Category Archives: plants

Deer-Resistant, Spring-Blooming Bulbs to Plant

Fall is the time to purchase spring-blooming bulbs in the Washington DC metro area. There is a wide variety of choices but if you have a severe deer problem, you may want to plant deer-proof bulbs. I know, you say, there is no such thing as “deer-proof” but with bulbs there are a few that are actually poisonous. I spoke with Brent Heath of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, VA, who explained the difference between deer-proof and deer-resistant.

“Critter-proof bulbs are poisonous to animals such as deer, rabbits, squirrels, and voles,” Brent said. “Critter-resistant bulbs have some quality that is unpleasant to the critter but if the critter is hungry enough it will eat the plant.” Of the spring-blooming bulbs, the amaryllis family offers three popular critter-proof bulbs that contain lycorine, a poisonous crystalline alkaloid. Somehow critters know about lycorine and stay away from daffodils, snowdrops, and snowflakes. A subsequent article will describe critter-resistant bulbs for gardeners who are not plagued by deer.

Daffodils (Narcissus)

Daffodils are very hardy in this area, they last for years. There is a wide range of daffodils–flowers vary in color, size, shape, and bloom time. In fact, daffodils are categorized in 13 divisions according to the American Daffodil Society. Usually people think of yellow when they think of daffodil flowers but colors range from yellow to white to cream to orange to pink. Plants can be as short 3 inches or as tall as 2 feet. The bloom time varies from January to the end of April.  “The earliest daffodil to bloom is Early Sensation, which blooms in January and February in my area,” said Brent. Because there are early bloomers and late bloomers, you can extend your range of bloom time by a few months.

Drifts of daffodils about to bloom under deciduous trees

Daffodils are usually planted in a mass for a natural look. They blend well with the front garden or landscape but the small ones should be planted up close to the walkway for visibility. The flowers are perfect for floral arrangements so when you buy bulbs consider planting bulbs for flowers in the landscape and flowers for cutting. Daffodils should be planted in a well-drained area with full sun or part shade. Usually bulbs are planted 5-6 inches deep and 6 inches apart but because the size of daffodil bulbs vary this depends on the size of the bulb. The rule of thumb is to plant 2-3 times the width of the bulb. When I asked Brent which daffodils he recommends, he said that the recommended daffodils for this area have a heart symbol next to them in their catalog (which they mail free). There are also several local daffodil clubs and shows if you want to get additional recommendations and see what the flowers look like before buying the bulbs.

Daffodils for landscape as well as cutting

Snowdrops (Galanthus)

Snowdrops are very early bloomers, sometimes as early as January with snow on the ground. They bloom until March and then their thin, green foliage seems to blend into the landscape and disappear. The plants are small, about 6 inches tall, with white pendulous bells of flowers. Usually each flower has six tepals (a modified petal) but there are double-flowering types too. The tepal length plus the green markings on them vary tremendously. Although they are considered common here in the United States, they have achieved cult status in Great Britain where they have been bred since Victorian times. There are thousands of cultivars, some of which are very expensive.

Snowdrops

Because they are small, it is best to plant many in a group. They naturalize well and can be used in rock gardens. They can be grown in full sun but do best in dappled shade or under deciduous trees. Snowdrops tolerate clay soil and black walnut trees. Plant bulbs 4 inches deep and about 2 to 4 inches apart.

Snowflake or summer snowflake (Leucojum)

There are two species of snowflake: Leucojum vernum and Leucojum aestivum. L. vernum blooms in the winter and early spring, at the same time as snowdrops. They are about 8 to 10 inches tall. L. aestivum blooms much later in April and is about 12 to 18 inches tall. A common L. aestivum cultivar is ‘Gravetye Giant’ which is slightly taller with larger flowers.

Leucojum ‘Gravetye Giant’ next to azaleas, photo courtesy of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs

Snowflakes have wide, strap-like foliage and dainty bells of flowers hanging above the green leaves. Each flower is white with green tips. Snowflakes can be grown in full sun or dappled sunlight. It is best to grow them in a drift, along river banks, and under deciduous trees. The L. aestivum in particular is a great companion plant for spring blooming shrubs and perennials in the garden because of its height and bloom time. Snowflakes prefers rich, well-drained soil, and can tolerate moist soil more so than other bulbs. They also can tolerate clay soil and black walnut trees. Plant the bulbs 6 inches deep and about 6 inches apart.

