When good trees die

It happens to even the best gardeners

If you are a regular reader of this column, you know that I kill plants (just like you probably do). Houseplants. Annuals. Flowers in the ground. And yes, even trees. Although some oaks live 400 years, most plants naturally have a much shorter life span. And although some die due to my negligence, most do not. But I do push the limits of zone hardiness, trying plants that rather would winter in Pennsylvania — and occasionally killing them.

I have a native dogwood tree that shows up all over my property. It is called the pagoda dogwood and is one of my favorites. This small tree never gets much taller than 10 feet, has just finished blooming with understated white blossoms and has blue berries loved by birds in July or August.

But it has a short lifespan for a tree; 25 years is a good run for this one, even in the wilds. Fortunately it seeds in, so I always have plenty. When one dies, I can cut it down, thank it, and get rid of it. No mourning.

For the last 20 years or more, I have had a hazelnut tree called Harry Lauder’s walking flower stick (“Purple Majesty”) in one of my flower beds. This tree is a naturally occurring freak: Its stems twist and turn in unusual ways. Great in winter for its silhouette, mine also had purple leaves and was a great tree. I pruned it to keep it just 6 feet tall. But last summer it showed signs of distress, and this spring it did not leaf out. It is dead.

But because it is striking in profile, I decided not to cut it down. Not yet, anyway. I planted annual vines around its base and I am training them to climb up into the tree. If all goes as planned, in a month or so I will have purple hyacinth beans blooming in the tree.

In the meantime my wife Cindy and I decorated it with colorful strips of cloth. Each is just a couple of inches wide and perhaps a foot long. She attached threads to the top of each so we could tie them on like Christmas ornaments. Even the slightest breeze has them fluttering and twisting. It’s lovely.

Although nowadays I buy almost exclusively native plants, last summer I was tempted by a lovely Japanese clethra and brought her home. This spring it did not leaf out, a major disappointment. My test for a dead branch is to rub my fingernail on the bark, scraping off the outer layer. If it is alive, it will show some green. But this clethra showed brown everywhere, and I decided it was dead.

As I was lopping off the branches prior to digging it out, I noticed a few leaves growing at the very base of the tree. Life! So I am letting it stay. Unfortunately, I do not know if the tree was grafted onto a different rootstock, which is common in the landscape trade.

New growth from the roots may bring this Japanese
clethra back to life. Courtesy photo.

So, for example, a branch or branches of a Japanese clethra might have been grafted to a summersweet clethra. This avoids having to start a new plant from seed and ensures that the new plant has the desirable characteristics of the plant grafted to rootstock. If the rootstock grows, one gets a plant different from the purchased plant.

All apples are grafted onto rootstock because the seeds are hybrids and will not breed true. The rootstock used for apples determines the size of the tree. Some will produce miniatures, others full-sized trees. So if your apple was killed by rodents last winter and the roots sent up new shoots, what you get will probably not be interesting to eat. Yes, Johnny Appleseed traveled around America with a sack of apple seeds, but those apples were for making hard cider, America’s beverage of choice, not for eating apples.

If your rose died last winter, you might be able to bring it back to life. Most roses are sold on roots that are different than the flowering portion. You should be able to see a scar, the graft union, on your rose. If the union was planted below the soil line, the rose may sprout from the fancy rose you bought, not the rootstock. So wait and see what happens. By now, this late in the season, a “dead” rose should have sent up shoots if it is going to.

Most plants we grow are vigorous and seem to have an innate “desire” to keep their genetic lines viable. That is why they produce seeds, and many (especially weeds) send out roots that can send up new plants. So if a perennial plant dies, you may be in luck. A baby plant may replace the mother plant. It’s what they do.

A few words of warning, however. Any plant that starts from seeds dropped by a hybrid plant will probably not breed true, although it can. A hybrid is a cross between two genetic lines, and seed producers develop them in carefully isolated circumstances to protect their lineage.

I like to think that if I never kill any plants, I am not trying hard enough. I try to grow new and different plants, often things that would rather grow a few hundred miles south. When those rare (for here) plants do survive and bloom, I feel like a million bucks. Hopefully they did not cost that much, as I will probably lose them at some point.

Featured photo: Pagoda Dogwood berries are loved by birds. Courtesy photo.

Weekend chores

Summertime, but the livin’ isn’t easy

As the song goes, it’s “summertime, and the livin’ is easy!” Well, not really. Yes, I’ve planted my 53 tomato plants, 200 onions and more, but there is still plenty to do. Let’s look at a few chores you might want to do this weekend.

Your tomatoes need support. If they lie on the ground or even on a nice bed of straw they are more prone to diseases. They need air and sunshine to stay healthy and to ripen up sooner.

I like wire tomato cages as supports. I recommend getting the biggest cages possible: 54 inches tall with four support legs instead of three. They are expensive but last for many years. Right now your tomatoes are short and standing up on their own. But if you wait too long they will be much more difficult to install. Do it now!

If you grow a lot of tomatoes and don’t have the budget to buy nice cages, you can tie them to wood stakes. Get one-inch hardwood “grade stakes.” Five-footers are best because you need to push at least a foot into the ground. Tie the plants to the stakes with something soft: strips of old sheets work well, or pantyhose. If you use string it may bite through the stems when they are loaded with fruit. You will need to add more ties as the plants get taller.

