Flowers and Plants You Can Have For Your Garden

For most of recorded history, rhubarb was only used medicinally. Native to China, it is thought that Marco Polo brought rhubarb back from his travels there.

Rheum rhabarbarum wasn’t used as a food source until the late 1700s. Its first recorded mention is as a pie plant.

Rhubarb
Rhubarb

Rhubarb was planted extensively by pioneers in the United States and descendants of many of those original plantings survive in our northern cities today.

Hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 8, rhubarb grows 2 to 3 feet tall, depending on the variety. It needs temperatures below 40 degrees to break its winter dormancy and begin new growth in spring.

Plant rhubarb in full sun in rich garden soil. Space the plants 3 to 4 feet apart in rows 3 feet apart. The plants will grow smaller and be less productive if planted closer together. Place the crown about 2 inches below the surface of the soil. Water well.

Provide newly transplanted rhubarb with water for its first year in your garden, thereafter it will withstand drought fairly well.

Don’t harvest rhubarb the first year you plant it. Like asparagus, it needs to put all its energy the first year into building a strong root system.

Harvest sparingly the second year. Only harvest stalks that are at least an inch thick. During its third year, harvest for about a month in spring. Thereafter, harvest stalks as they mature for the entire rhubarb season, which runs for about six weeks from the time the first stalks are ready to harvest in early spring.

Cut the stalks at the soil line or grasp a stalk near the surface of the soil and twist it away from the crown.

Rhubarb is known as the pie plant; it is primarily used as a fruit in pies, crisps, compotes, and jams. Made into a smooth sauce, it is also a good companion for seafood.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of picking a stalk of rhubarb fresh from the garden, dipping it into sugar, and eating it raw. Of course, that was before scientists discovered that sugar was bad for you.

I practice selective amnesia when it comes to such discoveries.

Snow Peas are Ancient Spring Vegetable

One of my earliest memories is of picking fresh peas out in the garden, then removing them from the pod and eating them raw.

Those were the traditional English Garden peas that my mother grew. I’ve never grown English peas; I choose to use the space to grow Oriental Snow Peas or Sugar Snap Peas.

snow peas
snow peas

This past winter while organizing and purging my seed collection, I came across two packages of peas—one each of Snow and Sugar Snap. I had written on the package that they were collected from my garden in 2002, which was the last year I had a large vegetable garden, due to injury and illness.

Being a thrifty gardener, I didn’t want to throw them away. I put them in a sprouter designed to grow alfalfa or other small sprouts for the kitchen. As you can see by the above photo, within a couple of days they had sprouted.

Only ten Snow pea seeds sprouted and all but one have broken ground in the garden. As for the Sugar Snap peas, only eight sprouted and so far one or two have broken ground.

Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon, or Snow peas, have been found in both Chinese and Egyptian archaeological sites dating to 12,000 years ago. It is thought that the name derives from the whitish tint reflected from the pods in sunlight or the fact that they often grow on through late season snowfalls.

Peas aren’t fussy about what type of soil they grow in, as long as it is well-drained; pea seeds will rot if planted in soil that doesn’t drain well.

Plant peas in very early spring as soon as the soil can be worked. Plant about two inches apart and about an inch deep. When about two inches high, thin to stand three to four inches apart.

Provide a trellis for your Snow or Sugar Snap peas to climb. They’ll grow much taller than their English garden pea counterpart.

Peas are a legume and like all legumes, they fix nitrogen in the soil. What does this mean for your garden? The plants take nitrogen from the air (like magic) and exude it through their roots, thereby “fixing” it into the soil. This is most beneficial for crops that like a lot of nitrogen, such as greens or corn.

Peas stop producing when hot summer weather arrives so they are a perfect crop for succession planting. In my garden this year, corn will be planted right next to the fence where the peas will be climbing; they’ll stay out of the way of each other because the corn won’t have grown large enough to crowd the peas before the peas are finished producing.

One important thing to remember about peas: after they stop producing when hot weather arrives, cut the vines off at ground level and leave the roots in the ground. They’ll continue to decay and add nitrogen to the soil.

I’m sure I’ll only get a couple of meals from my dozen or so pea vines this year, but they’ll also produce seeds for planting next year.

My research reveals that the new growth at the tips of pea vines is often cut and stir fried like a vegetable in Oriental dishes. I’ll definitely be trying this as a new spring vegetable this year.

Vinca Minor Brightens Up Shady Spots

Vinca minor is one of the rare plants whose Latin name is used as its common name. Also called creeping Myrtle or periwinkle, vinca is an evergreen perennial ground cover. It blooms in spring with charming purple flowers that cover the plant.

Vinca is native to northern and central Europe and is hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 9. In some areas, it can be considered invasive.

Vinca Minor
Vinca Minor

Vinca prefers to grow in full shade to partial sun. The leaves will fade and the plant will lackluster if grown in full sun.

Planted on a hillside, vinca will help to prevent erosion. Its roots will cling to the soil and it will crowd out almost all weeds. It will spread out and provide you with purple blooms in spring and evergreen foliage the rest of the year.

Vinca will even grow and thrive under an evergreen tree.

Space vinca transplants about 18 inches apart in rich soil in partial to full shade. Water well the first year after planting and thereafter vinca will take care of itself.

Expect your vinca groundcover to grow and spread into a mat about 2 to 3 feet wide and 6 to 12 inches high.

Folklore tells us that vinca is supposed to inspire love and signify early recollections or pleasures of memory.

What pleasant memories does vinca evoke for you?

Spring Flowering Bridal Wreath Bush

Bridal wreath bush, or spirea, is a spring flowering shrub that has been planted in cities all over the world.

They grow well in almost any soil and once established, tolerate drought and neglect.

Their delicate white flowers on graceful branches bloom dependably every spring.

bridal wreath bush
Bridal Wreath

Plant spring-blooming bridal wreath in partial shade. Prune lightly right after the flowers fade. They will bloom next year on wood that grows this year so prune sparingly.

The classic bridal wreath bush is Spirea Vanhoutte. This variety has been planted extensively in the United States for a least a hundred years. It grows 6 to 8 feet tall and produces pure white flowers in late May and early June.

Its flowers look like mini-bouquets. For centuries they were twisted around themselves to make garlands or bouquets for weddings. Its Latin name, Spirea, comes from an old Greek word that means twisted or spiraled.

The bridal wreath in the photo is growing in the yard of an abandoned apartment building. It sits partially in the shade of a maple tree and the grass in the yard is knee high. Yet it is blooming as though it is tended to by a conscientious gardener.

Every garden needs a few plants that are low maintenance.

Morel Season is Finally Here

Morels are the elusive wild mushroom that appears in spring in woodlands from Maine, south to the northern areas of the deep south, west to northern Texas and Oklahoma, and north to Minnesota with a few outposts in the Dakotas.

morel mushroom
morel mushroom

If you’ve never tasted a morel, it’s hard to understand the earnest obsession morel hunters have with finding these wild delicacies.

