Old-fashioned beauties in bloom!

If you’re walking or biking in South Jersey these days and are suddenly surrounded by a heavenly scent, you just may be passing by a mock-orange or wild rose in bloom.  Both tend to ramble in overgrown brambly areas and on old properties.  Mock Orange (Philadelphus var’s) has been cultivated for 400 years.  Its white blooms open along long arching sprays and will fill a yard or a room with the scent of sweet orange – intoxicating!

Another heavenly scented late spring bloomer, wild rose, reminds me more of grapes, iris and light perfume.  Also white, but smaller than mock orange, wild rose flowers grow in clusters on a cascading curtain of vine that handily rambles up and over anything in its path.  Some may consider this a nuisance, but it’s hard to be annoyed when you encounter its incredible scent!

A walk through the South Jersey woods in late spring is apt to take you along a corridor of Mountain Laurel in bloom.  Often mistaken for rhododendron, mountain laurel also has leathery leaves.  Its flower clusters, however, are a bit smaller than native rhododendron and white or light pink rather than lavender.  Although South Jersey’s woods are known for ticks and mosquitoes as well as beautiful scenery, it’s worth the gamble to experience this fairy land of white!

These Mountain Laurels are just beginning to bloom into what will become a veritable corridor of white.

Creating New Habitat for Wildlife

Over the years, we’ve encouraged people to pursue “wildlife gardening” to support migratory songbirds, bees, butterflies, beneficial insects and displaced animals.  We’ve

Winterberry, or Ilex verticilata, is a little known deciduous holly! An underused, but lovely multi-stemmed shrub, winterberry drops its leaves in the late fall to reveal branches full of sparkling red berries. It's a great ornamental as well as a great source of food for resident winter birds.

seen the impact on our nation’s wildlife as nesting generation X-ers have cleared wildlife habitat to build homes for their own families.  Locally, we’ve seen an increase in daytime sightings of normally nocturnal animals as they search for food and cover when their homes are cleared for new development.  We’ve never felt a concern for wildlife, however, like we did a few days ago when we had our own sighting of a displaced animal at the garden center.

One morning, a few of us saw an odd looking animal approaching from across the yard.  It was too big to be a cat, too small to be a dog, extremely pale and mangy.  What’s more, it moved clumsily as if it were ill.  When we realized that it was a possum (or opossum if you prefer), normally seen at night, we assumed that a daytime appearance by this haggard animal must indicate rabies.  Just before we reached our own rabid frenzy, however, we realized that the possum’s mangy appearance was actually caused by tiny balls of fur (that’s right, possum babies!) clinging to Momma Possum for dear life and a safe ride.  It seems that we had inadvertently cleared Momma’s nesting area while pruning and “cleaning up” a corner of the property in preparation for future display gardens.  Now Momma needed a new place to settle down.

At this point, it took no time at all to agree that the first display garden would be a wildlife garden (it was the least we could do for the possum family).  We chose a spot that’s bordered by existing cedars whose evergreen boughs will offer protective cover for wildlife.  We brought back some of the cleared brush to offer even more protective cover.  We planted (nursery-grown) plants that are native to the South Jersey coast such as, bayberry, serviceberry, river birch, blueberry, inkberry, winterberry, rugosa rose, and viburnum, because they are more well adapted to the local growing conditions and, once established, will require less fertilizer, water and pest management than less well adapted plants.  Native plants also tend to provide the perfect food for the local wildlife species that have evolved along with them.

Although not necessarily native, we chose other nourishing shrubs and flowers such as, autumn olive, red twig dogwood, butterfly bush, bee balm, coneflower, columbine and lobelia.  We’ll be careful not to use any chemical fertilizers, insecticides, or fungicides because chemicals become part of the flowers, berries and seeds of plants and subsequently, are absorbed by the wildlife that eats them.  We fertilized with Espoma’s Plant-tone, a 100% organic, granular fertilizer and mulched to help retain moisture and prevent weeds.

