Thursday, September 28, 2006

More Gifts for the Gardener on your Holiday List

By Christina VanGinkel

Last December, I shared with you a short list of ideas suitable for the gardener on your holiday shopping list. With the holidays once again coming around, I thought it only prudent that this year I gather a list to share with you a bit earlier in the season. This way, you have a better chance of finding those hard to find items that you would really love to give, all while there are still store shelves stocked with all the great ideas your gardener could both use and appreciate when they find them tucked under the tree or stuffed into a stocking. If you love to garden yourself, you might even find a few gifts in the list that you will want all for yourself, so be sure to shop early for the best selection of all these fine ideas.

Solar Lights

Solar Lights can be a great gift, as they not only allow the gardener on your list the opportunity to enjoy their gardens longer into the evening, there are no more additional costs involved with them such as high electric bills.

Mini Greenhouse

A mini greenhouse would be the ideal gift for either a beginning gardener or an older gardener who can no longer garden large scale but would still love to participate even if it is to a much smaller extent than they are use to.

Fancy Bulbs, Hand Tools, Gardening Gloves

An assortment of bulbs that they can plant in the spring of a variety that they would want, but have avoided due to cost. This same holds true for those fancy pair of gardening gloves, or that deluxe set of hand tools. Fancy, but a bit costly. These could be a perfect gift for that gardener who loves nice things but is so unwilling to spend any money where they themselves are concerned, even for things that will enhance such a loved hobby.

Coffee Table Books about Flowers

Big, beautiful coffee table book of flowers to keep the color going even when their garden is buried beneath several feet of snow! Some titles that are sure to bring smiles to their face as they open the pages Christmas morning could include R is for Rose by Carolyn Parker, or the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Orchids, edited by Alec Pridgeon, and with a foreword by Alasdair Morrison.

Garden Themed Gift Basket

A basket filled with note cards, seed packets, jarred gifts of food from your own garden, hand towels with a garden theme stitched across the fronts, kneepads, small thermometer, butterfly house, and other small garden themed gifts. Tucked together in a little basket, this would make a great gift to help your favorite gardener while away the hours of winter until the first thaw of spring when they can get outdoors once again.

Nature Journal

Give the gift of journaling to your favorite gardener during the holidays. When snow is piling up high, or the temperatures are just to cool to be out in the dirt, they can put pen to page to make note of all their ideas for once spring has arrived. If your gardener is of a serious nature, choose a sophisticated journal that is both helpful and has room to spare for their own notes. One such journal that is full of both is The Successful Gardening Journal: A Seasonal Diary for Your Garden is published by the Reader's Digest Association Inc. For the more freethinking gardener, a handcrafted journal made from an 8" x 8" scrapbook with an assortment of lined, flower, and nature themed papers would be a splendid gift.

Personal Gift Set

Various companies promote soap and creams for the outdoor enthusiast with a few even targeting the dirt and grime that accompanies being a gardener. One of my favorite such companies that also makes an impressive gift set of the products they make is Burt's Bees. They have a Gardener's Tote, which includes Burt's very own Hand Salve, Lemon Butter Cuticle Creme, Dr. Burt's Res-Q-Ointment, and Beeswax Lip Balm. Be prepared to have your favorite gardener ask you to replace all of these fine items as they use them up though, because they work wonderfully at keeping skin and lips protected and clean from the rugged outdoor work of digging in the garden under the hot summer sun.

Buck Garden

Last summer, I planted a garden in buckets. It wasn't really in buckets, though. It was really in window boxes. I only call it a buck garden because my great grandmother used to plant garden plants in big huge multi-gallon buckets outside her house. So I affectionately called my garden a bucket garden, even though it was not in buckets. When I told my mom this, she thought it was great. She had remembered going to her grandmother's farm and seeing her grandma's bucket garden. She also remembered the great food that came from these buckets! So I hoped that my window box garden would be just as good!

I got about thirteen of these huge window boxes from Wal-Mart and about that many bags of potting soil. I thought that food plants would grow great in potting soil, and planting my garden in buckets would ensure that there would be fewer weeds and less animals and bugs to eat my pants than if I planted it in the soil behind my house. The window boxes cost quite a bit more than buckets would have, but I thought that it would be a good investment, because I would be able to plant rows of things and I would also be able to use these window boxes year after year in order to make great gardens where I lived. So I went ahead and bought them, even though they cost a little bit of money. My mom had offered me a bunch of buckets to use, but I decided to try the window boxes and see what I could get from them.

Next, I bought seeds. I wasn't sure what kind of plants would grow in window-boxes, so I got a little bit of everything. I didn't want to be disappointed with no food whatsoever, but I also didn't want to not know what worked for next year. I wanted this past summer to be a practice, and a trial run, to see what kinds of things would grow the best in my "buckets". I got every type of seed that I would have wanted to plant in my real garden, and I also bought a bunch of actual plants to help me along. I purchased quite a few tomato plants and pepper plants, as well as plants for the bigger things, cucumbers and zucchinis.

I planted one type of seed in each window box, in rows and left them on the sidewalk in front of our house. I made sure to take out the plugs in the bottom of the window boxes, so that the water would drain out of the soil eventually and I wouldn't flood out my fruits and veggies. I lined them up so that they were neat looking in front of the house, and also so that they were accessible from the garden hose.

I watered them religiously every single day, and I was sure to properly weed them and thin them as the plants came up. I was very diligent, and I worked hard to make sure that I was going to have a good harvest! I had to water my plants multiple times a day during this past summer, because it got very hot where I live. So, I watered them and I weeded them, and I waited for my plants to come up! It was easy to do, because they were in plain site, and I didn't have to go into the backyard, or get down on my hands and knees in the dirt. My whole garden was right there next to my flowerbeds, and it worked out wonderfully!

Everything came up, I'm proud to say. I didn't have any seeds that didn't make plants. In fact, because I had used a whole package of seeds in each window box, I ended up with a LOT of plants. I had to thin them out in order to see if I would get any fruits and veggies. But there was where my problem was.

I did have a problem with the plants making food. For some reason, I didn't get a single bean or pea at all, even thought I had multiple window boxes full of healthy bean and pea plants. They just never made food, and I still don't know why. I don't know if the root structure wasn't deep enough, of if being isolated from other types of plants made it so that food wouldn't grow on the plants... I just don't know. Perhaps I didn't thin out the rows enough, and they were crowded. However, it just happened that I didn't get any beans or peas. So I probably won't try those again next year! Maybe I can figure out why, and make a change, but if not, well, at least I tried!

I did get lots of carrots and onions, but the window boxes weren't very deep, so they were tiny. I was able to eat them and enjoy them, but they weren't very big! There simply wasn't enough soil for them to get as big as they would have in the ground. Next summer I will get deeper window boxes and make sure that I put the seeds closer to the top. This will ensure that I get bigger foods! I will also put more soil in next year, because I kind of skimped on the soil this year. So I will fill them fuller and put the seeds closer to the top on the plants that have to grow down!

The things that grew best were my tomatoes and my peppers. These plants yielded multiple fruits during the summer. I had so many tomatoes that I didn't know what to do with them. I'm not really good at canning, so a few of them even went to waste. I was able to give lots of tomatoes to people and share my peppers with them, and my hot peppers really got hot! I really succeeded as far as tomatoes and peppers went.

But it was a good thing to grow my own food and be able to eat it. That was the most important thing that I learned a lot about this summer. I think it was a great idea, and I'm going to do it again next year, with a few alterations. I really enjoyed having this garden because it taught me an awful lot about gardening in general.

Lots of stuff went right, and there are lots of reasons to have a garden in window boxes. In fact, yes, the weeds were much less in the window boxes. Its pretty windy here, so a few weed seeds blew and there were a few things growing in the window boxes that I had to pull out in order to keep my plants healthy. But there was nowhere near the amount of weeds that I would have had to deal with had I planted my garden in the ground outside of my yard. We've done that before, and spent most of the summer weeding the garden instead of enjoying it!

Also, buckets made the plants a lot easier to take care of. Also, they were a lot easier to water, because I lined them up on my sidewalk, so when my flowerbeds got water, so did my garden. They were in the front of the house, and I could see them from my kitchen window, so I never forgot about watering the garden or left it unattended. It was also easy to have people come over and water the garden when we went out of town.

I think it was better for the plants that I used potting soil as well. They were able to get much larger and make more fruits and veggies for me because of the good quality of soil I used. I also did not have to use any chemicals because there wasn't a need for chemicals. Using potting soil might sound excessive, because, after all, there is plenty of dirt in the ground, but potting soil really made my garden grow better, and I am sure that I will use it again next year.

One thing I learned however, was that I didn't put enough soil in. The window boxes weren't full enough, so some of the fruits and veggies couldn't grow as well as they should be able to grow. Next year I will be sure to change this and I will have an even better garden than I did this year ! This is something that I will be sure to change.

