April 2017

That warm weather tease and its threat to plants

Bring a little spring indoors by cutting the branches of forsythia and other spring-flowering shrubs to force into bloom. © Yotka/

A lot of gardeners are going to be worried about their plants as we come through a week of 60 F days. The warmth will encourage daffodils and other spring bulbs to emerge from the ground and bloom, likely weeks earlier than normal.

And then the buds on spring-blooming trees and shrubs, such as redbud and lilacs, will begin to fatten up, preparing for their seasonal show. Again, this will likely be several weeks ahead of their normal schedule.

We may even see several plants blooming at the same time rather than their seasonal schedule.

As soon as normal temperatures or a cold spell return, we’ll all be concerned about any frost or freeze damage to our plants and wonder if we should do anything.

You don’t have to do anything. Mother Nature will take care of everything, so don’t fret. It’s possible some flowers may get frosted out or buds experience a freeze, but more than likely, the plants will survive to bloom again another year.

If a hard freeze threatens, consider cutting daffodils, tulips and other spring-blooming bulbs for indoor arrangements. Photo courtesy Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

If a bunch of daffodils, tulips or other bulbs are up and budded, cut them for indoor enjoyment.

While you’re at it, snip a few branches from spring-flowering shrubs, too. Forsythia, flowering almond, pussy willow, flowering quince and others are good candidates for forcing for indoor arrangements.

When temperatures are above freezing, snip 12-18 inch long branches with swelling buds by making an angle cut. Be selective in which branches you remove so that you don’t destroy the natural form of the tree or shrub.

Strip off any leaves or buds that will be submerged and arrange the branches in a clean vase with warm water. Place in a cool location. Change the water every two or three days and wash the vase to reduce the chance bacteria or mold will develop. It may take one to three weeks for the branches to bloom.


Ideas to reimagine your garden

Alpine trough garden with Chick Charms Sempervivum Hens Chicks and drought-proof, hardy succulent SunSparkler Sedums. Photo courtesy Chris Hansen

One of the reasons I go to garden-related seminars is to learn something. During “The Garden Reimagined,” a recent horticulture symposium at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, I got a primer on magnolias; some rock garden basics and recommended plants; design tips for a gravel garden, and what it means to plant in a post-wild world.

I have a love-hate relationship with magnolia. I had Jim Wilson (Magnolia virginiana ‘Moonglow’) for more than 10 years and it bloomed twice. I eventually pulled it out. Aside from its sporadic flowers, I was concerned the plant would get too big for my small yard, where each plant has to earn its keep.

I love magnolia flowers, especially their exquisite, clean pinks, creams, whites and yellows. Then there’s the fragrance. Known as the queen of blooming trees, magnolias tend to run large, but they don’t have to be mature to start their bloom cycle, frequently sporting flowers when the trees are very small, said speaker Andrew Bunting, assistant director at the Chicago Botanic Garden and author of The Plant Lover’s Guide to Magnolias (2016, Timber Press, $24.95).

Rock gardens are the next big trend, perhaps because of concerns about drought conditions and perhaps because gardeners are looking for something different. If you want to grow hardy alpine or succulent plants in a hypertufa or concrete trough or other all-weather container, the bottom inch should be filled with organic matter, covered with 6 inches or more of a 50-50 mix of small, sharp gravel and sand, said speaker Joseph Tychonievich, author of Rock Gardening: Reimagining a Classic Style, (2016, Timber Press, $34.95).

‘Spring Symphony’ foamflower is an excellent plant for covering the ground. Photo courtesy

One way to get a feel for plant forms is to look at black and white versions of your garden photos, said speaker Lisa Roper, the horticulturist responsible for the Gravel Garden and Ruin at Chanticleer, a public garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania. You’ll easily see how many rounded, pyramid or straight plants you have, as well as textures and where blank spaces are, she said. This technique works for any kind of garden.

