Milkweed Chronicles

Common Milkweed

One of the most beautiful flowers, both in flower and seed pod, as well as great importance to wildlife, has been relegated to the roadside for years and virtually ignored. Asclepias syriaca, or common milkweed, is struggling and harder to find because wild areas are disappearing and roadsides are  regularly mown. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a common saying and one that I would apply to this plant. Only when something becomes scarce do we appreciate it, and I can see that happening with milkweed. But there is a sea change coming down the pike and people are being urged to plant this “weed”.

Colony of Milkweed
Showy Milkweed

Acknowledged as a primary source for survival of many insects, notably the Monarch,  people are waking up to its integral role in supporting other wildlife. See my post Monarch Waystation on the many reasons to plant milkweed for Monarch survival.

Showy Milkweed

My favorite Milkweed and the one that I consider the best suited for a perennial border is “Showy Milkweed”, or Aslepias speciosa.  This species is closely related to the Common milkweed,  A. syriaca, with which it sometimes hybridizes. Ultimately reaching about 2-3 feet high, the foliage is velvety and grey green and very “garden worthy”. Here is great information about this plant from the USDA: Showy Milkweed.

Showy Milkweed
A nice blooming clump of Showy Milkweed

Milkweed Facts

  • Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it is the only food source for monarch caterpillars
  • It grows in colonies that expand in size every year; each individual in a colony is one side shoot of a large plant and are genetically identical or a clone; one large branching underground rhizome connects the entire colony
Monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed
  • Surprisingly, the flowers are extremely fragrant and you can smell a colony long before you see it
  • Although one shoot may have between 300 to 500 flowers that make up the umbels, only a few of these develop into pods

    Milkweed pods are positioned vertically

     

  • Vegetative and flower growth is rapid, but the pod development is very slow and held on the plant for many weeks
  • The pods are held vertically to the plant and hold many seeds; germination of these seeds is very sparse; milkweed more likely expands by underground rhizomes than from seed
  • The nectar is very high in sugar content, 3% sucrose, and the supply is constantly being renewed over the life of the flower; the flowers produce much more concentrated nectar than the many insects that feed on it could ever remove
  • Milkweed teems with insect life, providing food and micro habitat to hundreds of insect varieties
  • At least 10 species of insects feed exclusively on milkweeds, notably the Monarch butterfly caterpillar
  • The adult Monarch lays its eggs on the leaves of common milkweed, the larvae live on its leaves and milky sap, and the adult Monarchs drink from the flower nectar, although adults will drink from other flowers
  • The latex milky sap from the milkweed is extremely toxic to other wildlife and is concentrated in the tissues of the Monarch which protects it against predators
Milky sap exudes down the stem
  • The adult Monarch migrates south. East of the Mississippi, they fly as far as 4,800 meters to over winter in Mexico, often to the same tree location
  • This relationship between the milkweed plant and the monarch butterfly makes the pairing a symbiosis, where they become one entity instead of two separate organisms. Most importantly, without the presence of the milkweed plant, monarchs would go extinct.
Asclepias incarnata
Asclepias incarnata
Common Milkweed in December

Other Varieties of Milkweed

Asclepias tuberosa, orange-flowered Milkweed below is probably my all time favorite for drawing insects and pollinators to the garden early in the season, around June for me in the mid-Atlantic. A long-lasting cut flower, I scatter it through my borders to brighten up early summer plantings. It comes in an all yellow version called “Hellow Yellow”.

Yellow butterfly Weed "Hello Yellow"
Yellow butterfly Weed “Hello Yellow”

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ther milkweed which is a conversation piece oddity is Asclepias physocarpa (changed to Gymnopcarpus Physocarpus, a mouthfull!), or Hairy Balls. Forming puffy seed balls two to three inches in diameter, the orbs are covered with hairs and are quite bizarre looking. Perfect for flower arranging, the cut branches are quite expensive to buy from a florist, but easy to grow. A favored host of the Monarch butterfly, I always try to grow this plant for the odd looking pods. The caterpillars seem to prefer this variety over all others.

The pods of Hairy Balls or Balloon Plant are a conversation piece

Monarch caterpillars cover the Balloon Plant Milkweed

Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is commonly seen growing in Florida and has bright red-orange and yellow flowers and is also a great nectar source. The leaves are narrower and the plant produces many more seed pods than the common milkweed.

Tropical Milkweed
Tropical Milkweed
Sign at nursery for Swamp Milkweed
Swamp Milkweed has a narrower leaf than common
Swamp Milkweed growing by pond

 

Plant Three Pollinator Plants for National Pollinator Week 2019

Twelve years ago the U.S. Senate’s unanimous approval and designation of a week in June as “National Pollinator Week”, marked a necessary step toward addressing the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations. Pollinator Week has now grown into an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles.

The NPGN’s Million Pollinator Garden Challenge registered over one million new pollinator gardens in just the last three years. They salute Washington-Arlington-Alexandria area for being a Top Pollinator City with 13,493 registered gardens. The NPGN is encouraging everyone to plant three new pollinator-friendly plants, one plant for each season to ensure a consistent food supply for pollinators.

To make it easy to figure out what to plant, you can ask at native plant sales, visit nature centers, and go to websites like plants.usda.gov. This website has  regional and state lists of native plants that you can plant in your area which includes trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous plants.

Here are my three top picks that span the seasons:

Jeana Phlox

Possessing outstanding mildew resistance of shades of lavender-pink flower clusters, this native phlox is a star in my garden and always draws a lot of interest from visitors. Pollinators cluster around the heads constantly, providing a show for weeks in the mid-summer, and giving me lots of photography opportunities. Ranking at the top in ecological and horticultural trials, this plant should be in many more gardens.

