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March Gardening Calendar

March Gardening Calendar

March brings with it a sense of change, a feeling among all that there is light at the end of the tunnel. While there will still be plenty of cold days and nights ahead, and undoubtedly some more snow before it is all finished, all can sense that true Spring is just around the corner.

While most of us might hardly notice the passage of Fall into Winter, we all notice the first day of spring this month. Be it balmy or blustery, the first day of Spring marks a mental turning point: Warmer days are ahead. March is also a time when the pace starts to pick up for those of us who garden in the Southern Great Lakes region:

1.  If the weather stays consistently moderate, gradually start to remove mulch from early flowering perennials as they break dormancy.

2.  If you haven’t already done so, finish removing foliage and dead flower stems from your perennials beds. Also start trimming ornamental grasses: Remove the dried plumes and foliage. Place back any perennial that has heaved out of the ground.

3.  Although it might be tempting, leave the mulch and soil mounds around roses for a few weeks longer. There are still plenty of opportunities for more cold weather and snow in the weeks ahead.

4.  Continue to prune fruit trees and grapevines this month. Finish this task by the second week of the month at the latest.

5.  When the temperatures are above 50, apply dormant oil spray to fruit trees and deciduous ornamental shrubs and trees.

6.  Look around your yard and see where things are starting to grow. Look to see where similar plants are still dormant. These are microclimates, and by observing frost patterns and where plants break dormancy early or not, you can use this information when siting new plants.

7.  Continue to start seeds indoors.

8.  Towards the end of the month, start removing your windbreaks around such plants as your rhododendrons. Keep your hydrangeas macrophyllas covered a little while longer.

9.  As leaves of your spring flowering bulbs start to emerge, scratch in a little bone meal or organic fertilizer in the soil around these plants.

10. Get the lawnmower and other power tools ready to go for the upcoming season. The time to mow will come sooner than you think!

11. Take advantage of pre-season sales to purchase yard maintenance equipment.

12. If you didn’t do this last fall, now is a good time to empty your soil from your pots and hanging baskets. Add the old soil to the compost pile or your gardens. Clean and sterilize your containers before using, and buy new containers while the selection is still good.

13. Get bids for any big landscaping projects. If you use a lawn service, now is a good time to get bids from several different services before the busy season begins.

14. Maintain your cold frame. Keep it open on warm, sunny days to prevent the plants from getting too warm.

15. Continue to take branches of early spring flowering bushes in for forcing. The closer to the time when they normally bloom, the easier they are to force.

16. Pot up some pansies for early outdoor color. They can stand it down to about 30 degrees. Bring them up to the porch or another protected spot if the temperatures threaten to dip lower.

17. Scratch in some cottonseed meal or other organic fertilizer around your azaleas and rhododendrons as their buds begin to swell.

18. Start your summer bulbs indoors such as dahlias and begonias the last two weeks of this month.

19. Don’t forget to keep feeding the birds!

20. Take in a flower show. Many cities host many home and garden shows. It is a great way to spend a weekend day. Also take a simple walk around the yard to see what’s cookin’. You might spy a crocus or more already in bloom!

Spotlight plant of the month for March: Crocus

Spotlight plant of the month for March: Crocus

 

Crocus

Crocus

Many people have their own ways of measuring when the change over to spring is imminent. Perhaps it is the migration of the geese. In California, it might be the return of the swallows at Capistrano. For me, it is when the first cheery blooms of the crocus appear.

True, there are plants that have already started to bloom by the time the crocus get with the program: Winter aconite, snowdrops, and even some shrubs have already started to bloom in our region. But, my personal sign that the arrival of spring is just around the corner is when these friendly little cupped flowers start strutting their stuff.

Crocus come in what my kids used to call, “Easter colors”:  Sky blue, striped purple on lavender, white, lavender, deepest purple, and buttery yellow, and all with the pretty orange stamens. They probably remind me so much of Easter merely by their colors, that this is the reason why I consider them to be spring’s calling card.

Crocus vernus, or Dutch crocus, are those huge, goblet-shaped crocus that most of us are familiar with. Planted in drifts, they are a sight for sore eyes after a long, harsh winter. Planted in the lawn, they are stunning! The only drawback is that lawns cannot be mowed for about six weeks after bloom time. The crocus are forming little cormlets. They are also storing food in the mother corms for next year’s bulbs. That is not a practical situation for many homeowners. So, naturalize them in the woods, or in the flower beds. They are just as stunning!

Those little bunching crocus, Crocus chrysanathus, or the Snow Crocus, have daintier flowers and are also smaller than the Dutch crocus. They are little miniature bouquets. Usually at least three flowers will break from one corm. They are also a bit earlier to bloom than the larger Dutch varieties. Another small variety to consider is Crocus tommasinianus, which sports many lovely blue and purple flowers.

