December 2013

New apps help with plant IDs, diagnosing insect and disease problems


Happy New Year!

In the spirit of the season, here’s a resolution for all of us.

Identify a plant’s problem before you treat it. I can’t emphasize this enough. This means knowing the problem with a plant is frost damage and not an insect or disease, which would mean you wouldn’t have to do anything. Or, that the problem is a fungus and not a bug, which means you might need to use a fungicide rather than an insecticide.

Knowing what’s wrong with your plant before you treat it saves you money. Why spend money for an insecticide when the problem with the plant was frost damage? Knowing what you have also reduces the use of unneeded chemicals, which is good for the environment.

Plants die. They just do. It’s worse when there’s some sentimental value to the plant, such as the death of an iris transplanted decades ago from the family farm. Or, the summer show of annuals that croaked long before fall’s frost.

We can look at this a couple of ways. Whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up. We can just accept the loss and replant, or if that spot in the landscape has been nothing but trouble, we can try to figure out what is going on. Does the soil stay too wet or dry? Too much shade or sun? Is there something with the soil?

Purdue Extension’s Plant & Pest Diagnostic Laboratory is a great resource to solving problems in the landscape. Gardeners can submit samples, which will be analyzed by the Purdue profs, who issue a report within a few days and make recommendations on what to do. I used this service a couple times in 2013 to figure out why shrubs were dying in a client’s landscape. There’s a small fee. The website gives all the information needed to submit a sample.

Purdue Extension also has issued several apps for iPhones and other smart phones to identify or diagnose plant insect and disease problems, and to submit sample photos. Info about these can be found on the website.

Lastly, be sure to take time to enjoy the colors, fragrances, textures and bounty of our landscape. May you and your gardens grow healthy and happy in 2014.


Grateful for this and all seasons

In winter, snow flowers form on the branches of shrubs and other plants. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Another year in the garden is about to close, which is a good time to reflect on the past growing season.

I’m grateful for the flowers, fruits and vegetables produced in the landscape. And what I don’t grow in my own garden, I’m thankful for friends and farmers markets to supplement my picking.

I’m thankful for the deciduous trees for their shade and windbreaks. Besides being evergreen, conifers also play a role as protected perches for birds waiting their turns at the feeders.

Each year enhances my appreciation for birds. In my yard, most of the birds are desired because of their colors, calls, habits and beauty. Even the birds considered pests have some redeeming value, such as their ability to mimic or iridescent colors. They all enrich nature with their sound.

This year, I beat the birds to pick my own plants of blueberries and goji berries. I look forward to a slightly larger harvest in 2014, which should include red raspberries. Plant breeders have had phenomenal success at developing fruits that produce well when grown in containers. I hear there are a lot more of these breakthroughs still to come.

With another summer of heat, humidity and little rainfall, I’m grateful for the rain we do get, even in spring when it’s too wet to work in the yard. I think that the last few years with little summer rainfall has made Hoosiers a bit more aware of the wonderful resource water is and how lucky we are to have what we get.

In fall, I’m always grateful for the leaves shed by trees. Along with rainfall, leaves are truly one of nature’s greatest gifts.

This time of year, we can be grateful for snow cover, which provides winter insulation for our perennials and other plants. Bare soil in winter can be hazardous to plants’ health.

I’m grateful for the customers at a local garden center where I work who look for the latest and greatest, need help picking out their plants or seek advice for a sick one. And to my readers in The Indianapolis Star, where I’ve held a spot since 1989. You keep me on my toes with your questions, knowledge and love of gardening.


Try the real thing to celebrate the 2014 Color of the Year

© denova0/

Pantone, the world’s arbiter of hues, has announced Radiant Orchid as the 2014 Color of the Year.

Last year, the color was Emerald, which symbolized prosperity and growth. This year’s Radiant Orchid intrigues the eye and sparks the imagination.

“An enchanting harmony of fuchsia, purple and pink undertones, Radiant Orchid inspires confidence and emanates great joy, love and health. It is a captivating purple, one that draws you in with its beguiling charm,” said Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute.

“It is a captivating purple, one that draws you in with its beguiling charm,” said Eiseman’s news release. The rosy undertones radiate on the skin, producing a healthy glow when worn by both men and women, she said.

To get this color in the lives of gardeners, we can use orchid-colored pots and other accessories in the home and garden. Or, we can plop a few orchid plants as thrillers in our summer containers in shadier locations.

Orchids used to be expensive, but recent breeding breakthroughs have turned some of these exotic plants into a commodity, readily available at grocery stores, garden centers, big box stores and other retailers.

Michigan State University researchers and the U. S. Department of Agriculture say orchids are second only to poinsettias in potted crop value. From 1996 to 2006, the most recent year research is available, the wholesale value of orchids increased 206 percent. Spring bulbs and poinsettias increased in value while African violets, Easter lilies and florist azaleas, roses and mums have declined. The average wholesale price of a potted orchid is about $8.

