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Pepper Cayennetta is an All-America Selections winner for 2012. As an ornamental pepper, it looks good and grows well among flowers in hot, sunny spots, but it's also edible. (Courtesy of All-America Selections)

A look at the 2012 All-America winners

By Gerald Burke / 05.10.12

Many gardeners aren’t familiar with the All-America Selections organization (AAS) that tests new varieties of flowers, herbs, and vegetables every year, in several trial grounds throughout the US and Canada. It’s been going on since way back in 1932, and many of the winners have come to be loved regulars in the home garden.

But I’ve found, in talking to gardeners about All-America Selections or All-America winners, that they don't bring up oohs and aahs, but rather a question, “What do they do?"

That’s too bad, because the All-America trials and winners are important to gardeners, just as they are to seed companies and to plant breeders. For those of us who garden, it lets us know what reputable judges think of new varieties each year, it publicizes them, and causes the bedding-plant growers to produce them for all of us to plant and evaluate for ourselves.

Although I'm a fan of AAS, I have to say that not all the winners, in my view, have been great, but some of them have been and others are quite good. I usually try them each year, just to see for myself what they’ll do. Sometimes I’m impressed, occasionally not.

For those of us who garden in southern California, there’s another catch — some winners may not be great in our various climates.(This can be true in several areas of the country, especially those that are especially hot or cold, or where it rains sparingly or quite a lot.)

The 2012 AAS ornamental winners

This year there are four winners, two flowers and two vegetables. The two flowers are Salvia 'Summer Jewel Pink' and ornamental pepper Black Olive. It may be stretching a little to consider a pepper plant as a flower, but that’s how they have classified it.

The salvia is really a winner and is similar to Salvia 'Summer Jewel Red,' an earlier winner. Summer Jewel Pink is compact, with lots of blooms, a real attraction for hummingbirds, and will do well in almost every SoCal climate -- beach, inland and mountains, and the desert.

I have trouble thinking of peppers as flowers, but they are often used in bouquets, last well indoors, and are attractive in the garden. Would I grow this ornamental pepper in my garden? Probably not, but if you like to experiment you might try it [especially those who are into edible landscaping, which is growing in popularity.]

The winning veggies

The two vegetables that garnered a 2012 AAS award are a watermelon and another pepper, this time a cayenne type.

The watermelon, named Faerie F1, is an oddball in my view, with a creamy yellow rind with thin stripes, but good pink flesh that is very sweet and crisp. For those with limited space, it’s a good melon to grow since the vines spread to only about 10 to 11 feet and can be contained by circling them around the center of the plant. The melons are small, weighing four to six pounds.

The pepper, Cayennetta, is a cayenne type, which produces three- to four-inch fruits that are only mildly spicy. The plant is well branched and upright, and the fruits are prolific. It is said to do well in heat and has good cold tolerance, so it may do well inland as well as in beachfront gardens in southern California.

These AAS winners should be available on seed racks and in catalogs, and as started bedding plants in garden centers. The melon and peppers are summer plants and should be planted now. The salvia may do well all year in the warmer parts of SoCal; summer in the mountains and in beach gardens.

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Gerald Burke is one of more than a dozen garden experts from all parts of the country who blog regularly at Diggin' It. He is a freelance horticultural writer who spent 35 years in the seed business, 30 of them with Burpee, and is a member of the Garden Writers Association. To read more of what Gerald has written here at Diggin' It, click here.

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A cat sleeps on top of a bed of low-growing catmint. (Courtesy of Gardenology)

Hybrid catmints: Cool cats in your landscape

By Betty Earl / 05.08.12

Included in the shipment of plants I received this past Friday were several members of the catmint family. Since I’m already hooked on these beautiful plants, these new additions were welcome new members of my outdoor family.

If you are looking for a vibrant, colorful powerhouse of a perennial, than look no further than hybrid catmint. 

