INTERVIEWS WITH EXPERTS: Dana Althoff, Commercial Grower and Retail Manager

Dana Althoff is the retail manager at a large greenhouse and landscape center in the Midwest. She has a degree in horticulture with minors in business and agronomy.  Dana has experience both as a commercial wholesale grower and in retail sales at several different locations in several different states.

Allium flower Photo by Wanette Lenling

On a sunny Saturday morning, I sat down with Dana at her kitchen table to learn more about her vast experience and love of gardening.   I wanted to find out how she got started in the gardening business and where her love of gardening came from.  I also wanted to know what advice she had for new and experienced gardeners alike.

Dana’s Gardening Tip #1:  “Water it or it’ll die.”

What is your background in gardening?  How did it become an interest of yours?

Dana said she began gardening with her mom and her grandmother as a little girl.  Her mother let her take over the planning, planting, and care of the flower beds when Dana was in the fourth grade just as her grandmother had allowed her mother to do  as a little girl.

As an adult, Dana went on to study horticulture and agronomy in college during which time she worked for her uncle at a whole sale nursery.  Dana recounted the joy she had working in the vast flower fields at her uncle’s nursery.

Do you have a specific plant group that you like to work with?

Dana said she enjoys working with all plants, including annuals and perennials, but she has a particular fondness for hostas.  She said the ‘Sum and Substance’ Hosta is among her favorites.  For those of you that have never seen a ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta, it’s a beautiful giant yellow variety that can reach 2 to 3 feet in height with a spread of 5 to 6 feet!

Dana’s Gardening Tip #2:  “Don’t get tied up with the idea that growing a certain plant is hard to grow.  Just try it!”

Do you enjoy working in the garden on your time off?

Dana said she does enjoy working in the garden at home but only in fair weather.

Planter created by Dana, photo by Wanette Lenling
Planter created by Dana, photo by Wanette Lenling

Working in the retail business requires Dana to work in all kinds of weather so she prefers to be comfortable when working in the garden at home.

I mentioned that one of the assumptions that customers always had of me when I worked at the garden and landscape nursery was that my gardens at home were immaculate.  Dana laughed and said she gets that too.  Dana said that most of her gardening energy is spent at work with little left over for home, so home gardens tend to suffer.  It’s akin to a plumber having a broken faucet at home that never seems to get fixed.

What questions do you get the most frequently and how do you answer those questions?

  1.  Question: “How do I plant this tree?”  Answer:  Dig the hole 2 times as wide as the root ball and plant it no deeper than the root flare.
  2. Question:  ” How do I water this plant?”  Answer:  It depends on what the plant is and where it’s planted.  In general, keep it moist for the first few years, then supplement with water when dry in the years after that.

You have worked as a commercial grower as well as a home gardener.  How is commercial growing different from home gardening?

With commercial growing, you must please the customers so the plants must be of generous size,  a visually pleasing shape, and attractive coveted colors while the home grower must only please themselves.  However, with both types of growing, the gardener must still use diligence in fertilizing and awareness in scouting for the early signs of disease.

What advice do you have for hobby gardeners that would like to start growing in a home greenhouse?

Pansies photo by Wanette Lenling

Start simple.  Start with a handful of different types of plants and be prepared to care for them every day.  There are no days off.  Try growing some plants that are easy to grow from seed like tomatoes and peppers for vegetables and marigolds, petunias, and zinnias for flowers.

Dana’s Gardening Tip #3: “Don’t be afraid to try new things.  Plants die.  Keep going.”

You have worked a great deal with encouraging children to engage in gardening.  What is your motivation?

Container 2 planted by Dana. Photo by Wanette Lenling

Dana explained that she was encouraged at a young age by her mom and grandmother to engage in gardening. She mentioned the fact that some of the kids she worked with have never touched soil before.  She said that during her children’s potting class, kids get the tactile experience of touching and smelling the soil and the plants and working with the plants in order for them to grow in the child’s flower pot creation.

 

Dana’s garden book recommendation:  Small Space Gardening by Melinda Meyers.

Finally, you were trained in horticulture and agronomy before organic gardening became a trend.  How do you feel about organic gardening?

According to Dana, organic gardening has its place.  Dana said she understands the desire to use organic gardening with food plants for safety but not with ornamentals because you don’t eat them. She said she tried using organic methods in commercial growing but she didn’t have any luck with it so she reverted to the use of synthetics.

