Monday, July 28, 2014

How to Garden Smarter, not Harder as You Age

Gardening is a great activity for all age groups. It introduces children to the wonders of nature while prodding everyone to be more physically active and also offering a great way to refresh racing minds. As we age, however, routine gardening tasks can become more difficult. Joints get stiffer so that bending and stooping are harder. Hand strength decreases making it more difficult to grasp tools or pull weeds. Arthritis! Likewise, endurance and balance can be affected. Changes in vision affect, well, everything. Perhaps you just find that the gardening schemes in your head are just more than your stamina will allow you to do.

Rather than admitting defeat and saying that you're too old to garden anymore, why not make simple changes to the way you garden? The first step is to look at the design and layout of your garden. Is it seriously labor intensive? Or spread out over a vast area? Well then, it’s time to make some adjustments in what’s planted and where it’s planted.

It’s time to modify your garden so that most of it is planted in interesting shrubs and perennials that provide year round color and texture with minimal upkeep. Consider letting the edges of the garden revert to a more natural state that will attract wildlife. Then…select an area that’s close to the house (and driveway too, if possible) where you can “play.” A place for bright flowers, vegetables, and whatever else interests you and that you want to work with regularly during the growing season. Consider this area the accent to the rest of your garden. The crown jewel, even, or if you prefer, your laboratory.

Choosing a spot close to the house and driveway is important. It means that you won't have to walk far to get to the part of the garden where you intend to spend the most time. It also means that unloading plants and bags of fertilizer from the car will be easier. No more lugging heavy objects for long distances. Depending on your needs, this special area can focus on regular gardening in the ground, raised beds, or even containers. Perhaps a mix of all three would allow you to create a beautiful new mini garden while explore new gardening options.

If you still feel capable of gardening in the ground, make sure that the soil is loose and easy to dig in. If it isn't, then both you and the plants will be happier if you find someone to help you amend the soil. Another modification to consider is using a stool to sit on while weeding. It will eliminate the need for bending and make weeding much easier. Another option to consider is the trellis, which can be used for both ornamentals and vegetables. Trellises can be vertical lattice structures or even arches over paths or benches. They can even be teepee type structures made of bamboo poles. What could be more delightful or functional than a butterbean “tent” in the garden?

If you decide to incorporate some raised beds into your special gardening spot, then there are several approaches that you can take: more traditional raised beds with sides that are perhaps two feet high or taller raised beds that are high enough to allow cultivation while standing or sitting in a chair. If you decide to use the lower ones, then why not consider making the top of the boards surrounding the beds wide enough that you can sit on them while gardening? You may also find that the addition of grab bars to the top of your raised beds makes moving from a seated to a standing position easier.

Taller raised beds can be built from the ground up or they can be constructed like planters or garden tables with legs. Raised beds on legs can even be constructed so that wheelchair bound gardeners can push their chairs directly up to them. Whichever type of raised bed you choose, just be sure that they’re not so wide that you can’t comfortably reach the middle from the side.

To make watering your raised beds or special garden in the ground easier, consider adding soaker hoses. They can be positioned when you do your initial planting and will soon be disguised as plants grow.
If raised beds aren't an option or you just don't like their appearance, then large containers may be the perfect solution. Any type of container can be modified for use in growing plants. Cattle watering troughs, for example, make excellent small water gardens and are perfect for growing all kinds of flowers and vegetables. Hanging containers are also an excellent option for gardeners who find bending difficult. The most important consideration when adapting a container for use in the garden is drainage. If the container doesn't have holes in the bottom, then be sure to drill some before adding soil and plants. 

When working with big containers, it’s important to decide where you want to put them in the garden before adding soil to them. Once they're full, they will be too heavy to move. It’s also important to ensure that the containers don’t tip over easily or get blown about by the wind. Favorite small containers can often be anchored to posts, walls, or other, heavier containers.