Two things I learned from speaker Claudia West: That HTH is a disease that afflicts many gardeners, and that plants are programmed to cover soil. Plants, such as wild ginger (Asarum canadensis) or foamflower (Tiarella spp.), can do the job of hardwood mulch to control weeds, said West, ecological sales manager at North Creek Nurseries in Pennsylvania. Her award-winning book, Planting in a Post-Wild World, (2015, Timber Press, $39.95) co-authored with Thomas Ranier, offers an ecological philosophy as a guide to plant selection and more.

The disease? HTH, as in Have to Have that plant, West said, and the audience burst into knowing laughter.

What to do for the February blahs

Beautiful tulips bouquet on wooden table. (C) Maglara/

Even though it’s short, February is blah-est winter month. It’s best function is as the bridge between winter and spring, and about this time of year, we’re all ready for spring.

First up, Ground Hog Day, and this year, the prediction is six more weeks of winter. Whatever you say, Phil.

Next, Valentine’s Day, where we can indulge our love of flowers and share them with the people we love. There’s nothing like a fresh bouquet of tulips to give a glimpse of what we’ll see in our gardens in a few more weeks. Remember to keep the vase of flowers out of direct sun and away from heat. The cooler the spot, the longer the bouquet will last.

Do your rose stems bend causing the flowers to droop? Make a fresh cut and submerge the hole stem – leaves and flowers – in warm water for 20 to 60 minutes until the stems straighten, said Melinda Myers, horticulturist, garden writer, author and tv and radio personality.

Then make another cut with the stem under water, if possible, and rearrange the flowers in a clean vase with fresh water, she said.

‘Jelena’ witch hazel at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo courtesy Irvin Etienne/IMA

Anytime this month or next, take a stroll at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and smell the witch hazels. Most of them are inside the verdant perimeter and admission is required to see and smell the witch hazel in the Garden for Everyone and elsewhere. In the free access area, ‘Jelena’ witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia) can be enjoyed near the parking lot at the Michigan Road entrance.

The 20th annual Great Backyard Bird Count, Feb. 17-20, is a wonderful family activity. The first year, participants submitted about 13,500 checklists from the U.S. and Canada. Last year, about 163,760 birdwatchers in more than 100 countries submitted 162,052 checklists, reporting 5,689 species. It sounds more complicated than it is. Select a spot and count the number and types of birds you see there for 15 minutes on one or more days. The website has details and forms to use. (Don’t you love the logo above? Art by Charley Harper.)

Sign up for the Spring Garden Clinic, Saturday, March 4 at St. Luke United Methodist Church, 100 W. 86th St. Coordinated by Purdue Extension-Marion County. The fee is $40 and includes handouts, lunch and snacks.

Topics are: 10 Landscape Pest in 2016; Ecological Pest Management for the Vegetable Garden; Growing and Using Culinary Herbs; Growing and Loving Daylilies; Planning and Planting Your Vegetable Garden; New Plant Sampler; What Not to Plant; Don’t be a Buzz Kill: How to Protect Pollinators in Your Garden; Providing Habitat for Wildlife Around Your Home; What’s New in Home Food Preservation; Vegetable Garden Pests, and Creating the Structured Native Home Landscape. Registration is required.


Tropical plants decorate our world, indoors and out


LiveTrends’ air plant vase adorns the neck of Phyllis Gricus, a landscape designer and garden writer from Pittsburgh at the Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition held recently in Florida. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Wearable plants? Tiny plants in tiny pots? Braided plants? Orchids of many colors?

Those are my eye-catching takeaways from my first trip to the Tropical Plant Industry Exposition in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Produced by the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscapers Association, the annual trade show exhibits all the latest and greatest of tropicals, or what Hoosiers call houseplants.

In a big way, houseplants have escaped their indoor environment to serve as ornamental beauties in trendy summer gardens. And, they’ve leapt from pots into glass bubbles, whimsical vessels or architectural structures. They’re almost super plants.

Greenex’s Queen series Kalenchoes make a stunning display at the Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition held recently in Florida. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

The trend is plants that can survive for six weeks with zero care, said exhibitor Bisser Georgiev, founder of LiveTrends Designs ( The goal is to position plants as unique living décor.