Looks are deceiving! These perky little posies are anything but dainty! Often, as is usual in this neck of the woods, a warm stretch of weather late in the winter will coax them into blooming. Just as they start to hit their stride, they will often get walloped by a cold snap or snowstorm. Or so it may seem.

These little plants are so resilient, that only a truly bitter spell will cut their season short. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen very often this time of the year. Dips into the low twenties and snow on the plants usually won’t stop them once their blooming cycle is underway. When I think about it, that is precisely why I consider them to be the true heralds of spring!

Planting is easy:  Just plant them in the fall, and the following spring, they will arrive. The first year they might wake up a little later than usual, but after that, they will greet you when you need that shot-in-the arm the most! Like any endearing plant, they will spread and grow, but never become a nuisance. What a better way to say goodbye to winter and hello to spring than with a few cheerful crocus!

A Seed Starting Primer

A Seed Starting Primer

Seed Starting

Sooner or later, many gardeners will venture into the realm of seed starting. Many will also become a bit discouraged. While it is true that there is more to seed starting than popping a few seeds into moistened starting media, seed starting need not intimidate anyone. I encourage everyone to try their hand at starting a few plants this year “from scratch”. It is rewarding, and a great way to while away the waning days of winter.

Why start your own seeds when there are so many wonderful greenhouses, garden centers, and other places where you can purchase started plants? For me, the biggest factor is money. Seeds are less expensive than purchasing young plants or seedlings. Close on the heals of saving money is variety. Many new plant varieties simply are not available as started plants. If you want to grow unusual vegetables, annuals, or perennials, oftentimes seed starting is the only option for the home gardener to acquire these unusual or newer varieties of plants.

For a basic outline on how to start seeds, there are several things that must be present to ensure success: proper containers, proper growing media, proper moisture, proper light, proper temperature, good air circulation. A big must is cleanliness. Just as you would not dare can preserves or anything for that matter in jars with lids that were not absolutely sterile and clean, you must follow the same idea with seed starting. Containers must be clean and free of fungus spores, planting medium must be sterile, etc. The idea is to prevent disease formation in young seedlings, particularly damping off.

I generally use peat pots filled with moistened sterile soilless mix. I also use cell packs or 2×2 plastic starting pots. If I use containers that have been used previously, I clean them and then dip them in a solution of bleach and water, 1-2 Tbsp of household bleach to the gallon. Dip the scrubbed containers in this solution to kill any spores, then let dry thoroughly. If you are using old margarine tubs, whipped topping containers, be sure to poke at least three or four holes in the bottoms to allow for drainage. Don’t make the holes too large, though; the idea is to maintain drainage, but not so large that water and planting mix drain out. A good tool for doing this is an awl or the tip of a hot glue gun. Just use the tip, don’t force the larger part of the barrel tip through.

Start planning what you want to grow and purchase the seeds as early as possible. Some seeds require extensive time indoors for germination and growing. Be sure to refer to a seed-starting chart for length of time and the best method for germination and growing on indoors. Be aware that some seeds require pre-chilling, or stratification. Some seeds require nicking the surface, scarification, or benefit by soaking for a while before sowing. Some require bottom heat, and some require total darkness. Read up before purchasing so you will be prepared on how to properly start your chosen plants. If you are in a garden center, read the backs of the seed packet labels for the proper method and time to start seeds.

Find out what your average last frost date is. If a given variety of seed needs to be started 10 to 12 weeks before the last frost date, count back that time to when you can safely plant the seeds. For example, if April 30 is your last average frost date, then from about February 12 to 19 would be about right for something requiring 10 to 12 weeks for starting indoors.

Now for planting mixes or medium: Forget about sterilizing soil in the oven. It is messy, not the best medium for indoor seed starting, and stinks to high heaven while sterilizing! Be sure to use a good, sterile seed starting mix. I used to blend my own with milled sphagnum moss, perlite, vermiculite, and whatever else. Now, I am just as content to let others blend a good mix, and I am willing to pay the price. Most soilless mixes are relatively inexpensive, so why bother with some magic blend? My time is precious, as I am sure yours is, too. Follow the directions on the bag for moistening the medium, and fill your containers, as directed.

The best “tool” for starting some of the larger seeds is a pencil. Pop the point into the medium the required depth, and add the seed. Cover with sifted medium and spritz the top to moisten, not douse! For finer seed, adding a little sand to the seed packet will help to evenly distribute the seeds when planting. Press dust like seeds onto the moistened surface. Place your containers on trays, and add saran wrap or some other plastic wrap over the top of the containers and trays to seal in the moisture. Now, bottom heat is very helpful to absolutely necessary in order for most seed to germinate. You can supply bottom heat with a heating mat, or place trays of planted pots on a water heater or my favorite, on top of the refrigerator. Keep your plantings away from cold windowsills or drafty areas. If total darkness is required, then place newspaper on top of the plastic-covered containers, or place them into a dark trash bag before placing on top of the refrigerator. Check for signs of germination. When most of the seeds have sprouted and are showing their first set of leaves, or seed leaves, remove the plastic cover. Keep them moist, not soggy. Now is the time to add supplemental lighting.