As your tomatoes get mature, you may notice that lower leaves are turning brown. This is probably early blight, a common soil-borne disease. It is not fatal but reduces your fruit production. You can minimize by doing two things: cut off affected leaves, and mulch the soil to minimize splash-up. Grass clippings, leaves or hay will help. They also keep the roots more moist in dry times.

If you are growing carrots or beets, this is a good time to thin them. You really should thin them by the Fourth of July. It is tedious work, which is why many seed companies are selling “pelleted’ carrot seeds. These are seeds that are coated with a clay covering to make them larger and easier to plant an inch or so apart. Beet seeds are actually seed clusters: several seeds are in each “seed.” So even if you spaced them carefully, they need to be thinned.

If you planted potatoes, now is the time to look for potato beetles, or their eggs on the underneath side of the leaves. The egg masses are bright orange and easy to spot. Scrape off the eggs into a jar of soapy water. If you see the beetles or their larvae eating the leaves, get them into the water, too. By reducing their population now you will reduce their exponential increase in numbers.

This is a good time to plant parsnip seeds because they need warm soil to germinate. Keep in mind that the seeds do not keep well, so do not plant last year’s seeds. Most garden centers probably still have parsnip seeds because they are not a terribly popular crop. But they store well over the winter — just leave them in the soil. I love them as an early spring treat: just boil them up, then serve them with butter and maple syrup. Yum! And don’t get discouraged if they take 2 full weeks to germinate; they are very slow.

I am eating lettuce from my garden that I planted early in the spring. That means it is time to plant some more seeds. Lettuce bolts when the summer gets too hot, which means that it elongates (reaching for the sky) and turns bitter before flowering and producing seed.

But there are summer varieties that are heat-resistant. Of the butterhead lettuces, try Skyphos or Buttercrunch bibb. Oakleaf lettuces such as Magenta do well, and a romaine called Jericho does well in heat. Read the packages well or study a catalog.

Plant mid-summer lettuces where they get morning sun and afternoon shade if you can. You can also use shade cloth to protect against strong afternoon rays. Perhaps you can plant seeds in six-packs to get them going, then transplant them in your tomato patch where the big plants provide some shade.

Pesto season is coming up in August, so plant some more basil by seed if you don’t already have enough planted. I like planting seeds in small pots to get them well established before planting them in the garden. But if you want a lot for pesto, dedicate a 6-foot row and plant plenty of seeds. They will do fine, even if a bit crowded.

Look around your garden now to see what you forgot to plant. For me this year, it was dill. No matter. I shall plant some by seed, and it will grow vigorously in the heat of summer.

If you have run out of space in the garden, think about creating a raised bed for those last-minute plantings. Most garden centers sell metal corners to help you build your own raised beds, even if you aren’t a carpenter. Not only that, your local lumber yard will cut the boards to your specifications at no extra charge. All you need is a cordless drill and some outdoor screws to put a bed together in no time.

Don’t forget a few annual flowers in your vegetable garden to attract bees and butterflies. Most garden centers still have plenty of flowers that are in bloom and ready to plant. Just remember to tease the roots apart before planting now, as the little cells are often root-bound. So get outside, and get busy. It’s summer!

Featured photo: Hand pick Potato beetles and look for orange egg masses on underneath side of leaves. Photo courtesy of Henry Homeyer.

Peonies, please

You can never have enough

If you don’t have a peony, I’m surprised. If you don’t have three, you should. They are blooming now, and this is a great time to buy them. Go to your local garden center or family-run plant nursery and buy some more, no matter how many you have. Buying in bloom means you can see the color of the blossoms, and sample the fragrance. Not all are very fragrant, but some are so lovely they might make you swoon.

When my wife, Cindy Heath, moved in with me in 2019, she insisted on bringing many plants — including her dad’s favorite peonies and several others. I walked around recently to count how many peonies we have together. We have 44 between us, including my grandmother’s favorite, Festiva Maxima. Grandmother died in 1953, but her peony lives on.

I regularly get questions about peonies. “Why did my new peony bloom once, but never again?” It’s probably planted too deeply in the ground. In the fall, cut back your stems and feel for the “eyes,” which are next year’s growth. To get blossoms, they should not be covered with more than about an inch of soil. If your peony is too deeply planted, or covered deeply in mulch, don’t dig it up, just pull back some soil and mulch to fix it.

Another question I get: “Why are there ants on the blossom buds?” Some write saying their grandparents told them the ants are involved in opening the buds. Is that true? No. The ants are attracted because there are aphids on the buds, and aphid droppings are called honey dew. Honeydew is sweet and attracts ants.

Gardeners are often frustrated by the fact that after a rain, many gorgeous flowers flop over or even break. Peony cages are sold in garden centers, but often these are much too short to prevent the problem.

What is the solution? Buy bamboo stakes that are 3 or 4 feet tall and place two to four around each clump of peonies, pushing them deep into the soil. Then encircle the plant with twine, tying the string to each stake with a clove hitch. If you didn’t learn how to tie a clove hitch in the Scouts, YouTube will teach you. The encircling twine should be set about two-thirds the height of the plant. Do this when the buds have not yet opened.

