Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Plant Buzz Words

I recently attended a great horticultural conference in Columbus, Ohio. I was fascinated with some dry erase boards that had been put up for passers-by to graffiti their response to several questions. To be sure, the attendees were all plant geeks enthusiasts. Anyway, the responses were totally positive and some almost spiritual. "Plants make me feel: complete/at peace/connected to God" and "Plants are important because: they transform me." Pretty moving stuff, wouldn't you agree?

I started thinking about how some people new to gardening might fill in those blanks. I know people that would say "intimidated", "scared that I'll kill them", "nervous", etc. I wondered, too, what would cause that reaction in something so crucial to our survival and the quality of our lives. I realize part of it may be the terms that plant people use, making the assumption that everyone knows what they mean. Shame on us! Let's rectify that assumption and demystify some key garden terms.

Annual - n. A plant that grows, flowers and completes its life cycle in one year. Or more simply, it needs to be planted every spring. Examples: Marigold, petunia, begonia.

Perennial - n. Can be grown from seed or division of another plant. Can have a "regular" root system, or can originate from a bulb, and is often confused with annuals. Plant a perennial and it lives for multiple years. Examples: Peony, Iris, daisy, Hosta, ferns.

Biennial - n. As you might suspect, falls sort of in between annual and perennial. Good to know, but there aren't a lot of them. Grows from seed and makes a mound of leaves one year, flowers, produces seed and fulfills its destiny the second year. Then, it's gone. Examples: Some foxgloves, hollyhocks.

Deadheading -  v. The removal of spent flowers and part of the stem. If the flowers are allowed to stay on long enough the plants will set seed. Once that happens new flower production slows or stops. Deadheading encourages rebloom of annuals and those perennials that have rebloom potential. You also enhance the aesthetics of your garden when plants aren't cloaked in discolored, water-soaked, petal-dropping flowers.

Cosmos before and after deadheading
Deadleafing - v. The removal of unattractive, diseased or dying leaves. You could deadleaf a rose with black spot-infested leaves or a daylily that was losing leaves after summer bloom is finished. Again, serves a hygiene function as well as an aesthetic one!

Disbudding - v. Is different than deadheading. It's an optional practice that increases flower size. For example, dahlias, tuberous begonias and peonies have a large center bud flanked by smaller secondary flowers on either side. Careful removal of the secondary buds (as soon as you can handle them) directs energy to the remaining central flower, making it larger. Want more color? Leave all flowers on and don't disbud. Want larger, but fewer, individual flowers? Disbud.

Dahlia not disbudded, left. Disbudded, right

Tuberous begonia not disbudded, left. Disbudded, right

Amendment - n. Any material (preferably organic) that is incorporated into soil to improve structure and enhance microbial activity. Examples: Compost, dehydrated manure, leaf mulch, cotton burr compost.
Mulch -  n. Any material (preferably organic) that is applied to the soil surface to: reduce weeds, watering and compaction, buffer soil temperatures, improve soil structure (as it breaks down) and frankly, look good. Examples: leaf mulch, shredded: hardwood, cedar or pine bark, compost. You're right, the answer is yes, some materials can be used for both amending and mulching.

Feeling less intimidated? Good, because plants and planting make you feel ______________________ . What would your write-in be?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Plant Life-Saving 101

Soggy soil and rotting roots

It's an understatement to say that spring rainfall has been more than adequate. This year even the River birches and willows are looking longingly toward higher, drier soil. While you can't stop Mother Nature there are actions to take to save plants after the recent downpours:

1) It seems obvious, but do override the in-ground sprinkler system. When air spaces in soil are full of water rather than oxygen, roots become stressed, roots may die. Even lawns, with their comparatively shallow root systems, have had enough for the time being. Save the water, save the money, save the plants.

2) Consider pulling mulch away from root systems to encourage surface drying. This might be a particularly keen idea for any soft-stemmed annuals, perennials or veggies. It may prevent rotting at the soil line. Pots of succulents should probably be brought under cover.
3) Water-compromised plants may show symptoms that include yellowing of lower, older foliage. Leaves may show unusual colors at the edges, or between the veins, which might indicate a nutrient deficiency. Compromised root systems don't transport nitrogen and "minor" elements efficiently.

4) Don't be surprised if plants with big soft leaves (Hydrangeas, for example) wilt even when you know soil is saturated. Yes indeed, your plants may wilt in both cases, whether they're too wet or too dry. So, be sure to check soil moisture levels before adding water to wilted plants that may already be floating.

5) Remember that plants in containers have more positive drainage than plants in beds. Most potting mixes are "soilless" and contain large amounts of bark or coarse peat to promote positive drainage. The minimal nitrogen content these mixes provide can be leached out of the bottom of the pot with heavy rainfall. You can apply: water solubles (Dyna-Gro), earth-friendly naturals (Dr. Earth, Espoma) or timed-release (Osmocote) to maintain optimal growth and beauty.

