Tag Archive | Flowering Plants

Picking Good Plants–Don’t Buy The Renegade

Once you get to the garden center and you are confronted with all sorts of amazing choices, how do you pick the best plants? To a certain degree, it depends upon the type of plant you’re trying to buy (buying a little 6 or 8 pack of annuals requires a lot less care ad concern than the choices you’ll make when selecting a tree, for example). But in general, there are some rules you want to follow when picking any plant, from the little 6-pack of annuals, to a tree or shrub, or even to a house plant in a grocery or box store.

The first rule is, choose the plant that looks most like the rest of the plants. What do I mean by that? Perhaps another way to say it is “don’t choose a plant that stands out from the others.”

There’s a good reason for that: one plant, or a group of plants, may stand out from the others, because there’s something wrong with it (or them).

Now obviously good garden centers (and even box stores) are going to want to pull diseased, dying or otherwise unhealthy plants off the sale floor. But in the middle of a busy May day, sometimes that doesn’t happen fast enough. And if you happen to get to the garden center at just the wrong time, and you are unfamiliar with the plant, what might look like a great weeping variety could turn out to be a plant with vascular wilt. Ugh.

Worse yet, back when hosta mosaic virus was first becoming known, all these cool, mottled hostas were showing up in the trade. It was only later that they were discovered to have a virus. The virus wasn’t visible to the eye–but it could infect other plants in the garden.

A similar thing happens with orchids, which is why orchid societies caution folks to only obtain orchids from reputable, virus free growers.

So while a plant that looks different may really be cool and different, it may also be a problem for you and your garden. If you’re not sure about what you’re getting, leave that plant behind.

More on this on Monday.

Plant Buying Time

We talked a little bit on Friday about plant buying and weather. I threw in an off-hand comment that in my experience garden centers will often get in plants 2-3 weeks before it’s safe to set them out or in the ground.

That may have made some of you indignant, thinking that the retailers were setting you up to fail. I promise you it’s not that way at all. For one thing, when I worked at a garden center, it was a constant balancing act between the needs and wants of our customers and the weather. We wanted to be able to have what they wanted when they wanted it–and yet we often had to warn them that what they were buying wasn’t quite ready to go outside or in the ground.

I know that I start trolling the garden centers trying to find something–anything–that’s alive and green right about now. It doesn’t matter to me what it is or whether it’s ready to go outside. I know how to handle it.

Last year I bought some heuchera right just about this time. I was so excited to find them. When I got them home and went to transplant them–just from the black plastic nursery pot into a more decorative pot–all I had was a tiny root ball in my hand about the size of a tennis ball. I had paid for a gallon pot plant and I got a tennis ball plant and some very expensive potting soil. Oh well. My fault. That’s what happens when you’re over-anxious to be gardening.

My recollection is that one of them didn’t even survive. It may have been one of the dark colored ones. They never work out well for me, and my anxiousness to get them started early probably didn’t help things along.

Remember that in the spring the soil is still cool–I talked about this in my last post. So it never pays to rush things into the ground. If I do shop early, I will usually keep things in pots to give the soil time to warm before I plant them (of course, I have been known to go to extremes with that and then it’s July and I still have a bunch of pots that I am watering that should have gone into the ground weeks earlier!)

Just remember–just because you see it in the stores, it does not necessarily mean it’s safe–or even desirable–to plant it in the garden just yet!

It’s Time to Garden!

Actually no–it’s nowhere near time to garden–not in my part of the country.

But when my sister sent me photos of tomato transplants at her garden center (she lives in Oklahoma) I realized that of course not everyone is gardening on the same schedule and I had better address some thoughts about plant buying if I wanted to try to reach early plant buyers (well, “early” to me, anyway!)

So here are my initial thoughts about what to look for when you first walk into a garden center or a big box store (and yes, as someone who has worked at a box store, I do buy plants there–but of course, I consider myself a fairly sophisticated buyer. We’ll talk about where to buy plants in another post).

First of all, it’s spring. And if you are a gardener–or even if you are not really, but you just like flowers–after not seeing a lot of them for awhile, once there are acres of them in sight, they  are really hard to resist! So what to do and how to choose?

The most important thing to think about is your weather. Is it really time to plant? Certain plants–perennials and that dubious category of “half-hardy annuals” can take things like a light frost or a light freeze. Most things are not going to take repeated hard freezes or, worst of all, heavy snows!