Even though we’ve provided many plant food sources, we’ve also placed several bird feeders in the garden and, even more important, a bird bath.  We often think to feed birds, but tend to underestimate their greater need for a clean source of fresh water!  Last, we will install a foot path to facilitate the care of the plants and feeders.  Seems that all we need to do now is let the plants get going (wild and wooly works better than well groomed in a wildlife garden) and stay out of the way to give Momma Possum and her babies an opportunity to move back in!

Gardening with Your Children in a Way You’ll Both Enjoy!

Gardening magazines and websites are full of suggestions for planting a child’s garden.  They suggest buying bamboo poles to erect a “bean-pole teepee” and include plans for “pizza gardens” laid out in slices to grow all the fixings for a home-made pizza.  These are great ideas from well-meaning people, but to overwhelmed parents they can feel like one more thing that we just can’t manage!  So, let’s explore the intentions behind having a children’s garden and find some reasonable ways to pull it off.

My grandson beams as he leaves the garden center holding his new purchase - an orange New Guinea impatiens, his favorite color!

Educators are finding that children may be turned off by too much information about worldwide environmental issues.  Abstract lessons about rainforest destruction, oil spills and acid rain may instill a sense of helplessness and dampen students’ desire to experience nature.  Many of today’s environmental activists attribute their commitment to simple play and to many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence with an adult who taught them respect for nature.

Can it be that simple?  Can we help save the environment by simply spending responsible time with our children in nature?  Now that’s something we can do!  And we can probably have an even more positive effect if we just have fun without getting driven about it.  So relax and go for the teepees and the pizza gardens if you like, but don’t feel that you must.  Both you and your children’s lives can be enriched by things as simple as walking to the bus stop instead of driving the car, or by taking a walk during a rainstorm.

Walk to the library or the store for a change and see the neighborhood from a different point of view.  Don’t be in a rush.  Go ahead, slow  down, it’ll be good for you!  Stop to pick up rocks and pine cones, puff balls and seed pods.  Remember maple seeds split open and worn like Pinocchio noses?  Kids will love to gather things and display them at home in a Mini-Museum of Natural History – a dish on a shelf works fine.

If you garden, take the kids to the garden center with you.  Allow time for them to explore.  Let them pick a plant or two that they’d like to grow.  Even if you can’t set up an entire area devoted to a children’s garden, maybe you can give them one corner or a few containers to plant.

Children love fuzzy things like Lamb’s Ears.  They love to watch ferns unfold and snapdragons snap.  They love flowers with sunny faces like pansies, daisies, sunflowers and black-eyed Susan’s.  They love good-smelling plants like lilacs, lavender, mint and scented geraniums.  They love to watch sweet peas, hyacinth beans, morning glories and moonflowers climb.  What’s more, children are really intrigued by the fact that morning glories open in the morning and moonflowers open at night.

Kids love to grow things to eat!  Cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas and peppers don’t need much space.  Radishes are cute and grow quickly.  How about growing bright and colorful nasturtiums, then picking them to eat in a salad!  Remember:  While nasturtiums are edible, all flowers are not safe to ingest.  Also, always use organic fertilizers, such as Plant-tone, in your child’s garden.

Allow children to add little touches.  They may want a stepping stone path.  They may add driftwood or seashells gathered from the beach – labeled clam shells make great plant markers.  They can paint rocks as a detail or border.  No doubt they’ll dream up more possibilities than most adults can even imagine.  There’s no limit to a child’s creativity when nature is the source of inspiration.  Have fun!

Lilac-scented Memories

Syringa vulgaris, a.k.a. the "Common Lilac," produces the beloved scent that so many of us remember from childhood.

For just a few weeks of every year, I can close my eyes, breathe deeply and be transported to a distant time and place.  Once again I’m 5 years old, in the yard of an 18th century colonial in an old whaling town in Rhode Island.  It’s a sunny spring morning and I’m heading through the side yard down a lilac-scented hallway and racing my sisters to the swing set.  A friend of mine smells lilacs and is transported to the bedroom of her 19th century farmhouse on the Massachusetts coast and another to the front porch of her Victorian home in Tuckerton.

