Category Archives: plants

Mid-Summer Review of my Virginia Garden

Now that it is August and my Virginia garden has suffered extreme weather, pests, diseases, and deer, I can definitely identify my survivors, or rather, my summer successes.

First, my pink and purple garden. This spring I was gifted four different annuals that bloom in the pink to purple range. In this full sun patch near the front door, I have Valiant Orchid vinca from Pan American Seed with extra-large flowers. Vinca is an impressive annual, it flowers all summer long and does not have to be deadheaded. It does not mind the heat, humidity, and periods of dryness. I also like the way the plant gets bushy, it fills its space. Next to them are Proven Winners Angelface Steel Blue angelonias. Often called summer snapdragons, angelonias provide vertical structure. This particular cultivar grows to 2 feet and has large purple flowers that do not need to be deadheaded. They are drought tolerant and deer resistant. I know because they are next to a volunteer dahlia that gets nipped by the deer every so often. Within this space are several shorter angelonias from Pan American Seed called Serena Blue. These perform just as well, just a bit shorter with smaller blue flowers to add a horizontal layer to the garden. At the ground level, to cascade through the plants, is Proven Winners Supertunia Vista Bubblegum. This petunia cultivar has bloomed all summer long, no pests, no diseases. I love the pink and purple combination plus the varying heights.

If I could duplicate this palette next year I might add the purple foliage oxalis. Mine are in a container along with other bulbs from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs. The oxalis pips were planted in April and I put the container outside in May after the last frost. All of the bulbs have performed well but I am amazed at the longevity of the oxalis as well as the versatility. They have been blooming small pink flowers from May to August and the purple foliage does not seem fazed by our heat and humidity. Because they are low growing, the foliage can “hide” the “feet” of plants in containers.

Speaking of containers, I could have planted either the purple oxalis or the pink Bubblegum under the Black Diamond Best Red crape myrtle.  J. Berry Nursery sent the crape myrtle in the spring as a small plant and it has grown so fast I replanted it into a larger container. The Black Diamond series has very dark foliage and can withstand being a summer container plant. I have always liked the use of trees as container plants on patios and decks. However, because this crape myrtle is hardy to zone 6, it will not overwinter in a container so in the fall I will plant it in the ground. Eventually this tree will grow to 12 feet tall and 8 feet wide and I am sure it will be a stunner with the dark foliage and red flowers!

J. Berry Nursery also introduced me to their tropical hibiscus series called Hollywood Hibiscus. The Hollywood Hibiscus plants have many long lasting flowers in a wide range of flower colors. Of my five plants, I have kept my two favorite flower colors, Chatty Cathy (yellow) and Social Butterfly (yellow/orange), in containers on the deck. In the fall I plan to bring them indoors to overwinter them and “save” them for next year. I planted the other three in with the irises in the front of the house. After I trimmed the foliage on my bearded irises, I discovered that First to Flirt (pink), Jolly Polly (pink), and Bombshell Red (red) were perfect for filling up the space and providing color among the truncated iris foliage.

Chatty Cathy

 

 

Greenstreet Gardens Sets Up Shop in Belle Haven, Virginia

It’s no mirage–that is a tropical oasis on Richmond Highway. Residents of Belle Haven are noticing a pop of color now that Greenstreet Gardens has moved in.

Ray Greenstreet, owner of Greenstreet Gardens, is leasing the lot at 5905 Richmond Highway, Alexandria, Virginia, as an extension of the Greenstreet Gardens retail operation. Instead of building a new structure, Ray created an open air retail garden center featuring houseplants, perennials, annuals, containers, fertilizer, and gardening tools.

“This location just fell in our lap but it is a great opportunity,” said Ray. Despite the windfall, it took months to get the place into shape for the customers. “This was vacant for a long time, maybe 10 years,” said Ray. “Before we came, it was a VDOT (Virginia Department of Transportation) lot for the Wilson Bridge where they dumped gravel. We had to remove 5 dumpster loads of trash.”

