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.

Giveaway: Garden Conservancy’s Open Day Tickets!

Enter the giveaway to win three items: 1) six Open Day tickets; 2) the 2018 Open Days Directory; and 3) a packet of seeds–a pollinator wildflower mix created exclusively for the Garden Conservancy. There are going to be two Open Days in the Washington DC metro area this year. On June 2, Saturday, six gardens will be open in Maryland: High Glen Gardens, Rausch Woodland Gardens, Long Creek Homestead, and Basford Family Garden in Frederick; Surreybrooke in Middletown; and Edgewood Garden in Myersville. In addition there will be three Digging Deeper programs: free informative guided tours with staff at High Glen Gardens, Surreybrooke, and Long Creek Homestead.

The second Open Day will be Sunday, June 10. Four gardens will be open in Washington DC and Maryland. In Georgetown, the Nancy Gray Pyne garden and another smaller garden nearby will be open. In Maryland, the Everett Garden Designs Home Garden in Chevy Chase and the GreenHeart Garden in Silver Spring will be open. There will be two Digging Deeper programs at the Nancy Gray Pyne garden: a discussion of boxwoods at noon and a discussion of compost tea at 1:00; fee and registration requested.

To enter the giveaway, subscribe to Pegplant’s Post, a free monthly newsletter about gardening in the Washington DC metro area. Subscribe between now, Tuesday, May 8, 2018, and midnight, Sunday, May 13, 2018. The winner will be drawn at random from all new subscribers in this time period. To subscribe, click here or visit pegplant.com and enter the “subscribe” button on right column. Each issue of Pegplant’s Post features monthly gardening events in the Northern Virginia, MD, Washington DC metro area; newly published gardening books; gardening articles, tips, and advice relevant to this area; and a chance to win a giveaway.

Open Days are self-guided tours. These particular Open Days are from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, rain or shine. Usually admission is $7.00 per garden, cash or check or one ticket per garden. Open Days is a program of the Garden Conservancy, a non-profit organization based in New York. The Garden Conservancy initiated the Open Days program as a means of introducing the public to gardening, providing easy access to outstanding examples of design and horticultural practice, and proving that exceptional American gardens are still being created. The Open Days program is America’s only national private garden-visiting program and is made possible by volunteers.

Tudor Place: America’s History in One Home

south side of Tudor Place facing Potomac River

Spring is a great time to visit Tudor Place, so many native plants are blooming as well as old fashioned shrubs, azaleas, and roses. With every visit, I see something new or something restored. This month, staff completed restoration of the gazebo and arbors with new wood, plantings, and lighting and recreated a pigeon fly.

Tudor Place Historic House and Garden is a National Historic Landmark, open to the public. The land sits high on a hill in Georgetown Heights. The property was originally purchased by tobacco merchant Francis Loundes in 1795. He was able to build two separate structures. In 1802, Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Martha Custis Peter, and husband Thomas Peter rented the property.  In 1805, they purchased the 8 1/2 acres with money Martha inherited from George Washington. Martha and Peter commissioned Dr. William Thornton (first architect of the U.S. Capitol building) to design a home that would connect the two structures.  In 1816, Tudor Place was completed. The design took full advantage of the hill so the family could look down the south lawn towards the Potomac River. Although trees now block the view of the river, there is a grand sense of height and expansive land on this prime Georgetown real estate.

north side, main entrance to house

The original entrance to the property was on the north side (what is now R Street). Carriages and horses would have come up on crushed oyster shells flanked by formal gardens to arrive at a still existing oval of boxwoods installed by Martha and Thomas Peter. Although the current gated entrance is on the east, off of 31st Street, the formal gardens remain in the same place. There is a formal boxwood knot garden, several small secluded seating areas, fountains, statues, a bowling green, and a sundial. On the east there is an expanse of lawn that was once used as a tennis court and on the west there are native trees, perennials, and shrubs.

restored pigeon fly with smokehouse building

While at Tudor Place, Martha inherited many of her grandmother’s artifacts plus she purchased items at a public sale of Mount Vernon’s contents. The Peter family had three daughters and the youngest, Britannia, inherited the property in 1854. Britannia had one daughter and her husband died very early in the marriage so she basically lived at Tudor Place with her daughter most of her life. During the Civil War, she was able to keep the building from being damaged although the boxwood did get razed for Christmas wreaths.  She was forced to sell some land reducing Tudor Place to 5 ½ acres.

