Category Archives: plants

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


Aloe Vera: The Plant That Keeps on Giving

Every May, I put my aloe plant outside on the deck to enjoy the summer sun and warmth. Aloe vera thrives despite my neglect, I barely remember to water her. By autumn, she has produced many “pups,” crowding inside the small pot, eager to escape. When the nights get too cold for them, I upturn the entire the pot, gently pull apart each pup, and nestle each into a small container of soil.  I replant the mother and move her in to my house while I box up the pups to bring to the office. Within hours of placing the box in the office kitchen, colleagues have helped themselves to a new plant, armed with growing instructions I have printed on strips of paper. My colleagues love free plants, needless to say it is much like leaving cookies in the kitchen. I have brought in baby aloe plants each fall for several years now and it is a joy for me to share as it is for my coworkers to receive.

Aloe vera is a succulent, perennial herb well known for healing burns. Snapping a leaf in two reveals a gel-like liquid that when applied to the burn offers pain relief and a fast healing process. The leaves actually have three sections: a thick outer rind, a thin slimy layer of cells, and the inner gel. Just beneath the rind is a bitter yellow substance called aloin, which causes intestinal irritation creating a laxative effect.  The inner gel is used to help with burns, sunburns, or as a skin moisturizer. Diluted with water, this gel can be ingested to sooth intestinal irritation. Although aloe’s beneficial effects have been documented for thousands of years, it was not until U.S. researchers discovered that aloe gel could quickly heal burns caused by x-rays and ultraviolet rays in the mid-1930s that interest soared. Today, aloe is recognized as an excellent first aid kit for disinfecting minor cuts, insect stings, and burns but researchers are still studying the plant. Aloe gel has more than 75 nutrients and 200 compounds.

Growing the plant is simple as long as you give it warmth and sun and good drainage. It can be grown indoors as a houseplant provided it gets sun, as in a southern exposure window or a sun room. It needs little water, I just let the rain water it outdoors. It will not tolerate the winters here in Virginia so in the fall before the nights hit forty degrees and below, bring it back indoors and then back outdoors in May. I have not fertilized mine but then I am a lazy fertilizer. I don’t try to ingest the leaves but I do use my plant for kitchen burns — I just cut off the outer leaf and slice in half to release the gel.



Garden Bloggers Bloom Day: Pineapple Sage

Currently, my pineapple sage plants (Salvia elegans) are blooming in my garden, their bright scarlet flowers are attracting butterflies and hummingbirds. Members of the salvia or sage family, pineapple sage plants are herbaceous, tender perennial herbs. I have two pineapple sage plants, which I bought last year as tiny babies, and I often use their leaves and flowers in the kitchen.

From spring to fall this year, these plants grew fast, developing many lateral branches. Now they are 4-foot high shrubs, several feet wide. All season long, I harvested the leaves and used them fresh as well as dried them to store them. The leaves add a fruity flavor to many different types of beverages (makes a great hot tea), jellies, baking (line a pan with leaves before pouring the pound cake batter or cut leaves and add to batter), muffins, cookies, chicken dishes and chicken salads, butter, cream cheese, ice cream, sorbet, smoothies, etc.

From September to now, these large shrubs are blooming beautiful edible flowers that can be cut for a vase or used in the kitchen as well. Interestingly, the buds begin upside down. Red petals poke through a nodding green flower stalk and then as the stalk moves up more petals poke through until the stalk straightens up to be raceme of bright red tubular flowers. Pineapple sage flowers have the same type of sage or salvia bilabiate (two lips) flowers but larger. The flowers can be used as a garnish, frozen in ice cubes, beverages, fruit salads, butters, cookies, cupcakes, muffins, baked goods, and cream cheese.

In my garden, nothing seems to bother my pineapple sage plants. They are in moist, well-drained soil but one gets more sunlight than the other and I noticed that it has grown much bigger. They seem to prefer light dappled sun or morning sun and afternoon shade. They need space so they it is best to plant them in the back of the garden as long as there is a path to be able to pick the leaves and flowers. I have read that they are hardy to zone 7 and I have also read that they are hardy to zone 8. Surviving the winter is a 50-50 proposition here in my zone 7 Northern Virginia garden. Last winter, I did not do anything to protect them but the winter was mild so I was lucky that they survived. This year, after the frost kills the leaves, I will cut the plants back to stubbles and put down several inches of mulch to ensure their survival. If I had a sun room or a greenhouse, I could have taken cuttings a few months ago to pot up and bring inside.

If they don’t make it, I will buy more next year and will keep an eye out for cultivars such as Golden Delicious, which has golden yellow leaves; Tangerine, which has rounded leaves and a citrus scent; Frieda Dixon, which has salmon pink flowers; and Honeydew Melon, which has melon-scented red flowers with lime green leaves. Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, MD, has a stand of Golden Delicious plants that are blooming right now.

