I’ve nearly finished putting the gardens to bed for the winter. As I worked, I actually did go through with my pledge to rip out all those diseased coneflowers and phlox that have been limping along in agony for years. Aster yellows, powdery mildew; I’m as tired of looking at that ick as they are of having it. So they’re out of their misery now, and so am I.
The upside is, I get to buy new plants next spring to take their places. I can live without coneflowers, but I would miss phlox in the garden. So I hunted around for some truly standout mildew-resistant varieties. Below is some information on the ones that got the best reviews from fellow master gardeners and local garden designers.
Phlox Flame™ Series: The naturally dwarf cultivars in the Flame series have outstanding mildew resistance. Available in a wide array of colors, these phlox have an attractive bushy habit that’s nicer looking than that of other phlox varieties. Zones 3 – 8.Read More»
Okay, this is absolutely anecdotal and unscientific, but I’m going to go ahead and say that I think orchids love bathrooms. It must be the humidity from the shower because I’ve grown orchids for years, and they’ve never looked as lush and beautiful as they have since I moved them all to a shelf in the bathroom. Orchids are on my mind right now because it’s the time of year when they are putting out new growth that will soon be blooming and, so far, my fertilizing regimen seems to have paid off.
My orchids didn’t get the best start in life, so it’s no wonder they’ve struggled over the years. Purchased on sale at the grocery store, found abandoned on curbs and plucked from end-of-the-season tables at big-box stores, these orchids are not the Best In Show sort. But, having brought them home, I’ve felt duty-bound to try to do the best by them that I can.
Though they look delicate and elegant to the point of being unreal, it’s honestly not that hard to grow orchids if you pick the right ones and follow a few simple tips. Phalaenopsis, or the moth orchid, are probably the easiest ones to grow. And now that orchids are sold everywhere, it seems, you can find them really easily. When you get home, put your moth orchid in a sunny east, west or shaded south window (perhaps in the bathroom?) out of direct sunlight. Cattleya and Dendrobium orchids are also easy to grow, so check out your plant tags before you buy.
Water when the mix is nearly dry, usually every four to seven days. Fertilizer is the key to getting orchids to rebloom, so be sure to fertilize every week when your orchids are starting to put out new growth as they head into the growing season. Back off to once every other week or even once a month after they’re finished blooming and are ready for a rest. Orchids bloom and rest, bloom and rest, so don’t be alarmed when those beautiful store-bought blooms fade away. Just cut off the spent stalk and keep watering and fertilizing.
You’ll find plenty of orchid fertilizers out there, but any houseplant fertilizer will do. When you feed your orchids, dilute the amount of fertilizer you use to a quarter of what the label recommends. You can always beef up your mixture a bit if you don’t get the growth you should.
Orchids do best in environments with reasonable humidity. So if it’s dry in your house, group your orchid pots on top of a tray filled with pebbles. Keep the water level low enough that the potting mix doesn’t get wet. Or, that’s right, grow them in the bathroom!
We ripped out our lawn over the last few years, and we don’t miss it one bit. Sparse and full of creeping Charlie and other weeds, it was ugly even before our dog Lily peed all over it and killed off spots one by one. I do realize, though, that a lot of people like turf grass and, even if they don’t, they’re not keen on ripping all of it up to put in gardens that they have to care for.
But what to do about all of those weeds? The truth is, if grass gets enough sun and is kept well-watered (about an inch each week); mowed to a slightly higher height of about 3 inches, which helps shade out weeds; and fertilized even once each year, it will grow fairly well and suffer few weed and disease problems. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize the difference these simple things can make, so they hire lawn care services to come and keep their yards looking good.
Having observed these services in action all over my neighborhood, I have to say, the results aren’t so hot. Trucks show up, guys jump out, and they promptly mow the grass right down to the nub. Then, they douse the scalped grass with all kinds of chemicals, including herbicides that usually contain 2,4-D. Popular because it’s cheap and easy to use, 2,4-D was concocted by scientists during World War II. It was one of the components of Agent Orange. And it is effective when it comes to killing things like clover, thistle and creeping Charlie, but it has remained controversial since it was released for public use in 1946.
