April 2014

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Timely snips keep summer pots neat, tidy and full

Easy Wave Gelato Mix petunia can be kept neat, tidy and full with a few snips now and then. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/

Easy Wave Gelato Mix petunia can be kept neat, tidy and full with a few snips now and then. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/


As we move into the high season for planting, here are some tips and reminders for how to get the most out of our summer containers.

1. The larger the container, the better. Larger pots tend not to dry out as fast. It’s best to use containers that have drainage holes.

If you have a fancy container without drainage holes, plant your arrangement in a pot with holes that will fit inside the ornamental one. Place a brick, gravel, mulch or other material in the bottom of the ornamental container to keep the planted pot elevated so that it won’t be sitting in water.

2. Make sure plants in the same pot have the same horticultural requirements, such as sun or shade.

3. If planting a large ceramic, terra cotta or other heavy pot, place it where you want it before filling it with dirt and plants. Leave at least 1 inch between the soil line and the top of the pot. This space allows containers to be watered without displacing the soil.

Here are some more tips from the plant breeder Suntory, which includes brands Sun Parasol mandevillas, Million Bells calibrachoas and Surfinia petunias.

• Boost the number of shoots by trimming the branches that overflow the pot. Use scissors or pruners. This can be done two or three times during the growing season.

• Make sure the soil feels dry before watering. Overwatering leads to root rot or other fungal problems. Water the soil, not the plants. Water until the liquid runs out the bottom of the container.

• Fertilizer containers regularly, even if using a potting mix with fertilizer added or a slow-release fertilizer at planting time. Water-soluble products work well in containers. Always read and follow the label directions.

• Snip off spent flowers, called deadheading, to encourage plants to keep blooming.

• When plants start to look scraggly, give them a haircut. Cut the plants back to about 6 inches from the soil line. Plants will rebound in about two weeks. A lot of gardeners do this mid summer, when they leave for vacation.


Compost: does your soil good

Digging the GardenWhen people ask about the best way to improve their gardens, I tell them to look down at the ground. The best gardens have great soil – soil that is a good blend of organic matter, microorganisms, air and clay, silt or loam.

The miracle ingredient is organic matter, such as compost, finely chopped leaves or well-rotted manure. Organic matter helps all kinds of soil, whether it’s clay, sand or loam. It improves drainage, yet helps with moisture retention. Organic matter feeds the soil’s microorganisms, which create the right environment for roots to thrive. Strong and healthy roots yield strong and healthy plants. The plants are better able to withstand stressful weather conditions, such as drought, and survive minor infestations of insects of diseases.

If you don’t make your own compost, you can buy it in bags at a garden center or you can get it by the yard, in bulk, from landscape suppliers. Between us, the stuff you get bulk is a much higher quality of compost than what you can get in a bag, which may be more convenient.

For existing plants, pull mulch aside, ring plants with compost and replace mulch. If there’s no mulch, add about an inch of compost across the bed.

When making a new garden bed, mix several inches of compost in the top layer. A 3-inch thick layer of compost also can be used as mulch around plants and over beds instead of bark or other materials.

Other tips:

• Avoid landscape cloth. Yes, I know it promises to reduce weeds. But once soil and other debris accumulates on top of the cloth, weeds can blow in and take root. I have pulled landscape cloth from many jobs and underneath, the soil is dry, compacted and without worms or microorganisms. Essentially, the soil looks and feels dead.

• Avoid synthetic fertilizers. They feed the plant, but do nothing for the soil. There also is some research that suggests synthetic fertilizers reduce worms and microorganisms in the soil. Instead, use fertilizers labeled as natural or organic.

• When making new beds, consider buying bulk planter’s mix from landscape suppliers. This is a mix of organic matter, topsoil, a little sand and other elements. Planter’s mix also can be used in raised beds.

• Avoid walking on garden beds. Compacted soil restricts root development and the movement of air and water.


