February Fun in the Garden

By A Goldman and C StClair

With days getting a bit longer, the urge to get outside and “do something” starts to grow. Here are a few tasks to consider tackling this month. But keep in mind, soggy, wet soils compact very easily. Avoid walking or driving on wet soil whenever possible.

Keep outdoor evergreens well-watered and even deciduous plants if they were planted late in the season.  Dry roots and drying winds will challenge evergreens to stay hydrated. Check for any deer browsing and net or apply repellent if evergreens are being chewed.

Keep an eye open for perennials that have heaved out of the soil due to freeze thaw cycles and gently push them back in place to prevent roots from drying out.

If you have bird baths, try to keep fresh and unfrozen water in them for not only birds but other animals that need a drink. 

On mild days, go outside and clean out your birdhouses for future residents.

Its hard to resist the desire to start garden clean up on those mild days that pop up here or there, but try not to disturb the gardens too much yet (except for maybe pulling out some of the evil Hairy Bittercress). There are valuable critters sleeping in the debris and they need days consistently above 50 F to wake up for the season.

Use downed branches to start or add to a brush pile for the critters that share your property.  These are great in far corners away from view and help with habitat.  For information on brush piles click here.

If the weather is nasty, there are indoor tasks to do as well.

Dust your indoor house plants.  They can photosynthesize much better without a layer of dust on their leaf surface. Be careful not to over water or fertilize.  They are not as energetic in the winter, quite like us!

Take some time to peruse catalogs and on-line plant sources. Dreaming about amazing new additions to the garden is half the fun. Before you place those orders, stop to consider and reassess where those plants will go in your landscape and if you will have time to plant/care for them.  Unusual items are worth the order but more “common” plants might be purchased at your local nursery in a larger size for the same cost.

Now is a good time to organize your records and get your plant tags ready for spring.  If you have records of plant purchases for the previous year, use that for making tags to place when weather is mild or when spring finally arrives.

Planning Your 2020 Garden

By A. Goldman

Anticipation is a gardener’s motto and thinking about the possibilities for next year’s garden is what eases the long winter months.  We may not be able to physically be out in the garden, but mentally we are! 

Winter allows a more leisurely approach to assessing and considering changes and can help avoid planting something in haste during the season just to get it in the ground. 

If you took pictures of your garden throughout the season, now is the time to revisit them to consider additions, changes, removal or repeating of certain plants.  Get a notebook out and make some notes before the thought or idea evaporates.

If you have a section of your garden you are not happy with but don’t quite know why, try converting the photograph to black and white. Sometimes the problem is too many plants of similar size, shape or texture. It’s much easier to identify this without the distraction of color.

When the weather allows, stroll around your property admiring nature that is visible now that you may not have normally noticed. 

If you do not see any birds or other wildlife then plan to add a feeder, a bird bath and more evergreens for winter protection. 

If winter winds bring down branches consider creating a brush pile in a remote location for critter habitat instead of disposing of them. 

Winter is also a great time to assess where to prune rubbing or crossing branches and dead wood as they are more noticeable without foliage. These branches can be added to your new brush pile critter habitat too.

If you have outdoor planters that contain woody plants, consider where those plants could make an impact in your landscape come spring.  Also plan for any plants that didn’t quite make it into the garden from end of season sales. You can also make note of plants that need dividing and where those divisions can be placed. Come spring, you’ll be ready for action.

In the winter and early spring when you are reading gardening magazines and garden blogs about all the new plant introductions, make some notes of things that would work in your landscape.  You’ll appreciate those notes when spring 2020 plant shopping starts and you encounter all the new introductions.  Your notes will allow you to make better choices, clear the “should I buy this” brain fog – and hopefully save you money too!

Spotted lanternfly on tree
Photo courtesy of Penn State Extension

A very important subject to think about for 2020 is how to deal with the onslaught of spotted lantern fly on your property.  This is a very serious threat to many tree species and the trees will need help to cope and survive.

Here are some resources for spotted lanternfly to help you plan your strategy.

Some Seed Sources

Now that winter is here – it’s seed catalog time! On a cold, snowy day there is nothing more fun than perusing seed catalogs and imagining how glorious your garden will be next year.