If deer are an issue for you, try these bulbs in the amaryllis family. You can plant them after a hard freeze, usually late October through November. All of these bulbs are easy to find at local independent garden centers or they can be ordered from these bulb companies.

Start Planting Cool Season, Hardy Annuals for Spring Flowers

snapdragons in the spring

Now is the time to start thinking of planting cool season hardy annuals. This is a group of annuals (grow and die in one season) that can survive the winter and thrive in cool spring weather. In the Washington DC metro area, they are planted in the fall and bloom in the spring. They spend the winter getting established so when spring arrives, they are ready to bolt out the door waving their pretty flowers before the warm season summer annuals appear.

Examples of cool season annuals are snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus), calendula (Calendula officinalis), bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis), delphinium (Delphinium), lisianthus (Eustoma), love in a mist (Nigella), sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus), sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), and bachelor buttons (Centaurea cyanus). Many of these make great cut flowers.

I credit everything I have learned about cool season hardy annuals to Lisa Mason Ziegler and her book, Cool Flowers: How to Grow and Enjoy Long-Blooming Hardy Annual Flowers Using Cool Weather Techniques.  Lisa manages a commercial cut flower business in Newport News, which is in Zone 7, similar to my Northern Virginia garden. In addition to growing and selling cut flowers, she writes books, gives lectures, provides free videos as well as Facebook Live presentations, and manages a website called The Gardener’s Workshop.

Several years ago I was inspired by her book to plant calendula and snapdragons in the fall. I was starting them in the beginning of the growing season and was not having great success. The weather became too hot before the snapdragons could bloom and the calendula foliage was covered in powdery mildew because of the summer’s heat and humidity. When I tried her method of starting them in the fall, they both bloomed early enough the following spring that I was able to enjoy the calendula flowers before powdery mildew set in and cut many snapdragons for indoor arrangements.

calendula flowers in the spring

This year, I plan to grow sweet peas, which I have not been able to master in the spring. Our springs are just too short to have a long blooming period. I bought a package of Botanical Interests ‘Old Spice Blend’, a fragrant, heirloom blend of various flower colors. Interestingly, sweet peas are deer resistant and attract pollinators but I am going to grow them for indoor flower arrangements so I can enjoy their beautiful, fragrant flowers in the office.

Although Lisa provides specific information for 30 flowers in her book, in general, we should start 6 to 8 weeks before the average first frost. In Northern Virginia, 8 weeks is August 31 and 6 weeks is September 15. She recommends to err on starting later rather than earlier. Some seeds can be sowed directly in the garden while others work well as transplants. Sweet peas can be done either way so I am going to do both as an experiment to see which works better in my garden. I will start half of the seeds indoors under lights and half outdoors, directly in the garden. In order to have transplants large enough to move into the ground around September 15, I would have to start sowing seeds around September 1. Then I can sow the remaining seeds around September 15. September is still a very hot month so I will have to remember to water often. If this works, next year I will post a photo of the sweet peas.

If hardy annuals are something you would like to try, you can catch up by visiting Lisa’s website, listening to her videos, and reading her book. Although she sells seeds and gardening products, you can also purchase seed packets at your local independent garden center. Good luck!

Habanada: A New Habanero Without the Heat

As a professional garden communicator I receive plants from nurseries to trial in my Virginia garden. I grow them to see how well they perform in our hot and humid summers, our mild winters, and with our own particular population of insects and diseases. Frequently I am growing plants that I would not have even looked at in a garden center. This year I grew something new to me and a game changer for gardeners as well as chefs: Habanada.

Burpee sent me a Roulette “sweet habanero” pepper plant. I have heard of habanero chilies but I have not grown them before because I cannot tolerate the heat of chili peppers. I always grow sweet pepper plants. This habanada plant has not only grown well, it has been producing many peppers about three inches long. Each pepper has folds and dimples, a broad shoulder, and a tapered end. Now in the beginning of August, the plant has about 10 peppers. I ate one raw and it was not spicy at all. It was not sweet either, certainly not as sweet as yellow and red snacking peppers. Intrigued, I had to learn more.

A search on the Internet told me that several years ago, the University of New Mexico discovered a plant from its habanero line that did not register on the Scoville scale. The Scoville scale measures the level of capsaicinoids, the chemicals that cause the burning sensation or the heat. A normal habanero can reach 300,000 Scoville heat units (very high). They sent seeds to Cornell University plant breeder Michael Mazourek who was interested in peppers at the time. Mazourk was inspired to breed a delicious pepper without the heat as part of his doctoral research. The result was the habanada.

