November 2012

Step-by-step creation of an outdoor winter container

If you don't have hollies or magnolias in your landscape, you can buy this and other greenery at area garden centers, florists and tree farms and lots. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Whether you buy greenery at the garden center or snip it from the landscape, it’s easy to create a winter container that’s perfect for outdoor holiday decoration.

As a bonus, the arrangement likely will last until it’s pansy planting time in spring.

 What you need

 Container: Select a container that can withstand the freezing and thawing of winter temperatures. These include fiberglass, heavy plastic and cast concrete. Fill the container with potting mix or mulch, or use the soil that remains from summer or fall plantings.

Ceramic and terra cotta containers filled with soil will disintegrate over time when allowed to freeze and thaw. To use your favorite ceramic pot, empty the soil, make a ball of chicken wire and stuff it in the container. Chicken wire also can be taped across the top of the pot as a grid.

Tools or supplies: Use pruners or snips to make a 45-degree angle cut on the branches of greenery. This makes it easier to poke them in the soil, says Pam Parker, an award winning floral designer and owner of JP Parker Flowers in Indianapolis and Franklin, Ind. If cutting large branches, you may need loppers or a tree saw.

Some cuttings from the garden that have brittle branches, such as dried hydrangeas, are easier to insert in the soil if they are wired to floral stakes. These wood and wire accessories can be found at craft stores.

Greenery: Select various types of greenery or cuttings so that you have a good variety of textures, forms, hues of green and other colors. Be conservative when cutting evergreens in the garden this time of year. Always use sharp, clean tools and follow basic pruning methods so that a plant won’t be misshapened or damaged.

“Not everything has to be evergreen,” said Debra Prinzing, author of The 50 Mile Bouquet: Seasonal, Local and Sustainable Flowers (St. Lynn’s Press, 2012), and blog.

“Look for interest bark and seed heads, too. I also like branches with lichen or moss for even more interest,” Prinzing said in a phone interview.

“When doing garden cleanup, I used to toss these things into the compost pile, but now I save them and use them in fall and winter arrangements,” said Prinzing, who lives in Seattle. “And, when the containers are done, the material can still go in the compost pile.”

Cutting your own greenery, seed heads, berries and colored branches “is local, seasonal and has about a zero carbon footprint, so it’s sustainable, too,” she said.

Parker supplements greenery she buys from out-of-state growers with American holly, red stem dogwoods, southern magnolia, arborvitae, junipers and other plants she harvests from her farm and the property of a friend.

Getting started

Parker recommends soaking the container with water before making the arrangement. “The containers also should be watered weekly until it freezes. This helps the greenery last longer,” she said.

Lay out the greenery and cuttings so that you can clearly see what you have.

Start with the thriller or centerpiece of the container, usually tall pieces or plants that will serve as a focal point. Add filler plants to create a pleasant, full look. Use branches that arch naturally or have a nice drape to spill over and soften the edges of the container.

Step back and look at the arrangement. Fill in any gaps as needed.

Add a bit of glitter, such as a colorful branch, ornaments, beads or other material. Dried hydrangea flowers can be spray painted red and gold. Artificial berries also can be added for color and used year after year.

After the holidays, remove decorations and enjoy the container in all of its winter splendor.

Pam Parker, owner of JP Parker Flowers, created this winter container. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp





Another look at fall color

Double Play Gold Pink spirea. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

On a recent early morning walk, I became enthralled with the beauty of fall color. But this was not the reds, golds and purples of the season.

Instead, a light frost glistened on the leaves of perennials, shrubs and even the grass, edging the plants in lacy white. Even the stems and branches of plants were dusted with frost.

The frosted plants remind me that the garden remains beautiful, even as it goes through the throes of seasonal death.

The scene was enhanced by fall-colored foliage, but not on the plants you might expect. Here’s a sampler:

Double Play Gold Pink spirea (Spiraea japonica), a new introduction from Proven Winners is in its second year in my garden. The shrub gets no more than 24 inches tall and wide, making it perfect for smaller urban yards or as an accent plant in a perennial bed. In summer, the leaves are gold and the seemingly everblooming flowers are pink.

