Garden bloggers are always eager to share pictures of beautiful flowers and bountiful fruit, but not so much of the foundation that makes them possible.
This is a picture of six week old compost made possible by an overabundance of weeds and a lot of rain. It turned into rich, beautiful, smell free organic matter that will feed the plants and improve the soil naturally and long term.
The gardener’s best friends, the earth worms, showed up diligently and in large numbers, which makes me happy in the knowledge that the compost is healthy and top quality.
This is not the usual way to make compost, I know, but the fact that it doesn’t contain kitchen scraps and paper makes it possible to create an acceptable and non-offensive compost pile in an inconspicuous corner of your yard and still get all the benefits of replenishing the soil organically.
I am looking forward to feeding the garden with this. One doesn’t usually get enthusiastic about fresh soil, but I’m sure my gardening friends will understand.
Do you want a great organic fertilizer that will boost your vegetable production and encourage profuse blooming for your roses? Sprinkle used coffee grounds on your flower beds. Coffee grounds are an abundant source of nitrogen and are perfect for heavy feeders that don’t mind a slightly acidic soil (among those you can count pretty much all vegetables, roses, rhododendrons, azaleas, etc.) Some organic tomato growers swear by this fertilizer for its capacity to boost production and eliminate late blight.
If you can get a large quantity of coffee grounds they make a spectacular soft chocolate brown mulch. Hostas and lilies will particularly benefit from coffee for slug and snail protection. Coffee is such an effective fertilizer than 1″ of coffee mulch equals 1 foot of coarse straw. You can also work the grounds into the potting soil for thriving container plantings.
Be careful, it is an equal opportunity feeder, so your plants will benefit but the weeds will too. Plants also like brewed coffee at room temperature, don’t forget to treat your house plants to a cup of Joe every now and then.
Coffee grounds and tea bags decompose very quickly in your compost pile and improve its nitrogen content.
On a completely unrelated note, the plant in the picture is a Roseraie de l’Hay rugosa rose that I bought from Pickering Nurseries and planted this spring.
Growing a thriving garden is as much a result of the things you do as it is of the things you don’t do. Here is a list of what NOT to do in order to have a thriving garden. These are all things I learned from personal experience, and they set me back a few years:
1. Planting roses in the shade.
2. Hard pruning roses that should not be pruned.
3. Forgetting that the dirt will be impoverished if the nutrients are not replenished with natural fertilizers. Feed, rotate crops or both.
4. Digging holes too small for the root ball of the plant. It is an easy mistake to make if you have to dig through rock hard clay in shallow flower beds. Make the extra effort, you will see a tremendous difference.
5. Not preparing the soil before planting seeds. Till, mince, feed, weed, water.
6. Not watering the soil enough for the seeds to germinate.
7. Putting off weeding will give you seven times more work than you should normally have.
8. Planting plants in the wrong places.
9. Not abiding by tried and true gardening methods (tomatoes need staking, grapevine needs pruning, etc.)
10. Not watering enough during droughts. (if the plants look wilted, watering twice a day is not excessive).
11. Giving up on planting the right plant in the right location because of initial failure.
12. Confusing the different types of shade (dappled shade is different from dry shade and from north foundation shade).
13. Not dividing perennials on time.
14. If you really want to grow edibles do not assume that the rabbits and squirrels will leave them alone for your sake, protect them.
15. Planting invasive perennials.
16. Being afraid that moving a suffering plant will hurt it further. Trust me, if a plant is not doing well where it is, move it. The benefits are visible within days!
17. Ignoring deadheading. Many plants, like basil and calendula will die after they went to seed. If you would like to have them for the whole season, don’t let them go to seed.
18. Not labeling newly started seedlings. I can’t tell you how many perennials I pulled out with the weeds when they were too small to recognize. Knowing exactly what they are supposed to look like before they bloom doesn’t hurt either.
19. Over fertilizing.
20. Buying, buying, buying. It takes a little patience to wait on seedlings that you started yourself or divided plants or cuttings to mature, but the benefits multiply ten times over because this is the gift that keeps on giving. In addition to that, plants that thrive in an area of your garden have a better chance to thrive in another area of your garden (same soil, similar conditions). Buy for diversity and interest, don’t buy as a quick fix for barren areas. Plan what you want to plant in advance, don’t buy on impulse. Don’t buy plants with lots of blooms, you want them to bloom in your garden, not the garden center. This one is hard to resist, I know, I just thought I’d mention it.