Currently, the cash register is in an open shipping container. The products, from plants to fertilizers, are outside on racks or wooden benches. The fire hydrant on the sidewalk provides the water for the plants, most of which are in full sun.  Although Ray is working to have electricity, lighting is not an issue now with the long day length. Just the inventory alone, lush green foliage and eye-popping flowers, beautifies the neighborhood but Ray intends to enhance the location even more. “We intend to add trees to create a park-like setting,” said Ray. “In the fall we will sell chrysanthemums and pumpkins followed by Christmas trees.” After the holidays, the location will close in January and February and re-open in March.

I visited the corner lot last weekend. A large, tall display of tropical plants in containers marks the entrance to the parking lot, which is quite spacious. There was a wide variety of plants on benches and racks of new plants that had just been delivered. The plants were well watered and healthy and the employees were pleasant and helpful. Because this location is just south of the Beltway on Richmond Highway with plenty of traffic, stop lights, and median strips, I thought it would be difficult to access. It turned out to be easy to get in and out with no problems.  This new location truly provides a new source of greenery to residents on the northern end of Richmond Highway.

A native Marylander, Ray and his wife Stacy started Greenstreet Growers, a greenhouse operation in Lothian, Maryland, in 2000. They then ventured into retail and opened Greenstreet Gardens on 14 acres of their 65-acre farm in Lothian. In 2012, they expanded into Virginia and opened a retail store at 1721 West Braddock Road, Alexandria, which is thriving. Later they opened a smaller store in Del Ray, now closed. The Belle Haven location is the third Virginia location and is open every day of the week from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. If you are ever in the area, stop by and say hello to our new neighbors!

 

Support National Pollinator Week: Plant Trees for Pollinators

sweet bay magnolia blooms in summer

It is amazing that something as small as a bee is vitally important to our food supply. As pollinators, bees transfer pollen thus ensuring that plants and crops develop fruit and seeds for us to consume. But bees are not the only keystone species that we depend on, we also need other pollinators such as butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, and birds, including hummingbirds. About 80 percent of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators (the others are wind pollinated). According to Cornell University, pollinators are responsible for every third bite of food we eat.

Unfortunately, pollinator populations have declined due to pesticides, habitat loss, and disease. Gardeners who are aware of this problem have deliberately planted flowering perennials and annuals to provide pollen (protein) and nectar (carbs). Because of their dramatic 90 percent decline in population over the past 20 years, monarch butterflies have received quite a lot of support. Many gardeners are planting milkweed – the one and only plant for monarchs — or trying to produce more butterflies with home kits. Bees too have received national attention. Nurseries promote bee friendly flowers and gardeners have planted bee magnets such as Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium), goldenrod (Solidago), and gayfeather (Liatris).

persimmon fruit, thanks to pollinators

Plant Trees to Support Pollinators

These efforts have helped the pollinators and certainly gardeners have come to appreciate the importance of pollinators. However, an overlooked source of food and protection for pollinators are trees. Trees provide more flowers, plenty of foliage for larva (caterpillars), and a large infrastructure to hold hives and nests. Because of the number of flowers a canopy provides, trees can provide more pollen and nectar compared to annuals and perennials. Plus, as homeowners move from house to house, the herbaceous landscape may change but usually the trees and all of their tiny inhabitants remain.

Plant Small Native Trees for Homes

“Trees are a permanent fixture,” said Steve Nagy, an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Board-Certified Master Arborist and Assistant District Manager of The Care of Trees. The Care of Trees is a division of the Davey Tree Expert Company, founded in 1880. Based in Ohio, the Davey Tree Expert Company has offices across North America–Steve is based in a northern Virginia office.

