For the Love of Gardening

This blog is for all people who have a passion for gardening. I look forward to sharing my gardening experience with you and I hope that you will comment and share your gardening experiences with me.  Gardening is a glorious experience that deserves to be shared! Continue reading “For the Love of Gardening”

Mums! Glorious Mums!

Mums. Nope, I’m not British and  I’m not talking about your mother, although Great Britain is a wonderful place and your mother IS glorious (Psst – you should tell her so!) But, relax, grab a nice cup of Earl Grey tea, a scone, and read on.  I’m talking about the wonderful fall blooming Chrysanthemum with its magnificent shades of yellow, lavender,orange, red, and rust that brightens shops, gardens, parks, and homes with non-stop fall color. Mums, glorious mums!

Chrysanthemums, or mums as they are commonly called, are native to Asia and were imported into the United States sometime in the late 1700’s.  Mums have been hybridized into many different plants with many different needs.  This article will not cover “exhibition” mums which require a great deal of specialized care to grow.  This article will cover the easy to grow common perennial garden mums, the kind you find blooming in garden stores in the fall.

Growing Mums

Mums are extremely easy to grow.  Mums need full sun and well drained soil to grow well.  A general all purpose slow release fertilizer is all that mums need to grow healthy greens and beautiful flowers.  I am an organic gardener and my favorite organic slow release fertilizer is Milorganite.  If you would rather have a synthetic slow release fertilizer try Osmocote for Flowers and Vegetables which is also an excellent slow release general purpose fertilizer.  Both products are safe for edible and non-edible plants in your landscape and can be found at your local garden store.

Generally mums will grow in zones 4 through zone 9, unless the plant tag states otherwise.  Garden mums are a tender perennial in the colder climate zones so it is best to cover mums for the winter in the northern most zones to protect them from the cold.  Cover them with a generous amount (1 to 2 inches) of mulch or straw for the winter and then rake the mulch or straw back in spring to allow the sun to shine on your mums to “wake” them up so they can start to grow.

Pinching Back For More Flowers

Pinching back means to literally “pinch” off the tops of the plant by using your fingernail and pad of your thumb.  You want to pinch off the tops of each branch of the mum about once a week until the middle of summer (around the 4th of July). Then stop pinching and let them grow.  This creates a much more compact plant with many more blooms for your fall display. (For more complete information about pinching back mums, the University of Illinois Extension has a great website at the following link: http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fmpt/eb253/entry_8429/ )

Saving Container Mums in Fall

If you purchase a mum in a decorative container for fall, like those in baskets, it can be very expensive. Rather than throwing them out when the blooms are spent, it is easy to keep container mums over the winter.  There are several ways to accomplish this. One way to overwinter mums is to take the mum out of the container and plant it in the ground in late fall. Water it well but make sure the roots are not soggy when freezing weather starts. Wet roots will rot and the plant will die so when the temperature starts getting down to freezing at night, stop watering. The roots will remain moist but not wet and your mum will sleep soundly and happily over the winter.

The second way to keep mums in containers over the winter is to dig a hole large enough to plant the whole container in the ground with the mums still in it. Put the container in the ground burying it as deep as the top of the container.  Pack the extra dirt around the pot so there are no gaps between the soil and the pot and cover the mum with straw or mulch for the winter.  In the spring, you simply uncover your mum, lift the container out of the ground, and your mums will start to sprout.   Water and fertilize your mums after they sprout and watch them grow.

Just an FYI:  The reason  mums survive the winter in the container in the ground and not above ground is because the ground temperature will only get to slightly below freezing temperature while the air temperature can get substantially colder than that, 20 below zero or colder in the northern climate zones. The extreme cold will kill most if not all container plants that are left exposed to winterair temperatures above ground!

When other plants start their decline in the fall, mums burst to life into their full glory of color and show.  Gardening is all about trying something new. If you don’t have mums in your garden, add some for glorious fall color!

Happy Gardening!


Quote of the Day

“A chrysanthemum by any other name would be easier to spell.”

-William J. Johnston, United States Army, recipient of the Metal of Honor






What’s With the Name? Is It Echinacea or a Coneflower?

Have you ever noticed  that many plants are called several different names? Have you ever been to a garden store to ask about a flower you want only to have the customer service person ask, “What’s that?”  Frustrating huh?

Plants generally have more than one name.  There are “common names” and “proper names”. So how do you know what to call it? First let me explain what the “common” and “proper” names refer to.

What does the phrase “common name” refer to?