Spring tasks, when weather permits

For a full pot of shade-loving caladiums, plant several bulbs in a pot. Remove one or two node or eyes to encourage more stem and leaf growth. Photo courtesy Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

For a full pot of shade-loving caladiums, plant several bulbs in a pot. Remove one or two node or eyes to encourage more stem and leaf growth. Photo courtesy Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

Finally, the weather might be cooperating enough that Hoosiers can begin some of the tasks of the season.

Fertilize trees and shrubs before they fully leaf out. Use an all-purpose fertilizer, such as Espoma Plant-Tone, Milorganite or other natural product. Read and follow the label directions, but usually the product is sprinkled around the base of the plant and watered in. Save a step by applying before a rain to let Mother Nature do the watering.

If you are fighting lawn weeds, apply a pre-emergent herbicide, such as corn gluten, when the forsythia blooms. A pre-emergent does not kill existing weeds. It keeps weed seeds from sprouting. However, if planning to sow grass seed, hold off on the pre-emergent because it does not distinguish between grass seed and weed seed.

Even though you’d like to kill dandelions and other perennial weeds in the lawn, the best time to do that is in late summer. Applying an herbicide now will cause plants to curl, which might make you feel better, but it’s only a temporary set back for the weeds. The reason to treat perennial lawn weeds later in the season is because the plants are bulking up for winter survival, which makes the herbicide more effective.

Want more perennials? Divide them, especially if their flower power has diminished over the last few years. Dig up the plant and use a bread knife, Japanese soil knife or a sharp spade to divide the clump into a few sections. Plant the divisions. Dividing summer-blooming perennials now allows them to get well rooted for their seasonal show. You can also fertilize perennials as they emerge from their winter sleep, or apply a light layer of compost around the plants.

This is the time to pot up cannas, caladiums and tuberous begonias indoors so they will have some size and be ready for planting outdoors once the air and soil temperatures warm up in mid May. To boost the fullness of caladium, dig out one or two nodes or eyes on the bulb before planting.

Sow seeds for warm-season vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, indoors. You will likely need to use supplemental lighting for these seedlings. Keep the lights a couple of inches above the seedlings, raising the lights as the plants grow.

It’s time for ready, set grow!


April garden checklist


  • Prune, repot and clean houseplants as needed.houseplant-window-stockxpertcom_id848849_size2
  • Fertilize houseplants as new growth appears. Follow label directions.
  • If not done already, sketch garden plans, including what to grow, spacing, arrangement and number of plants needed.
  • Order seeds and plants as early as soon as possible.Cyclamen. (C) iStockphoto
    Cyclamen. (C) iStockphoto
  • Place Easter lily, florist azalea, cyclamen and other seasonal flowering plants in bright, indirect sunlight. Keep soil moist.
  • Pot up summer flowering bulbs to be transplanted outdoors later, including tuberous begonias, caladiums and cannas.
  • Start seeds of warm-season plants, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, marigolds, zinnias and petunias for planting outdoors in mid-May.

General Landscape

  • Fertilize woody plants before new growth begins.
  • Complete pruning to remove dead and injured branches from trees and shrubs. Prune spring flowering shrubs, such as forsythia or lilacs, within a month after blooming.
  • Mow grass as needed to 3 1/2- to 4-inches tall.
  • Remove winter-damaged ground covers with trimmers or shears.
  • Divide or transplant hardy perennials.
  • Allow foliage of spring-flowering bulbs to ripen and yellow or brown before cutting back. Leaves make the food reserves stored in the bulbs that bring next year’s flowers. Divide or transplant spring-flowering bulbs after they’ve finished blooming. Mark empty spaces in the landscape to show where to plant spring-flowering bulbs next fall.
  • Harden off transplants started indoors earlier by gradually exposing young plants to outdoor conditions of wind, sunlight and lower moisture.
  • Remove winter covering from roses. Keep mulch nearby to use on plants in case of late freezes. Prune and fertilize as needed.

Vegetables and Fruits

  • Sow seeds for cool-season crops, including peas, lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips and Swiss chard, directly in the garden as soon as soil can be worked. Soil should crumble instead of forming a ball when squeezed.

