February 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