For beginners Ideas, Tips & Guides

Links: a thoughtful video, beginner blunders, more - - Usa

Links: a thoughtful video, beginner blunders, more

MORE RAIN THE LAST WEEK MEANS a happier landscape, and also more links to share, since I sat sidelined, waiting for breaks in the action to go out and tidy up–or take pictures of a fiery doublefile Viburnum leaf, above, and whatever else is still smoldering. From a tender video of one man’s 40-year garden-writing career, to the story of a “seed library” up in my neck of the woods, to beginner blunders and the impact of gardening on the restaurant business (think: big), the latest digital harvest:The Thoughtful GardenerAA READER SENT NEWS of the understated but powerful video from garden writer Robin Lane Fox of “The Financial Times,” who recently marked 40 years at his enviable post.

The little book that could: ‘botany for gardeners’ - - Los Angeles - city Chicago - state California

The little book that could: ‘botany for gardeners’

The English-born Capon, a doctor of botany from the University of Chicago who went on to be a professor at California State University, Los Angeles for 30 years, has since retired, leaving time for the revamping of “Botany for Gardeners,” the bestselling title for its publisher, Timber Press, in the U.S. and England.Not only did Capon write it; he illustrated it, too, and even took the plant photographs that further bring the text to life. Capon is also a lifelong gardener, though images of his own place never appear in the pages.“Botany for Gardeners” was born as a textbook out of lecture notes for a botany class Capon taught for many years to non-science students, so it’s thorough—but not the kind of dense, full-fledged botany text that will scare you away.In fact (even 20 years later), it just keeps drawing me back in, especially for tidbits like these. Did you know:That litmus, the dye used to indicate acidity and alkalinity, is

Big rig: my circa 1989 seed-starter stand -

Big rig: my circa 1989 seed-starter stand

YOU CAN BUY ONE IN A CATALOG, or you can make your own seed-starting rig as I did 20 years ago. It’s still growing strong. I promised the details in a comment the other day, and got reminded of my stray remark, so here they are:

An update on underplanting trees and shrubs -

An update on underplanting trees and shrubs

Early spring is the perfect time for this kind of project, when divisions of perennials are plentiful and there’s a long growing season ahead for everyone to settle in and get growing.Successful underplanting involves selecting the right mix of plants, and then being patient: There are 10 things I think about when I am tackling a new area, creating another botanical mosaic to cover the ground beautifully instead of a mass one one thing. Ready to create some of your own?Categoriesannuals & perennials for beginners garden design groundcovers shade gardening trees & shrubsTagsgroundcover

Let there be sweet potatoes: how to plant them - - state Iowa

Let there be sweet potatoes: how to plant them

Unlike white potatoes, where you plant a “seed potato” whose eyes are starting to sprout, with sweet potatoes you start with bits of vine called slips. Glenn Drowns of Sand Hill Preservation Center in Iowa, who lists more than 100 sweet-potato varieties in his amazing catalog, explains the origin of the word slip:“A slip is a single plant (with small roots) that is sprouted on the sweet potato root and then slipped off so that you may plant it in the garden to grow a sweet potato plant.”Each slip doesn’t look like much when it arrives—a piece of vine with some roots and maybe a leaf or two, usually a little pale and worse for the wear after days in transit. But it will quickly rebound if planted promptly according to some basic guidelines (that’s the above-ground bit of one a day or two after planting,

Garlic harvest and curing: i did something right -

Garlic harvest and curing: i did something right

I used to get confused and wait to harvest the bulbs until the topgrowth was all brown, the way you let daffodils and tulips and other bulbs fully “ripen” before removing the foliage.In fact, prime harvest time is when some lower leaves have gone brown but about a half-dozen up top are still green. For me that was a week or so ago; depending on the year, it can be July or August. Carefully dig one or two heads, and check to see that the cloves are wrapped nicely in papery tissue; that the heads are really ready. To get them

