I live in a residential area where the houses are pretty close together so most of my garden is on view to neighbors. Along about May or June, I start wholesale removal of many fall and winter annuals that have done their thing well over the season. And neighbors usually tell me they’re sorry to see the annuals go because they looked so pretty.
But that’s the nature of gardening here in Southern California — we have to roll with the seasons. So next month my pansies, calendulas, and other winter annuals will be on their way to compost or green waste, to make room for warm-weather transplants of flowers that may already be blooming, or soon will start to show color.
And my neighbors will forget the winter annuals and be pleased with the summer color.
Try some different flowers this year
It may be a little late to start much from seed in May, but nurseries and garden centers will be loaded with annuals, and some perennial summer flowers, many already starting to bloom. Just be sure when you buy that you’re not taking home leftover winter annuals — in my experience, nurseries aren’t always too careful about getting rid of them at season’s end.
For a change from zinnias and marigolds, try some different flowers this year, including tall celosia, cosmos, tithonia, dwarf sunflower, amaranthus, any of the coneflowers, coreopsis, foxglove, monarda, or rudbeckia. All are good summer flowers and are easy to grow.
We can do some late pruning this month. Some ornamental trees and shrubs, and some fruit trees can still be pruned, taking out the dead wood that was the result of the unusually cold weather we had last winter.
Keep an eye on watering
We haven’t had the good rains we would have liked this past winter, so adequate moisture for our gardens will be a concern. Mulching with anything organic will help to conserve moisture, and adequate watering during the summer will be necessary.
I always advise checking and rechecking the sprinkler system to make sure it’s doing its thing properly.
Note: Click here to see Part 1 of what to do in southern California gardens in April.
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.
In some parts of the country, “April showers” are present and important, but here in Southern California, we may get some April showers and we may not.
So that means we need to be sure our gardens, lawns, and permanent plantings get enough moisture to grow well. Conserving the moisture plantings get is also important, and we do that by applying mulch to bare ground.
Sow seeds of many kinds
Whether or not showers appear this month, you can plant seed of asparagus, beets, beans -- both pole and bush -- carrots, cabbage, sweet corn, popcorn, celery, cucumbers, all melons, eggplant, lettuce, kohlrabi, mustard greens, peanuts, peas, okra, long-day onions, pepper, pumpkins, radishes, spinach, squash, Swiss chard, all herbs, and tomatoes.
Plant in light soil, cover the seed lightly, and keep moist until plants have at least two true leaves, then water as needed.
Some of the summer flower garden may also be planted from seed now. These include amaranthus, alyssum, aster, bacopa, gaillardia, carnation, celosia, centaurea, columbine, echinacea, cosmos, heuchera, coreopsis, dahlia, Dahlberg daisy, dianthus, delphinium, ageratum, oenothera, nicotiana, gerbera, gomphrena, hibiscus moscheutos, hollyhock, impatiens (don’t cover the seed of impatiens), larkspur, lisianthus, melampodium, nasturtium, marigold, osteospermum, penstemon, petunia, pyrethrum, portulaca, rudbeckia, salvia, statice, verbena, yarrow, sunflower, morning glory, vinca, and zinnia.
The lawn will be growing now, after just sitting there and sulking all winter, so fertilize and resume mowing once a week, or as needed. A healthy lawn will outgrow weeds, but it needs adequate water and fertilizer. It’s a good time to recheck your sprinkler and drip system to make sure everything is working properly, providing good coverage, and, if on a timer, that each set is operating for the right length of time.
Bulbs in summer, too
You can plant summer-flowering bulbs this month. Look for solid, healthy-looking bulbs of canna, ranunculus, anemone, gladiolus, allium, all hardy lilies, calla, bearded iris, and amaryllis in the sun. Try caladium for partial shade, and elephant ear (colocasia), and tuberous begonia for full shade.
The rule of thumb for planting most bulbs is three times the depth of the bulb, but some, like bearded iris, are planted just below the soil line. Water well after planting all bulbs, then just water regularly until they start growing.
