Sunday, December 28, 2008

Better Late Than Never

I am way late planting my outdoor bulbs. Travel and holidays sort of threw me off my intended schedule. However, it's been my experience that bulbs are very forgiving. I'll have to wait until late March/early April to find out if that's true with the bulb choices I made this year.

Anyway, I planted two types of bulbs in one pot. I did my usual filling of the pot with styrofoam popcorn for drainage and then adding a few inches of soil. Typically, bulbs need to be planted at a depth that is 3x their size. So first, I put in about a dozen Tazetta Narcissus Geranium (the large bulb shown in the photo below). Then I added more soil, and planted about ten Tulip Turkestanica (see second photo below). The nice thing about bulbs is you can plant in layers like that. It's a great way of creating a mixed planting.

I topped it all off with more soil and I will just make sure the soil remains damp throughout the winter. Bulbs really are the ultimate in low maintenance.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Winter Blooms

After a bit of a hiatus, I am back to talk about planting paperwhite narcissus so that you can have some blooms indoors during the holiday season.

This time of year can be kind of a bummer because there's not much going on in the garden. There's certainly nothing blooming unless you are one of the fortunate few living in a warmer zone. But I like to force bulbs in containers so that I can have blooms indoors. Mostly, I do paperwhites because they are the least fussy. Just about any spring blooming bulb can be forced indoors to bloom, but many require weeks and weeks of cold, dark storage which means planning ahead of time. I've done it before with tulips and hyacinth but, frankly, you get more instant gratification from paperwhites. Plus, they are very easy to find this time of year.

I like paperwhites because they are easier than pie to get to bloom and are relatively inexpensive. You can find them for about a dollar a bulb at the high end nurseries and often much less at big box stores and supermarkets. Often times, you will see prepackaged kits that give you the little pot, soil and bulbs along with directions. Those are fine but I tend to pitch the container in favor of using my own and I also think my potting soil is better. But that's just me.

So, all you need is a few bulbs, a container (drainage holes not necessary--for once!!), soil or rocks, and water. I say "or rocks" because you really don't even need any dirt. Here we go--Step one: put soil or rocks in container. Step two: If using soil, dampen it but don't soak it. If using rocks, bring water level up to top level of rocks. Step three: place bulbs root side down on damp soil or, if using rocks, on surface of rocks so that a little water comes in contact with roots. Step four: put container indoors in any place where it will get at least medium light. Step five: keep soil damp (not wet) or water level in contact with bulb roots. Step six: wait about 3 weeks for stems to start growing and blooms to appear.

Paperwhites are aromatic. I love them but I was eavesdropping on a conversation at the nursery and a truly unfortunate woman had a husband who hated the scent so she had to come up with another solution. I'm guessing she kept the husband and chose a different bulb to grow. Maybe.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Cutting Back

Time to break out the pruners! I've spent several afternoons cutting back my perennials and shrubs. Now I'm no expert on pruning although I've seen encyclopedic volumes on the subject. I don't have the time or patience to read them. I can only speak from my own experience. Last year, I didn't cut back anything in the fall. Instead, I waited until spring to see where the new growth would emerge and then cut back all the old, dead stuff from the previous year. Nothing at all scientific about that and it seemed to have worked just fine.

This year, I've decided to cut back all of my perennials in the fall (but, of course, not my Japanese Maple tree) just to see if I end up with a different result when next season comes around. I had no choice but to cut back my Lespedeza because this is the year I am forced to divide it which I expect will not be an easy task given how long it's been in the same pot.

I've included pictures of one of my butterfly bushes. In the first picture, you can barely make out the blade of my pruners cutting one of the stems. The second picture shows what the plant looked like after I finished the job. It just so happens I did more research on cutting back butterfly bushes (after I had already cut mine, naturally) and I think I may have been a bit too aggressive. I guess I'll find out.

I'm going to be away for a little while. At the end of this month, I will be posting more information about planting bulbs because that's when I'll be ready to plant mine. You can still find a nice selection in the nurseries and online at sites such as but they're going fast!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

October Surprise

The fall cleanup continues. The winds have been fierce these past couple of days, so much so that yesterday it toppled my very sturdy iron trellis. In my attempt to upright it, the scarf that was wrapped around my neck got tangled up in the thorny branches of my climbing rose. It took awhile to disengage myself and I am sure I was a hilarious sight for anyone passing by.