The phrase “common name” simply refers to what  people commonly call a certain plant or flower, although this may differ from one area of the country to another.  “Coneflower”, “daylily”, “black-eyed susan”, and even “maple” are all common names.  These are the names that people commonly use to refer to these plants.

What does the phrase “proper name” refer to?

The “proper name” for the plant refers to its scientific name, a Latin name that refers to either the plant’s genus, or, genus and species. For example, the proper genus name for a  maple tree is “Acer” but if you are referring specifically to a Norway maple, the proper species name is “Acer platonoides” (or more often listed as “A. platonoides”).  Some proper names are very similar to the common name such as “Rosa”  and rose while others have no similarity at all.

Do I have to call it by the proper name?

No, you don’t have to call a plant by its proper name, however, there are instances where it’s a good idea to know the proper name. For example, say that you wish to buy a flower commonly called a “bachelor button”. You go to the garden center and ask to see a “bachelor button”  You are seriously frustrated when the customer service person shows you three different flowers, none of which are what you refer to as a “bachelor button”.  It seems no one can agree on which exact flower is commonly called a “bachelor button”. This example comes from my own experience at the landscape and garden nursery.  In my years working there, I  heard the term “bachelor button” used to refer to at least six different kinds of flowers!   So sometimes relying on the common name may end up in a very frustrating situation for you!

My advice to you, especially if you are looking for a specific plant, know the proper name (genus and species) along with the common name.  Also, if possible, take a picture of the plant with you as you head to a garden store to make a purchase. This will make your shopping experience a much more pleasurable outing and everyone involved will be on the same page!

Happy Gardening!


To make you laugh:

One of my best friends called me one day and asked me what she should do to overwinter a flowering plant she had next to her house.  I had just  met my friend as she had recently moved into our area from another part of the United States and she had an “accent” (Don’t we all!). She called the flower a “pee-yoe-nee”.  She pronounced the word with a long “o” sound and three syllables with emphasis on the second syllable.  Her pronunciation along with her accent made it hard for me to to figure out what plant she was referring to so I asked her to describe the plant to me.  She described it as a bush with large leaves and a large flower that looked like a rose. It was then that I figured out that she was referring to what we in the Midwest call a “pee-eh-nee” , pronounced with a short “e” sound  and one syllable.  It’s a peony!

Photo by Wanette Lenling


Should I Stake My New Tree?

Should I stake my new tree?  The short answer is no. Trees grow strong from bending and swaying in the wind like human muscles grow strong from lifting weight.  If a person doesn’t move, their muscles atrophy.  The same it true of a tree. If a tree is not allowed to sway and bend in the wind, the result is a weak tree that is likely to break in the wind.

How do I spot a strong tree? When you purchase a tree look for a healthy tree (without a stake) that has a strong sturdy trunk.  Look for a tree that is well balanced visually, for example, the top of the tree looks balanced with the size of the trunk. Also, make sure the trunk is larger at the bottom than it is toward the top.  If the tree is extraordinarily tall with a thin trunk and appears top heavy (like a pom pom on a stick), pass it up.   It’s a weak tree.

Swamp White Oak
This is a well balanced Swamp White Oak with sturdy tapered trunk

Uh oh, what if I’ve already purchased a tree that looks like a pom pom on a stick?   Sometimes a tree is too far gone and will never be able to support its own weight. You may have to either return the tree to the nursery or buy a new one. However, if you choose to plant it, you will need to stake the tree.  But, in order for the tree to grow strong and support itself, it must be staked correctly.  Often you will see a tree with a stake driven into the ground right next to the trunk and the trunk is tightly taped to the stake from the bottom of the tree trunk to the top.  Don’t ever do this and don’t buy a tree that looks like this.  This tree will be incredibly weak and likely will never recover.

 So how do I correctly stake my new tree? To correctly stake a tree,  drive two or three stakes into the ground a few feet away from the tree trunk, with one stake on each side of the tree.  The stakes should be at least half the height of the tree.  Make sure the stakes are securely in the ground and that they do not move.  Remember, they will need to support the movement of the tree in the wind.

Then, use a soft elastic material, like old panty hose, to tether the tree to each one of the stakes, using one tether per stake.  The tethers should be placed at a height not lower than the middle of the tree, slightly higher is best. Beware of the material you use to tether the tree.  Never use materials like rope or chain as a tether as it will actually rub against the bark causing injuries to the tree  which will lead to disease and rot issues.  Next, adjust the tightness or looseness of the tether if necessary to ensure the tether is loose enough so the tree can sway in the wind but tight enough to support the tree.  The tether should limit the movement of the tree but not prevent all movement of the tree.   The idea of staking is to support the tree as it grows stronger in order for the tree to  eventually support itself.