Note: Click here for additional suggestions of what to do in the Southern California garden in April.
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.
The word perennial comes from Latin and means “throughout the year.” It is also defined as “enduring.” Varied and versatile, perennials have been part of the landscape for centuries.
It was legendary British gardener Gertrude Jekyll who is credited with popularizing the perennial or herbaceous border. Her concept was to create groups of plantings that would provide color and interest from season to season, and then return the following year to delight once again.
She had many perennial "pets," but singled out catmints (Nepetas) as “a plant that can hardly be overpraised.”
Of course, Ms. Jekyll could not have imagined the variety and colors of today’s hybrids when she was gardening in the 1880s, but she knew a good thing when she saw it.
A member of the mint family, nepetas are versatile, dependable, and particularly suitable for inexperienced gardeners. They also make charming bedfellows with roses.
Catmints (not to be confused with their relative catnip) generally aren’t bothered by pests or disease. They are deer-resistant and hardy in both cold and dry climates. They don’t need fertilizing.
And, depending on the variety, a vigorous pruning after the first flush of bloom will result in more spikes of eye-arresting color as summer unfolds.
Be careful not to overwater
Although catmints are touted as well-behaved and virtually care-free, they will quickly decline if their feet stay wet.
If your soil consists of heavy clay, you’ll need to add organic material to help with drainage. Catmints don’t need the extra nutrients, but they do require porous soil to thrive, and will not be happy sitting in water.
Other than soil considerations, there isn’t much to do except sit back and watch the show.
No wonder gardeners from beginners to grizzled, old veterans are saying they are simply the cat’s meow.
PSSST: Nepeta 'Walker’s Low' was dubbed Perennial Plant of the Year in 2007. The name refers to a garden in Ireland and not the plant's height, since it can top 30 inches. This beauty sports dark purple flowers and will rebloom without deadheading. In addition, Walker’s Low is not attractive to deer or cats, but butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds seek it out.
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.
A few years ago, edible landscaping — the practice of mixing vegetables and herbs in decorative displays — was a vogue new idea. Now it’s commonplace. You can find attractive staples like Swiss chard, kale, and ornamental chilies growing everywhere, and not just in yards. I see these and other edibles in the parking-lot planters of my local shopping center.
Yet I can’t help but think we are missing an important opportunity to make gardens and gardening more relevant by actually harvesting and eating these landscape crops.
Amid the seemingly endless Great Recession, lots of people are hungry. According to Feeding America, a leading hunger relief charity, one in six American does not have enough to eat. These numbers do not include the many citizens who are not hungry per se but lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables
My point is this: At the end of every growing season, we gardeners need to make sure that our “landscaping” makes its way to the local food bank. If we want to share the joy and value of gardening — and every gardener I know does — what better way to do so than by donating a bag of home-grown produce? (One way is through the Plant a Row for the Hungry program.
Moreover, we gardeners need to encourage more shopping centers, schools districts, and public buildings to both plant and harvest edibles as part of their landscaping.
And if you don’t include edibles in your decorative beds, perhaps it’s time to consider it.
Adopting a both/and perspective
Obviously, not all edible landscaping will work as potential foodstuffs. On my bustling street, the poor plants, edible and otherwise, are gassed by thousands of mufflers every year and probably “watered” by almost as many dogs. No one should have to eat them.
Nor does it make sense to donate veggies grown exposed to heavy doses of lawn chemicals.
Yet much edible landscaping is perfectly good for consumption. For instance, the shopping center I mentioned earlier often plants Bright Lights Swiss chard around a courtyard that functions as a town square. Every time I walk by, I am tempted to collect those gorgeous leaves for the neighborhood soup kitchen.
So far my wife has prevented me, but this winter I am going to get on the property manager’s case about it. It simply does not make sense to let those vegetables go to waste when so many people are hungry.
Here some gardeners will register a protest about the purpose of edible landscaping. It’s just that, they’ll say — landscaping. Its purpose is to beautify.
