Topiaries are charming, but keeping them alive can be problematic
When we think about “decking the halls” for the holiday season, most of us envision traditional greenery such as boughs of holly, evergreen wreaths, and fragrant firs or pine trees.
But in recent years, herbal ornamentals and topiaries have become bright new stars in the holiday decorating line-up.
Now that the holidays are around the corner, you’ll be seeing them everywhere from grocery stores to upscale catalogs. And it’s difficult to resist fragrant rosemary shaped like a mini Christmas tree or an ivy wreath.
The problem is, not many of us can keep these appealing plants alive long enough to ring in the New Year.
Many topiaries die of thirst
According to experts, topiaries and other ornamentals are quite often doomed from the moment they arrive in the mail or come home from the store. Problem is, they can dry out and begin dying before you even know there is a problem.
When you receive your topiary, examine the first inch of soil to see if it is wet or dry. Better yet, pop the plant out of its pot and give the roots a close look. If they appear parched, water the plant thoroughly, then check daily to see if the surface of the soil is dry. Most of these ornamentals need a drink at least every three days.
Ivy topiaries and other plants growing on frames stuffed with sphagnum moss also need to be watered regularly. In fact, if they are allowed to dry out to the point of wilting, the plants probably won’t bounce back.
Immerse a new, stuffed topiary in a tub or large bucket of water and hold it there until the water stops bubbling. Then move it to a waterproof spot until it stops dripping. Finally, place it on a piece of clear plastic where you want it to grow.
Topiaries growing on stuffed frames should be misted every day. And add a touch of diluted fertilizer to provide the nutrients mosses lack.
It’s also a good idea to spray or mist regular topiaries weekly to spritz away dust, deter pests, and add extra humidity to a dry, indoor environment. Or give them a quick bath in the sink or tub.
Pay particular attention to the undersides of leaves, where spider mites gather to begin their dirty work. (Ivy is particularly susceptible to mites. Spray with an insecticidal soap to deter them.)
Location, location, location
You’ll also need to provide plants with the proper amount of light. Most topiaries, such as ivy, like fairly bright light, cool conditions, and good air circulation. East-, west-, and south-facing windows are all fine unless the sun is so strong it singes tender leaf tips.
Rosemary and lavenders crave bright light and will go downhill rapidly if stuck in a dark corner. Rosemary “trees” appreciate full sun, so make sure you have a suitable location before attempting to grow them. The foliage is very dense and without proper light, the tree will begin to rot. If interior needles start turning gray or black, immediately trim the bad bits out and turn the damaged area towards the sun.
Quick action just might save your rosemary from the trash pile.
Standards and trees should be moved one-quarter turn weekly to keep the shapes symmetrical. Feed every few weeks during the winter months with a diluted liquid fertilizer. And be sure to give regular haircuts when plants get scraggly, especially before stems get too woody to prune effectively.
At this point it may sound as if topiaries are too fussy to fool with. If so, here’s a less- tricky alternative: scented geraniums. They're great for beginners because they're easy to grow and don't have strict watering requirements like most standards. Best of all, they can provide plenty of flower power."
Recommended varieties include Ginger, Lemon Crispum, and Angel. Be sure to start with a plant that has a strong central stalk.
While scented geraniums might be a good choice for the faint of heart, don't completely rule out rosemary, lavender, or ivies. If you can provide the necessary indoor conditions, you should succeed. And mastering the care of these charming plants can be one of the nicest holiday presents you ever give yourself.
Lynn Hunt, the Rose Whisperer, is one of more than a dozen expert gardeners who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She's an accredited horticultural judge and a Consulting Rosarian Emeritus for the American Rose Society. She has won dozens of awards for her writing in newspapers, magazines, and television. After a recent move, she grows roses and other plants in her garden in the mountains of western North Carolina.. To read more by Lynn here at the Monitor, click here.You can also follow her on Twitter and read her Dirt Diaries
If you live in the South, I’m predicting you won’t be seeing any snowballs for Christmas. Not even the so-called snowball bush, Viburnum macrocephalum, holds onto its spring flowers this late in the season.