Last spring I found one in my yard in the middle of the city. This spring my son developed an obsession with finding them. I’ve seldom seen such singleness of purpose and stick-to-it-ivness. We hunted for the better part of a week and only found three small ones.

Yesterday he took his son and went out along the banks of the Mississippi near St. Paul and found a baker’s dozen. Score!

He took the above picture in situ of a couple of morels they found.

My son made pasta with sauce from a jar for the two of them for supper. He snuck a diced-up morel into the sauce and his son pronounced it delicious. Only then was the child informed that the sauce contained morels.

Son of the son has since decided that he likes morels.

We’ve decided to dry some of the morels and use them to make a side dish or appetizer to serve on Christmas. We’ve also decided that we’d like to make that a yearly tradition.

And I’ve been informed that this year’s hunt for morels is not yet over.

That’s my boys.

Lily of the Valley: Groundcover for Shade

Lily of the valley is one of the many sweet-scented, spring-blooming flowers. Its Latin name, Convallaria majalis, is derived from the Latin Corvallis, “valley” and majalis, “May-flowering.” It’s the official birth flower for the month of May.

wild lily
wild lily

I happened upon a patch of the less common pink ones (Convallaria majalis Rosea) and stopped to take their picture. The gardener saw me and insisted on giving me some for my garden. I’ve planted them in a bed that gets shade for part of the day.

Lilies of the valley prefer a shady location that gets only a few hours of sun each day. They like moist soil but don’t like standing water. Make sure the area you plant them in is well-drained and no water sits there after a rainfall.

Grow lily of the valley from “pips,” which are small bulblets that form underground along with the roots. They spread easily and will fill up an area in just a few years.

Plant the pips 4 to 5 inches apart in moist, rich soil. Fertilize with a granular fertilizer in spring and mulch with leaf mold in fall. Other than that, your lilies of the valley will pretty much take care of themselves.

Divide them every five years so they don’t choke each other out. Do this in early autumn. Dig up the entire bed. Cut apart the roots so that there is only one pip per plant. Replant 4 to 5 inches apart in all directions and water well. In late fall, mulch the bed with leaf mold or autumn leaves. Remove the mulch in early spring.

Pick bouquets after the first few “bells” have opened, like the one in the photo. That way, the buds near the top of the flower stem will be more likely to open up in the house.

One small bouquet of lilies of the valley will perfume an entire room. Their charming, petite size blossoms are perfect for small vases set on nightstands or the bathroom vanity.

If you have a large patch and enough patience, you can also dry them to use in potpourri. The dried flowers will hold their scent for many years.

Bachelor Buttons – Popular Indoors and Outdoors

Bachelor buttons are popular as garden plants and cut flowers. Originally found growing wild in the grain fields of Europe, Centaurea cyanus now grows wild all across the northern hemisphere.

Their original color is blue (as denoted by its second name, cyanus) but they are now available in dark maroon, red, pink and white. Bachelor buttons are also commonly called “cornflowers” or “bluebottles.”

Bachelor Buttons
Bachelor Buttons

They grow in all types of soil but prefer full sun. They are usually grown from seed and are not commonly available as starter transplants. Cornflowers re-seed themselves quite easily. Left to their own devices they will come up in the same general area year after year.

The seed packages recommend that you direct seed them about two weeks before your average last spring frost. In my garden, the seeds dropped the previous year begin to come up at least a month before our average last spring frost.

In any case, plant the seeds about 1/4 inch deep and keep moist until germination occurs, in about 7 to 14 days. Thin to stand 8 to 12 inches apart when they are about 3 inches high.

Their blossoms are edible and taste clove-like with a little sweet and spicy thrown in. Their bright blue color makes them ideal as decorations for summer cakes. Toss them into cold summer soups and salads.

Made into a decoction, cornflower blossoms are effective in treating eye infections, such as conjunctivitis. A decoction is also used as a wash to revive tired eyes. In herbal medicine, cornflowers are well-known for their healing properties.

Cornflowers are also used as an ingredient in tea, including the popular Lady Grey blend. Their blue flowers were used as a food coloring and pigment for watercolor paints. Several nations and causes have adopted it as a symbol of their collective pride.

At a time when flowers were used as symbols, available men would wear them as a boutonniere. This is most likely the origination of their most popular common name. “bachelor buttons.”

Hardy Hibiscus Thrive in Wetlands

Tropical hibiscus plants are available at garden centers every spring. When summer is over, this tropical variety, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, ends up in the trash or compost pile; they’re just not hardy enough to survive winter north of the tropics. And not many people have the right conditions in their homes to overwinter the plants indoors, either.

Hibiscus
Hibiscus

Did you know there’s a hardy hibiscus? Its Latin name is Hibiscus moscheutos and it is commonly called “mallow.” They are, of course, related to the tropical hibiscus but are native to North America. They have the largest flowers of all hibiscus—some are twelve inches across.

Hibiscus moscheutos are reliably hardy to USDA Zone 4, and with extra winter protection, Zone 3. Although they have woody stems, they are considered perennials since they die down to the ground completely in winter.

Hardy hibiscus is one of the last plants to start growing in spring. Often it will be late May or early June before the stems start growing; don’t give up on them too early. They’ll bloom in July and will keep blooming until frost.

Pinch off the growing tips when the branches are about a foot tall. This will encourage the plant to branch out and produce even more flowers. It’s not unusual for a hardy mallow hibiscus to produce over a hundred blooms a season.

Plant hardy hibiscus in full sun in soil that holds a lot of moisture. This is one plant that will grow well in heavy, moist soil. Keep well watered throughout the growing season and your hardy hibiscus will continue to produce flowers even in the hottest part of summer.

When the plant is killed by frost, cut the branches off a few inches above the ground and mulch well before consistent freezing weather arrives.

Hibiscus moscheutos will even grow in a bog- or swamp-like conditions. They are excellent candidates for low lying areas with poor drainage or for wetland gardens.

Hardy hibiscus grows rapidly to a height of about two feet. They make excellent summer hedges, quickly growing to define an outdoor “room” or special garden.

And they’re perennials, so you don’t have to plant them every year.

Ginkgo Trees are Living Fossils

Ginkgo trees are living fossils that are not related to any living plant. Fossil records of related species end after the Pliocene era everywhere except a small area of central China.

The ginkgo tree lives for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. There are specimens growing near monasteries in China that are believed to be 1,500 years old. Other specimens in China are known to be over 3,000 years old.

Ginkgo
Ginkgo

Four ginkgo biloba trees survived the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima and are alive in that city today.

They are one of the toughest, most resilient trees alive today and are widely planted in urban areas throughout North America. Few pests or diseases bother them and they can grow to over a hundred feet tall.

Their only downside is a fetid smell associated with their seed pods, which can smell like rancid butter or even feces.

