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ButterflyBuddleia

Take time to stop and smell the flowers!

Children can't resist smelling the flowers!

Children can’t resist
smelling the flowers!

Have you ever noticed small children in a flower garden? They tend to immediately bury their little noses into the flowers and smell them.

We adults need to take the time to do the same – and many of us do! Especially when the daylilies are blooming at the nursery, I see so many people, adults and children alike, walking around with the telltale sign of flower sniffing – orange pollen on their nose!

The peonies and iris are blooming in the gardens now and many of these have a wonderful sweet fragrance.

Viburnum carlesii fills the air with its sweet perfume in the spring

Viburnum carlesii fills the air with
its sweet perfume in the spring

When planning a garden, it is important to not only consider form, structure, texture, and color in the flower bed, but also fragrance. Your sense of smell can often bring back pleasant memories of places and times in your past. Whenever I walk past a blooming Viburnum carlesii, I am transported back to my childhood home where a magnificent specimen of these intensely fragrant shrubs grew at the corner of our patio.

What wonderful memories!

What flower fragrances take you back? Roses, lilacs, honeysuckle …
Be sure to incorporate some of those plants into your gardens!

Peony 'Belle Chinoise' has a lovely fragrance

Peony ‘Belle Chinoise’ has
a lovely fragrance

You should plant pockets of fragrant flowers where you will enjoy them the most – near the porch, deck, patio, or poolside. Another good place for a touch of fragrance is along a favorite garden path or beside your sidewalk or driveway. If you place plants with fragrant foliage at the edge of your garden path, the fragrance will be released when you brush against it as you pass by. An interesting idea to keep in mind!

The fragrance of certain flowers is more obvious during various periods of time – when the weather is warm and the air moist, or when the sun goes down and the night bloomers emit their sweetness into the air. I love driving by a patch of wild honeysuckle in the early evening with the windows down – their sweet perfume just wafts into the open windows.
Such a delight!

The beautiful honeysuckle flowers fill the air with sweet summer fragrance

The beautiful honeysuckle flowers fill the air with sweet summer fragrance

Fragrance can be added to the landscape and garden through the use of trees, vines, shrubs, annuals, bulbs, and perennials. There are many fragrant choices in each of these categories.

Some fragrant spring flowers include:

Lilac Sensation

Lilac ‘Sensation’

Trees and Shrubs:

  • Magnolia
  • Calycanthus floridus (Sweet Shrub)
  • flowering quince
  • Daphne
  • Mock Orange
  • Lilac
  • Viburnum
  • Wisteria

Perennials and bulbs:

  • Convallaria majalis (Lily-of-the-Valley)
  • many peonies (like ‘Phillipe Revoire’, ‘Belle Chinoise’, and ‘Le Cygne’)
  • Dianthus
  • Primula
  • many tall bearded iris
  • Jonquils and hyacinths

For summer fragrance, try:

Fragrant flowers of Buddleia attract loads of butterflies

Fragrant flowers of Buddleia
attract loads of butterflies

Shrubs:

  • Buddleia (Butterfly Bush)
  • Clethra (Summersweet Clethera)
  • roses

Vines:

  • Clematis
  • Jasmine
  • honeysuckle
  • moonflower
  • sweet pea

Annual flowers:

  • Snapdragons
  • Cosmos
  • Four O’clocks
  • Nicotiana
  • marigolds
Astilbe bring color as well as fragrance to the shade garden.

Astilbe bring color as well as fragrance
to the shade garden.

Perennials:

  • Astilbe
  • Lilium (oriental lilies)
  • Lavandula (Lavender)
  • Nepeta
  • certain hosta varieties
  • some Monarda and Phlox paniculata hybrids
  • Perovskia (Russian Sage)
  • some daylily varieties
  • Yucca

With the fall comes:

  • Common Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
  • Sweet Autumn Clematis.
Many interesting varieties of lavender are available including a silver edged lavender

Many interesting varieties of
lavender are available including
a silver edged form

Fragrance from Foliage

There are many plants that produce fragrant foliage rather than fragrant flowers but the fragrance is none-the-less intoxicating. Try the many varieties of thyme, lavender, rosemary, basil, the mints, and a host of other herbs. Artemisia, hay-scented fern, sweet woodruff, lemon grass, lemon verbena, heliotrope, and scented geraniums are a few others that will add a pleasant scent to the garden or containers.

And, of course, everyone loves the many fragrant boughs of evergreens that are used at Christmas time to bring a spicy, nostalgic aroma indoors.

Until next time – Don’t forget to stop and smell the flowers!

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A beautiful "Christmas cactus" blooms on my mom's windowsill in early November

Andre talks about it all the time! Plants are a wonderful “bio-air filter”.