How long should I stake my tree?  My rule is one year.  In that amount of time, the tree should have expanded its root system into the ground to stabilize itself and if the tree has been staked correctly, the trunk should have become more rigid and sturdy within that year.  If the tree is still not strong enough to stand alone after one year, allow the stakes to remain for a second year, adjusting the tether tightness if necessary.  If the tree is still not strong enough to support itself without the stakes after two years, I would suggest removing the tree.  The tree is likely too weak to ever support itself and in the case of a shade tree which will grow exceptionally tall, the weak tree may cause damage to property or be dangerous to people if it should break.

Helpful hint.  If the issue is not the strength of the tree trunk but the wind blowing the tree over, especially in cases of planting bare root trees, simply plant the tree as you normally would and place weights on the ground at the base of the tree, careful not to place rough edges against the tree trunk.  This allows the tree to sway in the wind but holds the roots in the ground so it won’t blow over.

My favorite weight to use is  old gallon milk jugs full of water as they hold the tree roots down nicely but won’t damage the tree trunk. You can you can also use large rocks or decorative landscape blocks but be careful to place them far enough away that the sway of the tree in the wind does not rub the tree trunk against the rocks.  Remove the weights as soon as the tree has rooted itself down enough to hold itself upright.  Again, my rule is no longer than one year.  In one year, the tree should have rooted itself into the ground making it safe to remove the weights.

This Paper Birch tree was planted as a bare root tree.

For more information. Paul James, the Gardener Guy, who himself is a master gardener, had a TV show on HGTV called Gardening by the Yard.  One episode discussed staking trees with guest Jean Pliska, a certified arborist with 20 years of experience.  This video gives great information and demonstrations on what to do to stake a tree and what not to do. Watch the video at http://www.hgtv.com/shows/gardening-by-the-yard

The vision of a majestic tree is one of the most beautiful sights to behold.  Planted and maintained correctly, your new tree could be the center attraction in your yard for years to come.

Happy gardening!

Quote of the Day

“It will never rain roses: when we want to have more roses we must plant more trees.”

-George Eliot aka Mary Anne Evans, English novelist/poet

Ew! Why Is the Bottom of My Tomato Rotten?

If the tomato is still on the vine and the bottom is black or brown and looks rotten,  it is likely a condition called blossom-end rot. Blossom-end rot is  a calcium deficiency in the plant.  This condition can affect tomatoes but it can also affect peppers, squash, eggplant, cucumber, and melons. Look for the tell-tale signs of black or brown rotten spots on the fruit or vegetable.  If you are experiencing this in your garden, don’t worry, you aren’t alone.  Most gardeners have had to deal with this issue at some point in time.

(Note. Affected fruits and vegetables should be not be consumed and should be discarded.)

What Causes Blossom-end rot?

Blossom-end rot is a condition in which there is a lack of calcium in the plant.  There are several possible causes for this issue to develop including the following:

  1.  The soil lacks calcium.
  2. The calcium in the soil  is plentiful but is chemically bound up and unavailable to your plant.
  3. Too much fertilizer, especially nitrogen derived from ammonia.
  4. Inconsistent moisture levels.

 What is the solution to Blossom-end rot?

Soil PH.  First check the soil ph. If the ph of the soil is wrong, adding more calcium to the soil won’t help.  Testing kits  that check soil ph can be purchased at most garden stores or online for under $10.00.  Follow the directions on the package to test your soil.  Ideally your soil should have a ph of 6.5 to 6.8.  If the ph is not within this range, certain nutrients, like calcium,  will be chemically bound up and unavailable for absorption. If your test shows a ph higher than 6.8, then your soil is alkaline and you will need to add sulfur to lower the ph.  If the ph is lower than 6.5, then you have acidic soil and you will need to add lime to raise the ph. Lime has the added benefit in that it actually contains calcium that your plants can use.

Lack of Calcium.  Second, if you tested the soil and the soil ph is not the problem, then the problem may be a lack of calcium in the soil. Even though as previously stated, lime contains calcium, if the soil ph is within the 6.5 to 6.8 range, then adding lime will throw off the ph.  In this case, add gypsum.  Gypsum adds calcium and it will not change the soil ph, however, it will add salt so follow the directions on the package.  Too much salt in the soil adds a whole new set of problems to the garden that you don’t want.