The tricky matter of when to harvest garlic -

The tricky matter of when to harvest garlic

Don’t let its relatives mislead you. Garlic’s close cousin, the onion (Allium cepa), is more adaptable about its ideal moment to be lifted and cured. You can simply let the tops (leaves) die down right in place, delaying digging a bit to when it’s convenient. Or if you’re in a rush, move things along (assuming the bulbs are well-formed) by knocking over the foliage to urge the plants toward their finale.With garlic, though, waiting until all the leaves go brown will promote overripe bulbs whose cloves are starting to separate from one another, and the resulting un-tight heads won’t store as long. Each leaf that browns is one fewer potential wrapper to protect the bulb. (Counterpoint: Harvesting too soon can also diminish the bulbs’ shelf life in storage, and may limit the bulbs r

‘plants are the mulch’ and other nature-based design wisdoms, with claudia west - - Usa

‘plants are the mulch’ and other nature-based design wisdoms, with claudia west

Since the book “Planting in a Post-Wild World” came out in 2015, co-authored by Claudia West with Thomas Rainer, I’ve been gradually studying their ideas and starting to have some light bulbs go off, on how to be inspired to put plants together in the ways that nature does, in layered communities.Claudia joined me on the July 17, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast to about some of the practical, tactical aspects of plant community-inspired designs that we can app

Composting 101 -

Composting 101

What method of composting you use should be determined by the volume of material created in the yard (and to a lesser degree, in the kitchen, where vegetable scraps, egg shells and coffee and tea grounds can be collected for the heap, too). I create far too much raw material for a mere bin-type system, the commercially available kind made of metal or heavy plastic or mesh that are about as big as a washing machine. I have one of those, a metal one that shuts tight and thereby keeps animals out, to hold my vegetable food wastes, alternating them with layers of garden debris and a little soil or finished compost to get things activated and reduce any chance of unpleasant odors.The latest rage is all about lobster-trap-wire bins, meaning really durable even under the ocean day in and out. But my main heap is about 40 feet long and 5 or 6 feet wide, a long, open pile that in composting jargon is called a windrow. In the peak of fall cleanup and leaf raking, it gets to be about 5 feet tall, too, but as the material begins to settle, and eventually to break down, it’s usually more like 3 to 4 feet high.Whatever style of composting you choose, from a simple, small pile to a long windrow to an

Beloved conifers: recap of coziest woody plants - - Japan - North Korea - state Alaska

Beloved conifers: recap of coziest woody plants

(click any green type to link to the profile of that plant)Golden hinoki cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Crippsii’Japanese umbrella pine, Sciadopitys verticillataConcolor fir, Abies concolorWeeping Alaska cedar, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’Korean fir, Abies koreanaLacebark pine, Pinus bungeanaFavorite Coniferous ShrubsRussian arborvitae, Microbiota decussataGolden spreading yew, Taxus baccata ‘Repandens Aurea’Dwarf white pine,Pinus strobus ‘Nana’Conifer SlideshowIf you missed it earlier this year, tour the above favorites and more in my slideshow of favorites conifers.Categoriesconifers for beginners trees & shrubs

Sowing spinach -

Sowing spinach

IT IS NEVER TOO EARLY to plant spinach, and in fact I often feel as if I am running behind on that score. Even though there are snow squalls predicted for later this week in my area, it’s time. Last September through Thanksgiving would have been even better.

5 small trees: can you make room for 1? -

5 small trees: can you make room for 1?

With surprisingly timed summer flowers, hot fall foliage and handsome, peeling bark to recommend it, Stewartia pseudocamellia (top) is a treasure. It grows happily even in part-shade, and reaches about 25 feet here. Read its profile. Perhaps the smallest tree I grow (maybe 5 feet tall and 9 feet across at present) is an oddball weeping Kousa dogwood, Cornus kousa ‘Lustgarten Weeping,’ which stirred some controversy at A Way to Garden when I almost sent it packing last spring, after years of non-love for it. I relented, and made it a proper home of its own, as you said you desired.

Tips for growing better tomatoes from seed - - state New York - county Hudson - county Valley

Tips for growing better tomatoes from seed

THAT OLD, DISCARDED ELECTRIC FAN that isn’t strong enough for the hot summers of global warming…hey, bring it on. It’s perfect for accomplishing one of the tricks to growing better tomato seedlings, which is (after all) the only thing you probably really care about on the run-up to another spring. To hell with winter.

