Container Gardens Bring New Possibilities

by Master Gardener Tammy Borden

originally printed in our Fall, 2015 newsletter


Many who know me, know my mom. We’re often seen together on some grand adventure, whether traveling half way across the state to discover a new garden center or attending one of the many local Master Gardener events. It’s no surprise to many that I get my love of gardening from her and maybe just a little of my spunk, too. For those who’ve met her, you know what I mean.

Anyone who visits her yard will recognize her green thumb at a glance. Perennial beds dot her landscape, bordering a small orchard of apple and cherry trees, as well as her gooseberry bushes from which the most delicious jam on the planet is made.

She’s become accustomed to the aches and pains that 88 years of living can bring. And when I say living, it’s to the fullest breadth and depth of the word’s meaning. She doesn’t quite have the stamina she once did. The doctors can only replace so many parts to alleviate the aging process — for her, a hip and two knees. Throw in a heart condition and weakened kidneys. Many others her age might decide it’s time to hang up the garden gloves. Instead, she’s adjusted to a new way of doing things to accommodate some of her physical limitations. Don’t get me wrong, she can still run circles around most people half her age, me included sometimes.

Her garden process begins in spring with many trips to local greenhouses and quite a bit of “shopping” from my own plants that I start from seed. From there, she hauls out the planters and pots that were put away in her shed the previous fall. Bags upon bags of potting mix start filling the containers and she lovingly arranges plants in each one – impatiens, zinnias, vines, petunias, million bells, coleus and a host of others. She then puts them in her wagon and wheels them around her yard to their new home for the summer.

Container gardening has become a new passion for her. The perennial beds shrink a little each year, replaced with more containers. And I’ve recently been “commissioned” to help her with a new project to put pavers in the center of her flower ring so she can put more containers there at varying heights. With container gardening, the chore of weeding is virtually eliminated. Weeding has become her greatest gardening challenge. It requires lots of bending, stooping and physical exertion. Watering is easier, too, and to keep her plants looking as lush as possible, she fertilizes them at least once a week.

A visitor to her garden asked how many flower pots she had. At the moment, she estimated around 25 or so. After doing an actual count, she realized she had more than twice that many, at 52.

To me, her garden looks more beautiful today than it ever has. Her eye for color and flower combinations is evident with the beautiful hanging baskets and unusual pairings she creates.

If you struggle with physical limitations, consider container gardening as an alternative. The impact can be just as great, if not greater. As the summer season comes to a close, plan now for your spring containers and don’t allow those aches and pains to hold you back.

Plan a Victorian Garden

gardens_victorian_topWe’re fortunate to live in an area with many Victorian-style homes. In Victorian times, leisure time became a bit more prevalent and gardens began to expand from simple kitchen gardens to those containing plants for beauty and fragrance. The Victorian age came to be known as one of the great eras for gardening.

The Victorians were the first to create beautiful lawns — the art of growing lovely green grass became a serious pursuit. Entertaining moved onto the lawns in the form of lovely lawn and garden parties. A broad well-tended lawn, accented with a formal garden, was a must.

Victorian gardens are more formal than the cottage garden look. Plantings need to be neat and symmetrical. Flowerbeds planted with flowering plants of the same height became a popular garden element called carpet bedding. The outline of a design or motif was filled with the same color, variety and height of plants.

Gertrude Jekyll, a famous Victorian gardener and author of books on gardening, preferred the ‘herbaceous border’. This style of border grew lower plants along the edge and continued up the ladder of height with the tallest varieties grown in the back. Her philosophy of growing was that each flower should be appreciated for its own intrinsic beauty. Mixing colors, textures and heights added dimension to the flowerbed. Anyone who reads English mysteries will recognize the term ‘herbaceous border’, as it’s usually trampled when the police are searching for clues.

Fencing was an important feature of a Victorian garden. Ornate iron fences and gates allowed a view of the yard, but also delineated where one yard stopped and another began. Picket fences were considered rustic and if used was covered in vines and meandering roses. A natural fence of shrubs was preferred to a wooden one. Shrubbery planted around foundation was done out of a sense of color and design rather than an attempt to cover the foundation.  A mixed bag of shrubs might be used to add interest. Popular shrubs to use in a Victorian garden include: Vibernums, Spirea or bridalwreath, Mock Orange, Forsythia, Quince, Boxwood, and Clove Bush. The flounce of flowering shrubs like peonies and hydrangeas were enjoyed and used by Victorians in the landscape and as a way to enhance fences.

