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  • Upcoming Garden Events

    Sept. 30: The Nashville Herb Society presents Through the Garden Gate: A Glimpse of Edwardian England, 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. at Cheekwood Botanic Hall. Celebrate the gardens, foods and flowers that delighted Downton Abby family and friends at the turn of the 20th century. The event begins with a hearty Edwardian breakfast, followed by three speakers: Marta McDowell on Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life; Geraldine A. Laufer on Tussie Mussie – Victorian art of expressing yourself in the language of flowers; and Terry White, The English Garden event florist . Registration includes breakfast, box lunch in the garden with music, English tea and cookies. To learn more or to register, visit www.herbsocietynashvlle.org.

    Tips & tasks – September

    Cut the dead tops of coneflowers, but leave enough for goldfinches to enjoy the seeds.

    Plant cool-weather vegetables for a fall crop: spinach, mustard and turnip greens, radishes, leaf lettuce.

    Start a new lawn of cool-season grass, such as fescue, or refurbish or repair establish lawns.

    Don’t let the soil of newly planted grass dry out. New grass needs about an inch of water per week.

    It’s still warm, so continue to water and weed garden beds as needed.

    Remove dead foliage, spent flowers and other garden debris; replenish mulch as needed.

    Continue to harvest produce, which may be getting a boost now from slightly cooler weather. Keep watering sage, rosemary and other perennial herbs so they’ll be in good shape to get through winter.

    Prepare to bring houseplants back indoors: remove dead leaves, scrub soil from the sides of the pots, treat for insects. Bring tropical plants in before nighttime temperatures dip to 55 degrees.

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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

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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.