And now for your gardening tools. We all have favorites that we've used for years, but now may be the time to re-evaluate them and consider some of the new options available. There are trowels and weeding tools with ergonomically correct padded handles that will allow you to work for longer periods of time with less stress to your hands and wrists. Some also have brightly colored handles that make them easier to find if misplaced in the grass. There are also long handled tools, such as rakes, that have been modified to require less arm strength. Some even have shorter handles that make them perfect for using in raised beds. Similarly, there are shovels with wider, more ergonomically correct grips that make digging easier. So many new tools, in fact! Oh…and there’s one other that’s just as important as these: your cell phone. Always carry it with you in the garden. Just in case you need help in an emergency.

So…don't despair or think that you’re going to have to stop gardening just because you can’t do quite as much as you used to be able to do. Garden smarter, not harder, and enjoy every minute of it.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Container Plantings: How to Make Fabulous Ones

Almost everyone makes container plantings, but everyone can do spectacular one. Read on to learn more about how the town horticulturist in Farmville, VA makes extra special plantings and how you can too.

If you want ideas on how to put together fabulous container gardens, just take a walk around downtown Farmville, Virginia. There are massive containers planted with everything from banana trees to bromeliads, small containers filled with old favorites, wild color combinations everywhere, and even climbing plants adding height to containers.

When planning your own container garden, there're just a few basics to remember.

  • First, decide where you want to place the completed container and what purpose the container garden should serve. Will it fill a hole in an established bed that needs a pop of color or an accent? Will it welcome guests to your garden or encourage visitors to sit and enjoy the beauty? 
  • Second, decide what kind of container will best help you meet your objectives. Just about anything, even a large garbage can will work. Tall containers are beautiful accents. Small containers complement other containers or plantings.
  • Every container should include a thriller, a filler, and a spiller
  • A thriller is a spectacular plant that makes a big show. It can be a plant with flowers or just foliage. Something like a bright orange bromeliad, a banana tree, or even an interesting vine trained up a bamboo pole. 
  • A filler, is just that, a plant of combination of plants that fill empty space. Don't limit yourself to just flowers. Vegetables, such as rainbow chard look great and are unexpected additions. A container garden should be tightly planted so that it looks lush even when it's new.
  •  A spiller is a plant that creeps, crawls, and spills over the side of the container. It's another layer of visual interest.

Let's take a tour.

Once you've completed your container garden, ongoing TLC is essential. Tightly planted containers need extra water during hot summer weather. Regular applications of fertilizer are important too. If a plant gets leggy or just doesn't perform well, remove it and wedge another in its place.

Happy planting!

Garlic: History, Uses, and How to Grow It

Garlic is a very old food used by many different civilizations. To learn more about its history, uses, and how to grow it, continue reading.

Garlic is one of the oldest food plants known to civilization.  No other herb has been used by so many different cultures for so many culinary and medicinal purposes. Originating somewhere in South Central Asia, the first usage of this hardy plant is lost in the mists of pre-historic times, perhaps stretching back to the days of semi-nomadic hunter-gathers over 10,000 years ago.  It evolved over the centuries as a semi-domesticated food in three basic geographic regions: Eastern Europe, Eastern Asia, and Central Asia.  Romans loved garlic, and dispersed it widely in the packs of Roman soldiers, who found it easy to carry with them as a food supplement believed to give the warriors strength and courage. 

Its importance in folklore is emphasized by the frequency with which it is found in ancient tombs.  For example, the tomb of El Mahasna in Egypt was constructed in 3750 B.C., before the reign of the first pharaohs.  There archeologists found detailed models of garlic bulbs placed near the sarcophagus to ward off evil and ensure a safe journey for the soul.   And, in the tomb of King Tut, who reigned 2,000 years later, six dried, but perfectly preserved, heads of garlic were found among the elaborate trappings that accompanied royalty in the grave.  Garlic was revered among commoners as well.  In 1500 B.C. an architect named Kha was buried in a modest tomb, yet even here the excavation revealed a woven basket of foodstuffs including garlic, preserved along with common kitchen utensils and crude pieces of furniture.  Clearly garlic played an immensely important role in the lives of people living before the time of Christ.  This view is reinforced by inscriptions deciphered on the walls of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, which detailed the quantities of radishes, onions, and garlic consumed by the laborers who built this mighty edifice.