But this either/or thinking is misleading. There’s no good reason that, with a little care, the same landscaping that beautifies the neighborhood in June can’t be eaten come October. In fact, making our landscaping serve both purposes seems precisely the kind of challenge that gardeners crave.
A sweet case in point
The poster child for this sort of missed opportunity is the ornamental sweet potato. I understanding why people grow them; they bring the perfect “spill” to a planter, and their leaves come in all manner of colors, ranging from bright green to dark purple. There’s one for every palate.
Of course, ornamental sweet potatoes produce inedible tubers. Every time I see them — and they’re everywhere these days—I wonder if the gardener consider maybe, just maybe, planting an edible sweet potato instead.
Some of the edible varieties don’t look that different in their foliage than their ornamental cousins. And as Anne K. Moore and Linda Weiss recently blogged on this page, they’re easy to grow and harvest.
If we replaced just a quarter of all the ornamental sweet potatoes out there with edible ones, think of all the healthy, hearty calories we could grow for our hungry neighbors.
Christopher Weber is a journalist and work-at-home dad in Chicago. He has written about gardening for the Chicago Tribune and taught it at a local school. His current favorite vegetable to grow is Brussels sprouts. You can find more information about him, including articles and blogs, at christopherweber.org. To read more by Christopher at Diggin' It, click here.
The Internet has removed the need for so many types of book. Between the online nursery descriptions and search engine image searches, you can find basic information on many types of plant, and that’s often good enough.
However, things become tricky when you’re trying to compare plants. For example, recently I wanted to plant a Spirea ‘Neon Flash’, but all the nursery had was ‘Anthony Waterer’. On the internet, the descriptions looked remarkably similar, to the point where I wondered whether I was dealing with the same plant under two different names. (This happens a surprising number of times in the plant world.)
This is where a giant, thorough encyclopedia comes in handy.
"Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs" is now available, and it is a game-changer. Twice as thick as Michael Dirr’s most famous work, "Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs," it is crammed full of photos and deliciously blunt descriptions of each of the varieties listed.
The book feels like a gift - the essence of Dirr, immortalized - and is clearly going to be the new must-have book for anyone serious about gardening.
The benefits of a comprehensive encyclopedia like this are numerous. First, in my Spirea research, I was able to get a clear comparison between ‘Neon Flash’ and ‘Anthony Waterer’. (If you’re curious, ‘Neon Flash’ is slightly shorter, much less wide, and doesn’t have the tendency to develop cream-colored foliage reversions as does ‘Anthony Waterer’ - in short, had I gone with the Internet’s advice I would have been pruning dear Anthony off his neighbors for years to come.)
Honest, no-nonsense advice
Second, I trust Dr. Dirr. He’s brutally sarcastic, thoughtful, and has no motive to make a plant sound better than it is (hello, nursery catalogs!). I’ve certainly gotten some nasty surprises over the years through ordering plants that sounded fabulous from nursery descriptions, and then had lackluster coloring or performance.
Dirr cuts through all the hype and nonsense, and provides clear comparisons and quick summaries of the benefits or drawbacks of each variety.
And the photos! Oh, the photos. There are two to six color photographs on every page, which means that I can see for myself what the habit or flower color looks like, without having to guess what “vase-shaped” or “more red than the species” means to him.
A true time-saver
If you’ve ever tried to look up an unusual plant in any search engine’s image search, you know the extreme limitations of that media. Mislabeled plants, no clear distinction between named varieties, and few photos of the habit of the plant (just flower closeups) are just some of the issues.
Seeing the photos of differing varieties laid out right next to each other has already saved me enormous amounts of time when selecting just the right variety for a spot. It takes a lifetime of travel and dedication to build a photo library as extensive as this one, and it is almost as much of a gift as the text itself.
If you’re a gardener and you already know and love the earlier book, "Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs," then this much-more-comprehensive encyclopedia is going to be on your wish list for the next gift-giving occasion.
I’m keeping my old copy of "Dirr’s Hardy," but mostly because it’s so muddy, dog-eared, and highlighted that I feel I’d be getting rid of a personal journal to pass it on now. In the years to come, I expect this new encyclopedia to take on that same well-beloved look.