But check out what I came across: strawberries! Just a couple mind you, so nowhere near a harvest but their appearance is quite unexpected and I will appreciate them even more.

Friday, October 24, 2008

You Gonna Eat That?

I'm in clean up mode now. There is much cutting back and dividing to do as well. Most of my annuals have bit the dust so it's time to pull those out and dispose of them which is what I spent a couple hours doing this afternoon. But here's a surprise I thought I'd share. When I pulled up one of my expired sweet potato vines (see picture of actual vine below), which I buy strictly for ornamental foliage, I discovered this very good looking pair of potatoes. I did some Internet research and according to some sources, these potatoes are every bit as edible as the ones produced by the non-ornamental variety. But no one stated that they had, in fact, tried them. I decided to toss these but I have a couple more plants to pull up so if I encounter another potato, I may just give it a good scrub and pop it in the oven. If I do, I'll let you know.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Plan for Spring Flowers

Here in Northern Virginia, we are definitely feeling fall in the air. It came on pretty quick and caught me a little off guard. The lower temperatures mean one thing for me: planning for spring. And so on Sunday, I found myself on the Fairfax County Parkway (where the changing leaves are beautiful, by the way) heading to Merrifield Garden Center to buy bulbs. I was delirious with the selection they offered. While most people were buying in mass quantities for their landscape gardens, I was buying for my containers.

I've noticed that the selection of bulbs at nurseries and the big box stores is very plentiful now and there is a wide variety to choose from so if you would like to have some tulips or daffodils or hyacinth ready to greet you in the early days of spring, I would suggest buying now. But depending on where you live, you still have lots of time to plant. I don't think I'm going to plant mine until the end of November. If you have containers that are in a spot easily accessible to squirrels, I would suggest waiting as well--especially if you plan to grow tulips. Otherwise you may come outside to find your pots dug up and the bulbs missing.

I will post more on this topic of bulbs later on but for now, just know that you can plant them in your outside containers. Larger pots are always better and if you tend to get really cold temperatures, you can always cover the top of the soil with mulch and wrap the pot in bubble wrap (or something similar) to provide a little more insulation.

Shown at the beginning of this post is a handful of daffodil bulbs. Merrifield had about fifty different daffodils to choose from. Who knew? The other two pictures I'm providing show a healthy bulb. When you buy them, make sure they are plump and firm. Toss back any bulbs that are dried up, or are mushy or moldy. Then stash them away in a cool, dark place until you are ready to plant. Stay tuned....

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Secrets to Success: Tip Number One

When my friend Maureen came to visit last month, she suggested I do a post to summarize all of the things I do to help make my garden thrive. A good idea, I thought, but that would be too wordy for a single post so I've decided to make it a brief series, revisiting it over the next several months. I'll plan to provide a summary of all the points in advance of next year's growing season so you'll have them condensed in one place.

Of course, one could go on and on talking about what each plant requires to succeed in a garden but there are some fundamental things that, if you don't do them, you are likely to be in for some heartache and disappointment (not to mention an emptier wallet).

So first on my list is elevation and drainage. I cannot stress this enough because if there is one thing that thoroughly demoralizes the beginning gardener it's a plant's failure to thrive due to lack of drainage and airflow beneath the container.

The solutions are simple and quite inexpensive (relative to the cost of your plants). First, get some pot feet (see above photo). They'll cost you about a buck apiece. For a round pot, you only really need three but for a square or rectangular, of course, buy four. You can find them at nearly every nursery or garden center. Oh sure, you can get all fancy and buy the ones that look like tiger paws or frogs or snails or whatever (they cost more, by the way) that's up to you. What these provide is elevation so that air can flow beneath the pot. Alternatively, you could buy a plant stand (as long as the surface allows the water from the pot to drain through). Whatever you do, don't waste your time with the matching saucer for the pot, that's not going to do the trick, get pot feet instead.

Which leads me to drainage. Be sure all pots or containers have drainage holes. If they don't drill some if the structure of the pot can withstand it. (See my post from the beginning of the season) If it can't, don't plant in it or else you are setting yourself up for disappointment--don't say I didn't warn you. Also, you'll want to put some sort of material in the bottom of the pot to facilitate drainage prior to adding the soil. I use styrofoam peanuts but you can use gravel from your driveway or broken pot shards. The point is, you don't want soil packed down at the base of your container preventing the water from draining through. That road leads directly to root rot. Best to avoid it.