The ginkgo tree is dioecious, which means it produces both male and female plants. Because the females produce the smelly seed pods, cuttings from male trees are grafted to seedlings and are planted more often than females. They still flower but do not produce seeds.

The ginkgo tree turns bright yellow in autumn. They have an unusual quality in that their leaves turn yellow and fall off within a short 10 to 15 day period.

Ginkgo trees grow in full sun to part shade and will grow well in virtually any type of soil, as long as it is adequately drained. Their columnar shape and upright growth habit make them a natural as shade trees planted along city streets in USDA Zones 3 to 8.

They bloom in late June here in Zone 4 and their blooms last only a few days. The picture above was taken at midsummer, just when the flowers were starting to fade.

Black Eyed Susans Are Low Maintenance Perennial

Black-eyed Susans are an American wildflower that is native to the western prairies. They are one of the first plants to start growing on land that has been cleared.

Rudbeckia hirta is the Latin name for them, although they are often confused with other varieties.

Black Eyed Susans
Black Eyed Susans

One thing that makes them different from most other wildflowers is that they have no scent. There is also very little history or folklore associated with black-eyed Susans, most likely because there is no known medicinal use for them.

Black-eyed Susans grow best in full sun, but they do not need super fertile soil to grow well. If the soil is too rich flower production will suffer.

You can start black-eyed Susans from seed either indoors or by direct seeding in the garden. Plant seeds outdoors in early spring as soon as the temperatures are reliably above 60 degrees. When seedlings are about three inches high, thin so they stand about 1 1/2 feet apart. They will bloom the first year if started early enough.

They’re also available in spring as bedding plants. Remove any blooms on the transplants. This will encourage the plants to grow strong root systems and will reward you with more blooms later in the summer.

Space them about 1 1/2 feet apart and water until they get established. Once they are actively growing in your garden, black-eyed Susans grow quite well without additional watering.

Divide them about every four or five years, or when you notice the flowers are getting smaller. Deadheading, or removing the spent flowers, will increase both the number of blooms and the blooming season.

Black-eyed Susans are a low maintenance perennial that withstands drought and neglect easily.

Abandoned Rose Keeps Growing

Roses, well known to need copious amounts of water and attentive care, are growing in an abandoned, fenced parking lot.

What’s amazing to me is that we just had the third driest spring in our area since weather record keeping began over a hundred years ago.

rose garden
rose garden

Last fall a fast food restaurant in the neighborhood mysteriously closed in the middle of the workday. They put the address of their nearest restaurant on the marquee, boarded up the windows and put a chain link fence around the entire property.

Nearly nine months later, I couldn’t help but notice the roses growing in the formerly landscaped parking area. The picture above was taken through the chain link fence erected to keep trespassers out.

Apparently, the landscaping fabric in the rose bed is keeping enough of the weeds down to allow the rose to grow.

It brings to mind the many rose societies around the country that actively seek out and rescue old rose varieties. Many old roses are growing wild without assistance from gardeners. These roses are found in vacant lots, abandoned farmsteads and old cemeteries. Heirloom rose preservation societies document, take cuttings of and propagate old roses so that they are not lost to us.

The goal of most of these societies is to collect so-called “old” roses—those developed before the genes of Chinese roses were bred into the gene pool. Although this may be the primary goal of heirloom rose rescuers, I’m betting many obscure “modern” rose varieties have found their way into the protection and cultivation of these organizations.

A rose lover will not refuse to grow a beautiful, unknown rose variety simply because it’s not old enough.

After all, “a rose is a rose.”

Ageratum – Native American Blue-Flowering Annual

Ageratum, also called “flossflowers” are native to Central America and Mexico, although four species are identified as native to the United States.

The most commonly grown variety is Ageratum houstonianum. Ageratum is from the Greek “a geras,” which means “non-aging,” most likely referring to the longevity of the flowers.

Ageratum
Ageratum

The flowers are fluffy and available in lilac, pink or white, as well as the ever-popular lavender-blue. They spread in compound umbels, giving them a fluffy appearance, sort of like flattened pompoms.

Because most varieties grow less than a foot high, Ageratum is popular as edging plants or tucked into containers or hanging baskets. They bloom profusely from June until killed by frost. Although they prefer full sun, they are happiest with a little shade during the hottest parts of summer.

You can seed them directly in the garden but they won’t bloom until past midsummer. For earlier bloom start them indoors 6 to 8 weeks before your last spring frost. The seeds need light to germinate, so sprinkle them on the seed starting medium and lightly press down with your hand.

Water from below by placing the starter pots into a larger container containing an inch or so of water. Remove the pots from the water when the surface of the seed starting medium looks moist. This keeps the seeds from being washed into the depths of the soil. Allow the excess water to drain and don’t let the starter pots sit in standing water. Remember: the seeds need light to germinate so they need to stay at or near the surface of the soil.

Flossflowers need warmth to germinate, so put the starter pots in a warm location, like on top of the refrigerator. The seeds will rot if the soil temperature is below 75° and they will be even happier at 80°. If you have difficulty providing these temperatures, set the starter pots on a seed starting mat or even a heating pad set to the lowest temperature and covered with a folded towel.

Once the seeds are germinated (in about 7 days) and they have two sets of leaves, you can grow them on at temperatures as low as 60°. Paradoxically, they need very warm temperatures to germinate but prefer cooler temperatures when in active growth. Go figure.

After hardening off, plant outdoors a week or so before your average last spring frost. Although they are frost tender, plants that are adequately acclimated to outdoor conditions and that have been growing in the ground for a week or so show some tolerance to light frosts.

Remove the faded flowers by deadheading to prevent seeds from forming. Ageratum can become rampant weeds when grown outside of their natural range.

Some species are used medicinally, although there is little data on specific uses or on its medicinal effectiveness. Ageratum houstonianum is known to cause liver damage or tumors if ingested.

Plant flossflowers near marigolds or any other yellow flowers for a stunning, eye-popping display.

Liatris – Native American Wildflower Goes Legit

Liatris is native to the eastern United States and west to the Great Plains. They have been exported to Europe and have become one of the most popular flowering plants cultivated to be sold in bouquets.

A Native American wildflower goes legit in the world of florists and cut flowers.

Liatris
Liatris

Liatris spicata is its Latin name; it is also commonly referred to as liatris, gayfeather and blazing star.

Liatris like full sun and will grow in average soil that is well drained. They are very drought tolerant and their roots need to grow free of standing water, especially during winter. Too much water at any time of the year will cause their roots to rot. They will tolerate light shade but will produce fewer flowers.

They are easily started from seed or by root division. Divide plants every 3 to 4 years and replant the divided corms 9 to 18 inches apart, depending on the variety.