Lilacs have that affect on people.  They’re not the flashy stand out in a landscape.  They won’t make the list of must-have shrubs this season.  Lilacs are better than that.  They don’t go in and out of fashion.  They’re always with us, a treasured part of both our past and our present.

Americans have been growing lilacs since the 1750s.  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson included them in their gardens.  Colonists knew lilacs to be a trouble-free shrub that provided both shade and privacy.  In 1892, horticulturist John Dunbar planted numerous lilacs at Highland Park in Rochester, New York.  During his tenure as park horticulturist, Dunbar introduced more than 30 varieties of lilacs.  His 1916 introduction, President Lincoln, which featured beautiful Wedgwood blue flowers, continues to be a favorite lilac today.  Highland Park’s lilac collection grew to be the largest in the world and Rochester came to be known as the Lilac Capitol of the World.

Lilacs live in almost any soil from clay to sand.  They don’t require much feeding or supplemental water once established and they live for hundreds of years.  What they do require is good drainage, full sun, periodic thinning and a pH of 6.0 – 7.0.  According to gardener’s lore, lilacs appreciate a good dose of lime one year and a good dose of manure the next.  That’s pretty good advice.  Lime often enough to maintain a median pH and give your lilacs a balanced fertilizer like Plant-tone.

Pruning lilacs is a lot like pruning forsythia.  To enjoy vigorous lilacs with copious blooms, be sure to remove the spent flowers as soon as they’ve finished blooming and before they’ve set next year’s buds.  This will safeguard against inadvertently pruning away next year’s flowers.  Also, remove the thickest interior stems to thin out the lilac for better air circulation and light distribution.  Since lilacs tend to colonize, or spread, you may want to cut away most of the suckers and shoots and leave just a few of the strongest new stalks each year.  In order to preserve the natural, rounded habit of a lilac, it’s best to use hand pruners or loppers instead of hedge clippers; they shouldn’t be squared off like a formal hedge.

If you have an old, overgrown lilac that doesn’t produce enough blossoms, you can revitalize it over a period of three years without missing out on blooms.  Since lilacs require three years of growth before setting flower buds, you can remove a third of the stems each year.  Start by removing the oldest stems.  Allow new ones to sprout and select for the strongest.  By the end of the three-year period, you’ll have all new stems and the first group will be ready to bloom!

Should you decide to add lilacs to your landscape, look for varieties with different bloom times.  For instance, Pocahontas Canadian lilacs (deep violet) will bloom 2 weeks earlier and James McFarlane (true pink) will bloom 2 weeks later than Syringa vulgaris, the common lilac.  Plant them all and you’ll be transported by lilac-scented memories for six wonderful weeks every spring!

Flower gifts that keep on giving….

Spring flowers make great gifts for Easter and Mother’s Day!  They fill our homes with color and scent after a long drab winter – what better way to celebrate the rebirth of spring?  Best of all, if given some simple care, we can transplant these gifts into the garden to return for many springs to come!

Hydrangeas are a popular spring gift.  These plants have been forced to bloom early in a hot-house and cannot be planted out until all danger of frost has passed.  While indoors, give them bright indirect light, avoid heating ducts and water regularly.  People often throw hydrangeas away due to wilted flowers and leaves, but if this happens to you, don’t give up so easily!   Immerse the pot in water for 20 minutes and the plant should be restored.

When the hydrangeas have finished blooming (and after danger of frost), cut back the stems to 1/2 their length, remove them from the pot and plant.  Feed them with Holly-tone spring and fall, and water throughout the season as you would any newly planted shrub.

Tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and other bulb gifts offer some of the earliest and brightest spring color.  Enjoy their blooms indoors until the flowers are spent.  Feel free to remove the spent flowers, but don’t remove the foliage.  The foliage is the bulb’s means of storing the energy required to bloom next spring!

Plant bulbs in the garden at the same depth they were planted in the pot (usually 6 – 8 inches).  If several bulbs were planted in one pot, they can be separated when planted out.  Let the foliage remain until it has yellowed and died back to the ground.  Water throughout the season and feed with bulb food or bone meal in the fall.