His company has placed a tiny air plant (Tillandsia) in a small vase, strung with a leather cord to make a necklace, was popular with trade show visitors. So were the dolls with tillandsia hair, also a keeper, and that’s exactly what LiveTrends wants – consumers to collect the décor for their homes.

Almost all exhibitors featured tiny plants in tiny pots. Sometimes they were clustered together in a saucer or bowl, and sometimes they were placed in a row along a shelf or something similar.

Seen at the Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition held recently in Florida, the leaves of Sansevieria cylindrica are braided into an architecturally interesting table decoration. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Braided leaves of Sansevieria cylindrica provide a unique, architectural feature to a centerpiece arrangement or end table. The leaves are cut from the plant, treated with a fungicide and braided into a tight, upright, yet broad pattern and placed in a pot. The living sculpture, exhibited by, lasts several weeks.

Gardeners longing for something other than impatiens to color their shady landscape can take heart by planting several blooming bromeliads in a container. The colors should last the summer and with it comes the sturdy bromeliad texture.

Orchids, which bloom anywhere from four weeks to three months, depending on the variety, also can be clustered in large bowls for a stunning display in shadier areas. Or line a shelf or shady window box with them.

For outdoor living spaces, consider building a backless box to affix to a wall. Set plants in pretty pots in the box to color up the space.

To wrap up, use tropicals (aka houseplants) as you might premium annuals or tender perennials for summer fare. Tropicals add texture, shades of green, silver, red and other colors, and when they’ve completed their summer tour, they can be brought indoors for even more enjoyment. Or, thank them for their seasonal show and toss the plants in the compost pile.

Exhibitors at the Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition, held recently in Florida, displayed several bromeliads in large pots, the perfect colorful plant for shadier spots in the landscape. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Plants you probably should be growing


For late winter and early spring beauty, consider ‘Golden Glory’ cornelian cherry. Photo courtesy

For late winter and early spring beauty, consider ‘Golden Glory’ cornelian cherry. Photo courtesy

Gardeners always have favorite plants, including those they think are not used often enough. Last week, we looked over the shoulders of Indiana gardeners at their favorite new plants. This week, we asked them about plants they thought should be planted more. Here’s what they had to say.

Bob Hill in Southern Indiana praises cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), an Asian member of the dogwood family. The hardy tree provides bursts of yellow flowers in late winter or early spring, has beautiful exfoliating bark year-round, and thick crops of red fruits in late summer and fall. “The best Cornus mas cultivars include the heavy-blooming ‘Golden Glory’, ‘Redstone’ and ‘Spring Grove’. If your yard is small, ‘Pyramidalis’, makes a nice fit in tight places,” said Hill, owner of Hidden Hill Nursery & Sculpture Garden in Utica.

Fancy-leaf geraniums, such as ‘Glitterati Ice Queen’, are gaining in popularity for summer fare. Photo courtesy University of Georgia Trial Gardens

Fancy-leaf geraniums, such as ‘Glitterati Ice Queen’, are gaining in popularity for summer fare. Photo courtesy University of Georgia Trial Gardens

Fancy-leaf geraniums (Pelargonium), which are celebrating a resurgence in popularity, deserve a spot in a pot, said Jean Starr of Chesterton, who blogs at “They have smaller flowers than what we think of when geranium is mentioned, but even when they’re not in bloom, their multi-colored leaves provide plenty of interest.” Among Starr’s favorites is ‘Glitterati Ice Queen’ from Hort Couture Plants, which can be mixed with other plants in a pot, grown in a hanging basket or window box.

A dwarf butterfly bush, such as ‘Glass Slippers’, works well in sunny spots in small yards. Photo courtesy

A dwarf butterfly bush, such as ‘Glass Slippers’, works well in sunny spots in small yards. Photo courtesy

Karen Kennedy, former president of Marion County Master Gardeners, says she’s become fond of the dwarf butterfly bushes (Buddleia), which in the 3-4 foot range, work well in her small garden. She especially likes Buzz Velvet, with vivid raspberry flowers, and ‘Glass Slippers’, the latter part of the Monarch series, with periwinkle blue flowers and silver foliage. “Both bloomed all the way to frost. A great edition to a sunny area of the garden,” she said.