While it is true that there are numerous members of the catmint clan – some adored by humans, some favorites of felines – without a doubt, the notable star of any garden is one called hybrid catmint (Nepeta x faassenii) and its various cultivars.

For those who are into lavender or close to lavender-colored blossoms, it’s very likely that hybrid catmint has already found a spot in your garden. But for those who may not be familiar with this perennial, Nepeta x faassenii cultivars make for some rather spectacular ornamental plants in the landscape.

Hybrid catmint offers attractive aromatic foliage and misty clouds of tiny flowers. The individual grayish-green leaves are small, soft, and slightly pointed. They’re set on long, lax stems topped with spikes of diminutive lavender-purple to blue tubular flowers, creating a lacy haze atop foliage cushions that make them the perfect choice for front of the border plantings. 

To be fair, catmint is also available in white or pink flowers, but I’m especially fond of the lavender-colored ones. 

Keep them purring

For sheer endurance in the heat and drought of our hot summers, which usually obliterate most other perennials, they are standouts. No matter what the weather may creatively throw at them, hybrid catmints prove they are carefree and reliable performers from mid-June right through the first frost.   

Members of the Lamiaceae, or mint, family, these exuberant growers, hardy in USDA Zones 3 through 8, they are also unfazed by harsh winters and lean or clay soils.  Catmints attract pollinating insects, perform well in hot, dry sites and, best of all, are for the most part, deer- and rabbit-resistant. 

And like all cats, they love basking in the sun and absolutely abhor getting their feet wet –  so, the only conditions catmints won’t tolerate are deep shade or poorly draining soil.

Beautiful garden additions in their own right, catmints also play well with other plants in perennial beds as fillers, bringing some much needed cool color shades to hot summer borders. 

According to the Perennial Plant Association, which named the cultivar ‘Walker’s Low’ as the 2007 Perennial Plant of the Year, you can pair ‘Walker’s Low’ with foxgloves, pinks, bearded iris, and peonies for a scene straight out of your grandmother’s garden.

Catmints are clump-formers whose spread, though neither rampant nor aggressive, is slow but relentless. To keep them in check, divide clumps every few years in early spring. 

To keep these plants flowering through the summer until fall’s first frosts, prune them back by two-thirds when the first flush of flowers fade. To propagate the plant, use divisions or rooted cuttings.  Cut back plants to the ground late winter or early in the spring.

Some notable cultivars

‘Walker’s Low’ – Despite its name, this catmint is anything but low.  Named for a site in Ireland where it was discovered, this cultivar can reach three feet in height with about the same spread, though it does tend to flop over and sprawl.  It has deep lavender-blue flowers that bloom profusely in early summer and then off-and-on throughout the rest of the growing season.

‘Six Hills Giant’ -- A large, vigorous, yet impressive, plant sporting equally large, impressive flower spikes of violet-blue flowers.  A catmint on steroids (three feet high and 30 inches wide), this is a reliable bloomer that can add visual sturdiness to any border.

‘Kit Cat’ (also sold as ‘Kit Kat’) – A truly floriferous dwarf cultivar that grows in spreading mounds to only 15 inches in height, it sports interesting two-lipped, almost true-blue flowers, making it the perfect choice for rock gardens, bed edgers, or containers.

‘Select Blue’ – Another shorter cultivar, ‘Select Blue’ is a bluer version of ‘Kit Cat’.

‘Blue Wonder’  - A midget by comparison to most, ‘Blue Wonder’, at 12 inches in height, is a spectacular ground cover, which creates a soft grey mat smothered in blossoms in summer.  One of the best plants for perennial bed edging or underplanting of rose beds.  Unfortunately, cats enjoy this cultivar as much as they do catnip.

Editor's Note: Read more about catmint at Catmint is purrfect with roses.

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Betty Earl, the Intrepid Gardener, is one of more than a dozen gardening experts who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She's the author of 'In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest.' She also 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.