We thought we’d share some of our favorite seed vendors so you can check them out. In no particular order…

Johnny’s Selected Seeds – A great seed source for vegetables, herbs, cutting flowers and some annual bedding plants.  This site is also a treasure trove of information to help with successful seed starting. They have calculators to help with timing your starts and succession planting, information on cultivar choice based on growing conditions, and detailed germination information. Their Growers Library is well worth a look.  Although much of it is written for small market growers, it is also invaluable to home gardeners.

Select Seeds – This family owned business has an emphasis on heirloom flower seeds but also offers herbs and vegetables as well as some more recent introductions of annuals, biennials and perennials. The images and descriptions are useful and heirloom seed varieties are clearly marked. They have now added some live plants to their offering.

Prairie Moon Nursery – This company offers plants and seeds native to North America. Although they are located in the Midwest, most of their offerings are also native to the mid-Atlantic. They provide information on how to germinate native plant seeds (which can be tricky). I also like their Native Plant-Insect Interactions Chart as a reference.

Burpee Seed Company – Burpee has been growing, hybridizing and selling seeds since 1881. The company is local – you can visit their display gardens and research facility (Fordhook Farm in Doylestown) on open days. Burpee has a large variety of vegetable and flower seeds. Its always interesting to find out what is new for the coming year and they have cultivars unique only to them. Seed prices can be higher than other places though.

Geo Seed – This seed company is really targeted at professional and market growers but they do sell to home gardeners. They have a large selection of annual and perennial seeds at reasonable prices. Since they are more of a commercial supplier their catalog has limited information and no pictures so you may need to do research on the different varieties. You can view their catalog on line but they do not have on-line ordering. But, if you know what you want are fine with getting a larger amount of seed they are a great resource.

Swallowtail Garden Seeds – A nice collection of annuals, perennials, vines and vegetables at decent prices. A good source for bedding plant seeds.

Preventing Deer Damage in the Winter

By A. Goldman

They can eat a lot…

Once all your fall gardening is done you might think everything is complete but if you live where deer are a nuisance, get back outside for some self-defense. If you haven’t tackled “deer defense” this fall, here are some things you can do to get your plants through the winter.

The first tip is to keep deer from habitually visiting your garden in the future. It’s easier to maintain a beautiful landscape if deer are not nibbling on a regular basis. 

One way to do this is to provide screening. As you view your winter garden, determine if you can strategically plant “unfriendly” plants that will discourage deer from traveling through and screen the more tasty morsels from their view. It is often easier to see where to place screening plants in the winter landscape. Think about spiny, evergreen plants like Mahonia or American Holly (Ilex opaca) that will form a barrier and screen in all seasons.

That’s fine for the future, but what can you do to prevent significant damage from deer winter grazing right now?   

 You can create a barrier around specific important shrubs. For small shrubs, use nylon netting from a fabric store that is sold by the yard and is 72” wide. It comes in many colors but black or green are the least noticeable.  This netting is fine and will not trap birds or catch on spiny plants like hollies—this is important for spring removal.  To use this netting, guesstimate how much netting you will need, cut, wrap completely around shrub and then fold both ends together over once creating a “seam” and then use a standard stapler to keep it closed.  Gather the bottom closed and staple that closed too to avoid snouts eating from the bottom up.

Stapling it closed allows you to adjust it to your shrub or small tree and in the spring it is a cinch to pull it open.  Fold it up for storage and if there are large tears, just cut down to a smaller size for use next year on a smaller plant. With the 72” width, you can protect up to a six-foot tree or shrub. 

Spray on repellents work when the days are warmer but the scent is diminished as the temps drop. Handmade sachets of Milorganite hung at deer head height are easy and inexpensive to make using a loose weave fabric. If you do not sew, use snack sized bags with small holes punched in them with a small hole for a twist tie to be inserted into.  After winter use these “sachets” can be emptied on the ground as Milorganite is a good nitrogen fertilizer. 

You can also try applying clove, eucalyptus or peppermint oil to small cotton or wool strips and tying them at five-foot height on shrubs and trees.  In the spring you can drop these on the ground and they will disintegrate.