With the increase in energy-efficiency in new homes, indoor air pollution is on the rise. Buildings are being sealed tighter to restrict outside air exchange in order to lower heating and cooling costs. While this does reduce energy consumption, the recirculated air can accumulate a host of pollutants which come from everyday products and activities. These pollutants can build up and cause upper respiratory problems and allergic reactions. They’ve even given this a name: “Sick Building Syndrome”.

But don’t worry – green plants can come to your rescue!

Spider plants are great houseplants and efficient "air cleaners"

Spider plants are great houseplants
and efficient “air cleaners”

There is a lot of scientific evidence showing that plants can actually help improve air quality both indoors and outside. Research conducted by NASA has demonstrated that many plants have rather impressive air-cleaning abilities. In general, NASA found that plants that grow under low light conditions and have large leaves are the most effective at removing indoor pollutants. Spider plants, Peperomia, Schefflera, pothos, Dracaena, and Aloe are some of the best “air purifiers”.

So keep a few houseplants around the house. They not only provide beauty to your indoor landscape but they will act as a great natural air filter as well!

Plants with large leaves are good for filtering the air.

Plants with large leaves are good
for filtering the air.

Keep Them Healthy

Maintaining healthy houseplants will help them perform this important “air-cleaning” task most effectively. The easiest way to ensure that your houseplants remain healthy is to understand their preferred growing conditions. There are many different types of indoor plants and each has its own optimal light conditions, water requirements, and temperature and humidity levels. If you provide them with the right conditions, they will reward you with their beauty and some clean, pure air.

Click for specific growing conditions for some common houseplants.

The following are some general tips to promote the health of your houseplants.

Water Them Correctly

Coleus brought inside over the winter will brighten up your home.

Coleus brought inside over the winter
will brighten up your home.

More houseplants are probably killed due to improper watering than anything else! The rate of water loss and thus the need to water your houseplants depends upon temperature, humidity, and light levels as well as the type of plants you have. Thus, it is hard to set a strict watering schedule.

Know the requirements of your plants and use the “touch method” to evaluate soil moisture and the need (or not) to water.

  • Press the tip of your finger down about 1/4” into the soil.
  • A cool, damp feeling indicates there is still adequate moisture in the soil
  • A dry feeling indicates that you should water.

If you have a lot of house plants, you might want to consider getting a watering wand you can use indoors!

Feed Them!

Plants bring a bit of nature indoors.

Plants bring a bit of nature indoors.

Fresh potting soil contains a reservoir of nutrients but as your plants grow, they absorb this “food” and the nutrients eventually need to be replenished with fertilizers. Fertilizer for houseplants comes in many different forms.

  • Dissolving powders are one of the most economical ways to fertilize your houseplants.
  • Fertilizer spikes and slow release fertilizers are even more convenient and easy to use for your potted plants. Bayer Advanced makes plant spikes for indoor and outdoor potted plants that control certain insect pests and also contain a slow-release fertilizer.
  • Liquid fertilizers are also popular and easy to use.

Keep Them Clean

Wipe dust off large shiny leaves with a soft cloth

Wipe dust off large shiny leaves
with a soft cloth

Dust and dirt on leaves block light and reduce photosynthetic activity. This causes decreased vigor and gradual decline in the plants. There are many ways to clean your houseplants.

  • Larger plants can be put directly in the sink or shower and sprayed with water.
  • Smaller and more delicate plants can be turned upside down (use your hands to hold back the soil) and dunked and swirled around in a sink or bucket of water.
  • Always let the leaves dry completely before exposing them to direct sunlight.
  • For a glossier surface, wipe the leaves with a piece of soft cheesecloth

For more information on the air filtering qualities of plants, check out Andre’s favorite book on the subject: How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 House Plants that Purify Your Home or Office by Dr. B.C. Wolverton.

Until next time – have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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Tortoise beetle and larvae

Containers of Coleus, geranium, and herbs along the railing.

Containers of Coleus and geranium,
with herbs in pots along the railing.

We share our deck with lots of containers filled with beautiful plants. They add color and make it a more interesting place to sit and relax! Some of the pots are planted with flowers and foliage plants including some very colorful Coleus and others are planted with herbs that we snip fresh for cooking.

Two of the larger containers are planted with Juliet tomatoes. These miniature “Roma-type” tomatoes are our new favorite small tomato to grow instead of the cherry tomatoes we used to plant. In addition to the two on the deck, we also have two Juliet tomato plants growing in our vegetable garden. A tasty treat to munch on while working in the garden!

Juliet tomato

Juliet tomato

These delicious tomatoes are larger than a typical cherry tomato but bear just as prolifically. Their shape is oblong like a Roma tomato but they are smaller; growing up to 2¼” long and about 1¼” wide. They are meaty little guys and delicious straight off the vine (my favorite way to eat them), in salads, or for use in cooking. Yum!

Juliet is very crack resistant and stays fresh and firm on the vine longer than most cherry tomatoes. They also keep very well once picked but they always produce way more than we can eat fresh.