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Walking in a woodland garden

By Gene Bush / 05.04.12

There are many myths about woodland plants. One I hear often is how native woodland perennials are "pretty little weeds that soon disappear." As with most myths, there is a kernel of truth in there, but a kernel does not make an entire ear of corn.

Some, but not all, of our native woodland plants are ephemeral. The ones that are emerge in late winter while the soil is just beginning to warm, then bloom, set seed, and go dormant until the next spring.

There is a reason for this behavior. The ephemeral plants are filling the niche that exists before trees and shrubs leaf out, blocking the light and taking up available moisture and nutrients. Usually the early-blooming plants are dormant by July.

Effective design with ephemerals

There are several ways to effectively use these gems of the forest floor. My preference is to pair up ephemerals with plants that bloom at the same time, but do not go dormant early, as the ephemerals do.

Among my favorites to use as companions are Phlox stolonifera (creeping phlox) and trilliums. This species of phlox is green all 12 months of the year and looks great with trilliums coming up through the mat of fresh green.

There are 40 species of trillium to choose from and many colorful cultivars of creeping woodland phlox to select from. My favorite is white blooming trillium [see photo at top] paired with Sherwood Purple creeping phlox.

Other such selections are Tiarella, or foamflower, in drifts with your trillium of choice [see photo at top], or perhaps Uvularia grandiflora, Merrybells, which has yellow blooms, grown with Mertensia virginica, Virginia bluebells, which quickly disappear while merrybells remains until frost. It's a classic blue and yellow color combination. [See second photo at left. click on arrow at right base of first photo to see the second one.]

Walk and see for yourself

My inspiration came from hiking through a woodland hillside and seeing drifts of color sweeping around trees and boulders, completely hiding broken branches and leaf litter.

Hundreds of thousands of tiny flowers such as Delphinium tricorne (dwarf larkspur)  were growing with companions of trilliums, Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), anemones, Dicentra such as Dutchman's Breeches, along with ferns unfurling.

The list could, and does, fill numerous woodland gardening guide books, and possibly your shaded garden, as it does in mine. Spring beauty that isn't ephemeral.

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Gene Bush, a nationally known garden writer, photographer, lecturer, and nursery owner, gardens on a shaded hillside in southern Indiana. His website is www.munchkinnursery.com. He also writes the Garden Clippin's Newsletter. To read more by Gene here at Diggin' It, click here.

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It’s time to think about planting summer flowers in southern California if you haven't already done it. Some fast-growing kinds can still be started from seed in May. (Courtesy of Gerald Burke)

Southern California gardening in May

By Garald Burke / 05.03.12

With the arrival of May and summer weather, Southern California is likely to get some pretty warm days. The weather has kept all the forecasters covering their tracks, and summer weather may be unusual, they say, as were the temperatures in fall and winter, as well as the lack of rain.

But whatever the weather, gardeners will go on doing their thing: planting vegetables and flowers, replacing worn-out or frozen shrubs, pruning back excessive growth, fertilizing, and all the other good things that need to be done.

Many of the fall, winter, and early spring flowers we planted — pansies, violas, stocks, snapdragons, calendulas, and others will be looking a little worn out now, and we need to think about replacing them and planting summer flowers and vegetables.

Veggies from seeds and plants

You can now sow seed outdoors of the following vegetables: asparagus; beets; beans, both pole and bush; lima beans, carrots; sweet  corn; popcorn; cucumbers; all melons; eggplant; leaf lettuce; romaine; kale;kohlrabi; peanuts; mustard greens; okra; long-day  onions and onion sets; leeks; peppers; potato tubers; pumpkins; radishes; rhubarb; spinach; Swiss chard; all squash; turnips; rutabagas; and tomatoes.

You’ll probably be happier with tomato plants this late in the spring, so think about buying already started plants rather than growing them from seed. You can also think about buying plants of some other vegetables: sweet potato, hot and sweet  peppers, lettuce, eggplant, melons, and cucumbers.