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day occurs on the 15th of the month. Garden bloggers around the world post their articles about blossoms in their garden. #gardenbloggersbloomday

My Garden, My Friends

Although fall is here, October is still a time of harvest in my Virginia garden. I am still picking (and freezing!) tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash and even goji berries and little pumpkins. Zinnias, asters, mums, and dahlias are cut for my office every week. The pineapple sage plants just began flowering and my new mums are showing their colors for the first time. Basil and cone flowers have gone to seed but I let the finches enjoy them. For next season, I have gathered seeds from plants such as marigold, calendula, and okra and later I will collect four o’clock. Right now, the four o’clock plants are still blooming while at the same time, some have seeds nestled in like black eyes and I cannot bear to change this fantastic image.

Despite this abundance, I felt that I was saying goodbye when I was cutting the yellow peppers yesterday. I know frost is around the corner; I have to think about bringing in the hibiscus and bay plants. But the concept of “putting your garden to bed” escapes me. I feel like I garden all the time. If not in my actual garden, then in my house with seeds, bulbs, houseplants, and even microgreens. To me, a garden is alive all the time, it is a living community and it does not go to sleep in the winter. My kids had a math teacher who said “a day without math is like a day without sunshine.” A gardener would say: “A day without plants is like a day without sunshine.”

A few months ago I was listening to Erika Galentin, a clinical herbalist, speak on an episode of the Native Plant Podcast. Erika said something that was a real eye opener. I am paraphrasing below but this is the gist of what she said:

Plants bring something to the human spirit. Plants can communicate to us and it is not through fantastical means, it is through our senses, our eyesight, our sense of smell, our sense of taste, our sense of touch. When I tune in to that and I learn how to “listen” to plants I feel something deep inside me, I feel an understanding, a connection, the knowledge that has transferred from the plant to myself because I am focusing on it, seeing it, I am touching it, I am tasting it, I am growing it. A relationship has formed with that plant and like any kind of relationship that can bring us spiritual enlightenment, it can bring us emotional enlightenment, and it can bring us physical enlightenment.

Listening to Erika made me realize that I have a relationship with my plants in my garden. Conversely, I have lived in my house for over a dozen years and would never say that I have a relationship with my house. Outside, however, I have interacted with my plants through the five senses whether for years, or in recent plantings, for this year only. They have all, however, grown like my own children have grown in this space, a typical suburban plot in Virginia.

I have trained the peas up the trellis, wrapped the passion flower vines around the banister, re-positioned the morning glory to get full sun, and moved many plants to other places in the garden where they could get more water or more sun to be happier.

I have enjoyed the taste and nutrition of fresh vegetables such as beans, squash, peppers and fruits such as raspberries, goji berries, and ground cherries. I even enjoy the relaxing herbal teas made with holy basil, pineapple sage, and roselle. I have enjoyed the smell of fruity melons, pungent rosemary, and sweet hyacinths. While I am picking vegetables in the garden, I hear that satisfying “thunk” when a large red tomato falls to the ground while bees buzz around the zinnias and marigolds. My ornamental grasses rustle in the wind and the birds squabble over the seeds on the dried flower heads.

I have the plants’ cries for water, met their needs for fertilizer, and provided support with bamboo stakes and trellises. I grow many plants from seed, constantly nurturing them inside under lights until they are mature enough to be on their own outside in the ground.

People might think of this as “work” but for me as a gardener and horticulturist it is about having 200 friends who live directly outside my house (some actually in my house). I am always thinking of my friends as I think of my family: are they okay, is it too hot or too cold for them, do they have enough water, do they need food?

Although some people may not be interested in this type of “work,” they too benefit from plants, especially when they visit a garden. The impact of nature on our senses, on our being, is overwhelming and can be and should be championed as the positive experience it clearly is for most everyone. That is the value that gardens and the act of gardening can provide.

Drought-Tolerant Okra Offers Colorful Pods in the Garden

Yellow okra flower, similar to hibiscus

When I was at Rooting DC last February, I received six seeds of “African red okra” from a person who was talking about preserving seed diversity. Intrigued, I planted them later in the season just to see how they would grow. Four of the six seeds germinated resulting in two plants in the front garden in full sun and dry conditions and two in the back garden. The two in the back lived with the tomatoes in morning shade and afternoon sun and did not lack for water since the diva tomatoes get all the water they need.

All summer long I have been watching the okra grow in my Virginia garden. When people think of okra plants, they think “vegetable.” True, the immature pods are harvested for many types of dishes and are highly nutritious. Other parts are edible: the leaves can be eaten raw or cooked (like spinach) or used as a thickener in a stew. The seeds, if roasted and ground, can be used as a coffee substitute and if they are pressed, they can yield oil for cooking.

mature pod splits open to reveal seeds

I never intended to eat the pods, I just wanted to see how the plant would fare as a garden plant, a summer annual. Now in September, I think they have reached their full glory. These plants are about 4 feet tall with sparse foliage but plenty of pods and flowers. Because okra is a member of the hibiscus family, the small, yellow flowers look like hibiscus flowers but are not as flat. The thick pods are red and green, with five broad sides that taper into a point. The pod points upwards, much like a hat. Some pods have already matured enough to split open, revealing many dark black seeds (which mature to a soft gray later on). These I cut and put in a paper bag to prevent okra babies in my garden next year. The mature pods can be dried and used in floral arrangements such as wreaths. The young pods, if sliced in half, can be used to make flower designs by pressing the cut half into an ink pad and pressing down on paper.

