Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

January 2011

One of the themes at the Tropical Plant Industry Expo in Fort Lauderdale last week was living walls–the concept of growing plants in vertical spaces. This attractive display by Triad Plant Company creates a mosaic of tropical foliage plants tucked into a foam substrate wall perched atop a water reservoir. Essentially, the system is a recirculating fountain which trickles water through the foam to keep the plants’ root systems moist.

That solves one of the major problems with living walls. Watering them can be a messy task. Although I’m all for additional ways and places to grow plants, I’m not so sure that I’d want a living wall next to a carpeted floor! Even with this self-contained system, there are bound to be leaks or dribbles of water onto  surrounding surfaces.

Another water-related problem with vertical growing systems is uneven water availability, according to staff at Longwood Gardens, who reported on their experience with their new living wall at the conference. Think back to elementary science class and a demonstration about how much water a saturated sponge holds. When the sponge lies flat, a bit of water drains out of the upper portion of the sponge, but the bottom half remains saturated. When the sponge stands on end, a lot more water drains out of it because there is a much greater distance from top to bottom, and the capillary water (the water held in the pore spaces of the sponge) in the upper portion of the sponge drains out. Similarly, the upper portion of living walls will dry out faster than the lower portion. That means you may need to plant drought-tolerant plants at the top and moisture-loving ones at the bottom if you decide to try this new technology.

Here are a couple more examples of vertical growing systems seen at the trade show:

Planting pockets that hang on a wall.

Tillandsia meridionalis, an air-plant bromeliad, mounted on a wall plaque.

The planting pockets by WoollyPocket are watered like houseplant dish gardens. The bromeliads are misted frequently to supply the moisture that they need.

It remains to be seen whether vertical growing indoors is just a fad or a trend that is here to stay. Certainly it’s another way to enjoy the beauty and healthy benefits of plants in indoor environments. What do you think? Are they worth the extra effort?

Last week I had what felt like the opportunity of a lifetime: I traveled to South Florida to attend the Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition and check out Costa Farms, one of the leading growers of houseplants in North America.

Phalaenopsis (moth orchids) at Costa Farms

The folks at Costa were great hosts and I had the opportunity to see a lot of really amazing things. One of the best was their new state-of-the-art orchid greenhouse, which they use to produce and send out more than three million orchids every year. I spent more than an hour in the greenhouse and could easily have spent several more looking at all the varieties!

Here’s a glimpse of what I experienced. It’s really amazing seeing this many Phalaenopsis orchids in one place!

For years flowers have grown around a plethora of garden accents–from the gazing ball…to trellis…to statues for whatever mood fits you.

But for me I prefer highlighting my garden with vintage finds.

Small chicken feeder filled with begonia, coleus in navy blue planter

Purple fountaingrass planted in galvanized bucket, foxtail fern planted in brown pot

It’s a true extension of my interior space. And that’s what I think gardening should be about–revealing your style throughout the spaces that you enjoy the most. Take a look around your home…find what makes you the happiest, the most comfortable, and see if you can incorporate that into your own garden.

Large chicken feeder filled with geranium, sweet potato vine, fiber-optic grass, and calibrachoa

Here’s a quick glance at the chicken feeder…before the plants took over. This summer I was going with “more is better” philosophy….I might have learned my lesson.

Keg barrel with galvanized tub filled with salvia, sweet potato vine, and Wave petunias

Galvanized tub filled with fiber-optic grass, salvia, ivy geranium, and sweet potato vine,

As you may have figured out….I love weathered galvanized metal and have a chicken feeder fetish. Recently, Deborah Silver on Dirt Simple rounded up a fantastic lineup of containers that I’d love to have in my garden. There’s more to these obsessions,  but I’ll save that for another story-time. Do you have a fetish? One that you carry on into the garden? Tell me about it! I don’t want to be the only one!!

Ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated with snake grass (also called horsetail, or Equisetum hymale) thanks to my babysitter who showed me how to disassemble each section and carefully snap them back together {also…the blades worked really well to whip at my little brother}.

But there is something more you should know about snake grass….she spreads. Like crazy. And will best serve your landscape if she was contained or left to flourish in her natural habitat.

Cleverly this homeowner notched out a piece of sidewalk for the plant to soften the dreary look of their mailbox.

In addition, the homeowner planted snake grass along her foundation–so the plant is still contained by the front sidewalk. The grass complements the modern, sleek characteristics of the house while providing an unique, low maintenance element.

