Everyday Gardeners

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Quick & Easy Tips

By late February nearly everyone is ready for spring to arrive. Cloudy, gloomy days bring a yearning for the bright colors and happy thoughts of spring. You can speed the process along by forcing flowering branches indoors. Even in a mild winter such as this one, by now most spring-flowering shrubs have received enough hours of cold to break dormancy once warm temperatures arrive. You can trick them into blooming early by cutting stems with plump buds (flower buds are thicker and rounder than leaf buds), and taking them into the warmth of your home.

The pink double blooms of flowering cherry pair with a rosy ranunculus in this spring bouquet.

Prune off pencil-width stems full of buds. Plunge the base of cut stems into warm water after stripping buds from the portion of the stem that will be under water. Keep the cut twigs at room temperature or slightly cooler to force them into flower. Change the water twice per week to keep it fresh. Within a few days to several weeks, depending on the time of winter and species of flowering shrub, your spring-in-a-vase will burst into bloom–an event that’s sure to bring smiles to the faces of those who see it.

Trees and shrubs that bloom earliest outdoors are the easiest and fastest to force indoors. Forsythia, flowering quince, redbud, pussy willow, and serviceberry are good choices for first-time forcers. But crabapple, lilac, and kousa dogwood will work, too. They just take a little longer.

This year I’m getting a jump on spring by forcing forsythia branches. The shrub needed pruning anyway. Rather than tossing the branches in the woodchip pile, I decided to enjoy them in flower first. I’m having fun watching the progression of swelling buds, and can hardly wait for the first bud to burst into full flower.

 

Combine Tete-a-Tete daffodils with pussy willow branches for an instant spring garden.

The bright yellow blooms of forsythia are some of the easiest to force into bloom.

For an Asian influence, back a windswept flowering quince branch with a bamboo screen.

The pink or white blooms of a forced crabapple add a delightful fragrance to any indoor setting.


If you’re ready for spring to arrive, but the weather isn’t quite cooperating, why not plan and plant an indoor garden project? During a photo shoot last week for an upcoming book on indoor gardening, I completed several projects featuring bromeliads and a couple involving converted indoor fountains. Use your imagination to come up with unique containers for terrariums and dish gardens. The results will enliven your indoor living spaces and help bridge the time until you can dig in the garden outdoors.

This former slate fountain now houses 'Bright Star' dieffenbachia and 'Brasil' philodendron. 'Millenium' variegated English ivy trails from the top of the fountain.

This wreath of air plants (Tillandsia spp.) is easy to make with a double-wire wreath ring, a hot glue gun, a collection of air plants, and a wreath hanger.

A former slate waterfall fountain cradles air plants (Tillandsia spp.) at each level. The plants need only water and bright light to thrive.

These air plants (Tillandsia spp.) were glued to a piece of wood and propped up in a tall vase that serves as a terrarium. The glass marbles prevent the stick from shifting.

Earth stars (Cryptanthus bivittatus) are terrestrial bromeliads. Here they're planted with moss and decorated with glass marbles in a shallow microwave baking pan.


Now that the vegetable garden clean up is completed, I face a dilemma. Where can I store the more than 20 tomato cages used to corral the tomato crop through the growing season? The garage is already full of extra pots, pruning tools, and power equipment. And I can’t afford to send the tomato cages to Florida for the winter tomato crop.

I should explain that these aren’t the common 3-ring stackable tomato cages sold at garden centers. I find those too flimsy to hold up under the weight of ‘Mortgage Lifter’ heirloom tomatoes or too tiny to contain a rampant ‘Sweet Million’ cherry tomato. These are homemade contraptions fashioned from a cylinder of rabbit fencing. I place the narrow mesh of the fence at ground level and the wider squares  at the top to make reaching in for harvest easy to accomplish. The cages are secured in place by weaving a plastic or fiberglass pole through the mesh and into the ground.

'Tomatoberry' cherry tomatoes spill out of their cage.

I’ve put the cylinders to work this winter protecting new shrubs and perennials from deer and rabbit damage. The cages slip over the top of small plants, preventing hungry wildlife from reaching tender shoots. By the time the plant is large enough that it won’t fit into the cage, I figure that the plant is established well enough to bounce back from miscellaneous munching. I’m also using one of the cages to hold in place several feet of fluffy mulch (ornamental grasses and leaves) to protect my hardy banana plant. (Yes, Musa basjoois a Zone 5 banana, provided that it gets winter protection.) The same technique would work for rose bushes that might need protection from winter winds and sub-zero weather.