Just listen to this rave review from Mt Cuba Center in Delaware who has trial gardens testing for usefulness, beauty, and pollinator visits.

“Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ is, without a doubt, the best-performing phlox from the trial. This cultivar was discovered growing along the Harpeth River near Nashville, Tennessee and named after its discoverer, Jeana Prewitt. Although there were many plants of Phlox paniculata in the area, ‘Jeana’ in particular stood out for its exceptionally mildew-free foliage. This trait carries through to the garden and is one of the main reasons ‘Jeana’ performed so well in the trial. This 5′ tall beauty also produces an impressive floral display from mid-July through early September. Interestingly, the individual flowers, or pips, are much smaller than any other garden phlox. However, that does not deter the butterflies that feed on its nectar. In fact, we found ‘Jeana’ attracted more butterflies than any other garden phlox in the entire trial. With a top rank in both horticultural and ecological evaluations, Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ is hard to beat.”

The trial gardens at Mt Cuba with ‘Jeana’ Phlox ready to bloom, photo courtesy of Mt Cuba

A taller flower topping out at 4′ to 5′, I love grouping these plants for a big show of flowers plus pollinators. Sometimes staking or some kind of support is necessary, like helpful supporting plants surrounding your clump. One of the only phlox paniculatas that I know tolerating deer browsing, it is a useful landscape plant for the perennial border. The lavender pink shade goes well with many other colors and the plant behaves and doesn’t spread aggressively.

Photo courtesy of Mt Cuba

Facts

Common Name: garden phlox
Type: Herbaceous perennial
Zone: 4 to 8
Height: 2 to 5 feet
Spread: 1.50 to 3.00 feet
Bloom Time: July to September
Bloom Description: Lavender-pink
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Water: Medium
Maintenance: Medium
Flower: Showy, Fragrant
Attracts: Hummingbirds, Butterflies
Tolerate: Deer, Clay Soil, Black Walnut
Where to purchase ‘Jeana’ Phlox? At Independent Garden Centers and Nurseries, and more than likely, the plant will have an American Beauties hang tag identifying it as a native plant choice. For local people in Baltimore County, Maryland, go to Valley View Farms. You know you are making a good environmental choice for your garden.
American Beauties Native Plants is a great resource for home gardeners with a Native Plant Library on-line. Native perennials, grasses, vines, trees and shrubs which attract wildlife and pollinators especially are listed in an easy to use resource guide. Listed by common name or botanical name, you can scroll through the many possibilities available for planting. I find the Plant Search, where you can plug in your state and specify what kind of plant that you are looking for, is most useful to me. The web site even has landscape design plans using natives for every area  of the U.S. for sun or shade.
Red Bodied Swallowtail on ‘Jeana’ Phlox

 

Photo courtesy of Mt Cuba
Monarchs flock to ‘Jeana’ Phlox

Mountain Mint

Another top choice is a little-known mint, called Mountain Mint which blooms for 15 to 16 weeks.

Not all plants are equal in their ability to support pollinators with nectar and pollen. Penn State has conducted a series of trials on different pollinator plants that evaluated plants for their numbers of insect visitation as well as for their vigor and blooming. Go to their site at Penn State trials to check it out. Not only the number of insect visitors is important, but also the diversity.

 

Early growth of Mountain Mint in the spring
Early growth of Mountain Mint in the spring

According to Penn State trials, overall, the single best plant in both 2012 and 2013 and 2014 for attracting both pollinators and total insects was Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum). A 30-inch-tall, wood’s-edge native perennial with grayish-green leaves and pale-pink summer flower clusters, it is hardy in zones 4 to 8. Originally discovered in Pennsylvania in 1790, this plant increasingly is being rediscovered by savvy gardeners and added to landscapes.

The sheer number of insects that you see on Mountain Mint is amazing; The entire plant buzzes
The sheer number of insects that you see on Mountain Mint is amazing; The entire plant buzzes

Uses

Mountain Mint is both edible and medicinal. Raw or cooked, the flower buds and leaves are edible and have a hot, spicy, mint-like flavor that makes a great spice or seasoning for meat.

An aromatic herb used in potpourri and as a bath additive, Mountain Mint will freshen laundry in the dryer. Thrown into a drawer, it will keep clothes fresh and moths away. Said to be a good natural insecticide, the dried plant repels insects but the growing plant attracts them! Containing pulegone, the same insect repellent found in pennyroyal, it repels mosquitoes when rubbed into the skin.

Mountain Mint positively dances with all the pollinators that are attracted to it.

How To Grow

Mountain Mint grows up to 2 to 3 ft. tall, usually branched on the upper half, growing from slender rhizomes (underground stems) usually in clusters. The lance -shaped leaves are 1-2 inches long and light green turning to almost white as the plant matures. Blooming in late summer to early fall, flat clustered flowers top the plant with 1/2 inch long pale lavender blooms. Gather tops and leaves when flowers bloom and dry for later herb use.

Not attractive to deer, Mountain Mint will also grow in tough dry shade conditions. Being a typical mint member, this mint travels! So, place it in an out-of-the-way place that it can run free.

Mountain Mint is one of the best nectar sources for native butterflies, and is a nectar filled landing pad for all pollinators.

Mountain Mint label at Heartwood Nursery
Mountain Mint label at Heartwood Nursery

Sources

Many good nurseries will carry this plant. Locally, you can find it at Heartwood Nursery , a great native plant nursery in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. I found the plants on-line at The Monticello Shop in Charlottesville, Virginia, and even on Etsy and Ebay.

