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. 

End of Season Plant Sales

The good, the bad and the ugly

Those end of season plant sales can be very exciting. The prices are so great, you can finally fill all those “holes” in your landscape.  But how can you tell if a great price is also a great value? Here are a few things to consider.

Make sure the plant in question matches the planting conditions you have, is hardy in your zone and will fit into your landscape. Its not a bargain no matter the price if you can’t grow it well in your yard.

While you can expect some leaf and branch damage by the end of the season, wilting or burned plants, or rotting ones, that have obviously not been cared for are risky. Extremely stressed plants may not survive in spite of your best TLC.

Don’t be surprised if perennials have been cut back. The stems may be shorter but they should still be intact. A gentle tug may tell you if stems are rotting. The exception to this are spring ephemeral perennials that are going dormant. These may have naturally lost many of their stems making it a bit more difficult to access the health of the plant. Nursery staff should be able to tell you if a plant is a spring ephemeral.

Check carefully for any pests or diseases you do not want to introduce into your garden. In some cases this can include noxious weeds (Hairy Bittercress – I’m looking at you!).

Don’t be afraid to carefully slip the plant from its pot and check the root system. There should be evidence of live roots. At the end of the season, you can expect some root wrapping around the pot edges, but if a plant is extremely root bound and feels hard as a brick, consider carefully. You will need to cut and tease those roots out in order to plant properly. This is difficult with extremely root bound plants.

Be aware that clearance plants may not have the same warrantee as full price plants, best to check with the nursery.

Try to plant your finds as soon as possible so they can begin establishing themselves. Mulch them, but do not fertilize.  You may be able to divide some perennials that have been growing in a pot all season when you plant.

Be sure to keep the plants watered throughout the fall.  Squirrels are notorious for digging up transplants in the fall so keep an eye out. Sometimes fall planted specimens are more susceptible to frost heave so be prepared to tuck them back in during winter thaws if need be.

Want more information? Check out this Penn State article.

Penn State Extension – Garden Bargain or Bust?