Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Easy Care Gladiola

Showy gladiolas elicit strong opinions from gardeners, as they are diva plants in the garden.  Some love their dramatic, tall spikes of bold colors, while others (such as the well-known English gardener Alan Titchmarsh) hate them with a passion.  I personally like gladiolas and enjoy their showiness - but on the other hand, I hate how much work they take.  I have to stake each one in the summer so they don't fall over from their top-heavy blooms, and I have to dig them up for the winter, as they are not usually hardy in my zone.

I don't like gladiolas that much.

Thankfully there are other, easier-going types of gladiolas.  They may not be as showy as those dramatic divas, but neither do they act like it.  They are the smaller, hardier glads, such as the species Byzantine Gladiolus (Gladiolus communis ssp Byzanthinus), which I have in my garden.

Byzantine Gladioli
Native to the Mediterranean area, this gladiolus grows to 2 or 3 feet tall and doesn't need to be staked. It is also hardy up to zone 5, so I don't have to dig them up the fall.  Even those gardeners that say they don't like glads appreciate the gracefulness of this one, which more closely resembles a wildflower than a showy diva.

Sometimes known as Sword Lily, Jacob's Ladder, or Turkish flag, Byzantine gladioli corms (similar to bulbs) are usually planted in fall and bloom their bright magenta flowers at the end of spring through early summer.  They like full sun and well-drained soil, though they will tolerate part shade and even heavy clay if in a dryer area.  Over time they multiply to form nice stands of flowers that I've seen the hummingbirds enjoy.

stands of Byzantine gladioli next to Geranium sanguineum
According to Old House Gardens, less hardy imposters are sometimes sold under the name of Byzantine gladiolus, so you do have to buy them from a reputable source.  (I've always bought mine from Brent and Becky's Bulbs.)  I've grown this gladioli in both North Carolina and up here in Massachusetts and have had great success with it.  I just plant the corms in fall and let them do their thing.

Beautiful gladiolas with little care from me?
That's a winner!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Salad Success

Ever have a plant that just won't grow for you?  Or even a whole group of plants?  For me, it was greens.  It didn't really matter what type - if it went in a salad, it probably wouldn't grow for me.

Spinach 'Bloomsdale'
Seeds wouldn't germinate.  It would be too hot or too cold.  Slugs ate the lettuce.  Grubs ate the spinach.  Whatever the reason, I never ended up with enough greens for a even a garnish, much less an actual salad.

Corn Salad 'Bistro'
This year, however, I was determined that things were going to be different.  It was going to be THE YEAR.  I sowed early greens in well-prepared raised beds and under the protection of a row tunnel.  I soaked and germinated my stubborn spinach seeds between damp paper towels in a baggie and then planted them in seedling trays indoors.  Lettuce seeds were also started indoors before careful transplanting into the veggie bed.

Did it work?  Did all my efforts pay off?

claytonia, spinach, lettuce, and corn salad
It was a resounding success.

To my delight, this year all of my salad greens grew - almost too well!  I can probably now invite the entire neighborhood over for salad and garnish some pasta plates while I'm at it.

one of many harvests of Claytonia
I grew four different types of greens this spring, and they all did well.  My favorite was Claytonia, also called miner's lettuce after being used by California Gold Rush miners to prevent scurvy.  Native to western North America, it has mild-tasting, succulent type leaves and eventually little white edible flowers.  It was both the easiest green to grow and the most productive.  I couldn't eat it all and started giving bags of it away!

Lettuce 'Four Seasons'
The 'Four Seasons' Lettuce was delicious, productive, and the prettiest of them all, with its beautiful red-tinged leaves.  Corn Salad, aka Mâche, did well and was the earliest of the greens to grow.  Last on the list was spinach.  I love spinach, but it was most notable for both taking the most work to grow and for bolting the earliest in the warm weather.  I did still get quite enough for a salad or two, though.

I call that success!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Yellow Fever

The eagerly-awaited daffodil season started the end of March this year.  Of course, with the cold and snowy April we had this year, the earliest daffodils ended up looking a little chilly.

Thankfully the weather finally warmed up, and I think all of the spring flowers started blooming at once!