Big thanks to Dana for taking time out of her busy schedule to sit down with me to discuss gardening, a topic we both love.  Gardening is all about learning whether through your own research or by asking the experts.  Keep learning and growing my gardening friends.

Happy Gardening!

White spirea flower, Photo by Wanette Lenling

Quote of the Day

“Success is no accident.  It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice, and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”

-Pele, retired Brazilian professional footballer

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Laundry Basket Planter Video

Using a laundry basket as a planter.  What a great idea!  But, it’s not my idea.  I found this video on Youtube on the Garden Answer Youtube channel.  This is such a unique inexpensive idea for a garden planter.  I had to share it with you.  Happy Gardening!

Note:  I do not own this video and I am not paid to advertise it.

 

Garden Tips and Helpful Hints

Sometimes as a gardener you have small questions that don’t require an extended answer.  Today I’m going to give you five helpful hints and garden tips for everyday garden questions.

 1. How do I know when to water my potted plants?

For most potted annual plants a good rule of thumb is to stick your finger into the soil up to your first knuckle.  If you feel moisture, hold off watering.  If you don’t feel any moisture, go ahead and water.  This is just a general guideline.  It works well for most potted annuals (that have good drainage) but doesn’t work well for plants like succulents which need much less water and plants like ferns which need more. Be sure to educate yourself on the water requirements of your specific potted plants.

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Annuals in a tree stump flower bed

2. Should I dead-head my garden plants?

Unless you want to save seeds, dead-heading garden plants keep them looking tidy and also encourages plants to produce more blossoms.  If you want to save seeds, don’t dead-head your plants.  Leave the expired blossoms on the plant.  Most plants, especially annuals and biennials (that are in their second year of growth) will produce seed heads or seed pods where the spent blossoms are located.  Simply collect the seeds, allow them to dry fully, and put them in containers until you’re ready to use them. (Don’t forget to label your seeds!)

 

3.  Should I mulch my garden and landscape?

You should use mulch in your landscape and garden to not only keep moisture in the ground but to keep the roots of your plants cool. Summer sun will heat up black dirt very very quickly and can damage sensitive roots.  You can use landscape rock or bark mulch in your landscape for a neat appearance and anything from straw to leaves in your vegetable garden which not only keeps moisture in but breaks down into compost to add nutrients to the soil as well.

 

4. When should I fertilize?

The general rule is to apply fertilizer in spring and fall but it depends on the kind of fertilizer you use.  Compost can be added at any time but adding it in the spring when you plant is best.  Slow release fertilizers are usually applied in spring and early fall.  This helps plants get going in the spring and build up nutrients for a winter’s rest.  Liquid fertilizers are generally applied weekly because they act fast and wash away quickly. Always read the label on manufactured fertilizers and follow the directions for proper application.

 

5. And finally, a question I am asked all the time is should you have a gardening buddy?

Yes.  I highly recommend a gardening buddy to cuddle with, oops I mean to visit with, while you enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.

Happy gardening!

Quote of the Day

“I take care of my flowers and my cats. And enjoy food.  And that’s living.”

-Ursula Andress, Swiss actress

Planning Next Year’s Garden

As I sit at my desk, watching the snow come down during our first blizzard, I am daydreaming of spring planting.  On my desk, gardening books and catalogs lay open to designs I love and plants I would like to have.  Graph paper and color pencils are patiently waiting as ideas begin to form.  If you are like me, when one growing season ends, it’s time to start planning the next.

I love design. I love planning for new flower beds and borders.  I also love to redesign old gardens with new walkways, trellises, or arbors along with flowers.  Fences can also add to the landscape by separating large gardens into smaller spaces.

Gardens separated by fences
Gardens separated by fences: http://www.mooseyscountrygarden.com/botanical-gardens/laking-garden-ontario.html

 

After settling on the new hardscape (walkways, retaining walls, etc.), it’s time to delve into the joy of picking out the new plantings.  It’s fun to pick out new perennials such as roses, delphiniums, peonies, and lilies but don’t forget to include decorative trees, like birch and canadian cherry, and shrubs, like viburnum and lilac.  Mixing flowers in with trees and shrubs gives your new garden the thoughtful balanced look every designer craves. This is where planning is really important.