Juliet tomatoes are deliciously prolific!

Juliet tomatoes are deliciously prolific!

Last year in order to preserve the excess, we simply put them straight into freezer bags and froze them. Just straight off the vine – no processing required. Easy!

Whenever Eric made chili or soup or vegetable stew, he just pulled out a bunch of the frozen Juliet tomatoes, chopped them in thirds, and dropped them right in the pot. The skins can be fished out afterwards (or not) or you can thaw them a bit and slip the skins off before you cut them up. Simple and delicious!

Anyway …

Tomato leaf damage from the tortoise beetle

Tomato leaf damage from
the tortoise beetle

The other day when I went to pick some tomatoes off the plants on the deck, I noticed that several of the leaves were riddled with pretty large, very round holes. I’d never seen damage like this before. I’ve seen holes in leaves but never holes that were quite so uniformly round.

On further inspection, I found a few round, hard-shelled insects on the leaves. At first I thought they were some type of scale insect but when I poked one, it flew a short distance away and landed on another leaf – definitely NOT scale! Then there were some funky stationary ones that I assumed were either larvae or pupae.

Clavate tortoise beetle adult

Clavate tortoise beetle adult

This was a critter I was not familiar with. They didn’t seem to be doing much damage to the plant, just chewing lots of holes in a few of the leaves.

As it turns out, these were clavate tortoise beetles, Plagiometriona clavata. They do look a little like a turtle with a hard shell that covers not only their wings but their head as well. This particular species has a distinctive “teddy bear” shape on the shell.

Apparently these beetles are commonly found on plants in the solenaceous family which includes jimsonweed, nightshade, and also vegetable crops like tomato, pepper, and eggplant. We have four eggplants in a large container on the deck and I also noticed that a few of those leaves had these characteristic, round holes chewed in them. Tortoise beetles are also fond of morning glories which we happen to have planted in containers right beside our pots of Juliet tomatoes. Not surprisingly, many of the morning glory leaves are riddled with little round holes!

Tortoise beetle larva with fecal mass "shield"

Tortoise beetle larva with
fecal mass “shield”

The larvae of this beetle are unusual, too. They have an oval shaped, segmented body that is fringed with white spiny projections. The last segment of their body is modified with a forked projection which collects fecal material. This forked segment with the attached dried fecal mass is held over the body of the larva like a shield. It is thought that this may provide the larvae with some form of protection from predators through either camouflage or possibly as a type of repellent.

All-in-all, this is a very interesting and unique visitor to our plants and definitely not one that I had encountered before.

Always something new to learn in the garden!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Unripe figs grow along a branch

Figs – I’ve never tried growing them but we get numerous calls and e-mail questions about them from people that do. They seem to be quite popular little fruits to grow. Apparently if your only exposure to figs has been Fig Newtons or dried figs, you have been missing out on a real treat by never trying fresh figs.

Fig trees are often found around old homes in the south where they were widely planted.

Fig trees are often found around
old homes in the south where they
were widely planted.

Figs have been grown since ancient times and are actually one of the oldest cultivated crops. They are very easy to grow and relatively disease and pest free. I’m guessing that these attributes plus the bonus of delicious, sweet fruit are the main attractions for growing them.

Most of the fig questions we get are from people who are growing them in colder areas and are wondering either how to protect them over the winter or how to deal with winter dieback in the spring.

The common fig (Ficus carica) is a semi-tropical plant that is winter hardy without protection only as far north as Zone 8. Many varieties can be grown in colder areas if they are provided with winter protection or if they are grown in pots and brought inside during the winter. ‘Brown Turkey’, ‘Hardy Chicago’, and ‘Celeste’ are a few of the most cold hardy cultivars and these normally do well in Zone 6 and 7 if they are planted in a sheltered location and provided with some type of winter protection once the leaves drop in the fall.

This fig tree growing in the Shenandoah Valley produces fruit in most years without protection because of its sheltered location.

This fig tree growing in the
Shenandoah Valley bears fruit
most years without protection because
of its sheltered location.

Fig trees grow and produce best when they are provided with lots of sun and moist but well-drained soil. Feed them with a good organic fertilizer like Espoma Holly-tone in the spring and fall. Although they are fairly drought tolerant, they should be watered during dry periods in the summer. They really aren’t too fussy. The main thing is to plant them in a protected spot in colder regions.

In general, a southern or western exposure is best. A really good sheltered location would be along a south facing wall because this not only provides a windbreak but it can absorb heat during the day (especially a brick wall) and radiate it back at night protecting the plants from temperature extremes.

Here’s something else to think about when contemplating a good planting spot for figs and other plants that are prone to winter damage:

In winter, a southern exposure usually becomes shaded by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. This shade causes the air temperature to decrease gradually through the afternoon and evening.