Keep the tree wrap to protect from rodent damage

Young trees can be severely damaged and even snapped in half by bucks rubbing the velvet off their antlers.  Protecting bark from buck rub is usually done in the fall by putting trunk wrap on young trees.  Leave this protection up through the winter as an extra precaution.  The protective wraps may also protect trees from being girdled by rodents eating the bark if we have a snowy winter.  They can be re-used used for several years but should be taken off in the spring and put back on the following fall. 

Fencing to protect vulnerable plants

Another tactic which will take more time is to fully enclose an area with particularly susceptible plantings.  Rebar or fence posts with either plastic or metal fencing are great although the plastic fencing can collapse with a heavy snow if not properly taut.  Plastic is easier to roll up and use from year to year.

It may seem extra work to protect your plantings from hungry deer but when you consider the time, effort, and money it took to create your garden, why should the deer reap the benefits of that hard work?!

If you have any clever methods to prevent winter deer damage, please share them in the comments.

Gifts for the Gardener

Article by A. Goldman and C. StClair

The gift giving season is fast approaching. Most gardeners are practical folks who have no need for fussy items for the garden.  Here are a few gift suggestions to consider.  

  • The gift of education! In the winter months when gardening is limited, classes are a wonderful way to gain new knowledge and scratch the gardening itch.  Mt. Cuba Center and Longwood Gardens both offer many classes and workshops.  A membership to these gardens is also a great idea.
  • Consider practical items that gardeners need but do not always want to invest in. Things like good organic fertilizers, coir bricks to add to lightweight potting soil, flexible carrying tub trugs,  and heavy duty hoses—ones that can stand getting run over! A good quality hose end watering wand is always appreciated.
One author’s beloved and abused, 20 year old weeding knife…
  • Quality tools can make the gardening experience so much more enjoyable.  Some of our “must-have-it’s-my-favorite” tools include good quality hand pruners, Japanese weeding knife (so many uses!), a digging and spading garden fork (better than a shovel for digging up many things), a stirrup hoe (perfect for all the vegetable gardeners), a serrated soil scoop (more uses than a hand trowel).
  • Consider a gardening book that is specific to your gardener’s situation and interests like deer resistant or shade. Often works on a specific topic are more useful than general gardening books.  Want some recommendations on our favorites? Let us know in the comments.
  • If you would like to impress your gardener, wrap up a box of soil with a promise of a delivery of quality compost in the spring.  Gardeners never have enough compost and there will be much gratitude for such a thoughtful gift – especially if it includes some of your labor to spread said compost!

Stocking stuffer ideas…

  • A serious gardener can almost never have too many pairs of work gloves. Gloves with lightweight rubber coating are invaluable for keeping your hands clean and dry.  If heavy pruning or shoveling is planned, gloves with padded palms are appreciated. Having multiple pairs makes it easy to trot off and start the day.  A pair in the car is fab as well.   
  • Maybe some scissors or flower snips.  Pairs of inexpensive scissors in can be tucked planters around the house for impromptu deadheading or for gathering flowers.  These are under $5.00 and can be sharpened.  
  • Gardening twine or plant ties (I like the reusable Velcro ties).
  • Gift certificates to mail order plant or seed suppliers and a copy of the catalog.

One last piece of advice… Use caution with those kitschy garden ornaments.  If you don’t know the gardener’s tastes well, it might end up the equivalent to the ugly Christmas sweater…interesting but embarrassing to use. 

Tasks for the November Garden

Article by A. Goldman and C. StClair

The growing season may be winding down but there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy your property this month. A few tasks to consider…

