Dead head lilacs for better flowers next year

Many of the lilacs I’ve seen have put on a nice show of flowers this spring. Some could have been even better if their owners had removed the spent flowers last spring.

Not many people are aware that deadheading lilacs is the best thing you can do for them to stimulate better flowers next year.

I don’t fault those who didn’t get around to doing that last year. If you remember, we had a wet spring last year and in the rush to get things planted, lilac deadheading was pushed far down on the list of gardening priorities.

Several years ago I was responsible for a dozen or more lilacs. My helpers and I always took the time to take off those spent blossoms and it really paid off. It’s another one of those delayed gratification things that gardeners always seem to be dealing with.

The ideal time to dead head lilacs is right after they’re done blooming.

Deadheading is very easy work if you have a sharp pair of pruners. Just snip off the expired flower right at its base and let it fall. It can be time consuming on a large bush but after a bit you fall into a rhythm. To me it’s a satisfying job because you can see the old flowers accumulate on the ground as you work at it.  Plus you are aware that next year’s flowers will will be even showier.

Old lilac flowers never fall off. Instead their panicles turn brown as seeds begin to form making the shrub look messy. So taking off the old flowers also keeps your shrub looking nice and neat. To do the most good, deadhead before the seeds set. I like to do it just as the last of the flower color is left.

Don’t worry too much if can’t get around to snipping off the flowers, your lilac will still do fine without any attention. In addition to its reliable flowering habit, low maintenance is another reason why lilacs have remained popular since colonial times.

Lastly, a light application of fertilizer after deadheading will give your lilac the nutrients it needs to regrow its flowers buds.

Bob

Epsom salts for colorful rose blooms

In order to grow and flourish all plants, including roses, require basically the same nutrients. One is carbon which is supplied to the plant by carbon dioxide in the air. Another, even though we may not think of it as a nutrient, is water.

In the soil, there are three primary nutrients that plants use in large quantities: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Together the primary nutrients are known as NPK. Good garden soil usually contains much of the required NPK . But sometimes soil is low in one or more of the primary nutrients so we supplement it with either organic or conventional fertilizers.

Secondary nutrients are need but in far less concentrations. They include calcium, magnesium and sulfur.

A long time ago rose growers noticed, even though roses were growing in very fertile soil, sometimes their blossoms still weren’t as nice as roses in other gardens. After much trial and error they found by adding Epsom salts, roses blooms would be noticeably improved. The missing ingredient was magnesium supplied by magnesium sulfate, more commonly known as Epsom salts.

The same Epsom salts you use in your bathwater can be used for your roses.

There are other sources of magnesium but some of them like dolomitic limestone can raise the soil pH. That would cause problems if your soil pH was already on the high side.

Add Epsom salts at the beginning of the growing season. For each mature rose bush apply a half cup of Epsom salts to the soil around the bush. You can do this either in dry form and water it in or dissolve it in water and apply as a solution. Do this every year to replace any magnesium used by the plant or leached out of the soil.

Bob

Checking stored flower bulbs

Several weeks ago I blogged about how I store dahlias. Did you keep some of yours too? If you haven’t already done so, now’s the time to check on them to see how they’re doing. Serious dahlia growers begin planting their tubers in mid-March, in pots and in a greenhouse of course.

I opened mine up right after the polar vortex blew through a couple of weeks ago. They were in a spot that normally stays cool but never freezes. However, this fall I rearranged boxes and stuff in the garage. Without realizing it, doing that must have changed the airflow pattern and allowed cold air to settle in the spot where I stored my dahlia tubers. I didn’t have a thermometer in that area but I knew it got cold because the storage bags were partly frozen. That’s not a good sign.

They didn’t look too bad when I opened them up to take a peek, but some looked to be partly frozen. The outside layer of damp sawdust was lightly froze. Instead of warming the tubers up to thaw, I moved them to another more temperate part of the garage to slowly warm up. Today I finally brought them out to see how they were doing.

