Friday, December 28, 2012

Camellias: How to Grow Them

Camellias are tough plants that are great sources of color for the home garden. Continue reading to learn more about which ones grow well in our zone 7 area and how to plant them.

Winter can be rather bleak here in central Virginia. Many gardens are bare with little color. Some, however, feature lush evergreen shrubs covered with magnificent pink or red blossoms . Camellias in all their glory. 

Camellias are native to Asia where they are revered for their beauty. In Japan and China, they have been grown in gardens for hundreds of years. The most famous camellia? Tea. Yes, tea is a member of the camellia family.

There are several species of ornamental camellias. The most common are Camellia sasanqua and Camellia japonica. The sasanqua is a fall blooming variety, while the japonica blooms from September through April. Generally, sasanqua blooms are single, smaller, and looser than those of the japonica. Camellia japonica blooms can range from singles to semi-doubles to peonies to full doubles, and have a waxy appearance. Planting both sasanqua and japonica varieties provides much welcome garden color over a longer period of time than planting only one variety.

Growing camellias is fairly easy; just follow these general guidelines. First and most important: Be sure to choose the right variety for you garden conditions and to select the best location in your garden. Camellias need protection from winter sun and wind, so a northern exposure is generally good. Avoid full sun, especially morning sun. 

Plant the camellia no deeper than it was in the container when you purchased it. The top of the root ball should be at ground level. Be sure to feather out the roots to encourage healthy growth.

Add some compost or organic matter to the soil during planting.Camellias prefer slightly acidic, well-drained soil. Add 3 to 4 inches of mulch around the camellia after planting. Pine needles are excellent. During the first year or two after planting, be sure to water the camellia during dry periods. 

Maintenance of the plants after they become established is minimal. Pruning is only necessary to remove damaged stems.In fact, excessive pruning will adversely affect the number of blooms.

Camellias don’t attract many pests. Deer usually ignore them, and insects aren't a problem. Spraying isn't necessary in our area since winters here are cold enough to eliminate potential problems with petal blight. The biggest challenge to their success here is the wide variation in our winter weather from day to day. We tend to have periods of mild weather followed by intense cold that can damage the blooms. 

There are many good varieties of camellias available, and your local garden center can recommend ones for your particular garden. Some local favorites include: Berenice Boddy, Mathotiana, Tricolor Pink, Jacks, Springs Promise, Leucantha, Greensboro Red, Pink Perfection, Rev John G. Drayton, Herme, Gov Mouton, and Kumasaka. 

The National Arboretum has a large collection of camellias and is an excellent resource for those interested in growing these beautiful plants. After nearly losing its entire collection during unusually cold weather in the 1970s, the National Arboretum has been conducting research to produce reliably cold hardy camellias. Through the efforts of Dr. William Ackerman, more than 60 cold hardy varieties are now available.

For more information about growing camellias and the new cold-resistant varieties, be sure to check out the National Arboretum's camellia information page, or, better yet, visit their collection during bloom season:

Camellias just may be the dazzlers you need for your own garden. What’s not to love about a plant that’s tough, has low maintenance requirements, and promises years of winter splendor.

Mystical Mistletoe

Most people are familiar with the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmastime, but have you ever wondered why this little evergreen plays such an interesting role during the holiday season? In fact, this is just one of many customs involving mistletoe. Traditions that include mistletoe are found throughout history and date back as far as ancient Greece. 

Mistletoe is the common name for a number of plants in the order Santalales. The name mistletoe is typically applied to Viscum album, European mistletoe, and Phoradendron leucarpum, American mistletoe. Both of these species are considered partial parasites, or hemiparasites because they are capable of producing their own food through photosynthesis. Mistletoe grows on the branches or trunk of trees and sends out roots that penetrate the tree and take up nutrients. Mistletoe has developed a very specialized structure called a haustorium that grows into the host. It’s possible for mistletoe to kill its host plant, but such an occurrence is uncommon since the mistletoe itself would also die. It mainly depletes the host of water and could, therefore, severely harm the tree during a drought. 

