Lupines

by Sandy Swegel

One way to design your garden is to plan ahead, make sketches and get all of your seeds started indoors 8 weeks before frost.  Another way, for those of us not quite so organized, is to add a plant you absolutely fall in love with, no matter what the time of year.  Lupines fit this latter category for me.  Until I see them bloom, I forget how amazing they are. When they come into bloom, I am awestruck.  They are so unusual and big and beautiful and colorful.  I envy those in New Hampshire who went last week to the Sugar Hill Lupine Festival where you could ride horse-drawn wagons through fields of lupine.  The festival continues this weekend if you live nearby.  Friends sent photos of lupines against the sea in Cape Cod and I knew it was time to get the packets of seeds of lupine that I’ve had unopened since February.

 

June is probably a little late to get flowers for this year from seed, but it is perfect timing for growing big plants that will put out big flowers next June.  Even if you already have some lupine growing, it is a good time to start some more.  Lupines are biennial or short-lived perennials so you need to keep starting new plants if they aren’t seeding themselves around.  They germinate pretty easily especially if you give them a cold stratification or just soak them overnight in warm water before seeding.  Lupines are easy to grow.  They like moist areas but tolerate drought.

 

There are good reasons to grow lupine other than their drop-dead gorgeousness.  Permaculturists value lupine as nitrogen fixers and phosphorus accumulators.  Bees and other nectar-eating pollinators value the abundant nectar from lupines.  Lacewings like to lay eggs on them. Birds eat their seeds. And we feast on their beauty.

Photo Credit

Lupines of Cape Cod, L Fulton, 2016

Perched Among the Lupines, Michael Carr of Somersworth, NH 2013

Keeping Drought Tolerant Plants Happy

by Sandy Swegel

One of the most popular mixes of wildflower seeds that we sell is the Drought Tolerant Mix.  It’s a good combination of both perennial and annual flowers that can handle some stressful situations and still make beautiful flowers.

Growing drought-tolerant plants may be different than gardening the way most of us are used to.  While supplemental water is helpful during germination and the early growth of the plant, too much water will most often cause the plants to have too much fast green growth that is weak. A heavily watered drought-tolerant plant will often produce few flowers and in rich moist garden soil can simply rot and die.

Understanding what it is that makes plants “drought tolerant” may help you understand better how to care for the plants.  Even drought-tolerant wildflowers still need water to thrive, (they are drought “tolerant” not drought “loving”), but they have adapted to drought conditions in several clever ways.

Some plants, especially ones that thrive in the prairie, grow very long tap roots that seek out water deep below the surface.  Coneflower and butterfly weed are two plants that have taproots. Dandelions too, that’s one reason they are so tough to get rid of.

Other plants learn to store water.  Cacti and yucca come to mind first, but other plants that store water in the leaves are succulents like sedums or hen and chicks.  Break open a leaf and gel-like water oozes out. Some sturdy wildflowers save water in their roots.  The tubers that Liatris makes are a good example.Tag for Drought-Tolerant Wildflower Mix packet.

A common adaptation to drought has been to conserve water by limiting the amount of water the plants lose to the air.   Plants typically lose water through their leaves, so drought-tolerant plants will have leaves that conserve water…by having narrow leaves like penstemon, or hairy leaves such as lamb’s ear. Other plants have silver or bluish leaves that reflect back the sunlight. Desert marigolds conserve water this way.

Once you understand how the plants are holding onto water, it makes sense that lots of water would stress drought-tolerant wildflowers.  They would have no way to get rid of the extra water.

Photo credit: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/473362

 

Grow Your Own Flower Arrangements

by Sandy Swegel

Giving and receiving flowers is one of the great joys of Valentine’s Day. Everyone, men and women, adults and children, loves to get flowers and for a gardener, it’s easy to have an abundant supply of flowery love to give away.  As you’re planning your garden now, be sure to have a supply of flowers that make great arrangements.  Here are some suggestions of what to grow.

Fillers
When I worked for a garden center with a flower shop I learned some secrets of garden design. The first thing florists do when making an arrangement is to fill a vase with water and the greens they want as the foundation of the arrangement.  Then they added in filler flowers like baby’s breath and tiny asters or sea lavenders.  This is also when curly willow or other woody filler went in. With all those fillers in place, the vase is packed and you can insert some of your show-stopping flowers here and there and they stand tall and well-spaced in the vase.