Seeds need a period of cold weather before they will germinate. Scatter them in your garden in late fall and many will germinate the following spring. You can also mix their seeds with damp sand in a plastic bag. Refrigerate the bag for a couple of months, then plant in a seed starting mixture. Keep them at temperatures of around 70°-75° until they germinate (in about 10 days to 2 weeks). After that, you can grow them on at temperatures in the upper 60’s.

Plant them outdoors in the garden after all danger of frost is past. Liatris that are started from seed will not bloom until their second year.

They have an unusual bloom habit. Rather than the flowers opening from the bottom up, as do most flowers born in clusters on spiky stems, liatris flowers open from the top down. You can cut off the top of one of the spikes and the flowers further down the stem will continue to open up in the garden.

Liatris will give you few problems, as long as they are spaced far enough apart and the soil they grow in is well-drained. If they grow too close together they are susceptible to powdery mildew. Remove affected leaves at the first sign of it; you may be able to ward off a full-blown infection.

You’ll notice a large number of butterflies flocking to liatris. They are well-known as plants suitable for a butterfly garden. Birds, especially goldfinches, eat their ripened seeds in late summer and early fall.

Sweet Alyssum – Dainty, Fragrant White Flowers

Sweet alyssum is an ideal plant for edging flower gardens or for the edges of containers. It grows just a few inches high and eventually flops over in an attractive way that many find charming.

Alyssum is one of the most popular container plants because of its small growth habit. Don’t be fooled though, it may be small but it commands attention.

sweet alyssum
sweet alyssum

The tiny, dainty flowers bloom continuously from late spring right up until a hard killing frost effectively ends the growing season.

A member of the Cruciferous family, sweet alyssum is classified botanically as Alyssum maritima. Although it is almost always referred to by its first name, it is sometimes called “candytuft.”

Sweet alyssum is also available in pastel pink, lavender, and purple varieties. A perennial variety produces similarly shaped yellow flowers.

Alyssum is a natural for lazy gardeners because it self-seeds itself and will begin to come up in mid-spring after the soil has warmed up a bit. If you want earlier blooms, you can start it from seed indoors about 4 to 6 weeks before your last spring frost.

Plant candytuft in full sun to part shade. In hotter areas of the county, they will appreciate partial shade, particularly during the hottest months of summer. Plants grown in partial to mostly shade will grow less vigorously, but will still produce a respectable amount of flowers.

Feed them regularly to keep the flowers coming. It is best to use a liquid fertilizer or a tea made from manure or compost. This will help you to avoid damaging the roots of the plants when you cultivate to incorporate granular fertilizer.

Alyssum begins to look leggy as they grow larger and will benefit from a good trimming about halfway through the growing season. Cut the plants back by about half. This will force them to branch out and they will produce many more flowers.

The “sweet” in sweet alyssum comes from its subtle fragrance. Like other subtly sweet-smelling flowers, it is best planted near an entrance or patio where its lovely scent can be enjoyed by all who pass by. Like so many other white flowers, it seems to exude more fragrance at night.

Alyssum is a good plant to include in a moonlight garden…but that’s another post.

Purple Coneflowers – Healing Medicine for a Host of Ills

Purple coneflowers were used extensively by Native Americans to treat a variety of maladies. Its botanical name Echinacea purpurea comes from the Greek echinos, (their word for hedgehog) which refers to the spiny-like center of the flower, and the Latin purpurea which refers to its purple-red color.

Echinacea purpurea are perennials that grow to a height of 2 to 3 feet. They are often propagated by root division, but are just as easily started from seed. Plants started from seed will bloom in October the first year and in July thereafter.

purple coneflower
purple coneflower

Plant echinacea in full sun to part shade in fertile loamy soil, although they will grow in clay or sandy soil. They are relatively drought resistant but will show signs of wilting if the soil becomes excessively dry.

Divide the plants by digging up and dividing the roots every 4 to 5 years.

Purple coneflowers attract a variety of different bees and butterflies. Goldfinches eat the mature seeds in early fall. Their pointy seed heads add a unique component to dried flower arrangements.

They were used by Native Americans to treat everything from toothaches to colds to minor cuts, wounds, and burns. Rather than using the plant’s parts to make a healing tea, the roots were chewed or the foliage was mashed up and made into a salve.

European settlers adopted the use of the plant for medicinal purposes until it fell out of use in the 1930s. It has been re-discovered in recent years primarily as a cold and flu preventative, although its medicinal uses are far more extensive than that.

The juice of the roots was mixed with water and sprinkled on hot coals in traditional Native American “sweat lodges” for purification purposes. It is regarded today as an antibiotic and blood purifier which builds up the immune system. Some claim it provides immunity to a host of non-specific diseases.

Scientific research has not yet determined the exact compounds in purple coneflower that give it medicinal properties, but a long history of use in traditional folk medicine suggests that it is, in fact, effective as a medicinal herb.

Petunias – Flowers for Garden Beds and Containers

Petunias are one of the most popular flowers in urban home gardens, landscaped parks, and public areas everywhere. They are also featured in containers and hanging baskets in cities all over the country.

Petunias are also one of the newest garden flowers. They are native to South America and didn’t become well-known until the last part of the 19th century. It wasn’t until the 20th century that plant breeders began to select and breed them into the modern varieties we know today.

Petunias
Petunias

Petunias are collectively referred to today as Petunia x hybrida. They are thought to be a cross between Petunia axillaris (the night-scented white petunia) and Petunia integrifolia (a small violet-flowered variety). Petunias belong to the Solanaceae family, along with tomatoes, potatoes, and tobacco.

New classes of varieties of petunias have continued to be released, with the latest big addition in the early 1990s. There are now four main classes of petunias, suited to a variety of different uses, from garden specimens to ground covers to those with pendulous habits that cascade over the edges of window boxes or hanging baskets.

These classes of petunias include groundcover or “spreading” petunias, Grandiflora petunias, multiflora petunias, and multiflora petunias. Here’s a short description of each:

Grandiflora petunias. These produce large flowers that are at least three inches across, and sometimes larger. They come in single- or ruffled double-flowered varieties. Most are upright plants that develop into large, foot-high mounds of flowers.

Groundcover or “spreading” petunias. This variety grows to only about 6 inches high but spread rapidly to cover a very large area in a single growing season. They will quickly cover an area of several square feet and are ideal for use in hillside gardens where quick coverage is important. These spreading varieties are stunning planted in hanging baskets or window boxes because they cascade 2 to 3 feet over the edge of the container.

Milliflora petunias. These are compact, miniature plants producing large quantities of small perfect flowers that are only 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. They are perfect for the front of the flower border or in containers, especially those near the entrances of buildings, where the flowers can be enjoyed up close.

Multiflora petunias. This variety has the same growth habit as grandifloras, but they are more compact plants with small but more numerous flowers. Their flowers can be single or double, but the majority of varieties are single. They make an eye-catching display massed together in a single color in the garden.

