December 2009

Everyday Gardeners

celebrate the season with poinsettias

Tomorrow is National Poinsettia Day. While it may not rank up there with other major holidays of the season, this observance of a plant closely associated with the Christmas holidays is worth noting. If you think of bright red bracts at the mention of this winter bloomer, you’re a traditionalist. There’s nothing wrong with that; almost 3/4 of poinsettia buyers prefer that color. But poinsettias are available in many more colors, now, from pink to white, creamy yellow, deep plum, and marbled and frosted bicolors.

wBHG113234You may even find poinsettias spray painted in gold, or blue or sprinkled with glitter. These “unnatural” colors make it easy to match the flowers to any decor. This trend hit the marketplace only a couple of years ago, but it’s not really new. When I was in grad school at Colorado State—some 30 years ago—one of our professors came up with the idea of spray painting poinsettias. The university greenhouse crop of poinsettias was not coloring up in time to sell for the holidays. (Turns out a light leak from street light upset the plants’ requirement for short days to develop colored bracts.) Because a beautiful crop of red poinsettias ready to sell in January is about as valuable as jack-o-lantern pumpkins in December, we tried to figure out a way to salvage the crop. Gold spray paint came to the rescue. Those gold-painted poinsettias sold like hotcakes in the Fort Collins grocery stores where we had our university flower shop boutiques. One of the undergrads in the horticulture department was Paul Ecke, III, whose family name is practically synonymous with poinsettia. The Eckes have been involved with breeding and growing poinsettias for almost 100 years, and are the world’s largest producer of this holiday crop.
The poinsettia was named for Joel Poinsett, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, where the plant is native. The plant’s botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means “most beautiful euphorbia”. Some shy away from this gorgeous flower because of a persistent, untrue rumor that the plant is poisonous. Research at Ohio State University has disproved this myth. Some people’s skin may be sensitive to the milky sap. However, eating the flowers is safe (but not recommended!).
Newer varieties of poinsettia are long lasting. Given bright light, warmth (average room temperature), and even moisture, the bracts should remain colorful for months. In tropical areas, poinsettia will grow into a large shrub. I remember a photo of my aunt and uncle next to a huge blooming poinsettia bush in front of their home in Nigeria. In temperate zones its usually easiest to simply discard the plant when it’s no longer attractive. If you’re the type who likes a challenge, you can grow it on and try to bring it back into bloom next year. You’ll need to give the plant 14 hours or so of uninterrupted darkness each night beginning in late September in order to ensure bloom by the holidays. If you’re unsuccessful, you can always buy a can of spray paint.

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Everyday Gardeners

Protecting Potted Plants in Winter

Say you live in Zone 5 and experience cold winters. Shouldn’t affect your red oak, right? I mean, that’s a species that is cold tolerant down to Zone 3! But if it’s in a container, the otherwise-hardy tree is automatically more at risk in winter. That goes for shrubs and perennials, too, which need insulation for their roots. Fortunately, there are several solutions.

Here are several potted oak that I am overwintering. I dug them into the ground and placed them--pot and all--in the hole, then backfilled and covered with shredded leaves. This is the best protection you can get, but it takes the labor of digging the hole. Be sure to protect the tender bark from rabbits and field mice (note white bark guard in foreground).

Here are several potted oaks that I am overwintering. I dug them into the ground and placed them--pot and all--in the hole, then backfilled and covered with shredded leaves. This is the best protection you can get, but it takes the labor of digging the hole. Be sure to protect the tender bark from rabbits and field mice (note white bark guard in foreground).

Lazy man's protection: I put several potted trees in a small cove and filled the gaps with bagged leaves I rescued from the curb. Pack the leaves so there are no air pockets; remove in spring and add to your compost pile (or as a mulch for your flowerbeds).

Lazy man's protection: I put several potted trees in a small cove and filled the gaps with bagged leaves I rescued from the curb. Pack the leaves so there are no air pockets; remove in spring and add to your compost pile (or use as a mulch for flowerbeds).

If you don't have an existing cove, make one your own. I stacked some blocks near a chainlink fence, then filled the space with potted trees. After that, I dumped bags and bags of leaves around the potted trees, compacting them so they formed a tight mulch around the pots. Again, these leaves can be removed in spring and added to the garden as a super mulch or compost starter.

If you don't have an existing cove, make your own. I stacked some blocks near a chainlink fence, then filled the space with potted trees. After that, I dumped bags and bags of leaves around the potted trees, compacting them so they formed a tight mulch around the pots. Again, these leaves can be removed in spring and added to the garden as a mulch or compost ingredient.

Smaller trees can be stored in an unheated basement or attached garage (an attached garage probably won't go below 20 degrees in winter...temps of 15 and lower can damage or kill potted tree roots)..

Smaller trees can be stored in an unheated basement or attached garage (an attached garage probably won't go below 20 degrees in winter...temps of 15 and lower can damage or kill potted tree roots)..


Justin W. Hancock

Landscape to Save Energy

A little blizzard is rolling through Meredith headquarters (and much of the rest of the Midwest) as I write this; we’ve been blanketed with a good snowfall (it looked like about 18 inches as I shoveled this morning), there are strong 40-mph winds, and we have single-digit temperatures.