I will also change the types of plants that I use. I didn't get any cucumbers or zucchinis, so I will not plant those again. However, I will plant more lettuce and broccoli and spinach, because those all came up pretty nicely. As I have said, I will use more soil and plant onions and peppers and radishes in deeper soil so they grow better.

I will change a few things, to be sure, but I will also keep some of the things the same. I will have a window box garden, and I will be sure to call it my bucket garden. After all, it's family tradition, right?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Planting Bulbs in the Fall

As September draws to a close, most of us are turning our minds away from the idea of gardening and are resigned to the fact that we won't be thinking green until warm weather rolls around again. But wait- don't put away the trowels and fertilizer just yet. The fact is, there's still another month left before your gardening duties are done. Fall is the perfect time to plant spring-blooming flower bulbs so that they'll bloom beautifully just when the weather begins to warm again.

Any seasoned gardener will tell you that now is the time to be planting some of the most beautiful flowers that nature has to offer. In fact, many flower buffs love this time of year because it gives them a chance to fill their gardens with spring-blooming flowers to be enjoyed next year. Some flowers that are designed for fall planting include daffodils, narcissus, tulips, crocus and snowdrops.

If you're new to the idea of fall bulb planting and you're wondering how to get started, the information here will help.

Most stores and plant nurseries put their fall-planting bulbs on display weeks in advance- usually in mid to late August, when it's truthfully much too hot to begin fall planting. While the ideal time for planting bulbs varies greatly by area, there are a few basic rules you can follow to help determine the correct time for you to plant in your state. The bulbs will need to be placed in soil that is around 60 degrees Farenheit six inches under the ground, so you'll need to do a little research to find out when that time will be in your particular climate. Generally speaking, cooler states should plant in September while gardeners in warm states can often wait until the end of December. Ask the employees at your local nursery for a recommended planting date in your area for the greatest chance of success.

If you do miss your recommended planting date, your bulbs can still be put into the ground- as long as the soil is not frozen solid. Do keep in mind that if you plant bulbs late, they will take longer to bloom and may not produce as many flowers or grow as tall as expected.

When buying bulbs for fall planting, choose carefully. The bulbs need to be in good shape so that you're sure to get a successful crop of flowers next year. Avoid bulbs that are shedding "dust" or that look especially dried out and tired, or those that show signs of mold. This can mean that it's an old bulb... and dust can even be a sign that the bulb has insects living inside it. You should also take care to avoid bulbs that have large stems already growing out of them; a small sprout is okay, but large stems aren't supposed to appear until spring, and planting bulbs such as these will result in a weaker plant (or none at all). Remember too that larger bulbs produce larger flowers, so pick your bulbs according to the size of flowers you're trying to grow.

Finally, don't forget that bulbs should be firm to the touch- squeeze them gently and make sure that you're not leaving a thumb print in the bulb when you do so. Bulbs that are too soft have already started to decay and will rot in the ground once planted.

Once you've selected your bulbs and the proper planting time has rolled around, it's time to get your hands dirty. Plant fall bulbs in loosely aerated soil- try turning over the flower bed with a pitchfork before you begin. Once the soil is ready, you can simply start planting. For best results, plant each bulb individually with the pointed end up. Bury each one three to four times deeper than its own height. As a general rule, keep three to six inches between bulbs, depending on their size. The larger the bulb, the more space it will need around it.

Cover the bulbs with a light layer of mulch once you've planted- this will help keep them warm as well as protect the soil from weeds in the coming months and in the early spring. You should also water the bulbs lightly to help start root production. Add fertilizer if you so desire.

As the winter months set in, the bulbs will have plenty of time to develop strong roots, and the period of cold months to come will provide the bulbs with the time they need to complete the biochemical processes required for flowering. With a little luck and attention to detail, you'll be rewarded in the springtime with the first- and healthiest- flowers of the season.
-by bjp

Friday, September 15, 2006

Beautifying Your Domain With A Simple Garden

I never saw myself as a gardener. The idea of getting down in the dirt with a trowel and a bunch of tiny wrinkled seeds was not the highlight of my day. It was autumn, for goodness sakes - didn't people do things like this in the spring? And then I really got into it. I imagined all these huge flowers that spouted all the colors of the rainbow, peeking through the earth in the springtime. The image was interesting and something to look forward to, so I put on my old workclothes and trudged outside, wondering what I'd gotten myself into.

There were so many seeds and bulbs, all different colors, shapes, and sizes. Some looked more like tennis balls, and some were so small they were almost invisible. I was amazed. I had envisioned a lot of hard work, cultivating and planting, but it soon paid off. There doesn't need to be a huge themed garden for your house to have a touch of beauty. I was fooled into thinking that a "fancy" garden was a big production with bonsai trees and ponds, until I saw the beauty of the simple flowerbed.

There are many different ways to garden, but if all you want is a small patch of dirt and a variety of flowers (without getting technical) it is a lot simpler to plant a garden than you would think. First check out your soil count and research what types of plants will grow best in this type of soil. Try not to get too excited about a particular kind of flower before you discover if it will grow in your zone or not. Once you've cased out the place for your flowerbed, take a tally of any gardening tools you have or may need to buy. If you don't have one, see if someone you know owns a cultivator or some other kind of equipment that would do the trick.

Also, if you don't already have these items, buy some cheap trowels, watering cans, and garden gloves. Find some old clothes that you plan on throwing out after they become torn and mud-hardened from your venture. Then, it's time to cultivate. If you have kids or friends who would be willing to give you a hand, it takes a lot less time with more people helping. Children might enjoy digging with a trowel or dropping in seeds one by one. It's important to know how far apart to place the seeds, and how deep. If all your bulbs need to be planting four inches deep except one that needs to be three inches, you'll want to decide how you're going to do it.
Planting should be done in the coolest part of the day when you won't mind spending hours outside. See if the place you've chosen has enough shade, will be too exposed to sunlight, etc., before beginning.

Some people will choose to have a theme; all the purple flowers in one row, all the blue flowers in another. As for me when I was helping with gardening, I decided to suggest a mixed theme. I put all the bulbs and seeds in a mixing bowl, shook it up, and just grabbed different seeds from the bowl while I was planting. This way you don't know what will be coming up where. However, after this point it becomes difficult to remember how deep each seed gets planted. Make sure that your seeds are thoroughly covered; you might want to invest in some sort of fence to keep curious critters at bay. Don't over-water, but make sure plants get plenty of liquid especially in the summertime.

The worst part about having a simple garden is that there's usually nothing simple about pulling weeds. Weeds *will* grow and there is little you can do to discourage them. If you can't do all the pulling yourself, children might enjoy helping with the task (especially in they're on the lookout for the little bugs that sometimes appear on leaves and petals). If you have an agent that kills weeds you will want to see if it also harms flowers. After all this work, you will be rewarded with a beautiful garden full of a variety of flowers that will brighten your home and your neighborhood. The work is hard but well worth it, and it's a very simple scene that doesn't have to look like something out of a gardener's magazine.

By Lacie R. Schaeffer

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Nuts to Black Walnuts

Majestic mature trees are one of the delights of the established neighborhood in which I live. Maples, oaks, conifers, and elms line the streets. In my own yard stands an ailing Siberian Elm that is at least a hundred years old. It will most likely be standing long after the current residents of the neighborhood are gone. No one wants it cut down as long as the old girl still shows signs of life. I think of my self as a "tree hugger" who feels trees older than I am should be able to live out their natural lives. I do not mind raking leaves or trimming branches because the beauty of mature trees adds elegance to my neighborhood that cannot be duplicated in even the most exclusive of new home developments. I even live in an area that participates in the "Tree City USA Community" program that is sponsored by the National Arbor Day Foundation, U.S. Forest Service and others. It is because I have such appreciation for trees that my current search for a chain saw is so disturbing.

Towering over my back yard is a mature black walnut tree which dwarfs the nearby utility pole. I have yet to assess exactly how tall this tree is as its branches extend well into the two properties adjoining mine. Gracing my front yard is another, less mature black walnut tree. It merely towers over my house. It is these trees that I seek to destroy. I don't want to merely cut them down; I want to remove any and all of the root systems that may be located in my yard. Why you ask am I obsessed with destroying these two towering beauties? Because black walnut trees are the evilest of all plant life to an avid gardener. I have not come to this conclusion lightly, but after gardening around black walnut trees for six years, I know it to be true. Black Walnuts (Juglans Nigra L.) range in height from 70-150 feet and a diameter of 2-4 feet. See "Black Walnut" ( These trees are toxic to a large number of ornamental annuals and perennials, trees and shrubs. Along with its cousin, the butternut (Juglans Cinerea L.), black walnuts' emit a chemical compound called juglone which causes yellowing, wilting and eventual death to plants sensitive to the compound. Juglone occurs naturally in all parts of the black walnut but the largest concentrations are found in the walnut buds, nut hulls and root system. See "Black Walnut Toxicity" (

A zone of toxicity exists around black walnut trees due to the emission of juglone from the root system and to a lesser extent from the leaves and twigs. The zone is 50 to 60 feet from the trunk of a mature tree. See "Walnut Toxicity" Home Grown MSU Extension-Livingston County. Take a 100 foot ball of twine, tie it around the base of the tree trunk, and measure out 50-60 feet in a circle completely around the tree. If the branches of the black walnut extend past this circle, extend your circle to include those areas under the tree branch. This is your zone of toxicity and plants which are sensitive to juglone will not thrive and will most likely die if planted in this area. The root system of the black walnut tree causes most of the damage but the nuts, leaves and twigs from the tree will also poison sensitive plants.