Some gardeners write asking if it is OK to move peonies, and when should they do it? Conventional wisdom is that peonies do not like to be moved, but if you must, do it in the fall when they are starting to go dormant. That’s good advice, but peonies can be moved anytime. I once moved 50 peonies in June, and they all bloomed the very next year.

But I do agree that there can be problems moving peonies. The roots are fleshy, a bit like long, thin sweet potatoes. And they are easily broken unless you take great care. I would only dig them after a long, soaking rain — or if I had watered well a few days before and the water had soaked down deep. Some roots go 18 inches into the soil or more. And remember: be sure not to bury them too deeply. Look for those pointy little nubs and keep them near the soil surface.

Do peonies have diseases to watch out for? Rarely. The only problem I’ve ever had is with botrytis, a fungal disease that blackens leaves and kills them and the blossoms. And that only happened once. I removed the blackened leaves and sprayed with a solution of a product called Serenade.

Serenade contains a soil bacterium that kills fungal diseases including botrytis but has no ill effects on humans, pets, fish, insects or birds. It stopped the infection, and it has not recurred. Serenade is commonly sold at garden centers and has a shelf life of 3 years if properly stored.

I have peonies that bloom starting in late April some years, others that bloom in May and June. My earliest are woodland peonies: the fernleaf peony and the obovate peony. The first is bright red, with single blossoms and finely divided leaves. Both have just a single layer of petals. My obovate peonies are cream-colored but produce blue seeds in red seed pods. The seeds are vigorous self-sowers.

Then there are tree peonies. These are small shrubs that produce huge flowers, up to 8 or 10 inches across. The blossoms are short lived but spectacular. I had one for 20 years, but it died after a cold winter. Then a few years ago I bought an Itoh peony. This is a hybrid of a tree peony crossed with a regular peony. The Itohs generally have yellow blossoms and produce many, many large blossoms over several weeks at maturity. But they are pricey: Expect to pay $50 or more for a young plant.

Lastly, gardeners ask me, “Can you grow peonies in a shady garden?” Yes and no. Given good rich soil and plenty of moisture, you will get some blossoms with just four hours of sun per day, which is considered a shade, or part-shade garden. They really like full sun, and do best with six hours of sun or more. Those two woodland peonies I mentioned will do fine in shade, but are nearly impossible to find for sale.

One last bit of advice: Since peonies live so long, be sure to add compost and a little slow-release organic fertilizer at planting time. Then every few years, top dress the soil around your peonies with some fertilizer and compost to get best results.

If I were to be exiled to a remote island and could choose just one perennial flower to take with me, I don’t know if I would take a Festiva Maxima peony. I do know that it certainly would be high on my list. How about you? Send me the name of your favorite flower. Let’s compare notes.

Featured photo: Tree Peony. Courtesy photo.

More whimsy, less work

Nothing wrong with a lazy gardener

I saw a friend recently who was bubbly and excited about her garden. “It’s full of color and stays that way all summer!” she exclaimed. “And it is NO work! All I have to do is water it daily, and give it a little fertilizer every few weeks.” She invited me to come see it, so of course I went.

What my friend has is a small outdoor courtyard that she has transformed into an outdoor room, complete with a small metal table and chairs sitting on an outdoor carpet. She has purchased lots of annuals and is growing most in pots (hence the need for daily watering), along with a few easy perennials.

The house is L-shaped and defines two sides of the space, with a low railroad tie retaining wall for the third side; the front is open and once allowed her to park her car right by the side door to the house. No more.

In addition to the annual flowers, she has a few perennials growing in the ground and lots of whimsy. She stops whenever she sees a “FREE” sign by the side of the road. A chair with no seat? Bring it home, paint it bright blue, and put it in the garden. See a sculpture of a head, or an interesting vase at a yard sale? Get it!

The annual flowers she generally buys as hanging baskets because they have well-established plants with blossoms from Day 1. Lots of color. Supertunias, verbenas, and marigolds of various descriptions are some of her favorites. When she gets them home she takes them out of their horrid plastic pots and puts them in nice ceramic pots. If she goes away for a few days she has someone come by to water.

A vining or trailing plant she likes this year is one I have never seen before. It has bright red trumpet flowers and is a Proven Winner trademarked plant called Lofos Wine Red, a lophospermum hybrid. Keep it in sun with mostly dry planting mix, and it blooms all summer, attracting hummingbirds. In general, trademarked plants like this offer good results with minimum effort.

Right now she has a big pink bleeding heart in full bloom, though that will bloom only for a few weeks. She has a groundcover that I use in shady areas called sweet woodruff that serves as a nice filler near it and is blooming right now. It has fragrant white blossoms and delicate lacy foliage that stays green and handsome all summer. Later an astilbe will blossom nearby.

Hosta is another important plant in her garden. She has many with large, green leaves. And although hostas are generally grown for their foliage, later in the summer they will send up flower stalks with white blossoms.

The side of the space that gets the most afternoon sun is filled with Stephanandra incisa or lace shrub. This is a deciduous woody shrub that spreads by root and roots in wherever the tips of branches touch the ground. It only gets a couple of feet tall, but has very dense foliage — dense enough that grasses and weeds do not come through. It blooms in June, with small white star-shaped flowers. The leaves are shaped a bit like maple leaves. Her stephanandra was planted 25 years ago and still looks great — it covers the bed that is over 50 feet long and 4 feet wide.

