June Bloom – Hydrangea macrophylla

How many of you remember the part of Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty where the fairy godmothers fight over whether Sleeping Beauty’s ball gown should be pink or blue? I think of that scene every time the old-fashioned mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) burst into bloom in June. The colors are so rich they are the stuff of magic.

It’s not a fairy godmother that determines whether this hydrangea’s blooms are pink or blue, it is aluminum. Lots of aluminum makes for blue flowers, lack of aluminum and the blooms will be pink.

The pH of the soil determines how much aluminum H. macrophylla can absorb.

Sweet soils (pH of 6.0 to 6.2) = pink hydrangea blooms.

Neutral soils (pH of 5.5 to 6.5) = purple blooms.

Acidic soils (pH of 5.5 and lower) = blue blooms.

Add lime to the soil for pink blooms; add aluminum sulfate for blue blooms. The amount of lime or aluminum sulfate needed depends on the soil composition.

If you are dead set on your hydrangea being pink or blue, grow it in a container where you can easily control the soil pH.

Two Days and One Pond

Last week we hosted our third annual Garden2Blog workshop. We get together with our Garden Home Partners and invite garden bloggers from around the country to spend two days with us at the Moss Mountain Farm Garden Home. It offers the chance for all of us to do something kind of old fashioned – have a face-to-face conversation.

This year our partner Laguna Ponds did something that I thought was pretty amazing. They installed a water feature in two days. Come to find out, it wasn’t amazing at all because it’s that easy to put in a pond. The hardest part about the project is digging the hole.

We placed the pond behind my brother’s new house where you can see and hear it from the back deck.

One day one the Laguna team dug the hole, put down the liner and edged the pond with native stone.

The Durashield Pond Liner they used is good for natural looking water gardens because it will conform to curves and shelves.

When they dug it the guys created a shelf around the hole for stacking native rock to secure and conceal the liner.

On the second day the pond was filled with water and the bloggers added plants.

Pebbles packed in around the native stone further hides the liner and gives the edge of the pond a finished look.

These floating planters make it possible to grow just about anything in the pond including flowers and herbs.

The waterfall leading to the pond. I think Chris and his wife Joyce are really going to enjoy the soothing sound of this!

 

 

Small Beginnings, Big Rewards

Children who are involved in gardening reap benefits that are both tangible and intangible. Studies show they tend to eat more vegetables and be healthier overall, while growing a portion of their own food provides them with a sense of self-reliance, knowledge of plants, awareness of the seasons and higher self-esteem. Involvement in gardening helps them understand their connection to the earth and encourages eco-friendly living. Moreover, hands-on experience with gardening connects them with the agricultural roots of America.

I believe that teaching children to garden helps them to see the parallels between the care and growth of living things with the care and growth of their own lives, families and communities. You could say that it’s my mission to grow more gardeners so I was delighted when Bonnie Plants asked me to travel to southeast Arkansas to meet Emily McTigrit of Star City’s Jimmy Brown Elementary School.

Emily grew a 16-pound cabbage with a circumference of 43.5 inches this year, making her Arkansas’ Bonnie Plants Cabbage Program winner.

Bonnie Plants Cabbage Program provides more than one million free cabbage plants to 3rd grade classes around the country each year. This program fosters a love of vegetable gardening in youth. Here’s how it works: Children raise their cabbages at home or in the school garden with the goal of growing a monster-size cabbage. The variety, the O.S. Cross, produces giant heads, and some have been known to grow up to 50 pounds. That’s right— a 50-pound head of cabbage! At the end of the season, the child who grows the largest cabbage in the state wins a $1,000 scholarship.

Emily was presented with her check in a school-wide assembly, and I interviewed her for my TV show. She told me all about how she watered and fertilized the cabbage, made sure to pick a sunny location and how the 16 pounds of cabbage provided her family with buckets of coleslaw.

Visit BonnieCabbageProgram.com to see more big cabbages and learn how to participate in the program.