My current homestead is not my first experience with a black walnut tree. My last home's backyard was graced with a black walnut that by its' size must have been close to one hundred years old. It was there I learned the joy of being pelted by green shell husks as hard as, but larger, than golf balls. I learned the pounding on the roof was not a hail storm but merely the nuts falling from their branches. Black walnuts are covered by a hard, thick, green husk which has an unpleasant odor and stains anything it comes in contact with. A favorite of squirrels, these husks are ready for harvest in August. Immature husks can be found, or felt, as early as late June or July.

I attempted to adapt and tried to harvest the nuts which are reputed to be excellent in desserts. First you need to collect the husks which smell, stain and are impossible to break. Some books recommend driving a car over them. Then you get to the nut shell. It also stains both your hands and your clothing. If it is not infested with insects, the nut must be cured and watched for mold. Then you get to try and break its' shell. I was not successful in harvesting black walnuts.
I also discovered you use the leaves of a black walnut tree as mulch at your own risk. Prior to learning of the existence of juglone, I shredded the fallen black walnut leaves and utilized them as both mulch and an ingredient in a compost "soup". I was starting a garden in the front yard from scratch in rocky soil and could not afford a truckload of topsoil. I mixed leaves that had sat in the yard for months with ground organic matter from the kitchen and rainwater. I used this mixture to fertilize perennials I had purchased at a local nursery for a quarter apiece. The plants were immature, but were supposed to be fast growing, self-sowing perennials suitable for my climate. My garden stagnated. I repeatedly checked the sun exposure, moisture, and other gardening factors. I finally attributed the lack of growth in my garden to the immaturity of the plants and waited for the next growing season.

Meanwhile I found out about juglone. I removed all of my organic much, and replaced it with bagged topsoil and commercial mulch. I stopped composting any of the leaves from my yard for fear of contamination from the black walnut leaves. The next year my front yard garden bloomed and thrived. The back yard was home to a black walnut tree and a smattering of grass. Only Kentucky bluegrass thrives under black walnut trees but I had not put down new seed yet.

Researchers claim black walnut leaves can be composted because" the toxin breaks down when exposed to air, water and bacteria. The toxic effect can be degraded in two to four weeks." "Black Walnut Toxicity to Plants, Humans and Horses HYG-1148-93" Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet. This same research claims mulch from the bark is safe after six months. I disagree since the compost I used had been exposed to the elements for a time period exceeding four weeks. As is noted in "Walnut and It's Toxicity Explored" Cornell Cooperative Extension/Yates County by Tom Rood, the safety of black walnut byproducts in compost or mulch is debated. Unless you have the technical tools to chemically test for juglone in your compost or mulch, I think you use composted black walnut leaves or mulch at your own risk, or rather your garden's risk.

I moved to my new home with dreams of rhododendrons, hydrangeas, roses and columbine all of which are juglone sensitive plants that I could not grow in my old garden. The black walnut tree at my old house had a trunk diameter of at least three feet and only the Siberian Elm in my new front yard exceeded two feet. Roses grew on the side of the house so I grew excited about all the new gardening possibilities I had before me. Come fall a large green husk fell on my head in the back yard. I laughed, realizing my escape from the evil black walnut curse had not been complete. This black walnut tree is located in the rear of my yard surrounded by mulberry trees which are compatible with black walnuts. The area is deep shade even on the sunniest days so I planted hosta plants which are juglone tolerant and I had intended to do anyways. I have a sunny area near my rear door so luckily my herbs do not seem to be affected whatsoever by juglone. I had to give up on blueberries and tomatoes but lettuce and carrots grow just fine. I still planned for my flowering shrubs and perennial assortment for the front yard and even started planning where I could put a blueberry bush. I was in denial.

A neighbor told me he thought the tree next to the Siberian elm was a black walnut tree. He told me husks fell on his drive all fall. I couldn't see the tell tale green husks that identify a black walnut so I assumed the husks had been brought by squirrels from the tree in the rear of the lot. I spent my time regrading the front area near the house and redefining and enlarging the garden area. I spent large amounts of time tearing out the overgrown ivy and planning my garden space. I intended to buy mature plants to give the entry area a finished look but my budget and the weather required me to wait another planting season.

Come spring I located all the tulips that had been scattered around the front garden (tulips are said to be juglone sensitive) and looked forward to planting. It was not until my first purchase, a Cinquefoil, suddenly wilted and died that I suspected my neighbor was correct. At first I still could not locate any walnuts. I took a branch sampling and compared it to the tree in the back yard. They were suspiciously similar. I still did not want to believe but I did stop investing in mature shrubs. Over the summer I tried whatever plant was on sale. Some lived, some died. In August, a pair of binoculars confirmed what I had been trying not to see, the dreaded green husks hanging from the tree in my front yard. This house not only had one black walnut tree, it had two. I was in gardening hell.
Time has passed and I have researched plants that are not sensitive to juglone. None of the plants I had dreamed of are on the list and most confusing is trying to choose shrubs which are not susceptible to juglone. Yews are out, barberry in. I am waiting to see if my daffodils will bloom. Some are juglone sensitive. The bunch that was planted near the tree of death formed buds which were then stunted and did not bloom. Some of the fifty daffodils I planted bloomed; others formed no buds at all. I am waiting until spring. Maybe they were immature bulbs.

I have an area that is sheltered from both trees and their roots and it is there both my climbing roses and traditional rose bush thrive. It is a self contained bed between the drive and the house and is already at capacity. I am thankful for this small area and I keep a watch for any part of a black walnut tree which drifts near it and immediately remove any suspicious leaf or twig not to mention walnut. The landscape plan for the rest of the yard is limited to those plants not sensitive to juglone. But don't think I have totally given up on removing these trees from my life. I know the black walnuts are too large for me to remove with a chain saw but for a price you can hire tree services to do that kind of thing. Even if I had them removed, the juglone stays in the remaining roots for 1-5 years. I am willing to dig those out also but the task may be larger than I think. The toxicity zone is 50-60 feet in all directions. Today I can still dream of chain saws, and tree removal services, tomorrow someone may develop a poison that will destroy the entire tree, roots and all, in less than five years. Then I can plant my azaleas.

How to Best Enjoy your Hibiscus Flowers

By: Melissa Martinez

The Hibiscus is a flower that is often associated with the tropics, but it actually originated in Asia. They can now be found in northern Europe, West Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, India, North America and South America. The beauty of the Hibiscus has made it the state flower of Hawaii and they are a favorite by many because they bloom all year round. Unfortunately, the flowers do not last long. Within hours of blooming, their colors can change and by nightfall, many will have fallen off.

The color variations on the blooms, however, can be quite exceptional. The six basic ones are white, red, orange, yellow, lavender and brown. Of course, there are hundreds of possible colors to choose from amongst the numerous varieties of hibiscus available. It is also interesting to note that Hibiscus plants have even more varieties than roses. In fact, the genus Hibiscus is the largest in the Mallow family's 1500 species.

The simplest way to enjoy the beauty of the Hibiscus flower is to plant it in your garden and enjoy the flowers as they bloom. Another fun thing to do with your Hibiscus flowers is to make hybrids with them. Making new varieties by creating a hybrid is not difficult and is exciting because you never know what kind of flower you will get. Once you create a hybrid, it will be six months to two years before the plants bloom because the new hybrid seedlings have a difficult time developing good root systems. In order to give your hybrid a better root system, graft it onto a plant that already has one. The results are worth both the extra effort and the extra wait.

Yet another way to enjoy your Hibiscus flowers is to make fresh flower arrangements with them. Hibiscus flowers make lovely additions to any arrangement but can also be stunning on their own. The best time to pick them is in the morning. They do not have to be put into water after they are picked, and just have to be kept in a reasonably cool or refrigerated place until you need them.

Now before you can begin to enjoy your hibiscus flowers you have to make sure that you are able to successfully grow them. The good news is that Hibiscus flowers are quite easy to grow. Just make sure to choose varieties that complement your climate and soil conditions. If you live in a non-tropical area, don't worry. You can always grow hibiscus in pots.

Also remember that grown hibiscus bushes range in height from an average of 4 feet to a maximum of 12 feet, so plant them accordingly. If you plant them too close to one another, they will be too crowded once they've matured. You also have to plan for extreme weather conditions. Before a frost, cover in-ground plants with plastic all the way to the ground but keep the plastic above the foliage to prevent the plant from being burned. Bring potted plants indoors.