More than a dozen years ago I planted bulbs for my friend in another part of the property. My goal was for her to have blossoms from March until late May from spring bulbs, and the bulbs are still going strong: first snowdrops in March, followed by crocus, then daffodils. I selected daffies for their bloom time: some early, some mid-season, some that bloom in late May. Like everything at this property, the goal was to have no-labor or low-labor beds, so the beds were well-mulched with chipped bark.

What other plants grow at this garden? She had a steep rocky hillside with gravelly, poor soil. Grass grew on it, but it was impossible to mow. Someone suggested a creeping sumac, and she had it installed. It is variously called skunkbush sumac, creeping three-leafed sumac, or “Autumn Amber.”

The Autumn Amber sumac is a trademarked variety and boasts of ”a profusion of small chartreuse-colored flowers that bloom in delicate clusters before new foliage appears.” In fall the leaves transform into “striking hues of ambers, yellows, oranges and/or reds before dropping for the winter”. I have only seen it once before, even though it is hardy to Zone 4. It is supposed to be very good for tough, hot dry places. It is dense enough that I saw no grass growing through it.

Each year my friend picks a theme for her garden by the kitchen door. This year she focused on birds: metal birds, colorful bird houses, hummingbird feeders. She likes to find flourishes for the plants at yard sales and thrift stores, trying to keep her purchases to under $5.

I asked my friend how she would describe herself as a gardener. “I’m a lazy gardener who doesn’t like to weed. I love color and whimsy and like to repurpose everyday objects.” Nothing wrong with that — it gives her more time to volunteer, and take walks on her woodland trails.

Featured photo: Lofos Red Wine attracts hummingbirds. Courtesy photo.

The art of weeding

What to do when you have a Code Red

When you face a flower bed and can’t immediately tell what’s a weed and what’s a flower, you have a situation my wife, Cindy Heath, calls Code Red. It happens to the best of us at times, myself included. So what does a gardener do?

Cindy likes to begin a weeding project by edging the bed. She has a pair of wooden pegs 12 inches long that anchor a 50-foot piece of twine. She unwinds the twine and stretches it between the two pegs when edging a straight bed. Curved beds have to be edged by eye.

The edging tool Cindy uses is a half moon-shape on a long handle. She pushes it into the earth with a foot, then tips the handle back to create a little moat when she removes the soil and grasses. Edging discourages lawn grass from creeping into the bed.

Next, she said, find the flowers. At this time of year weeds and rambunctious spreaders like forget-me-nots may be taller than some of your perennials. Get close, and paw through the foliage. Pull a few weeds around your perennials so that you can see them, and so that you will avoid stepping on them or inadvertently pulling them.

If you pull a “weed” you don’t recognize but see that there is potting soil in the roots, you know you just pulled a flower you bought. Oops. Get it right back in the soil. If you have an inexperienced gardener helping you, you could flag the plants with bright orange surveyor’s tape.

Cindy said she likes knee pads because she likes to weed on her hands and knees. I personally find them hot and uncomfortable, but you may wish to try some. Me? I like something to kneel on, a foam cushion, or such.

In this season, Cindy says bug spray and a good hat are essential — black flies can be real pests, reducing your willingness to continue. Some gardeners like beekeeper hats to keep black flies off their faces, but I don’t. I spray the top of my hat, which does a pretty good job of repelling biting bugs without getting repellent on my face.

A good hand tool is essential for loosening the soil and teasing out roots. I think I have tried every weeding tool made, and I like the CobraHead weeder best. It is like a steel finger: a single curved tine with a sharp, widened tip. Made in the U.S.A. and with a blue handle made from recycled plastic, it never seems to get dull and lasts forever.

If I have a large clump of grass to remove, I loosen the soil around it, then push the tool into the soil; the curve of the tool allows the blade to get under the clump. Then, pulling from above with one hand and below with my weeder, I can pull the clump right out. It is great for loosening tree roots that have invaded a bed, too.

When should you weed? Whenever you have the time and inclination. I recommend doing a little weeding every day. Sort of like brushing your teeth or washing your coffee cup. Just make it a habit so the weeds don’t get ahead of you.

Clay soils are heavy and sticky when wet, and much like concrete when dry. If you have them, work when they are moist but not soggy. If dry, water moderately with your hose. Keep a bucket of compost with you and mix it in as you go along. Compost will lighten the soil, making it easier to weed or to plant things to fill in the spaces where the weeds were.

Sandy soils can be weeded any time, but I recommend adding compost as you go along. Nice loam is what we all want, and even that can benefit from some compost. I buy a 3-yard dump truck load once a year and it has helped my soil become close to perfect.

But back to Code Red. If you have weeds that spread by root, things like goutweed or witch grass, you may need to “bareroot” the flowers that have been invaded. That means digging up a clump of flowers and washing all the soil off so that you can identify and separate the weed roots from the roots of your perennial flowers. Then replant.

Learn to recognize the roots of your garden flowers. Many invasive weeds have long, whitish roots with nodes along them and can send up new leaves from any of those nodes.

Lastly, after weeding it is advisable to either mulch your bed or install a ground cover that will shade out any weeds that try to establish themselves. If you grow your flowers close enough together, weeding will become a minor chore.

