Category Archives: plants

Spring-Blooming Crocus: Small but Loud

crocus

crocus at Brookside Gardens

February brings the spring crocus. These ephemeral beauties are actually perennials. After blooming in February and March, they go dormant in the summer and reappear next spring. Crocus are grown from corms, which are relatively small and cheap compared to other spring blooming bulbs. The plants do best in full sun and well-drained soil. They are great for naturalizing in a lawn, planted in drifts, or in alpine or rock gardens, or in containers. You can force them to bloom indoors in low growing containers, much like a flower arrangement.

The most commonly planted are hybrids of the large flowered Dutch crocus (Crocus vernus), the golden or snow crocus (C. chrysanthus), and tommies (C. tommasinianus). These work well for large drifts outside. For more singular plantings, such as an alpine or rock garden or containers, look into the more unusual species.  There are many species and nurseries that specialize in bulbs such as Brent and Becky’s Bulbs and Old House Gardens should have them.

Purchase corms in the fall. All types of animals will either eat the corms or move them around so plant deeper than you would for other bulbs. I have read from 3 to 6 inches but it depends on the actual size of the corm. Plant many to ensure that a good number will survive and bloom. The tommies are the most squirrel-resistant because they contain alkaloids that the other crocus plants do not. Also, if you are trying to establish drifts in the lawn, it helps to cut the lawn as late as possible to ensure the crocus leaves can produce food for the next season.

crocus

crocus in my lawn

The former owner of my house planted these purple crocus plants more than 15 years ago. Every March, they bloom in the front lawn and I have never fertilized or divided them. The little blossoms don’t have much of a stem so I put them in tiny vases on my desk. The flowers last only a day or two but their declaration that spring is coming is loud and clear.

Tips for Starting Seeds in Your Garden: Planting in the Spring

lettuce in container

Recently, I posted an article called Tips for Starting Seeds for Your Garden. The post was about starting seeds and the importance of distinguishing between warm versus cool season plants or seed. It further explained how and when to sow seeds for warm season plants. This is the second part of the post: a focus on cool season plants.

Starting Seeds in Ground or Containers

In my zone 7 Northern Virginia garden, there are many vegetable and herbs that I can start growing outside in early spring. This means I don’t have to start them indoors under lights. Not only do these particular plants prefer cool temperatures, a light frost should not harm them. I tend to start most of my cool season plants by seed in containers on my deck. Container soil is warmer than ground soil. Also, it is easier to check on them by walking on a wooden deck than to have to trample through wet, soggy soil in cold weather. By summer, most of these types of plants have bolted (i.e., flowered and gone to seed so leaves are bitter). After pulling and discarding into the compost pile, I re-stock my containers with warm season annuals such as different types of basils and bush beans.

When to Sow Seeds in Early Spring

Using davesgarden.com and my zip code, I calculated my average last frost date to be April 30. March and April are still cool and there is a possibility of a frost or even snow. From the list of cool season plants or seeds I want to grow, I calculate which I can start at what number of weeks before April 30 and which would benefit from containers on the deck or directly into the soil. If a seed packet does not provide this information, try asking your local extension agent, online seed catalogs, or read a printed seed catalog or a gardening book. A few online seed catalogs that provide quality descriptions for this are Burpee, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Botanical Interest, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and Renee’s Garden.

chervil

chervil is a spring herb

Sowing Often for Continuous Harvest

For some cool season crops, sowing every couple of weeks ensures a continuous harvest until summer. For example, our family likes to eat lettuce and spinach so if I start sowing in early spring and again every other week, I will be able to continue to pick leaves for a family of four up until summer. By summer, the weather will be too hot to germinate spinach and lettuce easily.

spinach seedlings

direct sow spinach seedlings in container

Check if the seed package recommends growing in soil or if they can be grown in a container. If you only need a little arugula, grow in a shallow container. If you only need one borage plant, grow in a larger container (it is a larger plant). Chervil is so ephemeral it is best to grow in a medium container so you can access and harvest as much as possible. For plants that tend to flower and drop seed, I find it helpful to have a patch set aside. I have parsley, cilantro, and calendula patches in the backyard so I sow the seeds directly in those patches. Of the plants below, peas are the only ones that need vertical structure. They should be planted next to a trellis and “trained” to wrap around it. I grow sugar snap peas in the ground next to a wire trellis but there are some variety of peas that can be grown in containers with stakes. Here are common cool season plants that can be grown by seed:

  • Alyssum
  • Arugula
  • Asian greens
  • Beets
  • Borage
  • Calendula
  • Carrots
  • Chervil
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Cilantro
  • Dill
  • Endive
  • Greens
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Lettuce
  • Mache
  • Mustards
  • Nigella
  • Pak choi
  • Parsley
  • Peas
  • Radish
  • Spinach
  • Sweet peas
  • Turnips

My Cool Season Seed Plan

Just before March 15

Burpee and Botanical Interests Sugar Snap Peas: Soak overnight in water and then plant seed in small plastic pots with soil. When 2 inches tall, transplant outside in ground against trellis. No need for indoor lights.