Petunias need at least six hours of sun a day to produce the abundant blooms for which they’re famous. They will grow in partial shade but will produce fewer flowers. In the Deep South and the Southwest, petunias will be happier in partial shade.

Hollyhocks – Old Fashioned Favorite

Hollyhocks are one of those charming old-fashioned flowers grown by our grandmothers. They deserve a place in modern flower gardens, if only for their unusual upright habit that stands out among bushier perennials.

Native to Asia, it is thought that they are one of the oldest flowers in cultivation, grown by the ancient Chinese. Hollyhocks have been found in Stone Age burial sites.

Hollyhocks
Hollyhocks

They derive their name from the Old English holi (holy) and hokke (mallow). Another early name for the plant is “St. Cuthbert’s cole.”

The leaves were formerly used as pot herbs or in salads, best collected in the cool of early winter.

Most hollyhocks are classified as biennials, but there are a few perennial varieties and even a couple of annual varieties. The perennials are short-lived though, often only living 2 to 3 seasons. They self seed readily and will reappear in the garden even years after removing the mother plants.

Sow seeds of hollyhocks in mid to late summer. The plants will return in spring and bloom the following summer. They like full sun and moist, rich, well-drained soil. Barely cover the seeds and keep moist until they germinate. Cover the small plants before consistent freezing weather sets in.

Hollyhocks are susceptible to rust and indeed it is the most often heard complaint about them. Removing the two lowest leaves shortly after they appear sometimes helps keep the rust from attacking them. You may be able to contain the rust to the lower leaves even if it does appear. Another option is to plant shorter flowers near them to hide the rust-infected lower leaves.

Water from below and provide plants with a lot of space in which to grow and breathe. Treat plants with fungicide if you cannot tolerate looking at the rust. These measures will sometimes keep rust from attacking. If it does appear, remove the affected leaves and put them in the trash. Do not add to the compost pile.

Hollyhocks are sometimes found growing on abandoned farms or along roadsides. They also make good additions to cottage-style gardens. They grow to heights ranging from one foot up to nine feet. The taller ones work great in the back of the flower garden and the shorter varieties can be tucked in wherever the look of their spikes is desired.

Sunflowers – Stately Giants of the Garden

Sunflowers are native to the Americas and have been cultivated for over 4,000 years. They were a major food source for the indigenous population and were even used medicinally.

Botanically called Helianthus from the Greek helios, meaning sun and anthus, meaning flower, sunflowers were adopted as a major crop by the Russians. Sunflower oil stays liquid at lower temperatures than animal fats, which was advantageous in their cold climate.

sunflowers
sunflowers

Victorians fell madly for sunflowers and used their likeness in art and architecture. Early American pioneers pounded the stalks to extract the fibers. The stalks were also used as kindling and the seedless hulls were compressed into fire logs.

Plant sunflowers in mid-spring about 1 to 2 weeks before the date of your average last frost. They need full sun and aren’t overly fussy about soil fertility, although they benefit from a side dressing of compost.

Thin the seedlings so the plants stand 12 to 18 inches apart, depending on the size of the variety at maturity. Many varieties will first produce a large basal flower and then branch out to produce many smaller blooms after the basal flower is cut. Some varieties naturally branch out, producing many smaller flowers.

Hybridizers have been busy and sunflowers now come in a wide variety of sizes and many colors in the yellow/gold/orange/rust family. They are spectacular planted in various heights and colors as a theme garden.

Sunflowers reseed themselves prolifically and will come up every year, even if you don’t want them to. It goes without saying that small wildlife, such as birds and squirrels, find them irresistible.

If you want to harvest the seeds for snacks or for planting next year, cover the flowers with a paper lunch bag when the seeds begin to ripen. Otherwise, the local livestock will completely devour your sunflower crop.

The blooms of sunflowers turn to follow the path of the sun, beginning in the east in the morning and continuing throughout the day. They are one of the few flowers that follow this peculiar practice.

By all means, cut them and use them in bouquets. Their bright, cheery colors look good in any decor.

Sweet Peppers Shine in Summertime Garden

Fresh summertime sweet peppers are plentiful at supermarkets and farmer’s markets everywhere. Their bright colors beckon you to look, smell, and buy them.

Sweet peppers are known scientifically as Capsicum annum and are members of the nightshade family. They are usually plump and bell-shaped, featuring either 3 or 4 lobes, although other varieties of sweet peppers are more tapered and have no lobes.

sweet pepper
sweet pepper

The four different types of sweet peppers are the bell, banana, cubanelle, and pimento. Like their hot relatives, they also originated in the Americas. The word “chile” is from an Aztec word, “nahuatl,” although aboriginal South Americans called it “aji.” Archeological evidence shows that Peruvians have been eating wild peppers since about 7000 BC and have cultivated them since approximately 6100 BC.

Start sweet peppers from seed indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before the average date of your last spring frost. Harden off before transplanting to the garden, which should be done when you transplant your tomatoes. Sweet peppers will not grow well in cold, wet soil and do not grow when nighttime temperatures dip below 50°.

Space pepper plants 18 to 24 inches apart in rows 24 to 36 inches apart. For intensive spacing, plant 14 to 18 inches apart in all directions. Side dress with granulated fertilizer when planting and add a scoop of compost to the planting hole. Peppers thrive in well-drained fertile soil and need consistent moisture. Apply liquid fertilizer after the first round of infant peppers have set and continue to fertilize weekly throughout the growing season.

All peppers need consistent moisture to set fruit. Lack of this or drought can cause blossoms or even infant fruits to drop off the plant. Hot dry winds and soil can prevent the fruit from forming in the first place.

If you are a smoker, wash your hands before handling pepper plants. It is possible to transmit the tobacco mosaic disease (if present in your cigarette tobacco) to your garden sweet peppers, as they are both members of the nightshade family.

Stuffed peppers are one of the most popular ways to serve summer’s bounty of fresh sweet peppers. Most cultures have their own recipes but all usually feature a filling of rice and some type of meat or protein, along with their favorite herbs and spices. There are many other recipes which use peppers in many creative ways. Their use as an integral component in recipes has become almost as commonplace as onions and garlic.

Within 50 years of being brought back to Spain, sweet (and hot) peppers had spread throughout all of Europe and the Mediterranean region. Soon after that, Portuguese explorers had successfully introduced peppers to Africa, India, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan.

Sweet peppers are one of the most widely used vegetables/seasonings in the world.

Rainbow Swiss Chard – Fresh Greens for Summer

Swiss chard is a green that grows well during the hot summer months, usually without turning bitter. Any bitterness will only be in the mature outer leaves and disappears when they are cooked. When sweltering summer weather passes, the large outer leaves will lose their bitterness and they’ll begin to grow sweet and succulent again.