For attracting pollinators in the Washington DC metro area, Steve recommends native trees that thrive in our particular climate (cold winters and hot, humid summers). “We recommend native trees because the chances of them growing well is higher that non-natives,” he explained. For typical suburban lots where space is a premium, Steve recommends swamp white oak (Quercis bicolor), willow oak (Quercis phellos), post oak (Quercis stellata), cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), little leaf linden (Tilia cordata), persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), and serviceberry (Amelanchier).

“Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is a great tree, too,” said Steve, “It is a typically overlooked native with good fall color.”

Plant Trees that Flower at Various Times

heavy with summer-blooming flowers, the crape myrtle branches bend down

While a tree can provide many flowers, usually it only flowers for a few weeks. Because different pollinators are active at various times of the year, Steve recommends planting trees with various bloom times. Instead of planting the well-known spring bloomers such as flowering cherry trees, flowering plums, star magnolias, saucer magnolias, and redbuds, homeowners can plant summer blooming trees such as little leaf linden (see video below for bees pollinating a linden tree), persimmon, cucumber magnolia, southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), and crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia).

Plant Trees that Support Specific Pollinators

Another reason to plant trees is that certain pollinators require specific tree species or genera. Similar to the monarch butterfly’s relationship with milkweed, the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar only feeds on spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum). The zebra swallowtail caterpillar only feeds on young paw paw leaves (Asimina spp.) and the pink-striped oak worm moth gets its name from its preference for oaks (Quercus spp.).

paw paw trees are vital to the zebra swallowtail

Plant Trees in the Fall

This week is National Pollinator Week. Now is the best time to learn more about pollinators and to identify new trees to plant to support them. However, summer is not the best time to actually plant trees. Because trees take longer to become established than perennials and annuals (larger plant hence more root structure and more foliage), Steve said the best time to plant trees is in the fall. “If you can get planting done by Mother’s Day,” said Steve, “the tree has a chance to make it through the hot summer but fall is the best time.” Steve also recommends to plant smaller rather than bigger but one can plant bigger plants in the fall. Fall, as opposed to spring or summer, offers warm soil but cooler temperatures, thus the amount of transpiration or water loss is less. The tree can devote energy into root establishment, not making up for water loss due to heat.

For information on how to plant a tree correctly, the Davey website has an extensive collection of articles and videos on tree planting and maintenance. If you need more personalized assistance, Steve mentioned that homeowners can request a free consultation by calling or completing a form on the website. A certified arborist can come to one’s home to evaluate the trees and landscape and devise a strategy to meet the goals for that specific property.

This week, celebrate National Pollinator Week by learning more about pollinators, identifying the best plants and trees for pollinators in your area, and incorporating best practices to protect, harbor, and feed pollinators.

 

Native, Deer-resistant, Summer-flowering: What More Can You Want in a Shrub?

A single blossom on a young Calycanthus ‘Aphrodite” in my Virginia garden

I have been admiring Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) in other people’s gardens for a few years, taking photos whenever I can. This is such a beautiful plant I don’t know why other people don’t grow it more often. A native, deciduous shrub, Carolina allspice grows to 5 to 8 feet tall, is deer resistant, and has no major pests/diseases. The leaves are green and large for a small bush and the brown red flowers bloom all summer long.  Pollinated by beetles, the 2-inch flowers look like a cross between a star magnolia (outer strap-shaped petals) and a lotus (curved inner petals with a central, raised button). In the fall, the leaves turn golden yellow.

Calycanthus ‘Aphrodite’ at High Glen Gardens looks like a cross between a star magnolia and a lotus blossom

Fortunately Spring Meadow Nursery read my mind and sent me the cultivar Aphrodite two years ago as part of their Proven Winners ColorChoice collection. Aphrodite’s flowers are redder than the species and are supposed to smell like apples. In my Virginia garden, my 3-foot tall youngster is thriving under the edge of a red maple’s canopy, so it receives partial sun. This past week, Aphrodite bloomed for the first time.

