Archive | January 2020

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.