Eric Liskey

Don’t be a weed enabler

One of the most well-worn garden topics is “putting a garden to bed” before winter. I think it’s written about a lot because there isn’t much else to talk about (garden-wise) in November. Gardens are going dormant, you’ve planted your bulbs by now (or you SHOULD have!), and fall plants are fading out. Not much to do now except tidy up, wrap any tree trunks that need it, and go inside for few months.
That makes it sound quite simple. But that’s not to say it’s easy. If you have a sizable garden, it’s no small task to cut off all the spend growth  and dispose of the debris. I thought I’d discovered the best solution a few years ago. Lay the clippings out on the lawn and go over them with a mower, two or three times if necessary. Then rake up the shredded plant material and drop it in the compost bin.
As a way to dispose a lot of material quickly, it’s fantastic. But it created an issue that I think is worth pointing out. If, like me, you “cold compost” (i.e. you don’t work to get the compost hot), seeds in the compost may remain viable. So next year, when you spread all that wonderful compost over your beds, you’re creating (potentially) a weed nightmare. There are several plants that I can’t seem to stomp out. Rose of Sharon, coneflower, Rudbeckia, aster, and Datura, among others.
I now take care to discard most of the seed heads in some other way (like sending them to municipal composter, where they methodically process compost so it adequately heats up. Something to think about.

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Risa Quade

Creating a Mini Rainforest

Finished product of the biOrb

Country Gardens apprentice, Bailey McGrath, provides a guest post:

My adventure as an editorial apprentice for Meredith Corporation Special Interest Media began just over a month ago. With a working background in plant pathology, I am excited to continue to work with the beauty of nature, while fulfilling my true passion of writing. I have the privilege of going to school at Iowa State University full-time and coming down to Des Moines three days a week to learn from an incredible group of people.

As a new member of the gardens team, I have already learned so much about the gardening world. As a true test of my green thumb, I was given my first hands-on gardening project. I got to bring a tropical feel to my desk with the biOrbAIR terrarium.

I started by going to our local Earl May Nursery and Garden Center and searching for some tropical plants with our assistant editor, Risa Quade. There are slim pickings this time of year, but we managed to walk out with a few pretty plants, including goldfish plant, which bring orange blooms in the shape of goldfish.

I picked several plants for my mini rainforest, including goldfish plant.

When I got back to the office, it was time to put the biObAIR together. It was a pretty simple process. The kit comes with its own compost and special formulated water for the misting system. All I had to supply were plants and decorative rocks, which were easy to pick with the help of the planting guide.

The total process took me around two hours. I made quite the mess—spilling water and compost all over my cubicle—but I enjoyed every minute of it.

The directions made it a super easy step-by-step process.

After assembling the base, scooping in compost, arranging tiny tropical plants, and filling the misting reservoir, the time finally came to plug the miniature rainforest in. The LED lights kicked on, and the mist began to swirl down upon the plants. It was kind of mesmerizing. I wasn’t the only one fascinated by the rainforest-in-a-bubble. It has been quite a hit around the office.

The biObAIR goes through a 24-hour cycle, simulating a sunrise, 12 hours of daylight followed by dusk and 11 hours of night. It’s a perfect way to host a taste of summer throughout winter and allows tropical plant species to thrive. It runs at $599.99 and can be purchased via the biOrb website:

With little maintenance, the terrarium should bring me warmth during the freezing winter season.


James A. Baggett

Chelsea Flower Show

The daffodil display inside the Great Pavilion at the 2014 Chelsea Flower Show.

Lupines in every shade imaginable in the Great Pavilion.

Mention the Chelsea Flower Show on this side of the Atlantic and you set green hearts aflutter with serious horticultural envy. After all, what garden-lover worth his or her weight in well-rotted compost doesn’t long to attend this most famous and celebrated of all flower shows? So it was with utmost enthusiasm I accepted an invitation last May from Collette Tours and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) to not only exclusively attend the Chelsea Flower Show (founded in 1804) on Press Day, but to also spend a few days touring other RHS properties, including Windsor Castle; Hatfield House; Wisley Garden in Surrey; and Harlow Carr in Harrogate—plus a requisite drizzly afternoon on my own exploring the capital of Yorkshire, one of the unbelievably ancient cities of the medieval world with substantial portions of existing Roman walls (where, try as I might, I didn’t spot a single Yorkshire terrier).


Floral dress in one of the show gardens.

What are you looking at Benedict Cumberbatch?

Press Day at the Chelsea Flower Show was everything I ever imagined and more: Handsome young men in bold, floral-patterned suits and stylish women-of-a-certain-age wearing floral-festooned hats; strawberries and cream; masterfully manicured show gardens, one even featuring a beautiful young woman wearing a gown made entirely of real flowers posing with a matching floral parasol; Alan Titchmarch; perfectly delicious fish and chips; aggressive flower show paparazzi; more than one vendor selling some of the coolest vintage garden books, prints, and tools I’ve ever coveted; mind-boggling and over-the-top floral displays of lupine and peonies and bearded iris and way more in the Great Pavilion (my favorite part) that left me dumbstruck and grinning from ear to ear; a refreshing Pimms-and-lemonade (or two); notable British celebrities (Piers Morgan, Jerry Hall, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Cleese, and Twiggy); Chelsea pensioners in their scarlet coats and tri-corner hats selling ‘Victoria Cross’ poppy seeds; even bumping into my friend Felder Rushing from Mississippi (wearing seersucker, of course) just as we were being shooed out of the show with the riff-raff in anticipation of the Queen’s requisite visit. Here are three of my favorite Artisan Gardens.