    Mesclun seedlings can be transplanted outdoors anytime or the seeds can be sown directly in the garden. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau

    Mesclun seedlings can be transplanted outdoors anytime or the seeds can be sown directly in the garden. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau

  • Plant seedlings of cool-season crops, such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and onions.
  • Plant asparagus and rhubarb crowns. (Do not harvest until three years after planting.)
  • Plant certified, disease-free potato sections or seed tubers.
  • Plant strawberries, raspberries and other small fruit.
  • Remove winter mulch from strawberries, but keep it handy in case late frosts threaten and to keep weeds down.
  • Prune grape vines to remove dead or weakened limbs. Repair trellises as needed.
  • Apply a pre-bloom, multipurpose orchard spray to fruit trees.


Two plants become one in grafted tomatoes, other plants

When planting a grafted tomato, keep the graft at least 1 inch above the soil surface. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

When planting a grafted tomato, keep the graft at least 1 inch above the soil surface. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Last year, grafted vegetables, especially tomatoes, showed up on garden center tables. It’s not the term grafted that attracted people’s attention as much as the cost, frequently three times what you’d pay for a regular tomato in the same size pot.

We’ve been planting grafted plants, such a tea roses and apple trees, for centuries. In the 1920s, the Japanese and Koreans started grafting vegetables, especially tomatoes and other plants in the same botanical family. Interest started here in the United States in the 1990s.

The grafting process is pretty much the same, whether it’s an apple tree or a tomato.

A grafted plant has two parts, rootstock and scion. The rootstock is selected because it provides disease resistance, boosts production or has other characteristic that support the top part of the plant, called the scion. The scion is selected for the taste, size of fruit or other attributes it produces.

Under laboratory-like conditions, the two pieces are grafted together and held in place with a clip or other device until the wound heals.

Last year, I grew a grafted Black Krim and a regular Black Krim heirloom tomato side by side. I wish I could report some observation other than last year was a terrible tomato year for me.

The grafting process is of particularly interest with heirloom tomatoes, which lack disease resistance and mature late. A grafted heirloom tomato would have the disease resistance we want and better and earlier production. I’m going to them again this year with Brandywine, another heirloom.

A lot of savvy gardeners remove all but the upper-most leaves and plant their tomato transplants deep in the soil, or to dig a trench and plant them horizontally. This encourages good root development along the stem that is underground.

However, you can’t plant grafted tomatoes this way. The graft, usually marked with a plastic clip, must stay at least 1 inch above the soil surface. If the graft is below the soil grade, stems from the rootstock will emerge and overwhelm the scion, defeating the purpose of graft.

This labor-intensive process is why the cost of grafted vegetable plants is so much higher. But, if production is boosted considerably, you could get by with fewer plants, something that might offset the cost. Or, you can splurge on one grafted tomato and grow it side by side the same type of regular plant and do your own little experiment.


Snowdrops, shade and the change of season

Snowdrops are one of the earliest bulbs to bloom. When they emerge in late winter and early spring, they signal the new season. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Snowdrops are one of the earliest bulbs to bloom. When they emerge in late winter and early spring, they signal the new season. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

I don’t know about you, but about everything in my garden is flat. Flat, flat, flat. The perennials, some small shrubs and the lawn.

This time of year is always the big reveal — which plants made it through winter and which ones didn’t. But this past winter, which buried plants under snow for months, may delay seasonal signs of life.

There are a few signals, though.

I’m joyous about the common snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), which are the first bulbs to emerge in spring. I planted these tiny bulbs last fall and have been rewarded with tiny, bell-shaped green and white flowers dangling from stems just a few inches above the soil this spring.

I trimmed off all the brown, dried leaves on the hellebores (Helleborus). I learned this trick last year when I spoke at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show in Seattle. All the hellebores had their winter-damaged leaves snipped off, which made the flowers much showier.