It does take time to establish most ground covers, so you may wish to plant some annual flowers in the spaces between your peonies or phlox. Buy six-packs of common annuals like snapdragons, cosmos and zinnias at your local garden center. Plant them 6 to 8 inches apart, stand back, and let them grow! They will delight you with blossoms for much of the summer and into the fall.

Featured photo: An edging tool helps create clean lines. Photo courtesy of Henry Homeyer.

Gardening with kids

Aim for more fun, less weeding

OK, all you parents and grandparents, it’s time to garden with your beloved little ones. That’s right, start them young, make it fun, and they will garden forever. The key part is fun. Never make a child pull weeds. Digging in the dirt is fun. Playing with a hose or a watering can is fun. Picking flowers and eating cherry tomatoes warm from the sun is lots of fun.

When my grandchildren were small, I created little gardens at my house for them. I used boards to create distinct little beds, one for each. What size? I made them their height by their wingspan — the span of their arms — about 3 1/2 feet square. I actually had them lie on the lawn with their arms out to set the dimensions. That’s good for a giggle.

The boards were just 6 inches wide and were made of ordinary lumber — definitely not of pressure-treated boards, which even now are full of chemicals, albeit not as toxic as those produced when pressure-treated lumber first came out. But remember, they will not be that size long, so you don’t need the beds to last forever.

The simplest way to build a sturdy bed is to cut pieces of two-by-four as long as your boards are wide. Put one in each corner, and use a cordless drill to screw the boards on to them in the corners. Screws that are 2 inches long are fine, and much easier to work with than nails if you are not accustomed to building things. Two screws are needed on each end of the boards to make it sturdy. Work on a flat surface such as your driveway or inside the garage to make work easier. Metal brackets are also available to help make sturdy garden boxes.

Pick a spot for the garden in full sun. That means six hours of sunshine at a minimum, but preferably all-day sun, from morning to late afternoon. Choose a site that is flat, or nearly so. If you are giving the kids garden beds in your garden, be prepared for it to be weedy and messy at times — unless you intend to weed it yourself. Some kids will want to weed, but most won’t. So you may want to place the little gardens somewhere on the back lawn.

If you choose to place the garden box on the lawn, you don’t need to remove the sod. Just cut the grass as short as you can, then cover it with six pages of this newspaper, and fill it up. The soil will kill the lawn. The first year carrots may stop or bend when they hit the bottom of the bed, but after that the soil will loosen up with the action of the microorganisms, and you can grow deep-rooted things without a problem.

What should you use for soil? I like to mix plenty of compost with ordinary garden soil, roughly a 50-50 mix. You can buy bags of compost and topsoil, or raid your compost pile and your garden for soil — you don’t need but a couple of wheelbarrows of soil.

When the bed is first built, your kids may want to just play in the fresh earth. Soil smells good, is pleasant to touch, and is ideal for making little roads for trucks or mounds for castles, just as it’s fun to make sand castles at the beach. I suggest you don’t be too goal-oriented, telling the kids they need to stop now and plant their carrot seeds. Let them see you planting things, both seeds and plants, and they will want to, too.

Ask your children about their favorite vegetables. Have they ever seen a purple or red carrot? Would they like to try growing some? Where do french fries come from? In my experience, planting potatoes is great for all kids — the seed potatoes are a size even the littlest ones can handle, and later on the harvesting is like going fishing and knowing they’ll catch fish. Very exciting.

Maybe take them with you to a garden center. Look at the marigolds, which are already blooming. Encourage them to smell flowers, and if they find something they like? Buy it. I like the idea of kids growing flowers with their veggies, and my grandkids did, too.

Remember, success is important. That means you will have to be attentive to their gardens. Weeding and watering will be your responsibility unless they live nearby and want to do these tasks.

By the way, it’s important to have a few child-sized tools and especially watering cans. Our watering cans are too heavy for them, and a hose can easily blast a tomato seedling from here to Milwaukee.

What if your grandchildren want to grow pumpkins or watermelons? Those vines will quickly exit the mini-garden you have lovingly prepared. Are you willing to let the vines run, making it impossible to mow the lawn there? Perhaps you can convince them to grow something else, and together plant the pumpkins in your vegetable garden.

My maternal grandmother died when I was 7, and my parents sent me to stay with my grandfather that summer to keep him company. Grampy and I had a lot of fun so I went every summer until he died when I was 21. I learned to garden by observing. He never lectured. That’s probably a good recipe for success.

Featured photo: A child’s garden can accomodate planting and playing with toys. Courtesy photo.

A spring in my step

Blooms that make me happy

Spring puts a spring in my step, quite literally. I bounce out of the house in the morning to see what is blooming, and since early March I have never been disappointed. You know the regular cast of characters in early spring: first snowdrops with their tiny white blossoms, then glory-of-the-snow in blue, white or pink, and winter aconite in brilliant yellow — all blossoming near ground level. But there are lots of other plants to consider, especially now, in May.

One of my favorites is a wildflower called bloodroot (named for its irritating red sap when the roots are disturbed). It has white blossoms that stay closed at night or on cold, wet mornings. It has broad light green leaves that can curl around the blossoms like cigars when they first come up. The leaves can serve as a nice groundcover most of the summer.

