Tuesday, December 8, 2015

How to Care for a Poinsettia

Poinsettia, licensed from Mensatic/Morguefile.com

It's that time of year when poinsettia seem to explode on the shelves of your local garden center, big box store and supermarket. Everywhere you turn, the beautiful red, white or pink "flowers" celebrate the holidays. But few people know how to care properly for a poinsettia and are disappointed when their plant doesn't last through the New Year. Here's how to care for a poinsettia to keep it healthy and happy.

Caring for Your Poinsettia

Poinsettia arrived in the United States with our ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, who "discovered" the poinsettia growing wild among the hills of Mexico. In its native habitat, poinsettia is actually a weed that loves to flourish in roadside ditches. That gives you an idea of how tough it is when given the right conditions!


Think about this when you bring your poinsettia home. First of all, Mexico is a warm, temperate climate. Poinsettia HATE cold weather and drafts. If exposed to cold drafts, fluctuating temperatures or sudden bursts of cold, they will curl and drop their leaves.

Most garden centers know this and take great pains to wrap a poinsettia correctly before wishing you a Happy Holiday and ushering you out the door. But big box stores and supermarkets don't offer extra wrap, so you'll have to do the job yourself in order to keep your poinsettia warm and snug until you can get it home. Use an extra plastic bag and move the plant immediately to your car. Try not to run other errands when you've got a poinsettia riding along with you; they don't appreciate being outside for that long!


Poinsettia need evenly moist soil. Many poinsettia pots are wrapped in pretty foil at this time of year, which makes them an attractive gift but doesn't help drain away excess water. You may wish to move the foil away from the bottom of the plant container. Check the container while you're at it to make sure there are drainage holes. I've received a few plants over the years that didn't have drainage holes in the bottom of the container, and had to add them to make sure I didn't drown the poor thing.

Keep the soil evenly moist and your poinsettia will thank you. Just stick your finger into the soil. If the soil clings to it, you don't need to water. If the soil feels dry, give your plant a drink.

Your poinsettia needs bright light. A southern window is great, or a bright western or eastern exposure. Make sure that your plants gets plenty of light throughout the holiday season.

Getting Poinsettia to "Bloom" Again

After the holidays, keep your poinsettia as a houseplant until all danger of frost is past. Then, give it a summer vacation. Bring it outside and let it enjoy some bright, dappled shade throughout the growing season.

Once summer is over, it's time to convince your plant to produce those lovely, colorful bracts or leaves surrounding the little yellow "true" flower. From September 1 to December 1, you'll need to give your plant a very strict regimen of light and dark. This mimics conditions in its native habitat.  

You can use a closet or a dark room to provide darkness. Bring the plant into the darkness and make sure it receives absolute darkness from 13 to 16 hours a night. Take it out during the day and place it back in its sunny spot, but make sure to keep up this routine. By December 1, if all goes well, your plant should have its color back.

Poinsettia are lovely plants and a wonderful symbol of the holidays. Enjoy your plants!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Getting Ready for Winter

These little garden statues should all come inside.

As you get your garden ready for winter, don't forget to take all of your garden ornaments inside. While most people remember to take their garden hoses and containers indoors to protect them from the elements, garden accessories can also be damaged by winter temperatures.

  • Wind chimes:  You can leave wind chimes out if they're in a sheltered location. Rain, snow and ice do take their toll on the metal chimes and can tarnish or discolor them. The string holding the chimes together can also rot. 
  • Small statues: Little stone or plastic statues, garden gnomes, etc. should be removed and brought indoors too. Stone may fare just fine outside, but plastic statues can be buried in snow, cracked, or even blown off of your lawn by a strong winter gale. 
  • Plaques: I have some small stone plaques around my garden that have sayings and quotes on them that I like. During the summer, they're balanced upright against stones, but I take them indoors in the winter Snow and ice will crack them just as surely as they crack terra cotta pots and containers.
  • Bird baths: Unless you have a bird bath heater, it's important to empty the basin of your birdbath and bring it inside. Plastic birdbaths should by removed from the garden entirely in the winter. Stone birdbaths that have detachable basins and pillars can be taken apart and the basin stored inside.
  • Whirl-a-gigs and pinwheels: Many people like hanging wind catchers, whirl-a-gigs and pinwheels in the garden. Because wind can catch them and send them sailing into your windows (or worse, into a neighbor's windows!) you may also wish to move them indoors for the winter. 