Bee Balm

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Attractive to both hummingbirds and bees as well as humans, Bee Balm is one of my favorites as an early summer bloomer and easy to grow perennial. Commonly known as Bee Balm or Monarda, Bee Balm is “balm” to all flying insects and enjoyed by humans in teas and potpourri. Each flower head rests on a whorl of showy, pinkish, leafy bracts. Flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies.

P1050591
‘Jacob Cline’ Monarda, a good tall variety

One of the 21 superstar pollinator plants that I designed my poster with, and available at TheGardenDiaries Etsy shop, Bee Balm is a pollinator superstar and always has many insect visitors on a sunny day.

Plant These For The Bees
Plant These For The Bees

Other common names include horsemint, oswego tea, and bergamot, the latter inspired by the fragrance of the leaves, which is reminiscent of bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia). Bergamot orange is the flavor that gives the unique taste of Earl Grey tea.

A bee diving in!
A bee diving in!

From the roots, up to the flower, the entire plant has a spicy minty fragrance which quality repels deer and other browsing critters.

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Even rabbits shy away from Monarda

A valuable plant for landscaping because of this repellent attribute, Bee Balms now come in petite and dwarf sizes to fit into smaller gardens. Even though the entire dwarf plant is smaller, the flowers are the same size or larger than some of the taller varieties.

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Closeup of ‘Leading Lady Plum’

Although bee balm appears to have thin narrow petals, close up they are really little hollow tubes perfect for thin beaks like hummingbirds. “Leading Lady Plum’ has a scattering of dark plum spots on the tips of the petals, adding another color dimension to this standout variety.

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‘Leading Lady Plum’ Monarda next to ‘Heart Atttack’ Dianthus

The “flower quotient”, a term I use for the relative size of the flower to the size of the foliage, is greater than most flowers. When a Bee Balm blooms, it is stunning, unusual, and one that stops visitors in their tracks.

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Nymph Grasshopper hanging out on a Bee Balm Flower

The red variety is commonly known as Oswego Tea. Used by colonists in place of English tea after the Boston Tea Party, when they threw the English tea in the harbor to protest high taxes. Bee Balm continued for years as a medicinal and enjoyable tea and was frequently planted next to colonists homes for ease of gathering. To make your own tea, just air dry some leaves and steep them in hot water.

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Red Bee Balm or Monarda makes Oswego Tea

Coming in an array of colors and sizes, you can find a Bee Balm for any size garden now, some even fitting nicely into containers. Hybridizers have been busy with this plant and every time I go to the nursery, I see another small variety pop up. “Small” is the key word here; Most plants being developed now have a shorter stature and larger more colorful flowers to appeal to gardeners with limited space gardens or containers.

DSCN2013
‘Pardon My Pink’ Bee Balm

Because of the diminutive size of the new varieties, I tuck them in when I have a bare spot in the garden. Enjoying some shade in the afternoon in hot climates, these workhorses will bloom their little hearts out-usually lasting for 2 months or more if you dead head. The larger varieties can spread aggressively and should be controlled before they encroach and overtake other perennials.

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‘Balmy Pink’ Monarda fits in small spaces

Prone to downy mildew which can mottle the leaves, the newer varieties are more resistant to this disfiguring but not fatal disease.

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Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, isn’t as showy but still a great plant for pollinators
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An old-fashioned variety ‘Prairie Night’

Mexican Sunflower-Butterfly Favorite

If anyone ever asks me what flower draws the most butterflies to my garden, I don’t hesitate to say- Mexican Sunflower. Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’,  attracts beneficial insects such as hover flies and minute pirate bugs, and of course- butterflies. This coarse textured plant grows up to seven feet high in my veggie garden and meadow and is sure to draw all the butterflies around, especially Monarchs. Better than sunflowers which flowers for a short period, Tithonia bears dozens of flowers at a time and lasts all summer.

A battered skipper butterfly hanging on visits my Tithonia

If you are Monarch watching, you must plant at least one of these handsome plants. Hoards of monarchs will visit while it is blooming for at least 3 months solid.

Butterfly on tithonia

Easily grown from seed sown outside after frost stops, the plants shoot up quickly to tower over everything surrounding it, so I make sure to place a rebar stake next to it when it gets a few feet high. Rebar or another sturdy stake is needed as the plant can be quite heavy, laden with all those beautiful flowers. Loving heat and sun, be sure to plant them in full sun or just a little bit of shade,  or the plant will not bloom as well and will get rangy looking.

The felted leaves are ruffled on the edges

Drought tolerant, even hating too much water, these plants are so easily grown, that I am always surprised more people don’t grow them. Yes, they can get quite tall (7 feet), but there is a new variety, called ‘Goldfinger’ that only gets four feet tall and I am growing it this summer for the first time to see if I like it as much. I am wondering if it blossoms so profusely as the tall one? Descriptions say it will, but I hold judgement until I grow and experience it.

The blossoms are about 4 inches across 

The flowers are held high above the foliage with the center quite open and accessible for butterflies, and that is why they flock to it. Bees and other pollinators love it also, but especially the butterflies. Check out my post on ‘Butterflying‘  or ‘Plant These For Bees’ for more information on attracting these beautiful pollinators to your garden.

The dried flower centers are also attractive and Goldfinches pick out the seeds

Since the plants grow so tall, be sure to stake it. If you don’t, the first wind storm you have, the plant will break and fall to the ground.

Since one plant can take up a good bit of room, I plant it in my veggie garden

Why You should Grow Tithonia

  • Long bloom period
  • Tall plants make it easy to see and photograph
  • Attracts flocks of migrating Monarchs
  • Easy to start from seed
  • No serious pest or disease issues
  • Attracts a wide variety of pollinators
  • Tolerates low water conditions
  • Mixes well with other lower growing plants, like Cosmos and Zinnias
  • Good for flower arranging
  • Spent seed heads attract birds
Cosmos surrounds this Tithonia
Swallowtail drinks from a tithonia

Available at Renee’s Garden Seeds.

