May 25th, 2013
Due to the downy mildew plague, horticulturalists admonish us not to plant garden impatiens this year. If your impatiens unaccountably collapsed and died last season, the disease is most likely in your soil. It cannot be cured in the home garden and it remains to be seen how long it will linger there. (New Guinea and SunPatiens are apparently OK) This is a problem because we’ve used shade-loving, colorful, dependable little impatiens walleriana seemingly forever. What then, will take their place? There’s caladium, torenia, coleus, fern, or fuchsia, but I’m holding a torch for begonias. Herein lies a treasure trove. One good thing about a disaster in the garden, whether it’s a fallen tree that opens up sunlight, or a fungus like downy mildew on impatiens, we receive An Opportunity to try something different, to expand our horizons and become better gardeners.
Here’s a few of my favorite annual begonias:
Angel wing: I first planted these last midsummer when my impatiens collapsed. They range in size from one to four feet, and are bright and imposing. Named after the shape and size of the leaf, they grow upward on one stem and bear a significant cluster of red, pink, white flowers. Native to the tropics, these want afternoon shade, plenty of air circulation and food. If given these, they’ll bloom until frost. Though not inexpensive, they are worth it. I’ll be purchasing some this year to place in “scallops” around my main ornamental garden, where they make a statement. And get this…the flowers are edible, with a sweet-tart taste.
Wax or fibrous begonias: These are the traditional “bedding” begonias and can handle quite a bit of sun, though be careful to grant them adequate water. They come in both green and bronze leaf and white, pink, rose or red flower color. With a bit of searching they can be found in double flower form or variegated leaf varieties, and all are virtually bug and critter-proof. At six to nine inches with as wide a spread, they look best in front of the border or perhaps lining a rock wall in clusters. Or tuck them into strawberry jars. They may be started from their dust-like seeds, but it’s far easier to purchase at the nursery.
Tuberous: for years these were just too temperamental for me…they never did well. I’m not sure if it’s advancing age or easier cultivars, but the last few years I’ve purchased tuberous begonias each year for pots on my shady patio. They’ve done so well that they even winter over! Be careful not to overwater, and do provide a nice rich soil.
Rex: All manner of spectacular houseplant begonias may summer outdoors and decorate your shady garden. Known as the showboats of the begonia world, the fabulous foliage of Rex offers a kaleidoscope of forms, colors, and textures. The flowers are insignificant, but who cares? With intriguing monikers such as Cowardly Lion, Stained Glass, Escargot and Marmaduke, who needs flowers? But be sparing with watering, and go easy on fertilizer.
The gardener gets to be creative with begonias. Depending on the type, they can be used in pots, placed directly in the garden, highlighted in troughs, or planted hanging baskets. They look swell in combination with other annuals, houseplants, perennials and shrubs. So don’t despair because you can’t plant your favored impatiens. Take a chance on begonias!
May 2nd, 2013
When we first moved into our house twenty years ago one of the delightful aspects for this gardener was the full, warm attic. Perfect for drying the flowers I was intending to grow. Papery statice, hydrangeas, and more. Now mind you, though I’d been a gardener for many years, I’d never dried or preserved flowers, but I figured it was about time. So that first year I grew gomphrena, love-in-a-mist, and celosia and tried my hand at baby’s breath and datura. At harvest time I gathered the bounty in bunches, tied their stems with string and hung them from the rafters in that attic.
They’re still there.
Oh, I had great goals. I was going to make potpourri, fashion dried bouquets to give away and maybe brew herbal tea. Such plans! Life intervened, and I never got around to doing any of it. But I still dry flowers. The difference is now I use them in arrangements. And why didn’t I use my flowers in the rafters? Turned out that though the attic offered perfect drying conditions, it wasn’t easily accessible. For a busy mom, the effort required to pull down the steps and harvest the bounty, while keeping little kids from climbing up where they didn’t belong, was too much. So I’ve devised easier ways to extend the growing season with dried flowers.
First, I stick to easily dry-able material, and I make sure the blooms are thoroughly dry. Though there are other methods of preserving plant material, such as immersing in sand and employing various chemicals, I stick to the simplest— air-drying. Take hydrangea, for example. The best way to preserve this old-fashioned stalwart is right in the vase. I find the older cultivars such as ‘Preziosa’ and especially ‘Glowing Embers’ dry better than the newer ones that flower on new and old wood. Gather cut stems in the cool of the day, and simply place in a vase of water positioned out of the sun. Enjoy the fresh blooms for as long as it takes for the water to evaporate and voila! You have dried hydrangeas.