When Britannia died in 1911, her grandson, Armistead Peter Jr., purchased his siblings’ shares of the property. Armistead and his wife Anna modernized the home. Armistead was an avid gardener who kept extensive diaries of the plants in the gardens. In 1927, he converted the smokehouse, which dated back to 1794, to a pigeon fly by inserting a window on one side of the smokehouse so pigeons could fly out into an open cage. At the time, culinary pigeons, called squab, were raised to eat.

new wood for arbor and arbor gate

In the 1930s, he and his son, Armistead Peter III, built the arbor. Armistead Peter III designed an arbor gate to connect the arbor to the pigeon fly. When Armistead Peter Jr. died in 1960, his son inherited the property as the fourth and last owner. Armistead Peter III married Caroline, and had one daughter. During World War II, he was stationed in the South Pacific and afterwards visited Japan with Caroline. These travels inspired him to create a Japanese style tea house to entertain guests. In the 1960s, he built the tea house (also called a gazebo) and later he re-purposed the smokehouse/pigeon fly to serve as a kennel for their dogs.

restored gazebo or Japanese tea house

In the 1960s, Armistead Peter III established a foundation to preserve the property knowing there would be no surviving descendants. When he died in 1983, the property was turned over to the Tudor Place Foundation. The Foundation could have literally picked any time period in American history to show the residence to the public but decided to keep the artifacts, furniture, and rooms as they were when Armistead died. Because so much had been collected over the six generations, visitors can see Martha Washington’s punch bowl, George Washington’s camp stool from the Revolutionary War, and Caroline’s  Lanvin and Hermes gowns and Dobbs hatboxes.

close up of pigeon fly, smokehouse on right, window on side of smokehouse to let pigeons out into caged area on left

Tudor Place serves as a pictorial history of our country. Additionally, Tudor Place provides a sense of change as staff illustrate how spaces were re-purposed by each generation and how some practices (such as smoking meat) were discontinued. When I visited in April, the smokehouse was restored as an outdoor pigeon fly, which is a unique phase in America’s history (most people no longer raise squab in the Washington DC area). Before the arbors and gazebo were restored, staff contacted a company to conduct an archaeological exploration of the area. The exploration revealed artifacts confirming that the place was used as a domestic service yard many years before the gazebo was built. Fortunately, Lady Banks Rose (Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’), descendant of an original planting, was blooming while I was visiting as if she was waiting for the Peter families to come and enjoy their cocktails.

Lady Banks rose draped over the restored arbor

Tudor Place Historic House and Garden is at 1644 31st Street, NW, Washington DC 20007. There are guided tours, a full calendar of events, and innovative educational programs for school-aged children, supported by docents and volunteers. For more information call (202) 965-0400 or visit http://www.tudorplace.org

Honesty, Money, and Sincerity: What More Could You Want in a Plant?

silver dollar flowers

Some plants provide beauty in the spring and then step back off stage, only to be forgotten until next spring. Others provide beauty in the spring, come back with an encore in the fall, and stay with us all winter long. The silver dollar plant (Lunaria annua) is blooming now in April in the Washington DC area. A member of the cruciferous family (Brassicaceae), these flowers have the typical four-petal cross shape but the petals seem wider and larger than the yellow roadside mustard flowers. The plant is 2 to 3 feet tall and the fragrant flowers are purple butterfly magnets although there is a white variety. Usually there are masses of blooms because the plant self-seeds but the plant looks best this way since the flowers are small.

purple flowers at Carlyle House, Old Town, Alexandria

In the summer, the flowers form green, flat but oval-shape pods with large seeds inside. As the pods mature, the green disappears, the seeds drop, and what is left is the translucent papery thin membrane of each pod. The encore to their pretty spring show of flowers are these shimmery flat pods. The pods dry so well, i.e., hold their shape for so long, they can last the winter in dried flower arrangements and wreaths.

basket of dried, mature seed pods

The silver dollar plant has many common names. In England the more popular name is honesty, which refers to the frankness of the plant in displaying its seed in the pods (because some remaining seeds appear in the transparent pods). Other common names are white satin flower since the mature pods are shiny like satin, moonwort because the translucent pods are round like the moon, and money-in-both pockets because the mature pods look like coins.

If you are growing this from seed, you may not get flowers the first year. Technically it is a biennial but once it starts flowering and drops seed, it will just appear every year as if it were a perennial. Treat it like a woodland plant, provide part sun and part shade in well-drained soil. Hardy to zone 5, the silver dollar plant is deer resistant.

close up of seed pods

A native of Europe, this was one of the first plants brought by the colonists to the New World. The plant is quite common in colonial gardens. Most local nurseries sell the plant or seed.

In the language of flowers, the plant represents honesty, money, and sincerity. In witchcraft, the silver dollar plant is protective, known for keeping away monsters. The plant also is used in spells for prosperity – the mature seed pods resemble coins and promises of wealth. Either way, having a basket of silvery coins has got to be good for you. Grow some honesty, money, and sincerity and share the wealth.