I also have a double bloodroot. This was given to me by a friend, and it is quite rare. I found one for sale online, but it is quite expensive. It does not produce viable seed because it is a tetraploid, meaning it has double the number of chromosomes that the ordinary one does. But mine has spread by root over the years, allowing me to dig plants to move to new spots. The blossoms look like miniature double peonies, and it stays in bloom longer than the common one.

I grew up in Connecticut, where we had masses of trout lilies blooming in our hardwood forest. The small yellow lily-like blossoms nod and look down. Here I see plenty of them, but few blossoming. I have learned that only once they have two leaves will they blossom, and mostly I see those with just one leaf.

A few years ago I ordered bulbs from K. van Bourgondian bulb company for a hybrid Western trout lily that is much bigger than the wild ones. The hybrid Erythronium‘Pagoda’ has been an amazing success! The leaves are large and each plant produces two to four flowers on each tall stalk. The blossoms are yellow, but much larger than the wild form I grew up with. They are blooming now, but bulbs are shipped in fall.

Lungwort is a perennial flower that starts blooming very early in the season and persists for many weeks. Not only that, the leaves are interesting all summer long: They are a nice green and most varieties are decorated with white spots. The flowers on any given plant may be blue, pink or peach. Often a patch will have flowers of all three colors — even appearing on a single plant. It spreads by root, and some gardeners avoid it, thinking it will take over the garden, but I love it.

Corydalis or fumewort is a delicate flower that blooms for me in lavender or yellow, spreading by seed to serve as a groundcover. I have never heard anyone call it fumewort so I invite you to use its scientific name. It does well in shade or part shade, and tolerates moist soils well. The leaves are finely cut, almost fern-like, and each blossom is small and downward-looking. Some varieties will re-bloom later in the summer.

Our celandine poppies are starting to bloom in shady areas now. These are not true poppies but are in the poppy family. These are native to North America and do well in shade or part shade, exhibiting bright yellow one- to two-inch-wide four-petaled flowers. The leaves stand up about 20 inches and are handsome all summer. Celandine poppies do best in moist, humus-rich soil but will perform even in dry shade, once established. There is a weedy relative that pops up all over in my garden. Celandine poppies will re-bloom if you cut off the stems after flowering.

One of my favorite early summer flowers is the Forget-Me-Not. It is a rambunctious spreader but pulls easily if it gets where you don’t want it. It stands 6 to 12 inches tall and has lovely bright blue, upward-looking flowers less than half an inch across, with yellow and white eyes. It does best in rich, moist soil in either sun or shade, but will bloom in dry shade if it has to.

It is not clear to me whether forget-me-ots are annuals, biennials or perennials. They self-seed readily, and I generally treat them as annuals. They transplant easily and can serve as a groundcover. But I pull them often to plant other things, and more will show up in the general area the next summer. They even appear along the banks of my brook, where they bloom much of the summer.

I love primroses of all sorts, and my dramatic candelabra primroses (Primula japonica) have their own bed under old apple trees. But they will not bloom until June, so right now I make do with early yellow primroses (Primula eliator) that have been blooming for weeks and show no signs of finishing up their bloom cycle. They stay in tidy clumps.

Now starting to bloom are my Primula kisoana, with lovely pink or magenta-colored flowers. They have no common name, unless you call them, as my wife does, “I wanna kiss-ya,” which is not found in books. They spread vigorously by root in shade, either moist or dry. Probably most vigorous in moist, rich soil, they are polite, going around other plants as they spread, not pushing them out of the way.

Visit your local nursery to see what is in bloom now, or ask your friends for divisions. There are lots of great flowers out there blooming now!

Featured photo: Forget-me-not. Courtesy photo.

Insects with benefits

Most species aren’t as bad as you think

It’s spring, and insects are hatching, flying and munching. Contrary to what you may think, most are not a problem for your garden. There are over a million named insect species and many — perhaps most — coevolved with flowering plants. They pollinate our crops and do many wonderful things for us.

One of the most hated insects is the Japanese beetle. These beetles, as the name suggests, are originally from Japan and were first observed in New Jersey in 1916. In just over 100 years they have become omnipresent in the eastern United States. Why? They have very few natural predators — even birds don’t want to eat them.

As larvae these pests generally live in lawns, feeding on grass roots. They are whitish grubs of various sizes but up to an inch long. If you cut open a square foot of lawn with a sharp shovel and peel back the sod, you are likely to see a grub or two. If you count 10 or more in that sample, you have an infestation that will be a problem.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture developed a remedy in the 1940s called milky spore, which is a bacterium that can be suspended in water and sprayed on lawns. It is not a miracle cure and is quite expensive. Not all entomologists believe that milky spore is an effective cure, at least not in New England, where cold winters can kill the bacterium.

Not only that, those darn Japanese beetles fly. So you can treat your lawn with milky spore only to have your neighbor’s beetles fly over the fence to attack your roses. I did talk to an enterprising gardener once who convinced her neighbors to treat, too, and she feels it made a significant reduction in beetle numbers.

What else can you do? There are beneficial nematodes (unsegmented worms) called Hb nematodes that will attack Japanese beetle larvae and are said to be 96 percent effective in eliminating Japanese beetle and rose chafer larvae if applied properly. The best time to apply these nematodes is July and August, when the grubs are feeding in your lawn. If you buy them, follow the directions carefully: They need to be applied to moist lawn at dusk and then watered in. These are live worms, and as such need to be used soon after purchase. They are not generally available at garden centers, but are available online.

