August 2014

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Cannas add tropical flair to the Midwest garden

‘Maui Sunset’ canna, under planted with ‘Kong’ coleus, strikes a dramatic pose in the garden. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

‘Maui Sunset’ canna, under planted with ‘Kong’ coleus, strikes a dramatic pose in the garden.
© Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

When I was a little girl, I’d trek down the alley to my great grandmother’s house a block away. Her side yard was a gardener’s bounty, with a circle of tall red cannas at the center. Whenever I see these stately plants, I think of her and her garden.

Although cannas (Canna) are an old-fashion flower, they provide a trendy, tropical feel to the garden, deck, patio, porch or balcony. Ranging in height from about 2 to 6 feet, they are as dramatic in the ground as they are in pots.

A canna is a rhizome, and can be found already growing in pots in garden centers this time of year. Or, rhizomes can be purchased at garden centers in early spring in a package or through online or mail order retailers. Pot these up in March to get the growing process started before transplanting outdoors in mid to late May.

Look for virus-free rhizomes and plants. For the last 10 years, cannas have been troubled by one of three viruses, spread, the experts say, by aphids. The virus can cause malformed leaves or flowers and create speckles or streaks in the foliage. When buying canna plants, make sure they are symptom free.

The fact that cannas have red, yellow, orange, pink, off-white or speckled flowers and that hummingbirds like the blooms is sort of a bonus. To many, the real beauty of the plant is the lush foliage. Depending on which cultivar you have, the leaves will be green, purple, golden or striped.

Cannas are tough plants and do best when planted in full sun, but are quite tolerant of shadier locations. They can take it wet or dry, but prefer soil that is well drained and evenly moist. Cannas also can be planted or grown in pots in the margin or edge of ponds or water gardens. The blue-green leafed cannas seem best suited for pond planting.

There’s nothing quite like a canna leaf striped with green, red, purple or yellow, backlit by the late afternoon sun. It just screams tropics. Flowers and leaves can be cut for indoor arrangements.

After the tops are killed by cold temperatures, remove the foliage, dig and dry the rhizome and store in a cool, dry place. Pot up next spring for another season of beauty.

Japanese aster a long-time bloomer

‘Blue Star’ Japanese aster sports light blue flowers throughout the summer. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

‘Blue Star’ Japanese aster sports light blue flowers throughout the summer.
© Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Don’t you love it when you find a new plant to try?

That’s how I felt when I found the perennial ‘Blue Star’ Japanese aster (Kalimeris incisa) sitting and blooming by itself on a garden center table a couple of years ago, late in the season. Of course, I bought and planted it.

Last weekend, I found another ‘Blue Star’ kalimeris sitting alone on a garden center bench. Yes, I bought it and plopped it right next to a ‘Blue Star’ that I planted two years.

Aster is a good description for the 1-inch wide flower with pale blue petals and yellow center. But unlike the sprawling, late-blooming asters (Symphyotrichum) we’re familiar with, this one stays upright and blooms pretty much all summer.

The Missouri Botanical Garden says this is a ‘tried and trouble-free’ plant in its landscapes, and I can second that opinion.

Grow ‘Blue Star’ in full sun or part shade. The leaves are thick, making it more tolerant of drought. This plant does fine in well-drained clay soil and Indiana’s hot, muggy summers. ‘Blue Star’ gets up to 18 inches tall, spreading to form a nice clump 18 inches wide. It blooms from June into September. (Plant native asters, too, for monarchs and other critters looking for nourishment late in the season.)

Rose troubles continue

If your roses weren’t killed by snow-mageddon, they may be under attack from rose slugs, aphids and spider mites.

Spider mites make yellowish or orange dots on the leaves. The veins of the leaves are green, but the tissue in between is chlorotic – pale green or yellow. Rose slugs munch holes in the leaves and sometimes completely defoliate the plant. Roses will likely releaf once the insect is brought under control. Aphids, too, suck on plants, causing malformed buds, leaves or stems.

The best defense can be found at the end of the hose. A strong spray of water can knock of many aphids, mites and other insects, reducing or eliminating the need for insecticides or miticides. Other controls include:

  • Snip off any damaged buds or leaves.
  • Remove spent blooms to reduce hiding places for thrips, which are commonly called rose slugs. Removing spent blooms also reduces the hiding places for Japanese beetles. These beetles prefer plants in the rose family, which includes fruit trees and many ornamental trees and shrubs.
  • Neem oil, summer horticultural oil and spinosad are environmentally friendly products that control for insects. Always read and follow the label directions.

Public tour allows peek at how famous families lived at Twin Oaks

Current Twin Oaks resident John Herbst selects,  places and tends plants in the garden. Photo courtesy Indiana Historical Society

Current Twin Oaks resident John Herbst selects, places and tends plants in the garden. Photo courtesy Indiana Historical Society

A tour of Twin Oaks next weekend allows visitors to get a peek at the history of two of the best-known families in Indianapolis.