So there you have it. Tip Number One.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Shades of Green

One of my favorite gardening books is Sydney Eddison's "The Gardener's Palette" because it taught me to look at color in a whole new way. I used to think every container needed to be a riot of color. It wasn't until after a couple of years of gardening that I realized when viewing a garden, one's eyes need a place to rest. In her book, there is one section in which she asks the reader just to appreciate all the types of green in nature. Green in a garden is not only calming, but provides an effective transition between colors.

I was doing some cleaning up of dead leaves and such yesterday and came across this wonderful cluster of greens. The main attraction of this pot is a Japanese Maple but I have lots of things planted underneath it including Lamium, Heuchera, Creeping Jenny and Geranium. This photo is a closeup of some of that green foliage. Though there is no bloom to be found, I think it has a beauty all its own.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Oh, Grow Up!

When space is at a premium, think about gardening vertically. Even if you have plenty of room, using this technique offers depth and dimension to a container garden. Here's a climber that I love: Mandevilla. I grow it every year without fail--I've talked about it before in an earlier post. This spring, I bought a new trellis (shown below) from Smith and Hawken. It is extremely sturdy and even the strong winds that we got from a couple of the tropical storms this summer didn't blow it over. It provides great support for all types of climbers. I've seen some people plant mandevilla at the base of their mailbox and let it climb up and around it and I have a neighbor that has let one climb up her front stair rail.

Mandevilla is a tropical but it appears in garden centers here around mid-May. If you work this into your gardening plan next year, don't get all in a hurry to plant it too early because overnight temperatures need to consistently be at or above 55F otherwise it may never have a chance. So if you do buy early, keep it indoors for a while.

For whatever reason, my mandevilla was slow to climb this year. Although it was producing plenty of blooms, it didn't really start to take off until mid-August. That was not the case for my friend Chris who lives in Pennsylvania so I have no idea what to attribute it to. Nevertheless, it is looking great and I fully expect it to last until frost.

Mandevilla can be overwintered inside, which I have never done because I have nowhere to put it. But if you try it, be sure to spray it thoroughly with insecticidal soap so that you get to all the bugs living in the nooks and crannies. Then keep it in a room that has a window so there is light exposure. Chris uses her laundry room. As sad is it will start to look throughout the winter, I have it on good authority that it will bounce back when spring returns.

So if you're short on space, my suggestion would be to try growing up.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

But Wait...There's More!

Just when I thought things were starting to come to a close in the garden, this plant starts to bloom. I actually had forgotten all about it because I have it in a container that has, among other things, a very mature gaura and heuchera. The latin name is Eupatorium rugosum. This specific version is Chocolate Eupatorium. It is commonly known as White Snakeroot. Again with the unattractive names.

Anyway, this doesn't smell like chocolate, at least, not that I can tell. The foliage is more purple and green than chocolate so really, I'm not sure where the chocolate part comes from. But, as you may have guessed, that's the reason I bought it. The blooms just started to appear in the last few days and they are really small (you can see more detail if you click on the photo to enlarge it). To tell you the truth, I'm not sure I'm all that wild about it. The one thing I can say is I do like having a plant that starts to bloom so late in the season.

Eupatorium grows to be about 3 feet high and likes sun/part shade. It is hardy to zone 4 so if I decide I don't want it next year, I'm going to have to dig it up and give it away to someone who has a better appreciation for it. Any takers?

Friday, September 26, 2008

What's in a Name?

I almost didn't buy this plant because I didn't like its name: Wormwood. But its fancier name is Artemisia so that's how I always refer to it because it is so much easier on the ear. Plus, the common name does it no justice. I never would have associated it with a plant that has this beautiful silvery foliage that is sort of velvety in texture. And what I didn't realize until just a few minutes ago (because I didn't read the label as I should have) is that it is perennial to zone 5. This is both a good thing and a bad thing for me. The good thing is that it will come back next year but the bad thing is that just after one growing season, I'm going to have to divide it because it has gotten quite large. I wasn't really prepared for that so now I'll have to plan what I will do with the divisions.

I have this Artemisia planted in a huge pot with butterfly bush, rose 'Cecile Brunner', zinnia, coleus and a few other things. It is in a spot on my deck that gets full sun and it has not been bothered by pests of any kind. I also have it on good authority that this plant thrives in the desert southwest so for my friends in New Mexico, take note.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Keeping it Simple

By now you've noticed that I enjoy getting big pots and loading each of them with a variety of different plants. And I'll admit that it can get complicated when trying to make sure each plant in the combination has similar needs. Not only that, there's more room for error (and wasted money) when one (or more) of the plants doesn't work out and you have to make replacements. I usually factor all of that into the equation but I also know that some people can't be bothered. That's why I wanted to post this picture--to demonstrate that something can be exceedingly simple yet astonishingly beautiful at the same time.

