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    Save the Date: Perennial Plant Society’s 30th Plant Sale is April 4, 2020, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. at the new Expo 3 Building at The Fairgrounds Nashville. Here’s where you can find the newest varieties of perennials, shrubs, vines and annuals from local growers, along with long-time, never-fail favorites, ready for spring planting. Learn more at the PPS website.

     

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Cut flowers to bring summer indoors

With summer in full bloom, those daisies and black-eyed Susans, zinnias and sunflowers, coneflowers, dahlias and others make beautiful bouquets to enjoy indoors. To make those bouquets last longer, it’s best to start early.

“I definitely always cut before the heat of the day sets in,” says Tallahassee May, owner of Turnbull Creek Organic Farm in Bon Aqua, Tenn. “This is better than in the evening, when the flowers still seem to hold heat from the day, even after the sun has set.”

The secret to long-lasting bouquets from the garden, May says, is to keep things clean. Continue reading

Zinnias for summer – and a Book Giveaway!

I love seeing zinnias in a summer garden, and want to plant them in my yard this year. Is it too late to grow them from seeds?

ZinniasYou’d get that great summer zinnia look a little sooner by planting bedding plants, if you can find them, but early May is not too late to plant zinnia seeds. In fact, they get off to a better start if you sow seeds after the soil has warmed, as they sprout and grow quickly.

Sow the seeds in a prepared garden bed (good garden soil in full sun) about ¼-inch deep. Keep the bed moist, and once they’re up, thin the plants to at least six inches apart. This is important to provide good air circulation around the plants; a bed planted too thickly may be more susceptible to powdery mildew when summer’s humidity sets in.

Then, just wait a few weeks for them to start blooming. Butterflies will love them, and you’ll be able to cut flowers for summer bouquets from the time they start blooming until frost knocks them down. The more you cut, the better and bushier the plants will be.

There are dozens of zinnia varieties, tall and short, and a range of colors. Most of the familiar forms are common zinnia, Zinnia elegans, but gardeners who wish to avoid the powdery mildew problem may want to try Z. angustifolia, or narrow-leaf zinnia, which grows in a mounded form. The flowers resemble miniature daisies, and the plant blooms from early summer to frost.

A fun fact that I found at the Rodale’s Organic Life website: when zinnias, which are native to Mexico, were introduced in Europe, the flowers were referred to as “everybody’s flower” because they were so common and easy to grow.

Book Giveaway! Southern Gardener’s Handbook by Troy Marden

©Troy B. Marden

©Troy B. Marden

If you ask Troy Marden about the best plants for a garden, he’ll most likely talk about soil.

“That may not be the answer you expected and it’s usually not the answer most people want to hear,” he says. “People want to plant pretty flowers, trees and shrubs.

“But if you don’t start with your soil – amend it, feed it, nurture it – the results will be lackluster.” That’s especially true here in the south, where we often try to coax a garden out of heavy, wet clay.

Troy is one of the Mid-state’s favorite go-to garden experts, so we listen to what he says. He’s passing along more of his garden knowledge in a new book, Southern Gardener’s Handbook, published this spring. Besides his thorough lesson on soil and how to make it better, he offers his ideas for best practices on watering, fertilizing, understanding microclimates, sun and shade, compost and “greener ways to garden.” This is followed by three hundred full-color plant profiles, organized under ten plant categories from annuals to vines.

“I wrote this guide as comprehensive, but approachable,” Troy says. “Interesting enough for the more seasoned gardener, but easy enough to understand for those who might be getting their hands dirty for the first time.”

southern gardeners handbookThe Giveaway: Here at The Garden Bench, we are giving away two copies of Southern Gardener’s Handbook from the publisher, Cool Springs Press.

Leave a comment at the end of this post about your favorite May blooms – or just say “Count me in!” Respond by 6 p.m. Friday, May 15, 2015, and your name will go into a drawing to win one of two copies of Troy Marden’s Southern Gardener’s Handbook.

Small space, big returns: It’s possible to grow edibles and ornamentals even if you don’t have a plot of soil that you can call a garden. In Saturday’s Tennessean, master gardener Mary Boyd discusses several ways to garden in small spaces. Master Gardeners of Davidson County is getting ready for its annual Urban Garden Festival on May 16.