The benefit of starting with plants now instead of seed at this time is that you’ll have edible produce much sooner. The downside is that you have little choice in varieties.

Don't forget the flowers

Most of the summer flower varieties can be started from seed now. The quick-growing ones will do best, and include zinnia, dwarf and tall marigolds, gaillardia, cosmos, nasturtium, alyssum, portulaca, melampodium, and sunflower.

I would use started plants for amaranthus, fibrous or wax begonia, bells of Ireland, celosia, coleus, delphinium, dianthus, carnation, ageratum, lobelia, gazania, foxglove, geranium, hollyhock, gerbera, impatiens, petunia, larkspur, scabiosa, all the coneflowers, salvia, statice, verbena, and annual vinca.

Do keep in mind that we didn’t get a lot of winter rain, so mulch well and keep the garden well watered.

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 Gerald Burke is a freelance horticultural writer. He spent 35 years in the seed business, 30 of them with Burpee, and is a member of the Garden Writers Association.He is one of more than a dozen garden experts from different areas of the country who blog here at Diggin' It. To read more of what he has written, click here.

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Chatham Island forget-me-not is an excellent perennial for the shade gardener who wants something different. Its huge, glossy leaves with deeply impressed, crinkled veins make it a stand-out. (Courtesy of Genevieve Schmidt)

Four unusual shade perennials to try

By Genevieve Schmidt / 05.02.12

Shade gardening can be tough enough without trying to deviate from the standard hostas-and-ferns mix that generally works anywhere. Yet the whole experience of gardening makes us want to try new things, and there’s little more exciting than poring over oddities in plant catalogs, wondering, “Will this grow for me?”

Here are four shade-loving plants that are both beautiful and undemanding.

Narrow-leaved lungwort

Lungwort’s ample blooms and easygoing habit have made it a favorite among shade gardeners, and narrow-leaved lungwort (Pulmonaria longifolia ssp. cevennensis; hardy to Zone 4) offers a twist on the original. It has long, slender leaves so heavily spotted that they are almost completely white. The brightness of the leaves shows up beautifully in a shaded understory planting, and it has vibrant purple blossoms. See second photo above; click on the arrow at the right base of the first photo to see additional photos.]

Hardy impatiens

Most gardeners are familiar with the annual impatiens which are grown for their bold, tropical-looking blooms, but hardy impatiens (Impatiens omeiana; hardy to Zone 6) flips this equasion on its head by showing off gorgeous foliage (and ho-hum blooms, not that you’ll notice). The gold veins and crenellated edges give this slowly-spreading shade perennial a classy, modern look. It goes well with black-flowered plants, and the burgundy undersides of each leaf are lovely when backlit by the sun. You can purchase it at Heronswood. [See photo at left.]

Spiny bear’s breeches

While the usual bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis) are common in the garden, spiny bear’s breeches (Acanthus spinosus; hardy to Zone 5) have deeply cut foliage that’s like a cross between a holly and a fern, giving it an architectural and unusual look in the garden. The waxy, shiny leaves reflect light, and the arching habit looks lush next to a pond or water feature. Brent and Becky’s Bulbs has it available for purchase. [See third photo above.]

Chatham Island forget-me-not

While I never tire of the old-fashioned sweetness of a stand of forget-me-nots (Myosotis scorpioides), I have to admit: their foliage lacks presence. Not so with this beauty. Chatham Island forget-me-not (Myosotidium hortensia; hardy to Zone 8) has huge, glossy leaves with deeply impressed, crinkled veins. Frogs love to perch on the round leaves and enjoy a bathe in the dew. Best of all, the flowers are a deeper blue than forget-me-nots, making this dramatic foliage plant as lovely in bloom as it is in leaf. [See first photo above.]