Plant propagation is a cost free or at least a very inexpensive way to grow your plant stock. It only takes a few tools that you probably already have: good secateurs, a shovel, planting medium, rooting hormone and a few pots.
The easiest way to grow your plant stock is by using seeds harvested from plants you already have in the garden. Some plants, like lettuce and celery, will only germinate if exposed to sunlight; others, like phlox and alliums, only if they are completely covered.
Most plants will benefit from being started indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost. There are a few that either do not like being transplanted or are hardy enough to take a light frost. Those plants are better off being planted directly outdoors. A few examples: peas, carrots, corn, beans, nasturtiums, morning glory, cucumbers.
Most perennials benefit from being sown directly outdoors at the end of summer. This gives the plants the chance to experience the cold cycle they have adapted to and makes them emerge stronger in their own time in spring.
Hard seeds like nasturtiums, morning glory and four-o’clocks will germinate faster if soaked in warm water for 12 hours prior to planting.
When: Plant annuals in spring and perennials and biennials at the end of summer, when the heat died down a bit.
Another popular way to increase your garden stock is by dividing mature plants. Most herbaceous perennials really need dividing in order to keep blooming and healthy. Among those, a few examples: heuchera, daylilies, pampas grasses.
Other plants, like daisies and bee balms will quickly spread if left to their own accord. Dividing them is a good way to control their growth and fill up bare spots in your garden.
To divide the plant you can either dig it out completely and break the root ball into smaller parts or slice part of a clump with a shovel. If you can do the latter, the advantage is that the roots of the mother plant will remain undisturbed.
When: Divide spring blooming plants in the fall and fall blooming plants in spring.
Among these: bearded irises, peonies, lily-of-the-valley, mint.
For small rhizomes, just pull out of the dirt and replant somewhere else. For larger rhizomes, dig the plant out at the end of summer after it finished blooming and cut up the root in 2-4 inch sections with leaf growth at one end.
When: End of summer or fall, after they have finished their vegetative cycle.
This works great with ground covers, strawberries, raspberries, and spider plant. Take a runner and tie it down to the ground with a pin. After the plant develops roots you can cut it loose from the mother plant and move it someplace else.
When: whenever they decide to grow runners.
Most woody plants can be propagated like this, especially roses, for which this is the basic method of propagation. Other plants to be propagated by cuttings: butterfly bush, weigela, pelargonium, fuchsia, delphinium, forsythia, chrysanthemums, hydrangeas, African violets.
There are four basic types of cuttings: tip cuttings (soft, green), stem cuttings (woody), leaf cuttings (leaf and petiole) and root cuttings.
For stem and tip cuttings, a minimum 3 inch length will ensure the viability of the plant. Wounding the cutting (making a longitudinal cut or crushing the bottom) will stimulate the plant to grow new roots.
Many plants, like mint, will grow roots if placed in water. Other plants, like African violets and hydrangeas, will be happy to root if you stick a leaf with a long petiole in the dirt. For plants with large leaves, like hydrangea, it helps to cut off about half of the leaf to lessen the strain on the developing root system that feeds it.
If you have rooting hormone, I strongly recommend it.
When: For fall blooming perennials and annuals, start cuttings when the danger of frost has passed in spring. For spring blooming perennials, start the cuttings in the fall and protect them under cloches (a glass jar would work just fine) over winter. It is very advantageous to the plant to go through a cold season in its natural surroundings, it gives it a stronger root system. This is especially true for roses.
Bulbs, corms and tubers
Some bulbs, like lilies, will start spreading out in a scaly pattern. Each scale with roots can be separated to start a new plant.
Onions can be vertically chopped and divided. For hyacinths there is a method called scooping: cut the roots off a bulb and scoop out the central part right underneath them to expose the bulb layers. Place the bulb upside down half buried in a tray full of wet sand. Place the tray in a dark warm location. In 12-14 weeks bulblets will start forming on top of the large bulb. Plant the bulb upside down with the bulblets right below the surface. Let the plant go through its vegetative cycle. The bulbs can be lifted and separated in the fall.
When dividing tubers, make sure to have at least one viable “eye” on each section.
When: In the fall, after the plants go dormant.