Lighting is crucial. If you do not have a greenhouse or extremely bright southern exposure, you will need supplemental lighting. There are many different lights that can be used. Flourescent lights and grow lights that offer full spectrum lighting are the best choices for a reasonable price. LED lights are available, but often costly. Forget standard incandescent light bulbs. They do not supply the lighting required for strong plant formation and they give off too much heat. You can purchase pre-wired light stands for megabucks, or you can rig your own system.  I have a storage shelf system that I bought from a discount store for under $30. I used thin plywood panels cut to the size of the shelves, screwed in cup hooks, and added chains to suspend the attached lights so I could raise and lower them as needed over the seedlings. It is inexpensive and has served a good purpose for many years. I have used both grow lights and fluorescent lighting with this system with good success. When I use fluorescent, I combine one warm light with one cool light tube for the proper light spectrum. Also, I change my light tubes  every other year. After a while, the light spectrum does decline, although it might not be apparent to the naked eye.

When using a lighting system, keep a few principles in mind: Aim for about twelve hours of supplemental lighting per day. Just be sure the lighting is within a few inches, not feet, of the tops of your seedlings. As your plants continue continue to grow, the lights can be raised up a bit. Plants should be within two to three inches of the light source, but not touching.

If you do choose to use a bright windowsill, keep an eye out for cold drafts and spindly growth. Also, you will need to rotate your plants every day to keep them growing straight, as they will tend to bend towards the light source from your windows.

Once seedlings start to develop true leaves, thinning becomes an issue. If seedlings are not properly thinned, they are more susceptible to diseases such as damping off and will be competing with each other. Snip the excess seedlings with a pair of scissors so the remaining seedlings will not be disturbed.

Water from the bottom of your pots, and check the moisture levels every day. Warm winter homes means dry air. Seedlings will become stressed if they are allowed to dry out excessively. While they do not require the constant moisture level as starting seeds do, seedlings do require even, not soggy moisture.

Once the seedlings are up and running, so to speak, they will need to be thinned. Thinning assures that the strongest plants grow on and helps prevent the spread of disease and allows for better circulation as they grow on. Thin when the first true sets of leaves develop.

After the first true sets of leaves arrive, your seedlings will require food. Feed a half-strength solution of sea kelp, fish emulsion, or complete organic fertilizer. Add by bottom watering. As the plants develop, many will appreciate a foliar feeding as well.You may need to transplant your seedlings several times. If they become pot-bound or overly big for their containers, they will begin to suffer and weaken, so this is an essential step. Transplant them into larger containers and use more of the soilless medium. You may need to transplant your seedlings several times. If they become pot-bound or too big for their containers, they will begin to suffer and weaken, so this is an essential step. Transplant them into larger containers and use more of the soilless medium.

Keep good air circulation between your seedlings. Again, this helps prevent the spread of disease.

When it is time to transplant, you will need to harden off your seedlings. Do this by moving them outside for a few hours each day. Put them in a shaded, protected area. Gradually increase the time outdoors and increase the exposure to sunlight until they are basically outside during the daytime hours in the same light and exposure they will be when transplanted.

You can literally save hundreds of dollars by starting your own seedlings. It is a great way to spend the waning days of winter and a sure cure for cabin fever and a great way to get in a “dose” of gardening before the main gardening season begins!

February Gardening Calendar

February Gardening Calendar

February is a month that can vary widely from year to year in the Southern Great Lakes Region. Some years, February is an extension of January, merely a flip of the calendar page. Other years, February is a preview of spring, with rainy days and a few pop-up flowers. It is really a roll of the dice; one never really knows what February might bring, or the March that follows.

Just when winter starts to wear thin, Valentine’s Day comes to the rescue. Young and old alike participate in the exchange of Valentine cards, gifts, dinners, and nights out on the town. Whatever it might mean to an individual, this little holiday offers a mental break from the sameness of routine that winter brings.

Many of the same gardening chores of January follow into February. But, this is also the time of year when the tide starts to turn for the gardener. Some plants can be started for the upcoming spring season, and there are some other chores that can be tackled towards the end of the month. Let’s see what the short month of February brings:

1.  Continue to order early from mail order sources. Many choice plant items sell out quickly, and many early ordering bonuses end in February.

2.  Continue to bring in pre-chilled pots of spring flowering bulbs for early season floral displays.

3.  If the snow melts and the lawn in matted, gently rake up the lawn to help get air circulation down to the crowns of the grass plants.