Twin Oaks is the former home and gardens of Ruth Lilly, great-granddaughter of Eli Lilly, founder of the pharmaceutical giant. It was built in 1941 for the family of Lyman S. Ayres II, grandson of the department store founder.

The gardens were designed originally by Frits Loosten (1909-1989), a famous Indianapolis landscape architect. He redesigned them in a more European-style garden when the Ayres sold the property to Ruth Lilly’s father, Josiah K. Lilly in the mid 1950s.

Today, Twin Oaks is the residence of John Herbst, president of the Indiana Historical Society. It also serves as the society’s hospitality center, where its paintings and other art are exhibited. A fundraiser to support the society’s education programs, this is the first time Twin Oaks has been open to the public.

“What has been great for me as a gardener is to restore these historic gardens designed by one of our great landscape designers, and bring them back to life,” said Herbst, an award-winning gardener who likes to get his hands dirty. “I have wonderful bones to work with, extensive white brick walls, bricks and slate paths and terraces, and two ponds.”

The property is owned by William and Laura Weaver, the third generation to operate Weaver Popcorn Co. Inc., based in Van Buren, Ind., The Weavers purchased Twin Oaks from Ruth Lilly’s estate and leases it to the society to manage.

Herbst has done all of the plant selection, placement and much of the planting. “The Kitchen Garden is totally my labor. As I am working out there, I also feel that Ruth Lilly would approve, as she loved flowers and the gardens here. It was a great enjoyment, for her for many years, to be taken through the gardens when the weather was nice,” he said.


Tour of Twin Oaks Home and Gardens

11 a.m. to 6 p.m., June 6 to 8

555 Kessler Blvd., West Drive

Parking with shuttle service at Fox Hill Elementary School, 802 Fox Hill Dr. T

ickets: $18 in advance; $20 tour days. Children 3 to 12, $5.

For details:

Inaugural Celebration in Fishers

The Friends of Heritage Gardens at the Ambassador House and the city of Fishers are sponsoring Fishers Heritage Garden Celebration June 7 and 8. The keynote speaker is Pearl Fryar, the well-known sculptor of plants and subject of the 2006 documentary ‘A Man Names Pearl” ( Fryar will give programs at Ambassador House and at the Nickel Plate District Amphitheatre.

Widen the space around the patio or deck for a lovely show of plants

It is common for a narrow strip of soil to surround the patio. This strip was widened to accommodate upright yews and hydrangeas for privacy and color. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

It is common for a narrow strip of soil to surround the patio. This strip was widened to accommodate upright yews and hydrangeas for privacy and color.
© Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

As we head outdoors for race weekend and Memorial Day, here are a few tips on how to spruce up your patio or deck to add a little beauty to the fun.

In general, we tend to have narrow strips of dirt around the patio — barely 2 feet wide, so suggestion number one would be to widen the planting area. Planting a 4-foot wide shrub in that 2-foot space turns into a pruning chore.

Making the planting area 4 to 6 feet wide not only allows for a broader selection of plants, it also is more in scale with the patio, deck and house. And while carving a larger planting bed, give it a few curves rather than straight lines.

When it comes to decks, a common mistake is to use plants that are too small. Plants need to be in proportion to nearby structures, whether it’s the house, garage, deck or patio. Tiny plants can get lost in the mass and size of nearby structures. Planting areas around decks need to accommodate the height and width of plants that will camouflage footings, posts, beams and other structural and construction materials.

Be sure to read the plant tags to make sure your selections will thrive in the horticulture environment you have, such as sun or shade or wet or dry soil. Always allow for the mature height and width of the plants you select.

Add containers filled with annuals, perennials, small trees or shrubs, herbs or maybe even vegetables or small fruit, recommends Altum’s Horticulture and Landscape in Zionsville, in a recent newsletter.

“One of the fastest and most flexible ways to transition into summer. Wipe down your containers and fill them with fresh potting soil. Or pick a pretty new pot or two for a focal point. We also love repurposed containers like galvanized tubs, weathered buckets and troughs. Flea markets and garage sales are where we find some of our favorites. Just remember to add a hole for drainage,” the newsletter says (

Containers not only add spot color, they also serve as boundaries and soften corners. Cluster pots for even more impact. Water as needed and regularly fertilize plants in containers for the best show.


Invite this garden-worthy ‘weed’ to your landscape

'Little Joe' Joe Pye weed. Photo courtesy

‘Little Joe’ Joe Pye weed. Photo courtesy

Sure, weed is part of its name, but this plant is one of the best for attracting bees, butterflies, other pollinating insects and hummingbirds.

