Monday, December 26, 2011

Winter Porch Pots --- Greenery Containers

Winter porch pots or containers filled with greenery provide warm color and inexpensive style during cold winter months.

Cities like New York and Chicago dress open urns and sidewalk esplanades in winter greens, branches and a variety of natural materials.  Dried hydrangea, sedum, dogwood, ivy, nut buds, birds nests, pinecones, pine needles, or anything else interesting can duplicate the look at home. The dressed up container adds warmth and sophistication, with little effort and no cost.

Bill and I arrived late one night in Chicago on our way to a family wedding.  City workers systematically dislodged summer annuals from the borders along Michigan Avenue and replaced them with full blooms.  By morning it was as if the mums had sprouted overnight.  The effect was more than aesthetic.  Likened to a pair of newly polished shoes, the winter arrangements show warmth and attention to detail.

The same result can be achieved at the porch level--where the day begins and ends.  Evergreen  and boxwood branches, twigs, flowering shrub branches and any plant whose stems don't deteriorate in the cold are candidates.  Leave out the pots, or fill other garden adornments such as wall planters or windowboxes.

Time to repurpose the Christmas tree, bough or wreath. For those who don't celebrate, or stick with artificial, there's plenty of candidates at the curb.  Good thing it gets dark early. 

Using a base of soil, possibly left from the previous annual occupant, it's critical to create these pots before the ground freezes solid.  Start at the center with taller pieces of greenery.  Don't skimp, the pot needs to be quite  full.  Then plant the branches, dried flowerheads, or anything else interesting.  Wreaths can be dissasembled and used, or simply frame the pot, anchoring the inserted branches.  Boughs can be disassembled or draped along a windowbox.  The branches of a discarded tree will fill pots to overflowing.

For holidays, small adornments may be included.  If ambitious, add elegant prelit twigs.

Best part's no maintenance, no cutting back and zero plucking of spent blooms.  Snow simply adds to the interest.

When warmer weather returns, a quick trip to the compost heap, and the pots are ready to spring to action. Bright pansies tucked into the winter porch pot makes for a welcome transisiton. 

Beats lugging them into the shed.

Define your home, define your personality.  Add a few tools of your trade so those who approach get a preview of who lives inside. 


More Articles of Interest:
Planting Windowboxes -- No pane no gain

Container Gardens -- Pots on the Spot

Gnomes Get Kids Gardening

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Perpetual Poinsettia -- How to Care for a Poinsettia

What to do with a poinsettia after the holidays? How to best care for these tropical holiday harbingers?

I just can't kill a poinsettia.  It's not premeditated, but sheer luck created an environment which left these seasonal plants blooming in the kitchen until Halloween. 

To be honest, by Easter Sunday the bright red notched blooms are a bit annoying, but golly, if a delicate plant manages to thrive with little care and outright indifference, why sentence it to the compost bin?


As neighbors pulled out the patio furniture and prepared their grills for summer, several inquired as to the identity of the brilliant red plant perched on a bench in the yard.

No one'd yet seen poinsettia reflecting the warm June sun in this neighborhood.

This method of preserving poinsettia is based on location and continuous moisture.  Poinsettia thrive in tropical  Zones Eight and above.  In Florida, shrubs the size of a small SUV sport variegated blooms in shades of white, pink pale green and red.

My grandfather was so proud of his southern poinsettia bush he made the grandkids gather around for a photo each Christmas visit.

Mine spends the winter near a back kitchen window which is perpetually cool, but not cold.  Hot direct sun should be avoided as well as sudden blasts of cold air.  Poinsettias require sunlight, but indirect seems to work best. They're pretty wimpy.  Freezing blasts lasting more than a few moments will cause the plant to shrivel. 

Moreso than maintaining a cool moderate climate, never let the poinsettia dry out. A thirsty plant will quickly drop its leaves, and won't fully recover.  Set it in the sink every four or so days and run the faucet (directed at the soil only) at a temperate setting until the soil is saturated and excess water seeps from the bottom. Keep the leaves and stems dry while watering to avoid water spots. Give it a little plant food every so often.   Leave the plant in the sink overnight, then back to home base.  Set a shallow dish under the newly watered plant.  