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Landscape design with trees and shrubs

Adding trees and shrubs to the new landscaping will create a vision of beauty in your garden, however, there are some things to consider when doing so.  Trees and shrubs are more permanent parts of the landscape than annual and perennial flowers. Annual flowers must be replanted ever year and most perennial flowers that come up every year can be easily moved.  This is not the case with trees and shrubs.  It is important to take into consideration how large a tree or shrub will get at maturity, how long it takes to reach maturity, and the plant’s long term needs. For example, a small white pine tree may look elegant in the landscaping next to a red brick home but within a few short years it will outgrow the space and it will need to be removed.  A better option for such a space would be to plant an aborvaete or juniper that grows vertically and slender.  This will still give the homeowner the elegant evergreen appearance and the plant will be able to thrive in that space for many years to come.

Color and bloom time for each plant is also a consideration when planning a new garden or landscape.  Some plants, like hostas and coral bells,  are grown strickly for their foliage texture and color.   However, plants like peonies and lilacs, which are grown for their showy colorful blooms, have a definite bloom time.  It is important to plan around the bloom time of each plant to allow your garden to have consistent bloom coverage for the entire growing season.  To get the most from your garden, plant a mix of flowers and shrubs in the colors you like that start blooming in early spring, like tulips and forsythia, with summer bloomimg plants, like coneflowers and viburnum, and fall blooming plants, like mums and asters.  Then, to make sure there is no time your garden color falls flat, add in some annuals for all season color and a show-stopping look.

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Planning your new garden or redesigning an old one is fun way to stay in the gardening spirit even when the snow is falling outside. And, creating a good plan ahead of time will  give you a beautiful garden or landscape that is colorful and inviting all season long!

Happy gardening!

Quote of the Day

A black cat among roses, phlox, lilac-misted under a quarter moon, the sweet smells of heliotrope and night-scented stock. The garden is very still.  It is dazed with moonlight, contented with perfume…
― Amy Lowell, American poet

Saving Garden Seeds

Saving garden seeds is easy and inexpensive. I began saving seeds in law school as a way to save money.  I bought an organic acorn squash at the local grocery.  I ate the squash and dried the seeds.  Over the summer, I planted the seeds and I harvested 75 squash to take back to school with me.  My supply of squash lasted me the entire school year!

And, saving seeds from plants you love allows you to reproduce your favorite plants over and over again without spending a dime. (Hint* If your plant is a hybrid, plants produced by their seed may look or taste completely different. Look at the plant tag or the seed packet to determine whether your plant is a hybrid.  To reproduce identical plants from seed, use heirloom seeds or plants. )

Flowering Plants

In order to save seeds from a flowering plant you must stop deadheading to allow the flowers to mature into seed heads.   When the flowers shrivel up,  seed heads or seed pods will become evident.  Allow the seed heads or seed pods to mature and dry on the plant. If the seed heads or seed pods are on a plant that will drop its seeds, like petunias, or blow away, like garden thistle, simple place a piece of nylon stocking over the seed pod or seed head and secure it with garden twine  to catch the seeds.

Collecting seeds from a seed head is as simple as snipping the seed head off the flower and shaking or pulling the seeds off .  To collect the seeds from a seed pod, however, you remove the pod from the flower stem, open it, and shake the seeds into a   container. Or, snip the seed pod off the plant and allow it to fall directly into a paper bag. Seal the top of the paper bag and shake it vigorously. This will shake the seeds lose from the seed pod.  Then gather the seeds from the bottom of the bag and place them in a container or envelope. Store in a cool dry area.

If there is moisture remaining on the seeds, such as from dew or  precipitation, allow the seeds to dry completely for a few days to a week in a brown paper bag prior to putting them in a sealed container or envelope.  Or, lay a paper towel or clean cloth on a cookie sheet and place the seeds in a single layer on cookie tray.  Let the seeds dry in a dim, dry, cool area for a week or more before placing the seeds into a container or an envelope.  Finally, label the envelope or container and store in a cool dry place.

