink is creeping thyme

Green and Gold embracing a tree

Hellebores or Lenten Roses

I have been advocating the use of Lenten Roses or Hellebores, as an evergreen, long blooming, deer resistant ground cover for years.  The plants are a little pricey but will slowly fill in and throw off seedlings that will cover your ground before you know it. Did I mention that it blooms for three months, sometimes longer? Everyone who has a shady garden should grow these. Tough as nails, this plant will gradually increase in size every year. For more information, read my post, Hellebores-Deer Resistant, Low Maintenance, Shade Loving Perennial.

The foliage of some Hellebores has a variegation which adds interest

 

A flock of Hellebores!
Double flowered Hellebore

Golden Ragwort

I really hate that name! Golden Ragwort, Senecio aurea, is another native which I like to use in shady or semi-shady conditions.  Senecio blooms with a cheerful daisy-like flower for weeks in the spring. The rosettes of deep shiny heart-shaped leaves are attractive the rest of the growing season. This ground cover will spread steadily and you might have to restrain it a bit, but it is definitely not a garden thug!

 

Golden Ragwort native ground cover

Forget Me Not

Another deer resistant ground cover which I recommend is Brunnera or Forget-me-not. This is the perennial Forget-me-not, not to be confused with Myosotis which is a biennial. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’  was the perennial plant of the year for 2012 and deservedly so because of it’s beauty and toughness.  Deer give it a wide berth because of the fuzzy foliage and it will hide early spring bulb foliage because it emerges right when the bulbs are dying back.  ‘Jack Frost’ is a great cultivar with silver to white webbing on the leaf surface that shines in the shade. The plant is topped off with airy panicles of true blue tiny flowers.

Jack Frost Brunnera

Geranium

Perennial Geranium does well in part shade to shade and many of the varieties are deer resistant. Blooming with delicate flowers in the spring, these are tough perennials that will form nice weed smothering clumps.

Delicate flowers are the trademark of Geraniums
Unnamed Purple Geranium
This is Geraranium macrorhizzum, Bevans Variety and Ingwersens, both deer resistant
Geranium ‘Bevans Variety’ has a beautiful fuschia color
Unnamed perennial Geranium
Happy to cascade over walls, perennial geraniums have beautiful foliage

Mazus

Mazus is a low-growing ground cover that spreads by creeping stems which root at the nodes as they spread. Growing only 2″ tall, this tiny creeper can spread pretty fast forming a dense, steppable cute ground cover. The foliage stays green for at least 9 months of the year and explodes in spring with purple tubular beautiful flowers. There is a white version also. One of my favorite ground covers, I use Mazus whenever I have a smaller area like between stepping stones to cover.

Mazus becomes covered with tiny purple flowers
When not blooming, Mazus forms a tight grass green carpet

Spurge

Euphorbia or Spurge is rarely seen as a ground cover and should be used as it can tolerate dry shade.  Evergreen and deer resistant, spurge is topped with lime green flowers in the spring.  I am a sucker for the color lime. The color really brightens a dark area.  Euphorbia robbiae easily grows in shade or sun and sports rosettes of handsome leathery leaves all season long.

Euphorbia robbiae is deer resistant
Euphorbia myrsinites allows spring bulbs to punch through

Few More For Shade

A different type of  Forget me not-Brunnera macrophylla variegata
The ultimate in ground covers-Ladyslippers!
Hardy Cyclamen
Uvularia or Merry Bells
Trillium cuneatum
E$pimedium ‘Frohnleiten’

Butterfly and Bee Magnet, Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye Flower with a Monarch

If you want to grow the ultimate flower buffet for butterflies and bees, try Joe Pye Weed.  When there isn’t much else blooming, Joe Pye will surprise you with fuzzy pink umbels of flowers that flying insects clearly relish. I planted only one plant of the great late summer bloomer, Eupatorium dubium, ‘Little Joe’, which has spread to cover an area about 5 feet by 5 feet.  After 5 years of growing this plant, I have found it not to be invasive but it definitely spreads. When it goes beyond its bounds, it is easy to pull it up.

A patch of ‘Little Joe’
My poster available in my Etsy Shop includes other butterfly and bee magnets
I have a nice clump of Joe Pye right in front of my greenhouse

In late summer, my ‘Little Joe’ patch has formed a nice clump in front of my greenhouse; it has finished blooming but I keep it up for structure. It will get taller as the summer progresses.