I read that the habanada has “floral properties,” that it tastes like a melon or a guava, but to me it is savory, similar to a soft cheese. I picked them at a more orange than red stage but I will let some mature to red and see how they taste again. With the ones I did pick, I chopped them and made an omelet that was delicious. No doubt chefs will be able to see the possibilities of using habanadas in desserts, as a spread, or maybe even a jelly. It can be used whenever a sweet or hot pepper is called for in an entrée and it certainly can be used to color a dish.

The plant was easy to grow. It is about 3 feet tall now. I used a single stake because a single stake has always sufficed with my other peppers but this plant is bushier so I had to keep it propped up with yarn. Next time, I will use a tomato cage. Oh yes, there will be a next time, I am growing this again next year. My habanada plant grows with my other peppers and tomatoes and they all receive ample sun and water but habanadas do not need as much fertilizer as tomatoes.

I highly recommend the habanada, not only as a star performer in the garden but as a tasty pepper!

Three Heat-Tolerant, Pollinator-Attracting, Deer-Resistant Perennials

We are having a hot, dry streak now which really separates the weak from the strong in the garden. Now is a good time to see which plant is tolerating this weather well in other people’s garden so you can copy for your own garden.

On one particularly hot day this past weekend I was downtown visiting the Smithsonian museums. I spent a lot time in the Pollinator Garden, next to the National Museum of Natural History. This is a 400 x 40 feet area on the east side of the museum at 9th Street between Constitution Avenue and the Mall. The Pollinator Garden is managed by Smithsonian Gardens staff and is a wonderful place to relax and watch the butterflies.

I noticed several plants that were tolerating the heat well, that is, they were in full sun and not covered in powdery mildew.  As expected, they were definitely attracting bees and butterflies. These seemed worthy of copying in my garden. When I got home I looked them up and learned that they are rabbit and deer resistant as well as being full sun, drought-tolerant perennials. This is not to say there weren’t other worthy notables in the Pollinator Garden but these are definitely plants to add to my collection next year!

Wild Petunia

Although this plant is called wild petunia (Ruellia numilis), it is not related to petunias. These plants have lavender blue flowers that bloom from summer to fall. They are low growing with a trailing habit, reaching about a foot tall. They can serve as a groundcover and be used as a spiller in a container.

Allium ‘Millenium’

‘Millenium’ is a member of the onion family (Allium) grown for its ornamental, purple globe flowers. The plants grow to 1 to 1 ½ feet tall, providing a strong vertical interest.  They are great in the garden and can be used in containers as thrillers. After the flowers fade and die, the globe structure becomes tan and remains for a while, which also provides interest.

Walker’s Low catmint (Nepeta) is a member of the mint family, so it has gray green aromatic foliage. In the summer, the plant has small, lavender blue flowers, but each stalk has so many that sometimes the plant seems covered in a purple haze. The plants are low growing, about a 1 to 2 feet tall, and used as a groundcover or small shrub.

Walker’s Low Catmint

Hardy Hibiscus: Summer-Flowering, Native Shrubs

Amaretto

This summer I am enjoying two hardy hibiscus plants in my Virginia garden. I planted them last year along the perimeter of the backyard where the water runs through like a river when it rains. It is a full sun, exposed area and the plants are blooming their heads off.

Hardy hibiscus plants (Hibiscus moscheutos) are native to the eastern United States and are common in swampy areas. They typically grow 4-5 feet tall with large hibiscus-like flowers. The flowers only last a day, attracting pollinators, butterflies, and hummingbirds. For years, several cultivars have been available with flowers in the white, pink, and red range.

My bushes come from a new series of eye-popping colors.  I have Amaretto (salmon-colored flowers) and Bleu Brulee (lavender petals with dark red center) from J. Berry Nursery’s Summer Spice Hardy Hibiscus collection. This is a wholesale nursery but their website has a retailer locator. The collection has unusual flower colors – from dark red chocolate to cornflower blue.