If you live in a tropical climate, remember that light colored Hibiscus are sun lovers; they grow best in direct full sunlight. Those with lavender, brown and green flowers do best in partial shade. Also, Hibiscus need lots of water, but can't tolerate soaking. After planting your hibiscus in the ground, be sure to water them often. Hibiscus plants grow best in sandy soil with a pH of 5.5-6.5. It would also be a good idea to check with a local nursery to find out if your city's water changes the pH of your soil.

Keep in mind that the soil where you plant your hibiscus needs to drain well. If it does not, set them in a raised bed that is 12"-18" off the ground. Also, Hibiscus are not acid-loving plants. If you have acidic soil, you may want to add lime to the soil. If you must mulch, then mulch with small leaves and wood chips.

Finally, we should discuss fertilization. Fertilization ensures strong, healthy hibiscus plants that are more resistant to pests and disease. Since hibiscus plants are heavy feeders, it is best to fertilize them often and lightly. In the winter, be sure to regularly fertilize your hibiscus.

If properly cared for, Hibiscus plants can be enjoyed for many years and will beautify your garden or home no matter how you choose to plant them.

The Herbal Garden: Basil

Welcome to the third of my series 'The Herbal Garden'! I'm not sure if I can actually write this one without having to run out and pick up a tasty pizza or beg my hubby to whip up something in the kitchen...mmm, BASIL!

Basil is an annual herb originally from India that quickly migrated to Italy and France, where it became a staple in both cuisines. It is used in salads and soups and is a wonderful enhancement to meats, especially poultry. You'll also find it complements rice, pasta, zucchini, eggplant and anything with tomatoes. Perhaps its most popular use of late has been in Pesto sauce, which is a mix of basil, garlic, oil, pine nuts and cheese varieities. I love taking whole leaves and adding them to marinara sauce...and plopping them all over the sauce of my homemade pizza. See, I told I'm STARVING.

Basil was another of my very first herbal experiments; I even grew these from SEED. What fascinated me most was how many types are available. Its latin name is Ocimum, and its Greek name is baselius, which from what I understand means 'king'. Aptly named, don't you think? It was named Herb of the Year for 2003. There are two main groups: Sweet and Genovese. Sweets are...well, sweet scented; these are the ones that are best used with tomatoes. Varities include:

  • Bush Basil, compact and perfect for pots.
  • Purple Bush Basil, as above but a gorgeous purple color that looks wonderful in salads.
  • Spicy Globe Basil, a bush type with larger 1 cm leaves and dense, globular structures.
  • Dark Opal Basil, with dark purple-bronze leaves that are ideal for seasoning and making basil vinegar (gives it a spectacular red color!).
  • Mammoth Basil, my favorite...HUGE green leaves that get as big as your hand! Lots of fun to use in the kitchen.
  • Sweet Salad Basil, has a clove-like scent about it that adds a special twist to any dish.
Genovese varieites are large-leafed and originate in the pesto capital of the world: Genovese, Italy. They include:

  • Genovese Standard, the most popular and original.
  • Genovese Compatto, specially designed to be grown in pots.
  • Genovese Gecofure, also a pot-design but with enhanced disease resistance.
There are many other types that don't fit into the Sweet or Genovese groups, and here are some of my favorites:

  • Anise Basil, a native of Persia with a licorice flavor and purple foliage.
  • African Blue Basil, has a purpleish/blue cast and camphor scent.
  • Lemon Basil, intense lemon fragrance, great for tea.
  • Sacred Basil, grown in temples, homes and everywhere else throughout India. Clove scented leaves, also known as Tulsi Basil.
  • Lesbos Basil, first found on the Greek Isle. Has the most unusual scent...a mix of cloves, citrus and floral.
Okay, that you've told us about all these great varities, how do we grow the stuff? Well, it's easy...this is another of those herbs that as long as you water them and they don't contract any fungal diseases (most have now been bred to resist them) you'll have a huge crop. Since you can find a better selection of seeds than plants, I suggest growing your own from scratch. Here's the low down on growing them from seed:

  • Pick a spot in the garden that gets full sun.
  • The soil should drain well but not be TOO dry...basil wilts quickly the second it needs a drink.
  • Any pH level is fine for's not fussy about that sort of thing.
  • Wait until the soil temp has reached at least 60 degrees and all danger of frost has annual, basil will brown immediatley when touched by frost and dies soon after.
  • Sow your seeds directly into the ground...or, if you're impatient like me, you can start them indoors four to six weeks before your last frost date.
  • Once they get going, water them frequently. If you forget and they DO wilt, don't lose faith...give them a drink and they'll bounce back before your eyes.
  • Thin your seedlings so they're about 10 inches apart, but read your seed packet as this depends on variety.
  • When buds appear, pinch them off to keep your leaves growing.
  • Harvest frequently to encourage more growth. The more you pick, the more you'll get!
  • Leave some flowers toward the end of the season if you want them to self-sow.

Basil is easily dried and stored...bundle them with string and hang upside down in a closet or attic. They'll be ready for you when you need them! I've also heard tell of them being a fly repellent but haven't tried it myself...if you want to, stuff some dried leaves in a muslin bag and hang them around the house.

Hope you enjoyed this installment...until next time, Happy Gardening! And go get yourself a pizza!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Water Gardens and Pond Preparation for the Fall and Winter

Hints of autumn appear to be everywhere. The kids are back to school and routines; in some places, leaves are changing (already!); pumpkins and apples are appearing in local grocery and produce store and produce stores and heavier blankets are being pulled out of closets. Well, you get the picture. There is a definite nip to the air and fall is just around the corner. It is time to get the water gardens and ponds ready for fall and winter and the fish ready for their long winters nap. Rotting plants, dead bugs and bacteria can accumulate, so now that the air is cooler, you can take the time to clean all that nasty gunk out.

You may also notice that your water plants, such as water lilies are slowing their growth and getting ready for dormancy. Do not feed or fertilize any of your outdoor garden plants from now on. Now is the time to trim the dead and fading foliage, but you can wait until the first frost for that (some time after the middle of October). You can take this opportunity to bring in your tropical marginal plants indoors since the nights are getting colder. In order to protect the hardier of your pond plants, lower them to the bottom of the pond for the winter. You might want to wait until spring to divide and transplant the rest of the marginal plants for your pond or garden.

If you are leaving the water in, you will want to take this opportunity to put some sort of protective netting or screening over top of your pond because of falling leaves. This will stop them from entering your pond. But make sure the netting does not enter the water as the fish can get caught in it. Put a piece of dowel in the middle of your pond or water garden and put the netting over it, in much the same way you would do a tent. If you want to empty out your pond of water, now is the time to do so. As the water empties, you need to get a stiff brush and wash down the sides of the pond and clean the rocks and the bottom of the pond. Clean up the debris on the bottom and refill the pond half way (do not forget to dechlorinate the water!). Before emptying your pond, however, you need to decide what you want to do with your fish. If you live in an area with a harsh winter climate, you might want to bring them indoors and put them into a holding tank for the winter months.

However, some fish can stay out doors all winter. My father in law simply cleans out his garden pond, refills it and leaves the fish in all winter (making sure that the top never gets frozen over, so the fish can breathe). You too can do this by feeding your fish a higher carbohydrate diet (and lower in protein) when the autumn begins. During the winter, fish do not hibernate, but their metabolism slows way down as the water cools. If you fatten the fish up before winter, they will not need to be fed during the winter because they will have enough to live on during the winter. Do not feed your fish during the winter since their metabolism has slowed down that they will not be able to properly digest the food even though they may seem hungry! Some people place wood over the top of the pond to keep predators away from the fish over the winter months and this will help deter the growth of algae during the sunny days of winter and into the early spring. Your fish will survive in water that is as little as eighteen inches as long as the water does not freeze solid.

While you are maintaining your water garden or pond, you will need to take a look at your filter. This is the time to clean it thoroughly and store it for next spring. Do not store them where they will freeze such as a shed. Place your de-icers and bubblers into the pond or water garden and keep a careful eye on it during the winter so it will not freeze over. NEVER break the ice if it has frozen over because it sends shock waves into your pond or water garden and can scare or kill your fish.

That is about all you need to worry about. The hard and sometimes nasty work will be done in the autumn and your water garden or outdoor pond will be ready and waiting for the warm months of spring and available for you to enjoy again next year.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Fall, WInter and Your Garden

Ah, fall, what is not to love about this season? The cooler nights and the crisp mornings are enjoyable for most of us. It is the favorite time of year for many people, not only because school starts and we are pushed back into regular routines, but because the air is cooler, the thoughts are turned to spending more time indoors. Although the summer's last gasp is still in the air and the day still gets warm and even now as the day gets shorter, it is time to consider what needs to be done for your garden for the fall and the upcoming winter season.