‘Little Joe’ tops out at 4 feet tall, as opposed to the more commonly grown ‘Gateway’ which can get up to 7 feet high and can flop. I hate to stake flowers, so picked ‘Little Joe’ to avoid that fate.  Now there is another cultivar called ‘Baby Joe’ which only gets 2 to 3 feet high which I need to try next.

Joe Pye is a native wildflower which grows along streams in the wild near my house.  It gets enormous! I stayed away from it for years because of the size and difficulty in siting such a large specimen.  But I am in love with ‘Little Joe’ which has beautiful burgundy stems.

The burgundy stems of ‘Little Joe’ look fantastic against a brick wall
This is a mid-September garden border with the Joe Pye placed towards the back; shorter flowers in front keep it upright

Once the flower starts to bloom, I am sure to see at least a half-dozen different types of bees and butterflies landing, and the other day saw 5 Monarchs resting on my one plant!

Swallowtails on Joe Pye; this is the full size one that towers over me!

‘Little Joe’ comes in a ‘garden friendly’ package of a plant that is easy to grow in full sun to part shade and has sturdy stems that will support the flower heads and won’t bend or flop.  The plant is drought tolerant and fragrant with mauve purple flower heads which can reach 12 inches across!

Dried seed head of Joe Pye

The flower persists for weeks and the seed heads will last through the winter and will provide food for the birds when food is scarce. What is not to like? A tough beautiful, easy to grow plant which provides entertainment. I visit it every day to see what insects and butterflies have made a visit. For more information on planting pollinator plants, go to my posts Creating Monarch Waystation and Plant These For the Bees. Also, my Garden Plan for Pollinators is a good resource.

Available in my Etsy Shop, my plan for a pollinator garden includes Joe Pye Weed
Count the bees!

Ailanthus Webworm moth on Joe Pye
Eupatorium dubium 'Little Joe' Plant
Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’ Plant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seed Bombs

Are you the kind of person who likes to grow flowers, but doesn’t want to spend time getting on your knees, preparing the soil, and carefully spreading out your seeds in a furrow? Seed bombs are for you! And a fun project to make with kids. Thrown into neglected round-abouts, planters, flower beds and ditches, seed bombs can spread the goodness of planting flowers around.

A little preparation of creating these fun little time bombs and you are ready to go to work throwing them around in neglected areas to sprout and thrive. With our heavy constant rain in the mid-Atlantic region, many areas are ripe for germination.

Throw the balls onto bare soil, not turf
These balls germinated in about 5 days during a warm rainy spell; the clay has almost disappeared into the soil
About 6 weeks later, zinnias have sprouted up to 18″ tall already

Best flowers for seed bombs: for sunny areas, annual meadow flowers including poppies, cornflower, marigold; Californian poppies; cosmos; hollyhocks; nigella; verbena bonariensis; viper’s bugloss. For shady areas, use a woodland seed mix; foxgloves, tobacco plant, honesty.

Wildflower Seed Mix collections for various growing zones including Texas, California, Midwest, and Southeast  are $5 apiece from Urban Farmer Seeds & Plants.

Ingredients:

  • Flower seed
  • Potter’s clay powder, from any craft shop or Amazon
  • Peat-free compost or potting medium
  • Water
  • A bowl
  • A baking tray
Mix all the ingredients together and add water, just to moisten

Instructions:

Mix the seed, clay, and compost together in a bowl to a ratio of three handfuls of clay, five handfuls of compost, and one handful of seed. Then carefully add water slowly and gradually (you don’t want it too gloopy), mixing it all together until you get a consistency that you can form into truffle-sized balls. Lay them out to bake dry on a sunny windowsill for at least three hours.

Form the balls and lay out on a cookie sheet to dry

Next time that you  go hiking or a walking take a few balls with you and spread the wealth!

 

 

 

Micro Greens-Nutrition-Packed Veggies

A small tub of sunflower microgreens ready to be cut and used
A small tub of sunflower microgreens ready to be cut and used

Have you ever been served a dish in a restaurant which was garnished with colorful and vibrant  greens? Most likely these were microgreens, know for their visual appeal, and crunch. Though minuscule in size, they are concentrated with nutrients. Studies have shown that micro greens are loaded with good stuff, such as vitamins C, E, and K, lutein, and beta-carotene- many times more than the mature leaves of the plant.

I have used disposable containers like milk cartons for microgreens also; on the left is mixed greens, on the right is pea tendrils

Flavorful and providing a textural contrast to a dish like a soup or slab of fish, a few microgreens can go a long way.