While often considered a pest that only causes damage, mistletoe has recently been recognized for its ecological benefits because it provides food and shelter for a variety of animals, such as Northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets, diamond firetails, and painted honeyeaters. More than 240 species of birds that nest in foliage in Australia have been recorded nesting in mistletoe, which demonstrates that mistletoe can have a positive effect on biodiversity.

European mistletoe has evergreen, smooth-edged oval leaves in pairs along a woody stem with waxy white berries in dense clusters of 2-6. It is usually seen on apple trees and occasionally on oak trees. American mistletoe is similar but has shorter, broader leaves and longer clusters of 10 or more berries. 

From earliest times, mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore. Some believed that mistletoe first became poisonous because it was growing on a tree that was used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Because of this, it was cursed and denied a place to grow on earth and forced to be a parasite. In the Middle Ages and later, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits. In Europe they were placed over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches. When hung in the home, it symbolized purity and strength and promoted happiness, romance, and peace. In fact, custom called for enemies meeting beneath the mistletoe to throw down their weapons and embrace. 

In some parts of England, Christmas mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry. Some believe it can ward off demons, and protect those who wear it from fits, fever, tremors, and poison, even though the plant itself is poisonous. Surprisingly, in parts of England and Wales, farmers once gave the Christmas mistletoe to the first cow that calved in the New Year to bring luck to the entire herd. This tradition suggests that cows are either immune to the poison or are able to handle it in small doses. 

The ancient Celtic Druids greatly revered the plant especially when it was found growing on an oak tree, another plant they considered sacred. The mistletoe was ceremoniously cut with a golden sickle by a Celtic priest and caught on a white cloth so as to avoid touching the ground. This ceremony coincided with the winter solstice and thus began the winter celebration. They believed mistletoe could provide fertility to humans and animals, cure diseases, and protect people from witchcraft. The Druids also believed that mistletoe protected its possessor from all evil, and they sent round their attendant youth with branches to announce the entrance of the New Year. This may be the origin of the tradition of decorating with mistletoe at Christmastime. 

A possible source for the custom of kissing beneath the mistletoe is the Scandinavian story of the slaying and resurrection of Balder, the god of peace. He was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe and brought back to life by his mother Frigga, the goddess of love. She removed the mistletoe’s poison with her tears. When Balder came back to life she kissed everyone who passed underneath the mistletoe out of happiness and gratitude. Thereafter, it was ordained that everyone who passed under the mistletoe should receive a kiss to show that the branch had become an emblem of love, and not of hate.

Mistletoe has a long and colorful history, making it much more than a piece of decorative shrubbery. Next time you encounter this mystical plant you might think about its many uses. And for those who wish to observe the proper etiquette involving mistletoe at Christmastime -- a man should pluck a berry when he kisses a woman under the mistletoe, and when the last berry is gone, there should be no more kissing!

For more information about this fascinating plant, visit this site:

Legends of the Poinsettia, Christmas Cactus and Other Yuletide Plants

The Christmas season is fast approaching. Indeed, the commercial world would have us believe that Christmas begins right after Halloween, riding into our lives on the back of the witch’s broomstick. For many, Christmas is the most anticipated season of the year. 

In the midst of the festive hullabaloo, standing calm and serene in their pots or on the mantelpiece, the plants associated with Christmas brighten our days and, if we let them, bring moments of calm to the otherwise hectic season. Several different ones are closely tied to the season – the amaryllis, poinsettia, and Christmas cactus.

Let’s close our eyes and let our imaginations wander back to a time before time began, to a place before places had names, to a tropical paradise like no other seen on Earth today. There, in the misty light of morning, we see creatures dressed in blazing red garments frolicking with joyous abandon among the lush greenery. They are the mysterious Poinsett sisters (not to be confused with the celebrated Pointer sisters of more recent times). Their one duty in life is to bring brilliant color to the jungle. And for eons they have fulfilled this task gladly. But somehow, this day will be different. A stranger has appeared during the night – a stranger dressed all in white, who has joined in the early morning dance ritual as if she belonged. Slowly the dancing stops, as the sisters gather around the stranger, still dancing enthusiastically. 
“Who are you?” one of the Poinsetts finally asked, “and where did you come from?” Smiling slyly, the stranger replied, “I am Ettia Poinsett, your cousin from a neighboring land. I am the mutant offspring of our mutual grandfather, who has predicted that I will become more popular than you ever have been! I have come to take over this colony, for I can dance with more wild abandon than any of you, and therefore am much better than you are!” 