I cut the flower and put it in a vase. There was no scent but I have read that young plants do not always have a fragrance. Apparently this attribute comes with maturity. I did crush a leaf though and the camphor scent was nice, almost lemony. It reminded me of a friend who would put eucalyptus branches in her car so the heat would release a pleasant scent. The bark too was aromatic when I scratched it.  Mark Catesby said the bark was as “odoriferous as cinnamon” although I think the scent is more like a cross between lemon and camphor. When my plant matures and I get more flowers I will use them for flower arrangements. In addition to the flowers, I could use the leaves and branches for potpourris. But I think I will pass on the car trick, it may create a strong odor, more like a disinfectant.

Regardless of its scent, Carolina allspice is a great shrub for the Washington DC metro area. Aphrodite certainly holds great promise in my garden.

Mature shrubs of Calycanthus ‘Aphrodite” at High Glen Gardens, Frederick, MD

Potato Update: Lush Foliage, Emerging Flower Buds

Despite all this rain, there are good things in the garden. My potato plants are beautiful, the foliage is lush, healthy, and green. If you recall, I started the tubers in fabric containers in March. In April and early May, I added soil several times as the plants grew and unrolled the sides of the containers. Now, mid-May, the containers are full of soil and flowers are starting to appear. In June, when the plants are flowering and the rains have stopped, it will be time to harvest spuds!

 

Gardening in the Washington DC Area Despite Mosquitoes

EnglishIvy

English ivy can harbor adult mosquitoes

I had originally wrote this article about mosquitoes in 2016 but the information is still relevant. Now is the time to stock up on fresh mosquito spray. I find it helps to have a new bottle every year. I am now using the towelettes for my face because even if I cover myself with clothes, the mosquitoes still get me in the face and neck.

If you are like me, you are plagued by mosquitoes in the garden. It is one thing to stay out of their way at dusk but it is quite another when the Asian Tiger attacks you all day long. In the spring of 2016, I contacted several companies to see if my property could be sprayed to prevent mosquitoes.  I don’t have a pond or pets but I have a lot of edible plants intermixed with other plants on the property.  I did not want the spray to harm the pollinators or the edibles (or my family!).  We have a lawn service that mows the grass but I never know when the crew is coming. Because I work in an office, I would not be home to let the pesticide applicator know where the edibles were nor would I be able to inform the lawn service crew when and if the place had just been sprayed with a pesticide. All of these factors made it complex for me to figure out how to control mosquitoes. At the same time, I attended a free presentation at a local library.  Kirsten Conrad Buhls, Extension Agent, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Arlington County, gave an excellent Powerpoint presentation entitled “Gardening in the Time of Zika: Nuisance Mosquito Management.”

Types of Mosquitoes

I learned that there are 40 mosquito species in Virginia in a variety of habitats but most are aquatic. Up until the mid-1980s, the most problematic species was Culex, which comes out at dusk and feeds at night. This species lives in the woods and prefers the type of stagnant water that usually does not occur near residential homes. However, they also breed in “container water.” Container water is fresh rain water that sits in pockets or depressions in objects or in containers.

After the mid-1980s, a Southeast Asian native arrived called the Asian Tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus. The Asian Tiger is active during the day and prefers to breed in container water. The Asian Tiger has a cousin, Aedes aegypti, who also prefers to breed in container water. Both are vectors for transmitting diseases. Both can transmit the Zika virus but A. aegypti is more effective and considered a primary transmitter.  Both could prosper here, we have the appropriate environmental conditions, but currently there is not a substantial A. aegypti population.

Only females bite humans to get a “blood meal” before laying eggs. They are cold blooded so they don’t bite if the temperature is below 50 degrees. They can live as long as 2 to 3 months and adults that hibernate can live up to 8 months. This means that the problem is temporary; it exists only in the hot summer months.