Some microgreen pea plants used as a garnish

Not to be confused with sprouts- germinated seeds that are eaten whole, seed, root and shoot, a microgreen is an immature green that is harvested with scissors when the plants are about two inches tall. The stem, cotyledons (or seed leaves) and first set of true leaves are all edible. You are essentially eating seedlings! And the variety of seedlings include herbs and flowers, and vegetables. Most popular are sunflowers, radishes, peas, arugula, basil, beets, kale, and cilantro.

Countertop Gardening

Sunflower, peas, and mixed salad greens
Sunflower, peas, and mixed salad greens ready to be harvested

Pricey to buy in a grocery store and hard to find, microgreens are a snap to grow quickly in a small amount of space. Gather your supplies and you could have a variety of greens growing within a half hour of starting. The harvest time is a mere one to two weeks.

I get my microgreen seeds from Botanical Interests

 

Root Pouches

Root pouches are the way to go for me in growing microgreens.  The Designer Line of Root pouches are made out of porous material that allows the plants to breath, and the containers come in three colors: Navy Blue, Forest Green and Heather Grey. For my microgreens, I used the Joey size at 5″ in diameter and 3″ high.

Root pouches planted and ready to go

Growing bags made out of recycled materials, studies have show that they produce healthy, strong fibrous root systems on plants. Breathable material, the Root Pouch company says on its website: “Root Pouch is a family run business that turns discarded plastic bottles into a versatile, geotextitle material. The Root Pouch fabric planting container keeps plants healthy by letting excess water drain and allowing roots to breathe and grow.” Allowing air to pass through the pot, it promotes a healthy root system.

Pea tendrils ready to harvest

How to Plant

  • Fill pouch or container about 2/3 full of potting medium
  • Press your seeds ( I get mine from Botanical Interests) into top of potting medium
  • Sprinkle top with a light covering of soil
  • Firm soil with fingers, and water with a light spray until saturated
  • Place in a warm place in indirect light
  • Shoots will sprout within a few days
Pea seeds don’t even have to be covered with soil-these are started in milk cartons

Harvesting

Working carefully, taking care not to crush or bruise your tender seedlings, cut the shoots right above the soil line. Begin cleaning by laying a damp paper towel on a tray and placing it near the sink. Give tiny clumps of seedlings a dip in cool (not icy) water, and lay out onto the paper towel.

You can start them in greens containers from the grocery store

Store greens between the paper towels and place in a ziploc plastic bag in the refrigerator. They will last about a week wrapped up this way.

Pea tendrils freshly washed

 

Cool Flowers-Early Spring Bloomers

Nigella damascena or "Love-in-the-Mist"
Nigella or “Love in the Mist”
Love in the Mist is an apt name for these blue jewels held in a green mist of foliage
Beautiful poppy, photographed by Pam Corckran
Beautiful poppy, photographed by Pam Corckran
Honey Bees love poppies

Winter is the time to sow your Cool Season Annuals as soon as the soil can be “worked”. This term is gardening slang for soil with a texture that is neither mud nor frozen! After determining that my soil was ready by drawing a rake through it, I gathered my cool season annual seeds together with plant stakes, sharpie for marking, and my favorite multi-bladed sowing rake. On the menu for sowing was Poppies, Bells of Ireland, Love-in-the-Mist, and Calendula.

Bells of Ireland
Calendula comes in both yellow and orange

Calendula seen at Great Dixter, UK

Calendula seed packet on wooden stake
Calendula seed packet on wooden stake

Cool Season Annuals differ from annuals that you sow after the danger of frost is past because the seeds need cold temperatures to germinate and cool temps to grow well in the garden. When hot weather hits, they are history and I pull them out to make way for annuals that relish the hot weather. Poppies are one of my all-time favorite flowers and I make sure to plant plenty. If you are into blue poppies, go to my post on Blue Poppies.

Blue Poppy at Longwood Gardens
‘Lauren’s Grape’ Poppy
Annual poppy, I don’t know the variety
Lady Bird Poppy at Great Dixter
Lady Bird Poppy
An annual poppy blooming in June
An annual double poppy blooming in June

My honey bees love the poppies and go into a frenzy when they are blooming.

Growing quickly in the cool temperatures of late winter and early spring, the cool season annuals are old-fashioned flowers that you would find scattered in an English cottage garden. Best sown outdoors, these flowers are frost tolerant and grow quickly to give you a much-needed dose of color after the long winter. If you want to plant edibles like brassicas, go to pegplant  who writes an excellent blog on gardening and is a fellow GWA member.