The real work of art here is the cast iron urn. It is one of my all-time favorite pieces and with it, there's not much chance I'm going to go wrong, no matter what I plant in it. Still, one has to keep in mind color and proportion so that's why I chose this Carex grass. First, the shade of green is a nice complement to the bluish hues of the urn. And second, the height and growth habit of the foliage make the whole thing work.

Carex is perennial to zone 5 and appreciates partial sun. It's a slow but steady grower and, like almost all plants, requires excellent drainage. So there you have it. Life is complicated enough, but your garden doesn't have to be.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Different Perspective

From time to time I'll be out watering my plants and a neighbor will walk by and offer nice words about my garden. I never really see it from their point of view so I thought maybe I should walk around to the back of the house and have a look (click photo to enlarge). While the only way to get the full sense of it is to actually be standing on my deck, the rear view is pretty decent--particularly when you consider that there is many a bare deck in our development. So if I can make someone's view a little nicer while they walk from their car to their townhome after a long day's work and commute, then I'm pretty happy about that.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Glorious Geranium

When I bought this geranium earlier this year, it was in a sad, pitiful state. I found it at the closeout sale of the little garden tent that comes every year to the parking lot of a nearby shopping center. At the end of June, they get ready to close up shop and mark down all of their plants to clear them out. This was in a most unappealing white plastic hanging basket so I brought it home, pulled it out of the basket and put it in a pot. It looked bad for a really long time but mid-August came around and suddenly it erupted in a riot of color and hasn't stopped blooming since. We're still having some pretty warm days here (a humid 97 degrees yesterday) so I'm glad I'll get to enjoy this and the rest of my garden for a while longer.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Shown here is Cuphea which is also known as 'cigar plant', 'tobacco plant', or 'firecracker plant'. I've never grown this annual before and I'm not sure why. It has just the sort of interesting bloom that adds variety to an arrangement. Plus, I'm forever trying to attract hummingbirds to my garden (without being so obvious as to put out an actual hummingbird feeder) and the design of this plant seems perfectly suited for that purpose. I have had one visit but he's been somewhat elusive.

As I mentioned, this is an annual so it won't survive past frost. It loves the sun and blooms repeatedly although it really starts to show its stuff in August. I think next year, I might actually be more thoughtful about how I plant it and maybe design a mixed container around it. I can see it now, a small pot with this firecracker plant, some Zinnia 'Profusion Orange', purple Angelonia, Creeping Wire Vine or Creeping Jenny. That would be a smokin' arrangement.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Two Gauras

In this post, I am showing you side by side pictures of my two gauras. There are a bunch of reasons I like gaura, not the least of which is it can be relied upon to return every year in my containers. When it gets too large, I just divide it and replant the divisions in different pots and it continues unfazed.

Gaura is a spring to late fall bloomer that requires mostly sun and the blooms appear all along each thin but resilient stem. When the breeze catches it, it's just so pretty.

After blooming (late fall/early winter), I hack it back aggressively using no particular technique.

While this plant grows nicely here in our warm and humid Virginia climate, it is also quite drought tolerant. So for my friends and readers in the Southwest who are accustomed to only growing desert-loving succulents, you might give gaura a try.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Lee's Corner

My friend Lee gets all the credit for this post. I went to visit her last week and this is what awaited me on her front steps. You'll immediately recognize one of my all time favorite plants: Red Abyssinian Banana and although you can't really see much of the pot in this photo, I can tell you that it is gargantuan. You have to go really big when you plant this tropical because it grows so large so fast. Lee intends to overwinter it in her garage so she can have it again next year. I have never done that only because I don't have the space so we'll use Lee as our test case and I'll report back.

As far as the other plants in the pot, she has done an expert job of incorporating a nice selection, including some coleus for fillers and calibrachoa as a trailer. Lee and I got together last summer to plant some containers and I had shared with her the tip I got from Fine Gardening magazine about Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers. I think her arrangement is a terrific example of this technique. Way to go Lee!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Survival of the Fittest

Once again, let's revisit a plant. This is Lespedeza. You may recall from an earlier post that I had some worries about it because it has spent four years in the same pot, it is enormous and I fear it has become terribly root bound. I thought these factors might inhibit its blooming this year...guess I was wrong. It is blooming out of control. Still, I have a big job ahead of me because there is no doubt that this is the year it will have to be divided. Be prepared to see some pictures of me with a hacksaw.