Garlic was clearly used in biblical times.  The Israelites, struggling in the desert under the leadership of Moses, longed for the bountiful food that they had enjoyed in Egypt.  They lamented, “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic, but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” [Numbers 11:5-6]  In 1274, Marco Polo visited the Chinese city of Yunnan and saw the inhabitants eating meats seasoned with garlic.  And, in modern times, Albert Schweitzer utilized garlic in Africa to combat cholera, typhus, and amoebic dysentery. 

Today garlic is primarily a culinary treat, and its medicinal use is not widely employed, at least in developed countries.  But throughout the centuries it has been heralded as an important item in the medicine chest, used to combat a wide variety of ailments, including colds, flu symptoms, coughs, earache, fever, bronchitis, shortness of breath, sinus congestion, headache, stomachache, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, diarrhea, gout, rheumatism, whooping cough, pinworms, ulcers, and snakebites.  In many cultures, it was even valued as an aphrodisiac!  It has been eaten as fresh cloves or used in syrups, tinctures, powders, tablets, and teas.  

There are two basic kinds of garlic, commonly called hardneck and softneck varieties.  Within these two broad categories, many types of garlic are available from various supply houses, but in grocery stores the kind inevitably found is some type of softneck garlic, simply because it keeps much longer than hardnecks.  Therefore, most people associate the garlic flavor that they incorporate into their culinary delights with the taste of softneck garlic; however, hardnecks are definitely more flavorful even if they don’t store as long – a matter of three or four months as opposed to a year.  If you are a garlic lover, you might want to consider obtaining some hardneck bulbs to grow in your garden.  The cultivation is not difficult at all. In the fall, order some garlic from the catalog of a reputable seed company, or obtain a variety that you like from a farmers’ market. 

  • Plant garlic in September/October, four to six week before the first frost is expected, so that the cloves have plenty of time to set sturdy roots before winter. 
  • The soil should be well drained, ideally amended with organic matter.
  • Separate the individual cloves from the bulb, planting each clove, flat side down, in a hole the depth of which is twice the length of the garlic. 
  • Space the plantings about four to six inches apart, and mulch with straw or shredded leaves.
  • Plants will emerge in the spring. If you have planted a hardneck variety, the plants will send up a sterile seed head called a scape in early summer.  Break off the scape to enhance the size and quality of the garlic bulb to be harvested in late summer. Softneck varieties usually do not have a scape.
  • Harvest in July when about two thirds of the leaves have turned brown.
  • To store garlic, hang it in a cool, aerated area for two or three weeks until the outer membranes are dry.  Garlic should not be cleaned until drying has occurred to prevent contamination.         
Many wonderful recipes include garlic in the preparation.  If you have been cooking with softneck garlic from the grocery store, you may be pleasantly surprised if you substitute a hardneck variety.  Many people enjoy roasted garlic as a spread.  While roasting can be accomplished in the microwave, the flavor is greatly enhanced if garlic is oven roasted.  To do this, do not remove the skins, trim the top of the bulb, exposing the tips of all the cloves.  Place the bulb, tip end up, in an oven-proof container.  Sprinkle the top with olive oil and salt lightly.  Bake in an oven preheated to 375 degrees for about an hour.  When the roasted garlic has cooled, tear off the cloves and squeeze the garlic onto bread, toast, or crackers.  This delicacy is also delightful spread on a sturdy cheese such as Gouda.

So, expand your horizons!  Choose one of the over 50 different varieties of garlic, grow your own, and enjoy a wonderful taste thrill.  Roasted garlic is unbelievably sweet, with a rich, creamy texture that is quite different from the pungent taste of the raw clove.  And, if you are lucky, it will give you the strength and courage of a Roman soldier!  Happy eating!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

How to Avoid the February Garden Blahs

February can be a rather bleak month for gardeners unless they have included plants that offer later winter color and fragrance in their plantings. To learn more about some interesting plants, continue reading.