Eliminating Container Water

Because mosquitoes breed in container water, anything that collects water should be dumped after it rains. Mosquitoes require as little as one tablespoon of water to lay eggs. It can take as short a time as 3 days for a new generation. After it rains, either dump the water or eliminate the object (e.g., put watering cans back inside the tool shed or throw away old tires). If the water cannot be dumped, such as a pond, make sure the pond has plenty of mosquito larvae eating fish, dragonfly larva, frogs, toads, and other such organisms. For rain barrels, use the mosquito dunks that are made of a safe bacteria. Or transform the water feature so that the water is moving by installing a bubbler or waterfall. Mosquitoes do not like moving water or moving air.

Kirsten dispelled common myths: Bug Zappers are not effective killers of mosquitoes, bats do not prefer to eat mosquitos, and purple martins are not big mosquito eaters. Plants that are reputed to repel mosquitoes do not work if they are just sitting in the landscape. A dense groundcover such as English ivy can harbor adult mosquitoes. It does not matter what you eat but mosquitoes are more attracted to big people and prefer men over women.

Protection and Sprays

If you are going to garden, wear long sleeves, long pants, socks, and shoes, or spray yourself with repellants such as DEET (25-30 percent), Picaridin (20 percent), oil of eucalyptus, or IR-3535 (Merck 3535), which is found in Avon’s Skin So Soft. Spraying Listerine and using dryer sheets, VapoRub, or vanilla are not effective protection.

The most environmentally friendly effective control is to control the larva stage. Spraying the adult mosquitoes in the landscape should be the last resort and should be based on surveillance data. The most popular mosquito adulticide for home landscapes is permethrin but it is toxic to fish, aquatic arthropods, and the non-target insects (pollinators).  Don’t be fooled when the pesticide applicators try to sell you on the fact that it is “natural” based on a chrysanthemum plant. What they are spraying is not natural, it is a chemical. There are substances called pyrethrins that are the active ingredients in pyrethrum, an extract of a flower, and these are are natural insecticides that act by blocking chemical signals at nerve junctions. However, commercial sprayers are not spraying pyrethrins. They are spraying permethrin, which is based on pyrethroids, synthetic pesticides. Permethrin is a pyrethroid insecticide that is light-stable and has a longer duration of activity against insects than pyrethrins. Thus, what the company is selling and spraying on your garden is permethrin, a chemical that will kill aquatic life and pollinators and render vegetables, herbs, and fruits non-edible.

Mosquitoes have a flying range of 600 feet, about 1 to 2 miles. If your property is sprayed, it will kill the existing ones but the next day more can fly in. If you spray your garden and your neighbors don’t, you can always inherit your neighbors’ mosquitoes. Commercial companies may tell you that the spray will last for a month but that does not prevent new mosquitoes from entering nor does the spray continue to kill for up to a month. In my mixed edible garden, only the grass could be sprayed which gets cut every few weeks. Since my grass gets cut by a service, I am concerned that the pesticide company will spray with a chemical one day and the lawn service crew will come and cut the grass the next day. I don’t know what harm that chemical would cause if the crew were to breath it in as they were cutting.

More Information and Resources

The presentation cleared up a lot of confusion and I decided not to have my garden sprayed. I am more vigilant about dumping water on my property. I try to garden in the cool morning with long sleeves and pants but sometimes I have to use the towelette on my face.  If you are faced with these same issue, learn more about mosquito management by calling the Arlington County Extension Office at (703) 228-6414 or visit the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia website. The website has a tab with resources including the Powerpoint presentation. On Tuesday, June 19, 2018, there will be a presentation on identification and control of mosquitoes and ticks by the same group. This is free and registration is requested by contacting the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia (call above number or visit website). This presentation will be at the Westover Branch Library, 1644, N. McKinley Road, Arlington, VA, from 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm.