Clockwise from top: the very fragrant Narcissus x odorus flore pleno, Narcissus 'Cragford', Narcissus 'Electrus'
Anyone who sees my garden in spring can guess just how much I love daffodils.  My collection somehow keeps growing every year.  The botanical name for daffodil is 'Narcissus', named either for the Greek word for intoxicated (narcotic) or for the Greek hunter from mythology who fell in love with the beauty of his own reflection.  Either reason is pretty fitting...

Narcissus 'Audubon'
Which is my favorite?  It would be so hard to pick just one, but every time I see the small and delicate-looking 'Beryl' with its wind-swept petals, I fall in love.  Photos never do this one justice.

Narcissus 'Beryl'
My favorite varieties are the miniature daffodils, whose blooms are often only the size of a quarter - or even as small as a dime.   And there's always room to tuck just a few more little ones in the garden, isn't there?

Miniature daffodils in my garden:
Top - N. 'Mite', Middle - N. fernandesii, N. 'Toto', N. 'Sun Disc', Bottom - N. 'Hawera', N. 'Xit'
If you really want to see a large number of different daffodils, though, go to a daffodil show.  The past couple of years I've started bringing daffodils to the Seven States Daffodil Show at Tower Hill Botanical Garden.

Seven States Daffodil Show in 2017
It is so much fun to get together with other daffodil-lovers and to see so many different varieties of daffodils all in one room.

the unusual-looking Narcissus 'Rip van Winkle'
There was worry that with the late spring we wouldn't have as many daffodils up and blooming in time for the early May show, but our fears were unfounded.  There was even extra excitement, as a couple guests judges from California flew in for the show, including Dr. Harold Kooporwitz, a noted daffodil hybridizer.

just one of several rows full of daffodils
So many beautiful blooms in one room!  Of course, one of the best parts is perusing the daffodils for new varieties that one might want for their garden...

A collection of 10 different miniature daffodils
(including a couple that I don't have that would look lovely in my garden...)
Even the daffodils outside somehow knew that there was a show going on and didn't want to be left out.  Tower Hill's Field of Daffodils was in full bloom just in time for the show.

Field of Daffodils at Tower Hill Botanical Garden
If you decide to visit a daffodil show, however, do be careful.  Those crazy people who love and collect daffodils are said to have 'yellow fever'...

N. 'Altun Ha'
and I've found it's quite contagious.

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Marsh Marigold, Herald of Spring

April snow has finally made way for April showers, thank goodness.  We've had a spell of warm weather, and everything has popped up at once!  The spring bulbs are putting up a splendid show, and the earliest native flowers are starting to open for the awakening pollinators.  This year the award for earliest native blooming perennial goes to...

...the lowly Marsh Marigold, aka Caltha palustris.

The Marsh Marigold, which I planted out in my detention pond last year, barely edged out my patch of Sanguinaria for first native blooms of the season.  And what cheerful blooms they are after the winter!  People as well as pollinators can spot the brilliant yellow of the flowers from far away.

The botanical name for Marsh Marigold is very apt, as 'Caltha' means 'goblet' and refers to the shape of the flower, while 'palustris' is Latin for 'of the marsh'.  The Marsh Marigold is actually part of the buttercup family and not a true marigold at all.  As one of the harbingers of spring, Marsh Marigolds have been used throughout history in various spring celebrations.  The nickname 'marigold' refers to its use in medieval church festivals honoring Mary (i.e. 'Mary gold').  In parts of Ireland and the UK, this spring flower was picked on April 30 - the day before May Day - and placed on doorsteps or in mailboxes to keep away evil sprites and fairies.

Marsh Marigold flowers
Here the Marsh Marigold is sometimes also called kingcup or American cowslip.  These names are quite tame, however, compared to some of its many nicknames overseas in the UK.  Just a sampling of nicknames include horse blob, water boots, crowfoot, water dragon, cow lily, drunkards, gools, publicans-and-sinners, and crazy Beth.  I just know there must be some interesting stories behind some of those...

Marsh Marigold is native to the Northern Hemisphere and blooms between early spring and summer, depending on its location.  It is hardy in zones 3-7, and prefers full sun to part shade.  As you might expect, it likes wet soil.  If there is a dry spell or the weather turns hot, the plants might die back and go dormant until the next spring.  It will spread to make large drifts and is easily divided after it blooms.  There are several different varieties and sub-species of Marsh Marigold available, some with pale yellow or white flowers, and some with doubled flowers.