In contrast, an area with a southwestern exposure normally receives no afternoon shade and therefore, when the sun sets, the temperature drop is radical and fast. In this situation, winter injury of plants is more likely to occur (especially with evergreens).

These figs will turn soft and brownish when ripe

These figs will turn soft and
brownish purple when ripe

When they are planted outside in Zones 6 and 7, they need to be protected in some way during the winter. One of the best ways to do this is to surround the tree with black roofing paper and carefully pack straw or oak leaves inside around the branches and stems. Use stakes to hold the cylinder of roofing paper in place. The black roofing paper will not only provide a wind screen, but it also absorbs heat from the sun and keeps the fig warmer in the winter. You can also create an enclosure with wire fencing surrounded with burlap but this won’t absorb heat the way the roofing paper does. It may be necessary to tip back some of the branches to make the tree easier to cover and if the fig is very wide, you can carefully draw the branches together with twine before making your enclosure.

The other option for growing figs in areas where they are not winter hardy is to grow them outside in a pot during the summer and move them inside for the winter. In this case, you might want to choose one of the dwarf varieties like ‘Petite Negri’, although ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘Celeste’ also do well in containers and they normally stay under 10′ tall. Plus, they can always be pruned to keep them at a manageable height.

Always prune to an outward facing bud

Always prune to an outward facing bud

Ideally, figs should be pruned in the late winter when they are dormant. Thinning out the center of the tree to allow more light penetration is important. Remove dead, damaged and diseased branches, crossing branches, weak branches, and those that are growing straight up (water sprouts) on the main branches first then, if necessary, cut back the remaining branches to a height that will allow easy harvest of the fruit.

In colder areas, dieback in the winter is very common and once they break into growth, you may find that more pruning is needed to remove this dead wood. Damaged branches should be pruned back to healthy tissue. You can identify healthy tissue because it will bleed some white sap and the tissue under the bark will be green. Cut the branch just above an outward facing bud.

Ripe figs will be soft and will droop on the branches

Ripe figs will be soft and will
droop on the branches

Figs generally produce fruit on both old wood (an early summer crop) and new wood (a late summer crop). It is important to avoid any major summer pruning as this will limit your late summer fig crop. In colder climates, the early crop may be lost if buds freeze over the winter.

Well, there is your short course on growing figs. It might be a fun project to try next spring. Figs are one of the quickest bearing fruit trees, often producing fruit the very first year after planting.

As for figgy pudding, I’ve had traditional English figgy pudding once. It has a unique flavor to say the least!

Not saying I didn’t enjoy it but I prefer pumpkin pie!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Ever go to water your houseplants and see a cloud of tiny black flies skimming over the surface of the potting soil? These pesky critters are probably fungus gnats.

Fungus gnat adult. David Cappaert, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

Fungus gnat adult.

Fungus gnats are common pests of indoor plants. They are not only annoying but they can damage to your houseplants, vegetable seedlings, and greenhouse plants.

Fungus gnats are small flying insects that look sort of like mosquitoes but they don’t bite. In fact, adult fungus gnats live only about 7-10 days and do not feed. It is the immature larval form that can cause damage to your plants.

Fungus gnat larvae are slender maggots that thrive in moist potting media. They feed on organic matter in the soil such as decaying plant material and fungi but may also consume the fine root hairs that absorb water and nutrients to feed your plants. When these tiny root hairs are destroyed, it is harder for the plants to absorb water and they may become wilted. Fungus gnat larvae sometimes feed on the main plant roots as well and can eventually make their way into the stem causing small plants to fall over at the soil level. Young plants and seedlings are especially susceptible to damage from hungry fungus gnat larvae.

Fungus gnat larvae feeding on the roots of a greenhouse plant. David Cappaert, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

Fungus gnat larvae feeding on the roots of a greenhouse plant.
David Cappaert, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

The life cycle of the fungus gnat from egg to adult fly is normally completed in about 4 weeks. Unfortunately, the larval stage, which causes the most damage, makes up the majority of the life cycle, lasting between 12 and 14 days.

Outbreaks of fungus gnats often occur indoors during the winter months. They can be introduced when tropicals and houseplants that have been growing outside all summer are brought inside for the winter (fungus gnats are not just indoor plant pests). Eggs and larvae may already be in the soil and will continue to develop in the warmth of your home.

Fungus gnat larvae with their characteristic black head

Fungus gnat larvae with their
characteristic black head

One of the best ways to prevent an outbreak of these pesky gnats is to avoid overwatering your plants. The larvae thrive in moist soil that is rich in organic matter – they cannot survive in dry soil. Allowing the top few inches of the soil to dry out between waterings will not only destroy existing larvae but will make your pots much less attractive to adult gnats looking to lay eggs.

It is important to alter your watering practices during the winter. Generally indoor plants enter a period of reduced growth during the winter and thus require less water. If you continue to water them according to your summer schedule, you will probably end up overwatering. Overly wet soil not only increases the likelihood of fungus gnat outbreaks, it also promotes disease problems.