What about those Japanese beetle traps? Give them to neighbors you don’t like. They attract lots of beetles but only capture some — so they attract more hungry beetles to your property if you use them. Really, just don’t buy them.

I am a firm believer that the best method of insect control for most bad bugs is hand-picking them and dropping in soapy water. Insects often have several life cycles in a summer, so try to reduce numbers before they reproduce.

Hand-picking works for potato bugs, for example, if you check your plants early in the season, before large numbers have appeared. Look under the leaves: if you see orange egg masses, scrape them off and drown them in soapy water, along with the beetles and larvae. If you grow too many potatoes for hand-picking bugs, try something called “Bt”, another beneficial bacterium. It is readily available at garden centers. It does not act as a contact poison, but sickens the larvae so they stop feeding and don’t reach adulthood.

My insect nemesis is the striped cucumber beetle. It is a small striped beetle that can devour an entire small plant in one night. It eats not only cucumber leaves, but anything in that family including squashes and pumpkins. I do two things to help prevent their destruction: I grow my seedlings in pots until they have three or four leaves so the beetles can’t kill the plant in one night. And I cover my plants with row covers (breathable garden fabric) to physically keep those darn beetles off the leaves. Which is not to say that they can’t come up under the covers through the soil, but the method does help. And when the blossoms come, I’ll have to remove the row covers to allow pollination.

Can you create habitat for beneficial insects? Sure. Don’t manicure every inch of your garden. Leave a few dead branches or decomposing flower stems in piles at the edge of your property. Allow fallen leaves to serve as mulch. Consider putting up a simple structure for solitary wasps (such as those that control those pesky tomato hornworms). They are sold next to the birdhouses at the garden center.

I’m afraid that mosquitoes, black flies and deer ticks have given all insects a bad name, but most are beneficial. They pollinate, serve as food for baby birds, they help to keep vigorous plants and other insects from taking over. And please remember this: If you decide that spraying pesticides is easier than the organic methods described here, know that those same sprays will kill small beneficial insects that you probably never even notice.

Featured photo: Catch Japanese beetles with a milk jug and soapy water. Courtesy photo.

Berry sweet

Now’s the time to buy your strawberry plants

Traditionally, June is the month for eating strawberries. But you can, in fact, grow varieties of strawberries that produce berries all summer, or that produce berries in June and again in the fall. In any case, now is the time to buy your strawberry plants before they are all sold out.

There are three basic types of strawberries: June-bearing strawberries, so-called ever-bearing strawberries, and day-neutral strawberries. Plant June-bearing berries this summer, and you will need to wait until next summer for your first berries (pick off any blossoms this year so they develop good roots). Ever-bearing berries are not really ever-bearing: they will deliver a load of fruit this fall, and again in future years in June and the fall. Day-neutral berries are not affected by day length and are truly ever-bearing. The first year, however, you will not get any June berries.

Strawberries are sold in clumps of bare root plants, usually 25 per bundle. They should be planted when the soil is at least 50 degrees, and when risk of hard frost has passed. A hard frost is one that is colder than 28 degrees and lasts for 12 hours or more.

You can buy plants starting in early May at your local garden center or feed-and-grain store. You can also go online and order from seed companies, but many varieties were already sold out at Fedco Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds when I checked in late April. Nourse Farms in Massachusetts prefers that you order in the fall but still had several varieties available when I checked.

All strawberries like rich, well-drained soil. If you have a heavy clay you will need to make raised beds and add lots of compost. Work the compost in with a fork or shovel to make the soil fluffier. Even average soil needs compost for best results, as does sandy soil. Sandy soil will hold moisture much better if you stir in plenty of compost.

You do not need to create wood-sided beds. Just mound up the soil to create a bed about 3 1/2 feet wide that is 4 to 6 inches taller than your walkways. For 25 plants, a wide bed 20 feet long should do. For day-neutral berries, you can plant two rows of plants 12 to 18 inches apart in a bed. June berries need more space, so plant just one row per bed, and space 18 to 24 inches. But always read the directions that come with the berries and space accordingly. Don’t crowd your plants or they will produce smaller berries.

I recommend the day-neutral berries. They do not require as much work as June-bearing plants, which send out runners that need to be rooted in or pinched off. The day-neutral plants stay in nice tidy clumps. And they produce berries all summer long, starting in the second year. Their berries are smaller than June berries, however.

Assuming you have just average soil, you should work in some minerals and fertilizer in addition to compost before planting the berries. Five pounds of an organic, slow-release fertilizer in a 20-foot-wide row should be adequate. A good organic bagged fertilizer will add the three most necessary minerals — nitrogen for green growth, phosphate for strong roots and good flowering, and potassium for strong cell walls and resistance to drought and cold.

Organic fertilizers also add other nutrients that do not come in a bag of chemical fertilizer, things like calcium, magnesium, sulfur, manganese, chlorine and iron. Organic fertilizers are made from things like seaweed, chicken manure, peanut hulls and cottonseed meal. These break down over time and supply nutrients to your plants.