The coral bells (Heuchera) like to wriggle out of the ground in winter, heaved from the soil by freezing and thawing. I just tamp these perennials back into the ground. This is a good time to trim off winter-damage leaves on these beauties, too.

Last week, I corrected a mistake. A couple of years ago, I’d planted yellow-blooming crocus (Crocus) in the lawn. When they bloomed, from a distance they looked like dandelions. I have enough of those already, so adding similar-looking flowers was not a smart move. I transplanted them from the lawn to under the gingko tree (Gingko biloba).

As with many landscapes, the trees planted years ago have grown to cast a lot of shade in what used to be sunny spots in the landscape. Besides the shade, the river birch (Betula nigra) is just too messy over my neighbor’s driveway, so I’m going to have it removed. I think I’ll transplant a serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Cole’s Select) that I’ve had for about 20 years to the area where the river birch was. Where it is now, the serviceberry is leaning away from the honey locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos inermis) toward the sun.

In the backyard, a weedy mulberry (Morus) shades the vegetable garden, so it is going, too. When it’s gone, the Jim Wilson sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana ‘Moonglow’) will be so much happier with some morning sun. So will the veggies.

The list is long and the time is short, but it gives this gardener’s soul something to look forward to.


Hosta needs water at key times of year

Most hybridized fragrant hosta have Hosta plantaginea blood. Photo courtesy of

Lack of water at the right time is the primary reason hostas don’t do well in our gardens.

In particular, water hostas in July, August, September and October and keep watering until the first frost, said Cynthia Miller Wilhoite, who has been growing Hosta for 35 years and has more than 800 cultivars in her collection. An active member of the American Hosta Society, she and her husband, Chris Wilhoite, own Soules Garden on Indianapolis’ southside. She spoke earlier this month at the 20th annual Spring Garden Clinic.

The most common pest of hostas is the slug and the best control for this leaf-munching, land mollusk comes from the sea — crushed oyster shells. This common feed for chickens is usually available at farm stores.

Apply a ¾-inch deep layer of crushed oyster shells in a 6-inch-wide ring around the leaves, called pips, as they emerge in spring. She said this one application of this natural product is all that’s needed to control slugs throughout the growing season.

Variegated hostas tend to grow more slowly and may not always be the toughest. That’s because the white or cream variegation lacks chlorophyll, the pigment that turns sun into plant energy, she said.

“I tend to like hostas with a thicker leaf,” Wilhoite said. Not only are the plants generally tougher, thicker leaves also provide more slug resistance. Always consider the mature size of the plants. Hostas may take up to seven years to reach maturity.

The popularity of mini hostas is fueled by consumer interest in miniature gardens. Miniatures usually are not larger than about 12 inches tall and wide, some with leaves as small as a thumbnail. Minis also are good as an edger in the shade garden.

Wilhoite said medium-size hostas are the workhorses in the garden because they provide a good show without overwhelming the scene. These will be 12 to 18 inches tall and no wider than about 2 ½ feet. Large and gigantic hostas will be at least 4 feet wide or more, she said. Here’s a sampler of her recommendations:


  • Blue Mouse Ears
  • Itty Bitty
  • Itsy Bitsy Spider
  • Mini Skirt
  • Church Mouse
  • Pure Heart


  • June
  • Halcyon
  • Autumn Frost
  • Mystic Star
  • First Frost
  • High Society


  • Sum and Substance
  • Blue Angel
  • Earth Angel
  • Elator
  • Blue Mammoth
  • Empress Wu


  • Plantaginea
  • Guacamole
  • Moonlight Sonata
  • Royal Wedding
  • Stained Glass
  • Cathedral Windows


Potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce, oh my!

Ultimate Mixed lettuce. Photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau

Since this is the best time to think about what edibles we will grow this year, I reached out to area gardeners about what they are planning. Last week, we talked to gardeners who planted less familiar foods: tomatillo, leeks and celeriac. Today, the gardeners’ menu is more mainstream.