 

‘Love in the Mist’ seed head catching the rain drops

Raking the soil with my sowing rake is the only preparation needed. I broadcast sprinkle the seeds as evenly as possible, using dry hands, then tamp down the soil firmly with the rake, not adding any additional soil. Sprinkling the surface with bits of straw or leaves helps keep the soil moist and hopefully hides the seed from wandering birds. I spray a light mist of water on top to moisten the surface and wait with anticipation.

Striped seed head of Love in the Mist

Sowing seeds with my favorite rake

 

Sowing seeds with my favorite rake

Raking the soil
Sprinkle straw loosely over the planting bed to hold in moisture and hide seeds from birds

Beautiful form of Love in the Mist

Popping up quickly through the leaf litter, weeding and sprinkling with water is necessary if we hit a dry spell. Then it is time for the color show! Cutting flowers from these early blooms make great arrangements in the house.

Poppy seed heads are great dried and used in arrangements
Poppy seed heads are great dried and used in arrangements
Nigella or Love-in-the-Mist seed pods are beautiful
Nigella or Love-in-the-Mist seed pods are beautiful
Double fringed peony
Double fringed poppy

Fore a great video on planting cool flowers, go to Cool Flowers, a great website by Lisa Ziegler.

The Year in Review-Top 10 Garden Posts for 2017

Plant These For Bees is one of my all-time top posts

Looking at my stats for the past year, I am always struck by the posts which gather the most views from around the world. Some posts are from as long as six years ago and are still going strong with lots of views, like Swarming of the Bees, Luscious Honey Scented Body Butter, Plant These For Bees, or From the Ground Up-Choosing the Right Ground Cover For Shade. The top four countries that view my blog are the U.S., Canada, the UK and Australia, with dozens of other countries on the list, some I have never heard of.

Pollinator poster available at Etsy

My top post of all time which was originally published in 2012, is Containers With Pizzazz.

Artfully arranged containers using texture, contrasting colors, and different and unusual plants is my mantra and designing outside of the box. A container for every season is the way I garden in pots. Everyone can have their own personal creative planter on their deck, patio, or even inside. Having over 100,000 views over the years, I find the pictures of my containers all over Pinterest.

Indoor spring container
Summer shade container
Fall container
Winter container

My most surprising top post is Luscious Honey Scented Body Butter. Consistently garnering views from all over the world, there must be thousands of people with this body butter in their bathroom. Lots of comments on this post mean that many people have used the recipe and enjoyed it.

Shade gardening is always popular. From the Ground Up-Choosing the Right Ground Cover For Shade has helped many people choose the perfect ground cover for difficult situations. The cliff notes on this post is to plant a lot of Lenten Roses, or Hellebores. A no-brainer, deer proof, evergreen, and beautiful plant, this under-used is probably my top plant in my garden.

Lenten Roses

Swarming bees in Swarming of the Bees, always fascinates people and I have seen many of these phenomenas over the years as a beekeeper. No matter how many times I have seen it, the process of swarming is awesome.

Bee swarms are fascinating to everyone

Decorating the White House for Christmas has been my job for 3 seasons and many people are interested in seeing behind the scenes on how the process is done. My last visit to the White House was documented in Decorating the White House in 2017. I hope to do it again!

Decorating the White House
Glad to be decorating at the White House

After posting about Pesticide-Free Nurseries and Seed Companies, I was overwhelmed with the response. Many people are trying to do the right thing and not use pesticides, I was really happy to find. This post really struck a chord for many readers. 

 

An array of seed companies that are pesticide free

A Succulent Christmas post was fun to do because I started working on my succulent tree during the summer and it was interesting to see it grow all summer into the Christmas season to make a beautiful and unusual Christmas tree. Unusual and different!

It took 6 months for this tree to look full

Another top post was Miniature Gardens-Whimsical Creations. Miniature gardening is still popular, especially for people who don’t have access to a garden or don’t have the time or money to spend in a garden. Everyone has room on a kitchen counter or windowsill for a mini garden.