In general, water your plants when the top inch or so of the soil has dried out and be sure to dump any standing water from pot saucers.

Melon seedlings destroyed by fungus gnats.

Melon seedlings destroyed by fungus
gnats feeding on roots and stems.

February and March is the time when many of us are beginning to think about starting vegetable and annual seeds indoors. Because young seedlings are particularly susceptible to damage and even death from fungus gnats, we must be particularly careful to guard against an outbreak. Always use a fresh, good quality potting mix when you start your seeds and be careful not to overwater the seedlings once the seeds germinate. This will also help to prevent fungal diseases that cause damping off of seedlings.

Oops – too late!

I already have an infestation! What can I do?

Adult fungus gnat rests on the edge of a flat of seedlings.

An adult fungus gnat rests on
the edge of a flat of seedlings.

The trick to controlling an outbreak of fungus gnats is to disrupt their life cycle. If you destroy the eggs and larvae, you will be well on your way to eradicating the problem. You can do this by following the same cultural practices as you would to prevent an outbreak. Since the eggs and larvae are generally found in the upper two inches of the soil and both stages require moist conditions for survival, let the top few inches of the soil dry out before you water. This should help kill most of the eggs and larvae.

Another trick is to spread about ½” of sand over the surface of the potting soil. This not only discourages the adult fungus gnats from laying eggs, it also traps new emerging adults in the soil because they are not able to crawl out through the sand.

Yellow sticky cards are used to trap fungus gnats

Yellow sticky cards are used
to trap fungus gnats

Yellow sticky cards can be used to trap the adult fungus gnats. These are effective but are used more often in a greenhouse situation than in the home because they aren’t very attractive – especially when they become covered with dead gnats!

For biological control, the naturally occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis subspecies israelensis (Bti) can be added to the soil as a drench. This bacterium is a different strain than the B. thuringiensis kurstaki strain (Btk) that is used for the control of foliage feeding caterpillars. Bti is used for the control of mosquito larvae in standing water in addition to its use as a soil drench for killing fungus gnat larvae. It is important to choose the correct strain of Bt and to read and follow the label instructions!

Chemical control is usually not warranted for fungus gnats unless the solutions mentioned above fail to control them. Bonide Systemic Houseplant Insect Control is listed for the control of fungus gnat larvae when used according to the label directions.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Mealybugs on the underside of a basil leaf

I just noticed that the leaves of my Schefflera are sticky and so is the floor under the plant. What is going on?”

“Some of the leaves on my jade plant are covered with a black sooty film and the table it is sitting on is becoming sticky. Help!”

We get questions like these all the time – especially in the winter when many gardeners turn to indoor plants to satisfy their gardening itch. There are so many types of beautiful houseplants but they come with their own set of horticultural issues just like the outdoor plants do. Sometimes it’s environmental – low humidity causing brown edges or not enough light; sometimes it’s a watering issue – too much water or not enough; and sometimes it’s insect or disease problems.

Yellow stippling on leaves indicates damage from a sucking insect - in this case scale.

Yellow stippling on leaves indicates
damage from a sucking insect – in this
case Euonymus scale.

Sticky leaves, sooty mold, and discolored or misshapen foliage are all signs that some type of piercing and sucking insect like aphids, mealybugs, or scale is present on the plant. These insects have specialized, tubular mouth parts that penetrate the plant tissue and suck out the juices. Definitely not healthy for the plants! As they feed, they excrete a sugary liquid called honeydew that drips onto the foliage causing it to become sticky. Sometimes, with a heavier infestation, the honeydew can drip onto the ground under the plant. This happened to us once with a large Schefflera that was in our sunroom. When I walked near the plant, I discovered that the tile floor was very tacky. It turns out that the plant was infested with scale insects.

Mealybugs on the underside of a basil leaf.

Mealybugs on the underside of a leaf.

Mealybugs which are closely related to scale insects are one of the more common houseplant pests. These are slow-moving, soft-bodied insects that attack a wide variety of plants both indoors and out. They have flattened oval bodies that are usually covered with a waxy coating which gives them a white or grayish appearance. They look a little like the pillbugs (roly polies) that you find outdoors under logs except that they don’t roll up into a ball when you disturb them. Like most piercing, sucking insects, mealybugs are usually found on the underside of the leaves or on the stems of plants.

Sooty mold on laurel - Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Sooty mold on California laurel

Their feeding can cause yellowing of the foliage, premature leaf drop, stunted growth, and if not controlled could eventually lead to the death of the plant. In addition, the honeydew they secrete provides the perfect growing medium for sooty mold, a black fungus that can spread over the leaves. A heavy coating of sooty mold can inhibit photosynthesis and further weaken the plant.

Female mealybugs lay large numbers of eggs which are often encased in a loose, waxy egg sac that resembles a cotton ball.