Still, you can gather mophead hydrangea blossoms (Hydrangea macrophylla) and turn them into faux snowballs to decorate your tree, mantle, or table. Even those of you who have the real, cold drifts outside your window can decorate for the holidays with non-melting snowballs.
If you haven’t cut your hydrangea blossoms off the bush yet, you can do so now if they are still shapely. Just make sure you cut them off with a short stem above the first set of buds on the bush. You don’t want to cut off next year’s bloom buds, and besides, you don’t need much of a stem on a snowball.
Even if the blooms are dark brown, or any shade of tan in between, you can paint them white.
Your snowballs don’t even have to be white. Maybe your décor lends itself more to gold or silver. Maybe this year you want to have a touch of aqua on your tree. If you are a traditionalist, red will be your choice. There are sprays for that. Want your snowballs to sparkle and glisten, like the real snow in winter sunshine? There are glitter sprays for that, too.
Spray paint just for flowers
My friend Gigi Huckabee clued me in to craft spray paint made especially for flowers. Be sure to purchase this specialty quick-drying paint, available at craft stores, to gild your hydrangea blossoms gold, silver, or any number of colors. If you use regular spray paint, they might still be drying come Christmas morn.
Admittedly, to get really white snowballs, it will take several coats of the white craft paint. If you were fortunate enough to have dried Annabelle hydrangea blooms (Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle'), they can be used as is or sparkled up with some glitter.
If you are a purist, like me -- or more correctly, as I was -- you can use any of your hydrangea blossoms au naturel, without any veiling. They will still look pretty in a basket, vase, or adorning a tree. I confess that this year I am having fun experimenting with gilding.
Once your snowballs are ready, use them on your Christmas tree. Just slide them between branches. You don’t need to fasten them. Or, just pile your glistening white snowballs in a big basket, set it by the door, and tie a big red bow on top.
After the holidays
In January, your faux snowballs will still be seasonable if you change the color of the bow on the basket. Or, after the holidays are over, you can carefully pack away your hydrangeas or repurpose them in a floral arrangement.
I like to pile hydrangea flowers. It’s quick and easy. Light-colored blooms look good in covered clear glass jars and open bowls. Dark blossoms look great in pottery containers and dark wood or wire baskets. Anybody can make snowballs for winter displays, even artistically challenged gardeners like I am.
Anne Moore is one of the more than a dozen garden experts who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She lives in South Carolina and is the horticulture editor, gardening consultant, and e-newsletter editor for GardenSmart.tv. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association.
I confess! In most instances, good cultural advice is the primary goal of these blog posts. But sometimes, just sometimes, an opportunity presents itself that I just cannot ignore. So I go against my own advice.
Yesterday, as late as it is in the growing and planting season here in northern Illinois, I came across a few plants in gallon containers at a house sale, each marked at a measly $1 a pot.
Yes, a buck apiece!
Fall-blooming windflowers, Anemone ‘Whirlwind’ -- 10 pots for a mere 10 bucks. How could I walk away? Even though this is definitely the wrong time of the year to plant these fall bloomers (anemones are best divided or transplanted in the spring), this was a chance I had to take.
Because these prolific bloomers are perfect for illuminating a garden’s shaded nooks and crannies. ‘Whirlwind’, a compact plant with large, white flowers that start blooming in late August and continue the show into October, is nothing short of a true eye-catching conversation plant in the autumn garden.
And the plants that I found on sale, though dormant in their pots, upon closer inspection showed healthy looking roots.
Definitely worth the $10 risk, I thought.
A serious garden treasure
These particular windflowers, also known as Japanese anemones, are prolific bloomers. Standing about 3 feet tall, they are the perfect backdrops for shorter asters, mums, and other garden plants.