In fall, Double Play Gold Pink becomes a nice blend of yellow, red, purple and green. It prefers full sun, blooms on new wood and is winter hardy throughout Indiana and most of the Midwest.

Unfortunately, spireas are often overlooked when it comes to year-round interest. Besides flowers and gold, green or blue-ish foliage in spring and summer, many spireas have gorgeous red, purple or gold leaves in fall and colorful stems in winter.

Ginger Peach coral bell. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

‘Ginger Peach’ coral bell (Heuchera) has taken on its deep peach tones for fall. Introduced by Terra Nova Nurseries, the sturdy ‘Ginger Peach’ has white flowers in spring. The leaves are bright yellow and red in spring and summer when grown in full to part sun.

Hardy throughout the Midwest, coral bells are evergreen, meaning the leaves are present all winter. Most do well in a moist, but not wet, well-drained soil in a shady location. New introductions of this native perennial are appreciated for their year-round, beautiful foliage. Plant coral bells in clusters for the best flower show.


Fingerling harvest yields handful of potatoes

About 10 ounces of potatoes were harvested this year. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

For the second year in a row, I’ve grown potatoes in two resin cloth planters that I purchased at a local garden center.

Potatoes are like sponges, soaking up whatever chemicals and other products that might be sprayed on the crop, so I opt to grow organic. This year, I planted Russian banana fingerlings, which are supposed to get to be the size of a fat finger.

(C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Of course, you can grow potatoes in the ground, but because I have a small yard, the planters work best for me. The planters don’t take up a lot of room and I can put them near the vegetable garden without giving up valuable tomato space. Still, the 10-ounce harvest in 2012 was about the same as 2011.

Potatoes are one of the earliest plants sown in spring, usually in mid-March. Seed potatoes are sold in bulk or in packages in garden centers or through online retailers. It’s best to buy fresh, disease free seed potatoes. Planting potatoes from the super market is not recommended.

Cut the seed potatoes so that each piece has one or two eyes, or growth buds. Plant four inches deep immediately in loose, organically rich, well-drained soil in full sun. As the plants grow, add more soil, called hilling, to cover the base of the vines. Apply an all-purpose granular fertilizer, such as Espoma Garden-Tone or similar natural product according to label directions. Water as needed.

(C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Continue hilling new growth with soil ever few weeks until late summer. For my planters, I buy inexpensive top soil for this task.

In late fall or early winter, harvest the potatoes from the soil with a garden fork or dump the planters. Brush off the soil and store the potatoes in a cool dry area. Or in my case, invite friends for a dinner that includes this year’s crop of potatoes roasted in the oven with carrots and chunks of onion.


Reduce raking duties by mulching leaves with a mower


A mulching mower turns leaves into a soil amendment. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

For many of us, the leaves of fall are a daunting task, but we know allowing them to pile up smothers the grass.

The task is particularly onerous when the leaves are plentiful and large, such as sycamore, sweet gum or maple.

The leaves from birch, ash, oak, linden and gingko trees are medium size and although plentiful, don’t seem to mound up as densely as their big-leaf cousins.

Mother Nature handles honeylocust leaves by blowing the tiny bits away. Any that remain are small enough that they won’t smother the grass. They will break down and help improve the soil.

Of course, raking or blowing leaves is always an option. Leaves can be moved into piles then bagged for the city to pick up and recycle. Paper bags are recommended because they decompose naturally.

Leaves also can be vacuumed up with specially designed equipment then placed in bags, or they can be mowed and blown into the grass catcher for bagging or dumping in the compost pile, applied as winter mulch or dug into in garden beds.

My methods is to mow the leaves with a mulching mower. The process chops the leaves into bits small enough to leave on the lawn to decompose and improve the soil. Sometimes it takes two passes with the mower, which is still less work than raking. Leaves I rake from the driveway or other hard surfaces get dumped into the compost pile.

Accumulation of leaves around trees and shrubs mimics nature and provides a natural insulation for perennials. As the leaves break down, they add organic matter to the soil.