Now is a good time to plant bulbs that will bloom next spring. Bulbs such as tulips and crocuses are the ones that are hardy and will last over the cold winter and bloom into beautiful flowers in the spring. The best thing to remember is when planting your bulbs is to think of where your spring and summer sun falls and where the sun will not be obscured by the leaves of trees, so these blooms will get the most of the sun. You will want to also consider the proximity of the planting to the house. You should plant the bulbs at least five feet away from the foundation of your house because the heat of the house can cause damage to your bulbs. Make sure the soil has good drainage and has a ph level of at least 6.0 and no higher than 7.0.

When you are choosing your blooms, you will want to consider the size of the bulbs. There should be a picture of the blooms beside the bucket of bulbs at the store to give you an idea of the size and color of the flower. Usually, smaller bulbs will produce flowers that bloom earlier in the spring such as crocuses. Larger bulbs, such as tulips bloom later into the spring. Before planting, make sure the bulbs are firm and mold free. These bulbs are best planted after the first frost, so the bulbs will continue to be cool from the beginning but of course, this depends on where you live and what your weather is like. It is best to check with your local nursery and see what they suggest. You will want to keep in mind that when planting fall bulbs and seeds you should add some nutrients to your soil to ensure proper growth of your plants.

The fall is a good time to begin your winter clean up of both your garden and your yard. Also a nice thing about the cooler weather is that it slows the growth of weeds as well. You can start cutting back flowers and plants that have already bloomed. Remove all the dead growth, clean up the dead plant debris (you can take this opportunity to add these to your composter!) But the key is not to be too clean. Prepare your beds by leaving some debris to shelter your gardens from the winter. But keep watering your garden until the snow flies, because when the ground freezes, the water can not permeate the through.

The flowers and plants that you want to save can be covered up at night when frost is expected. You will want to harvest the remaining vegetables and clean up any fruit trees that you have. Take this chance to mow your grass one last time to get the lawn ready for winter as well. Do not forget to pack up your hose. Take some time to drain it, roll it up and put it into your garage for storage. You will want to make sure you turn off your outside taps and bring in any metal hose holders that can rust in the wet and cold winter weather.

Trees and shrubs should be cared for and protected during the autumn clean up season since smaller shrubs can be damaged by heavy ices and snows. You can protect the smaller shrubs by building a lean to out of wood or cover them with thick canvas.

This is also the time to bring your house plants that have spent the summer outside indoors, but make sure you do not bring in any unwanted guests with them. Give your plants a good rinse with the hose or by using some insecticide soap for cleaning the plant. You can take this opportunity to aerate the ground by using a garden fork and if you are planning to use compost as ground cover, now is the time to do this.

Gardening is for some a year round and enjoyable activity for some, but for the rest of us, hopefully these few pointers will help us and our gardens ready for the fall and the winter to come.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Your Garden and Frost

By Christina VanGinkel

If you are a bit disappointed this fall with the abundance, or should I say lack of abundance, of the apples on trees that often provide you with plenty of delicious apples for both eating fresh from the tree and baking apples, then a look back at this past spring might provide you with answers.

For example, the area that I happen to live in, in northern Wisconsin, was hit with a late frost, not to be mistaken with a light frost that can hit on almost any morning in the part of the state that I live in throughout the months of spring and into early summer, but a full on heavy, deep freezing frost. Many of the apple trees in our area had already progressed into a full bloom, and with the heavy frost, some, but thankfully not all of, the local apple harvest was affected. Those trees that often provide apples on the early to mid season side, more mid to late summer than early fall, were those most affected. Still, even some of the more traditionally thought of fall apples were also affected.

An orchard by us that has a variety of apple trees, from Ginger gold and Ambrosia, to Jonogold, Cortland, Honey Crisp, and more, lost quite a few apple blossoms, and thus apples, due to the freeze. I heard them comment that some trees that they originally thought heavily damaged were not, and others that should have been fine went on to produce a minimal amount or no apples at all. Others produced fruit that was a bit smaller than what they would normally produce, but considering that, our area also experienced drought conditions early in the growing season, that that may have had a lot to do with this issue was also under discussion.

With just about any type of plant, whether it is a fruit tree, flowering bush, flowers, vegetables, what have you, frost can have an adverse effect. Sometimes the effect is not that noticeable, such as a slightly smaller crop than normal, but other times it is devastating. Of course, the best way to not have to worry about frost damage with smaller plants, such as vegetables and flowering plants, or those in containers, is to cover or move them to a protected area if you even suspect they might be damaged when there is any risk of frost occurring.

Paying attention to the weather reports on when it is safe to plant or move seedlings outdoors is also highly advisable. It is always awful to hear how well so and so was doing with their seedlings, that they finally had conquered the learning curve of growing plants from seeds they harvested the year before, only to find out that they lost the majority of their hard work to a killing frost because they did not pay attention to the weather.

Plants in containers can be moved underneath eaves, into a garage or shed, or into or up against any outbuilding or enclosure with a roof. If just moving the plants against the wall of a building, the roofline should extend out from the building to increase the likelihood that the plants will be protected. This can be especially important if the frost is heavy. Plants can also be brought indoors, but keeping them somewhere, that the difference in temperatures is not too extreme, is of course best. Going from a cool outside to a too warm indoors can cause your plants to dry out quicker than would normally occur if they were left outdoors, so be sure to check them often, and water them well if needed. Too extreme a change in temperatures can also cause a bit of shock to some plants. So keep this in mind if you do end up bringing plants from the cold outdoors to a very warm inside.

For plants that cannot be moved, watering the soil around the plants will help some, but should not be counted on to wholly protect them against the frost. This tactic works better when the frost is of a light nature. Covering plants with pillowcases, sheets, paper bags, etc., is better than just leaving them exposed to the frost. I was always taught to pop a few small holes, think just slightly larger than pin sized, if covering with plastic, to allow the plants to breathe.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Creating Indoor and Outdoor Water Gardens

Water gardens are a great way to add some peace and tranquility to any spot of your yard or home. There are a variety of different types of water gardens you can make, and from the fancy to the table top varieties, you are sure to get a lot of satisfaction.

It is a known fact that listening to water is a very relaxing way to enjoy our day or evenings, and having a water garden is a great way to help out our eco system. Many different animals that are in the surrounding will come to visit your water garden, and it will add a lot of education and stimulation to your project as well.

We'll start with the more easy type of water garden. One that can show a dream world that is waiting to get out. Nothing plays with the imagination more than a miniature garden, and it can add a whimsical touch to any area of your house.

You can build a water garden for the table, or try a more complex, larger indoor water garden to accent a certain area of your house. You will need a few items to complete this request, and these items include a container of some sort to hold the water, a pump to create waterfalls with, some water plants, and if you are real creative, some regular garden dirt for other wetland plants that serve as further decorations that add appeal to your project. You will also need various rocks that you will be able to move around to your satisfaction that create dazzling effects that stun those around you.

To do this project, take your container and set it in front of you. Next, you will place your pump, which has a tube on it inside of the bowl, and start surrounding the pump with rocks of various sizes, and in different positions. You will want to have a very small pump for this type of water garden, or else you may find more water on your floor than what is going back into the container.

Once you have your rock assortment fixed up, you will start taking out some of the rocks to place some bulbs of water plants that will grow within your water garden. You are only going to want a slow trickle so that your plants can grow beautifully in the miniature lake that is created. Next, you will use waterproof silicone to permanently place your rock fixtures together. When the glue has dried, you will be able to add the water to the bowl and turn it on. You have a simple little water garden that will grow a spectacular water plant, as well as have the tranquil sound of running water flowing through the air of your home.

That was the simplest of water gardens for indoor use, and probably the most used, but then there are the real enthusiasts that wish to create a small eco system within their home that serves as an eye piece for those who come to visit. This will take a little bit more planning, and a few new items that need to be added to the creation list.

You will now need to purchase yourself some bricks at the local hardware store. Also at the hardware store, you can usually find a water garden section, especially in the summer, and when the fall gets here, they have awesome sales on what is left over. That is a great time to purchase these items that are necessary. You will also want to get yourself a water garden liner. It can be the smallest variety, as you are not going to be creating a pond as big as your living room. You will need a filter for this little eco system, because you will be adding a coy fish and possibly underwater frogs to this project, and you will want to keep the water fresh and clean. You will also need a pump so that you can create a dazzling water display in the scenery. Purchasing cuttings of water plants from the pet store or bulbs at the local retail store will provide for the plant life that is present in your water garden indoor masterpiece.

Now the first step is the bricks that you are going to lay down on the floor, and you are going to keep stacking these flat pieces until you get about a foot above the floor. You will then open up your liner, which should be placed in the sun for a little while, and place it on top of what you have built. You will need to cut around the liner so that you can make a specific shape on the bottom part of your design. You will then want to just set down the longer part of the liner, so that you can build up your back wall and place the liner on it. Use one row of bricks, and then pull the liner up, and once again, trim the liner to the specifications of your design.