Top 12 Cut Flowers

One of the main reasons that I grow flowers in my garden is for the fresh cut flowers. Blooms to bring in by the arm load and arrange in buckets and vases, is the reason that I slave hours in the garden.

Buying fresh cuts from a florist or grocery store isn’t the same as bringing in blooms that are decorating my garden with fragrance and color. Regretting removing those blooms from my garden isn’t an issue when I can enjoy it for many more hours up close and personal in the privacy of my home.

Poppies are planted early in my cutting garden
Planting out my cutting garden in the spring

To get the best of both worlds – a beautiful garden along with beautifully arranged vases – I always designate a special area a ‘cutting garden’. Expanding year by year as I discover just another flower that is perfect for cutting, it has encroached on my vegetable garden. Less veggies-more flowers!

Blocks of flowers in a cutting garden; mesh netting supports the stems
I grow so many dahlias, I arrange them in bowls

But what defines a good cut flower?- Simply put: long bloom times, tall sturdy stems, and ample vase life.

Zinnias, Amni majus, and Bells of Ireland
Peegee hydrangea with ‘Henry Eilers’ Rudbeckia, and Chelone

Garden-to-Vase 

Growing specialty cut flowers for me ranges from crowd favorites like peonies and dahlias, to more obscure varieties rarely seen at a local florist, like ‘Love in the Mist’, is both a money saver and a little bit of luck. Starting many of these varieties from seed can be tricky, and some years I have a bumper crop, and other years, I bomb. Gardening is not an exact science and the more I experiment, I find that there is always more to discover.

Planting seedling plugs at Great Dixter, UK

Growing my own source of private bouquets is something I will be doing as long as I have a  garden, as I crave fresh flowers in my house and I don’t want to rely on the florist. My vegetable garden is about 50% flowers now!

Allliums and coneflowers
Growing cutting flowers for drying

Not only do I use my fresh cuts for arranging, I also dry a bunch of them for use in the Fall and Winter. See Dried Flowers for ideas.

My Top Twelve List of Fresh Cuts

  1. Ageratum houstonianum ‘Blue Horizon’ or ‘Dondo Blue’
  2. Larkspur-comes in pink, blue and white and gives a great vertical accent to your arrangements
  3. Poppies-comes in a rainbow of colors and my bees like them; go to Poppy Love
  4. Zinnias-all kinds, but I especially love the cactus varieties
  5. Sunflowers-forget the mammoth ones (too large), but the different colored varieties with branching stems are my favorites like ‘Valentine’
  6. Dahlias-for late season interest, these are perfect! For my post on Dahlias, go to Dahlias – Divas of the Garden
  7. Lilies-Oriental and Asiatic, not daylilies as these only last a day
  8. Love in the Mist– not only beautiful flowers, but beautiful foliage and dried seed heads
  9. Peonies-a flash in the pan and they are gone, but I indulge in them when in season
  10. Tulips-forget these if you have deer; wonderful form and they grow in fantastic shapes in the vase
  11. Bishops Flower(Amni majus)-looks like a Queen Anne’s Lace on steroids
  12. Alliums-long lasting statements that make good focal flowers; go to my post on Alliums-All Season Long.
Alliums are easy to grow and deer resistant
My purple alliums with the purple obelisk
Love in a Mist
Dried seeds heads of Love in a Mist
Bishops flower
Lavender blue of ‘Blue Horizon’ ageratum
Ageratum, Sunflowers, and Dahlias in an arrangement
Cosmos with its ferny foliage is a great cut flower, seen at Falkland Palace, Scotland
Masses of sunflowers ready for cutting, seen at Falkland Palace, Scotland

Out of Season

When summer is over that doesn’t mean I don’t have plant material in the house. Transitioning to colorful berries, leaves, and branches takes me into the holiday season. After that, I bring in evergreens, cones, and branches, until flowers appear again in the spring.

Fall arrangement with berries and branches in a bowl

Placement

Deciding on a place for your cut flowers is a personal decision, but you have to have lots of sun. Growing flowers in my vegetable garden which gets the most amount of sun on my property makes sense for me. Most of my other beds are full of perennials and evergreens, and shrubs, so I usually don’t have room for them in my garden beds. I will plant early bloomers, like poppies, larkspur, and cornflowers in areas that will hold late appearing perennials, like hostas. By the time the hostas are up, the early bloomers are just about done and I can remove them.

Red and white tulips-great for cutting
Rows of flowers in a vegetable garden (not mine!)

Allow enough room to maneuver around the blocks or rows for watering, weeding, and picking. I plant in blocks about 3 feet wide for good access and air flow.

Bouquet of dahlias from my garden
My veggie garden serves also as my cutting garden

Starting some seeds inside and others like Zinnias outside, I start about two dozen varieties each year. Some years I have a bumper crop of something that has done especially well, I just can’t predict what will be blooming in my garden.

Starting seeds under grow lights gets me a jump on the season

For cool season flowers like Larkspur, Bells of Ireland, Poppies, Love in the Mist, and Cornflower, go to Cool Flowers.

Bells of Ireland are a great cut flower

Pink cornflower
I

Blueberry Bonanza

Blueberries are the ultimate fruit bearing shrub for people who want to make the most use of planting shrubs for beauty, but will also produce a tasty and healthy treat.

You can buy a blueberry bush anywhere for around $25

Easy to grow and integrate into an established garden, blueberries are attractive shrubs in their own right, that people really don’t think of using when planning their landscape. Easy to fit into a small landscape, blueberries exhibit wonderful fall color as well as being attractive shrubs the rest of the year, especially in the fall when they turn  a spectacular red color as the days turn cooler.  An unexpected source of fall color for most people, and a great provider of breakfast blueberries-what’s not to love?

