Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

January 2010

Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden manager Sandra Gerdes shared this photo of beautyberry (Callicarpa) after an ice storm.


Over the holidays, I sampled a few exotic beers I received as gifts. One, a French beer, was flavored with chestnuts. The other was brewed in Louisiana and supplemented with the South’s greatest export (other than Elvis): pecans.

Let the research begin: pecan- and chestnut-flavored beers.

Let the research begin: pecan- and chestnut-flavored beers.

Yeah, I had the same reaction: chestnut-flavored beer? Pecan-flavored beer? Well, it shouldn’t be a surprise because both nuts have a long culinary history. And they’re finding renewed interest today because they’re a good source of plant protein and can reduce the risk of heart disease in men and women. Nuts also reportedly decrease LDL or bad cholesterol.

Frankly, both beers were rather tasty in moderation. These are sipping beers, not rip-roaring fraternity swill. And they go well with—not surprisingly—nuts.

The good news for you, my fellow gardeners, is that you can raise these nuts yourself. Pecan (Carya illinoinensis) grows from Zones 5-9, although colder climates may not offer enough time for nuts to ripen. In that case, you could switch to a related species, such as shagbark hickory (Carya ovata). Or grow chestnut.

American chestnut (Castanea dentata) grows from Zones 3-9, but a canker disease forces most people East of the Mississippi to keep them as shrubs. Every few years, the tree dies back and is replaced by multiple shoots arising from the base. These shoots eventually grow old enough to bear nuts, then die back again.

Who's in favor of testing more nut-flavored beers?

Who's in favor of testing more nut-flavored beers?

A better option may be Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima), which is resistant to the canker disease. Chinese chestnut grows in Zones 4-8 and bears in as little as 6 years.

Both chestnut and pecan grow on a range of soils. Good drainage is the main requirement, but a neutral to slightly acid pH is helpful. You will be pleasantly surprised how quickly they grow. Pecans are moderate in growth rate, and chestnuts are so fast they’re only a step or two behind poplars.

Every year, a handful of plant companies send me and the other  BHG garden editors  samples of their new varieties for the next year. That gives us a chance to try them out and tell you what we really think of the plants instead of trusting a press release.

Last year we received a sample of a new sweet alyssum variety called Snow Princess sweet alyssum from Proven Winners. And I have to say this plant totally impressed me with its performance. I grew in window boxes on my second-story balcony with Easy Wave Burgundy Star petunia, thinking the alyssum would look good in spring while the petunia was growing in, then the petunia would put on the show when the alyssum fizzed out in the heat.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the alyssum continued to look good once the summer heat kicked in. And in fact, it held its own against the petunia all summer and fall. I never would have believed I’d see an alyssum that put on as big of a show as a Wave petunia!

Snow Princess sports the largest flowers I’ve ever seen on a sweet alyssum, and the most fragrant, too. It looks pretty amazing in a hanging basket all on its own.  It’s definitely a hot new variety for 2010.

They say the gardening gene tends to skip generations. Makes sense to me. My father’s mother, my Grandmother Virginia, lived on the banks of the White River in Broad Ripple, Indiana, and maintained a modest collection of temperamental hybrid tea roses. She was particularly fond of ‘Peace’, a pale gold, cream, and ivory rose with a lightly ruffled carmine edge to its petals—and she grew a handful of bushes around a white-washed birdbath. ‘Peace’ was christened the day that Berlin fell in 1945. That same year, Dr. Ray Allen, secretary of the American Rose Society, arranged for each of the 49 delegates at the inaugural meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco to receive a bud vase with a single, long-stemmed ‘Peace’ rose. He attached the following note: “We hope the ‘Peace’ rose will influence men‚s thoughts for everlasting world peace.” This is the most popular and best-selling garden rose of all time; more than a hundred million have since been sold.