Bleu Brulee

My plants were very small when I planted them last summer but they grew quickly. In the fall, after the first frost, I cut the stems down to about 4 inches above the ground. They overwintered well but as with all hardy hibiscus plants, they were late to the dance. Just when I thought the bushes might be dead, I saw new growth at the base in May. The stems grew so fast that by June the bushes were about 3 feet tall (this series also is more compact). Now in July, they are covered in flowers constantly visited by bees. Hardy hibiscus plants are also deer-resistant, although I have seen some Japanese beetle damage on the foliage. I like their large flowers, especially since I can see them from the house. I have a few areas in my garden where there are depressions in the ground that remain damp after the rain or low lying areas through which rain water channels and hardy hibiscus plants are perfect for these areas. In addition, they thrive despite our heat and humidity and provide great color all summer long.

The Magical Flowers of Butterfly Pea Plants

In August 2017, I visited the Atlanta Botanical Garden. It was beautiful and I took many photos. As always the plants that stayed with me were the ones I had not seen before. I remember vines with beautiful pea-like flowers, about 2 inches wide, wrapped around dead trees, which were painted (“art”). The flowers were blue/purple with a yellow inner strip and the green leaves reminded me of Kentucky coffee trees. Obviously it was a tropical vine in the legume family (Fabaceae) but I could not find a sign. Later when I got home, I stumbled across the same plant on Facebook only with cobalt blue flowers. Its name, I learned, was butterfly pea (Clitoria ternatea).

The Facebook post said the flowers were used for an herbal tea. I had no idea this pretty vine had herbal qualities.  I researched online and discovered that the cobalt blue variety is well-known in Asian countries. The flowers are dried and sold in bags but one can purchase a powdered form or an extract. The flowers can be brewed alone or combined with other herbs such as lemongrass, ginger, and mint. The blue comes from anthocyanins, which are antioxidant compounds, similar to blueberries.

When brewed with water the tea is cobalt blue. However, when an acid is added, such as lemon juice, the tea turns purple. When an alkaline liquid such as roselle tea is added, the tea turns red. Apparently butterfly pea tea acts like a litmus strip, the color of the drink changes with the pH of what it is mixed with. This does not affect the taste but has transformed butterfly tea into a novelty cocktail drink. The cobalt blue flowers also are used to dye food such as custards, puddings, rice dishes, and sticky rice.

Butterfly pea is native to Africa. Here in Virginia it would be grown as an annual. The vine grows rapidly in the summer and needs support so an arbor is ideal but would be interesting to try it in a hanging basket. As a member of the pea family, the plant fixates nitrogen and is good for the soil. The vine can take full sun to light shade and is drought tolerant. There are several varieties, some have cobalt blue, lavender, or white flowers in single or double flowered forms.

This is not an easy plant to find here in Virginia but it seems that once you have the plant, you can let some flowers go to seed and collect the pods for next year. Last week I was in Florida and toured a friend’s garden. He was growing this plant in a large container with a trellis. I was so excited to see the butterfly pea again and explained how I was interested in growing it. He had a plastic bag full of the seed pods and offered me some. I took a handful of pods which by now had dried and split open and brought them home. This week, I plan to sow the seeds outside and grow butterfly pea plants in order to experiment with novelty drinks!

Great Garden Plant: Baptisia

Baptisia ‘Lemon Meringue’ flowers up close

Baptisia, also called false indigo, is a shrub that does well in our hot and humid summers. Recent breeding efforts have expanded the range of flower colors creating a new look for an old favorite. I myself have been taken by two top performers according to Mt. Cuba Center’s 15-page report, Baptisia for the Mid-Atlantic Region. The Mt. Cuba Center’s Trial Garden, managed by George Coombs, research horticulturist, evaluates native plants and their related cultivars. From 2012 to 2015, staff evaluated 46 selections of Baptisia including representatives from 11 different species to determine which performs best in the mid-Atlantic region. Over 60 percent of the plants tested receive 4 or 5 stars. Among those, 10 superior cultivars outperformed the rest. Fortunately for me my two recent Baptisia additions to my garden are included in the ten.

I have two Lemon Meringue and two Dutch Chocolate plants. I purchase them three years ago as small plants. Last month they were heavy with yellow or chocolate brown flowers. Although they look like shrubs, these plants are herbaceous perennials. They die back in the fall and come back in the early spring. By summer, the plants grow to their mature height of about 3 feet high and wide, each year. Mine had pea-like flowers on tall spikes, similar to lupines, in April. In the fall, the flowers produce dark brown pods that be used for dried flower arrangements. Baptisia plants are deer resistant, heat and humidity tolerant, and drought tolerant once established. These natives make great additions to the garden. I am thinking of adding more!