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Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and garden writer in the redwoods of Northern California. She shares her professional tips for gardening in the Pacific Northwest at North Coast Gardening, and on Twitter. To read more of what she has written here at Diggin' It, click here.

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The flowers of this shrub rose, known as Lyda Rose, resemble apple blossoms and are quite prolific. But it's not readily available at large retailers. (Courtesy of Lynn hunt)

After a move: Replacing your favorite plants

By Lynn Hunt / 04.30.12

Moving is often cited as one of the top ten most stressful events in life. I don’t doubt it, but in my case, I was so busy coordinating our recent move I didn’t have time to realize I was stressed.

We put our Maryland house on the market in late January last year, it sold a couple of weeks later, and we closed on March 31. And oh, by the way, we left for our son’s wedding in Australia a day after the settlement.

When we finally arrived at our house in North Carolina in May, we wasted no time starting a new garden. I wasn’t able to bring any of my plants with me, so at first it seemed fun starting fresh with a completely different garden design.

Now, exactly a year later, I am beginning to miss some my old favorites from all the years I gardened on the Eastern Shore. And I’m discovering how difficult it’s going to be to replace them.

Out-of-the-ordinary roses are hard to find

We’ve been reading a lot lately about financial problems in the nursery industry and the bankruptcy of big names like Jackson & Perkins. 

If you’re looking for a Knock Out or a Blaze climbing rose, the collapse of some of these businesses probably is not going to affect you.

But what if you’re like me and want to locate a unique variety called Lyda Rose?  The bloom of this shrub rose looks more like an apple blossom than a rose, but it puts out amazing sprays covered with dozens of simple, exquisite flowers.

Unfortunately, you’ll never find one at your local big box store.

A website called HelpMeFind indicated that four nurseries in the country carry Lyda Rose. As it turns out, only one had her in stock, and I fortunately snagged the last available bush from Angel Gardens in Alachua, Fla.

Louisville Lady was the next rose I tried to locate. I’d left six behind in Maryland and was having a hard time finding even one. Fortunately a Mississippi company, K&M Roses, came to the rescue. They not only had Louisville Lady, but another miniflora I was looking for, named Whiraway. The plants they sent were beautifully packaged and extremely healthy.

Tracking down perennial partners

Some of the companions I planted with roses in my cottage garden were more than 15 years old. I’ve found some lavenders and catmints, but was striking out when it came to a favorite variety of Centranthus (also known as Jupiter’s Beard.)

I’d grown both the red and white varieties, which produced beautiful clusters of flowers on long arching stems from May till frost if the spent blooms were pinched back.

The red variety is readily available, but I’d just about given up finding Centransus alba when I discovered  New Garden Plants. They had exactly what I wanted, and I was very impressed with the quality of all their perennials.

So it seems that smaller nurseries have helped me replace my old garden faves in a big way.

Now if I could just get my hands on a Tiffany Lynn rose.

PSSST: If you have sprays forming on your shrubs and floribundas, pinch out the terminal (biggest) bud in the center, then all the other blooms in the cluster will open together.

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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, click here.You can also follow her on Twitter and read her Dirt Diaries.

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Butterflies, which are good pollinators, enjoy flat-topped flowers that provide good landing spots for them. (Courtesy of Helen Yoest)

Pollination power in the garden

By Helen Yoest / 04.26.12

It’s easy to forget the power of a pollinator.  For most of us, more time is spent admiring pollinators in our gardens than giving thought to the fact that pollination is required to produce seeds and fruits in up to 80% of the world’s flowering plants.

Nature has her way, though, to interest us in attracting pollinators, although our reasons may be different. Nature’s reason is to pollinate.  Most gardeners' reason is to bring the birds, bees, and butterflies into the garden for movement, amusement, and interest. 

Either way, nature wins. With each visit, pollination occurs.

Butterflies, hummingbirds, and mason bees

I’m most amused by hummingbirds, butterflies, and mason bees.  Nectar-rich flowering plants are grown in abundance for butterflies to flit from flower to flower, for bees to bumble around with random grace, and for hummingbirds to insert their tongues deep into the throat of a trumpet-shaped flower.