Divide irises after they bloom

Our bearded irises are coming up and they’re pretty crowded this year, and need to be dug up and divided. If we divide them now, before they bloom, will we still have flowers this year?

Purple irisIf your iris bed is crowded but still producing blooms, it is best to wait until later to dig up the iris bed and divide the rhizomes. The experts at the American Iris Society and other sources say iris beds should be divided every three to five years, and suggest mid- to late-summer as the best time for this task.

When the time comes this summer, here is the method suggested by author Judy Lowe in Month-by-Month Gardening in Tennessee & Kentucky:

Cut the leaves in a fan shape about 6 inches tall, then lift the clump with a spading fork, wash off the dirt, and inspect the rhizome for soft spots, damage or disease.

Cut the rhizome into smaller pieces with a sharp knife, making sure each piece includes an eye or a bud. Cut away any older growth. Lowe notes that iris rhizomes are susceptible to fungal problems, and suggests dipping the rhizome briefly into a solution of one part liquid bleach to nine parts water.

Replant the sections: Dig a hole and make a mound of soil in the center, then place the rhizome on top so that its roots spread over the mound. Cover the roots, but maintain the rhizome at soil level or just below it. Bearded iris rhizomes that are planted too deep may rot, she says. Water the bed well.

Dividing in summer allows the rhizomes to become established before the end of the growing season, and more likely to bloom well next spring.

Color Garden book giveaway

Thanks to readers who left comments this week for a chance to win The Nonstop Color Garden by Nellie Neal. Constance is the winner of the random drawing.

Nellie, her book, and information from Doris Weakley of the Perennial Plant Society of Middle Tennessee were featured in a story in last Saturday’s Tennessean. You can read it here.

And watch for another book giveaway soon.

Bring spring in early by forcing blooms

How do you force forsythia and other flowering shrubs to bloom indoors?

Branches of flowering quince can be coaxed to bloom indoors.

Branches of flowering quince can be coaxed to bloom indoors.

Can’t wait for spring? Branches cut from those early-flowering shrubs can be coaxed to bloom indoors weeks before they start to bloom outside. Here are tips for forcing branches into bloom from garden author Judy Lowe, in Month by Month Gardening in Tennessee & Kentucky:

On a day when the temperature is above freezing, cut 12- to 18-inches stems with the biggest buds. Scrape the cut ends of the branches about three inches up, or crush the ends of the branches with a hammer, and place the branches in a bucket of warm water for 24 hours.

Pour out the water and fill the bucket with cool water mixed with floral preservative, (which you can find at a florist or craft supply store). Place the container in a cool, dark spot.

When the buds begin to show color, move the container into the light, but not in direct sun. Add water to the vase or replace it as needed, and add more floral preservative. Move the vase into full sun when the flowers begin to open.

Branches from many early-flowering shrubs and trees can be forced into bloom. Some of the favorites (and easiest) are forsythia, flowering quince, spicebush and kerria, Judy Lowe says.

Plant pansies for fall and winter color

I would like to have pansies in my garden this fall and winter. Is it better to plant them in pots or in the ground?

Pansies 2Pansies can be a pretty addition to the landscape in the fall, either in garden beds or in containers. They’re easy to care for and won’t wither and die when the temperature drops – in fact, they thrive in cool weather.

You can grow pansies from seed, but it’s easier to start with transplants, which are available in nurseries and garden centers everywhere around the region right now. Start with plants that are compact and healthy (if they are already leggy and shaggy, they may never look as nice as you’d wish).

To plant in containers, use a good potting mix and make sure there is adequate drainage (experts at Organic Gardening suggest using a newspaper or paper towel layer over the drainage holes, rather than pot shards or gravel, to keep soil from washing out). Plant densely, and water the plants thoroughly.

In garden beds, proceed with the planting of pansies as you would any other annual: Prepare the garden bed, adding compost or other organic material so that the soil drains well. Space the transplants closely (garden expert Judy Lowe suggests placing them 4 inches apart) and firm the soil around the plants so they won’t be lifted out of the ground as the soil freezes and thaws. Water thoroughly, and add a layer of mulch. Fertilize weekly until frost with a product made for flowering plants.