Beyond your landscape, snake grass works well in wetlands–waterways, ditches, etc–to soak up some of the water and choke out unsightly weeds, similar to how cattails perform. Or use it for a filler within your cut flower bouquets. However you interject snake grass in your garden, please be mindful of its growing habit and plant wisely.

If you’ve grown this grass before–tell me about your experience–how you used it–how you contained it–or how you had fun with it!

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sprngmag1My mailbox was frozen shut yesterday, but boy was I glad once I pried it open. Inside I discovered another ray of catalog sunshine waiting for me. There’s something so hopeful and reassuring about the pile of seed and plant catalogs piling up beside my bed while the thermometer outside my window dips below zero. I love nothing more than to pore through each and every mouthwatering catalog, even if the plants they offer up would be as out of place in my Zone 5a garden as lilacs in Louisiana. Since most of us are already familiar with the Burpee and Park Seed catalogs with their staggering Technicolor photographs and whopper flower and vegetable seeds, I thought I’d share some of my favorite lesser-known catalogs (above) well worth hunkering down with during this dreariest time of year:

• High Country Gardens (highcountrygardens.com) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, makes the case for alternatives to conventional turfgrass lawns, and offers plenty of plants that will look great with minimal upkeep, especially water. When it comes to native and low-work and water lawn choices, David Salman is a true pioneer. I’m excited to try their new pink cotton lamb’s ear (Stachys lavandulifolius), an amazing wildflower with a profuse display of fuzzy, bright pink flower spikes that’ll be right at home in the hard clay of my hellstrip.

• Prairie Moon Nursery (prairiemoon.com) in Winona, Minnesota, is nothing if not passionate about native plants and prairie restoration for the Upper Midwest. They are the source for more than 600 native species, from the familiar (Culver’s root) to the hard-to-find (small-flowered leafcup). I only wish I had space for all eight varieties of liatris they offer.

• Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SouthernExposure.com) in Mineral, Virginia, features more than 700 varieties of heirloom and organic seeds in addition to tried-and-true favorites, with an emphasis on heritage, flavor, and disease resistance. If only our growing season was long enough to try their ‘Whopper’ peanuts, which the catalog says are twice as big as ‘Virginia Jumbo’.

• Sand Hill Preservation Center (sandhillpreservation.com) in Calamus, Iowa, is stewarded by Glenn and Linda Drowns, “genetic preservationists that are in this for the genetic diversity of this planet we call home.” They offer more than 1,600 rare and genetic treasures—seeds and poultry—for your selection. They produce all of their eggs for hatches, tend all of their own flocks, weed and care for the seed crops, and produce about 80 percent of the seed they sell.

• Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (rareseeds.com) in Mansfield, Missouri, carries one of the largest selections of seeds from the 19th century, including many Asian and European varieties. Baker Creek was started by Jere Gettle at the age of 17, when he printed the first catalog in 1998. The company has grown to offer 1,300 varieties of vegetables, flowers, and herbs—the largest selection of heirloom varieties in the United States—and we’re glad to call them our friends. Their breathtakingly gorgeous radishes will be featured in the Fall 2011 issue of Country Gardens.

My calamondin orange is famous! This photo of it appears in the February issue of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, in Debra Prinzing’s column, Debra’s Garden. I love how the morning light streams in through the sidelight windows next to the front door, highlighting the orange orbs and giving a golden glow to the foliage.

My indoor citrus grove also includes two Meyer lemons, a dwarf orange tree, and an Oroblanco grapefruit tree. These citrus trees spend most of the winter in my attached greenhouse. This week I noticed that the plants are loaded with flower buds. (One Meyer lemon has already started to bloom.) On sunny days, I open the  door into the greenhouse, letting the warm, moist greenhouse air drift indoors. A bonus is the scent of citrus blossoms that fills the house. What better way to lift spirits on a cold winter day than to breathe in the heady aroma of orange blossoms?

By mid-March the citrus trees get moved out of the greenhouse to make room for flower and vegetable seedlings that must be transplanted from their seed germination chamber. (If I could control my plant addiction, the citrus trees wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of a late winter move!) Usually the trees reside in the garage for a few weeks until the weather warms. Then, they’re moved to the parking pad next to the garage, in a sunny microclimate facing southeast, protected from cold northwest winds. On frosty nights they get wheeled back into the garage. I find that this routine allows me to harvest ripe fruits the following December or January.

I can’t always escape Iowa winters, but my orange, lemon, and grapefruit trees let me experience a touch of the tropics no matter how nasty the winter weather becomes.

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