The contemporary view often follows the Bauhaus theory of less is more, but the Victorians aspired to a different philosophy. From the gingerbread lace on the front porch to the use of ferns to adorn and create a look of tropical paradise, the theme for the day was to ornament the home, the yard, and life in general. Strategic positioning of ornaments in the yard and flowerbeds brought a sense of wealth and prestige to the homeowner. Birdbaths, sundials, obelisks, and gazing balls all found their way into the Victorian flower garden and yard. The use of empty urns to adorn the entrance to the backyard was a popular choice.

The surprise end to a walk through the garden came with a place to sit for a spell. The addition of seats and benches made the garden and yard inviting. Benches made of wood could be tucked into the backyard flowerbed for resting after pulling weeds. Stone benches continued to be popular, but urns and other embellishments added to the overall theme of opulence. A seat that offered a grand view of the entire garden and landscape was a must. Cast iron tables and chairs set in the backyard presented an opportunity for dining alfresco.

An interesting thing happened to me as I researched the information for this article: while I think I aspire to have an English garden, it turns out that I’ve actually designed a modern Victorian garden. Perhaps I’ll have to start wearing a bustle and serving tea on the lawn!

Repotting Hibiscus

Raise your hands: who put their hibiscus plant outdoors for the summer and now it’s looking pretty sick with dropping leaves all over your floor?

Leaves of hibiscus plant turning yellow

It is probably a case of too little water, but increasing your watering schedule is not going to help. A hibiscus grows quickly during the summer, and the increased root mass displaces the soil in the container. The water — as well as the fertilizer you probably applied religiously every two weeks — is traveling straight through rather than soaking in. You pour water in, see it come out through the drain holes, and naturally assume that the hibiscus has been watered and fed. Unfortunately, the soil around the roots remains dry, and the plant remains thirsty.

Knock the hibiscus out of its pot and take a look. Overcrowded roots signal that moving to a larger container is necessary. When repotting, score the root ball with a knife or pull through the roots with a hand cultivator and tease some away so that they will grow into the fresh medium. If you don’t, the roots will remain would tightly, occupying the center of the container, and you’ll have the same starved, thirsty plant — just in a larger pot.

Of course, no matter what you do, a hibiscus will probably sulk in the winter. It is a full-sun tropical plant, and the low light, short days, and low humidity that come with spending a Northern winter indoors are even more depressing for it than for us.

One further note that may fall under the horticultural truth-in-packaging principle: small potted hibiscus, frequently sold in the spring, appear to be dwarf plants covered with large flowers. Most, however, are treated with a growth retardant to keep them small. When the retardant wears off after a month or two, the 2-foot plant is on its way to becoming a 6-footer. This can be disconcerting to anyone who has not seen the same phenomenon occur in a teenage boy.

Talk About Bulbs! Amaryllis or Hippeastrum?

By Terry Barrett, Outagamie County Master Gardener

The time between Christmas and late May can be a long one for gardeners in Wisconsin. I find myself spending lots of time browsing plant and seed catalogs, daydreaming about getting my hands dirty planting my first new plant of the year in the garden, or just, generally, goofing off (it’s good to be retired). One of the ways I take up some of this time is to begin the process of forcing bulbs.

I love Amaryllis bulbs. I had known about Amaryllis for years, but really never paid much attention to the detail of growing them until my wife and I moved to Alabama. Our
first spring there, I noticed that our neighbor across the street seemed to have dozens of Amaryllis planted in his garden that he treated like perennials. When I asked him about his Amaryllis, he said he had planted them over the years and they just kept coming back year after year, bigger and better every year. In fact, there are reports on the internet of bulbs more than 50 years old that still regularly produce flowers!

He also had some other bulbs in his garden he called “Naked Ladies”. These are also perennial in Alabama but have a different blooming cycle. Whereas, his Amaryllis bulbs would produce a flower spike in the early summer followed by frond-like leaves later, his Naked Ladies produced frond-like leaves in the spring. These leaves die back and disappear, and then in August a tall flower spike appears.

