Everyday Gardeners

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One of the oldest known bird species, Sandhill Cranes stand 3-4 feet tall. Only the adults are adorned with red crowns and white cheeks.

Gray is a hue I usually associate with the dead of winter, not the advent of spring. By this time of year, I ‘m done with frozen monotones and yearn for a thawing dose of bright colors — the yellow in forsythia blooms, the red in a robin’s breast, the green in early narcissus shoots – that seem to shout, “No doubt about it, spring is here!” But my bias against gray became, well, less black-and-white during a recent a road trip on I-80 in Nebraska, where I witnessed thousands of silver-winged Sandhill Cranes. Their display was anything but drab.

Every March, more than a half-million Sandhill Cranes gather for several weeks in the Central Platte River Valley. Right there, in the heart of Nebraska, they have their crane convention. They dine on the previous year’s leftover field corn and entertain each other with peculiar courtship dances that show off their long, elegant necks and 6-foot wingspans. It’s no wonder birdwatchers flock here to watch the annual migration. Even from a distance, these birds are magnificent.

Before long, nature will cue the cranes to continue northward on their incredible journey, which began as far south as Mexico and will end in their summer nesting grounds in Canada and Alaska. Chances are good that our paths will cross again. Sandhill Cranes have a lifespan of up to 20 years. Their longterm survival, though, depends on conservation of their wetland habitats.

I now see gray in a new way. Silver wings, it turns out, are like silver linings — they signal that brighter days are on the horizon.

Has it seemed like the LONGEST. winter. ever? We kind of think so, too — so the editors here at Better Homes and Gardens are launching a new program: Countdown to Spring!  On our Countdown to Spring page, you’ll find a new slideshow every day to help you prepare for your best-ever spring season. From the best spring flowers to recipes for delicious Easter brunch to all the home organizing and spring cleaning tips you could ask for, you’ll find everything you need for spring right here at BHG.com.

Plus, we’ll have contests and giveaways, too — such as the $2,500 Love Your Pantry sweepstakes where you can enter to win $2,500 in heart-healthy food to stock up your cupboards and refrigerator.

Plus, on Facebook you can share photos of the signs of spring where you are — and check out our Spring Checklist (and get a free spring gardening guide).

Check back every day to see what’s new and cool and get ready for a wonderful spring with us!

A blend of lettuces dressed with crumbled blue cheese and croutons is a springtime dinner treat.

Salad season has arrived. I devoured the first salad from the garden last night for dinner. This first batch of salad greens came from various lettuces, spinach, and corn salad that overwintered in the garden with no protection, a first-time occurrence in my Des Moines garden.

I could have harvested them earlier, but I’ve been traveling so much lately that I’ve not had the opportunity to do so. The outlook for more springtime salads from the garden looks rosy. The early-March planting of lettuce and spinach is almost ready to reap as well. I should thin them and use the rejects as gourmet baby greens.

Radishes from the garden are also ready to pick. These first red orbs are sweet and mild because they have matured quickly in the pleasant spring weather. Now if my tomatoes would just ripen in the next two weeks…….!

Fingernail-sized radishes will add color to spring salads.

Recently seeded rows of lettuce and spinach are ready to thin and use in salads.

Spring break for me this year was a week-long road trip through the Ozarks. In addition to visits with family and friends at Long Creek Herbs in southern Missouri, friends in Fayetteville, AR, and a side trip to the Clinton Library in Little Rock, public gardens were part of my must-see agenda. The timing was perfect. An unseasonably warm spring had coaxed redbuds and flowering dogwoods, into bloom, covering the hillsides with splashes of color. In town, lilacs, spireas, and spring bulbs were displaying their finery.

Eureka Springs, AR is a unique historical town with winding streets perched on hillsides. Nearly a dozen springs bubble up from the rocky outcroppings, and the town has turned the areas around each into pocket parks. The display of violas and painted twigs below, was at one of these mini-parks located, appropriately enough, on Spring Street.