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.
I have to laugh because long before all of these things were your basic home gardeners. I come from a line of gardeners on both sides of the family -- my Italian grandparents who immigrated to this country and my German-Hungarian grandparents who made it here as well.
Gardens were necessities
My Italian grandfather, Rosario Scalise, planted a large garden in a lot next to the house where they lived with their eight children, one son-in-law, one grandchild, and Rosario’s father and mother. While part it may have been for pleasure, it really was necessary in order to feed his family.
He also built a bread oven, and people in the Italian neighborhood would bring their dough for baking and pay with what little money they had or traded bread for vegetables. A garden was important, for families, especially during the Depression, in order to just survive.
The German-Hungarian grandparents, Johann and Johanna, settled in a small community called Swissvale, just outside the city limits of Pittsburgh. There they built a house large enough for them, their four children and Johanna’s mother and brother. Because they had the only house on the block, they were able to grow a large amount of vegetables on the unoccupied lots for several years.
To help bring money in, my dad, Ernie, and his brother Charlie were sent out every day during harvest season to sell vegetables throughout the neighborhood. Everything they sold was organic since manure was about the only fertilizer and soil amendment available to them.
Not far away was old man Horrock’s farm. He was always called that even though he was a young man then. He just passed away a few years ago at the age of 103!
The farm's land has long since become lots for homes so I never really knew about the farm until one day I called the mother of a classmate because it was reunion time. Mrs. McGuire had lived in Swissvale all her life. She told me stories about my grandmother and how when she was a little girl, her mother would give her a paper bag and a dime to go to Horrock’s farm and fill up the bag with vegetables.
Imagine a bag of vegetables now for just a dime!
Fun for kids
My family lived with my dad’s mother. One year my grandmother fertilized her garden since no one else had done that. It turned out that my mother had done the same as well, as had my dad, since no one ever told anyone else of their fertilization. By the end of summer, the tomato plants looked more like Jack’s beanstalk. Because I was so little, they sent me into find the zucchini and tomatoes. It was like a jungle paradise for me.
At home in our garden, my grandmother grew tomatoes, beans, peppers, and carrots. When I would play outside, I used to sneak a carrot out of the ground, wash it off with water from the hose, and bite into a carrot that was so sweet, it was almost like candy instead of a vegetable. So addicting was that flavor, that to this day I eat only raw carrots for their crispness and sweetness.
Then, of course, there was the cherry tree with my swing on it. Every year my mother and grandmother fought the birds for the sour cherries so they could make pies. As I enjoyed the swing, the birds let their fondness for the berries drop on me. Amazingly, the tree is still alive today!
My dad ([see photo at left] passed away in 1966, but one of my earliest and fondest memories is going to the farmers' market with him. I can still remember being in awe of fresh blocks of Swiss cheese with their distinctive aroma and buying a bushel of sweet Country Gentleman, a silver shoe peg corn, and to my mind and mouth, one of the finest white corns ever grown.
At the end of summer the tomatoes from the garden became sauce, the carrots because something my grandmother called carrot sauce although she wouldn’t give up the recipe. There were pickled beets, jams, and jellies too.
Now I grow tomatoes, beans, onions, zucchini, peppers and beets. I buy corn at a farmer’s market. I make my tomato sauce, freeze the beans, make a lot of zucchini casserole or bread, salsa with the peppers, and onions for everything.
So I guess that makes me a bit of a locavore but really it’s always been just good homegrown food.
Here a recipe from my dear friend Antoinette Jucha, a Penn State Master Canner. Friends look at me like I’m crazy for saying I love pickled beets but this recipe is tops and will convert the non-believers, too.
Antoinette's Old-Fashioned Pickled Beets
3-1/2 pounds beets (2-1/2 inches in diameter)
2 or 3 onions, chopped or sliced to match the cut of the beets
2 cups sugar
1-1/2 cups white vinegar (5 percent acidity)
1/2 cup water
Trim the tops off the beets, leaving 1 inch of the stems. Wash the beets. Place them in a pan, cover with boiling water, and simmer until they are tender. Discard water. Cool beets slightly and remove the skins. Cut the beets into chunks or slices, or leaves small ones whole. Mix the onions with the beets.