4.  Continue to fill bird feeders and maintain an open-water source of drinking water for the birds.

5.  Inspect flowerbeds during the thaw cycles for signs of frost heave. Place the plants back into the ground, and when the ground refreezes, apply mulch.

6.  Remove any storm-damaged branches from trees and shrubs, pruning away cleanly.

7.  Towards the end of the month and into March, pruning can begin now on deciduous trees, fruit trees, and grapes.

8.  Reapply anti-desiccant to broadleaf evergreens and exposed rose canes one more time. Do this when the temperature is above 40 degrees.

9.  Continue to inspect young trees for rodent and rabbit damage. Make sure tree wraps and tree guards are holding up to winter weather. Inspect windbreaks as well.

10. Crack open coldframes on sunny, warm days to vent. Again, check for any signs of trouble such as too wet, too dry conditions, diseases, etc.

11. Continue to check tubers, corms, and other summer “bulbs” for disease and excessive drying out. Mist the holding medium and bulbs if they are becoming too dry.

12. Towards the end of the month, branches of many early flowering shrubs such as forsythia and pussy willow can be taken indoors for forcing.

13. Check houseplants for heat stress. Maintain adequate humidity and light levels. Water appropriately.

14. Continue to remove newly fallen snow from evergreen branches and other shrubs and trees that can suffer breakage from the weight of the snow.

15. Some seeds of early plants or those plants that require a long indoor growth period can be started. These include pansies, seed geraniums, and seed-started begonias. Get a book or magazine with a timetable to help determine when to start seeds. For example, if your average last frost date is April 20 and a plant requires twelve weeks before the last frost date to reach transplant size, count back those twelve weeks from April 20 to determine when to start seeds.

Some of my favorite seed sources

Herbs: basil, scallion

Various Veggies

I figured this could go hand-in-hand with my posting about online and mail order shopping.

Here are some really great places to do a bit of winter dreaming and buying for your gardening needs:

Pinetree Seeds

It would be hard to top this company. A tremendous selection of vegetables, spices, herbs, flowers, and and and!!

The best things after the quality and wealth of offerings are the prices. Many of the seed packets offered are less than a dollar, many are an ounce or more of seeds, you simply cannot go wrong here!!

Reimer Seeds

Reimer Seeds, based out of North Carolina, is a great all-around seed source. Offering many favorites and some unusual seeds at fair prices, Reimer Seeds offers a loyalty points programs for customers to save even more on future orders.

The Cook’s Garden

From Warminster, PA, The Cook’s Garden is, indeed as its site states, ” Dedicated to cooks who love to garden and gardeners who love to cook.”

Emphasis here is on culinary herbs, vegetables, edible flowers, and anything for the gardener who also enjoys cooking. There are also other flowers and plants available. An added bonus: Recipes for the gourmet gardener as well.

Artistic Gardens/Le Jardin du Gourmet

If you are like me, a big bone of contention is receiving a humongous packet of seeds when only a few are needed. Sometimes they carry over for another year, sometimes, they don’t despite seed saving efforts.

Artistic Gardens/Le Jardin du Gourmet, offers many varieties not found elsewhere for the dedicated kitchen gardener. Seed packs for samples start at 35 cents apiece. This makes it very easy to buy many different “bits of this and that.” Also offered are flowers and herbs, bulbs and plants.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed

Sooner or later, most gardeners will try their hand at old and proven varieties of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. Baker Creek offers many old varieties, many with great disease resistance and old-time color, fragrance, form, and flavor. I highly recommend them!

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Another great company with a good reputation. Johnny’s Selected Seeds offers many great offerings across the spectrum. It is one of the few places where I was able to find Hungarian Paprika Peppers. Perhaps a bit more expensive than some other places, it is still competitive and Johnny’s seeds have never failed to grow for me. Well worth the price.

Pantry Garden Herbs

If you love herbs, this is THE place to browse! The selection is great, the prices are fair. For herbal gardeners everywhere. I highly recommend this site!


January Gardening Calendar

January Gardening Calendar

January is a quiet month for gardeners in the Southern Great Lakes Region. The flurry of the holiday season has passed. Long nights and short days bring out the urge in some to nestle in and wait out the worst of winter weather. Others relish the season with outdoor activities: Ice hockey, ice fishing, skiing, and tobogganing are among the activities that residents of the region take pleasure in. For indoor types, college and high school basketball rules. For armchair quarterbacks, there are the playoffs leading up to the big Superbowl weekend.

While not much is happening outside, there are still gardening and maintenance chores that can and need to be tackled this time of the year:

1.  Trim the branches off your Christmas tree and use the boughs for mulch. Or, you can set the tree outside and add fruits and suet balls and other goodies for the birds and other wildlife to enjoy.