Bird houses should stay outside during the winter months so that they are ready for spring, but you should take some time during the winter months to clean out old nests. Bluebird houses can become quite full with old nesting materials; bluebirds will simply add a new nest onto an old one until the whole house becomes packed with nesting material. Remove and discard old nests and rinse out birdhouses so that they are clean and ready for next spring's inhabitants. 

Take a walk through your garden and collect all of the little accessories you love. Store them safely inside a barn, shed, garage or basement. Then pour yourself a cup of cocoa and relax. You're all set for spring!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Why Leaves Change Color in the Fall

Have you ever wondered why leaves change color in the fall? There's fascinating science behind the fall color show here in south central Virginia.

Each leaf in a plant is a tiny, highly efficient factory that manufactures food for the plant throughout the spring and summer. Tiny cells called chloroplasts deep within each leaf contain chlorophyll, a chemical that absorbs sunlight. It also lends leaves their green hue. Chlorophyll transforms carbon dioxide and water into sugars and starch that plants use for food.

Leaves contain other chemicals, however. Carotene, the same chemical that gives carrots their orange color, is found in some plants, as well as xanathophyll and other compounds. These exist in smaller amounts than chlorophyll, so when you look at a tree, for instance, during the spring or summer, you simply see green leaves.

As the light begins to dwindle in both duration and intensity, trees shut down their food-making factories in preparation for winter dormancy. Chlorophyll production ceases. As chlorophyll levels drop, you can see the gorgeous orange and yellow hues more easily. Additional chemical changes in the leaves that prepare them to drop from the trees produce anthocyanin, a red pigment. Depending on how these three pigments mix - anthocyanin, xanathophyll and carotene - you see the gorgeous yellow of aspen leaves, the rich purple and crimson of sumac leaves, or the red-browns of the oak.

Special layers of cells that joint the tips of twigs to the branches develops and severs the leaves from the trees when the tree no longer needs its little food factories. Leaves drift to the forest floor or onto your lawn where nature sends bacteria, fungi, and other helpers to break them down into usable compounds that eventually add them back into the soil.

Why do some years seem to produce more brilliant color than others? According to the State University of New York Extension Service, numerous environmental factors affect the brightness, intensity and hues of fall leaves. Low temperatures that hover just above freezing for prolonged periods of time increase the amount of anthocyanin produced in the fall, giving trees a more intense red color. This especially affect maples. Rainy days, as well as overcast days, increase the intensity of all colors, but an early frost can dim them.

I grew up in New York State and thought that only New England could boast beautiful fall foliage. Then I moved to Virginia and wow - was I dazzled by BOTH the spring and fall colors. We truly live in one of the most beautiful states, and indeed, one of the most beautiful parts of Virginia. Enjoy the fall foliage, and think of the tiny miracles sprinkled throughout each leaf the next time one drifts to your feet on a light autumn breeze.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Problems with Too Much Rain

I don't know about you, but I've about had it with rain. Sure, at first a few showers are welcome. What gardener doesn't like a nice day of rain, especially during the summer months?

Here in central Virginia, we seem to have two seasons: drought and downpour. We're in the downpour season now, caught in a weather pattern that's dumping plenty of water onto your fields, farms and gardens. It's welcome, but it can also wreak havoc with your vegetables, fruit, and garden flowers.

The following five tips can help you keep your garden beautiful after this deluge is finished.