The most popular orchid is Phalaenopsis, which has 31,381 hybrids, according to the American Orchid Society. Winter is high season for Phalaenopsis, which makes a lovely holiday gift. And at the $10 to $20 retail price, long-blooming orchids give a lot of bang for the buck.

For info on the selection and care of orchids, visit the websites of the American Orchid Society, Central Indiana Orchid Society or Michigan State.

If you’d like to see orchids first hand, visit the Garfield Park Conservatory, the Indianapolis Museum of Art Greenhouse, or Hilltop Orchids in Cloverdale, Ind.

Radiant Orchid is the Pantone Color Institute's 2014 Color of the Year. Image courtesy of Pantone Color Institute

Grow you own holiday feast

Pumpkin always is the perfect dessert for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau

Some foods signify the holidays more than others, and a lot of them come from the garden. Sage, green beans, lettuces and greens, potatoes and sweet potatoes are all easy to grow for a holiday feast.

The fall color of blueberry shrubs is reason enough to grow this plant. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Sage is an evergreen perennial herb. Its leaves can be harvested year ‘round. Grow sage in a sunny spot in soil that is well drained. Eventually, sage becomes a woody plant and when that happens, I usually pull it out and replace it with a new one.

Swiss chard is quite cold tolerant. Lettuces can be protected for late season harvest with straw bales or row covers.

Green beans come in bush-type or pole-type plants. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau

Sow bush-type green bean every couple of weeks in a sunny area during the growing season for an extended harvest. Each plant will produce for a few weeks. Pole green beans, which are grown on a trellis, fence or poles, produce most of the season. Green beans can be harvested into late summer, depending on the variety, blanched and frozen or canned for use in winter.

Potatoes, especially the waxy, colorful ones, are easy to grow in containers, such as Smart Pots. Sweet potatoes, which are purchased and planted as slips, also are pretty reliable in central Indiana, too. Although potatoes like to grow in full sun, they tend to do better when given a little shade from the hottest sun of the day.

The desert round includes pumpkins, blueberries and apples, with a few cranberries thrown in for even more color.

Pumpkin vines take up a lot of space in the garden, so be sure to allow for that. Many gardeners interplant other vegetables, such as pole beans, among the pumpkin vines to maximize growing space. Besides pies and jack-o’-lanterns, pumpkins can be harvested for their seeds, too, which are delicious roasted and seasoned to taste.

Potato production was much greater in Smart Pots. Easy, too. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

I’ve been pretty happy with the newer cultivars of blueberries, specially bred for growing in pots. The fall color alone is worth having blueberries in the landscape. Growing them in pots allows us to keep the plants lower the soil pH to make it more acidic, which is what blueberries (and cranberries) need.


You Can Grow That! December 2013: Paperwhites

Paperwhite narcissus adorn a mantle. Photo courtesy Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

Less expensive than Amaryllis and just as rewarding for holiday blooms are paperwhites, a narcissus that does not need a cold period to bloom and perfume the room. Paperwhites are usually planted in water-holding containers, such as shallow saucers, jars or tall vases.

Add a bed of gravel, river rock, marbles, glass beads or other pebble-like material at the bottom of the container. Arrange the bulbs on the bed of stones so that their sides are almost touching. Add just enough water to reach the base of the paperwhite bulbs, and place in a cool, bright area. Replenish with water to keep the level to the base of the bulbs.

If there’s a problem with paperwhites, it’s that they get tall, leggy and flop over. Researchers at Cornell University say giving the bulbs a stiff drink with keep them shorter and more upright. Here’s how:

  •  Place bulbs on rocks and add water to the base of the bulb, as usual. 
  • In about a week, you should see roots growing and the paperwhites should have green leaves up about 1 ½ to 2 inches above the bulb. Paperwhites usually being to bloom within a month after planting.
  • Pour off the water and replace with a solution of about 5 percent alcohol and water. That’s roughly one-part alcohol to seven-parts water. Any hard liquor will work, but vodka and gin will keep the water clear. Rubbing alcohol also will work, but with a different formula. Use one-part rubbing alcohol to 10- or 11-parts water.
  • There’s no need to dump the solution again, but continue using it, as needed, to keep the level to the base of the bulbs.
  • Don’t use beer or wine because the sugars will cause plant problems.
  • Don’t over use the alcohol. As much as 10 percent solution is toxic to the bulbs. In general, the higher the alcohol ratio (up to six percent), the shorter the bulbs will be.

If you want to extend the show, buy several paperwhites and plant a few every couple of weeks. Compost the spent bulbs.

HortusScope for December 2013

Here’s HortusScope for December 2013, a checklist of garden and nature related events compiled as a public service by Wendy Ford of Landscape Fancies. Please click on the link below to download your copy.

HortusScope December 2013