This second type of bulb is this is the real Amaryllis. Technically, the correct name for his “Naked Ladies” is Amaryllis Belladonna. The bulbs we call Amaryllis are actually classified as Hippeastrum. I started acquiring a few Hippeastrum bulbs to plant in my garden. I loved the size and color of the blooms and the wonderful leaf structure of the plant. Overall, I found Hippeastrum to be a great addition to my perennial garden IN ALABAMA. Of course, once we moved north of planting zone 8, planting Hippeastrum in my outdoor garden was out of the question. But I had fallen for Hippeastrum. So what to do?

After Alabama, we moved to Ohio and I started the process of building a garden all over again. I figured that since I couldn’t treat Hippeastrum as perennial, I would use them as indoor plants. I had dug six different varieties (one of each) of Hippeastrum from my Alabama garden and replanted them in individual pots so I could bring them with me to Dayton.

Based on my research, I stopped watering the plants in August, put them in the garage and let them go dormant. They need about eight to 10 weeks in a cool, dark place, but not below freezing. Around November 15, I repotted two bulbs in fancy display pots so that 1/3 or so of the bulb was showing above the potting soil. I watered the two pots and put them under a grow lamp at normal indoor room temperature. Two weeks later I did this for the next two bulbs and two weeks after that I did it again for the last two bulbs. It takes only a few weeks under grow lights for the plant to produce its blooming flower spikes. At this point I moved the pots to the most desired locations in my house for display. This routine gave me several weeks of beautiful Hippeastrum flowers during the dreariest part of the year.

Once the flowers had run their course, I cut the flower stalk off just above the bulb, put it back under a grow light and treated it like any of my other house plants until after the last frost date. Then I planted each of my Hippeastrum in a sunny spot for the summer to enjoy the frond-like leaf structure. In August, I dug up the bulbs, repotted them and stored the pots back in the garage. In early November, I started the process of forcing the bulbs all over again.

If you are interested in growing Hippeastrum, buy the biggest bulbs you can find. Bigger bulbs generally produce more than one flower stalk while the smaller ones only produce one stalk. For a deal, wait until after the holiday season to shop on-line for bulbs. They are usually discounted by 50% or more after the holidays. But don’t wait too long to look for your bulb, every grower I know will quickly sell out their stock. Have fun, and for heaven’s sake, don’t throw the bulbs away. With just a little effort, that Hippeastrum bulb will bring you years of glorious flowers in the darkest part of the winter.

Interesting and Bizarre Gardening and Plant Facts

Today’s post is just for fun:

  • The word ‘cabbage’ occurs once in the works of Shakespeare, in Act I, scene i of The Merry Wives of Windsor, when Falstaff exclaims: “Good worts! good cabbage. Slender, I broke your head: what matter have you against me?” [Translated into modern English: Falstaff is making fun of Slender for saying worts instead of words. Worts was a type of vegetable, which is why he said cabbage.] Not sure the humor translates well to modern English.
  • One ounce of cress boiled down will produce enough cyanide to kill two mice.
  • The only natural habitat of the coco de mer tree is on Praslin in the Seychelles. The sex of the tree cannot be determined until it is twenty-five years old. More coconuts come from Indonesia than any other country.
  • The French for dandelion is pissenlit, of “piss-in-bed.” The English used to refer to the plant as pissabed too, referring to its known qualities as a diuretic. When apothecaries prescribed dandelion extract for that purpose, it was offered under the name Urinaria. The English word “dandelion” comes from the French dent de lion, or “lion’s tooth,” referring to the shape of the leaves.
  • Chinese gooseberries come from New Zealand.
  • The first recorded conviction for drunken driving while in charge of a lawnmower was in Norway in 1995. A 54-year old man had been cutting grass for the southwestern town of Haugesund when police caught him driving a small lawnmower from one garden to another. Police just stopped him as part of a spot check and found that his blood alcohol level was well over the limit for motorized vehicles. He was fined and sentenced to twenty-four days in jail, but the sentence was suspended on the grounds that the lawnmower’s top speed of about 10 mph was too slow to do any damage.
  • There are more than sixty species and 8,000 varieties of grapes, and they can all be used to make juice or wine. The wine business has made grape-growing the largest food industry in the world, with twenty-five million acres of grapes worldwide producing 72 million tons of grapes. The average person eats 8 pounds of grapes a year. Botanically, grapes are not fruit but berries.
  • On August 28, 1988, the Yantlee Polyclinic in Bangkok published a claim that you can get rid of hunger by pressing lettuce seeds into your ears ten times before meals. [Hope it doesn’t start growing!]
  • There are about 800 million olive trees in the world, of which about 20 million are in China. Olive oil is mentioned 140 times in the Bible.
  • In Japan, bathing in coffee grounds mixed with pineapple pulp is supposed to remove wrinkles.
  • Botanically, rhubarb is a vegetable, but in 1947 the U.S. Customs Court ruled it to be a fruit, since that is how it is normally eaten. Rhubarb first became known in England in the 16th century for its medicinal properties. It did not begin to appear as an ingredient in cookery books until the beginning of the 19th century. On January 11, 1770, Benjamin Franklin sent a consignment of rhubarb from London to John Bartram in Philadelphia. This was the first rhubarb in the United States.
  • A gun-firing scarecrow was patented in 1913 by John Steinocher of West Texas “for scaring off birds, animals and such like as tend to prey upon or devastate crops, stock or like property.”
  • Slugs are hermaphrodites; vitamin B stunts their growth, shortens their lives, and inclines them toward cannibalism. The record speed for a slug is 0.2 mph. A slug can smell a mushroom up to 2 miles away.
  • There are nine main varieties of tomato: beefsteak, globe, plum, green, cherry, pear, currant, purple, and striped. The first tomatoes imported into Europe were golden in color, which led to them being nicknamed “golden apples.” The Italian for tomato is still pomodoro — “apple of gold.”
  • The first recorded watermelon harvest took place around 5000 years ago in Egypt. Pictures of the fruit have been found in paintings on the walls of ancient buildings. The seedless watermelon was developed in 1939. Cordele, Georgia claims to be the watermelon capital of the world. The average American eats over 17 pounds of watermelons per year.

Saving Seeds

by OCMGA Master Gardener Kari Witthuhn-Henning

a330227987bfe6ddf7616c37d7a66ce6Saving seeds can be very easy and fun and don’t forget that there is joy in learning. Saving seeds can take your gardening experience to a higher level. By doing a little research in regards to isolation distances, pollination requirements and drying techniques, you will be on your way to a rewarding experience towards self-sufficiency, saving money and growing better yields.

A Few Tips

You should always choose open-pollinated varieties for seed saving. Open-pollinated (OP) plants are non-hybrid plants with seed that is true generation after generation. A hybrid is the offspring of a cross between two parent varieties. Its seed will not be true to type if saved and replanted. Hybrid varieties will be labeled in catalogs and on seed packets as “Hybrid” or “F1.” There are two main types of open-pollinated varieties: self-pollinating and cross-pollinating. The easiest crops to save seed from are peas, beans, tomatoes and peppers, all of which are self-pollinating crops. Self- pollinating plants pollinate themselves usually before the flowers open. The seed that you save from these plants and grow the next year will yield plants just like the original ones. To maintain the

plant’s genetic diversity you should ideally grow and save seed from multiple plants. If you save seed from only one self-pollinating plant, the plant will reproduce, but you are narrowing its genetic diversity.

Think ahead and create specific goals as you save seed. Consider the qualities you’d like to preserve. For example, if you save seed from the first lettuce plant to bolt, you are selecting for lettuce that bolts early — not a good trait so it’s better to wait for a hardier plant. If you save seed from your tomato plants that did not succumb to blight, you are selecting to improve that variety’s disease resistance. If you want to try more advanced saving, then you’ll need to research cross-pollinating such as brassicas, corn, carrots, beets, squash, cucumbers and melons. These must receive pollen (usually via wind or insects) from other plants of the same variety to produce viable, true-to-type seed. Cross-pollinating seed crops need to be isolated from other varieties of the same species so do your homework. The simplest solution is to grow only one variety of a given species.

When saving seeds, good record keeping is essential. Label your seedlings, your dated planted rows and your stored seed with as much information as possible. Store dried seed in glass jars, glass is best as it does not allow moisture into the seed. Plastic bags or paper envelopes are fine, but enclose them in a larger glass jar for protection. Store seeds in a cool, dry place — ideally at less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit and at a relative humidity level of less than 50 percent. Ideally, you end up with more seed than you can use.