Deer Resistant Plants? Fact or Fiction?

Raise your hand if deer like to graze in your garden. How many different tactics have you tried to protect your plants? Have you tried hanging bars of soap from tree limbs, sprayed predator urine or scattered human hair around flower beds?

While these inventive measures may work temporarily, a long term solution requires a holistic approach. First, you have to give up the idea that you are ever going to deer proof your garden. Unless you build a 7-foot tall fence around your place, there’s not much you can do to keep them out. Next, make your garden less appealing to deer. Stop planting their favorites like tulips, roses and hostas and choose plants that deer are less inclined to eat. A few plant characteristics to look out for are fuzzy foliage, an antiseptic aroma and a bad taste.

Are there plants that are 100 percent deer resistant? No. The truth is that deer will eat anything when food is scarce, but if your garden is filled with plants that deer find unpleasant, there is a good chance they will move on to the delicacies in your neighbor’s yard.

 

May Bloom – Roses

Come rain or shine the last week of April and first few weeks of May are when the roses in my garden start their spring show. Even though we are a few weeks behind because of cooler than usual weather, the roses are right on schedule. This is good because Mike Shoup of the Antique Rose Emporium is coming for a visit in just a few days.

Mike is an expert on heritage roses so I thought it would be appropriate to invite him to speak on the subject when the roses are at their peak. To make the event even rosier Mike’s talk is at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion where heritage roses abound in the gardens.

I know not everyone can make it to the lecture and not everyone has roses blooming yet so I’m giving away a copy of Mike’s book Empress of the Garden. It’s a big, coffee table-sized book that defines rose varieties by their personalities, which makes it easy to decide if a rose is right for you. Mike introduces us “Balloon-skirted Ladies” and “Petite Party-goers” as well as “Mysterious Ladies.” And let me tell you it’s always good to know you’ve fallen for a “Petulant Diva” before you bring her into the garden.

If you’d like to win a copy of Empress of the Garden tell me what you love most about roses – fragrance, color, rose hips? Just post a comment below. I’ll select a winner at random on May 8th, 2013.

Congrats to Nancy Olig! She’s the winner of this month’s giveaway. Check your inbox Nancy for an email explaining how to get your copy of Mike’s book. Thank you to everyone who participated!

 'Star of the Republic' is a variety in the Pioneer Series developed by Mike and the Antique Rose Emporium.

I grow a hedge of 'Sarah van Fleet' roses at the Moss Mountain Farm Garden Home.

Mike classifies 'Mutabilis' as a "Big-hearted Homebody." The blooms open yellow and mature to pink and then red.

'Sombreuil' is a climber that produces very fragrant blooms. In his book, Mike writes that she is obedient, pure, and enchanting.

'Ballerina' is one of the more carefree roses that I grow in my city Garden Home. She's planted in the front garden in high shade and seems quite happy.

Tomato Tales

This is an excerpt from my column in AY Magazine. Read the entire article here.

Long before social media was even a spark in our collective conscious, bits of “wisdom” have been going viral via word of mouth in the form of old wives tales and folklore.

For me, these stories are interesting because they are part of our oral tradition. For instance, how many of you have heard that it is bad luck to place a hat on a bed or that going out in the cold with wet hair will make you sick?

Of course, my favorite anecdotes are about gardening and some of the best are related to growing tomatoes. It seems everyone’s grandmother had a pearl of wisdom about getting the growing the best tasting tomato.

Matt's Wild Cherry Tomato

Here are a few tomato tales that I’m familiar with. Some are based in fact, while others are pure fiction.