Pansies grow best in full sun but can tolerate partial shade.

Pansies may begin to look scrappy during the coldest part of winter, but they likely will spring back to life when the weather begins to warm up again. Enjoy them for a while longer in spring, and be prepared to replace them as things heat up. Pansies do not grow well in the summer heat.

Why lilacs don’t bloom

Question: Our lilac bush receives sunlight for about half the day and bloomed in the past, but not much. Now it does not bloom at all, though the foliage is healthy. It is planted in well-drained soil, and other lilacs in the neighborhood are doing well.

Lilac

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) ‘Albert F. Holden’

Lilacs are deciduous shrubs that produce clusters of flowers in mid-spring. There are several factors that could keep the plant from flowering, but the most common is the lack of sufficient sunlight. Garden experts who favor lilacs insist that they really need full sun – six or more hours of direct sunlight – to bloom.

As gardens grow and change over the years, the nature of the sunlight the garden receives may also change – trees grow taller and wider and filter more of the sunlight that gets to your garden. Could that be a factor in your landscape?

Lilacs also need adequate water in summer – not just a sprinkling around the roots, but the entire ground, says gardener Anne Owen, who has several years’ experience with growing lilacs in Middle Tennessee.

One other thing to consider is whether the plant needs pruning, which could encourage the setting of new buds and flowers next year (lilacs bloom on the previous year’s growth).

And as always, consider testing the soil. If a soil sample from your garden bed test low in phosphorous, the lilac may respond to an application of fertilizer.

In general, here is what lilacs need to grow well and bloom each spring: Full sun, well-drained soil that is lightly alkaline or neutral pH, regular water. Be aware that they are prone to developing powdery mildew. Also note that lilacs bloom best where winters are consistently cold, and they suffer in long, hot summer nights. If you live in the Southern U.S., garden expert Felder Rushing suggests planting lilacs in well-drained soil on the north side of a building, where it might be colder in winter, and hope for cool August nights.

Prune clematis for a better show of blooms

Question: Our spring-blooming clematis vine has grown tall and seems very healthy, but it blooms mainly at the top. The bottom six feet has very few blooms and not much foliage this spring. Can you tell me why?

clematis 2Clematis flowers clambering over a sturdy trellis or other support are a lovely sight each spring. When this woody flowering vine gets too top-heavy, with all the flowers at the top and bare stems at the bottom, the problem has to do with pruning – or lack of it. Early-flowering clematis blooms in spring from buds formed last season. Plant experts recommend pruning it each year to help the plant produce the maximum number of flowers. The time to do that is as soon as you can after it finishes blooming to allow time for new growth to produce flower buds for next year.

Horticulturists writing for a fact sheet from Ohio StateUniversity say that sometimes you can cut back into older wood of old, neglected plants to encourage new buds to break. The vines are most likely tangled, so when you prune, make cuts carefully, and train the stems to cover the maximum are on their support.

Note also that there are other varieties of clematis that bloom a bit later, on new growth, and those varieties should be pruned in the winter.

In general, here is what clematis needs to thrive: Loose, fast-draining soil that is high in organic matter, and regular water. Gardeners like to say that clematis prefers to have its head in the sun and its feet in the shade, so provide a thick layer of mulch to keep the roots cool. You can also plant a ground cover such as mondo grass around the base of the clematis vine.

Keep your daffodils happy

After a long winter, the daffodils are finally beginning to bloom! Do they need any special care to make them bloom better?

Daffodils from AnnaDaffodils are generally easy-care spring bulbs, but a little extra care each year can increase and improve blooms over time. The American Daffodil Society offers these tips:

As daffodils bloom, topdress the soil with 0-10-10 or 0-0-50 fertilizer. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizer, which may produce more foliage than flowers.

Daffodils need water while they’re growing, so if there is a dry spell, provide regular water until after blooming has stopped.

After daffodils bloom, leave the foliage until it turns yellow. This is the time the bulbs are gathering strength to bloom again next year.