Lemon Meringue and Dutch Chocolate

Volunteering at Public Gardens in Washington DC

April is National Volunteer Month and this week, from April 7 to 13, is National Volunteer Week. I originally posted this article in December 2018 but in honor of National Volunteer Week/Month, I am re-posting for you to think about volunteering at one of DC’s public gardens. The Washington DC area has many opportunities for people with a passion for plants and gardening to volunteer. This article focuses on three opportunities where the entities are not non-profits, they are actually part of the federal government. Thus, they share several unique characteristics.

This article provides a broad overview and compares and contrasts three places. However, it is best to reach out to the organization that interests you for more detailed information. Opportunities to volunteer are like the tide, they ebb and flow depending on the season and annual events. To learn about additional organizations that may need volunteers, view this list of public gardens and contact them directly.

U.S. Botanic Garden

The U.S. Botanic Garden (USBG) was established by Congress in 1820 and is one of the oldest botanic gardens in the country. The USBG is comprised of the Conservatory, the National Garden, and the Bartholdi Park. It is administered through the Architect of the Capitol. It is a prime tourist attraction, open every day of the year, and within walking distance of metro stations.

“Volunteers are vital to the support of the Botanic Garden,” said Elizabeth Barton,Education Specialist and Volunteer Coordinator, who oversees about 250 volunteers. People interested in volunteering at the USBG should first complete the application form on the USBG website, which gives Elizabeth a sense of timing, availability, and interests. After she receives the application, she calls the applicant to set up a meeting with her and possibly another staff person. Applicants can apply between January and early October.

U.S. Botanic Gardens’ production greenhouses

The USBG has a public programming team and a horticultural team. Volunteers who work with the horticultural team work with the plants either inside the conservatory, outside with the gardens and grounds crew, or at the USBG production facility in Maryland (large production greenhouses). Volunteers who work with the public programming team assist with the public programs, such as lectures and children’s programs, answer questions at the visitor’s desk, manage the Discovery Carts, or serve as docents.

All volunteers attend a general volunteer orientation. Starting in 2019, all volunteers will attend an accessibility awareness training where one learns to interact with people who have special needs and disabilities. There may be further training depending on the assignment. “None of the volunteer duties require prior horticultural knowledge,” explained Elizabeth. “We work with you where you are. The horticultural team loves working with people who have horticultural experience but they also love working with people who have no horticultural experience but have enthusiasm. As long as you have the enthusiasm, we can teach you about the tasks.”

Docents obtain additional training on how to give a tour and basic botany and plant morphology. Docents focus on a particular area of the Botanic Garden to learn about those particular plants. For example, a docent who leads tours of the National Garden outside would get additional training on the National Garden before leading a tour.

Elizabeth emphasized that there is also the opportunity to explore a special interest. A volunteer can present an idea to USBG staff who will discuss it to see if the idea fits with current programming. She explained how a volunteer had an interest in conifers and thus developed a conifer Discovery Cart. (Discovery Carts are informal, pop-up educational opportunities on specific topics such as conifers, chocolate, or poinsettias.)

Volunteers need to commit to 100 hours per year, which could be a 4-hour shift every other week or 2-hour shift every week or a condensed number of weeks. It varies because some people live nearby and can easily commute to work a few hours at a time while others live further away and prefer infrequent trips and a longer day.

A well-known volunteer giving a lecture at USBG

Because USBG is part of the federal government, volunteers need to go through the background security check and fingerprinting process that is required of all feds. If you are a current or retired government employee, you would have been through this process before.

Volunteers not only benefit from helping others, they learn more about horticulture and gardening. “Volunteers learn a lot no matter what they are doing here,” said Elizabeth. “They also are able to give back to the community, that is, the USBG is a great resource to the community.”

USBG staff host two volunteer appreciation events every year for the volunteers, a holiday and a spring social event. If volunteers have volunteered for a set minimum number of hours, they are able to attend a one day educational and appreciation event hosted by the Horticultural Consortium of the Greater Washington area (HCGWA). The HCGWA is a group of local organizations that depend upon a cadre of volunteers. Each year, one of the organizations hosts and develops the agenda and invites the volunteers from the other organizations.