Adult mealybug and cottony egg case.

Adult female mealybug and egg case.

These egg cases are usually found on the stems and on the underside of leaves. When they first hatch, young mealybug nymphs (crawlers) move around actively and are likely to move from plant to plant. The adult females, while still mobile, are not nearly as active as the early nymphal stages.

Adult male mealybugs do not feed at all. Their sole purpose is to mate with the females and they survive only a day or two.

Mealybugs and cottony egg masses are easily seen on the underside of a leaf

Mealybugs and cottony egg masses are
easily seen on the underside of a leaf

Mealybugs and many other houseplant pests are sometimes inadvertently brought into the home when an infested plant is purchased. Because of this, it is very important to examine houseplants carefully for any sign of insect activity before you buy them. Look under the leaves and along the stem. Many insects, especially scale, are difficult to see because they really blend in with the plant. Mealybugs will hide in cracks and crevices along the stem and foliage but most of the time they are fairly visible upon inspection.

In spite of their soft-bodied appearance, mealybugs can be surprisingly hard to control because of their protective waxy covering and also their tendency to hide in places that are hard to reach with a spray.  If you find mealybugs on your houseplants, there are several products that you can try.

If there are just a few mealybugs on your houseplant, you can dab each one with a cotton swab soaked in rubbing alcohol. This will kill them right away. Be sure to keep checking on a daily basis for ones you may have missed.

If you have a heavier infestation, horticultural oil such as Bonide All Seasons Oil or PureSpray Green or an insecticidal soap will help control them if you can coat the insects with the spray. These products will also help control other houseplant pests such as scale, aphids, and whitefly. It is important to spray the underside of all the leaves.

Another good choice is Bayer Advanced 2-In-1 Insect Control plus Fertilizer Plant Spikes. These plant spikes contain a systemic insecticide that is taken up by the roots and transported to the stems and leaves. When insects feed on the plants, they ingest the pesticide and are killed. These plant spikes can only be used for ornamental houseplants – never on edibles.

Always read and follow the label directions when using any pesticides!

Enjoy your houseplants this winter! Here are more tips to keep them healthy!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Tomato seedlings under the lights

Where did spring go?

Eric and I spent most of Saturday and Sunday in the vegetable garden getting it ready for the coming planting season. Eric cut down two cedar trees that were shading one end of the garden while I tilled the area for the tomatoes and cukes and set the trellises.

Our six trellises are set and ready to plant. We're just waiting for warmer nights.

Our 6 trellises are set and ready to plant.
We’re just waiting for warmer nights.

The weekend was warm and beautiful but the nights have become cool again – too cool really for putting out tomato plants especially since our last frost date here is May 15th. The warm days made it very tempting to plant but when I thought of all the time that went into growing my beautiful, healthy tomato plants that temptation waned pretty quickly. It would cost a small fortune to replace the plants (I have over 50 plants) if we happened to get a late frost and many of the heirloom varieties I grew could not be replaced from a store anyway. So they remain on the deck in our cold frame which gets covered at night if the temperature is forecast to go below 50oF. Now I heard it is supposed to dip into the 30’s Monday night! Gosh, I might have to bring them indoors! Well at least they’ll be nicely hardened off when planting time comes, so we’ll be able to pop them right in the ground.

Beautiful strong tomatoes. This was taken 2 weeks ago. They are twice this size now!

My beautiful tomato seedlings 2 weeks
ago. They are twice this size now!

I have prepared a wonderful, fluffy soil for the tomatoes. The bed is tilled nice and deep thanks to my good old tiller and I have amended the soil with Espoma Tomato-tone, rock phosphate, and some of the good Blue Ridge Organics Super Compost. Tomato-tone is a great organic fertilizer for tomatoes because it has added calcium which helps prevent blossom end rot.

I have decided that my experiment of starting my tomato and pepper seeds in the Blue Ridge Organics compost was a success. They grew really well. In fact, they grew so well and so fast that I now realize that I should not have started them so soon. I didn’t expect them to take off like they did – it’s never happened before. That’s one of the reasons I was tempted to plant them last weekend plus the fact that I won’t be home to plant this weekend or next weekend.

Lettuce growing on the deck

The lettuce hits the top of the cage now!

The lettuce that I seeded in the cells grew really well, too. About 5 weeks ago, we separated the seedlings in each cell and planted them out into two of our large square containers on the deck. We put cages around them to keep the pesky squirrels out and covered them with row cover for a few days since they weren’t hardened off. They thrived in these containers which I also spiked with Blue Ridge Organics compost. I love this stuff! We have been eating fresh lettuce in salads now for almost 3 weeks.

The lettuce containers were covered with row cover until they became hardened off.

The lettuce containers were covered with row cover for a
few days until the plants were hardened off.