Lettuces and Greens

Marion County Master Gardener and graphic designer Karen Kennedy wishes she had enough sun to grow vegetables successfully.

“I do successfully grow leaf lettuce along the edge of one of my perennial beds,” said Kennedy, who sows packets of seeds of mixed salad greens. “The area gets a nice mix of sun and shade and, depending on how fast we go to high heat, I can sometimes keep it going until mid June, or early July. I’ve also grown rainbow chard in one of my perennial beds.”


German Johnson heirloom tomato. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Plants.

Like a lot of Hoosiers, Carol Michel, an Indianapolis south sider and award-winning blogger at, picked tomatoes as her must-have veggie. “They truly do taste better when they are homegrown. I like the variety German Johnson. It’s an heirloom that tastes like a tomato should taste and the fruit is so big, that you just need just one slice to cover an entire piece of toast for a BLT,” she said.

After all, it’s a family tradition.

“The thing about the German Johnson tomato is that my grandfather was German and my grandmother’s maiden name was Johnson, so I always think of them when I grow this tomato,” Michel said. “I am to the point where I have to grow it or my garden feels incomplete.”

She grows them in the ground. “Plant it deeply in a sunny location and water when we don’t get rain. Provide strong staking because it will be big plant.”


Red Norland and Yukon Gold potato harvest. (C) Photo courtesy of Sally Zelonis

The best part of growing potatoes is harvesting them, said Sally Zelonis, major gifts officer at the Indianapolis Zoo. “It’s like panning for gold! When you carefully dig in the ground to see what you have — it is so fun to pull up a beautiful potato,” she said.

She buys seed potatoes at The Garden Center on Indy’s northwest side. She purchased cloth tubs online for growing her potatoes because her Zionsville, Ind., yard is very small. She hand picks any insects from the plants. Periodically, she grows several varieties of potatoes and relishes their many colors. “When I harvested them, I made homemade French fries with each variety to try them out. What fun,” she said.


March garden checklist

Soil readiness.


  • Prune, repot and clean houseplants as needed.
  • Fertilize houseplants as new growth appears. Follow label directions.
  • Sketch garden plans, including what to grow, spacing, arrangement, number of plants needed and sequence.
  • Order seeds and plants as early as possible for best selection.
  • Place Easter lily, florist azalea, cyclamen and other seasonal flowering plants in bright, indirect sunlight. Keep soil moist.
  • Pot up summer flowering bulbs to be transplanted outdoors later, including tuberous begonias, caladiums and cannas.
  • Start seeds of warm season vegetables and flowers in early March in southern Indiana. In northern and central Indiana, wait until late March or early April. Transplant outdoors when danger of frost is past, usually mid-May.

General Landscape

  • Warm spring days tempt us into the garden to prepare the soil and begin planting. However, do not work the soil if it is wet. If soil is worked too early, its structure is damaged. Here’s an easy test: Take a handful of soil.  If it crumbles in your hand, the soil is ready to work. If it forms a ball, the soil is too wet.
  • Prepare tools for their summer job. Sharpen mower blades.

    Prepare lawn and garden equipment for upcoming growing season. Sharpen blades and have equipment serviced as early as possible.

  • Prune trees and shrubs except those that bloom early in spring.
  • Plant container grown and balled-and-burlapped trees and shrubs as soon as the soil dries enough to be worked. Plant bare-root plants before they leaf out.
  • Fertilize woody plants before new growth begins but after soil temperatures have reached 40 degrees, usually early March in southern Indiana and late March in the north.
  • Apply horticulture oil spray, if needed, to control scale insects and mites when tips of leaves start to protrude from buds.
  • Avoid walking on soft ground. Walking on soil compacts it.
  • Seed bare spots in lawn.
  • Apply corn gluten, a natural pre-emergent herbicide, when grass starts active growth in southern Indiana only. Wait until April in the north . Corn gluten keeps weed seeds from sprouting but does not kill existing plants. For more info: University of Minnesota’s Corn Gluten Meal: A Natural Pre-Emergence Herbicide.
  • Remove leaves, twigs and trash from yard.
  • Set lawn mower to cut at 3 ½ to 4-inches high.
  • Cut to the ground perennials that were left standing for winter interest. Divide and transplant perennials when soil can be worked.
  • Cut ornamental grasses as close to the ground as possible. Transplant or divide ornamental grasses.
  • Remove winter covering from roses as soon as new growth begins. Prune and fertilize as needed.
  • Sow seed or plant seedlings of cool-season and half-hardy annuals, including calendula, larkspur, poppy, snapdragons, English daisy, pansies and sunflowers.
  • Harden off transplants by setting them outdoors during the day for about a week before planting.
  • Follow last fall’s soil test recommendations for fertilizer and pH; soil also can be tested this spring.

