Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

Quick & Easy Tips

Defy the drought

Des Moines is suffering under one of the worst droughts in decades. My garden has received less than 1/2 inch of rain in the past month. That, coupled with days on end of temperatures exceeding 100 degrees F has created extreme stress on plants. I seldom water established plantings, but this year I’ve resorted to rescue watering for most of the plants in my yard. I’m not trying to keep everything in photo-shoot-ready condition. I’m simply trying to make certain the plants will survive.

Perennials, trees, and shrubs planted within the past two or three years are most vulnerable, but many well-established plants are also showing signs of drought stress. The shrub pictured below is growing on the south side of a parking garage. Reflected heat off the concrete wall creates a desertlike microclimate in this spot. The shrub should have been watered long ago. At this stage, it likely will suffer dieback of the growing tips. But if it gets water right away, it likely will resprout from the base.

Because water is in short supply during a drought, it’s important to water efficiently. Sprinklers can spread water over large areas, but they lose some water to evaporation as they sprinkle. And usually they also over spray onto sidewalks and driveways, where the water will simply run off. If you don’t have large expanses to water, consider using soaker hoses that ooze water the full length of the hose. For trees and shrubs, you can fashion a drip watering system by drilling a few holes into the bottom of a five-gallon bucket, filling it with water, and placing it near a tree to slowly distribute the water to the root zone. For large, well-established trees use several of the bucket to deliver more water.

What drought-defying tricks do you use in your garden?

Drill several holes in the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket to create a homemade drip irrigation system for trees and shrubs.

Wind a soaker hose around perennials such as hosta to get the water to the roots without wetting the foliage.

Hot and Sunny

It was a hot, sunny weekend and Sunday was particularly breezy here in Des Moines. While the breeze was nice for me to keep that warm air moving, it was really tough on plants — especially containers, which seemed to dry out immediately after watering them.

If watering is the toughest part of keeping your containers looking good, try these tips:

  • Mulch. Adding an inch or two of mulch (such as shredded bark or cocoa hulls) over the top of the potting mix will help conserve moisture.
  • Don’t Overplant. It’s easy to pack your container garden full of little plants — but keep in mind that as the plants grow, they need more moisture. The fewer plants you have (or the bigger the pot), the less often you’ll need to water.
  • Choose the Right Plants. Varieties, such as angelonia, lantana, euphorbia, and cosmos hold up to heat and drought better than calibrachoa, petunia, lobelia, bacopa, and impatiens.
  • Provide Shade. If your containers sit in the blazing sun and they’re not too heavy to move, getting them out of direct light during the hottest part of the day will help keep the plants cooler and moister.
  • Soak Your Pots. If the potting mix does completely dry out, soak it in a tub of water to help rehydrate it. Most mixes hold water well when they’re moist, but have a hard time soaking up moisture if they dry out. If you water and the mix is too dry, the water will run right down the sides of the pot and out the holes instead of being absorbed.
  • Cut Back on the Fertilizer. If the weather forecasts an especially hot week, withholding the fertilizer that week can actually help your plants. Fertilizer pushes lots of growth; the more plants grow, the more water they need. Letting them slow down during hot spells means they’ll use less water.


They’re baaaack!

Roses are one of the favorite foods of Japanese beetles. When one starts to feed, it releases a pheromone that attracts more beetles. Early control is essential to prevent a full-force invasion.

Japanese beetles are back in central Iowa, several weeks ahead of schedule. This morning while photographing in the garden, I noticed (and killed!) half a dozen of the pests on a rose bush, one of their favorite plants. Among the 300 or so other plants that attract them are grapes, hollyhocks, hibiscus, crabapples, and lindens.

Adult beetles usually don’t emerge until late June, but as with everything else garden related this year, they’re well ahead of schedule. Normally the adults feed for several weeks before laying eggs in the ground. We can hope that their early emergence also will result in their early departure! But this means it’s time to start my daily morning rounds of the garden with a bucket of soapy water. I find that’s the simplest and most effective way of controlling them. I hold the bucket under the flower/plant on which they’re feeding, give the bloom a little tap, and the beetles drop into the sudsy solution to their demise.

Avoid the temptation to purchase a Japanese beetle pheromone trap to control the pests. These devices do indeed lure and trap hundreds of the critters, but they also attract many more that never make it into the trap. Instead, the extra beetles feed on the plants in your garden, causing even more damage than had you done nothing.

Japanese beetle trap.

Plant Perennials in Containers

I hear from lots of readers who want their container gardens to look a little different than the norm. Petunias and geraniums are fine, they tell me, but this year they want something a little “more than fine.”

One way to do this is to look beyond the usual plant palette of annuals and consider perennials. They’re more expensive up front but what many gardeners don’t realize is that you can pull them out of your containers at the end of the season and plant them in your garden. That way you can enjoy that same perennial for years to come. The example shown here uses columbine to wonderful effect with petunias, dianthus, euphorbia, and bacopa.

Some of my favorite perennials to use in containers include:

Coralbells: Their colorful foliage is a showstopper from spring to fall and are perfect for partly shaded situations. Dark-leaf varieties such as ‘Mocha’ are fun alternatives for sweet potato vine and won’t overgrow the space. (Get the same effect from chartreuse varieties, such as ‘Citronelle’.)