It's very easy to tell the damaged tubers from the undamaged.
It’s very easy to tell the damaged tubers from the undamaged. The one on the left was frozen.

As suspected, most of them were damaged beyond salvaging, I’m looking at about an eighty percent loss. The ones that survived look healthy though. I’ll re-pack the good ones in fresh sawdust and compost the rest.

I also had some elephant ears tubers in storage, those I kept in the pots that they grew in last summer. They look pretty good. I gave them a small amount of water whenever the soil looked really dry — maybe once every other week or so. In the spring I’ll knock them out of the pot, divide them and replant.

You can't see much in this photo but the elephant ear roots are looking good.
You can’t see much in this photo but the elephant ear roots are looking good.

Other large pots have cannas that I stored the same way as the elephant ears, right in the pots they grew. They got some water through the winter too but not as much as the elephant ears. I wanted to keep them a little on the dry side so they wouldn’t get water logged and rot. Remember, they are dormant and not growing so they don’t really need much water. On the other hand you don’t want them to dry out and shrivel up. It’s something you have to learn trough experience. I usually ere on the side of less water.

The canna bulbs are in fine shape at this point in time.
The canna bulbs are in fine shape at this point in time.

Unfortunately, we lost a large geranium to the cold. It was one that we’ve been saving and taking cutting from for years and years.  During the most recent warm-up, we set the potted plant out on the front porch and — you guessed it — forgot it was there and it froze overnight. There may be some dormant buds that survived, I’ll let you know how that turns out.

Bob

 

 

Forcing spring tree and bush branches

We’re getting an early taste of spring at our house by forcing branches into bloom. It’s something gardeners have done for centuries ever since someone figured out if you cut some branches and bring them into a warm room during the winter, they will bloom.

When I was in elementary school, forcing pussy willow branches in the classroom during the winter was a regular thing. Do they still do that?

Right now we have willow branches blooming that Judy cut a couple of weeks ago. They’re not the large-budded pussy willows but they are still attractive. They just happened to be the ones growing in our yard.

The color of our willow buds range from light pink to yellow, all on the same branch.

In addition to willows, just about any kind of spring-blooming tree or shrub will work including, forsythias, vernal witch hazel, most fruit trees and many others.

It’s fun to watch the buds slowly develop over time.

In its simplest form , all you really do is cut off some branches and stick them in some water. You can improve the odds of getting better blooms by choosing branches that have more closely spaced buds — more buds means more flowers. Branches that are thicker than the average on the plant, work best too since they contain more of the nutrients the buds need to open and grow.

Cut the branches you want to force two to three feet long for best results. Once cut, remove all buds and side twigs that would be under water in your vase or other container.

Sometimes making a slit at the bottom of the stem will help it take up water more easily. Branches from lilacs and possibly other plants benefit from being lightly crushed at the bottom, best tool for that is a hammer. Just put the end of the branch on a scrap of wood and tap it until it is crushed.

Placing the entire branch in lukewarm water will help jump-start the process. The only big enough container we have to do that is the bath tub, plus there’s plenty of warm water handy right from the spout. A couple of hours in the tub will do it.

Change the water in the vase every couple of days or so to prevent mold and algae from growing and clogging up the water-conducting parts of the branch.

When forcing branches, keep in mind that not only are the flowers fun to see but the shape of the branch itself is also part of the arrangement. Don’t be tempted to cram too many branches into the vase or you may lose the pleasing design effect the branches add.

To extend your forcing season, cut new branches every week now until spring to have a fresh set of buds opening all the time.

Bob

Plants for butterflies

It’s been a long time coming, but more and gardeners are finally becoming interested in growing butterfly gardens. Eleven years ago, almost to the day,  I posted a blog trying to encourage folks grow more plants that attract and sustain butterflies. I figure it’s time to revisit that subject again.

Seed catalogs are arriving everyday in the mail now, both in my email inbox and in my outside mailbox. Almost all of them offer seeds for butterfly attracting plants.