General’s Choice of Trees and Shrubs is a Wise Choice for the Mid-Atlantic Gardener

 

Spring is the season for plant sales in the Washington DC area. Every weekend there are plant and garden sales, garden parties, workshops, tours, and lectures. I look forward to these annual events just as much as I look forward to seeing the cherry blossoms. One of the more interesting plant sales is Mount Vernon’s Historic Plant and Garden Sale in Virginia. This year, the month-long sale runs from Saturday April 21 to May 20, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm (members can attend the preview night on April 20). The plants are located outdoors, just outside the Mt. Vernon main gift shop, and admission tickets are not necessary. Gardening accoutrements such as tools, books, mugs, note cards, and gift items also are available. Staff horticulturists, easy to spot by their bright green shirts, are available to answer gardening questions on Wednesdays and Sundays from 1:00 to 2:00 pm.

“At length my dear Marquis I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, & under the shadow of my own Vine & my own Fig-tree.”

What sets this plant sale apart from other local sales is provenance. The Mt. Vernon horticulturists propagated most of the plants that are for sale from the plants that are grown on the George Washington’s estate. There is a wide assortment of vegetables, flowers, herbs, trees, and shrubs. Of note is the General’s Choice Collection. Staff grew ten trees and shrubs representative of those that were grown by George Washington: three types of boxwood (American, English, and tree), two edibles (pawpaw and fig), tulip poplar, southern magnolia, redbud, dogwood, and red maple. The General’s Choice Collection has distinctive tags and can be grown easily by gardeners and homeowners in the mid-Atlantic area.

In addition, the Mt. Vernon horticulturists collected, cleaned, and packaged heirloom seed from plants grown on the estate. The beautifully designed seed packets make great souvenir gifts, easy to mail. The proceeds from the plant sale support the historical museum and gardens. Every time someone purchases a plant or a seed packet, George Washington’s legacy as a gentleman farmer lives on.

“Planted all my Cedars, all my Pawpaw, and two Honey locust Trees in my Shrubberies and two of the latter in my groves – one at each ‘side’ of the House and a large Holly tree on the Point going to the Sein landing.”

Photos courtesy of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon

Best Phlox Plants for Mid-Atlantic Gardens

Lavelle phlox

Lavelle

Despite its tendency to get powdery mildew, phlox is a very common perennial in the mid-Atlantic area. Many gardeners –as well as butterflies– love the old-fashioned, native plant for its tall stems of summer-blooming pink, purple, or white flowers.  Phlox is actually a large genus comprising more than 60 species native to North America. There is wide variation — some plants are tall, low growing, or groundcovers, while some prefer full sun and others thrive in shady, woodland areas.

This year, before you purchase phlox for your garden, read about the recommended varieties in Mt. Cuba Center’s report. The horticulturists at the Trial Garden, Mt. Cuba Center, Delaware, completed a three-year study. They tested 94 selections of eight sun-loving species and 43 selections of two shade-loving species.  For the sun lovers, they deliberately tested for resistance to powdery mildew, a fungal infestation of the foliage that creates an unsightly white powder. (This usually does not kill the plant but detracts from its beauty).

Of the sun-loving plants, within the species Phlox paniculata, top performers are ‘Jeana’, ‘Glamour Girl’, ‘Delta Snow’, ‘Lavelle’, ‘Robert Poore’, ‘Dick Weaver’, ‘David’, ‘Ditomdre’ (Coral Cream Drop), ‘Shortwood’, and the hybrid P. x arendsii ‘Babyface’.

Jeana

“Jeana,” according to the report, “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 discover Jeana Prewitt.”

Interestingly, volunteers who monitored pollinator visitations in the trial garden, noticed that ‘Jeana’s’ pink flowers received 539 visits from butterflies over 2 years. Others phlox flowers received at best 117 and lower.  ‘Lavelle’, second in place, received 117 visits indicating a marked preference for ‘Jeana’.