Dropping and stooling
Dropping consists of pushing down and covering most of the plant stems with compost or good quality dirt, and wait for the plant stems to develop individual roots. The newly rooted plants can then be separated and replanted. This works for heathers and rhododendrons.
For the stooling method mound up dirt high around the bottom of the plant, to give the stems an opportunity to grow roots. A few examples of plants for which this method works: lilacs, willows and dogwoods.
When: Drop and stool in spring, divide and cut in the fall.
Please keep in mind that some plants can be successfully propagated through several of these methods.
Here are some good resources for learning more about plant propagation:
Propagation Basics: Tools Techniques Timing – Steven Bradley
Here is one of the cuttings I planted last fall. It seems to have sprung pretty healthy roots. Notice the bottom growth and the large bud at the top. Those are pretty sure signs that this rose actually has roots. I can’t tell you how many times I watched green shoots like this stay green for months with no actual root development happening.
Starting the roses directly outside offers many advantages:
1. They grow a healthier root system in their permanent location and they are not subjected to the stress of relocation. If a rose found a specific soil favorable enough to sprout roots, it is much more likely that it will thrive in that location when fully grown.
2. They will be less subject to wilt because they have adapted slowly to the weather changes.
3. They have full sun exposure, which will significantly benefit them throughout their development.
4. You don’t have a sea of potted sticks with plastic covers on every well lit window sill for the entire winter.
5. They don’t mold.
6. They experience the winter dormancy cycle, which is natural for roses and therefore beneficial.
That being said, a few more pointers about new roses.
Don’t prune them the first year. Some people advise removing all the blooms to allow the plant to develop a strong branch, leaf and root structure and not expand energy for flowers. I never had the heart to do it, but I can believe this is good advice.
Give them some extra care the first year, make sure they have enough sunlight and water to stay healthy. Generally speaking own-root roses tend to be healthier and stronger than the grafted ones, but take a little longer to develop. Make sure that they don’t have fast growing annuals towering over them and taking up all the resources. Once they are two or three years old they are tall enough and this ceases to be a problem.
Stop worrying about how hard it is to grow roses, because it is not true. Roses are shrubs and require very little care once established. Of course, some varieties are sturdier than others.
The flowering quince bloomed first. Here it is. Looks like spring, but not quite yet. The little indoor garden is thriving, even though I started it a little early. If you are ready for Spring chores, here is a to do list for March:
- clean up broken fallen branches
- fertilize the lawn
- trim the dried-up stems of perennials to make room for fresh growth
- plant fruit trees and bushes
- start seeds indoors, if not started yet
- till dirt to prepare the flower beds
- later this month remove winter protection from roses
Probably by this date everybody had enough of winter, but since spring is not going to be here for a while, you can enjoy a preview indoors by forcing flowering branches into bloom. Most tree or bush branches that bloom in spring would suit this purpose, some easier than others. Among the easiest to force into bloom – forsythia and pussy willow. Among the most difficult – crab apples. In between there is a whole range, you take your pick: flowering quince, magnolia, cherry and plum, witch hazel, lilac, viburnum, etc. I chose flowering quince and Japanese cherry.
The process is very simple: cut branches with rounded buds (those are flower and not leaf buds) with sharp pruning shears and bring them indoors. Smash the ends of the branches with a hammer, or slit lengthwise with a sharp knife. Place the branches immediately in warm water and put them in a well lit location, but not in direct sunlight.
Change the water every two or three days as needed to keep it clear. The easy ones, like forsythia, will bloom in a week, but for the rest of them expect to wait approximately four weeks.
There are few things that match the joy of watching children take charge of little projects, and gardening projects are no exception. Set aside a little patch of dirt for your kids to plant seeds and watch things grow. Make sure it is reasonably fertile and in full sun, you don’t want to make a starter project so challenging that it generates disillusionment rather than the pride of accomplishment. Stick to annuals. Turn the dirt at a spade’s depth early in the spring, to ensure that most of the seeds will germinate. Prepare little starter flats for annuals, if you would like to start some of the plants indoors. Make sure the little gardeners have child sized gardening utensils: a little watering can, a tiny hoe, gardening gloves, a little rake. For some projects, if the dirt is of good quality, a plastic beach set with a bucket, a watering can, a little rake and a small shovel or spade would suffice.
That being said, unless you are starting seeds indoors (see end of article), wait until the day of last frost has passed. If you don’t know what that day is in your area, check out this guide. Don’t plant outdoors before that date. Frost may not occur as late as that date this year, but if it does, it will be a downer for the little ones.