  1. Sprinkle sugar in the planting hole or water your tomatoes with sugar water to make them sweeter. This is untrue. The sweetness of a tomato is determined by the variety. If you want a sweet tomato try planting ‘Sungold’ or ‘Mr. Stripey’.
  2. If you have a tomato plant that is lush, but doesn’t set fruit, beat it with a broom. The idea behind this tip is that the beating will stress the plant and prompt bloom. More blooms mean a better chance for tomatoes. I haven’t tried this one, but the old-timers swear by it.
  3. To prevent blossom end rot add crushed eggshells to the planting hole. This suggestion actually has legs to it. The eggshells are a good source of calcium, which helps reduce blossom end rot.How about you? What’s the best tomato growing “advice” you know? Have you tried any of these tips?

Soil Secrets from an Expert

It’s often said that the secret to successful gardening is good soil. But what’s the secret to getting good soil? I asked Jen Neve, President of Oppenheimer Biotechnology, to shed some light on the mystery.

I first met Jen in 2011 when she spoke to a group of garden writers at Moss Mountain Farm. Her company specializes in growing the microorganism Archaea. Archaea is like the Incredible Hulk of microorganisms. Aggressive, fast and tolerant of harsh conditions, it is used at oil spills to recycle contaminants into natural compounds. The microbes break down complex materials into basic nutrients and trace elements that are beneficial to plants. For this reason Archaea is also a great soil amendment, which is why you’ll find it in fertilizers offered by my friends at Jobe’s Organic Fertilizers.

While she was at the farm I noticed how Jen was able to take fairly complicated information and translate it into something we could all understand – sort of like Archaea! I thought she’d be the perfect person to explain the nature of good soil.

Here are the questions I posed to Jen and her responses.

Allen: A common mantra in gardening is “feed the soil, not the plants.” What does this mean and how can gardeners feed the soil?

Jen Neve: Plants get most of their nutrients from the soil – so the way to have a healthy plant is to make sure your soil is healthy. When you start your garden make sure you use sand, compost and organic fertilizer and mix it into your existing soil. Microbes are hugely important and often chemicals can harm them so they may not exist in sufficient numbers in backyard soil. I suggest using an organic fertilizer that has beneficial bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi and especially Archaea. Plant whatever you want, mulch, and once or twice a year apply organic fertilizer then leave it alone. Too much digging and fiddling disturbs the root system, in fact it disturbs the whole soil structure and can harm your plants. I know I started that way – dig, dig, dig…fiddle, fiddle, fiddle – it was just more work for me without really helping the plants. So my gardening mantra is now “get it established and leave it alone.”

Allen: How can a gardener tell is their soil is healthy? What do you consider to be the most important elements of healthy soil?

Jen: I think the best way to tell if your soil is healthy is to take a look at the soil. Soil is a complex assemblage of decaying organic matter, stable organic matter, fresh residue and many living organisms ranging in size from the tiny bacteria, Archaea, algae, fungi, and protozoa, more complex nematodes and micro-arthropods, to the visible earthworms, insects, small vertebrates, and even plants. The most important elements are signs of life and non-uniformity. By signs of life I mean can you see little creatures in it? Are there bits of plant matter (green as well as decaying)? Can you see grains of sand? Tiny rocks? Perhaps some leaves and sticks? Contrast that to sand in the desert – yes, it’s pretty but it’s uniform & for the most part lifeless.

Allen: How does Archaea contribute to soil health? How is it different from mycorrhizal fungi?

Jen: Within the soil the mycorrhizal fungi establishes a symbiotic relationship with plant roots by penetrating plant root tissues and surrounding root mass to more effectively take in needed nutrients. The Archaea are microorganisms similar to bacteria that work in the soil to release greater amounts of nutrients so the plant can take in nutrition as required. There is a natural cooperation developed between Archaea and beneficial bacteria making them more effective as a group. Archaea also breaks down organic matter into usable forms that plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi can identify, absorb, and ultimately incorporate for new growth. There has been some interesting research in Europe indicating that Archaea have an important role in the nitrogen cycle, one that is completely different than the traditional role limited to bacteria only.

You can think of the mycorrhizal fungi as an extension of the plant roots allowing the plant to use more of the nutrients the Archaea have made available.