The sisters in their radiant red finery shuddered, for Ettia’s coming fulfilled an ancient prophecy – if ever there was evidence of a male influence in the Poinsett clan, all the members would instantly take root and never be able to dance again. Foolish Ettia, with her story of a grandfather, made the prophecy come true. As the sun brightened in that day long ago, each creature felt drawn to the soil as roots began to grow. Even Ettia, with her foolish prediction (that never came true) that white would be more popular than red, became rooted to the spot. And that is why, my friends, your poinsettia plants need plenty of sunlight, in memory of that day long ago and far away when frolicking wood creatures became plants to brighten our holiday homes! 
On the other side of the world, at about the same time that Ettia was spoiling the dance for the Poinsetts, another drama was unfolding for a family of tall folk called the Ryllises. These were stately folk, dedicated to bringing peace to the land in which they lived. Their leader, the head Ryllis, was a gentleman of limited intelligence who had been chosen because there had been a flaw in the system used to choose leaders. But as long as he was benevolent there was not much objection among the Ryllis population, and the citizens went about their peaceful pursuits without dissent. 

One particular Ryllis, a beautiful maiden named Ama, was exceptionally adept at bringing about peace, and she was often sought after by mothers whose teenagers bordered on incivility from time to time. Amar had a regal bearing, tall and erect, with flaming red hair that she accented by wearing green garments most of the time. One day, however, sadness struck the Ryllises, for Ama was missing. Everyone looked high and low, far and near, up and down, but no Ama! She had been called out the afternoon before to calm a particularly high spirited teenager who insisted that his name was not Ryllis at all, but Tus, and that he belonged to the Christmas Tuses from across the hill. Legend foretold that if the most beautiful Ryllis were ever to disappear, and if the leader of the Ryllis did not intervene within 24 hours, the entire population would turn into plants, beautiful plants dedicated to peaceful pursuits at Christmastime, but plants nevertheless. The Ryllis leader was sleeping off a hangover on this particular day, and not being aware of the legend’s stipulation, his staff (who were as mentally lacking as he) did not disturb him. So it came about that, when Ama returned after being gone two days, she found only plants where her family had been before. Distraught, she chose to join them, and gave her beautiful name to the lovely flowers that we enjoy today!

Meanwhile, the rebellious teenage Tus of the Christmas Tuses was causing as much trouble as ever. He belonged to a gang called the Cacs , and they engaged in every thorny, prickly pursuit imaginable. They turned over garbage cans, threatened to pull up all of the Ryllises (after they became plants), tied cans to raccoons’ tails, and in general got into as much high spirited devilment as they could think of. Living in the same part of the world as the Tuses was a member of the Clamen tribe who had exceptional magical powers. This individual, whose name was Cy, was greatly disturbed to learn what had happened to Ama Ryllis and her kinfolks as a result of the shenanigans of the Cac gang of Tuses, and he pondered and pondered, thought and thought, of an appropriate punishment for the teenagers. 

Finally one day he had an “AHA!” moment, for he had thought of just the right thing to do. Traveling to the very neighborhood where the Cac gang hung out, he waved his magic wand and incanted “Mumbo, jumbo, somesopac, let roots grow out of each and every Cac!” And lo and behold, not only the Cac gang, but all Tuses began to grow roots. Cy waved his wand again and intoned “Abracadabra Asiatic power, may each one of you have a beautiful flower!” And it was so. But, true to Cy’s spell, the Cac-Tuses could only bloom if they became quite cold, a further punishment for having being so mean to Ama-Ryllis! 