There is nothing like fresh picked blueberries for breakfast

A half dozen blueberry bushes are planted in the high shade of large trees on my property, and I amended the soil with plenty of moistened peat moss. Planting the shrubs about five feet apart gives them enough growing space. If you plant them in the landscape as a shrub accent in a flower bed, you can group them a little closer for a bigger impact.  I find that deer leave the shrubs alone but will browse on the ripe berries, as well as birds. Bird netting set up over a framework of PVC pipe keeps the berries going into your pies instead of feeding the wildlife. But if you plant enough bushes, you will have enough for the wildlife as well as yourself.

Blueberries used in the landscape can screen utilities

Plant as early in the spring as possible is best, though I have been quite successful planting them later in the spring and into the summer. Resistant to most pest and diseases, I have been growing my blueberries for over 25 years with bushes that keep on producing plump juicy berries.  Offering scarlet fall foliage and pale-yellow bell-shaped spring flowers, my honey bees flock to gather nectar and pollen from them, and is one of the reasons I grow them.

The flowers are creamy yellow and bell-like

 

Steps for Planting

  1. Select a spot in full sun or partial shade.
  2. Test your soil pH by digging a small sample and take to a nearby nursery to have tested. The soil pH should be optimally between 4 and 5. To acidify your soil or to lower the pH, mix a small amount of granulated sulfur into the soil several months before planting. Also mixing organic materials such as peat moss, pine bark, leaf mold, aged sawdust, and pine needles into the soil will help acidify your soil and lower the pH before planting.
  3. Buy a blueberry bush that is at least one year old or older to get a head start on bearing.
  4. Dig hole about twice as wide and deep as the root ball and add some loamy soil and compost to the hole.
  5. Place the shrub at the same level as the pot into the hole and back fill with soil and pack firmly.
  6. Water thoroughly.
  7. About one month after planting, fertilize with a general 10-10-10 granular fertilizer or a liquid fertilizer like fish emulsion.
  8. Blueberries are self-pollinating but will grow larger fruit through cross-pollination with a companion bush.

Harvesting

Blueberries are one of the easiest plants to harvest with very little effort. The berries are held upright on small shrubs so are easy to reach with little bending over, unlike strawberries and raspberries. It is important to wait until the berry ripens completely with a rich blue color all around as the berries will not ripen any further after you pick them.  The berry will reach its full flavor and aroma a few days after the blue color appears.

Wait until the berries are deep purple before picking

Hanging an old cut off gallon milk jug around my neck, which frees both hands to pick, is the most efficient way.

Using an old milk jug with the neck cut off and a shoestring to hang it, is the best way to pick hands free

The berries ripen over several weeks, so my harvest is spread out and I enjoy them on cereal and pancakes for about a month in late June and early July. My excess berries are washed, spread out to dry, and packed into freezer baggies for future use.

Freezing my berries for later use
Weighing my berries

Container Growing

People are quite successful growing blueberries in large containers. Use the same soil mix as above and use a large enough container that the plant can grow, but that you can also move around if needed. Overwinter the container by wrapping burlap or straw around the plant and placing in a protected location from winds. Successful blueberry growing though, is having the right soil mix with plenty of peat moss added, in a container or in the ground.

A plentiful harvest

Pruning 

When your bushes get older, at least 4-5 years old, it is time to start pruning to keep them producing each year. The berries are produced on newer canes, so the best strategy is to remove older and diseased canes as well as crossing branches with a sharp pruner. Then trim the rest of the longer arching branches back by about 1/4 to 1/3. The goal when pruning is to achieve a narrow base and open top that allows sunlight to penetrate and good air circulation. The best time to do this is late winter while the bushes are dormant, and it is easy to see the structure.  To ensure plentiful harvests, you should continue to do this every year. For a great description and diagram, go to Ohio State Extension Service.

Pine straw is the best mulch for blueberries

Winter Blues-Blue Poppy Envy

  Blue poppy

Only on display at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania for two to three weeks, the Himalayan Blue Poppies are stunners and considered a rare garden treasure. Almost extinct in their native habitat of Bhutan, photographers flock to Longwood to capture some photos of these amazingly true blue spectacles.  Sporting deep sky blue crepey petals with mauve highlights and a ring of golden stamens and anthers, the plant is much sought after to add to gardens.

blue poppy

Unfortunately, in North America it can only be grown in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and parts of New England successfully. Meconopsis grandis is the national flower of Bhutan, a country high up in the Himalayas, above 10,000 feet, and wants cool, cool temperatures, like 45 to 50 degrees F. The conservatory at Longwood Gardens is certainly warmer than this so the flower is fleeting in its beauty.

Photo courtesy of Longwood Gardens
The Winter Blues Festival is all about blue flowers at Longwood until March 25
Blue hydrangeas and white orchid balls decorate the conservatory at Longwood Gardens
Pride-of -Madeira, Echium candicans is part of the display
One last petal hanging on
One last petal hanging on

Once considered a myth and brought back to the west by plant hunters, the Blue Poppy is a challenge to grow for the most experienced gardeners and a mark of distinction for any gardener succeeding in its cultivation.

On the cusp of opening
On the cusp of opening

Requiring moist and cool conditions, Longwood Gardens, one of the few places to see them, forces the variety Meconopsis ‘Lingholm’ into bloom every March and increases their number each year because of their popularity.

Thousands of pots of Blue Poppies at Longwood Gardens in the production greenhouse, photo courtesy of Longwood Gardens

blue poppy
Photo courtesy of Pam Corckran

Drawing large numbers of people, especially photographers getting that perfect shot, the colors are unbelievable-saturated blues with streaks of mauve plum tones- on a large 4-5 inch flower.