 

Vegetables

squash seeds

Seeds from vegetables are generally harvested from the fruit itself, however there are exceptions.   Some of the easiest plants to harvest seeds from is the squash or the pumpkin. Simply cut open the pumpkin or squash and remove the seeds and the pulp.  Next place the seeds and pulp in a kitchen strainer and wash them with cool water.  Continue to rinse under cool water until all the pulp is removed and the seeds are clean. Spread a paper towel or clean cloth on a cookie pan and spread the seeds out in a single layer on the pan careful to remove any small, damaged, or immature seeds. Leave the seeds to dry in a dim, dry, cool place for a week or two.  Then transfer the seeds into a clean jar or envelope. Don’t forget to label your container.

Tomato seeds can be saved using the same process as pumpkin or squash. Simply cut open a tomato and squeeze the seeds and pulp out into a strainer.  Tomato seeds are much tinier than pumpkin seeds so use a strainer with a fine grid.  Rinse them under cool water until the seeds are clean and all the pulp is removed.  Lay the cleaned seeds out on a clean cloth or paper towel and allow to dry for a week or two.  Periodically during the drying process, run your hands over the seeds to separate the seeds into a single layer to dry completely as the seeds tend to stick together when wet. You can also follow a more rigorous process called fermentation for tomato seeds that I found on Permaculture Research Institute website.  I have never tried this method of saving seeds but  I’d love to hear your thoughts about this process if you try it.

Carrots and celery, both of which are Biennials , are among a group of vegetables whose seeds are harvested like those of flowering plants, but are harvested after the second year’s growth.  The tops of these plants flower and set seed after the second year.  To thoroughly dry the seed heads, cut the seed heads from the plant and place the whole seed head in a brown paper bag up to a week to finish drying. When the seed heads are thoroughly dry, shake the bag to release the seeds from the seed heads.  Gather the seeds from the bottom of the bag and place them in an envelope or jar to be kept for planting the following year.

These are just a few suggestions on saving seeds for a few different flowers and vegetables.  If you have questions about saving seeds from specific plants, don’t hesitate to do a quick online search on trusted sites. Saving seeds is easy, it saves money,  and it allows you to reproduce your favorite plants.  But remember, hybrid plants don’t reproduce by seed to create an identical plant, but heirloom seeds do, so try ordering seeds from heirloom seed suppliers like Harvesting History

Good luck and Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies.”

-Gertrude Jekyll, British horticulturalist and writer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Biennials

Biennials comprise some of the most beautiful flowers in the landscape.  Biennials include such lovely flowers as hollyhocks, sweet william (also called dianthus), and foxglove.  But what exactly is a biennial and how do you grow it?

What is a biennial?

To answer the question, “What is a biennial?”, it may help to first define the other types of flowers that are more well known.  Annuals are flower that must be planted every year.  They grow, set seed, and die within the same season. They don’t come back.  Perennials are flowers that grow, flower, die back to the ground, and come back the following year and the year after and so on.

Biennials are odd in that they combine the behaviors of both annuals and perennials.  Biennials sprout from seed the first year.  The plants focus all their energy on growing sturdy roots and healthy greens but will not flower during the first year of growth.  Biennials will then die back to the ground for the winter and come back the following spring.  In the second year of growth, the biennials create a stunning display of flowers and set seed. After setting seed, biennial plants die completely and don’t come back.  So a biennial grows the first year and dies back to the ground for the winter like a perennial.  The following year the biennial will flower, set seed, and die, root and all,  like an annual.

How do you grow a biennial?

Because of the interesting growing behavior of biennials, there is a trick to growing them.  In order to have beautiful flowers every year when you start biennials, plant biennials by seed for two years consecutively or plant potted biennials for several years in a row.  Thereafter, either let the seeds fall to the ground or collect the seeds to reseed the following year. This means do not deadhead your biennial flowers.  Instead, allow the flower head to dry up and collect the seeds to replant the following season or allow them to drop to the ground so the plant reseeds itself. This process of planting will give you a never ending supply of biennial flowers year after year after year.

How are biennials special?

Biennials are a special type of plant. They have a fascinating mix of annual and perennial growth behavior.  In order to have their flowering presence in the garden every year, the gardener must follow a special process.  However, biennials are well worth the effort. They have some of the most beautiful flowers of any garden plant.

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

 

Shed no tear! O shed no tear!

The flower will bloom another year.

Weep no more! O weep no more!

Young buds sleep in the root’s white core.

-John Keats, English poet