In a different saucepan, dissolve the sugar in the vinegar and water; bring to a boil. Boil until it is nearly a syrup.
Pack the beets in hot glass canning jars to within a half-inch of the top. Add 1/2 teaspoon pickling salt to each pint jar or 1 teaspoon pickling salt to each quart jar.Then cover with the boiling syrup, leaving 1/2-inch of head space.
Put the lids on the jars and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes for pint jars and 25 minutes for quart jars. (Click here to learn more about how to can food.)
Denise Schreiber is the Mrs. Know It All of “The Organic Gardeners” on KDKA Radio and “Ask the Expert” for Pennsylvania Gardener magazine. Her new book is "Eat Your Roses." Click here to read her previous articles at Diggin' It.
Spring is an excellent time for water garden planning, but it was last fall when I was inspired to consider water in a new way. While attending a Garden Writers Association meeting near Seattle, I had a chance to examine the kind of subtle thinking that should precede construction of any water garden or water feature.
Our group was touring the grounds around Willows Lodge in Woodinville, Wash., with the knowledgeable herbalist and designer, Eaglesong — yes, it’s just one name. Her title in the hotel operations is "director of natural beauty."
She has earned the sobriquet. The tour group got a glimpse into what it takes to sustainably manage the naturalized landscape tucked around the buildings and the more formal kitchen gardens that contribute to the cuisine.
How goes the flow?
We turned into an open courtyard, surrounded on three sides by the lodge. The courtyard held a water feature. A little stream gurgled and meandered through rocks and Asian art, and poured into a small pond facing the hotel [first photo at left].
There, Eaglesong [second photo at left; click on arrow at bottom right of first photo to go to the next one] stumped us with a design question. “What’s wrong with this water?” she asked.
The group studied the set-up. We knew the water was chemical-free, because she had already told us that when they reconstructed the run with biologic filters, the native barking frogs returned, sometimes croaking so loudly that guests would ask the management to please switch off the frog chorus recording.
So what was wrong?
Someone noticed that the water was rising up from apparently nowhere. It was true. Like many of these constructions, the water simply appeared at the top of a four-foot-tall pile of rock — not too realistic.
Eaglesong admitted the artifice, but that wasn’t what she was after.
She finally told us — the stream was flowing away from the slough that bordered the grounds, rather than toward the bigger body of water. Of course, that design was chosen so guests could enjoy the little pond from indoors.
But, she said, water flowing the wrong way can be felt. Apparently, we carry within us an innate sense of how things should be, whether we are conscious of it or not.
That insightful bit of information can have profound ramifications when planning your own water garden. This isn’t just a paper-and-pencil or a hose-on-the-ground proposition. It calls for certain outdoor observations.
Where does water end up on your property? Is it near the downspout? Or traveling down the driveway? Of course, you probably wouldn’t build a lined pond right over the very lowest spot of a natural bog. A friend of mine did that — the water pressure underneath kept lifting the liner.
But if you start noticing where even the smallest rise and fall happens, you can place anything, from a bird waterer to a full-size pond, in the optimum location for nature’s pattern and your own pleasure.
Plan now, dig later
For instance, let’s say you’d like to create a narrow rill [third photo at left] along the side of your house. Which way should the water flow? Front to the street? Roads often are the lowest part near a property, and visually act like rivers. Or is the slope subtly going the other way, and the water ought to end in your back yard?
Study existing water features in other winter-bare gardens Do they fit in? Are they higher than the house? Is that comfortable? Or would a lower spot be better? Does the water arise from nowhere in the middle of the lawn? Perhaps backing up to a house wall or fence would make yours feel more at home. [See top photo.]
Before you build, choices are cheap. Walk around your property, and check out where water wants to be. It’s likely, that’s where you’ll be comfortable, too.