Though the EPA says there is not enough data to conclude that the herbicide may pose some cancer risk, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified 2,4-D as being a substance that may cause cancer in humans. Studies are divided on both sides with many scientists being of the opinion that 2,4-D may be carcinogenic, particularly in the case of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Even when these chemicals have dried, there is debate about when it is safe to come in contact with grass that has been treated with the herbicide. (You know how often you see those signs warning people and pets to stay off the grass until dry.)Read More»
We have two big, old oak trees in our yard and every fall, up until a few years ago, we would spend our October and early November weekends raking and bagging and raking and bagging until our hands blistered. Then, we would drag all those bags, bursting with leaves, to the curb to be hauled away. Every now and then, I noticed that someone would pull over, load our bags of leaves into their car and drive off. Why in the world would they want our leaves? I wondered. I soon found out.
For gardeners, or anyone with a lawn, really, fallen leaves are nutrient-rich, soil-building treasure—and they’re free! According to Mark Keaton, staff chair for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, fallen leaves contain 50 to 80 percent of the nutrients trees extract from the soil during a growing season. They’re a particularly good source of nitrogen, offering anywhere from 1 to about 2 ½ percent nitrogen as they decompose.
What in the heck does that mean? Okay, figure that if a tree’s leaves offered 2 percent nitrogen it would take 100 pounds of dried leaves per 1,000 square feet to provide 2 pounds of nitrogen.That’s all the nitrogen 1,000 square feet of turf grass should need for a year, and it’s also about the right amount for a garden bed of that size, too.
But that’s not all. Research conducted by Alexander Kowalewski at Michigan State University has shown that using maple and oak leaves as mulch can help control dandelions in Kentucky bluegrass. Seriously! Go here to read that study. Unlike past studies in which leaves may have contained some pesticide residues, researchers at Michigan State used only pesticide-free leaves in their tests. And that reminds me to point out that it’s a good idea to avoid using anything but pesticide-free leaf mulch on gardens where edibles are grown.
The only hitch in this free fertilizer, and possibly weed killer, bonanza is that you need to mulch (which pretty much means shred) the leaves before you spread them on your lawn or garden. Whole leaves tend to mat down and hold moisture, causing mold and rot issues. Maple leaves are among the worst offenders because they’re so flat. Oak leaves are wavier, so they don’t mat down as thickly, which is good. But it’s still better to mulch all of the leaves you want to spread on your lawn or garden. Leaves break down faster when they’re mulched into small pieces, and they need to break down in order to make the nitrogen they offer available in the soil.
You don’t need any sort of fancy machine to mulch leaves. A regular old, cheap lawnmower will do just fine. You can watch this video we made at our house to demonstrate how to mulch leaves with a mower. Or you can just read the instructions I’ve written in the post below.Read More»
It dipped down to 28°F here in Minnesota the other night, so the day before I scrambled to harvest the last of the Sun Gold tomatoes that we’ve enjoyed all summer. I’m telling you, now that I’ve discovered this tasty, hybrid cherry tomato I will definitely plant one every year. And one is all you need because the indeterminate vine grew to nearly 6 feet tall this summer and produced sweet little orange tomatoes from June through, well, two days ago. And if the frost hadn’t hit, it would have just kept right on going.
As someone who is still learning how to grow many types of vegetables, I know how tricky it can be to figure out the best time to harvest in the fall. I’ve learned that you can’t rely on the stated days to maturity because that number can be affected by things like temperature, precipitation and the health and fertility of your soil. Instead, I’m learning which vegetables can tolerate frosts and freezes, as well as how to read the clues plants offer us at harvest time.
Generally, tender vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, snap beans, summer squash and peppers need to be harvested before a frost, which can occur at temps between 32°F and 36°F. But other vegetables like lettuce, spinach chives, carrots and parsnips can tolerate a light frost. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts can tolerate quite a bit of frost, but they should be harvested before a hard freeze—24°F or below. I always associate winter squash and pumpkins with very cold temperatures, so I didn’t realize until recently that those actually need to be harvested before frost arrives because frost can damage their rinds and shorten their storage potential.
I’ve learned that Brussels sprouts actually taste better if you let them experience frost, and this is supposedly true of kale, too, though my own totally unscientific testing suggests otherwise. (It seemed the same.) Broccoli should be harvested while florets are still tight. Carrots can take a frost, and I met a farmer the other night who swears carrots taste better after a light frost. Anybody else think that? And I learned by accident, because I missed it in the garden, that Swiss chard weathers a frost just fine. (Which is kind of too bad because I’m honestly a bit tired of eating chard at this point.)
But getting back to tomatoes, I picked mine green and put them in a big bag to ripen. But had I left them on the vine through the frost, I’ve noticed that some experts say it’s just fine to can frosted tomatoes while others say it is unwise because the frost affects the fruits’ pH level, lowering the acidity needed to make them safe for canning. Who’s right here? I would love to hear your thoughts.