Vegetables and Fruits

  • Plant seedlings of cool season vegetables and flowers as soon as the soil is dry enough to work. These include broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, peas, spinach, lettuces, radishes and beets. For more details on specific vegetables and planting dates, see Purdue University’s Home Gardener’s Guide.
  • Remove old asparagus and rhubarb tops; side dress with nitrogen or manure.
  • Plant or transplant asparagus, rhubarb and small fruit plants.
  • Remove winter mulch from strawberry beds as soon as new growth begins; keep mulch nearby to protect against frost and freezes.
  • Before new growth begins on raspberry plants, remove canes that fruited last year and any that are weak, diseased or damaged.
  • Prune grape vines to remove dead or weakened limbs. Repair trellises as needed.




Gardeners’ must-have favorite veggies not usual fare


Tomatillos are the main ingredient in salsa verde. (C) uckyo/dollarphotoclub

As we wait for the big thaw and the dry out, I thought it would be fun to check with some gardeners throughout the area to see what vegetables they are dreaming about. Next week we’ll explore more common vegetables. Here are some less common faves:


Last summer Ginny Roberts planted Botanical Interests’ Tomatillo Toma Verde, an heirloom. “Tomatillos are very easy to grow, hardy and prolific,” said Roberts, urban garden program assistant at Purdue-Marion County Extension.

“My husband and I enjoy using them in a variety of fresh salsas. We also make a wonderful sauce and freeze it. And, much to our pleasure, bees flock to the flowers until late fall.”

Tomatillos grow similarly to tomatoes, but are related to gooseberries. (C) ason/canstockphoto

Roberts started plants from seeds indoors and transplanted them outdoors. “I planted 18 and learned the hard way that they are heavy producers and can become space hogs. I will plant just six this year and fence them in. End of season clean up should include raking up any dropped fruit. Tomatillos will reseed, if given the opportunity!”


Leeks are easy to grow from seeds. Some garden centers and online retailers may have starts. (C) Max Straeten/morguefile


Beautiful leaves and harvesting-as-needed make leeks attractive to Chris Turner, owner of uTopos Gardens, an Indianapolis gardening company. “I am not so good at harvesting vegetables that are time sensitive, such as tomatoes, so anything that can wait for me is my kind of vegetable!”

Sowing seeds was easy and less expensive than buying starts. “I put all the seed in one pot, and then teased the seedlings apart when it is time to plant in the garden,” he said. In the garden, he digs a 3-inch deep trench and sets the leek seedlings in the bottom. “As they grow I push the dirt back into the trench around the plants. This makes for longer white parts.”


“I like growing less common vegetables, and last season I enjoyed growing celeriac. Sometimes celeriac is called celery root,” said Fritz Nerding, manager of the Garfield Park Conservatory and Sunken Garden. “I grew the Diamant variety from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds. He sowed seeds indoors in February and transplanted seedlings outdoors about 12 weeks later.

Celeriac has a celery-like flavor. (C) ccat82/canstockphoto

He grew celeriac in rich garden soil amended with mushroom compost and rotted manure. “Celeriac requires more water than most garden plants, but the extra watering rewarded me with a fantastic celery-root stuffing for our Thanksgiving turkey.”