Thought to originate in Sicily, the original varieties of Swiss chard had white stems, but in recent years new varieties have been developed with stems of bright colors, such as the rainbow Swiss chard in the photo at right. Even the leaves can have a slight purple tinge.

swiss chard
swiss chard

Swiss chard was originally called “Swiss” because seed catalogs in the 19th century wanted to distinguish it from French spinach. Botanically it is called Beta vulgaris flavescens and is a member of the same family as beets. Essentially it’s a beet without a root.

Plant Swiss chard, rainbow or otherwise, in mid to late spring. Plant seeds 1/4 inch deep and an inch apart in rows 12 to 18 inches apart. When the young plants are about three inches high, thin to stand about 4 to 6 inches apart. For intensive spacing plant them 6 to 8 inches apart in all directions. It’s not overly fussy about the fertility of the soil.

If you’re a lazy gardener (like me), Swiss chard will be a good friend to your garden. It withstands neglect and will even grow during droughts.

You can start harvesting the leaves at any size. Tender young leaves can be added to salads or stir-fries. Larger more mature leaves should be cut from the outside of the plant and the new leaves at the center of the plant should be left to mature.

Swiss chard will even grow in partial shade and still produce a respectable crop. It survives temperatures down into the ’20s. Even if the leaves on the outside of the plant freeze the inner leaves will still be intact and edible.

The entire plant is edible, but the stems need a longer cooking time than the leaves. Interestingly, American cooks primarily use the leaves and European cooks primarily use the stems. I use the entire plant.

The stems have the texture of cooked celery and should, in fact, be cooked similarly. The leaves can be substituted in virtually any recipe calling for spinach, with slightly longer cooking time.

Plant Peas for Fall Harvests

Late summer is the time to start planting for fall harvests. Now is the time to plant vegetables that prefer to mature during cool weather.

Plant Pisum sativum—the English garden type along with edible-podded snow and snap varieties—in early to mid-August for harvesting in mid to late September.

peas
peas

Plant peas in between the rows of corn in your garden. The corn will mature and be harvested long before the peas need the room. Another good place to plant fall peas is where lettuce or other greens were growing. These leafy crops deplete supplies of available nitrogen in the soil and the roots of peas “fix” nitrogen into the soil.

This is a complicated scientific process that I’m not qualified to explain. Suffice it to say that it works. Once the plants are finished producing, leave their roots in the ground and they will release the captured nitrogen into the soil where it can be used by other plants that you subsequently grow in the same area.

When planting peas for fall, plant them almost twice as deep as spring-planted peas. This will help keep the seeds cool and also from drying out before they germinate. In any case, keep them well-watered to avoid overstressing them and also mulch the soil to keep it cool.

Space the seeds about two inches apart and thin the seedlings to about four inches apart when they’re three inches high.

Snap peas and Oriental snow peas grow tall enough to require some type of support for them to climb upon. English garden peas only grow about 12 to 18 inches high and do not need such support.

The blossoms and new growth shoots of pea vines are also edible. In fact, the seedlings that you thin are completely edible. Simply pinch off the roots and toss them into a salad or stir-fry.

Check your pea vines daily once they start producing. Edible podded peas are best eaten when the peas inside are just starting to swell. English garden peas, traditionally eaten when plump and succulent, can quickly become tough and woody if left too long on the vines.

When freezing weather kills off the vines, leave the roots in the soil. By spring they will be nearly completely decomposed and ready to plant a crop that likes rich, well-fertilized soil, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, or melons.

Dusty Miller Adds Fuzzy Texture to Flower Garden

Dusty Miller is grown as an annual in much of the temperate zones but it’s technically a perennial. It will survive winters in Zone 7 and warmer and is often planted with pansies in winter flower gardens.

You can find Dusty Miller available in several cultivars under the Latin name Senecio cineraria. The first name, Senecio, comes from the Latin “senex,” which means old man. The second name, cineraria, means ashy gray in Latin.

Dusty Miller
Dusty Miller

There is a more finely leafed variety that is excellent to use in hanging baskets or in any container. The lacy foliage really stands out when viewed up close.

Plant them in among your flowers for a shimmering backdrop to their bright colors. Dusty Miller prefers full sun to part shade so they can be planted among virtually all blooming plants.

Native to the Mediterranean, Dusty Miller prefers sandy, well-drained soil. This is one member of the flower border that can withstand drought. It is excellent planted in window boxes that are beneath the eaves of your house and therefore do not receive much natural rainfall.

It isn’t bothered by many pests except the occasional aphid, which can be washed off with a strong spray from the hose. Do this on a cloudy day so the fuzz on the leaves doesn’t get burned by the sun.

You can start them from seed indoors about eight weeks before your last spring frost, but they’re also widely available in spring as bedding plants. Space them 8 to 10 inches apart and they will quickly grow to cover the area.

With their lacy, shimmery, gray foliage, they make ideal plants to add to a white garden. Planted near patios or terraces, their soft gray color reflects nighttime exterior lights for a magical effect after dark.

Zinnias Come in All Sizes and Colors

Zinnias are native to the American Southwest and Mexico. They are members of the Asteraceae family. Its cultivars number in the hundreds since breeding and hybridizing begin in the 19th century.

Zinnias
Zinnias

The more familiar species is Zinnia elegans, which includes most of the Zinnia cultivars including double-flowered types that grow from one to three feet high. Zinnia linearis grows into a smaller, bushier plant and usually has single flowers. It is also more resistant to powdery mildew than Z. elegans. Hybrids between the two species show this resistance on plants that have traits of both parents.

Zinnias are one of the most popular seeds planted in school gardening projects. The seeds are large enough for little fingers to easily handle and they germinate and grow quickly, blooming within a couple of months of sowing.

You can get a jump on the season by starting zinnias indoors under lights about 4 to 6 weeks before the average date of your last spring frost. Harden off plants gradually and transplant into the garden after all danger of frost is past, about the time you plant your tomatoes outdoors.

Zinnias like full sun and soil that is rich in organic matter but loose and friable with good drainage. Their native home is in sandy soil and they will not grow in heavy clay soils.

The scourge of zinnias is powdery mildew. All varieties can show signs of the disease with those in the variety Zinnia linearis a little less susceptible. Space the plants the maximum distance recommended for the type you are growing. Don’t water afternoon as this lessens the chance of the foliage being wet after sundown. If possible, don’t water with an overhead sprinkler.

Remember to deadhead your zinnias by removing faded flowers and they will continue to bloom until killed by frost. They are often one of the last flowers whose blooms still look good when other annuals have faded.

Zinnias make wonderful cut flowers. They last for a long time and their wide range of colors make them compatible in arrangements with most other flower varieties.

The small varieties look charming cut with short stems and placed in tiny vases or antique china teacups. Set them in unexpected places throughout the house.

Hydrangeas Can Change from Pink to Blue

Hydrangeas are those large, bush-type perennials with the giant flower heads in either white, pink, or blue. They’re also called “mophead” or “lacecap.”