In mid to late June, when the weather is consistently in the mid to high sixties at night, and spring rains abate, the poinsettia can be planted in a sunny patch, avoiding hot afternoon sunlight.  The plant's blooms will quickly turn green. Keep the soil watered, but not saturated.   In October, when temps drop, plop it back into a pot, and return the plant to an indoor space.

Folks touring the yard will be pleasantly surprised to see a bit of Christmas in July. 

Happy holidays.

More Articles of Interest:

How to Care for Houseplants -- Water, Warmth and Nitrogen Smoothies

Winter Porch Pots -- Greenery Containers 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Foxgloves, Samurai Shark and More Top Garden Gifts

What is the best gardening gift?  Top garden gifts need not break the bank. 

High fashion doesn't cost much in the garden. Those hot pink gloves aren't just for looks.  Foxgloves, which are available online, are the perfect  gift for a gardener.  While appearing dainty, they're tough and functional.  Foxgloves aren't waterproof so use disposable latex gloves for wet and messy plantings.  Mine have lasted for five years and innumerable machine washes.  They still retain their bright color and elasticity.  Continuous use only increases their soft and light qualities.

Foxgloves come in a variety of bright colors and two lengths, one to the elbow for" formal" chores and the more casual wrist model.  Best of all, they're light and breathable with unbelievable dexterity--perfect for bulb planting.  The newest colors this season are red and black.  Imagine cutting back the shasta daisies outfitted in elbow length black gloves.  Sure to impress the neighbors!

The secret to owning the sharpest tools was passed on to me by a friendly surgeon. He'd certainly be the resident expert.  The Samurai Shark Knife Sharpener, for under twenty bucks, comes with two knife sharpeners and the best pair of tungsten steel bladed kitchen shears in the northern hemishpere.  The most attractive feature is how easy and safe this tool is. Scrape the edge of a spade, or a hand trimmer between the reverse "v" shark shape of the hand held Samurai sharpener, and the tool operates as if new.  Dr. Mike knows sharpeners.  No electricity and little effort required.  Used dull tools are as restored as if new in a few seconds, extending the life of tools for years.

If it's been a good year, a digital camera is a superb gift.  Use your camera as a tool to document the peaches and pits of the yard for future reference and chronicle what needs to be moved or thinned out.  

It's a pleasure scrolling through winter photos on a hot July day, or admiring spring azaleas in August. 

Need a little something for the gardener?

1.  Hand clippers.  They're always in demand.  Fiskars makes a pretty pink handled version and donates some of the proceeds to breast cancer research.  The trouble with these tools is that they're easy to lose, toppling out of shallow pockets.  The pink handle is easier to locate on the ground.  The dollar store has a pointed nose floral clipper that does a nice job and fits well in side pockets.
2.  Gnomes.  Never know where they'll pop up!  These guys are good luck and always fun.  Little kids like to search for them in the yard. 
3.  Stepping stones.  Handmade are the best. I still have the watermelon striped stepping stone made as a Brownie craft by my youngest child.  Have the kids make decorative garden stones for a grandparent or other gardening relative.

Stepping Stone Falls   Flint, Michigan
Better yet, take grandma and the kids for a quick road trip to Stepping Stone Falls near Flint.  It's a short walk to the man made falls with a lovely view of Mott Lake and the Flint River.
The gift of time and memories is always the most cherished.

4.  Garden certificates:  Those to the local garden shop are always welcome.  Still, the most precious are the hand-made certificates promising an hour or two of assistance in the yard to be redeemed at a future date. 

Presents tailored to the individual show care and attention to detail.  The "gift that keeps on giving" is the one that is used or admired for years to come. 


More Articles of Interest:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Planting Bulbs: Pay it Forward

If you can yet poke a shovel into the ground, there's still time to plant bulbs.  With a few short steps, a bag of bulbs can be quickly tucked away in the garden, ready for a sweet surprise in the spring.

Bulbs are a gardener's gift for the next season.

First, gather the minimal items needed--shovel, bulbs, and baby powder or foot spray.  (No that's not a typo, the dollar store variety will do.)  Toss them into a wagon, cart or bucket (five gallon paint variety works well.) 

Second, chose a spot. 

Third, dig one large hole of the approporiate depth.  The depth measurement is usually on the ourside of the bag.  For a dramatic effect, dig several holes in a row.