Marsh Marigold with doubled flowers at Garden in the Woods
Some people are allergic to the sap, and all of the plant contains a toxic glycoside, so it should never be eaten raw.  Young leaves are edible after being boiled in a couple changes of water, and young flower buds can be cooked and pickled like capers.  As the plant matures, however, the amount of toxin increases, making it more unpalatable.  Thankfully this toxin also makes it quite resistant to the ever-present deer and rabbits in my yard.

I just enjoy the blooms as the much-welcome heralds of spring that they are.
Happy May Day, and happy Spring!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Seed Starting Tips

The past couple of years I've helped lead workshops on seed starting, and I find that many people are hesitant to start seeds indoors.  Even a Master Gardener I know confessed that there is something about seed starting that scares her silly!  On the opposite side of the spectrum, my kids wonder why I would even bother to lead a workshop on seed starting.  According to them, you stick a seed in some dirt and voila!  Sadly, it's not quite so simple as that, but I have a few tips that give me pretty good results every spring.

'Purple Bumble Bee' Tomato seedling
1.  Plan when to start the seeds.
Thankfully most seed packets will tell you a lot of information about how to grow your seeds, including how long you need to grow them before planting the seedlings outside.  You will need to factor in time for your seeds to sprout (usually around a week).  You will also need to plan for a week or two to slowly introduce your seedlings to the outside environment before planting them outside so they won't go into shock, a process called 'hardening off'.

The back of this tomato seed packet gives
pretty good instructions on when to start the seeds.
Many summer vegetable and flower plants don't like cold weather and won't be able to be put outside until after the last frost of the season.  You can find out around when the last frost in your area will be by searching online

2.  Use a sterile soil or seed starting mix to plant your seeds in.
Don't just use soil straight from your garden to plant your seeds in indoors.  Outside soil or even those big bags of potting mix may have bacteria, fungi, or bug eggs in them that might hurt small seedlings.  Instead, use bags of seed starting mix, which are completely sealed and sterile.  They are made of a water-retaining mix of peat or coir with some perlite or other light, fluffy materials added.  Another sterile option that is easy to use are those compressed peat pellets that expand when you add water.

If you do want to use a potting mix or soil that you have lying around for seed starting, you will need to sterilize it first by heating it to between 180° and 200°F (85° to 90°C), which will kill off any nasties.  I usually do this by putting the soil in a large bowl, moistening the soil, covering it with plastic wrap, microwaving it for 3 to 5 minutes, and then letting it slowly cool.

3. Plant your seeds in moist (not soggy!) soil and then cover them with plastic to keep them moist until they sprout.
Many seed trays will come with a plastic cover to cover them with, or you can use plastic wrap.  Some seeds like some light for germinating, some like darkness.  Some like it cool, most like it nice and warm.  (Your seed packet should tell you, or you can use search online.)  Just don't put your seed trays in direct sunlight, as that will cook them.

Ground Cherry seedling
4.  After the seeds sprout, they will need air, water, and lots of light!
When most of the seeds have sprouted, uncover them and put them in a sunny window or under some fluorescent shop lights hung a couple inches above the plants.  If you are using florescent lights, pick the light bulbs that cover the full spectrum of cool and warm.  Keep them on for 12 and 16 hours a day.  (My lights are on a timer from 6am to 8pm.)  Water the seedlings when they get dry, but try not to water so much that they are sitting in soggy soil.

my grow light setup: bakers racks and shop lights suspended on chains
5.  Put on a fan.
Good air circulation prevents fungal diseases.  Keep a fan nearby running on low.

6.  Start fertilizing at half strength after the seedlings start growing their first true leaves.
If you are using a seed starting mix of peat or coir, it likely doesn't many nutrients in it.  When the seeds first sprout their first baby leaves, they are using energy stored in their seed.  However, when they start sprouting their next leaves (called their 'true leaves', since the baby ones will at some point fall off), they need some nutrients.  Fertilize at a diluted half strength every couple of weeks.  A liquid fish or kelp fertilizer is great.  I tend to use whatever fertilizer I have on hand.

pepper seedlings starting to grow their first true leaves
7.  Once your seedlings get a little bigger, thin them down to one plant per cell or pot. 
Unless your plants are meant to be grown closely together (like bunching onions), they will start competing for light and space.  Use a small pair of scissors to cut extra plants off at the soil level.  It is emotionally hard to get rid of seedlings, but if you thin them, the remaining plants will grow much bigger!  (Sometimes you might even have to plant them in bigger pots.)

