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!

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Photo by Wanette Lenling

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Planting in Autumn. Time for Tulips!

Yes, Fall is for planting and its right around the corner so its time to start planning.  Fall is the time for planting tulips, daffodils, crocus, hyacinths, alliums, and many, many more beautiful spring-flowering bulbs. Many bulbs must be cooled for a period of time in order to sprout so they need to be planted in Autumn. Over the winter the bulbs are naturally cooled or frozen in the ground and then sprout in the spring when the sun warms the ground. Now is the time to plan for your Fall plantings so your spring garden is bright and beautiful.

Planting bulbs is a very easy process.  When you purchase bulbs,  the bulbs will generally come packed in a bag or box with wood chips, wood fibers, or some other inert absorbant organic material. Planting directions  will be either in or on the package.  Read the directions carefully.  You must plant your bulb at the correct depth or they will not thrive. Bulbs also need to be placed in the ground correctly.  Bulbs have a top and a bottom.  For example, a tulip bulb is pointed on the top (where the greens sprout from) and flatter on the bottom (where the roots will extend from). The bulb will not thrive and may perish if it is not placed in the hole the right way and at the correct depth so make sure you read the instructions before planting so your plants reward your hard work with a fabulous display of color in the spring.

tulip bulbs
tulip bulbs: photo curtesy of youcanlearnseries.com

Bone meal is an excellent fertilizer for spring flowering bulbs as it adds phosphorous to the soil which is the nutrient that’s responsible for producing larger and more beautiful flowers.  However, bone meal is exactly what its name implies.  It is made from the bones of slaughtered animals, usually cattle.  It is an organic fertilizer but if you are adverse to using animal remains in your garden, try adding bat guano (bat poo) or poultry/pig manure to your soil.  Manure based fertilizers add phosphorous and nitrogen to the soil. Nitrogen is a necessary nutrient for plants, however, nitrogen encourages the greens of the plant to grow, in detriment to flower production, so limit the amount of nitrogen you add to your soil for your bulbs or you may end up with fabulous greens and no flowers!

Some critters, like squirrels and deer, will dig up or eat your bulbs. Using bone meal as a fertilizer on your bulbs tends to deter herbivores (plant eaters) from digging or munching in the area where you planted your bulbs because of what it is made of.  There are also some manufactured deterants, in the form of  sprays and granules, that will deter animals from digging or eating your bulbs.  Before purchasing these products, read the directions to understand how to use the product and whether the product is potentially hazardous.  Also be aware that some of these products use foul smelling substances to deter animals so using the product near your home or commonly used area may create a rather obnoxiously fragrant (stinky!) nuisance.

There are also DIY projects that are easy to install that deter animals from digging your bulbs. Chicken wire is an excellent solution, especially for large beds containing bulbs.  Plant your bulbs as normal, covering the bulbs with soil. Then lay chicken wire over the ground on top of the area where the bulbs are planted. Hold the chicken wire down with rocks or other decorative items or place a layer of mulch or dirt over the wire to hide it and hold it down. Animals will not be able to dig through the chicken wire and your bulbs will remain safe and happy tucked away in their new bed.

Another simple way of protecting bulbs is to create or purchase a wire basket with a wire lid that is large enough to hold your bulbs.  Dig a hole in the ground large enough to hold the basket.  Plant the bulbs in the ground inside the basket and close the lid. Hide the lid with a nice layer of mulch or soil.  The bulbs are now planted in the ground safe inside the wire basket away from the wildlife that would love to dig them up.

Bulb cage

Bulb cage DIY project found on http://www.instructables.com/id/Gardeners-underground-bulb-cage/

Fall is coming quickly so start planning now.  It will be so worth it in the spring when your newly planted bulbs flower and that dull corner of your yard glows with radiant color.

 

 

I love Breck’s bulbs. Check out brecks.com for a variety of spring flowering bulbs. Breck’s has a wonderful selection of high quality spring flowering bulbs and they have a lifetime guarantee on their products.

As always, have fun and be creative. Gardening is an ongoing experiment. There is no right or wrong. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day:

“The fairest thing in nature, a flower, still has its roots in earth and manure.”

– D.H. Lawrence

Compost. What’s the Big Deal?

First, what is compost?  Compost is simply organic matter, such as grass clippings and leaves, that have been decomposed down to what looks like brown chunky dirt. Micro-organisms such as bacteria and fungi, and macro-organisms such as insects and earth worms, are responsible for the decomposition process. The resulting decomposed organic matter contains nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous that are essential for healthy plant growth.  Think of it as giving a vitamin supplement to your favorite plant to make sure it stays vital and healthy.  Amending the soil with compost either before planting or adding it around your existing plants boosts the vitality of your landscaping. Your plants will thank you with beautiful flowers, abundant fruit, and healthy greens and roots.

Second, how do you compost?  Gardeners have many different methods of composting. No one way is the “right” way. Some gardeners build fence-like structures with removable walls to hold compost while others purchase compost tumblers that can be rotated 180 degrees to speed the compost process. Some gardeners take a hands-on approach to their compost by adding water, purchasing bacteria or worms,  adding specific percentages of brown or green organic matter, and turning the compost at specific intervals all in an effort to speed the composting process. These methods are absolutely effective in creating nutrient rich compost for your garden.

I am a simple gardener, however, and I like to let Nature do what it does naturally. Organic matter will naturally degrade over time without human intervention.  My compost pile is just that, a pile. I don’t turn it. I don’t amend it.  I simply pile leaves, garden refuse, and kitchen scraps on the pile and let nature take over. (But, my dog does take a hands-on approach every now and again in his attempt to find the tasty kitchen scraps!) Every spring, I dig at the bottom of the pile and I scrape fresh compost out with a shovel to spread in my garden. This method works for me but each gardener must choose the method that works for them.

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Compost pile: Picture by Wanette Lenling

Each gardener must determine if and how they are going to create their compost pile. Research different methods if you have never composted to see what would work best for you. Also be aware that some homeowner’s associations may not allow simple compost piles due to the messy look or smell, so the gardener may need to purchase a tumbler or build a bin in order to hide the compost. Experiment with the method that works best for you to create organic compost to add the essential nutrients to your soil for beautiful healthy plants.

For more complete and in-depth information on composting, check out this great website from the Illinois extension office. https://web.extension.illinois.edu/homecompost/science.cfm

Happy Gardening!