So there’s no point in planting too early, only to have to go back and re-plant. Garden centers love that. You are just wasting your money if you have to do that, however. And I don’t care who you are, no one likes to run out to repeatedly cover plants–or bring pots in and out of a garage or shed!

Remember what I have said in the past: the soil is very slow to warm up in the spring. In the old days, the farmers would wait until they could walk on it bare foot (or sit on it bare bottomed).

Other ways to tell if your last frost has passed is if the oaks have leafed out. If they have, your last frost has passed.

Some folks use the last full moon but I haven’t found that quite as reliable as the oaks for me. But maybe I haven’t been paying enough attention–or perhaps oaks work better in my part of the country.

However you determine your temperatures, just keep an eye on them if you are planting as soon as the garden centers are selling the plants. I find, generally, the plants come in at least 2-3 weeks before it’s safe to set them out.

More about this on Monday.



Want Real Confusion? Try Biennials!

Last week I made a reference to biennials followed by the phrase–“don’t even get me started!”

This is a confusing group of plants–weeds included–that sends up foliage in the first year, then flowers in the second year and then usually, but not always, dies. Confused yet?

The reason I say usually but not always is that a true biennial will do exactly as I’ve just described. But some biennials have been crossed with perennials to make them into short-lived perennials so that we can grow them as garden flowers. It doesn’t mean they’re going to be old reliables like peonies or perennial poppies or things that folks find growing long after evidence of homes, gardens and farms have long crumbled into dust. But at least they’ll survive a few years in the garden–and they might set seed and self sow if we gardeners weren’t so meticulous about deadheading and mulching our beds into death every spring!

Let’s take some examples. Something everyone should know is parsley. Parsley makes its great crop of leaves in the first year–that’s what we harvest all season long. If you leave it in the garden, it should over-winter in all but the harshest climates and the next season it will send up flowers that look much like dill or carrot flowers, because that’s the family to which it belongs.

Because I grow so much parsley for my pollinators, occasionally I’ll leave some in the garden and let it flower in the second year. The tiny bees like the flowers. But don’t try eating the leaves. At that point they’re tough and bitter.

I talked about weeds. I’m a weed geek and love identifying them. One of my favorites has always been mullein. It grows in the garden as verbascum and has been crossed with other species from different parts of the world (like the digiplexus I talked about last week to make it a perennial.

Out in the “wild,” so to speak, this thing is a great weed. Different varieties of it can grow up to 8′ tall. Even our relatively ordinary variety, verbascum thaspus, is no shorty, topping out between 4-6.’ Here’s a post I did a few summers ago when I was doing a weed series. In the photos you can see both forms of it, the first year basal rosette, and the second year flower cluster.

Now that it’s been “civilized,” it comes in all sorts of lovely colors: purples, corals, pinks, peaches, white–you get the idea. It makes a lovely garden plant.

Other plants that were once true biennials and have been bred to be garden perennials are foxgloves and hollyhocks. But if you are having problems with these, particularly with foxgloves, it pays to let them go to seed–and not to be too religious about weeding around them early the next year.

I hope that helps clear up some confusion. Always remember–gardeners aren’t born with this knowledge! We have to learn from each other.

I’ve Got Holes In My Leaves And I Can’t See A Thing!

violet leaves with holes

Oh come now–you can see something–you can see the holes in your leaves! And those holes can tell you a bit about what’s making them, believe it or not!

What you really meant to say is you can’t see the critter making the hole. Maddening, isn’t it? But as I said earlier in the month when we began this adventure, don’t just grab a spray bottle of something. For all you know, you may be spraying a caterpillar that’s the larva of a butterfly. You really wouldn’t want to do that, I hope–not even if it is chewing your leaves!

Instead, it’s probably something like this. “Foliage damage, showing up on trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, with no visible sign of insect activity, is often caused by insects feeding at night, like Oriental beetles, earwigs, Asiatic garden beetles, slugs, and snails–” at least according to the UMass extension service.

Asiatic and oriental beetles, for example, feed at night on a variety of host plants, including certain perennials, causing damage in the form of very ragged foliage. Inspection of host plants during the day reveals no insects.

So what are you going to do? Go out at night, trying to catch the beetles, and spray when you see them?

Spray something really toxic that has some residual effect so that you’ll kill them whether you see them or not (I sure hope not!)

Or tolerate the damage, knowing that their life span is fairly short lived. In fact, in my yard, the oriental beetles (the little brown bugs that I knew beetles as “June bugs” growing up) are already gone.