  1. Check for powdery mildew, black spot, and other fungal and bacterial diseases: Fungi, bacteria and mold loves moisture. The damp, cool, cloudy days are perfect breeding conditions for these common garden ailments. The Virginia Cooperative Extension website has a good article on recognizing powdery mildew, a common problem in local gardens. I've noticed that my own plants all seem to be suffering to some extent from this problem right now and it's like to get worse before the rains end and the sun can dry off the leaves again. Recognizing it and treating it immediately after the rains stop may help your plants look and feel better before winter.
  2. Check drainage: Make sure your planters, containers, and window boxes are draining! Plants can and do drown if there's too much water in their containers. Lift out plastic pots from decorative pots to allow them to drain. You can even more small pots, house plants and other portable containers under shelter if you're worried they're getting too much rain.
  3. Harvest vegetables: Pick as many tomatoes and other vegetables as you can: Tomatoes will crack from too much rainwater, and other vegetables can rot. Pick as many as you can and can, freeze or otherwise store or use them.
  4. Weed as soon as you're able: Weeds love this weather just as much as many plants do. Weed seeds in the soil may have been waiting weeks for the rains to come. Pull them up before they take over...but remember not to walk on wet soil. It can compact and damage it.
  5. Watch for wasps: The wasps and yellow jackets are fierce in the fall. They're bad-tempered to begin with, but even more so when their tunnels and hives flood. I dodged a few today in my fruit tree orchard as I walked my dog. Their in-ground nests must be flooding. Avoid them as much as you can at this time of year...and give thanks for the first cold snap, which will take care of the pesky, stinging workers.
Rain is a wonderful thing, a gift for gardeners, and I am always thankful when I hear the beautiful song it sings as it courses through the gutters on my house. I know that it heralds good growth to come and a beautiful garden. But too much rain can make plants sick just as too much candy can give you a stomach ache. Too much of any good thing is...well, too much. 

Here's to rain...and sunny skies ahead!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Homemade Garden Remedies

As you're perusing your favorite social media outlets, you may spot pretty pictures touting this homemade weed killer or that remedy for mildew and fungus on plants. Before gathering the ingredients and dousing your plants, STOP! While homemade remedies may be fine, it's important to "do your homework" and research any remedies you see shared on social media.

Why It's Important to Research Homemade Garden Remedies

I was speaking with a friend the other day who said that her impatiens had died. We chatted for a while as I tried to diagnose the problem. It wasn't until she mentioned that she had whipped up a batch of homemade weed killer that I realized the problem. She's sprayed her plants with almost pure saltwater!

"But it's meant to kill the weeds," she protested when I broke the news to her that her homemade weed killer may have also killed her flowers.

While that's true, spraying your garden beds with such a homemade mixture actually sows salt into the soil. Do you remember how, in ancient times, invading armies would sow salt into fields to starve out the population? That's because salt kills plants and makes it impossible for new ones to grow.

Now this particular homemade remedy may have been fine to kill weeds in sidewalk cracks, but it wasn't a great idea to use it on her annual flowers. The same goes for many of the "miracle" cures I see touted all the time on social media. Some may work, some may not, but all should be used with the same care you would take if you bought chemicals at the store to spray on your garden.

Before using any homemade remedies in the garden, take the following steps to do your homework. Your plants will thank you for it.

  • Read the instructions carefully: Many of these social media posts are in the form of pictures with just a few lines of text. Use a search engine to research the remedy thoroughly. Read pros and cons, if you can, or any cautions.
  • Search the Cooperative Extension sites to see if they've tested the remedies: You can do this by typing your search query into your favorite search engine, then typing " + ext " after it. This returns only Cooperative Extension websites. The Extension conducts thorough, scientific research into many areas. That remedy everyone is raving about may have been tested by actual plant pathologists or horticulturists; find out!
  • Conduct a test: Conduct your own scientific test and use the remedy on only a small section of your garden. Wait a few days or weeks to see the results. You may save a few pennies but not creating a big batch of homemade weed killer, fertilizer or fungicide. You may also save your garden by not spraying something that harms the plants!

Just because something says "organic" doesn't mean it is without risks. After all, things like poison ivy are "organic" and "natural", but you wouldn't want to make a salve out of poison ivy sap. The same goes for organic, homemade remedies. Many offer useful applications in the garden, but do use care and common sense. 

In this day and age, when anyone can share anything with the click of a mouse, a lot of misinformation gets into your news stream. By searching on Cooperative Extension research, testing remedies, and using your common sense, you'll save yourself a lot of heartaches and headaches in the garden.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Too Many Tomatoes? No Such Thing!