Although not deer resistant, these plants have proven to be pest-resistant. I have read that okra plants are the most heat and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world and they certainly were drought-tolerant in my garden. They are known to grow in poor soils with heavy clay and intermittent moisture. Technically okra is a perennial but in our zone 7 area, the plants will die from the cold this winter.

I like their strong vertical shape but because the foliage is sparse, they would work best if many were grown together yet with enough space to see the pods. There is actually quite a lot of diversity with okra with regards to the pods: they can be spiny, smooth, thin, thick, short, or long and have many more ridges than five. Pods can be green or green and red or burgundy red. However there is little diversity with the flowers, basically yellow or white. There are some varieties with gorgeous burgundy red pods that would be very interesting to try in the garden, especially in a mass up against a house, as a backdrop to other plants. Instead of growing okra for cooking, try growing okra as an ornamental garden plant and let the pods mature into unusual colors and shapes. The yellow flowers are a bonus!

young, immature pods are best for cooking

Curious Garden Exhibit at the Atlanta Botanical Garden

Recently I visited the Atlanta Botanical Garden in Georgia and was fortunate to catch the Curious Garden exhibit. I could only stay for a few hours in the morning so was not able to see everything but the garden itself was lovely, the weather was relatively mild for an Atlanta summer day, and the staff were very friendly.  I have never been to the Atlanta Botanical Garden before and did not even know about the Curious Garden exhibit so it was a real paradigm shift for me to see so much art in the garden.

Designed by Adam Schwerner, a horticulturist and artist, the Curious Garden exhibit has 11 installations created to highlight the gardens’ plant collection and plant conservation work.  Currently, Adam is the Director of Resort Horticulture and Resource Enhancement at Disneyland but when he was Director of the Chicago Park District Department of Cultural and Natural Resources, he spearheaded an initiative to bring together the arts and nature in the Chicago parks. His famed Painted Tree Project brought together works of art in a public space that enhanced the environment. These unusual expressions known as Artscapes spark conversation among the public and make them see nature and plants through a different lens. This certainly was true for me at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Adam’s creations were installed in May and will run through October so if you get a chance to visit Atlanta, don’t miss this.

Although I took many photos of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, which I will post in a separate article, these photos are just a few of Adam’s installations to give you a flavor of his work.

The spirited bosk, painted maple trees, planted and hung from larger trees

The mountain flows, the river sits, a “river” of red-painted gourds

The white garden, a garden of white flowered and silver leaved plants

Chains, metal painted chains and roots of a plant in a conservatory

Antebellum aerophyte, chandeliers draped with bromeliads and Spanish moss

Chalices, small pots of orchids stacked on top of each other

Sunflowers, sunflower plants interspersed with cosmos




Invasive Balloon Flower Takes Over the Garden

Today I tweeted that it would be good to pull weeds since it had rained buckets for the past few days, thus decreasing the heat and humidity and loosening the soil. For me, the time was ripe to pull an invasive plant from my garden, balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus). “Balloon flowers?” you say, “but it has such pretty blue flowers and the kids love to pop those inflated buds.” Yes, my kids did like to pop the buds on my original plants as they walked to the front door and yes, they do produce pretty blue flowers on tall stems all summer long. But after 10 years, the kids don’t see them anymore (because their heads are always bent down viewing their iPhones) and the original four have multiplied into hundreds, crowding out my other perennials in my Virginia garden.

original four plants have multiplied on left side of walkway and have tan seed pods (directly across walkway is one balloon flower from front garden bed)

Part of problem is that balloon flowers self-seed very fast. The plants could be deadheaded to prevent self-seeding but this is a nerve racking, time consuming task. Each single seed pod has to be clipped off in order to leave the remaining buds or open blossoms. It is not possible to whack the entire plants down a foot. And part of the problem is that they are deer-resistant, drought-resistant, and generally pest free but the worst part is that balloon flowers have long, large tap roots. Breaking off the stem just encourages more stems to grow from the root. Although it is easier to pull and dig after it rains, I still spent hours pulling and digging to get the whole roots out as much as I could. I suspect I did not dig deep enough though, there probably are pieces in the soil that will rise again like the phoenix.

seeds landed on front strip across walkway (blooming with blue flowers)

Interestingly, I have found little reference to its invasive attribute on the internet. I did learn that the Kitazawa Seed Company catalog sells them and according to their description, the root, called doraji, is used in Korean cuisine. It is also used as an anti-inflammatory to treat colds and is considered a cheap ginseng substitute. The root can be dried and packaged for sale in Asian markets.

Unless you want to grow your own doraji for medicinal or culinary reasons, don’t plant this invasive perennial in your garden no matter how much fun you have popping the balloons.

pulling to reveal tap root