So the first step to growing your own flower arrangements is to grow your own fillers.  You need sturdy greens like ferns or peony leaves or azalea leaves. Herbs like sage or tarragon also are good green filler. Other favorite fillers will be wildflowers with lots little flowers.  Annual baby’s breath always looks great as do wild asters, sea lavenders or clumps of blue flax.  Multi-stemmed flowers are also good supporting flowers.  Bachelor buttons and daisies work well as do columbines and a stem or two of penstemon. Think nice airy wispy kinds of flowers.

The Divas
Now that you have a vase full of greens and supporting flowers, you can choose a few show-stoppers to pull it all together.  Showy perennials like roses, peonies, lilies or annuals like dahlias or sunflowers are the high impact flower.

I did start growing flowers as a way of saving money. I could create great gift arrangements by clipping a few blooms here and there.  But I did need something to put the flowers in.  Mason jars work well plus I learned that thrift stores always have an abundance of vases for $1. Putting the flowers in a vase means you give the beauty of the flowers and your own artful touch in the arranging.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all.  As gardeners, you know how giving and receiving flowers evokes and shares the love so plan your garden so you can give flowers all year long.

Photo Credit:
lillyhiggins.blogspot.com/2010/09/wild-flower-arranging-is-where-its-at.html
www.pinterest.com/source/keithstanley.com/

Starting your Perennials NOW

by Sandy Swegel

It’s Time.

Even here in snowy Colorado, it’s time. Even if some weird polar vortex has kept you housebound and you’ve lost track of what day it is…it’s time.  Time to start our perennial seeds. Spring really is on its way. 

One of the interesting aspects of a culturally liberal place like Colorado is that we’re very open-minded.  There’s somebody celebrating just about every religion’s and culture’s holiday now.  Two events this week remind me how human beings everywhere celebrate the hope for the return of Spring. First, there was a big Groundhog Day celebration for kids in one of our nature centers.  Our groundhog day is actually a big fake because true groundhogs don’t live here.  But we have a fine stuffed toy groundhog that is the center of a snowy celebration.  Our other event was a Celtic festival for Imbolc, a Gaelic festival centered around St. Brigid or the pagan goddess Brighid, depending on your point of view.   Both holidays are traditional days to forecast when Spring is coming.  Whether Spring is coming sooner or later is all the same to a gardener.  The point is that it is now the midpoint between Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox and Spring is definitely on its way.

So you have two things to do:

First, you can start looking for the signs of Spring.  A snowdrop erupting in a warm spot. A weed or two starting to green up.  Keep your eyes open…you’ll see Spring if you look.

Second, you can start your perennial seeds.  It’s too soon for warm season crops like tomatoes, but a great time to start slow starting perennial flowers and herbs.   Perennials are often slower to germinate than annuals, but they are also more able to withstand cold temperatures.  So if I start the seeds now (or in the next few weeks), I’ll have plants ready to go outside in a protected spot by April…when I’ll need the space to start annuals.

The first week of February is the time I traditionally start perennial seeds indoors under lights.  My setup is pretty simple…a shop light dangling from a rod in my closet with a seed tray underneath. Here are the two kinds of seeds I’m starting this week:

Perennial Edibles
In the vegetable garden, herbs are the best perennials to start now. Think of winter hardy herbs: oregano, lavender, parsley, rosemary. It’s not the time for basil yet.

Wildflowers
Edibles are great, but one must never forget food for the soul—the beautiful wildflowers.  If you think to start perennial flowers might be difficult, take inspiration from an article in Fine Gardening magazine about 10 Perennials Easily Grown from Seed.     finegardening.com/design/articles/perennials-grown-from-seed.aspx

It might be frozen outside right now, but I look for Spring everywhere.  The Groundhog searches for his shadow….I’m watching my seed tray for the first tiny sprouts!