I never thought I'd say it, but this year we almost have too many tomatoes. I blame fellow Master Gardener Liz D., who ran a great workshop this spring on how to grow tomatoes. Not only did I walk away with new knowledge on how to grow great tomatoes but some of her green thumb must have rubbed off on me. This year's tomato crop is a whopper, and we can't eat them fast enough to keep up with the harvest.

If nature has been especially generous to you this summer and you're looking at a bumper crop of tomatoes, you have several options for storing the harvest. There are also some local options for giving away tomatoes that will do both your heart and the health of someone in the community some good!

Freezing Tomatoes
Tomatoes can be frozen and used later in soups and stews. They must be blanched and peeled, then frozen without their skins. To learn how to freeze tomatoes properly, this article from the Nebraska Cooperative Extension provide step-by-step instructions. (Hint: Use freezer-safe plastic bags and write the date when you froze the tomatoes on the outside of the bag with a waterproof magic marker. This way, you can use the oldest ones first during the winter as you are cooking with your frozen tomatoes.)

Canning Tomatoes
The art and science of canning has come a long way from your grandma's day. If you're scared you might poison someone, don't be. I was convinced I'd make a ton of mistakes and yes, I've made some over the years, but by and large, my canned foods are a big hit here at home. You can can whole tomatoes or make juice, salsa, ketchup, spaghetti sauce and more. It's a great idea to take a canning and food preservation class from your local Cooperative Extension office if you've never done any home canning before. Books can also be a lifesaver and teach you step-by-step how to can all sorts of garden produce, including tomatoes.

Dried Tomatoes
If you have a food dehydrator, follow the instructions to dry your tomatoes. Use the dried tomatoes in any recipe that calls for sun-dried tomatoes. Pasta recipes are especially delicious with some dried tomatoes tossed in!

Give to Friends
If you have non-gardening friends, they'll certainly appreciate a bag of juicy tomatoes. Ask friends at work or at other social gatherings if they would like tomatoes. You'll probably have more requests than you can accommodate.

Give to Food Shelters
Many local food banks accept donations of fresh produce, so if your garden has blessed you with abundance, consider blessing others with healthy fresh vegetables. Search your community for links to food panties run by the town or local churches. Many church food pantries accept donations of fresh vegetables and eggs, which are in turn distributed directly to local families.

Too many tomatoes? That's a problem many people would love to have. If you're drowning under a wave of tomatoes this summer, use one or more of these options to share the bounty or enjoy it later. When January arrives with its ice, snow and cold, you'll be thankful for that taste of summer stored in your pantry or freezer.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

What's Eating My Sunflower?

Yesterday morning, I went outside to take a look at my sunflowers and saw that many of them appeared damaged. The petals were pulled off and scattered on the ground. The central disk, full of beautiful flowers ready to be fertilized into seeds, was half chewed away. What could be causing this?

My sunflowers are planted in two spots in the garden. The first section of sunflowers flanks a southern-facing wall of my home. Deer don't venture that close to the house, and neither do squirrels. The other section of sunflowers is in my vegetable garden, which is fenced off and so far (knock wood) the deer haven't found it yet. So what's eating my sunflowers?

Channeling my inner Sherlock Holmes, I decided to visit the garden again later this morning. Very quickly the culprit was revealed: the American Goldfinch.

This little bird, about the size of the sparrow, loves seeds. Flocks of goldfinch are descending on my sunflowers. Without waiting for the seeds to form, or perhaps enjoying the nascent seeds developing amidst the sunflowers, they're pulling the petals off and pecking with their sharp beaks at the sunflowers.  My flowers look like this:

Sunflower pecked apart by visiting goldfinches.

You know, as far as problems go, this is one problem I actually don't mind having. Yes, my sunflowers look bedraggled. Yes, the seeds I carefully dry and store to feed the birds in the winter are already consumed. Well, at least they're going to their intended customers! I normally dry the sunflower heads and hang them up among the trees on my property for the wintertime birds, but if they want to eat them now....well, what's a gardener to do?

It just goes to show you that not every "problem" with your flowers is caused by insects or by diseases. Sometimes animals and birds leave their mark on your garden, too. You can scare birds away with various devices, but even my cat, chattering away at the goldfinches from behind the safety of the windows, doesn't deter the hungry birds. I'll just chalk this one up to the birds and let them enjoy the feast!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Beat the Heat with Hot Weather Gardening Tips

I don't know about you, but I'm not a huge fan of hot weather. Why did I move to the south, you ask? Peace, quiet, gorgeous area...and room to garden, plus a longer gardening season. But the trade off? 90+ degree days in June. June!