Delicious lettuce mix

Delicious lettuce mix

When I harvest, I use a knife to cut the lettuce about an inch above the soil level. This way the lettuce is so clean, I don’t even have to wash it. It also leaves the lettuce crown and roots intact to continue producing more lettuce. Fresh leaves are already growing on these plants and soon I’ll be able to harvest from them again.

Now that I think about it, it doesn’t really matter that I will be away this weekend because it will be way to wet to work in the garden anyway. We’ve just had at least 3.5″ of rain with this weather system that has been sitting and spinning over much of the mid-Atlantic for the past three days and more rain is in the forecast. I’m concerned that the carrot and beet seeds that I planted on Sunday may have washed away or at a minimum become shifted in the beds so that my all my careful spacing of those tiny carrot seeds might now be all for naught! Bummer, I hate thinning (and replanting)!

We covered the broccoli bed with row cover pinned to the ground to protect them from nasty green caterpillars.

We covered the broccoli bed with row
cover pinned to the ground to protect
them from nasty green caterpillars.

Here’s one last piece of advice – if you’ve had any where near the amount of rain that we’ve just had, don’t be tempted to go out and work in your garden! Working the soil or even walking on it when it is wet is a really bad thing to do. It destroys the soil structure by compressing the soil particles tightly together so that the pore spaces that hold air and water are lost. It can quickly turn good soil into something akin to concrete. Wait until the soil has had a chance to dry before returning to your tilling and planting. You’ll know the soil is okay to work when a handful of soil squeezed into a ball breaks apart when you tap on it.

Be patient! Soil structure, once ruined, takes a long time to rebuild.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Carrots harvested in January

This past summer I decided to set up a small raised garden planter on our deck to try and grow a few vegetables. It was just an experiment because I wasn’t sure if the deck got enough sun.

I had a raised bed kit from Scotts Miracle-Gro that I thought would be perfect for the test. This kit included 3 modular units that you could set up in various ways; from 3 side-by-side units to a stack of 3 to make a really deep bed. Each unit was 2 feet by 2 feet and 6 inches deep.

I decided to grow carrots and beets because I figured that if I filled the beds with some nice loose potting soil, I could get beautiful root crops – plus we really like beets and carrots! For this purpose, I set up one bed that was 2 units deep (12″) for the carrots and another right beside it that was one unit deep for the beets. It seemed like the perfect setup.

The setup with the wire cages to protect the plants from the critters.

The setup with wire cages to protect the plants from the critters.

Since we were setting this up on the deck and the units didn’t have a solid bottom, we wanted to do something so that the soil wouldn’t be sitting directly on the wooden deck. To accomplish this, Eric cut 2 pieces of plywood that were slightly smaller than the inside dimensions of the unit and those became the bottoms of the 2 beds. We set the plywood on low wooden blocks so that it wasn’t sitting directly on the deck.

The kit came with squares of landscape fabric which we placed on top of the plywood and up the sides of the units to keep the soil from spilling out at the bottom. It actually took quite a bit of potting mix to fill these beds but I felt that if it worked, the soil would last a few years.

Since this whole project was an experiment, I decided to try using seed tape for planting the carrots rather than sowing the seeds directly. Carrot seeds are so tiny and, as hard as I try not to, I always sow them way too thickly. I thought this would reduce the amount of thinning – I hate throwing baby plants away! I did plant some ‘Cosmic Purple’ carrot seeds and another variety of short carrots (I can’t remember the variety) between the rows of seed tape.

Three lines of drip irrigation were placed in each bed

Three lines of drip irrigation placed in each bed kept the plants evenly watered.

In the single bed, I planted beets; 2 rows of golden beets and 2 rows of Detroit beets. I figured they didn’t need as much soil depth as the carrots. We really love beets and were hoping to get a bunch from this planting.

After the beds were set up and planted, Eric added drip irrigation to keep the plants watered as they grew. All the containers on our deck are connected to a drip irrigation system that Eric set up many years ago. It’s great; the system is on a timer which is set to water the containers once every three days. He did this after we lost all our hanging baskets one summer while we were away on vacation. It keeps all the deck plantings thriving throughout the summer and keeps the bird bath full!

These golden beets never really took off

The beets never really took off

Anyway, most of my seeds germinated but the plants never seemed to flourish. It could have been the soil but more likely it was the light conditions. The deck faces almost due west but because of the large pines and a beautiful hickory tree, it gets dappled sun most of the afternoon and full sun only after about 6pm.

The other problem was that early on when the plants were still pretty small, the squirrels (or something else) started digging in the beds. They weren’t actually eating the plants but they were definitely disturbing the soil so Eric built a wire enclosure with a lid to protect them.

The plants continued to grow slowly all summer but like I said, they never thrived. I let them go through the fall and every once in a while I would think about checking them to see if there was anything to harvest but I never did. The tops remained green through December with no protection from the cold but I still didn’t check them. I could see that the beets hadn’t done much so I assumed that the carrots hadn’t either.