Oakleaf Hydrangea in fall
  • Take a stroll around to assess what grew well, what may have struggled, and needs to moved, empty spots that will need a new plant next year (shopping!!). Make notes for future reference or else document the needs with your phone camera.
  • Harvest seed pods, dried ornamental grass tops, pine cones, interesting twigs, sweet gum balls, and other potential natural holiday decorations.  Please leave a quantity for wildlife to enjoy throughout the winter but if you are using these items outside they can still nosh on them in a wreath or porch pot.
  • Bring inside any delicate garden ornaments.  Freezing temperatures and winter weather along with winds and maybe a falling tree branch can do damage to beloved garden art. 
  • For not yet planted plants, assess your possibilities for overwintering if they just can’t make it in the ground.  Group together near a wall for protection but make sure they still receive moisture.  You can tuck them into a compost pile, wrap pots with bubble wrap and overwinter in a larger planter, or if you can’t deal with so many….gift them to another gardener!
  • Finish planting spring bulbs. Bulbs can be planted until January as long as the ground is not frozen.
  • Keep spreading downed leaves around shrubs and trees.  Leaves are nature’s soil blanket and soil builder.  Many pollinators and amphibians overwinter in leaves so next season’s spring peeper may be snuggled up under your shrubs!
  • Make sure evergreens that have been planted in the last two years have sufficient water going into winter.  Evergreens lose moisture through their needles all year round and if the ground is frozen, this depletes their reserves and browning or death can occur.  
  • Compost in place.  If your limp Hosta leaves are challenging your garden aesthetics, cut them down and leave them on the ground. No worries as they will soon decompose right there and enrich your soil doing it.   This works best for softer items but can be done if woodies are cut up in small pieces. 
  • If you are planning a new garden bed or the expansion of an existing one next year, get a head start now. Cover turf areas with newspaper. Top that with alternate layers of leaves and green compostable items like grass clippings and vegetable waste to a height of about 18 inches. Come spring, the area will much more friendly for planting.
  • For bird lovers; clean out birdhouses and then add bits of soft fabric (natural fibers) for overwintering.  On bitter cold nights birds will seek shelter in houses and often with other birds to help retain heat.  In the spring the bits of fabric can be placed on the ground for nest building. 
  • If you do not already have a bird feeder on your property, consider installing one for your important garden assistants.   They are still inspecting your trees for harmful insects and watching colorful bird antics in the winter months makes for great entertainment.  Feeders provide supplemental food when winter conditions are harsh. Buy quality bird seed.  Something you would like if you were a bird!
  • Don’t throw out your hanging basket. You might want to recycle that after reading December’s issue.
Leaves make great mulch!

Bulbs for the Bees

Article by A. Goldman

Crocus vernus ‘Flower Record

Fall is a great time to anticipate spring by planting some spring blooming bulbs.  Not only do you benefit from seeing flowers early in the year, the bees will thank you for giving them an early season boost of nectar from those early bloomers.

Galanthus elwesii (Snowdrop)

Late February/beginning of March is when the queen bumblebee, solitary bees and honey bees may emerge to forage for much needed pollen and nectar to replenish their energy levels.  By planting early bulbs such as:  Snowdrops (Galanthus), Crocus, Buttercups (Eranthis), Glory of the snow (Chinodoxa), Siberian squill (Scilla siberica, and even species tulips you can greatly enhance the presence of pollinators in your garden for the season.

For a continuation of spring color, later bloomers include Fritillaria, Grape hyacinth (Muscari) and those highly-scented Hyacinths. 

Allium aflatunense ‘Purple Sensation’

A large group that would satisfy any gardener and that bees also relish is the Allium family.  There are early and mid-spring as well as summer blooming Allium in various heights, colors, and forms. They all provide excellent bee forage and can provide interest in pretty much any area of the garden.

Planting bulbs is easily done up until the ground freezes and you can still place an order from some excellent sources.  Some of our favorites include:

www.Brentandbeckysbulbs.com

www.Oldhousegardens.com

www.Whiteflowerfarms.com

Helleborus orientalis (Lenten Rose)

One additional thought on providing early blooming flowers for the bees, Hellebores are excellent for this purpose. Like bulbs, once established Hellebores can thrive for years with not much fuss or muss. 

If you have Hellebores already established in your garden, investigate under the “skirts” for babies that can be transplanted to new locations in the fall.

Planting bulbs is a spring present to yourself and to the bees who will appreciate you thinking of them and continue to pollinate the landscape for the benefit of us all.  

Crocus chrysanthus ‘Blue Pearl’

Just Do the Soil Test

You’ll be glad you did

Soil test picture

Do you have an area of your yard that is not doing as well as you’d like? Or maybe you’re considering creating a new planting area? Have you tested the soil in your vegetable garden in the past 5 years? Or ever?

A soil test can give you valuable (and sometimes surprising) information. Proper soil nutrients create healthy plants that are better able to fend off diseases and pests without any intervention. Knowing the state of your soil can help prevent the expense of excess fertilization, not to mention the environmental damage that excess fertilizer can cause.