Imagine a family all sitting around the dinner table with different kinds of food all along the center of the table – where most of the food is in unopened cans. The Archaea are the can openers, allowing the food to be available but only to the people right in front of the food. If you hand some of the people 2-foot long forks (aka mycorrhizal fungi) they can grab food from anywhere on the table – allowing them a more varied diet and therefore a healthier life.

Allen: Beyond good soil, what’s your best tip for a successful garden?

Jen: Plant what grows & be patient. Seems simple but we all try to make plants grow where WE want them NOW. I always scour all the local nurseries and even big box stores looking for plants in small pots (lots of native plants) and then plant several different kinds all in one area and wait a season to see what happens. Then I buy & plant more of what thrived without extra attention from me. If a “weed” happens to grow and looks pretty then I leave it in the garden. I happen to love the wild English garden look so this method works for me. My friends all say I have a green thumb but actually, I just plant more of what has grown for me. Also, as I mentioned earlier – get the healthy soil established and just leave the soil alone.

Tulip Displays in Arkansas

Arkansas attracts travelers from all over the country with all the splendor the Natural State has to offer, especially in spring. The vivid blooms of tulips usher in the warmer months and knock out the remaining gray of winter.

Here are a few of the state’s most spectacular tulip displays:

Moss Mountain Farm

We’ve planted 8,000 tulip bulbs at the Moss Mountain Farm Garden Home this year. I choose an array of types, bloom times and colors, including: ‘Blushing Girl’, ‘Menton’, ‘Maureen’, ‘Negrita’, ‘Princess Irene’, ‘Queen of the Night’, ‘Daydream’, ‘Red Impression’, ‘Golden Parade’, ‘Apeldoorn’, ‘West Point’ and ‘Red Shine’. The vast diversity of tulips makes them one of my favorite flowers¬— I never get tired of growing them.

The tulip display makes April’s tours at the farm a real treat. One of the greatest joys of gardening for me is to share the beauty with visitors, making the tours of the farm very personally rewarding. There are four tours that will be available in April, the 4th, 5th, 11th and 25th. These give me a chance to meet fellow gardeners, poultry enthusiasts and flower lovers. Plus when I see visitors enjoying the farm, it renews it for me; I see it in a fresh light. Click here to learn more about visiting the farm.

Garvin Woodland Gardens

Garvin Woodland Gardens boasts a spectacular display of tulips every spring for its Tulip Extravaganza. This 210-acre garden, owned by the University of Arkansas, has planted 130,000 tulips of all types this year. Just outside of Hot Springs, a spa city famed for its purportedly healing waters, the garden makes for an excellent day trip. The tulips are planted in curving, full beds, blocked by their respective colors – pink, red, purple, orange and variegated – and surrounded with still-blooming daffodils and hyacinths. The sheer numbers overwhelm your senses with beauty, and it’s simply impossible to take a bad picture in these gardens. If you’re in Arkansas in the spring, this is a must-see. The Tulip Extravaganza is March 16 through April 16, 2013. Click here for details.

Downtown Little Rock

The streets of downtown Little Rock are bursting with pink and purple tulips this month. I partnered with the City of Little Rock this year to create March Tulip Madness, and we filled planters around downtown with 25,000 tulips bulbs as part of the city’s effort to revitalize downtown.

I choose a blend of three different types for the planters: ‘Menton’, ‘Pink Impression’ and ‘Negrita’, which when combined create a pleasing pink and purple display. These mid and late bloomers take full advantage of the season and make stunning streetscapes. Read about everything you can do in downtown Little Rock.

Argenta Arts District of North Little Rock

The Argenta Arts District of North Little Rock is another fantastic place to see tulips. The city planted 28,000 ‘Red Impression’ tulips this year. These bright flowers reach the peak of their blooming in late March and continue through early April. They are growing in beds and planters throughout the Arts District.