This blog is about plants that have flowers that the adult butterflies readily come to for nectar. An even more ambitious butterfly garden is one that includes plants that the larvae of butterflies need to eat, but that will have to be another blog.

Butterflies are looking for flowers that have lots of nectar and a good landing platform for them to cling to. They also prefer small tubular flowers that are especially adapted to the butterflies’ proboscis, their specially shaped tongue that works like a straw. These tubular flowers cannot be too long or the butterfly cannot reach all the way down to the nectar which is usually at the base of the petals.

There are so many plants from to choose from that it can get frustrating. To help you get started , here’s a of list of the more common plants, in no particular order, that attract butterflies:

Thyme; Valerian; Heliotrope; Asclepias incarnata (common name-Red Swallowwort); PhloxAllysum;Verbena, all the different kinds of verbena are good — Verbena bonariensis is very easy to grow here in Michigan; Thistle; Scabiosa; Columbine; Chrysanthemum; Herbs, many of them have good nectar flowers; Milkweed, attracts at least 17 different kinds of butterflies; Queen Anne’s Lace; Liatris, common name Gayfeather; Gaillardia; Butterfly Bush (of course); Echinacea purpurea, common name Purple Coneflower; Violets; Lilac; Yarrow; Rudbeckia hirta, common name Black Eyed Susan; Monarda, common name Bee Balm; Lupine; Marigold; Daisy; and Lavender.

Zinnias flowers are attractive to butterflies, plus they keep blooming the entire growing season.
Zinnias flowers are attractive to butterflies, plus they keep blooming the entire growing season.

Other things you will want to consider when you plant your garden is: 1) have a sunny site that is sheltered from the wind, butterflies get tossed around by a breeze fairly easily 2) provide a place for them to “puddle”. Have you ever noticed butterflies hanging around mud puddles? They are slurping up much needed dissolved minerals, sort of like a food supplement, that are not found in nectar. A shallow container of water containing sand and rocks allows butteries to land and puddle. Actually, even just a simple mud puddle is fine, just replenish it as it gets dry.

Bob

 

 

Going through my seeds

This is the time of year I drag out all of my old seeds from last year and years before that. I always like to take inventory to see what I’ve got on hand before I order anything. We’re in the middle of winter and not all of the seed catalogs have arrived yet.

You would think that after all these years I would have come up with a better system for keeping track of my seeds since I have dozens of different varieties. You know maybe a spreadsheet, color-coded vials, a numbering system things like that, but I don’t.

Some of my current seed collection.
Some of my current seed collection.

Seeds don’t last forever. In rare cases however, seeds can germinate after decades or even centuries. One famous example is a Judean date palm seed that germinated and grew after 2000 years. Seeds that we use in the home garden typically last just a few years unless special steps are taken to preserve them. If they’re in an unopened, original envelop, they’ll have a better chance of remaining viable for longer periods of time. That’s the principle behind the survival seed kits that are sold on line.

Seeds that are kept dry and in a cool place fare better than those that are exposed to moisture or heat. Located above the Arctic Circle on a remote island, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault takes seed saving to the extreme and is able to store seeds from around the world for expended periods of time. Home gardeners on the other hand, can only do so much. Most of the time we seal up our seeds the best we can and keep try to them away from temperature extremes.

Here’s a chart I put together a while back that you can refer to when deciding whether or not to keep a particular type of seed. I’ve only included the more commonly planted food crops. This assumes that seeds are kept under typical conditions found in a home. Clip it out and save with your seeds.

SEED VIABILITY CHART

 

Five years Four years Three years Two years One year
Broccoli Beets Beans Chives Onion*
Brussels Sprouts Squash, winter Leek Corn Parsley*
Cabbage Squash, summer Lima beans Okra Parsnip*
Cauliflower Swiss chard Peas Pepper Peanut*
Celery Tomato Soybean (Edamame) Popcorn† † may lose viability after one year * may retain viability for two years
Cucumber
Eggplant
Kale
Lettuce
Muskmelon
Pumpkin
Radish
Rutabaga
Spinach
Turnip
Watermelon

Many people believe that the larger the seed is the longer it will stay viable. Looking at the chart you can see that seed size is not a factor. Compare corn which are large seeds with celery seeds that are quite small. Corn can be stored only for two years before it loses viability while celery lasts five years.