The two-to-three-inch wide blossoms – ruffled, semi-double white petals surrounding frilly yellow centers – that rise atop willowy stems are poppylike in appearance. Silky, cup-shaped petals blooming atop long, graceful stems that sway above clumps of dark green, maplelike foliage, always lend a breath of fresh air to tired fall gardens. (You may also find Japanese anemones [PDF] with pink or violet flowers.)
Though the long stems looks delicate, they are quite strong and don’t need to be staked. During the spring and summer months, the foliage is an attractive green addition to the garden, but come fall, the plant’s glossy green leaves turn a reddish hue bringing a refined and elegant touch of beauty to an autumn landscape.
Hardy to Zone 5, Japanese anemones flourish in light to partial shade, but are known to tolerate full sun as long as there is sufficient moisture. However, in hot, dry summer conditions, foliage does tend to burn a bit, which, while it doesn’t hurt the plants, makes your bed look a bit on the sloppy side.
While they can be grown in most soils, they appreciate soil that is humus-rich and moist, but well-drained. Planting anemones in soils that remain water-logged in winter is akin to a death sentence for these beauties.
I have found that in my Midwestern yard, I need to plant anemones in a protected spot, such as that afforded by a wall or dense clump of shrubs. Mulching, especially the first couple of years, is definitely beneficial.
Though it isn’t necessary to divide these plants very often, if you must divide or move plants in the garden, do so only in the spring. Fall anemones may be slow to establish, but once they have settled in, they have a tendency to spread somewhat. Deadheading won’t prolong bloom, but it will make plants look neater.
As for pests, the only problems I’ve encountered are Japanese beetles, which devour them with a relish. Although I am fortunate to note that I don’t have any deer problems, if you do, know that these gorgeous blossoms are deer resistant – another reason to love this plant.
So with a “heat spell” predicted for the end of the week, you’ll find me out in the garden, planting 10 pots of treasured perennials. Yes, it is uncertain whether they’ll survive our crazy winters. But sometimes, a gardener just has to have some faith!
Betty Earl, the Intrepid Gardener, is one of more than a dozen gardening experts blogging regularly at Diggin' It. Her latest book is 'Fairy Gardens: A Guide to Growing an Enchanted Miniature World.' She writes a regular column for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine and The Kankakee Journal and numerous articles for Small Gardens Magazine, American Nurseryman, Nature’s Garden, and Midwest Living Magazine, as well as other national magazines. She is a garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens and a regional representative for The Garden Conservancy. To read more by Betty here at Diggin' It, click here.
As I mourn the loss of daylight hours, I relish the gain in light with each leaf that falls. Autumn begins my survival for winter; without the leaves decent, I would be frightened by the lack of luster that only bright light can bring.
Each time I step outside, more light appears. It’s slow, but apparent. Light seems to change just when I need it to. It’s as if nature is adjusting a balance -- tree canopies sit on the left pan of the scale, light sits on the right. Brightness is balanced as the trees' leaves fall. If the hours in the day are to lessen, then the leaves must move to bring in brightness.
It may seem like a dichotomy for someone to be claustrophobic and to seek cover of nature’s cocooning, but I do. There’s comfort under the canopy of trees. [See first photo above.] Shielded from the light, cooled by shade, and relaxed by the regulated radiance, trees' leaves give me contentment.
I’m also equally content sitting on the ground under an open sky, particularly in the winter.
Even though the falling leaves of autumn are warning us of winter to come, this process is a welcome necessity to balance the light for the shorter days. When it happens, I’m reminded of how much I miss the openness of the garden. [See second photo above. Click on the arrow at the right base of the first photo to see the second and third photos.]
If I can’t control the length of day, I’m happy to lend a hand in the amount of light that lands on my garden, Helen’s Haven. Deciduous trees have been planted so I can balance the light in my winter garden and my mood. Creating seasonal tenor with the change in flora builds a better garden through diversity, and a way to add seasonal interest.