Repeat after me: ‘early, middle, late’ -

Repeat after me: ‘early, middle, late’

REPEAT AFTER ME: early, middle, late. That’s the secret.

Growing and storing a year of parsley - - Italy

Growing and storing a year of parsley

Curly-leaf parsley is great for edging borders, and for planting as a “ruff” around the feet of bigger plants in pots, where it will be beautiful all season, even after substantial frost. But if you want to cook, go ‘Gigante,’ or ‘Giant of Italy.’ Flat-leaf parsley has more parsley flavor, to my taste.All parsley is extremely high in nutrients, particularly Vitamin C, folates and Potassium, as well as beta carotene. In fact, a quarter-cup of raw chopped parsley has about as much C as a quarter-cup of orange juice and double the folates (more that one and a half times those, even, of raw spinach). I include raw leaflets in salads, greatly boosting the nutritional value of

Garden gates, in trash-to-treasure style -

Garden gates, in trash-to-treasure style

IDIDN’T KNOW A PINTLE FROM A GUDGEON, but I knew I had dragged home some rusty, clunky iron tag-sale finds over the years that I’d grown tired of moving around the garage ever since. And so were born my trash-to-treasure style garden gates, thanks to a crafty friend who knows his hinge parts and a thing or two more. This is not my first such adventure.

‘making more plants’ with ken druse (and how to avoid damping off) - - city Brussels

‘making more plants’ with ken druse (and how to avoid damping off)

Like all of Ken’s 18 books (!!!), “Making More Plants: The Science, Art and Joy of Propagation” is rich in instruction, but also visually arresting, since he’s an award-winning photographer, too.  It covers the botany of propagation—the why’s behind how you can make more plants of a particular species sexually or asexually or both—because as Ken says:“It is not essential to learn about botany to garden well; it’s inevitable.”Then in words and intimate pictures he covers virtually every tactic for doing so, from seed-sowing to leaf and root cuttings, to layering, grafting, division and more.  The photos are so beautiful, and Ken’s obvious enthusiasm so evident on every page, that I want to try everything. (Just what I nee

Organic lawn care with paul tukey: crabgrass control, reducing compaction - - Usa - Canada - state Maryland

Organic lawn care with paul tukey: crabgrass control, reducing compaction

IF YOU ARE STILL USING any synthetic chemicals on your lawn, I hope you will stop. So does Paul Tukey. When he founded SafeLawns in 2006, Paul says, “It didn’t occur to people that their lawns could be dangerous.”“The sad reality is that we know that a lot of the chemicals used to grow the lawn (the fertilizers), or the chemicals used to control weeds or insects or fungal diseases—all  of these chemicals are designed to kill things, and they can make us very sick, and they make the water very sick, and the soil very sick, and the air very unhealthy.”Giving up chemicals doesn’t mean you have to pave over your front yard.“We will have lawns long after all these chemicals are banned in the United States, as they have been banned in Canada,” says Paul—explaining that more than 80 percent of Canadians cannot use weed and feed products, or glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide) because they are

Just saying no to deer, with fencing -

Just saying no to deer, with fencing

Fencing is the only real deer-proofing method there is (assuming your fence is the right construction for your location and animal population, and is well-maintained). No other tactic offers complete control, keeping deer out of the garden.Even “deerproof” plants had proved deer-resistant at best, and besides, the garden-design limitations such lists impose provide insufferable restriction for someone like me, who can’t resist a hot plant. I’m as much an omnivore as the deer; we just couldn’t cohabitate peacefully.The garden’s backbone—its woody plants—were being disfigured. Forget the occasional hosta stripped of its leaves (above); ugly, yes, but it sent up new growth r

2010 resolution: a ‘no-work’ garden? -

2010 resolution: a ‘no-work’ garden?