Showing mauve highlights is a sign of stress
Showing mauve highlights is a sign of stress

A shade of blue rarely seen in other flowers,  the foliage is also stunning with grass-green hairy stems and leaves. Longwood Gardens gets their Blue Poppy plants shipped to them from an Alaska grower in the fall and they grow them in perfectly controlled greenhouse conditions to force them into bloom for display in the spring. Longwood has two different batches that it refreshes the flowers with so they can extend the brief bloom time for visitors.

Blue poppy

Growing in the warm clime of the conservatory, the mauve highlights were evidence as a sign of stress. The ephemeral quality of their blooms is part of their attraction and charm and visitors flock to see them.

blue poppy

Demanding a rich loamy well draining soil in partial sun in cool conditions is the primary ingredient to successfully growing this garden gem. Way too hot in my mid-Atlantic climate, I get to photograph them and enjoy them at Longwood Gardens in the spring. For more information on how to grow them if you are in a better suited climate than mine, go to Himalayan Blue Poppy Care.

Every year at Longwood ,the Blue Poppies are used in different areas of the Conservatory

blue poppy
Photo courtesy of Pam Corckran

For my post on growing cool season poppies, go to Cool Season Plants  or Poppy Love. To see the famed Blue Poppies, go to Longwood Gardens by the end of March.

 

It is a double treat at Longwood with the Orchid Extravaganza
Blue and white at Longwood Gardens

Plant Lust – Cerinthe,Pride of Gibralter

Cerinthe

Cerinthe major atropurpurea , featured at Sissinghurst Castle in England, is actually a native of the Greek Islands. This hard to find annual is definitely a much sought after easy to grow annual from seed. Not available as transplants, you can get the seed from Renee’s Garden Seeds.

Cerinthe available at Renees Seeds
Cerinthe available at Renee’s Garden Seeds

An unusually colored flower with indigo-violet drooping flowers that dangle gracefully above gray-green leaves. A great plant for containers or for the border, it is easy to start from seed.

Cerinthe
Cerinthe

Pop in the seeds and a few days later, juicy succulent-like shoots appear above the soil and quickly grow into robust plants for transplanting. Wonderful as cuts for fresh flower arrangements, you can always spot them at Sissinghurst in the UK as their signature plant.

Seen at Sissinghurst
Seen at Sissinghurst

Also known as honeywort, the flowers attract bees and hummingbirds. The one inch long flowers produce honey-flavored nectar, probably leading to its common name. As the plant matures, the bracts change from green to purple to blue. Deadhead to encourage continued bloom. If you wish to use honeywort as a cut flower, the ends of the stem need to be either flamed or dipped in hot water.

Used here as a great edger at Sissinghurst
Used here as a great edger/spiller at Sissinghurst

Cerinthe is a good filler plant, with its blue-green foliage and succulent texture contrasting nicely with other greens in the garden. To bring out the other colors in the bracts, such as golds, yellows, bronzes, interplant cerinthe with plants that have purple or bronze leaves, such as Caramel Heuchera or Euphoriba ‘Chameleon’. Reseeding in my garden happens frequently which I encourage.

Cerinthe changes color as it ages
Cerinthe changes color as it ages

TSTART OUTDOORS

In spring, once all danger of frost is past, sow seed directly where plants are to grow in ordinary well-drained soil in full sun. In mild climates, Cerinthe can also be sown in fall for spring blooms. Poke the large seeds into the soil about 3⁄4 inch deep and 4 to 6 inches apart and firm soil gently over them.

About a week old, Cerinthe makes a robust seedling
About a week old, Cerinthe makes a robust seedling

TSTART EARLY INDOORS

Start seeds indoors in 4 inch pots about 4 to 6 weeks before last frost date. Keep moist, but not soggy and provide a strong light source. Once seedlings are 4 to 6 inches tall, acclimate to outdoor conditions and transplant into a sunny spot, in well-drained garden soil. Thin or transplant seedlings 8 to 12 inches apart. Avoid disturbing seedling roots.

GROWING NOTES (from Renee’s Garden Seeds)

Cerinthe prefers full sun, but can take dappled shade, although plants will be more rangy in habit. Be patient; plants are undistinguished until they come into bloom. By late spring, the dramatic blue bracts will turn more purple at the tips, then the clusters of purple bells trimmed with a white edge unfurl. Grow near pastel cleome or cosmos for an exciting color contrast.

Next to a purple flower, Cerinthe shows up best
Next to a purple flower, Cerinthe shows up best

Today, it is not commonly offered commercially in the U.S. The plants are not particularly stunning from a distance unless plant in mass; the enchanting flowers are best appreciated up close as the coloring is subtle. The variety ‘Purpurascens’ is the most commonly available type and was selected for its stronger coloration than the species.

 

 

Know and Grow: Deer Resistant Vitex

Bees flock to the beautiful spiky flowers

Looking like a butterfly bush on sterioids, Vitex agnus-castus, or Chaste Tree, is enjoying a comeback in gardens with some compact varieties that fit into smaller gardens. It’s easy to grow in well-drained soil and drought-tolerant and disease resistant.

Not the tidiest plant in the garden, the newer varieties, like ‘Shoal Creek’ will top off at 10-12′ tall and wide. But with cutback pruning in the early spring, you can keep it much smaller. I treat it like my butterfly bushes and cut it back to about 2 feet tall in the early spring/late winter. Winter hardy to zone 6, this beautiful large shrub or small tree blooms profusely and for a long period in July and August.  Foliage is very aromatic- compound, palmate, grayish-green leaves with 5-7 lance-shaped leaflets-similar to marijuana!