Next time you have a beautiful poinsettia, Christmas cactus, amaryllis, or cyclamen in December, remember their origins, and realize how very special these houseplants are!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

All about Roses: Types Available and How to Care for Them

When many people think of flowers, roses are the most frequent flower to come to mind. The rose is much loved throughout the world. It has been found in fossil records 30-40 million years old. Wild roses from Europe were crossed with newly introduced roses from China in the 18th century. As hybridizing methods improved, many new types of ever-blooming roses became available. By 1829, some 2,500 varieties were listed in just one catalog! And it hasn't stopped since as newer varieties are being developed every year.
No matter whether you want to grow roses for color in the garden, for their beauty and fragrance, to cut and bring into your home, to dry, or to give to friends, there’re many types available to meet your needs.

There are 3 main classes of roses:    
  •  Wild roses: A natural species. 
  • Old garden roses: Widely grown before hybrids became available. Many have been found in old cemeteries and brought back into the market. Examples:  Maiden's Blush, Lady Banks, and Tuscany Superb. 
  • Modern roses: There are many different types, including hybrid teas, grandifloras, floribundas/polyanthas, climbers/ramblers, miniatures, English/Austin, shrub, and ground covers. 

Rose plants can be purchased in two different forms: 
  •  Bare root roses: Available by mail order and at the nursery. These should be planted early in the spring before growth begins. The plants should be soaked in warm water a few hours before planting and planted in loamy soil. Dig a wide hole, build a soil cone in the hole, and spread the roots over the cone. Fill with soil. Make a basin by mounding a circle of soil 3 -6 inches high and about 18 inches wide around each plant, and water well. 
  • Potted roses: Can be planted later in the season. Plant late in the day or on a cloudy day to avoid the hot sun, which stresses the plant. Plant at the depth the rose grew in the pot, gently tease the roots loose as you plant. Make a basin with soil around the plant to hold the water, and water well.

What to do now that you've selected your rose and planted it? Ongoing care of roses isn't complicated. Just be sure to follow these basic maintenance guidelines: 
  • Mulch: Organic mulch helps prevent loss of moisture, moderate fluctuations in soil temperature, prevent weed growth, provide nutrients and organic matter, and provide a neat appearance. Choices include wood or bark chips, rotting leaves, compost, and pine straw. Immediately after planting, place 3 to 4 inches of mulch around roses, avoiding contact with canes. Mulch may need to be replaced during the growing season. A 6-inch mulch during the winter season is recommended. 
  • Fertilizer: The pH of the soil should be between 5.6 and 7.2 in order for the plants to utilize fertilizer. Roses need fertilizer even when grown in the best soil. The best rose fertilizer is a complete and balanced one, such as 10-18-10 or 6-12-6. Begin in the spring and stop in the early fall, feeding every 4 to 6 weeks during the growing season. 
  • Pruning: Early spring is the best time to prune. Always use clean, sharp pruners and wear gloves. Pruning is important for the overall health of your plant. Be sure to remove older, dead, diseased, and damaged wood. Deadhead all spent flowers. If a plant is too large, you can cut it back by about 1/3 without causing injury. 

What else do you need to do? Most important of all, plant disease resistant roses. Select healthy plants and provide good growing conditions with full sun, good soil, room for growth, and adequate food and water. When watering, avoid getting water on the foliage, or water in the morning so that the foliage dries quickly. 
Anything else? Watch for common diseases, such as black spot, powdery mildew, downy mildew,and rust, and for insect pests, such as aphids, Japanese beetles, and spider mites. Call your local Extension Office for recommendations for treatment of diseases or pests. You will receive help in identifying problems and treating your roses.

If you have not planted roses before, you may want to try one of the disease-resistant, hardy roses for color, fragrance and beauty. It’s hard not to love a beautiful rose. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Growing Ferns in the Home Garden

Ferns are one of the oldest living plants and also one of the most fascinating. Long before we arrived on earth, there were great forests of giant ferns. The forests are long gone, but many descendants of those prehistoric ferns still thrive. In fact, over 12,000 species have been identified to date. 
Ferns make a fine background for many flowering plants, and they give a delicate, airy quality to shade gardens.  They can vary widely in appearance – creeping or billowy, delicate or coarse, tall or short, etc. Some ferns, such as the Christmas fern, are evergreen.