Fourth, drop in five to seven bulbs, arranging them in a rosette shape, with the "frilly" side down.  Don't worry if bulbs are planted upside down, they always right themselves.

Fifth, add a shot of medicated foot or baby powder.  Makes the bulbs a less attractive lunch for squirrels. 

Option:  a shot of bone meal or organic mulch.  Or, grab a small handfull of leaves, tear them up and tuck 'em in around the bulbs.

Cover with soil, mark and walk away.  Let nature take over.

Never plant in individual holes or they'll emerge looking like a row of teeth, bad teeth if  intermittent bulb failure occurs. 

Almost as soon as bulbs are planted, they're forgotten.  Until, of course, when they make their grand appearance.  To avoid planting in the exact same spot repeatedly, small flat wooden sticks like those found in the center of popsicles are helpful.

Plant spring blooming bulbs like tulips, daffodils and crocus in the mid to late fall.  They require six to eight weeks of ground freeze to bloom.  Zone Five and a Half is perfect for most tulip and narcissus (daffodil) bulbs.  One more advantage of a long cold winter.

Late in the season, it's easy to shy away from planting, citing garden fatigue and the tediousness of digging all those holes.  When we are really out of time, a shovel stuck into the ground, pushed forward to create an open wedge, insert the bulbs (which can be predusted with powder) pull out the shovel, pat down the soil, and the job is complete.  This last method is far easier with two.

Think about location.  Where in the spring garden could the landscape use some oomph?  Maybe along the pathway to the front door, or outside the kitchen window? A primo place to plant is between hostaThe hosta unfurls its leaves just as the bulb's foliage is dying back and there's no need to cut back, leaving less work at a busy time in they yard.

Healthy bulbs are firm, and not squishy or permeated with holes.

The investment of a few moments in the fall can pay off in dividends for many seasons to come.

Burning Bush and other Fall Follies

There's a big shrub in the back of my yard.  I  don't know how it got there, or when it first appeared.  Most of the year it's unruly and tries to muscle out the other inhabitants.  As I trim the octopus-like branches for the gazillionth time, I threaten to terminate its reign of terror.

Every fall the burly bush gets a reprieve.

When our dog Ralph chews on a nice stacked wood heel or bites the tassel off a leather loafer, he's assured he's avoided near destruction 'cause he's so darned cute.  Same goes for that unruly burning bush in the yard.  It's lucky to be so spectacular in the fall.  Sometimes prolonged irritation is worth the moment of glory.  Ask any parent of teenagers.

Whoever dubbed these "burning bushes" clearly had a knack for names.  In the fall, just as the final golden leaves drop from the maples, the "show of red" begins.  The finale to the autumn color review does not disappoint.  The absence of  golds and greens make the scarlet leaves stand out without distraction.

In winter the wayward brances add structure to the winter garden when grasses and wintergreens are weighed down by snow.

The burning bush can be the first pruning project in early spring.  In late February or early March it's easier to trim the shrub when the "y" junctions are apparent and unobscured by leaves.  No brushcuts across the top.  Cut at varying depths within the plant focusing on the older, thicker branches.  Always cut at a branching point with a pair of hand lopers. 

Stick the cut stems into an outdoor pot or windowbox filled with soil.   Many of the branches will unfurl tiny leaves.

The BB is not the only colorful garden character in the fall.  Hosta turns a bright gold, grasses sprout burgundy tassels and turtlehead mellow to soft yellow.  Gracefully towering over it all, the red leaves of the Japanese Maple gleam in the autumn sunlight. 

Every garden plant has its peak moment.  The key is to stagger plantings not only for size and blooms but for show, whether it be spring blossoms or fall foliage. 

The garden's an ever changing palate.  Each player shines at different times.

The perfect time in the yard is any time you are able to spend in it. 

Related Articles:

How to Trim Shrubs -- No More Bad Haircuts

Green Fences -- Boxwood Hedges to Hydrangea Hedgerows

Friday, October 28, 2011

Fall Garden Clean Up and Pumpkin Patches

The bright orange of the pumpkins which remain in the garden are a sharp contrast to the browned stems and overcast sky above and below.  Fall is here and it's decision time.  Clip back or leave nature alone to do her work?  Rake the beds clean or allow the leaves to stay?  Surprisingly less is more in when the leaves turn gold.  Wooded areas are the best example.  That colorful carpet is mostly gone once the snow recedes.  Those piles of leaves at the curb are the key to fertile soil. 