Make sure the ground is moist and finely minced before starting. Take some time with your child to lay out on paper what will be planted where. Use strings or ribbons to separate the areas. Prepare waterproof markers for the new plantings and mark the flowerbeds properly.
Read the instructions together for seed planting depth and spacing and help out with planting if needed. After the seedlings emerge, teach the child to thin them out, so that the new plants have plenty of room to develop. Make a habit of walking around the garden with your child and make daily observations about plant development, water needs or anything else that might apply. This will reap its own reward later, especially if they are starting veggies, when it is produce picking time.
Here is a list of fail proof plants for a starter garden:
– Zinnias: they germinate reliably, grow very fast and have showy blooms. Since children like to pick flowers, zinnias are a great choice. The more you pick, the more they bloom.
– Snapdragons: not very picky about care, as long as they have enough sunlight. They are a favorite play thing.
– Marigolds, or if you want to make it even more interesting, pot marigolds. They are very pretty and easy to grow.
– Sunflowers are always a child’s favorite, because they are so big and grow three times their height.
– Anything with large seeds will be easy to handle during planting, therefore generate a more reliable outcome. Among these, nasturtiums, morning glory and four o’clocks will be great choices. Most of the larger seeds that are somewhat woody need a 24 hour soaking in warm water to ensure faster germination, but they will sprout anyway.
– Try vegetables that are easy to grow and the kids might enjoy, like cucumbers, squash and beans. Make child sized bean tepees so they can reach all the way to the top. Leave an opening at one end, the little shady shelter will be the ultimate Summer favorite. Consider adding furnishings, it will make a great alternative for a tree house. Don’t worry about the beans, they’ll figure it out.
– Try adding something fragrant of flavorful, like sweet alyssum or basil.
– Create a marker to designate that the area is your child’s garden and let them choose what that might be.
– Think about adding a bird bath.
If you want to start the seeds indoors, place the seed starters in a prominent location with plenty of sunlight and a little watering can nearby. Remember, out of sight, out of mind. You would be surprised what four days of neglect can do to small plants. Starting plants indoors is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the proper thinning of seedlings.
Depending how much you want to enforce teaching responsibility, you might need to give your child reminders about gardening tasks that need done, but remember that this is supposed to be a fun successful project, so if you need to accidentally water it yourself when it doesn’t look too hot, or pull out a couple of weeds every now and then(trust me, that is a chore even grown-ups tend to put off), so be it.
Yes, I know that January is not particularly a gardener’s dream, but it is a special and exciting opportunity for renewal. Every year green thumbs afflicted by cabin fever search hopefully through plant and seed nursery catalogs to find the next beautiful flower or high-yield veggie to add to their garden.
Whether their patch of dirt is farm sized or just a few clay pots and in a little sunny spot on a balcony, everyone who ever caught the gardening bug is always looking for the next plant to enjoy, harvest, or, let’s face it, show off.
If you are into seed saving, it is time to bring in that seed box of yours and review the contents. Yes, they will all sprout and grow into beautiful plants.
For those who want to add a little diversity to the garden, try new plants or enhance their seed saver collection for the future, there is nothing like heirloom and non-hybridized seeds.
Most of the plants these seeds come from have been thriving in your area for decades, even centuries. They are beautifully reminiscent of grandparents’ gardens, very flavorful if they are vegetables, not prone to disease and most importantly, will come true from seed year after year.
I’m sure everybody has their favorites when it comes to picking a nursery to buy seeds from, but I will share mine:
Monticello Catalog of Plants and Seeds – every plant I started from their seeds was beyond expectation, they come out beautiful, vigorous, and will thrive anywhere. They have heirloom and non-hybridized seeds. Case in point – Scarlet Runner Beans and Calendula.
Heirloom Seeds – They have a wonderful variety of certified organic vegetable seeds. At this time, if you buy a Victory Garden they will donate $10 to the Red Cross. Please check out the details on their site.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds – They offer only open pollinated seeds.
Spring Hill Nurseries – I have been buying plants and seeds from them for a long time, and I was very happy with them. See their “Wonder of Staffa” blue asters, for instance.
Click here to visit BloomingBulb.com – Another grower from whom I bought plants for years, very reliable. They specialize in bulbs, I think probably two thirds of the bulbs in my garden came from their nursery.