I distinctly remember being recruited into service by my grandmother in early spring to “powder” her roses, scrub clean the birdbath with a wire brush, and give it a fresh coat of white paint. A few years later, at the age of 10, my parents allowed my younger brother, Rick, and me to order whatever packet of seeds we wanted from the annual Burpee catalog that arrived in the mailbox of our new turn-of-the-century home in northern New Jersey. We poured over the garish pictures and finally settled on nasturtiums, for him, and forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica), for me. I think I was attracted to the romantic common name and the petite robin’s-egg blue blossoms. Both grew like Topsy, rewarding us with armloads of pretty flowers in our suburban backyard.


A few years later, I remember expressing an interest in a friend’s father’s collection of African violets (Saintpaulia). He showed me how to start new plants from leaf cuttings and sent me home with a couple of plants all my own. Before long, my enthusiasm for these rewarding houseplants—and my success for growing violets on my bedroom windowsill—quickly outgrew my friend’s father’s armchair botanical knowledge. So one day he jotted down the name and address of a woman who lived nearby and suggested I contact her to find out more of what I wanted to know. Without a second thought, I jumped on my orange Schwinn 10-speed, pedaled over to the address, and knocked on the door of gardener Mary Mahen. She didn’t seem at all surprised to find an earnest and awkward teenage boy with a decidedly green heart standing on her doorstep enquiring about African violets…and she invited me inside. She led me down into her basement and what I saw quite simply blew my adolescent mind: hundreds, perhaps thousands of African violets of every color and description blooming under rows of orderly grow lights in every imaginable shade: blue, purple, red-violet, orchid, lavender, red-pink, white, and bi-color or multi-colored. There were singles, doubles, semi-doubles, star-shaped, fringed, and ruffled flowers; velvety leaves were plain green, ruffled, fringed, scalloped, spooned, pointed, and even variegated. She even had charming miniature violets no more than a couple of inches tall. This was, after all, the president of the Missouri African Violet Society, and she eventually sent me on my way with my bicycle basket overflowing with fresh cuttings and brand new plants for my windowsill. Check out our feature on African violets in the issue of Country Gardens (Early Spring 2010) on sale at newsstands nationwide right now.

By the time I graduated from high school, the basement of my parents’ house was filled with every tropical flowering houseplant I could get my hands on. When I left for college years later, I diligently provided my mother with a list of specific instructions for the care of the collection of plants I was reluctantly leaving behind (thanks to a handful of nearby wholesale greenhouses that tolerated by presence, I grew everything—peperomias, aralias, gloxinias, gardenias, bromeliads, and cyclamen). It wasn’t until Thanksgiving break that I returned home, only to discover almost every single one of my plants dried up and dead from neglect. Why should I have been surprised? Like I said, gardening seems to be an every-other-generation kind of deal.

Scotts/Miracle Gro had owned Smith & Hawken for several years, when last summer it announced it would shutter the company. This disappointed many fans of the iconic brand. But now it appears that Target has bought the Smith and Hawken brand. I’m not sure how that will play out in terms of the product line. Target stocked Smith and Hawken products before, but didn’t own the brand. Now, as owner, Target will of course have more control over the styling of the products. Probably not a bad thing—Target is known for its good sense of style. We’ll find out when the outdoor products are rolled out this spring.

mulch3Yankee ingenuity? I’ll show you Yankee Ingenuity! Just watch me clip the shrubs in my yard. For starters, I take a zen-like attitude. That means I’m in no rush to get it done; instead, I enjoy the moment, clipping at a casual pace that allows the mind to wander.  It’s relaxing and even therapeutic.

mulch2By clipping at a casual pace, I also have the time to cut into smaller bits. These bits are then distributed in place—right in the garden—so I have no clean-up to do. The stem fragments simply join in with the rest of the organic mulch. And when I’m clipping redtwig or yellowtwig dogwood, I get an added benefit: color. Note the photos in this story, with a fresh dressing of redtwig dogwood stems.

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