Fossil records show that hydrangeas grew in North America between 40 and 70 million years ago, and about 25 million years ago in Asia.

hydrangeas pink
hydrangeas pink

They bloom in mid to late summer and keep their flowers long after their leaves drop off in fall. The flowers look spectacular on the plants for winter interest in the garden, or cut and dried for indoor flower arrangements.

Plant hydrangeas in full sun to partial shade in moist, rich, loamy soil that is well drained. Add generous amounts of compost when transplanting and top dress with compost every spring.

The name “hydrangea” comes from the Greek words hydro (water) and angeion (vase) or “water vase.” The name doesn’t refer to the flowers; it refers to the shape of the seed capsule.

Hydrangeas are unusual in that you can change the color of their flowers by changing the pH of the soil in which they grow.

To make hydrangeas flowers pink like the ones in the photo above, raise the pH of their soil. Do this by adding dolomitic lime to the soil several times a year (available at garden supply stores). Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for correct quantities and add that amount to the soil around each plant in spring, summer, and fall.

Another thing to do to keep your hydrangeas blooming pink is to use a fertilizer that is high in phosphorus (the second number on the fertilizer label—for example 10-15-10).

hydrangeas blue

If blue hydrangeas are what you are after, add aluminum sulfate (a soil additive available at garden supply stores) to the soil in which they are growing. Mix 1 tablespoon aluminum sulfate with one gallon of water and apply a half gallon of this mixture to the soil around each plant.

Caution: water your hydrangeas well the day before you do this so the roots can more easily take up the aluminum sulfate without getting burnt. Apply the aluminum sulfate mixture to the soil in spring, summer, and fall.

To help keep your hydrangeas blooming blue, use a fertilizer that is low in phosphorus (the second number on the fertilizer label) and high in potassium (the third number on the fertilizer label). For example, use a fertilizer labeled 25-5-30. Avoid using superphosphates or bone meal if trying for blue hydrangeas.

If your best efforts to turn hydrangeas either pink or blue result in them turning the opposite color, the culprit is most likely your water. Water that has a high pH will tend to produce pink hydrangeas; conversely, water with a lower pH will tend to produce blue hydrangeas—both in spite of soil amendments to the contrary.

Finally, hydrangeas planted near a concrete foundation or walk will tend to bloom pink because of the considerable amount of lime leaching out of the concrete, which raises the pH of the soil.

One last note on changing the color of hydrangeas: white hydrangeas will always be white and cannot be changed to pink or blue.

Lily Varieties Bloom from Summer till Fall

Lilies come in several different varieties with blooming times from midsummer through early fall. Plant some of each variety for a continuous supply of blooms throughout the growing season.

lilies flower
lilies flower

Although you can plant lily bulbs in spring, fall is the best time for planting as it gives them time to develop a strong root system before breaking into vegetative growth the following spring. Potted lilies in active growth can be planted in your garden at any time during the growing season.

Lilies are grown from bulbs with fleshy overlapping scales with no protective covering. Plant them soon after purchasing and don’t allow them to dry out.

pink lily

Plant them in well-drained soil in a site where water does not stand after rainfall. Dig down 12 inches and remove rocks. Add peat moss and compost to improve the soil and help with drainage. Add a little bone meal to the bottom of the hole according to the manufacturer’s recommended quantities and scratch it in with your garden claw.

A pleasing way to display lilies in the perennial garden is to plant them in groups of three or five bulbs, spacing the individual bulbs 8 to 12 inches apart. Space the groupings 3 to 5 feet apart. Small bulbs should be planted 2 to 4 inches deep and larger ones 4 to 6 inches deep, as measured from the top of the bulb up to the surface.

Spread an organic mulch like cocoa hulls over the bed. Just before the ground freezes for the winter, add a layer of protective mulch of evergreen boughs, hay, or fallen leaves.

yellow lily

Asiatic lilies start the lily season when they bloom around midsummer. The picture above is of Asiatic lilies blooming right now in Zone 4. Most types have flowers that face upward and have few markings on the petals. Hardy in Zones 4 to 9.

Trumpet lilies begin blooming at midsummer. They are named for their trumpet-shaped flowers and are hardy in Zones 5 to 9.

Tiger lilies bloom from midsummer on. They have freckled, pendulous blooms with petals that curve back on themselves. They multiply prolifically and will form large clumps in a few years. Each stem produces many flowers in warm colors from golden yellow, to orange, to red. Hardy in Zones 3 to 9.

Rubrum lilies bloom in late summer to early fall. They resemble Tiger lilies but come in cool colors from white to deep pink. Their blooms are sweetly fragrant. Hardy in Zones 4 to 9.

purple lily

Oriental lilies start blooming in late July with some varieties not coming into bloom until late August or September. They are intensely fragrant with flowers that are up to 10 inches across. Hardy in Zones 4 to 9.

Orienpet lilies are a cross between an Oriental and a Trumpet lily. They bloom from mid to late July into mid-August and can reach eight feet high. Flowers come in both warm and cool shades, with some varieties extremely fragrant. They prefer dappled sunlight or morning sun with afternoon shade. Hardy in Zones 4 to 9.

Plant a variety of lilies so you have a continuous supply of blooms from midsummer through fall.

Honeysuckle – Prolific Vines and Fragrant Blooms

Honeysuckle vines, belonging to the Lonicera species, are easy to grow, heat-tolerant, vigorous and nearly indestructible. They are commonly used to climb up a trellis, fence, or another framework. Less well known is their use as a ground cover for erosion control.

Said to protect your garden from evil, honeysuckle is known as the “love bind” because it symbolizes a lover’s embrace with its clinging growth habit.

Honeysuckle
Honeysuckle

They prefer full sun but will tolerate partial shade. They are drought-resistant once established and only need supplemental fertilizer in early spring and again at midsummer.

Plant honeysuckle in early spring, when all danger of frost has passed. Prepare the planting area by adding peat moss and compost. Dig the soil to a depth of about 6 to 8 inches. Mulch well after planting. Honeysuckle like their leaves in the sun and their roots in the cool shade.

Prune for shape after they finish blooming but only prune lightly until the vines are in their third growing season.

Aphids love honeysuckle and you’ll need to be vigilant in washing them off with a strong spray from your hose.

Notorious for its sweet scent, honeysuckle vines attract both bees and hummingbirds, who feast on the nectar deep within their elongated blossoms.

Honeysuckle will climb up anything with just a little help from you. Get the vines started climbing by loosely tying them to their supporting structure. They will soon grow and fill it in so much that the supporting structure will virtually disappear.

Folklore tells us that if you bring honeysuckle into your house there will soon be a wedding. And if you sleep with a sprig of it under your pillow, you will dream sweet dreams.

Of your impending nuptials, no doubt.

Lupines Are A Beautiful, Versatile Flower

Spring blooming lupines, Lupinus albus, were cultivated 4,000 years ago by the Egyptians. In the Americas, Lupinus mutabilis were brought into cultivation 1,500 years ago.