Now you are going to put your pump and filter, connected together, into your indoor pond. This way you can build the rest of your design up around the tube that will bring the water up, and hide the pump and filter as well. Once you have done this, you will be ready to fully add the rest of the bricks that you need to complete your garden. As you are adding your bricks, make sure none of the liner is sticking out, and eventually, you won't be able to see the liner at all from the outside. You need this liner to hold in the water, and keep your floor from getting damp. Make sure you build up your bricks high enough that any droplets of water will be caught.

You can do cool things with the design of your indoor pond. You can leave out bricks to add soil, and wetland foliage. You can make cool little design areas that make it look like there are levels in your pond where you can place the plants on the step-like surface, rather than having them all over in the water. It's really up to you, as this is not only something great for the house, but is a work of art that you are creating as well.

Once you have the whole thing together, and if you stacked in a balanced manner, you shouldn't even need to add anything to keep the bricks together, and this will be great for easily dismantling your pond as well. Now you will be ready to add your plant life to your pond. You can hole your plants down with either more bricks that are designed in the bottom of the pond, or by adding cat litter to help them keep stationary, and not cloud up your water.

You can now step back and see if you like what you have done, and if everything looks good, you can add your water. Fill it up to about one to two inches below the top, and plug your pond in. If the water is splashing out too quickly, you may need to adjust your tube, as well as change some of your bricks around. You may not have everything one hundred percent accurate the first time, but through trial and error, you will get everything just right.

Okay, so now you have your plants, your water, everything running, and now you can plant your other wetland life. Most of the soil will stay a little damp, due to evaporation and little water droplets. Most likely, you won't even have to water these plants at all, and this whole system will take care of itself.

So now you have everything running, and there is only one more thing that you need to do. You need to add some life to the indoor water garden, and this is because your plants need nutrients from the wildlife, and the wildlife needs the plants to survive. Snails and shrimp are very good additions to the pond, because they will eat the scum that tries to attach itself to everything. A good algae eater, will also be a welcome addition to your pond, and will help you to spend less time cleaning anything. You can add some underwater frogs, as they also do the same thing and will not be hopping all over your house, yet will be a normal part of any indoor eco system. Yet, the best ingredient of all of these, is the ever loving coy fish. The coy fish is a very beautiful, oriental, gold fish. This fish can actually be trained to do tricks for food. How neat the entertainment can be on that one. Plus, not only does this fish get tamed, your water garden will truly become the talk of the town.

Now we come to the outdoor water garden. This is the most costly of all of the water garden varieties, but also has the biggest potential and dreams that can be involved. Your creativity and money is your limit with this type of a project, but you better be ready to put some manpower into it.

You will need to get your liner or liners based on what you are designing. If you are going to have a stream that runs into a waterfall, which goes into your miniature pond, you are going to need two liners. A stream liner, and a regular liner with enough dimensions on it to hold the water in. You will also need a pump and a filter, some hose and some tubing. You can get rocks from your yard or area to create your effects, or you can purchase bricks at the local hardware store. You will need a level, a shovel or someone to dig it up, and several different types of waterplants. You'll want animals, but they will come on their own, or you can purchase them at the local fish store. Most of all, you will need a lot of effort and energy in putting everything together. Depending on your living conditions of your area, you may also needed a little heated ball.

Of course, the first step is finding the location that best serves you. I highly recommend that you make this pond to be at least four feet deep and have at least a four foot width. The length can be up to you. The importance of how deep it is has to do with the fact that the ground does not freeze at this level, no matter where you live, and so you wouldn't have to remove all of your animals before the winter season. If you are going to keep them in the pond all year long though, and you get lots of snow, you will want the heated ball placed in your water garden so that a whole in the ice is always present.

This fact is important because you need a spot for the gases to escape, or you will kill your animals. Remember, this is smaller than a lake, and the other good point is that your animals could become blind if they can't get any sunlight, and this hole in the ice will let the sun shine through. This is also good for feeding purposes, because yes, you will still need to feed your fish. However, if have snails in your pond, the fish can feed on the babies that are created, and believe me, many will be. Just a good hint to know for the feeding frenzy.

Okay, once you find the spot, it will now be time to shovel out your spot. Of course, it's always nice if you know someone who has a machine to do this, but if you don't, you still can do it yourself. It will take a lot of hours, but is also good exercise, and you won't regret the rewards you see for your efforts. Once you have the depth required, you will want to make sure there are no twigs or sticks sticking up that can poke a hole in the liner of your pond. If you want a perfect pond, with levels that are present, you may want to make sure you use a leveler to make it straight, but to tell you the truth, allowing your pond to fall in it's own order adds a lot to the natural beauty.

If you are creating a stream for your pond, you can use the dirt you took out of your hole build up the slant for the stream. You should also use this dirt to build up the back of your pond where your waterfall will be situated. This saves on labor when you are placing rocks around your garden. When you are creating your stream, make sure you dig out the middle of the stream area so that the water flows in one spot, and not out of your water garden.

Now you will place your big liner into the bottom of your pond, and then place the stream liner on the stream. It's always good to let your liner sit in the sun for a little while, because when it is warm, it will conform easier to the hold and structures you have built. Always make sure you do this in the order that is mentioned, because the stream liner will have to be able to flow over the other liner, or you will lose water.

Next You will want to add your pump, tubing, hose and filter. You don't necessarily need a filter, as the items that fall in your pond can work work in your favor for keeping nutrients in the water, but if you want to keep it clean, it is important you keep these items out of the water as much as possible. Plus, your pump can get plugged up if the filter is not in the pond, or not working properly. You will want to hide these items as much as possible, so using rocks and other items is really creative. If you were really creative in digging your pond, you would have made a section in the dirt that would be lower than the rest of the pond so that the items rest down lower, and flat pieces of rock can be used. This way you have more pond space.

The part we will discuss now is the most laborious, and you should have other manpower to help you. You will now be placing either your collection of rocks, in various sizes, or your bricks you purchased around your pond and designing the effect you are looking for. Just as the indoor water garden goes, you can do whatever you want with the rocks, and the good part is you can always add rock designs on at a later date too.

Make your pond look natural, add ledges, and places for wildlife to hide. Add little pebbles to the bottom that don't have any edges, and medium rocks placed in the stream to create sound effects. The stream water can be flowing to an area of rocks that creates cascading water falls of various sizes. The water can be running fast, or the water can be a slow trickle. Your plants should be placed in the water garden according to instructions, and held in place with cat litter, as well as with other various rock mixtures.

Now fill your pond up with water, and while you are waiting, go ahead and plant some wetland material around the garden itself. In the beginning you won't see that this plant life seems like enough, but it will mature and grow more, and eventually you will have a complete plant section that will attract insects for the water wildlife.

Now plug your pond in and make sure the water is staying in the water garden. While it is running and you are testing it, run to the local fish store and purchase yourself some samples of water plants and underwater wildlife. Put them in the water, and sit back and relax with your new eco system. However, like I said before, if you don't want to add any wildlife, that is just fine too. A wide assortment of wetland creatures from your area are sure to join your dwelling that you have created.

Another thing that is very cool is the fact that the government will give you a small sum of $50 if you have a complete eco system in your hard. This doesn't cover everything and all of the expenses, but it will help you out. You are also acknowledged for helping a part of our earth to function, even if it is in small amounts. There is less and less environment left to house our native species, and your contribution, no matter how small, makes a huge impact.

This type of water garden replenishes itself, and you don't have to put much work and effort into it once you have it created. The water will evaporate, the rain replaces the empty space with fresh water. The insects that are drawn in will feed the wildlife, the wildlife will help the plants, and the plants will help the wildlife. The waterfall, and the stream, will keep everything flowing, and keep the water from becoming stagnant. So although this project is harder to put together, it is much easier to maintain than the indoor variety.

Once you have your garden together, you will have the company of many visitors who wish to see your garden. You can get your town involved by asking for contributions of plants or natural wildlife that is collected and needs to be saved, and can also serve as education for those people with an interest in the environment. So this process doesn't only need to be enriching for you as an individual, but can create a love of wild life to those around you.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Herbal Garden: Mint Galore

Next in my series...another easy-to-cultivate herb family: the Mints.

They smell great, come in a TON of varieties and are hard to kill...which makes them a perfect specimen for both the beginning gardener AND the experienced folks who enjoy growing unusual goodies. I gave them a try in my very first herb garden and was enthralled daily by the wonderful mingling of scents as I passed by, cut stalk after stalk to use in arrangements, made mint butter, added them to icing on cakes, put them IN get the picture. My friends started to wonder if I was going to start rubbing it on THEM soon, and I have to say I DID think about it. I guess I'm just mad about mint!

There are more than 500 species of mint, and it was first given its scientific name, Mentha palustris (peppermint) in 1704. Different varieties all begin with the Mentha part to indicate the species, but the rest of the name indicates sub-species and variant. Even Greek mythology pays tribute to this wonderful herb family: when Pluto's wife, Persephone, found out about his mistress Minthe she turned her into a plant that grew close to the ground so everyone would walk on her. Pluto couldn't rescue her, but he WAS able to add a lovely sweet scent that would be released when she was stepped on. It is native to the Mediterranean and Asia, and brought to the states by early settlers and quickly took over many a garden...this herb interbreeds so easily that even the best experts are stumped as to identifying a particular variety.