8.  Pet your plants!
Lightly run your hands over the seedlings for a minute or two every day.  This actually helps toughen them up and grow stronger.

9.  Harden your plants off gradually starting a week or two before planting outside, and keep an eye on the weather.
Like I previously explained, if you just plant your seedlings outside right after being in a nice, climate-controlled house, they will go into shock.  Start getting them used to the elements by putting them in a shady, protected place outdoors for a couple hours.  Each day, gradually increase their exposure to the sun and wind until they are ready to be planted outside.  Keep an eye on the weather! If there is a late season frost forecasted for after you've already planted your tender annuals outside, cover them with a sheet or blanket overnight.

10.  Enjoy!

Friday, April 6, 2018

That's One Cold Shower

If April showers

bring May flowers...

what does April snow bring?

The coming May blooms might want to go into hiding for a little while!

Happy spring?

Friday, March 30, 2018

Give Winter Aconite Some Love

Snowdrops get all the attention for blooming so early, in late winter when supposedly nothing else is blooming.

But what about Winter Aconite?

No one often mentions poor Winter Aconite, aka Eranthis, but for me it blooms at the same time as Snowdrops - possibly a bit earlier.  And, while Snowdrops are lovely and all, the tiny Winter Aconites are far more welcome in my garden for the main reason that...

...they aren't white.
And after a long snowy winter, I'm pretty much ready for any color that isn't white! (No offense to you, Snowdrops.)

Now I do get why Snowdrops are far more commonly grown here than Winter Aconite.  Snowdrops are very hardy, easy to grow plants, and they are decently easy to sell as dried bulbs in fall.  Winter Aconite are fussier both to grow and to sell.  Bulb growers will sell dried Winter Aconite tubers in the fall, but the tubers really resent being dried out.  Out of the several dozen Winter Aconite tubers I've planted, only a handful have actually come up.

Soaking the tubers well before planting them helps to rehydrate them and increases the chance that they will come up.  Margaret Roach from A Way to Garden has recommended buying wax-dipped tubers that are now being offered from places such as Old House Gardens, as the wax prevents them from drying out so much.  She has had much more success with these (100%!), so that definitely sounds like a better way of selling them!

Winter Aconite is also more fussy about where it likes to grow.  They prefer cooler climates (zones 4 to 7), and they like partial shade or conditions under deciduous trees and shrubs where they get sun in winter and shade in summer.  They thrive in that magical rich, moist, well-drained soil, and they don't like to completely dry out even in summer dormancy.  Winter Aconites also prefer not to be disturbed - mark where they are so that you don't accidentally dig them up in summer (which I am totally guilty of, whoops!)

Winter Aconite seedlings
Winter Aconites are critter-proof, so once you get them established, they are thankfully pretty hardy and long-lasting.  When happy, they seed around and make large colonies of Winter Aconite in the garden.  They are best divided and moved in late Spring after their foliage starts to fade.

Eranthis hyemalis
There are two types of Winter Aconite commonly sold here in the States.  Eranthis hyemalis, native to Europe, is the most common one.  Eranthis cilicica, native to Asia Minor, is now thought to be a possible subspecies of E. hyemalis.  It blooms slightly later, has slightly larger flowers, and more deeply divided foliage than E. hyemalis.  E. hyemalis is said to prefer more alkaline soil, while E. cilicica prefers a more neutral soil.  There are also several Asian species, some with beautiful white flowers, but rarely sold here.

Eranthis cilicica
There are several cultivars of Winter Aconite out there, mainly from German and Scandinavian breeders, but they are hard to find and expensive here in the States.  E. hyemalis 'Flore Pleno' has doubled flowers, 'Schwefelglanz' has pale yellow flowers, and 'Schlyter's Triumph' has orange flowers, to name a few.  I am hoping that Winter Aconite will become more popular over here, and we will start seeing more interesting varieties available.  After the long winter, though, we will take whatever color we can get in the garden!

And I so enjoy those little splashes of yellow that pop up right after the snow!
Happy Spring!

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