Smithsonian Gardens

The Smithsonian Institution was established by an act of Congress in 1846 and is a unique public-private partnership that receives federal funds. In 1972, the Smithsonian Gardens was established to manage the Smithsonian museum grounds and is comprised of the Grounds Management Operations, the Greenhouse Nursery Operations, and the Horticulture Collections Management and Education. The outside gardens are open every day of the week and there are several nearby metro stops.

Alison Kootstra, Volunteer Program Coordinator, explained that even though they have a small volunteering program, less than 100 volunteers, they have a very high retention rate. As with the USBG, applicants need to first complete the volunteer application form on the website. Alison reviews the application and contacts the applicant to set up an in person interview. Interviews are conducted at the Smithsonian Gardens office on Maryland Avenue (next to L’Enfant Plaza metro station) or at the Suitland, Maryland, production greenhouses, depending on the location of the volunteer opportunity.

There are three different types of opportunities: grounds maintenance, greenhouse, and docents for exhibitions. Alison most frequently recruits for the grounds maintenance position where volunteers work alongside staff horticulturists in the Smithsonian gardens. Tucked among the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall are 13 thematic gardens.

Volunteer at Smithsonian Gardens event
Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens

Volunteers are asked to commit to working from April to October, one day per week. Because staff work Monday through Friday, volunteers also work during the work week and not on the weekend. Recruitment occurs every year and three to eight people are chosen to work in specific gardens. “Experience is not required,” explained Alison. “It is more important that the person has enthusiasm, the willing to learn, and the ability to follow instructions.”

The Suitland greenhouses are not open to the public so the environment may be quieter than the public gardens, which are frequented by tourists. Tasks include planting, transplanting, and taking care of orchids and tropical plants. This opportunity is less frequent because volunteers tend to stay for a long time. Again, since volunteers are working with staff who work weekdays, the opportunity is also on weekdays.  

There are opportunities for docents for exhibitions but this is less frequent, depending on the need or exhibit. Because the Smithsonian Gardens is responsible for an orchid exhibit that begins in February 2019, Alison just recruited 20 new volunteers to serve as docents. This exhibit is open every day so the opportunity to volunteer would be on the weekday or weekend and would require quite a lot of interaction with the public.

Alison ticked off the benefits of volunteering with the Smithsonian Gardens, which mirror Smithsonian employee benefits. Volunteers receive 20 percent off at Smithsonian gift shops and many of the public food eateries, access to behind the scenes tours or enrichment activities within the Smithsonian, discounts on some ticketed Smithsonian programs, and reciprocal arrangements with other museums across the country.  In addition, Alison plans an enrichment activity every other month such as a tour of another public garden or a trip to see a local museum exhibit. Like the USBG, if volunteers have volunteered for a set minimum number of hours, they are able to attend the HCGWA event.

Volunteer in the Smithsonian’s Ripley Garden
Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens

Smithsonian volunteers must also undergo the background security check and fingerprinting.They must attend an orientation and an annual security training. There may be additional training as needed for specific positions, for example, grounds staff may have more safety trainings than docents.

U.S. National Arboretum

The U.S. National Arboretum (USNA) was established in 1927 by an act of Congress. According to their mission statement on their website, the USNA enhances the economic, environmental, and aesthetic value of ornamental and landscape plants through long-term multi-disciplinary research, conservation of genetic resources, and interpretative gardens and exhibits. The USNA is administered by the U.S.Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Services. Located in Northeast DC with entrances on New York Avenue and R Street, the Arboretum is made up of 446 acres and many plant collections. There is no nearby metro stop but plenty of free parking.  

 “We get inquiries from people interested in volunteering from our website or they walk in to the Arboretum and ask if there are volunteering opportunities,” said Carole Bordelon, Supervisory Horticulturist and Acting Volunteer and Intern Coordinator. Carole asks interested applicants to complete an online form. She looks at the applicant’s interests while asking staff how many volunteers they can support, and then tries to match the two.

Volunteers cleaning seed at USNA
Photo courtesy of USNA

“We have several different types of volunteers but the majority are working outside in the gardens and assisting staff with weeding, pruning, mulching, and planting,” said Carole. “Although the Arboretum is open to the public on the weekends, the staff work during the week so the volunteer positions are only available during the work week. In addition, depending on the collection, the staff horticulturist may want a volunteer to work on a specific day.”Currently, they have about 75 volunteers that come in on a regular basis and work in the various collections. They also have a need for volunteers to work indoors on the herbarium, archives, exhibits, image database, and public programs.