“Gardening Without Work,” Ruth Stout’s wonderful 1961 work, is one of my most treasured vintage gardening books, published when she was 76 years old. Though I am a couple of decades shy, the subtitle running up the right side of the cover cries out: “For the Aging, the Busy & the Indolent.”Guilty on all counts at the moment, Ruth. Mea culpa.It is more the spirit of the book than anything that I love, an attitude brought to life in a series of videos of her that I am thrilled to have just found (ask your library if they have them for rent; one sample is embedded from YouTube farther down this page). Written a year before Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” came out, Stout’s funny

Which fertilizer? what’s in the bag - - Britain

Which fertilizer? what’s in the bag

The numbers on a fertilizer bag are the so-called N-P-K ratio, the percent of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash (or potassium, chemical symbol K) inside the bag. Simply speaking, nitrogen is for green growth; phosphorus is for roots, flowers, and fruit; potash is for general vigor and disease resistance. A so-called balanced fertilizer, often recommended in books, is one that has equal percentages of each element.With chemical fertilizers, the numbers are much higher than with organic formulations. A standard is 10-10-10 or 5-10-5, meaning there are those percentages of each element in the bag (the rest is filler). You won’t find those totals in any organic formulation. In fact, if the total of the three numbers on a so-called organic or natural bag adds up to more than 15, I’m suspicious. Unless blood meal—an organic material very high i

Growing a better tomato, seed to harvest -

Growing a better tomato, seed to harvest

Start with dark green, stout transplants equally high and wide, preferably about 4 inches in each direction.  (My step-by-step for growing your own includes many tricks; you can also shop locally for seedlings or by mail.)Plan to grow a mix of heirlooms and hybrids for a little insurance: Heirlooms are beautiful, delicious and a critical part of our genetic heritage, but sometimes they lack the disease-resistance (often labeled VFN) of hybrids. I like to mix it up.Remember that even with hybrids rated as having VFN resistance, the word “resistance” is the operative phrase.

When to start seeds? some tools that can help - - South Africa - state Texas

When to start seeds? some tools that can help

It should be no surprise to me that it was Dave who created this new online application, since besides his garden expertise, Texas-based Dave is a programmer (and the founder of Dave’s Garden, which he ran before moving on to start All Things Plants). Dave was the guest on this week’s “A Way to Garden” public-radio show and podcast, where we discussed the new Garden Planting Calendar app. (Stream the show now; get it on iTunes, or Stitcher, or at“My wife, Trish, is actually the one who pushed me to do this,” says Dave, adding that the Garden Planting Calendar took him only two months to develop and launch. It gives you first and last frost dates (where applicable) and sowing and/or planting dates by crop, based on the location you enter.The app started with just U.S. weather data, but Canadian users quickly said, “What about us?” so Dave added that i

Homegrown salad greens -

Homegrown salad greens

They never even consider winter crops. A mere dozen lettuce seeds, sown every 10 days from late winter through late summer, the earliest ones indoors for set-out later, will guarantee a small household plenty of fresh, succulent salad greens early spring through late fall. Don’t plant 10 feet of row of lettuce at a time—3 or 4 feet at most is more like it, since lettuce doesn’t keep. And even with those 12 seeds, I like to mix it up a bit, alternating 6 each of two varieties at each planting, so I have a blend of colors, tastes and textures in every bowlful.There are three basic categories of lettuces, the earliest being the looseleaf kind, which take only 45-60 days to mature. ‘Black-Seeded Simpson,’ at 45 days, is about the quickest of all, so don’t be without it. Another non-heading lettuce I always grow is ‘Oakleaf,’ with beautiful ruffled leaves shaped like its namesake’s. There are red forms now, like ‘Flame,’ or various improved v

One hosta per customer, but which one? -

One hosta per customer, but which one?

My clump of ‘Sagae,’ whose highly textural, blue-green foliage is suffused with a warm cream from the edges splashing inward, is probably 3 or 4 feet across now, heading for a maximum of about 6. This is a statement plant: big, bold, beautiful, about 30 inches tall. I treasure it, and was glad to be affirmed in my judgment by the CHO, Tony, who calls ‘Sagae’, the “finest and most dramatic variegated hosta ever introduced.”Another personal must-have would be ‘June’ (above), the month of my birth and also one beautiful hosta. I have to describe it as not just blue but nearly turquoise in spring, the creamy yellow centers heating up to chartreuse against a vivid blue. I’ve found ‘June’ to be a strong grower, clumping up to about 3 feet across, and have made numerous divisions from my original plants.  As summer heats up, the ‘June’ foliage darkens to deep blue with medium green here, but it’s good-looking