Plants called Joe Pye weed is a big family with lots of nearly unpronounceable names. Recently, the name of the common Joe Pye weed was changed from Eupatorium to Eutrochium. The Chicago Botanic Garden has evaluated most of this family during the past decade and found many garden-worthy candidates in this group of native plants.

“Joe-Pye weeds and their relatives are underrated native plants that possess many great garden qualities,” wrote Richard Hawke, plant evaluation manager at the CBG. “Large airy inflorescences and handsome foliage grace an array of plant sizes. These long-blooming plants are invaluable for attracting an assortment of butterflies to the late season garden.”

Joe Pye weed does best in full sun, but tolerates light shade. It thrives in soil that is more moist than dry, so water as needed. Some Joe Pye weed family members self sow, so deadheading – removing spent flowers – will help reduce that. Cut back to the ground in late winter.

Here are the five-star earners in the CBG trials. Chicago-area bloom times are provided, but here in central Indiana, they might be a slightly earlier.

‘Chocolate’ (Ageratina altissima sometimes listed as Eutrochium rugosum) has 3-inch wide white flowers atop 36-inch tall stems. The undersides of the leaves are a dark purple or brown, giving it the chocolate moniker. The foliage, which has excellent mildew resistance, is not that spectacular, but the plant size makes it serviceable in the garden from early September to late October.

‘Little Joe’ (Eutrochium dubium) has purple, flat-top flowers that get up to 5-inches wide. It’s 48- to 60-inches tall. This clump grower blooms from early August to mid September and shows excellent mildew resistance.

‘Carin’ (Eutrochium dubium) has pale pink flowers that get up to 9 inches wide. It blooms from early August to early September, and may get up to 85 inches tall and has excellent resistance to mildew. Hawke calls these tall Joe Pye weed titans, and recommends planting them in the back of a perennial border. Titans also could be planted as a late-season specimen or focal point.

‘Bartered Bride’ (E. fistulosum f. albidum) is another tall beauty, reaching up to 90-inches tall. The 9-inch wide white flowers start blooming in late July and continue into September. It exhibited good resistance to mildew. Here’s the full report.


Gift suggestions for Mother’s Day

Dogwoods bloom around Mother's Day, making them a perfect gift or remembrance for the special day and person. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Dogwoods bloom around Mother’s Day, making them a perfect gift or remembrance for the special day and person. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Every year on this weekend, customers rush into garden centers looking for a Mother’s Day gift. Many have no idea if their mom will put the hanging basket or combo pot in the sun or shade. They say they just “need something.”

Here are some ideas:

  • Begonia Santa Cruz Sunset. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau

    Begonia Santa Cruz Sunset. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau

    Look for hanging baskets or potted arrangements that can go in sun or shade. Dragon or baby wing begonias are good choices. So is ‘Santa Cruz Sunset’ begonia (B. boliviensis), which the public voted the best plant in 2012’s American Garden Award program. Because of its growth habit, it works best in a hanging basket or other container.

  • If there’s room in her garden, give mom a small, ornamental tree, such as flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), redbud (Cercis canadensis) or serviceberry (Amelanchier). These are native, understory trees, and do well in an east- or north-facing garden or under the canopy and filtered light of larger trees with south or west exposure.
  • If mom likes to cook, pot up a container of her favorite herbs. This planting will work on a sunny patio, balcony, porch stoop or a bright window.
  • Roses (Rosa) can be winners, especially the easy-care landscape or ground cover types, which tend to be pest resistant. But if mom is as bored as I am with Knock Out roses, look for brands Drift, Flower Carpet or Easy Elegance.
Flower Carpet Coral ground cover rose. Photo courtesy Flower Carpet Roses

Flower Carpet Coral ground cover rose. Photo courtesy Flower Carpet Roses


  • Avid gardeners go through a lot of gloves. We lose both of them, one half of the pair or wear holes in their fingers or palm. Frankly, gardeners cannot have too many gloves.
  • A small, recirculating fountain adds the relaxing sound of water, attracts birds and enhances the overall ambience in the garden. These fountains are perfect for patios, decks or balconies.
  • Ergonomic or hand friendly tools with padded handles, ratchet gears and other improvements can be a boon for moms with a bit of arthritis.
  • Take mom on the 19th annual Garden Walk, sponsored by the Indianapolis Garden Club. Five gardens are on this year’s tour Wednesday, June 4. Make a day of it and enjoy lunch at Woodstock Club as part of the event.
  • Hardly anything warms the heart of a gardener like a load of manure, planter’s mix or mulch, especially when it comes with willing workers, like a wonderful daughter or son.
  • A bouquet of fresh-cut flowers from the farmers market or florist also is a nice gift.