Even with the shorter days, I welcome winter to view the open garden. My garden is exposed and bright, the branches of the trees are bare and open for inspection. [See third photo above.] As I look up in my winter garden, the framework of my summer’s cathedral-like canopy forms uncluttered lines of communication for confessions. I share all of my professions as I tend to my land. Winter is not my favorite season, but I built a garden that allows me to enjoy this time more than I ever thought possible.
Just when I need it the most, the scale begins to tip. The days are growing longer and the trees begin to leaf. The leaves tend to improve my mood. Life all around me stirs as the days lengthen. Fresh and bright, most trees have glowing green leaves in spring. This wonder has me looking up to slowly watch the sky close in. As days broaden, the balance changes -- the tree canopy on the left pan of the scale fills in, the light on the right balances out. It’s perfection at its best.
The cloak of summer’s canopy -- with a cathedral-like quality -- reveals greenery hovering down, allowing sunlight to lightly kiss my cheek. The leaves of the trees are welcomed in summer to manage heat, intensity, and length of the season. Comfort is sought under the canopy of the trees.
Then the cycle begins again.
If you’ve lived in an area for a period of time, you become programed to the seasons. Just when you’re ready for a change, the scales begin to tip, and it’s always in my favor.
Helen Yoest is one of more than a dozen garden experts who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She lives in North Carolina and is the author of the book "Gardening With Confidence -- 50 Ways to Add Style for Personal Creativity." She's a garden writer, speaker, and garden coach. She's also a field editor for Better Homes and Gardens and Country Gardens magazines and serves on the board of advisers for the JC Raulston Arboretum. You can follow Helen on Twitter and Facebook. To read more by Helen here at Diggin' It, click here.
Mr. Kermit the Frog said it best. "It isn't easy being green." I would add that it isn't easy being green in a Midwestern winter garden. Gardening in a woodland or shade garden further refines the various hues of green available.
Because of prevailing weather patterns during winter, Mother Nature took the easy road out and simply does not attempt to keep many large-leaf plants green during winter in our area. That can make maintaining a shade garden of interest during winter a little difficult. Such a garden tends to be a bit on the brown and gloomy side. However, over the years, I have selected enough native and non-native plants that do stay green to make it worth a walk in my winter gardens.
The following are favorite groundcovers that stay green in my area during winter:
Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens, hardy to Zone 4) is a dwarf creeping shrub without equal. It's only 4 inches or so in height with a continual creeping habit. It has leather-like leaves of heavy substance that are just as green and polished in January as they are in July. The deep, lustrous green leaves have companions of scarlet red berries in winter. Add a touch of frost or light snow and you have a Currier and Ives postcard in your garden [see photo above].
And, you can chew the leaves and berries for fresh breath.
Partridge berry (Mitchella repens, Zone 4) grows so close to the forest floor it looks as though it's painted in place. A loose and relaxed scrambler, partridge berry has tiny, rounded, deep-green leaves with a silver vein in the center. It also features white trumpet-shaped blooms -- always in pairs -- that produce red berries for winter color. There is also white-berried selection to add to your collection.
Black calla (Arum italicum), also known as Italian arum and lords and ladies, is a perennial that I call the backward plant. It begins emerging in September and grows all during winter. It has a green stem with a roll at the top. The attached roll unfurls like a flag to form a arrowhead-shaped leaf. [See photo at left.] The leaf is heavily quilted and has various degrees of variegation between the veins. Leaves can reach up to 18 inches across and a bit longer. It puts on quite a show when all else is some shade of brown or black. However, this plant has become invasive in many parts of the country, so you should be careful to remove the seeds from the garden before they mature and pull out any plants that pop up unwanted.
Bearpaw hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) -- also called bear claw hellerbore -- is the Rodney Dangerfield of hellebores. All the hybrids get the most applause and respect in catalogs and garden centers. Although it may have only green bells sometimes rimed in red, the two-toned foliage and growth habit sets it apart from all other hellebores. Old foliage turns olive-black-green while the newest foliage emerges from the center of the old in brightest clean-green. The emerging bright green bloom stem comes from an existing stem as opposed to having a one stem for a bloom and another stem for foliage like other species. [See second photo above. Click on the arrow at the bottom right of the first photo to go to the second.]