I love this plant because it really makes a statement out on the deck and it blooms late in the year. But it has its detractors. Because it is so invasive, it's probably best to keep it contained in a pot rather than plant it in a landscape. I can definitely see that with such a survival instinct, it would choke anything that dares cross its path. Another thing you may not like is that when the blooms start falling, they fall en masse leaving your deck or patio strewn with these pink blossoms. That doesn't bother me in the least because I have a hose with powerful sprayer nozzle and I just spray everything off the deck floor and into our tiny fenced-in back yard that no one ever sees or spends any time in anyway.

This lespedeza has thrived in the same partly sunny spot on my deck and other than having put time released fertilizer pellets in the soil when I first planted it, it has only received a water soluble fertilizer maybe five times in four years. If that's not low maintenance, I don't know what is.

For me, the plusses far outweigh the minuses. Take a look at the pictures and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I Almost Forgot...

In my August 17th post, I promised I would talk about this plant. I discovered it when I was at the nursery a couple of weeks ago on the hunt for some replacements for an arrangement that was a casualty of our deck project. In my search for a trailing-type plant, I stumbled across this Ornamental Oregano "Kent Beauty". I never knew there was such a thing but upon finding it I wondered where it had been all of my gardening life. I mean to tell you this is unlike any oregano I have ever seen. Upon closer inspection of the label, I learned that it truly is ornamental in that it is typically not used for culinary purposes. That's okay because I have a pot of regular oregano for that.

"Kent Beauty" is hardy to zone 5 and like all herbs, appreciates full sun and good drainage. There are shades of purple in the leaves and it produces the tiniest of blooms (see below). I'm actually glad this oregano is for decorative purposes only because to tell you the truth, I wouldn't have the heart to cut it.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lovely Cecile

Cecile Brunner arrived at my house on the second day of May. She was one of two purchases I made from the Antique Rose Emporium which specializes in old roses, that is to say, roses that have been around for so long almost no amount of neglect can deter them from being the beautiful flowers that they are. So thanks again to my friend Barbara for recommending this company to me.

In that May 2nd post, I showed you how carefully Cecile was packaged so as to ease any apprehension you might have about buying plants via mail order. I planted the rose in a very large pot made of composite material in hopes of leaving it out all winter. I am reassured because Cecile is hardy to zone 5 but I will still do some crossing of fingers and toes, just in case. Because the pot is so big, I added a multitude of plants as companions including a butterfly bush which I am certain will return as well as various annuals that I will have to replace next year. I probably won't have to add as many annuals because when the rose and butterfly bush return, they will take up more space in the pot.

As you can see from the images below, Cecile is not a huge, in-your-face sort of rose. Rather than come on too strong, she makes her presence known in an understated way. So while it's not the first thing to get noticed, once seen, it is sure to be greatly appreciated.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Enjoy the Show

I'm a sucker for a good before and after story. Although, I'm always curious about the "after" part because I wonder how long it really takes before there is considerable backsliding. Perhaps you've thought the same when you've seen a personal makeover show or a decluttering/redecorating episode. So I'd like to offer an example of an "after" that only gets better with time.

Below left is a photo I took when I first bought my butterfly bush in May. By all appearances, it didn't look too promising. But such is the case with most perennials in general and the butterfly bush in particular--which is why I have it in the garden every year (I now have a total of three). To the right of the "before" picture is how the same plant looks today. This is Butterfly Bush "Peacock", a compact version that is hardy to zone 5 which means it will return for me next year. It blooms midsummer to fall and will grow to about 4 feet in height. It loves the sun and plenty of water. And you know my modus operandi: I hardly ever fertilize so when I say this is a high performing, low maintenance plant, you can believe it.

And the best part of all is this plant is true to its name. It attracts all kinds of butterflies. All day long.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

An August Oasis

I won't say a lot here, other than to remind you that in mid-May, my deck was complete chaos (see below). Now it is a most pleasant place to have a snack, read a book or just enjoy the bumblebees, butterflies and hummingbirds. (Enlarge picture above by clicking on it). Feel free to tell me what you think by commenting below.