For a longer term solution to calcium deficiency in your soil, add bone meal or egg shells to the garden.  Both bone meal and eggs shells are comprised of calcium.  These organic forms of calcium need time to break down into a source that is usable by plants so it may take a year or more before results can be seen.

Fertilizer.  Third, the problem may lie with your fertilizer. Fertilizers with a lot of nitrogen, especially nitrogen derived from ammonia, cause the plant to grow too fast and the plant is not able to absorb enough calcium to keep up with its growth rate.  I always suggest organic fertilizers and compost.  These fertilizers come from natural sources and add nutrients and trace minerals slowly  and in amounts that your plants need for proper growth. Synthetic slow release fertilizers are also a good option as they are easy to apply and they slowly release the nutrients your plants need over the course of the growing season. Synthetic liquid fertilizers must be applied again and again over the growing season, they tend to add salt to the soil, and they also promote unnatural growth in plants so I don’t usually recommend them for in-ground gardens. (Container plants are the exception for synthetic liquid fertilizers.)

Watering.  Finally, make sure that you are keeping your garden consistently moist.  Alternating between wet conditions and then extreme dry conditions may interfere with your plant’s ability to absorb calcium.  This is especially true in potted plants. To keep your garden consistently moist it is important to water your garden adequately, regularly, and in the proper amounts.  Watering will depend on the weather and your soil.  Heavy clay soil tends to hold moisture and sandy soil tends to dry out too quickly by wicking water away. Both types of soils should be amended with generous amounts of compost to add organic matter, improve soil quality, and help maintain moisture levels for healthy vital garden plants.

To keep soil consistently moist, soaker hose works best and is easy to use.  Soaker hose is usually black in color and it’s porous.  The water in the hose slowly drips from the entire length of the hose.  Lay the soaker hose along the length of your plant row and turn the water on for about 20 minutes to slowly water your plants.   This time may need to be adjusted depending on your soil structure.  The ground should be wet several inches down but don’t allow standing water to form that doesn’t soak in within a short period of time.  That means there is too much water. Check the soil every few days.  If the soil looks dry on top and it’s dry if you stick your finger in the ground about 2 inches, then water again.

Sprinklers are commonly used to water gardens.  Sprinklers provide adequate water but they can cause problems with disease, especially fungal issues. If you use a sprinkler, always water your garden in the morning. This allows the plants to dry fully before the afternoon sun hits. Watering your garden in the hot afternoon sun  can cause burns (called sun scald) on your plants. Watering at night is also not recommended as it allows water to sit on the plants for a length of time which encourages disease and rot. Watering in the morning is best and can be made more convenient by the use of timers that can be purchased at garden stores or online.

Blossom-end rot is a condition that is easily controlled if you know why it happens and the step to take to cure it.  Every gardener will deal with this issue at some time.  If it happens to you, throw out the infected fruit, go through the steps to check the cause and apply the appropriate remedy.  In no time at all, you’ll have beautiful tomatoes growing in your garden ready to pick for that amazing evening dish!

Happy Gardening!


Quote of the Day

“Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.  Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”  – Brian O’Driscoll




Is It An Evergreen Or A Conifer?

“I love evergreens. Or is it a conifer? I don’t know! I’m confused.”  I heard statements like this many times over the years while I was working at the garden nursery. It’s understandable. These terms are easily misunderstood and some plants are both. Let me explain.

What Are Evergreens?

Evergreens are plants that hold their needles or leaves throughout the year. Evergreen simply means the plant does not go dormant at any time during the year.  The plant stays “green”, or rather, it holds its leaves or needles and photosynthesis does not cease, although growth usually slows or stops all together.  Plants that are evergreen may vary depending on which climate zone you live in.  Some plants are evergreen in warmer climates and deciduous in colder climates. Others plants are evergreen no matter which zone you live in. Evergreens can include such plants as pine, spruce, holly, juniper, viburnum, bay leaf, camellia, lavender -the list goes on and on.

Buffalo Juniper
Buffalo Juniper photo by Wanette Lenling

In contrast to evergreens, deciduous plants lose their leaves and go dormant during certain times of the year.  For example, maple and oak trees generally go dormant in Fall and all their leaves drop to the ground.  Anyone who has to clean up leaves in Fall knows this concept well.

Then What Are Conifers?

The word “conifer” literally means “cone bearing”, so conifers are plants that reproduce by growing a cone to hold their seeds rather than producing a flower.  The class Coniferinae includes such plants as spruce, pine, and juniper.  But this class also includes plants that drop their needles or leaves like the tamarisk, larch, bald cypress, and dawn redwood.  Conifers that drop their leaves or needles are called deciduous conifers, meaning they shed all their needles or leaves at certain times of the year but they still produce cones.