6) If you have hanging baskets or containers with saucers (either attached or otherwise) be religious about pouring off the drainage water within 30 minutes. After that, roots are drowning.

Drain those saucers

7) Slug populations will be exploding soon. Protect hostas, lettuce, spinach, cabbage and other slug favorites with Sluggo, which is indeed safe around edibles. Slugs will eat the bait, lose their appetite, stop feeding and die within a few days!

Slugs in the rampage

8) Fungal problems (black spot on roses, tomato blights, powdery mildew, leaf spots) will undoubtedly blossom with the abundant rainfall, heat and humidity. Remember that fungicides must be applied ahead of an infection. They will not reverse symptoms that are already present.

9) As the summer wears on we will reach a time when the soil is dry again. Rainfall is not cumulative. So,be sure to do regular checks of newly installed trees and shrubs even after measurable precipitation. Any plant that was container grown or had a small root ball will dry out more quickly than an established plant. Don't be lulled into thinking you don't have to water "new" plants for the rest of the summer. You will at some point in time.

10) Few plants tolerate standing surface water for long periods of time. If your garden has areas that flood and you aren't planning to correct the drainage (for whatever reason) research and use plants that are "flood tolerant". Even if those areas are bone dry later in the season you must plan and plant for worst case scenario. Baldcypress, River birch, Swamp white oak, 'Huron' gray dogwood, winterberry and a number of hardy ferns will endure challenging moisture conditions.

Rain, rain, it will go away. In the meantime, are any of these actions you can take right now to save lives in your garden?

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Dahlia Do's and Don'ts

Flowers, like celebrities, can have cyclical popularity. Based on the volume of customer questions, dahlias are the smokin' hot plant right now. Never grown them? Check them out at your local garden center and prepare to be dazzled.  

A wealth of choices
Hybridizers have expanded the range of flower and plant sizes, colors and flower forms so there's a dahlia for every taste. It's pretty darned cool to watch a quarter-sized bud open into an 8" (or larger) flower later in the summer! Yep, I'm in awe of big ole' dinnerplate dahlias.

Here are a few tips for success from my experience growing dahlias over the years as well as from people who grow them by the hundreds.

Undivided dahlia clump
The smaller bedding dahlias can be grown from seed, but the large-flowered varieties are grown from tubers (potato-like storage organs). They're most often sold as undivided clumps with multiple tubers. Don't just dig a hole and plop the old clump back in the ground. Get a sharp knife and cut a tuber from the mother clump. Each tuber must have an eye, or bud, to produce a new plant. Eyes will be at the end of the neck of the tuber, coming from last year's stem. A dahlia clump might have as few as one, or as many as 3-4 eyes.

Divided tuber with eyes
Like tomatoes, nothing is gained by planting dahlias too early. They're tropical in origin and shouldn't be planted until soil temperatures are consistently above 60 degrees F. They abhor cold, wet soils.
  1. Dig a hole 4-6" deep. The tuber will be placed horizontally in the bottom of the hole. Life is easier when you place the stake (you'll need a stake for these big, vigorous plants) in the hole next to the eye of the tuber. Dahlias, like vampires, resent having a stake driven through their heart, which is the tuber!
  2. Some growers recommend mixing dehydrated manure into the backfill soil as the organic amendment. You get the bonus of a small amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.
  3. Important: Dahlia wisdom is our spring soils generally contain enough moisture that you don't water at the time of planting. In fact, don't water until you see the first shoots breaking through the soil.
  4. Dahlias are an exception when it comes to mulching. You actually want the sun to hit the cool/cold soil and warm it up. So, don't be in a hurry to mulch. Remember they respond to sun and warmth.
  5. If you want a shorter, bushier plant (not a bad idea with plants that may be 6' tall by summer's end) you can pinch out the tip. As soon as the plants have more than 3 pairs of leaves, reach in gently with your fingers or a cutting tool and remove the growing point, leaving 3 pairs of leaves intact. Like most pruning this will produce a shorter plant with more shoots and potential flowering stems!
  6. Big flowers equal hungry plants, right? That sure seems like it would compute. But many dahlia growers urge against lots of nitrogen. Use a granular fertilizer with a ratio of twice as much phosphorous as nitrogen. Example: 5-10-10 (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium). Apply a month after planting, then a month later. Avoid water soluble fertilizers.
  7. When we get into hot weather water deeply when needed. Remember you planted those tubers 4-6" deep. They have lots of thirsty leaves and flowers later in the summer when it gets hot. Don't use wilting as your indicator that it's time to water. Always water deeply before wilting occurs.
  8. As your dahlias start budding you have a fun decision to make. Do you want masses of smaller flowers, but lots of color to be viewed from a distance? Or, do you want big, honking flowers for cutting or bragging rights (It's a guy thing, like having the first tomato on the block)? The former, do nothing. The latter, remove the buds paired on either side of the larger central bud as soon as you can handle them. The plant's energy will be directed into that remaining bud and will really increase the flower size.
Dahlias - definitely not for the fairy garden!!!             

Cactus-flowered dahlia

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