2.  Avoid walking on lawns when there is snowpack to prevent compaction and snow mold later in the season.

3.  Avoid the use of salt-based products on sidewalks and drives. Sand or cat litter provides good traction on slick spots without damage to lawn, ornamentals, or concrete.

4.  Inspect tree trunks for rodent and winter damage. If you haven’t already done so, time’s a-wastin’ to add tree wrap and mesh guards to prevent girdling and other damage by rabbits and rodents.

5.  Cleanly prune any storm-damaged branches from trees and shrubs.

6.  Inspect flowerbeds during the January thaw for signs of frost heave. Place the plants back into the ground, and when the ground refreezes, apply mulch.

7.  Check the cold frame for signs of trouble. On warm, sunny days, vent the cold frame.

8.  If the winter is not particularly snowy, check plants such as rhododendrons and other broadleaf evergreens for signs of dehydration. If the temperatures are above freezing and these plants are dry, water them. Also, reapply an anti-desiccant to your evergreens to prevent excessive moisture loss. Do this on a day above 40 degrees.

9.  Gently remove freshly fallen snow from evergreens to prevent limbs from breaking.

10. Start bringing in a few pots of forced bulbs for a touch of spring.

11. Remove snow dams from eaves to prevent damage to your eaves and roof.

12. Start ordering early from mail order sources for best selection.

13. Check seed-starting supplies. Replace old fluorescent or grow lights before the seed starting season begins.

14. On warm days, take a look at the bare bones of your garden structure. See where plants can be placed, which plants might need to be moved, and write down your thoughts and ideas for future reference when the planting season begins.

15. Check houseplants for heat stress. Maintain adequate humidity and light levels. Water appropriately.

16. Houseplants, especially tropicals, might suffer cold injury if they are placed too close to window panes during the winter. Move them back a few inches, and make sure their leaves are not touching the glass.

17. Continue to feed the birds! Think about adding a birdbath heater to the birdbath so birds can find a source of fresh water to drink.

18. Inspect summer tubers, corms, and bulbs. If they look like they are drying, spritz them with a little water. If they are in a medium such as sand or peat, moisten that as well. Discard any diseased or dead bulbs, etc.

19. Can’t afford a trip to Florida or Hawaii? Find out where you can take a day trip to a conservatory. Many large and medium sized cities in the region have indoor botanical gardens that offer a nice escape for those of us who need to see some green and smell the organic scents of growing plants and soil.

For The Gardener: Online/Mail Order Shopping Tips

For The Gardener:  Online/Mail Order Shopping Tips

 

Garden Catalogs

Garden Catalogs

Winter here in the north is a tough season for many gardeners. Outdoor gardening chores slow way down this time of the year and it’s easy for us outdoor types to go a bit stir crazy. This time of year would be a true Purgatory here on Earth  it were not for the wonderful mail order catalogs and the retail gardening sites found on the Internet. Indeed, one of the most pleasant “gardening” activities during these cold months is browsing through the various mail order catalogs as they arrive in the mail or surfing the online nurseries and planning the additions for the coming year’s garden.

Mail order and online ordering can be a blessing or a curse, so it pays to go forth armed with a little knowledge and wisdom before making purchases. Here are a few tips to help you when you do decide to order those newest additions for your yard and garden:

Be aware that most of these catalogs and updated web sites are coming right at the time when we crave getting back into the swing of gardening the most. I always try to set a buying limit before I even open a link to a site or open one of those tempting catalogs that arrive in the mail. I also try to refer to my gardening journal for ideas on what I need or to refer to my wish list for what to add to the gardens. Definitely set a budget and try to refer to your wish list before viewing an online site or opening up a single page of a catalog!  Also, set your spending limit on the high side. You will probably go over the limit a bit, at least I do. But, the shock to the pocket book will not be as severe as it would be with too low of a shopping budget or no budget at all.

Whether shopping from a mail order catalog or online, try not to gamble:  Shop from reputable sources. Most vendors are honest, but go with established companies. If you do buy from a small specialty source, order only one or two items to see what the quality of the plant material is, to see if that transaction has gone smoothly, and to see if the plant has lived up to your expectations. Definitely make a journal entry so that in the future you can refer back to the experience you’ve had with that company and its plants.

Be aware of descriptions and enhanced photos. It isn’t unusual for a vendor to post an enticing photo of  a plant and a persuasive description. They are, after all, trying to make a sale. A good salesman will always sell the sizzle, not the steak itself. A case in point are photos I’ve seen of  “blue” daylilies. Almost everyone who is into daylilies knows the Holy Grail for a daylily aficionado is the elusive true-blue daylily.  Genetically, this is the only color daylilies cannot produce. Breeders have come close, but there is always a pink or red tone to the blue–more a mauve or purple. Yet, it isn’t uncommon to see enhanced photos showing a true blue tone to a particular cultivar.  This is particularly true of less than reputable vendors.