In a perfect gardening world, we'd have the time and equipment to finely shred leaves and garden clippings then gently sprinkle them around the base of precisely clipped back plants.  But lives and jobs and a little bit of fall fun take precedence--and soon it's time to wrap the holiday gifts.

Still, in a quick and easy green gardening world, it is possible to develop a system that is eighty percent nature and twenty percent gardener. Nature is meant to do the work--so let her.

Leave a nice layer of leaves on flower beds and at the base of shrubs as a natural mulch. 

Most annuals can stay.  They'll disintegrate beneath the winter blanket of snow. Impatiens, for example will shrivel up and disappear after a few weeks of cold. What's left can be swept out by hand in early spring.  The decaying root system will naturally integrate the soil with valuable nutrients, so leave them in place. Pick a spot in the yard, and start a compost of potted plants and large scale clippings.  Consider the neighbor's line of sight when chosing a location.  The back of the garage may be out of sight for you, but a direct hit from the Addams family room. 

Clip the top third from sturdy stemmed perennials like phlox and shasta daisies.  The remaining stems will collect snow and assist in the insulation of roots from the freeze and thaw of winter. For winter interest keep big headed plants like sedum and hydrangea intact.  Do not ever cut back early spring blooming or wooded plants and shrubs like rhododendron, hydrangea, butterfly bush or lilac in the fall. These should be trimmed, if needed, right after bloom in the spring. 

Grasses can be left until the spring.  They look spectacular after a snowfall.

Take the basket from the mower and mulch leaves into the lawn.

Reduce the pile at the curb and increase the energy in your garden.  Nice balance.

Now, head for the pumpkin patch.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

MOONLIGHT GARDEN -- Flowers That Go BLOOM In the Night

Moonshadows on a Moonflower

               Nocturnal gardening was a necessity at first.  Later it became a preference. With two small daughters and a husband, it was tough to find time to work, schlep and cultivate the dirt patches around our house.  Our handy friend Kenny built our first potting bench, which is still standing.  Plopping a glowing candle in a sheltered glass, I’d sometimes put the girls to bed and poke around the yard until the news came on. A little music would encourage relaxation and growth.  Best of all, it’s nearly impossible to spot most weeds in the dark, so the yard looked outstanding.
Bill and I developed a ritual of circling the garden after our evening walk.  Ralph later joined us.  It was then that the more organized theme of a night garden began. Particularly along the path of our nightly tour, we noticed certain vegetation adopted a glowing character in the soft shadows of the moon.  Some of those areas became devoted to plants which were attractive during the day, but showstoppers at night.

There are special plants designed by nature especially for the day laborer and nighttime gardener.  These blooms only emerge in the coolness of the evening, like the four o’clock.   This bright and sturdy annual is easily started from seed and often volunteers emerge the following year.  Just as the dinner dishes are put away, these colorful jollies appear.
              At sunset, the curtain rises for Act Two: “Luminosity.”  Mama Raccoon and her babies stretch and head out for a late dinner.  The moonflower, an annual, appears in two forms.  The vine climbs vigorously after a slow start, sprouting morning glory-like blooms in pure white climbing high along any trellis, fence or other surface.  The bush-like plant, on the other hand spreads its sturdy foliage in all directions.
               Moonflower blooms resemble a closed umbrella by day, Yet at dusk, these vampires spread their wingspans into magnificent blooms radiating in the moonlight.  When the moon is bright enough to cast shadows, the effect is stunning.  The soft silver gray of lambs’ ears outline the trail.  White hydrangea glow in the reflected light.
               Scent is a second refrain of the night garden.  When the night is cool and the air has less need to compete with the fumes of the day, evening stock and other fragrant flora like lavender fill the air with gentle fragrance.  Brushing against these blooms deepens the sensory experience.  When the eyes are less distracted, other senses step forward.
               This year a hoot owl took residence in an old oak.  Bats dart about, clearing the air of mosquitos. 
               Add an abundance of fireflies, and the place is magical. 

Related Articles:

Four O'Clocks and Hollyhocks

Father's Day -- The Mighty Acorn

Urbane Wildlife -- Fox in the Suburbs