 

Containers with Summer Blooming Bulbs: Living Flower Arrangements

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to create a container with summer blooming bulbs, a “living flower arrangement.” I along with a group of garden writers and communicators visited Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, Virginia. I have known Brent and Becky for years but have never made the 3-hour drive to the Tidewater area. Brent and Becky’s Bulbs is THE place to buy bulbs in the mid-Atlantic area. Although known for daffodils, they sell spring and summer blooming bulbs as well as some perennials and grasses.

Becky provided a “living flower arrangement” workshop for the group. Living flower arrangements are spring or summer blooming bulbs that have been planted in layers in a large container. As they break dormancy and flower, they provide an array of different blooms, similar to cut flowers in a vase. Usually the containers are outside, making them ideal for porches, patios, decks, and front doorways.

Becky began the workshop by giving us each a large vinyl container with drainage holes. After adding about 4-5 inches of potting soil, we planted three lilies, Lilium orientale ‘Mona Lisa’. These are the fragrant, oriental lilies with the large star-shaped flowers. This particular cultivar was bred to be short, only 1 to 2 feet tall, with rose/pink flowers.

While she distributed the bulbs to us, she explained the plants and the planting depth. The lilies produce stem roots that act as anchors so the plants stand taller if they are planted deep, about 6-8 inches, which is why they were planted first. Becky also gave each of us a special ruler indicating how deep different bulbs should be planted.

After covering the lilies with soil, we planted one Dahlia ‘Gallery Leonardo’ and one Zantedeschia ‘Paco’ on the same level, across from each other. The Dahlia Gallery series is more compact and floriferous than other dahlias, making them ideal for containers. The dahlias grow to about 1 to 2 feet tall and the flowers have pointed petals, in apricot, peach, and salmon colors.

The Zantedeschia, also called calla lily, has a flower that looks like the peace lily houseplant. The spathe is a dark rose color and the plant grows to about 1 to 1 ½ feet tall. They look exotic but they grow well outside in this area. The bulb looked like a biscuit, it was hard to tell which end was up. Becky explained that if you cannot figure out the top and the bottom, plant the bulb sideways and it will sort itself out.

After covering with soil, we planted 10 Oxalis regnellii var. triangularis. Also known as the shamrock plant, this particular variety has burgundy-colored, triangular-shaped leaves and small pink flowers. Shamrocks grow to about 6 inches tall and prefer shade which they will get since they will be under the foliage of the other plants. These “pips” were about the size of a thumb, so it was easy to fit 10 across the container.

After covering with soil we dug a little hole in the middle and added one pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). This was a small plug, about 2 inches wide, which will eventually grow several feet tall. Muhly grass is an ornamental grass with blue green foliage. In the fall, the pink variety blooms, creating a beautiful pink haze in the landscape. Becky added this because she felt participants should go home with something pretty to see on top. I agree, it was the promise of great things to come.

Becky also distributed a handout with care instructions and possible combinations of the three-layered technique. We had a great time creating the living flower arrangement – it was definitely a hands on experience!

As I drove home with my container in the back seat, it occurred to me that this technique could be used many ways. Dormant bulbs can sit in a container for a while and not die.  If I take the muhly grass out (which needs water and light), I could “package” the container with tissue paper and give it as a gift. These containers could be “instant” gardens, just water and watch! And for those who may have trouble gardening, these could be great gifts –pre-made flower gardens.

When I got home I took the grass out and put it into another container. I then wrapped the large container with tissue paper I had in the house just to see how it would look. I could see the potential – giving a container with several types of bulbs could inspire others to garden or help those who have limited physical capabilities still enjoy growing flowers.

As I write this at the end of April, I have put the container outside on the deck where the temperatures are now warm enough. Already the bulbs are sending up shoots. I will post photos when they flower, but the plant links in this article to Brent and Becky’s catalog should give you an idea of the flower and additional information. Try this method of three layers of summer blooming bulbs for a beautiful container. I know I will spend the summer enjoying my living flower arrangement and the memories of a great weekend at Brent and Becky’s Bulbs.

Brent and Becky’s Bulbs is a family-owned, mail order business in operation since 1900. They have a fall planted/spring flowering catalog and a summer-flowering catalog. They have a Bulb Shoppe full of bulbs and gardening accessories surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay friendly 8-acre teaching garden. The public is welcomed to visit the Shoppe and gardens Monday through Saturday, February through mid-December. Workshop and gardening programs also are offered onsite and Brent gives lectures across the country.

Subscribe to Pegplant’s Post, Free Monthly Gardening Newsletter

Subscribe to Pegplant’s Post, a free monthly newsletter about gardening in the Northern Virginia, MD, DC area. Click on the “subscribe” button, right column of my website, pegplant.com. May’s issue will feature the opportunity to win Espoma products, over 100 gardening events, the latest books, relevant articles, and useful tips. Here’s one tip: Firehouse Subs sells their 5-gallon pickle buckets for $2, perfect for container growing large veggies. Proceeds go to their foundation to help first responders and public safety organizations.

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.