A Christmas themed miniature garden
Broken Pot Garden-Home for a Gnome

So, here are my top ten for views:

Containers With Pizzazz

Plant These For the Bees

Deck the Halls-A Succulent Christmas

Miniature Gardens-Whimsical Creations

Swarming of the Bees

Luscious Honey-Scented Body Butter

Pesticide Free Nurseries and Seed Companies

From the Ground Up-Choosing a Shade Ground Cover

Decorating the White House 2017

Broken Pot Garden

 

 

Here are my favorite posts:

Garden Trip to Chelsea, Wales, and Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds

 

A Cut Above- Creating Sculptures from Wood

Illuminating the Season-  A Williamsburg Christmas

Surviving Extreme Weather- Top 3 Ways to Help Birds

Butterflying

Tussie Mussie: The Victorian Art of Expressing Yourself 

Magical Sunflowers-the Fibonacci Spiral

 

Delaware Botanic Gardens-From the Ground Up

Dahlias-Divas of the Garden

 

Floating Beauties

Hellebores-Deer Resistant, Low Maintenance, Deer-Proof Perennial

Mistletoe – A Sprig of Romance and Legend

Mistletoe clumps perch high in a tree

Have you ever been in the check out line at the grocery store and seen packaged Mistletoe with white plastic berries? A familiar sight around Christmas, I was always intrigued about this plant but never knew much about it.

A recent trip to the coast of North Carolina opened my eyes to the stomping grounds of this interesting parasitic plant. Driving along the highway in December from the coast of North Carolina to Asheville on a long drive, I had plenty of opportunity to notice the native vegetation and I noticed large green clumps held high up in deciduous trees. Once the leaves drop, you are able to see large birds nests and other debris caught up in the bare branches and these leafy green balls stood out to me. I realized immediately that they must be Mistletoe and soon saw many of the evergreen balls dotted throughout the forest.

Botanically, Mistletoe  is especially interesting because it is a partial parasite, a “hemiparasite”. Being a parasitic plant, it grows on the branches or trunk of a tree and actually sends out roots that penetrate into the tree and take up nutrients. But like any other plant, it can produce its own food by photosynthesis. There are two types of Mistletoe. The Mistletoe that is commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens), is native to North America and grows as a parasite on trees in the west in central California, and the east coast. The other type of Mistletoe, Viscum album, is of European origin and very different from the North American, as it is a green shrub with small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries which are poisonous like the American cousin.

Bunches of mistletoe for sale at $3 a bunch at a farmers market in North Carolina

One of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore, Mistletoe was believed to bestow life and fertility,  a protection against poison, as well as an aphrodisiac. Sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids, it was used in symbolic ceremonies. Gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices, the custom of using Mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is a survival of the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions and has become associated with many folklore customs. In the Middle Ages, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits and over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches. These customs were brought to the new world with the immigration of Europeans and native Mistletoe, though a different variety, was here in abundance.

A bunch of Mistletoe  in a tree

Mistletoe is found in a variety of deciduous trees throughout the U.S., in plant hardiness zone 6b through 11. I live in zone 6b in Maryland, so Mistletoe could be found here! And in fact, according to the Washington Post, in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, an 18″ diameter ball of Mistletoe lives in a tree only four-foot high off the ground! Hardy as far north as New Jersey, its preferred habitat is tidewater areas, thus my sightings on the North Carolina coast. Most of the Mistletoe sold on the East Coast during the holidays is collected from North Carolina. Botanists have noticed a march northwards as well as more abundant specimens which they attribute to climate change or global warming.

The glistening white berries each contain a seed

Bright green oval leaves approximately 1 inch long and one-half inch across line waxy bright green stems up to 20 inches long, make Mistletoe an attractive plant. Bright green male or female flowers bloom in fall, followed by white berries in winter. Containing oxalic acid, Mistletoe can be toxic to some animals, including humans. Birds consume the berries, excrete the seeds which fall onto other suitable host trees. Once germinated, root tendrils penetrate the bark and start forming the typical clump of evergreen foliage. These clumps can reach five feet in diameter and weigh up to 50 pounds. Since Mistletoe is a parasite, a large population of Mistletoe plants on a tree will weaken it and hasten its demise.

But the plants are important to wildlife and as well as to humans. Extracts from Mistletoe are used to combat colon cancer that are more effective than chemotherapy. Mistletoe-killed trees provide nesting sites for cavity dwelling mammals and birds. And the living clumps of Mistletoe provide shelter for many birds. Three kinds of U.S. butterflies depend on mistletoe for survival: the great purple hairstreak, the thicket hairstreak and the Johnson’s hairstreak. These butterflies lay eggs on Mistletoe, and their young eat the leaves. The adults of all three species feed on Mistletoe nectar, as do some species of native bees.

Johnson’s Hairstreak, photo from Wikipedia, Alan Schmierer

The kissing custom may date to at least the 1500s in Europe. It was practiced in the early United States and each time a couple kissed under a Mistletoe sprig, they removed one of the white berries. When the berries were all gone, so was the sprig’s kissing power.