Caring for you mint is's a perennial that is very hardy so it can survive nearly anywhere, so no need to worry about frost for most types. Here are the basics when adding it to your garden:
  • Pick a spot in your yard where you won't mind having a field of the spreads like you wouldn't believe and will destroy your other plantings if combined. If you want to be SURE it doesn't spread, you'll need to keep it in a container. With a bottom. I've had it pop up a full 20 feet away. Seriously.
  • It flourishes in partial shade with moist, rich soil with a bit of acid but will grow just fine anywhere else, too.
  • Plant about a foot apart, and if you're using several species and want to attempt to keep them separate, try cutting the bottom out of a nursery container (1 gallon or so) and sinking it...then add your mint friend.
  • When summer is over, cut them back as close to the ground as possible.
  • If growing in a pot/indoors, water when the soil begins to look dry. Or, if you're like me, when the leaves start to wither a smidge.
You can harvest all season long, and even over the winter if you feel like digging through the snow. Mint of all flavors is great on ice cream, in beverages, and--my personal favorite--steeped in hot water for a few minutes to make a lovely herb tea. If you're the sort who cooks, you'll love using it fresh out of the garden for your favorite recipes. As I mentioned previously, I also enjoy using mints when creating flower arrangements. The striated varieties add lots of color and depth, and any type makes for many an 'oh, wow, what's that smell is that MINT?!?'.

Some of the most interesting varieties that are available:

  • Banana Mint: Mentha arvensis, and really does smell like bananas. Chartreuse in color with lavender flowers, perennial in zones 5-11.
  • Peppermint: Mentha piperita. An old-fashioned standard. Lovely lilac flowers, perennial in zones 5-11.
  • Kentucky Colonel Mint: Mentha spicata cv. My personal favorite...this is a spearmint with nice, big, juicy leaves (the more the merrier!) that are the oomph behind the ever popular Mint Julep. Lilac flowers, perennial in zones 5-11. Yum.
  • Pineapple Mint: Mentha suaveolens variegata, a gorgeous variegated yellow and green species that has a wonderful fruity fragrance. White flowers, Hardy to zone 6.
  • Chocolate Mint: Mentha piperita cv. Remember those multi-colored 'gourmet mints' that restaurants had out on the counter when you went up to pay your bill? That's exactly what Chocolate Mint tastes like. And no one else's hands have been all over it. One hopes. Lilac flowers, perennial zones 4-11.
I've had the most luck ordering my plants from online retailers since my very favorite herb farm here in the area went out of business (they retired and are now enjoying their gardens full time) but you never know what you'll find even at the smallest shops as lots of times buyers will purchase what THEY like no matter how unusual.

Gosh, writing just two of these articles is making me very, very sad that summer has come to a close again. I shall live vicariously through those of you in the warmer climes and dream of spring as I write on...happy gardening!

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Herbal Garden: Aloe Vera

Welcome to the first article in what I hope will be an informative & interesting series about gardening with herbs! Way back in the early 90's I became a student of herbal medicine and alternative healing...and suddenly found myself, the woman with the Black Thumb, digging in the yard with a pick axe so I could have my very own organic supply of herb plants. I planted a grand total of 12 herbs, sat back, and waited with baited breath for what I was sure would be their imminent demise. But, good lord, even with my gross negligence they not only grew, THEY THRIVED! So I dug some more, and planted some more, and dug some more, and planted some more...and before I knew what was happening, I was a GARDENER. Shortly thereafter, I started my own little business selling herbs and sharing my experiences and haven't looked back since. But enough about me...let's talk about ALOE VERA!

You've seen it before...odds are you have some growing in your kitchen. It's in your lotions and cosmetics. You hear it mentioned in nearly every commercial in conjunction with the words 'dry skin.' It is by far one of the easiest herbs to grow, and the hardest to it became the first one I tried indoors.

Aloe is known by many names; it's official 'scientific' name is Aloe barbadensis but it also goes by 'medicine plant' or 'first-aid plant'. It's originally from Eastern and Southern Africa but can be cultivated outdoors in any tropical location. Here in the Northeast, it will happily reside outside during the summer months but will die at the first frost if you leave it there. Poor things. There are more than 240 different species of Aloe (all of those having an extra word or two added on to the scientific name to denote said species), and though it LOOKS like a succulent it's really a member of the Lily family. Apparently, some species will flower and produce fruit containing the seeds; I have yet to view such an amazing event.

Aloe gel is most commonly used to treat burns and skin irritations...and yep, it works like a charm every time. From what I've read, the reason it DOES work is because it helps your fibroblast cells function...those are the fellas that make collagen, and also are responsible for soothing cuts, burns and bruises. This explains just WHY it's touted in all sorts of skin creams and cosmetics, eh? When the juice from the base of the leaf is collected and evaporated it is called Aloes; over the millenia, it has been used for a multitude of health applications that I'll let you discover on your own. Remember...NEVER use any type of herb without consulting a practitioner first! Most commonly it was used as a laxative, and is also found in those horrible-tasting anti nail biting remedies. Yeech. But effective!

Now that you're completely fascinated and are ready to rush out and buy your very own aloe...or hug the one you already are some handy care and feeding tips for you.

  • Aloe plants are available at any nursery, and probably at your local grocery store if they have that sort of section.
  • Aloe is VERY sensitive to even the slightest hint of frost because it is comprised of 95% water. So bring it in EARLY!
  • If you're lucky enough to live where you CAN grow one outdoors (and man am I jealous) plant your Aloe in full sun or light shade in soil that drains well.
  • If you're like me and stuck in a place where frost is a bitter reality (pun intended) put your Aloe in a nice terracotta pot and stick it near a window that gets lots of sun. Since it prefers good drainage, make sure you put some shards or pebbles at the bottom of your pot before planting and use a sandy mix soil.
  • During the summer season, water your Aloe when it becomes dry, soaking it completely.
  • Over the winter, Aloes scale back on growth and use much less water, so you'll only need to give it a cup or so when it is REALLY dry.
  • You can fertilize it yearly, but I've never bothered and have always had perfectly fine growth. If you aren't as lazy as I am, use the type of fertilizer geared for blooming plants.
If you have a friend that's on the fence about jumping into the gardening ring, or if they think they have the dreaded Black Thumb like yours truly, buy them an Aloe plant as a nice little inexpensive gift. It will thrive, they'll start to realize that they CAN keep a plant among the living...and you'll have them hooked on growing in no time. Also a great gift for wedding showers, housewarming parties and the like.

Until next time, HAPPY GARDENING!

Time for Fall Slug Control

An aggressive effort to eliminate slugs during the approaching fall season will produce amazing results come spring, especially for gardeners whom have had slug infested plants this growing season. Controlling your garden's slug population in the fall allows your plants, especially shade plants such as hostas, to begin their spring growth season free from unsightly holes in their leaves and in extreme cases total devastation of the entire plant. Effort now prevents a slug feeding frenzy come spring.

If you are not familiar with slugs they are "simply snails (mollusks) without shells." Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet "Slugs & Their Management HYG-2010-95" by David J. Shetlar. "Slugs and Snails are classified as gastropods. They are more similar to clams and mussels than to other common pests such as insects." Colorado State University Cooperative Extension no 5.515 "Slugs" by W. S. Cranshaw. They come in a variety of colors including black, grey and covered in leopard spots. Grey and black slugs are most common in my part of the country (Midwest) however leopard spotted slugs can occasionally be found, adding a stylish element to garden destruction.

These slimy, ovalish creatures expand to a length of up to seven inches. A slug will normally appear much smaller when you spot it on the underside of leaves but if you catch it moving or you place it on your hand, it will expand up to and average length of around one to two inches. Slugs also have noticeable antenna when they elongate. Normally a gardener will find slugs in a nonelongated state where they appear to be wet black or grey lumps. Black slugs often have grey underbellies. Young slugs will often appear as black or grayish/ beige dots on plants and their surrounding garden beds. Young black slugs are almost impossible to spot unless they are on a plant of contrasting color. Black slugs often are mistaken for wet specks of dirt.

All slugs feed on a wide variety of ornamental plants and vegetables. They can consume young seedlings and maturing fruits and vegetables, damaging your crop at both the beginning and end of the growing season. See CSU Cooperative Extension no 5.515, "Slugs". The most common indicator of a slug problem is the appearance of holes in the middle of a plant's foliage. If a clear slime trail is also present on or around a plant, slugs are most likely the problem. Slug trails are most evident in early morning before dried by the sun. Slugs are nocturnal and feed mostly at night or early morning. They do not like light and hide during the day. The best time to look for evidence of slug infestation, (either the trails or the slug itself), is before the dew is dried by the sun. Slug trails can have a silver tint in the early morning and to assist in differentiating dew from slug trails just remember dew does not form a path to and from your favorite Hosta. Rain will bring these pests from their hiding places so any cloudy day after a rainstorm gives a gardener the opportunity to assess whether slugs are damaging their garden. Nighttime is also a very good time to check the garden but be prepared for strange looks from neighbors when you appear to be gardening by flashlight. Even neighbors who garden are often uneducated concerning the nature of gastropods and may ridicule your efforts. Presentation of a large slug often stops this reaction either because your neighbor is revolted by the slug or suddenly realizes your gardening knowledge is far superior to theirs.