And if it’s a caterpillar, might that not be the larva of a butterfly? Lots of butterfly larva feed on violets. Do you really want to kill that?


Earwigs, on the other hand, feed all summer long. Again, I tolerate the damage, because they are, for the most part, a “good” bug. They clean up debris in the garden.

Here’s some earwig damage on a marigold.

marigold chewed by earwig

I wondered what was chewing this. I didn’t think anything ate marigolds. Then I watered and saw the earwig run out. Voila! Sometimes it’s as simple as all that.

These petunias are in that same container. Normally petunias are chewed by a caterpillar that turns into a tobacco moth. This time I think I’m going with the earwig!

petunias chewed by earwig

Sometimes even the good guys can be destructive. But tolerate some of this sort of damage in the garden–unless you want to run out with a flashlight and peer underneath the foliage after dark. Or, as in this case, you get lucky when you’re watering!

In a very wet summer like most of the east coast is having right now earwigs tend to get a bit out of hand and run amok, eating whatever they find. And they can be a bit scary looking, with that rear set of pinchers. They’re harmless to you, and mostly harmless to your plants. So again, try to live and let live. No one’s really going to care about the holes in the leaves–and your garden might be a better place for it.

What’s Eating My….

So a couple of weeks past the solstice and day length is getting shorter. Temperature is still getting warmer as it will continue to do in my part of the world for a few more months. It may or may not be dry, precipitation-wise, but even if it is, it’s still humid. So all of this leads to an abundance of chewed leaves, spotted leaves and diseased leaves.

Quite often in July I’ll focus on the less attractive side of life–the “weeds” or the pollinators (which, believe it or not, some folks find unattractive.)

This July I’m going to focus on pests and diseases. I already started last Monday with the Black-eyed Susan issues. Today I’ll talk generally about holes in plants. Because this is the time of year that we start to notice holes in our foliage.

Whatever you don’t just break out a spray bottle of something. For one thing, a lot of these spray on remedies have no residual effect (which is the fancy way of saying if you don’t hit the pest, you don’t kill it). So all you’re doing is wasting spray needlessly.

If you are using something with a systemic effect, chances are you’re killing off way more than you intend–bees, butterflies, ladybugs–you get the idea. And as I said in this post, chemicals just lead to the use of more chemicals–and who wants that?

One thing I talk about a lot when I lecture that really gets folks thinking is this: why are we growing our own stuff? It’s because we want it to be better than what’s out there in the stores, right? We want it to taste better, or look prettier, or smell better or whatever.

So if that’s the case, why would we then turn around and load it up with the same poisons (or worse poisons, because commercial growers are regulated in what and when they can spray, but we homeowners can just do whatever!) than we can find on the stuff in the grocery stores?

If you want poison treated food and flowers, just go buy it–you don’t need to go to all the trouble of growing it. It’s a whole lot cheaper to buy too.

So think and watch before you spray–and I’ll try to help over the next month or so!


Back when I worked at the garden center, people would come in and proclaim, “I hate pansies!”  And being in retail and wanting to give good customer service, I would reply with something like, “Well, it would be a boring world if we all liked the same thing,” but secretly I’d wonder how anyone could hate pansies?

A google search of just garden blogs has pretty much led to the same conclusion–garden bloggers, for the most part, unabashedly love pansies.

I will say that when I was working retail I didn’t always have the time to plant them–but I was literally surrounded by them every day so it was okay–I really didn’t need to plant them.  I could enjoy them vicariously.

Now that I’m not working in the garden trade and I just write about it, I do have to have pansies at the end of every winter. It was a ridiculously easy winter here in Connecticut and we’re probably one of only about 4 states that can say that this year.  And despite the fact that I have plenty of spring bulbs coming up, and lovely spring flowering trees, and early blooming shrubs, I have to tuck a few pansies in among the bulbs.  It just isn’t spring until I do!

Given my druthers (whatever the heck those are!) I’d plant the smaller flowered violas and the type known as Johnny-Jump-Ups.  For those of you who have read my “about” tab, you’ll know that my earliest gardening memory dates back to Johnny-Jump-Ups.

But my husband prefers the larger, splashier varieties, and after all, gardening isn’t always just about ego gratification, is it?  If, by planting the larger pansies I can make him happy too, then we both win.

And maybe, I’ll just find a spot to tuck some violas in somewhere just for me.