 

Blue Moon phlox

Blue Moon

Horticulturists also trialed shade-loving woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) and creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera). Their report stated that the creeping phlox was easy to grow while the woodland was more difficult. However, they conceded that their initial plants of the woodland may not have been the healthiest. The best performers of woodland phlox are Phlox divaricata and P. divaricata ‘Blue Moon.’ With creeping phlox, best performers are Phlox stolonifera ‘Fran’s Purple’, ‘Home Fires’, ‘Pink Ridge’, and ‘Sherwood Purple’.

Fran's purple phlox

Fran’s Purple

All photos courtesy of Mt. Cuba Center

Growing Potatoes the Easy Way: Containers on the Deck

dandelionThis year I was given two types of seed potatoes: Harvest Blend and White Superior. I have grown potatoes before in my Virginia garden and they were very tasty. This year, I am going to grow these potatoes in fabric containers called Smart Pots. Any fabric container or even a plastic container with holes for drainage will do, I just happen to have a few large Smart Pots.

Potatoes are in the same family as tomatoes and eggplants but gardeners start growing them in the spring, as opposed to their warm-season cousins.  Although you hear that potatoes are started on St. Patrick’s Day, that might only be true for the Irish. It does not always work for gardeners in the Washington DC area. We just had snow so I waited until this past weekend when I was closer to my last average frost date. I have read that the time to plant potatoes is when dandelions are blooming; sure enough, my dandelions were blooming this past weekend.

Some of the independent garden centers will sell a few varieties of potatoes but you get a much wider selection if you contact mail order companies. In fact, there is tremendous diversification of the tuber itself:  there are white, blue, red, purple or gold colored tubers–round, gnarly, slender, large or small.  In terms of cooking, tubers can be mealy like a Russet (good for baking but disintegrates in a stew) versus waxy like a Yukon Gold (holds its shape). The tubers vary in maturation days, there are early, mid, and late season varieties, thus extending the harvest from June to August. Interestingly, the foliage, that is, the above ground part, does not vary. The plant grows to a few feet tall, flowers, and dies, signaling the time to dig up and harvest the mature tubers.

Planting

To grow potatoes, purchase “seed potatoes,” which are not true seeds but the “starter” tubers one plants in the soil. It is best to start with seed potatoes that are certified as disease-free, instead of planting a grocery store potato. The shoots arise from the “eyes” and additional tubers appear along these shoots as they grow. Seed potatoes should be the size of an egg with at least two eyes. If the seed potato is this size already then plant the whole thing, eyes up. If the tuber is large, can cut into sections, each with at least two eyes. I have read differing opinions about whether you should let the cut end callous (to prevent disease); it seems some people cut and plant while other cut, callous, and then plant.

I planted my potatoes in two Smart Pots, which are ventilated fabric containers (no need to poke holes in the bottom). This is a great way to grow potatoes if you do not have a lot of land, if your garden soil is too compacted, or if you want to encourage kids to get involved. For potatoes, use at least a 20-gallon size Smart Pot with at least a 15-inch height.  Estimate 4 plants in this size and more in larger sizes.  I spaced mine about 6 inches part so I planted four Harvest Blends in the medium container (foreground in photo) and 5 White Superiors in the larger pot (background in photo).

I used potting soil that already had a slow-release fertilizer.  Because potatoes are heavy feeders, I will supplement with a liquid fertilizer later in the season.

I poured 3-4 inches of the soil in each container, watered, placed the potatoes on top, eyes up, added 3 more inches of soil, watered again, and inserted a plant label. I rolled down the sides so they would not turn inward and prevent rain from reaching the plants.

Growing

One advantage to containers is that you can place them anywhere, a deck, a porch, a driveway, even on grass. Another advantage is that you don’t have to worry about crop rotation if you have been growing tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants in the garden. My containers are in full sun on the deck so I can easily keep an eye on them. Because potatoes are susceptible to Colorado potato beetles, I have to be able to easily check the underside of leaves for the yellow/orange eggs.