Along with that, beware of vendors who use catchy names for plants. An example is for creeping thyme. I’ve seen it called, “Walk on me plant”.  Common names are fine, botanical names are better. Often the vendors with catchy, uncommon names for a plant are also not known for good plants, products, or service.

Read the policies of the company. Often this information is on the same page as the order form. See if there is a daytime phone number you can call if you have any questions before you place your order. For online shopping, find out if there is a phone number and/or an e-mail address. Clear up any questions before you commit to a purchase! Read plant guarantees carefully. Some firms will not guarantee a plant after the first growing season. Some will offer money-back guarantees, others want the culprit plant shipped back to them, and finally, others will offer replacement plants or credits. One other thing: You must follow the rules exactly. If you drown a plant or fail to plant it promptly or in conditions that are contributing factors to its demise, you most likely won’t receive a refund, credit, or replacement. Most if not all nurseries and garden centers will only honor their guarantees if the gardener has followed planting instructions and expected cultural practices.

Use wisdom and care. You must be aware of your zone and your particular growing conditions. If a plant loves zone 7 conditions and you live in South Bend, Indiana, you are on your own. Yes, we all push the zone limits, but seasoned gardeners who do this are very realistic and are aware that the plant is out of its normal range. Overall, gardeners are gamblers. But, we hedge our bets and offer the best possible conditions and protection for that plant. Most companies state the zone conditions of a particular plant with the plant or seed descriptions. If you live in zone 5 and order zone 7 plants, you might not get a refund or replacement. Also don’t buy a ton of out-of-zone plants for your garden. One or two, here and there only. Stick with plants that will do well in your zone. Along the same idea, try to buy from sources that share a similar growing climate, particularly for shrubs and plants. A saucer magnolia grown in Georgia may not be able to survive a winter in a zone 5a to 6a region. However, bend the rules. You sometimes have to buy a plant that was grown in an area of warmer or dramatically different climate or growing conditions. Do grow that plant in a protected bed for the first two or three seasons to get it acclimated to your area before placing it in its permanent position.

Shop locally. Many garden centers and nurseries offer the same stock or items found online and in catalogs. For example, if you can find Burpee seeds on a rack locally, purchase them locally. If you can find a particular perennial, shrub, or tree locally, ditto. Reserve shopping online and via mail order for new or unusual plants and varieties. However, if you are on a budget and can’t afford a large shrub or tree grown locally and you simply must have it, then it makes sense to buy a smaller plant via mail order or online.

Check out the bottom line dollar figures for shipping and handling as well as the quantity, size, and price of your chosen plants or seeds. Do comparison shopping between the different catalogs and online sources. Also check for early bird specials, quantity discounts, and discounts for the amount spent.

Many print catalogs are also available online. Often a catalog that costs a few dollars via mail will be offering the same stock online and you can save the cost of paying for a catalog. Many offer PayPal or other alternatives to credit card purchases as well.

Keep a copy of your order and any order numbers, the contact person you have spoken with in any telephone conservations, and copies of your canceled check, credit card statement, money orders, or PayPal transactions. You might need all of this information in case of a refund request or dispute.

Fill out your orders on a separate sheet, before filling out an order form. Put it aside for a few days. If you have really blown your budget, go back to the orders every few days and take a long, hard look to pare it down a bit. After you feel comfortable with your order, mail it out or complete the online order. Sit back, relax, and wait for the adventure of “Christmas in April” when all of your plant purchases start to arrive!

One last point: Read reviews of different mail order/online businesses before purchasing. One of the best sources for consumer reviews is the The Garden Watchdog. Gardeners are quick to praise or criticize a nursery or garden supplier based on their experiences. To find out about a particular company, go to this link:  Garden Watchdog

Part of the fun of gardening is mail ordering and online shopping. It is often the best way to find seeds or plants that are not available locally. Use a little wisdom and common sense. You can prevent the possibility of an unpleasant shopping experience and still be able to have that showcase garden of your dreams!

Winter Gardening

Winter Gardening

Winter Garden

The Winter Garden

It might seem surprising to some, but as gardeners living here know, winter is not a static time for garden-related activities in the southern Great Lakes region.Along with planning this year’s gardens, there are many tasks that need our attention during the winter season.

It’s a good time to sharpen tools and to check and tune-up power equipment such as mowers and trimmers. With winter in full force, one can beat the rush and be well prepared for the start of the spring season.

January and February are the best times to order seeds, plants, and supplies from mail order sources. The selection is better and the gardener can take advantage of early bird specials. By ordering early, we are in good position to get exactly what we want to plant and grow this year.

Winter is the time of year when thaw and heave cycles can wreak havoc with perennial plants. On days when the snow has receded, we can stroll the grounds and check plants for heaving and place them back into the ground. Placing more mulch over the plants will prevent further heaving. This helps to keep the ground at a constant temperature, and it prevents premature dormancy break. Mulch can be removed in the spring.