Finding Mistletoe at a local North Carolina farmers market, I snatched several bunches to take home with me for decorations. I asked the farmer who was selling the bunches how he could harvest the clumps high in the tree and he told me that he shoots them down with a shotgun!  Thinking he was joking, I talked with others at the market and they confirmed this. Rarely is Mistletoe found at an accessible height and I had no idea shooting was an option.

Making a Kissable Mistletoe Ball

Start with a moss-covered ball of oasis

Snip your branches into smaller pieces that contain both foliage and berries
Using fern pins, U-shaped pins, insert pins into stems and attach to base
Fern pins are used to attached the sprigs of Mistletoe
Finish it off with a bow and hang with fishing line

For more Christmas decorating posts, try Williamsburg Christmas, Christmas Wreath-Ordinary to Extraordinary, Holly Love, Boxwood Christmas,  Mantel Magic,  Succulent Christmas. 

Dahlias-Divas of the Garden

From July to a killing frost in October, dahlias dominate my garden with their many petaled lushly colored flowers. Except for a true blue, you can find just about every flower color in a dahlia. Sizes can vary from an enormous 12 inch dinner plate to small button pom poms. Bee magnet blooms cover my plants that are excellent for cutting and using in arrangements. 
Bringing armloads of blooms in the summer will decorate your living space for weeks

Originating with the Aztecs, and arriving in European gardens in 1789, by 1927 F. F. Rockwell, author and founder of Home Garden Magazine,  reported that dahlias ranked in “the leading position of all bulbs grown in America.” For fascinating details on this beloved flower, go to Dahlia Archives of Old House Gardens.   Old House Gardens carries a wealth of heirloom varieties of all kinds of bulbs that you can’t find anywhere else.

Diva dahlia
Dahlia tubers dug up in October ready to be stored over the winter
Easy to grow if given adequate sunlight and rich well-drained soil and plenty of moisture, these shrubby plants grow from tuberous roots, or tubers. Depending on how severe your winters are, they may require digging and storing indoors until planting time next spring. For this reason, many buy new ones every year. 
Getting ready to plant newly arrived tubers from Longfield Gardens
Hundreds of flower forms and colors can confuse people about what varieties to plant but I see this as a great opportunity to try new ones every year and also to go back to my favorites. But remember, the larger the flower, like the dinner plate size (7 inches +), the less flowers it will produce. Juanita, a lovely ruby-red smaller flower (4-5 inches), will produce dozens of flowers compared to a dinner plates’ couple of flowers at a time.  
Pam Howden is a beautiful peach tinged with yellow, seen at Longwood Gardens
Gallery Art Deco, Cafe Au Lait, and Diva are my favorites from Longfield Gardens. There are so many favorites and new ones to pick from! Swan Island from Oregon carries hundreds of varieties and I like how they stamp the name on the tuber so you can even see it when you dig it up for saving. You always have the name even if your tags fade in the sun. Brandon Michael and Hulin’s Carnival were outstanding selections from  Swan Island this year.
Brandon Michael from Swan Island
Sunlight
Select a spot that gets at least six hours of sunlight a day, preferably more. If you can grow a tomato in a spot, you can grow a dahlia. Tolerating partial shade, dahlias will still bloom but less blooms will be available for cutting. And to produce more blooms, dead head and bring the fresh cuts in to enjoy.
Clown-like bloom, not sure of this variety
Hulin’s Carnival
Juanita dahlia, a prize-winning ruby-red, available from Old House Gardens and Swan Island
Not sure of this one
Cafe au Lait dahlia flowers are in shades of cream, pink, and tan

Soil

Heavy feeders, dahlia tubers should be planted in loose fertile soil. Add compost to the soil before planting. Don’t plant in soggy soil; they need good drainage to be successful. Soil temperature must be over 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the spring and I check this with my instant read cooking thermometer. Tubers can rot if planted in wet cold soil in the spring.
Thermometer says the soil temperature is 61 degrees
Campos Gibby dahlia seen at Longwood Gardens

Planting

Plant tubers by digging a hole three to six inches deep and laying the tuber in it with the growing tip up. The growing tip or bud is obvious as a fresh emerging shoot coming out of the fleshy brown tuber. Cover with soil but don’t water until well after growth emerges. Plant the tubers about 18 to 24 inches apart because they produce bush-like plants.
Planting a Cafe au Lait dahlia tuber in the spring that has already sprouted
York and Lancaster, an heirloom dahlia from Old House Gardens