Mary-Kate Mackey blogs regularly for Diggin' It about water in the garden. She is co-author of “Sunset’s Secret Gardens — 153 Design Tips from the Pros” and contributor to the 'Sunset Western Garden Book,' writes a monthly column for the Hartley Greenhouse webpage and numerous articles for Fine Gardening, Sunset, and other magazines. She teaches at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism & Communication. To read more by Mary-Kate, click here.
This past December, I (Anne Moore, a gardener) harvested my first fruit from a seed-grown tree. It's a very unattractive tree. It is somewhat leafy at the bottom on the original growth. This past summer it decided to shoot up a trunk with leaves and one little fruit at the top of its four feet. Somehow, I missed the flowering phase.
The tree (and I use the term loosely) is at least 10 years old. It grows in part shade in a very infertile area. It has been evergreen its whole life and maybe if I paid more attention to it, it would be an attractive little tree. It has developed very long, wicked thorns all along its trunk. The fruit is very small, all seeds, with a smooth citrus-flavored sweet skin, just like a kumquat with no pulp.
Grow indoors or outside
Kumquats, even though they appear to be citrus, were moved to the genus Fortunella in 1915, according to Purdue University. If you purchase a young grafted tree, you won’t have to wait ten years or more for it to bear fruit and the fruit will be edible.
If you live in USDA Zones 8-9 (sheltered spot in zone 7), you can plant it outdoors in a sunny spot. Otherwise, grow it in a sunny window indoors and full sun outdoors during the summer months. The roots should never dry out but they also cannot be in standing water. Use a slow-release fertilizer.
To raise the humidity indoors, mist it daily or raise it up on pebbles in a saucer of water. You can enjoy these little "oranges" as decorations or in recipes, like the one from Linda, next.
Kumquats, a childhood favorite
As a small child, I (Linda Weiss, a chef) loved kumquats. My grandmother could never understand why I liked the citrusy, sweet rind, that held bitter flesh, and I can hear her saying, just like yesterday, “of all things,” as I picked up a kumquat and took two bites to finish it.
Fast forward to almost 60 years later, and I still like them -- except that I eat them a couple of different ways now, but mostly preserved. The preserving of kumquats is easy, and you will be surprised at what a fresh flavor this tiny little orange fruit can bring to so many different foods, such as herb-roasted chicken, a simple piece of toast, or just a few tablespoons added to the side of a vegetable plate.
2 pounds kumquats
4 cups sugar
2 lemon slices (about ¼ -inch thick)
4 cups water
Wash the kumquats thoroughly. Prick each one with a fork. Put them in a pan large enough to cover them with boiling water, and simmer them for 25 to 30 minutes or until they are tender. Drain.
Combine the sugar, lemon slices, and the 4 cups of water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes. Add the kumquats and boil gently for 25 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to stand, covered loosely, overnight (or all day if you start in the morning), so that the fruit will plump.
Take out the lemon slices and discard. Place the kumquat mixture back on the stove and bring to a boil.
Skim the kumquats from the syrup with a slotted spoon, and put them in hot sterilized half-pint jars. Continue to boil the syrup until it reaches 220 degrees F on a candy thermometer. This may take 8 to 10 minutes. Pour the boiling syrup over the kumquats, covering them to 1/4-inch from the top of each jar. Clean rims, and seal at once. Refrigerate or freeze. If freezing, leave one-inch space between the fruit and the top of the jar. Cool before freezing. Makes 2 to 3 pints, depending on the size of the fruit.
Editor's Note: To read more of Anne and Linda's "how to grow and prepare" series, click here.
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 freelance 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
Among the earliest of native wildflowers to grace my gardens is the dwarf larkspur (Delphinium tricorne). My start of this plant was obtained from the edge of a gravel country road where I was first captured by its color. That was over 15 years ago and anticipating the yearly emerging and bloom has now become similar to an anniversary date. I am always in my gardens the last week of March, into first week of April, watching for first signs of its appearance.
Short in height, tall on color
The dwarf larkspur stands about 12 to 14 inches when first coming into bloom. As the plant ages, the bloom stalk lengthens to reach a height of about 18 inches when well grown. Blooms open from the bottom up on the stems, and then a bit more space appears between each 1-inch blossom.