The garden beckons, and with all the thunderstorms over the past two weeks and approximately 2 inches of rain per week, the plants are flourishing. Unfortunately, so too are the weeds. I've got weeds growing on top of weeds. The tomatoes need to be staked, the asparagus need to be staked, the remaining lettuce pulled...and I'm delaying all of this because of the heat. I'd rather stay cool in my air conditioned office and write about gardening than venture into the oven known as south central Virginia in summer and pull a few weeds!

There are ways, however, that you can stay cool in the gardening while you work. Most are common sense, but they bear repeating:

  1. Use the early morning hours from dawn until about 10 a.m. to your advantage. If your garden is shady during these hours, it should stay pleasantly cool.
  2. If you can't garden in the early morning hours, try gardening in the evening just before and after sunset. Wear plenty of mosquito repellent!
  3. Wear a hat, loose clothing, and light-colored clothing. Think of how people in desert climates dress - they dress to cool their bodies and allow perspiration to evaporate.
  4. Drink plenty of water. Keep a water bottle with you in the garden and stop frequently for water breaks.
  5. If you must garden during the heat of the day, take plenty of breaks. Sit in the shade for a while or go back inside to cool off, take a drink of cold water, and rest for a bit before returning to your work.
Gardening during the summer months can be a sticky venture, but with these tips, you can "keep your cool" and enjoy your garden.

Monday, June 1, 2015

June Gardening Tasks

June is the month when Virginia gardeners can breathe a little sigh of relief, kick off their shoes, and relax on the chaise lounge with a sweet tea, admiring their handiwork. The hard-work days of May have passed, and the HHH days of July - that's hazy, hot and humid - are still a dream away. But before you put away your trowel and spade, it's time for a few more tasks.

June Gardening Tasks

  • Look for bare spots in the garden, and fill them in with the annual flowering plants.
  • Stake or cage your tomato plants to give them extra support.
  • Plant marigolds around tomato plants to help repel the tomato hornworm.
  • Harvest the last of your spring vegetables, and prepare the garden bed for your next crop by adding compost.
  • Japanese beetles make their appearance in June. The best offense is a good defense. Practice year-round integrated pest management to control for Japanese beetles at every stage of their growth.
  • This is your last chance to mark where your fall bulbs are planted, because in a few days or weeks, the tulips, daffodils and crocus will be but a memory. If you, like me, tend to dig up your bulbs accidentally, use plant markers to note where each is buried.
  • Weed regularly and apply mulch to suppress weeds and retain moisture.
  • Don't compost your weeds. Some may contain seeds. If you compost them, the compost pile's warmth might not be enough to kill the weed seeds, and they can spread further into your garden.
Enjoy your garden this June...and don't forget to water!

Friday, May 29, 2015

Fire Blight in Pear Trees

Fire blight is a serious disease in fruit trees and other ornamental plants.  The photo above shows one of my pear trees (in the front) infected with Erwinia amylovora, the bacteria that causes fire blight disease. You can recognize fire blight by the burned or blasted appearance of the tree's branches. The ends curl under too, like a shepherd's crook, and the fruit on the infected tree can be diseased, twisted, or weak.

Bacteria overwinter in infected trees, and when the sap begins to flow in the spring, the bacterial spores ooze out of the tree. Wind, rain, gardening tools and even beetles carry the spores from infected plants to healthy plants. Once a tree has the disease, there's little you can do to cure it, but a lot you can do to help the tree stay healthy on its own.