Spring-planted Johnny jump-ups sometimes self-sow to reappear when temps cool in fall or the following spring. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/

Spring-planted Johnny jump-ups sometimes self-sow to reappear when temps cool in fall or the following spring. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/

“I think the most under-used plant is the little violas and pansies,” said Carol Michel of Indianapolis, who blogs at Plant pansies and violas (Viola spp.) in early spring. “They will last until it gets hot, toward the end of May. They don’t mind an occasional frost, either,” she said. “The yellow-purple ones, generally referred to as Johnny jump-ups, are my favorites.”

The native copper iris offers an unusual color in the spring garden. © James Henderson, Golden Delight Honey,

The native copper iris offers an unusual color in the spring garden. © James Henderson, Golden Delight Honey,

Copper iris (Iris fulva), a late spring bloomer that is tough and beautiful, makes Irvin Etienne’s list of under-used perennials. “The flowers are an unusual shade of copper that I find highly attractive. Related to the native Louisiana iris, it is considered beardless and crestless. It tolerates wet conditions and clay, but mine is happy in good, normal garden soil,” said Etienne, horticultural display coordinator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.


Indiana gardeners name the best new plants in their gardens

‘Fierce Gigante’ elephant ear easily reaches 5 feet tall or more in a summer. Photo courtesy Irvin Etienne/

Pretty soon, new plants will beckon to us from newspapers and magazines, catalogs and the benches at garden centers: “Try me!” “Try me!”

To help guide our plant lust, I checked with some of my favorite gardeners throughout the state, asking what the best new or sort-of-new plant they’d grown. I also asked what plants they thought were under used or under appreciated by gardeners, and we’ll have that next week. For the new plants:

A big elephant ear from Plants Nouveau, ‘Fierce Gigante’ (Colocasia) easily reaches 5 feet tall when given ample moisture and rich, said Irvin Etienne, horticultural display coordinator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and guru of all things tropical. “I thought the beautiful foliage would be its only asset, but the flowers turned out fabulous – big, creamy calla-like flowers on purple stems. My favorite new colocasia.”

‘Masterpiece’ is appreciated as much for its tasty tendrils as its pod and peas.
Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/

Carol Michel, an avid vegetable gardener in Indianapolis who blogs at, picked ‘Masterpiece’ pea from Burpee. “It was easy to grow in a container and both the pods and the peas are edible, as are the tendrils. The tendrils are also frilly, and make a nice edition to flower arrangements.”

Tiny Tuff Stuff hydrangea is a winner in an Indianapolis Master Gardener’s landscape. Photo courtesy

Karen Kennedy, a former president of Marion County Master Gardeners, said she’s taken with several newish hydrangea introductions that have replaced a large Endless Summer (H. macrophylla ‘Bailmer’). Newly planted are ‘Tiny Tuff Stuff’ (H. serrata ‘Makd’), Bobo (H. paniculata ‘Ilvobo’) and Little Quick Fire (H. paniculata ‘Smhplqf’). “All three performed marvelously in their mostly sunny locations, with little to no care and bloomed all summer long. Unlike a lot of other hydrangeas they don’t faint in the heat and aren’t as demanding about water,” she said.

The long-blooming ‘Heatwave’ hyssop toughs it out through summer’s heat and humidity. Photo courtesy

Jean Starr of Chesterton, who blogs at, says ‘Heatwave’ hyssop (Agastache) was unbeatable for its big flowers and long bloom time. “Even through the worst of the heat and humidity, ‘Heatwave’ kept pushing out its big purplish blooms on strong stems that could reach up to three feet in height. Rated to Zone 5 but resents wet feet in winter.”

‘Lemon Meringue’ adds long-blooming stalks of yellow flowers in the summer garden. Photo courtesy

Down in Southern Indiana, Bob Hill raves about the native false indigos (Baptisia), especially those in the Decadence series, because of their durability, hardiness and tolerance. ‘Lemon Meringue’ only adds to all that with bright yellow flowers on 36-inch-tall stems and bluish-green leaves, followed by the showy seed heads in fall, said Hill, owner of Hidden Hill Nursery & Sculpture Garden in Utica.