The weather in late winter and early spring can be capricious, and it’s always possible that a hard frost or freeze can cause the stems to collapse, leaving the flowers drooping to the ground. If that happens, go ahead and cut some of the flowers and enjoy them in a vase indoors.

Vote for Cheekwood!

Nashville’s Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art is one of the finalists for BestPublicGarden in USA Today Travel’s 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards list. Those who love and enjoy the beautiful gardens are encouraged to vote daily for Cheekwood in an online poll to help win the award.

Our beloved Middle-Tennessee favorite is in good company. The list, compiled by expert, author and lecturer Cindy Brockway, also includes ButchartGardens of Victoria, British Columbia; ChicagoBotanic Garden in Chicago, Illinois; HuntingtonBotanical   Garden in Los Angeles, California; LongwoodGardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania and United   StatesBotanical Garden in Washington, D.C., among others.

“Thanks to recent high-profile exhibitions, expanded programming, and recognition like the 10Best list, Cheekwood is seen more and more as a national treasure, right in our back yard,” says Cheekwood President and CEO Jane O. MacLeod. “We invite our community to help build our national reputation by voting for Cheekwood in the 10Best online poll.”

To vote for Cheekwood, visit 10best.com/awards/travel/best-public-garden between now and March 31. Vote early and often – yes, you can vote every day. As of this writing, Cheekwood ranked a very close third among the 20 finalists for total votes.

For great new garden beds, start with the soil

Question: We are building a new house and would like to have flower gardens around it. How and when should we start a new garden?

soilTo start new flower beds, begin with the basics. The first step is to decide where, what shape and how large you want the beds to be, considering design elements, how you plan to use the garden and how the beds fit into your overall landscape plans. That may sound overwhelming, but if you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you can start small and build and expand over time.
Start with the most basic element, the soil. Investing a little effort into it at the beginning ensures that the beds will get off to a good start and get better over the years.

The ground around new construction is often packed down and littered with nails, chunks of cement, wood chips and other building detritus, so start by cleaning up as much as possible. Then take the time to have a soil test done. This will let you know what nutrients the soil contains and what amendments may need to be added for what you are planning to plant. Your county’s extension office can provide the necessary materials and instructions and will test the soil for a small fee.
You may also need to improve the soil’s texture. The best soil for growing most plants is loamy, and holds together somewhat when you squeeze a handful of it, but crumbles easily. You can improve tight-clumped clay soil or loose, sandy soil by working in organic matter, such as compost or peat moss.

The soil improvement phase can be done soon, after the ground is no longer frozen. Later, when it’s time to select plants for the beds, consider the growing conditions (how much sun or shade, whether it’s a wet or dry area, etc.) along with what you like and what fits with your overall plan, your budget, and the time commitment you want to make in terms of watering, deadheading and grooming the beds.

Become familiar with the growth requirements, expected growing height and habits of the plants you plan to use. Consider that some perennials and flowers grown from bulbs may offer shorter bloom times but grow and develop over a period of time, while annuals can offer more quick-growing color, but are gone after one season. With a little planning, you can have flowers in bloom in your beds throughout spring, summer and fall.

Tropical hibiscus adjusts to winter indoors

Question: I had two hibiscus trees in pots outdoors last summer and brought them in for the winter. I placed them in front of a sunny window, but now most of the leaves have turned yellow and fallen off. It does appear that new leaves are trying to grow. What should we do to keep these beautiful plants alive?

Hibiscus c Rojypala wikimedia commonsWhen you bring tropical hibiscus plants (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) indoors, they respond to the lower level of light by dropping their leaves, so your plants are doing what is normal. You can see that the plant is healthy, because new leaves are already sprouting.

To keep it healthy while it’s indoors this winter, provide water when the soil dries out to within 1 inch of the surface and feed it lightly every few weeks with a high-nitrogen fertilizer. Watch for spider mites, and use insecticidal soap to keep them under control.

A hibiscus growing outdoors can grow to unmanageable size, so now might be a good time to prune it, and if the plant needs repotting, it’s a good time to take care of that chore, as well.

Return the hibiscus to its outdoor home when the weather warms up again in the spring.