Photo Credits:
finegardening.com/design/articles/perennials-grown-from-seed.aspx

Best Supporting Actor – Dark Opal Basil

by Sandy Swegel

Some plants are meant to be the star of the garden.  Dahlias, for example.  You can see them from across the yard and they elicit gasps of delight at their beauty.  While stars do make the garden, they only really dazzle when surrounded by a strong supporting cast. And that’s where Dark Opal Basil really shines. Its black shiny leaves provide a color background that makes white and brightly colored flowers in the garden “pop.” But as they say on late night TV, “That’s not all…”

Here are five more ways Dark Opal Basil really is a superstar.

Dark Opal Basil is super cute planted as a border in front of the tomato bed.  Brushing along the basil releases its great hot summer aroma.  Some say Dark Opal Basil, like all basils, helps repel tomato hornworm.

Its own pink to white flowers on dark purple bracts shine on their own.

Its dense foliage fills all the empty space in containers and display beds.  Visually, it pulls together a lot of other plants like zinnias and salvias that can look bare at the bottom.

It is yummy.  I like it growing near the cherry tomatoes so on a warm summer afternoon I pick one leaf of basil and wrap it around one cherry tomato for a refreshing flavor burst.

Dark Opal is said to be the favorite purple basil for cooks because of mild flavor and a tender leaf.  It looks and smells great in a salad, served with fresh mozzarella or use a sprig of it in a Bloody Mary.

Hurry up Springtime. I’m ready to plant Today!

Photo Credits:
gardening.ktsa.com/pages/7670364.php?
foodwineclick.com/2013/08/25/basil-tasting/

 

Bring More Color to Your Wild Areas

by Sandy Swegel

At this time of year when we’re mired in cold and snow, I yearn for two delights of Spring:  when the daffodils and tulips bloom and when the meadows burst with wildflowers.  One thing about wildflowers though, especially in our suburban gardens.  A few years after planting it seems that just a few wildflowers start to dominate.  Often it’s the bachelor buttons and California poppies, both beautiful flowers, but we need diversity and variety and wild color to really shake winter off.

The secret to a lush wildflower area (besides good rainfall) is to over-seed the area every once in a while with some of your favorite flowers.  I usually take the easy way and just throw out a packet of our mixed wildflower seeds to get an overall refreshing of the original mix I planted years ago.  But for one friend who has created a “hot colors” theme of red and orange in her garden, we throw out packets of red wildflowers.  This year we just did a search for Flowers by Color and picked out the flowers we liked with the truest red colors.  We settled on red columbines for Spring, red firecracker penstemons for early summer and red gaillardia for mid-summer.

Finally, my absolute favorite reseeding in the Spring is to seed the Parade of Poppies mix.  There just are never enough poppies of any sort in my mind.  This year I’ve slipped a seed packet in my coat pocket for some guerilla gardening during my sunny day walks along old abandoned properties and ditches that grows lots of weeds.  Poppies will brighten my path this year!

This year I’m also going to try taking a baggie full of our new StrawNet (pellets of straw) when I do my wild area guerilla gardening.  The biggest problem with just throwing seeds out onto abandoned land is that I can’t water them every day.  StrawNet absorbs water and helps create a little moist barrier for new seeds so I expect it to help more seedlings survive even if we have a dry Spring.  Sometimes nature needs a little help to be as beautiful as she can be.

Photo Credit: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/columbines/images/aschockleyi/aquilegia_schockleyi_habitat_katewalker_lg.jpg

Best of Show for Fall Flowers

by Sandy Swegel

And the nominees are:

Asters, Asters and Asters. I am always entranced by asters. They offer intense color at summer’s end and an alternative to the perfect rounded chrysanthemums you see for sale everywhere.  I don’t have many asters because sometimes they just dry up in late summer heat or they flop all over because I was too busy with the tomatoes to stake them…This year the asters bloomed and bloomed and bloomed.  Even wild asters were beautiful.  The Aster novae-angliae is a wonderful performer that does well even in partial shade.  Included with the nominees this year is the Daisy Aster, not a real aster but an Erigeron, but I have it lined along the edge of the garden where it has formed a mat of little white flowers for months this year.  Next year, I’m trying all of the blue asters.  They are just magnificent this year leaning through the neighbor’s chain link fence.

