Easy Growers

Who’s already thinking about spring? Have the seed catalogs started filling your mailbox? Perhaps you’re starting a new garden, or you’re a new gardener. With that in mind, let’s tackle some of the easiest annuals to add to your garden.

The easiest annuals to grow from seed are those that sow themselves. Alyssum, calendula, cosmos, larkspur, nocotiana, nigella, and poppies will all come back the following year as long as you leave some seed heads and the seeds fall on receptive ground*. With this group, you only have to plant once. I’ve had good luck with dianthus as well.

The next easiest are those whose seed is large: marigolds, nasturtiums, sunflowers, and zinnias. Annual phlox is also a reliable choice, as is portulaca (moss rose).

Bear in mind that larkspur, nigella, and poppies are cool-weather germinators, so if you’re starting from scratch, be sure to sow their seeds as soon as the ground can be worked.

No matter how quickly they grow, annuals need a couple of months to make it to blooming size, so if you want them to flower in summer you’ll need to choose things that get growing in early spring, well before the last frost. The list is short but there are a few, including annual poppies, annual phlox, larkspur, nigella, silene, and bupleurum (a little-known but valuable bouquet filler that looks a bit like chartreuse eucalyptus). For best results, plant the seeds in fall the way the flowers themselves do. They will sprout in spring when conditions are right.

If you don’t mind waiting until late summer for your flowers to bloom, the list can be expanded to include calendula, rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans), and asters. These need a bit more warmth to germinate or, in the case of the asters, a longer growing time so they don’t start flowering as soon as those listed above; but they don’t mind light frosts and can (usually) be relied on for color in September and October.

*Receptive Ground: as it relates to self-sown seed, receptive ground is nothing more complicated than reasonably loose soil that has room at the surface for something new to take hold. It need not be weed-free, or as soft and smooth as soil that has been thoroughly cultivated and raked. All that is necessary is an occasional bare place; the seeds will take it from there.


Home Alone

House-Plants-All-My-Favorite-Low-Maintance-House-Plants-5As the holidays are coming to an end, and the cold weather sets in, many of us are looking forward to getting away to warmer temperatures for a while. But, what about your houseplants while you’re gone?! Only a plant-savvy human being can give an assortment of houseplants the different amounts of water they’re likely to need while they are home alone. But it isn’t always easy to find a willing plant sitter, and it’s even harder to find one who not only means well but has houseplant skills (returning to find that two-thirds of one’s little green children have drowned is no better than finding them dried to a crisp). So if you must leave them unattended, the following steps should keep them alive — if not happy — for up to a month.

  1. One at a time, bring the plants into very bright light and check them over top to bottom for pests and diseases. Don’t forget to look under the leaves and against the stems where they enter the soil. Problems that are very small now can balloon in your absence, and since the plants will be grouped together, those problems are likely to spread. Any afflicted plants should be treated and, for good measure, kept quarantined in a room of their own while you’re gone.
  2. Decide on a water-delivery system, ideally one that is triggered by the plant itself. Like the overzealous friend, timer-driven waterers usually deliver more than the plants need. Garden-supply stores and catalogs sell an assortment of capillary mats and water wicks that are less likely to drown plants, or you can go the low-tech route and opt for just supplying humidity (put the plants in plastic dish tubs lined with deep layers of pebbles or styrofoam peanuts and shallow layers of water.
  3. Set up the system where the plants will stay cool and get only a small amount of light. The bathroom is probably the best place since it is usually both cool and dark, and is the room best protected against water damage. If the plants will all fit in the tub, plan to put them there. Don’t draw the shower curtain unless the room is very bright.
  4. Water everything thoroughly. Soak clay pots until saturated; bottom-water plants in plastic pots until soil at the surface is wet. Let excess water drain, then group plants closely but not tightly — there must be a bit of air circulation or they’ll all get fungus diseases.
  5. Speak to them lovingly and close the door. They’ll be fine.

Winter Window Boxes

There is nothing quite so forlorn as an empty window box in winter, which is why you so often see them filled with arrangements of evergreens. However, if you prefer dried material, there are quite a few choices that should last until early spring as long as they are protected from high winds and heavy snow.