The Southeast is the summer home of the ruby-throated hummingbird. Hummingbirds are welcome visitors to my garden. From the time their spring migration brings them to my area, until the fall, when they’ll tank up on nectar for the long journey home, hummingbirds will find plenty of trumpet-shaped flowers to give them what they need.

Attracting butterflies to my garden -- and keeping them there -- is a natural for me, whether they're big or small, multicolored or not; from the majestic swallowtails down to the little skippers.  My garden includes a variety of flat-faced flowers to serve as a landing pad for the butterflies to alight.

 Orchard mason bees (Osmia lignaria ssp.) are an important pollinator of our spring fruit trees, flowers, and vegetables.  These bees nest within hollow stems, woodpecker drillings, and other holes found in trees. Nests for these bees are easy to make, as well. Mason bees are not aggressive and can be watched closely without fear of being stung.

Attracting pollinators is simple

All it takes is adding nectar-rich flowers to your garden, and you will attract wildlife bringing you the power of pollination.

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Helen Yoest lives in North Carolina and writes about Gardening With Confidence. 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 advisors for the JC Raulston Arboretum. You can follow Helen on Twitter and Facebook. To read more by Helen here at Diggin' It, click here.

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This Asian-style pond at the San Francisco Botanical Garden has been designed in a traditional way to evoke a strong sense of place. (Courtesy of Genevieve Schmidt)

Tips for Japanese garden design

By Genevieve Schmidt / 04.25.12

Even in spring, when many plants haven’t yet come out of winter dormancy, the Japanese and Asian sections at the San Francisco Botanical Garden shine brightly. Perhaps it’s because so much of the appeal of the Japanese design style is in its careful layout and use of hardscape.

Japanese garden design also makes use of evergreen plants that have a strong form, year-round foliage color, or textural contrast. What else makes a Japanese garden special? Read on for some hints gleaned from the San Francisco Botanical Garden (located at the corner of 9th Avenue and Lincoln Way in Golden Gate Park).

Ground covers

The use of ground-covering plants is a traditional element in Japanese garden design. Mosses are often used, but ground-covering plants can have a similar effect, of creating a contrast between the form of a tree or shrub and the subtle undulations of the ground. The San Francisco Botanical Garden has many shaded areas where mosses have been successfully established, but you'll also see  mondo grass and other ground covers. [See second photo above; click on arrow at right base of first photo to go to the next one.]

The benefit of ground-covering plants instead of mosses is that most ground covers have a little more height and vigor to them, so can better out-compete weeds in the landscape

Use of stone

In any garden, stone provides an instant feeling of maturity and timelessness. Jagged stone creates drama, while smooth cobbles evoke the same calming feeling that water in the landscape brings.

Stone is regularly used to create pathways because the smoothness and size of the stones can determine how fast people walk the path. In a meditative area of the garden, a pathway should have fewer or smaller stones that take more concentration to navigate, while on a more highly traveled path the stone would be larger and smoother to allow a faster pace.

However, paths to a home would often have a zigzag shape, as it is thought that a circuitous pathway deters malevolent spirits. [See second photo at left.]

My favorite element of stone in the Japanese garden is the use of stone carvings and structures. A hand-carved granite bowl or lantern never fails to make me marvel at the perseverance of the human spirit. In our impatient modern lives, to imagine an artisan taking days or weeks to slowly chip away at a hunk of stone and unveil the art beneath is to remember the vital importance of beauty in our lives.

Water and ponds

In the Japanese garden, water is a symbol of renewal, calm, and continuity between life and afterlife. There is something primal in our nature that responds to the sight and sound of water, and I think that no garden, Japanese or otherwise, is fully complete without it. [See first photo above.]