March 15

April 1

  • American Meadows Scarlet Nantes carrot, sow in large deep container on deck and in ground
  • Renee’s Garden Slo-Bolt Cilantro, sow directly into cilantro patch in ground

April 15

  • Repeat lettuce, seed, radishes, and kale
  • Start borage in large decorative container
  • Start arugula in medium container
pak choi

direct sow pak choi seeds in ground

 

Time to Start Sowing Cool Season Flowers and Brassicas

mustard

This week on Facebook, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a Virginia-based seed company, reminded us to start cabbage, celery, celeriac, cauliflower, and bulb onions indoors (from seed, under lights). However, if you are worried about the dreaded cabbage worm and other pests, Margaret Roach in New York just interviewed Don Tipping from Siskiyou Seeds on her website, awaytogarden.com, for tips on growing brassicas and preventing the cabbage worm. Brassicas are members of the cabbage or mustard family (Brassicaceae) that include cauliflower, collards, broccoli, kohlrabi, kale, and the mustards, among others. Popular vegetables to grow here but they are susceptible to cabbage worm and flea beetle.

love in a mist seed pod

Claire Jones, Maryland garden/floral designer, tells us on her blog, The Garden Diaries, that now is the time to sow cool season flowers. She has sown seeds of calendula, love in a mist, poppies, and bells of Ireland outside, directly into the soil, when it was workable.

If you are new to the concept of cool season flowers, check out Lisa Ziegler’s website, The Gardener’s Workshop. She wrote the book (quite literally) because she has a cut flower farm in Newport News, Virginia. Her website has two virtual workshops (a series of short videos): one to learn how to start seeds indoors and one on growing cool season flowers. Last year, I was inspired and grew snapdragons, calendula, and love in a mist.

love in a mist flowers

snapdragons

New Cultivars of Wintergreen for Bright Red Berries

This week I attended the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show (MANTS), an annual horticulture trade show at the Baltimore Convention Center.  MANTS is one of the largest shows with over 10,000 attendees and almost a thousand companies exhibiting at booths in the Convention Center. The companies are wholesale, they are not selling directly to customers or the press like me. However, I enjoy attending because it provides me a glimpse of new products and plants and trends in the gardening world. This year, I discovered several new plants and gardening products which I will describe in future articles.

One plant in particular stood out for me.  I was struck by how many times I saw Gaultheria procumbens in containers either as a decoration or as a new cultivar. I have seen the species for sale in local nurseries before but they were always so small and scrawny I never bought them. The plants at MANTS were large with exceptionally large berries.

Briggs Nursery had a display of Berry Cascade and Cherry Berries. Cherry Berries has very large red berries, almost like cranberries, while Berry Cascade had berries appearing the entire length of the stem, forming a cascading effect. Because Briggs is a wholesale nursery, you would have to ask your garden center to order these if they don’t already have them in stock.

Cherry Berries

Berry Cascade

Monrovia, a plant company that sells directly to consumers via their website and through garden centers, had beautiful, healthy plants in their signature containers. Their website features two types: Very Berry and Red Baron. Red Baron has more and larger bright red berries.

Monrovia’s Gaultheria plants

I was lucky to find Peppermint Pearl at MANTS. Peppermint Pearl is unusual in that the berries first appear white in the fall and change to pink by early spring.

Peppermint Pearl, already turning from white to pink

Botanical Collections, a wholesaler of Kew pottery from London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, used the red berries of Gaultheria to show off their products.

Red berries add color to Botanical Collections’ pottery

And here is another photo of Gaultheria modeling this container.

Gaultheria procumbens, also known as teaberry or wintergreen, is a groundcover that prefers shade and moist, acidic soil (think “woodsy environment”). Hardy to zone 3, Gaultheria is an eastern North American native plant. It blooms small, white flowers in the summer followed by the berries in the fall. The berries can last until spring and are edible but it is the leaves that produce that aromatic wintergreen scent. Native Americans used the leaves to make a medicinal tea, hence teaberry, to alleviate pain (much like aspirin).  The name wintergreen comes from the fact that the plant is an evergreen. Its green leaves turn bronzy red or purple with the cold weather and remain above ground throughout the winter. Although the plant should be grown outdoors, its red berries make it a great holiday gift plant. Now that there are new cultivars with even larger berries, I will have to add Gaultheria to my Virginia garden as a native herb evergreen groundcover with winter interest!