The neighboring garden bed may also be the source for your infestation. A slug can travel further than most realize by utilizing slime trails, traversing over rougher terrain then most researchers give them credit for. I personally watched in amazement as a slug, utilizing a slime trail, traveled from one garden bed to another crossing a new textured concrete drive in the process. The slug was not injured though the concrete drive irritated my hands. Cypress mulch does not slow these creatures even though its rough edges should damage a slugs' body which consists mostly of water. Slugs will also escape yard waste containers if not properly sealed. Examining the lids of trash cans containing infested waste will frequently reveal a number of slugs trying to escape their containment. Excessive heat does seem to eliminate this problem as does topping your waste with salt or other slug pesticide. Before blaming your slug problem on your neighbor's garden it is first wise to correct the problem in your own garden and then begin to place barriers to prevent re-infestation.

Salt evaporates the water in a slug's body thus killing it. Salt, however, cannot be used directly in the garden since it will contaminate your soil and kill your plants. Chemical pesticides are available in most garden stores which claim to retard or kill slug populations. Gardeners with pets or small children are often reluctant to utilize these products in fear that they will harm more than the slug population. Dried egg shells, traps and containers of stale beer are all somewhat effective and detailed in most gardening manuals. An organic alternative to pesticides is the introduction of natural predators to control whatever gardening pest you are experiencing. The natural predators for snails and slugs are not attractive to the average gardener. Frogs eat slugs and if your garden is suitable to maintain a frog this may be a natural and picturesque method to reduce the slug population. Several types of birds eat slugs but I have not found them to be and adequate control method. The presence of a dog or a cat in a yard will reduce your bird population and therefore their effectiveness as a slug deterrent. A comprehensive list of slug predators can be found on the website, "Slug& Snail Trail" " The parasitic nematode, Phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita, is mentioned in this list as an effective slug predator. Links to suppliers of products containing these nematodes can be found on the above mentioned website.

If you are nervous about introducing biological agents into your garden or you are merely a frugal gardener, handpicking slugs and their eggs from your garden is the most effective first assault on a slug population. This method is environmentally safe and allows a gardener to assess the degree to which slugs have made your garden their home.

While many individuals are initially revolted by slugs, close observation of this creature inspires a rather begrudging admiration. While I have not yet made a slug my pet, as have individuals I know, I do have respect for their adaptation to their environment and their ability to survive. I view them as a worthy foe, not to be underestimated in my quest for a beautiful garden.
As previously noted, slugs have few natural predators in an average garden. The very elements that produce a beautiful, productive garden, good soil and moisture also produce healthy slugs. While dry weather reduces slug activity, it does not eliminate the problem. A good rainstorm or watering will bring the pests from their hiding places to begin again their assault on your garden.

A good freeze does not kill slugs as it does so many other garden pests. (Note some species do die in winter but not the grey or garden slug) Slugs over winter in your garden. This means slugs essentially hibernate during the winter months when plant life is scarce. During those brief warm spells that occur during winter, active slugs can be found under garden edgings and under leaf piles. In fact slug eggs are rather easy to find during the winter months if you can differentiate them from ice crystals. Slug eggs, tiny crystal-like balls, can be found in groupings of five to thirty, beneath the mulch, dirt, and in cracks and crevices of a garden. These eggs can be found in the garden during the entire year but sense slugs lay their eggs primarily in the fall and in the spring, finding the eggs in the winter is not unusual. These eggs survive the winter and will bring a new crop of slugs come spring.

The mating season for slugs is August to mid-October. There is some evidence slugs can reproduce asexually but most slugs seem to seek a mate. Within a few days after mating, the slug lays eggs into a hole in the ground. See Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. In warm weather these eggs can mature in as few as ten days. Efforts in the fall to eliminate slugs from the garden can not only eliminate fertile slugs that will lay eggs in the spring, eggs laid in the fall ,young slugs can be stopped from over wintering and destroying seedlings and emerging plants in the spring.

Once slugs are identified as the culprit the severity of the problem should be assessed. If a cursory inspection of the garden reveals numerous mature slugs of considerable size and even slug resistant plants are showing signs of slug damage a severe problem is present. Minimal plant damage, no visible slug trails nor mature slugs indicates a minor problem that pesticides or egg shells should correct.
When infestation is severe, drastic action should be taken. All plant debris and mulch should be removed from the affected area. Mulch provides a moist environment that slugs need to survive. Mulch also provides excellent hiding places for slugs and their eggs, making detection and removal extremely difficult. Mulch should be removed and the garden bed should not be re-mulched for at least a year. All yard waste, including mulch, should be disposed of, not composted for home use. If you compost this material you are merely relocating your slug population, not eliminating it.

The most severely damaged plants should be cut to the ground. Annuals should be removed first. Fall is the time annuals are removed from the garden so their absence in fall is not as ascetically unpleasing as removal would be during the rest of the growing season. Check the holes left by the removal of annuals for slugs and their eggs. Remove any signs of infestation. Cut the majority of the perennials to the ground, leaving some plants to serve as bait for the slug population. Dispose of the plant waste. Inspect the remainder of the plants for signs of infestation, not forgetting the remainder of any perennial you have cut to the ground. For seriously motivated gardeners, perennials can be dug up, inspected and replanted if eggs or slugs are not found in the root system or they have been removed. Throughout the fall continue to inspect your garden for indications of slug infestation and utilizing a hand rake or garden claw disturb the garden dirt so as to uncover and disrupt any slug hiding places or eggs. Keep the garden beds free of leaves and other garden waste since slugs are not only attracted to live plants but also to decaying garden matter. After the first freeze, cut the rest of your perennials to the ground.

Finally, check under material used as edging, such as bricks, stones or plastic. If the edging is permanent, utilizing a stick or garden tool, disrupt the ground by creating an indentation in the dirt on both sides of the edging material to discover eggs and active slugs. If your edging is movable, periodically turn your bricks or stones over and inspect them and the ground beneath for evidence of infestation. Garden ornamentation such as small statues, baskets, or flower pots should be checked regularly for live slugs as these ornaments serve as perfect hiding places for garden pests.

Finally prevent slugs from re entering your garden. Slugs will often hide in your lawn. During a particularly sluggy summer, slugs can be seen atop a lawn early in the morning or after a rainstorm. Slugs have also been observed dropping from trees, disturbing more than one early morning paperboy. Most garden books suggest copper striping as an effective slug barrier. Diatomaceous earth and lime are also mentioned. Only the copper striping does not need to be replaced after rain. Copper striping may be effective, but utilizing copper plumbing pipe was not effective in my experience. Dried crushed egg shells appear to have some effect as their edges become razor sharp and theoretically cut the slug causing death. Egg shells must be replaced when it rains but hopefully they add calcium to the soil. If there is evidence that your infestation is coming from either your lawn or adjoining gardens, daily sprinkling of dried egg shells, or any other barrier method is worth a try.

The most common suggestion for disposing of live slugs is to drop them in a bucket of soapy water where they drown. If lugging a bucket of watery dead slugs does not appeal to you , I have found placing them in paper yard waste bags which then must be tightly closed, will also work. A light dusting of salt on the top will ensure that any escapees will be stopped in their tracks. Placing the slugs in plastic bags used to pick up animal waste and disposing of them will also insure your garden pests will not return to their old chomping grounds.

If your slug problem is less severe, or you are obsessed by the need for a perfect garden, inspection in the fall will help you prevent (or at least slow) any slug problems in the spring. Each slug you remove is one more slug that cannot mate, reproduce, or over winter in the garden. Removing leaves, dead foliage, and annuals will go a long way to keeping your garden pest free. The garden will lose the important nutrients that homemade mulch can provide, but most leaves and annuals are removed in spring anyways. Perennials will survive the winter without protection and will look better in the spring if beds are cleaned in the fall. Rotating years when you utilize plant foliage and shredded leaves as additives to your garden is a prudent course of action when only minor slug infestation is present.

Handpicking slugs is dirty, slimy work. The results, especially if started in the fall and continued in the spring, will be a beautiful pest free garden. (Well almost). By getting down and dirty, a gardener becomes in tune to the garden habitat including garden pests and their lifecycles. Problems become easier to identify, thus can be corrected earlier before serious damage is done. Slugs are well adapted to thrive in the average garden. Interrupting their habitat and habits is the most effective way of controlling their population. While winter slug hunting is a little extreme, it may give a bored gardener something to do on a warm February day. Fall slug control; however, is a must for all gardeners who want beautiful plants come spring.