Although we think of lupines as flowers, they are grown as a feed for livestock in many parts of the world. Because they grow well on poor, sandy soils and in fact improve the soil, lupines are often grown for soil improvement and followed by a more demanding crop, such as melon, corn or wheat.

Lupines
Lupines

Romans used them medicinally for skin ailments and as an antidote for the bite of an asp, although there is no data on the effectiveness of the latter.

Lupines prefer slightly acidic soil that is well-drained and moderately fertile. They do best in full sun but will grow in partial shade.

Sow annual lupines from seed around the time of your last frost. They will bloom about two months later.

Perennial lupines are best sown from seed in autumn. Soak the seeds in warm water for a day before sowing. They will bloom in mid-spring. You can also start plants indoors about eight weeks before consistent frost-free weather in your area. Plant outside after all danger of frost is past.

Space lupines about 10 to 12 inches apart. Water regularly and fertilize with a high phosphorous, low nitrogen fertilizer. (In other words, a low first number and the high second number, such as a fertilizer labeled 5-25-10.)

Lupines come in blue, purple, pink, yellow and white. They will bloom over and over if you deadhead them by cutting off faded flowers.

Pliny, the Greek writer, and physician claim that the smoke of burnt lupines kills gnats.

I wonder if it works on mosquitoes.

Ornamental Salvia Grows Where It Wants To

Salvia is a popular flowering plant for urban gardens. With a combination of over 700 annual and perennial species, there’s a type of salvia out there for everyone.

They can prolifically reseed themselves, like the ones in the photo at left. These are growing in the cut-out area of a sidewalk around the installation of a telephone pole. They most likely blew in from the cultivated salvia growing in a flower bed a couple of houses down the street.

Salvia
Salvia

Although I don’t know the variety of this particular salvia, it is most likely one of the tender perennial varieties that are treated as annuals in temperate regions.

Salvia does best in full sun. Obviously, they’re not fussy about their soil, only that it should be well drained.

If you’re planting salvia, you can direct seed it right in the garden in late spring. Sprinkle the seeds on top of the soil. Do not cover; press them in gently with your hand. Mist lightly after you plant them and then mist daily to keep them moist until they germinate.

You can also propagate them by root division, which is best done in spring.

They’re also one of the most popular bedding plants found at garden centers and farmer’s markets every spring.

Space salvia 10 to 20 inches apart, depending on the size at maturity of the variety you’re planting.

Although the red variety of salvia is planted most often, the purple variety provides a cool contrast to the hot reds, oranges, and yellows of most summer-blooming flowers. And it reseeds itself.

Pine and Evergreen – Prune in June

In Minneapolis, today workers hoisted the last steel beam to the top of the new baseball stadium.

Attached to the steel beam was a pine tree.

The tradition goes back some 1200 years to the Vikings, (somehow appropriate). Scandinavian builders topped off their buildings with a sheaf of grain for the horse of their beloved god, Odin. For his part, Odin was so pleased with this that he bestowed good luck on the future occupants.

pine and evergreen
pine and evergreen

As the Vikings spread throughout (conquered) Europe, they brought their topping off practice with them. Britons and Germans substituted trees for the grain and interestingly enough, the Scandinavians eventually switched to using a tree.

The tradition was brought to America by Scandinavian ironworkers, who promptly added an American flag. Eventually, it became common for the workers to sign the beam before it was set in place.

Not only does raising a pine tree commemorate building to the highest point of the structure, but it also celebrates doing so without serious injury to the workers.

Pine and evergreen have long symbolized hope to humanity. During the cold, dark, seemingly lifeless days of winter, the pine and evergreen remain green and look alive.

For the most part, pine trees do not need pruning. If you do prune a pine, don’t remove whole branches; the tree may never recover. If a branch is growing into a path, for instance, cut a few inches off the tip rather than the entire branch.

Evergreen shrubs and small trees are often pruned to maintain their size and shape in the landscape. June is the ideal time for this.

Again, prune sparingly. Only prune off the tips of the branches. If it is necessary to remove an entire branch, do not cut it off flush with the main trunk, leave a quarter inch stump.

If you have a large pine or evergreen which has overgrown its space and you’re tempted to cut off the bottom branches, do the tree and yourself a favor and have the tree removed.

Cutting off the lower branches of an evergreen removes the lowest level of support for snow-filled branches. Eventually, starting at the bottom, the remaining branches will break under the weight of the snow.

Remove the tree and plant something that loves acid soil, like blueberries or rhododendrons.

Blueberries taste a lot better than pine cones anyway.

Zucchini – There’s No Stopping Them

Captured a zucchini blossom this morning on a plant that’s barely bigger than a transplant. It’s actually the second one that opened. I missed the first flower—you can see it wilted in the background in the photo at left.

Zucchini come on like gangbusters and don’t let up until the weather cools in fall. Stories of grocery bags filled with zucchini that were left on neighbor’s doorsteps were circulating in the neighborhood a few years back, but no one came forward as the alleged recipient.

Zucchini
Zucchini

All squash are native to the Americas, but zucchini is a mutant, or sport, that originated in Italy. Its name comes from the Italian zucchino, which means “little squash.” Botanists called it Cucurbita pepo, a member of the same family as cucumbers and melons. In the United Kingdom and New Zealand, zucchini is referred to as “courgette,” while Australians and Americans call it “zucchini.”

Whatever you call it, you have to call it versatile. You can serve zucchini cooked or raw, sweet or savory. Zucchini is grilled, fried, deep fried, stuffed, or baked with an endless variety of spices and seasonings. And virtually everything you can do with the fruit of zucchini you can do with the blossom.

In fact, one of the ways you can “temper” the amount of zucchini your plants produce is to harvest the blossoms. Stuff them, dip them in tempura batter and deep fry them. Bake them. Put them raw into salads. Use them as a filling for quesadillas.

Sometimes you can find a perfect zucchini blossom still attached to the tiny zucchini fruit at its base. These are much sought after by gourmets and pricey restaurants.

You grow zucchini the same way you grow cucumbers. Plant them in late spring, after all, the danger of frost has passed. Plant five or six seeds in “hills” of soil. When the plants are about two inches high, thin to the strongest two or three plants. This is best used for “bush” varieties of zucchini, which form a compact bush-like plant.

For varieties of zucchini that grow into a vine, it’s best to grow them vertically. Zucchini will climb a vertical trellis or net with just a little help from you. Vertical growing keeps the plants off the ground and makes it easier to see the fruits.

Make sure to harvest zucchini every day. Pick fruits before they reach six inches in length when they’ll be the most tender and flavorful. If you miss a few and they get a little large, peel them, seed them, grate them, and make zucchini bread. Or add a couple of cups of grated zucchini to any chocolate cake recipe.

But try to resist leaving them on your neighbor’s doorstep.

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