Arum italicum and bearpaw hellebore also are good companions since the finely cut and serrated leaves of the hellebore and large polished and quilted leaves of the calla look great together.
Green is good in a winter garden.
Gene Bush is one of more than a dozen garden experts who blog regularly here at Diggin' It. He is a nationally known garden writer, photographer, lecturer, and nursery owner who gardens on a shaded hillside in southern Indiana. His website is Munchkin Nursery. He also writes the Garden Clippin's Newsletter. To read more by Gene at Diggin' It, click here.
When I’m giving a lecture on roses, I often begin by telling the audience my presentation could be hazardous to their health.
You see, I know better than most that once "rose fever" sets in, there is no cure. No matter how many roses one has, there will always be a more appealing one coming up in next year's gardening catalogs.
Which means rose fever can also be hazardous to the pocketbook.
As a result of a hybridizing program initiated in the 1950s, he captured the appealing features of Old Garden Roses (roses introduced prior to 1867) such as cupped or rosette-shaped flowers and strong fragrance in bushes that have the repeat bloom and vigor of modern roses.
So before the new catalogs arrive, I am giving my pocketbook fair warning – I’ve had a sneak peek at the new US introductions, and they all look like keepers.
Years in the making
When I visited the David Austin nursery in Britain few years ago, I was able to take a tour of the entire operation. It was fascinating to see greenhouse after greenhouse filled with seedlings and cuttings in various stages of development.
Every year, 150,000 pollen crosses are made by hand, which will produce around 400,000 seeds. These seeds are planted after being chilled in a cooler for three months.
Approximately 250,000 of those seeds will germinate, and the resulting plants that grow from them are evaluated over a period of years for beauty, character, fragrance, diversity of bloom, disease resistance, and potential for use in flower arrangements. Nine years later, only four to six of the original 250,000 plants will make it into commerce.
Here is the class of 2013:
Wollerton Old Hall
Wollerton Old Hall has an intense myrrh fragrance and is said to be one of the most strongly scented of all English roses. The blooms are a soft cream with hints of peach [see photo above]. The bush has few thorns and produces an abundance of flowers over a long blooming season.
Named to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Hatfield House, the home of Lady (and Lord) Salisbury in Hertfordshire, England, this new rose boasts Old World charm and makes an excellent cut flower. The sugary pink rosettes and matte green foliage are reminiscent of the Alba roses, but flower continuously until frost.
The Lady’s Blush
A perfect candidate for a mixed border, this Lady sports pure soft pink blossoms, a creamy white eye, and unusually attractive golden stamens.
A departure from most soft-colored English roses, this semi-double dazzler features rich apricot petals with a contrasting splash of yellow behind the stamens. It produces masses of flowers on strong stems and can be trained as a climber
Named after an 1839 painting by JMW Turner, this colorful English rose has won awards for fragrance and as a landscape rose. Its scent is described as “very fruity with a strong element of lemon zest.”
The medium-sized flowers of Queen Anne are a pretty rose pink with outer petals slightly paler than interior ones. The flowers are fragrant and stems are virtually thornless.
This is another must-have for me. The flowers of England's Rose are cerise pink with a spicy fragrance. It throws out large clusters of blooms from May through October or November. And best of all, it is weather resistant! Even with periods of heavy rain, the blooms will not ball, and petals drop cleanly. Yippee! No more soggy blossoms that look like dead mice!
One word of caution: I understand that the blooms may be small in areas that are quite hot.
So there you go. Six new roses to tempt us. My problem is I want them all, but sometimes it just isn't possible. Since my mountain garden is smaller than the old one in Maryland, I have to consider available space. And then there is that pesky pocketbook!
I've had several people ask me which one to choose if you can have only one. So I consulted the expert, Michael Marriott, technical manager for David Austin. He suggests Wollerton Old Hall for its fragrance, beauty, and vigor. In addition, it can be grown as a shrub or climber.