You can experiment with any plant that has an interesting outline or decorative parts. Among those with long-lasting seedpods or berries are clematis, Queen Anne’s lace, bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), roses, gas plant (Dictamnus albus), love-in-a-mist, and honesty.


Mixed evergreen species with berries, pinecones, dried hydrangea blooms, and red twig dogwood branches

Possible flowers include cockscomb, globe thistle, sea holly, globe amaranth, goldenrod, strawflower, yarrow, and many plumed grasses. My own personal favorite, though, is massed hydrangea flowers mixed with greens.

For a contrast, use silver-leaved species like dusty miller: ‘Silver King’ or ‘Silver Queen’ artemisia, or lamb’s ears.

Bringing Hibiscus Indoors

Over-wintering large, flowering tropical plants like Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is always a challenge. They never thrive in the living room the way they do outdoors. Leaves turn yellow and drop, flowers seldom appear. Assorted pests do appear — in droves. No wonder gardeners dream of exiling these shrubs to the basement, where they can be out of sight and out of mind until spring.

This kind of hibiscus never sleeps, however, and trying to store yours as though it were dormant may give you a rude awakening. If you want to try it anyway, keep the plants cool, 45º to 50ºF. Expect them to drop all their leaves. They will likely get bugs. And they will still need to be brought into light well before summer planting time.

A better choice is a room that gets lots of light and is cool enough to slow growth, 60º to 65º. If you must put hibiscus plants in the living room, keep them in the sunniest place, away from direct heat and far enough from the window so they don’t suffer big temperature swings from night to day. There is no point in misting, but if you don’t have a humidifier this would be a good excuse to get one. Keep the soil barely but consistently moist, and don’t feed unless flowers appear. Watch out for aphids, whiteflies, and red spider mites. If you see them, treat promptly with insecticidal soap.

Hibiscus is tough. The plants will not be glorious inside, but they will survive. Cut them back in late April, removing leggy branches and working to create a pleasing shape. New growth should start almost at once. It is tempting to set the plants out as soon as the danger of frost is past, but hibiscus is a heat lover that will be happier inside until it is warm out day and night — late May or early June.

Alternatively, treat hibiscus as an annual indulgence. While they are still beautiful, give your plants to somebody with big windows and no qualms about getting rid of ailing ornamentals. Enjoy a carefree winter, and get new ones next year.

Canna Cuisine

by OCMGA Vice President Tom Wentzel

I love cannas.  They are easy to grow and make a striking statement in the landscape.  I usually plant 10 – 15 at various points. This adds continuity through the landscape.  These plants yield enough rhizomes to start maybe 75 plants next spring – more than enough to supply the Master Gardener plant sale.

What other uses are there for this prolific plant?  Food?

There are a lot of references stating that the plants are edible.  Not surprisingly there is little specific information on how to prepare them and no information that I could find on what they taste like.  I thought I’d find out for myself.

The following link does contain a lot of information how the plant is used.  Cannas are native to Central America and their use in the local diet goes back in time.  All parts of the plant are edible. The leaves are used as wrappers like banana leaves, typically to make tamales.  I would think they could also be used for a luau style pork roast.

This article out of Texas discusses a few more uses and goes into a bit more detail about preparation.  Canna rhizomes are very high in starch. But still nothing about the taste.

IMG_6187Here are my findings.  Because my quest started after the freeze, all I had to work with were the rhizomes.  I used 3 preparation methods raw, boiled and baked. The same way potatoes would be prepared.  (Yes, potatoes are very good raw.) The texture of the raw rhizomes was similar to the pleasing crispiness of jicama.  The baked and boiled rhizomes had a texture roughly similar to potatoes.

So what about the taste?  With all 3 preparation methods the taste was bland.  My wife just looked at me like I was crazy and, wisely, did not partake in this side dish.  Would I try the rhizomes again – probably not? Using the leaves as a wrapper is intriguing.  It will depend on my whims next summer.

The Value of Manure

Nutrient values of manures vary greatly, depending on the diet and age of the animals, and the nature and quantity of bedding in the mix. There’s also freshness to consider: the older the manure, the fewer nutrients it will contain. On the other hand, the older it is, the sooner it will be safe to use and the less fragrant it will be.

These variables make precise nutrient listings impossible, but there are significant differences between manure types that are useful to know.