Bumblebees adore this plant and cover the blossoms and will even spend the night on the flower. Deer resistance adds another attribute to this valuable late season sun-loving plant. Native to China and India, Vitex has been in the U.S. since the 1600’s and has a long history as a medicinal plant.

Available locally in Maryland at Valley View Farms
Available locally in Maryland at Valley View Farms

The common name of ‘chaste tree’ refer to the beliefs that parts of the plant reduce libido. Known as a spectacular, butterfly-attracting plant, the 12″ fragrant flower spikes are a beautiful deep lavender blue and very showy. ‘Shoal Creek’, the cultivar that I am growing, is a deeper more vibrant lavender color than the species and I would advise seeking out this variety.

 

Winter Aconite-The Bulb That Keeps Giving

Winter aconites pushing up through the snow

 

Sunny yellow blooms fringed with a green ruff green poking through snow is my first sign that spring has sprung. Eranthis hyamalis, in the buttercup family, is a spring ephemeral, which means that it is a short-lived plant above ground with a burst of blooms, then disappears, remaining under ground until next winter.

From a few corms, I have many
From a few corms, I have many

Beaming a golden light in the cloudy winter days, I welcome the appearance of this charming little bulbs that appear in the slightest bit of warmth in winter. Popping up when it is warm(above 40 degrees) with a little bit of sunshine, they retract back in the ground, if cold wintry weather returns, and wait. When everything else surrounding the bulbs looks dead and lifeless, these cheerful little splashes of sunshine appear.

They have lovely frilled foliage surrounding the golden flower
They have lovely frilled foliage surrounding the golden flower; here the flower is finished and the foliage remains for several weeks, before disappearing

Easily Grown in Shade or Sun

The plant takes advantage of the deciduous woodland canopy, flowering at the time of maximum sunlight reaching the forest floor, then completely dying back to its underground tuber after flowering. So, for about eight weeks starting in late February, I see the plant above ground, celebrate its arrival and the bees devour it! Flowering when little else is in bloom, the blossom is a very important nectar and pollen source for my honeybees. On a nice sunny day above 45 degrees in late winter, the bees are darting in and out of the blossoms, quickly taking advantage of the brief show of color.

Winter Aconites have a pretty green ruff surrounding the flower
Winter Aconites have a pretty green ruff surrounding the flower

 

Bees flock to the early offerings of nectar and pollen
Bees flock to the early offerings of nectar and pollen

Starting/Transplanting 

I started my Winter Aconites with tubers which resemble a dried pea by planting them one to two inches deep and waiting to see how many emerged. Only about 25% of the corms sprouted but that was enough to start my stock going for years to come as they will seed in. I have read that the little flowers can become invasive by reseeding in odd places, but I welcome all comers! I also transplant the clumps when in flower or “in green” and separate them and scatter them in my planting beds to make future blankets of yellow.

Easily transplanted while green is done in early March to increase my stock
Easily transplanted while green is done in early March to increase my stock
Bees bathe in the pollen
Bees bathe in the pollen

Pollinator Friendly

Such a cheerful little flower that is attractive to all pollinators is welcome in my garden anytime. A good companion to Snowdrops, Winter Aconites will live for years without any disturbance. The flowers push up through a stand of Germander and other thick ground covers and stick around for weeks, opening when the sun comes out, and closing when nightfall comes. Even successful under large shade trees, like Sycamores, these little bulbs are tough and resilient once they get going.

Aconites are good companions to snowdrops, photo by Patricia Reynolds

 

Trio of Cauliflower Recipes- A Super Veggie

Broccoli/Cauliflower Salad
Cauliflower at the supermarket
Cauliflower at the supermarket

Cauliflower is in. Kale is out.

Come on….admit it, you are eating way more cauliflower than kale. Searches for cauliflower rice recipes are up 135 percent on pinterest in the last couple of years. I wrote about Cauliflower being an up and coming veggie in 2016 at Gardening Trends for 2016.

Cauliflower, Purple of Sicily
Cauliflower, Purple of Sicily from National Garden Bureau

Flower Power-Cauliflower is the next Kale

Traveling to lots of nurseryman’s and flower shows, cutting edge gardens, and keeping up with my blog, gives me a good handle on what is up and coming in the gardening world. Some of these are trends have been around and are still going strong, like Cauliflower!

According to the National Gardening Bureau who names the ‘plants of the year’, 2017 marked the year of the Brassica. Brassica vegetables, including bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, rutabagas, and turnips are popular around the world today and are enjoying a renaissance.

Growing Cauliflower (taken from the National Gardening Bureau)

Cauliflower

Cauliflower plants prefer to grow without heat stress and do best in fall or in areas with mild summers.   Popular types include the standard white varieties and more exotic colors and shapes also available to home gardeners. In recent years cooked cauliflower has become popular as a replacement for potatoes or flour in many recipes (like mashed potatoes or pizza crust).White types are most often self-blanching- meaning inner leaves cover the curds and protect them from the sun. Varieties include Flamenco F1 (summer production), Toledo F1 (fall production), Snowball, Snowbowl F1, Symphony F1.

Romanesco types are a special type of green cauliflower.  The head is a collection of spiraled florets and will be a great way to teach your kids about the Fibonacci numbers (math during dinner!).  Romanesco is great for roasting – it is a bit drier than regular cauliflower. Varieties include Veronica F1, Romanesco. Another plant that is modeled on the Fibonacci number is the Sunflower.

Romanesco Veronica
Romanesco Veronica from NGB

Novelty Types are also a lot of fun for the garden. Try a purple or orange variety! They have a similar flavor but add an unexpected pop of color to a veggie tray. Varieties include Graffiti F1 (purple head), Cheddar F1 (orange head), and Vitaverde F1 (green head).