An ideal time to spray broadleaf and newly planted evergreens with an anti-transpirant is when the temperature is above 35 or 40 degrees. This will help prevent “dehydration” from arid winter winds. If woody plants have been in the yard less than a year, it won’t hurt to take out the hoses and water these new shrubs and trees if the ground is too dry. The roots are still becoming established and the plants will need to take a drink despite the cold. Just remember to disconnect the hoses from the faucet to prevent damage to plumbing and hoses when watering tasks are done!

As the season progresses, there are pruning chores that can be undertaken. Many ornamentals, fruiting trees, and grapes are best pruned in late winter while still dormant. Prune for shape and to remove watersprouts and suckers from fruit trees. Try to maintain an open framework to these trees, to allow sunlight to reach in. Train your grapes, remove excess vines and cut back the best growing limbs to the buds that will grow this year’s crops. Remove old fruiting branches. Refer to a pruning guide or contact your county extension agent for the best method and time to prune these plants. Be careful when pruning: You don’t want to prune away too much and sacrifice blooms on those plants that flower on old wood!

Dormant oil spray can be applied to ornamentals and fruit trees before dormancy breaks. Late winter is an ideal time to do this. Dormant oil spray helps smother scale and other overwintering insects. Remember to read the application directions for the proper method and time/temperature for applying this.

When there are significant or heavy snowfalls, remove snow loads from evergreens by gently brushing off the newly fallen snow. Do this by brushing upwards to prevent breaking limbs and branches. After ice storms and other bad weather, check for torn limbs on trees and bushes. Cleanly prune away those branches.

You can get a jump-start on the growing season by starting seeds. Seeds require different starting times. Some require pre-chilling or heat, light or dark, for germination to take place. Refer to the instructions on the seed packets for successfully starting seeds. Learn what your average last frost date is, and count back from that point to determine the number of weeks of growing that needs to be done indoors before hardening off and planting outdoors.

We need to look after our gardening partners, the birds. Don’t forget to keep birdfeeders filled during these cold months and well into spring. Birds also need a constant and dependable source of water. Try to keep an open source of drinking water handy. A birdbath heater is a worthwhile investment for this purpose.

Above all else, don’t miss an opportunity on balmier days to take a walk through your winter gardens. The winter garden has a stark beauty not seen during the rest of the year. It is always surprising to see how many plants are still green during this season! There is a great joy and hope when seeing the sprouts of the crocuses and daffodils pushing their way out of the ground, of hearing birds sing, and of the freshness of the crisp winter air.

The 2011 All-America Selection Winners

The 2011 All-America Selection Winners

All-America Selections are plants that have been rigorously tested in display gardens across the US. These plants are tested in different climates, soils, and growing conditions. They are then evaluated for performance. The best of the best is awarded the AAS endorsement annually. Look for these winning selections in garden centers and through mail order seed and plant retailers.

And now, sound the turmpets! Here are the 2011 AAS winners:

Gaillardia ‘Arizona Apricot’
2011 AAS Flower Award Winner

Gaillardia ‘Arizona Apricot’

Gaillardia ‘Arizona Apricot’ 2011 AAS Flower Award Winner

Gaillardia ‘Arizona Apricot’ is a new agaillardia featuring an all-new apricot color, edged in yellow. The plants are only 12 inches tall and compact, making this a great border or container flower choice. The foliage is a bright green which contrasts with the flowers quite nicely. The flowers range from 3 to 3.5 inches acrss. Bloom time is from early summer to autumn. The first flowers form in about 90 days from an indoor sowing. The plants are literally covored in blooms. Removing faded blooms will encourage a continued show.

Ornamental Kale ‘Glamour Red’
2011 AAS Cool Season Bedding Plant Award Winner

'Glamour Red' Ornamental Kale

Ornamental Kale ‘Glamour Red’ 2011 AAS Cool Season Bedding Plant Award Winner

‘Glamour Red’ is the first kale awarded the  All-America Selections award. The leaves are waxless and the colors are very intense. The leaf form is fringed and the flower head size is about 10 to 12 inches across. Average time to bloom is about 90 days from sowing. The heads will develop good color when early fall arrives and the night temps drop below 55 degrees. ‘Glamour Red’ shows good frost and disease tolerance and is sure to be a hit in the fall border or container gardens.

Salvia ‘Summer Jewel Red’
2011 AAS Bedding Plant Award Winner

Salvia ‘Summer Jewel Red’

Salvia ‘Summer Jewel Red’ 2011 AAS Bedding Plant Award Winner

Salvia ‘Summer Jewel’ is a dwarf and extremely branching plant. At full maturity, it remains about 20 inches tall. Great for the hummingbird garden, the flowers are a brilliant red color and each flower spike is covered with 1/2 inch blooms. The leaves add a dark green contrast to the intensely red blooms. Flowering isabout 50 days from sowing and the flowers hold through wind and rain. ‘Summer Jewel Red’ will add an accent of bright color to containers or gardens. Use in a grouping for dramatic impact.