2 ferns with more lasting color than any flower - - Japan

2 ferns with more lasting color than any flower

A NY FLOWER WOULD BE HARD-PRESSED TO COMPETE with the two most colorful ferns in the garden here, which have been showing off since the first crozier poked through the soil surface in early May and won’t stop till very late fall. No wonder I grow so many Japanese painted ferns and autumn ferns; they make shade gardening look easy, adding heavy doses of purple and silver or coral and gold, respectively, and never asking for so much as a deadheading in return.Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’, Zones 5-8) is well-known to most gardeners the last decade, a showy thing with varying proportions and intensities of silvery-gray and purple coloration on its parts.

Pruning, pared way down -

Pruning, pared way down

Take out the three D’s anytime they occur. The D’s are dead, damaged and diseased wood—and why wouldn’t you want to do this? (Some people say there are five D’s: dying and deformed being added to the list, but I’m trying not to get us overwhelmed.)Take out all suckers and “water sprouts” as often as required. This means that mess at the base of a grafted shrub or tree that looks like a thicket of shoots surrounding the trunk. It also means those things that shoot straight up vertically off a branch at a 90-degree angle or thereabouts from the branch, very common on fruit trees, say, or old magnolias. Look at the architecture of these shoots: If you left them on, what would they turn into? (They’d turn into the disaster in the photo below.) Nothing very u

Stop searching: tomato-growing tips and tricks -

Stop searching: tomato-growing tips and tricks

THOUGH I WON’T START TOMATO SEEDS HERE UNTIL MID-APRIL, I know from looking at my WordPress dashboard—the administrative screen I use to create and run this blog—that many of you are already looking around for the tomato-growing how-to’s. To make the searching easier, a roundup of links to my best tomato-growing tips and tricks:Tips for growing a better tomato yourself from seed.

Gardening on uneven ground: leveling raised beds -

Gardening on uneven ground: leveling raised beds

I’m a believer that each raised bed, which I like made from 2-by-10’s, must be a level entity unto itself, but that all the beds within a plot don’t need to match in terms of how much they extend out of the ground. To make them match on my crazy terrain, you’d have to build the downhill-side walls of the lowest ones several times as high as the uphill sides of the highest ones (if you can even decode that sentence). Then you’d have to bring in about 10 truckloads of soil and shovel for a year to fill them.Like I said, it’s easier to explain in photos, but first one more thought: Strive to have your pathways between beds, which should be just wide enough for a wheelbarrow, end up on the level, too. Nothing worse than uneven footing while working, or having a barrow-load of so

Asparagus: an all-male cast - - Washington - state New Jersey

Asparagus: an all-male cast

IT SHOULD COME AS NO SURPRISE, since it’s true so many other places still: In the asparagus rows, males are in charge. ‘Martha Washington’ and ‘Mary Washington’ were names you used to see most often in catalogs, but no more. Their weakness: The Washington strains include both male and female plants, and the males are far more productive if what you want is lots of spears. Who doesn’t?

Fall planting: 21 powerhouse perennials i’d order - - Japan

Fall planting: 21 powerhouse perennials i’d order

LESPEDEZA THUNBERGII: A 6-by-6 fountain of late-summer into fall purple glory. Easy, too.HAKONECHLOA ‘ALL GOLD’: The Japanese forest grass turns my shady garden areas golden tones from May into winter.HELLEBORE HYBRIDS: Dry shade? No problem. Forgiving, beautiful, extra-early blooming perennials with evergreen foliage to boot.SEDUM ‘MATRONA’: Maybe my favorite of the taller sedums, all blue-green and pinkish in that sedum-y way.GERANIUM PHAEUM ‘SAMOBOR’: Perennial geraniums are a must; this one’s perhaps the mustest, showy and cooperative.LATHYRUS VERNUS: A little perennial pea of early spring (above) that’s delicate and durable; one of my sprin