Bob

Poinsettia care after the holidays

For a vast majority of people Christmas poinsettias are a disposable commodity. There are a few of us however, who adopt them as part of our permanent plant collection.

A while back, for several years in a row, I kept one particularly bright red poinsettia that eventually grew to almost four feet tall. You can imagine it was pretty impressive at Christmas time while in full bloom. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of it to share with you. The computer I was using at the time crashed and took all of my plant photos with it. I learned a hard lesson that day.

To keep your poinsettia going for as long as possible,  keep a couple of things in mind.

Most poinsettias die from over-watering and that is related to growing conditions. Your home probably has a lower quality of sunlight than the greenhouse from which it came, so your plant will be less actively growing and therefore need less water. So, let the soil dry out some before watering. Then water the plant thoroughly until water flows out of the bottom of the pot.

Most poinsettias come with a waterproof foil or plastic wrapper to keep water from leaking onto furniture. After watering, dump out any water that remains in the wrapper. It is this extra water held in the foil that is the main reason poinsettias die prematurely. Poinsettias standing in water develop waterlogged roots. Eventually the roots begin to rot and the plant rapidly declines.

Pour our any excess water that collects in the foil pot wrapper.

Don’t worry about fertilizing your plant, it won’t really need much until spring. A half-strength dose of water soluble houseplant fertilizer once in a while should be more than adequate until growth resumes in the spring.

Also, bear in mind that poinsettias weren’t meant to last too much longer than the Christmas season.  They were bred for color, not hardiness. On the other hand, I’ve seen some poinsettias growing under abysmal growing conditions that survived until spring when the owners set them out in the sunlight to grow again.

At the very least, enjoy your poinsettia as long as possible this winter as a reminder of wonderful Christmas memories.

Bob

Digging dahlia tubers late

Last week I talked about my potatoes that I dug up very late in the season. What I didn’t mention was that same day I also dug my dahlia tubers that were still in the ground. Turns out they where in fine shape shape as well.

It makes perfect sense that the tubers would look so nice.  The ideal storage temperature for dahlias is around forty degrees Fahrenheit and that’s about what the soil temperature was. I checked the soil temperature in my garden again this morning and found that even now, during the first week of December, it’s running about 40F.

What kind of surprised me was how warm the soil is even with the colder than normal November we experienced. Looking back on the several weeks,  a pretty good set of circumstances lined up for my dahlias. First, the tops were froze back by the frost back i October. Then I left them in the ground for well over a month. That allowed the tubers to develop healthy “eyes”, just like the eyes on a potato. With strong eyes, my tubers should make good, strong growth next spring — that is if I take good care of them over winter.

This is a typical dahlia tuber but they come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

There’s a few simple tricks to keeping dahlias over winter. The first is to store them at the proper temperature and we already know what that is — just don’t let them freeze.

The second crucial factor is humidity. If left out in the air during storage, the tubers will dry out due to the low humidity we typically have in our homes in the winter heating season. So the solution is to store them in air tight containers. For a small amount of tubers, maybe under a hundred or so, I find keeping them in zip-loc bags is a good way to go. I usually separate the clumps of tubers into singles, then place one or two in each bag. To maintain good humidity I add moist sawdust to the bag. If you have more that one tuber per bag, the sawdust also keeps the tubers from touching each other. While you’re at it, add a tag so you know what variety it is.

Even though I had success in the past using peat moss, potting mix or garden soil, I’ve found that sawdust works best for me. I’ve heard of people using shredded newspaper but have never tried it. However, with so many people opting to get their news online, printed newspaper is getting harder and harder to find these days . You can easily solve that dilemma by subscribing to Detroit News home-delivery, but I digress.