“There are some volunteers who have been here a long time so there is no need for volunteers in that particular garden area but in some areas they need volunteers for the spring/summer months and not the winter. There are some volunteers who work in one collection outside and then on bad weather days, work inside on the herbarium.”

They do require 4-6 hours per week, usually 4 hours. “We set up a schedule and most of volunteers who work outside are asked to come on a specific week day,” said Carole. 

Volunteers planting in the USNA’s Fern Valley Meadow
Photo courtesy of USNA

Volunteers learn about the plants in the collection and proper techniques, but they also enjoy the ability to meet new people. The Arboretum is a tourist attraction; volunteers may interact with visitors from all over the world. In addition, the USNA staff put on an annual volunteer recognition event where they invite a guest speaker and distribute service awards. Staff arrange outreach field trips to other public gardens and volunteers are encouraged to go to the Smithsonian In-Service Days in the winter months. Similar to the other two, USNA volunteers may attend the HCGWA event. USNA volunteers must complete the background check and fingerprinting.

Friends of the National Arboretum

Although the Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA) is a non-profit organization, it is important to mention because FONA works in tandem with the USNA and FONA volunteers work on the Arboretum property. People interested in volunteering may find themselves at the Arboretum for one-time events or long-term projects managed through FONA.

To volunteer, applicants need to complete the online form at the FONA website. “Many of our opportunities are seasonal,” explained Melinda Peters, Volunteer Programs Manager. “For example, recruiting for volunteers for the annual Garden Fair and Plant Sale in April will start up later. Our busy time will start at the end of February and into March and that is when I will start contacting applicants.”

To help distinguish between the two, the Arboretum manages volunteers who work in the plant collections or in the Arboretum’s Administrative Building while FONA manages volunteers for annual events such as the Garden Fair and Plant Sale, summer concerts, and Full Moon Hikes and for long-term projects such as the Washington Youth Garden and the Springhouse Run restoration project.

Volunteer pruning in the Asian collection
Photo courtesy of USNA

For the past 2 years, volunteers have restored Springhouse Run which is actually two streams that run through the Arboretum and into the Anacostia River, the Springhouse Run and the Hickey Run. The stream has been restored to a more natural flow and volunteers have planted many native plants. The Washington Youth Garden helps DC’s youth learn to garden and volunteer opportunities exist from April to early November, Tuesday and Saturday mornings. The Full Moon Hikes are guided walks around the Arboretum in the evening, under a full moon,which requires volunteers to serve as tour guides. The Garden Fair and Plant Sale is an April weekend where many different types of plants are for sale to the public, either from the Arboretum’s holdings, local garden clubs, or nurseries. This is a purely volunteer-run event at the Arboretum managed through FONA.

Unlike the three federal entities mentioned above, FONA does not require a background security check and fingerprinting except for the Washington Youth Garden volunteers who have to complete a more extensive onboarding process. However, volunteers for one-time events may have to sign a liability form.

There is more flexibility in terms of hours if one volunteers through FONA. Volunteers can work on weekdays, weekends, and in the evenings, depending on the event.  Also, corporations that want to or universities that require service hours can work through FONA to complete one-time service activities such as mulching on the Arboretum grounds.

Volunteer cleaning up in USNA’s Azalea collection
Photo courtesy of USNA

As with all volunteering opportunities, the benefits are socializing, learning, and giving back to the community. “For single events, we provide snacks, tools,and training,” said Melinda. “It is safe to say that food is always involved somehow.” FONA volunteers are invited to an annual volunteer appreciation event and as with the other three entities, volunteers may attend the HCGWA if they meet the required hours. Melinda also explained that the Full Moon Hike leaders receive a stipend because they have to undergo a more rigorous training program and commit to a certain list of guidelines.

To summarize, there are many different opportunities to volunteer with these prestigious organizations, you just have to figure out which is the best match for you in terms of your time, interests, and ability. Some will require digging in the dirt while others will require public speaking. But with all, horticultural experience is not a requirement so do not hesitate if you do not have plant experience. Just show up with enthusiasm and a willing to learn and you will become connected to DC’s horticultural network!