Effort under way to make butterfly weed Indiana’s official wildflower


Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Photo courtesy

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Photo courtesy

The Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society has launched an initiative to declare butterfly weed as the state’s official wildflower.

Society members plan to spend the 2017 session walking statehouse halls to promote a bill that elevates the status of the native perennial, a critical plant in the lifecycle of monarch butterflies.

The peony, an import from Asia, is the official state flower, and there are no plans to change that, said Davie Sue Wallace, vice president of INPAWS. Several states have state flowers and state wildflowers, including Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma and Florida.

INPAWS criteria for this selection: It needed to be garden worthy in performance and size; it needed to be found in the wild throughout Indiana; it needed to be a plant that retailers and wholesalers would be interested in; and it needed to be a plant of interest to children for educational purposes. Butterfly weed won by a long shot, said Wallace of Evansville, 10-year member of INPAWS.

She met with Republican Sens. Vaneta Becker and David Long the day before Thanksgiving to begin the process. Becker will likely craft the bill, Wallace said.

“It has been very challenging to do this during the holidays. But this just seems like the right year,” Wallace said.

To support Senate Bill 470, email or write Becker and Long and the representatives and senators from your area, Wallace said.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) has become a very popular perennial the last several years, primarily because of its value as a food plant in the monarch butterfly’s lifecycle. A member of the milkweed family, butterflies slurp nectar from the bright orange flowers. Monarchs lay her eggs on milkweeds, which hatch and the larva eat the leaves before pupating and turning into butterflies. The Asclepias family is the only food plant for the caterpillars.

The loss of natural habitats of butterfly weed has prompted gardeners, municipalities, highway departments, parks and others to plant the perennial as a way to support monarchs, whose numbers have seen sharp decline over the last decade.

Coincidentally, butterfly weed is the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year, so named by the Perennial Plant Association, a trade association of breeders, growers, horticulturists and educators.

Grow butterfly weed in full sun and well-drained soil. Once established, the plant, which gets about 2 feet tall and wide, is drought tolerant. The flowers and seed heads are great for bouquets. Deadhead the plant to reduce self-sowing.

Celebrate cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and other healthful brassicas

Purple Sprouting Broccoli. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/

Purple Sprouting Broccoli. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/

A lot of us already know about red and white cabbage, but what about purple broccoli or orange cauliflower?

Those are some members of the brassica family of plants, which also includes Brussels sprouts, kale, collards, mustards, kohlrabi, radish, rutabaga, turnip and Chinese cabbage.

Foodies are in love with these vegetables, known for their strong aroma when cooked and their high nutritional value. They also taste good. My favorites are broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbages.

The resurgence of interest in these old-fashion vegetables has prompted the National Garden Bureau, a trade group that promotes growing plants, to name 2017 the Year of the Brassica.

The family members sometimes are referred to as cole crops, an English adaptation of caulis, Latin for stem. Or you may hear them called cruciferous, which refers to their four-petaled flowers that resemble a cross.

Cheddar or orange cauliflower. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/

Cheddar or orange cauliflower. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/

These are usually planted as transplanted in early spring for summer harvest. Some, such as broccoli and mustards, can be planted again in July for harvesting in fall and early winter.

Probably the biggest consideration to growing these plants is their susceptibility to insect damage, especially from cabbageworms and flea beetles. Many gardeners cover these plants with row covers to help control the insects. Another effective control is Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. This is a non-selective bacteria that kills caterpillars — all kinds, from cabbageworms to the caterpillars of monarchs and other butterflies. Always read and follow the label directions.

Grow these plants in full sun and well-drained soil. They are fairly drought tolerant once established.

Each type of plant has different growing habits and horticultural requirements, so follow the seed packet instructions, plant labels or other sources, including Purdue University’s Vegetable Gardening Tips. Of course, if you don’t want to grow these vegetables, you can still celebrate their year by purchasing them at farmers markets, which is where I usually get mine. Here’s one of my favorite, easy dishes.