Yellow Columbine Always a good performer, yellow columbine is still pumping out flowers this fall. One little plant will probably get the “Most Determined” award by managing to seed itself and then grow up through the juniper. Yellow Columbine and Blue Scabiosa have competed in past years for being both the earliest and latest bloomers.

Red Salvias The blue salvias were nice enough this year, but the red salvias rule this fall, having tall bright flower heads in full bloom, glorious when highlighted by the gold foliage of nearby trees and shrubs.  The Salvia coccinea in the wildflower garden and the Salvia greggii and Salvia splendens in containers are competing for who can be the most vivid.

Agastache Hummingbirds and bees love the red salvias, but the agastaches must be very tasty this year.  A couple of weeks ago some wild winds had knocked over the agastache so I went out to try to stake them up a bit.  The bees that were out there happily feeding had a definite opinion. Their hum changed from a happy “I’m just eating and going here and there” to a menacing “Don’t touch my dinner” as I was jostling the plants and I decided the flowers looked just great, leaning over the nearby echninacea.

The judge for the garden awards isn’t very impartial, so the asters will probably win because they haven’t gotten any awards in recent years, but I think all four of these flowers would look fabulous planted together in a wildish meadow type design.

Primping for Winter Interest

by Sandy Swegel

As Fall proceeds at full speed, our tasks in the garden take a new direction.  There’s no longer time for flowers to set new buds to bloom before frost.  There won’t be any tomatoes that aren’t already on the vine.  A killing frost will come soon and kill off many of the annual flowers. So it’s time to start getting the garden ready to look good this winter.  Now instead of thinking about colorful flower displays, we turn our thoughts to structure and texture in the garden.  We want to leave tall flower seedheads to dramatically collect snow in winter as well as feed the birds.  There’s no more deadheading roses – now you want to see the rose hips mature and redden as the air gets cooler. Tall ornamental grasses will sway dramatically in winter winds.

In short, here are the things you don’t need to do anymore this year.

Stop deadheading flowers. You want to see stately stems of echinacea and rudbeckia in the winter garden. Blooms of butterfly bush frozen in place will give a hint of color into the winter.  Small plants you thought were finished like scabiosa or dianthus will throw out a few final blooms that provide some late bee nectar.

Let dying foliage stay in place.  Earlier in the season, I’d pull off dead leaves from daylilies, so things would look their best.  Now, brown and golden foliage against green leaves is part of the vibrancy of Fall.

Let vines wander where they may. I spend a good part of the summer garden season trying to prevent aggressive Virginia Creeper from pulling down branches of the wild plum and apple trees. Now the crisp red color of the Virginia Creeper delights me and I love seeing its leaves vining all throughout the garden.  Even the weedy self-sowing morning glories have beautiful golden tones as they twine up and down flower stalks.

Let your flowers reseed.  The easiest way to garden is to let your flowers reseed themselves.  Bachelor Buttons and Mexican Hat and California Poppies are all dispersing their seeds to soak in the winter moisture and cold so they can burst forth again next Spring.  Some seeds I’ll collect for starting in pots next Spring, but it’s nicest when they just seed themselves in place.

Let the annual weeds be. It’s always time to keep after perennial weeds like thistles and dandelions, but annual weeds that crop up now won’t usually have time to make flowers much less set seed before killing frost.  It’s usually safe to just leave them alone.

Let your vegetable garden reseed itself. I’ve left the leek flower stalks in place.  Big seed heads of dill and parsley and anise are allowed to stand in the vegetable garden.  Even the lettuce and spinach and chard that bolted in summer heat now remain and drop their seeds to return next Spring.  I usually absentmindedly forget some of the garlic and potatoes….that will all return next year to be vigorous new plants.  Arugula has already multiplied itself a thousandfold in my lettuce bed.

The one task still to do?  WATER if needed.  The dry low humidity days of Fall can desiccate the garden.  If you don’t have rain, be sure to do some supplemental watering so that your perennial plants go into Winter well-watered.  Desiccation from dry air and winds is responsible for more winterkill than mere dry soil.  So give everything a good drink now before all the leaves fall.  You may have to water again in November and throughout the winter if it’s dry, but a well-watered Fall garden has an excellent chance of surviving even brutal winter conditions.