First, don't panic. Many trees can withstand some fire blight. The pear tree in my orchard shown here is seven years old, and it's probably had fire blight for five of those seven years. The pear tree behind it also had fire blight last year, but careful pruning seems to have removed most of the diseased limbs.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension office recommends the following treatment plan if you detect fire blight in your ornamental trees and shrubs:

  • Prune out the infected branches in the late summer or early fall.
  • Bury or burn the infected branches that your prune from the trees. This keeps the bacteria from spreading.
  • Sterilize pruning tools with alcohol or a bleach solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. I sterilize tools before moving on to the next tree, but if I have a seriously infected tree, I might swab down the pruners with alcohol more frequently to prevent spreading the spores into healthy tissues on the same tree.
  • Don't use high nitrogen fertilizers. This causes as flush of new growth, which the spores love.
Unfortunately, chemical controls do not work well on fire blight, so your best defense is a good offense. Planting disease-resistant varieties is a smart idea. Purdue Cooperative Extension provides a good list of varieties resistant to the disease.

I did not know about fire blight when I planted my fruit trees years ago, but thankfully it seems to be contained to only one or two trees in my orchard. As you can see from the picture below, there's hope yet - baby pears are steadily growing on my trees.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Workshop: Canning Green Beans

Learn all about canning green beans! A workshop will be held at the John Randolph Firehouse in Cumberland, Virginia, on Thursday May 21, 2015 from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Participants will learn safe canning methods for green beans. Pre-registration is required, and there's a $10 class fee. If you love to grow green beans, this class is a great opportunity to learn how to preserve the harvest.

For details, please see: Canning Green Beans Workshop

REGISTRATION by May 19, 2015 is required!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Peony Power!

There's an old, dilapidated house next to the post office in Prospect, Virginia that looks careworn and weathered. The white clapboard siding is peeling; the chain link fence around the property sags. A few window panes are gone. Debris from the local bicycling trail, candy wrappers from weekend warriors, blows across the rough wooden boards of the front porch. It looks like any other nondescript old house except for one item of note: the peony garden. Each spring, the yard of this old home erupts into a field of nodding magenta and pink blossoms that any gardener would envy.

As someone who loves old-fashioned peonies, I marvel at the hardiness of these herbaceous perennials. Native to Asia, portions of Europe and the Western United States, peonies were once a cottage garden staple, especially during the Victorian Age, the era in which the aforementioned house was built.  They grow well in Virginia, and thrive in cooler regions, too.

While there are several types of peonies, including the shrub type that I spied at the old house and grow in my own garden, as well as tree peonies, let's talk first about the herbaceous shrub-type peonies most commonly found in Virginia gardens.

Caring for Peonies

Peonies should be planted in area that receive full sunlight, or six or more hours of bright, direct sunshine daily. Good air circulation and rich, well-drained soil are both essential for healthy peonies. 

You can purchase peonies in pots or roots only. If you plant the roots, make sure the "eyes" or growth nodes on the stem are no more than two inches deep when planted. Roots planted more deeply may not produce flowers.

Peonies may need a year or more to become established in the garden, but once they are established, a winter period of chill and cold helps them set bud. It's best to provide them with a circular support to keep the heavy flower heads from dragging the plant down after a rainstorm. Peony hoops or stakes should be used to provide optimal support.

Keep your newly planted peony well-watered the first year. It probably won't flower the first year, and may not flower the second, but it should produce flowers by the third year. Apply a balanced garden fertilizer annually. Other than that, there's not much you need to do to care for peonies.

In the fall, after the foliage dies back naturally, clip it to the ground and remove the peony supports, hoop or stake. Discard the foliage in the trash. The only disease that really plagues peonies is botrytis, a fungal disease. Practicing good garden hygiene prevents botrytis from spreading.

Ants on Peony  Bushes

If you spy ants on peony bushes, don't panic. They won't harm the flowers. Ants are naturally attracted to the sweet nectar produced by the buds and flowers. Although they can be upsetting to some gardeners, they won't eat your flowers or plants, and they can be beneficial insects. It's best to leave them alone. If you'd like to bring cut peony flowers into your home for display but you're afraid to cart a few ants in with them, spritz the flowers outside with your garden hose to knock off the ants before bringing the stems indoors.  Both the ants and your family will thank you later.

If you haven't planted peonies yet, what are you waiting for? They're easy care, beautiful herbaceous perennials that grace gardens with an old-fashioned look. If they can thrive at an abandoned house, what can they do in your well-tended yard?

Photos by Jeanne Grunert/(c) 2015 Jeanne Grunert. All rights reserved.