Spring reveals the ravages of winter on plants

New growth appears at the base of a Knock Out rose. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

New growth appears at the base of a Knock Out rose. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Finally, our plants are revealing the ravages of our most brutal winter.

In my yard, the Knock Out red rose (Rosa ‘Radrazz’) has died, which frankly, is all right with me. I was getting bored with it and tired of seeing it planted in every gas station, restaurant and strip mall in the country. Hardy to USDA Zone 5 (minus 20 degrees), our series of record cold blasts likely did this plant in, so it’s coming out.

If there are leaves or green branches emerging from the bottom of your Knock Out, cut the shrub back to the new growth. This fast-growing rose will likely bloom again this summer.

I thought for sure that I’d lost the five variegated Solomon’s seals (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’) that I had planted last summer. These were the Perennial Plant of the Year in 2013. I’d even told people I’d lost them, but there they are, the nice clump I planted, just a bit slower to emerge than expected. Another one of those “gardening teaches us patience moments.”

Little Henry Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Sprich’) also has not leafed out. It looks like there’s one branch that’s green, but this shrub has not thrived in my landscape, so I’m pulling it out. This cultivar of a native plant is hardy to USDA Zone 5.

Gardeners are reporting the browning of arborvitae shrubs (Thuja), broadleaf hollies (Ilex), the yellowing of Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) and few to no leaves on azaleas and rhododendrons (Rhododendron). Brown leaves on evergreens will not green up. If the damage is patchy, you can prune out the brown branches. If the browning is extensive, replace the plant.

The one miracle in my landscape is the ever-so-slow, but promising emergence of the delicate maidenhair fern (Adiantum pendatum). This lovely, and a bit hard to find, native fern is hardy to USDA Zone 3 (minus 40 degrees). This one is special because a customer at the garden center where I work dug up part of her clump to share.

Still to be revealed: Winter’s affect on insect populations.


Shop local plant sales to add to your garden’s beauty

Perennial Premiere at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Perennial Premiere at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

If you are looking for unusual or hard-to-find plants or just a few good standbys to fill in the garden, check out area plant sales.

This weekend is Perennial Premiere, the annual plant sale at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which ends at 5 p.m. Sunday. Here, you’ll find plants, art and garden accessories from area growers, merchants and artists.

Even for plant geeks like Irvin Etienne, horticulture display coordinator at the IMA, Perennial Premiere has tempting treats.

'Forever Pink' Phlox. Photo courtesy Jim Ault/

‘Forever Pink’ Phlox. Photo courtesy Jim Ault/

Intriguing Etienne is ‘Forever Pink’ Phlox, which is said to start blooming in spring and go into October. This sun-loving hybrid was developed at the Chicago Botanic Garden and is marketed through Chicagoland Grows. An upright, clump grower, it is a sterile, so it doesn’t need to stop blooming to produce seed, Etienne said. It’s about 1 foot tall and is mildew free. It should have good drainage. “A perennial with this length of bloom has a place in any garden,” he said.

He also is tempted by ‘Wesuwe’ salvia (S. nemorosa), which promises to rebloom. If you’ve grown East Friesland salvia (S. nemorosa ‘Ostfriesland’) or Blue Hill (S. x sylvestris ‘Blauhugel’), you know like other perennial salvias, it’s pretty much one and done, even with deadheading. Even the popular May Night (S. x sylvestris ‘Mainacht’) is only good for one really strong bloom.

This sun-loving salvia, with deep purple flowers, is one of three used in Salvia River in the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Eitenne recommends cutting it back by at least half after the first bloom.

Salvia River at Lurie Gardens in Chicago. Photo courtesy Millennium Park/Lurie Gardens

Salvia River at Lurie Gardens in Chicago. Photo courtesy Millennium Park/Lurie Gardens

One he’s grown is Agastache ‘Cotton Candy’, which he calls “a blooming machine.” It is loaded with soft pink flowers with darker pink calyces, or seedpods. “The calyces keep them colorful even after the flowers drop,” he said.

Agastache Cotton Candy. Photo courtesy

Agastache Cotton Candy. Photo courtesy

This sun-loving perennial gets 2 feet tall and blooms all season. Sometimes called hummingbird mint, agastache is a bee, butterfly and hummingbird magnet. Give it good drainage, especially in winter, Etienne said. Introduced by Terra Nova Nurseries, ‘Cotton Candy’ is listed as hardy to USDA Zone 6, “but it is coming back after our for-sure Zone 5 winter,” he said.

Other plant sales on the calendar:

• Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society’s Plant Sale and Auction, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., May 10 at Park Tudor School, Upper Gymnasium, 7200 N. College Ave.,

• Garfield Park Master Gardeners Plant Sale, 9 a.m. to noon, May 17 at the Conservatory,


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.