Interested in growing ferns in your home garden? Then site selection is critical. Ferns prefer sandy soil or soil rich in humus with excellent drainage. They also prefer indirect light, thus making them ideal plants for woodland gardens or other shady areas.

How to plant ferns? In general, ferns with spreading roots prefer to have their roots barely covered, while central-crown types prefer to have the crown exposed or just above the soil line:

·         Begin by checking the pH of the soil to determine if it matches the requirements of your fern. While most ferns prefer slightly acidic to neutral soil, some are happier in more alkaline soil.

·         Dig a fairly deep hole and add a mixture of leaf mold, sand, and loam. Oak leaves and compost are good substitutes for leaf mold.

·         Place the fern in the hole and add soil around it.

·         Water thoroughly.

·         NOTE: if you’re moving a fern during the active growing season, cut the fronds back by half to help minimize stress from water loss.
So, the next time you buy plants for your garden, don’t overlook ferns. These low-maintenance plants are invaluable for shade gardens and will make your landscape look mature and lush.


We’re so used to depending on honeybees for pollinating crops and for honey that we often forget that they’re not native to North and South America. Honeybees (Apis melifera) were introduced by European settlers. While most families used to keep bees for personal use, beekeeping isn’t as common today. It’s still a great hobby, however, and it’s not hard to get started.
What to do first? The best way to start is to purchase an established hive from a reputable source. Just be sure to buy a unit containing a hive body and one super or frame in which the bees build their comb. Even better, purchase two hives so that you can combine the equipment if a problem occurs with one of your hives.

The best time to begin beekeeping is in the late winter or early spring. This allows you to complete an entire beekeeping cycle from spring startup until harvest in the same calendar year. Starting anytime through June will allow the bees to become established here in Virginia. There is an old bee saying that is worth remembering: “A swarm in May is worth a load of hay. A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon. A swarm in July - let ‘em fly.”
Beekeeping equipment can be simple or high tech. You can start with the basics -- a veil, smoker, gloves, a hive tool, a bee brush, bees, a hive and super, and foundation wax. As time goes by and your beekeeping operation expands, you’ll want additional equipment.  An extractor, for example, is useful if you have more than several hives.

Interested in learning more about keeping bees? Then it’s time to talk to an established beekeeper. Most enjoy sharing information and like to show others all about their craft. Your local extension agent should be able to help you contact a local beekeeper. Welcome to the world of beekeeping! It’s a fascinating hobby and the rewards are just so, so sweet.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Preparing Your Garden for Dry Weather

 After this year’s hot, dry summer, most of us gardeners are looking for ways to protect our plants from the next drought. Here are some good gardening practices that will help.

1.       Make sure our gardens have soil that is rich in organic matter so that it will absorb and hold nutrients more efficiently. What to do? Add several inches of compost, shredded leaves, or other organic matter to you soil on a regular basis until the soil is easily-tilled loam. Set up a compost pile so that you have a ready supply of organic material. Yes, it’s true; compost is “black gold.”

2.       Select the right plants, in other words, those that are native to our area and have adapted to the growing conditions here. Native plants are best suited to dealing with the local climate and insects. Check with your local nursery for suggestions. For example: daylilies, ornamental grasses, black-eyed Susans, butterfly weed, witch hazel, yucca, golden rain trees, and junipers. What else to do? Group plants in the garden according to their drought tolerance.  It’s always easier to water one area than lots of small ones scattered throughout the garden.

3.      To look their best, lawns can require lots of water. To have your lawn and still be a frugal user of water, be sure to plant a variety of grass that is well suited to this climate. Keep the amount of lawn in your garden to a minimum, and don’t mow the grass too often or too short – about two to three inches isgood for fescues.

4.       When you do have to water your garden, do it wisely. Water early in the morning to reduce evaporation. Water deeply and not very often to promote deep root growth. Consider using soaker hoses or drip irrigations systems since these systems waste less water than sprinklers. Need an extra source of water? Install rain barrels under your downspouts to collect water for use when rain is scarce.

5.       What else to do? Mulch, mulch, mulch to keep weeds under control and conserve moisture. Keep insect pests and diseases under control too since both will stress your plants and increase their need for water.