Planting potatoes -

Planting potatoes

For those who grow their own (or shop the farmer’s market), there can be spuds in a range of colors from blue to white to red and yellow. They come small as your thumb (fingerlings such as ‘Austrian Crescent’ are great for potato salad, or for roasting). Others are as large as a pound-and-a-half meal (‘Nooksack’, a whopping russet-skinned type that could support a whole container of sour cream). Best: You can harvest baby potatoes and eat them minutes later, which is one of vegetable gardening’s greatest rewards, right up there with the first ripe tomato.Choose not just for size and color but also for texture, since potatoes may be mealy or smooth. It likewise makes sense to stagger the h

Great shrubs: a roundup of some favorites -

Great shrubs: a roundup of some favorites

DIRCA PALUSTRIS, OR LEATHERWOOD (top photo), is one of my garden’s real oddities. This woodland native is shaped like a small rounded tree and grows to about 6 feet tall. It blooms in late April here, with tiny yellow brush-like flowers–a charming companion to the shade garden’s minor bulbs and little ephemerals. I got my first plant at the New England Wild Flower Society, and it has made more. Read NEWFS’s portrait of leatherwood.LILACS ARE FLEETING, YES, but I cannot imagine a garden without their moment. so they are one of the single-season plants I make room for here. Lots of room. My favorite lilacs.SPIRAEA THUNBERGII ‘OGON’ gives me eight and a half months of gleam in my cold Zone 5B garden, starting with flowers in early spring followed by gold foliage that never says die till December. Spiraea ‘Ogon’ profiled.YUCCA FILAMENTOSA ‘COLOR GUARD’ soldi

Pruning roundup: what shrubs i prune when -

Pruning roundup: what shrubs i prune when

Each May and June I’m asked, “Why didn’t my lilacs bloom?” only to find out in the next sentence that the questioners had literally nipped the plants in the (flower) bud with late summer, fall, winter or earliest springtime pruning, long after the new year’s blossoms had been set.Early bloomers flower on old wood. Go out and look at a forsythia or a lilac: Unless you pruned in summer or fall, you’ll see flower buds already in place, dormant but there. If you prune now, it won’t flower now. Make sense?Generally speaking, don’t prune spring-blooming shrubs and trees more than a month or so after they finish blooming. After flowering, prune immediately. You will typically not harm the pla

The toughest groundcovers i rely on - - state Massachusets

The toughest groundcovers i rely on

Geranium macrorrhizum, the big-root geranium: I wonder how many square miles of this plant I have grown. The bigroot geranium is so named because instead of a clumping habit, it grows from a ropelike rhizome that seems to barely need to touch the ground to thrive. Its attractive foliage has an aromatic, spicy scent, and is nearly evergreen even in my Zone 5B garden.It will survive, I think, except in the wet; sun or shade, and even dry shade. All I give it is an annual haircut, and I do that when spring is turning to summer, the flowers have gone by and the leaves are stretching upward. Deadheading would be another option, but just shearing the whole plant is faster in masses, and also keeps it tighter and denser.The straight species is pink (but not pastel); if Pepto Bismol isn’t going to

20 top seed and seed-starting faq’s -

20 top seed and seed-starting faq’s

Q. I have leftover seeds from last year. How long do seeds last, or remain viable?Q. How do I do a germination test of leftover seeds?Q. When do I start which seeds in my Zone?Q. Can I grow my seedlings on the windowsill? Will I need grow lights?Q. How many hours a day do I run my lights?Q. What are heating mats or germination mats? Must I use one to get seeds to grow?Q. What kind of soil do I start my seed in? Can I use regular potting soil, compost, or garden soil?Q. I need a basic how-to on starting seeds.Q. What seeds do I start outdoors, right in the ground?Q. I am confused by claims of “organic” seed and other words like “sustainable” seed. Does it matter what I buy?Q. Who sells organic seed? Where can I find it?Q. What about the genetically modified or GMO seed that I hear so much about in the headlines?Q. Where can I shop for good-quality seed; what are your favorite catalogs?Q. How do you figure out what to buy in the seed catalogs?  So many beautiful choices!Q. How do I grow tomatoes from seed?Q. All my spinach and lettuce matured at once, then I had none. Why? What is succession sowing of seeds?Q. What are some of the seeds you order for yourself, Margaret?Q. Can I grow garlic from seed?Q. Can I grow potatoes from seed?Q. Can I grow asparagus from seed?Q. Can I grow clematis from seed?

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