Before You Buy That Plant, Answer Five Basic Questions

My teenage son introduced me to the phrase “talk to the hand.” Although “talk to the hand because the face ain’t listening” is clearly another way of saying be quiet (nagging mom), I, as a gardener, immediately thought of the five basic criteria for buying plants. A finger for each question! What a concept! This will make it easier for new gardeners to figure out what to buy or what to do after they have bought plants for their garden.

When shopping for plants, there are five basic questions to ask before you make a purchase. This is the very basic information you need in order to make a wise decision and to determine the best location in the garden for the optimal survival rate. Raise a finger and ask:

  • What is the plant’s environmental requirements? What is its preference for light, water, and temperature? This will tell you immediately if you have a place for it in your garden. Does it need full sun, or morning sun and afternoon shade, or shade all day? Does it need to be watered often, or can it take dry spells? Does it prefer the cool spring weather or must it be planted after the average last frost date?
  • What is its life cycle? Is it an annual, perennial, biennial, or tropical plant? In other words how much plant life will you get for your money? Many plant tags will phrase this in terms of the hardiness zone. A tag that says zone 4-9 means that it will survive our winters since we are in zone 6-7. A tag that says zone 10-11 probably means it is a tropical plant that will die with first frost.
  • What is its function in the garden? Is it going to serve as a groundcover, will it provide spring flowers, or will it have bright fall foliage?
  • What will be the ultimate size? If it only gets a foot tall, you probably have the space. If it grows into a tree, ask yourself if you have space in a few years.
  • What color is it? This is a placement issue. Know the color of the flower, fruit, and leaves in all seasons so you can plant it in a place where it won’t clash with other plants or your house.

You should have five fingers up by now. Much of this information should be on the plant tag but if there is no tag, ask nursery staff or look it up in a book or on the internet.

This isn’t to say you can ask more questions or there are not more criteria that are relevant to your area and your needs. For example, if you live in a deer infested area, you would want deer resistant plants. Make that your sixth question and look at your palm. Or you have small children who play outside in the garden and you want non-poisonous, child friendly plants you can make that your palm. But these are more specific to you and could change if you move or if your children grow up.

As the plant establishes itself and thrives in the garden, eventually you will learn additional information, such as fertilizing and pruning. These are maintenance questions. This could be the other hand, like a second tier of information. But for now, when you are considering planting peppers and peppermint together, in your garden, talk to the hand!

Marimo: “Houseplant” for the New Generation

one small Marimo to take home, with googly eyes attached

Usually when I see or hear of something three times in a row, it peaks my interest. Recently I had seen images of Marimo on Facebook – green, moss-like balls in water. Last week, City Planter, a local plant business, was selling them at the Philadelphia Flower Show in water-filled plastic pouches. I did not buy one but I thought it would be a great gift for my kids as they move into college dorms this fall. This week, I received an e-mail from The Sill announcing they have Marimo as a “houseplant” in stock again.

Marimo are balls made up of green algae (Aegagropila linnaei). The algae is a filamentous form where the filaments grow out from the center in many directions. The rolling nature of the water in the lakes in which they are found mold the algae into spheres. This filamentous algae is found only in a few lakes, one of which is Lake Akan in Japan. Marimo is the Japanese word for the balls.

Marimo grows slowly, just a few millimeters per year. They are long lived in their natural environments, lasting over a hundred years and reaching a foot in diameter. The Marimo balls that are sold as “houseplants” are juveniles, only a few inches in diameter.

Marimo can be kept in glass bowls by themselves or in aquariums. However, some fish such as goldfish eat the balls so check with your pet store first. The balls photosynthesize just like a houseplant and prefer indirect light or aquarium lights. If separated or torn apart, they will not die. However, you may have to hand-mold them into balls again. They cannot be allowed to dry out or they will die.

individual glass container of one Marimo to bring home

In nature, Marimo are spherical because of the lake’s rolling water but in a glass tank they may lose this shape because the water is still. Simply hand roll the Marimo to retain the shape. This also allows other sides to receive light evenly. Because they come from cold lakes, they prefer cool, clean water which means the water in the glass bowl cannot be allowed to heat up (which will happen with sun or direct light) and has to be changed every two weeks.

Theoretically, Marimo balls will outlive you if you treat them right. Not like the goldfish I got for my kids when they were in elementary school. In the fall, as my twins head for college, I will buy them glass bowls of green Marimo balls, the low-maintenance “houseplant” for the next generation.

holding tank of many Marimo for people to purchase individually