I actually need a climber by my front porch, which makes Wollerton a no-brainer for me.
Plus, every time I see it in bloom I'll be reminded of that splendid day in that splendid garden in England.
PSSST: I’ve ordered two Wollerton Old Hall bushes that will grow on either side of the climbing rose Night Owl. The combination of cream and purple should be a traffic-stopper.
Lynn Hunt, the Rose Whisperer, is one of more than a dozen expert gardeners who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She's an accredited horticultural judge and a Consulting Rosarian Emeritus for the American Rose Society. She has won dozens of awards for her writing in newspapers, magazines, and television. After a recent move, she grows roses and other plants in her garden in the mountains of western North Carolina.. To read more by Lynn here at the Monitor, click here.You can also follow her on Twitter and read her Dirt Diaries.
Last winter, Zone 5 Iowa, where I live, became Zone 7 Iowa. Which is to say, for the first time in history the temperature did not go below zero. Kinda nice. Almost toasty.
Then we had a prolonged heat wave this summer. Not so nice. Drought.
But despite the fact that US weather researchers say that our temps in the past year were the highest since record-keeping began in 1895, the need still exists here to escape the cold. (OK, so I’m a weather wimp.) And one of the few direct flights from this little burg goes to Phoenix
So inside of three hours or so I was relaxing by the pool at the Arizona Biltmore, an ersatz Frank Lloyd Wright project designed to look midway between a Mayan temple and a mausoleum. At long last, I am warm again.
There's another bonus of staying at this architectural icon: quick access to the Phoenix Mountains desert preserve. Only 20 minutes from the pool.
OK, so I wanted to get warm, but this rocky incline was hot. Most sensible hikers were carrying water, but I figured I’d only get sweatier lugging the stuff up the mountainside. Six of one …
Now this place isn’t exactly gardenesque, but it is dang impressive. I don’t know how even cactus grows here. But all around were those wondrous saguaros, all looking as though they were being held up.
Did you know it takes about 75 years for that cactus to grow its first arm? This is another reason national parks in the West have trouble with a different kind of rustler – cactus rustlers. Seems some McMansion owners don’t have the patience to wait for their own cacti to reach for the sky.
An hour of stumbling over mountain rubble in the baking sun, and I’d enjoyed about as much as I could stand. So I went back to the pool. Funny. I went to the pool the first day to get warm. But now I’m going there to cool off.
What else I’m into this week: Growing a goatee to keep my moustache warm. It’s Mowvember.
Craig Summers Black,The Transplanted Gardener, is an award-winning garden writer and photographer who is among more than a dozen expert gardeners who blog regularly here at Diggin' it. You can read more of what he's written at Diggin' It by clicking here. You may also follow Craig’s further adventures in gardening, music, and rural life on Twitter.
The poinsettia certainly has its share of myths and misconceptions considering it’s the most popular houseplant of the holidays, so I think it’s time to clear the air. Here’s a little quiz that will test your knowledge and show you how to give your poinsettia the proper care.
Poinsettias are poisonous
False. Despite the similarities of the words "poisonous" and "poinsettias," poinsettias are not poisonous, scientific tests have shown. It is true that the milky latex sap can be irritating to some, particularly individuals with sensitive skin, but it's worth noting -- although you shouldn't try this at home -- that poinsettia sap was considered safe enough by early settlers to find use as a dye and medicine!
Poinsettia flowers are yellow
True. The poinsettia's colorful "blooms" of red, white, and pink are not flowers, but modified leaves called bracts. If you look in the center of the bracts, you'll see the real flowers, which are small, yellow, and rather unusual looking. The colorful red bracts develop in late fall to attract pollinators to the otherwise forgettable flowers.