Care

Staking can be done with tomato cages or with stakes and twine. Most dahlias need to be staked or you will have a plant with branches that will flop on the ground and have misshapen flowers. Water if you don’t get at least an inch of rain per week and the plants benefit from feeding lightly with a granular or liquid fertilizer of a general use fertilizer, not high in nitrogen. High nitrogen will produce more foliage than flowers. Dahlias like cooler conditions so flourish especially well in the late summer when temperatures start to moderate.
Seen at Longwood Gardens, dahlias are lined out in rows and at the end of the row, stakes are hammered in and tied with twine
A newly planted dahlia tuber with a tomato cage and twisted sprouts that have already started to grow while being stored

Saving/Storing

Frost will hit your plants sometime in October or November and they will go from glorious specimen plants to blackened wilted skeletons overnight. Check your weather report and before a hard frost is forecast, cut off every flower and bring it in to enjoy for another week. Once the plants are frost killed, you can start digging around the root ball carefully to remove the shrunken star fish like tuber that is nestled a few inches under the soil. Wash off any soil with a hard stream from your hose and dry in the sun. If you leave you tubers in the ground, I have found that some even come back if the winter hasn’t been too cold. Some people don’t save them, preferring to buy new ones every year.

Wash off your tubers in a crate for easy cleanup

Cut the stems a few inches above the tubers and store them in a container full of peat moss and perlite. I only place two layers of the tubers in a container, as I find that the bottom layers tend to rot more often than the top. If the tubers are too wet, they might rot, so I check them after a couple of weeks of storage to see how they are doing. If they are moldy, I scrape off the mold and add some dry peat moss. You are going to lose some of the tubers, but I have a success rate of about 75% saved tubers.

Storing tubers in peat moss
Using a large rubbermaid container that has a layer of peat moss and perlite

Alternative Method of Planting/Saving

Another method is to plant your tubers in 1 gallon plastic pots early in the spring. When the weather warms up, plant the whole pot in the garden and cover with soil. Leave the tuber in the pot and roots will come out the bottom drainage holes. When frost hits, dig up the entire pot, cutting off roots that are outside of the pot and bring the pot inside and place in a cool dark place for the winter. When shoots come up in the spring, top dress with compost and plant outside for another season of bloom.  I read about this method on Old House Gardens and want to try it next season.

Another method which a friend swears by is to dig up the tubers and shake the loose soil off and place in a large trash bag, leaving all the clinging soil attached to the tubers.  Store the trash bag in an unheated garage that won’t go below freezing. Easy and effective!

Pom Pom Dahlia
Pom Pom form of dahlia
Bees love the single type of dahlias because they can easily get to the nectar and pollen

Arranged in a bowl

 

Heirloom Annuals

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Bachelors Buttons are an old favorite with the most intense blue color

Old timey annuals are back in! Pushed to the side for many years in favor of newer, supposedly better cultivars, I always remember growing these as a child and seeing them in my parents garden. I couldn’t wait to squeeze the snapdragon flowers to make the “mouth” open like a dragon when I was little. Or being fascinated by the pansy faces that I grew and pressing them between the pages of a phone book.

Pansy flower
Violas in a container

With all the new intros of flowers, people forget the old-fashioned flowers that our grandmothers grew and enjoyed. ‘Flowers with a past’, or ‘flowers with history’ intrigue me even in the face of the slant in favor of perennials in recent years. So many people when they hear that a plant is an annual dismiss it as not worth the time and money to plant. But even in a garden of plant snobs, there is room for a diverse choice of antique flowers.

Rarely seen anymore, Balsam flower is extremely easy to grow
Rarely seen anymore, Balsam flower is extremely easy to grow

Never having given up on clarkia, cleome, calendula, cornflower, and cosmos, I have never stopped growing these neglected blooms and invite other flower lovers embrace them as well. Neglected but not forgotten, all these flowers should be planted and enjoyed by another generation.

Edible Nasturtiums are easy to grow
Nasturtiums
Nasturtiums

Heirloom annuals are plants that have been cultivated for at least one hundred years, and some for much longer. Unimproved flowers that hybridizers haven’t got their hands on, antique annuals bloom profusely all season long and set seed so that you can collect them to flower for another year. Even better, many reseed to continue growing for the next season. Many are tall and graceful, not short and stocky hybrids that fit into containers and smaller gardens that are more prevalent today.