Black Hills Spruce
Black Hills Spruce photo by Wanette Lenling

So What Are Evergreen Conifers Then?

Simple. Evergreen conifers are plants that produce cones and hold their needles or leaves all year round.  This would include such plants as spruce, pine, yews, and junipers.

Globe Blue Spruce
Globe Blue Spruce photo by Wanette Lenling

There you have it.  The answer to the conifer/evergreen conundrum. No matter what you call them, they are amazing plants that are absolutely gorgeous and fun to grow. These plants can be giants, like the ancient dawn redwood which can grow up to 60 feet in height or more, or teeny tiny plants like the Mitsch Mini Mugo Pine that grow to only 14 inches tall. If you have never grown evergreens or conifers, I highly recommend trying it. There are so many to choose from, you are bound to find one (or two!) that you love.

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“The pine stays green in winter…wisdom in hardship.”

 – Norman Douglas


A Garden Poem Just for You.

The Garden  by Shel Silverstein

Ol’ man Simon, planted a diamond,

Grew hisself a garden the likes of none.

Sprouts all growin’, comin’ up glowin’

Fruit of jewels all shinin’ in the sun.

Colors of the rainbow,

See the sun and rain grow

Sapphires and rubies on ivory vines,

Grapes of jade, just

Ripenin’ in the shade, just

Ready for the squeezin’ into green jade wine.

Pure gold corn there,

Blowin’ in the warm air,

Ol’ crow nibblin’ on the amnythyst seeds.

In between the diamonds, ol’man Simon

Crawls about pullin’ out platinum weeds.

Pink pearl berries,

All you can carry,

Put ’em in a bushel and

Haul ’em into town.

Up in the tree there’s

Opal nuts and gold pears-

Hurry quick, grab a stick

And shake some down.

take a silver tater,

Emerald tomater,

Fresh plump coral melons

Hangin’ in reach.

Ol’ man Simon,

Diggin’ in his diamonds,

Stops and rests and dreams about


I think as gardeners we all feel that our garden is our greatest treasure.  This poem comes from Shel Silverstein’s book of poems called Where the Sidewalk Ends.  When I was in elementary school, our teacher read to us from this book.  I fell in love with the poems inside, some silly, some profound, but always written with a unique view of the world.  Be yourself, be unique, and keep gardening.

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“Anything is possible.  Anything can be.”

 – Shel Silverstein




The CobraHead, An Amazing Garden Tool

As a gardener, I am always looking for new ways  to do things better, faster, and easier in the garden. And it’s just a lot of fun to experiment and try new ideas and tools. I  recently tried a new tool called the CobraHead.  It is a multi-use tool that is designed to dig, furrow, weed, and turn the earth.


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The tool has an unusual appearance with its tip in the shape of its name sake, a snake’s head. It has a solid comfortable handle made with durable materials, including recycled materials, according to the manufacturer.  The handle of the tool is large and easy to hold. The weight is balanced and the tool feels substantial in your hand.

The CobraHead is an amazingly simple yet effective tool. I used it to weed a small garden bed and it was very quick and efficient, without tiring my arm or hand. The shape of the tool makes it easy to get near the base of your plant to weed without injuring the plant.

I wanted to test the tool on a tougher job so I used it to actually dig up a new bed, tearing out weeds and grass to prepare the soil for petunias. Amazingly, it took me only about 20 minutes to dig up a new bed that is approximately six feet by three feet in size. I also used the tool to dig the holes to plant the petunias. The tool is extremely versatile which is what I really like about it.

I am very comfortable using the original CobraHead garden tool. For a woman, I have large hands with long strong fingers. In contrast, a gardening friend of mine has smaller hands and shorter fingers than I do. She also has several physical handicaps including the after effects of a recent stroke that affected her dominant hand.   She was very impressed with the mini CobraHead tool, a smaller version of the original tool,  which was easier for her to hold and lighter for her to use.  She was as impressed as I was with the tool’s versatility and ease of use.

The CobraHead tool is an easy to use, versatile gardening tool that can be used to dig, furrow, weed, and plant. It’s been a wonderful addition to my gardening tool kit.  It’s now my go-to tool. Check out the website for the CobraHead garden tool at https://www.cobrahead.com/

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“There can be no other occupation like gardening in which, if you were to creep up behind someone at their work, you would find them smiling.”

-Mirabel Osler