Potted azaleas have also been forced to bloom early and should remain in the house until all danger of frost has passed.  Keep the soil evenly moist and don’t allow rotting flowers to disfigure the leaves.  When outdoor temperatures have moderated, plant azaleas in a partially shaded area.  They will appreciate soil amendment for moisture retention.  Water throughout the season and feed with Holly-tone in the spring and fall.

Live basket arrangements often include spring perennials as well as bulbs.  The arrangement makes a gorgeous centerpiece and when you’ve finished enjoying it, the plants can be separated and planted out to become part of your landscape!  Keep your spring perennials evenly moist indoors and plant them out after all danger of frost.  Remove leaves as they yellow and pinch faded flowers.  When ready to plant, feed them with Holly-tone or Plant-tone (depending on whether they prefer neutral or acidic soil) and water throughout the season.  Next year, they’ll have doubled in size!

Most plants won’t need to be fed while you’re enjoying them indoors, but should be fed when planted out.  While the various foils and wrappers that accompany potted flowers are lovely, they do tend to hold water.  These plants like to be moist, but won’t appreciate standing in water, so remove the wrapper or make drainage holes and set the pot in a dish.  Enjoy!

How to Garden and Love Your Deer!

If a deer book tells you that echinacea is deer resistant, don't believe it!

Gardeners look forward to that magic time in early spring when new leaves unfurl and the first flush of green appears suddenly, everywhere.  The problem is, deer look forward to it too and sometimes they feast on those new leaves before our gardens know what hit them!  I know, first hand, because I’m lucky (and unlucky) enough to live on an old blueberry farm that has its own resident herd of deer.

The deer are great, don’t get me wrong.  My kids never tire of seeing them nibble our fallen apples at the edge of the yard.  It’s a thrill to catch sight of the buck, a rare occurrence, or several does grazing with their fawns.  I’m glad they feel safe here and I understand that deer lived on this land before I arrived.  I’m happy to share my aged fruit and vegetable scraps with them, but I’m not willing to let them browse through my perennial garden for dessert and believe me, if I lower my guard for an instant, they do.

Over the course of 15 years of trial and error, victory and loss, I’ve come to a few conclusions about what works and what doesn’t in the battle of gardener versus deer, or at least, me versus my particular deer.  I’ve tried several remedies that don’t work, like using human hair and deodorant soap as deterrents.  Perhaps my deer enjoy human scents?  I’ve also heard of people tying white plastic bags throughout the garden to mimic a white-tailed deer warning.  Sounds like a good idea, but I guess my sophisticated deer are not so easily fooled.

Of course, fencing is an option.  The recommendation is to make your deer fence 8 feet high to prevent deer from soaring over it.  No doubt that would work, but for me, fencing was neither aesthetically nor financially pleasing, so finally I tried the spray deterrents.  Years ago, the deer repellant sprays needed to be reapplied after rain and irrigation and neither the deer nor I were impressed.  Fortunately, there are a number of sprays today that will persist through both.

My personal favorite is Deer Off.  It really works!  An organic spray made from egg, garlic and cayenne, Deer Off will persist for four to five weeks, even during the rainy season or regular irrigation.  Applying it may take a little while, especially if you have a large garden with many perennials and it does smell like wet dog until it dries, but hey, it really works!  Both the smell AND the taste repel deer.  There are some repellant sprays that only repel by taste and some granular repellants that only repel by smell, but from what I’ve found a spray that can do both, works best.

The trick, however, is not to be lulled into passivity.  Any time after that 28th day, the deer will pounce and munch at my perennials’ expense.  I mark my calendar and try to reapply the Deer Off shortly after the three-week mark, so even if I procrastinate and miss by a week (or two) I’m still okay.