Compton Gardens in Bentonville, AR features native plants of the Ozarks. This is the former estate of Dr. Neil Compton, who was instrumental in saving the Buffalo River as part of the National Park Service. Walkways through the grounds guide visitors to displays of groomed native plants. The trail system also connects to Crystal Bridges, the fantastic new museum of American art.

Golden ragwort (Senecio aureus) is a native wildflower with yellow daisylike blooms in spring.

Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera) is a native tree with springtime blooms that resemble dangling white bells.

The Botanical Garden of the Ozarks is a relatively new public garden, but it has a lot to offer including a children’s garden, butterfly house, rock garden, water garden, native garden, sensory garden, vegetable garden, and Japanese garden. Despite constant rain during my visit, I was able to snap a few photos, including a planted concrete chair, obviously not intended for seating.

Hens and chicks cover the seat cushion on this whimsical "chair" next to the children's garden at the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks.

This Euphorbia martinii Ascot Rainbow was in full bloom at the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks.


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.

I had the opportunity to spend some time in the yard this weekend and enjoyed beautiful blooms right now from some favorite early perennials. If you’re looking to add a spot of color in your landscape, try these easy-growing plants!


King of the early-spring shade garden, hellebore (Helleborus) is a deer- and rabbit-resistant perennial that opens up beautiful blooms in shades of white, cream, pink, red, and purple. Many have dark green, leathery leaves that are evergreen and look great in areas with winters a little more mild than what we see here in Iowa. Some hellebores offer foliage that bears a beautiful silvery overlay; others show off fancy double blooms with two or three times the normal number of petals.

Need another reason to love it? The sepals stay looking good even after the petals fade, so hellebores look as thought they’re in bloom for months.

Note: The reason hellebore is deer and rabbit resistant is that all parts of this plant are highly poisonous.


Also called periwinke, vinca (Vinca minor) often blooms alongside the crocus. It blooms of shades of purple, blue, and white — and many varieties bear attractive white- or gold-variegated foliage. One of my favorite varieties is ‘Sterling Silver’, which grows a little more slowly than the other varieties under my big sugar maple, but is worth the patience because its dark green leaves are edged in bright white — and contrast beautifully with the soft violet-blue flowers. I’ve also seen a very fun variety  that offers violet-purple flowers with extra petals, so they almost look like miniature roses or camellias. Vinca is very hardy, resists drought well, and is rarely browsed on by deer or rabbits.

Note: This low groundcover can be aggressive when it’s happy, so be sure to plant it where it has room to roam. Also, in some areas, vinca is considered an invasive species and should not be planted. Check local restrictions before adding this spring-blooming perennial to your yard.


One of those great plants a lot of gardeners have never heard of, Bergenia is also evergreen. In fact, most winters the foliage takes on tones of red and purple and is quite attractive. The pink, purple, or white flowers come in early spring, on stalks well above the foliage. This is a particularly nice perennial to plant with early bulbs such as Chionodoxa or Scilla.

Surprisingly, bergenia has never been nibbled on by deer and rabbits in my yard. The leaves are thick and rubbery, so the texture may turn off the pests. Or perhaps I’ve just been lucky….

By the way: Bergenia also sometimes goes by the name pigsqueak because if you fold a leaf in half and rub the two flaps together, the rubbery texture makes a cute little squeaking sound!


One of the charming woodland wildflowers I grew up with in northern Minnesota, bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is ultra-hardy does a great job of spreading without being a pain. The white, daisy-like flowers appear right away in spring as the leaves unfurl. That fun foliage is deeply lobed, and as a child, I thought it looked like some kind of monster’s footprint.

I know the common name bloodroot doesn’t make the plant sound so appealing, but it earned that moniker because the roots have an orange-red sap that can stain your fingers.

Wood Poppy

A charming woodland wildflower, woodland poppy (also called celadine poppy — Stylophorum diphyllum) shares bright yellow blooms with us. It blooms longer than most of its early-spring companions; I’ve seen the yellow flowers appear as late as June. The yellow blooms are a great contrast to the blue-green foliage, and to other cool-color spring flowers such as Virginia bluebells, lungwort, and white bleeding heart.

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