One of the most wonderful aspects of this display is that the majority were planted by 75 volunteers last fall during a tulip planting party. The Bank of America, the North Little Rock City Beautiful Commission and the Park Hill Garden Club partnered to sponsor this effort, and the red tulips paired with yellow spring flowers create a vivid contrast in the district’s streets. Find out what’s going on in Argenta.

Spring in Luncheon Season!

For more spring party inspiration read my column in this month’s issue of AY magazine. You can find it online here. Read the entire article here.

The equinox on March 20th is the official beginning of spring, which is cause for celebration don’t you think?

Hosting a get-together doesn’t need to be a lot of work, especially during this gentle season. You can make your fete memorable and keep it simple by following these helpful tips.

Venue

Use both indoor and outdoor spaces. To accommodate spring’s unpredictable weather set up the dining indoors and the pre-meal gathering outdoors. Your guests can enjoy some time in the garden, but you won’t have to scramble if the day turns out dreary.

Invitations

Be old-fashioned and send a written invitation. This extra step makes even small gatherings more special.

Menu

Luncheons are tailor-made for fresh spring ingredients like salad greens, English peas and asparagus so stick to dishes that feature the flavors of the season.

Table Setting

Spring is the most ethereal season; set a special table to reflect this feeling. Use spring-centric colors or delicate tableware to set the tone. You can’t go wrong with a white table cloth, but bright hues are a fun way to create a lively mood.

 

Five Tips for Container Gardens

Whether you’re working with limited space or just looking for more versatility in your gardening, containers are a great option. Container gardens provide statement seasonal color and allow you to add more variety to your garden in spite of space limitations. Here are five tips that will ensure your success!

Select the right container

Begin by selecting the right container. First, consider the size; you want to take into account the mature size of the plants you’re working with. Also, look for a container with drainage holes, so that the roots don’t sit in water. I love a classic terra cotta pot, but they are a little fragile, so to prevent cracking over the winter, you’ll want to be sure to store them before the temperature drops below freezing. If you don’t have sheltered storage, remove the saucers. This will help keep the containers dry.

Use quality soil

The next tip is to select a quality potting soil that’s formulated for container use. When you squeeze the soil in your hand and release it, it should crumble, not clump. You can find soil formulated for container gardens with fertilizer included.

Select the best plants

Now that you have the container and soil ready, it’s time to choose the best plants for your container garden.

You can really use any color combination you like, but to create visual interest, I like to use the thriller, filler and spiller structural concept. You start with tall thriller plants that add a vertical element to the combination. Next, use more rounded plants as fillers to give the container the look of abundance. Finally spillers are trailing plants that are placed closest to the container’s edge to balance the height of the thrillers.

Fertilizer is key

Once you have your plants in place, another key to successful container gardening is fertilizer. It’s like a daily vitamin for your plants because it helps them perform to their full potential. Begin by applying a controlled release fertilizer at the time of planting. Then, mid-season apply a water-soluble fertilizer to really increase your flower power.

Water correctly

Now for the final step – properly watering your plants. Apply water at base of plants instead of over the top. This helps hydrate the plant at the roots and prevents wet foliage – which can leave plants vulnerable to disease. Knowing when to water is also important. This may seem a little basic but it really works. Simply touch the soil with your finger. If it feels dry, that’s when you want to water it. Also, remember that just because one pot needs water, it doesn’t mean they all do. Differences in pot and plant sizes will determine how quickly a pot dries out.

Give these tips a try the next time you garden with containers, and see what a difference they can make in the health and beauty of your plants.

Catlin's Giant Ajuga, Catalina® White Torenia, Sunshine Blue® Caryopteris and Efanthia Euphorbia

ColorBlaze® Sedonia Coleus, Supertunia® Royal Velvet Petunia, Lucia® Lavender Blush Lobelia, Sweet Caroline Raven Sweet Potato and Red Riding Hood Purple Fountain Grass Vine

Supertunia® Bordeaux Petunia, Lucia® Lavender Blush Lobelia, Angelface® Blue Angelonia, and Sweet Caroline Raven Sweet Potato Vine