There are a number of ways of planting your strawberries, but the main thing to focus on is getting good contact with the soil. To plant the berries, I smooth the soil surface, then dig shallow holes with small mounds of soil in the center of each. I spread out the roots over the mound, and then cover the roots with soil and pat it down. It’s important to not cover the crown (the growing point where the leaves begin).

An alternative way is to just cut a slice in the soil with a putty knife and push the roots into that slice with the putty knife. The crown needs to be at the soil surface, and the soil well-patted down. Nourse Farms (noursefarms.com) has a video on how to use that method.

After planting, water well and then water two or three times a week until they are well-established. All berries are high in water content, so don’t let the plants dry out if we have a drought again this summer.

Strawberries hate weeds, so always plant into a weed-free bed. Grasses will compete with your berries, reducing the size and number of your berries. One way to minimize the labor of weeding is to mulch well. I put down four to six sheets of newspaper over the soil between beds and cover it with straw, mulch hay or dry leaves.

Strawberries are a relatively easy crop to grow and will reward you nicely. Most varieties will come back for a few years, but eventually they lose vigor. Still — strawberry shortcake anyone?

Featured photo: Day neutral strawberries first picking. Courtesy photo.

Spring allergy season

Which plants are making you sneeze

If you suffer from spring allergies, this would be a good time to know what plants are affecting your comfort. Right now, many trees are dumping their pollen. Most trees are wind-pollinated and produce lots of pollen. They depend on the wind to move pollen around — and up your nose.

Although some trees and shrubs produce both male and female flowers, many are dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are on separate plants. It is thus to their advantage to produce their (insignificant-looking) flowers and lots of pollen before the leaves get in the way. Which for me is right now. Showy flowers do not necessarily mean that trees like catalpa are low on the aggravation index (they are rated 8 of 10 on the index), but others like magnolias are lower. Both of those are pollinated by insects.

Of the trees, male poplars are among the worst — and in my area, they are just starting to bloom. Other culprits include willows, birches, oaks and some maples, but not all. If you are buying trees, look for trees that have separate male and female plants (as opposed to both on one). Always buy the female specimen if you can, as it is the males that produce the pollen and cause the allergic reactions. Not all plant tags will tell you if the plant is male or female, but good nurseries may know.

Very popular in the landscape industry right now is the Hakuru nashiki willow. It has tri-colored (green, white and pink) leaves in June and is sold either as a multi-stemmed shrub or as a “standard.” Standards are created by grafting branches on the top of a straight, bare-of-branches stem that is generally about 4 feet tall. As far as I know, Hakuru nashiki willows are all female, so they do not create the pollen that a pussy willow produces.

Want a nice pussy willow? Not all are bad for the allergy-prone. It is worth consulting a book like Tom Ogren’s Allergy-Free Gardening that lists trees and flowers species by species (and often with cultivars) with their potential for making you miserable. Ogren’s book lists “Weeping Sally” as a pussy willow with the lowest rating for causing allergies, while the male forms of white willow are among the worst rated. Even so, many of the males are sold as named cultivars for decorative purposes.

Not all pollen is created equal. Each spring I notice all the yellow pollen dropped on my car by pine trees. Pines produce huge amounts of pollen, but it is waxy and not very irritating to your nasal membranes. And it’s heavy, so it doesn’t fly far.

After the trees do their thing, along come the grasses. The seven worst offenders are introduced species of grass, including orchard grass, bluegrasses and timothy grass, which is commonly grown for animal feed. Grasses are wind-pollinated, and their pollen can float long distances. Your lawn should not be a problem so long as you never let the grass get tall enough to blossom. But fungal spores in the lawn can cause allergic reactions and can be stirred up by mowing, so if you get hay fever, you have a good excuse to get your spouse or kid to do the mowing.

Flowers with flashy form generally are not significant allergy-producers. Tulips, delphinium and peonies are obviously trying to get attention. They are the flirts — and insect-pollinated. Others such as hostas are among those least likely to cause an allergic reaction.

According to Lucy Huntington in her book Creating a Low-Allergen Garden, members of the daisy family have flowers that are insect-pollinated, but their pollen is highly allergenic to most sufferers. Chrysanthemums, asters, marigolds and zinnias can bother folks with allergies. I suppose that is particularly the case if you enjoy sniffing their scents. She also suggests avoiding geraniums (Pelargonium hybrids), strawflowers, dahlia hybrids, foxglove, sunflowers, nicotiana and cosmos.

Huntington’s book is full of lists and suggestions for low-allergen plants. Here are some of her suggestions for plants suitable for people with pollen allergies:

Annuals: Snapdragons, petunias, annual phlox, scarlet sage, purple salvia, pansies, bacopa, California poppies, nasturtiums and verbena

Perennials: columbine, astilbe, bellflowers, bleeding heart, delphinium, daylilies, Siberian iris, peonies, oriental poppies, penstemon, garden phlox, Jacob’s ladder, hollyhocks, alliums, globe flower, lady’s mantle, coral bells, catnip, hosta, foamflower and periwinkle.

The good news is this: Pollen is generally released in the morning, and by evening much of it has settled down, so evening should be a better time to garden. And rain knocks the pollen out of the air, so run outside and pull weeds after a nice downpour. You don’t have to cut down the culprits, and wearing a Covid mask will help if pollen is really bugging you!

Featured photo: Catalpa blossoms are showy and insect-pollinated but still can cause hay fever. Courtesy photo.

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