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas for Gardeners

I read an old version of A Gardener’s Christmas in a Journal of the Garden Club of Virginia. The author is unknown so I took a few liberties to bring it up to date. Merry Christmas!

 

A Gardener’s Christmas

´Twas the night before Christmas,
And all through the yard
The branches were bare
And the ground frozen hard;

The roses were dormant
And mulched all around
To protect them from damage
If frost heaves the ground;

The perennials were nestled
All snug in their beds,
While visions of fertilizer
Danced in their heads;

The newly planted shrubs
Had been soaked by a hose
To settle their roots
For a long winter’s doze;

And out on the lawn
The new fallen snow
Protected the roots
Of the grasses below;

When, what to my wondering
Eyes should appear,
But a Prius full of gifts
Of gardening gear;

St. Nick was the driver
A jolly old elf,
And he winked as he said,
“I’m a gardener myself.

I’ve brought new seeds
And light systems, too,
Give them a try
And see how they do.

To eliminate weeding,
I brought bags of mulch
To attract the pollinators,
I have flowers for best results.

To add to your joy,
I’ve plenty of herbs
And ornamental grasses
For your hell strip curb.

For seed planting days,
I’ve a trowel and dibble.
And a roll of wire mesh,
If the rabbits should nibble.

I have the latest books
Plus some gadgets you’ll love;
Plant stakes and frames,
And waterproof gloves.

Here are sharp shears
And a new compost pit
And, for pH detecting,
A soil testing kit.

With these colorful flagstones,
Lay a new garden path.
For the view from your window,
A bird feeder and bath.

And last but not least,
Some well-rotted manure.
A green garden year-round,
These gifts will ensure.

Then, jolly St. Nick
Having emptied his load,
Started his Prius
And took on the road.

And I heard him exclaim
Through the motor’s quiet hum,
“Merry Christmas to all,
And to all a green thumb!”

Selecting the Perfect Christmas Tree and Poinsettia

If you are spending this weekend looking for the perfect Christmas tree, check out the article on Merrifield Garden Center‘s website, “Selecting the Perfect Christmas Tree,” by Michael Fahey.  For video format, watch David Yost when he explained how to choose the perfect tree on an archived Merrifield television show (old timers here may remember that Merrifield used to have a Saturday morning television show on gardening).  To select healthy poinsettia plants, watch Dr. David Clement, University of Maryland Extension specialist, describe what to look for and tips on taking care of this lovely euphorbia.

Forcing Paperwhites To Stand Tall with a Shot of Liquor!

The first time I forced bulbs to bloom indoors was when I was taking a horticulture class at Northern Virginia Community College. We were given paperwhite bulbs (Narcissus tazetta) that we placed in a shallow dish of water and pebbles. Because I took this class before we ever even heard of the Internet, I visited Merrifield Garden Center to take a photo of a paperwhite bulb in a container to show what it looks like.

The green stalks on my bulbs appeared quickly.  In a few weeks, I had several tall but spindly stalks with clusters of white flowers. The flowers were quite fragrant, but because the stalks were flopping over I had to place the dish on the kitchen counter, making it look like gangly teenagers leaning against the kitchen wall.

I bet the current group of horticulture students do the same bulb forcing project but now add a shot of liquor to their bulbs. Researchers at the Flowerbulb Research Program at Cornell University have proven that using a dilute solution of alcohol shorten the stems. This is not new research but those new to gardening will appreciate this helpful tip. In fact, I bet the young undergrads have this cheat sheet in their back pocket:

After planting the bulbs in soil or stones and adding water, wait a week until the roots develop. When the green shoots grow to about 2 inches above the top of the bulbs, pour off the water and replace with a solution of 4 to 6 percent alcohol. Use gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, or tequila but do not use beer or wine. If it is a 40 percent distilled spirit, add 1 part of the alcohol to 7 parts water to yield a 5 percent solution. Rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) can be used as well. If it is 70 percent alcohol, dilute one part alcohol to 10 parts water.

From then on, use the solution instead of water for the bulbs. Make sure the waterline is below the base of the bulbs so the roots are drawing in the liquid and the bulbs are not sitting in it (or will rot).

This method results in a plant that is up to one-third shorter than would normally grow – no more gangly teenagers!  Because staking is difficult in a container of pebbles, this ensures that the stalks won’t flop over. It only takes about 3 weeks from planting to bloom time and the flowers last about 4 to 6 weeks. These bulbs do not need a chilling period, are relatively cheap, and are often sold in bins at garden centers in the fall. If you run out to your local garden center now, you could get flowers just in time for your holiday parties. Don’t forget to stop off at the liquor store!

The effect of alcohol on ‘Ziva’ paperwhite narcissus. Left is an untreated plant and right is a plant grown with 5% alcohol instead of water. Photo courtesy of FlowerBulb Research Program, Cornell University