February is a difficult and fickle month for gardeners. It raises hopes with periodic warm days and then dashes them with ice and snow. Even so, the garden can offer a much needed respite from the February blahs. It’s a great month for fragrance, blossoms, and berries.

Edgeworthia or paper bush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) is a medium-size deciduous shrub that is a garden asset throughout the year. In February, however, it’s a star with both attractive blooms and unbelievable fragrance. The name edgeworthia commemorates Michael Pakenham Edgeworth, a Victorian amateur botanist who collected Edgeworthia chrysantha in the Himalayas. Chrysantha refers to the yellow color of the flowers. 

In summer, Edgeworthia has striking blue-green leaves. In late fall, the leaves drop and the beautiful, cinnamon-colored bark takes center stage. The silky, fuzzy flower buds also begin to swell and hang like ornaments at the end of each stem.  And then…in late February the flowers begin to open slowly over a six to eight week period. The flowers release an intoxicating fragrance that is reminiscent of both cloves and gardenias. The fragrance lingers in the cold, crisp air and is noticeable long before the bush can be seen. When the flowers first open, they are yellow and then gradually soften to a creamy white.

Edgeworthia is not particularly difficult to grow. It needs rich loamy soil, partial shade and plenty of moisture. Good drainage is essential. Once edgeworthia is well established, it can tolerate dry weather. Little pruning is required to maintain a tidy shape.
Edgeworthia is especially effective when planted near entryways or along paths where passersby can enjoy its fragrance. Companion plants that work well with edgeworthia include snow drops, crocuses, and hellebores.

For beautiful February blossoms, there are a number of choices – Camellia japonica, which starts blooming in January or earlier and continues until April; the yellow trumpet daffodil Rijnveld’s Early Sensation, which blooms right through January and February snow; and especially hellebores. 

Hellebores have long been revered as tough, long-lived, winter-blooming perennials.  They are deer resistant. There are two kinds that are popular with gardeners -- Helleborus niger and Helleborus x hybridus. Helleborus niger is probably the best known of the species hellebores.  Although commonly known as the Christmas rose, in Zone 7 Helleborus niger often blooms in late January to early February. It has dark green, leathery leaves and generally one flower per stem. The large flowers are white, although the buds may be pink or the flowers may become deep pink as they age. This hellebore prefers shade to partial shade and rich, moist soil. It grows 6 to 9 inches tall. Helleborus niger doesn't like to be disturbed once it has become established in a particular location, but, if necessary, can be moved or divided in late summer or early fall and will bounce back in a year or so. 

Helleborus x hybridus, the Lenten rose, was the 2005 perennial of the year. It is available in many different colors – white, black-purple to pink, yellow, cream, and green. The blooms may have speckles or picotee edges and can be semi-double to double.  A mature clump is about a foot tall, slightly larger than Helleborus niger. When the flower spikes emerge in late winter, they branch and produce clusters of flowers that can last for two months or longer. (Actually, what we commonly refer to as the flower is really a modified calyx.)

Helleborus x hybridus is the easiest hellebore to grow. Like Helleborus niger, it prefers partial shade to shade, as well as moist, rich, organic soil with good drainage. Once established, Helleborus x hybridus can tolerate considerable drought and neglect. By late winter/early spring, the old foliage tends to look very tattered and should be cut to the ground as soon as blooms appear. The old foliage should not be removed any earlier, however, because it helps protect the emerging new shoots from sudden changes in temperature. 
Helleborus x hybridus can be used in many different ways in the garden. It makes an effective groundcover when planted in large groups. It works equally well under tall shrubs and as a contrasting plant in hosta beds. 

For berries in the winter garden, we tend to think of large shrubs and trees, such as the mahonias, the common winterberry (Ilex verticillata), and the American holly (Ilex opaca). But…I would like to suggest something quite different, the Native American plant Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). It’s a quiet, unassuming, evergreen groundcover that’s quite effective in adding pops of color to corners of the garden. 