Poinsettias are difficult to keep alive
False. Poinsettias are actually pretty easy to grow if you follow a few simple instructions. Choose a full and bushy plant with stems that are firmly rooted in the soil. Look for the small, unopened yellow flowers at the top of the plant, as they will bloom the longest. Be sure to keep the poinsettia protected from the cold on the way home. Place the poinsettia where it will get plenty of bright sunlight, and poke holes in the foil so that the roots don’t drown. Water thoroughly whenever the soil starts to feel dry. If desired, feed lightly every two weeks to keep the blooms at their brightest.
Poinsettias will bloom again next year
True, but it might not be worth the effort. If you're of the adventurous sort with a lot of time to spare, you can get a poinsettia to rebloom – but only if you give it 14 hours of complete darkness every night for 10 weeks in fall.After the holidays are past, keep providing regular water and sunlight until the leaves begin to fall off in spring. Then cut the plant back to the second set of leaves and move it outdoors to a partly sunny spot after all danger of frost has passed.
This is where things get tricky. Starting in October, place the poinsettia in a dark closet or a black trash bag from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. every day until Thanksgiving. For more specific guidelines, check out this site.
Blue poinsettias are fake
True. While you can find poinsettias in colors ranging from deep crimson-red to pale green, pink and white, the color of the new "blue" poinsettias offered at garden centers is fake. Depending on the grower, the poinsettias are sprayed with a blue dye before getting covered with glitter and splashed with alcohol or glue for an effect that is interesting, to say the least. Whether you love the dyed poinsettias or hate them, the color will not last for long. A poinsettia that has been dyed blue or any other color will eventually start producing normal leaves and is best thrown out.
If I’ve managed to leave your poinsettia (or other holiday houseplant) questions unanswered, please leave a comment and I’ll be happy to help!
Steve Asbell, The Rainforest Gardener, is one of more than a dozen expert gardeners who blog regularly here at Diggin’ It. You can find his illustrations, photography, articles, and essays at his garden lifestyle blog. Steve is currently writing a book on houseplants that will feature 50 artistic indoor container garden combinations.
For those of us in mild climate (I'm in Northern California), garden care doesn’t come to a stop in December. In fact, this is one of the busiest times of the year, because the work we do now sets the stage for a good growing season come spring.
While we’re used to poring over bulb catalogs, planting shrubs, and gearing up for winter pruning, we often neglect the most important part of our gardens -- our soil. Yet there are a number of things we can do for our soil right now to improve how well our plants grow in the coming year.
Add dolomitic lime to rhododendrons
While it may seem counter-intuitive to give dolomitic lime to an acid-loving shrub, studies have shown that it improves health and vigor dramatically. According to Don Wallace of Singing Tree Gardens rhododendron nursery, rhododendron leaves are primarily composed of magnesium, and dolomitic lime is calcium and magnesium carbonate.
Sprinkling this inexpensive amendment around the drip line of your rhododendron each fall or winter turns the leaves a deeper, richer shade of green, and the minor effect on soil pH isn’t usually a problem in the naturally acidic gardens west of the Cascades. On each rhododendron, use a half cup per foot of height, once a year. Camellias and azaleas also benefit from this treatment.
Top dress your lawn with compost
Each year, I try to top dress my lawn with compost. It helps the soil absorb rainfall and irrigation water, adds nutrients that plants need, and encourages earthworms to aerate the soil. It has the added side effect of discouraging weeds, because when lawn grass is healthy, it is better able to out-compete weeds and grow thick and lush.
Top dressing is simple: First mow your lawn. Then rake one-half to one inch of compost over the entirety of your lawn (if your lawn is large, focus on the areas closest to your home). You can use bagged compost on small lawns, or get bulk compost delivered from your local nursery or municipality.
Add soil conditioner
For years, I’ve been hearing from other local landscapers about the benefits of John and Bob’s soil conditioners. Clients with horrible clay, landscape fabric, and other difficult conditions are growing plants that they have no business growing. Their special magic? John and Bob’s. This soil optimizer is a blend of minerals and humus, which helps the beneficial microbes in your soil thrive, and leads to better disease-resistance and nutrient uptake.