The Topiarist Garden at West Green House by Marilyn Abbott.

Togenkyo—A Paradise on Earth by Kazuyuki Ishihara.

The DialAFlight Potter’s Garden by Nature Redesigned.


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Risa Quade

Preserving Flowers

The hay loft of the 1910 barn at Howell Tree Farm is stocked with strands of drying flowers, grains and leaves.

With autumn upon us and the threat of frost looming closer, it’s time to consider preserving the last flowers of the season.  For inspiration, I joined my son on his Kindergarten field trip to the pumpkin patch. The patch is located at the thriving Howell Tree Farm in Cumming, Iowa, which also grows acres of Christmas trees, corn, squash and flowers.  Although it’s always fun to go to the farm with scores of enthusiastic 5-year-olds, I had an ulterior motive. To check out the dried flowers.

The 1910 barn at Howell Tree Farm, which features everything from flowers to pumpkins and Christmas trees.

Bumping along the dirt road in the trailer of an old tractor, we passed rows of exuberant zinnias and red cockscomb and purple straw flowers.  Many of those flowers will end up drying along ropes tied to the rafters of the 1910 barn.  I simply had to wait until the kids sat down for their lunch to peel away from the group and sneak up the stairs of the old barn.  It’s a wonderful place, especially if you’re lucky to have it to yourself.  The entire hayloft is filled with drying plants.  Long strands of oak leaves, wheat, oats, baby’s breath and several types of naturally air-dried flowers dip down from the barn’s roof like stalactites.   These fragrant, preserved plants make the perfect ingredients for fall and holiday arrangements and they help the gardener hold on to their garden as winter takes hold.

Red globe amaranth make ideal blooms for drying.

Inspired, I’m drying a bunch of brilliant purple Celosia argentea in the corner of my cubicle.

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James A. Baggett

Thank Goodness for University Presses

Don’t know about you, but I quite enjoy picking up a good field guide and using it to figure out what it is I’m looking at in the natural world. Even more than typing a hunch into a Google search browser and hitting return and scrolling through the results. So it is with some excitement I share with you a handful of especially well-written and packaged field guides—all published by university presses—that have recently moved from my desk here in the office to my bedside at home.

• Encyclopedic in scope, Richard Dickinson and France Royer’s Weeds of North America (The University of Chicago Press; $35) is the first to cover North American weeds at every stage of growth. Five hundred species are included, making this an essential reference for all who wish to understand the science of the all-powerful weed.

• Covering more species (630 in the West, 825 in the East) than any comparable field guides, Trees of Western North America and Trees of Eastern North America (Princeton University Press; $29.95 each) are the most comprehensive, best illustrated, and easiest-to-use books of their kind. The book features thousands of meticulous color paintings by David More and easy-to-read descriptions present details of size, shape, growth habit, bark, leaves, flowers, fruit, habitat, and range. With an unmatched combination of breadth and depth, these are essential guides for every tree lover.

• Home and business owners know that trees are necessary for—among many other benefits—providing shade, reflecting heat, and blocking wind. But choosing the right trees for the right location and Midwestern conditions is not always easy. With Landscaping with Trees in the Midwest: A Guide for Residential and Commercial Properties (Ohio University Press; $26.95), Scott Zanon provides a generously illustrated guide to 65 excellent tree species, their characteristics, as well as their uses in the landscape.

• Fusing general interest in mushrooming with serious scholarship, Mushrooms of the Midwest (University of Illinois Press; $39.95) by Michael Kuo and Andrew S. Methven describes and illustrates more than 500 of the region’s mushroom species. From the cold conifer bogs of northern Michigan to the steamy oak forests of southern Missouri, the book offers a broad cross section of the fungi, edible and not, that can be found growing in the Midwest’s diverse ecosystems.

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Eric Liskey

Autumn jewels

The longer I garden, the more fall landscapes appeal to me. True, it’s a bittersweet time, because it signals the onset of winter, and a long stretch spent mostly indoors. But the look of fall is something special and quite different from spring gardens. In fall, there’s an edge of wildness and urgency as plants complete their seasonal growth cycle and send up tall flower stalks, leaves start to turn and drop, and insects frantically harvest nectar and pollen as they store up for winter. Fall has a color palette, and so does spring. The latter tends to be heavy on pinks and blues, while the former specializes in purples and yellows, with lots of rustic brown and orange thrown in. There are many exceptions of course, but these are the colors that predominate and help give each season its unique look.

Here’s a scene from one of my garden borders today. It’s got lots of asters, sedum, goldenrod, burning bush, a Calamagrostis grass, and a Russian sage. Asters are dominant, and they’re one of my favorite fall perennials. They can be invasive if you don’t deadhead promptly after bloom. But it’s kind of fun to see them pop up in unexpected places. Many kinds keep a low profile all season, staying almost invisible in a mixed border until late summer, when the green mounds suddenly explode with blooming stems.

Asters are a big group and it’s hard to recommend one as better than the others. But I have discovered a gem the last few years:  heath aster. This (below) is one from my garden right now. It’s a native, and I’m pretty sure it originally showed up as a weed. It has since spread via seed and I’m discovering that it is one of the most impactful fall bloomers I have. The wild form is, well, wild-looking. It’s not pedigreed hybrid. But the blooms are extremely showy en masse, and I have seen no stronger lure for pollinators.  The plant is so inconspicuous most of the year  you’d never know it was there. But then it erupts in white clouds of bloom in fall, with glorious results.

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