Leaves and stems of ornamental grasses are contained in this cage, providing winter protection for a hardy banana plant.

Rabbits won't be able to reach this caged blue holly shrub.


Mealybug on HibiscusEvery fall I bring into the house a large number of my favorite tropical plants from the summer season. Because I’m fortunate enough to live in a house with very large windows, I get enough light to keep most of my plants going through the cold months.

 

I’ve learned from experience that it’s vital to watch for pests — and treat them before they make it into the house. One of the most troublesome is mealybug. It looks like a little tiny white piece of cotton when young; it’s easy to miss. Mealybugs reproduce like wildfire — and just one hitchhiker can turn into a full-scale epidemic in just a couple of months.

 

Prevent pests from being problematic by:

  • Hosing off plants with a strong stream of water from the garden hose before you bring them in.
  • Carefully examining plants for the actual insects (a magnifying glass helps).
  • Spraying plants with insecticidal soap (available at your local garden center), making sure to get the tops and bottoms of the leaves.
  • Cutting plants back a bit, as many insects prefer to feed on the new growth.

The official low temperature this morning was 41 degrees F in Des Moines, but the frost on the narrowleaf zinnias, at left, prooves that it was colder in my yard. My home is in a frost pocket, despite its location at the top of a hill. Every time the weather forecast calls for “scattered frost”, it’s a sure bet that ice crystals will develop on exposed plants.

Last night I prepared for the cold by moving container gardens under the deck canopy, onto the front porch, or into the garage. I also pulled out the floating row covers to protect tomatoes, peppers, and some of the more cold-sensitive bedding plants, such as coleus. But Christo-draping the yard with fabric can only go so far. Inevitably, some annuals remain unprotected.

Floating row cover protects the coleus planting by the mailbox.

I may have salvaged some of the uncovered flowers by watering them early this morning before sunrise. After melting the ice out of the hose, I sprayed water on the icy plants to melt the frost. If the ice crystals were only on the surface of the blooms, this may be enough to rescue the frosty flowers. I hope so. I’d like to get another month of color from them. Mid-September is simply too early to call it quits on the gardening season, don’t you agree?

Tomatoes in cages and pepper plants covered for frost protection

Binder clips attached to the tomato cages work pretty well to hold floating row cover in place when it doesn't reach all the way to the ground. Otherwise, I use bricks or rocks to secure the row cover.


Last week I visited the Gardens at Ball in West Chicago, IL, and spent the day photographing hundreds of gorgeous annual flowers, perennials, and shrubs. The gardens are open to the public, and definitely worth a visit to get ideas on how to combine plants for beautiful displays and to see side-by-side comparisons of flower varieties.

Cocktail Mix begonia in a background of Alternanthera spells out the Ball logo in this vertical garden display.

Cocktail Mix begonia in a background of Alternanthera spells out the Ball logo in this vertical garden display.

Although the gardens are large, they're arranged into "rooms" that mimic the scale of home landscapes. See below for a close up of this combo.

Although the gardens are large, they're arranged into "rooms" that mimic the scale of home landscapes. See below for a close up of this combo.

Zahara Double Fire zinnia, Henna coleus, Mahogany Splendor hibiscus, and Silky Scarlet Asclepias combine beautifully in this hot border.

Zahara Double Fire zinnia, Henna coleus, Mahogany Splendor hibiscus, and Silky Scarlet Asclepias combine beautifully in this hot border.

This pillar of Wave Purple Improved petunia and Wave Misty Lilac petunia brightens the patio outside the employee cafeteria.

This pillar of Wave Purple Improved petunia and Wave Misty Lilac petunia brightens the patio outside the employee cafeteria.

Here's a close up showing how the petunia tower was constructed. Basically, it's a ring of galvanized fencing lined with landscape fabric, then filled with potting soil. The petunias were planted through slits in the landscape fabric. This looks like a pretty easy do-it-yourself project!

Here's a close up showing how the petunia tower was constructed. Basically, it's a ring of galvanized fencing lined with landscape fabric, then filled with potting soil. The petunias were planted through slits in the landscape fabric. This looks like a pretty easy do-it-yourself project!

Here's an idea for taming a slope. Large culverts were filled with soil and planted with Madeira colocasia, Marguerite and Sweet Caroline Light Green sweet potato vine, Silky Gold asclepias, and Snow Princess lobularia.

Here's an idea for taming a slope. Large culverts were filled with soil and planted with Madeira colocasia, Marguerite and Sweet Caroline Light Green sweet potato vine, Silky Gold asclepias, and Snow Princess lobularia.


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