Behind The Seed Scene

Seeds are the genetic thumbprint and uniqueness of our vegetable seed heritage which resides principally in three places: (1) the USDA seed bank and other seed vaults, (2) small specialized seed companies, and (3) small family farms. Unfortunately, these are all at risk. By growing and saving our own seed we can reverse the trend of seeds being controlled by large companies and take back responsibility for the quality and sustainability of our own food supply. We need to teach ourselves and those around us that stewardship of our seed resources is a community responsibility that begins on the local level. A few good reasons for the revival of seed saving is that when you save seed from the best-performing plants grown on your own land and with your unique cultural conditions, you gradually develop varieties that are better adapted to your soil, climate and growing practices.


Note: Kari was instrumental in creating the Appleton Seed Library in 2016. We did an information piece about her efforts and the Seed Library in an earlier blog post. Read it here.




Time to Look Toward Winter

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2015 newsletter by OCMGA Master Gardener Lucy Valitchka. The information is just as relevant today as it was then.

This edition of our newsletter brings us to the end of the harvest season and preparations for fall. Hopefully all our readers had a successful season. It would be fun and helpful to hear from anyone who had great success with some vege- tables or fruit as well as frustrations encountered in growing certain crops. I didn’t get our garden planted until the first week of June, but surprisingly it has pro- duced very well so far. The tomatoes look good at this writing with few signs of disease so far! The squash borer has not made an appearance in the zucchini, so guess what we are sharing with others?

On the other hand, the weeds have had a ball carpeting the rows between vegeta- bles. If I had one full week to concentrate on weeding maybe that issue would be solved. In the Volunteer Vibe, which I received August 19th, Diana Alfuth, Pierce Co. UW-Extension Horticulture Educator, gave some excellent suggestions about dealing with weeds. I know the soil should be mulched, so the seeds don’t have light to grow. It also helps to not till the soil more than necessary because it brings up dormant weed seeds. I have the mulch, but need something called time to get the job done. I have learned that at this time of year a gardener is almost like a juggler. Weed, mulch, harvest, preserve. What do I do first? I’m a big believer in harvesting and canning as soon as possible. That means the canning gets done before the weeding. My hat is off to all of you who have battled the weeds and won!

Here are guidelines for the vegetable/herb garden in late fall taken from the Madison Area Master Gardener’s Association garden journal which is no longer published. The tips are still valuable.

Week 1

  • Remove newly set tomato blossoms and new growth because fruit won’t have time to mature.
  • Sow annual ryegrass or oats for winter cover and place green manure in beds that won’t be planted until late spring.
  • Remove all weeds from garden before they go to seed

Week 2

  • Remove the growing points at the top of Brussels sprout stems so bottom sprouts will reach maturity.

Week 3

  • Dig and pot parsley, chives, and tender herbs for transfer indoors to sunny window.

Week 4

  • Harvest carrots, beets, and turnips before first frost kills foliage.
  • Gather squash, pumpkins, and gourds when ripe and before damaged by frost. Leave 2-inch stem on vegetable for better storage.
  • Clear garden beds immediately after harvest. Destroy any diseased plants by burning, composting in a hot pile, or sealing in containers for disposal.

Week 1

  • Prepare vegetable garden soil for early spring planting. Remove old stalks to prevent insect and disease problems next year. Spread manure, incorporate into soil and mulch with straw.
  • Rejuvenate rhubarb by dividing into quarters and replanting.
  • Mulch brussel sprouts to prolong harvest.
  • Water plants well for more cold tolerance.

Week 3

  • Plant garlic in rich, well-drained soil five inches apart and one to two inches deep. Select larger cloves for large bulbs. Break bulbs apart into individual cloves. The end of the clove that was broken from the bulb should be planted down. Cover with five to six inches of straw mulch.
  • Plant Jerusalem artichokes. (Note; I have never planted these. Has anyone tried them?)


  • Mulch carrots, parsnips, and leeks with a foot of straw or marsh hay for winter digging. Mark rows with tall stakes.
  • Mulch asparagus bed with chopped leaves or straw to protect crowns from frost.
  • Drain gas from tiller.
  • Harvest the last of the hardy vegetables such as Chinese cabbage, Brussels sprouts and kale. These will continue to produce until a hard frost below 25 degrees F.