Two Nantes Half Long carrots freshly harvested January 12th!

Two Nantes Half Long carrots freshly harvested January 12th!

Experiment failed – or so I thought.

Last weekend when the weather turned so unseasonably warm, I opened the sliding doors on the deck to let in some fresh air. That’s when I FINALLY got curious enough to check the carrots. I pulled up one of the plants with the “biggest” small top and to my surprise there was a beautiful, firm, and perfectly shaped Nantes Half Long carrot. I pulled up some more and found a variety of sizes but most were very beautiful and nicely shaped.

What a great surprise!

How did they taste? Amazingly delicious – so crisp, so tender, and so sweet! Yum!

A few of the little short variety

A few of the little short ones

The cold temperatures have made them nice and sweet. And there are still many more to harvest!

My experiment was a success for the carrots but not for the beets. I think I’ll try again next year but this time I am going to dig out about half the soil and replace it with some Blue Ridge Organics “Super Compost”. I’ve been told that this amazing compost mix grows fantastic vegetables (and flowers). I’ll be sure to let you know!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Sam's colorful container garden

Yesterday afternoon, Sam Harris of Sam Harris Designs came to the nursery to do a workshop on container gardening. It was really fun to listen to him and watch as he created the most amazing “garden” in the giant urn that has become one of the focal points in the Viette Garden Center.

Sam combines perennials like this bright pink ice plant, Sedum 'Angelina', daylilies, and even a colorful Caryopteris 'Hint of Gold' with annuals.

Sam combines perennials like this bright pink ice plant, Sedum 'Angelina', Salvia, daylilies, and even a colorful Caryopteris 'Hint of Gold' with pink petunias and 'Diamond Frost' Euphorbia.

It’s not just that he created an incredible, show-stopping masterpiece, it’s how he went about doing it and what he put in it! I was astonished that about 60-70% of the plants he used were perennials. I have never really thought about putting perennials in my containers but then I really just have small hanging baskets off my deck.

Sam prefers to design giant container gardens in great big pots or huge cement urns like the one in our garden center. “If I’m going to create a container garden, I want it to be seen – not just close up but I want it to WOW people from a distance!” And that’s what he does. Sam has designed beautiful gardens and containers for many businesses as well as both private and public homes including the Gillette Garden at the Executive Mansion in Richmond.

Good soil prep and good drainage are key to a successful container garden.

Good soil prep and good drainage are key to a successful container garden.

The secret to a successful container garden, according to Sam, is good soil preparation. For the planting medium, he prefers to use a mixture of pine fines (finely ground pine bark) and a quality potting mix like Scotts Miracle-Gro Potting Mix, Espoma Organic Potting Mix, or ASB Greenworld Container Mix. After planting, he always gives the plants a shot of Miracle-Gro Quick Start to give them a boost and to prevent transplant shock.

Perhaps just as important as a good soil mix is the presence of a drain hole in the container. Nothing kills (most) plants quicker than waterlogged soil! Before filling your container, place a piece of nylon window screening or landscape fabric over the drain hole. This keeps it from becoming clogged with soil. Sam actually likes to use a plastic pasta strainer or even a sink strainer over the drain hole in his containers. On top of this he recommends layering some lava rocks and then some pine bark nuggets to provide additional drainage. After this, fill your container with your potting mix and you’re ready to roll.

Now comes the fun part – choosing the plants!

With an artful eye, Sam placed perennials and annuals in the urn, dividing some of the low-growing sedums into pieces and tucking them in around the edges.

With an artful eye, Sam placed perennials and annuals into the urn, dividing some of the low-growing sedums into pieces and tucking them in around the edges.

As I mentioned, Sam bustled around our garden center benches picking up various perennials; Achillea, Coreopsis, Dianthus, daylilies, Sedum, Leucanthemum, Salvia, and more. He explained that some perennials like the daylilies make a wonderful show for a while but once they finish blooming, “I just pop them out and stick them in one of my perennial gardens and then next year, it will bloom in the garden and I still have my investment – just in a different place. Sometimes I even sink the pot and all in my urn and then switching out the plants is even easier.” In place of the plants he pulls out, he sticks in a new, fresh perennial or annual – whatever strikes his fancy at the time!

The end result

The beautiful container garden will grow over the next several weeks, becoming fuller and spilling over the edges.

What a great idea – recycling plants from a container garden to the perennial garden. This can be done with all the perennials in the container at the end of the season! Some of the smaller perennials like the Dianthus and the colorful ground-hugging Sedum ‘Angelina’ will provide color and texture all season long with their beautiful foliage and will easily overwinter in the urn.

For season-long bloom, Sam tucked in various annuals here and there; some colorful petunias, Verbena, Scaevola, Lantana, Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ and others.

The whole effect was spectacular and will only become more amazing as time goes on. I can’t wait to see how it changes over the next few weeks!

I’ll keep you posted!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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