Poultry: Hen dressing, as it’s known in the country, is higher in nitrogen than other common manures. It also contains a significant amount of phosphorus, and some potash. Chicken manure from a farm where birds run around in straw will be considerably less potent (and probably less full of antibiotics) than manure from an egg factory where birds live crowded together in wire cages. Chicken manure is famous for burning plants if it is used when too fresh.

Sheep: Comparatively high in nitrogen, an excellent source of potash, with moderate phosphorus. Manure from sheep fed hay and grain will be more potent — and more likely to be available — than manure from animals that live on pasture.

Horse: About half as rich in nitrogen as chicken, with a good amount of potash but only a modest dose of phosphorus. Amounts of bedding vary greatly, which means potency does, too. Horse manure can be a powerful carrier of weed seeds.

Cow: Cow manure has the lowest nutrient numbers, in part because there is so much bedding mixed with it. But that low nutrient concentration makes it safe to use in unlimited quantities. Try to find manure that’s mixed with straw or shredded newspaper, rather than the more common sawdust. If you get the sawdust kind, expect it to take a year before it starts to deliver results.

Specialty: Rabbit manure is very high in nutrients and less likely to cause nitrogen burn than chicken manure. Most rabbit owners know this and do not give it away. Bat guano is like supercharged chicken, but it’s hard to gather, getting rare, and priced accordingly. Zoos need the money more than you need hippopotamus droppings, but if you have enough land to pile weird manure until it’s composted, the charity you spread will improve your soil.

Tree Miscellany

Did you know that a tree was named for Benjamin Franklin? The Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha) was named for Benjamin Franklin, a friend of father-and-son botanical explorers John and William Bartram. The two discovered the plant in 1765 near Fort Barrington on the Altamaha River, near what is now Darien, Georgia. In 1773, on a second journey, William Bartram collected seeds. Descendants of those plants still grow in Philadelphia at the edge of the Schuylkill River in Historic Bartram’s Garden. The plant has not been seen in the wild since 1903, and “it is believed that all Franklinias today growing anywhere in the world are descended from those propagated by the Bartrams,” said Martha Wolf, the executive director of Bartram’s Gardens.

Barking Up the Right Tree – Though trees are seldom chosen for the splendor of their bark, it’s a design detail that deserves attention, especially in any climate where winter is leafless for longer than about five minutes. Possibilities range from the rich coppery colors of Amur cherry (Prunus maackii) to the dark ridges on Amur cork (Phellodendron amurense), from the scrolling sheets of glowing amber that peel from the milk-chocolate paperbark maple (Acer griseum) to the ghostly silver sheen of sycamore (Platanus spp.). These beauties do not appear until the trees are several years old, so you can’t go by what you see at the nursery. Photographs can help, of course, but for best results, take a few field trips to arboretums where you can see mature specimens. While you’re there, keep an eye out for paperbark cherry (Prunus serrula), katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana), and shagbark hickory (Carya ovata). And don’t be shy about asking for hints. People who spend their days caring for trees tend to notice subtleties that a quick tour might overlook.

Bark for Canoes – The early American Indians were careful — in some cases worshipful — of the world around them, but that doesn’t mean they were unwilling to kill trees. When they needed a birch for canoe material, they took it down. Small amounts of the thin outer bark can be removed without harming the tree; it naturally sheds patches. But to build a canoe you need all the bark layers, including the cambium that is essential for life, and you want all the layers in one piece. The fewer seams you have to caulk (with spruce resin), the more watertight your vessel will be.

Do Trees Breathe Through Their Bark? It is true that gases, including oxygen, pass through the outer bark to and from the living cells of the inner layers of a tree. This is a form of respiration, or breathing. The gases move through them pores called lenticels, whose function is equivalent to that of stomata, or breathing cells, found on leaves.


Weeping Cherry Tree

Why do Trees Weep? The weeping tree form is a mutation, and scientists don’t really know why it happens. What they do know is that most “normal” plants have a single growing tip that remains dominant, and this is what causes the trunk of head in a vertical direction. In the weeping tree, this dominant control mechanism is somehow disrupted. Instead of developing an upright trunk from the vertical growing shoot, the weeping tree develops a downward form by superimposing one layer of horizontal growth on top of the previous one. The process by which weeping plants assume their pendulous position, deviating from the vertical, is called plagiotropism.