In a Japanese pond, two stones may be placed to signify the turtle and the crane, symbols of long life and good health. Read more about the symbolism of water by clicking here.

Native plants and materials

In the botanical garden, of course, horticulturists are re-creating a display from another region to enlighten and inform. Yet one of the integral design aspects of a Japanese garden is in the use of plants and materials local or native to the region. A Japanese garden is rooted in a sense of place. It makes use of the views from over the garden fence (called “borrowed scenery”), and integrates the stone, wood, and plants found on the site or in the region so the garden feels at one with the surroundings. [See first photo at left.]

That’s not to say it isn’t carefully designed. A garden is at its best when it reflects some of the themes found in nature, yet elevates and interprets those themes into an artful expression of human interaction with the land.

Click here to read my eight do's and don'ts for designing an Asian garden.

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Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and garden writer in the redwoods of Northern California. She shares her professional tips for gardening in the Pacific Northwest at North Coast Gardening, and on Twitter. To read more of what she has written here at Diggin' It, click here.

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White is the most common color for cauliflower, but purple and some other interesting hybrids really grab attention in the garden and the kitchen. (Courtesy of Anne K. Moore)

Cauliflower in the garden and the kitchen

By Anne K. Moore and Linda Weiss / 04.23.12

When I (Anne Moore) was a new gardener, the only way to get a creamy white head of cauliflower was to wait until the outer leaves were long, and then tie them up over the developing heads. This blanches the curds so they stay white.

Nowadays, cauliflower not only grows leaves long enough to cover the head, but the leaves will arch over and start the blanching process all by themselves.

Cauliflower is one of those rewarding vegetables that grow with very little effort from the gardener. It develops best in the cool spring or fall months. Cauliflower plants should be available at garden centers from February to April. Since this spring has been on the extreme side of hot, you might want to postpone your cauliflower planting until fall if you live in the South. Cauliflower is a cool-season vegetable that dislikes heat and humidity.

Start from seed

Since finding fall vegetable plants can be nearly impossible, you can raise a fall crop of cauliflower by planting seeds in August indoors and raising your own transplants.

Put started plants outdoors in good garden soil, about a foot apart. Keep the soil moist. Wrap the stems of the plants, from below the leafy top to just under the soil surface, with strips of paper or aluminum foil to thwart cutworms.

To keep cauliflower on your table for several weeks, be sure to plant different varieties that will mature in different numbers of days. Some take only 55 days, while others can take up to 80.

Go beyond boring white

Romanesco is a funky-looking hybrid that resembles stacked seashells. It is pretty enough to use as a centerpiece and looks good “green” so it needs no blanching. Rambunctious little boys might be willing to try the white curds of “normal” cauliflower if you call them brains. Girlie girls might prefer their cauliflower in deep purple, which turns pale lavender when cooked. There is also a deep yellow-gold form called Cheddar.

Linda’s recipe, next, requires no coaxing to try this delicious treat.

Roasted Cauliflower Casserole With a Mexican Cheese Twist

Roasting the cauliflower for this casserole brings out the natural sugar and gives the vegetable a sweet crunchy texture, says Linda Weiss, the chef. Then adding more textures and seasonings has taken a mild vegetable to another level. I cut the fat content by using fat free half-and-half for the sauce, and reduced-fat cheese. I think you will like this one.

First, prepare the cauliflower:

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large head cauliflower, cored and cut from the whole cauliflower top, into 1/2-inch slices (about 6 cups roasted)

Lawry’s seasoning salt

1 cup shredded, reduced-fat  4-cheese Mexican (I used Sargento’s for testing purposes.)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a large baking sheet with foil. Lay the cauliflower on the baking sheet and brush each side with olive oil. Sprinkle liberally with Lawry’s seasoning salt. Roast cauliflower for about 25 minutes or until caramelized and very tender. When cauliflower is done, break it apart, and place it in a 9-by-13-inch or 10-by-12-inch casserole dish that has been sprayed with a nonstick cooking spray. Add the cheese and mix with the cauliflower.