Now is the perfect time to get that soil test.  If the soil test indicates that your soil is too acidic, you can apply the lime in the fall so it has time to alter the soil pH over the winter. If your soil is low in organic matter, you may decide to grow a cover crop over the fall and winter.

 Any needed fertilizers should be added in the spring before planting.

Soil test kits can be purchased from the Penn State Extension Office in Smeadley Park. Follow the directions for sampling carefully – your test results are only as good as your sample.  You will receive a soil report sent directly to your home with all the recommendations for improving your soil.  If you have any trouble interpreting your test report, you can always contact the Master Gardener Hort Line for help.

Want more information? Here are some links:

Penn State Extension: Soil Testing Overview

Penn State Extension: Don’t Guess… Soil Test

Penn State Extension: Interpreting Your Soil Test Reports

Penn State Extension: Soil Test Results: “What’s Next?” Guide for Homeowners

Glorious Garlic

Garlic is planted in the fall – the same as ornamental bulbs like tulips and daffodils. In Southeastern PA, garlic is generally planted in mid-October. The timing is based on giving the bulbs time to create a good root system before cold sets in, but not so much warmth that they sprout before winter.  

There are many varieties of garlic which fit into two main types, hardneck and softneck. Hardneck varieties are generally more hardy and easier to grow in our climate, but it never hurts to experiment.  Garlic bulbs for planting can be purchased from many places where you would purchase fall bulbs.

Garlic bulbs should be broken into individual cloves and planted about 2 inches deep, 6 inches apart in an area with fertile, well-draining soil in full sun.  Like other bulbs, your garlic will sprout in spring and grow through the beginning of summer.  To get the largest bulbs, keep your garlic well fed, watered in times of drought and weed free. The flower stalks (or scapes) of hardneck garlic should be removed to maximize bulb size.  They are edible!

Garlic is harvested when the leaves start turning brown. You want at least 4 of the leaves still have some green, otherwise the bulbs will split open, start to lose their papery wrappers and will not store well. Garlic is usually ready for harvest in our area by mid-July.

Harvest the bulbs carefully as they bruise easily when fresh. Allow them to dry for two to 3 weeks in a well-ventilated, shaded area. Then brush off any soil, cut off the dried tops and roots and store in a cool, dark location.

You can save some of your garlic bulbs to plant again next year. Save the largest bulbs to get the biggest crop.

Want more information? Here are a couple links:

Penn State Extension: Growing and Using Garlic

Penn State Extension: Garlic Production

Gardening by Phone

Article by A. Goldman

Phone photo

With the plethora of new gardening gadgets, there is one that pretty much everyone has in their pocket or purse; your phone…or more specific the camera on your phone.

Since we are winding the garden season, now is a good time to document both your garden and also your purchases for the 2019 season. 

When purchasing plants throughout the season, I group the plant tags together and snap a picture just in case they are lost.  If you are extremely diligent, this can be done for specific planters, especially if the combos are ones you like and want to replicate next year. 

I also document plants that I might want to buy in the future but may not remember the name or cultivar.  You can also research a plant easily while still in the store using any search engine.  This may or may not save you money! Flowerchecker  is an app for handy identification as well as NatureGate which will ID plants, birds, fish, and butterflies. 

Everyone’s garden goes through many changes both good and bad so take a few pictures of areas that you are really pleased with, plant combos that worked out, plants you think you should buy more of or need to repeat again for a continuous look, areas that could use some spring, summer, or fall bulbs, or maybe even some garden art to spice things up. 

Areas of your garden that are looking peaky (rundown), overgrown or in need of something different, having a picture with you can help you make wise decisions when shopping those fall ½ sales!  Just looking at a picture sometimes will give you a fresh perspective on what that area needs.

Once the garden season is over and winter sets in, download and establish files for plants and sections of your garden for future reference.  Winter is a good time to start your lists for next season’s garden, which can easily be done with your phone’s apps.  When the 2020 garden catalogs start arriving, I sometimes snap a picture of a new variety to be on the lookout for.

Your phone can help you in the garden in many ways but try not to lose it in the garden.  It will be of no use then.