Partridgeberry has small, dark green leathery leaves. In spring, there are fragrant white flowers that always appear in pairs. The flowers are followed in fall by bright red berries that last throughout the winter. Each pair of flowers produces one berry. Partridgeberry is only about two inches high and is very slow growing, but is still capable of forming a dense carpet around trees and shrubs.

Partridgeberry prefers acidic soil in the wild, but will grow happily in alkaline soil in the garden. It needs good drainage and shade to partial shade. After it has been established for several years, partridgeberry will tolerate considerable drought. Cold winters are not a problem. 

Partridgeberry is particularly effective in borders and along paths. No real maintenance is required.  Just remove the fallen leaves in autumn and enjoy.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Making the Home Garden More Attractive to Birds and Other Pollinators

 We humans originally made gardens to supply ourselves with food and herbs for healing. As life became easier, we also began to think of our gardens as places where we could be alone to mediate or to enjoy the beauty of nature. Eventually, many people began to see their gardens as status symbols and even competed with their neighbors for the most beautiful garden in town. Even now, who doesn't want to come home to find the coveted Garden of the Month sign posted in the front yard!

Indeed, some gardens are famous all over the world, and people travel great distances to see them. Sissinghurst Castle in England has a series of garden “rooms,” each with its own theme or color. The “rooms” and their “doors” are arranged so that visitors can enjoy one room while also getting to peak into several others. The most famous “room” is the white garden. Closer to home, the British Broadcasting Company just named our very own Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden one of the top 10 gardens in North America worth travelling to visit. Lewis Ginter is perfect for an afternoon ramble through several different gardens or for taking classes to learn the latest gardening techniques. Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania is equally renowned for both its beauty and ability to teach visitors about plants.

While these traditional garden objectives are still valid, scientists are urging us home gardeners to consider a new one – using the home garden to support beleaguered wildlife, particularly birds and pollinators, which are under increasing pressure from urbanization. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed, where we live, has lost 100 acres of forest every day since 1985 and that loss has put tremendous pressure on both plants and animals. Here in Virginia about 28 percent of our flora and 36 percent of our vertebrate species are now considered rare. Since the 1960s, songbirds have declined by 40 percent, while birds that breed in meadows are in even more trouble. Our beloved bobwhite has declined by more than 80 percent.

Pollinators, which are important to both home gardeners and commercial farmers, are experiencing major environmental threats too. Honey bees are responsible for about 80 percent of all pollination by insects. Unfortunately, they are experiencing major issues, some of which are related to the increasing use of herbicides and the loss of habitat for foraging. Monarch butterflies are facing similar problems since they’re highly dependent on milkweed plants. They only lay their eggs on these plants, and the caterpillars that emerge only eat milkweed. Unfortunately, much milkweed has been eradicated by the use of herbicides, and home gardeners have been reluctant to plant it.

What can we do to help? Some things are easy. Just breaking up our typically vast expanses of lawn with islands of mixed plantings is a great first step, if they are planted with a variety of species that offer both food and shelter to birds and pollinators throughout the year, not just in the spring.  An island should include a combination of plants of varying heights, as well as both evergreens and deciduous plants. In other words, everything from small trees to native perennials and groundcovers.

Another simple change that we can make is to provide a source of water in the garden. A small pond would be lovely, but isn't necessary.  Birdbaths and shallow containers that are kept clean and full of water are inviting to both birds and butterflies. Just be sure to put them in a location that is protected from predators. Even a dish of wet sand or a spot on the ground that is kept constantly wet will attract butterflies. Large clouds of butterflies will visit to suck moisture and minerals from the wet soil, an activity called puddling.
If you really want a water garden, there are many different possibilities. While an in-ground pond is beautiful, it’s possible to start on a smaller scale with just about any water proof container. A half barrel makes a great miniature water garden that can be placed on a deck or other area where you're likely spend time observing the visitors that use it. Fill the barrel with water and several aquatic plants, such as water lilies. You'll be surprised at the number of visitors that your mini world attracts.