Potatoes require an inch of water a week so I need to be able to water easily and often, which I can do with a hose on the deck. However, the foliage is susceptible to fungal diseases so I will water by putting the hose nozzle into the bag, not spraying the foliage and not watering in the evening.

In a few weeks I will have to “hill” the plants. The new tubers grow up from the seed potato. As the shoots grow (now stems), and more tubers appear, these new tubers have to be covered with soil. Tubers exposed to light become green and bitter.  (This also is a tip for storing store-bought potatoes, keep them out of light in a cool place but not in the fridge).  When the stems have grown about 8 inches, I will add about 4 inches of soil and repeat the process again, unfolding the sides as I add more soil. This process of adding soil is called “hilling.”

Harvesting

In early summer, when the plants flower, I can harvest immature tubers by putting my hands in the soil and pulling egg-size tubers out (leaving smaller ones in). This immature stage is what we buy as “new potatoes” in the store. New potatoes have a very thin skin and do not keep. They have to be eaten soon and usually they are boiled and mixed with parsley, chives, and butter.

In mid-summer, probably June, the potatoes will have matured. When the leaves yellow and die, I will stop watering, wait two weeks, and then dump the container. I will dump the soil on a tarp. I can either use the soil to start a new garden bed or put back in the containers to plant bush beans.

Chitting

One term that comes up with potatoes is chitting, which is common in England but not so much so here. Chitting is the process of “pre-sprouting” the tuber before planting to give the plant a head start, much like starting tomatoes under lights in the house before May. Chitting affords an early harvest but takes space and time.

I did not chit my potatoes for two reasons. By the time I received them they had already started to sprout. The tubers were small and slightly shriveled. They must have been in a place that was too warm. But if I had purchased tubers, I probably would not chit because I do not have a need to have potatoes a few weeks earlier. Plus one has to consider the space this would take and available windows.

If you are interested in chitting, place your tubers eyes up in an egg carton. Put next to a window in a warm place (the usual heated house). The type of grow lights you use for starting seeds are not necessary. After they have sprouted (like your old potatoes in the vegetable bin), you can plant them outside. If the tubers are large, cut into pieces the size of an egg with at least two eyes.

I am looking forward to growing potatoes in Smart Pots this year — freshly grown potatoes taste better than store-bought potatoes.

Snowdrops: From Simple Flowers to Complex Collections

galanthusThe common snowdrops are popular, spring blooming bulbs that are easy to grow. After planting the small bulbs in the fall, in masses or drifts for the best effect, you will be rewarded with small, white bells in the midst of winter. Here in the mid-Atlantic area, the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) blooms any time from January through March. Sometimes they push through the snow or a carpet of brown leaves under trees.  Hardy to USDA Zone 4-7, they prefer cool weather, partial shade, and rich soil. They are not fazed by deer but may get relocated by squirrels. By late spring, the green, strap-like leaves die back and the bulb lies dormant during the summer.

Snowdrops seem so simple, so humble, like servants to queen daffodils and regal tulips. Here in America we give them a nod as a small sign that spring will come soon. In Great Britain, however, snowdrops enjoy a cult status. The English have been breeding snowdrops extensively since the Victorian area, yielding over a thousand cultivars. They quite literally put these small perennials on pedestals and table top arrangements during judging shows and grand events.

To me they all pretty but look similar. To a galanthophile each flower is distinct and beautiful. Galanthophiles collect the cultivars, some of which can be costly. They may also collect other Galanthus species — there are about 20 species that vary in bloom time and size.

Here in this country, we are not able to access a wide variety but a good source for many snowdrop cultivars is Carolyn’s Shade Gardens in Pennsylvania. Another source is to visit a private garden or sale such as David Culp’s annual Galanthus Gala which will be on March 3, 2018, in Downingtown, PA. David, a well-known breeder, lecturer, and author, has a collection of snowdrops, among other plants, in his gorgeous gardens at Brandywine Cottage. The Galanthus Gala is open to the public, registration is required, and includes speakers and other plant vendors.