Landscapers usually blow leaves on to a tarp so they can be loaded onto the trucks. Most landscapers recycle leaves and yard waste, but you can always ask if that is a priority for you.


Indiana Author Fair Dec. 1, 2012 at Indiana History Center

December 1, 2012
12:00 PMto2:00 PM

I’m so pleased to be a part of the Indiana Author Fair, noon to 4 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012 at the Indiana History Center. For the first time, I will be among 80 authors there to talk about their works, visit with shoppers and sign books.

The Visitor’s Guide to American Gardens and the Indiana Gardener’s Guide will be the books I’m featuring.

Entry to the Author Fair is free when you buy an admission to the Indiana Experience. However, I have some FREE PASSES available if you message me privately at thehoosiergardener at gmail dot com.



No hanging chads this election cycle

Published originally in December 2000, this column was inspired by the hanging chads of Florida.

Red bellied woodpecker, aka a chad. (C) Dreamstime/Wildphotos

Who’d have thought!

A chad has been foraging the birdfeeders. Rather than dimpled or hanging, this one is of the striped variety, with feathers and a red head.

Chad is one of the common names for the red-bellied woodpecker, also called the zebra woodpecker or the ramshack.

For the past few weeks, the woodpecker has been joining the juncos, finches, sparrows, chickadees, titmice, jays, doves and cardinals for snacks of safflower seeds.

The red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) is about 9 inches long and seems to prefer seeds, nuts and berries, although it also will eat insects. Among its favorite fruit: bayberry, dogwood, Virginia creeper, wild grape, wild cherry, elderberry and poison ivy. For nuts, it likes beech, hickory, pine and hazelnut.

The red-bellied woodpecker used to be found only in the southeast United States (Florida?), but now is considered a permanent resident throughout the eastern part of the country, except for New England.

Why this bird is called red-bellied, I don’t know.

It has a flush of orange-red on the tummy, but this is hardly noticeable compared to the blotch of red on its head. Both males and females have the red heads, with the male’s coloring extending to his bill.

Just to confuse things even more, there’s a red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes ertyhrocephalus), which is about the same size but with a solid red head. The rest of the body has a color-block design of black and white.

None of these looks like Woody Woodpecker, the ha-ha-ha-ha-ha cartoon character we’re most familiar with. Woody is patterned after the pileated woodpecker, which ranges from 16 to 20 inches long and has that distinctive plume of red feathers atop its head. On rare occasions, these will visit the feeders, too.

Other woodpeckers frequenting my feeders are the downy and hairy, which look about identical to me. The downy is about 6 inches long and the hairy is nine. The books say the downy’s bill is about half as long as its head while the hairy’s bill is about the same length as its head. The tenths of an inch difference in bill size is hard to discern even with binoculars.



You Can Grow That! November 2012: Asters and Goldenrods

Short's aster. Photo courtesy

Mother Nature shows off her best decorating skills this time of year.

Strewn along the roadways are asters (Symphyotrichum) and goldenrods (Solidago), native perennials in North America that make the perfect pairing of blues and yellows.

We can follow nature’s lead in our own landscapes by planting the native species or hybrid cousins. There are several garden-worthy hybrids of these native plants, such as ‘Fireworks’ and ‘Golden Baby’ goldenrods and ‘Raydon’s Favorite,’ and ‘Alma Potschka’ asters, to name a few.

Besides adorning backyards and byways, these plants are an important part of a greater ecology that includes birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife. For instance, these fall blooming perennials are a key food source for migrating, pollinating insects and hummingbirds, which stoke up on nectar as they wing south.

Both plants do best in full sun and they tolerate light shade. Plant in well-drained, average soil. Asters and goldenrod are similar in care to another fall bloomer, the Chrysanthemum.

'Solar Cascade' goldenrod. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Cut back asters and tall goldenrods about half until the middle of July to rein in their height and increase the number of flowers. Depending on the cultivar, goldenrods can be fairly aggressive, spreading through underground stolens. At the end of the season when the plants look bad, cut them back to the ground and remove any debris to reduce the chance of disease or insect problems.