Cauliflower Cheddar Seminis  from NGB

 

The rise of cauliflower, a cruciferous vitamin packed veggie, that has a unique ability to absorb flavors from other ingredients, rather like a chameleon, has been a long time coming. From cauliflower grilled steaks to peanut butter brownies, cauliflower has landed on top of the heap for a lot of people. California Pizza Kitchen is even offering a cauliflower crust option on their pizzas. And for people who are on Keto diets or who just want to cut down on carbs, this is a great alternative.

I have grown cauliflower called Purple of Sicily
I have grown cauliflower called Purple of Sicily
Cauliflower peanut butter brownies
Cauliflower peanut butter brownies

Cauliflower Peanut Butter Brownies

I tested making these brownies and they were some of the most flavorful moist brownies that I have ever had! Forget these have cauliflower, they are really good.

Ingredients

  • 2 Cups Steamed Cauliflower Florets I steamed these and smashed them into a 2 Cup measuring cup, and place them in the food processor
  • 1 1/4 Cup Dark Chocolate Morsels Melt these in a microwave and stir until creamy
  • 1/2 Cup Cream Cheese, softened
  • 4 Tbsp Peanut Butter, smooth or chunky I only had on hand chunky, but the food processor makes it smooth
  • 1/2 Cup Almond Flour You can use regular flour also
  • 1 Tsp Baking Powder
  • 1 Tsp Vanilla Extract
  • 1 Cup White Chocolate Morsels
  • 1/2 Cup Peanuts (optional) I used unsalted
  • 1/2 Cup Sugar
  • 1/2 Cup Peanut Butter Morsels

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 and grease a 9x13 container

  2. In a food processor, process the 2 cups of  cauliflower until completely smooth – this is important as if it is not smooth; it will result in a grainy textured brownie

  3. Add the cream cheese, peanut butter, eggs and sugar then blend again until smooth
  4. Add the almond flour, baking powder, vanilla, and melted chocolate morsels, and blend well

  5. Spoon ½ the mixture into the container, then scatter the Peanut butter morsels, white chocolate morsels, and peanuts over the layer

  6. Spoon the remaining mixture into the pan spreading to cover all the morsels,  then bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes, until an inserted fork is clean

Basically, it’s the vegetable for the perfect time. I grow it every year with varying success and I had good luck with the Purple Sicily variety last year.

Cauliflower comes in several colors
Cauliflower comes in several colors

Full of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, this is a power vegetable. The sulfur compounds it contains, which give off that sharp smell when steamed, may prevent some types of cancers and fight other kinds.

A tower of cauliflower
A tower of cauliflower

My next top recipe for Cauliflower is Cauliflower Gnocchi, which is one of Trader Joe’s most popular frozen foods. I wanted to make my own and searched on-line and used a recipe that I found with some revisions. My inspiration was finding riced cauliflower at Sam’s Club. And to simplify, I don’t boil the gnocchi I broil it. With so many people on paleo or keto diets, this one should satisfy that carb craving with very little carbs at all.

Cauliflower Gnocchi

Not boiled, like other gnocchis which can take a lot of time and mess, these are broiled to make a succulent cheesy bite; they are quite delicious and makes 4 dozen

Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Total Time 40 minutes
Servings 6

Ingredients

  • 3 -12 Ounce Bags Riced Cauliflower Steamed
  • 2 Cups Shredded Cheese, mixed varieties You can use any type you want, I had on hand cheddar and swiss, the recipe called for mozarella
  • 1 Cup Parmesan Cheese, Shredded
  • 1/3 Cup Almond Flour, extra for rolling
  • Kosher Salt, to taste
  • 2 Eggs Lightly beaten

Instructions

  1. Steam riced cauliflower until tender, I used an instant pot on 3 minutes

    After steaming, dump out onto a clean dish towel and squeeze the moisture out
  2. Cool slightly, and dump on a clean kitchen towel and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. This is important to do, so the gnocchi sticks together. Transfer squeezed cauliflower to a large bowl

  3. While the cauliflower is still hot, add 2 Cups of shredded cheese, eggs, almond flour, and  1 Cup of parmesan cheese. Season with salt and mix together with your hands.

  4. Form into four balls and refrigerate until firm on a cookie sheet, about 30 minutes

  5. Roll out each ball into a log abour 9" long and 1" wide on cutting board dusted with more almond flour 

  6. Slice with a sharp knife into 1" pieces and place on greased cookie sheets
  7. Brush with butter and bake for about 10 minutes. Finish up under the broiler for a minute until brown 

  8. Garnish with microgreens or other greens like spinach

Cauliflower gnocchi served with microgreens, avacado and a slab of tilapia makes a complete meal
Cauliflower gnocchi served with fresh spinach, avocado and a slab of tilapia makes a complete meal
Broccoli/Cauliflower Salad
Broccoli/Cauliflower Salad

Broccoli & Cauliflower Salad

A great potluck dish that is beautiful and simple to make. People will be licking the bowl!

Ingredients

  • 6-8 Cups Mixed colors, broccoli and cauliflower, chopped into bite sized pieces
  • 1/3 Cup Red onion, minced
  • 1/2 Cup Dried Cranberries
  • 1/4 Cup Sunflower Seeds
  • 2 Cups Shredded Cheese
  • 3 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons Sugar
  • 1 Cup Mayonnaise Try Wasabi mayo for an added kick!
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Cut up all your broccoli and cauliflower in bite sized pieces

  2. In large bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, vinegar, and sugar and let sit for 15 minutes

  3. Add rest of ingredients and stir to coat.

Next thing I am going to try, is Cauliflower Fried Rice. Instead of using rice, you use riced cauliflower.