Sticky cleome is native to South America and looks spidery, hence its common name, Spider Flower
Sticky Cleome is native to South America and looks spidery, hence its common name, Spider Flower

Difficult to have something in bloom all season long, a perennial border is just shouting out to have annuals inserted in empty spots so you can have a constant parade of blooms.

Cosmos at Falkland Place in Scotland
Beautiful ruffled Cosmos at Falkland Place in Scotland
Sweet Peas at Falkland Palace in Scotland
Sweet Peas at Falkland Palace in Scotland
Closeup of Sweet Pea
Closeup of Sweet Pea

Perennial purists who will not allow an annual to cross through their garden gate are missing out on the dizzying palette of flowers that flower and die in one season. Perennial is a term that can be interpreted several ways. I have some short-lived perennials that only last two or three seasons, like lavender. The drainage issue always does this picky perennial in. So, the term perennial could mean – lasts for many seasons, like a peony… or perennial for a few seasons, like some of the new Echinaceas. Echinaceas don’t seem to last very long at all and yet they are called perennials.

I love all the new Echinaceas, but they seem to last only a couple of seasons
Poppies are one of my favorite annuals
Poppies are one of my favorite old fashioned annuals
Blue poppy
Blue Poppy

When most perennials are on their last gasp in late summer, many annuals are still running strong with little care. A bit of dead heading, sometimes staking, and an infusion of fertilizer is enough to keep them in good form all summer. Some annuals like Poppies, Love in a Mist, Bells of Ireland, Clarkia, and Larkspur are definitely cool weather plants finished by June. See my post on Cool Season Annuals.

Purple Larkspur makes a fine foil for pink Poppies
Cool season Bells of Ireland
Cool season Bells of Ireland
Unusual on the east coast, Clarkia is an annual that does better on the west coast
Love in a Mist is aptly named
Dried seed pods of Nigella or Love in a Mist

Cultivated for thousands of years in the Americas, Zinnias are a true antique classic. According to Burpee’s website, “Zinnias are undemanding annuals that simply need full sun, warmth, and well-drained soil rich in organic matter. If soil is poor, incorporate lots of compost or leaf mold”. Like many old-fashioned annuals, Zinnias do better sown directly into the garden instead of being transplanted.

Zinnias draw butterflies

Plumed Celosias are bursting with new cultivars but I really like to grow the unique Crested Celosia. I love the brain-like texture of the velvety bloom and it dries beautifully.

Good for drying, crested celosia has a fascinating bloom
Good for drying, Crested Celosia has a fascinating bloom

Blue Lace Flower
Blue Lace Flower

Blue Lace Flower, Trachymeme coerulea, resembles a purple Queen Anne’s Lace and would look good in a cottage style garden border. Coming from Australia in 1828, you can find this plant reseeding year after year into beds without any special care. Great for cutting and bringing into the house like many heirlooms, arranging with any of these long-stemmed flowers is a delight.

Larkspur and snapdragons from the garden make a fine arrangement
Larkspur and snapdragons from the garden make a fine arrangement
Annie's Annuals is a nursery that specializes in Heirloom annuals; this is one of their demo gardens
Annie’s Annuals in San Francisco is a nursery that specializes in Heirloom annuals; this is one of their demo gardens

All of these heirlooms draw pollinators in droves to their open faced flowers, with easily available pollen and nectar. To see more plants and flowers that attract pollinators, go to Plant These For Bees.

Plant These For The Bees poster available on Etsy
Mexican Sunflower is a butterfly magnet and easy for butterflies to nectar from
False Queen Anne’s Lace or Ammi majus is a great filler flower for arrangements
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A great cottage border of heirlooms Zinnias and Verbena
Love Lies Bleeding or Amaranthus
An arrangement with Bells of Ireland and Love Lies Bleeding

Heirloom Annuals

False Queen Anne’s Lace, Ammi majus

Hollyhock, Alcea rosea

Clarkia

Love Lies Bleeding, Amaranthus

Spider Flower,  Cleome

Snapdragon, Antirrhinum

Larkspur, Consolida

Cosmos

Sunflower, Helianthus

Globe Amaranth, Gomphrena

Heliotrope

Balsam, Impatiens balsamina

Sweet Pea, Lathyrus

Four O’Clock, Mirabilis

Pansy and Viola

Lobelia

Flowering Tobacco, Nictotiana

Love in a Mist, Nigella

Poppy, Papaver

Dusty Miller, Senecio

Mexican Sunflower, Tithonia

Blue Lace Flower, Trachymene coerulea

Zinnia

Verbena, Verbena bonariensis

Calendula, Pot Marigold

Petunias