One consequence of this is it’s probably increasing my heating bill this month. Happily, though, I know some landscaping tricks that help save me money on my heating/cooling bills.

One is to plant a windbreak. While not a new concept (farmers have been doing it forever), an evergreen barrier on the north or east side of your property has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of heat that cold winter winds pull from your home.

If you don’t have the space for a windbreak, consider a berm. It can create a pocket of insulating air space around your home’s foundation. Plant on it and you’ve also created a little extra privacy in your landscape.

How much can it save you? Many experts say 5 to 25 percent, depending on a number of factors. Couple that with the fact that attractive landscaping adds to your home’s value, and it seems like a pretty good deal, eh?


Eric Liskey

Old Man Winter

We had our first legitimate snow last night. My kids were excited beyond belief. I have to admit, I was happy to see it too. I grew up in California and snow was something you traveled to see. A tourist attraction, you might say. When I first arrived in the Midwest, my neighbors thought it was a little creepy that I was outside taking pictures of my own yard. But they know I was  a West Coaster, so they tolerated me. Snow isn’t quite as novel now, but I still enjoy it. Yes, it’s work to clear off the sidewalk. But I don’t mind so much, especially now that I have a snow blower. Tomorrow, they’re calling for near blizzard conditions. Seriously. Bring it on, I say! I have a blower!

First snow!

First snow!

Blowers aren’t cheap, but this was some of the best money I ever spent. Shoveling is seriously hard work, for those of you who aren’t acquainted with what it’s like to scoop 8 inches of wet white stuff for an hour. With a machine to do the work, now snow is fun again.

I was pleased to find the engine fired right up this morning. I hadn’t even tried it ahead of time to make sure it worked, which was dumb. But I got away with it. This time. I was confident, though, because I do one thing every year that seems to be the ticket to long engine life for mowers and blowers: before putting one away for the off season, let it run out of gas. That way, old gas can’t form nasty deposits in the carburetor while it sits. When you’re ready to run it again, just add fresh gas, and it should start right back up.

Changing the oil helps an engine last too, I understand. But after hearing my neighbor, “Wilson”, brag about how his old mower went 9 years without an oil change, I had to wonder. His old mower was  a piece of junk. He used a vice grip to hold the busted handle together while he mowed. For two years. I guess an engine doesn’t have to last forever. Just long enough for other things to start breaking first. Just to be on the safe side, I think I’ll stick with the oil changes. Considering how much a blower costs. And how much my back hurts after shoveling.

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James A. Baggett

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

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My houseplants are well-watered and my good dogs are fed and walked, so I toss another log on the fire and pick up a book from the pile beside my bed to bolster my spirits from the plummeting temperatures outside. The book I grab just so happens to be Hal Borland’s Sundial of the Seasons (1964, Lippincott). This satisfying book contains 365 of Borland’s outdoor essays from The New York Times, one for each day of the year; and because Borland prefers the natural year to the calendar year, he begins with the vernal equinox, when “April whispers from the hilltop, even as March goes whistling down the valley,” and ends with the passing of “the long nights when the moon rides high over a cold and brittle white-world.”  Borland was the Verlyn Klinenborg of his day, writing from his farm in Connecticut’s lower Berkshire Hills (plus, he’s the author of a book I loved as a young adult, The Dog Who Came to Stay). I’ve been reading each day’s essay from Sundial of the Seasons since I picked up the book, so I thought I’d share an eloquent entry from this week, for the first day of December:  ”December is a blizzard in Wyoming and a gale on the Lakes and the Berkshires frosted like a plate of cupcakes. It’s fir trees going to the cities by the truckload, and red ribbon by the mile and tinsel everywhere. It’s so many days until You-Know-When. It’s the Winter solstice and the shortest day, and it’s a snow shovel and galoshes and a muffler round the neck. It’s 30 below in Medicine Hat. December is the hungry owl and the fugitive rabbit. the woodchuck abed and the crow all alone in the pasture. It’s soup in the kettle and a log in the fireplace and long wool socks. It’s a wind at the door and a whisper in the air and a hush on the evening when the carols are sung.” I feel warmer already.

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Everyday Gardeners

ponder this

This was moving week for Zach, our fantail goldfish. He summers in the water garden next to the front porch, but when cold weather hits, he moves to a half whiskey barrel in the greenhouse. If the pond were deep enough, he could stay outdoors all winter. However, local zoning restrictions require 6-foot-tall fencing around water features deeper than 18 inches–not exactly attractive in the front yard. So, every year we rescue Zach from the pond in fall, and transfer him to his winter haven.

empty pond That means bailing water out of the pond to catch him. Usually we wait until icicles dangle from the waterfall and a sheet of ice covers the pond. This year we took advantage of  last 60 degree F day to empty the pond. With temps in the teens this morning, we’re glad we did. It’s a lot more pleasant splashing through 60-degree water than slush! As you can see in the photo at left, we usually have algae build-up to clean out, too. That scrub down will wait until spring.

We plan to try new technology next year to cut down on algal growth. The folks at Smartpond recently gave a presentation to the Meredith garden editors about new products that they have developed. One  incorporates a UV light (which kills algae) with a water garden pump. We’ll give it a try next season and report back results on this blog.