Then, prepare remaining ingredients:

2 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons flour

2-1/2 cups fat-free half and half (I used Land of Lakes for testing purposes.)

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Pinch dry mustard

1 cup shredded, reduced-fat 4-cheese Mexican

3/4 cup crushed Ritz crackers

1 large tomato, thinly sliced

Lawry’s seasoning salt

3 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled

Add butter to a large skillet. When butter starts to sizzle, add the flour and stir for about 2 minutes, not letting the flour brown. Add the half and half, Worcestershire sauce, and dry mustard, and cook until mixture starts to thicken. Pour over the cauliflower-cheese mixture. Spread remaining cup of cheese on the top of the casserole. Add crushed crackers evenly over the cheese, then top with sliced tomatoes and sprinkle withseasoning salt. Bake in a 400 degree F oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until casserole is bubbly and hot in the center. Add crumbled bacon to the top before serving. Serves 8.

Editor's Note: To read more of Anne and Linda's "how to grow and prepare" series, click here.

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 Linda Weiss is a personal chef. She attended Le Cordon Bleu of Paris’ catering program and is a professional member of The James Beard Foundation and the Southern Foodways Alliance. Her cookbook, "Memories From Home, Cooking with Family and Friends" is available at Amazon.

Anne Moore is an award winning free lance writer. She is the horticulture editor, gardening consultant, and e-newsletter editor for GardenSmart.tv. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association. Follow Linda and Anne as they blog at www.thegardenerandthechef.com

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A native of Central Asia, Tulipa tarda won a Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit in 1993 and the 1997 Flower Bulb of the Year award in the Netherlands. Both awards involved multiple garden trials to ensure it was appropriate for planting in home gardens. (Courtesy of Karan Davis Cutler)

The little tulips: Tulipa tarda proves that less is more.

By Karan Davis Cutler / 04.20.12

The showy clumps of hybrid tulips that I planted last fall are in their glory right now. But next spring they will be less impressive, and in three years I’ll need to fill their spot with some other plant. Unlike daffodils, tulips are not “forever flowers.”

But I have one tulip that returns year after year: Tulipa tarda. It’s a species tulip — some gardeners call them botanical tulips — which means it appears in nature and is “unimproved,” not a creation of clever Dutch breeders, the people who have been creating spectacular tulips since the late 1500s.

Subdued beauty

Hybrid, or Dutch, tulips are known as “the peacocks and parrots of the bulb world,” a salute to their brilliant colors and forms. My little species tulip is neither peacock nor parrot but lovely in its own right.

Moreover, it’s one of the few species tulips you can find at garden centers and online suppliers. And the price is right. Brent & Becky’s Bulbs, a superb bulb supplier located in Virginia, offers 50 bulbs for less than $20.

In early spring, a single bulb produces between three and eight blooms, each about two inches across with large yellow centers edged with white. Upward facing and star-shaped, the flowers are held on short stems — plants are about eight inches tall — and open fully only on sunny days.

Tulipa tarda produces offsets, but it also self-seeds. Some gardeners collect the seeds, sow them in pots, and then transfer the seedlings to the garden. I leave the plants to their own devices, and they have spread nicely. One warning: The emerging leaves look like grass, so it’s easy to mistake them for weeds.

Grow it almost anywhere in the U.S.

Tulipa tarda does well in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 8 or 9, which is nearly everywhere, and wants full sun and average, well-drained soil. Although cold hardy, it doesn’t need a long cold period in order to to bloom, so it is as well suited to the Pacific Northwest as it is to my garden in Vermont.

Once you’ve discovered the merits of Tulipa tarda, you’ll want to add other species tulips — there are about 150 to choose from. A superb source of information about both species and hybrid tulips — and other bulbs — is the International Flower Bulb Centre. Located in the Netherlands, of course.

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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.

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