Roasted Brussels sprouts

Clean and trim the Brussels sprouts and pat them dry with paper towel or clean cloth. Place sprouts on a baking sheet, but don’t crowd them. Drizzle with olive oil and season with kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper. Using your hands or spatula, coat the Brussels sprouts with the oil and seasoning. Roast in 400 F oven 30 to 45 minutes, or until tender. Turn the sprouts every 10 minutes or so. Serve as they are as a vegetable side dish, or sprinkle the sprouts with shredded Parmesan, pierce them with a toothpick and serve as an hors d’ oeuvres.

Roasted Brussel Sprouts with Salt and Pepper. (C) bhofack2/

Roasted Brussel Sprouts with Salt and Pepper. (C) bhofack2/

January garden checklist


Waiting for the beautiful red amaryllis to bloom. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp


General Landscape

  • Keep road and sidewalk salt away from plants. If necessary, screen the plants with burlap to keep off spray. Calcium chloride products are recommended over sodium chloride to melt ice. Sand, cinders, ash and fresh kitty litter also may be used instead of ice-melting salts.
  • Prune summer and fall blooming woody plants, including vines, shrubs and trees.
  • Use hand or a broom to gently brush away heavy snow that may accumulate on shrubs before it freezes.
  • new growthApply an all-purpose natural fertilizer or a dusting of compost around spring-flowering bulbs as they break ground.

Vegetables and Fruits

  • Examine produce, tender flower bulbs and roots stored for the winter to make sure there is no rot, shriveling or excess moisture. Remove and discard damaged material.

Settle in with a good book or two this winter


Happy New Year! Now that we’re headed into 2017, it’s time to spend a few quiet weeks, stowing energy for the winter season and perhaps entertaining ourselves by learning something new. Here are a few books to consider:

Rantings of a Mad Botanist: A Comprehensive Guide to Gardening and Land Use Practices Emphasizing Central Indiana (Mad Botanist Publications, hardcover, 456 pages, $45) by Bill N. McKnight sounds a lot more scholarly than it is. Ok, McKnight, editor of special publications at the Indiana Academy of Science, a former biology teacher and museum curator, is scholarly, but his book is not.

Rantings perfectly conveys McKnight’s philosophy and methods of tending his 3-acres on Indianapolis’ north east side, spiced with his typical dry and thought provoking humor.

This 3.2 pounder does not contain beautiful plant photograph, but rather is illustration with charts, graphs and a few drawings. The front part of the book gives all the basics a gardener needs. The latter part provides lists of plants in groups, such as trees, succulents, shade, tall and thin, night gardens and more. The book is self-published and can be found at

jonnes-book-cover-copyJill Jonnes’ Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape (Viking, hardcover, 396 pages, $32) takes us through the good, bad and ugly of trees in our culture. She takes us from Thomas Jefferson’s pastoral setting to today’s heat island effect and invasion of devastating Asian beetles.

She reminds us of environmentalist John Muir and introduces us to John Davey, known as the Tree Doctor, who founded Davey Tree Expert Company in 1880, and tells us how Arbor Day became a national event.

downsized-garden-coverThe Downsized Veggie Garden: How to Garden Small – Wherever You Live, Whatever Your Space by former Hoosier Kate Copsey (St. Lynn’s Press, hardcover, 192 pages, $19.95) is an encouraging how-to manage your food gardening. Copsey, who now lives in New Jersey, takes us through the seasons with what to plant when, tips for success, plant selection and more, all with a non-chemical approach.

late-bloomer-cover-smallAlso from St. Lynn’s Press is Late Bloomer: How to Garden with Comfort, Ease and Simplicity in the Second Half of Life (hardcover, 144 pages, $18.95) by Jan Coppola Bills, who owns a Michigan garden design and installation company.

“If you’re curious to know what so different about gardening to this half, I’d say it’s all about a shift in perspective. Instead of a drive to completion and outcome and control, it’s now about a more deeply soul-pleasing way of gardening,” writes Bills.