The third and final secrete is to check on them once in a while. Open them up and make sure the packing material is still moist. Also, toss any rotting tubers you might find. It’s pretty disappointing to open them up in the spring only to find out your tubers were ruined due to neglect over winter.

Those plants you bought from the garden center and planted in your garden, most likely grew a set of usable tubers. Since soil temperatures are still hovering around 40 degrees F, it may be fun to check in your garden to see if your dahlia tubers are still good. Dahlia farms are asking $3.00 and up for each tuber (not including shipping) so it may be worth your while to poke around in the garden. Let us know in the comment section what you find.

Bob

What side of the debate were you on this fall?

While much of the country is focused on the mid-term elections, two opposing camps of gardeners are lining up this fall.  Each side has compelling reasons why they are right and the other side is wrong. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.

One side is more, you might say, traditional in their approach to preparing perennial beds for winter. Those gardeners remove all of this year’s dead plant material from the garden and dispose of it by composting or other means. They claim that removing dead material now, in the fall, creates a clean slate for new growth in the spring. Tender new growth will less likely be damaged than if you try to remove last year’s growth when the plant is actively growing in the spring.

Some gardeners prefer to clear the debris from their garden in the fall.
Some gardeners prefer to clear the debris from their garden in the fall.

The other group says, “We care about birds”. They leave all of their plant growth untouched in the fall. All of that tangled up mass of plant stems provides valuable cover for wild song birds that over-winter. This group feels they have a responsibility to the wider ecological community when gardening. Many perennials produce seeds each fall. Leaving those old flower stalks up, they say, provides an addition food source for birds.

Some gardeners prefer to leave garden debris alone until spring.
Some gardeners prefer to leave garden debris alone until spring.

Leaving the garden alone in the fall has some other, less tangible benefits. All of that debris tends to collect and hold snow in place providing a natural insulating blanket. The protective snow cover can reduce the chance of freeze damage or frost heaving in some years. Not only that, the stalks provide an attractive visual element to the winter landscape as well, claims the leave-it-be group.

Gardeners on the other side counter those arguments claiming by the time they start clearing their gardens, the birds have already eaten virtually all of the seeds. Their small plot of flowers would not provide any really usable cover for birds either, they say. And who wants to look at a messy garden area all winter anyway? Not only that, spring is busy enough without having to do all the work you should have done last fall.

So every fall die-hard gardeners endlessly debate the merits of their position. I’m not really sure how often one breaks ranks and joins the other side, probably not very often.

Bob

 

 

 

 

Saving a zinnia heirloom variety

This gardening season, I adopted another unique heirloom seed to try to save from extinction.  Currently, I’m saving four dry bean varieties that are not available commercially plus my own heirloom variety of tomato.

Now I’m adding the first flower to my growing collection of heirlooms, a variety of zinnia. It was given to me by a gardener who I lost contact with. She never said what the variety name was; only that she had been saving them for many years. I believe she is no longer able to garden so it’s now up to me to keep the strain going.

This variety has all pink flowers and is not a mix of colors. It probably started out that way a long time ago.

The blossoms were about 4 inches across.
The blossoms were about 4 inches across.
I like to wait until the flowers are well dried before harvesting the seeds.
I like to wait until the flowers are well dried before harvesting the seeds.

The plants eventually grew to nearly four feet tall despite the fact that I sowed the seeds very thickly. I didn’t know what the germination rate would be but as it turned out, just about every seed germinated. I transplanted a lot of them into new rows. I eventually gave up on trying spacing them out since there were so many plants that I ran out of room. The remaining ones grew up to form a dense stand, almost like a hedge.

Seeds are produced at both ray flowers (edge)and disk flowers (center)
Seeds are produced at both ray flowers (edge) and disk flowers (center)
Once dried, the seeds easily separate from the petals.
Once dried, the seeds easily separate from the petals.

Like other zinnias, they responded well to cutting, the more I cut, the more flowers grew to take their place.

I plan to keep the strain going and eventually give away seeds to other gardeners.

Bob