I’m also not apt to follow the deer books too closely.  Amazingly, they report that daylilies, Echinacea and black-eyed Susans are deer resistant perennials.  My deer love daylilies and black-eyed Susans and Echinacea is their all-time favorite!  They also feast on peegee and limelight hydrangeas, lythrum, hostas, burning bush, heliopsis and garden phlox.  On the other hand, they’ve never eaten my oak leaf hydrangea, baptisia, iris (bearded or Siberian), bleeding heart, baby’s breath, sedum, salvia, perennial geranium, Russian sage or hellebore.

To be safe, I give everything a spritz, but it’s clear that deer prefer certain plants.  If I let that Deer Off wear off, they’ll walk well into the garden, snubbing many plants along the way, to get to those peegees, limelights, daylilies, hostas and lythrum.

I can see that deer don’t dine on the native mountain laurel, inkberry, bayberry, viburnum, blueberry, chokeberry or clethra that grow in the woods that surround my property.  I try to use these shrubs in my landscape, but I still can’t resist a hydrangea or two.  This year I’ll be adding a few Forever and Ever hydrangeas, last year it was Endless Summers, but not to worry, I’m armed with a new gallon of Deer Off as well!

Protect Those Pansies!

Cool season annuals need to be hardened off before braving chilly springtime temperatures.

Garden Centers everywhere are reopening their gates and displaying the first enticing splashes of spring color.  Soon you’ll see early bloomers like pansies, primrose and Johnny jump-ups, snapdragons, stock and ranunculus.  The temptation to plant will be irresistible, but you must keep your wits about you and heed the advice of your nurseryman.  It’s okay to bring plants home.  It’s okay to put them out in the yard during the daytime, but be prepared to protect them on frosty nights.

As we’re experiencing once again, spring weather is unpredictable.  It can be mild one day and bitter the next.  Frost dates vary tremendously from year to year.  So what is a gardener to do?  Ask a reliable salesperson to help you sort through the tempting array of plants and advise you as to which ones can be safely planted and which ones need to wait a bit.

Seasoned gardeners get just as excited about early spring flowers as the neophytes do.  They too are apt to begin their plant purchases long before the last frost, but they’ve learned not to plant until the time is right.  It’s important to realize that the plants you see for sale have been raised in a greenhouse or cold frame.  Even if they are hardy, cold tolerant species, they’ll need to be hardened off before they’re ready to handle the weather.

Let your new plants stay in their pots for a few weeks.  Put them out on sunny days.  Keep an eye on the weather and put the plants in the garage (or cover them) when it takes a frosty turn.  If temperatures remain chilly and you just can’t wait any longer, go ahead and pot up containers, but hold off on putting plants in the ground.  The advantage to using containers is that you can put them near the house where the plants will be more protected.  If necessary, they too can be taken in on chilly nights.

Containers look fantastic bursting with pansies, dianthus and stock, but you don’t have to stop there.  You can also incorporate quart-size perennials that work beautifully in containers.  Add bleeding heart, candytuft, columbine, coral bells, sweet William (and more!) to the planting list and you’ll make some truly dazzling combinations.  These cool weather beauties will carry you through April and May until the temperatures are warm enough for summer annuals.  At that point, you can take the perennials out of the container and plant them in the garden. They are likely to triple in size by the end of the season.  When they return the following spring, they’ll be as big as if you’d started with a much larger plant!  In short, spring blooming quart perennials put in a long season for a fraction of the price.

Before you start potting, make sure the container is clean.  It may be a formal urn, a terra cotta pot, a box, a basket, or a boot – the sky’s the limit as long as the container has good drainage.  Do not skimp on soil.  Whether they’re grown in a container or in a garden bed, healthy soil grows healthy plants.  Use a potting mix that is moisture retentive and well-drained and use a balanced granular fertilizer like Espoma’s Plant-tone.  The popular long-acting fertilizer Osmocote is temperature activated.  Use it for later plantings when temperatures are considerably warmer.  Water containers as needed, but remember that cool weather plantings use far less water than summer plantings.

As spring beckons, feel free to have some planting fun.  Adorn your steps and patios with the colorful promise of warmer days ahead.  Just remember to bide your time and keep things mobile, so you can whisk those plants to safety when temperatures take the inevitable dive!