I wouldn’t have believed the hype, but I’ve seen the results in person. My very own lemon tree was near death after being scratched at and pestered one too many times by my energetic chickens. One application of John and Bob’s (and some chicken barriers erected), and two weeks later it had greened up fully and sprouted some happy new leaves.
Mulch, mulch, mulch
Winter rains can compact soil and form a water-repelling crust. A thick layer of wood chip mulch forms a barrier between the beating rains and your soil, and, in addition, may well be the most effective way available of preventing weeds and reducing water use in gardens. Use a 3-inch-thick layer for best results. If you’re on a budget, contact local tree-trimming companies and ask if you can pick up any chips from their recent jobs.
What not to do now
- To protect your soil in winter, never walk on or dig in soggy soil. If you’d like to work in your garden, give it at least one day after a rain before walking on or working in the soil.
- And don’t fertilize dormant or perennial plants in winter. The last thing you want to do is encourage them to grow too soon and get zapped by the frost.
Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and garden writer in the redwoods of Northern California who often writes here at Diggin' It. She also shares her professional tips for gardening in the Pacific Northwest at the website North Coast Gardening and on Twitter.
Every spring I debate with myself about Oriental poppies, Papaver orientale. If an image doesn’t come immediately to mind, think big and gorgeous and sexy, the kind of bloom that Georgia O’Keefe liked to -- and did -- paint.
My reservation about Oriental poppies isn’t about their visual libidinousness but with their liabilities as garden plants. Their bloom lasts only a moment, they are easily damaged by wind and rain, they have trouble standing up by themselves, and their post-flower foliage is weedy and lasts far too long.
Like movie actresses who rely on their looks, their moment in the sun is brief.
Ideal for those who love color
My small poppy collection includes a traditional orange, which I like least; several reds, including the old-timer ‘Beauty of Livermere’; and the salmon-pink ‘Cedric Morris’. And ‘Patty’s Plum’, a dusky purple cultivar that began as a volunteer in an English compost pile, another good argument for not sending green waste to the local landfill. ['Beauty of Livermere' and 'Patty's Plum' are shown above; to see the second and third photos, click on the arrow at the right base of the first photo.]
There are still more Oriental poppies, including whites and cultivars with doubled petals, ruffled petals, and petals with edges that are fringed or serrated. Whatever the petal color, the flower’s center will be blotched with black or another dark color and contain a large, decorative seed capsule surrounded by dark-colored stamens.
Easy to grow but not to transplant
Maybe I haven’t dug out my poppies because they are so easy to grow, unparticular about soil and site, without serious bug and disease problems, drought-tolerant, and cope with both heat and cold (USDA Zones 3 through 9; Sunset Zones 1–11, 14–21, 30–45). They do best in full sun but remarkably well in partial shade.
Despite their reputation for not liking to have their roots disturbed -- transplanting large plants can be a gamble -- Oriental poppies are easy to propagate from root cuttings. Also, all of today’s Oriental poppies are hybrids, which means their seeds won’t come true, but it is easy to grow plants from seed if you don't expect them to look like the parent plant. [See third photo above.]
Georgia O’Keefe must have set up her easel in the garden because Oriental poppies aren’t ideal flowers for the vase. Open blooms begin to fall apart almost the minute you cut them, but if you’re keen for a bouquet, pick flowers with buds that are ready to open and sear the end of the stems before you place them in water.
After all, who can resist a gorgeous face, in the garden or on the screen?
Karan Davis Cutler is one of more than a dozen garden experts who blog regularly at Diggin’ It. To read more by Karan, click here. She's a former magazine editor and newspaper columnist and the author of scores of garden articles and more than a dozen books, including “Burpee -- The Complete Flower Gardener” and “Herb Gardening for Dummies.” Karan now struggles to garden in the unyieldingly dense clay of Addison County, Vt., on the shore of Lake Champlain, where she is working on a book about gardening to attract birds and other wildlife.