There are five petals with the top petal having a long spur resembling a witch's peaked hat. The center of the flower has a white fuzzy center resembling a bee seeking nectar. Bloom color is a generally a bright, rich purple, but color can vary in shades to gray-purple or lavender.
I have been fortunate to obtain the white blooming form for my gardens, and it is as reliable as the purple-blooming form.
As the blooms open, foliage appears at the base of the plant. Individual leaves are about four inches across, resembling the palm of your hand and deeply cut into sections.
Where it grows best
I transplanted my plants to an environment similar to the conditions where I found the native ones growing. That is: edge of the woods environment where it receives plenty of spring sunshine, but is out of the afternoon sun. Soil is generally good woodland soil with humus, and there is an organic mulch. I use chopped leaves each November. If the dwarf larkspur has a good mulch to sow seed into, it will soon form drifts of color.
Delphinium tricorne is ephemeral, so as quickly as it comes up and blooms, it will fade away -- as leaves come out on trees and shrubs, robbing it of light and nutrients. I have several other ephemerals located with the dwarf larkspur, such as trilliums, Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman's breeches), and Dicentra canadensis (a perennial know as squirrel corn).
These drifts are located between and beneath shrubs or larger perennials that will emerge as the ephemeral plants go dormant, taking their place in the garden. Ferns are always good choice as a companion to dwarf larkspur, as are Dicentra exima (bleeding heart) for later blooms and lacy foliage, Heuchera (alumroot and coral bells) for large colorful leaves, and Polygonatum (Solomon's seal) for height and grace.
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.
In late fall it took several nights of temperatures in the 20s to zap the marigolds. Marigolds are among my favorite annuals — perhaps my very favorite— because they are handsome and easy to grow. And they bloom from June to November, even in Vermont.
I keep reading that marigolds are susceptible to wilt and stem rot, leaf spot, botrytis blight, aster yellows virus, spider mites, Japanese beetles, and slugs, but not in my garden.
Better still, marigolds are allelopathic [PDF] and produce a chemical that reduces root-knot nematodes.
French marigolds aren't French
But I grow marigolds for pleasure, not for their nematode-suppressing qualities. The types I like are French marigolds, Tagetes patula. As is frequent with the common names of plants, French marigolds are not French, just as the evening primrose isn't a primrose, and creeping zinnia isn’t a zinnia.
French marigolds are Mexican, their seeds were carted to Europe by the Spanish in the 1500s, then transported to France. After the French and others fussied them up, marigolds made their way back to our gardens. Nearly all are compact, well-branched plants, six to 12 inches tall. Most cultivars produce double flowers, but there also are singles, such as ‘Scarlet Starlet’, which has gold centers and bronze-red petals edged in gold.
American breeders have worked overtime to invent new marigold cultivars. There are scores to choose from, so many that it’s daunting for the home gardener. For starts, you can’t go wrong with anything with Bonanza or Durango in its name, two widely available marigold series from PanAmerican Seeds..
The people at W. Atlee Burpee & Co. are especially invested in marigolds, which were a passion of David Burpee, son of founder W. Atlee. In 1939, the company produced ‘Burpee Red & Gold’, the first hybrid marigold
Fragrance -- yes or no
Two years earlier, it released ‘Crown of Gold’, the first odorless marigold. Fragrance has been a thorn in the marigold’s side for centuries: The English herbalist John Parkinson (1567–1650) wrote that the flower was “pleasant to the eye, and not to any other sense.”
‘Crown of Gold’ wasn’t a hit, so apparently I’m not the only gardener who isn’t offended by the smell of marigolds.
Neither was the late Illinois senator Everett Dirksen, who never missed an opportunity to fill the pages of the Congressional Record with pleas to make the marigold our national flower. Marigolds lost to the rose, alas, but they continue, as Sen. Dirksen phrased it, “tossing their heads in the sunshine and giving a glow to the entire landscape.”
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.