Ajuga: Another type with fun foliage for the shade, ajuga bears great foliage and creeps over the container, covering the soil and softly spilling over the container edges. ‘Burgundy Glow’ is a particular favorite; the leaves are variegated with silver, white, and purple.

Switchgrass: Varieties such as ‘Northwind’ offer fantastic upright structure in containers. They offer a very contemporary feel and are fun alternatives to cannas.

Blanketflower: This native prairie plant doesn’t mind it hot and dry, and blooms on and off all summer with yellow, orange, or red flowers. It’s a prime pick for attracting butterflies!

Garden destination B&Bs

Those who know me well know that I like to travel. And whenever I travel, I search out gardens to visit. has managed to fuel my wanderlust by announcing their Top Ten B&B Outdoor Spaces. Four of the ten winners are international; the other six are stateside (although one of those is in Hawaii.) I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting any of these inns yet, but I’ll certainly put them on my bucket list of places to visit during my upcoming travels. The winning outdoor spaces range from stunning borrowed views (such as mountains or waterfront vistas), to formal gardens and working farms.

I always manage to pick up a few ideas for my own garden when I visit outstanding gardens such as these, and bring back gorgeous photos and memories. Do you have favorite destinations that combine gardens and lodging?

Here is a sneak peak at the domestic winners (All photos courtesy of

Wine Country Inn, St. Helena, CA, in the Napa Valley, features views of vinyards and olive groves as well as gorgeous flower beds and herb plantings.

The Swag Country Inn, Waynesville, NC, has stunning mountain views and hiking trails for visitors' enjoyment.

The Inn at Irwin Gardens, Columbus, IN, features a garden maze, fountains, and a reflecting pool in a sunken garden on the 2-acre property.

Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm, Albuquerque, NM, is a working farm with 25 acres of fruits, vegetables, fields of lavender, and formal gardens.

Lookout Point Lakeside Inn, Hot Springs, AR, features a meditation labyrinth, lakeside and mountain views, and garden trails.

Hale Maluhia Country Inn, Kailua-Kona, HI, has an acre of lush tropical vegetation featuring koi ponds, waterfalls, and a tree house.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your onions!

Gardening with vegetables and annual flowers is a race against time and the elements. If you jump the gun, spring frost may knock back tender seedlings. If you delay too long, yields may be reduced because plants won’t fully mature before fall freezes arrive or the excessive heat of summer stymies growth. Onions are an example of a plant sensitive to day length. Varieties adapted to the northern U.S. form biggest bulbs during the long days of June and July. Delayed planting results in decreased bulb size because they form during the shorter days of late summer.

In response to this year’s mild winter, I’m betting on an early spring. I seeded onions in the greenhouse in mid-January. The seedlings are up and growing strong, and will soon be ready to transplant into the garden. If you haven’t started onion seeds yet, you can still direct seed them in the garden, purchase transplants from a garden center, or plant onion sets.

Seedlings of onion and annual flowers grow quickly in a large box with a seedling heat mat to provide bottom heat.

This weekend I’ll be starting dozens more vegetables and annual flowers in the greenhouse seed-starting chamber. When seed orders arrive, I file away seed packets by planned start date, storing them in the extra refrigerator in the garage to prolong their viability.

Store garden seeds in air-tight containers in the refrigerator to keep them fresh longer.

I did a quick inventory of seed packets to start on March 1, and came up with the following list of things that I’ll be planting this weekend.
Salvia ‘Summer Jewel Pink’ (an All-America Selections winner for 2012) and ‘Blue Victoria’;
Dianthus ‘Parfait Raspberry’;
Celosia ‘New Look Red’;
Gomphrena ‘Dwarf Buddy’ and ‘Qis Purple’;
Baby’s breath ‘Gypsy Deep Rose’;
Lavatera ‘Hot Pink’;
Marigold ‘Hero Bee’;
Snapdragon ‘Twinny Rose Shades’;
Lobelia ‘Crystal Palace’

Tomato ‘Lizzano’, ‘Terenzo’ (AAS winners for 2011), ‘German Johnson’, ‘Mortgage Lifter’, ‘Pruden’s Purple’, ‘and ‘Pompeii’;
Pepper ‘Black Olive’, ‘Cayenetta’ (AAS winners for 2012), ‘Odessa Market’, ‘Corno di Toro Giallo’, ‘California Wonder’, ‘Gordo’, ‘Premio’;
Eggplant ‘Black Beauty’;
Basil ‘Queenette’ and ‘Mrs. Burn’s Lemon’;
Broccoli ‘Liberty’, ‘All Season’s Blend’, and ‘Romanesco’;
Cauliflower ‘Grafitti’;
Chinese cabbage ‘Little Jade’ and Michihli’;
Lettuce ‘Garden Babies Butterhead’;
Beet ‘Bull’s Blood’

I’ll wait several weeks to start quick-growing heat lovers such as zinnias, squash, and ornamental cotton. By then, I’ll move frost-hardy annuals to the covered deck or front porch to acclimate to outdoor growing conditions. They’ll grow slower there than in the greenhouse, but as the adage goes, “slow and steady wins the race”.


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