Viola ‘Shangri-La Marina’
2011 AAS Cool Season Bedding Plant Award Winner

Viola ‘Shangri-La Marina’

Viola ‘Shangri-La Marina’ 2011 AAS Cool Season Bedding Plant Award Winner

For people who love their violas and pansies, this year’s winner, Viola ‘Shangri-La Marina’, offers a beautiful addition to the cool season border and containers. This viola blooms early and prolifically and sports a 6 inch mound of color with a 12 inch spread. The blooms are light blue with a dark blue face and each bloom is rimmed in white. Flowering in just 70 days from sowing, ‘Shangri-La Marina’ will provide a long season of color if sown early indoors and will also offer additional impact to fall garden displays. More resistant to frost than many others, this viola offers extended blooms during the fall and often into the following spring. Use in the garden or in containers and pots.

Pumpkin ‘Hijinks’
2011 AAS Vegetable Award Winner

Pumpkin ‘Hijinks’

Pumpkin ‘Hijinks’ 2011 AAS Vegetable Award Winner

‘Hijinks,’ is a new pumpkin with 6 to 7 pound uniformly round fruits. Great for small jack-o’-lanterns, painting, or in fall displays, this pumpkin will be a hit this fall! The vines spread to 15 feet and show great resistance to powdery mildew and high yield of fruits. ‘Hijinks’ is ready to harvest earlier than many other pumpkins, about 100 days from an indoor sowing or 85 days from transplants.

Tomato ‘Lizzano’
2011 AAS Vegetable Award Winner

Tomato ‘Lizzano’

Tomato ‘Lizzano’ 2011 AAS Vegetable Award Winner

‘Lizzano’ is an excellent cherry tomato suited to the container or hanging basket. It is a strongly growing semi-determinate tomato. Ultimate height is 16 to 20 inches with a spread of 20 inches. The fruits are small, about 1 inch in diameter, and are sweet and prolific. The fruits set continuously for extended harvests. The plants start to produce about 105 days from sowing or 63 days from transplant.

Tomato ‘Terenzo’
2011 AAS Vegetable Award Winner

Tomato ‘Terenzo’

Tomato ‘Terenzo’ 2011 AAS Vegetable Award Winne

‘Terenzo’ is a very sweet, standard sized cherry tomato with fruits of about 1-1/4 inch diameter. Its height is similar to ‘Lizzano’, about 16 to 20 inches tall. This tomato is excellent for container or hanging basket growing. It is a bushy or determinate variety and its fruits are resistant to cracking. Expect a high yield of fruit throughout the summer.

Spotlight Plant Of The Month For December: Christmas Cactus

Spotlight Plant Of The Month For December: Christmas Cactus

Christmas Cactus

Christmas Cactus

December offers many wonderful plants to grace our homes and to offer  the gardener on our holiday lists. One of the most interesting and beautiful of plants is the Christmas cactus. This plant has one of the more unusual of botanical names, though: Schlumbergera bridesii. No matter which name we use, common or botanical, this native of South America is quickly becoming a very popular plant to add to our indoor plant collections during the holiday season and beyond. It is a most fitting plant to feature as December’s spotlight plant.

Christmas cacti come in various shades of pink, white, and near-orange, or salmon. They offer color and a touch of the tropics when many of our homes are starved for durable blooming plants. Not a true cactus, but a succulent by nature, many make the mistake of under watering this plant.

Unlike poinsettias, which can quickly turn leggy and die, the Christmas cactus is a bit more durable. After the blooms cease, withhold water for about five or six weeks. It needs to “nap” a bit. Repot with fresh soil which is light and fertile. When new growth resumes, fertilize with a weak organic fertilizer every three weeks.

This plant likes shade in the summer and constant moisture. Not sogginess, but moisture. It makes an excellent porch plant in the shade. When the kids return to school, start to decrease the amount of water that you give it. Let it go thirsty in October. In November, keep it in a humid area, or place it on a bed of moist pebbles that do not “wick” into the pots. Water, but not too much or too often, just to keep it moist. This plant appreciates a bit more light indoors than out, but not the sunniest spot in your home.

To induce blooming, give Christmas cactus bright, indirect sunlight, and keep it in a temperature range of 55 to 60 degrees. If you have a cool, bright room, this is ideal. If the temps have to go higher, as it does in most of our homes this time of the year, keep it in a dark closet until bloom buds start to develop. You can start this process as soon as you bring the plant in from its summer vacation.

So, if you want a little different plant to share your digs with for the holidays, pick a Christmas cactus or two. I think you will be pleased.

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