If you have lots of space, another option you can explore is the addition of natural areas, such as wildflower meadows to your property.  Some gardeners like to treat the soil to eradicate all weeds and then scatter the area with seed balls. These interesting, truffle sized seed “bombs” are easy to make by combining clay, compost, and various types of seeds. Many gardeners like to use a mix of asters and sun flowers. Whatever you like and is appropriate for your growing conditions.

It’s also important to create paths among your islands and other plantings. The paths let you wander through the garden and observe wildlife, while also providing more hiding places for ground dwelling birds. Another easy to implement change? Pile brush on the edge of your property so that ground dwelling birds can use the piles for shelter.

What to plant in the new home garden? Consider natives whenever possible since they're well suited to our local growing conditions and less likely to become invasive. Native plants are also known sources of food and shelter for our wildlife. There are lots of small trees, such as serviceberry, redbud, and dogwood, which provide nectar for early pollinators and, then later in the season, fruits for birds. More than 40 species of birds eat the fruit of the serviceberry, while the dogwood provides nectar for about 17 species of butterflies and moths.

If you need low growing plants, such as ferns, consider the Christmas fern or the more unusual cinnamon fern. Both require some shade and provide cover for birds that spend time on the ground. Partridgeberry is an interesting creeping plant for the home garden. It’s slow growing and well behaved, not at all aggressive. If you want vines, passionflower is a lovely choice that provides nectar for butterflies, seeds for birds, and serves as a larval host for some butterflies. It’s very easy to grow and readily available.
For more traditional flowers, there are also many choices – black eyed Susans are beautiful and tough and provide nectar for many butterflies. Turtleheads grow well in moist conditions and are important energy sources for migrating hummingbirds. Butterfly weed, of course, is an excellent choice. It’s highly adaptable to just about any growing condition and supports many different butterflies, birds, and bees. An added bonus? Deer don’t particularly like it.

So much to think about in the garden these days. Fortunately, we don’t have to change everything, just consider making modifications here and there as the opportunity arises. Happy gardening! 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How to Help the Toads

Toads have been around for a very long time and have survived many threats, including the extinction of the dinosaurs. There are about 21 different species of toads in North America, including the American toad and Fowler’s toad. 
Fowler's toad

Unfortunately, scientists have discovered that toad populations are declining and that toads are even disappearing in some areas. This is an alarming trend because they are the gardener’s friends.  A hungry toad can devour 10,000 insects, such as mosquitoes, gypsy moth caterpillars, and earwigs, in just one summer. They also like to feast on slugs.

There are some simple things that we gardeners can do to attract toads to the garden and to help them survive. We can provide:
            A source of water. Unlike frogs, toads don’t swim in the water; they just like to soak. A toad soaking tub can be very simple. A terra cotta pot saucer is perfect. Make a shallow hole in the ground and place the saucer in it so that the rim is level with the ground. Fill the saucer with water and add several large rocks that the toad can clamber onto when getting out of the water. The best location? A cool, shady spot is perfect.

A toad house. Yes, toads need shelter. A toad abode can be simple – an over turned flower pot with a hole knocked into the side, a sort of mini cave made of large flat rocks, or a more fanciful cottage. All three options work as long as the entrance is large enough (a Fowler’s toad is about 2 to 3-1/2 inches long and very chubby), and the abode has a dirt floor of loose soil with lots of compost.  Make sure that the house is in a shady, cool area, well away from areas where pesticides might be used.

A cold weather abode. Toads hibernate during the winter. They burrow deep down into the soil where the temperature is more moderate. A simple hibernaculum (hibernation area) can be made with a 14 to 16 inch piece of plastic pipe that is about 4 inches in diameter. Just dig a trench for the pipe, place it in the trench at a 30 degree angle and cover all of it except the opening. Half fill the section of pipe with sand and top the sand with composted leaves.
Fanciful toad abode

     Be patient and toads will come. It may take a while.