Asters tend to bloom a bit later and longer than mums, coming on at the tail end of goldenrod’s prime. Their long bloom period allows them to compliment the fall colors of trees and shrubs in the landscape.

Both plants may be susceptible to powdery mildew, so place them where they have good air circulation or use cultivars that are resistant to the fungus disease. Asters and goldenrods are lovely and long lasting as cut flowers, too.



Dig in now (or not) for new garden beds next spring


One of the best things to do in fall and early winter is to make new garden beds.

The bed can be dug now, then piled high with organic matter. The additives decompose all winter, working their way into the newly dug bed to create a great planting place next spring. Here are three ways prepare a new bed.

Digging method

  • Remove grass and weeds.
  • Dig the bed 12 to 15 inches deep, turning the soil.
  • Apply several inches of compost or rotted manure and let the bed rest through winter.

Double-dig method

  • Dig a trench about 12 inches wide and the depth of the shovel or spade, moving soil into a wheelbarrow.
  • Loosen the soil another 10 to 12 inches deep with a garden fork.
  • Add a layer of organic matter, such as chopped leaves, compost or rotted manure.
  • Dig a trench parallel to the first one. Spread the soil dug from the second trench onto the first.
  • Add a layer of organic matter to the second trench.
  • Repeat this process until you get to the last trench. Once the organic matter has been applied, spread the soil from the first trench to the last one.

Layering method

There’s no digging or tilling and it’s incredibly easy. It is promoted by Patricia Lanza, author of the best-selling, award-winning book Lasagna Gardening.

  • Place a layer of five sheets of newspaper or a single layer of cardboard over the area of the new bed and wet it down. No need to remove grass or weeds because the paper or cardboard will smother those plants.
  • Apply alternate layers of shredded leaves, compost, rotted manure, kitchen scraps, shredded newspapers, untreated grass clipping, top soil and other green or brown organic matter, building to about 12 inches high.
  • In spring, top off with a couple inches of compost and plant away.


At INPAWS conference: It’s All About the Plants

November 3, 2012
8:00 AMto5:00 PM

The Indiana Native Plant & Wildflower Society announces its 19th annual conference providing the know-how to help Hoosiers appreciate, grow and conserve Indiana’s rich heritage of native plants.

Set for Nov. 3, 2012 on the University of Indianapolis campus, the daylong conference will focus on two basics of botany: the identification of plants and their occurrence in nature.

“The better we can identify native plants, the better we can be advocates for them,” says Mike Homoya, state botanist/plant ecologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, who had a hand in developing this year’s conference theme.

Among the featured speakers is Rob Naczi, one of the leading botanists in the world. Naczi is the Arthur J. Cronquist Curator of North American Botany at The New York Botanical Garden and is revising one of the most commonly used guides to our North American flora, Manual of Vascular Plants of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada.

Also on the program are James Locklear, Director of Conservation at Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha, Nebraska, who has just written the book Phlox: A Natural History and Gardener’s Guide; Paul Rothrock, an expert on sedges and chairman of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Taylor University; Sally Weeks, author of Shrubs and Woody Vines of Indiana and the Midwest; Kay Yatskievych of the Missouri Botanical Garden, who is coauthoring the Indiana Vascular Plants Catalogue; and Mike Homoya, author of Wildflowers and Ferns of Indiana Forests and Orchids of Indiana.

The conference will include a book signing and sale, vendor and youth education displays, and information on the Indiana Native Plant & Wildflower Society. Also rumored to be possible is a visit by the renowned Charles Deam, Indiana’s first state forester.

What: It’s All About the Plants, 19th annual Indiana Native Plant & Wildflower Society conference.

When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012

Where: Schwitzer Student Center, University of Indianapolis

Admission/registration: open to the public. Non-members, $75 ($65 before Oct. 25, 2012); students, $35; INPAWS members, $60 ($50 before Oct. 25, 2012).

For more info: Indiana Native Plant & Wildflower Society,