Yarrow and allium both dry nicely. (here’s a tip…once ornamental onion has lost its color, leave the seedheads standing and get out the spray paint. No one will ever know the difference!) Amaranthus, the old-fashioned love-lies-bleeding preserves well, as does pearly everlasting, though I like to leave that in the garden for the butterflies to lay their eggs on it. Artemesia not only dries admirably but smells good too. Astilbe is easy to grow in shade and simple to dry
Joe-Pye weed, that late-season statuesque purple-flowering perennial, is irresistible to butterflies and lends charm in a dried arrangement. Also try gypsophilia, lavender and liatris for their blooms; money plant and baptisia for their seed heads, sedum, filipendula for their large flowers, and grasses for their wand-like flowers. For annuals, give gomphrena, celosia, strawflower and nigella a whirl.
Other materials lend themselves well to drying. Consider seed pods on plants such as coneflower, Siberian iris, grape hyacinth, and poppy. Ostrich fern fertile fronds stand tall, and if you’re fortunate to find a shrub or tree branch with an abandoned bird’s nest, that will provide a large-scale outline for a big arrangement. Also search out interesting galls, lichen-covered twigs and corkscrew willow.
I like to gather what I call the “last bouquet of autumn” with sedum, astilbe, perhaps some annual salvia ‘Victoria’ which will retain its lavender-blue color, and hydrangea. A vase or two of these beauties keeps the garden alive all winter.
A caveat: Don’t ever use bittersweet. That invasive vine is murdering our forests. The orange fruits, pretty as they are, can easily escape a wreath or garland and become a huge problem in the landscape.
So give your green thumb a go at drying favored garden flowers. It’s an easy way to lengthen the season through our northern winters. Just don’t leave your bounty in the attic!
April 18th, 2013
I learned the hard way that even an experienced gardener must read and follow label directions. As a longtime gardener I was pretty cocksure that I could grow plants from seed. What could possibly go wrong? I said to myself. A lot, as it turns out. After a crop or two of elongated little seedlings begging for the sun (and those were the seeds that consented to germinate) I was humbled. In subsequent years I made a point of learning about seed starting. Once I followed a few basic rules, my efforts produced healthy seedlings galore. And since one of the best things about being a gardener is sharing, here’s your chance to profit from my mistakes. Forthwith, my best tips for successful seed-starting:
Purchase seed starting soil. Don’t use regular potting mixture (too heavy). And for heaven’s sake don’t use garden soil. (ditto, but also full of potential pathogens for baby plants). Nowadays there’s even organic commercial blends and those which incorporate small amounts of fertilizer. Dampen the soil with warm water, but save back some dry mixture, I’ll tell you why in a minute.
Assemble your works. This means the pots, trays, soil, lights, seeds, tools, covers, labels and water.
Read the seed package. An essential step that I’ve been known to omit. (see above) Does the seed want to lie exposed? If buried, how deep? If seeds are to be covered, gently sprinkle the dry starter soil over the surface. Because it’s lighter in color, you can be sure you’ve covered the entire surface and thus buried the seeds. How many days or weeks to expected germination? You don’t want to be scratching your head in perplexity, or be taken unawares when the salvia argentea sprouts in a mere three days, right in the middle of your Caribbean cruise.
Assemble a mini-greenhouse. Once sown, seeds want a humid environment. If you’re not using a domed arrangement, construct one with a plastic-wrap cover. Moisten the edges; this will help it adhere better to the flat or pot.
Water faithfully. Very Important! Don’t let the seeds dry out, but don’t let the soil get soggy, either. Be careful not to dislodge the seeds or seedlings; bottom watering is good, or use a gentle mister.
Don’t depend on a sunny windowsill. To start seeds successfully, you’ll most likely need a supplemental light source. I use regular shop lights, not the expensive all-spectrum jobbies. Those are fine for producing blooming flowers, but I’m growing seedlings to place outside if spring ever arrives.
Place seedlings thisclose to the lights. Stick their noses right up under the light tubes, almost touching, and adjust upwards as they grow.
Separate plantlets when true leaves appear. I like to use a kitchen knife to oust the pack of tangled roots, then gently pull apart individual plants. These are placed in their own pot and grown on.
Harden off for wind, temperature and exposure. Know your plants. Geraniums and pansies can be set out as the temperature approaches 50, while begonias and coleus want the 60’s at least. Place your babies in a sheltered location such as a screen porch and gradually acclimate them to the great outdoors.
Place your sturdy youngsters in the garden and enjoy! And make sure you brag to garden visitors that your very own self started those wonderful plants from seed.